OPEN Foundation

Stephan Tap

The Mystical Entropy Project: workshop I

The Mystical Entropy workshop consisted of a three-day event with various academics and scholars from around the world. They sought answers to the calling question of whether we can use the concept of ‘entropy’ to characterise key ideas from mystical traditions, and how this would facilitate scientific research into mystical practices and experiences.

The Mystical Entropy workshop consisted of a three-day event that was organised by Michiel van Elk (cognitive neuroscientist at Leiden University and board member of the OPEN Foundation), Aidan Lyon (philosopher at Leiden University) and hosted by Anya Farennikova (philosopher at University at Amsterdam).  The event took place on October 12-14 at the IJ-kantine in Amsterdam and was attended by a highly interdisciplinary group of individuals coming from every corner of the world. As a result, I had the pleasure and good fortune of engaging in deep conversations with cognitive neuroscientists, physicists, computer scientists, philosophers, religious scholars of Judaism and Sufism, meditation teachers, yoga teachers, a lawyer, and to top it all off, a Buddhist monk who practices in a monastery in the Hollywood Hills.

If this was not already the perfect recipe for facilitating information-rich, and sometimes highly entropic (uncertain and disorderly) conversations, the Mystical Entropy workshop adhered to a so-called Open Space Technology (OST) methodology. Rather than using a top-down approach where the organizers choose the various topics of interest prior to an event, the OST methodology comprises a bottom-up approach in which the participants get to pick the various topics of interest and set up the agenda for the day.

Naturally, this occasioned some entropy (‘uncertainty’) in some of the participants during the opening and introduction on the first day. But I imagine this to be the case for the organisers Michiel, Aidan, and Anna in particular. Then again, the OST approach also brought with it a certain meta-vibe and essentially seemed like a perfect fit for the topics at hand. Indeed, what better way to organise and conduct a three-day workshop about entropy and mysticism – concepts that are by themselves already elusive – than to create a container in which both the setup and outcome are somewhat entropic. And all this to seek out the calling question of how we can use the concept of ‘entropy’ to characterise key ideas from mystical traditions, and how this would facilitate scientific research into mystical practices and experiences.

Origin Stories

The workshop was initiated by Aidan, Michiel, and Anya by giving an introductory talk on how this workshop came to be. Aidan was introduced to the topic of ‘entropy’ by one of his professors whilst still a student of mathematics. He became immediately enamoured by the subject, read as much as he could, and ended up bugging his professor with tons of questions until his professor gave up and grew tired of him by responding: “Aidan, this is ultimately a philosophical question!” This led Aidan to study and pursue philosophy to gain a better understanding of entropy.

Michiel, on the other hand, grew up in a very religious town near Amsterdam. As a young boy, he attended various ceremonies in church where he witnessed individuals becoming cured from the most extreme forms of diseases and how they were freed from the devil. These early experiences with the ‘ecstatic’ imbued in him a fascination with the topic of mysticism. Together with his natural curiosity, he became an academic in cognitive neuroscience to better understand these types of religious and mystical experiences.

Anya also made an encounter with the mystical at a very young age, except through something entirely different. She shared a personal story during her introduction of how she was born in Belarus when it was still part of the Soviet Union. When it declared its independence on August 25, 1991, this meant that Anya was finally able to view cable television instead of three national channels, was allowed to wear denim jeans, and could listen to a wide variety of music genres. But the memory that stuck with her the most was her first piece of bubble-gum of the so-called brand ‘Love is…’ which, after eating it for the first time, seemed to have given her a full-blown mystical experience. Fast forward to somewhere in the year 2018, all three thinkers met up due to their mutual fascination with these subjects, thereby converging the fields of philosophy and cognitive neuroscience, and the Mystical Entropy workshop was born.

The Marketplace of Open Space Technology

Anya then explained to us in more detail the setup and potential merits of OST. But before we continued, we had to get up of our chairs, touch the ceiling, then touch our toes, and roll around our shoulders for a few minutes. Only then were we thrown into an entropic state that was going to last for the upcoming three days.

As mentioned previously, OST requires input from the participants to set up the agenda for the day and to create a marketplace of ideas. This allows for the option of merging workgroups and relocating them if there seems to be a considerable overlap between topics. Another responsibility was that each workgroup ‘leader’ had to write a report on what was discussed during the session. At the end of the day, other participants could read this report and provide feedback or ask for clarification.

Naturally, there was some trepidation from all the participants following Anya’s presentation, but as the Dutch saying goes: “when one sheep crosses the dam, more will follow!” Indeed, before we knew it, the agenda for the first day was set after only 15 minutes.

The Mystical Entropy workshop agenda for day 1 (sessions 1 and 2) using Open Space Technology

Humble Beginnings: embracing uncertainty, disorder, and information

To say that the three days of the Mystical Entropy workshop were engaging is definitely a huge understatement. As I already mentioned, the group that showed up at the workshop was highly interdisciplinary. Consequently, the various discussions I participated in resulted in some of the most interesting, deep, but at several times also very challenging, conversations I have had in my entire life and early academic career. Naturally, to summarize what was discussed one week following the workshop is nothing short of an insurmountable task. What follows represents a rough impression of what I experienced during these three days and the main current challenge. 

Most of the workshop sessions I attended were oriented towards the measurement of the mystical experience and, to a lesser degree, how the concept of entropy might be used to conceptualize such an extraordinary, altered state of consciousness. Topics here varied from potential tools we can use from cognitive neuroscience to better understand the mystical experience, whether (informational) entropy can be used to clarify mystical experiences of unity or ego-dissolution, the potential problems with the conceptualizations and operationalizations of the mystical experience, and novel conceptual frameworks such as Cusp Catastrophe Theory to describe the dynamics of conscious states during mystical experiences.

The workshop session hosted by Josjan Zijlmans on the second day stuck with me the most. Josjan already caught my attention a few years ago when he co-authored the paper Moving beyond Mysticism with James Sanders. This paper proposes to demystify psychedelic science and to use unambiguous secular frameworks with alternative questionnaires, as opposed to the widely used Mystical Experience Questionnaire, to predict the (psychedelic) experience of interest and potential clinical outcome(s).

This paper received a response from Joost Breeksema and Michiel van Elk in which they argue that psychedelic science should embrace the study of mystical experiences, not only because of their clinical significance, but also because these experiences have a long and rich history in religion and have been extensively studied by several religious scholars. For the interested reader, I highly recommend the journal club from the Amsterdam Psychedelic Research Association where all authors were invited to debate this question.

This session particularly grabbed me because, as it turns out, it is extremely hard to talk about concepts as the mystical experience and entropy. As a result, we risk losing our ideas in translation because we might have diametrically opposed views of what these concepts actually entail. This is in part because, as Aidan has written in his Mystical Entropy Manifesto prior to the event, the mystical experience and entropy “are notoriously difficult to define” and that even entropy itself “is a mystical notion.”

As it turns out, there are numerous types of entropy in physics that has left me with various questions for future study. What are all the kinds of entropy? Which one of these could conceptualize the mystical experience in the most parsimonious way possible? The same holds true for the mystical experience, not only after attending Josjan’s workshop session, but also following other sessions where the phenomenology (subjective experience) of the mystical experience was widely discussed and met with considerable debate. Indeed, what kind of characteristics or features are essential to the so-called mystical experience? Is there only one (perennial) mystical experience? Or is there a Buddhist-like mystical experience and a more Sufi-like mystical experience?

Some of the attendees were jokingly telling me over lunch that they even got more confused after some of the workshop sessions. And to show some epistemic humility, I can certainly say the same for myself and was lost in some of the discussions. But then again, maybe this state of uncertainty and of not knowing might just be the experience that some of us need as it potentially helps bring us back to the so-called beginner’s mind of shoshin. And maybe this could eventually lead to a better understanding of the mystical experience and entropy.

In a sense, the workshop as a whole felt like going back to the drawing board and attaining shoshin. This can be particularly important for us academics. All of us can get stuck in a rut every once in a while. We become rigid in our way of thinking. We only stay in our field of interest. Shaking up our belief systems with more entropy – uncertainty, disorder, and information – certainly changes our way of looking at things and potentially put more ‘balance’ to this belief system.

Lunch with all attendees of the Mystical Entropy Workshop in the IJ-kantine Amsterdam

Memento Mori

The workshop sessions were interspersed with various experiential sessions to get us out of our heads that varied from yoga, meditation, to biofeedback. One session that stayed with me for days after the Mystical Entropy workshop took place on the first day of the workshop and was created and led by Dr. Mark Miller, a philosopher, cognitive scientist, and happiness aficionado, who is affiliated with several universities across the world, including the Centre for Consciousness and Contemplative Studies at Monash University,  the Psychology department at the University of Toronto, and the Centre for Human Nature, Artificial Intelligence and Neuroscience at Hokkaido University. From the very beginning of the Mystical Entropy workshop, Mark already caught my attention because of his highly energetic persona marked by his turbulent stride through the IJ-kantine. As soon as he proposed a session to reflect on death, a practice that intrigued me ever since reading the Stoics, I knew I had to be there.

We sat around in a circle in the main room (Sophia) with approximately twenty individuals. Mark instructed us to sit comfortably in our chairs and to close our eyes. He then posed the question: “Will I die?” This question essentially became a mantra and was repeated several times for about two minutes and followed by his answer: “Yes, you will die.” Other questions and reflections on death continued for the next ten minutes, including “When will I die?”, “How do I want people to remember me when I die?”, and “Where do I want to be if this were my last day?”

Mark instructed us to slowly open our eyes after ten minutes and silently reflect on the thoughts that came up during the meditation. He then went around the circle and asked every participant to give one word, or describe in one sentence, the most important thing to him or her. Across the board, people announced words as love, meaning, relationships, authenticity, and family. Mark has conducted these sessions all over the world and never in his life has he heard someone say: “I want to be remembered because of my kick-ass Ferrari.” Indeed, across cultures he has found that human beings are ultimately longing and striving for the same: love, meaning, a sense of purpose, family, and relationships. And I think this experience brought us closer as a group and further facilitated the sessions in the days to come.

Experiential sessions at the Mystical Entropy Workshop (left: biofeedback, right: meditation guided by music)

In closing

On the final day, I talked to Aidan in the main room when everyone was rounding things off and preparing their presentation of the respective workshop session. Seeing how things came to fruition these past few days, I was eager to ask him the question of how he thought the workshop turned out, to which he responded: “I cannot believe how perfect it is!”. I can imagine the anticipation must have been very stressful and to see it turn out with such engagement from all participants must have been extremely satisfying and fulfilling.  

After an hour of presentations and further discussion, it was time to finish the Mystical Entropy workshop with drinks and good food. This was also the time for us to show our creative side and I was astounded by the talent of some participants. In just one evening, I have seen a professor of religion play the blues on piano, a cognitive neuroscientist performing four dances of ballet, a physicist reciting a self-written poem, and I got to perform in a jam session with other attendees from the event.

A second Mystical Entropy workshop has already been scheduled for next year that will have a primary focus on neuroscience. By then we will probably have tackled the current challenges at hand and come to a better understanding and definition of mystical experiences and entropy. Hopefully, the second edition will be as successful as the first and we can explore various neuroscientific frameworks to conceptualize these key concepts.

Jam session after dinner at the final day of the Mystical Entropy workshop

Imprinting: expanding the extra-pharmacological model of psychedelic drug action

When you enter the landscape of psychedelic-assisted therapy, there are two colloquial terms, or so-called extra-pharmacological (contextual) factors, that are deemed essential in preparation and facilitating therapeutic outcome. These are of course the ‘set’ and ‘setting’ that, respectively, broadly refer to how current-moment mindsets (expectations and intentions) and the environment are able to shape the psychedelic experience. But what about potential environmental influences from the past, a phenomenon also referred to as ‘imprinting’?

The phenomenon of imprinting is not entirely new and was recently brought to my attention during OPEN’s online panel discussion ‘Reality Check: Psychedelic Industrial Complex, Hype, Funding, and Research’ with Jane Hu, David Yaden, Josh Hardman, and Shayla Love. Somewhere halfway through the discussion, Shayla Love mentioned how the so-called ‘Brain-Reset’ mechanism of psychedelics was instantiated by the media, as one journalist picked this up by a participants’ report of how psychedelic-assisted therapy felt. It has since reverberated into the culture with many articles purporting this as an established mechanism of action of psychedelics and that in turn, according to Shayla, could influence (‘imprint’) expectations of participants in future clinical trials.

A recent study sought out to investigate whether imprinting has any kind of effects on therapeutic outcome. Accordingly, the study assessed a total of 26 previously recorded treatments sessions and phenomenological follow-up interviews from participants receiving ketamine for their treatment-resistant depression (TRD). In short, the acute experience of ketamine was significantly altered by digital media use prior to treatment and that higher levels of media exposure actually reduced the mystical/emotional qualities of subsequent psychedelic ketamine experiences. Below are summarized two typical examples of imprinting.

The first example consisted of a 28-year-old woman with TRD who reported that her ketamine experience was “hijacked” by Disney iconography. The study reports that this was influenced in particular by the observation that the participant spent up to six hours a day trading Disney pins on a social media forum prior to her treatment with ketamine. This diminished the amount of emotional and mystical content and greatly disappointed the individual. Yet, the participant did change her behavior because of this and ended up spending only one hour a day on social media and Disney pin trading. Notably, the participant posited that her insight in this kind of behavior was actually profound and lasting.

The second example concerns a 34-year-old man with TRD who summed up his ketamine experiences as “a pixelated consciousness” with videogame-like hallucinations, potentially due to the study’s observation that he played videogames for up to 16 hours a day. This was rather enjoyable for the participant, but he was also somewhat disappointed because it lacked any mystical or emotional content. The therapist and participant decided to cut down on videogame hours for the subsequent ketamine sessions and instead spent time with friends and family. Notably, this resulted in significantly different ketamine experiences that were more emotionally intense with marked feelings of grief related to past relationships. Most notably, the participant reported no more “pixelated consciousness.”

