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    A New Understanding – The Science of Psilocybin

    The documentary film A New Understanding features interviews with participants in three different studies who underwent experimental psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy treatment sessions, as well with the clinicians, researchers and other professionals involved. The film includes direct references to psychosocial implications. This analysis expands on and adds to these with the use of related research, details directly from the publications of the studies in the film, the film’s interviews, its supplemental panel discussion, and from a recent presentation given by Jeffrey Guss on the NYU Psilocybin Cancer Research Project’s primary clinical outcomes.

    Psilocybin is the active component of psychedelic mushrooms and has been safely used in experimental settings to reliably induce religious-like, peak, or mystical experiences, and produce long-term relief from anxiety and depression after a single treatment, along with improvements in attitudes, moods and personality. Mystical experience (ME) refers to a phenomenon involving the frequently awe-inspiring dissolution of the boundaries of the self, and, in the words of William James, “an immense spreading of the margin of consciousness, so that knowledge ordinarily transmarginal would become included,” bringing “a mass of subconscious memories, conceptions, emotional feelings, and perceptions of relation, into view all at once,” often resulting in profound joy, ecstasy or rapture. ME is considered important, if not central, in the varieties of religious experience, and exists as the core foundation in the perennial philosophy, a philosophy of cross-cultural spirituality.

    MEs are measured retrospectively as altered states of consciousness (ASC) with subjective questionnaires examining the following psychometric factors: sense of unity/oneness (dissolution of the boundaries of the self; the core of MEs), visionary restructuralization (visions, psychedelic phenomena), timelessness, noetic quality, sacredness, ineffability, and paradoxicality. Such scales have served to further understand psychosocial and neuropsychological implications of naturally-occurring as well as drug-induced MEs, and are central factors discussed in this analysis. Research demonstrates that it is for its potential to reliably induce these experiences that psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy sessions often leave a profound and lasting impression on the patient, taking place as the most, or among one of the five most meaningful experiences of their lives, with higher scores in ASC measures, indicative of “full mystical experience,” being strongly correlated to positive therapeutic outcomes.

    Cancer diagnoses are commonly accompanied by depression, anxiety, existential (or psycho-spiritual) distress, and demoralization syndrome, especially in the terminally-ill, characterized by the loss of sense of meaning, loss of hope, a sense of being a burden to others, loss of dignity, loss of will to live and desire for hastened death. Depression, anxiety, and social isolation may contribute to the development and progression of disease, such as to the onset and mortality of cancer. In response, interventions focused on cultivating meaning and improving spiritual well-being and quality of life have been helpful in protecting against and treating these conditions. Spirituality as a term has recently been medicalized for these purposes, referring to “the way individuals seek and express meaning and purpose and the way they experience their connectedness to the moment, to self, to others, to nature, and to the significant or sacred,” according to the Report of the Consensus Conference on spirituality in palliative care. In line with these premises, the primary psychosocial platform used in NYU’s psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy study was meaning and the rediscovery of meaning.

    The subjects are here paired to their studies for context: Matt was a volunteer for the NYU Psilocybin Cancer Research Project which examined the safety and efficacy of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy on psychosocial distress with advanced and/or recurring cancer. Annie was a volunteer for the UCLA Psilocybin study which examined the safety and efficacy of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy as a treatment for psychological distress associated with the existential crisis of terminal disease. Sandy was a volunteer in a Johns Hopkins University psilocybin study which investigated the effect of mystical-type experiences occasioned by psilocybin on the attribution of personal meaning and spiritual significance. Due to a mix of overlapping aims and methods in these studies, some generalizations have been made when accurate and useful for this analysis.

    All studies in the film began with 1-3 preparatory psychotherapy sessions to allow each patient to tell their stories, build a therapeutic alliance, undergo a meaning-making intervention and life review exercise, and prepare them for the dosing session. A male + female dyad trained to devote reverent, focused attention to their actions and intentions then accompanied the patients throughout each 6-8 hour psilocybin experience. Dosing sessions occurred in a welcoming, comfortably furnished room, and patients were invited to lie down on the bed, put on eye shades, listen to carefully pre-selected instrumental music, and direct their attention inward and encouraged to lean into negative states if they occur. Follow-up integrative psychotherapy sessions helped patients contextualize and understand the experience, and prepare them for re-adjustment to the end of the therapeutic relationship.

    Results from these studies, and others like them, reveal a remarkable and sustained relief from anxiety, depression, and existential distress. Concomitantly, improvements were observed in mood; psychological and spiritual wellbeing; personality; attitude towards self, life, disease progression, and death; pain perception; life-satisfaction; quality of life; with altruistic/positive social effects; and moderate to extreme positive behavioral changes. No psilocybin-attributed serious adverse events occurred, and there were no medical nor psychiatric side-effects. Positive therapeutic outcomes are most strongly associated with: intensity of Visionary Restructuralization, depth of ME, experience of epiphany, lasting memory of the experience, and sense of love:

    “a loving kindness towards self, a love for people in their lives and people earlier in their life, and then this broader sense of universal or cosmic or God love.”

    Bossis mentions in the panel discussion that these therapies can help patients relieve guilt, grief and work through anger. In the film, Sandy re-experienced and grieved her father’s death for the first time: “I was just a sobbing mess during the session. Sobbing. And I experienced it as waterfalls. My body--I was a waterfall. It was just flowing. It was like my heart cracked... My heart cracked open." Sandy then re-experienced vivid memories of her husband and saw in him "a core of divinity," a sense which she has retained ever since. These experiences contain visionary restructuralizations (VR), wherein episodic memories are experienced at a similar level to external stimuli, in fact interrupting it, emerging from the hippocampi and flooding the visual and temporal cortices. The result is a lifelike surfacing of varying levels of psychodynamic and autobiographical content. Music enhances this effect by increasing the connectivity between the hippocampi and primary visual cortex, and psychedelics have been found to enhance emotional response to music.

    In his session, Matt had a vision of whirling dervishes spinning to the Turkish tune that was playing, “and the faster they spun, the closer they felt to God--or the pinnacle of love--or whatever it is.” VR vividness is most strongly correlated to experience of meaning and significance, and to measures of subjective well-being at follow-up. Psilocybin’s propensity to facilitate episodic recall in this way may help patients explain and understand fears and better deal with pain, akin to the acceptance and mindfulness strategies applied in acceptance and commitment therapy, in which patients are encouraged to open up and explore their unpleasant emotions and their causes.

    The long-term reductions in pain and anxiety may be accomplished through a process of primary re-appraisal, leading to more healthy responses to distressing thoughts and experiences. With the eye-shades off, for example, Matt re-appraised frightening masks hung up in the room instead as “designed to scare the fear out of you,” and added that psilocybin could help “take people out of feeling paralyzed and filled with fear.” Annie expressed a loss of rumination about death and about medical procedures. Matt echoed this, stating "I feel I can die now with peace in my heart." It is possible that reductions in pain perception may be explained by a decrease in stress, which is known to contribute to the development and exacerbation of disease. Some similarities can be seen comparing neuroimaging results of psilocybin state to those of deep meditation. However, these reductions in pain occur after a single treatment, in contrast to many years of meditation training.

    Other explanations could include a modification of the neuromatrix, in which the self is viewed as distinct from its surroundings and “the perception of unity of the body with all of the surrounding qualities felt from the body, including pain.” The core feature of ME is a sense of unity and oneness, characterized by a dissolution of the boundaries of the self. It is possible that this temporary disruption in the neuromatrix could alter self-perception and therefore the experiences of pain and distress. How exactly this occurs in the brain is still a matter of debate. So far, at least three neuroscientific observations have been correlated with psilocybin-induced sense of unity: First, a reduction in thalamic gating, allowing for internal and external stimuli to flow throughout the brain; Second, a disintegration of the normal anti-phase relationship between active and resting brain states (the task-positive and default-mode networks) characterized by greater interconnectivity and tightly synchronized communication between their respective anatomical regions; Third, reduced amygdala activity.

    These models of altered states of self-perception together or separately hold possible explanations for why psilocybin affects things like pain, anxiety and depression. Alternatively, psilocybin may reduce pain through its potent anti-inflammatory properties due to its high activity at the serotonin-2A receptor. Still, immunosurveillance can help prevent disease progression, and the complex immunomodulatory effects of psilocybin are not well understood. Pain has been implicated in disrupting interpersonal relationships, in affecting the ability to engage in work and maintain healthy economic circumstances, in contributing to depression and anxiety, and in the propensity for substance abuse. Analogously, recent pilot studies discovered strong improvements in psilocybin-assisted treatments for tobacco and alcohol dependence. The capacity of psychedelics to produce lasting changes in the experience of pain could present promising avenues for future research.

    Another factor implicated in disease progression (also for a number of other illnesses), is social isolation and lack of social support. Even when social support is available, interpersonal distress often accompanies cancer diagnoses. Hopelessness, helplessness and pessimism contribute to poor psychosocial adjustment and well-being. Recent research finds psilocybin effective for reducing social pain, enhancing empathy, and increasing optimism. In the film and in the contributor panel, doctors witnessed in their participants a transformation and healing of interpersonal relationships. After Annie's diagnosis, she became irritable and started quarreling with her husband, who was her primary caretaker. When she returned home, her husband said that “it was like someone had put on a light bulb inside of Annie’s head. She was literally glowing,” and found that she was no longer irritable. Similarly, Guss describes Matt’s transformation as an “experience of being profoundly loved. Bathed in light and love and a security that stayed with him throughout the remainder of his life. And he went from being somebody who could not let himself be taken care of to somebody who could depend on others and let others love him.”

    This experience appears to be common and may contribute to trusting in health care providers, which could affect adherence to medical procedures. These examples, including Sandy’s re-acquaintance with her husband, display how psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy can have important implications beyond the individual, into social and interpersonal domains, and could result in improved social support. Concurrently, psilocybin has been found to acutely increase levels of oxytocin, which may improve the ability to manage stress, and could contribute to increased trust in the health-care providers and better adherence to their recommendations. A recent study found a moderate lasting increase in personality trait Openness, and that 90% of patients reported increased psychological and physical self-care, after a single psilocybin session, and that these changes were recognized by family members.

    The profound effects of this therapy on depression and anxiety, for the individual and those around them, along with its short-term duration compared to traditional psychotherapy, provides rich research opportunities that could lead to dramatically reduced cost of palliative and health care. The researchers hope to eventually make psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy available to those with diagnoses of depression or anxiety, and not only to the terminally ill.

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    Psychedelics and end-of-life care

    The active ingredient in magic mushrooms was given to terminal cancer patients: 80% had immediate reductions in anxiety and depression which persisted for six months or longer. We think that's because psychedelics can change entrenched ways of thinking that people might otherwise not be able to tackle on their own.

    Today, in a ground-breaking development in the field of psychiatry, 2 new studies were published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology showing that a single dose of psilocybin – a powerful, naturally occurring psychedelic compound found in “magic mushrooms” – can radically improve the well-being and positivity of terminally ill cancer patients.

    The research, completed at NYU and Johns Hopkins, gave participants diagnosed with advanced cancer a moderate to high dose of psilocybin in a controlled environment with support from highly qualified guides. Results demonstrated immediate and marked reductions in their levels of anxiety and depression that, remarkably, still persisted 6 months later in 80 per cent of the participants.

