Luminous: Is it the drug or is it the trip?

To the best of our knowledge presents luminous

A psychedelic dreamscape contained within a single pill, filled with neon lights, creating a dream-like, uncanny style that seems surreal. Mark Riechers/DALLE3 (TTBOOK)

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December 16, 2023

For all the talk about how psychedelics might transform psychiatric care, there's still a fascinating question at the heart of psychedelic science. Is it the mind-blowing experience that fundamentally changes a person’s outlook on life? Or is it the powerful molecules that rewire the brain?

David Olson in his lab.

Could you get the same therapeutic benefits of a psychedelic drug without actually tripping? Neuroscientist David Olson wants to re-engineer psychedelic molecules to remove the trip. If successful, he might revolutionize the treatment of mental disorders.

Charles Raison

Psychedelic therapy has shown great promise for treating depression, but it's still unclear why exactly it works. Psychiatrist Charles Raison wants to know if it's the drug or the trip that makes psychedelics so potent. Is it biology or consciousness?

Rachel Harris

The news about psychedelics tends to focus on clinical trials and lab research. But there’s a long tradition of underground guides working with plant medicines who refer to "unseen beings" and plants as "teachers." Psychologist Rachel Harris talked with many women elders in the psychedelic underground. She calls them "spiritual warriors."


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December 16, 2023
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- [Anne] It is To The Best of Our Knowledge, I'm Anne Strainchamps.

- And I'm Steve Paulson. If you've been following the news about psychedelics, you know we may be on the cusp of a revolution in psychiatry for the first time in decades, promising new treatments for depression. And PTSD seem to be just around the corner.

- [Anne] But psychedelic therapy is not going to be like anything we've known before.

- [Consumer] When I could feel the medicine taking hold, there was a feeling of like a big feathery wing... Swooping over me. It was like, "Ooh," I felt like I was swooning in it.

- [Consumer 2] Blissful highs, but also weird hallucinations.

- [Consumer 3] And the plants were going, "Me, me, me come pollinate me." And they were talking to the bees, but they were talking to me too.

- [Consumer 4] I felt like I was moving on a conveyor belt into a jungle. And what it was leading to, was a huge wasp. And I'm like, "Oh, I'm going into a wasp."

- I suddenly found myself surrounded by these enormous fluorescent serpents that started speaking to me. A kind of telepathic language that went right through my forehead. And the first thing that they said was, "You are just, just a tiny human being." And I could see, looking at them, that they were right... At which point I had to vomit, in fact.

- [Consumer 3] It can all be a little much.

- [Consumer 2] In a sense, I'm grateful I had this experience, but it's totally terrifying. The last thing I remember is that, holy shit, What have I got myself into here?

- [Anne] Frankly, a lot of you may be listening to this and thinking, "Yeah, no thanks." And speaking as someone who spent more years of my life on antidepressants than off, I might be with you there. I mean, sure, I would like to feel better, but does the treatment have to be quite so epic?

- [Steve] And that's one of the biggest questions about psychedelics today. What if you need the benefits of psychedelic therapy, but you don't actually want the journey that shakes your world inside out? Is there a way to take the drug without the trip?

- [Anne] This is Luminous. Our series on the Science and Philosophy of Psychedelics, and this hour, the debate over the drug, the trip, and the future of psychedelic therapy.

- [Steve] So I've been following the development of psychedelic drugs for years, and I've talked with lots of the scientists who've done really groundbreaking research. It's pretty clear these drugs have tremendous potential for treating all kinds of mental disorders. And then, last year, I heard about a scientist who's trying to do something that seemed so radical, so counterintuitive, it was hard to fathom. He's trying to re-engineer psychedelic molecules to remove the trip. And he co-founded a biotech company that's raised well over $100 million to develop these drugs. But still, you have to ask, who wants to take a hallucinogen without the hallucinations? Isn't the trip the whole point? David Olson is a neuroscientist at UC Davis. He's not claiming that a psychedelic journey won't be helpful, he is saying we need to recognize the true scale of the problem.

- [David] One in five people will suffer from a neuropsychiatric disease at some point in their lifetime. That's about a billion people worldwide.

- [Steve] And psychedelic-assisted therapy says it's just not scalable at that level.

- [David] It needs to be administered in a clinical setting under the supervision of usually multiple healthcare providers, which drastically increases the cost and the complexity of the treatment. You know, for some people, they're not going to have access to that kind of care. They can't afford to take off the six hours of work for their psilocybin session. They may not live near a psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy center. Their insurance might not pay for it.

- [Steve] And even if you manage to get over those hurdles, even in the best-case scenario, a lot of people are never gonna get this therapy.

- [David] Let's assume that there is a psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy center next to every Starbucks, and let's assume that every insurance company will fully reimburse for it. There are still a lot of patients that will be left out. If you have a co-occurring condition like schizophrenia or a family history of psychosis or dementia, you may not be a great candidate for psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. Additionally, there are some cardiac risks associated with some of the various psychedelics. And so, if you have heart condition, you may be excluded as well. And so, I am concerned that these types of medicines will not be broadly available to the general population.