These findings corroborate and expand the extra-pharmacological model of psychedelic-assisted therapy, as imprinting seems to significantly influence the phenomenology and therapeutic outcome. The paper ends with a discussion on how imprinting is not the same as priming and suggestion, whether it is underrecognized or unimportant, if it is unique to ketamine or also applies to other psychedelics, various factors that could influence imprinting, dreams as a mechanistic model for imprinting, and how imprinting seems to be consistent with the relaxed beliefs under psychedelics (REBUS) model, and further clinical and scientific implications.

Read the full publication here!

Image credit: ART IS AN EXPLOSION –

Comparing the Neural Correlates of Psychedelics, Meditation, and Hypnosis

Human beings of all cultures have been seeking altered states of consciousness (ASCs) since time immemorial. As a matter of fact, it has been posited by Ronal Siegel in his magnum opus Intoxication that our need to use mind-alter substances to induce ASCs has so much force and persistence that it functions almost like our drive for food, sleep, and sex.

In recent years, the therapeutic use of ASCs has become increasingly relevant in the treatment of various psychiatric disorders, thanks in part to the psychedelic renaissance. The phenomenology of psychedelics has often been compared to other ASC methods that do not require the ingestion of mind-altering substances, such as meditation, but also hypnosis. Yet, no study to date has made a direct comparison of these when it comes to their so-called ‘neural correlates’, which generally refers to the neural representation of a subjective experience. A recent study sought to address this knowledge gap in the literature by comparing resting state functional connectivity of psilocybin, LSD, meditation, and hypnosis in order to establish the neural correlates of each ASC method.

One of the most striking results of the study is that there was no common network in all four ASC methods, despite their significant phenomenological overlap. Perhaps this is due to the prominence of ineffability that is an inextricable part of ASCs, something that ultimately hints towards the fallibility of human self-report. Furthermore, the study shows that the direct comparison between hypnosis and meditation is associated with significant differences in functional connectivity and also differ when both of them are directly compared to either psilocybin or LSD. A final finding of the study, which might come as no surprise to some of you readers, is that psilocybin and LSD show no differences in functional connectivity when directly compared to each other. However, some results also suggest that they do show distinct relationships between their respective behavioral and neural correlates. In other words, this indicates that there are some discrepancies between the neural representation and what someone experiences subjectively when comparing psilocybin and LSD.

Overall, the authors conclude that the current results extend our understanding of the underlying mechanisms of ASCs. Most importantly, it highlights the clinical importance of investigating how ASCs can be utilized most effectively in the treatment of psychiatric disorders. Even though the current study looked at the acute effects of ASCs, there is increasing evidence that these are necessary for their enduring therapeutic effects. Although some researchers like Dr. David Olson argue to the contrary, a recent study caught my eye that further corroborates this view. Specifically, it demonstrated significant antidepressant effects two weeks following psilocybin that were correlated with increases in theta power,  an effect that is similarly observed following the practice of meditation and is accompanied by feelings of peace or blissfulness and low thought content.

But I digress… Ultimately, if we want to increase the efficacy of psychedelic-assisted therapy, the authors argue that it is of vital importance to understand the relationship between the acute effects of ASCs and the enduring therapeutic response given the observation that there is substantial variability in the acute response in psychedelics and that this acute experience can be shaped according to an individual’s set, setting, and dose. Accordingly, it is important to establish the acute neural correlates of various ASC methods in healthy controls, as it could contribute to the development of clinical biomarkers and map specific mechanisms of action to either a disease area or individual patient. Finally, given the observation that psilocybin, LSD, meditation, and hypnosis engage in distinct brain circuits, they could have potential synergistic properties that further facilitate the therapeutic response.

Read the full publication here!

Image via Dall-E

Dutch Health Minister responds to recent report on psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy

The chronicles of the psychedelic renaissance continue as Ernst Kuipers responds to a recent report regarding psychedelics’ potential therapeutic use. The following article provides a brief recap of the past year and summarises Kuipers’ response that could provide a glimpse of what the future of psychedelic-assisted therapy and research in the Netherlands is going to look like.

Approximately one year ago, I wrote a piece about our Dutch Health Minister Ernst Kuipers and how he stated that the Netherlands should be at the forefront of psychedelic research. This response was exciting to me, to put it mildly, and something I did not expect because of the stigma surrounding psychedelics. In short, Kuipers seemed very thrilled and up to date regarding psychedelic-assisted therapy (PAT). Specifically, Kuipers was aware of the potential of PAT for treating various treatment-resistant psychiatric disorders, while simultaneously maintaining a measured stance and acknowledging the various barriers that still persist today (e.g., lack of financial resources and therapy training).

Later that year on October 13th, 2022, the therapeutic use of psychedelics was introduced to other members of the Dutch parliament. This happened during a roundtable discussion that was divided into four blocks and consisted of patient perspectives with PAT, the most recent scientific findings, stories from several therapists, and future perspectives for this novel treatment. At that time, I believed this was going to be a pivotal and historic moment for psychedelics and tried to watch most of the livestream whilst being in the midst of my own research that day. When tuning in, I was both relieved and elated when I heard one of the politicians saying: “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I find this extremely interesting!” Across the political spectrum, the Dutch parliament was excited about recent developments regarding PAT.

This brings us to the aforementioned report written by OPEN executive director Joost Breeksema, professor of psychiatry Robert Schoevers, and neuroscientist Rutger Boesjes. This report was presented to Kuipers on March 6th, 2023, during a mini symposium at the University Medical Centre of Groningen (UMCG). In an earlier blog post, I wrote about how the report was aimed at further informing the Dutch Health minister regarding the current state of affairs of PAT.

And now, on June 26th, 2023, Kuipers has written his official response towards the Dutch parliament in which he first and foremost “would like to thank ZonMw and the authors for the report that explores the opportunities, challenges, and health care innovation of psychedelic-assisted therapy for treatment-resistant psychiatric disorders.” In particular, these include the use of various psychedelics as psilocybin or ketamine for chronic depression or addiction, the use of MDMA for post-traumatic stress disorder, but also the use of LSD for cluster headache. Kuipers: “This report entails the first overview of the current state of affairs of PAT in the Netherlands and provides a significant contribution to the conversation about PAT and decisions about future steps.”

After proving a summary of the earlier report, Kuipers agrees with the authors and remains “positive about the development of PAT and its use in the treatment of severe or treatment-resistant psychiatric disorders.” He further states that “the development of psychedelics as treatment needs to be considered as the development of a medicine and should thus adhere to applicable guidelines.” Put simply, this means conducting the necessary clinical trials that are required to get a market registration for psychedelics. To pull this off requires a tremendous amount of effort and teamwork, which is why Kuipers “encourages various university medical centres and special health care facilities to engage in a national collaboration that allows for the coordination of the necessary research and gathering of information regarding quality, efficacy, and safety of PAT. I am exploring possibilities for financing a multiple year research program, potentially with a collaboration between the public and private sector.” 

Yet, this team effort also requires attenuating the various barriers associated with conducting psychedelic research. This includes the fact that psychedelics are illegal according to the so-called Dutch ‘Opiumwet’ that follows similar classifications of psychoactive substances as the United States Drug Enforcement Agency. For example, MDMA is listed as having no currently accepted medical use, despite its huge promise in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder when given with psychotherapeutic support. Furthermore, Kuipers states from the UMCG report that “researchers are concerned about political and societal acceptance when considering psychedelics as a potential medicine”, but also about “the increase in media attention towards PAT that can lead to non-medical use in society.” Indeed, it is important to remember that psychedelics are able to cause harm, particularly when given in an uncontrolled setting without any support. I highly recommend Jules Evans’ Challenging Psychedelic Experiences Project that focuses on psychedelic risk and harm reduction. Evans recently joined us for a live online event ‘Extended Difficulties After Trips, and What Helps People Deal with Them’ talk more about this and can be rewatched on our Circle community platform.

Another topic that is addressed in Kuipers’ letter is the compassionate use of psychedelics. This is a situation in which patients with a terminal illness or chronic disease have exhausted all current proven and available treatment options. Because these people are in dire straits, they are able to ask for early access to investigational drugs, including psychedelic substances as psilocybin or LSD. This could outweigh the expected value of routine care, palliative care, or no care at all, with the addition of assessing the expected value of PAT. Kuipers mentions that “compassionate use can be requested through the CBG (College ter Beoordeling van Geneesmiddelen)” – a Dutch independent authority that assesses the quality, effects, and safety of various medications in order to adequately inform the patient.

Although Kuipers mentions that “compassionate use is on the horizon”, he also says that “it might be untenable in the current phase, considering there is no clarity regarding market registration.” This is consistent with the UMCG report, where Breeksema and his colleagues stated that compassionate use is dependent on how PAT is going to be implemented within a therapeutic context.

Other questions according to Kuipers remain. Who is going to pay for psychedelics? Who is going to produce psychedelics? And what about paying therapists and clinicians for their treatment hours before, during, and after the dosing session? For scheduled substances, such as psychedelics, Kuipers emphasises that “there needs to be a location for the industry in the Netherlands, and this is currently not the case.”

Currently, the Dutch ministry of Health, Welfare, and Sport is frequently in contact with researchers and mental health care institutions to provide an advisory and faciliatory role. In addition, organisations as CBG can advise parties about the necessary steps towards market registration and provide advice about possibilities for compassionate use. Kuipers further mentions how other organisations, such as the Dutch ‘Care Institute’ (Zorginstituut), expertise centre FAST, and patient organisations, could further assist in conducting research and the ultimate implementation of PAT (e.g., insurance reimbursements and patient perspectives).

Kuipers mentions that this also includes the European Medicine Agency (EMA) – a decentralised agency of the European Union that is aimed at fostering scientific excellence in the evaluation and supervision of medicines, for the benefit of public and animal health. In particular, Kuipers statest that “the EMA is actively involved in the subject and encourage researchers to ask for support when facing current challenges regarding recent development of PAT.” These challenges were recently published in The Lancetand the OPEN foundation hosted an online event with some of the paper’s authors, including Gitte Moos Knudsen, Marion Haberkamp, and Lionel Thelen. A recording of this event can be rewatched on our Circle platform.

Another notable recent development is the Platform for Psychedelics that has been launched within the Dutch Society for Psychiatry (NVvP). According to Kuipers, the “NVvP is an important party as it concerns itself with the advocacy of scientific and professional interests of psychiatrists and the advancement and stimulus of education and training in psychiatry.” Indeed, this is significant for PAT because the field still lacks an infrastructure for education. It is necessary for members of the NVvP and psychedelic researchers to come together to determine the next steps in developing education for PAT.

I think it is safe to say that psychedelics have now truly hit the mainstream. At the beginning of 2023, I watched an educational video about psychedelics from NOS – one of the biggest news and media outlets in the Netherlands – and only one month later I saw John Oliver do a sketch on his HBO show Last Week Tonight talk about the potential of PAT and mentioning documentaries as Fantastic Fungi and How to Change Your Mind. I highly recommend watching all of these videos and documentaries, because they are tremendously informative, funny, and very well produced.

In closing, however, I would want to emphasise here the following in accordance with the final words of Kuipers’ letter to the Dutch parliament: “the attention for psychedelics in the media has increased in recent years”, which has “created a hype with too high expectations regarding PAT.” Most notably, Kuipers refers to the UMCG report that illustrates how this hype has created the risk of self-experimentation in individuals with a severe psychiatric disorder that do not want, or cannot afford, to wait on market registration. This is why Kuipers favours the monitoring of potential increases in self-experimentation and incidences, and to explore possibilities of providing prevention, education, and harm reduction for the people that are, unfortunately, in dire straits.

List of ongoing studies in the Netherlands

Phase I:

N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT)

  • Smoking addiction – Center for Human Drug Research

Phase II:


  • Treatment-resistant depression – UMCG


  • Post-traumatic stress disorder – ARQ Nationaal Psychotrauma Centrum and Maastricht University


  • Low dose LSD for ADHD – Maastricht University
  • Low dose LSD for chronic cluster headaches – Radboud UMC and Leiden UMC


  • Demoralisation in cancer – UMCG
  • Acute suicidality – UMCG
  • S-ketamine for pain sensitivity in patients with fibromyalgia – LUMC


  • Low doses of psilocybin and ketamine for cognitive and emotional dysfunction in Parkinson – Maastricht University
  • Pain in fybromyalgia – Maastricht University
  • Neuropathic pain – Amsterdam UMC, LUMC en Antoni van Leeuwenhoek

Phase III


  • Assessing S-ketamine compared to electroconvulsive therapy for severe depression – UMCG, ProPersona Nijmegen, Parnassia/PsyQ Den Haag and LUMC.

NOTE. Phase I concerns the safety and determining the dosage of a compound, phase II focuses on a small group of patients that are administered one dose to determine preliminary therapeutic efficacy, and phase III consists of a large group in which patients receive both a psychedelic substance and a placebo.

ECNP conference: an overview of recent psychedelic research

On March 19 and 20, 2023, the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP) organised the New Frontiers Meeting on Psychedelics in Nice, France. Various researchers and clinicians joined this event to talk about the current state of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy (PAT). Here are some of the most interesting developments in the field of psychedelic research.

The ECNP New Frontiers Meeting: Psychedelics 2023 was kicked off by Gitte Moos Knudsen, the current Chair and president of the ENCP and professor of the neurology department at the Rigshospitalet and University of Copenhagen, Denmark. She laid out the program of the conference that consisted of three sub-topics, including pharmacology, clinical aspects, and clinical trials. Furthermore, Knudsen presented the Gartner Hype Cycle to the audience and asked whether there is a current hype in psychedelic research and where we might be in this Hype Cycle. Virtually everyone raised their hands which made it clear there is indeed a hype in the psychedelic field.

