Existential Medicine

When I was about seventeen, I flirted briefly with hallucinogens. OK. I took drugs. Most people did, I expect – at least, most of the people I hung out with. I didn’t take them because I had any particularly deep scientific interest, observing dispassionately the effect they had on my awareness – yes, I had read ‘The Doors of Perception’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland’ – not in that order – but they were hedonistic times when we were all looking for whatever it was out there that we couldn’t quite find. Mostly, we got smashed to see the colours.
At about the same time, I discovered faith.
It was interesting in consequence to pick this story up today. According to the New York Times, there appear to be similarities between hallucinogenic experiences and the life-changing revelations reported throughout history by religious mystics and those who meditate. These similarities have been identified in neural imaging studies conducted by Swiss researchers and in experiments led by a professor of behavioural biology at Johns Hopkins. H’m I wonder how the selection criteria were identified. The arguments look rather circular and subjective to me. How, for example, does one define or measure a ‘profound spiritual experience’ since by its very nature it often eludes definition.
In one study, however, involving less than forty people with no serious physical or emotional problems, it was found that psilocybin could induce what the experimental subjects described as a profound spiritual experience with lasting positive effects for most of them. None had had any previous experience with hallucinogens, and none were even sure what drug was being administered.
Experimental monitors sometimes had to console people through periods of anxiety, but these were generally short-lived, and none of the people reported any serious negative effects. In a survey conducted two months later, the people who received psilocybin reported significantly more improvements in their general feelings and behaviour than did the members of the control group.
Studies on patients with end-of-life anxieties and cancer patients seem to have been beneficial
The findings were repeated in another follow-up survey, taken over a year after the experiment. At that point most of the psilocybin subjects once again expressed more satisfaction with their lives and rated the experience as one of the five most meaningful events of their lives.

I am left with two conclusions. There’s a great deal I (or we) don’t know and I wonder where I can get hold of some mushrooms….


One thought on “Existential Medicine

  1. I think the key element here is the perception that life is improved by the experience whether spiritual or pharmaceutical. Keeps both the Church and the drug industry profitable I guess.


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