    Presently, end-of-life care consists of counseling and pharmaceutical treatments, such as antidepressants, to quell feelings of isolation, depression and anxiety commonly associated with a diagnosis of terminal illness. However, most medications can take months to start working and are not effective for all patients. Commonly prescribed drugs such as benzodiazepines may be addictive and can have other unpleasant side effects.

    The approach highlighted today, known as “psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy” makes use of the “magic mushroom” ingredient psilocybin. Various studies using this approach over the last decade have shown that giving people psychedelics, with the support of psychotherapy, can provide fundamental and enduring changes much quicker than counselling alone. As a result, in recent years, psilocybin has received increasing attention in the clinical and scientific research communities.

    Earlier this year, the Beckley/Imperial Psilocybin and Depression study showed that two low to medium doses of psilocybin reduced depressive symptoms in 67 per cent of participants, with 42 per cent remaining depression-free after three months. Participants in this study had all suffered from depression for at least 18 years and been completely unresponsive to any other forms of treatment. Next year, a larger, placebo-controlled study will be conducted to verify these findings.

    And that’s not all. In addition to the focus of psychedelic-assisted therapy for depression and anxiety, the Johns Hopkins team also conducted a pilot study investigating smoking addiction treatment with psilocybin. Results showed 80 per cent of the smokers still hadn’t had a cigarette at the six month check-up.

    Interestingly, the research showed that people were most likely to successfully stop smoking if they reported having mystical experiences on the days they were treated with psychedelics. These experiences were variously described by people as “mystical”, “spiritual”, “ego-dissolution” and “feelings of oneness”. It seems that when people reported these feelings, it correlated with a transformation of previously entrenched thoughts patterns that made them keep repeating the same negative habits.

    It is possible that it is this aspect of the experience that enables cancer patients to alleviate the anguish associated with their diagnosis. “In some ways, I feel that I am better equipped to deal with what life throws at me, and to appreciate the good things. I'm grateful to be alive in a way that I didn’t know I could be,” said Eddie Marritz, a participant in the NYU study. “It’s a kind of gratitude that’s ineffable. I am much more focused on this moment.”

    The research being done with terminal cancer patients adds to the growing collection of evidence of psychedelics’ therapeutic potential and indicates a significant development of an exciting new model of mental health treatment. Scientists are discovering that psychedelics change consciousness in a unique way that has the tremendous potential to revolutionise the field of psychiatry.

    “The most interesting and remarkable finding is that a single dose of psilocybin produced enduring decreases in depression and anxiety symptoms, and this may represent a fascinating new model for treating some psychiatric conditions,” said Dr Roland Griffiths, lead investigator at Johns Hopkins.

    As larger Phase III clinical trials are conducted, it is clear that this new model could help countless people worldwide who are seeking a long-term solution for their psychological suffering.
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    Individual experiences in four cancer patients during psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy

    A growing body of evidence shows that existential and spiritual well-being in cancer patients is associated with better medical outcomes, improved quality of life, and serves as a buffer against depression, hopelessness, and desire for hastened death. Historical and recent research suggests a role for psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy in treating cancer-related anxiety and depression. A double-blind controlled trial was performed, where 29 patients with cancer-related anxiety and depression were randomly assigned to treatment with single-dose psilocybin or niacin in conjunction with psychotherapy. Previously published results of this trial demonstrated that, in conjunction with psychotherapy, moderate-dose psilocybin produced rapid, robust, and enduring anxiolytic, and anti-depressant effects.

    Here, we illustrate unique clinical courses described by four participants using quantitative measures of acute and persisting effects of psilocybin, anxiety, depression, quality of life, and spiritual well-being, as well as qualitative interviews, written narratives, and clinician notes. Although the content of each psilocybin-assisted experience was unique to each participant, several thematic similarities and differences across the various sessions stood out. These four participants’ personal narratives extended beyond the cancer diagnosis itself, frequently revolving around themes of self-compassion and love, acceptance of death, and memories of past trauma, though the specific details or narrative content differ substantially. The results presented here demonstrate the personalized nature of the subjective experiences elicited through treatment with psilocybin, particularly with respect to the spiritual and/or psychological needs of each patient.


    Victor was a male in his 20s employed as a full-time graduate student at enrollment. He was raised Jewish, but renounced his faith when he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma during his sophomore year of high school. At the time of his diagnosis, Victor felt that “God had failed him,” and that his “sense of bodily invulnerability had been shattered.” When he enrolled in the trial, he was a self-described atheist and had used LSD previously. Victor was in remission at the time of enrollment but was afflicted by anxiety and fear of possible recurrence. His study therapists noted that Victor described severe anxiety, including intermittent panic attacks and constant worry about his survival. At screening, he was diagnosed with Adjustment Disorder with Anxiety, Chronic.

    At the start of his psilocybin session, Victor reported seeing “geometric patterns,” with his eyes closed. He was then led on a journey by a felt presence, what he described as a “spirit guide.” “I would experience a different emotion in each part of the experience, and when that emotion became overwhelming... This spiritual guide came in through the music.” He witnessed his own conception, birth, and death, and described a vision in which he watched his family at his own funeral while feeling a “tremendously painful” helplessness. Victor noted that his session was dominated by emotional experiences and that, “Whenever the affect would become overwhelming… the spirit guide would blast me out of that experience into a new setting.” Victor then said, “I didn’t have a body… I was just like this soul, this entity,” and spoke of himself shopping for a new body. The only body he could pick was his own, what he later described as a representation of the resolution of his issues with his body and illness.

    "I saw everything that has happened to my body, all the food I have eaten, the drugs I have taken, the alcohol I have drunk, the people I have had sex with, the chemo, the exercise, everything that has ever happened to my body. I took it in at once, then I made this decision. Like okay, I need a body to go on, so I will choose this body. So I kind of accepted this body, and at this point I was no longer this soul spirit entity. It became me, integrated my mind into my body."

    After Victor chose his body, he recalled, “There was something on top of the mountain, call it God, call it some divine entity calling me to come up this mountain… it was like a spiritual calling.” Victor asked his “spirit guide” if he could meet him. Ultimately, the “spirit guide” returned and said that God wouldn’t meet with him yet, but delivered a message that if Victor is loving and kind to other people, he might be able to meet God one day. Toward the end of the session, the “spirit guide” transformed into Victor’s father, who reassured him that everything was going to be okay. Before the end of his session, he encountered several people who he loved that had passed away, and they all shared their love for him.

    His data showed decreased anxiety, and increased purpose in life, spirituality and death transcendence. In a follow-up interview, Victor stated “I would say I have less anxiety about my body and my sickness coming back, my cancer coming back…I saw this body for what it’s worth, I picked it, it’s mine… I think that acceptance has been liberating.” With regards to his increased spirituality, Victor stated, “I am convinced beyond any doubt that there is a spiritual realm…The spirit guide showed me a world that I believe to be very, very real.” When asked how the experience changed his attitude toward his cancer, he responded, “It is what it is…it’s not worth worrying about things you can’t change.”


    Tom was a Christian male in his 50s employed full-time in human resources upon screening. Shortly before enrolling in our trial, Tom was diagnosed with Chronic Myeloid Leukemia. At screening, he met diagnostic criteria for Adjustment Disorder with Anxiety, Chronic. Tom had never used psychedelics at the time of enrollment.

    During his psilocybin session, Tom reported seeing an inhuman, aggressive female face that he felt would bite him, given the chance. The female face transformed into a less-threatening male figure that invited him to “start” his psychedelic experience. Following this, Tom explained how the music from the study’s pre-selected playlist influenced his experience. “I started not just hearing, but playing the music. My entire body was the musical instrument for every sound which was coming through my head.” At one point, he removed his eye-shades to go to the bathroom and described seeing strobe-like flashing colors. He experienced visual-auditory synesthesia; he described “seeing” the music as red, blue, and green three-dimensional abstract shapes. For the next part of his experience, Tom described a sense of all-knowingness, “There is nothing to fear after you stop being in your body …it’s absolutely no hell or heaven, it’s just nothing to be afraid of.” He also detailed being surrounded by an “overwhelming feeling of love... I felt the urge to let people know to stop silly things and that nothing matters but love.” Tom described his experience as exhausting, but felt that he gained a greater appreciation for life and simultaneously lost his fear of death.

    Tom showed moderately decreased anxiety and depression, hopelessness, demoralization, and death anxiety. “I don’t have a fear of death – I mean, I don’t have any desire to die…I am more interested in life now than ever before…death in itself does not scare me,” he stated. His religiousness and spirituality data showed insignificant changes, which is illustrated qualitatively in his follow-up interview: “It was not religious in a traditional sense at all, I mean there were no religious figures.” Though Tom experienced moderate benefits in anxiety, depression, demoralization, and death anxiety, he was underwhelmed. When asked about how his experience has affected his life, he replied, “to be honest with you, not much…I mean, it was intense, it just…was not life-changing, and I heard, for some other people, that it was.” However, despite his lackluster claim, he admitted that he discovered, “there’s nothing but love. Like the Beatles song, ‘All you need is love,’ that’s very true.”


    Chrissy was a female in her 50s, diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer with metastases in her lungs. She was a self-described atheist and employed full-time as an administrative supervisor in the healthcare industry at baseline. She had never been married or had had children, and she lived alone. She had used both psilocybin and LSD in her past, and received a diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder upon screening.

    During her qualitative interview, Chrissy said that she knew she was beginning to experience the psilocybin effects when she could “see music,” something she described as beautiful, comforting and amazing. She remembers being surrounded by the cosmos, spirits and light, and hearing words inside her head, in a voice different from her own, saying, “we are here all together,” a phrase she interpreted as welcoming her into this psilocybin-induced state. She describes a part of her experience:

    "I was seeing these kind of stone faces, and they were beautiful, and they would kind of come to dust, and then they would come back up, and then they would come back to dust, so I kind of think of that as like, that’s the nature of life… it rises and falls; that’s the normal way it is."

    Chrissy experienced strong themes of unity and connection during this session as demonstrated by the following quote: “I felt like I could reach out to anybody and connect with them.” At one point, Chrissy saw a Ferris wheel, which she interpreted as a circle in which “life comes from death and death comes from life.” Chrissy experienced her own birth and explained, “I remember breathing, feeling my breathing, and then kind of feeling that I was coming up against a membrane of some sort. Then at some point, I came through to it, and that was just amazing.” She spoke about feeling pain in her abdomen, where her cancer was, and experienced this as her “umbilical cord to the universe.” She expressed, “this was where my life would be drained from me some day and I would surrender willingly when my time came.” Though Chrissy experienced a sense of being at peace with death, she went on to explain that she “chose to live,” and that the experience helped her reach this decision.

    Chrissy experienced significantly decreased anxiety, depression, death anxiety, hopelessness, demoralization, and increased purpose in life, spirituality, and death transcendence. Chrissy said, “At one point I asked, ‘Is there going to be a cure for cancer?’ It doesn’t matter. We’re all going to die – doesn’t change it. That was my answer.” When prompted on a follow-up questionnaire whether her religious or spiritual beliefs had changed since her psilocybin session, she replied, “The psilocybin experience brought my beliefs to life, made them real, something tangible and true – it made my beliefs more than something to think about, really something to lean on and look forward to.”


