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BEYOND SUBSTANCES: WHEN CULTURE GOES INTO THE LAB

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Photo by By Andre Vas

BEYOND SUBSTANCES: WHEN CULTURE GOES INTO THE LAB

Brendan Borrell’s recently published New York Times article The Psychedelic Evangelist, about Johns Hopkins University’s late pioneering researcher Roland Griffiths, joins a series of blog posts, news articles and academic papers discussing problematic aspects of psychedelic science. Some of these concern personal misconduct, but others are rooted much deeper. Psychedelics bring together human psychology and chemical compounds, science, metaphysics and cultures. They are explored by pharmacologists and philosophers, anthropologists and psychiatrists, all trying to study what’s in a psychedelic, each with their own vocabulary and worldview. Some of the problems which arise from psychedelic research represent old schisms between the sciences and the humanities, and questions about knowledge as a whole. Here too, psychedelics seem to have a revealing effect, exposing our own thinking mechanisms.

The concept of “mystical experiences” has been one of these subjects of ongoing discussion. In principle, the spiritual and the experiential are beyond the bounds of science, as they can neither be confirmed nor refuted, so uncomfortable feelings around their appearance in scientific articles can be easily understood. In The Language of Metaphysical Experience, Alan Watts relates to a similar problem encountered by physics in relation to unknown fundamental entities. While these cannot be explained and remain mysterious, they can be related to in quantitative terms for prediction purposes. For example, we can say that “dark matter makes up 30.1 percent of the matter-energy composition of the universe“ without knowing what ‘dark matter’ is. In the same way, we can put ‘mystical experiences’ on a scale, and measure how many subjects experienced them, their level of intensity and so forth. Even if such information enables prediction, ontologically such statements remain meaningless, or as Alan Watts puts it: “By admitting a few numbers, even ‘Jabberwocky’ may become scientific”.

‘Mystical’ is surely an eye-catcher, but psychedelic literature is abundant with what Bateson called “heuristic concepts”: concepts which bring to the table more fog than clarity. Consider for example ‘connectedness’, ‘awe’, ‘oneness’, ‘ego-death’, ‘oceanic boundlessness’, or even basic terms like ‘mind’ and ‘consciousness’. Do we really know what they mean? Humanities scholars thoroughly discuss and contextualize such terms, like the mystical in religion studies or or awe in art and philosophy. As they travel to the hard sciences and find themselves in quantitative questionnaires, they can become inaccurate and biased.

These are differences within disciplines in our own culture; stepping outside reveals a deeper abyss, but it could also help in bridging gaps. In the same essay, Watts elaborates on differences between Western and Asian conceptualizations of metaphysics and their purposes. In the West we see metaphysical statements as conveying positive information about Reality. In Asia they are treated as remedies to frustrating human psychological ‘unreal’ problems, while Reality itself is ineffable. There is indeed something paradoxical about using objective terms and methods like observation to understand a subjective phenomenon like the psychedelic experience. There is a constant need to find less subjective terms: from ‘bad trip’ to ‘negative’, ‘adverse’, ‘challenging’ experience. The latter may sound more scientific than hippy, but aren’t they all personal value judgements of subjective experiences? Do they tell us anything objective at all? Another example is the quest to compile THE playlist for psychedelic interventions. Can there be one or even multiple recommended playlists? Is music not a matter of personal taste, memories and associations, of cultural references and education?

Some of the challenges are anchored in psychedelics’ legal status as schedule I drugs and the wish to develop them into treatments for medical conditions. Here too, our web of ontological assumptions and scientific methods keeps getting entangled, sometimes creating dangerous traps. Trying to stay as objective as possible, we wish to minimize the “human element” in order to properly assess the efficacy of substances. We use blinding and placebo-controlled trials, but this very practice sometimes leads to a nocebo effect (worsening of symptoms due to not getting the treatment) and even death, as described in the New York Times’s article. In many cases, practices applied to enhance objectivity are reinterpreted by participants as cold or unempathetic, and thus end up influencing results. For example, in order to minimize bias, the FDA recommends that a trial’s in-session monitor would not be involved in post-session psychotherapy. The assumption is that a therapist may be biased, in the sense that they know what happened during the psychedelic session and may use this information later. For participants, this means there is no continuity between the psychedelic session and the integration part (if there is one). This, in turn, creates trust issues and makes it difficult for participants to let go and to share their experiences. Since the therapy element is so determinate and hard to measure, psychotherapy and psychological support are often minimized in trials (also due to financial reasons), raising ethical concerns and undermining potential benefits. So some of the measures taken to accurately determine the safety and efficacy of psychedelics are in themselves a detriment to the safety and effectiveness of trials.

Medicalization as a goal has received much critique. Different approaches, as manifested by indigenous cultures or even by counterculture are often regarded as less or not at all valid. But even within mainstream culture, and within medicine and psychiatry, psychedelics raise some thoughts about the very definitions of mental illness, health and well-being. Here are a few: how come psychedelics seem to work for so many different mental disorders? Could it be that the terms “placebo” and “inner healing” refer to the same thing? If placebo works so well, why do we focus on external solutions which would prove better, instead of trying to enhance placebo? Some say that psychedelic research is leading to a full-blown paradigm shift in psychiatry, integrating social and cultural factors into conceptualizations of mental disorders and to transformation as the new basis for psychiatry.

Known since the beginning of the 1960’s, ‘Set and Setting’ is the main mechanism through which subjectivity and culture enter the psychedelic experience. Indeed, many academic papers include an apologetic paragraph acknowledging the importance of these two illusive and immeasurable components. Together, they bring into the psychedelic experience a complex web of one’s personal history, tendencies, mood, culture, environment and education. And all of these together influence participants’ interpretations, the meanings they give to their own experiences.

In an effort to draw general, objective conclusions we embark on a futile battle to neutralize set and setting as much as possible. Originally referred to a person’s mind-set and environment during a trip, Betty Eisner added the Matrix component, one’s broader cultural frame. In American Trip, Ido Hartogsohn expanded it to a Collective Set and Setting of a nation with its particular history and sociocultural context. Our Collective Set and Setting influences not only participants, but researchers and therapists as well. It can include, for example, the infamous hype of the psychedelic renaissance, articles we’ve read, films and documentaries we watched, stories and images from the 1960’s counterculture and echoes from the “War on drugs”. Back in 1959, Anthony F.C. Wallace already attributed the discrepancy seen between reactions to mescaline of Westerners and indigenous people to their cultural beliefs. While white subjects reported ‘going mad’ (e.g. mood swings, losing touch with reality, forsaking social inhibitors, etc.), such phenomena were not felt by the indigenous group, who remained generally stable and positive. Wallace concluded that the differences stemmed from the cultural conceptualization of hallucinations. In Western psychiatry, hallucinations are perceived as signs of mental illness, while in the indigenous culture, they are considered normal and even desirable.

