The stigmatization of psychedelic drugs has been ingrained in American culture since the 1960s. While not all drugs should be advocated for, Western culture has demonized psychedelics without considering the potential benefits they may offer society. What might even sound shocking is that a brain scan of someone on psychedelics may look similar to that of an experienced meditator. This article aims to unveil how psychedelics became demonized in American society, followed by a comparison of their beneficial effects to the effects of meditation.
Before delving into the therapeutic potential that psychedelic drugs possess, learning about their history may shed some light on why they are generally regarded as “dangerous”. The first psychedelic compound was discovered in 1938 by a man named Albert Hoffman, who, in his lab, took a large dose of what we now call LSD (he still managed to get “home by bike” despite serious disorientation, according to his journal entry). By 1949, clinical research on the drug was underway (Novak, 1997). Psychedelics produced hallucinations and altered states of consciousness for those who took them; some felt feelings of transcendence and euphoria on the drug while others plummeted into an overwhelming episode of anxiety and terror. Many researchers throughout the 1950s began likening the experience of taking psychedelics to the symptoms of schizophrenia. This may have been the first trigger of public fear, even though there were still plenty of researchers promoting the enlightening effects of the drug. By 1956, researchers such as Dr. Sidney Cohen were conducting promising research that provided evidence that these drugs can treat disorders such as depression and addiction (DiPaolo, 2018). This early research captivated future researchers, but in such a way that all of the hard work done thus far would eventually be swept under the rug.
If two names are most strongly associated with LSD and psychedelics, they are Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert. These two men were psychology professors at Harvard University and advocated for the use of psychedelics beyond the therapeutic realm. They took the drugs themselves, shared it with friends, and appreciated the drug in a recreational form (which, in the early 1960s, was still legal to do).
Together, they decided to conduct research that would infamously be known as the “Harvard Psilocybin Projects”. If you don’t recognize the term psilocybin, you may have heard it referred to as “magic mushrooms”. Leary and accompanying researchers were providing psychedelic drugs to graduate students at Harvard, often while under the influence themselves. These bouts of research had poorly controlled conditions, non-random selection of participants, and many students had traumatic experiences that were not reported. When these flaws were unveiled, Harvard immediately discharged Leary and the public adopted a newfound fear of psychedelic compounds. This, during the politically charged era of the 1960s, fit quite well in Richard Nixon’s narrative that drugs need to be criminalized. Nixon had deemed Leary the “most dangerous man in America” (Shapiro, 2018). He had found his poster child for the war on drugs.
Throughout the 60s, media began to overflow with stories that demonized psychedelic drugs. In 1966, the LA Times published an article claiming that the FDA regarded LSD to be “almost as dangerous as narcotics” and concerningly available for the youth to take recreationally. In that same year, the New Jersey Narcotic Drug Study Commission stated publicly that psychedelics were the “greatest threat facing the country” and were “more dangerous than the Vietnam war”. Additionally, an article published in 1967 in Science Magazine falsely reported that LSD can be destructive to chromosomes. Taken together, this intense power of the media framed LSD as a major threat to society. This threat was strong enough to extinguish the conversation and research regarding the medical potential of the drug. As the fears of LSD skyrocketed, the federal government took action. By 1968, LSD was outlawed.
It seems that the political climate of the 1960s, irresponsible psychedelic researchers and recreational use of the drug by the counterculture (the deviant youth of the 60s, also known as hippies) were able to permanently blemish the idea of psychedelic drugs. If you were to tell the average American in the 1960s that taking psychedelics is almost like meditating, you would likely get laughed at or angrily lectured.
If you were to google “meditation”, it would probably take you a few hours, if you would at all, before you stumbled upon anything claiming that it is dangerous or threatening. Meditation seems to be trending in our society. There are plenty of people who have meditation apps on their phones (even if they don’t use them), reading books about meditation, or trying to at least incorporate it into their hectic modern lives. Calm, a relaxation app with guided meditations, recorded four million subscribers in 2020 (Curry, 2021). I’m sure Richard Nixon would have tried it on hectic days himself. Meditation is praised in society for its ability to ease symptoms of depression, anxiety, and meditation. What Richard Nixon would likely not believe, is that the effects of meditation and psychedelic drugs look pretty similar in our brains! To best explain this, an overview of a brain region called the “default mode network” (DMN) is helpful.
