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Yearly Archives: 2016

Why do psychedelics reduce anxiety in the terminally ill?

st-francis-measuredTwo new studies just published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology showed that a single dose of psilocybin (the psychedelic drug found in magic mushrooms) significantly reduces anxiety and depression in people with terminal cancer. You can read them for free here.

The first trial, by a team at NYU medical school led by Stephen Ross, found ‘immediate, substantial and sustained clinical benefits of reduction of anxiety and depression’ in participants who took a single dose of psilocybin, versus a control group. Many cancer patients suffer from depression, anxiety and existential distress. The NYU study found that, after the treatment, 80% were in remission for depression at 6.5 month follow-up, and 75% were also in remission for anxiety.

This is unprecedented for a pharmacological intervention. It’s twice as effective in reducing depression and anxiety as anti-depressants and, unlike them, only has to be taken once. The study notes:

This pharmacological finding is novel in psychiatry in terms of a single dose of a medication leading to immediate anti-depressant and anxiolytic effects with enduring (e.g. weeks to months) clinical benefits.

The second study, by a team at Johns Hopkins medical school led by Roland Griffiths, was similar in set-up and found similar results – a 78% remission rate for depression after six months, and an 83% remission rate for anxiety.  Two previous studies, by UCLA and the Heffter Research Centre in Zurich, also found psychedelics significantly reduce anxiety in terminally-ill cancer patients.

The question is: how? How does a single dose of a chemical cause such dramatic and sustained changes in a person’s attitudes? The studies are somewhat coy, but they point to something called ‘the mystical state of consciousness’:

This finding suggests a potential psycho-spiritual mechanism of action: the mystical state of consciousness. The mystical experience is likely to be one of several mediators that transmit the effect of psilocybin to changes in anxiety and/or depression.

It’s strange to find the phrase ‘mystical state of consciousness’ tucked away in all the bland statistical analysis of the modern scientific journal article. Of course, ‘mystical states of consciousness’ are quite hard to define – indeed, one of William James’ definitions of them is they are ‘ineffable’. So how can scientists measure them?

The scientists in these studies used various psychometric tests to measure people’s subjective experiences. Some of them are fairly standard, such as the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI), which measures how depressed someone is by asking them to what extent they agree with questions like ‘I sometimes want to kill myself’ – this scale is widely used to see if someone with depression is in remission after a course of therapy.

To measure mystical experiences, the scientists used a variety of scales. One is the Pahnke-Richards Mystical Experience Questionnaire, developed by Walter Pahnke, a religious scholar who did pioneering research into psychedelics and mystical experience at Harvard in the 1960s. The scale asks people to what extent their experience felt like the following (I’ll just give a sample of the statements):

teresaI. Internal Unity
26. Loss of your usual identity.
35. Freedom from the limitations of your personal self and feeling a unity or bond with what was felt to be greater than your personal self.
41. Experience of pure Being and pure awareness (beyond the world of sense impressions).
77. Experience of the fusion of your personal self into a larger whole.
83. Experience of unity with ultimate reality.

II. External Unity

14. Experience of oneness or unity with objects and/or persons perceived in your surroundings
47. Experience of the insight that “all is One”.
51. Loss of feelings of difference between yourself and objects or persons in your surroundings.
74. Awareness of the life or living presence in all things.

III. Transcendence of Time and Space

2. Loss of your usual sense of time.
12. Feeling that you experienced eternity or infinity.
34. Sense of being “outside of” time, beyond past and future.

IV. Ineffability and Paradoxicality
6. Sense that the experience cannot be described adequately in words.
23. Feeling that you could not do justice to your experience by describing it in words.
59. Sense that in order to describe parts of your experience you would have to use statements that appear to be illogical, involving contradictions and paradoxes.

V. Sense of Sacredness
5. Experience of amazement.
8. Sense of the limitations and smallness of your everyday personality in contrast to the Infinite.
31. Sense of profound humility before the majesty of what was felt to be sacred or holy.
80. Sense of awe or awesomeness.

