“Now that we’ve been able to start getting some evidence on the benefits, it changes people’s calculus,” said Rick Doblin, the founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), one of the meeting’s sponsors.
Doblin and MAPS have been battling regulators since the mid-80s to allow research and clinical trials with psychedelics. The recent revival of psychedelic science may be one sign their efforts are finally paying off.
Public attitudes towards illegal drugs in general may be shifting. A recent Pew Research Center survey, for example, found for the first time that more than half of Americans think marijuana should be legal. Baby boomers in particular, who may have hidden their stash while raising kids, seem to be loosening up in their old age, the survey found.
The interest in psychedelics may also have something to do with a growing sense of frustration over the lack of promising new psychiatric drugs in the pipeline. Many of the current drugs are based on compounds discovered serendipitously in the 1950s, and true innovation has been so hard to come by that many companies are giving up.
Meanwhile, people have been using hallucinogens for centuries, often in religious healing ceremonies, and yes, sometimes just for the hell of it. But just because they’re party drugs for some doesn’t mean they can’t be the subject of serious scientific inquiry. Or does it? After all, it didn’t end so well the first time around.
From its inception in 2010, the Psychedelic Science meeting has brought together an interesting mix of people. A record 1,800 of them attended this year. The prevalence of ponytails, nose rings and hemp accessories is predictably higher than at a typical science conference. There was also a tea lounge, a psychedelic art gallery, and a quiet room for anyone in need of riding out a rough trip.
“Absolutely some scientists would see the rainbow colors on the logo and the psychedelic art exhibits and say ‘that’s not real science,’” said Brad Burge, the communication director for MAPS. At the same time, some of the more mystically inclined devotees of psychedelics are averse to the scientific dissection of what they see as a sacred experience, Burge says. The conference isn’t for the folks at those ends of the spectrum.
Burge acknowledges there’s a tricky balancing act involved in hosting a forum for scientists who want their work to be taken seriously without excluding those who use psychedelic drugs recreationally. Even so, “we’re trying to get around the idea that there has to be a separation,” he said.
After all, this latter group helps fund much of the research through their donations to MAPS and other private organizations like the Heffter Research Institute and Beckley Foundation. Government funders like the National Institutes of Health are still skittish about psychedelic research.
Dráulio Barros de Araújo, a neuroscientist at the Brain Institute at the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil, presented new findings from an fMRI brain scan study with 10 experienced ayahuasca users, followers of Santo Daime, a spiritual practice that uses the brew.
Araújo’s team found that ayahuasca reduces neural activity in something called the default mode network, an web of interconnected brain regions that fire up whenever people aren’t focused on any specific task. It’s active when people daydream or let their minds wander, for example.
The default mode network has been a hot topic in neuroscience in recent years. Scientists don’t really know what it does, but they love to speculate. One interpretation is that activity in this network may represent what we experience as our internal monologue and may help generate our sense of self.