The Psychedelic Renaissance (Book Review)

Originally published on Blossom Analysis

The Psychedelic Renaissance by Ben Sessa offers an enthusiastic, level-headed, and much-underappreciated overview of psychedelics and their potential. Written by psychedelics enthusiast, consulting psychiatrist, and co-organizer of Breaking Conventions. The book offers a good overview of what we know about psychedelics, what policies and counter-culture there has been, and what the current renaissance is poised to bring to the table.

The publication of this book in 2012 didn’t reach as wide an audience as Michael Pollan‘s How To Change Your Mind, but one could argue that it’s at least as well informed and good of an introduction as the latter. Or as one other reviewer wrote: “Broad in scope, honest in execution.

Summary

Introduction

Psychedelics have been viewed through many different lenses. A negative framing sees them as brain toxins or dangerous drugs of abuse. Another framing revers them as sacramental gifts. And, as you will read later on, tool to do research with and better understand the world around us (and inside us).

Chapter 1 – Personal Reflection

Ben Sessa missed the summer of love (albeit he was around for the second one in 1988-9 in England). He did have a stint as a hippy and later recounts sleeping atop an ancient Aztec pyramid. But he is better known for pursuing the research of psychedelics. Far from ‘career suicide’ (he is a child psychiatrist by trade), this has made him one of the main figures in this new field.

Chapter 2 – The Experience and the Drugs

Describing all psychedelics and their respective effects is quite the task. So for specifics, one would do better to go to Erowid or other sites that provide information about a specific psychedelic. Yet, in this chapter Sessa does a good job of describing the effects of psychedelics in general:

  1. Physiological effects: mostly mental, but heightened heart rate and blood pressure are common
  2. Heightening or distortion of perceptions in all sensory modalities: seeing more clearly (‘more 3-D’) or synesthesia (senses mixing)
  3. Altered sense of space and time
  4. ‘Cinematographic’ effects: seeing movies/stories play out (even with eyes closed)
  5. Regressive behavior and an increased recall of childhood memories
  6. Increased sensitivity to the feelings of others
  7. Religious or spiritual experience
  8. Being at one with the universe (oceanic boundlessness)
  9. Psychotic/delirious changes

The rest of the chapter deals with another classification and highlights the importance of set and setting. The chapter ends with a classification (and description of the most popular drugs) that is akin to another good introductory text Magic Medicine, which describes most psychedelics within roughly the same classification schema.

Chapter 3 – Early Pioneers of the First and Second Psychedelic Eras

There are three great eras of psychedelic culture.

  1. Around the start of the 19th century (1880-1930)
  2. The flower-power era of the 1960s (or 1980s in the UK)
  3. The current era starting around the turn of the 21st century

The first era was rather limited in scope and focussed mostly on mescaline.

The second era started with the discovery of LSD (Albert Hofmann) and also featured lots of therapeutic research being done with psychedelics (including MDMA). Most of the work was done with LSD and was used, amongst other things, to treat alcohol dependency. Aldous Huxley, Stanislav Grof, and Timothy Leary were others who were active in that period of time.

The LSD therapy around that time was quite successful. Although research standards and protocols were not what they are today, with over 50.000 sessions, with 4303 patients, there were but a handful of incidents. Alas, the recreational use of psychedelics is what got them banned eventually (chapter 5).

Chapter 4 – The Prehistory and Ancient History of Hallucinogens

Ben Sessa is very down to earth (spiritual, but not religious) and reflects with an open mind on the theories of Terence McKenna (Food of the Gods) and others who’ve ‘seen God’ through mushroom use. Religion and psychedelics might have originated at the same time (the former being influenced by the latter).

The chapter also recounts some of the psychedelic plants that might have been available to people at those times.

Chapter 5 – Hippie Heydays, Ravers and the Birth of Ecstasy

There were many reasons for the ‘rise’ of the hippie movement (end of second world war, Vietnam, wider distribution of LSD, etc). This first manifested itself in the US in the 1960s, but only later did so in the UK in the 1980s. The second era also did find its continuation in MDMA (with the ‘rave’ culture). Alas, this also gets banned (for the wrong reasons) and the research side of psychedelics starts a long period of hibernation (the illegal use, of course, is unfazed). It will be up to Rick Doblin (MAPS) and others to revive the research.

Chapter 6 – Psychedelic Creativity

“There are clear similarities between the typical traits of creative people and the subjective psychological characteristics of the psychedelic drug experience.” (here Sessa links to one of his own papers ‘Is it time to revisit the role of psychedelic drugs in enhancing human creativity? (2008)’.

The research back from the 1960s can, by today’s standards, only be seen as anecdotal. But the signs point towards a link between psychedelics and enhanced creativity.

Divergent thinking and the the ability to form novel ideas are part of creativity. This is enhanced by the presence of psychedelics (i.e. via changes in frontal lobe activity).

One of the studies mentioned is one by Oscar Janiger on creativity of visual artists. The 60 artists produced more creative (more expressionistic, sharper colors, more emotional) paintings. The painters also found the LSD experience to be “artistically and personally profound.”

Also see James Fadiman‘s book The Psychedelic Experience for more on creativity and psychedelics.

Chapter 7 – Modern Uses of Natural Plants and Fungi Psychedelics

Mushrooms, ayahuasca, cannabis, and ibogaine have been used for over 5000 years and we would be remiss to forget that. Sessa makes a strong statement at the start of the chapter that our current (Western) way of life wont do the planet (and ourselves) any good.

The latter part of the chapter also highlights lesser known psychedelic substances like the venom of a toad (5-MeO-DMT), Kava, Agara Leaves, and more.

Chapter 8 – The Psychedelic Renaissance Part One: Movers and Shakers

The chapter and the next look at who the people and studies are that are bringing back psychedelics to the forefront. The following lists are soon outdated and in the 2012 print (used here) is probably already very much updated in the 2017 version. Click on the links to learn more about them.

Organizations:

People:

Chapter 9 – The Psychedelic Renaissance Part Two: Contemporary Studies

It costs a lot of money to take a drug to market. Some quote numbers into the billions, but for MDMA it’s looking like it will be done for about $40 million. Rick Doblin, mentioned above, is the one leading the charge here. It’s interesting to see that in 2012 Sessa predicted 2022 as the year MDMA therapy would be available, this looks to be about right.

The research really has taken extraordinary leaps forward in the last 8 years. This chapter does provide a good snapshot. But you can better look at current publications or summaries of research.

And/or search for papers here on our website.

Chapter 10 – Psychedelics Caught in the Crossfire of the War on Drugs

Maybe the most dangerous thing about doing drugs is being jailed for doing so. It’s a billion-dollar war being fought against the population, against free thought, against changing your mind. So it’s to be expected that policy isn’t based on (exact) science, it’s based on what a politician read in the Daily Mail (newspaper) and sometimes justified with (bad) science.

In the chapter, Sessa focuses on on MDMA and how that has been banned. You can read more about that in Ecstacy.

Harm reduction services are getting more attention and who knows that one day some drugs will be available to use in therapy, or even recreational without fear.

Conclusion

Psychiatry needs psychedelics, and psychedelics need psychiatry.”

It’s possible to heal/help people with psychedelics and Sessa’s (and my) hope is that the science and practice will combine and that some day soon psychedelics will become a part of our global consciousness again.

The introduction needs to be slow, even boring. Sessa argues that we might even need another name for them (but it’s doubtful that this can happen). And slowly we might go from the medical model (bad to ok) towards also using them for exploration, expansion, joy (ok to great).

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