- [Steve] And there's one other thing. A lot of people just don't wanna have the trip.

- That's true.

- I mean, the psilocybin trip can be very scary. Even if it's beneficial, it can produce a ton of anxiety. It can make you feel like you're going crazy. It's not for everyone.

- Agreed.

- [Steve] There's a big question underlying your research here, and that's if we want, the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics to treat some of these disorders like depression, anxiety, I think the operating assumption has been, it's all about the experience. It's all about going through this mind-bending trip where you kind of see the world in new ways. You know, you have this new sense of meaning and purpose. You have maybe sort of this sense of being connected with a universe. That's why the therapy works. That's why psychedelics work. You're talking about something totally different here.

- [David] Well, there's been a lot of really great research from people like the late Roland Griffiths and others who have demonstrated that a psilocybin experience can be rated by people as being among the most significant experiences in their lives. But if there are other patients that do not need that experience and can get benefit by just having physical changes in the structure of their brains, then that would broaden access to a larger number of people.

- [Steve] And that's why David Olson's trying to engineer new kinds of molecules without the hallucinogenic trip. He says, "The prefrontal cortex, that part of our brain that regulates our thoughts and actions and emotions can get outta whack. The neurons atrophy, which can then lead to all kinds of problems, including depression, PTSD, schizophrenia. So what if you could repair the prefrontal cortex?"

- [David] The way I would describe it is if you think of a neuron like a tree. Trees have branches that would be like the dendrites of a neuron. And on those branches, there are leaves. And those would be like synapses in a neuron, in a healthy brain, you have a very rich canopy where you have lots of these leaves touching each other so that you have lots of communication between the trees. Squirrels can easily jump from one tree to the other, but in many brain disorders, it looks like wintertime. All of the leaves have fallen off, the branches have been pruned back, and now there's not easy access between the two trees. And so, what these cyclops seemed to do is to rapidly regrow the neuronal arbors and reestablish that synaptic connectivity.

- [Steve] My understanding is this is different than the basic premise of SSRIs where it's really trying to fix a chemical imbalance. I mean, it's basically, trying to give you more serotonin, which will then improve your mood and, hopefully, treat depression. This is a totally different model that you're talking about.

- [David] So SSRIs definitely work for some patients, for sure, but they don't work for all patients. And the other thing about SSRIs is that that daily administration paradigm has other disadvantages. If you take any drug every day for a long period of time, it is quite likely that you are going to have some kind of off-target side effects. Things like weight gain, sexual dysfunction are very common with SSRIs. And they can lead some patients to not want to take them for those reasons. And so, if we can identify molecules that can do what an SSRI does over the course of three weeks, but they can do it after one dose within 24 hours, and the effect would last for a month, that would allow patients not only to have a rapid response and a sustained response, but potentially avoid a lot of those undesired side effects.

- [Steve] David has a name for these small molecules, psycho-plastic agents or drugs that generate new plasticity within the brain, firing up those synaptic connections that had withered away. So are these essentially like classic psychedelic drugs like psilocybin, but somehow, you're just stripping out the hallucinogenic effect? The molecule is actually quite similar?

- [David] Yeah, so structurally, that's kind of been our approach, at least, at the start. So at the start, we wanted to use molecules that had demonstrated clinical efficacy like psilocybin, like ketamine, like MDMA, and then, just make small tweaks to their chemical structures to remove the hallucinogenic effects. However, the way that medicinal chemistry works, it's a lot like chemical evolution. And by making systematic changes in the structure of the molecule, you can refine it to the various purposes that you're intending. And so, if we start with the structures of psychedelics, we can chemically evolve them into something that doesn't look anything like a psychedelic, but we'll have some of the similar effects on structural neuroplasticity.

- [Steve] Hmm, is this hard to do? I mean, is it? I mean, in the lab, is this like a really complicated process to try to create these molecules and to take out the hallucinogenic properties?

- [David] Well, I think this is why medicinal chemists will always have a job. They have job security.

- [Steve] And the medical model here, it's completely different than how psychedelic therapy works right now, which typically, involves spending hours and hours with facilitators before, during, and after a trip.

- [David] The goal is to create medicines that are safe enough that you can go to the local pharmacy, pick them up and store them in your medicine cabinet, and how frequently you have to take the pill, whether that's once a week, once a month, once a year, time will tell, but it will not be the traditional SSRI-type model. Now you can start thinking about taking one of those drugs and interacting with a therapist in a virtual environment over Zoom or something like that, that would eliminate the need to go to the clinic. But I do imagine that there will be kind of this treatment hierarchy where at the base of this treatment pyramid, you'll start with the most scalable medicines, which will be the take-home drugs, where that's all you need. And if patients get better, fantastic. And if they don't, they can start to move up the pyramid where we append other things like psychotherapy or like an in-clinic, hallucinogenic experience.

