For years, the field of mental health has been largely barren of meaningful treatment advances. But now, scientists have new hope in the least likely of places: psychedelic drugs. Recent research suggests that certain psychedelic substances can help relieve anxiety, depression, PTSD, addiction and the fear surrounding a terminal diagnosis.
“The biggest misconception people have about psychedelics is that these are drugs that make you crazy,” says Michael Pollan, author of the new book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. “We now have evidence that that does happen sometimes — but in many more cases, these are drugs that can make you sane.”
In the interview below (and video above), Pollan talked with TIME about the therapeutic promise of the drugs, their fraught history and the sheer terror he felt after smoking toad venom.
Walk me through a brief history of psychedelics.
If you ask people about psychedelics or LSD, they’re going to think about the psychedelic ’60s — Timothy Leary, this flamboyant psychology professor who was at Harvard for a few years, studying psilocybin and LSD, and then telling everybody they should take it in a very public way. The drugs kind of escaped the laboratory and were embraced by the counterculture.
The result was a full-scale moral panic against the drugs. President Nixon said Timothy Leary was the most dangerous man in America, which is pretty amazing for a washed-up psychology professor. But before that, there had been more than a decade of very promising research using these drugs in a therapeutic context in a very responsible way.
What do psychedelics do to the human mind?
The honest answer: nobody quite understands. We’re really just at the beginning of exploring that frontier. But psychedelics appear to diminish activity in one very important brain network called the default mode network. That network is very involved with operations having to do with our sense of self: how we integrate what’s happening to us in any given moment, with our abiding sense of who we are.
The interesting thing about psychedelics, both LSD and psilocybin — the ingredient in magic mushrooms — is that they take this network offline. When that happens, you have this sensation of ego-dissolution: that your self is evaporating or dissolving. And that seems to lead to new connections in the brain temporarily forming. Your emotion center starts talking directly to your visual cortex, let’s say, and you see things that you’re hoping or fearing. New connections are made that could produce new insights, new perspectives, new ways of looking at the world.
Your book talks a lot about the scientific approach to psychedelics. What do scientists believe that psychedelics can offer people?
The feeling among the scientists is that these chemicals allow us to essentially reboot the brain. If the brain is stuck in these narrow grooves of thought — whether it’s an obsession or a fear or the story you tell yourself — all those deep grooves that lock us into patterns of both thought and behavior are dissolved and temporarily suspended in a way that allows us to break those patterns.
What psychedelics do you think show some therapeutic potential?
There are two drugs that show the most potential and will probably be legalized for medical use soon. One is a drug that isn’t always considered a psychedelic: MDMA, also known as Ecstasy or Molly, which has been shown to be incredibly useful in the treatment of trauma, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in soldiers or in rape victims. A study recently came out that showed great effectiveness at treating those problems. That’s very encouraging, and that may be the first of these drugs to get approved.
The second is psilocybin. It appears to be very useful in the treatment of anxiety, depression and addiction in both smoking and alcohol.
What happens to a person who has these mental health issues after they take a dose of psilocybin in clinical trials?
Well, it’s important to remember that when psilocybin is used in a medical and healing context, it’s very different than the recreational use of the drug. This isn’t doctors giving you a pill and sending you out into the world. For a period of four or five hours, you are in a room that’s decorated like a cozy den or study. You’re lying down on a couch, you have eye shades on and headphones, which are playing a very carefully curated playlist to make you go inside to have an internal experience. And you’re with two guides at all times, who are there looking out for your interests. It’s an incredibly safe environment in which to let down your defenses, and that’s essentially what happens.
All of our customary defenses that we use to deal with life and the world will be suspended for a period of time, and that creates this opening, this plastic moment where people can reexamine themselves and get some perspective on their habitual ways of thinking and doing.
Then, you come out of this experience, which can be very difficult for some people. It’s not all fun and games. Some people are put in touch with childhood traumas, some people have encounters with death — it can be very dark.
But with the help of the guides, you use that material and try to understand it. After the session, you always come back the next day and have what’s called a period of integration, where the guides, who are trained therapists, help you interpret what happened and figure out ways to put it to good use in changing your life.
How do some people change after taking psilocybin in clinical trials?
