(this post originally appeared on Neurohacker Collective)
In a previous post, we discussed the value of nootropics as a tool in the neurohacker’s toolbox. They can help get us dialed in with laser focus and get things done. They can aid with concentration, learning, and memory. But productivity isn’t the only context for the human experience, and it would be sad if we shaped ourselves solely for the purpose of being more effective cogs in a machine. Neurohacking is just as interested in getting better at asking “why” and “what” as in building capacity around “how”.
Enter, psychedelics, empathogens, entheogens and ‘plant medicines.’ Though many of these chemicals are currently schedule-1 drugs in many countries, humans have been using them for thousands of years for healing, self-inquiry and visioning into the nature of reality. In fact, some propose that the evolution of human consciousness itself was catalyzed by the use of mind-expanding substances discovered or concocted by early man. If neurohacking is about upgrading the hardware our consciousness runs on, we would be remiss not to mention these technologies of altered states.
The rose tinted days of “tune in, turn on” are long past. Contemporary Neurohackers are exploring these chemicals for everything from accelerated learning to healing major trauma, reprogramming underlying associations that lead to habitual behavioral or thought patterns, shadow work, paradigm engineering, and, of course, the continued exploration of the nature of reality itself.
Below are some introductions to the ways these substances are being used in the neurohacking community.
But first, check out this short video by Jason Silva introducing MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) and the concept of programming the psychedelic experience for therapeutic purposes.
Microdosing and Performance Enhancement
Defined as being both both sub-hallucinogenic and sub-perceptual, microdoses of psychedelics (6-25 microgram LSD, 0.2-0.5 gram psilocybin) are being used by some neurohackers as part of a weekly routine to access higher levels of creativity, increased focus, and improvements in stamina, response time, and physical acuity.
Silicon Valley entrepreneurs looking for a creative edge, as well as extreme sports enthusiasts wanting to enhance athletic prowess, have reported experiencing these benefits without feeling negatively “altered.” Users have also reported success with microdosing to alleviate depression, cluster headaches, smoking cessation, and ADD/ADHD.
Dr. James Fadiman, Ph.D., is one of the leading researchers in microdosing today. After collecting and reviewing user reports since 2010, he’s found that the overwhelming majority of people have reported overall enhancement of well-being, emotional balance, and spiritual awareness. His research to date has been synthesized in The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide, which provides guidelines for experimenting with microdosing. While further research is sorely needed, the potential is there for microdosing to become an alternative to addictive prescription antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications and mood stabilizers.
Psychedelics and Reframing the Past
Some of the foundational work done on the psychotherapeutic benefits of psychedelics for trauma healing comes from Stanislov Grof. He pioneered LSD-assisted psychotherapy in the 60s, showing how the appropriate conjunction of therapy with psychedelics could accelerate the rate of healing. He did a lot of early neurohacking experimentation as well, like using strobe light entrainment and psychedelics together to induce mystical experiences.
One version of therapy he developed concerns “reframing work” on past psychological traumas. Neuroscience has shown us that we don’t remember original data or events so much as we remember the way we remember it. And every time we recall something from the past, we actually change the memory. The idea of “reframing” is to take advantage of this fact and to deliberately go in and change the way we remember some event.
Visualize some event from your past, go into the feeling of that moment, and then visualize yourself doing it differently. For example, standing up for yourself when you hadn’t, saying no, etc. The more intensely you can recollect the event and the more real your visualization, the more powerfully you can rewire your brain. Psychedelics can dramatically increase the intensity of your recollection – can bring the event right back into the present and give you authorship over how you want to respond to those events. You can’t change an event from the past – but you can change the meaning of that event for your present.
Empathogens and Changing Habits
For better and worse, one of the principle tools of the mind is habituation. As we proceed through life, our brain is constantly compressing complex behaviours and relationships into simple habits that require little to no conscious thought. This is true whether those habits and unconscious associations are healthy and desirable or not. If some event in your past connected feelings of embarrassment, shame or disgust to some thing or situation, you will find yourself hard-wired to avoid that thing or situation – even if you consciously want to go there.