- [Steve] So far, the research to engineer these psycho agents has largely been done on mice, but there's only so much you can learn about a psychedelic drug, hallucinogenic or not from a mouse sprain. And this is where David Olson's biotech company comes in. So let me ask you a little bit about delis. The company that you have co-founded that is doing this research, developing products, I believe you have over a hundred million dollars in venture capital already put into the company, right?

- [David] Yes, that's correct. Alex has been very successful in their fundraising efforts to this point.

- [Steve] And what's your timeline? I mean, I realize this is basic research, it's difficult research, but do you have any sense of when you will start to see results or when you might have some drugs that will come in the market?

- [David] Yeah, so a lot of people think of DXs as the company that's taken the fun outta fungi. They're the non-hallucinogenic cyclops and company. But right now, what's very exciting is they've been able to take the first non-hallucinogenic cyclopathogen into people. Now the question is, will it be effective? And, honestly, that question will not be answered for a very long time. And so, this is gonna take years and years of clinical work, very hard clinical work.

- [Steve] How many years if things go well?

- [David] Typical drug discovery is a 20-year process.

- Oh, wow.

- And we've been moving pretty quickly, so, that usually comes from a lot of the preclinical testing all the way through the Safety Studies, through the Phase One. And then you do all of the clinical work. We're hoping it's not gonna take us 20 years to get to this, but to get to our first question of efficacy in the first patient population that we're looking at, that should take a few more years.

- [Steve] Now, it seems like a lot is riding on your work, I mean, literally, billions of dollars. The psychedelic industry is booming, it's taking off. There are a lot of startups, this will become, if it's not already a multi-billion dollar industry. And if we're talking about being able to deliver the therapeutic effects without having to do the big trip, the big experience that will totally take the psychedelic industry in another direction. Correct?

- [David] Well, I, you know, you point out the large figures in dollars, but you have to realize that those dollars come from the large number of patients. We're talking about a billion people worldwide that suffer from some kind of mental illness that might be impacted by psychotogenic drugs. That is really what I'm focused on, is trying to reach the largest patient population that we can. Now, psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is incredible because it's taking the field in a completely new direction. One that is more similar to a healing-based approach than simply mitigating disease symptoms. But if that is the only way to reap the benefit of these molecules, it would be a very, very sad day for this world, because only a subset of very fortunate individuals would be able to access that type of treatment. With the non-hallucinogenic cyclins, we, hopefully, can broaden that to the enormous number of people who are impacted by mental health conditions every day.

- [Steve] That's David Olson, Director of the UC Davis Institute for Psychedelics and Neurotherapeutics, and also the co-founder of the biotech company, Delix Therapeutics.

- [Anne] David's not the only scientist looking for alternatives to SSRIs. Coming up, we'll meet a psychiatrist who got so fed up with standard treatments for depression. He started investigating ancient treatments and discovered most of them induce altered states.

- [Chuck] I was like a guy going around retrofitting ancient practices for depression. You can make a list of things that humans have discovered over and over again that are usually used for religious purposes, like sweat lodges, fasting, extreme running, sleep deprivation, psychedelics Were sort of the queen of the ancient practices.

- [Steve] This is Luminous, our series on the Science and Philosophy of Psychedelics. I'm Steve Paulson.

- And I'm Anne Strainchamps as To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. Billions of people know what it's like to suffer from depression or anxiety, and I'm one of them. So I am very well aware of the benefits of standard SSRI treatments and also of their limitations. Psychedelic-assisted therapy sounds incredibly promising, but then so did Prozac 30 years ago.

- [Steve] So where does that leave psychiatrists and their patients? Chuck Raison is on the front lines of that question. He's one of the leading researchers in the current psychedelic revival. I recently sat down with Chuck in his office at the University of Wisconsin to talk about his research and what it means for treating people with depression. So how do you decide which is better, a psychedelic or an SSRI? Is it even possible to reconcile the two?

- [Chuck] That has been one of the impossible goals of my lifetime, is to try to reconcile the perspective on treatment that's implicated by things like psychedelics and the perspective on treatment that's standard in American psychiatry, especially with standard antidepressants. I've never reconciled it. You know, people very often consult with me on patients 'cause I've been doing this for a long time, and I'm always dumbfounded. Somebody's depressed, they've got problems. Should I tell them, why don't you think about going to a legal psychedelic retreat offshore and doing a psychedelic, it's probably gonna bring you face to face with your issues. See if you can resolve your issues, right? Or should I say, you know what, you're so depressed, why don't you start on an SSR? I like Prozac, Paxil, and let's just see if we can make you feel better. There's real practical implications of this. I just recently consulted on a case where this woman had tried psychedelics and it had not helped her put her back on a regular antidepressant, saved her marriage, so, hmm, don't know. That's not an easy question to answer.