One of the big questions about this is: what endures from this experience? One of the interesting studies they did when they crunched the data on the first groups of people who had had a guided psilocybin session was that these were adults, but one of their personality traits that psychologists call openness — openness to other people’s views, openness to new experience, openness to new ideas — increased. To find an actual measurable change in personality as adults is a very unusual finding. Normally, our personalities are fixed by the time we’re in our 20s. But here was a very positive aspect of personality that could change and did change.
You tried various psychedelics for the book. Tell me about your best journey. What did it feel like?
My best was a fairly high-dose psilocybin journey that I had with a guide, a woman in her 50s who was a very skilled therapist and who worked in other modalities as well. I had to work with someone illicitly, and I learned that there is a thriving underground of psychedelic therapists. These are serious professionals, but they are doing something illegal.
What was stunning about it was I had an experience of complete ego-dissolution. I reached a point where my “self” just kind of fell apart into these little pieces of paper. I saw myself get scattered to the wind, but I was all right with it. I didn’t have any urge to stack the papers back up together. Then I looked out; I saw myself spread over the landscape as a coat of paint. And I was fine with it.
The consciousness that was perceiving all of this was not my usual ego. It wasn’t upset or defensive or trying to do anything. It was dispassionate, objective. And I learned a really important lesson in that moment, which is that I’m not identical to my ego. My ego is one of a couple of characters in my mind, and not always the best. The ego is very important — the ego got the book written. But it’s also what punishes us, what keeps us locked in our grooves of thought, and it’s what defends us against the world and against our own consciousness.
What was your worst journey?
My worst journey was on this psychedelic called 5-MeO-DMT, which is the venom of the Sonoran Desert Toad. Apparently you can milk the toad repeatedly and kind of squeeze the glands on its side or its arm onto a sheet of glass. It dries overnight and looks like brown sugar crystals. Then you smoke it, and it’s instantaneous. Before I even exhaled, I felt like I’d been shot out of a rocket.
I had not only the experience of ego-dissolution, but the dissolution of everything: of my body, of any kind of perceiving consciousness, of material reality. It was all gone. It was just a pure Category 5 storm of energy, and I didn’t know where I was in it. I felt like I was in the middle of an atomic blast or in a world before the Big Bang, when there was only energy and not yet matter. These are metaphors that don’t begin to capture how horrifying it was. I thought this could be death — this could be what it’s like to leave your body, because I had lost my body.
The best thing about this trip is it only lasted about 15 minutes. After a period of time, I felt a perceiving “I” kind of come back. And then I could feel my body. I was like, wow! This is so great, I have a body, and then there’s a floor. And there’s stuff that’s back — matter is back. I ended with this incredible feeling of gratitude such as I’d never felt — not just for my own existence, not just for life, but for anything, that anything exists, that there is something rather than nothing. So I guess that’s a valuable takeaway, but I had to go a long way to have it. And I wouldn’t wish that experience on anybody.
Did you feel your personality changed after trying these drugs?
I kind of feel like I went back to baseline. My wife thinks it’s changed in some ways. Not in a profound way, but I think she would say that I’m more open and more patient, that I deal with emotional situations with a little more availability.
I think she may well be right. Simply spending this much time observing my mind and having experiences where I got to sneak up on it in various ways does have an effect. It’s the same effect that 10 years of psychoanalysis probably would have, although it didn’t take me nearly that long.
How do psychedelics bring together the worlds of science and spirituality?
We often think about science and spirituality as these opposed terms, but in fact a lot of this research is forcing scientists to deal with spiritual questions, and some spiritual people to deal with scientific questions, which is very exciting.
The very first study in the modern era of psychedelic research, of any importance, was a 2006 study done at Johns Hopkins by a scientist named Roland Griffiths, a very prominent drug-abuse scientist. He found that what the psychedelics did in about 80% of cases was induce a mystical experience, which is a spiritual experience that was studied closely by William James 100 years ago. It has various aspects to it. Prominent among them is this dissolving of a sense of self, but that is followed by a merging with the universe, or with nature, or other people. It’s called the noetic sense — this sense that what you’re seeing or feeling or learning on this experience has the status of revealed truth. It’s not just an opinion — it’s objectively true.
