Amanda Feilding is the founder and director of the Beckley Foundation, which has been pioneering psychedelic research and advocacy to drive evidence-based drug policy reform since 1998.
The organization’s scientific exploits, in collaboration with the Imperial Research Programme co-directed by Feilding and Professor David Nutt, have included, for example, a landmark 2016 study of psilocybin-assisted therapy for depression, and the first visualizations of LSD’s effects on brain activity that same year.
The Foundation’s influential advocacy efforts have included the 2019 publication of Roadmaps to Regulation: MDMA, on which Filter reported. Its international reach was illustrated last year by a collaboration with California’s bid to decriminalize or legalize psilocybin mushrooms (halted—for now—by the coronavirus pandemic’s restrictions on gathering signatures).
Feilding, who is 77, has led an extraordinary, experimental life, pushing the envelope of consciousness and its place in society. Hailing from an aristocratic background, her official titles include “Countess of Wemyss and March” and “Lady Neidpath.” But she is unofficially known as the “Queen of Consciousness,” a tribute to her bold work over half a century to demystify psychedelics and end their prohibition.
“Why is humanity in such a mess? What makes us such neurotic animals?”
The offices of the Foundation can be found on the grounds of Beckley Park, Feilding’s stately family home in Oxfordshire, England. After our interview, she was kind enough to invite me there for tea.
Kiran Sidhu: You were first introduced to psychedelics in the 1960s. What was it about your experience that made you dedicate your life to them—bearing in mind you were also once spiked with LSD and spent three months recovering?
Amanda Feilding: I started taking LSD in 1965 without much knowledge of it. My passion has always been mysticism and religions. My experience of it was absolutely wonderful; instead of just reading about mysticism, with LSD, I was actually experiencing it. It was what I had always been looking for. LSD was a revelation; the increased awareness and unity. I thought it was wonderful, but it was like a trip to the funfair, and not a way of life.
I had been taking LSD for about six months before someone spiked my drink—I was spiked with what could have been a thousand trips! I would describe it as a “psychic wound” or a “psychic rape.” It was deeply damaging.
I locked myself away recovering in a sweet hut on the grounds of my home in Beckley Park. I absolutely love that hut, it has brambles by the windows and I think it’s where I will end my life, out there with the birds and nature. I had a friend who came to visit after three months who dragged me to a party in London where Ravi Shankar was playing.
There I met someone who became a great love of my life, a Dutch scientist. He told me his hypothesis of how you can actually control your trip, so you become the rider of the horse, if you like. And I like being in control, especially after my bad experience, so this was very interesting to me. This was something new and interesting to know that one could get high, open the door to a higher consciousness and at the same time navigate yourself. This was a new opening for me.
When I was 22 in the ‘60s, LSD brought my interest in mysticism into a reality and I thought we could bring this to society. I learnt how we could use the psychedelics and manage them in daily life. It felt like a real stepping stone for humanity. It can broaden our horizons. But thanks to misinformation, society’s attitude went another way when it really shouldn’t have.
You have been at the forefront of many revealing studies along with Imperial College. In your opinion, what has been the single most important study that you have been involved in so far?
The Beckley/Imperial LSD study [producing images of the brain on LSD] was finally fulfilling a dream I’d had for 50 years: to explore the mechanisms underlying the effects of LSD. That opened the door to further research and produced that beautiful image of the connectivity on LSD as compared with everyday life.
Also, the early study on psilocybin [with Professor Franz Vollenweider, in 1998] was very important—designed to measure changes in brain blood flow, activity and connectivity induced by psilocybin. Global and regional changes in cerebral blood flow brought about by psilocybin were investigated using brain imaging (ASL and BOLD). We also investigated how psilocybin changes the pattern of connectivity between different brain regions in response to attention-demanding tasks or emotionally significant stimuli. The findings from this study were the first to inform the scientific basis for the use of psilocybin as an aid to psychotherapy. This study also examined the hypothesis that psilocybin enables vivid recall of repressed memories, which is likely to be key in the therapeutic process for mental diseases.