The DMN is a network in our brains that is comprised of several different interconnected brain structures. The brain structures included in this network are regarded as “higher-level structures”, areas of the brain that humans have evolved over with our intelligence. fMRI scans (a brain imaging technique that allows researchers to visually monitor activity in the brain) have shown that the DMN is most active when individuals are left undisturbed to think to themselves, are engaging in tasks that involve self-reflection, or ruminating. In other words, every time we begin to think about ourselves, replay memories, think about how cute we looked in our last Instagram post, our DMN is hard at work.
While the DMN is a network that has evolved to help us optimally function in our environment, an overactive DMN can be quite destructive. Increased DMN activity is linked to disorders such as depression, anxiety, and addiction; these disorders typically involve excessive rumination and feeling preoccupied with negative thoughts (eg., why did I say that earlier? Will I have money to buy my next drink? Why am I a failure). These thoughts do not involve focusing on a task at hand, but dwelling on the past or hyper-focusing on the future. An overactive DMN is to blame for a great deal of human suffering.
So what does the DMN have to do with psychedelics and meditation? Everything! Both psychedelics and meditation have been shown to have similar quieting effects on the DMN. In a study conducted by Garrison et al., researchers saw that DMN activity is consistently reduced during meditation compared to controls. These effects occur while practicing different types of meditation (focused concentration, loving-kindness, choiceless awareness). These researchers also saw that meditators have lower DMN activity during different types of activities (not just when actively meditating) than compared to non meditators. These effects may be therapeutic for those suffering from ailments previously discussed. So where does LSD come in?
Well, rather than transforming you into a long-haired Woodstock goer, psychedelics work to quiet the DMN similarly to meditation. Psilocybin and LSD have been shown to decrease blood flow (and therefore activity) in brain regions that are considered sections of the DMN. Carharrt-Harish and colleagues conducted research using fMRI scans to assess the effects of psilocybin on the brain. Fifteen volunteers were scanned. Along with drastic alterations to consciousness, there were only decreases in blood flow in brain regions that constitute the default mode network (Carhart-Harris et al., 2012).
After considering the calming effects psychedelics have on the DMN, it would make sense to follow up with evidence that this drug can improve the lives of those suffering from mental health troubles. While there is much work to be done, there are several studies that highlight the long-term effects of psychedelic drugs on depression, addiction, and death anxiety. In a study conducted at Imperial College in 2016, researchers provided psilocybin to six men and six women suffering from treatment-resistant depression. Researchers checked back in with their participants after they took the drug, and the results were promising enough for them to expand. After seven days, all of the initial six participants reported improvement of symptoms, and ⅔ of them claimed to feel none of their normal symptoms for the first time in a long time. Seven of those initial twelve reported still feeling the benefits after three months. Once the study was expanded to include 20 participants, six of them claimed to still feel depression-free six months later. Others had these effects fade over time, so psychedelic treatments may need to be repeated to be optimally beneficial.
While our culture is still far from accepting psychedelic drugs, comparing their benefits to the benefits of meditation may help ease the stigma. We have seen that both meditation and psychedelics have the power to quiet our DMN, which can be significantly therapeutic for those suffering from hyperactive networks. Quieting this neural network may help explain why these drugs can be so beneficial for people suffering from mental health disorders. Lessening the stigma associated with these drugs may take us closer to using these drugs for their real therapeutic purposes.
Calm Revenue and Usage Statistics (2021). Business of Apps. (2021, April 6). https://www.businessofapps.com/data/calm-statistics/.
Carhart-Harris, R. L., Erritzoe, D., Williams, T., Stone, J. M., Reed, L. J., Colasanti, A., … Nutt, D. J. (2012). Neural correlates of the psychedelic state as determined by fMRI studies with psilocybin. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(6), 2138–2143. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1119598109
DiPaolo, M. (2018). LSD and The Hippies: A Focused Analysis of Criminalization and Persecution In The Sixties. PIT Journal, Cycle 9
Novak, Steven J. “LSD before Leary: Sidney Cohen’s Critique of 1950s Psychedelic Drug Research.” Isis, vol. 88, no. 1, 1997, pp. 87–110. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/235827.
Shapiro, A. (2018, January 5). Nixon’s Manhunt For The High Priest Of LSD In ‘The Most Dangerous Man In America’. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2018/01/05/575392333/nixons-manhunt-for-the-high-priest-of-lsd-in-the-most-dangerous-man-in-america.