We see this experience all over religious literature: people who have had an experience of meeting with the divine. These traits are common, and the fact that you could induce such a spiritual experience with a single administration of a drug was quite remarkable. These people reported that this experience was one of the top two or three in their lives, comparable to the birth of a child or the death of a parent. Now that we can actually induce a spiritual experience using a drug, we can study the phenomenon.
How has the experience of writing this book changed your mind about death?
It made me more curious and a little less afraid. I wouldn’t say it eliminated my fear, and I wasn’t trying to do that, but I was able to kind of look at it with this equanimity.
On this psilocybin trip, I saw the faces of people close to me who had died over the last few years. You understand why traditional cultures would take plant medicines to reconnect with the dead. You can see them and talk to them and they can talk to you. I’m not saying this is a supernatural phenomenon. It’s a psychological phenomenon — at least that’s how I understand it. It made people who were gone more present in my life, and I’m happy for that. I wrote this book during a period when my dad was dying. He had terminal cancer, and I dedicated this book to him before he died.
One of the things the psilocybin research is doing is helping open that conversation — to make people more comfortable talking about it, to get patients to actually deal with it. Oncologists don’t do a very good job of that, and we have very little for the treatment of the psychology of people who are dying. So a drug that takes you into these spiritual realms where you can begin to think it through seems to me an enormous gift.
What role are psychedelic drugs going to play in your life going forward?
I don’t know if they’ll play any role moving forward. I had the experiences I needed to have. I met people who have a psychedelic experience once a year on their birthday, and that seemed about right, to do that sort of stock-taking. But the drugs are illegal, and now I’m out talking about it publicly, so that option has been closed to me until they’re made legal.
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Astronomers observe cosmic steam jets and molecules galore
A team of scientists using the highest-frequency capabilities of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) has uncovered jets of warm water vapor streaming away from a newly forming star. The researchers also detected the “fingerprints” of an astonishing assortment of molecules near this stellar nursery.
The ALMA telescope in Chile has transformed how we see the universe, showing us otherwise invisible parts of the cosmos. This array of incredibly precise antennas studies a comparatively high-frequency sliver of radio light: waves that range from a few tenths of a millimeter to several millimeters in length. Recently, scientists pushed ALMA to its limits, harnessing the array’s highest-frequency (shortest wavelength) capabilities, which peer into a part of the electromagnetic spectrum that straddles the line between infrared light and radio waves.
“High-frequency radio observations like these are normally not possible from the ground,” said Brett McGuire, a chemist at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Virginia, and lead author on a paper appearing in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. “They require the extreme precision and sensitivity of ALMA, along with some of the driest and most stable atmospheric conditions that can be found on Earth.”
Under ideal atmospheric conditions, which occurred on the evening of 5 April 2018, astronomers trained ALMA’s highest-frequency, submillimeter vision on a curious region of the Cat’s Paw Nebula (also known as NGC 6334I), a star-forming complex located about 4,300 light-years from Earth in the direction of the southern constellation Scorpius.
Previous ALMA observations of this region at lower frequencies uncovered turbulent star formation, a highly dynamic environment, and a wealth of molecules inside the nebula.
To observe at higher frequencies, the ALMA antennas are designed to accommodate a series of “bands” — numbered 1 to 10 — that each study a particular sliver of the spectrum. The Band 10 receivers observe at the highest frequency (shortest wavelengths) of any of the ALMA instruments, covering wavelengths from 0.3 to 0.4 millimeters (787 to 950 gigahertz), which is also considered to be long-wavelength infrared light.
These first-of-their-kind ALMA observations with Band 10 produced two exciting results.
Jets of Steam from Protostar
One of ALMA’s first Band 10 results was also one of the most challenging, the direct observation of jets of water vapor streaming away from one of the massive protostars in the region. ALMA was able to detect the submillimeter-wavelength light naturally emitted by heavy water (water molecules made up of oxygen, hydrogen and deuterium atoms, which are hydrogen atoms with a proton and a neutron in their nucleus).