VI. Noetic Quality
3. Feeling that the consciousness experienced during part of the session was more real than your normal awareness of everyday reality.
9. Gain of insightful knowledge experienced at an intuitive level.
22. Certainty of encounter with ultimate reality (in the sense of being able to “know” and “see” what is really real ) at some time during your session.

VII. Deeply-Felt Positive Mood
10. Experience of overflowing energy.
30. Feelings of peace and tranquility.
43. Experience of ecstasy.
60. Feelings of universal or infinite love.

Another scale is the Mysticism Scale, developed by Ralph Hood. It measures very similar attitudes – timelessness, sense of unity with all things – though in a slightly less obvious way. A third scale is the Spiritual Transcendence Scale developed by Ralph Piedmont (clearly if you want your child to be a mysticism researcher, call them Ralph). This scale measures sense of connectedness to humanity, sense of the unitive nature of life, and sense of joy from personal encounter with a transcendent reality.

These scales suggest that psychedelics give rise to some unusual beliefs about reality, such as the belief one is suddenly in touch with ‘ultimate reality’, the belief that there is ‘spirit in all things’, a sense one has reached ‘pure consciousness’ or the belief one is in touch with ‘universal love’. None of these beliefs could be exactly checked by science. Indeed, some of them might be outright rejected by traditional materialist science, such as the belief there is a spirit in all things.

The studies tip-toe around the big question: do psychedelics reduce anxiety and depression in the terminally ill by changing their beliefs about the afterlife? This, after all, is one of the most common insights from the mystics of the past – there is something in us beyond the ego which is immortal and divine. Contemporary psychedelic scientists, eager for acceptance in the mainstream scientific community, duck this metaphysical question by pointing to quantitative reductions in depression or ‘increases in the transcendence / mysticism scales’.

This sort of quantitative analysis would be well supplemented by qualitiative research – interviews with the participants where they describe their trip.  UCLA’s earlier study of LSD for terminal cancer patients did more qualitative interviews, and sure enough, people said things like ‘For the first time in my life, I felt like there was a creator of the universe, a force greater than myself, and that I should be kind and loving’. There are also some interviews with participants of the recent Johns Hopkins study on YouTube – you can see them struggling to put their experience into words (they’re ‘ineffable’ after all).

Time magazine interviewed one participant in the Johns Hopkins study, who described her trip:

suddenly I saw my fear. It was a black mass inside my body. I felt a volcanic anger toward my fear and I screamed, “Get the f-ck out, I won’t be eaten alive!”As soon as I screamed at it, the black mass of fear disappeared. I began to feel like I was floating in the instrumental music playing from the headphones I had on, and I started to feel love. I felt like I was being bathed in love and it was overwhelming, amazing, wonderful.

This accords with the experience of Aldous Huxley, who famously took LSD on his deathbed. Psychedelics had showed him, he said, that ‘love is the central cosmic fact’. Again, not really an assertion one could scientifically test to see if it’s true.

When I attended Breaking Convention last year (which is the world’s biggest conference on psychedelics) I asked Thorsten Passie from Harvard, who has studied how LSD reduces anxiety in those with life-threatening illness, whether anxiety was reduced because people had new beliefs about the self and the afterlife. He replied: ‘We didn’t ask them, but I think so.’ I also asked Roland Griffiths of Johns Hopkins, lead-investigator of one of the new studies. He replied: ‘Not everyone necessarily becomes convinced there’s an afterlife, but quite often they become open to that possibility for the first time. That’s a big change to the total certainty they are facing annihilation.’

Walter Pahnke’s early research on LSD with terminal cancer patients in the 1960s was less coy. He wrote:

Our experiments have indicated that deep within every human being there are vast usually untapped resources of love, joy and peace…these feelings are released most fully when there is comolete surrender to the ego-loss experience of positive ego-transcendence, which is often experienced as a moment of death and rebirth.