Knudsen’s introduction was followed up by Professor David Nutt from Imperial College London who gave an overview of the current state of psychedelics. In brief, he mentioned how psychedelics seem to show efficacy in depression and addiction and shared some of the therapeutic mechanisms of action in the brain, such as alterations in brain connectivity, reduced modularity, and increased neuroplasticity.

Most notably, Nutt shared one of the most recent brain imaging findings of N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) that were yet to be published. According to Nutt, this work is probably the “most impressive study ever done at our department” as it contains the most comprehensive view of the acute brain action of psychedelics to date. This was made possible through the use of both electroencephalography (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to record brain activity before, during, and after the ingestion of intravenous DMT and comparing it to placebo in twenty healthy individuals. In general, the results of the now published study demonstrate that DMT is able to induce network disintegration and desegregation, decreases in alpha power, increases in entropy, altered traveling waves, and global functional connectivity. In other words, a lot is happening during the DMT-experience, and this naturally reflects the peculiar and extraordinary experiences that individuals generally report.

Discussion session ECNP New Frontiers Meeting Psychedelics 2023. Picture: OPEN Foundation 

In the evening of March 20th, directly after the ECNP conference, the results of the study were published in The Guardian reporting how the recordings of DMT reveal a “profound impact across the brain.” One can safely say that this is a clear testament of the hype of psychedelic research and how the media wants to pick up on this latest news.

Nutt further showed yet to be published results from another neuroimaging study that is based on the well-known psilocybin versus escitalopram trial. The team already demonstrated psilocybin-specific effects in the brain last year, such as increases in global integration and decreases in modularity. And now they found more differences between the two substances, namely that escitalopram resulted in a blunted response towards emotional faces. This finding was not demonstrated in the psilocybin condition of the study and further adds to the view that antidepressants seem to blunt people’s emotions.

Finally, Nutt notified the audience of some future policy decisions. This included the statement that US president Biden will make psilocybin and MDMA legal in the next two years and that Australia will reschedule both substances by July 2023.

Animal research: psychoplastogens and affective bias tests

Another prominent subject that has recently entered the field of psychedelic research is the therapeutic use of so-called psychoplastogens. Psychoplastogens refer to a class of substances that are able to rapidly promote neuroplasticity without any hallucinogenic effects. This presentation was given by David Olsen, an associate professor of chemistry, biochemistry and molecular medicine at the University of California, Davis. Olsen is also the co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of Delix Therapeutics, a company that focuses on the development of psychoplastogens.

As mentioned briefly, psychoplastogens are aimed rapidly promoting neuroplasticity. Olsen mentioned during his presentation that this happens through “transforming the structure of the neuron.” Psychoplastogens establish this transformation in particular through “targeting dendritic spine density and increasing both their growth and complexity.” According to Olsen, a lot of neuropsychiatric disorders are due to a lack of dendritic spine density, hence the recent development of psychoplastogens.

One of the primary psychoplastogen candidates under development is tabernanthalog. This is a novel compound that is structurally similar to the psychedelic drug ibogaine. One study published in Nature in 2020 demonstrated that tabernanthalog was found to promote structural neural plasticity, reduce alcohol- and heroin-seeking behaviour, and produce antidepressant-like effects in rodents. What seems to be very promising is that all this was accomplished without any of the hallucinogenic effects generally observed following the use of ibogaine. Another more recent study found that only a single dose of tabernanthalog was able to promote the regrowth of neuronal connections and restoring functional neural circuits in the brain disrupted by unpredictable stress. This increase in neuroplasticity was accompanied by a correction in behavioural deficits, including anxiety and inflexibility.

But how did the researchers know that the rodents were actually not hallucinating? This was established by using the so-called head-twitch response, which is suggested to be a rodent behavioural proxy for hallucinations induced by 5-HT2A agonists. But I always wondered: How do we really know? Is the head-twitch response truly representative of hallucinogenic effects? Not surprisingly, one of the audience members asked during a discussion session what actually occurs in rodents during the head-twitch response. As it turns out, when you compare rodents who received 5-MeO-DMT to those who receive tabernanthalog, the former will show a robust head-twitch response, whereas the latter will not.

The discussion continued during dinner on day one with some other attendees and someone hypothesized that rodents not only see through their eyes, but through their whiskers. This sounded very fascinating and, as it turns out, the whiskers of rodents consist of sensory nerves that connect to well-defined structures in the cortex. Indeed, much like humans that use their fingers to navigate the world around, rodents use their whiskers to map out their surroundings and in turn build a 3D picture of the world.

Nevertheless, there are still many difficulties in translating subjective measures from humans to animals, particularly when doing research on depression-like behaviour. This was particularly signified by speaker Emma Robinson, professor of psychopharmacology at the University of Bristol. Nex to the head-twitch response, Robinson presented many other animal testing paradigms, particularly the sucrose preference test, forced swim test, and the novelty seeking test, which are used to assess depression-like behaviour in rodents. She stated that the use of any of these paradigms is suspect to lots of false-positives or false-negatives.

Because of the problems with current animal assays, Robinson and her team used the affective bias test (ABT) as it is suggested to have a better translational validity to humans. Within this assay, animals are trained for a week and have to learn to choose between two options (one positive, one negative) that will in turn reflect a positive or negative bias. It was developed to investigate the hypothesis that the cognitive processes associated with reward-related learning and memory may be modified by affective states. Robinson further explained that this is based on Aaron Beck’s cognitive triad model of depression, a cognitive framework that is often used to account for the negative views and dysfunctional thoughts observed in depression. The research that she presented is not yet published but revealed that one dose of psilocybin or ketamine is able to “completely attenuate the negative bias in rodents.” Translated to humans, this indicates that either psilocybin or ketamine might be able to help individuals with depression mitigate their dysfunctional and negative thoughts. But most importantly, it provides a therapeutic window and opportunity to develop a more realistic view about oneself, the world, and the future.

Drug-Drug Interactions to Increase Therapeutic Efficacy and Improve Harm Reduction

Robinson was followed up by professor of clinical pharmacology and internal medicine, Matthias Liechti, from the University of Basel in Switzerland. Liechti’s presentation was particularly mind-opening to me as he discussed some of the drug-drug interaction effects between psychedelics and other substances. For instance, when individuals with depression receive pre-treatment with the antidepressant escitalopram and then take psilocybin, there were less signs of anxiety and adverse cardiovascular effects. The most striking finding was that this interaction did not alter the psychedelic effects following the ingestion of psilocybin at all. Although this study was quite small with 27 participants and the daily pre-treatment of escitalopram only consisted of 7 days, this finding can be a huge implication for harm reduction in the field of psychedelic research.

Something else that Liechti presented came from an older study that was published in 2015. This study demonstrated that the co-administration of bupropion significantly increased plasma MDMA concentrations and, as a result, prolonged the positive mood effects of MDMA. But maybe even more important, this is another drug-drug interaction that can be used to improve harm reduction during a dosing session due to bupropion’s ability to significantly reduce the heart rate response to MDMA. Together, this indicates that using MDMA with bupropion can enhance mood effects while also lower cardiac stimulation.

Another drug that was mentioned during Liechti’ presentation was ketanserin. Ketanserin has been used in the past to demonstrate that psychedelics primarily target the 5-HT2A receptor. Indeed, when this drug is taken prior to LSD, ketanserin is able to completely attenuate the subjective effects. But a recent study has now also demonstrated its use for the reversal of the acute response to LSD. Specifically, ketanserin was able to significantly reduce the duration of LSD’s subjective effects from 8.5 hours to 3.5 hours and was able to reduce adverse cardiovascular effects. As such, ketanserin can be “effectively used as a planned or rescue option to shorten and attenuate the LSD experience in humans in research and LSD-assisted therapy.” 

The Neurobiology of Psychedelics and Inter-Individual Heterogeneity

The second day was opened by Katrin Preller, a junior Group Leader at the University of Zurich, and a visiting Assistant Professor at Yale University. She talked about numerous subjects, including the neurobiology of psychedelics, the acute modulation of brain connectivity through psychedelics, and the four current network-level models of psychedelic action (for a full explanation of these models, please continue reading here).

Preller pointed out during her talk that virtually everything we know so far about psychedelics and their effects on the brain is based on averages of a group. This is why she asked the audience “what about inter-individual heterogeneity?” In other words, what about the differences between individuals when we compare them before, during, or after the psychedelic experience? Indeed, not everyone’s brain is exactly the same at the start of a clinical trial and it is something we should consider when evaluating the therapeutic effects of psychedelics. This conundrum led Preller to hypothesize the following, namely that “baseline connectivity is predictive of the acute effects and determines how someone responds to a psychedelic.” This hypothesis is explored further in upcoming papers that are yet to be published.

As a clinical neuropsychologist and someone who conducts neuroimaging research myself, I became very interested in this hypothesis and approached Preller during one of the coffee breaks to ask her how this brain connectivity would look like. She was not able to answer this question in detail because as the research stands, it has not been explored in full yet. I continued to ask whether such connectivity could be used as a marker to determine the dosage of a psychedelic or maybe even the type of therapeutic framework. We know, for example, that high connectivity in the Default Mode Network is associated with a high degree of rumination – one of the salient and important features of in major depressive disorder. Maybe this could in turn indicate the dosage amount and possibly even determine the choice of a specific therapeutic framework, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy targeted at increasing psychological flexibility. She partly agreed and reflected that it is particularly important to get a better understanding of the synergistic effects of both psychedelics and therapy that in turn optimize therapeutic outcome. But how brain connectivity can be used for this remains to be explored because we simply need more studies. Similar to how she concluded her presentation, we need to learn more about the brain so we can optimize PAT and prevent cost and frustration with patients.

The Design of Clinical Trials: a European Regulatory Perspective and Music

Nearing the end of the conference we were informed about the challenges regarding the design of clinical trials by Gerhard Gründer, Professor of Psychiatry and Chair of Department of Molecular Neuroimaging at Central Institute of Mental Health, Mannheim. As the research stands today, we have small sample sizes to fails to account for sufficient statistical power, there is a lack of control and difficulty with blinding, and an expectation bias with nocebo effects. These challenges are troublesome, but can be overcome when we conduct more research. Gründer also shared some e-mail messages from participants in order to show that the therapeutic alliance is the most important factor for efficacy and that we should take this into account when conducting trials. 

To help establish the rigorousness of clinical trials with psychedelics, ECNP invited speaker Marion Haberkamp, a current core member of the CNS Working Party (CNSWP) at the European Medicines Agency (EMA), Amsterdam, and a long-time member and now expert of the Scientific Advice Working Party (SAWP). When it comes to psychedelic research, Haberkamp told the audience that “the findings are both intriguing and sobering” but that “we need longer and more trials.”  Accordingly, Haberkamp talked about European regulatory guidelines and challenges that were recently published in the Lancet. As the age-old adage goes in academia, the authors of this paper posit that more rigorous research is needed, but not without giving any specific recommendations. For instance, they added that it is important to reconsider double blinding in clinical trials and the roles of both positive and negative expectancy created during preparatory sessions. Other points include the need to compare psychedelics with psychotherapy, further establish the safety profile of psychedelics, and continue to assess potential drug-drug interactions.

To realise all this, Haberkamp told the audience that there is direct help from the European regulatory office. For instance, researchers are able to come to the SAWP for qualification procedures. Moreover, there are already EMA guidelines for setting up clinical trials for major depressive disorder, substance use disorder, and anxiety. Haberkamp also announced that such guidelines will be available for psychedelics by the summer of 2023.

Patient Perspectives

I want to finale bring attention to Tadeusz Hawrot from PAREA (Psychedelics Access and Research European Alliance). Hawrot is doing a tremendous job in bringing attention to patients’ perspectives, because according to him it is “the patients who are the experts and the most we can learn from.” And this message particularly hit home through the testimony of Dave Pounds, a 59-year-old patient who has been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for almost his entire life. A short summary of his story is described down below.

Dave explained to the audience that when he was just a young little boy, he witnessed his mother being raped and murdered at their home. This horrific experience led to the development of recurrent panic attacks in his teenage years and Dave was ultimately diagnosed with PTSD. He tried several types of treatment and an exorbitant amount of different drugs in order to get better, but nothing seemed to work. Even worse, the drugs only seemed to blunt his feelings. A few years ago, he discovered the work of Ben Sessa while Googling on the internet and read about the benefits of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. He decided to try it out and told the audience about his 1st experience with MDMA. Dave mentioned first of all how this was all very lucid and completely sober. While on MDMA, he returned to his own bedroom at 12 years old, frozen with fear, knowing what had just happened downstairs. The perpetrator came to his room upstairs, but whilst under the influence of MDMA he was not frightened anymore. His mom was also present in the bedroom, while Dave talked to the perpetrator about how he is going to be punished for what he has done. The most striking part of this story is how his mom turned to the perpetrator, hugged him, and wished him well. This left Dave completely astonished, but it gave him the feeling and conviction that he was able to continue with his life, possibly through the act of forgiveness. Dave further stated that he had a long afterglow while in the hospital and never felt unsafe during his experience. What is more, Dave has developed a so-called MDMA mindset that he can access at will at any time during the day. This has finally brought him warmth and calmness after decades. Dave stated that “it is the best treatment I have had in almost 40 years.” But he is also “frustrated by the lack of governmental acceptance and approval”, as both he, and many others suffering from PTSD, have improved so dramatically after MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. Dave concluded his testimony by saying that stating that “this could be the most profound transformation in healthcare.” There are many profound stories out there like Dave’s that almost seem too good to be true. Right after this testimony, the audience was confronted with the dark side of psychedelics. 