The offices of the Beckley Foundation are based in your childhood home. You have described Beckley Park as “part of my soul,” although you called your childhood there “very isolated.” Do you think your experiences of this place paved the way for your interest in consciousness and psychedelics?
I would definitely say the place and the environment had a strong influence on me. The place is very magical: It’s up a long bumpy track, with three moats and three towers—an old Tudor hunting lodge. It’s very romantic. The house certainly lends itself to introspection.
My family environment was an intellectual one, my father’s mother knew people such as Aldous Huxley and Nietzsche. My father was an artist, so for me, the new lifestyle was a revelation, not a revolution. It was a natural evolution to explore.
We used LSD to get a different level of consciousness in which one could experience more, and hopefully use one’s brain better, think better, understand complicated ideas and understand ourselves better. My studies have been about human consciousness and its predicament. Why is humanity in such a mess? What makes us such neurotic animals?
You have led a very experimental life. In the ‘70s your interest in trepanning, the ancient practice of making a window in the skull to treat health problems, led you to drill a hole in your own head using a dentist’s drill to achieve a higher state of consciousness. Did your experiment work?
For the last 20 years I have tried not to mix the idea of trepanning and psychedelics too much. Psychedelics are taboo in themselves, and then to throw in trepanation is too much for most people!
I think it’s very difficult to say with sureness whether things that make a very subtle difference make a difference for sure. But I do feel it did make a difference. But then you get used to the difference, and it’s something that is then normal, and then how do you tell the difference? But I did notice a difference in all sorts of subtleties. It changed my dreams. I used to be such an anxious person and had anxious dreams. After my trepanation, they became less frequent. There’s a strong physiological hypothesis of how it works to alter consciousness.
Taboo-ness is the hidden force that works against us—it’s the main enemy.
What I would say is that after 50 years, I am still serious about studying it now. I think I’ve met a neurologist that I may be able to do that with. The hypothesis is that by making an expansion in the window of the skull, the membrane surrounding the brain can expand on the heartbeat. So that the pulse pressure is restored to what it was in early childhood before the fontanelle, and then the sutures, closed. That in turn restores the ratio of the blood to cerebrospinal fluid to what it was in childhood—ie, a little more capillary volume in the brain and a little less cerebrospinal fluid.
All I’m saying is that the research for this should be allowed. You can do all sorts of things now, you can get [gender reassignment surgery] on the [National Health Service], but amazingly trepanation, that has been going on for ten thousand years, is still taboo. Taboo-ness is the hidden force that works against us—it’s the main enemy.
You have set up the Beckley Foundation’s LSD Micro Dosing Research Programme. Can you tell me about it?
We’re expanding. I have set up collaborations with universities in Holland, the States and Brazil. I don’t even think we’ve begun to really dig the depth of how psychedelics can help in both physiological and psychological illnesses. I’m very interested to see how they help with degenerative illnesses and how useful they can be in lifting mood in palliative care, in pain management and cognitive functioning.
Most of the psychedelic research around the world has focused on large doses and the healing potential of the “mystical” or “peak” experience, in which profound shifts in consciousness and perspective can occur. However, a growing body of anecdotal evidence suggests that psychedelics may also exert positive effects on health and wellbeing at much lower doses.
Many microdosing adherents attribute a variety of health and wellbeing benefits to microdosing psychedelics, including enhanced mood, focus and cognition, but there has yet to be more rigorous, placebo-controlled lab-based studies of the practice—a gap in the scientific literature that I was determined to fill.
I set up the Beckley Foundation LSD Microdosing Research Programme with the aim to thoroughly evaluate the safety and efficacy of microdosing on a number of cognitive, emotional and physiological parameters, paving the way for research into the therapeutic applications of microdosing under clinical trial conditions.