The wider cultural background is not only shaping trial results, but also their design, our research questions and our approach to the process. For example, a study aimed at minimizing nausea during consumption of Ayahuasca treats it as an undesired side effect, while another can regard it as an act of cleansing conducive to positive changes in well-being.

Several elements in the setting of Griffiths’ lab were deemed problematic by Dr. Richards. It is easy to see how participants’ interpretations and experiences may be affected by a Buddha sculpture. But in fact, a ‘neutral’ setting does not exist. A hospital building carries its own associations, the outside and inside appearance of clinics also matters. According to Art literature, even white walls are not neutral. Music, smells… There is no way out; everything matters, from the size of the room and type of furniture through the number and gender of people present, to perceptions and beliefs of researchers, therapists and participants about psychedelics, people and the world. Simply put, Set and Setting cannot be kept away from the lab.

Psychedelic research is full of contradictions, paradoxes and absurdities. We strive for total control and meticulous procedures to study substances which make one lose control and reflect on your own processes. We wish to eliminate anything weird or mysterious, but also dream of discovering a “magic pill”. As meanings, chemicals, cultures and personal tendencies collide, interdisciplinary research can supply the necessary means – perhaps not to overcome all contradictions – but at least to understand them better and to live with them as best as we can.

By Annabelle Abraham

Beyond Physics: Exploring Consciousness with Bernardo Kastrup’s Analytical Idealism

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Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash

Beyond Physics: Exploring Consciousness with Bernardo Kastrup's Analytical Idealism

Introducing the philosophical theory of analytical idealism according to Bernardo Kastrup. Author: Simon Jost

“Life is the extrinsic appearance of a dissociative process in a universal consciousness.” -Bernardo Kastrup

Meet Bernardo Kastrup

 

bernardo kastrup live online event with question and answer
Recording will become available to OPEN members

 

Are you ready to flip the script of reality and dive deep into a world that is purely mental and not so much physical? Meet the founder of Essentia Foundation , PhD. Bernardo Kastrup.  Blending neuroscience and philosophy, his captivating ideas are embedded in the concept of analytical idealism. Brace yourself for a mind-bending journey beyond the confines of conventional thought. Join Bernado for his upcoming call at OPEN Foundation ! The next lines aim to give you a general understanding of his ideas about the reality of the mind and eventually bridge analytical idealism with psychedelic experiences.

Does our perception align with reality?

Let’s start by taking your eyes away from the screen and observing what you perceive in the world around you. The wall in your room, the trees in the park, the clouds in the sky or the sounds of the birds. Intuitively, we believe that what we perceive accurately reflects the world outside of us – a mirrored image of the external world in our consciousness.

If this were true – we would have a fully transparent window into the world outside – we would all drown in what the analytical idealist Bernardo Kastrup calls “an entropic soup”.  To understand that metaphor it is important to grasp the general concept of entropy.

What is Entropy?

Entropy is a fundamental concept in thermodynamics that is often described as the measure of randomness or disorder of a system. Imagine a brand new deck of cards that has never been shuffled. This represents low entropy because there is not a lot of randomness. Now think about shuffling this deck of cards. We created a high entropic state that is not very organized but rather chaotic. Let us keep this concept in mind when we dive deeper into the concept of analytical idealism.

“The entropic soup”:  the world looks nothing like what we perceive

From the perspective of “the entropic soup”, the world around us is highly entropic because it’s full of complexity, randomness, and disorder. Think about all the diverse and chaotic phenomena we encounter every day: from the unpredictable weather patterns to the bustling traffic on city streets, to the entangled interactions of living organisms in highly complex ecosystems. According to the second law of thermodynamics, if we perceive the world as it is, including the immense chaos and disorder, our brains would all drown in a hot, entropic soup. Consequently, through evolution, our brains learn to make sense of the world by using a simplified “user interface” or a “dashboard” that can help us navigate and make sense of a highly chaotic environment. Like a dashboard in a pilot’s cockpit that depicts the wind strength by representing it on a dial with an arrow (see picture below). The dial does not show the wind itself but is rather a representation of the wind. Bernardo states that “the world in itself looks nothing like what we perceive. We are merely using a virtual user interface to make sense of the chaos outside. More about that later. First, we will investigate mainstream ideas of consciousness and the world.

Pilot making sense of the world with the help of a dashboard.

Foto by William Topa, unsplash

 

The limitation of physicalism: The hard problem of consciousness

According to physicalism, all there is can be described in quantities. Physical relations and matter are the basis of everything. Therefore, the reality of the mind and the world itself – in the eyes of a physicalist  – can be fully explained by abstract quantitative mathematical relationships. Hence, the mind including all of its rich qualities, such as the experience of rain on your skin or the smell of freshly baked cookies, is caused by physical brain activity.   

However, Bernado Kastup does not agree with this view and states “There is something very wrong with this story that brain activity generates conscious experience.” Indeed, cognitive neuroscientists have still not solved the “hard problem of consciousness” (as defined by David Chalmers). The question remains how can a purely quantitative, physical entity give rise to complex qualitative experiences?

Bernardo suggests we imagine a scenario where a scientist has all the knowledge about the brain’s structure, its neurons, and how they interact. They know everything about brain activity when a person sees the colour red – the firing of neurons, the release of chemicals, and so on. However, no matter how much they understand about the brain’s physical processes, they still can’t explain why seeing the color red feels the way it does to the person experiencing it. This inability to explain subjective experience purely in terms of physical processes is what constitutes the hard problem of consciousness.

Perhaps it is necessary to shift our world paradigm to allow answers to this problem. One proposed solution may be Bernardo Kastrup’s analytical idealism.

What is analytical idealism?

Contrary to physicalism, in the philosophical perspective of idealism, reality is fundamentally mental or dependent on consciousness. In other words, the external world and its phenomena are products of mental constructs or perceptions. Similarly, analytical idealism is embedded in idealism and posits that the essence of the universe is an “intrinsic view”, suggesting that reality fundamentally resides in subjective experience. Analytical Idealism  is rooted in and driven by post-enlightenment principles such as conceptual parsimony, coherence, internal logical coherence, explanatory capability, and empirical sufficiency.

How does analytical idealism explain consciousness and reality?

While physicalism states that brain activity causes experience, analytical idealism argues that brain activity is just the depiction of experience. To understand Kastrup’s argument, one needs to take a few steps back and briefly review the basic assumptions that analytical idealism is based on.

Kastrup emphasizes that there are three empirical givens that we can be fully certain about:

 1) There is experience.

Before we start to theorize, all we have is experience.  

2) Brain function is a perceptual experience

For example, a neurologist who perceives the image created with a brain scanner.

3) The brain is made of what we colloquially call and perceive as “matter”.

