Psilocybin and Death Transcendence
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For many, the thought of one’s own death brings about anxiety and fear. What is it about our social or cultural collective imagination that makes us feel so negatively about death? It is an inevitable part of life –yet it is commonly relegated to a far-off, abstract idea that we’d like to not think about. But what if we changed the way we understand death and imbue it with new meaning? Researchers Charles Grob at UCLA Harbor Medical Center and Roland Griffiths of NYU have conducted studies to assess the effects of psilocybin on terminally ill patients’ perception of life and death, and their attitudes concerning their own impending death. In the past, studies on psilocybin’s effects in the brains of people with depression and anxiety had shown significant, long-lasting improvement in any particular person’s perception –it helped them shift focus from negative cues to positive ones. These initial findings lead to the above mentioned studies on the ability of psilocybin to ease terminally ill patients’ “existential distress.” Most of the participants felt a deep anxiety at the thought of death –becoming unable to enjoy and fill with meaning, the quantifiable last days of their lives. Subsequently, many would succumb to depression –a byproduct of the loss of hope and excitement caused by their prognosis. Psilocybin, administered in a controlled setting, with doctors present to provide support, has proven to have long-term positive effects on the way terminally-ill patients feel about their remaining days and death itself. It also proves to help those in remission focus on living a full life as opposed to becoming emotionally debilitated by the anxiety of death.
Psilocybin and the Brain
Research about psilocybin and depression shows that psilocybin acts upon the brain’s serotonin system. A previous study focused on attention under the influence of psilocybin revealed that the substance has the power to change the activity in the parts of the brain that focus on negative or positive thoughts and perceptions. A study headed by Michael Kometer of the University of Zurich found that psilocybin’s hallucinogenic effects on serotonergic parts of the brain shifted the bias of patients with depression from a focused attention on negative stimuli to positive stimuli. Some of the cited emotional results include a renewed sense of gratitude, an experiential feeling of love as the most powerful force in the universe, and the realization that there is something much grander at play in the process of life. What this means for terminally-ill patients is that psilocybin can shift the way one sees their own illness and fate to a much more positive perspective. A study by psychiatrist David Nutt of Imperial College London further bolsters this finding. His research was intended to map the transition from an ordinary state of consciousness to the altered state prompted by psilocybin. Using an MRI machine, Nutt found that the part of the brain associated with self-perception, the anterior cingulate cortex, is highly active in people suffering from depression. Psilocybin works to placate this part of the brain, while promoting the areas of the brain linked to more positive thinking.
Prompting a Mystical Experience
One common theme in the accounts of terminally-ill cancer patients that underwent a series of guided psilocybin treatments is that their experience was mystical and in a sense, describing it in words would reduce the immensity of the actual experience. Each person can identify whether they’ve had a mystical experience and attempt to communicate it with another person in the effort to connect on such awesome common ground. Whatever the nature of any particular patient’s mystical experience is, researchers agree that the effect of these transcendent, mystical moments during a psilocybin treatment is to reduce or help one overcome the fear of death. The story of Lauri Reamer-a leukemia patient featured in a New York Times article, illustrates the way the psilocybin mystical experience produces a shift in the way one feels about death and life. One experiences the deep realization that death is part of a process, as opposed to an end. Reamer, now in remission, states that after treatment she has the profound belief “that there is so much more,” that there exists a subsequent phase after death. This new, deep feeling has allowed her to enjoy and live her days to the fullest despite, or because, she can handle the proximity of her death. Grob reiterates the fact that the transcendental experiences brought on by psilocybin inspires a transformation in the way a patient sees themselves and the world –making them better able to handle their own death. Moreover, the lasting effects of the mystical experience prove to have an immense healing power unmatched by traditional methods of psychotherapy in conjunction with anti-depressants like Prozac or Zoloft. A researcher working on Griffiths’ study found that psilocybin has the ability to create lasting change in personality –making one more open to the feelings of others. In order to gauge whether the experience was a “complete” mystical one, participants in Griffiths were asked to complete a questionnaire that measured six different criteria for a complete mystical experience. The criteria include: “feelings of unity, sacredness, ineffability, peace and joy, the impression of having transcended space and time, and the ‘noetic sense’ that the experience has disclosed some objective truth about reality.” Griffiths believes that the completeness of the experience is directly linked with the transformative and lasting power catalyzed by the psilocybin. In contrast to drugs like Prozac, the psilocybin creates change deep within the person’s personality and their spirit –it is much more than a palliative working on the surface level of the brain’s chemistry. The transcendence described by so many terminally-ill patients in these studies is exciting and begs so many more questions about the power of psilocybin and other psychedelics to help us become aware of a different realm of consciousness and reality. If psilocybin helped these study participants realize some objective truth about the reality and nature of death --that it is part of a larger process, not a closing end, and that there is something beyond it that is exciting—it may have a positive effect on the way our society and culture thinks about death as well as life. More research is integral to investigate the objective truth about death and psilocybin has offered these participants a glimpse.
Set and Setting
Because Psilocybin was categorized as a Schedule I substance in the early 1970s, valuable and promising research that began in the 1950s was halted. Many researchers attribute this to the popularization of psilocybin and other psychedelics in mainstream culture. The prevailing discourse surrounding psilocybin, and other substances that heighten consciousness, was that of demonization, fear, and misunderstanding. Today, researchers have earned FDA approval to use these Schedule I drugs in important research. They take careful steps to distance their work from the image of psilocybin as a party drug, away from the harmful tropes about psilocybin that were bolstered in the 1960s. A video featured in The New Yorker tells the story of Eddie Marritz, a cinematographer in remission from a rare case of small-cell carcinoma. Researchers at NYU studying cancer and anxiety emphasize the importance of not misleading the public into thinking that because their research proves psilocybin’s incredible myriad of benefits –that it is safe to use in an unmediated, recreational way. Doctor Stephen Ross states that the safety of the psilocybin is guaranteed through the highly regulated, controlled, and structured use of it as an assistant to psychotherapy. Doctor Jeffrey Guss adds that “preparation, experience, and integration of what happened” within the psilocybin session is what contributes to the benefits of the medicine-assisted therapy. The psilocybin molecule alone does not yield these immense positive changes.
The sessions take place in a comfortably furnished room with framed landscape portraits on the walls and various small trinkets. A coffee table with books of art and mythology may be near the couch where a patient lies down. Before the patient is given a capsule of lab-synthesized psilocybin, they are instructed to write down their feelings and have a chat with the doctors present at each session. Once the patient states that the psilocybin is taking effect, they lie down on the couch, place a mask over their eyes, and wear headphones to listen to a soothing playlist. Two researchers are always present to provide support if a patient needs it. It is under these quality-controlled circumstances that researchers say psilocybin assisted therapy produces its great emotional and psychological benefits. For people with terminal illness, their looming death no longer holds them captive in a realm of hopelessness.
Psilocybin assisted therapy for depression, anxiety, and existential distress due to terminal illness all shed light on the potential of psilocybin to reveal to us a new facet of the nature of death and life. This objective truth becomes lost in our everyday consciousness and thus easily distorted through our individual and societal subjective biases. These studies on psilocybin therapy for the terminally ill show how valuable and necessary further studies on psilocybin are. Our entire understanding of what life is and how death characterizes can be changed and viewed in a much more positive light. We can begin to feel and know life as a transition in which the occurrence of death is simply a threshold into something new and exciting just beyond it.
Roland Griffiths: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LKm_mnbN9JY
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