Jules Evans, an academic philosopher and director of Challenging Psychedelic Experiences Project, is aware of the ongoing psychedelic renaissance and many benefits associated with it, but he also acknowledges the various difficulties and challenges associated with psychedelics. This is based on his own personal experience and research with psychedelics. For instance, Evans had his own bad trip at 18 years and developed PTSD and social anxiety after taking LSD with some of his friends. Fortunately, Evans got better after receiving cognitive-behavioural therapy. Evans further gave notice of a bigger survey (n = 10,836) conducted by ICEERS that collected data from more than 50 countries to assess the adverse events following the use of ayahuasca. This survey showed that there is a high rate of adverse physical effects, primarily vomiting (69.9%), and adverse mental health effects (55.9%) in the weeks or months following consumption. Yet, the authors of this paper also concluded that these experiences “are not generally severe, and most ayahuasca ceremony attendees continue to attend ceremonies, suggesting they perceive the benefits as outweighing any adverse effects.” More recently, Evans has conducted an interview study with 30 individuals after a psilocybin truffle retreat in the Netherlands and was able to show that 30% of individuals experienced challenging experiences.

Our very own Joost Breeksema also acknowledges in a recent review of 44 articles that psychedelics are associated with adverse events and that they are probably underreported due to a lack of systematic assessment and sample selection. Yet, this review also stated that challenging experiences can sometimes be therapeutically meaningful and that we should focus on “disentangling truly adverse events from potentially beneficial effects in order to improve our understanding of psychedelic treatments.”

Moving Forward

The amount of knowledge gaps discussed during the conference are manyfold. One message seemed to reverberate through the two days of the ENCP conference – and that is we simply need more research. We need larger studies with more participants and longer follow-ups. Besides this, I went over and compared all my notes from the conference and was able to distil the most prominent knowledge gaps consistent among both speakers and attendees. Here are the three key knowledge that can help move the psychedelic research forward in the upcoming years.

First and foremost, there is the question whether subjective effects are truly responsible for the therapeutic efficacy of psychedelics. Novel psychoplastogens as tabernanthalog developed by David Olsen seem to negate this view. However, the work that has been done so far is based entirely on animal research paradigms, which Emma Robinson pointed out lacks translational validity in humans. It would be interesting to see Olsen and Robinson pair up in order to assess whether the findings still hold up when rodents receive the non-hallucinogenic compound tabernanthalog and are put to the ‘affective bias test’.

Second, our understanding of the neurobiology of psychedelics remains somewhat underdeveloped. Katrin Preller signified this during her talk by pointing out the degree of inter-individual heterogeneity. To reconcile this, we simply need to conduct more studies that are longer and more complex. The multimodal brain imaging study conducted by Imperial College London that assessed the effects of psychedelics before, during, and after a DMT experience using both EEG and fMRI serves as a perfect example of such a study. And we need lots of it.

Third, the investigation of drug-drug interactions, be it the antidepressant escitalopram, bupropion, or ketanserin, show their utility for potential harm reduction and how through pharmacological interaction we could improve psychedelic therapy and outcome. This could have huge implications for how we conduct psychedelic therapy 

The Hype is Real

After the ECNP conference, I can confidently say that “the hype is real” in the field of psychedelic research. Even though the legendary hip-hop group Public Enemy stated that we should not believe the hype, I have garnered only more hype in the form of inspiration, enthusiasm, and realistic optimism. The future for psychedelic research looks promising with lots of different topics to explore and it is truly great that European regulatory committees as the SAWP are involved to help establish rigorous and robust scientific research that will only affirm the validity and credibility of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. And we are very fortunate that all this is accompanied by a healthy dose of scepticism by the likes of individuals as Jules Evans. Ultimately, there is enough balance of both yin and yang that can help move the field forward and I am proud to be a part of it.

There were other speakers that I did not mention as this was beyond the scope of this blog post. Despite this, I wanted to clarify here that their talks were greatly appreciated during the conference and have listed their names and credentials down below.

  • David E. Nichols, Adjunct Professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC, is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the Purdue University College of Pharmacy. Nichols talked about the basic pharmacology of psychedelics.
  • Tomas Palenicek, head of the Psychedelic Research Centre at National Institute of Mental Health, Czech Republic. Palenicek talked about how music genres like psytrance and classic music seem to show the most benefit during psychedelic therapy.
  • Jan Raemakers, Professor of Psychopharmacology and Behavioral Toxicology at Maastricht University. Raemakers talked about the feasibility of 5-MeO-DMT in healthy volunteers and individuals with treatment-resistant depression.
  • David Erritzoe, Clinical Senior Lecturer and Consultant Psychiatrist at Imperial College London and in CNWL Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust. Erritzoe talked about psilocybin therapy for depression.
  • Drummond McCulloch is a PhD who studies the effects of psychedelic drugs on the brain using PET and MR imaging at the Neurobiology Research Unit in Copenhagen. His talk included qualitative data analyses of a clinical trial showing how individuals come more connected to their self, others, and the environment.
  • Jaskaran B. Singh, Psychiatry Franchise head at Neurocrine Biosciences. His talk consisted of Industry aspects, precompetitive questions, experience from a related area (esketamine).
  • Tiffany Farchione, Director of the Division of Psychiatry in the Office of Neuroscience at FDA. Tiffany’s talk includes regulatory perspectives of the Food and Drug Administration.

Dutch Minister of Health Kuipers receives report on the therapeutic applications of psychedelics

Joost Breeksema, directeur Stichting OPEN, (midden) en minister Ernst Kuipers (rechts) tijdens de presentatie van het rapport. Foto: UMCG

On Monday, March 6th 2023, the report ‘Therapeutic applications of psychedelics was presented to Dutch minister Ernst Kuipers of the ministry department Health, Well-being, and Sport. Joost Breeksema, executive director of the OPEN Foundation and co-author of the report, was one of the organisers of this event that took place at the University Medical Centre Groningen (UMCG). The report discusses the current state of the therapeutic applications of psychedelics and details the various opportunities, challenges, and recommendations regarding research and implementation of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy in health care.

A Dutch version of this blog post can be found here.

Joost Breeksema, directeur Stichting OPEN, (midden) en minister Ernst Kuipers (rechts) tijdens de presentatie van het rapport. Foto: UMCG
Joost Breeksema, executive director OPEN foundation (middle) and minister Ernst Kuipers (right ) during the presentation of the report. Picture: UMCG

It is estimated that approximately 200,000 individuals in the Netherlands suffer from severe psychiatric disorders such as treatment-resistant depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, despite currently available treatment in healthcare. Last year Dutch minister Kuipers was already positive about the potential therapeutic application of psychedelics within this group of patients. At the University Medical Centre Groningen, Kuipers was further informed regarding the current state of psychedelics and talked to researchers, therapists, and patients. Similar to last year, Kuipers has shown approval and enthusiasm regarding psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy (PAT).The report ‘Therapeutic applications of psychedelics’ was presented to Kuipers during a mini-symposium at UMCG by managing director of ZonMw, Véronique Timmerhuis. ZonMw is a Dutch organisation that subsidises scientific research to develop and innovate healthcare. The report is written by professor of psychiatry Robert Schoevers, researcher and OPEN executive director Joost Breeksema, and neuroscientist Rutger Boesjes, commissioned by ZonMw.

Minister Ernst Kuipers ontvangt het rapport van Véronique Timmerhuis, algemeen directrice ZonMw. Foto: UMCG
Minister Ernst Kuipers receives the report from Véronique Timmerhuis, managing director ZonMw. Picture: UMCG

The report describes the current state of affairs regarding PAT, including the various target populations that could be eligible to receive this particular treatment, but also the various opportunities, barriers, and challenges regarding scientific research and the ultimate implementation of PAT. Furthermore, it offers several recommendations, such as a national research program that could be able to facilitate fast, efficient, and coordinated knowledge developments within the current rapidly developing field. Finally, the report focuses on the development of accredited education institutes to secure the quality of PAT.

Joost Breeksema mentioned after the mini-symposium that “it is very promising to see so much interest in this subject: from ZonMw, the political arena, and from the top of the ministry department of Health, Well-being, and Sport. Similarly, Erwin Krediet, chair of Stitching OPEN, was present during the mini-symposium and said “it was an absolute milestone.” Krediet additionally added that “it was impressive to see how quickly the attitude towards psychedelics is changing – politicians and employees of the ministry were talking about psychedelics in a way that suggests there is not that much stigma left regarding the therapeutic use of these substances.”

Breeksema also gave a brief presentation towards the audience. He talked about how since the founding of OPEN foundation in 2007, a lot has changed: “attention towards psychedelics is generally positive. Not only between scientists, psychologists, and psychiatrists, but also in the media. These messages are received by a lot of patients currently suffering from a severe psychiatric disorder. However, it is very rare for these individuals to receive treatment other than enrolling in a clinical trial with psychedelics. This development increases the risk of patients seeking care outside regular healthcare or self-experimentation with psychedelics, which in turn increases the risk for incidents and adverse events.

Joost Breeksema spreekt de zaal toe over de huidige stand van zaken rond de therapeutische toepassing van psychedelica. Foto: UMCG
Joost Breeksema speaks towards the audience regarding the current state of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy Picture: UMCG

The field is making significant and rapid developments in the past two years. For instance, there are tens of millions of dollars in investments and numerous studies being conducted by the pharmaceutical industry. It is highly likely that different types of psychedelics will be registered as approved medication in the upcoming years. At the same time, an important point of consideration is that we develop the necessary expertise and therapists in order to professionally administer these substances and provide the necessary after-care and integration.

Breeksema: “It would be very valuable if the Netherlands could be at the forefront regarding this area of development and demonstrate how a tight cooperation between all interested parties can lead to safe and careful implementation of PAT in current healthcare. Despite many positive developments, we need to proceed with caution and remain critical regarding PAT. These substances are able to induce very confronting experiences that could be painful and complicated to comprehend. This requires professional facilitation and guidance in order to accompany this process.”

Ultimately, Breeksema thinks that the message has been received by Dutch minister Kuipers, particularly regarding the necessity for more and bigger research. Kuipers acknowledges that he sees the importance from a systematic approach – it will take too long for these treatments to arrive at patients when we only have a handful of small studies. Breeksema agrees: “this is something we emphasise in particular in the report.”

Minister Ernst Kuipers spreekt met zorgverleners van het UMCG. Foto: UMCG
Minister Ernst Kuipers talks with healthcare practitioners from the UMCG. Picture: UMCG

After the mini-symposium, there was room for a private session with some patients, therapists and minister Kuipers. Breeksema: “I am very happy that minister Kuipers and member of parliament Wieke Paulusma took the time to talk with both therapists and patients about their experiences with psychedelics. Those sessions are not always easy and I think that we clearly showed how significant it is to take patients seriously and that professional guidance by healthcare practitioners, which includes training as well, remains an essential requirement for the success of these treatments.”

Minister Kuipers ontvangt rapport Therapeutische Toepassingen van Psychedelica

Joost Breeksema, directeur Stichting OPEN, (midden) en minister Ernst Kuipers (rechts) tijdens de presentatie van het rapport. Foto: UMCG

Op maandag 6 maart 2023 is het rapport ‘Signalement therapeutische toepassingen van psychedelica’ aangeboden aan minister Ernst Kuipers van het ministerie Volksgezondheid, Welzijn en Sport. Joost Breeksema, directeur van Stichting OPEN en co-auteur van het rapport, was een van de organisatoren van dit bezoek aan het Universitair Medisch Centrum Groningen (UMCG). Het rapport bespreekt de huidige stand van zaken omtrent therapeutische toepassingen van psychedelica en gaat in op de kansen, uitdagingen en aanbevelingen rond het onderzoek naar en de implementatie van psychedelica-ondersteunde therapie in de gezondheidszorg.

Joost Breeksema, directeur Stichting OPEN, (midden) en minister Ernst Kuipers (rechts) tijdens de presentatie van het rapport. Foto: UMCG
Joost Breeksema, directeur Stichting OPEN, (midden) en minister Ernst Kuipers (rechts) tijdens de presentatie van het rapport. Foto: UMCG

In Nederland zijn er naar schatting 200.000 mensen die, ondanks standaardbehandelingen binnen de Geestelijke Gezondheidszorg, ernstige psychische klachten zoals een therapieresistente depressie en posttraumatische stressstoornis blijven houden. Eind vorig jaar liet minister Kuipers zich in een brief aan de Tweede Kamer al positief uit over de mogelijke inzet van psychedelica bij deze groep patiënten. In het Universitair Centrum Psychiatrie van het UMCG werd Kuipers bijgepraat over de huidige stand van zaken en ging hij in gesprek met onderzoekers, therapeuten en patiënten. Net als vorig jaar laat Kuipers zijn enthousiasme blijken over de mogelijkheden van het therapeutisch gebruik van psychedelica.
Het rapport ‘Signalement therapeutische toepassingen van pyschedelica’ werd tijdens een mini-symposium overhandigd door algemeen directrice van ZonMw, Véronique Timmerhuis. ZonMW is de Nederlandse organisatie die wetenschappelijk onderzoek gericht op gezondheidszorg en zorginnovatie financiert. Het rapport is geschreven door hoogleraar psychiatrie Robert Schoevers, onderzoeker en OPEN directeur Joost Breeksema en neurowetenschapper Rutger Boesjes, in opdracht van ZonMw.