Importantly, whatever we call matter, whatever it is, it underlies both the brain and the universe and thus creates space for a kinship between them. 

Building on these statements, analytical idealism states that brain function is what one’s inner conscious life looks like when it is observed by a neuroscientist through a brain scanner. Consequently, Bernardo Kastrup emphasizes that brain function does not generate a conscious inner life, because this leads to the “hard problem of consciousness”. Rather, he elaborates that conscious inner life is intrinsic; it is the essence that can be observed from an outside perspective with the help of a brain scanner. In other words, a brain scan is merely the representation of conscious inner life, but it is not consciousness itself.

The universal consciousness with multiple personalities

Bernardo Kastrup’s analytical idealism conceptualizes and builds upon one universal consciousness. To introduce this idea, the philosopher often uses the analogy of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). DID is a psychiatric condition that involves the presence of two or more distinct personality states (also known as “alters”) within the same individual. Using this analogy, he argues that we are dissociated alters of universal consciousness. Because of dissociation, we believe to be individual minds. With that being stated, all that lies beyond our dissociative boundary constitutes a broader “universal consciousness” and thus is mental by itself.

How do we make sense of the world according to analytical idealism?

One important concept in the theory of analytical idealism is “impingement”. Imagine you had a stressful fight with your housemate, partner or friend just before work. During work, you have to function, which is why your mind automatically compartmentalizes the stressful event and “parks it” to set it aside. According to Kastrup, this is a kind of “deliberate light dissociation. Your mind as a whole did not stop to feel the emotions, they are just more in the background, dissociated from your executive ego. However, you notice that you are easily irritable or disorganized during your work. The stressful event can still influence the ego despite the creation of a dissociative boundary. In other words, the mind outside of the boundary impinges across the dissociative boundary on the ego within.

What happens outside of our dissociative boundary are ideas and emotions that impinge on our mental dissociative boundary and result in us perceiving the world outside. Kastrup explains that the dissociative boundary “forms a screen on which outside mentation impinges, or is projected as perceptions”.

The dashboard in the pilot’s cockpit is the extrinsic appearance of the world outside as represented by dials measuring wind, temperature, etc. Similarly, the “perception is the extrinsic appearance, as represented in an alter`s dashboard of dials, of the ideas and emotions in universal consciousness”.

Model displaying how we are all dissociated alters with dissociative boundaries of a larger, shared universal consciousness.

Created with biorender.

How do neural correlates of psychedelics substantiate the argument of analytical idealism?

Psychedelic experiences are often perceived as one of the most profound experiences of a user’s life. People often report that psychedelics induce a rich altered state of consciousness with enhanced senses and deep insights. Interestingly, the intense psychedelic experience does not correlate with increased brain activity, but neuroscientists show that rather the opposite holds! Psychedelics reduce overall brain activity. Especially, from the perspective of physicalism this is surprising. The argument of physicalism assumes that brain activation is the cause of subjective experience, so how is it possible that lower brain activity can give space for an enriched experience?

Psychedelics reduce dissociation and increase entropy

Kastrup explains that the reduced brain activity, induced by psychedelic substances, represents reduced dissociation. In other words, brain activity measured by brain scans is a picture of this dissociation process. Psychedelics reduce dissociation which correlates with a richer, more intense and profound experience due to the alleviation of dissociation itself. By reduction of dissociation, the dissociative boundary becomes more permeable, which allows the transpassing of elements from beyond the boundary to reach the alter within. We experience trance, the trespassing of mental elements across dissociative boundaries, while our brain activity is largely reduced.

Model displaying that psychedelics (here psilocybin-containing mushrooms) can make the dissociative boundary more permeable.

Perhaps, as Kastrup suggests, the increased connection to the world outside and other people, as perceived during a psychedelic experience may reflect the reduction of dissociation, which brings us closer to “universal consciousness” and the other alters by allowing the crossing of mental entities from beyond the boundary that surrounds our alter.

Bernardo argues that the end of life is the end of the dissociative process. By reducing dissociation we may get into a similar state like death. If psychedelics reduce dissociation, this should elicit an experience similar to death. Indeed, psychedelics can induce the experience of “ego death”  (dissolution of the sense of self) and have been found to share similarities with near-death experiences, which is consistent with Kastrups theory. This observation may further substantiate this theory.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Bernardo Kastrup’s analytical idealism presents a thought-provoking perspective on the nature of reality and consciousness. By challenging the traditional paradigms of physicalism (and others), Kastrup offers a framework where consciousness is not merely an emergent property of brain activity but is fundamental to the fabric of existence. Through concepts like dissociation and impingement, he elucidates how our perception of the world is shaped by our mental processes, bridging neuroscience with philosophy. Furthermore, Kastrup’s exploration of psychedelic experiences provides intriguing insights into the relationship between consciousness, brain function, and the dissolution of ego boundaries. Overall, Kastrup’s ideas invite us to reconsider our understanding of reality, consciousness, and the interconnectedness of the universe in a manner that transcends conventional thought.

Are you curious about this topic or want to ask Bernardo Kastrup a few questions? Join our upcoming online event that will go into depth about analytical idealism! 

By Simon Jost 

Better sex beyond the trip: Enhanced sexual functioning months after a psychedelic experience

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Casey Horner; Unsplash

BETTER SEX BEYOND THE TRIP: ENHANCED SEXUAL FUNCTIONING MONTHS AFTER A PSYCHEDELIC EXPERIENCE​

“This study shines yet more light on the far-reaching effects of psychedelics on an array of psychological functioning”

Dr David Erritzoe, Clinical Director of the Centre for Psychedelic Research

Introduction

What substances come to your mind if you think about sexual enhancement? Viagra? Alcohol? Amphetamines? Maybe over-the-counter natural products like Gingo Bilboa? 

Many psychonauts and plenty of anecdotes describe that altered states of consciousness – induced by psychedelics, such as psilocybin (the active component of magic mushroom), LSD, or  5-meo DMT – can foster an intimate, novel and magical sexual experience. But is there also evidence for positive effects on sexual functioning that outlast the drug experience and carry over into the sober, everyday life?

In the recent Nature publication, first author Tommaso Barba – who was recently a guest speaker at OPEN foundation – together with a research group from Imperial College London, suggest that psychedelics may enhance sexual functioning for up to 6 months after a trip! Tommaso believes that “this is the first scientific study to explore the effects of psychedelics on sexual functioning”.  Importantly, the researchers emphasize that their study does not cover “drug-sex” (sex during a trip), but rather captures the long-term effects of psychedelic experiences and psychedelic-assisted therapy that outlasts their pharmacological effect by far. In other words, the aim was to explore and understand differences in sexual functioning weeks and months after one experienced a psychedelic trip.