- [Steve] It's very hard, you know, psychedelics versus traditional antidepressants-

- [Chuck] It's very, very hard because they're so different, right? The standard antidepressants, we know what they do. They sort of make everything less concerning. You know, they long before they make you undepressed and people that are going to help almost immediately after taking them, you sort of begin to look on the bright side of the street. You don't worry as much, I mean, there's brain imaging studies. They very rapidly turn down the danger center in the brain. And so you wander around for a few weeks, feel better about things, you smile a little bit more, and then people smile back at you. That's great, and then the downside of that, of course though, is that if they chill things out too much, you go flat, you go numb. And that is a major side effect of those agents. People wander around us, say, I just, yeah, I'm not feeling as horrible, but I'm not feeling as anything. I had a guy say a couple of years ago that his sister went on antidepressants and he felt like he half lost her. That there'd been a depth of feeling that was erased with it, right? So, that's the downside there. Now psychedelics, of course, they are really the opposite. They ramp everything up. They make emotions more salient. I am obsessively fascinated with this dialectic between experience your problems, face your problems, feel your feelings fully, accept the difficulties of life, be grateful that you're alive versus take a pill, feel better. Thank God, it's sort of the difference between face it and change or chill it out and just roll with it.

- [Steve] There's a huge question about why psychedelics are so effective, and is it essentially the biological reaction in the brain? You know, you're injecting these new chemicals, sort of rewiring the brain in some way. Or do you need the experience itself? Is the chemical the trigger to really have the experience? And it's the experience that matters. I mean, a lot rides on how you answer that question.

- [Chuck] That is the billion-dollar question. That is what animates my work, right? So everything that we are doing, it's all kind of focused on that question.

- [Steve] And let me just mention one other practical implication of that 'cause I've talked with people in the venture capital startup business, and it seems like the magic bullet there would be to tweak, let's say the psilocybin molecule, make it fast-acting. You just have two or three hours, minimal experience, but you get all the benefits. You can go into the clinic and you're better, but you don't have to go through all the hard stuff.

- [Chuck] Absolutely, and I admire this guy, Dave Olson so much, started a company called Delix Therapeutics, trying to take psychedelics, like you say, tweak 'em even a little harder so that it's not that the experience lasts for an hour or two, it's that you've removed the psychedelic experience. Psychedelics have big direct effects on the brain. You're getting all that big direct effect on the brain, no psychedelic experience. And so, you can take the pill at home on Saturday morning and then feel better for six months. And when you start feeling kind of bad again, or six months, you get another pill. And that's the VC venture capital pharmaceutical dream, right, charge $20,000 a pill, you know, no must no fuss. It doesn't violate this very impersonal machine-like system we have in place for dealing with mental health in the United States. So, people are absolutely after this. And I get accused of being this sort of killjoy, like I'm trying to destroy psychedelic culture, but truly, I'm really rooting for consciousness. I personally am greatly hoping that when we remove the conscious experience, that it will not have the signal. So I'm on the side of consciousness, but my mentor back at Emory told me early on, he said, look, if you're afraid of the truth, just get outta science right now. Science may blow up these things with psychedelics, we'll see.

- [Steve] Well, I know there's another study going on. I don't know what stage it is in where people are trying to administer psychedelics while you're asleep.

- [Chuck] That would be me, yeah. Yes, yes, yes, yes.

- [Steve] So the idea is you'd wake up, you didn't know that you had it. Probably had some crazy dreams though,

- [Chuck] Maybe. So, everything I'm doing is around the question that you articulated better than me. Is it direct biological effect of the drug that you don't need consciousness for the trip is just going along for the ride so you can maybe get rid of the trip? Or is the experience that's induced by the drug, what causes the transformation? And if people say, "Well, there's no way that an experience could produce a transformation like that," the answer is, "Well, what about post-traumatic stress disorder," right? So you take people, they're in one state of functioning, they have something shocking, unexpected, horrifying happen to them. And then that thing lives on in them constantly present, and it totally changes their life, changes their behavior. Well, what is that other than an experience causing a profound change? So there's already a template for the possibility that a shocking, surprising, positive experience, like a psychedelic experience could produce long-term change.

- [Steve] Have you done this study on the sleep?

- [Chuck] So, the challenges with the study, we are doing it, we had to produce IV psilocybin given inside somebody's vein. So it's taken a while, but we're getting close. And then the other thing we have to do is how do you give it to people while they're asleep and not wake them up? So you gotta hook 'em up to a sleep EEG, and you'd wanna give it to them when they're in deep sleep. But you gotta sneak in, you gotta put the IV needle in. And how do you do that without waking people up? So we've been practicing and practicing in the research unit with me as a primary Guinea pig. You know, I lay down, I go to sleep, and can they administer it without waking me up? So we don't know about psilocybin yet 'cause psilocybin, if your heart rate goes up, it may be that every single person that you give it to opens their eyes and says, "Oh, ooh, whoa, right?" but nobody's ever tried to give it while people are really deeply asleep. So maybe they'll just sleep, maybe they'll have dreams. But if you can't figure out how to give it, say just normal salt water by IV infusion while people are sleeping, you're never gonna be able to give that. So, we've been working on just the salt water. And so we can do it. And it's really interesting. The way to do it is not what you'd predict. So Stephanie Jones at UW has been the mastermind of this. I would've waited until people were in deep sleep, snuck in as quietly as possible one time, and taken a run at it. And she's like, "Oh, no, that's never gonna work." What you have to do is come in every 15 minutes, stand over the people, shake the IV line, and you just keep doing that until people get so used to you coming into the room, standing over the IV and shaking it, that they get deconditioned. And they've now, except for several of us, they've been able to do it. But if we can keep, you know, half the people asleep, then we're gonna get fund. We've got funding to do this big study where half the people will get it awake, half asleep. And that is really interesting.