He continued:

One of the greatest fears about human death is that personal individual existence and memory will be gone forever. Yet having passed through psychological ego-death in the mystical experience, a person still preserves enough self-consciousness so that at least part of individual memory is not lost.

In other words, psychedelics appear to give people near-death experiences where their lifes aren’t actually in danger. They give people the experience of ego-death, and a sense that this is OK, that the universe / God loves them. And this helps them face the future prospect of their actual death, because they think there’s something beyond the ego – whether that’s described as ‘pure consciousness’, ‘mind at large’, ‘God’, or whatever. This is very similar to what happens in actual near-death experiences, for example after cardiac arrests – people come back with reduced anxiety about death, because they no longer think death is the end. Researcher Kenneth Ring says that reduced anxiety about death is ‘the most consistent finding in NDE research’.

Clearly, more research needs to be done on this, which directly explores how psychedelics change people’s beliefs about the nature of the self, the nature of reality, and the afterlife. It’s an interesting topic, because how should science treat these new mystical beliefs – as delusions? As placebo? Or perhaps as insights that are potentially true? Does it matter if the insights are true or not, as long as they improve people’s moods?

I suspect psychedelics will soon be widely used in palliative care. How would that change our culture? How would it change our attitude to death? And to life? Could psychedelics play a role in a spiritual revival in our over-rational and materialistic culture?

Albert Hoffman, inventor of LSD, hoped that psychedelics could inspire a ‘new Eleusis’ –  he was referring to the Eleusinian Mysteries, the great religious cult of ancient Greece, which existed for 2500 years, before it was shut down by the fanatical Christian emperor Theodosius in 392 AD. No one knows precisely what happened during the secret ritual – initiates were mystes, sworn to silence, which is where the word ‘mystical’ comes from – but participants apparently drank a potion, and then went on a terrifying trip to the underworld, before being reborn as children of Demeter. The philosopher Cicero said he thought Eleusis was the greatest single contribution of Greek culture to the world. It enabled people to ‘die with a better hope’ – just as psychedelics help the terminally ill.

Ergot, which contains lystergic acid, may have been consumed at the Eleusinian Mysteries
Ergot, which contains lystergic acid

In the 1960s, mycologist Gordon Wasson speculated that the Eleusinian potion contained ergot, a fungus that grows on corn which contains an LSD-type compound. Certainly, there are similarities between descriptions of the mystery rites and LSD experiences. Plutarch, who was a priest of Eleusis, described the inititation as ‘wandering through the dark … terrors, shivering, trembling … after this a strange and wondrous light, voices, dances and the majesty of holy sounds and sacred visions’. Compare this to the account of one participant in a 2014 trial of LSD for those with terminal cancer: ‘It was just really black … I was afraid, shaking … It was total exhaustion … like an endless marathon … Suddenly a phase of relaxation came … It became bright. Everything was light … It was really gorgeous … The key experience is when you get from dark to light.’

Quite similar, no?

 

How the alt-right emerged from men’s self-help

000d241f-800Like a lot of people, I’ve been scrambling to make sense of the Trump victory and what it says about public attitudes in the US and western culture generally. I’ve spent this week researching the alt-right movement and reading some of its literature. We don’t yet know to what extent the alt-right helped Trump to victory, and to what extent its beliefs appeal to the general population. But let me suggest some points about alt-right philosophy, and the way to engage with it at a grass-roots level.

Aspects of alt-right culture overlaps with men’s self-help, and with classical virtue ethics like Stoicism.

This may come as a surprise to those who think of the alt-right as gamer-nerds and illiterate meme-fanatics, but a lot of it appears to be driven by disaffected young college-educated men looking for a code to live by. Some of them are drawn to classical virtue ethics like Stoicism because it offers a way to feel strong in a chaotic world. Clearly, they misinterpret ancient philosophy. But their interest in it offers a way that educators can engage with them.