    Brenda was a female in her 60s who had stage I colon cancer, her second lifetime cancer diagnosis (she was in remission from uterine cancer) at enrollment. She was a full-time working professional and identified as an atheist at the time of her enrollment. Brenda was divorced and had two adult children. Upon screening, she identified as psychedelic-naive and met criteria for Adjustment Disorder with Anxiety, Chronic.

    Brenda’s psilocybin experience was a “roller-coaster kind” of train ride. She described the music as being an important catalyst throughout her journey. She discussed a comforting “whirring” sound throughout the beginning of her experience that she felt was “taking her in.” At one point, Brenda felt she was contently lying on a damp cloud and thought to herself, “If this is the way it’s going to be, it’s going to be really interesting. This is going to be really amazing. And I’m ready to go.” From there, she described feeling outside of time and space, “I felt out of space and time in a way that was really, really, really comforting and beautiful.” Brenda described an experience of interconnectedness and unity, “I was the cloud, I was everything, and that was the theme throughout the whole [experience], that I was all this –this was me. And it was so wonderful… to believe that. And I still do- that is me.”

    Brenda also felt as if she experienced her own death on two separate occasions during the experience and emerged both unafraid of death and viewing it as a beautiful component of existence. On the first occasion, she said, “I went into this black area and it was just wonderful... I just thought to myself... I think this might be what people experience when they die.” Her second encounter with death included seeing, “This brick thing that was a lot of bricks, and I realized this was a kind of crematorium... I was just part of this big beautiful world... and that’s what’s going to happen when I die... maybe death is a beautiful thing.”

    Her experience also unearthed childhood memories of sexual assault that she realized remained unhealed. Brenda acknowledged the study as a catalyst to begin healing from this trauma. Her data depicted decreased anxiety and death anxiety. When questioned on how the session altered her life, she responded, “What’s so funny is that nobody can really see it, but yet, for me, everything has changed…I feel more contented and happy about my place in the world in all the things I’m doing.” Her data also showed an increase in spirituality, as illustrated in her follow-up interview; “So I think that’s also opened up to me tremendously – a spiritual piece. And I’ve never been religious; I’m not religious particularly at all. And I feel like I’ve really connected with a spiritual side in myself as well.” After the trial, Brenda became interested in pursuing her relationship with this new aspect of herself, and began seeking out opportunities to recollect and re-experience elements of the experience through meditation. She said:

    "I’ve been exploring whether I can bring back other sensations from it…I have been able to, and I’ve been doing a lot of meditating. I got into meditating afterward because it was like, ‘I just don’t want to lose this,’…I have a house up by a mountain monastery and I went up there, and it was very comforting to connect that way… I really felt like there was a real connection with Buddhism and meditation and the psilocybin experience for me. And I’ve been doing that everyday."

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    Can psychedelic drugs help us to accept death?*

    Some of the most valuable and promising research that's been conducted with psychedelics has been in the area of treating the terminally ill.

    From 1967 to 1972, studies with terminal cancer patients by Stanislav Grof and colleagues showed that LSD combined with psychotherapy could alleviate symptoms of depression, tension, anxiety, sleep disturbances, psychological withdrawal, and even severe physical pain that was resistant to opiates.

    It also improved communication between the patients and their loved ones.

    Considering that the dying process is probably the most universally feared of all human experiences, that the death of loved ones causes more suffering in this world than anything else, and that death appears to be an inevitable fact of nature--it seems like it might be a good idea to pay attention to what researchers have learned about how psychedelics can help to ease the dying process.

    The Tibetan Book of the Dead--a religious manual about how to navigate through post-corporeal space, which is read to Tibetan Buddhists as they're dying--is also known for its uncanny parallels to the psychedelic experience.

    Many believe that psychedelic experiences can not only give us insight into what happens after we die, but that they actually model or simulate the afterlife experience to a certain extent.

    Researcher Rick Strassman's studies at the University of New Mexico with the psychedelic DMT, and physician Karl Jansen's work with the dissociative psychedelic ketamine, may provide evidence for the type of biochemical and psychological changes that occur in the brain when we're dying, as they appear to simulate some important features of the near-death experience.

    When I asked Rick how he thought the DMT experience is related to the near-death experience, he replied, "I hypothesize that DMT levels rise with the stress associated with near-death experiences, and mediate some of the more 'psychedelic' features of this state."

    For many, death is the hardest thing to face about life, to accept that our time here is temporary. People successfully ignore thinking about this for much of their lives, but I think it's vital to always remember that every moment is sacred, each second precious.

    Maybe there are wonderful new and everlasting adventures awaiting us after we die. After experiencing the powerful mind-altering perspective the psychedelic experience, it's hard for me to believe that consciousness doesn't continue on in some form--but, of course, this could all be a magnificent illusion.

    However, despite the ever-mysterious metaphysical truth hiding inside us about the ultimate source of consciousness, the dying process itself appears to be significantly eased by psychedelic therapy. So we can all be thankful for this, and rejoice that these promising therapies are once again being explored by modern medicine.

    The final subject in the first clinical LSD study since 1972 completed his last experimental therapy session on May 26, 2011. This was the first clinical LSD study in over 35 years. The Santa Cruz-based MAPS sponsored the research, which began in 2008, by Swiss psychiatrist Peter Gasser.

    Gasser's LSD study was conducted in Switzerland, where LSD was discovered in 1943 by Albert Hofmann. The study examined how LSD-assisted psychotherapy effects the anxiety associated with suffering from an advanced, life-threatening illness. There were twelve subjects in the study with advanced-stage cancer and other serious illnesses.

    Researchers found that LSD-assisted psychotherapy has the extraordinary ability to help many people overcome their fear of death, and this is probably a major contributing factor in why the drug can be so profoundly helpful to people facing a life-threatening illness.

    When asked if there was something psychedelics could teach us about death, philosopher Richard Alpert replied, "Yes, absolutely. One quote stands out in my mind. It was from a nurse who was dying of cancer and had just taken LSD. She said, "I know I'm dying of this deadly disease, but look at the beauty of the universe.""

    *From the article here: https://webcache.googleusercontent.c...:PrVLMYd6RbAJ:

    The Flight of the Soul (1850) by Louis Janmot
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    Preparing for the final passage: Dr. Oscar Janiger, M.D.

    In the early 80s, Albert Hofmann said he had to introduce me to one of the most interesting people he had ever met, who also possessed one of the most amazing libraries he had ever seen. From our auspicious introduction to the moment of his passing, Dr. Oscar Janiger, affectionately known as Oz, and I remained dear friends, passing countless hours together in conversation at each of our homes and on several exploration-vacations.

    Oz was one of the original pioneers of LSD research, focusing on its effects on creativity, consciousness, and therapeutic use. Working in the era when LSD was still legal, he administered LSD to an estimated 1,000 people in guided sessions from 1954 to 1962. His many volunteers included such notables as Anais Nin, Aldous Huxley, Cary Grant and Jack Nicholson. A prolific researcher, Oz maintained extensive files, which still provide an unparalleled and largely untapped resource for the study of the creative and therapeutic effects of LSD.

    Oz was one of the world’s greatest conversationalists and storytellers. Oz would pepper his many stories with jokes that almost always offered a pithy insight into human nature. His Santa Monica house, which also served as his private practice office, was always open, a manifestation of Oz’s approach to life. One could walk in, day or night, and more often than not meet and converse with an exceptionally interesting person, many of who became immediate friends.

    Oz always stressed that it was important to maintain an attitude of inquisitiveness and openness to the world. He had a remarkable ability to be both non-judgmental about people and at the same time quickly and clearly see and understand the core nature of their being. During the course of his life he helped and saved the lives of numerous persons through his psychiatric practice and friendship.

    In this article, written to address the subject of death and dying, it is worth noting that some two hundred family, close friends and associates attended his private memorial, in testimony to the effect he had on so many lives. In my remarks on that occasion, I mentioned some Oz-ism’s, as I refer to his freely shared pearls of wisdom. Amongst them, “when taking medicine, take plenty,” “find your optimum sleep/awake cycle,” and most relevant to this discussion, nothing that wise men have written or said prepares one for the approach of one’s death.” As Oz himself reached a point where he could see death on the horizon, he experienced what he described as one of the worst, if not the worst, experiences of his life. On February 17, 2001, six months before his own death, he awoke to find his wife Kathleen lying dead next to him. The experience affected him deeply and drove home to him his impending fate in a way that nothing else could.

    Perhaps in a premonition of writing this article, I made some notes at the time of our discussions during a holiday dinner on December 12, 1999, about a year and a half before his death. Oz was reflecting on his now all-consuming experience of the later stages of Old Age, an aspect of the process of dying that he found himself poorly prepared to deal with. What follows in the next two paragraphs is a paraphrasing of his words from that evening’s discussion.

    Old Age, at least in the West, is treated as a disease. There was nothing he had found in Western culture, nor in the various teachings of many otherwise more enlightened cultures, that prepared one for the onset of Old Age, and the changes that occur during the final period of life. From the people Oz had spoken to, or whose writings he had read during the course of his uniquely rich life, from disciples of Eastern metaphysical systems to the Dalai Lama himself, none had enunciated anything that would help one prepare for the effects of late Old Age. Nothing had prepared him for the effect of waking up and realizing he now lacked sufficient energy to carry out daily intentions, to work on the projects that had been the mainstay of his life, and to help the patients he had devoted much of his life to serving. Especially in the West, one no longer has the authority that one once had.

    Where one once served, he or she must now be served. It is in many ways a complete reversal of one’s prior existence. Students of Eastern teachings seem to rely on being to carry them through this period, but even they can only meditate or bask in the ecstasy of pure being for so long, as one still has a foot in existence. Many teachings and religions attempt to prepare one for death and the possibility of “something more,” but what about the preparation for Old Age? Preparation on all levels: from having sufficient material resources to provide for one’s physical care, to the spiritual resources that enable one to gracefully navigate through each precious day, knowing it is one of your last–is sorely lacking from any source.

    When discussing death with his friends, Oz never expressed fear about dying, but he was concerned about how he would die. He did not want to be in pain, and had made preparations to ensure that. He also did not want to die alone, and had asked his dearest friends to be at his side when the moment arrived. Oz believed in something beyond death. He explained that at death we transition to another plane of being, so when the moment came, he was prepared to accept this next stage. Three days before his death, he confided to his long time friend, Michael Levy, that he was “really tired, tired of being ill, and was no longer getting any gratification from life.” In the early hours of August 14, 2001, a small group of family and friends gathered around Oz in his private hospital room, maintaining a vigil of warmth and compassion, friendship and love, as he moved nearer and nearer to his final transition. In the hours before his passing, we became aware of his final conscious act as a researcher. Not one to miss an opportunity for exploration of consciousness and being, Oz was determined to depart in the tradition established by his friend and colleague Aldous Huxley. Oz had taken 100 micrograms of LSD.

    While it is highly unlikely we will receive any reports from Oz about his last experiment, we can gather implications of the effect the LSD had on him from three incidents we observed during his final hours. Oz had previously asked his dear friend Vijali Hamilton, to be by his side when he passed away, and her report of what occurred in his last few hours is worthy of note. “I will always remember those moments when he became conscious and he was looking into my eyes for such a long time. I felt it was a profound communication and a preparation for him letting go.”

