It’s summer in the 1990s. I’m looking down from a hill in Richmond Park, London and from the pinnacle of my youth. At 20 the excitement of life is rushing through my veins. Everything is how it should be. Some university friends and I have just finished having a BBQ. The birds are singing in unison, and a few words flutter about in my head: “Open the mind’s caged door.”

    I’ve never been one to remember poetry, yet these words by John Keats, which I must have read one day, are pulled from my brain like coins at the back of the sofa. I have an overwhelming feeling of connectedness. Amid a fluid green carpet of expansiveness, I can feel the heartbeat of every living thing: trees, flowers, dogs, worms.

    Yup, I’m having my first psychedelic experience. 

    The impact on meand my studieswasn’t limited to those few blissful hours.

    I was studying solipsism at the time, as part of my Philosophy degree. It’s the idea we can only be certain of our own minds, that everything else is questionable. So I had lately become very aware own being and limitations. But my understanding of this now was more sentient than intellectual. 

    I had swallowed a tiny piece of paper with an imprint of a heart, smaller than a stamp: LSD. I started with a small dose and was among trusted friends, some whom had taken LSD before.

    The impact on meand my studieswasn’t limited to those few blissful hours. As I continued to study philosophy over the next three years, taking psychedelics in the form of “magic” mushrooms or blotting paper occasionally, I would go as far as saying it was a valuable aid to studying. It gave me a calming awareness of a world outside my own limited brain that I could explore and learn from, reducing stress and making me more productive.

    While it helped my study in general, I will also contend that it helped my study of philosophy in particular, by enabling a certain lucidity of mind that helped me to grasp the difficult concepts involved.

    I had always regarded myself as a free thinker, able to yield original thought. Until, that is, I started my degree. Descartes, dualism and the hard problems of consciousness soon had me pinned up against a wall. Nietzsche’s Übermensch flummoxed me. Schopenhauer’s Will and Representation disconcerted me. In my pre-psychedelic days, I was bamboozled.

    After I began using these drugs, my worldview felt bigger, and I found that I could absorb and understand challenging abstract concepts with greater facility. I began to enjoy my degree more as I began to finally understand it. Inevitably, my grades improved.

    Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, because philosophy and psychedelics have a significant shared lineage.

    Existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, took an injection of mescaline in 1935 to understand consciousness. After his trip, he hallucinated that crabs were following him; he saw them in his bedroom when he woke up and they even followed him to class when he was teaching—this happened, he said, for years after taking the drug. French philosopher Michel Foucault famously tripped on acid in Southern California in 1975. And of course English philosopher and Brave New World author Aldous Huxley took mescaline and LSD. These and many other examples hint that these drugs are somehow complementary to philosophers and thinkers.

    But of course all these experiences, including my own, are just anecdotes. So I turned to an expert in the field to ask what might be going on.

    Dr. Chloe Sakal is a psychiatrist with a degree in Neuroscience. She is currently clinical director of Drug Science, Professor David Nutt’s independent scientific organization, and is working on producing Europe’s largest medical cannabis registry to assess safety and efficacy. Alongside this, she is a co-therapist in a study looking at the use of psilocybin for the treatment of depression.

    Dr. Sakar agreed that psychedelics do make you think “outside the box”, suggesting to me that the benefit I experienced with my studies was more than some kind of placebo effect.

    “Psychedelics medicines allow the mind to break free from everyday rigidity”, she continued. “The rules that keep our reality in check no longer apply, making way for a world where anything is possible.”

    When these default pathways are “quietened,” she explained, “new pathways are free to form in areas of the brain that were previously unable to connect, giving rise to novel ways of thinking.”

    While much remains to be learned about the mechanism that causes this, Dr. Sakar said that “ground-breaking imaging studies over recent years have shown reduced activity in the brain’s ‘default mode network’ whilst under the influence of psychedelicsthe network responsible for keeping neural pathways firing and connecting in predictable ways to build the reality we are familiar with.”

    When these default pathways are “quietened,” she explained, “new pathways are free to form in areas of the brain that were previously unable to connect, giving rise to novel ways of thinking.”

    Much to my gratification, Dr. Sakar then offered a philosophical simile to illustrate this phenomenon. “The boundaries of everyday reality break down, and the mind is able to operate outside of its usual framework, akin to Plato stepping outside of the cave. For a philosopher, psychedelic medicines may provide the freedom for the mind to experience the world without neural limits, allowing for a rich environment to create and develop ideas.”

    That chimed exactly with a recollection of my own thoughts as a philosophy undergraduate all those years ago. I had thought during a trip of the cave allegory in Plato’s Republic, Book 7in which prisoners held in a cave only see the world as shadows of reflection on the walls of the cave. Before the trip, I wondered then, had I only been seeing insipid and flawed reflections of reality? Was I now seeing the true form of life in all its sublimeness? Is this what Plato meant?

    Much more work is underway in this field. A recent study of over 1,200 festival-goers showed an improvement in mood and well-being even after the drugs wore off, and the BBC recently highlighted apparent benefits for people seeking career guidance.

    As for me, I haven’t taken psychedelics for many years, but they have left me with the sense that the world is bigger than I could ever imagine, which is both exciting and humbling.

    It’s often said in jest that everyone’s a philosopher once they’ve had a few drinks. But the idea that a different category of drug really does aid abstract thinking is fast crossing over from the speculative realm into the scientific one. 


     

    Photo by Diana Satellite on Unsplash.

    • Kiran Sidhu

      Kiran is a London-based writer and journalist. She has written for publications including the Guardian, the Telegraph and I Paper.

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