The article How Interdisciplinary Research Could Reveal Psychedelics’ Blind Spots was originally published on Microdose.
Most psychedelic research is focused on neuroscience and biochemistry — pharmacological action within the human body. The data we have represents a scientific paradigm we feel comfortable in and that works within our legal paradigm. While it’s not perfect, a reductionist scientific method has brought medicine a long way. Clearly, concepts like neuroplasticity, neurogenesis, and the default mode network are useful frameworks for studying psychedelics.
Yet, psychedelics seem to have a knack for pushing us outside of our comfort zone. A point well illustrated by Leor Roseman in the recent editorial, Psychedelic Sociality: Pharmacological and Extrapharmacological Perspectives.
Dr. Roseman and co-editors Michael Winkelman, Katrin Preller, and Evgenia Fotiou compiled studies to stimulate conversation around “psychedelic sociality.” The topic has been discussed in psychedelic anthropology, but less so in neuroscience and therapy circles. Roseman explained:
“Most psychedelics are used in social settings like festivals, raves, rituals, or simply with friends in nature – but psychedelic research is skewed on the individual. This narrowing limits our scientific understanding of those molecules.”
Psychedelics and Social Bonding
Tradition dictates ceremony as the default psychedelic container, which usually means taking psychedelics as a group. Indigenous practices tend to show us effective ways to use psychedelics and now, Roseman is putting forward modern ideas regarding why psychedelics in a social context are effective.
One example included in the editorial is an online survey conducted by Martha Newson et al of people who attended illegal “free-parties” and raves. The rave environment was chosen because the use of psychedelics is fairly accepted and attendees associated the experience with personal growth and transformation.
The experience of dancing to music as a group on psychedelics induced awe. Bonds also formed between ravers, and the survey suggested this led to increased pro-social behaviour — actions rooted in empathy and directed towards helping others.
The potential for group bonding and transformation is relevant because one of the greatest mental health challenges in the modern world is a sense of alienation, the feeling that they are isolated from others. The survey doesn’t present enough data for psychiatrists to prescribe a week at Burning Man, but Dr. Roseman calls for the acknowledgement that psychedelics in a social context is a pathway worth examining.
Bonding as an Evolutionary Strategy
The editorial explains that our need to bond is likely an ancient survival mechanism. For ancient tribes, cooperation was a necessity and there is some speculation that psychedelics could have been part of ancient social structures.
The paper Psychedelics, Sociality, and Human Evolution by Arce and Winkelman, explores some ideas that make one think of Terence Mckenna’s “Stoned Ape Theory” a hypothesis that the evolution of human consciousness was triggered with early humans tripping on magic mushrooms. Arce and Winkleman are clear that in their view McKenna’s ideas are likely false — but that doesn’t mean early humans didn’t experiment with shrooms.
Arce and Winkelman highlight how the “social-amplifying” effects of psychedelics might have been an evolutionary advantage. The suggestion is that psilocybin facilitated stronger relationships that resulted in exchanges of information and skills, which could give early humans certain advantages.
Exactly how influential psychedelics are on human history is a tricky point to prove. Still, Arce and Winkelman bring up a neat idea: the 5-HT2a receptor, a serotonin receptor connected with the mechanisms of the psychedelic experience, might play a role in how humans socialize and cooperate. Stimulation of the receptor could make relations, group decisions and even the influence of stories more impactful.
As Roseman puts it “humans are story-telling animals, and stories can become visions and vice versa.” Imagine being on a psychedelic, feeling a bond with the people around you while attributing greater meaning to their actions, stories, or music they are sharing, it becomes a very multifaceted and meaningful experience.
The interplay of these dynamics even goes a step further — that all of this is happening within the greater context of culture.
Cultural Values Influence Psychedelics
Setting is usually assumed to be the immediate environment where psychedelics are taken. But social relationships expand beyond even the most well-designed clinics or raves. When we consider political climates, societal values, media influence, education, and countless other variables, we get a variety of human storylines that make up our culture.
All of these factors are filtered through an individual’s experience, and such constructs don’t go away when you put on eyeshades and a playlist. Psychedelics don’t contain new information; they can only work with what is already there.
Pace and Devenot illustrate this point in their “Right-wing Psychedelia” paper, where they describe psychedelics as “politically pluripotent.” Meaning psychedelics have no set political orientation — contrary to old drug war propaganda warning that LSD turns people into hippies who will try to save the planet.
Pace and Devenot argue that changes or understandings people experience on psychedelics have to do with the political constructs they exist within. For example, neo-nazi groups that took copious amounts of acid but, likely only strengthened their radical beliefs.
And political bias is just one example. The amount of potential beliefs and bias carried into a psychedelic experiment can start to make the head spin — the amount of moving parts is significant. But Roseman assured Microdose examining all the variables is necessary:
“Each discipline limits our understanding of psychedelics in its framework. But psychedelic research wants to transcend that, which is obvious by the wide cross-disciplinary research about psychedelics.”
Psychedelics as a Window into Interdisciplinary Research
Roseman and co-authors point out that language, books, symbols, music, and beliefs all influence the psychedelic experience. Drawing boundaries around these influences might be detrimental to psychedelic research as they are the very factors that define it.
But how to approach the task? Roseman unpacked the scope further, saying:
“Essentially, psychedelics are a biopsychosocial intervention. To do good psychedelic research, psychopharmacology, psychiatry, and neuroscience should interact with the set and setting experts (psychology, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, etc.) Such interaction can reveal the blind spots of each discipline and create better research and therapy.”
Psychedelic Sociality and Group Therapy
Roseman also describes how good therapy needs to be relational, not one-way communication. He emphasizes the importance of creating sustainable integration models, perhaps the most urgent issue in the current psychedelic landscape. The care and community found within the support of groups hold potential for sustained, long-term change that so many people are seeking from psychedelics.
But the point is that the potential for change extends beyond individuals or small communities. Many of the problems we struggle with in modern life are larger social and environmental factors. Psychedelic sociality could be a piece to that puzzle. While we all know psychedelics aren’t a magic bullet, that doesn’t mean they can’t influence society at large. Roseman sums up the potential nicely:
“In a sense, therapy can become a form of activism, as it aims to change unhealthy contexts and not just adjust individuals to such contexts.”
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