“Normally, we wouldn’t be able to directly see this particular signal at all from the ground,” said Crystal Brogan, an astronomer at the NRAO and co-author on the paper. “Earth’s atmosphere, even at remarkably arid places, still contains enough water vapor to completely overwhelm this signal from any cosmic source. During exceptionally pristine conditions in the high Atacama Desert, however, ALMA can in fact detect that signal. This is something no other telescope on Earth can achieve.”
As stars begin to form out of massive clouds of dust and gas, the material surrounding the star falls onto the mass at the center. A portion of this material, however, is propelled away from the growing protostar as a pair of jets, which carry away gas and molecules, including water.
The heavy water the researchers observed is flowing away from either a single protostar or a small cluster of protostars. These jets are oriented differently from what appear to be much larger and potentially more-mature jets emanating from the same region. The astronomers speculate that the heavy-water jets seen by ALMA are relatively recent features just beginning to move out into the surrounding nebula.
These observations also show that in the regions where this water is slamming into the surrounding gas, low-frequency water masers – naturally occurring microwave versions of lasers — flare up. The masers were detected in complementary observations by the National Science Foundation’s Very Large Array.
ALMA Observes Molecules Galore
In addition to making striking images of objects in space, ALMA is also a supremely sensitive cosmic chemical sensor. As molecules tumble and vibrate in space, they naturally emit light at specific wavelengths, which appear as spikes and dips on a spectrum. All of ALMA’s receiver bands can detect these unique spectral fingerprints, but those lines at the highest frequencies offer unique insight into lighter, important chemicals, like heavy water. They also provide the ability to see signals from complex, warm molecules, which have weaker spectral lines at lower frequencies.
Using Band 10, the researchers were able to observe a region of the spectrum that is extraordinarily rich in molecular fingerprints, including glycolaldehyde , the simplest sugar-related molecule.
When compared to previous best-in-the-world observations of the same source with the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory, the ALMA observations detected more than ten times as many spectral lines.
“We detected a wealth of complex organic molecules surrounding this massive star-forming region,” said McGuire. “These results have been received with excitement by the astronomical community and show once again how ALMA will reshape our understanding of the universe.”
ALMA is able to take advantage of these rare windows of opportunity when the atmospheric conditions are “just right” by using dynamic scheduling. That means, the telescope operators and astronomers carefully monitor the weather and conduct those planned observations that best fit the prevailing conditions.
“There certainly are quite a few conditions that have to be met to conduct a successful observation using Band 10,” concluded Brogan. “But these new ALMA results demonstrate just how important these observations can be.”
“To remain at the forefront of discovery, observatories must continuously innovate to drive the leading edge of what astronomy can accomplish,” said Joe Pesce, the program director for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory at NSF. “That is a core element of NSF’s NRAO, and its ALMA telescope, and this discovery pushes the limit of what is possible through ground-based astronomy.”
August 2018 Mars Bright and Large but Low in the Sky
by Pat Browne
Recently, a Night Sky Friend recently wrote me to me…:
Looking at Mars lately and wondering if you have already or are intending to open up the telescope for a look at that….
Mars has just passed its closest approach to Earth (July 31 2018) . It is the very bright orangey planet (much brighter than a star) in the low southeast, rising after Jupiter and Satun. It has also just passed the point of opposition. See https://millstonenews.com/2014/04/night-sky-course-planets-earth-and-orbits-around-the-sun.html
- The best times to view an outer planet is in the opposition configuration which happens whenever the outer planet lines up with Earth away from the Sun’s glare .
- The best oppositions are those in which the planet is close to the earth (measured in A.U.s- the distance between the Earth and the Sun) This is seen in the diagram below where the distance between Mars and Earth in late July 2018 is just 0.39 A.U.s
This year, 2018, the Mars apparition is similar to the one in 2003 known as the ‘Super-Mars’. Every 15 years or so, the geometry works out that we pass Mars while we are near aphelion (the farthest distance from the sun) and Mars is near perihelion (its closest distance from the sun). When that happens, our two planets are at their minimum distance from one another. When Earth passes a more distantly orbiting planet on the “inside track”, that planet appears in our sky opposite to the sun, … That planet will rise in the east as the sun sets in the west. And because we are closer to it, it will shine brighter than at any other date and look larger in binoculars or a telescope.[courtesy Mars Mania means Opposition…
Why is Mars so low when we see it near opposition in the Northern Hemisphere?