‘As I sit silent, away from you, you come into my mind. Caressing me gently with your limitless body. Stroking my heart with soft sand, holding my hand. Unwinding my mind, intertwining to the divine, into the forest we slip, deep, dark, unknown guided by light, you gently lead me to the unfolding lotus. Kissing me with blue petals of love. 

– EROWID experience report of an LSD user with her partner 

Who were the participants?

The research group combined responses of almost 300 participants derived from two different studies. The first study recruited participants who already planned to explore psychedelics (such as ayahuasca, 5 meo DMT, psilocybin or LSD) recreationally or in a ceremony. Via an online survey, 261 people answered questions before their psychedelic experience, then four weeks and six months after. 

The second study reflects answers from 59 participants who were part of a clinical depression trial led by Professor Robin Carhart-Harris and aimed to assess the differences in efficacy between the antidepressant drug escitalopram (an SSRI) and psilocybin (the active component in magic mushrooms).

What results are indicated by the study?

Results of the study demonstrate sexual improvements for up to 6 months after the study! Improvements cover various dimensions of sexual functioning, such as the pleasure of sex, sexual arousal, attraction to their partner, acceptance of their own physical appearance, interpersonal communication, and a sense of spirituality related to sex. Neither of the two studies noted a change in the perceived importance of sex.

While both psilocybin and escitalopram decreased depressive symptoms equally well, the present study demonstrates that, compared to the psilocybin group, the antidepressant escitalopram is not related to sexual improvements, but rather worsening. Furthermore, half of the patients in the escitalopram group reported sexual dysfunction, compared to only 13% in the psilocybin group. This is huge because it highlights an important difference between the two substances and can indicate further research directions and hint at novel therapeutic applications.

How do the researchers explain these long-lasting effects of psychedelics on sexual functioning?

The most commonly reported lasting positive effects of psychedelic experiences usually involve higher openness (how curious you are to explore new experiences), connectedness (with yourself and to others), and elevated mindfulness (how present and aware you are in and of the current moment).

openness

An open state of mind after psychedelics may explain why participants reported exploring new sexual experiences more often after experiencing a trip. This in turn has been shown to increase perceived sexual functioning. The authors write that it is beneficial to maintain “a mindful and open state of mind for attaining a satisfactory sexual performance”.

connectedness

There is no question that psychedelics can produce lasting perceptions of connectedness. Feeling more connected psychologically, emotionally or physically to yourself or others enhances interpersonal intimacy and fosters a sense of comfort that ultimately improves the sexual experience.

mindfulness

Experiencing the moment, tuning in to one’s senses and being aware of one’s surroundings are all positive outcomes of higher mindfulness. Not only meditation but also psychedelics can increase mindfulness for a long time after a trip. Researchers suggest that mindfulness is important for one’s sexual performance and the satisfaction of the sexual experience.

brain changes

Brain researchers and psychologists suggest that psychedelic-assisted therapy may help patients relieve certain mental barriers and overthinking patterns by lowering the activity of certain brain networks that are involved in excessive self-directed attention. This is especially useful for people who suffer from excessive overthinking and rumination – as observed in depression.

spirituality

You may wonder what spirituality has to do with sexual performance. Spirituality almost functions as a combination of all the abovementioned factors. Spiritual individuals – and psychedelic users – often experience the “transcendence of the ego”. This shift away from self-centeredness can reduce performance pressure and self-consciousness during sexual activity, allowing for a more natural and fulfilling experience. Additionally, spirituality often brings about greater mindfulness, a willingness to embrace new experiences, and an elevated sense of well-being.

Why are these findings so important?

As the first author Tommaso Barba explains “On the surface, this type of research may seem ‘quirky’, but the psychological aspects of sexual function – including how we think about our bodies, our attraction to our partners, and our ability to connect to people intimately – are all important to psychological wellbeing in sexually active adults”. The relevance of healthy sexual functioning goes way beyond the satisfaction, pleasure and arousal one experiences before, during and after sex. Couple therapists often stress the importance of both sexual performance and the perception of one’s sex life, underscoring their pivotal role in nurturing a healthy and fulfilling relationship. 

Often psychiatric disorders are accompanied by reoccurring issues with sexual functioning. For example, individuals with depression often report anhedonia (the loss of experiencing pleasure), lower self-esteem, and struggle to accept and be satisfied with their physical appearance. These psychological constructs are central to healthy sexual functioning – psychologically and physically. Some therapists even suggest that impaired sexual functioning may be a central risk factor for some individuals to develop a behavioural disorder, such as depression or anxiety.

Patients who are treated with antidepressants often complain about sexual dysfunction. The results from this study may help to identify sub-populations that may benefit more from a psychedelic intervention. For example, sexually active individuals who suffer from depression with comorbid sexual dysfunction (or vice versa!) may benefit more from a psychedelic-assisted intervention compared to antidepressants (SSRIs). 

What are some pitfalls of these findings?

While all of these results are very exciting and illuminate the variety of positive effects psychedelics may induce, it is extremely important to maintain a critical mindset. Therefore, the following lines will reflect some of the pitfalls of the study and explain why we need more research to confirm and apply these findings.  

Even though the study integrated two different study groups (naturalistic users and participants in a clinical trial), the participants’ demographic background primarily reflects white, well-educated and heterosexual people. Secondly, the measurement of sexual dysfunction relied on self-report, which means that the improvements are derived from subjective opinions. Adding to that, the study did not include the evaluation of the sexual functioning of the (sexual) partners – hence, solely relying on one side self-report.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the study sheds light on the potential long-lasting benefits of psychedelics on sexual functioning, extending beyond the immediate drug experience. Despite being preliminary and not free of limitations, the findings underscore the importance of exploring holistic approaches to mental health and well-being, acknowledging the interconnectedness of psychological, emotional, and physical aspects of human experience. Moreover, they raise intriguing possibilities for therapeutic interventions targeting sexual dysfunction, particularly in populations where conventional treatments may fall short. However, it’s crucial to recognize the limitations of the study, such as the narrow demographic focus and reliance on self-reported data, highlighting the need for further research with more diverse populations and rigorous methodologies. Overall, this research contributes valuable insights into the complex interplay between psychedelics, mental health, and sexual well-being, paving the way for future exploration and innovation in this ever-evolving field.

By Simon Jost 


European Union funds groundbreaking research into psychedelic therapy

A European consortium of 19 partners, which includes the OPEN Foundation, has been awarded over €6.5M by the European Union to study psilocybin to treat psychological distress in people with progressive incurable illnesses requiring palliative care. This is the first time the EU has funded a multi-site clinical study into psychedelic-assisted therapy. 

