If we look at any of Pink Floyd’s live performances, the act presents us with more than just the music. The surreal sounds often in the background of their songs and the strange symbolic imagery projected have always been central elements to their shows; the music itself is hardly half the act. The psychedelic rock scene emerged in a time when a mind-altering experience became available in the western world, outside the context of shamans and sacred rituals, and it shaped the 1960s; Timothy Leary, an assistant professor at Harvard, was conducting series of experiments using psilocybin –the active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms-, which later became known as the Harvard Psilocybin Project. A few years after Leary’s arrest, Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters began holding the Acid Tests in Kesey’s house; series of parties where LSD was given for free, and by 1968, LSD was a street drug and an icon of the hippie movement. It is no surprise that bands like Pink Floyd, King Crimson or the Grateful Dead were quite popular during this period, the whole premise of psychedelic rock (or any psychedelic art) was to simulate some aspect of a psychedelic experience.
Psychedelic substances, particularly psilocybin, were first brought to the public eye in 1957, after the publication of Gordon Wasson’s article Seeking the Magic Mushroom in Life magazine. What distinguishes, say mushrooms or acid from other drugs is their impact on consciousness and perception. In the spring of 1953, Aldous Huxley took four-tenths of a gram of mescalin dissolved in half a glass of water and documented his experience into what later became The Doors of Perception. An hour and a half after taking the ‘drug’, he sat down for a moment in his study, and kept staring at vase of flowers, when somebody asked him “is it agreeable?” he replied “neither agreeable nor disagreeable, it just is.”
What Huxley described is quite familiar to almost anyone who had taken a psychedelic drug before. Often referred to as “ego-loss” or “complete transcendence”; a radical loss of self-consciousness occurring in the first phase of a psychedelic trip. This sudden realization is similar to getting out of the cave in Plato’s allegory, and experiencing the world unfiltered, or “seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation –the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence”, i.e. a flower, a musical piece, a movie or just a view is experienced not as one is constructed to, socially, culturally or even psychologically; the experience becomes free of all the prejudices and beyond any constructed notion of either the self or the other; what Huxley called the “Is-ness” of reality. But behind the technical terms lies a really simple notion; things are weirder than they seem, we usually see only what we are constructed to see, and psychedelics allow to see things as simple as they ‘actually’ are.
This notion was no mystery to the ancient people. Psychedelics, for most of history, weren’t used outside a religious context and in rituals to commune with gods and spirits. Peyote, a cactus from which mescaline is extracted, is an integral element of many Native American tribes’ spiritual pharmacopeia, Mazatec tribes have been using magic mushrooms in healing rituals for as early as 5000 B.C. in some tribes it is believed that they only grow where the blood or saliva of Christ fell, Yage, or ayahuasca, is used as sacrament in many shamanic traditions and is important in strengthening spiritual relationships.
Humphry Osmond coined the term ‘Psychedelic’ in 1956, meaning ‘mind manifesting’. But he is also known for a study he conducted in the late 1950s in which he attempted to treat alcoholics by replicating an episode of delirium tremens using large doses of LSD, this came to be known later as the psychedelic treatment model. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the scientific circles were big on psychedelics, testing them on prison convicts, people with ADHD, post-traumatic stress, end-of-life crisis, for therapeutic then later on artists and scientists in order to explore creativity, in other words, almost anyone who has seen a doctor; we may not know the extent of psychedelics. In 1970, scientific researches on psychedelics came to halt, after being put on Schedule 1 by the Controlled Substances Act. 40 years later, they are back.
In April 2016, researchers from Imperial College London published pictures of the first brain scan of LSD effects. The study focused on the two known aspects of a psychedelics trip; the hallucinations and shift in consciousness. Under LSD, the different regions in the brain communicate, when they don’t normally do, in particular with the visual cortex, correlated with reduced blood flow in the ‘default mode’ neuronal network; which causes disintegration in the sense of self; ego-loss. “Before the 1960s, LSD was studied for its potential therapeutic uses, as were other hallucinogens” stated David Nutt –one of the study’s lead researchers- in an interview with Nature (International weekly journal of science), “for brain researchers, studying how psychedelic drugs such as LSD alter the normal brain state is a way to study the biological phenomenon that is consciousness.”
This study is one of many being conducted in universities across North America and Europe. Psychedelics are now getting serious attention and not taken lightly. A ‘psychedelic renaissance’ is echoing from columns in Psychology Today to a story in The New Yorker. In a video by WeAreChange, filmed at the 2015 Free Your Mind conference, Dennis McKenna –a ethnopharmocologist and trusted voice in the psychedelic subculture- said, in reply to whether he believes that there had been a progressing understanding of psychedelics: “there is a psychedelic renaissance right now, and I think that’s happening in part, because people sense we are in crisis, and they sense maybe ayahuasca or other psychedelics are the answer to this, in the sense that they help change hearts and minds.”
The usefulness of psychedelics is beyond just an interesting subject for scientific research, or simply as a religious sacrament. A psychedelic trip reminds us somehow that what we think we are or what we know is not the only thing there is, and that we are all, in a sense, part of the same thing. Mystical concepts like the Third Eye or higher consciousness, though reoccurring in the psychedelia subculture, are taken with a pinch of salt. In a sense, the whole concept of spirituality is reinvented in nonreligious terms by detaching the ideas from the beliefs surrounding them, into their raw form. Some may even argue that with the falling impact of religion, psychedelics might just be the next moral guidance. This is not to say that we may have finally found something we can excess without being harmed. We are at a relatively early stage in the discovery of both the human mind and the extent of psychedelics, and these substances have potential as tools to guide us in a whole new ocean that we know very little about.