Mars is bright and close, but for observers in the Northern Hemisphere, this event happens in the summer . Since Mars has to be opposite the Sun for opposition; conditions are such that
- In the Northern hemisphere, during the summer season, the Sun is high in the sky, that means that…
- Planets visible in the night sky in the summer at northern latitudes are low in the sky when they transit. These planets are away from the glare of the Sun – so opposite the Sun – Sun achieves a high altitude in Summer, planets visible in the northern hemisphere at night have a low altitude. Celestial objects are best viewed high in the sky so that we don’t have to look through a lot of humid atmosphere to observe them.
- Observers in the Southern Hemisphere have a much higher, clearer view of Mars at this time.
Mars – The previous Super-Mars opposition in 2003
Recall that 2003 was the summer of the “Super-Mars” opposition, and a legendary bad-astronomy fake ‘fact’ found its way into the media. People read that Mars would be “the size of the moon”. In fact, this is probably due to a mis-quoting of the astronomy column in the Old Farmer’s Almanac written by Bob Berman. Bob confesses:
“Not that Mars is immune to hype. In August 2003, we had the closest martian visit in more than 50,000 years, and in the Old Farmer’s Almanac, where [Bob Berman has] been the astronomy editor since forever, I wrote that through any telescope at a mere 100x Mars would look bigger than the naked eye Moon… The fake “Mars is bigger than the Moon” business every single summer stems from that Old Farmer’s Almanac article, with the part about “through the telescope” omitted. [courtesy Astronomy Magazine, August 2008, p. 12).
Observing Mars when it’s disk is largest
So what does this mean…that Mars at a perihelion opposition will appear to be 1/2 degree in a telescope when viewed through a telescope with 100x magnification?
Consider how Mars might look in a telescope when its disk is the largest)and compare this to just looking up (without a telescope) to see the Moon when a large portion is lit.
- Mars at 2018 opposition had an apparent size of 24.4″ (arc-seconds). When we look at Mars through a telescope with an eyepiece providing 100x magnification, that makes it 2440 arc secs (24.4) secs or slightly less than 1/2 degree.
- Moon waxing/waning Full: When we look up at the sky, naked eye, the Moon takes up less than a degree over the entire sky.
Recently I went out, and tested this perception. I used a 100x eyepiece for my scope; For a Pentax XL eyepiece http://www.nightskyinfo.com/eyepieces/#4 the apparent field of view is around 65 degrees. I could count maybe 30 mars diameters on either side of the image; so the apparent size of the disk in the eyepiece was approaching around degree: 65 deg / 60 (mars diameters). Still very small in the eyepiece but not as small as a point source like a star.
Naked Eye Observing – measuring angles in the Sky
When I hold my arm at arm’s length and extend my pinky finger out to the disk of the moon, the finger covers the moon . The moon has an angular measure of 1/2 degree, or 30 seconds of arc. Hold your pinky out over the moon and it will block it from your field of view. These hand measurements help you approximate angular measures in the sky when you are star-gazing with the naked-eye.
Observing Mars through a Telescope
Mars, unlike Saturn and Jupiter, is very difficult to observe when it comes to seeing features and detail on the planet. It requires patience and repeated viewing to confirm that you have seen what is shown in, for example, the Mars Profiler provided by Sky and Telescope: https://www.skyandtelescope.com/wp-content/plugins/observing-tools/mars_profiler/mars.html
At 100x I was unable to see these features. It simply looked like an orange disk with perhaps a hint of a darker shade running across the central portion – perhaps Syrtis Major. I suspect that it takes much higher power and large aperture to tease out any features on Mars.
Perhaps that’s why it’s important to try and observe it when the diameter of the disk is near maximum. Try to observe it soon: because our interplanetary distance increases dramatically through September and October, reducing the elusive portrait of the planet to a disk diameter of 11 ” by the end of October.
One can simply enjoy the colour and the brilliance of Mars night after night, with the naked eye, as it retrogrades its way (moving West to East every night) along the low-slung ecliptic.
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