The randomised controlled trial (RCT) PsyPal, coordinated by the University Medical Centre Groningen in the Netherlands, and in collaboration with HumanKindLabs, marks the first-ever European grant to fund clinical research into psychedelic-assisted therapy. The trial will investigate whether psilocybin therapy can help ease psychological and existential distress in patients suffering from one of four different progressive diseases: the lung condition chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), multiple sclerosis (MS), amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as MND), and atypical Parkinson’s disease (APD).

Commencing in early 2024, the PsyPal study will launch with the aim of treating over one hundred patients across four distinct clinical sites where each focuses on a specific condition: COPD at the University Medical Centre Groningen (UMCG) in the Netherlands, APD at the Champalimaud Foundation in Portugal, MS at the National Institute of Mental Health in the Czech Republic, and ALS, jointly at the University of Copenhagen and the Bispebjerg Hospital in Denmark.

Participants will undergo two therapy sessions, receiving psilocybin (the active ingredient in psychedelic or ‘magic’ mushrooms) or a placebo. Previous pilot studies have shown substantial reduction in depressed mood and anxiety in people living with a terminal cancer diagnosis, with sometimes persistent benefits. 

PsyPal marks the first clinical trial studying the safety and effects of psilocybin in non-oncology palliative care patients. Robert Schoevers, head of psychiatry at the UMCG and principal investigator of PsyPal notes: “We are eager to see if we can ease the suffering of these patients whilst also examining longer-term patient and family outcomes of this treatment, something that often gets overlooked but that is of enormous importance.” 

European funding

This first-of-its-kind clinical trial is fully funded by Horizon Europe, the European Union’s key funding program for research and innovation. Horizon Europe aims to foster collaboration, bolster the impact of research and innovation, and address global challenges through the facilitation of EU policies. 

Schoevers says, “We are absolutely thrilled that the EU is supporting this ambitious collaborative study. There is growing recognition that psychedelic treatments may help patients for whom alternatives are not effective, and I am very glad we are receiving support from this highly prestigious funding program. It really helps to strengthen the collaboration between researchers from different countries and disciplines, focusing on potentially transformative interventions for severe, currently treatment-resistant mental disorders.”

Joost Breeksema, executive director of the OPEN Foundation, enthusiastically says: ”This is a major milestone for many reasons: we are getting unequivocal financial support from the EU, we are further developing psychedelic-assisted treatment for novel indications (including neurodegenerative and lung diseases) and we are further establishing the Netherlands as a country on the forefront of psychedelic research and therapy in Europe. We are proud to be a partner in this consortium, and to join a wider group of therapists and researchers involved in using psychedelics to address people’s needs in the palliative phase of their illness.”

Psychological and existential distress 

All four diseases are incurable and profoundly life-altering, leading to a loss of autonomy and severe psychological distress. Studies indicate that depression and anxiety symptoms affect 34% to 80% of individuals across these conditions, emphasising the pressing need for innovative interventions.

The impact of life-limiting or life-threatening illnesses on one’s physical, emotional, social, and spiritual well-being is profound. While some experience personal growth, others are confronted with a multitude of existential struggles, such as loss of hope and meaning, changes in family and societal roles, and feelings of burden. Consequently, depression, anxiety, demoralisation, and decreased quality of life are highly prevalent among these patients. Conventional interventions often fall short for these palliative care patients. This necessitates the need for innovative and effective treatments, such as psilocybin therapy.

Innovative therapeutic approach

Recent research in psychedelic science, particularly centred on psilocybin, has demonstrated promising therapeutic outcomes for individuals grappling with depression and spiritual distress due to incurable illnesses, such as cancer. Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, which integrates the use of psilocybin in a secure setting alongside professional psychological support, is introducing an innovative therapeutic approach that addresses not just symptoms of depression and anxiety but also promotes spiritual well-being and quality of life in palliative care patients.

PsyPal combines psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy to address these deep-seated human needs in these terminal conditions. Beyond immediate clinical outcomes, it targets sustained well-being for patients and their families post-psilocybin treatment. Using peer support and online tools, the project aims to enhance coping mechanisms and alleviate distress as people approach the end of their lives.

Collaborative and interdisciplinary consortium 

This pioneering approach results in not just a clinical trial, but an interdisciplinary partnership consisting of 19 collaborating European organisations from 9 different countries. The consortium brings together a wide variety of specialists, including psychiatrists, palliative care physicians, psychologists, and experts in psilocybin therapy, alongside researchers focusing on spiritual care and representatives from religious institutions.

Breeksema: ”As OPEN, we’ll be jointly responsible to make sure that patients have continuous access to (peer) support, not just during the clinical trial phase, but also afterwards. This may be a difficult phase for people, and we think it is crucial to provide extensive support, enabling participants to process profound and sometimes difficult experiences.”

PsyPal Partners

The following organisations are part of the PsyPal consortium (listed alphabetically): 29k, A+ Science, Bispebjerg Hospital, Champalimaud Foundation, European Association for Palliative Care (EAPC), European Federation of Neurological Associations (EFNA), European Psychiatric Association (EPA), HumanKindLabs, IESE Business School, Lung Alliance Netherlands, Madopa,  National Institute of Mental Health in the Czech Republic, Norrsken Mind, OPEN Foundation, University Medical Center Groningen (UMCG), University of Copenhagen, University of Groningen, University of Stockholm, Uppsala University. 

In addition, the PsyPal consortium will be also actively engaging with PAREA (the Psychedelic Access and Research Europe Alliance).

The partners in the research consortium are committed to upholding the highest ethical standards in clinical and research practices, as laid out in the Horizon Europe regulation. Furthermore, the consortium will adhere to any requirements or recommendations from ethics committees and the regulatory authorities.

Disclaimer – PsyPal is funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the Health and Digital Executive Agency. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.


Image credit: University Medical Centre Groningen (UMCG)

Interdisciplinary conference on psychedelic research / iCPR 2024 6 – 8 June / Save the date!

The OPEN Foundation is thrilled to announce the highly anticipated 6th edition of the Interdisciplinary Conference on Psychedelic Research – Europe’s leading academic gathering dedicated to advancing psychedelic research and therapies.

After our hugely successful conference in 2022, we are returning to the prestigious Philharmonie Theatre in Haarlem (right next to Amsterdam).

ICPR provides a unique opportunity to get up to speed with the latest findings in psychedelic research. From clinical research and therapeutic paradigms to neuroscience, neurobiology and pharmacology, to consciousness and mysticism research, to anthropology, historical research, philosophy, social science and humanities studies, plus much more… 

ICPR 2022 aftermovie

ICPR conference takes place only once every two years, don’t miss out in June 6th to June 8th, 2024!

pre ICPR 2024 events, june 5th

Choose your event the day before ICPR

PAthways to access one-day summit

Potential FDA approval of MDMA-assisted therapy and growing evidence supporting psychedelic therapies, makes 2024 stand as a pivotal year for psychedelic medicine.

