Psychedelics as Psychiatry

by Andrew Braverman

Dr. James Fadiman graduated from Harvard with a B.A. in psychology and went on to earn an M.A. and Ph.D. from Stanford in the same field. While living in Paris with friend and former professor Richard Alpert (Ram Dass), he was introduced to psilocybin, more commonly known as magic mushrooms, sparking his interest in psychedelics. Fadiman would later pen “The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide: Safe, Therapeutic and Sacred Journeys,” a de facto Psychedelics for Dummies that highlights the best practices to ensure a positive journey on psychedelics. He co-founded the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, now known as Sofia University, served as president on the Association for Transpersonal Psychology and as director at the Institute of Noetic Sciences. In the ‘60s, Fadiman was part of an organization called IFAS (International Foundation for Advanced Study) that researched the potential for psychedelic drugs to aid problem-solving ability.    

This research was abruptly halted one summer day in 1966 when IFAS received a mandate from the Food and Drug Administration demanding that all administration of LSD to test-subjects cease immediately. IFAS’s aspirations to discover the potential of LSD would have to be put on hold. However, Fadiman’s fascination with the subject never went away.

Fadiman does not come off as your quintessential Crimson alumnus. He speaks with a warm and relaxed precision. When I asked if he used LSD, he quickly insisted that that was “not really important,” ensuring that he learned most from the diverse body of reports he’s received from self-experimenters. He seems to be motivated by a truly altruistic quest, frustrated with the byzantine inflexibility of so many in our country towards a group of drugs that he belives could improve the lives of millions. 

The tumultuous relationship between the world of psychedelic drugs and the United States government is undeniable. In the case of LSD, otherwise known as “acid” or “lucy,” which was first synthesized by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann in 1938, this dynamic is especially clear. Lysergic acid diethylamide was first isolated from the fungus ergot, which grows on rye. Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, psychiatrists experimented extensively with the drug, attracted to its ability to induce psychosis-like states.  In the early ‘50s, U.S. government researchers concluded that LSD “is capable of rendering whole groups of people…indifferent to their surrounding and situations, interfering with planning and judgment, and even creating apprehension and…terror.” Some saw LSD as a potential chemical weapon. 

Within two decades, LSD and similar psychedelics were condemned to a criminal status, rendering research on these substances to be near-forbidden. After he published his book in 2011, Fadiman compiled a rough research design for LSD use, asking experimenters to report their findings to him. “People want to do a self-study, [and are] using the smallest and safest doses that we know of,” Fadiman explains. “[In many cases] they’re discovering that... it helps with their anxiety and depression.” 

Timothy Leary, a psychologist recognized by many as a father to the psychedelic ‘60s, experimented with psilocybin and LSD during his time as a professor at Harvard. Leary famously encouraged a generation of flower children to “turn on, tune in, drop out,” promoting free thought and the shedding of norms.  Instead of deploying mass doses of acid on foreign armies to incapacitate them, Leary envisioned a more productive and psychiatric future for LSD, a future where depression and anxiety could be combatted by utilizing psychedelics. One where you could forget about your morning coffee or your Ritalin prescription because consuming a small fraction of a normal LSD dose in the morning can wake you up, enrich your creative drive and keep you focused through a full day of work. 

A microdose of LSD, aproximately 10 micrograms, is about one tenth of a standard hallucinatory dose. For magic mushrooms, it’s about .2 to .5 grams, and for mescaline, it’s 50 to 70 micrograms.  Microdosing gathered momentum within the scientific community when Fadiman introduced it at a conference for psychedelics in 2011. Fadiman claims that it is unequivocally the “safest use yet discovered” of psychedelics and that “there are no psychedelic effects” when microdosing. The proposition signals a marked departure from traditional psychedelic exercise, from a time when consumption was all about achieving life-changing, supreme cosmological visions and insights. The idea is to forgo those transcendent experiences where you hear of people conversing with goo-globs from planet Vulcan. Instead, these small doses of psychoactive drugs have been reported by many to offer various benefits, including but not limited to: an improvement in mood, wakefulness, creativity, patience, mental clarity, focus, problem solving, compassion and sense of connection to those around you. It allows a user to “get in the flow more easily, and stay there for longer” in Fadiman’s words. 

Some of these neurological effects were published in an Imperial College London study revealing the first images ever captured of neural activity on LSD. Scientists observed that the brain’s proclivity to compartmentalize and communicate poorly between different regions was reversed when under the effects of 75 micrograms of LSD.  Participants experienced a sort of “ego-death,” where they sensed a “dissolution of self” and a greater feeling of interconnectedness with the world around them.  To any of the 26 million Americans that have taken LSD since its criminalization in the US, the results of the study may seem an obvious “discovery.”