- [Steve] You know, it strikes me that if it turns out that these kinds of studies determine it isn't biology, it's consciousness. That's what's changing.

- Yep.

- [Steve] A lot of startups collapse at that point, don't they, I mean, their whole premise is they're tweaking the biology, these molecules, and that's how they're gonna make their fortune. And that's the future of the psychedelic revolution.

- [Chuck] Oh, you're right because if it turns out that people wake up in the morning, they don't remember anything, and they go, whoa, I'm gonna go to the monastery. I feel differently about life. And you talk to 'em too much later, they say, "I don't know what it was. I, obviously, I don't remember anything, but you know, my relationships have gotten better. I'm happier. I'm exercising. I've developed a spiritual life," then, the psychedelic community is gonna hate me. 'cause I've now shown that the folks that are trying to tweak it and get rid of, you know, knock yourself out, right?

- [Steve] But I still don't understand, putting aside that these questions of blocking the memory or trying to do this while you're sleeping, just the psilocybin experience, let's say that most people have. Why can a single experience from a single dose have such long-lasting effects six months later, a year later, a lifetime later? Is that rewiring the brain? Or you've just had this experience and somehow the experience has caused you to see the world in a new way.

- [Chuck] Right. Unless you're a dualist and think that there is some kind of soul that maybe has been shifted by this. If we just take a purely scientific look at the world, that consciousness arises from brain function. Your feelings arise from brain function, your behavior arises from brain function. It has to be the case that if you are different six months from now, there's gotta be some physical substrate for that difference. What that substrate is, of course, the holy grail, right? Everybody wants to know, Steve Paulson, you've got a psilocybin experience three months ago and you were depressed and now you're feeling great. Chuck Raison, you got a psilocybin experience and you don't feel any different. There's gotta be a change in your brain to explain why that happened and nobody's been able to find it.

- [Steve] Where would you look for that?

- Damned if I know. Probably I, you know, would you look in the frontal lobe where sort of decision-making is done? Would you look in temporal areas that are deeper kind of ancient emotional areas? I don't know what psychedelics do. While you're in the middle of a psychedelic experience, the brain is by far the most complex thing in the universe. And so it's really hard to tell.

- [Steve] Now, there's another huge question, which is related to what we've been talking about. And that's whether you need a mystical experience to have the full therapeutic effects. And there's some debate about what is a mystical experience. I mean, some of the features that are commonly mentioned are, there's the sense of oneness with the universe around you. You kind of lose your sense of ego transcendence of space and time feeling that this other reality of the experience is more real than your waking reality.

- [Chuck] Yes.

- [Steve] Do you need all of that to have this really powerful impact that people often have after a psychedelic experience? Or can you just have sort of a home hum experience and get the full benefits?

- [Chuck] The mystical experience is, it's certainly the best, most replicated thing that if you have that during the psychedelic experience, you're likely to benefit down the road weeks and weeks later, less depression, less anxiety. You're not likely to be drinking smoke and all that stuff. But it's not the only thing. So I think there's another domain that is often attached to the mystical experience but is also clearly separable. That's been called emotional breakthrough, which is closely related to something that you might call psychological insight. These are experiences that have more to do with the sort of life story of the person. So a number of studies have shown that if a person has a psychedelic experience and in that experience, they face difficult personal challenges that they usually try to push aside if they accept things in their lives that really aren't changeable. Like, for instance, I'm overwhelmed with horror that I'm dying of cancer, but I realize that I need to accept it. That also pretty strongly in most studies predicts antidepressant response, let's say. So this is psychedelics as a year of psychotherapy in a day that construct, right? So I actually think that facing one's, demons facing the challenges that one's experienced in life and looking at the narratives that one is living, I think that is actually in some ways more profoundly spiritual. So if we use the word spiritual, because that's about pragmatic personal transformation, right?

- So that suggests, if that's the core of the emotional breakthroughs that you face your demons and almost by definition it has to be a difficult experience then, right?

- Correct.