The Pathways to Access Summit (Paths) is a full-day add-on to the ICPR, dedicated to the challenges and opportunities around the development, approval & integration of psychedelic medicines into mainstream European health care.

Paths takes place the day before the ICPR 2024 conference, at the same location in Haarlem.

Expert-Led Workshops

Learn directly from world-esteemed experts in psychedelic therapy by joining one of two exclusive full-day workshops at the cutting edge.

workshop 1: Psychotherapy with psychedelics
with Torsten Passie, Bill Richards & Janis Phelps

Workshop 2: psychedelic integration
with rosalind watts & Marc Aixala

Workshops take place the day before the ICPR 2024 conference.

We hope to see you at the ICPR conference 2024!

Dutch Health Minister Ernst Kuipers provides 1.6 million euros for psychedelic research

About six months ago, the Dutch minister of Health, Ernst Kuipers, wrote an official response towards the Dutch parliament after receiving a report on psychedelic-assisted therapy (PAT). This report was commissioned by the Dutch funding organisation ZonMw. It provided a first overview of the current state of affairs of PAT in the Netherlands. According to Kuipers in an earlier blog post, the ZonMw report provided “a significant contribution to the conversation about PAT and decisions about future steps.”

Kuipers exhibited a healthy dose of enthusiasm towards PAT as a potential innovative treatment for treatment-resistant psychiatric disorders. But he also recognised various challenges when moving towards the ultimate legislation of psychedelics as medicine. Kuipers was not alone in this. Indeed, four political parties of the Dutch House of parliament, in particular VVD, D66, CDA, and PvdA/GroenLinks, responded to Kuipers’ letter and raised several questions.

Psychedelics as Medicine

PvdA/GroenLinks, for example, were happy to see that the minister was positive towards future research of PAT and its ultimate implementation. In addition, PvdA/GroenLinks understood from reading Kuipers’ response that he was “encouraging university medical centres and special health care institutions to work together within a national cooperation to conduct the necessary scientific research.” Such an endeavour would allow for the collection of information in a structured and coordinated manner that could in turn evaluate the quality, efficacy, and safety of PAT. However, the party members of PvdA/GroenLinks did wonder what this “encouraging” essentially means by asking “in what way the minister is going to support this?”

In response, Kuipers announced that he will provide 1.6 million euros for future research on PAT in the Netherlands. This will be a grant proposal within the Dutch grant organisation ZonMw. Kuipers: “The program is targeted at the development of new medications and, in the event of positive results, to the registration of one or more medications. Funding will be used to set up an overarching partnership, draw up a development plan by the partnership for registering and marketing one or more medications and/or indication areas. The program will primarily be focused on carrying out clinical research.”

Hopefully, the clinical research studies will also determine the potential long-term effects of PAT. Indeed, political party VVD already raised concerns about this unknown in their response to Kuipers’ letter and wanted to know “which studies are already being conducted on the long-term effects of PAT.” Kuipers responded to this question by referring to the websites of CCMO and ClinicalTrials.gov where all scientific research is listed. In addition to this, I highly recommend the Atlas of Psychedelic Research where you can find any current study on PAT filtered by phase, topic, and psychedelic substance.

On the Taboo Against Knowing What Psychedelics Are

Now all of this is great news of course. But some parties also recognise the multitude of barriers scientists have to confront when trying to conduct clinical research on PAT. According to D66, for example, there still rests “a taboo on psychedelics” that can have “a negative effect on the potential for developing new treatments.” Not surprisingly, D66 raised the question to Kuipers “what plans the minister has to diminish this taboo?” and whether he could “present an overview of which conversations or campaigns are taking place or in what other way information is provided to combat this taboo?”

The round table discussion about PAT, which took place within the Dutch parliament on October 13th, 2022, is one example given by D66 that provided a lot of new information and potentially led to more understanding of PAT. Kuipers agrees that “increasing the amount of knowledge can contribute to the acceptance of these new types of treatments” and adds that “it is important that in the future psychedelics are seen as medical applications, not as drugs, and that this view is shared amongst professionals, patients and the general public.” The research program within ZonMw can be a first step in diminishing the taboo on psychedelics, says Kuipers.

Kuipers continues that there are a lot of substances that are on the so-called Dutch ‘Opiumwet’ but are used as medicines. These include opioid medications for individuals struggling with pain or the use of Ritalin for ADHD. “Psychedelics are no exception in this”, says Kuipers. Yet, because psychedelic substances are illegal and on the list of the ‘Opiumwet’ remains a problem for researchers. Indeed, to do any clinical research at all, you have to receive an exemption from the Dutch government with a decision period of approximately three months. And if you manage to do this, you then must face the next hurdle at the CCMO and apply for ethical approval that can take up to one year (if you’re lucky!).

Finally, the political party CDA wondered “if research using psychedelics as medicine were promising, wouldn’t there be full commercial interest in financing?” Indeed, authors from the aforementioned ZonMw report already indicated that there are problems with the funding of psychedelic research because of the lack of commercial interest. I have asked this question myself many times and was happy to see a Dutch political party came to the same conundrum. Kuipers clear in his response and stated that “pharmaceutical companies have little incentive to focus on this market, partly because most drugs can no longer be patented. Only through chemical modifications or new methods of administration is it possible to obtain a patent, such as with Janssen’s esketamine nasal spray.”

Don’t Believe the Media Hype

Across the political spectrum, Dutch political parties raised their concerns regarding the potential self-experimentation with psychedelics due to increased media exposure. VVD, for example, highlighted that “increased media attention can lead to an increase in non-medical use. The hype that raises too high expectations regarding PAT and that people with a mental illness do not want to wait for PAT to be approved and start experimenting themselves is something that worries the members of the VVD faction.” Similarly, D66 recognises “the danger of self-experimentation with psychedelics and acknowledges this as a political signal to get psychedelics within regular healthcare as fast as possible, while simultaneously maintaining caution.” Both parties CDA and PvdA/GroenLinks shared similar concerns and acknowledge the risk of new groups of users with severe psychological issues that essentially require education, prevention, and the improvement of harm reduction measures. After all, psychedelic substances, let alone their therapeutic use, remain out of reach for a lot of patients who are in dire need of treatment.

Kuipers general response is that the ZonMw of 1.6 million euros should help mitigate these concerns, in particular regarding the urgent need to register psychedelics as a medication. In addition, Kuipers has commissioned both ‘Stichting Mainline’ and the ‘Trimbos Instituut’ to conduct an investigation that is aimed at obtaining more insight into the various (new) user groups of psychedelics and reasons for (non-medical) use. What is more, this investigation includes an evaluation of whether the current education is not already appropriate for these groups, but also to develop new (online and offline) information material about psychedelics together with prevention of risks and limitation of harm when these compounds are used. Kuipers concludes that “this investigation will be completed before the summer of 2024 and a report will be send towards the Dutch parliament.” It would be interesting to see whether the results from this investigation also shed light on the ‘imprinting’ phenomenon, where environmental influences from the past are able to shape the psychedelic experience.