Using empathogens, we can deliberately rewire these associations. By taking a chemical that combines neuroplasticity with pleasure and then thinking about or engaging with things you have negative associations with, you can permanently change your associative state.
One of the places this was pioneered was MDMA-assisted shadow work. A person recalls an event in their past that makes them feel some strong negative emotion every time it comes to mind. They take MDMA, an empathogen that decreases aversion/fear responses and increases emotional openness and empathy, and can experience the memory with a different understanding. The next time they remember that event, they find that they simply don’t feel the same way, and that some psychological and emotional damage has been healed. This technique is so powerful that MAPS has demonstrated that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy is perhaps the best current treatment for the deep trauma of PTSD.
But this kind of hack isn’t just for deep trauma. Thoughtful Neurohackers have used it to edit habits as prosaic as procrastination and fear of public speaking. Always procrastinate around cleaning your house? Terrified of public speaking? It is currently possible (and someday it might be legal) to choose to take an empathogen, associate the resulting highly positive state with cleaning or speaking, and permanently reduce or eliminate the anxiety you used to associate with that activity.
Entheogens and Spiritual Experience
Of course, no discussion of these chemicals would be complete without discussing their use for exploring “the divine within.” After all, these are the substances that have been used in religious contexts by shamans for thousands of years. Here is Jason Silva again, on Entering Godmode.
There is no reason to be shy here. Profound spiritual experiences are, well, profound and life-altering and, as a consequence, have played a rather important role in human history. Yet, for a number of reasons, we have largely left them unexamined or languishing in woo-land. Neurohackers know, however, that psilocybin mushrooms can reliably bring people to “the single most spiritually significant experience in their lifetimes” and some of them are using these technologies to dive purposefully into the big questions.
N,N-DMT for example is being used in studies of philosophy of mind and phenomenology. We know that, independent of their histories or backgrounds, many people who take N,N-DMT report similar, particular subjective experiences. What does this say about the nature of the brain? What might it say about the nature of the mind? Or perhaps of reality itself? We don’t know, but these are ancient philosophical questions that can be examined from a very different perspective using “mind altering” substances.
Psychedelics are powerful tools for transformation, and when used appropriately, can be powerful tools for good. But if you’ve been reading all of this skeptically and noting all of the potential for harm – accidental or purposeful – that these powerful chemicals can deliver, you are right. These are extremely potent tools and are not to be taken lightly. We’ve all heard the horror stories of bad trips, where things get too intense and without the right guidance or help, bad things happen. With great power comes great responsibility.
Unfortunately, for five decades society has chosen to try to avoid, ignore and repress these tools – rather than learn how to use them responsibly. Things are starting to turn around, but we are still waiting for society to catch up and for more rigorous (and legal) research to be allowed to happen.
In the meantime, here are some organizations and individuals doing great work in understanding how to safely and effectively use these tools in conjunction with psychotherapies to probe one’s patterns, heal traumas and overcome fears that prevent us from getting the most out of our short time in this life.
Early psychonauts (“sailors of the soul”)
- Stanislav Grof, Alexander ‘Sasha’ Shulgin, Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, Alan Watts and Terrence McKenna.
Organizations & People
- Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) – @MAPS – facebook
- Founded in 1986, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit research and educational organization that develops medical, legal, and cultural contexts for people to benefit from the careful uses of psychedelics and marijuana.
- Rick Doblin – @RickDoblin – facebook
- Founder and Executive Director of MAPS.
- Erowid Center – @Erowid – facebook
- An educational non-profit working to provide a balanced, honest look at psychoactive drugs and drug use – to reduce harms, improve benefits, and support appropriate policies.
- The Lycaeum
- volunteer organization providing information about visionary plants, fungi, and chemicals, as well as a virtual meeting place for members of the online psychedelic community
- Beckley Foundation – @BeckleyResearch – facebook – youtube – instagram
- UK-based think-tank at the forefront of global drug policy reform and scientific research into psychoactive substances.