“What did they expect to find?” Fadiman offered with a chuckle. However he did affirm the value of this study, positing that with “the game these days…anything you can throw neuroscience into you get credit,” and this ICL research gave LSD some of that reputable credit it needs.

Fadiman said he has received a dozen messages from women (of the hundreds of self-experimenters) who explained how microdosing 10 micrograms of LSD during their period had significantly improved what were usually very painful cramps. Many self-experimenters have reported that LSD also enhances their problem-solving ability. Others say that it has helped them overcome their dependence on antidepressants. Dr. Hofmann, who discovered LSD, grumbled that LSD could be what Ritalin is today, had it not been so harshly restricted. 

Hofmann himself microdosed for at least the last 20 years of his life, living to 102 and giving two-hour lectures up to two years before his death. The FDA categorized LSD as “Schedule 1,” meaning it is considered extremely dangerous with no medicinal benefits and a high potential for addiction. Heroin is also classified “Schedule 1.” Fadiman noted with an undertone of distaste that LSA, whose effects are indistinguishable from LSD, is “Schedule 3.” This example demonstrates his belief that the “schedule has nothing to do with reality.” 

In the Fadiman-propagated template for self-experimentation with small “subperceptual” doses of LSD, he suggested that “people [who] want to self-study” should stick to a regimen that involved micro-dosing on day one, and taking two days off before repeating. This regimen is calculated with what Fadiman called “the feeling-better” effect in mind. He uses this term to express the improvement in mood that has been widely reported even after the psychedelic has stopped being totally active. The dosing regimen is also a product of avoiding an accumulation of a tolerance towards these drugs. For many of these self-experimenters who are already prescribed SSRI’s or similar prescription medications, microdosing psychedelics has cooperated well with the other substance and “people find they need less of their psychiatric medications,” said Fadiman.  

Thousands of optimistic observations on microdosing should not divert an onlooker from the benefits that the psychedelic voyages of larger doses can offer. According to its proponents, taking a normal-size or larger than normal dose of a psychedelic can still supposedly confer medical benefits, just by different means. Fadiman explains that as dosage size increases, so does the importance of what he calls “setting, set and guide” which respectively mean one’s surroundings during an experience, mindset during that experience, and another person experienced with unusual states of consciousness that can help confront challenges and “channel insights.” It is during these experiences that many people have reported achieving great insight and self-discovery; effects that galvanize achievement of greater peace and happiness.  

In his last novel “Island,” Aldous Huxley envisions a world where drugs are utilized for self-enlightenment, overcoming addiction and combatting depression. The culture of expectation, necessity of success and self-importance that have evolved as societal paradigms in the West breed a population riddled with anxiety, depression and addiction. LSD could be the solution. But the “Schedule 1” label clouds an entire genre of drug with stigma, it is swept into a forbidden category from which it is very difficult to emerge.

For this reason, the therapeutic application of psychedelics like LSD, magic mushrooms and more remains relatively unknown. These substances could change lives for the better, whether through psychiatric aid or just enhancement of interpersonal compassion. Shrouding them in anti-drug rhetoric akin to a “Reefer Madness” campaign amounts to ignorant neglect. Fadiman has witnessed a widespread contempt of alternative psychoactive medicines. When he directed friends towards medical marijuana for pain management, he heard “No I won’t, [weed] is bad.”  These dismissals capture the macro-attitude towards psychedelics all too well: a presumption of unhealthiness, irrationality and deserving of no place in modern medicine. It’s tough to imagine how these attitudes continue to dominate the American impression of psychedelics when 400,000 to 600,000 new Americans try LSD annually. This narrative seems primed to change as major universities around the world start to pursue and study psychedelic drugs. Fadiman is confident that even though many have known the effects of drugs like LSD for a long time, the accomplishment of “fitting [those findings] into current scientific method” will accelerate the research. 

As the brain imaging from the Imperial College London study revealed, if this momentum for examining the benefits of psychedelics (microdosing or otherwise) continues, it could absolutely reshape the pharmaceutical climate. Those in the drug reform movement note that psychedelics are close behind marijuana on the road to a broader acceptance and coalescence with established medicine. We may be headed for a Huxleyian future where acid and mushrooms do not equate to “bad,” “hippie” or “unhealthy,” but instead connote health, happiness and well-being.