- You can't just have a blissful experience and have the emotional breakthrough. I mean, it's a high, it feels fabulous, but it's not going to-

- No, it comes at you. It comes at the end of suffering though. It comes at the end of a tough time, absolutely. So one of the dangers of psychedelics is that they can encourage something that's been called spiritual bypass, which basically means that you got these very pragmatic, sort of more primitive behaviors, problems, emotions that you're dealing with and it are causing you trouble in your life. And instead of dealing with them, you just go into the spiritual realm. You go up into the heights, you transcend them. You see this like when psychedelics go bad, what they often seem to reduce are sort of very narcissistic people. These are people wandering around talking about spirituality.

- [Steve] They have met God and they're gonna tell you about it.

- [Chuck] Yeah, absolutely, and then you watch how they're living their lives though, and there's no evidence that they have met any kind of God that you'd want to have a drink with, certainly, right, so, you know, that's partly why I trust more of the spirituality of dissent spirituality down into the roots of suffering. Difficult experiences can often be very beneficial.

- Yeah, one final question.

- Sure.

- [Steve] And you can either answer this or not answer this. Have you had personal experiences, psychedelic experiences that have shaped your understanding of these drugs?

- [Chuck] I will tell you that I have had a legal psychedelic experience someplace where it was legal. That definitely shaped my understanding of these things. I had an experience where my dead mother came to me and told me some stuff that I had struggled with out of my childhood. And do I believe she came to me? No, not at all. I don't believe it. Do I undoubtedly feel emotionally that she came to me? Absolutely. So it's interesting, I'll elaborate a little bit before you do one of these things, and this was really, it was with a bunch of very high-level mental health practitioners that are interested in working with psychedelics.

- [Steve] What was the drug that you took?

- Psilocybin, right, so, you know, beforehand you talk about, well, what do you wanna do? What are you thinking? And I was really thinking I was gonna be dealing with my father who's also dead. So I had no expectation that my mom was gonna show up. But, boom, you know, I had a thought, this has been a pretty good time in my life. And so I was going, you know, I'm not having a bad experience here. This is okay, so, hmm, what should I do in my life to improve it? And then, I said, "Well, what's keeping me from doing that?" I said, "Well, I'm still struggling with this sort of issue that I was more close with my mom in childhood." My dad kind of got excluded, a classic Freudian thing. And then, all of a sudden, here comes my mom, and she's got my dad in toe. And she basically reminded me of something she said to me about how she felt bad about pulling me in to be sort of her therapist when I was a kid. And she said, "Don't you remember I told you that while I was still alive," you know, I said, "Oh yeah, that's right. Back in the eighties, God, you were crying. I'd kind of suppressed that for some reason," right? And then she said, literally, she said, "Look, look, your dad's my problem. You know, we're here in the afterlife, don't worry about that, we're gonna have to go off for a couple lifetime to deal with each other." And off they went. But it was so unexpected and so real, and the felt sense was, "Dang that, that was my mom, all right."

- [Steve] Was that difficult, that experience?

- [Chuck] No, it was actually very relieving.

- [Steve] So you didn't have to go through sort of the anxiety piece of the experience?

- [Chuck] No, I didn't. I didn't, so back to your point, no, this was really interesting. I didn't go through the anxiety piece on this. So, now I can tell you that this was a while ago, and I probably, once a day, I think about it. Now I'm curious, is it still with me? Because we talked about, you know, this is what I research and yeah, it's still with me. It's really interesting. I felt like I had a final interaction with my mom and it was so weird and so quirky. It was utterly believable. I totally emotionally believed that they are off in the afterlife trying to figure out their problems and deal with them, even though I don't actually sadly believe in the afterlife. And I don't really believe she came and saw me. But there you go.

- [Steve] Chuck Raison is a psychiatry professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Director of Clinical Research for the Usona Institute.

- [Anne] Coming up, another in the, You Can't Make This Stuff Up Category, a clinical psychologist launches a research project on psychedelic healing because the plants told her to.

- [Rachel] It was February in New Jersey, I just wanted sunshine and a beach. And I signed up for a retreat in Costa Rica. And the day before I was leaving, I get a phone call that said, "Do you want to sign up for the ceremonies?" And I said, "What ceremonies?" And it turns out there were a series of Ayahuasca ceremonies being offered that week at the Retreat Center. This was in 2005. I, of course, said yes At some point, after just a few sessions, I was hearing the voice of Ayahuasca. And that was a little mind-blowing for me because, you know, I'm not crazy. I didn't think. And I am telling you, it is exactly the same as hearing your voice. The message was, "Do the research." I'm in a ceremony, I'm under the effects. And I'm like, "What? What research?" Do the research. And she doesn't say that to everybody. I've never heard anyone else get that message. I went back and called a nationally known researcher, call him up, and I say, "Grandmother, Ayahuasca told me to do this research. Will you help me?" There's this pause on the phone. He's 85 at the time, and he says, "Yes." So.

- [Anne] Rachel Harris did the research on Ayahuasca, and through it, discovered an underground network of women elders who provided psychedelic healing to people in need for decades, risking everything to do so. She'll tell us about them after this.

