Friday, June 19, 2009

revisiting "realms of the human unconscious"

RealitySandwich | In the early stage of my psychedelic research, I suggested that the potential significance of LSD and other psychedelics for psychiatry and psychology was comparable to the value the microscope has for biology and medicine or the telescope has for astronomy. My later experience with psychedelics only confirmed this initial impression. These substances seem to function as relatively unspecific amplifiers that increase the cathexis (energetic charge) associated with the deep unconscious contents of the psyche and make them available for conscious processing. This unique property of psychedelics makes it possible to study psychological undercurrents that govern our experiences and behaviors to a depth that cannot be matched by any other method or tool available in mainstream psychiatry and psychology. In addition, it offers unique opportunities for healing of emotional and psychosomatic disorders, for positive personality transformation, and for consciousness evolution.

Naturally, the tools of this power carry with them greater risks than more conservative and far less effective tools currently accepted and used by mainstream psychiatry, such as verbal psychotherapy, anti-depressants, or tranquillizing medication. Clinical research has shown that these greater risks can be minimized by responsible use and careful control of the set and setting. The safety of psychedelic therapy, when conducted in a clinical setting, was demonstrated by Sidney Cohen's study based on information drawn from more than 25,000 psychedelic sessions run by therapists in different parts of the world. According to Cohen, LSD therapy appeared to be much safer than many other procedures that had been at one time or another routinely used in psychiatric treatment, such as electroshock therapy, insulin coma therapy, and psychosurgery (Cohen 1960).

However, legislators responding to unsupervised mass use of psychedelics did not get their information from scientific publications, but from the stories of sensation-hunting journalists. The legal and administrative sanctions against psychedelics did not deter lay experimentation, but they all but terminated legitimate scientific research of these substances. For those of us who had the privilege to explore and experience the extraordinary potential of psychedelics, this was a tragic loss for psychiatry, psychology, and psychotherapy. We felt that these unfortunate developments wasted what was probably the single most important opportunity in the history of these disciplines. Had it been possible to avoid the unnecessary mass hysteria and continue responsible research of psychedelics, they could have undoubtedly radically transformed the theory and practice of psychiatry. This new knowledge could have become an integral part of a comprehensive new scientific paradigm of the twenty-first century.

Now, thirty-five years after I stopped conducting official research with psychedelics, I can make an attempt to evaluate what has been called the "golden era of psychopharmacology" -- to review the past history of psychedelic research and try to glimpse into its future. After having personally conducted over the last fifty years more than four thousand psychedelic sessions, I have developed great awe and respect for these compounds and their enormous potential, both positive and negative. They are powerful tools and, like any tool, they can be used skillfully, ineptly, or destructively. The result will be critically dependent on the set and setting.