    Shortly after that, sensing the time was near, I gave Oz a goodbye kiss on the forehead. Then, as Oz’s son Robbie and I were both gazing into his face, leaning over him so as to be able to see the nuances of expression on his face, a smile formed across Oz’s face as he emitted a palpable glow of warmth and joy. He then grabbed Michael Levy’s hand, squeezing it so hard Michael thought Oz would crush it. Michael closed his eyes and experienced a vision of a spirit going through him, flying through a green English-like field, over a stonewall, into a giant green forest, and then suddenly disappearing into a radiant blue sky. Michael opened his eyes to see Oz’s final exhalation.

    We knew then that his last experiment was a success and he had moved on in peace to “another plane.” I was then moved to begin Tibetan chanting as calm and light emanated from the core of Oz’s being, and the room filled with an ethereal stillness. In honoring the memory of an extraordinary being, we can only hope that the honesty and openness with which he shared the experiences of his final days, can serve as a stimulus to awaken us to the preparation necessary to weather the months, days, and hours before our own final voyage.

    Other elders, who have communicated their wisdom on life’s end, usually focus their attention on preparations for the moment of death itself. Oz, on the other hand, focused attention on the stage between the end of Old Age and death, a critical period in everyone’s life when our physical powers diminish, but we still have sufficient intention to engage in conscious action. He understood that what we do during that time is an individual choice. So rather than give specifics of how to handle this period, he illuminated our awareness to help us distinguish and prepare for this time, short for some, longer for others, that falls between the end of Old Age and the moment of death. For Oz, this final period preceding death was one of, it not the, most critical times in his life, and for the gift of sharing that wisdom, we owe a debt of everlasting gratitude to Oz.

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    The Tibetan Book of the Dead and The Psychedelic Experience

    Undoubtedly the best-known text concerning itself with the afterlife and the process of reincarnation is the Bardo Thoedol, popularly known as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. This book, in a translation by W.Y. Evans-Wentz, served as the text which Leary, Alpert and myself used as the basis for our guidebook on psychedelic states, The Psychedelic Experience, first published in 1964. In the years since its publication I have received many letters and comments to the effect that while most actual psychedelic experiences did not follow the idealized sequence of three stages laid out in the Bardo Thoedol, what people appreciated about our manual were the recommendations to think of the psychedelic experience as an opportunity for psycho-spiritual practice and learning.

    The original Bardo Thoedol, is attributed to the legendary 8th century Indian Buddhist adept Padmasambhava, who brought Buddhism to Tibet. According to Buddhist scholar (and erstwhile participant in the Harvard psychedelic studies) Robert Thurman, who has published a more recent translation, the title of the work should more accurately read The Great Book of Natural Liberation Through Understanding in the Between. “Between” (as a noun) is Thurman’s translation of the term bardo, – a somewhat odd linguistic choice for the concept which Evans-Wentz translated as “intermediate state.” Actually, there are three bardo states described in the Bardo Thoedol as being between life and death; and there are three additional bardo states, mentioned in appended Root Verses, that occur between birth and death – the waking life, dreaming and meditating.

    Thus, the term bardo refers to what in Western psychology is called a “state of consciousness.” As I point out in my book MindSpace and TimeStream, a state of consciousness is always defined by a division of time between 2 transition points. For example, “sleep” is the state between falling asleep and waking up. Whereas the Indian Vedanta identifies four common states – waking, sleeping, dreaming and meditating, Buddhist teachings mention three, combining the sleep and dream states. In the above-mentioned Root Verses and other Tibetan Buddhist texts, there are descriptions of 6 yogas – practices for becoming lucid and liberated in each (or from each). In recent years, several Tibetan lama-teachers have expounded on the yoga of dreams – and such teachings converge with Western psychological research on the induction of lucid dreaming.

    The Bardo Thoedol concerns itself with providing guidance for the dying person on how to find their way through the three bardo states, giving detailed and explicit instructions how people can be helped to make the most favorable kind of rebirth possible. It teaches that liberation from the samsaric round of conditioned existence can occur in, or from, any of the bardo states, if we understand and remember the teachings, recognize the bardo state we are in, and choose the most enlightened conscious option available to us.

    The teachings of the Bardo Thoedol, in outline, are that immediately at death, in the bardo of the moment of dying, highly proficient meditators who can maintain one-pointed concentration will be able to attain liberation. Most people are not able to concentrate, however, get caught up in fear and confusion and enter into the second phase, called the bardo of the experiencing of reality, in which there are visions of “peaceful and wrathful deities.” The deceased is reminded not to be overwhelmed by either the heavenly or the hellish visions, but to remember that they are all projections of one’s own mind. Due to lack of training and/or preparation on the part of most ordinary people, the bardo traveler, after repeatedly lapsing into unconsciousness, then finds himself in the third phase, the bardo of seeking rebirth, in which he wanders about seeking to orient himself again to ordinary existence.

    Although the Bardo Thoedol does not explicitly mention the prenatal epoch as such, we can find in the teachings of the after-death bardo states some suggestive parallels with findings now emerging out of the work of prenatal regression therapists and past-life therapists. My own understandings of these areas have been deepened by my own participation in such explorations, using psychological, shamanic, yogic and alchemical methods, which I call divinations, for myself and with individuals and groups. At times, my explorations have involved the amplification of perception through psychedelic substances (where this was permissible).

    The work of the prenatal regression therapists has uncovered cellular memories of conception, including the impact of the attitudes and expectations of father and mother at the time of conception. Past-life therapists now speak of a series of learning experiences undergone by the soul during the interlife period, that can be remembered in deep trance states. Prior to what is experienced as the descent into form at conception, there is a meeting with a group of meta-physical human spirits, called the soul council, at which the decision to incarnate is made, according to one’s intentions, choosing the parents and circumstances of one’s incarnation or rebirth.

    According to the Bardo Thoedol, in the phase of rebirth the traveler in the intermediate realms is repeatedly admonished to remember where he is, and that his thoughts and intentions will profoundly affect the kind of experience he/she may have. The deceased is reminded of the six possible worlds of samsara (existence) into which he might find him or herself drifting, carried along by the karmic propensities of their previous existence. They are advised to avoid the hell worlds, and the worlds of pretas and asuras, but, if rebirth is unavoidable, to go with the heavenly worlds of benign spirits (devas) or the human world – considered to be offering the best opportunities for liberation.

    Then follow a series of instructions on how to “close the womb-door,” the point here being to delay the rebirth as long as possible, so that one can prolong one’s stay in the higher planes and avoid being sucked into unfavorable birth forms by one’s karmic propensities. The first method of closing the womb-door is to remember that you are in this bardo of rebirth and to focus on positive intentions: “this is a time when earnestness and pure love are necessary.” The second method of closing the womb-door is used as the deceased has visions of males and females coupling: he/she is to think of them as a divine Father-Mother pair, and withhold from joining them. The third, door involve further ways of dealing with the visions of a man and woman copulating.

    When we wrote The Psychedelic Experience, we interpreted these passages in the Bardo Thoedol as referring to the sexual hallucinations that are not uncommon in psychedelic states. In the light of my subsequent experiences and of the literature on prenatal regression therapy, I now believe that the visions of couples copulating refer to memories of our own conception. In directed hypnotic and psychedelic trance states, people can remember, as souls, choosing the parents and existential conditions of their conception and birth to come and how that choice relates to their life-purpose. I myself have come to understand how my choice of parents of different nations (Germany and England), that were soon to be embroiled in world war, related to my life’s work or mission. I know of artists or musicians, who remember choosing, as souls, to be conceived and born into a family where their artistic inclinations can be nurtured.

    According to the Bardo Thoedol, if after using the various methods of preventing or postponing rebirth by meditating with conscious intention on light, one is still drawn into a womb for birth, the deceased is given instructions for “choosing of the womb-door.” The soul is advised to choose a human birth in an area in which religion prevails, and, “being born so, be endowed with great merit so as to be able to serve all sentient beings. Thinking thus, direct your wish, and enter into the womb.” This is then, the moment of conception, where the soul descends from the higher realm where it has made its choice for a particular incarnation, in a particular family at a particular place and time.

    To summarize, the instructions for the most favorable kind of re-birth, are: to delay the return from the light- and wisdom-filled heaven worlds as long as possible, and when the time comes, which you know by seeing the acts of conception between men and women, to choose a birth family where the likelihood of coming into contact with spiritual teachings are greatest. The end of the interlife period is the beginning of the bardo of rebirth: the decision is made to reincarnate, in a blending of karmic tendencies and conscious choice, and conception takes place in a fleshly human womb. This rebirth phase then ends with the actual physical birth, nine months later, when we start cycling through the three bardos of waking life, dreaming and meditating.

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    A conversation with Stanislav Grof

    by David Jay Brown

    David: How can LSD psychotherapy be helpful for someone facing a terminal illness?

    Stan: Psychedelic therapy revealed a wide array of previously unknown therapeutic mechanisms, but the most profound positive changes happened in connection with mystical experiences. We were very impressed with what you could do with very difficult conditions, like chronic alcoholism and narcotic drug abuse. But the most interesting and the most moving study that we did at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center was the one that involved terminal cancer patients. We found out that if these patients had powerful experiences of psychospiritual death/rebirth and cosmic unity, it profoundly changed their emotional condition and it took away their fear of death. It made it possible for them to spend the rest of their lives living one day at a time. We also found out that in many patients LSD had very profound effect on pain, even pain that didn’t respond to narcotics.

    David: What do you personally think happens to consciousness after death?

    Stan: I have had experiences in my psychedelic sessions – quite a few of them – when I was sure I was in the same territory that we enter after death. In several of my sessions, I was absolutely certain that it had already happened and I was surprised when I came back, when I ended up in the situation where I took the substance. So the experience of being in a bardo in these experiences is extremely convincing. We now also have many clinical observations suggesting that consciousness can operate independently of the brain, the prime example being out-of-body experiences in near-death situations. Some out-of-body experiences can happen to people not only when they are in a state of cardiac death, but also when they are brain dead. Cardiologist Michael Sabom described a patient he calls Pam, who had a major aneurysm on the basilar artery and had to undergo a risky operation. In order to operate on her, they had to basically freeze her brain to the point that she stopped producing brain waves. And, at the same time, she had one of the most powerful out-of-body experiences ever observed, with accurate perception of the environment; following her operation, she was able to give an accurate description of the operation and to draw the instruments they were using. So what these observations suggest is that consciousness can operate independently of our body when we are alive, which makes it fairly plausible that something like that is possible after our body is dead. So both the experiential evidence from my own sessions, and what you find in the thanatological literature, certainly suggest that survival of consciousness after death is a very real possibility.

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    From an interview with Roland Griffiths, Ph.D.

    By David Jay Brown with Louise Reitman

    David: Have you seen anything in your sessions that influenced your understanding of, or perspective on, death?

    Roland: The hallmark feature of the mystical experience, that we can now occasion with high probability, is this sense of the interconnectedness of all things, a sense of unity. That sense of unity is often accompanied by a sense of sacredness, of openheartedness or love, a noetic quality suggesting that this experience is more real than everyday waking consciousness. I believe that the experience of unity is of key importance to understanding the potential existential shifts that people can undergo after having these kinds of experiences.