Minister Ernst Kuipers ontvangt het rapport van Véronique Timmerhuis, algemeen directrice ZonMw. Foto: UMCG
Minister Ernst Kuipers ontvangt het rapport van Véronique Timmerhuis, algemeen directrice ZonMw. Foto: UMCG

Het rapport beschrijft de huidige stand van zaken rondom de therapeutische toepassing van psychedelica, waaronder de doelgroepen die mogelijk in aanmerking komen voor een dergelijke behandeling, maar ook de verschillende aandachtspunten, kansen en belemmeringen op het gebied van onderzoek en de uiteindelijke implementatie. Daarnaast worden er oplossingsrichtingen aangedragen, waaronder een samenhangend, landelijk onderzoeksprogramma welke een snelle, efficiënte en gecoördineerde kennisontwikkeling faciliteert. Tot slot wordt ingegaan op het vormgeven van geaccrediteerde opleidingsinstituten om de kwaliteit van deze nieuwe behandelmethoden te waarborgen.

Joost Breeksema zegt na het mini-symposium dat het “veelbelovend is om te zien dat er zoveel serieuze interesse is: vanuit ZonMw, vanuit de politiek en vanuit de top van het ministerie van VWS.” Ook Erwin Krediet, voorzitter van Stichting OPEN, was aanwezig en vond het evenement “een absolute mijlpaal.” Krediet voegde daarnaast toe dat het “indrukwekkend is om te zien hoe snel de perceptie rondom psychedelica aan het veranderen is – ook door politici en medewerkers van het ministerie wordt er over psychedelica gesproken op een manier die suggereert dat er nog maar weinig stigma lijkt te rusten op het therapeutisch gebruik van dit soort middelen.”

Breeksema sprak tijdens het mini-symposium ook zelf het publiek toe. Hij geeft aan dat er in de 16 jaar sinds de oprichting van Stichting OPEN, in 2007, ontzettend veel is veranderd: “De aandacht voor psychedelica is overwegend positief. Niet alleen onder wetenschappers, psychologen en psychiaters, maar ook in de media. Deze berichtgeving bereikt veel patiënten die kampen met een ernstige psychiatrische aandoening. Er is echter zelden plek voor deze mensen, afgezien van een enkele plek in een klinisch onderzoeksprogramma. Deze ontwikkeling vergroot het risico dat mensen buiten de reguliere zorg om zelf met psychedelica gaan experimenteren. Dit vergroot de kans op incidenten.”

Joost Breeksema spreekt de zaal toe over de huidige stand van zaken rond de therapeutische toepassing van psychedelica. Foto: UMCG
Joost Breeksema spreekt de zaal toe over de huidige stand van zaken rond de therapeutische toepassing van psychedelica. Foto: UMCG

Het veld maakt in de laatste twee jaar een stormachtige ontwikkeling door, met bijvoorbeeld tientallen miljoenen aan investeringen en verschillende onderzoeken die gestuurd worden door de farmaceutische industrie. Verschillende typen psychedelica maken kans om in de komende jaren geregistreerd te worden als erkend medicijn. Een belangrijk aandachtspunt is dat ook wordt ingezet op het ontwikkelen van de nodige expertise en personeel om deze middelen op professionele wijze toe te dienen en passende nazorg aan te bieden.

Breeksema: “Het zou zeer waardevol zijn wanneer Nederland op dit gebied het voortouw neemt en laat zien hoe nauwe samenwerking met alle belanghebbenden kan leiden tot veilige en zorgvuldige implementatie van psychedelica-ondersteunde therapie in de bestaande gezondheidszorg. Ondanks de vele positieve ontwikkelingen dienen we kritisch te blijven wat betreft het therapeutisch gebruik van psychedelica. Deze middelen zijn in staat om zeer confronterende ervaringen op te wekken die pijnlijk en ingewikkeld kunnen zijn. Er is dan ook professionele begeleiding nodig om dat proces goed te begeleiden.”

Al met al is de boodschap volgens Breeksema aangekomen bij minister Kuipers, zeker wat betreft de noodzaak voor meer en grootschaliger onderzoek. Kuipers benadrukt dat hij het belang ziet van een programmatische aanpak – met alleen maar losse, kleinschalige studies duurt het uiteindelijk veel te lang voordat behandelingen bij de patiënten belanden. Breeksema is het hier mee eens: “Dit benadrukken wij specifiek in het signalement.”

Minister Ernst Kuipers spreekt met zorgverleners van het UMCG. Foto: UMCG
Minister Ernst Kuipers spreekt met zorgverleners van het UMCG. Foto: UMCG

Na afloop van het mini-symposium was er ruimte voor een privé sessie met een aantal patiënten, therapeuten en minister Kuipers. Breeksema: “Ik ben heel blij dat minister Kuipers en Tweede Kamerlid Wieke Paulusma de tijd namen om met patiënten en behandelaren te spreken over hun ervaringen met psychedelica. Die sessies zijn niet altijd makkelijk en ik denk dat we goed hebben kunnen laten zien hoe belangrijk het is om patiënten serieus te nemen en dat goede begeleiding door zorgprofessionals, en dus ook training, essentiële voorwaarden zijn voor het slagen van deze behandelingen.”

How Psychedelics Prove that Materialism is Baloney: A sneak peek into the work of Bernardo Kastrup

We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep – William James

One of the most fascinating findings coming from the scientific literature on psychedelics is their ability to drastically alter our beliefs and worldview. These form the basis of how we relate to ourselves, each other, and the world. As a result, they determine how we attach meaning to our lives and whether we ultimately feel happy, sad, or depressed. Our beliefs and worldview can, in short, be considered as one of the most important aspects of who we are and how our lives unfold.

The current prevailing worldview in Western society to which most of us pledge allegiance is that of materialism. I am not referring to materialism in the consumerist sense, wherein the main preoccupation of the human being is the pursuit and obtainment of things, but materialism from the viewpoint of metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that is concerned with the study of the fundamental nature of reality.

Bernardo Kastrup, one of the speakers at ICPR 2022, challenges the current worldview of metaphysical materialism. Specifically, he proposes analytical idealism as an alternative, the notion that reality is essentially mental and inseparable from mind. Bernardo has been leading the modern renaissance on metaphysical idealism for the past ten years and is considered one of the most energetic, diverse, and original thinkers alive today.

The story of how Bernardo came to idealism is truly fascinating. For those who are interested, I highly recommend two podcast episodes (listed below) in which he explains how he arrived at this particular understanding of metaphysics. In short, Bernardo started his career as a computer engineer, working for some of the biggest and most important companies in the world, including the Dutch company ASML, the world’s leading computer chipmaker for the semiconductor industry, and the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) that operates the largest particle physics laboratory in the world (i.e., the Large Hadron Collider).

Despite these prestigious positions, Bernardo always remained a philosopher at heart and was thus concerned with the bigger questions: “What is life? Where do we come from? What happens to our consciousness after we die?” More than anything, he pondered endlessly as a computer engineer on the possibilities and limitations of artificial intelligence: “If you put enough elements of a computer and chips together to aggregate computing power, when will it become conscious? More so, can it become conscious?”

Materialism and The Hard Problem of Consciousness

The unanswered question refers to a notorious problem that has been troubling scientists and philosophers alike for decades. It was first coined as ‘The Hard Problem of Consciousness’ by Australian philosopher David Chalmers in his famous essay Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness, which has been declared as the second most important unanswered question in science by Science. According to Bernardo, it should have been number one. 

Before we continue, let’s first briefly discuss what materialism is all about. This way we can better comprehend the Hard Problem.

Metaphysical materialism states that all of reality is composed of a small set of fundamental subatomic particles, which are described in the ‘Standard Model’ of particle physics. These particles are the basic building blocks of nature and responsible for the character and behaviors of all known phenomena, from the chair you are sitting on to the entirety of the Milky Way, to your body and loved ones, and of course your mind.

Materialism assumes that these subatomic particles are “dead” and, therefore, absent from consciousness. Now here is the rub: “How do you eventually get consciousness simply by arranging ‘dead’ subatomic particles together?” Alas, we have arrived at the Hard Problem of consciousness. Bernardo calls it a sore on the foot of materialism. In fact, it is such an obstinate problem that materialist philosophers, such as Daniel Dennett, have been accused of ‘explaining it away’.

How do you eventually get consciousness simply by arranging ‘dead’ subatomic particles together?

Other famous neuroscientists, such as Christof Koch, remain hopeful and claim that it is only a matter of time before we resolve the Hard Problem. Koch initiated his quest alongside molecular biologist turned neuroscientist and Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick in the 1990s. Most of all, their primary objective was to discover the neural correlates of consciousness (NCCs), which refers to the “the minimum neuronal mechanisms jointly sufficient for any one specific conscious experience.” 

Similar to philosopher Daniel Dennett, consciousness has in their view a mechanistic basis and is ultimately a scientifically tractable problem. So long as we keep collecting more data about the inner workings of the brain through state-of-the art neuroimaging techniques and aggregate this over the years, we will eventually find the much sought after NCCs. The phenomenon of consciousness is, after all, produced by an assembly of dead subatomic particles that we would call a human brain. Consciousness is material brain processes at work.

Exactly how these material brain processes and the various mechanical movements of particles are accompanied by inner life remains, however, “a question left unanswered by materialism”, states Bernardo in Why Materialism is Baloney – How true skeptics know there is no death and fathom answers to life, the universe and everything.

It is here that Bernardo firmly states that such (scientific) pursuits are – and will remain – futile. We cannot solve the Hard Problem through science because of the simple fact that science cannot look at what nature is – science can only look at what nature does: “The scientific method allows us to study and model the observable patterns and regularities of nature […] But our ability to model the patterns and regularities of reality tells us little about the underlying nature of things”, writes Bernardo.

Tackling the Hard Problem: Idealism to the Rescue

To tackle the Hard Problem, we need to approach it through metaphysics, it being the branch of philosophy that concerns itself with the study of the fundamental nature of reality. Metaphysics looks at what nature is.

Now, Bernardo does not actually “solve” the Hard Problem, but rather circumvents it through his metaphysical framework of idealism. In fact, he suggests that there is no problem at all; it is only a problem when we believe the metaphysics of materialism to be true. And so long as we adhere to the materialist worldview, we keep misconstruing our conception of reality through a flawed conceptual framework that is ultimately nonsensical and self-defeating.

As I was reading about the Hard Problem and delved more and more into the framework of idealism, a quote from Einstein came to mind that perfectly encapsulates the current predicament: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Within the metaphysical framework of materialism, the Hard Problem cannot possibly be solved. It is created within a certain mode of thinking, a mode of thinking that is, according to Bernardo, the wrong one.

The Hard Problem is only a problem when we believe the metaphysics of materialism to be true.

So what, then, is idealism? As mentioned before, idealism consists of the notion that mind and reality are inseparable. Put slightly differently, it states that ‘mind’ is the medium of reality, not ‘matter’. This sounds rather abstract and confusing at first, because mind is generally referred to as something we use (although I have my doubts about some individuals) or lose. We see this particularly reflected in our everyday language: “use your mind for once!” or “he has lost his mind!”

Within the metaphysical framework of idealism, however, the mind is defined as something entirely different. In the opening of Chapter 3 in Why Materialism is Baloney, Bernardo provides a “most natural and obvious answer” to the question of what ‘mind’ signifies within the framework idealism: “Mind is the medium of everything that you have ever known, seen, or felt; everything that has ever meant anything to you. Whatever has never fallen within the embrace of your mind, might as well have never existed as far as you are concerned. Your entire life and universe – your parents and the people you love, your first day at school, your first kiss, every time you were sick, the obnoxious boss at work, your dreams and aspirations, your successes, your disappointments, your worldview, etc. – are and have always been phenomena of your mind, existing within its boundaries.”

Yet this description of mind within the framework of idealism remains just that: a description. Again, I want to emphasize here that in order to intuitively understand, or “grok” (to borrow from Bernardo’s lexicon), requires a different mode of thinking. Speaking from personal experience, this is an arduous process, particularly because the worldview of materialism is so firmly ingrained within us. It is a firmly established belief system accompanied by a habitual mode of thinking that is often considered infallible.

Mind is the medium of everything that you have ever known, seen, or felt; everything that has ever meant anything to you. Whatever has never fallen within the embrace of your mind, might as well have never existed.

To avoid eating the menu, we can use metaphors to get an initial taste of idealism. Fortunately, Bernardo provides no shortage of these in Why Materialism is Baloney – a triumphant feat on par with the wit of Alan Watts. In my view, the most intuitive analogy to start off with when trying to “grok” idealism is the whirlpool.

Whirlpools Within the Lake of Mind

Consider ‘mind’ as a lake of water. When this lake is still, water is flowing along freely without any hindrance. The water is not localized. Now, imagine a small whirlpool within the lake. All of a sudden, there is an identifiable pattern that assembles the water molecules in place within the lake. In other words, the whirlpool reflects a pattern that localizes the flow of water (see Figure 1).

We are able to point at this pattern and say: “Here is a whirlpool!” Other water molecules that are not localized through the whirlpool are ‘filtered out’ – they are kept away by the particular dynamics of the whirlpool. From this, Bernardo makes two observations regarding the whirlpool metaphor, namely that 1) the whirlpool reflects a localization of water within the lake and 2) that there is a ‘filtering out’ of the other remaining water molecules.

Figure 1
The whirlpool in a lake is a metaphor for a brain in the medium of mind (from Kastrup, 2014)

These observations lead to the following conclusion, namely that “there is nothing to the whirlpool, but the lake itself.” It is important to remember this statement in the next few paragraphs, because it contains the essence of idealism. Once more, the only thing that the whirlpool reflects is a very specific pattern of water that has been localized within the lake. Ultimately, it is all water. It is all one.

There is nothing to the whirlpool but the lake itself.

Bernardo mentions the brain as something very analogous to the whirlpool in the lake. More specifically, he talks about the brain as “an image [pattern] in mind, which reflects a localization of contents of mind.” And just like there is nothing to the whirlpool but the lake, there is nothing to the brain but mind itself. Within the metaphysics of idealism, the brain represents an identifiable pattern of the localization of mind. Similar to the whirlpool within the lake, we can point to the brain within the medium of mind and say: “Here is a brain!” And just as the whirlpool captures water molecules from the lake, the brain assembles subjective experiences from the medium of mind and ‘filters out’ experiences of reality that under ordinary circumstances do not fall within its boundaries.