- [Steve] You're listening to Luminous, our series on the Science and Philosophy of Psychedelics. I'm Steve Paulson,

- [Anne] And I'm Anne Strainchamps. If you are just discovering the series, you can listen to lots more interviews in the Luminous Podcast feed and on our website at From To The Best Of Our Knowledge on Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. We have heard so much about the psychedelic renaissance, about new clinical trials and lab research. Sometimes it's hard to remember that taking psychedelics for any reason is still illegal.

- [Steve] But there's a long tradition of underground guides who work with plant medicines who talk about unseen beings and plants as teachers.

- [Anne] Rachel Harris is a retired clinical psychologist. She took Ayahuasca as part of traditional healing ceremonies in Costa Rica, and then found her way to an underground network of psychedelic healers, most of them women.

- [Steve] And now she's written a book based on a series of in-depth conversations with them. It's called "Swimming in the Sacred: Wisdom from the Psychedelic Underground." I reached her at her home on an island off the coast of Maine.

- [Rachel] Well, you know, the Ayahuasca book brought me in contact with some of the underground elders, and they were at a point where they were finally, after decades, ready to go a little bit public, but carefully and anonymously. Many of them are in their seventies, they are still working underground, so they need to be protected, but they wanted their voices heard in this. So-called psychedelic renaissance, they have more experience than anyone else in the Western world. Certainly, the Shaman and Indigenous communities have centuries of experience and lineages, but in the Western world, they have more experience than the researchers, for instance. And the researchers were really dominating the psychedelic renaissance, and the women had a different perspective that I felt was being overlooked and could easily be lost.

- [Steve] You describe these women as spiritual warriors, and you say they're priestesses and shamans, and even though you've had a lot of psychedelic experiences yourself, you've worked for years as a clinical psychologist. You say you are not like these women, can you explain that?

- [Rachel] You know, things get a little challenging during ceremonies. These women have taken every medicine at every dose. I remember talking to one of the women and she said, she's early seventies now, she said, "Well, as I've gotten older, I realized I don't need as much. It's very easy for me to travel, but sometimes, you know, I still like to fly and take a big dose," is what she means. And I'm thinking, "No, that's really, I don't really need to fly." I'm a scaredy-cat also when they're sitting with people, they know the territory, they've been everywhere, and they don't get scared.

- [Steve] What would you be scared about? Where are they going when it gets really difficult?

- [Rachel] You know, listen, there are risks with these medicines. The thing that people often report that is the most scary is, I'm never gonna come back. I've damaged my brain. I'm gonna go crazy and I'll never be okay again. And if you talk to any of the elders, not just the ones I interviewed, but across the board, everybody knows someone who was harmed and was never quite the same again. There is a risk, it's very, very small. Every drug has a risk and challenging side effects. So that's what I would be afraid of. One of the elders told me this story. She's very experienced, a very serious person, and she's sitting with someone, and I don't, not quite sure what happened, but she said, "I realized I had to take him to the emergency room. So that means, she has to walk into a hospital ER and confess what she's been doing, which is illegal. She goes in with him, he gets some medication, and the doctor's sympathetic, so he doesn't call the police.

- Yeah.

- But that was just pure luck.

- [Steve] And we should make this point. I mean, what they are doing is illegal to do this kind of work involves risks, including potentially ending up in jail.

- [Rachel] They risked everything. And I asked them, "Why they had, you know, above-ground jobs, they had regular jobs," and they said, "These medicines helped me so much. I couldn't not work with people and help them."

- [Steve] Why did you choose to just talk with these women elders? Why not male elders as well?

- [Rachel] My personal response, honestly, is I've listened to men for 50 years. It's enough already, to be honest, about it, but I felt that the women had more of a relationship with the medicines, more of a personal relationship with what I call unseen others. So plant spirits or ancestors or angels. They had a relationship with beings that we can't see that they were more connected in that way with other worlds.

- [Steve] Can you talk more about that, these unseen beings? Who are these entities?

- [Rachel] Well, we don't really know, do we? I mean, you know, this is an unresearchable question in terms of Western research, and that's the whole process of indigenous training, having the plant spirit become an ally who will help you because the elder women work with the medicines throughout a whole lifespan. They have people come into them once a year to do a journey all the way through their whole life. Maybe they bring their partner, their spouse. I've sat in Ayahuasca ceremonies with three generations of the family.

- [Steve] Hmm, so these women might be working with the same people for years.

- For years.

- Maybe even for decades,

- Huh?

- For years.

- Wow.

- I mean, that's how the underground has worked with medicines, not in this three-month cost-effective treatment approach that's designed to reduce symptoms. Women have worked with people over a lifetime for their own personal growth and evolution.

- [Steve] When you talk about unseen helpers and angels and plant spirits, I'm sure a lot of our listeners are thinking, "This is getting pretty woo-woo here, you know?

- Yeah, are you sure she had a research background?

