The power of psychedelics?

This post was written in collaboration with the team at C³. Learn more about C³ at the end of the post. 

Our work is not meant to serve as an all-inclusive summary on the topic, but instead is meant to serve as a starting point for thinking and learning about it. We outline important factors to consider as you form your own opinion rather than trying to push you in one direction or another


Structuring the topic

  • What are psychedelics and how do they work?
    • Understanding the basic mechanisms via which psychedelics work, and how they alter the brain’s experiential state, are an important foundation for further discussions on the uses and risks of psychedelics.

  • What is the history of psychedelics?
    • Distinguishing the ancient versus modern history of psychedelics is important to understanding the complex past of these molecules as well as respecting communities around the world that have used these substances in their cultural rituals for centuries.

  • What are the ways in which psychedelics are commonly used?
    • There are a range of ways in which psychedelics can be used including for clinical use, self-improvement, spiritually and of course, recreationally.
    • One core theme of advice from experts appears to be a focus on ‘set and setting’, meaning carefully curating where, and with whom, one is and putting oneself in the right mental state before using psychedelics.

  • What are the main risks to be aware of when using psychedelics?
    • As with all substances that do not occur naturally in the body, there is some element of risk in using psychedelics, however, the core message is that based on current research the risks of psychedelics are largely misunderstood and overblown by society today.

Understanding Psychedelics

What are psychedelics?

  • Psychedelics are a class of hallucinogenic drugs whose primary effect is to trigger non-ordinary states of consciousness (known as psychedelic experiences or “trips”) via serotonin 2A receptor agonism. 
  • This causes specific psychological, visual and auditory changes, and often a substantially altered state of consciousness. 
  • The “classical” psychedelics (the psychedelics with the largest scientific and cultural influence) are mescaline, LSD, psilocybin, and DMT.      

How do psychedelics work?

Chemical mechanism – better then serotonin

  •  Psychedelics are chemically similar to the common neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is responsible for mood stabilization and creating a feeling of wellbeing and happiness.
  • Psychedelics do not bind to just any receptor, but rather to a specific receptor (Serotonin 2A receptor) found in the cortex. 
  • In fact, surprisingly LSD matches that receptor site better than serotonin itself, which may be one explanation for the very powerful experiences the brain faces during a trip (Michael Pollan, Big Think).

Impacts experientially – altering our experience of the world

  • Hallucinations making colors brighter
    • The most notable impact of psychedelics are hallucinations which include seeing, hearing, touching or smelling things in a distorted way or perceiving things that do not exist.
    • Users may also feel intensified feelings or sensory experiences such as seeing brighter colors or hearing sharper sounds. Users may mix senses, resulting in seeing sounds or hearing colors (How do hallucinogens work).

  • The weakening of our priors
    • Priors are unconscious assumptions about reality that the brain uses to construct models. They can range all the way from basic truths like “solid objects don’t randomly disappear”, to useful rules-of-thumb like “most get-rich-quick schemes are scams”. Without any priors, the world would fail to make sense at all, turning into an endless succession of special cases without any common lessons.
    • However, other priors we have may be more complex such as dogmatic views that need changing. Scholars are suggesting that through the relaxation of priors during a trip, people may be able to see things in a new way (Relaxed beliefs of the brain on psychedelics).
    • This argument rests in part on predictive coding theory, the idea that the brain uses Bayesian calculations to make sense of the noisy and complex world around it. 

  • Say goodbye to your ego
    • Default mode network 
      • The Default Mode Network (DFN) is a part of your brain that is most active when you are at wakeful rest, meaning you are awake, but not focused on the outside world. In other words, you are on autopilot; you are in a default state. 
      •  It is the part of your brain that thinks about your narrative in the world (i.e., your past, current and future states). If your ego had an address, this is where it would be. 

  • Down regulation of your DFN: 
      • One of the most powerful impacts of psychedelics is that it down regulates the ‘default mode network’. It relieves you from the constant thoughts about your narrative; it relieves you from your ego. 
      • This is believed to be one of the most powerful outcomes of the use of psychedelics as the silent default network paves way for deep self-inquiry, which will be discussed further in the uses of psychedelics section.

History of Psychedelics

Ancient History

  • Many people forget that the history of psychedelics stems back far beyond the 1950s and 1960s.
  • A range of psychedelics have been used for millennia in central and south America, particularly for healing and in spiritual rituals
  • When we think of psychedelics in the 21st century, it is vital not to forget this  ancient history and the impacts that modern day demand for psychedelics may have on these local communities being able to perform the rituals as they have done for ages.

Modern History

  • 1938 – LSD invention
    • Albert Hoffman, a chemist with Sandoz company in Switzerland invents LSD in 1938 without knowing it
  • 1943 – Powerful realization
    •  Hoffman has a premonition that the molecule he discovered was interesting and beautiful. He accidentally ingested some and realized how powerful it was
    • Company wanted to be able to monetize this discovery, and set up a crowd research project. They offered LSD for free for research purposes
  •  1950s – Fertile period of research
    • Minimal controversy and interference in the research during these years
  • 1960s – Everything changes:  
    • Psychedelics become socially used and become central to counterculture movement
    • The role of Timothy Leary 
    • Harvard professor that after a revolutionary experience on psilocybin becomes a psychedelics evangelist 
      • He advocated the use of psychedelics without any sort of guidance or warning
      • He even went as far as potentially falsifying research results in order to ‘prove’ the power of psychedelics
      •  In steps Richard Nixon and the government
        •  Leary was described by Nixon as the most dangerous man in America
        • It is crucial to understand that one could have argued that the use of psychedelics would sap the will of American youth to fight in Vietnam as it would push them to think for themselves
        • Hence, it was easy for the government to step in and make these drugs illegal
  •  1970s – End of research
    • By 1970, psychedelics was a schedule 1 drug. The most strict drug class
    •  By the middle of the 1970s, almost no research still continued on psychedelics
  • 1999 – We begin again
    • Funding begins to pick up for study of psychedelics again at the turn of the century
    • In terms of relative to total research, the research on psychedelics still has not reached the levels of the 1950s and 60s.