    Within the domain of the psychology of religion, scholars have described two variations of this experience of unity – something called “introverted mystical experience” and another called “extroverted mystical experience.” The extroverted version of this sense of unity was assessed by items in one of the spiritual questionnaires that we used, the Hood Mysticism Scale. I’ll read you a couple of items. One is, “An experience in which I felt that all things were alive.” Some of the others are: “An experience in which all things seem to be aware.” “Realized the oneness of myself with all things.” “An experience where all things seemed to be conscious.” “An experience where all things seemed to be unified into a single whole.” “An experience in which I felt nothing was really dead.”

    So this feature of mystical experiences points toward the nature of consciousness, and an intuition that consciousness is alive and pervades everything. From there, it is not a great stretch to contemplate the possibility of the continuity of consciousness – or, more traditionally, immortal soul. Such an experience can break down a restrictive sense of being defined by your body, in a total materialistic framework. So I think that it’s these subtle and not-so-subtle perceptual shifts that could be at the core to rearranging someone’s attitude about death.

    David: Is this why you think that psychedelics can be helpful in assisting people with the dying process?

    Roland: It’s common for people who have profound mystical-type experiences to report very positive changes in attitudes about themselves, their lives, and their relationships with others. People report shifts in a core sense of self. Positive changes in mood are common, along with shifts toward altruism, like being more sensitive to the needs of others, and feeling a greater need to be of service to others. It is not difficult to imagine that such attitudinal shifts flow directly from the sense of unity and other features of the mystical experience – a profound sense of the interconnectedness of all things packaged in a benevolent framework of a sense of sacredness, deep reverence, openhearted love and a noetic quality of truth. So it’s quite plausible that the primary mystical experience not only underlies changes in attitude toward death specifically, but also changes attitudes about self, life, and other people in a way that’s dramatically uplifting.

    David: What sort of promise do you see for the future of psilocybin research?

    Roland: I’m trained as a scientist, so I’m very interested in all of the scientific questions that can be asked of this experience. I’m interested in the neuropharmacology of the experience. I’m interested in the psychological and physiological determinants of this kind of experience. And then I’m interested in the consequence of this kind of experience – not only for healthy volunteers, but also for distressed individuals who might have a therapeutic or clinical benefit. Now, whether or not unpacking those scientific questions will lead to approval of psilocybin as a therapeutic drug, I don’t know – and, in some ways, it’s not important one way or another.

    For me, what’s most important is understanding the mechanisms that occasion these kinds of experiences. So I will not argue the future is with psilocybin per se. But it does appear to be an amazingly interesting tool for unlocking these mysteries of human consciousness. As we get a better understanding of the underlying neuropharmacology and neurophysiology, it may be that better compounds or nonpharmacological techniques can be developed that occasion these experiences with even higher probability than we can right now with psilocybin.

    Frankly, I can’t think of anything more important to be studying. As I’ve said, the core feature of the mystical experience is this strong sense of the interconnectedness of all things, where there’s a rising sense of not only self-confidence and clarity, but of communal responsibility – of altruism and social justice – a felt sense of the Golden Rule: to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And those kinds of sensibilities are at the core of all of the world’s religious, ethical, and spiritual traditions. Understanding the nature of these effects, and their consequences, may be key to the survival of our species.

    David: That was precisely the point that I was trying to make when I edited the MAPS Bulletin about ecology and psychedelics. Psychedelics have played such an important role in inspiring people to become more ecological aware.

    Roland: Yes, that follows from the altruistic sensibility that may flow from these types of experiences. Ecology can become a big deal with these experiences. If you really experience the interconnectedness of all things and the consciousness that pervades all things, then you have to take care of other people and the planet, right? And to bring this back around to death and dying, if everything is conscious, then death and dying may not be so frightening. There is a big and mysterious story here.

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    DMT models the near-death experience

    Christopher Timmermann, Leor Roseman, Luke Williams, David Erritzoe, Charlotte Martial, Helena Cassol, Steven Laureys, David Nutt, Robin Carhart-Harris

    Near-death experiences (NDEs) are complex subjective experiences, which have been previously associated with the psychedelic experience and more specifically with the experience induced by the potent serotonergic, DMT. Potential similarities between both subjective states have been noted previously, including the subjective feeling of transcending one’s body and entering an alternative realm, perceiving and communicating with sentient ‘entities’ and themes related to death and dying. In this within-subjects placebo-controled study we aimed to test the similarities between the DMT state and NDEs, by administering DMT and placebo to 13 healthy participants, who then completed a validated and widely used measure of NDEs. Results revealed significant increases in phenomenological features associated with the NDE, following DMT administration compared to placebo. Also, we found significant relationships between the NDE scores and DMT-induced ego-dissolution and mystical-type experiences, as well as a significant association between NDE scores and baseline trait ‘absorption’ and delusional ideation measured at baseline. Furthermore, we found a significant overlap in nearly all of the NDE phenomenological features when comparing DMT-induced NDEs with a matched group of ‘actual’ NDE experiencers. These results reveal a striking similarity between these states that warrants further investigation.


    Near-death experiences (NDEs) are complex experiential episodes that occur in association with death or the perception that it is impending. Prospective studies with cardiac arrest patients indicate that the incidence of NDEs vary between 2–18% depending on what criteria are used to determine them. Although there is no universally accepted definition of the NDE, common features include feelings of inner-peace, out-of-body experiences, traveling through a dark region or ‘void’, visions of a bright light, entering into an unearthly ‘other realm’ and communicating with sentient ‘beings’. Reviewing the phenomenology of NDEs, we have been struck by similarities with the experience evoked by the classic serotonergic psychedelic DMT.

    Commonly described features of the DMT experience include a feeling of transcending one’s body and entering into an alternative ‘realm’, perception of a high pitched ‘whining/whirring’ sound during the onset of the experience, perceiving and communicating with ‘presences’ or ‘entities’, plus reflections on death, dying and the after-life. Furthermore, the reported vividness of both subjective experiences have led to NDE experiencers and DMT users describing the states they enter as ‘realer than real’.

    The term Near-Death Experience was coined by philosopher Raymond Moody more than 40 years ago. Remarkably, the overlap between the phenomenology of the classic serotonergic psychedelic experience and NDEs was highlighted by Moody himself more than 4 decades ago, and these similarities have formed the basis of a popular hypothesis on the pharmacology of NDEs, i.e. that endogenous DMT is released in significant concentrations during the dying process, but see for a critique of this hypothesis. The psychological state produced by the DMT-containing Amazonian brew, ayahuasca, has also been linked to themes of death and dying as have psychedelics in general, e.g. with the psychology of psychedelic-induced ‘ego-death’ being likened to that of actual death.

    Both the psychedelic experience and NDEs appear to be sensitive to contextual factors such as set and setting, plus the broader cultural context in which they are embedded. For example, controlled research has found that certain personality traits, e.g., ‘absorption’ and ‘neuroticism’ can predict the intensity and quality of a psychedelic experience while readiness to ‘let go’ and quality of the environment also seems to be predictive of response. In a similar fashion, the prevalence and nature of NDEs appear to be sensitive to environmental, demographic and personality variables, such as etiology and prognosis of the NDE, age, absorption and a propensity to report paranormal experiences. Cultural factors are presumed to influence the psychedelic experience and have been found to influence the content of NDEs.

    The near-death experience has been associated with long-term positive changes in psychological well-being and related outcomes; more specifically, greater concern for others, reductions in distress associated with the prospect of dying, increased appreciation for nature, reduced interest in social status and possessions, as well as increased self-worth have all been observed and/or described post NDEs. Relatedly, recent results from studies with psychedelic compounds have shown similar long-term positive changes. Reduced death anxiety, pro-ecological behavior and nature relatedness, significant clinical improvements in depressed patients and recovering addicts, and lasting improvements in psychological well-being in healthy populations have all been observed. Thus, overlap between near-death and psychedelic experiences may extend beyond the acute experience into longer-term psychological changes.

    While the subjective effects of DMT have been researched in the past, they have tended to be collapsed into broad categories or dimensions of experience as determined by standard ‘altered states of consciousness’ rating scales. The degree to which DMT specifically induces near-death type experiences has never been directly measured, however.

    This current study aimed to directly measure the extent to which DMT given to healthy volunteers in a laboratory setting could induce a near-dear type experience as determined by a standard NDE rating scale. Importantly, we also aimed to address how these experiences compared with a sample of individuals who claim to have had ‘actual’ near-death experiences. To our knowledge, this is the first time that the relationship between DMT experiences and NDEs has ever been formally addressed.

    We hypothesized that DMT would induce near-death type experiences of an equivalent intensity to those seen previously in the context of ‘actual’ NDEs, and to a significantly greater extent than in the placebo condition. Based on aforementioned work on NDEs, we also hypothesized that age, personality and a propensity toward delusional thinking would correlate with DMT-induced near-death experiences.

    Materials and methods

    Thirteen healthy volunteers participants participated in a placebo-controlled, single blind study, approved by the National Research Ethics Service Committee London. All subjects gave written informed consent in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki. The study, sponsored and approved by Imperial College London, gave site-specific approval for the study. The research was conducted under a UK Home Office license for research with Schedule 1 drugs, and the study consisted of screening and 2 dosing sessions, separated by 1 week.

    Participants were recruited via word-of-mouth and received an information sheet detailing all study procedures prior to the screening visits. Informed consent was obtained before screening, which consisted of routine physical tests, a psychiatric interview and examination. The main exclusion criteria were: an absence of experience with a classic psychedelic, current or previously diagnosed psychiatric illness, immediate family history of psychotic disorder, excessive use of alcohol, blood or needle phobia and a significant medical condition rendering volunteers unsuitable for participation. Tests for drug abuse and pregnancy were performed on screening and study days and participants were required to abstain from using psychoactive drugs at least 7 days prior to study participation.

    Following screening, participants were enrolled for 2 dosing sessions in which placebo and DMT were administered. Questionnaires were completed electronically prior to the dosing sessions – which served as baseline correlation measures. Following each dosing sessions, participants completed questionnaires enquiring about subjective experiences during the DMT and placebo sessions. The Greyson NDE scale served as the primary outcome measure.

    Study procedures and participants

    Both dosing sessions took place at the National Institute of Health Research Imperial Clinical Research Facility. Participants rested in reclined position in a dimly lit room, while low volume music was played in the background in order to promote calm during the session. EEG recordings took place before and following administration of DMT and placebo.

    Participants received one of four doses of DMT fumarate. Placebo consisted of a 2 ml sterile saline solution, which followed the same procedure. During the first dosing session, all participants received placebo, and 1 week later, DMT. Participants were unaware of the order in which placebo and DMT were administered, but the research team was. The order was fixed in this way to promote safety by developing familiarity with the research team and environment prior to receiving DMT, and to avoid potential carry over effects from receiving DMT first.

    Participants reported feeling the subjective effects of DMT immediately after the injection. Effects peaked at 2–3 min and gradually subsided, with only residual effects felt 20 min post administration. Volunteers were discharged to go home by a study psychiatrist at least 1 h after administration and once all study procedures were completed. Participants were asked to message a member of the research team in order to confirm their safe return and well-being. To ensure safety, each volunteer was supervised by two researchers and the study physician throughout the dosing session.