- [Steve] Really stretching, believability. Does that skepticism bother you?

- [Rachel] Well, it's been a process that I've written about in my books because, yes, it drove me crazy. And gradually, my worldview, my own personal cosmology has been shifting a little bit so that I've become a little bit more fluid. But I've been a difficult case, you know, I'm raised in the Western world.

- [Steve] Well, and the other question is, if you feel like you have some sense of this other worldly presence, or you're hearing a voice, is that coming from outside you or is that a projection of something within yourself? It seems like that's a pretty important question.

- [Rachel] Yes, you think we have an answer for that?

- I don't know.

- [Rachel] I think that's the most difficult question. The inner-outer question.

- [Steve] So the women you talk to these women who've been working in the psychedelic underground for all these years, obviously, have just a radically different method and protocol than the university researchers, the scientists who were running the clinical trials. And I'd like to sort of unpack those differences. It seems like maybe the goals are different in some way. I mean, the clinical trials are typically focused on specific treatments for different mental disorders, depression, addiction, PTSD. Do the women elders you talk to, do they tend to focus on specific problems like that, or are the goals different?

- [Rachel] Totally different. The research studies have selected very sympathetic diagnoses to look at people who have suffered with PTSD veterans for suffering for decades, the women are not therapists. They don't think in terms of a cost-effective approach to reducing symptoms. They're looking for transformation. So they hold the medicines in a very, a much bigger container and far more spiritual.

- [Steve] Don't the university scientists also want transformation?

- [Rachel] Well, how much transformation can you see after just a few weeks?

- [Steve] I don't know, I mean, that's the question, but isn't the goal, I mean-

- [Rachel] But they're not following them up enough to really see how has their life changed because the therapy sessions are a big cost. They're a big expense in the research protocol, right? So they do three, maybe four at the most kind of debriefing, what they call integration sessions. Many of the subjects have said they need more, but there's an ongoing unfolding and process in life after a journey. The women are looking for changes in the person's attitude toward their life. I mean, they're really looking at what do the people they work with, what do they bring back to their community? How do they change their lives so that they can contribute and make a difference how to live on this Earth and be joyful.

- Hmm.

- [Rachel] That's not symptom reduction, that's much bigger.

- [Steve] The whole business of being credentialed is another major question in this psychedelic revival that we're in right now, because it's not at all clear who gets to call themselves a psychedelic therapist or a guide. The women you talk to, they don't have medical degrees, I'm assuming.

- Correct? Most of them don't.

- Yeah. What is their process of training and developing expertise?

- [Rachel] You know, one of the women said, "Here's the question to ask someone who's putting themselves out as a psychedelic therapist, 'Who authorized you to serve this medicine.'" This is a lineage question.

- Hmm.

- As in, you are an apprentice and you should be working with someone with essentially a master.

- Exactly.

- Hmm.

- [Rachel] And the women did that for years and years, and they were supervised. Here's the example from someone who trained with a Shikisho shaman. She's the only one who really trained with a Shikisho shaman. But she said, "After six years working with the shaman, the shaman says to her, 'You're ready to sing.' The singing is done in the ceremonies, the icaros, it's a big deal. It's a major part of the healing process." "She said, 'No, I'm not ready.' So she sat next to him in ceremonies and he would sing. She knew the icaros. She would sing a nanosecond right behind him so they could compare what they're seeing in the patient and how the icaros is working, what's changing as they're singing. She did that for a year, and then she started doing ceremonies on her own and singing."

- [Steve] Hmm.

- [Rachel] So it's quite a process to be able to do that.

- Yeah. You say, "We don't have a word for what these women elders do."

- [Rachel] Not really, in our culture.

- [Steve] Yeah. Do we need a word for them?

- [Rachel] You know, I'm hoping that we go into a learning mode with these medicines. Not a manipulative mode, but that we have the humility to say, "These medicines have a lot to teach us. How do we learn how to use them in the most beneficial, safest way?" One cognitive scientist that Israeli talked about, Ayahuasca is a school that it's a process of learning. And I think culturally, that would be a good mode for us to be in.

- Hmm.

- That's Rachel Harris, a psychologist who's been in private practice for 40 years. Her book is called "Swimming In the Sacred: Wisdom from The Psychedelic Underground."

- [Anne] You're listening to Luminous, our series on the Science and Philosophy of Psychedelics. You'll find more interviews on our website at, and I hope you'll subscribe to the Luminous Podcast feed.

- [Steve] To The Best Of Our Knowledge is produced in Madison, Wisconsin by Shannon Henry Kleiber, Charles Monroe-Kane, Angelo Bautista, and Mark Riechers.

- [Anne] Our technical director and sound designer is Joe Hardtke with help from Sarah Hopeful. Additional Music this week comes from Epidemy Zero and Floating Spirits.

- I'm Steve Paulson.

- And I'm Anne Strainchamps. Thanks for listening, and come back often.

- [Presenter] PRX.

Last modified: 
December 21, 2023