- Heffter Research Institute – @HeffterResearch
- researching psilocybin for the treatment of cancer-related distress and addiction
- Psychedelic Research in Science & Medicine (PRISM) – @PRISMNews – facebook – linkedin
- Australian non-profit research association supporting formal research into mainstream applications of psychoactive compounds
- International Center for Ethnobotanical Education Research & Service (ICEERS) – @NGO_ICEERS
- bringing objective information about iboga, ayahuasca, & ethnobotanicals to the attention of the scientific community, policy makers & the general public
- Crossroads Ibogaine Treatment Center
- ibogaine detox treatment program for chemical addiction
- Martin Polanco – @martin_polanco7
- Founder of Crossroads Treatment Center
- OPEN Foundation – @FoundationOPEN – facebook – vimeo
- an interdisciplinary organization which stimulates research into all aspects of the psychedelic experience
- James Fadiman – @jfadiman – facebook
- psychology & psychedelic researcher; author of The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide
- Mendel Kaelen – @MendelKaelen
- neuroscience PhD at Imperial College; Researching the use of music in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy
- DrugScience – @Drug_Science – facebook
- independent science-led drugs charity carrying out research into drug harm and effects
- David Nutt – @ProfDavidNutt
- Chair of DrugScience; author of Drugs – Without the Hot Air; Edmond J Safra Prof of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College
- Robin Carhart-Harris – @RobinCarhartHar
- Head of Psychedelic Research, Centre for Neuropsychopharmacology, Division of Brain Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, Imperial College London
- Jason Silva – @JasonSilva – facebook – youtube
- futurist, filmmaker, host
- Psychedelic Society – @PsychedelicsUK – facebook
- advocates the careful use of psychedelics as a tool for awakening to the underlying unity and interconnectedness of all things
- Eugene Center for Ethnobotanical Studies (ECfES) – @EC4ES
- A 501(c)3 grass-roots non-profit promoting global awareness of and local accessibility to organic, plant-based ethnobotanicals & psychedelics
- Entheogenic Research Integration & Education (ERIE) – @ERIEvision
- provides support for entheogenic integration processes
- Nese Devenot – @NeseLSD
- psychedelics researcher, postdoctoral fellow, University of Puget Sound
- Graham Hancock – @Graham_Hancock
- writer and journalist, author of The Divine Spark: Psychedelics, Consciousness and the Birth of Civilization
- Dimitri Mugianis – @DimitriMugianis – facebook
- drug policy activist, Bwiti N’ganga (spiritual healer), poet, and musician
- Katherine MacLean – vimeo
- cognitive psychologist; psychedelics research scientist & meditation practitioner
- Horizons : Perspectives on Psychedelics – @HorizonsConf
- an annual forum in New York City that examines the role of psychedelic drugs in science, healing, culture and spirituality
- Psymposia – @Psymposia – facebook
- think up collaborative projects that have positive social impact, network community, and change perceptions of plants, psychedelics, and psychoactives
- Breaking Convention – @breakingcon
- World Ayahuasca Conference
- Beyond Psychedelics
Threads on Microdosing
- PiHKAL and TiHKAL – Alexander Shulgin
- The Shulgin Index, Volume One: Psychedelic Phenethylamines and Related Compounds – Alexander T. Shulgin
- The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience: The Classic Guide to the Effects of LSD on the Human Psyche – Robert Masters PhD
- New Study Shows Ketamine May Regenerate Brain Cells, Relieving Depression with Lasting Benefit
- Psilocybin may be safe, effective for treatment-resistant depression
- A Manual for MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy in the Treatment of PTSD
- First ever human trial Finds Magic Mushrooms Beat Severe Depression
- MAPS-sponsored research on Ibogaine therapy as treatment for drug addiction
- Conjoint Therapy: DEA Approves Study Protocol
- How Psychedelic Drugs Might Help Treat Mental Illness
- Benefits of Microdosing with LSD and Psilocybin Mushrooms
- 5 Ways to Harness Neurogenesis: Boost Your Brain
- Everything You Want to Know About Microdosing