Psychedelics are having a renaissance; people like Gwyneth Paltrow are championing microdosing. Do you think the recent change in attitude just reflects the amount of research being conducted, or is there something more to it?
Research has given the stepping stones to a hostile society, to enable them to think, “maybe we should look at these compounds again,” and so the environment has changed.
Just like we had an industrial age, we are now in a digital age. It’s rather unnerving in the ways it changes the environment—we are confused and unhappy and entering an epidemic of mental illness, although seemingly, we have everything. Things like Instagram over-emphasize on image and people think everything they see is reality—when in reality, the people showing off their beautiful handbags or whatever may be quite depressed. We are in a desperate need of something.
I’ve been a fan of microdosing since the ’60s. I think it’s a wonderful little lift.
What comes through with psychedelics is something that one knows through one’s soul—it’s not something new. It’s loving nature, it’s loving yourself—it’s natural. We’re part of nature, not apart from nature.
I’ve been a fan of microdosing since the ’60s. I think it’s a wonderful little lift. It can be used for humanity’s benefit, but we need to move carefully. It needs to be carefully regulated and definitely decriminalized. I’ve been fighting for that for 50 years, and I think we’re moving in that direction now.
Psychedelics and the knowledge that you can alter your consciousness should be part of the fabric of society—it’s not what the naughty boy does before he commits a crime. Psychedelics do not encourage crime, they increase connectivity with nature, which is good for the environment and your passion for people and openness. These are all good human qualities that should be nurtured with the careful use of psychedelics. Psychedelics used to be called “fruit of the gods.” They make us more god-like. They make us more ourselves—our better selves—if used well.
The only way we can drag psychedelics out of the “naughty box” is to prove that they have better efficacy than any other medicine that’s being offered to treat psychological illnesses. We did a study of overcoming nicotine addiction using psychedelics with Johns Hopkins, and it had an 80 percent success rate—this was a pilot study a few years ago.
As the “Queen of Consciousness,” you’ve been campaigning for half a century. For the most part, you’ve been swimming against the tide, although the narrative has recently started to change in your favor. Do you feel like you’re finally winning?
Yes. Though I don’t feel much different. It’s like if someone has worked hard to become rich and when they get there they don’t feel much different from how they did when they were poor. I am very happy that my work over the last 50 years has had good effect, but disappointingly, I still suffer from a lack of funding to carry out all the wonderful research projects I have ready to go! The Foundation needs funding—please help if you can. My position is to respect these compounds and be grateful for the potential of how psychedelics can be used to increase one’s happiness and health. I thought that back in the ‘60s, and I think the same way now. And now it is beginning to get recognized, and hopefully it will be able to help humanity as a bigger group, and not just the oddballs.
What’s next for the Beckley Foundation?
I am excited about the next phase of our work which will combine exploratory studies into the underlying mechanisms of a wider range of psychoactive compounds [with] clinical trials investigating their therapeutic efficacy. We are also making steady progress towards the important aim of getting these breakthrough compounds into a regulated market.
We are facing an ever-worsening mental health epidemic.
As I mentioned, we also have an exciting new program of research specifically focusing on LSD microdosing, and first-of-its-kind research into unexplored compounds, such as 5-MeO [a close relative of DMT].
I am also now working on a most exciting new stage, where patients in need can finally get access to these treatments they need, through the development of clinics for psychedelic-assisted therapy. We are facing an ever-worsening mental health epidemic. Sadly, depression, anxiety, PTSD and addiction are on the rise, exerting a vast personal and economic toll.
Psychedelics have already been shown—in ours and others’ research—to be safe and considerably more effective than currently available medications, with both immediate and long-lasting effects. Having joined forces with a number of leading global experts in the field, we are hoping to also play a pioneering role in this area and have started the process of setting up a prototype clinic, more details of which I will give soon.
Photo of Amanda Feilding courtesy of Feilding. Photo of Beckley Park via Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain.