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The History of Psychedelics in Relation to Wellness

November 13, 2022

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From sacred rituals to indigenous medicinal traditions to therapeutic potentials to sociopolitical movements to taboo retaliation… psychedelics have had quite the crazy trip over time.

The use of hallucinogenic substances dates back to ancient civilizations, where they used psychedelics for medicinal healing, shamanic rituals, and spiritual enlightenment.

Our modern society has developed a different outlook on hallucinogenic drugs, with past restrictions on the use and study of psychedelics leading to misuse and misunderstanding.

Current research has made a huge headway on the impact hallucinogenic drugs can have on our mental state. Studies have uncovered the benefits that psychedelics have when treating anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other mental health conditions.

This gives hallucinogenic drugs a new meaning, one that might differ from your initial thoughts when you hear the term psychedelics.

There is an impactful movement that is well and truly under way to re-envision the laws governing psychedelics… we are still figuring out what that is going to look like. Let’s start at the beginning, and how psychedelic reception has changed with time in regards to traditional medicine and healing.

What are psychedelics?

Psychedelics, also referred to as hallucinogens, are a group of substances that produce psychoactive experiences and changes in consciousness.

While psychedelics can vastly differ in experience for many people, common effects include hallucinations of sensory input like taste, touch, sound, and sight. It can alter how you perceive your senses, and make it seem like you are in a dream-like state.

Some people may experience relaxation, comfort, or drowsiness, while others may become aware of an elevated heart rate and an inability to comprehend direction or time. One of the most common effects of hallucinogens is detachment – people feel as though they have left their physical body and are perceiving the world from a physically elevated viewpoint.

British psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond came up with the word psychedelic (Osmond 1981: 81-82), meaning “mind manifesting.” He coined the term from ancient Greek to give the word meaning, using the Greek words psyche (mind) and delos (manifest). It refers to the perception of new aspects of the mind that change and enhance sensory experiences, thought processes, and energy levels.

Psychedelics come in all forms, shapes, and sizes. Some are part of the wilderness, growing on trees or sprouting from vines, and can be found in leaves, seeds, or fungi. While many occur naturally, some have been created in the lab by chemists.

Some common psychedelic drugs include: LSD, DMT, Mescaline (Peyote), Psilocybin (mushrooms), MDMA, Ketamine, and Ayahuasca.

History of psychedelics

Archaeologists have found fossil evidence showing that humans have used psychoactive plants for over 10,000 years during ritual ceremonies. The earliest recorded psychedelic experience dates back to the ancient Greeks, where there are records of rituals of enlightenment, illumination, and higher consciousness ceremonies involving a mind-altering elixir. It is also likely that psychedelics have been used in other ancient cultures as intoxicants and in magical rites for thousands of years… so they are definitely not a newly discovered phenomenon! 

What we are now familiar with as “magic mushrooms” has been around for longer than we can date. We cannot say for sure how long psilocybin-containing mushrooms have been used because Roman Catholic missionaries destroyed records in Mexico (Aaronson and Osmond 1970: 9). However, it has been shown that Indigenous peoples collected mescaline-containing peyote (a psychedelic that comes from a special kind of cactus) that were carbon dated to 3780-3660 BC. This suggests that they valued the psychotropic properties of peyote.

Psychoactive plants and chemicals began to receive significant scientific attention at the end of the millennium. Early researchers provided their friends and private patients with psychedelic drugs. This allowed botanists, anthropologists, writers, artists and amateur scholars to experiment on themselves with psychedelics and be inspired by the changes in their consciousness.

In the 1950’s, most of the interest in psychedelic drugs were related to psychiatry. Osmond was one of a small group of psychiatrists who pioneered the use of LSD as a treatment for alcoholism and various mental disorders in the early 1950’s. Psychedelic medicine was enthusiastically advocated by numerous psychiatrists from diverse cultural backgrounds and socio-political contexts (Snelders and Kaplan 2002: 221) and early on it was funded by governmental organizations. It was thought that the drug was capable of bringing about a new level of self-awareness. Although his research into the therapeutic potential of LSD produced promising initial results, it was halted during the 1960’s for social and political reasons.

“It’s a consequential act to use these drugs, and it should not be taken lightly.” – Michael Pollan

When psychedelics were reintroduced to Western civilizations in the mid 20th century, we had no models for how to properly use and experience them… which resulted in them being used in a careless way. Author Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind highlights that “It’s a consequential act to use these drugs, and it should not be taken lightly.”

Indigenous models shed light on how they use the hallucinogen peyote in a socially constructive way, using it to solve community issues. This is not how we were typically raised to think about psychedelic drugs.

Western culture is still trying to develop the proper container to put these substances in. Pollan describes that we need to go back to the roots of psychedelics and look at Indigenous practices and how they use them. There is always an elder, someone who knows the territory very well and is experienced, and there usually is a group and a community involved, not just an individual. There is always an intention. A purpose to what is being done. The process is treated as sacred in order to achieve altered states of consciousness which contribute to worship, celebration, or healing in various ways.

How are psychedelics relevant today in wellness?

Today psychedelics are still being used for spiritual enlightenment and perspective-changing experiences. There are now ongoing clinical trials using psychedelics as a treatment for those who suffer from mental health issues, alcoholism, post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, social anxiety, and depression.

Psychedelics have proven to come with fewer risks when taken in small, controlled amounts. They also work for a higher percentage of the people who try them, and can have a faster effect than other anti-depression medications. 

In recent years, it has been discovered that psychedelic drugs like ketamine, a drug that was once used as an anesthetic for soldiers, has the potential to replace antidepressant drugs like SSRIs and SNRIs. While these antidepressants can be effective, they only tend to work for a third of those who try them. They are also known to have many side effects, including counterproductive symptoms of depression. There are still trials being conducted for the full approval of this drug.

The psychedelic drug MDMA (also known recreationally as ecstasy) was given “breakthrough” designation by the FDA and is currently being studied for the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Additionally, research through Johns Hopkins Medicine is currently being conducted on the use of psilocybin (magic mushrooms) for the treatment of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), addiction, and other mental health conditions. Their research suggests that psilocybin may be more effective than traditional antidepressant drugs as well.

LSD continues to be an important tool in scientific research. A recent study found that LSD could be used as a potential therapeutic agent in psychiatry, particularly for the treatment of alcoholism. While there are still many more studies that need to be conducted, researchers have concluded that the drug has therapeutic potential.

Conclusion

The use of psychedelic drugs dates back to ancient civilizations, where there is evidence that people would use them to relieve pain, heal wounds, and expand their religious or spiritual journeys.

There is current research on how psychedelics have helped those struggling with their mental health. Seeing how psychedelics were used in scared ceremonies for enlightenment is a reminder that drugs are highly contextualized and it’s the meanings we put on them, the uses to which we put them to which really matter. They are not inherently good and they are not inherently evil. They are tools that we have to learn how to use properly.

Psychedelics have much to offer to both people and science. They alter the mind in ways which will help scientists better understand how it works. While it is not the only way to expand consciousness – so can meditation, patterned breathing, sound healing, and light therapy – all of these altered states allow us to explore what is the greatest mystery to all of nature. The emergence from mere matter to something as wondrous as consciousness.

Megan Binder

B.A Psychology

References

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