    Outcomes and measures

    In order to determine the degree that DMT induces near-death type experiences, the NDE experience scale was completed retrospectively once the effects of DMT and placebo had subsided. This is the most widely used scale for NDEs; it was first constructed from a questionnaire based on a sample of 67 participants who had undergone 73 NDEs in total. The NDE scale consists of 16 items, resulting in a total score representing the global intensity of the experience as well as scores for four subscales: (1) Cognitive, (2) Affective, (3) Transcendental, and (4) Paranormal. A total score higher or equal to 7 is considered the threshold for a NDE.

    The overlap between drug-induced NDEs and other relevant psychological phenomena associated with psychedelic drugs was also addressed. Two additional measures were included for this purpose, namely: The Ego Dissolution Inventory and the Mystical Experiences Questionnaire. The EDI contains 8 items and a mean score on all 8 is calculated for a single EDI factor. The MEQ contains 30 items and yields a total score consisting of the average of all items as well as four subscales: Mystical, Positive Mood, Transcendence of Time and Space and Ineffability.

    Correlations with personality trait absorption, delusional thinking and age

    Questionnaires completed at baseline were used to assess the relationship between personality, suggestibility, delusional thinking and age with the magnitude of the NDE scores. Previous research has identified that the personality trait absorption and reports of so-called ‘paranormal’ phenomena are positively correlated with the NDE scores, while age is negatively correlated with NDE scores. Because reports of paranormal experiences have been associated with magical ideation, we used the Peters’ Delusion Inventory to establish the relationship between this construct and NDE scores. The PDI is a measure of delusional thinking in the general population and contains items related to paranormal phenomena as well as strength of belief and level of distress associated with these.

    Participants were also asked to complete the modified version of the Tellegen Aborption Questionnaire. Pearson-product moment correlations were used to test for relationships between the relevant variables and main outcomes. In order to adhere to statistical principles, one-tailed analyses were performed in cases in which there were clear, evidence-informed hypotheses about the direction of correlations, otherwise two-tailed tests were performed.

    To address the degree of overlap between our results and the features typically reported by people who have reported ‘actual’ NDEs, we conducted a separate comparison with gender and age matched sample of individuals who had completed the NDE scale from a few months to 15 years after experiencing a life-threatening episode. This sample was defined as the NDE group. NDE experiencers were recruited via the Coma Science Group (University Hospital of Liege, Belgium) and the International Associations for Near-Death Studies. Participants were mailed a questionnaire that included items about socio-demographic (gender, age at interview) and clinical characteristics. They were then asked to respond to the Greyson NDE scale.

    Statistical analysis

    To compare the acute effects of DMT with those of placebo, repeated measures Analysis of Variance were performed separately on data from the NDE scale and the MEQ, using condition (DMT vs. placebo) and questionnaire subscales as the factors of interest. Post hoc paired t-tests were then performed to compare DMT vs. placebo. In order to dissect the relationship between the DMT and near-death experiences, each item of the NDE scale was also subjected to paired t-tests (DMT vs. placebo). The comparison between the DMT state and ‘actual’ near-death experiences was made by conducting paired t-tests for each NDE scale item, as well as its subscales and total score.

    Overlap between MEQ and NDE scale scores was assessed via Pearson-Product Moment Correlation on the main score of the difference between DMT and placebo for both scales, and the same procedure was performed between the EDI and the NDE scale. Independent correlation analyses were performed using the main score of the NDE (DMT-placebo) and each of the MEQ sub-factors in order to determine which of the MEQ sub-factors shows the strongest association with the total NDE scale scores.

    All participants scored above the conventional cutoff for a DMT-induced near-death experience. The Analysis of Variance revealed a significant main effect of condition, and an interaction between condition and NDE subscale. Post hoc t-tests revealed all NDE subscales and the total NDE score to be significantly increased under DMT compared to placebo, and the comparison of the total score was significantly higher for DMT compared to placebo. Paired t-tests were performed in order to assess the specific phenomenological features of the DMT experience. Fifteen of the 16 items were scored higher under DMT than placebo and 10 of these reached statistical significance after correction. These results show that near-death experience phenomena were significantly enhanced following DMT administration.

    Ego-Dissolution Inventory (EDI) and Mystical Experience Questionnaire (MEQ)

    A paired comparison using the EDI revealed highly significant larger total scores for DMT compared to placebo. Analysis on the Mystical Experience Questionnaire (MEQ) revealed a main effect of condition, a main effect of MEQ sub-scale or factor, and a condition factor interaction. Post hoc t-tests revealed that all MEQ factors were significantly higher following DMT compared to placebo, and the total score was also significantly increased under DMT vs. placebo.

    The difference between DMT and placebo scores for the NDE scale, EDI and MEQ were used for correlation analysis. These analyses revealed a significant correlation for both the EDI and MEQ with the NDE scale. Independent Pearson Product-Moment correlation analyses were performed using each of the different MEQ factors separately against the NDE total score. A significant relationship was revealed between the Mystical and Transcendence of Time and Space factors and the NDE score, while Positive Mood and Ineffability did not survive multiple-comparison correction. Overall these results indicate a high overlap between near-death type experiences, ego-dissolution and mystical-type experiences induced by DMT. With specific regards to the mystical experience, MEQ factors Mystical and Transcendence of Time and Space were most strongly associated with the DMT-induced near-death type experiences.

    Correlations with personality, delusional ideation and age

    The personality trait absorption has been associated with NDEs in patient populations, therefore a Pearson Product-Moment Correlation analysis was performed using the scores of Tellegen Absorption Scale and NDE questionnaire. Alleged ‘paranormal’ experiences have also been associated with higher NDE scores and delusional thinking and younger age have also been shown to correlate with NDE scores. Here, correlation analysis revealed a positive relationship between baseline PDI scores and NDE scores after DMT. Similarly, baseline MODTAS absorption scores showed the same relationship; however, this did not survive multiple comparison correction. Performing the same analysis after excluding an outlier revealed a trend relationship between NDE scale and MODTAS scores, but no significant relationship between the PDI and the NDE scale, nor between age and NDE.

    Comparison to ‘actual’ near-death experiences

    A separate analysis was performed using a gender/age matched sample of volunteers who reported having gone through an ‘actual’ NDE. Participants were selected based on scores above a standard cut-off on the NDE scale of 7 points. Overall the results show that the total NDE scores induced by DMT are comparable to those given by the ‘actual’ NDE group.

    All of the subscales ratings were also comparable between NDE and DMT conditions. The only feature showing a significant difference was the item “Did you come to a border or point of no return” – which was scored higher by the NDE group compared to the DMT condition; however, this result did not survive correction for multiple comparisons. Overall, comparable NDE scores can be seen for the ‘actual’ NDE group and the DMT condition.


    This study sought to examine the degree to which features commonly reported in NDEs are elicited by the potent serotonergic psychedelic DMT in a placebo-controlled study. Results revealed that all 13 participants scored above the standard threshold for an NDE in relation to their DMT experiences, and 15 of the 16 NDE items were rated significantly higher under DMT compared to placebo, with 10 of these reaching statistical significance after multiple testing correction.

    Especially strong overlap was seen between DMT-induced near-death type experiences and mystical-type experiences, with the Mystical factor of the MEQ (which contains items such as “sense of being at a spiritual height” and “experience of oneness or unity with objects and/or persons in your surroundings”) showing the highest relationship with NDE total scores. Intriguingly, DMT-induced NDE scores were significantly correlated with baseline-measured delusional thinking. Perhaps most interesting of all however, when these DMT data were compared with those from a matched sample of ‘actual’ NDEs, a comparable profile was evident, with few discernable differences between the experiences of the actual NDE cases and those induced by DMT. Taken together, these results reveal a striking similarity between the phenomenology of NDEs and experiences induced by the classic serotonergic psychedelic, DMT.

    As reported above, 10 of 16 NDE items were scored significantly higher under DMT than placebo. Items that did not survive multiple comparison correction (experiences of extrasensory perception, life-review, precognition of future events, increased speed of thoughts and seeing deceased people/relatives) are also items that are less commonly endorsed in ‘actual’ NDEs. The Affective subscale of the NDE scale was scored particularly highly under DMT, and emotion is also a prominent feature of actual NDEs. Subtle differences that were apparent between the DMT condition and NDEs (e.g. the experience of entering an unearthly realm was enhanced for DMT vs. actual NDEs, whereas coming to a point of no return was scored higher in actual NDEs compared with the DMT experience) may be explainable by the very different contexts in which these experiences occur, as much as differences due to the inducers themselves or their associated neurobiologies.

    It has recently been shown that the temporal sequence of events unfolding during an NDE is highly variable between people and no prototypical sequence was identifiable in a sample of 154 participants, although four main dimensions were relatively consistent, namely: ‘out-of-body experiences,’ ‘seeing a bright light,’ ‘encountering spirits/people,’ and a ‘feeling of peace’. The potential heterogeneity of NDEs cautions us to consider how intra and inter-individual variables, cultural characteristics and the environmental and psychological context in which they take place may influence the content of experiences as well as whether and how they are reported.

    Personality has previously been associated with response to psychedelics. For example, trait ‘absorption’ has been shown to be predictive of sensitivity to psychedelics, and the same has also been shown in relation to the intensity of ‘actual’ NDEs. Absorption has been linked to a serotonin 2A receptor polymorphism associated with greater signaling; thus, it is intriguing to consider whether abnormal serotonergic functioning may contribute to both psychedelic and NDEs. Here, we saw a trend toward absorption predicting DMT-induced NDE but this relationship did not quite reach statistical significance, perhaps due to insufficient statistical power or that the use of different doses might have masked this effect.

    It has been previously shown that the reported intensity of NDEs is associated with a tendency to report so-called ‘paranormal’ experiences. Our results show that baseline delusional thinking, was strongly associated with NDE scores. One possible interpretation of this is that – like people with paranormal beliefs – people with higher than average delusional thinking are more emphatic in their endorsement of NDE phenomena as they view it as less at odds with their pre-existing belief systems and perhaps even see it as ‘evidence’ for metaphysical and/or mystical beliefs which they already endorse. Recent findings have found a strong relationship between ‘fantasy proneness’ and NDE phenomena reported by individuals in situations in which there has been no genuine threat to their lives. These results support the view that individuals’ traits and beliefs might strongly influence the appearance of such phenomena in a range of different contexts, which could account for our current findings.

    Relatedly, we found a strong relationship between scores of DMT-induced near-death type and mystical-type experiences. More specifically, we found a strong association between the total NDE score and the MEQ factors ‘Mystical’ and ‘Transcendence of Time and Space.’ The Mystical factor corresponds to items pertaining to an experience of unity or continuity between self/ego and the external world, an intuitive feeling of so-called ‘sacredness’, and the experience of gaining insights into ‘ultimate truths’. The factor Transcendence of Time and Space corresponds to experiences of loss of one’s usual spatial and temporal orientation and a sense of vastness, continuity and eternity. The strong overlap between these facets of mystical-type and NDEs may be due to similar items featuring in both scales (e.g., items pertaining changes in time perception, experiences of unity, feelings of peace) which could be seen as evidence of their strong phenomenological overlap – but there are also some items that are distinct between the scales, e.g., feelings of being separated from one’s one body, encountering beings or presences.