If I was Muslim I would be engaging with young men drawn to toxic variants of Islam, to try and steer them away from it, for their good and the good of my culture. I think that’s necessary with the alt-right too – we should engage with those young men who are genuinely looking for a path to self-improvement, to try and steer them away from the toxic aspects of alt-right culture, such as white supremacy and misogyny.

What is the alt-right?

Pepe the Frog - one of the alt-right's favourite memes, as found on anonymouse image-based websites like 4Chan.
Pepe the Frog – one of the alt-right’s favourite memes, as found on anonymous image-based websites like 4Chan.

So what is the alt-right? The best intro I found was from the Breitbart news site, formerly edited by Steve Bannon, Trump’s new senior advisor, which styles itself as an alt-right platform. It features ‘an establishment conservative’s guide to the alt-right’, by Milo Yiannopoulos and Allum Bokhari. This article divides the movement into four groups.

Firstly, the ‘natural conservatives’ – those who, in social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s formulation, naturally feel disposed to an emotional politics of order, honour and harmony, as opposed to a leftist emotional politics of justice, fairness and equality. Secondly, the ‘meme gang’ – young men on the internet who spend hours joyfully constructing memes to support Trump and shock liberals. They don’t necessarily believe in Nazism…or anything, they just like to shock and get lulz. This group has been associated with trolling campaigns like gamergate or the harassment of the female Ghostbusters cast. Thirdly, the ‘1488-ers’ – straight-up Neo-Nazis, so-called because of the 14 words uttered by the founder of the American Nazi party – ‘We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children‘ – and the two 8’s at the end represent the letters HH, Heil Hitler.

The manosphere

Finally, there are the ‘intellectuals’. Yanniopoulos and Bokhari write: ‘The so-called online “manosphere,” the nemeses of left-wing feminism, quickly became one of the alt-right’s most distinctive constituencies.’ I studied three particular writers in this ‘manosphere’, who connect the alt-right with male self-help: Mike Cernovich, author of ‘The Gorilla Mindset’ and ‘The MAGA Mindset’; Jack Donovan, author of ‘The Way of Men’; and Roosh V, pick-up artist and editor of a popular men’s website called Return of Kings.  Cernovich has been called ‘the meme mastermind of the alt-right‘, Roosh actively supported the Trump campaign as a means to the return of patriarchy, while Donovan speaks at white supremacist forums like American Renaissance.

All three offer a form of self-help for young men looking for a strong identity.

All three believe that masculine identity is in crisis in the west. They believe it’s been emasculated by feminism, threatenend by multiculturalism, enfeebled by corporate and consumer capitalism, and betrayed by older men who failed to provide strong role models. As a result, they say, western men have ended up miserable, weak, lonely, addicted and suicidal.

And who speaks for these wretched men? Every other interest group has their spokespeople and their movements. Feminism has its consciousness-raising circles, its heroines, its academic conferences. And men? The closest thing is a new and small field in academia called ‘masculine studies’ . But ‘masculine studies’ academics mainly wring their hands about traditional male identity and try to make men more like women.

Watch the documentary ‘The Mask You Live In’ (or the trailer, here), which is about the ‘male crisis’. It’s made by a woman, features more female experts than male, and focuses entirely on the problems with masculinity: men don’t show emotions, men binge drink and take dangerous risks, men play violent video games, men are drawn to casual sex, men are addicted to online porn, men humiliate women in ‘locker-room talk’, men are taught only to value sports and not other activities. And so on. Masculinity is apparently a disorder. And the solution to masculinity disorder is to become more like a woman, perhaps literally, like Grayson Perry, the transvestite artist and author of a new guide to What’s Wrong With Men.

Into this ethical vacuum step alt-right preachers of ‘neo-masculinity’, like radical Imams, if radical Imans were also pick-up artists.

The alt-right antidote to the ‘decline of men’ is to celebrate male identity and look for a code of living that leads to male strength.