There is nothing to the brain but mind itself.

Consider the following. Would you say that a whirlpool causes water? Or that flames are the cause of combustion? What about lightning being the cause of electric discharge? My guess is probably not. In fact, you would be rather perplexed when someone gives you these presuppositions: “Of course a whirlpool does not cause water. It is exactly the other way around; the water, or the lake, is the very thing that causes the whirlpool!” Naturally, the whirlpool and water are very much related to each other, but the whirlpool only represents a “partial image” of the whole process that is lying underneath it.

And the same can be said of the brain. It too represents a partial image within the broader medium of mind. According to Bernardo, saying that “the brain generates mind is as absurd as to say that a whirlpool generates water!” (italics added).

Understanding the brain to be a partial image within the broader medium of mind eliminates the Hard Problem entirely, because the aforementioned NCCs can now be interpreted differently. Yes, there still exists a clear and obvious relationship between brain states and someone’s state of ‘mind’, but now the former can be seen as a partial image of the latter. As Bernardo concludes: “The brain is an experience, an image in mind of a certain process of mind.”

What materialism is trying and claiming to accomplish is the impossible. It maintains that the brain is the very thing that causes consciousness and the plethora of subjective experiences that go along with it. But if you understand just a little bit of what has been presented so far, you can begin to see that this is a complete non sequitur. It does not follow that consciousness is the cause of brain processes, as one would similarly not infer that combustion and water are respectively caused by flames and whirlpools. Trying to fix it only results in what is keenly illustrated on a subreddit that creates some hilarious memes of Bernardo and idealism.

Of course, it would be unfair to entirely negate materialism based on just this metaphor, albeit it being a very useful one. This is where psychedelics come in, as their effects on the brain help make sense of this metaphor.

Brief Peeks Beyond: The Acute effects of Psychedelics on the Human Brain

In the past decade, Bernardo has written extensively about the acute effects of psychedelics on the human brain. More specifically, he has provided evidence of how neuroimaging studies seem to support the tenets of idealism – much to the dismay of other materialist neuroscientists, which include previous ICPR speakers as Enzo Tagliazucchi and Robin Carhart-Harris.

To be clear, Bernardo never suggested “malicious intent.” Rather, the intention was to emphasize how “paradigmatic expectations can make it all too easy to cherry-pick, misunderstand and then misrepresent results so as to render them consistent with the reigning [materialist] worldview.” Indeed, it is a clear example of how materialism permeates the culture and how unaware we are of our philosophical presuppositions.

In general, neuroimaging studies examining the acute effects of psychedelics on the human brain demonstrate that there is an inverse relationship between brain activity and subjective experience. Wait, what? Yes, you read that correctly. Psychedelic substances are found to reduce brain activity, rather than increase it. Such results vehemently oppose the intuitions of materialism. After all, it is brain activity itself that is supposed to constitute subjective experience: “consciousness is brain activity.” How else are we going to find the NCCs?

Down below follows a summary of two important neuroimaging studies and Bernardo’s interpretations of their results, which led him to conclude that the evidence thus far supports idealism.

The first study examined the neural correlates of psilocybin. According to Bernardo, this study was “extremely well designed” as it countered the “uncertainties of measuring brain activity with an fMRI scanner.” Here, he is alluding to the fact that the researchers used two ‘signals’ in determining brain activity, namely arterial spin labeling (ASL) and blood-oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). More specifically, ASL is a non-invasive fMRI technique for measuring cerebral blood flow (CBF): the amount of CBF indicates the amount of brain activity. On the other hand, BOLD measures the difference between oxygenated and deoxygenated blood in various brain regions that indicates the level of metabolism. Ultimately, it is the amount of metabolism which indicates the amount of brain activity in a given brain region.

With both these measures, here is what the authors from the psilocybin study reported: “we observed no increases in cerebral blood flow in any region” (italics added). Even more ‘alarming’: “the more the drug deactivated the brain, the more intense were the subjective experiences reported by the subjects” (italics added).

Reading further into the study, results become particularly worrisome for materialists when study participants made report of having had extremely rich subjective experiences, which included “geometrical patterns”, “extremely vivid imagination”, “seeing their surroundings change in unusual ways”, and having experiences that feature a “dream-like quality.”

Bernardo summarized the findings in one of his many blog posts and stated: “the brain largely goes to sleep. Who, then, is having the trip? It doesn’t seem to be the brain.”

Neuroimaging studies examining the acute effects of psychedelics on the human brain demonstrate that there is an inverse relationship between brain activity and subjective experience

Fast forward four years later and another study came out that examined the neural correlates of LSD. This time the findings received much more attention from the public and was covered by prestigious media outlets, such as The Guardian and CNN. Bernardo responded to this “fanfare” and explained to his readers how they are being “subtly deceived (again).” Because, similar to the psilocybin study, results yet again demonstrated observed reductions of brain activity across the entire brain (see Figure 2). As you can clearly see, there is a whole lot of blue. In fact, everything is blue which indicates reductions in brain activity.

Now, to be fair, the authors from the LSD study did find one small inconsistency when comparing findings to the psilocybin study. Apparently, there were results that indicated increases in CBF in the visual cortex of the brain when LSD was compared to placebo (see third row Figure 3). Such a finding would indeed support the view of materialism, i.e., more activity in the brain equals more subjective experience.

Figure 2
Brain activity as determined by magnetoencephalography

Yet, the authors from the LSD study concluded that the observed localized increases in CBF were possibly the result of measurement artifacts: “one must be cautious of proxy [indirect] measures of neural activity (that lack temporal resolution), such as CBF or glucose metabolism, lest the relationship between these measures, and the underlying neural activity they are assumed to index, be confounded by extraneous factors, such as a direct vascular action of the drug.”

Figure 3
Cerebral blood flow as determined by ASL

This is why the authors opted to put more emphasis on findings from Figure 2, as it represents the results of magnetoencephalography (MEG). This is another widely used functional neuroimaging technique for mapping brain activity. As opposed to indirect measures such as BOLD and ASL, MEG represents a direct measure of neural activity. Naturally, the LSD study authors concluded that MEG: “should [thus] be considered [as] more reliable indices [measures] of the functional brain effects of psychedelics” (italics added).

Of course, these were only two studies that examined the acute effects of psychedelics on the brain. But as many of you probably know, the psychedelic renaissance has been on full throttle in the past years. As both Bernardo and Prof. Edward F. Kelly alluded to in an opinion piece on Scientific American: “these unexpected findings have since been repeatedly confirmed with a variety of psychedelic substances and various measures of brain activity” (see 2013, 2015, 2016, and 2017). 

Let us now transpose these neuroimaging findings in context of the whirlpool metaphor. Remember how we said that both the whirlpool and brain analogously represent an identifiability pattern, or image, within the broader medium of the lake and mind, respectively? And remember how we also said how they both reflect a localization and filtering of the contents of mind, which led us to conclude that there is nothing to the brain but mind itself? Here is what psychedelics seem to do.

Psychedelics perturb the dynamics of the brain to such a degree that there is a non-localization of the contents of mind (i.e., subjective experiences that are, under ‘normal’ circumstances, assembled by the brain). But now, by bringing psychedelics into the mix, subjective experiences from the medium of mind are suddenly no longer filtered out. The whirlpool stops existing, water molecules are able to flow along freely, and thus become one with the lake. Analogously, the brain stops “existing” as activity goes down that results in a bombardment of subjective experiences (e.g., “extremely vivid imagination” as the psilocybin study participants reported). Ultimately, the contents of mind that were, under ‘normal’ circumstances, assembled by the brain become one with the medium of mind. To put it in Aldous Huxley’s words, the psychedelic experience can bring about the realization that “each one of us is potentially ‘Mind at Large’.” 

The contents of mind that were assembled by the brain become one with the medium of mind

A sweet moment of irony, particularly for Bernardo, is how the authors from the psilocybin study unintentionally hinted toward the whirlpool metaphor themselves by mentioning Aldous Huxley’s metaphor of the reducing valve: “This finding is consistent with Aldous Huxley’s ‘reducing valve’ metaphor … which propose[s] that the mind/brain works to constrain its experience of the world.”

For people who are unaware, the reducing valve metaphor is a result of Huxley’s experience with the psychedelic substance mescaline. He reported his experiences in The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell. Huxley’s description of the brain as a reducing valve – and its similarities with the whirlpool metaphor – become immediately apparent in the following passage: “The suggestion is that the function of the brain and nervous system and sense organs is in the main eliminative and not productive (italics added). Each person is at each moment capable of […] perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe. The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed […] by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful.” To clarify here, when Huxley mentions that the brain’s job is “to protect us from being overwhelmed” seems to be analogous to the localization of the contents of mind. The same can be said for how subjective experiences are “shut out” and the filtering out process in the whirlpool metaphor.

Finally, these so-called peak experiences associated with psychedelics are not only reserved to dedicated psychonauts. In fact, “there is a broader pattern associating peak subjective experiences with reduced blood flow to the brain”, says Bernardo. This is further exemplified in Why Materialism is Baloney and another academic article in which he lists a host of findings from different domains (e.g., hyperventilation, meditation, gravity-induced loss of consciousness, cerebral hypoxia, cardiac arrest, and even brain damage). All seem to corroborate the phenomenon that less blood flow equals richer subjective experiences, not less.

Ego Death: Becoming One With the Medium of Mind

What I find is the earlier observation and remark that the brain, for a brief period, stops “existing.” I am alluding here to a widely studied phenomenon in the psychedelic literature referred to as ego death, or ego dissolution.

The experience of ego death consists of an altered state of consciousness in which there is a dramatic breakdown of one’s “sense of self.” Several neuroimaging studies have consistently demonstrated that psychedelics reliably facilitate this breakdown, something that occurs through the disintegration of an important brain network called the Default Mode Network (DMN) (see 2015, 2019 and 2020). The DMN is regarded by some neuroscientists to represent the neural correlates of the self or ego, as increased brain activation is primarily seen during self-referential processing. 

Bernardo interprets the neuroimaging findings in the context of idealism by using the whirlpool metaphor: “I couldn’t help but visualize the deactivation of the ego functions as analogous to someone inserting one’s hand in a whirlpool, disrupting the ‘loopy’ flow that maintains it, and thereby allowing the water molecules originally trapped in it to escape.” Within this metaphor, the hand represents psychedelics that perturb the dynamics of the brain and how it dissolves the sense of self, or ego, through disintegration of the DMN.

We have read before that study participants report “geometrical patterns” and experiences of “dream-like quality.” What else do they report during a psychedelic peak experience? More importantly, what do they report when experiencing ego death, or ego dissolution, once their DMN disintegrates? Lots of anecdotal reports can be found from the Erowid experiences vault, but these might not be considered as reliable or valid. Fortunately, there also are findings from clinical trials.

One such study was conducted by the Imperial College London. This trial’s primary objective was to investigate if psilocybin was effective in helping people overcome their treatment-resistant depression. This consisted of a group of 12 people who were seriously depressed, some of which “have had a depression for an average of 18 years and tried between three and eleven antidepressant medications and up to six courses of talking therapy and none of which had helped them.” With a response rate of 67% (N = 8) only one week after treatment, and another 42% (N = 5) of individuals who remained in remission (symptom-free) after three months, the results of this study were extraordinary, particularly considering the tenacity of the participants’ depression and after receiving only two oral doses of psilocybin.

Six months later, the study participants were interviewed by one of the research team’s clinical psychologists Dr. Rosalind Watts. She asked them a series of questions to assess patient experiences during the psilocybin sessions, including the million dollar question: “What happened during dosing?” I refer the reader to the article itself or to watch Watts’ presentation to prevent you from becoming overflowed by tedious and superfluous amounts of awesome quotes. Down below I have listed some of the most revealing descriptions that seem to correspond with the whirlpool metaphor and idealism.

In an entire paragraph devoted to the ‘Connection of a spiritual principle’, Watts describes what happened during the psilocybin session. Here, patients frequently report “strong feelings of compassion, love, and bliss” that were often beautifully put, almost poetically. For instance, one of the participants stated that during the dose: “I was everybody, unity, one life with 6 billion faces, I was the one asking for love and giving love, I was swimming in the sea, and the sea was me.” This is a particularly clear example that corresponds with the metaphor of the whirlpool, as the participant literally mentions how she was swimming in the sea and realized being a part of it.

Another report hits the nail on his head by exemplifying this transition: “Before I enjoyed nature, now I feel part of it. Before I was looking at it as a thing, like TV or a painting. You’re part of it, there’s no separation or distinction, you are it” (italics added). Other participants reported similar experiences during the dose, such as “connecting to all other souls” or that it “felt like sunshine twinkling through leaves, I was nature” (italics added). 

I was everybody, unity, one life with 6 billion faces, I was the one asking for love and giving love, I was swimming in the sea, and the sea was me

In general, the reports seem to follow a common narrative, namely that they are part of something greater than their little ‘selves’. Study participants as whirlpools have become one with the medium of the lake again. We can even be bold to suggest that these participants realized that they were “nothing to the whirlpool, but the lake itself.”

Analogously, the ego and the sense of self stops existing, as the DMN disintegrates and the contents of mind become one with the medium of mind. The great philosopher Alan Watts provides the quintessential description: “We do not ‘come into’ this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean ‘waves,’ the universe ‘peoples’. Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe” (italics added).

Future Musings and Grokking Idealism

As mentioned in the introduction, our view of the world determines in large part how we relate to ourselves, others, and the world. Now, if we maintain that the metaphysics of idealism is true – and we are indeed all whirlpools of the same lake – consider first how this will affect your life and how you will behave to your fellow human beings. Bringing hurt to someone else would then literally mean bringing hurt to oneself.