    Recent work has consistently shown that the occurrence of mystical-type experiences is predictive of long-term therapeutic benefit from psychedelics and similar mechanisms may be at play in relation to improved mental well-being post NDE. It is pertinent to ask therefore, what common features shared between these states may be responsible for mediating the apparent long-term psychological benefits that follow them. Evidence suggests that that the experience of unity – which some have claimed is an inevitable counterpart to ego-dissolution, may be the core component binding them both. The so-called ‘unitive experience’ was originally identified as the core component of the mystical experience by its most influential scholar, Walter Stace and it is also recognized in descriptions of the ‘peak experience’ – an overtly secular equivalent of the so-called ‘mystical experience’ introduced by Maslow, as well as the ‘oceanic feeling’ coined by Romain Rolland in conversation with Sigmund Freud, who believed the feeling to be regressive, recapitulating the state of consciousness inhabited by infants prior to the development of the ego. It is possible that complete ego-dissolution and the parallel unitive experience that accompanies it may be the common factor that can bridge between these different states and is also responsible for the longer-term psychological benefits associated with them. Another recent thought, is that a return of the brain to ‘criticality’, albeit temporarily, may offer a reminder of one’s closeness with nature, and so what is left afterwards is as much an epistemic ‘reminder’ as anything else.

    Detailed interviewing techniques could serve to improve our characterization of the phenomenology of both the DMT and NDE states, and future studies of the psychedelic state could benefit from adopting a more dynamic sampling approach, i.e., by attempting to detail the temporal unfolding of the experience – as has been done recently in the context of NDEs and elsewhere in relation to stream of consciousness. We predict that improved ‘capture’ of certain transient experiences within a broader psychedelic experience may help finesse our understanding of its psychology and associated neurobiology.

    Rudimentary neurobiological models of the NDE have existed for almost 30 years, and have tended to lay emphasis on abnormal serotonergic and medial temporal lobe activity, consistent with the predominantly serotonergic pharmacology of classic psychedelics as well as findings from fMRI and depth EEG recordings of human brain activity under psychedelics which implicate the medial temporal lobes. Given strong associations between the temporal lobes and more specifically, medial temporal lobe structures, and unusual psychological experiences such as those featuring within NDEs, we predict that the medial temporal regions may be implicated in some of the content and emotion-rich epochs that arise within the psychedelic state, such as complex imagery, entity encounters, and vivid autobiographical recollections. The relinquishment of top-down cortical control over temporal lobe activity may be an important component of this mechanism.


    It is important to acknowledge this study’s limitations. The dose of DMT was not uniform for all participants due to this study being part of a dose-finding pre-study ahead of a larger EEG-fMRI study with DMT. The lower doses of DMT may have actually depreciated the true strength of the similarities between the DMT state and the near-death experience therefore, and we should also acknowledge that individuals included within the ‘actual’ NDE sample had to give NDE-scale scores above a specific threshold, whereas this pre-requisite wasn’t stipulated for our DMT sample.

    Another limitation is that we cannot discount the influence of order effects as placebo sessions were always performed first, and thus, exposure to the NDE scale post placebo may have primed participants to experience NDE-like phenomena ahead of their DMT sessions – although this seems unlikely given the volume of other measures and time between sessions. The positive scores on the NDE scale might also reflect a general tendency to endorse ‘anything unusual’ in relation to the psychedelic experience, particularly as psychedelics have been shown to promote suggestibility. Contradicting this explanation, however: (1) participants’ mental state had largely returned to baseline by the time they completed the NDE scale, (2) responses to the different dimensions of the NDE scale resembled those seen in relation to actual NDEs, and (3) an open interview performed post experience (but before questionnaires were completed) promoted careful reflection on the details of the DMT state. That one participant scored on the threshold for an NDE in the placebo session suggests that the NDE scale may have a somewhat liberal threshold for determining NDEs – and thus may warrant revision.

    As both psychedelics and the NDE phenomena appear to be strongly influenced by contextual factors, it could be argued that significant differences may exist regarding phenomenological features between both experiences. Nonetheless, considering the strong overlap on the items of the NDE scale, the study of such differences might require the use of other methods addressing nuances not explored here.

    We should also consider that although the study of the phenomenology of NDEs and psychedelic experiences may inform on each other in a reciprocal way, using one psychological phenomenon to model another, particularly if they are as abstract as the near-death and psychedelic experiences are, these may be fraught with problems. For this reason, better understanding their (presumed) shared neurobiology may provide the necessary bedrock to ground the science of these fascinating states.


    This study aimed to examine potential overlap between the phenomenology of NDEs and those associated with the potent serotonergic psychedelic DMT. Results revealed an intriguingly strong overlap between specific and broad features of these states, with DMT participants scoring high on a standard measure of NDEs and in a comparable way to people reporting bona fide NDEs, with only subtle differences that might relate more to obvious contextual differences than anything to do with the specific inducers themselves.

    Indeed, these present results suggest that certain contextual factors (e.g., delusional thinking and personality trait absorption) can significantly mediate both the intensity and quality of the DMT-induced NDE-like experiences, advancing the notion that, as with the psychedelic experience more broadly, the intensity and content of NDEs are context-dependent. This study’s findings warrant further investigation to address the putatively strong overlap between the phenomenology and neurobiology of DMT (and other psychedelic) experiences and ‘actual’ near-death experiences, particular given some of the scientifically problematic yet influential claims that have been made about NDEs.

    Better understanding of both the psychology and neurobiology of dying, e.g. by using psychedelics to model it – may have implications for how we view this most inevitable and universal phenomenon, potentially promoting a greater familiarity with and healthy acceptance of it.

    ‘By meditating on death, we paradoxically become conscious of life. How extraordinary it is to be here at all. Awareness of death can jolt us awake to the sensuality of existence.’
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    The Ultimate Journey: An interview with Peter Gasser

    By David Jay Brown

    In 2008, Swiss psychiatrist Peter Gasser, M.D., became the first medical researcher in the world to obtain government approval to do therapeutic research with LSD. This was the first government-approved LSD study since Stanislav Grof was forced to shut down his research in 1972. Gasser’s LSD/end-of-life anxiety study was sponsored by MAPS.

    David: Can you talk a little about how you started doing LSD research, and what it feels like to be the first researcher to receive government approval to do human studies with LSD in thirty-five years?

    Peter: In January, 2006–around the time that we held the symposium for Albert Hofmann’s 100th birthday celebration–Rick Doblin and I were walking through the snowy Swiss mountains. While we were walking, Rick said that he thought that it would be great to do research with LSD again, as MAPS had just successfully launched studies with MDMA. After speaking with Rick, I began the process of gaining approval and meeting all the requirements. Getting a license to work with LSD felt like a great honor. It also filled me with a sense of hope, as this means the end of a thirty-five year Ice Age, where all therapeutic research with LSD was totally blocked.

    David: What have you learned from Stanislav Grof’s work that helps you conduct your own research?

    Peter: When some friends of mine discovered that I would be working with people who were seriously ill, or possibly dying, they gave me a warning. They told me that they thought that this would be too heavy of an emotional burden for me. However, one friend also recommended that I read Stan Grof’s book The Ultimate Journey, which I wasn’t familiar with at the time. Grof’s book taught me to have an open, natural, and interested attitude towards the patients in this study. At that time I had no special training in psycho-oncology [the psychological aspects of cancer], although I had had some experience over the years working with people suffering from life-threatening diseases.

    From Grof’s book The Ultimate Journey, I learned that the issues that people faced in his studies were basically the same issues of our common human condition, only in a different intensity and priority. Grof’s book is a rich treasure chest, filled with cultural, historical, philosophical, and religious links that help us to understand the individual psychological process. Like Carl Gustav Jung, Grof is an author with an extremely broad background of knowledge about the history of mankind, in all it’s shapes. He is capable of linking the individual process with the collective process–which may be a great comfort and relief, especially for dying people.

    David: What kind of process and struggles did you have to go through to get your LSD study approved?

    Peter: During the approval process for the study, there were two critical questions that needed to be addressed. The first one was: Is it possible to convince the Ethics Committee that the potential risk of LSD-assisted psychotherapy is not higher than in other drug research studies, and that the potential benefits that could be gained from this study make it worth doing? As you can imagine, the answer to this questions can’t be obtained with any kind of mathematical precision, and rather depends upon the attitudes and prejudices of the members of the committee. Ethical decisions are always decisions of personal judgment, even if they rely on a clear and rational decision process. Fortunately, the Ethics Committee was able to discuss the question of LSD-assisted therapy in an open manner, and after much discussion, finally, it was decided that yes, such work could be done.

    The second question was: Will the authorities at the Ministry of Health be influenced by political processes that might inhibit an approval of our study? It was satisfying to learn that their work was based on legal, ethical, and scientific requirements. I am convinced that Kairos, the Greek God of the opportune moment, was lending a hand, as something that brings together and orchestrates so many factors, and results in a success like this, must have played a role. It was greatly satisfying for everyone involved in this study that Albert Hofmann was still alive when the research began. He witnessed that steps were being taken to help develop LSD into what it only sometimes was, a medicine.

    David: Can you share an anecdote or two from your studies, and talk a little about how your subjects are responding to the LSD-assisted psychotherapy?

    Peter: Since we have a placebo-controlled design–and because of the obvious inherent difficulties involved with giving inactive placebos to subjects in psychedelic drug studies–the placebo patients also receive a very low dose of the active drug, which is 20 micrograms of LSD. Albert Hofmann said that he was convinced that even a low dose of 20 micrograms was enough to create a psychic effect in people–and he was right. One patient (who received placebo) reported that he had a very realistic impression that the floor of the room we were in opened up and the devil appeared. Although this scene was quite short, it was very naturalistic.

    Of course, the 200 microgram verum dose that the experimental subjects get is much more powerful and longer lasting. I was very touched when one subject, a 57 years old man suffering from metastatic gastric cancer, reported his LSD session. It was his first session in the study, as well as the first experience with psychedelics in his life. He went out of his body, and had the experience of flying like a bird, which was very fulfilling for him. Then he flew up higher and higher, until he met his dead father. The patient had had a difficult relationship with his father, who withdraw from conflictual situations in the family, leaving the patient alone with his overwhelming mother.

    Although his father had died a long time ago, the patient was full of criticism and reproach towards him. However, his encounter on LSD was very different. He felt free. It was just two men meeting at the same level, without any father/son dynamics. The patient loved feeling the closeness, and there was no longer any feeling of building up an inner wall when he thought of him. Later the subject said that he thought that in his process of dying it was very important for him to meet with his father at his place, where the dead people are, and to feel their vicinity without any fear or negative feelings.

    David: Have you seen anything in your sessions that influenced your understanding of, or perspective on, death?

    Peter: For me, one of the most satisfying aspects of my work in this study comes from my encounter with the patients. People who are going to die automatically put more emphasis on the “here and now.” They search and long for intensity and open awareness right now, not in some distant future which might not exist. This is what makes working with these people so rich.

    David: What sort of promise do you see for the future of LSD research?

    Peter: My mission is to show that LSD-assisted psychotherapy is safe and effective, so that we can plan further studies based on that result. This is not something new for insiders, but it would be new to much of the world. I absolutely believe that LSD has broad potential for healing and relief.

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    The most convincing argument for legalizing psychedelics

    I have a profound fear of death. It's not bad enough to cause serious depression or anxiety. But it is bad enough to make me avoid thinking about the possibility of dying — to avoid a mini existential crisis in my mind.

    But it turns out there may be a better cure for this fear than simply not thinking about it. It's not yoga, a new therapy program, or a medicine currently on the (legal) market. It's psychedelic drugs — LSD, ibogaine, and psilocybin, which is found in magic mushrooms.

    This is the case for legalizing psychedelics. Although the drugs have gotten some media attention in recent years for helping cancer patients deal with their fear of death and helping people quit smoking, there's also a similar potential boon for the nonmedical, even recreational psychedelic user. As psychedelics get a renewed look by researchers, they're finding that the substances may improve almost anyone's mood and quality of life — as long as they're taken in the right setting, typically a controlled environment.

    This isn't something that even drug policy reformers are comfortable calling for yet. "There's not any political momentum for that right now," Jag Davies, who focuses on psychedelic research at the Drug Policy Alliance, said, citing the general public's views of psychedelics as extremely dangerous — close to drugs like crack cocaine, heroin, and meth.

    But it's an idea that experts and researchers are taking more seriously. And while the studies are new and ongoing, and a national regulatory model for legal psychedelics is practically nonexistent, the available research is very promising — enough to reconsider the demonization and prohibition of these potentially amazing drugs.

    Psychedelics' potentially huge benefit: ego death

    The most remarkable potential benefit of psychedelics is what's called "ego death," an experience in which people lose their sense of self-identity and, as a result, are able to detach themselves from worldly concerns like a fear of death, addiction, and anxiety over temporary — perhaps exaggerated — life events.

    When people take a potent dose of a psychedelic, they can experience spiritual, psychedelic trips that can make them feel like they're transcending their own bodies and even time and space. This, in turn, gives people a lot of perspective — if they can see themselves as a small part of a much broader universe, it's a lot easier for them to discard personal, relatively insignificant and inconsequential concerns about their own lives and death.

    That may sound like pseudoscience. And the research on psychedelics is so early that scientists don't fully grasp how it works. But it's a concept that's been found in some medical trials, and something that many people who've tried psychedelics can vouch for experiencing. It's one of the reasons why preliminary, small studies and research from the 1950s and '60s found psychedelics can treat — and maybe cure — addiction, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

    Charles Grob, a UCLA professor of psychiatry and pediatrics who studies psychedelics, conducted a study that gave psilocybin to late-stage cancer patients. "The reports I got back from the subjects, from their partners, from their families were very positive — that the experience was of great value, and it helped them regain a sense of purpose, a sense of meaning to their life," he told me in 2014. "The quality of their lives notably improved."

    In a fantastic look at the research, Michael Pollan at the New Yorker captured the phenomenon through the stories of cancer patients who participated in psychedelic trials:

    Death looms large in the journeys taken by the cancer patients. A woman I'll call Deborah Ames, a breast-cancer survivor in her sixties (she asked not to be identified), described zipping through space as if in a video game until she arrived at the wall of a crematorium and realized, with a fright, "I've died and now I'm going to be cremated. The next thing I know, I'm below the ground in this gorgeous forest, deep woods, loamy and brown. There are roots all around me and I'm seeing the trees growing, and I'm part of them. It didn't feel sad or happy, just natural, contented, peaceful. I wasn't gone. I was part of the earth." Several patients described edging up to the precipice of death and looking over to the other side. Tammy Burgess, given a diagnosis of ovarian cancer at fifty-five, found herself gazing across "the great plain of consciousness. It was very serene and beautiful. I felt alone but I could reach out and touch anyone I'd ever known. When my time came, that's where my life would go once it left me and that was O.K."

    But Mark Kleiman, a drug policy expert at New York University's Marron Institute, noted that these benefits don't apply only to terminally ill patients. The studies conducted so far have found benefits that apply to anyone: a reduced fear of death, greater psychological openness, and increased life satisfaction.

    "It's not required to have a disease to be afraid of dying," Kleiman said. "But it's probably an undesirable condition if you have the alternative available. And there's now some evidence that these experiences can make the person less afraid to die."

    Kleiman added, "The obvious application is people who are currently dying with a terminal diagnosis. But being born is a terminal diagnosis. And people's lives might be better if they live out of the valley of the shadow of death."

    Again, the current research on all of this is early, with much of the science still relying on studies from the '50s and '60s. But the most recent preliminary findings are promising enough that experts like Kleiman are cautiously considering how to build a model that would let people take these potentially beneficial drugs legally.

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    Taking psychedelics to ease anxiety over a terminal diagnosis

    Sheila, a 57-year-old patient diagnosed six months earlier with terminal cancer sat in my office, twisting Kleenex in her fingers. “Sherry, my anxiety is off the charts.”

    In addition to our once-a-week sessions, she had a loving family, was in a support group for people with cancer, and taking Prozac. None of this made much of a dent on her mounting emotional turmoil. She said, “I’m really desperate. What do you think of psychedelic drugs to help with my terror of dying?”

    It was a fair question. Not surprisingly, 40 percent of cancer patients suffer from psychological torment linked to their diagnosis. In the ‘50s and ‘60s studies were done on the efficacy of psilocybin as a therapeutic tool to help people come to terms with their imminent death. By the early ‘70s this research fell into disfavor, as psychedelics were increasingly associated with the counter culture movement.

    A 2011 Pilot study on psilocybin for anxiety in patients with advanced-stage cancer renewed interest in this treatment, as it seemed to result in reduced anxiety and improved moods for the participants, with no adverse effects reported. A NYU study published in 2016 of 29 patients suffering from end of life anxiety and depression found, in conjunction with therapy that a single moderate dose of psilocybin produced positive psychological changes. Another study at John Hopkins, also published in 2016, involving 51 cancer patients also produced good results.

    This research suggests that one dose of psilocybin can potentially be more effective than pharmaceutical drugs at easing anxiety and depression in people with fatal illnesses. Study participants reported experiencing spiritual breakthroughs that help them better cope with being delivered what might be a death sentence. Dr. Stephen Ross, who directed the NYU study, has been quoted as saying, “People who had been palpably scared of death – they lost their fear. The fact that a drug given once can have such an effect for so long is an unprecedented finding. We have never seen anything like it in the psychiatric field.”

    Dinah Bazar decided to take part in Ross’s study after she began experiencing her worst anxiety two years after going into remission for ovarian cancer. During college, she’d had a bad mescaline trip but years later, felt a closely monitored clinical trial would be safe.

    In 2016, the then 69-year-old wrote about her experience of taking a single dose of psilocybin while sitting in a peaceful room at NYU in an article for “At first it was terrifying, as though I were tumbling through space, or on a ship in a stormy sea.” Soon though she began to feel as though she were floating in the music emanating from her headphones. She described feeling “bathed in love and it was overwhelming, amazing, wonderful. I kept floating and floating.”

    The powerful feeling of inner peace and love lingered for weeks and best yet, the fear and anxiety were “completely removed.” Subsequently, when she felt ill and feared a potential recurrence of cancer, rather than diving into a pit of helplessness and fear, she remained relatively centered.

    It is fitting that anxiety, which is all about fear of losing control, is “controlled” only by ceding control, at least temporarily. Dinah’s voluntarily submitting to the onslaught of images and emotions allowed her to drop down to and retain a deeper truth: We cannot always prevent stressful events, just control our actions and reactions to those stressors.

    However promising the NYU and John Hopkins studies appear, they are preliminary. Psilocybin is not FDA approved. Herbert Kleber, director of the substance-abuse division at Columbia University, has offered cautionary praise for the scientific investigations of psilocybin and end of life anxiety. The psychiatrist has been quoted as noting both that sample sizes in the studies are small, and that it is essential to have an experienced guide in the room to ensure the experience for the patient is productive, not terrifying. (Dinah reported having NYU researchers at her side during the whole experience.)

    When my patient Sheila asked whether she should go this route to help ease her fears, my job wasn’t to tell her what to do. Rather, my task was to guide her on how to research the available information on this option – pros and cons – and help her sort through her feelings.

    At one point she asked, “Sherry, if you were in my shoes, what would you do?”

    I answered truthfully, “I would likely do what you are doing – not rule it out of hand and not dive into it instantly either. But yes, there is nothing to lose by looking into it.”

    Sheila hasn’t taken a decision on whether or not to make the leap. During our most recent session, she said, “Just knowing psilocybin is out there has helped me feel more balanced.”
    Last edited by mr peabody; Yesterday at 07:04.
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    Bluelighter mr peabody's Avatar
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    Aug 2016
    Frostbite Falls, MN

    Amanda Feilding

    Studies find that psilocybin radically improves the well-being and positivity of terminally ill cancer patients

    In a ground-breaking development in the field of psychiatry, two new studies published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology show that a single dose of psilocybin, a powerful, naturally occurring psychedelic compound found in magic mushroom, can radically improve the well-being and positivity of terminally ill cancer patients.

    The research, completed at NYU and Johns Hopkins University, gave participants diagnosed with advanced cancer a moderate to high dose of psilocybin in a controlled environment with psychological support from highly qualified guides. Results demonstrated immediate and marked reductions in the levels of anxiety and depression that, remarkably, still persisted 6 months
    later in 80 per cent of the participants.

    End-of-life care presently consists of counseling and pharmaceutical treatments, such as antidepressants, to quell feelings of isolation, depression and anxiety commonly associated with a diagnosis of terminal illness. However most medications, along with psychotherapy, can take months to start working and are not effective for all patients. Commonly prescribed drugs such
    as benzodiazepines may be addictive and can have other unpleasant side effects.

    This approach, known as psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy makes use of the magic mushroom ingredient psilocybin. Studies over the last decade have shown that giving people psychedelics, with the support of psychotherapy, can provide fundamental and enduring changes much quicker than counseling alone.

    In some ways, I feel that I am better equipped to deal with what life throws at me, and to appreciate the good things. I am grateful to be alive in a way that I didnt know I could be grateful, said Eddie Marritz, a participant in the NYU study. It is a kind of gratitude that is ineffable. I am much more focused on this moment.

    This research adds to the growing collection of evidence of psychedelics therapeutic potential and indicates a significant development of an exciting new model of mental health treatment. Scientists are discovering that psychedelics change consciousness in a way that has the potential to revolutionise the field of psychiatry.

    The most interesting and remarkable finding is that a single dose of psilocybin, which lasts four to six hours, produced enduring decreases in depression and anxiety symptoms, and this
    may represent a fascinating new model for treating some psychiatric conditions,
    said Dr Roland Griffiths, lead investigator at Johns Hopkins.

    As larger Phase III clinical trials are conducted, further investigating the positive effects psychedelics like psilocybin can have on mental illnesses, it is clear that this new model could help countless people worldwide who are seeking a long-term solution for their psychological suffering.

    The approach highlighted today, known as psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy makes use of the magic mushroom ingredient psilocybin. Various studies have shown that giving people psychedelics, with the support of psychotherapy, can provide fundamental and enduring changes much quicker than counseling alone.
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