Like me, some alt-righters in the manosphere are drawn to ideas from classical philosophy and modern therapy, which help people take control of their emotions. Roosh V, the pick-up artist and editor of Return of Kings, has frequently written on classical Stoicism as a ‘means to serenity’. He’s also written on ‘neo-masculinity’, a movement which looks to classical philosophy for an ethical foundation. Mike Cernovich’s Gorilla Mindset re-packages techniques for emotional self-management from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Stoicism, and mixes in some evolutionary psychology. And Jack Donovan has written on the need for a male virtue ethics, which emphasizes traditional values like courage, honour and self-discipline.

_77646868_3patrolHowever, there’s also an aspect of alt-right neo-masculinity that is less drawn to virtue ethics and more to a sort of primitive tribalism or gang-culture. In the Way of Men, Jack Donovan defines male identity in the context of the male gang – men seek identity through the approval of other men, and through finding their place in the gang hierarchy, as chimpanzees do. Men are judged, Donovan says, by the extent to which they are a ‘real man’ – i.e, would they be good in a fight, can they defend themselves and others, do they defend their or their group’s honour, or are they a cissy?

The principle mission of the male gang, Donavan writes, is to secure the perimeter, and defend Us against Them – the outsider tribe. It doesn’t entirely matter who They are – Muslims, Jews, Republicans, zombies. They are really a means to Us bonding as a gang. It can be a little unclear who exactly is in the alt-right ‘Us’ – are gays like Donovan and Milo Yanniopolous? Are Jews? Are non-whites like Roosh? The movement smooths over these inconsistencies by focusing on Them, the threat to western civilization – feminists and Muslims.

Where do women fit in to this male gang world? For Jack Donovan, who’s gay, they’re purely a means to an end – men need them to reproduce and keep the tribe / gang going. He’s inspired by chimpanzee culture, in which he notes rape and female battering is common. Women are breeders, that’s all. For Roosh, they’re playgrounds and trophies.

Fight Club - violent apocalypse as the means to male bonding
Fight Club – violent apocalypse as the means to male bonding

At the extreme, Donovan looks forward to the collapse of civilization and the flourishing of gang war, because then men can finally be men. Peace and prosperity make life boring, miserable and unheroic, he thinks. Bring on the apocalypse, as an exercise in male bonding. War is the game men play. Violence is the test, the means to ecstasy. War makes men. Peace makes half-men.

This ideology seems to me the white version of Jihadism – the sense of cultural grievance, the ‘elimination of the Gray Zone’ into Us versus Them, the desire for a global projection of heroic male strength, and the desire for a battlefield where one can play at war, not just in a video-game, but for real.

I can’t really engage young Muslim men, because I’m a kafir, an unbeliever, and I don’t really know the Koran. But I can engage with young men drawn to classical philosophy and self-help, because I was also drawn to this when I was a miserable and alienated young man. So how could one engage with this group? Here are some possible talking points:

  1. We are more than chimpanzees. There is more to male strength than just brute force. Jack Donovan says we all admire immoral strong men like Al Pacino’s Scarface, but that’s not true – some adolescent boys do, but most grow out of that. Humans have the capacity to reflect on what’s right and wrong and to agree on a code of ethics. That’s what makes a tribe strong. When a tribe throws out its ethical culture and descends to the level of animal brutality, as the Nazis did, it doesn’t last long.
  2. Women are, on average according to IQ measurements, just as intelligent as men. They also appear to score higher on empathy than men – a quality much needed in organizational culture and apparently lacking in the manosphere (see Donovan’s casual normalization of rape). Look at the cultures where women are encouraged to participate in public life, and the cultures where they’re not. Which cultures are stronger? Which are doing better? How strong and successful do you think Saudi Arabian culture is, or Afghan culture? At an ethical level, do you really want your daughter / sister not to have the same capacity to flourish as you or your son? There’s a weird paradox in the alt-right – on the one hand, they see themselves as the defenders of western civilization against Islam, on the other hand, they actually want to make western civilization more like Middle Eastern cultures (more patriarchal, less democratic and less respect for the rule of law).
  3. The classical philosophers that some alt-righters claim to revere put virtue before brute power. On gender, Plato said his ideal Republic should be run by women and men, while Stoics like Musonius Rufus argued for equal education for boys and girls, on the principle women are as rational as men. On race, the Stoics were cosmopolitans, believing in a universal moral code that transcends race, gender or nationality. They did not believe ‘might is right’ – Thucydides criticized precisely that attitude for leading to the undermining of Athenian influence during the Peleponnesian War.  The Roman Empire flourished partly because it had an amazing army, but also because it offered a universalist culture – the Pax Romana – which other ethnicities and tribes could join. Likewise, Islam and Christianity flourished because they were ethnically universalist. A culture based on ethnicity, by contrast, or on the brutal power of a despot, is a weak culture, it won’t attract cohorts, it won’t last.
  4. Strong man cultures – in which a strong leader is revered and given all power – have typically not done well in modern history, they haven’t lasted. They may initially lead to a wave of conquests (Hitler, Napoleon) but they then rapidly collapse. Strong cultures that last are based not on personalities but institutions. The alt-right has a strange reverence for Putin’s Russia – having lived there, I know what a flawed, corrupt and disfunctional state it is.
  5. Alt-righters in the manosphere are obsessed with honour and reputation, with being perceived as alpha men, not beta weaklings (see the chapter on honour and reputation in Donovan’s Way of Men). But Stoicism believes male strength comes from virtue, not honour or reputation. If you’re incredibly prickly about your honour, you’re weak and insecure – you fly off the handle at any perceived diss. You’re no better than hysterical campus liberals scanning for ‘micro-aggressions’. Honour cultures – like, say, Pakistan, or Sicily in the past – have traditionally been weak, because the men are constantly killing each other or their wives and daughters for any perceived slight to their honour. Strong men are secure enough in their self-respect to ignore a diss – unless something genuinely threatens their person or their culture, in which case they act.
  6. If you’re obsessed with winning other men’s approval and appearing Alpha in their eyes, that’s not strength, that’s weakness. You’re enslaving yourself to their approval. Your whole life becomes an attempt to impress others – you pump iron to impress other men, you pull women to impress other men, you end up miserable and alone all because you spent your life trying to impress other men. Strong men don’t obsess over how Alpha they appear to other men.
  7. If you think western culture has become a ‘culture of grievances’, as Milo Yiannopoulos put it, that doesn’t mean masculinity has to give in to victimhood as well. Marcus Aurelius wrote, ‘the best revenge is not to be like that’.
  8. Trolling is a desperate bid for attention. Again, that’s not strong at all, that’s weak.
  9. European culture went from rag-tag gangs in the Dark Ages to a powerful civilization that spread across the world partly through the invention of chivalry – strong warriors were persuaded to obey a moral code, which protected the weak. Alt-righters mock chivalry, but that makes their culture weak – who wants to join a chimpanzee culture that only values force? The foundation of Judeo-Christianity is also love for the oppressed and the weak – again, alt-righters like Steve Bannon describe themselves as heroic defenders of Judeo-Christian civilization, but they’re really more Nietzschean in their contempt for the weak.
  10. If you really want to risk your life in a heroic adventure, join the army. Test yourself by fighting ISIS, not by harassing women on Twitter. That’s not being a man. Join the army. When you’re in it, you’ll find yourself fighting side by side with people of other ethnicities – 30% of the US military is non-white – and you might decide you can trust and bond with men whose skin is a different colour.

Those are some of the talking points one could use. One should not go in with name-calling – that triggers their honour-defenses and Us v Them mentality. Go in with respect. Recognize the emotional hurt beneath the toxic ideas. Focus on ideas not personal attacks. Epictetus wrote: ‘A guide, on finding a man who has lost his way, brings him back to the right path—he does not mock and jeer at him and then take himself off. You also must show the unlearned man the truth, and you will see that he will follow. But so long as you do not show it him, you should not mock, but rather feel your own incapacity.’