In any case, the fact that there is already a lot of information available on the internet is hopeful. For example, Kuipers refers to the website of the Trimbos Instituut that has “released a factsheet [of 26 pages] about PAT that details the various mechanisms of psychedelics and the potential risks.” In addition, Kuipers mentions the website www.drugsinfo.nl which has added four pages all dedicated to the inner workings of PAT. And, last but certainly not least, the National Drugs Monitor of the Trimbos Instituut will monitor the non-medical use of psychedelics in the Netherlands. Here, Kuipers mentions in brief that “the recreational use of psychedelics is below 1% and for MDMA/ecstasy this was 3.9% in 2022.”

Building the Infrastructure of Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy on Rock ‘n Roll

Another concern was raised by both the VDD and PvdA/GroenLinks regarding the infrastructure of PAT. For example, VVD said mentions that “the minister stated [in the ZonMw report] that there is no infrastructure for PAT training yet and that he is in consultation with the Dutch Psychiatry Association (NVvP) about this.” This is a good sign, but VVD was left with some questions: “How does the minister include the NVvP in the entire process to provide training regarding PAT? When will there be more implementation? Are others involved in the training?”

The political party PvdA/GroenLinks first announced that they “are happy with the ‘Platform Psychedelica’,” which was founded to accommodate the discussion about the possible applications of PAT within the NVvP. Similar to VVD, the political party wondered “what additional steps the minister is going to take in creating an infrastructure for training for PAT as was already recommended by the authors of the ZonMw report?”

To both questions, Kuipers reiterates that “it is up to the NVvP to develop and implement training requirements for additional training in PAT in collaboration with other parties. The Dutch ministry of Health, Welfare, and Sport has an advisory role and, where necessary, facilitates with other parties. This includes the Dutch Institute of Psychologists (NIP) and patient associations.”

On the Varieties of Ketamine Formulations

There were also some questions about the atypical psychedelic ketamine. VDD, for instance, asked whether Kuipers is able to provide “an overview of the different types of ketamine and for which treatments they are and are not registered?” to which Kuipers simply referred to the website Medicines Evaluation Board (CBG/MEB) that contains all registered medications in the Netherlands.

The party of VVD agrees that “compassionate use is subject to strict rules, but also notice that oral ketamine is currently applied as off-label while a registered variant is already available.” This variant that the VVD is referring to is Spravato, which is a nasal formulation of ketamine approved for treatment-resistant depression. The off-label use of oral ketamine, however, is not yet registered, but can be used in this way “as long it meets the criteria for off-label use” says Kuipers. These criteria that ‘compassionate use’ has to meet are set up by the CBG/MEB. At this moment, Kuipers mentions that “the funding program ‘veelbelovende zorg’ subsidizes research into the (off-label) oral formulation of esketamine for the treatment of patients with severe, non-psychotic, treatment-resistant depression.”

In addition to oral esketamine, PvdA/GroenLinks were also curious about “the current status and availability of the nasal formulation of esketamine (Spravato) for patients with a severe treatment-resistant depression.” In particular, the party wanted to know “how many actual treatments there currently are with Spravato?” and whether “the contracts between healthcare providers and health insurances are well set up?” Kuipers responded by presenting the current state of affairs in the Netherlands. “Currently, there are 17 active locations centres in which nasal esketamine is provided. Kuipers expectation is that there will be 4 extra centres in the upcoming months. As of 2023, there were more than 30 healthcare providers with a contract, but within the budget only 12 of them have made an invoice. Organizing the healthcare of providing esketamine nasal spray for treatment-resistant depression takes time, because the criteria must be met in terms of facilities, staff, and participation in national research. This means that some centres have been contracted but are not yet active. A careful approach to implementation and good coordination with centres that are already operational and have thus gained experience are considered valuable.”

A First Step towards the Legislation of Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy 

As stated almost two years ago by Kuipers, the Netherlands should be at the forefront of psychedelic research. Indeed, D66 recognises that the Netherlands “is in an excellent position to play a leading role internationally in research and implementation of PAT” but is also somewhat concerned. At the same time, D66 “sees that developments are happening very quickly in other countries” and wonders whether “the Netherlands risks to walk behind other countries? What is needed to actually capitalize on that leading role?”

Kuipers confirms that on a global scale “there have indeed been many developments in the field of research, but so far PAT has not yet been accepted as a registered treatment by pharmaceutical authorities.” However, there are countries, such as Australia and Switzerland, that provide PAT on a limited scale through a form of compassionate use. Moreover, in three states of the US the use of psychedelics is regulated within a therapeutic setting. Other developments from the past year come from Canada, where the government has invested nearly 3 million dollars in clinical research of PAT involving psilocybin for the potential treatment of alcohol use disorder, treatment-resistant depression, and end-of-life distress in cancer patients.

Essentially, Kuipers agrees with D66 that “the Netherlands has an excellent starting position to play a pioneering role alongside these other countries. The Dutch mental health care system has the infrastructure for this with highly trained professionals and the high-quality amount of research that is being conducted. More investments have to be made in a coordinated approach to research and implementation.”

One week following this back and forth between Dutch politicians, minister Kuipers wrote an official letter to the chair of Dutch parliament on December 19th. Specifically, the minister reiterated his concerns regarding the unmet medical need in a large group of patients that are currently unable to receive treatment. This is simply due to a lack of availability in effective medications for this particular group. Accordingly, Kuipers states that he “wants more control on medicine development.” This claim to responsibility and research policy is partly in response to an earlier research rapport concluding “that a drug’s expected financial return ultimately determines whether it is developed up to launch.” According to Kuipers and another study, “psychedelics are the most promising” for meeting the unmet medical needs of patients with depression, but that “pharmaceutical companies lack interest for this market because most substances cannot be patented.”

Ultimately, the ZonMw grant of 1.6 million dollars will aid Netherlands’ pioneering role and to establish a national cooperation for conducting coordinated clinical research. This will bring us one step closer to the registration of psychedelics as medicine and the implementation of PAT within general healthcare.


Image credit: D66.nl

In memoriam – Roland griffiths

Moments after concluding ICPR 2016, on an all but empty conference floor, Roland Griffiths accosted me. Fixing me with an intense stare, he inquired, “Are you aware that you are aware?” Wondering whether I really was at that exact moment, I hesitated. He repeated his question, and as I had now become acutely aware due to this somewhat awkward situation, I answered “Well, now I am.”