But I think the implications of idealism go much further than this. In fact, idealism made me think a lot about what Carl Sagan alluded to in his brilliant TV series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage: “a new consciousness is developing which sees the earth as a single organism and recognizes that an organism at war with itself is doomed.” And this is what idealism does – it recognizes that we are all, in Huxley’s words, potentially Mind at Large.

This has led me to ask two fundamental questions that hopefully can be answered in the near future. Might the metaphysical framework of idealism result in a significant reduction of unnecessary conflict and suffering in the world as it sees that we are all connected? And what important role do psychedelics play in facilitating this worldview?

The possible transition of materialism to idealism will probably take some time. In part, this is because it is extremely difficult to intuitively understand, or “grok”, idealism. This inability is exacerbated through our cultural milieu that always rejoices in the viewpoints of materialism: “we grew up to believe that mind is a product of the brain, not the other way around”, says Bernardo. As a result, it has been imprinted in our very way of being and can be considered as the lingua franca of contemporary metaphysics. It is the exact reason why Bernardo provides some solace to his readers through the advice of giving all this some thought to let the metaphysics of idealism sink in.

Indeed, the drastic change in worldview does not come naturally to us. It requires what is coined by renowned philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn a paradigm shift – a fundamental change in the basic concepts and experimental practices of a certain discipline. What is more, we are protected by ourselves from what is referred to as an “ontological shock.” This happens particularly when beliefs are diametrically opposed to prior held personal, religious, or spiritual beliefs – something that OPEN director Joost Breeksema and neuroscientist Michiel van Elk refer to in Working with Weirdness.

Bringing it all together, I believe we are at the precipice of another Copernican revolution and that Bernardo represents a modern day version of Giordano Bruno. Bruno was a 16th century philosopher tried for heresy by the Roman Inquisition and subsequently burned at the stake for his cosmological theories (e.g., stars were distant suns surrounded by planets). Such ‘theories’ are now considered common knowledge, and more importantly, common sense. Only centuries later, Bruno has been characterized as a martyr for science. Might the same be said of Bernardo? Possibly so, as in his own words, “future philosophers will be merciless at our stupidity.” Let us not “burn” him at the stake, for Bernardo’s thoughts too can one day become common sense.

Dr. Bernardo Kastrup will give his presentation titled Psychedelic effects are one piece of a much bigger puzzle on Saturday September 24th at ICPR 2022 in the Philharmonie, Haarlem.

Bernardo Kastrup is the executive director of Essentia Foundation. His work has been leading the modern renaissance of metaphysical idealism, the notion that reality is essentially mental. 

He has a PhD in philosophy (ontology and philosophy of mind) and another PhD in computer engineering (reconfigurable computing, artificial intelligence). As a scientist, Bernardo has worked for the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and the Philips Research Laboratories (where the ‘Casimir Effect’ of Quantum Field Theory was discovered). 

Formulated in detail in many academic papers and books, his ideas have been featured on Scientific American, the Institute of Art and Ideas, the Blog of the American Philosophical Association and Big Think, among others. Bernardo’s most recent book is Science Ideated: The fall of matter and the contours of the next mainstream scientific worldview. For more information, freely downloadable papers, videos, etc., please visit

Podcast appearances
Jaimungal, C. (Host). Bernardo Kastrup on Analytical Idealism, Materialism, The Self, and the Connectedness of You and I [Video]. YouTube.
Kieding, J. (Host). (2021, June 15). Bernardo Kastrup — The Man Behind the Ideas: Identity, Truth, Philosophy, and Psychotherapy [Video]. YouTube.

Common misconceptions
There are several misconceptions about idealism (listed below). For this I refer the reader to pages 64 to 69 in Why Materialism is Baloney:
1. Idealism is not solipsism;
2. Idealism is not panpsychism;
3. Falling back into realist assumptions: “where is this mind stuff?”
4. Why can’t we influence reality at will if everything is in mind?

Michael Bogenschutz has new research on psychedelics and alcohol – AND IS COMING TO ICPR

Right after new results from his research on alcohol addiction and psychedelics emerged, Michael Bogenschutz confirmed his attendance at ICPR. A professor of Psychiatry at NYU Grossman School of Medicine and Director of the NYU Langone Center for Psychedelic Medicine, Dr. Bogenschutz is well known for launching the first contemporary study of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy for alcohol use disorder in 2015. He has published extensively on the topic of addiction and the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.

Just one week ago, he reached another milestone in psychedelic research through his publication of the first double-blind randomized clinical trial of psilocybin for alcohol use disorder.  This trial took a long time to complete, as the recruitment process took place from 2014 until 2020. But the wait seems worth it, as the final sample reached a total of 95 participants. 

For Dr. Bogenschutz, this means a giant leap from his initial pilot study from 2015, which consisted of a sample of only 10 individuals – an issue that often looms over contemporary psychedelic research. 

The fifth edition of OPEN’s conference on psychedelics is almost here. ICPR 2022 will be held from 22-24 September 2022. Get your tickets before we sell out. Live stream tickets for remote viewing are available.

The study

All the individuals who participated in the study struggled with excessive drinking. More specifically, those randomized to the psilocybin or placebo (diphenhydramine) group, respectively drank an average of 7.5 and 6.6 drinks per day. Both groups received 12 weeks of manualized psychotherapy and were administered either psilocybin or diphenhydramine at week 4 and week 8. 

The study wanted to assess, most of all, whether the percentage of heavy drinking days was reduced following psilocybin. They found that the psilocybin group was associated with “robust decreases in percentage of heavy drinking days over and above those produced by active placebo and psychotherapy.”

The researchers assessed this 32 weeks after their first dosing session. The percentage of heavy drinking days was still 23,6% for the placebo group, meaning they drank heavily about once every four days, but for the psilocybin group, it was only 9.7% – once every ten days. 

On top of that, there were also higher reports of individuals in the psilocybin group who had stopped drinking entirely. 24,4% of the placebo group did so, compared to 47.9% of the psilocybin group.

Future research

Through these results, Dr. Bogenschutz is genuinely changing the field of psychiatry, as there have been no new drug approvals in nearly twenty years for alcohol addiction. The only three approved conventional drugs for the treatment of alcohol use disorder are currently disulfiram, naltrexone, and acamprosate. Psilocybin, as such, might become a lifesaver for many people suffering from alcohol addiction. 

But Dr. Bogenschutz is not done yet, as he recently announced that there will be a subsequent trial that aims to include more than 200 participants. This time the study will consist of only one single dose of psilocybin and will be compared to the vitamin niacin as another active placebo. 
The Food and Drug Administration has recently approved this trial. It will be the largest to date to examine the efficacy of psilocybin-assisted therapy for the treatment of alcohol use disorder.

9 quality documentaries about lsd, mushrooms and other psychedelics you should watch

There are many documentaries about psychedelics nowadays, but only so little time to watch them all, let alone figure out which one’s are worth it! That’s why we came up with a list of documentaries on psychedelics that you can watch, or binge, comfortably from your own living room. They’re selected for their scientific soundness, cultural insight, or overall high quality.

All of them are worthy study material before you join us at ICPR 2022 near Amsterdam – where some of the speakers are actually some of the people featured in these series and films. Their work is at the basis of this renaissance in psychedelic research and the new generation of documentaries that it has spawned. Enjoy our dose of inspiration.

Hamilton’s PharmaCopeiaㅤ

If there is one documentary that hits all the marks when it comes to information about psychedelics, as well as other psychoactive drugs, while simultaneously delivering a high entertainment value, it is – without a doubt – Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia, of which there are now three seasons.

This documentary series is written, directed, and produced by Hamilton Morris, a journalist and scientific researcher who explores the history, chemistry, and social impact of various psychoactive substances across the globe.

Hamilton illustrates how ubiquitous psychedelic drugs are and goes out on a limb to try several of them himself – showcasing his dedication and genuine curiosity when it comes to studying the effects of these extraordinary substances. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the merits of every episode on its own, but we compiled a hit list of our favorite episodes shown at the end of this commentary. That’s right – more stuff to binge this coming summer! Just watching these will suffice for at least 8 hours of entertainment, where Hamilton Morris meets with underground chemists that illegally synthesized MDMA; travels to Huautla de Jimenez in Mexico to visit the family of the legendary curandera María Sabina’s to talk about psilocybin-containing mushrooms; smokes 5-MeO DMT in the Sonoran desert under supervision of a shaman; and talks with Amanda Feilding about how she helped to fund the very first neuro-imaging study of LSD. Be sure to absolutely check this series out!

Quote of the series

It is so strange that these compounds exist. What is the purpose of any of this? 5-MeO-DMT? This? In a toad’s venom? And people may have only started using it 30 years ago? And it produces this peak experience of love? I can’t believe it! It is so amazing!” – Hamilton Morris

Our hitlist for best episodes:

  • Season 1
  • Episode 4 – Magic Mushrooms in Mexico
  • Episode 6 – The Lazy Lizard School of Hedonism
  • Season 2
  • Episode 1 – The Psychedelic Toad
  • Episode 2 – Peyote: The Divine Messenger
  • Episode 4 – Wizards of DMT
  • Episode 5 – Ketamine: Realms and Realities
  • Episode 6 – A Clandestine Chemist’s Tale
  • Season 3
  • Episode 1 – Synthetic Toad Venom Machine
  • Episode 4 – Synthetic Ibogaine: Natural Tramadol
  • Episode 6 – UItra LSD

Descending the mountain (2021)

Filled with aesthetically pleasing images, jaw dropping cinematography, a great psychedelic soundtrack, and a pinch of neuroscience, Descending the Mountain excels at every front. The documentary includes renowned psychedelic researcher Prof. Dr. Franz Vollenweider and Zen master Vanja Palmers. Their mission? To set out to a monastery on top of mountain Rigi in Switzerland to conduct a novel experiment in which experienced meditators received psilocybin-containing mushrooms in a group setting for the first time in their life. This experiment was double-blind, where neither the researchers or the participants knew what dose they received. Some of the meditators received an active dose of psilocybin, whereas others were ‘unfortunate’ (in their words) and received a placebo. It is amazing, to say the least, how these experienced meditators were able to deepen their meditation due to psilocybin, even after thousands of hours of meditation practice. One individual was completely ecstatic from the beginning till the end and amazed by what he was experiencing. Others felt it to be a collective experience, rather than an individual one, as they were able to feel the energy in the room. Ultimately, placebo or no placebo, the group setting was conducive to the experience at the mountain.

Quote of the movie

What can the mushrooms tell us today?” – Descending the Mountain

Halfway through the documentary, Prof. Dr. Vollenweider explains briefly how psychedelics work and that neuroscientific research of today has consistently demonstrated that they deactivate the Default Mode Network (DMN) – a key brain region involved in self-referential processing. With their experiment on Mount Rigi, they too found that the participants who received psilocybin were able to enter a deep(er) meditative state and showed less activity in the DMN when compared to the placebo group. Vollenweider explains how it: “makes you less focused on yourself because, in a way, you lose your ‘self’, and that this tends to make you focus more on others around you.” This dovetails neatly with the hypothesis that psychedelics are able to alter personality  and political beliefs, something that the documentary explores briefly as well through asking significant questions as: “What can psychedelics do for society today? What will happen if great leaders take these substances and make us think about our place in the world?”

Michael Pollan’s How To Change Your Mind (2022)

Four years after the release of his book under the same name, Michael Pollan hit the big screen on Netflix with a documentary series: How to Change Your Mind. To say that his book had somewhat of an influence on the psychedelic renaissance is an understatement. Individuals even talk about a Pre-Pollan era and Post-Pollan era within psychedelic research. And now, with this new and cinematic tour du force, Pollan might continue to increase his reach by showcasing these tools to people all over the world sitting in their living room.

The documentary consists of a total of four episodes, each focusing on a specific psychedelic. The first episode focuses on the synthesis of LSD by Dr. Albert Hofmann in 1938, the research of its therapeutic use when treating alcoholism, and how it ultimately became a Schedule I substance – as it ended up on the streets through evangelist Timothy Leary and the CIA project MKUltra, that serendipitously turned on Ken Kesey. In the second episode, the viewer is brought to the world of psilocybin-containing mushrooms and features ICPR speakers William Richards, Paul Stamets, and Roland Griffiths. Here, Pollan discusses their historic use in religious settings, the introduction of the mushroom to the West, and how it is currently being researched for various debilitating psychiatric disorders, such as depression, end-of-life anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, and cluster headaches. The third episode features ICPR speaker Rick Doblin and is all about the therapeutic use of MDMA for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. Pollan interviews Ann Shulgin, the wife of renowned chemist Alexander Shulgin, – who recently passed away – about her personal experiences with MDMA and how it ended up becoming illegal through the so-called “Second Summer of Love”’ during the 1980s. Finally, Pollan takes a deep dive into the ceremonial use of the peyote cactus by indigineous Americans that are part of the Native American Church.

The documentary provides a solid starting point for anyone who is new to the world of psychedelics and likes to be prepared for what we have to offer at ICPR. It presents some of the most recently conducted preliminary research studies and their implications. Contrary to contemporary media headlines, it is refreshing to see that Pollan remains centered throughout the entire documentary with regards to the therapeutic potential of psychedelics and messages to the audience to do the same. This is a welcoming message that is to be embraced if we do not wish to repeat past mistakes.

The Psychedelic Drug Trial (2021)

Major depressive disorder (MDD) is the leading cause of disability in the West, says ICPR speaker and Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology David Nutt. Across the globe, MDD is estimated to affect 350 million individuals and is responsible for more ‘years lost’ than any other psychiatric condition. Psychiatry has been desperate for novel treatments.