Approaching the use of psychedelics

There are entirely different ways in which psychedelics can be used, however, each use is an entirely different conversation as there are different risks, research and impacts to take into consideration.

Clinical use –  Making ill people better

  • Treatment of depression, anxiety, fear, addiction
    • It is important to note that none of these benefits have been proven in large populations of people. As Michael Pollen writes in How to Change your Mind “what successes have been reported should be taken as promising signals standing out from the noise of the data, rather than as a definitive proof of a cure”.
    • PTSD
      • Highly encouraging results were seen for a phase 3 MDMA trial to reduce severe PTSD (MDMA assisted therapy). We hope to see many more like this in the coming years.
    • Depression
      • In terms of depression a study published in November 2020, 71% of people who took psilocybin for major depressive disorder showed a greater than 50% reduction in symptoms after 4 weeks and half of the patients entered remission (The Rise of Psychedelic Psychiatry).
      • One theory is that psychedelics interrupt the circuitry of self-absorbed thinking (think back to the discussion on the DFN) that is so pronounced in depressed people, making way for a mystical experience of self-unity (NYT, A dose of Hallucinogens from a Magic Mushroom, and then Lasting Peace)
      • In addition to the down regulation of the DFN, it is believed that these psychedelics do not work by flooding the brain with neurotransmitters as was initially assumed, but rather by stimulating neuroplasticity and allowing new connections to form. It must be emphasized that at this stage, the evidence for this is stronger in animals than humans.
    • To wrap up on clinical uses, the weight of evidence collected to-date suggests that, in carefully screened and monitored individuals, psychedelic treatment can mediate changes in psychological functioning that are generally positive and enduring (Long Term effects of Psychedelic Drugs).

Life improvement – The betterment of well people

  •  Increased awareness and reflection
    • A growing use of psychedelics is as a method of inquiry into one’s mind. The loss of self-concern that comes with the deregulation of the DFN during a trip, allows one to truly reflect in ways that are not possible without the use of psychedelics.

  • Increased productivity
    • A very important change in what is known as the Hippie 2.0 generation, is that vast amounts of psychedelics are not being used to party and go crazy, but rather used to allow people to pursue their purpose and achieve their highest potential by boosting productivity.

  • LSD Micro dosing
      • Due to LSDs similar molecular structure to serotonin, low doses may have the potential for mood elevation and heightened creativity.
      • In Silicon Valley, many entrepreneurs and tech workers micro dose to increase productivity, creativity and focus (How Silicon Valley Rediscovered LSD).
      • Steve Jobs is often quoted as saying that LSD was one of the “two or three most important things” he did in his life (LSD visionary).
      • It is important to note, that despite these strong claims of LSD micro dosing by tech workers, a study showed that the effects may have been largely driven by the placebo effect. The chart below summarizes the results. As always, it’s worth emphasizing that even if via a placebo effect, it still works (The placebo in LSD).

Spiritual – The continuation of centuries of tradition

  • As mentioned earlier, many communities around the world have used forms of psychedelics for hundreds if not thousands of years. It is important that in society’s modern consumption of psychedelics we do not forget about or negatively impact these communities.

Recreational – that guy tripping at the rager

  • Often seen by many as the main use of psychedelics is recreational use at parties or music festivals. Although many do enjoy this, many experts warn against using psychedelics in such a setting for a host of reasons

Risks of psychedelics

The main takeaway surrounding the risks of psychedelics are that the risks are generally overstated due to misconceptions we as a society have built over the last several decades. The risks of psychedelics can be seen in two main categories, physiological and psychological risks.

Physiological risk

  • There is almost no long term physiological risk to taking psychedelics as there is no known lethal dose, and overdosing is rare and only happens when extreme amounts have been ingested (Can you overdose on LSD?)
  • Furthermore, psychedelics are non-addictive which is another risk important to consider for a mind-altering substance (Is LSD addictive?)

 Psychological risk

  • There is strong evidence of no/low psychological risk when psychedelics are used in a well controlled setting.
  • Risk of Psychosis
    • People often cite psychosis as a risk however a key finding from research published in nature is that there is no link and it may be a correlation vs causation misconception at play. The study looking at whether psychedelics users are at increased risk of psychosis found no such effect. 
  • HPPD – the never ending trip
    • Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD) is a chronic and non-psychotic disorder in which a person experiences apparent lasting or persistent visual hallucinations or perceptual distortions after a previous hallucinogenic drug experience, usually lacking the same feelings of intoxication or mental alteration.
    • HPPD is expected to affect 1- 5% of psychedelic users, although better data is needed to be certain about this figure. (The never-ending trip).
    • Important to note, that even though many theories exist, we do not yet know how HPPD is caused and via which mechanisms it works. This is still heavily studied.


C³ – Critical Creative Collaboration

This post was written in collaboration with the team at C³.

Who: We are a diverse community based in New York City. 

What: At its simplest form, C³ functions as an idea club. Every month we dig into a curated list of books, journals, articles, podcasts and documentaries focused on a core idea. We come together for a day of fruitful conversation and collect all our most insightful discoveries in a single post that we share here with you.

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