Feeling a sense of relief of having just passed some kind of test, I was awarded with a gold-coloured medallion displaying psilocybin mushrooms and the inscription ‘May you be aware of awareness’ on one side, and William Blake’s ‘The true method of knowledge is experiment’ on the other. Wonderfully ambiguous; a referral to both the scientific method and the importance of personal experience, and an apt representation of the scientific and mystic sides that coexisted within him.

When we started OPEN in 2007 – years before psychedelic research became as mainstream as it is now – we emphasised the importance of rigorous scientific research. At the same time, we recognised that the value of these substances lies in the dizzying variety of experiences they occasioned (a term coined by Roland and his team, as far as I can tell). Few people were better equipped to combine both sides, and to reignite psychedelic research, than Roland Griffiths.

Embodying methodological rigor with a deep interest in the depths of human consciousness, Roland Griffiths was ideally suited to push the boundaries of science towards the ineffable. It was this same spirit of curiosity, humility and honesty that enabled him to confront his impending death with such grace. His parting words of wisdom during ICPR 2022 moved the audience of over 1000 people to tears and although he could not witness the standing ovation himself, he left us with a profound sense of gratitude.

With gratitude for life, science, psilocybin, and a sense of mystery. Roland will be missed deeply.

Watch Roland Griffith’s keynote at ICPR 2016 here.

South America’s Psychedelic Legacy: From Ancestral Rituals to Modern Healing

South America, a vast continent brimming with diverse ecosystems, cultures, and histories, holds a rich tapestry of traditions deeply interwoven with the use of psychedelic substances. From the high-altitude terrains of the Andes to the dense Amazon rainforests, indigenous communities have, for centuries, turned to plants and fungi as gateways to spiritual realms and therapeutic healing. These aren’t just substances; they are sacred tools, integral to ceremonies, rites of passage, and communal bonding.

However, the path from traditional ritual to contemporary use in urban settings is laden with complexities. The increasing interest in these ancient compounds, coupled with the modern pace of overconsumption, have cast a shadow of ambiguity over the legal and ethical use of these psychedelics. How do nations with deep-rooted traditions reconcile with the rapidly changing global perspectives on psychedelics?

In São Paulo, at the state’s Federal University, a team of researchers embarked on a journey to unravel this question. Transposing this time-honoured wisdom into a clinical setting wasn’t a mere academic endeavour, but a task steeped in respect and responsibility, acknowledging the profound depths of these practices.

After two long years of relentless preparation and securing funding, the team launched their pioneering study to explore the potential of psychedelic mushrooms in treating tobacco addiction and ayahuasca’s efficacy for alcoholism. The first person to take part in the experiment took three grams of dehydrated psilocybe cubensis mushrooms, and a few hours later began to tell the research team an interesting story about an otherworldly place he had just seen!

Administering three grams of those mushrooms is absolutely no joke, and while the tales were captivating, the team cherished the very act of him sharing his narratives – This showed that their volunteer had entered an altered state of consciousness in a setting where he felt secure. These were the first baby-steps to incorporate an ancestral wisdom into our contemporary practices of health care.

And while psychedelic research surges in the global scenario, Brazil’s legal framework provides us with another card up their sleeve: Unlike many studies in the U.S. and Europe that predominantly explore synthetically derived psychedelics, this approach taps directly into Brazil’s natural biodiversity by using the substances in natura, which are permitted for religious and syncretic use. However, the war-on-drugs mentality still runs strong, so both ayahuasca and mushrooms are still considered dangerous drugs by many authorities, which could make things complicated very fast.

But we got to admit that it’s a bold move, and perhaps a bit ironic, that we are turning to our native hallucinogenic substances for potential remedies to the modern health problems caused by unprohibited substances. Yet, if we’ve learned anything from the world of psychedelics, it’s that they possess a remarkable knack for picking our minds with enlightening perspectives.

In a three-part blog series that will be published on the OPEN Foundation website during the coming months, I will share stories on how this research team faced institutional and political persecution for working with psychedelic substances, what their journey of seeking funds can teach us about the interest of the private sector in countries that carry an ancient traditional context of psychedelic use, and what did we learn from our volunteers during their participation in the study.

Stay tuned!


Image credit: Ayahuasca visions by Peruvian maestro and painter Pablo Amaringo, from ‘The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Amaringo’ by Howard Charing, Pablo Amaringo, and Peter Cloudsley (2011)

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

NEW preclinical research sheds light on the 5-HT2AR and microdosing

Two pieces of preclinical research shed light on two of the hottest topics in psychedelic science: the 5-HT2AR and microdosing.

A new study out of the prolific Bryan Roth Lab at North Carolina Chapel Hill has produced a suite of genetically engineered mice, tailored to unlock the fundamental biology secrets behind the transformative power of psychedelics.

The importance of the serotonin 2A receptor (5-HT2AR) in psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia and depression was recognized in the late 20th century but, despite years of study, we still lack a full understanding of its distribution and function. These newly engineered 5-HT2AR reporter mice, created through CRISPR-mediated recombination, make it possible to accurately map the 5-HT2AR in living organisms, identify the cell types that express this receptor (pyramidal neurons most densely expressed in the layer 5 of the neocortex), and explore ways to modulate only those without altering non-5-HT2AR-expressing cells.

Importantly, one of these is a humanized 5-HT2AR mouse line that exhibits a specific behaviour upon administration of psychedelic compounds, increasing the translational validity of future studies that will be using this model. This is a remarkable achievement, since the 5-HT2AR displays different affinities and downstream effects in humans and rodents. Lastly, electrophysiology studies revealed the major role of the 5-HT2AR in enhancing the activity of pyramidal neurons, a finding that would be consistent with a plasma membrane localization and mode of action.

A second piece of research from Copenhagen University Hospital studied the potential benefits of microdosing psilocybin in rats, to provide scientific validity to the anecdotal claims of improved mental health. The researchers set out to mimic the practice of psilocybin microdosing through a well-structured regimen of repeated low-dose psilocybin administration, carefully derived from occupancy levels at rat brain 5-HT2ARs.

Several key findings are derived from this study. Crucially, the treatment didn’t downregulate or desensitize the 5-HT2ARs, instead, it enhanced 5-HT7 receptor expression and synaptic density in the thalamic paraventricular nucleus, indicating a possible physiological mechanism at play, while it conferred resilience against stress and reduced compulsive behaviours. These results provide a solid foundation for further experiments to explore the effects of microdosing, not only lending credence to anecdotal reports of its therapeutic benefits, but also hinting at the existence of a tangible physiological mechanism behind these effects.

Altogether, these two studies have the potential to redefine our understanding of these compounds and significantly advance the field of scientific research in the realm of neuropsychiatric disorders and drug therapies, particularly for examining the molecular, cellular, pharmacological, physiological, and behavioural effects of psychedelic drugs in living organisms.


Image credit: stock.adobe.com

30 April - Q&A with Rick Strassman

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