One of the current mainstays of treatment in psychiatry is escitalopram, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), better known under its brand name Lexapro. This psychotropic drug increases the amount of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain and has been proven by earlier clinical research to be effective and well tolerated in the treatment of MDD. But this begs the question: “How does escitalopram, or Lexapro, compare to psilocybin when used for treating depression?” This is what the research team in the Psychedelic Drug Trial set out to do.

Quote of the movie

If psychedelics can change the world, let’s put it to the test.” – Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris

The documentary presents an extensive in-depth look into how the study was conducted by displaying easy-to-comprehend visuals and various infographics. The documentary really shines here and you immediately get a clear understanding of what the study design looked like. It also exemplifies how current psychedelic therapy operates and provides the three important stages involved, which includes: preparation before the dosing session, the psychedelic dosing session itself, and the integration that follows.

What is more, you get to know some of the recruited participants who were told that they are randomized to one of two conditions. They will either receive 1) psilocybin or 2) escitalopram, not both. Almost all of the participants have been on antidepressants for decades and suffer from various side effects, including weight gain, sleep paralysis, and a flat affect. The psilocybin trial represents a “lifeline” according to some of the participants – a viable alternative to their current situation of “concentrating on staying alive” and trying “to live with this joylessness.” One participant is at the end of her ropes and tells the camera: “I would probably end my life if I didn’t go [through the trial].”

Soon after this introduction, we are taken into a living room like environment where the psychedelic therapy session took place. Participants at this point are talking about their extraordinary experiences and the various symbols they encountered during their psychedelic dosing session. The documentary really excels here due to its slow presentation of recorded monologues and by displaying aesthetic visuals that are aimed at encapsulating the participants’ experience while on psilocybin. One participant talks about one of her peak experiences where she found herself at the roots of a tree and: “was connecting with everything up there. The thing I really felt most … was a joy. Joy like I’d never experienced. It is really, really powerful stuff.

The documentary would not have been complete without a brief presentation by ICPR speaker David Nutt on how psychedelics such as psilocybin work in the brain and how they differ from escitalopram. Nutt first explains that antidepressants as escitalopram take about an average of six weeks to work and do so primarily in the limbic system, the emotional center of the brain that is overactive in depression: “It dampens the system and you become incubated against stress, which is good, but you also become incubated by everything else.” Psilocybin, on the other hand, works differently by targeting the serotonin 2A receptor, which are widely prevalent in the neocortex. Psilocybin also works through the disruption of the Default Mode Network that Franz Vollenweider similarly talked about in Descending the Mountain. Both professor Nutt and lead researcher of the study Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris believe that psilocybin works better and faster than escitalopram.

The results of this landmark study have been published in the highly esteemed The New England Journal of Medicine. Their conclusion? Both psilocybin and escitalopram work in the treatment of depression. But when taking into account secondary outcome measurements such as suicidality, psilocybin looks better than escitalopram. More recent neuroscientific findings of the current study have been published as well, which looked at how psilocybin affects the brain and how it differs from antidepressants. All in all, more research is needed as we venture forth in our pursuit to help people alleviate their depressive symptoms.

ICPR 2022 is almost here. Get your tickets before we sell out.

Journeys to the Edge of Consciousness (2019)

Journeys to the Edge of Consciousness is a unique animated film that chronicles the very first psychedelic experiences of Timothy Leary, Aldous Huxley, and Alan Watts. The film is interspersed with commentaries on these historical and influential events by ICPR speakers Rick Doblin and Amanda Feilding, and various other researchers within the psychedelic field.

The Dropout Drug

We first witness how Timothy Leary got involved with LSD through meeting Michael Hollingshead, a British researcher who studied psychedelics at Harvard University in the mid twentieth century. Leary’s first LSD trip was: “the most extraordinary experience of his life.” Yet to my surprise, he also felt a terrible sense of loss after this trip, as he did not know what to do with these new insights: “Once you see how it is all composed, it is hard to get back to the game.” This experience demonstrates that even psychedelic evangelists as Leary, a very intelligent man who was probably one of the most well-known proponents of psychedelics, would have benefitted from the importance of integration. The world would have been a very different place indeed if Leary underwent this integral part following psychedelic use. Instead, he decided to leave the highly esteemed university of Harvard and famously told students to: “tune in, turn off, and drop out.” This resulted in the then U.S. president Richard Nixon to call him the most dangerous man of America.

Commentaries from other experts on Leary’s psychedelic experience are very informative. They exemplify how psychedelics are able to lift the veil of ordinary reality, which can either facilitate, or in the case of Leary, diminish our well-being, because we see through the illusion, i.e., the play of life. You’re catapulted out of your ego and you can spend years of life making sense of it all, which might have happened to Timothy Leary according to Dr. Tim Read. Yet, Dr .Gabor Maté states that bad trips can also be interpreted differently: “Yes, a trip can be challenging, but what you need is proper integration. This is the work of healing. The psychedelic experience and its healing properties were lost during the 60s because there was a lack of intention. 

The Doors of Perception

Next we get a close look at Aldous Huxley’s famous psychedelic experience with mescaline that led him to write his famous work The Doors of Perception: and Heaven and Hell. During his experience, he realizes that “this is how one ought to see” and that the ordinary mode of consciousness is but one form of consciousness. Huxley talks about the suchness of things while on mescaline and develops his metaphor of the reducing valve of the mind, which limits our view of reality and who we really are.

According to ICPR speaker Rick Doblin, Huxley’s insights demonstrate where we should put our meaning: “not on consuming, but on something deeper.” Other psychedelic researchers talk about how people ‘wake up’ after their psychedelic experience, including alterations of the perception of the self and various changes in their value system. 

The Joyous Cosmology 

Finally, we witness Alan Watts taking modest amounts of LSD while in California and who decided to casually go for a stroll. His first undertaking was to listen to a priest in a church during a mass. He witnesses how people are putting on an “act of a person”, which is one of the key phrases of Alan Watts. His feeling of self became no longer confined to the insides of his skin as he felt connected to everything: “my individual of being seems to grow out to the rest of the universe.” The animated re-enactment of Alan Watts’ psychedelic experience gives us a glimpse into how psychedelics helped shape his philosophy.

Quote of the movie

Come off it shiva, you rascal, who do you think you’re kidding!? It’s a great act, but you’re not fooling me!” – Alan Watts

Neurons to Nirvana (2013)

Neurons to Nirvana is filled with numerous psychedelic researchers who will be attending ICPR, including Rick Doblin, William Richards, David Nutt, Roland Griffiths, and Amanda Feilding. The film gives a brief overview of classic psychedelics, including psilocybin, ayahuasca, and LSD. In addition, the entactogen MDMA is briefly discussed plus the medicinal benefits of other (non-)psychoactive substances as marijuana and cannabidiol.

The film starts with the serendipitous event of how psychedelics helped shape modern psychiatry and neuroscience. LSD, as it turns out, has a very similar structure to serotonin that led to the discovery of the serotonin neurotransmitter system. As a result, psychiatry started including brain chemistry into the disease process, whereas before all the accountability went to either the individual or the environment.

It was a revolutionary period for which the famous psychedelic researcher Ralph Metzner said that discovering psychedelics: “was like discovering another continent, like Marco Polo.” Both ICPR speakers Rick Doblin and David Nichols mention how psychedelics are able to occasion a mystical experience and how this helps experience the world as one as it breaks down certain barriers. Roland Griffiths adds: “there is this quantum change during a psychedelic experience – it belongs among the most spiritual and personal meaningful experiences of peoples’ lives.”

Quote of the movie

What is being purged actually, is psychological contents that you’ve been holding onto. You’re purging anger, you’re purging pain, you’re purging some false story about the self.” –Gabor Maté M.D.

A great feature of the film that is worth mentioning here is that it shows the capability of human individuals being able to change their beliefs when it comes to esoteric substances such as psychedelic drugs. This is illustrated when Dr. Sanjay Gupta appears on the big screen, an Emmy award-winning doctor for his show on CNN who used to vehemently oppose the use of marijuana. This was until the year 2009, as the scientific evidence started accumulating and Dr. Gupta discovered that it was used for thousands of years. He also found out that before there was a strong focus on the negative. Most importantly, Dr. Sanjay Gupta was illuminated by the benefits of marijuana: “the science is there!”. This clearly demonstrates how scientific evidence can pave the way for reconstructing our beliefs about psychedelics. Hopefully, other physicians, researchers, and politicians will follow suit.

ICPR 2022 is almost here. Get your tickets before we sell out.

The Last Shaman (2016)

The Last Shaman follows young adult James who is battling with crippling bouts of depression ever since he went to university. He is desperate for a way out as he tried doing everything according to the book on both a medical and personal level. In general, this involved seeing several psychiatrists, taking antidepressants, and picking up a regular meditation practice. Despite his arduous efforts, he remains depressed. At the end of his ropes, he travels to Peru to meet several shamans that might be able to help him.

The documentary is not for the faint of heart and can be very shocking in demonstrating how debilitating depression can be. James suffers from extreme anhedonia, which refers to the inability to feel pleasure: “I see a beautiful woman or a sunset and I feel nothing.” He explains how his depression affects him in front of the camera and this raw footage makes the documentary feel very personal, but also heart-wrenching to watch at times, as his eyes are filled with tears and his voice is featured by a tremendous amount of frustration and despair. He ends up meeting various shamans in different regions and engages in multiple ceremonies to finally reach salvation.

James’ journey ends deep within the forest at the Shipibo community – a place that resembles just the right amount of authenticity he is looking for. Shamans here do the practice because it is a calling, whereas the business side of things are left aside. James ventures deeper into his emotions, revealing one layer from another layer, and becomes a passionate ascetic. He maintains a very strict diet and stays in isolation for a total of four months, eating nothing but fish and rice and smoking the Mapacho tobacco. This experience ripped him of all attachments of his previous life. He believes he: “no longer has an inferiority complex anymore” and feels no more anger towards his father.

Quote of the movie

I’m here to be a very small part of something much larger than myself, and that is extremely liberating” – James

Iboga Nights (2014)

David Graham, the director and producer of the renowned and brutal documentary Detox or Die, returns to the big screen with Iboga Nights. His first documentary consists of his mission to cure himself of his opiate addiction through ibogaine – a psychedelic substance with dissociative properties that is extracted from the root bark of the iboga tree (Tabernanthe iboga). His film became a resounding success that resulted in an explosion of media, press and news articles. This inspired other addicts to follow in his footsteps by taking up ibogaine and get rid of their opiate addiction once and for all. Iboga Nights follows several of David’s ‘apprentices’. 

Iboga Nights is basically split up in three sections. The first is where we are introduced to a shaman from the Netherlands who has treated an approximate of 1,000 patients with ibogaine for their opiate addiction. To my surprise, there was almost no guidance involved; the shaman plainly administers the drug and then lets ibogaine take its course while the participants stay in their assigned bedroom. It was quite astounding to see how most turned out fine and even managed to go through the treatment without experiencing any withdrawal symptoms. However, the documentary quickly takes a dark turn that illustrates the significance of taking into account proper screening and guidance. For instance, one participant stopped breathing due to an underlying heart condition and was taken away to the hospital. Ibogaine is known for slowing down the heart rate that might be fatal. Fortunately, he survived. But another participant left the house and was hit by a truck. David wanted to end the film right there: “how can I be a spokesperson for something so dangerous?”

After these horrific events, David meets up with Dr. Ben Sessa and Dr. Jeffrey Kamlet to talk about psychedelic research and ibogaine. Both share a pessimistic view with regards to pharmaceutical companies and how they supposedly “treat” patients, as they make billions of dollars on pain pills that generally require daily use. Naturally, they scoff at this predicament: “Why do they want ibogaine that requires one dose to cure people. That does not make money?”

Quote of the movie

Does it not feel weird to have had that life, among such affluence, and now be living in a hotel shooting up crack and heroin and taking up methadone?” – David Graham

Fortunately, the documentary also contains the amazing journey of Sid who was severely addicted to morphine and completely transformed through his ibogaine treatment. He was sexually abused by an older man when he was only 11 years old. During his session, both David and Sid are serious by taking screening and guidance into account. For example, they check if Sid is allergic to ibogaine and during the ibogaine treatment will frequently measure his heart rate and blood pressure. It is astounding to see that even after five days of taking ibogaine and no morphine at all, any symptoms of withdrawal are virtually non-existent. But Sid knows that the real treatment starts after ibogaine, which requires integration and (simply) staying off the drug. Several months later David returns to visit Sid and witnesses another person in front of him. He has become a completely transformed person and has much more energy and life in his eyes. Sid talks briefly about his ibogaine experience: “I did not have many visions or anything, but it took my physical dependence away.” The urge, or craving to use drugs, is totally gone. Sid simply does not: “want to do that anymore.”

From Shock to Awe (2018)

The documentary From Shock to Awe chronicles the transformative journey of two military veterans that suffer from severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Because of this, everything they encounter on a day-to-day basis within their natural environment signals danger. With their bodies still in war and drugged by an arsenal of pharmaceuticals, they turn to the Amazonian brew ayahuasca as a last resort.

Quote of the movie

I left the warrior behind and let the sunlight take the steering wheel now.”

Both veterans are filmed during their ayahuasca retreat that consisted of four ceremonies, two during the day and two at night. During all dosing sessions, we see grueling raw footage of both veterans struggling with their deep-rooted trauma. The entire retreat resembles the archetypal hero’s journey of diving into the unconscious and coming back into the real world reborn. Through ayahuasca, they realized that all life is sacred, which is: “the exact opposite of what is learned during military training.” Their perception of everyday ‘signals as danger’ changed after only one weekend, as they heard a gunshot in the woods, locked eyes, and started laughing immediately. The PTSD response was no more.

11 December - Panel discussion on the Metaphysics of Psychedelic Experiences