Sacred Intentions: Inside the Johns Hopkins Psilocybin Studies_Featured_, Sci-Tech Wednesday, October 10th, 2012
“Working with these drugs was like the third rail. You don’t touch that without damaging your career.”
By Michael M. Hughes | AlterNet
Sandy Lundahl lies on a couch, her eyes covered with a dark cloth mask. She’s listening to classical music through enormous headphones: Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, the “Kyrie” from Bach’s Mass in B Minor, Barber’s Adagio for Strings. An hour earlier, she had swallowed two blue capsules containing close to 30 milligrams of psilocybin, the primary active chemical inPsilocybe cubensis and other “magic” mushrooms, and she’s already well on her way on a trip into the hidden spaces of her psyche.
Lundahl, a 55-year-old self-described skeptic and health educator from Bowie, is looking for God.
Two experienced guides are with her in the room, monitoring her: Mary Cosimano, a clinical social worker, and William “Bill” Richards, a white-haired, 68-year-old psychiatrist and scholar of comparative religion. He’s sitting cross-legged on the carpet in front of the couch, ready to help Lundahl — to talk her out of any negative trips, to help her remain focused on the scenes unfolding behind the mask, to offer a drink or some fruit or escort her to the bathroom. The space resembles a clean, warm, but decidedly offbeat living room. The lighting is spare and soft, emanating from two lamps. A bookshelf holds a variety of picture books and well-known spiritual and psychological classics like Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams and The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. Above the books sits a wooden sculpture of Psilocybe mushrooms. Behind the couch are a Mesoamerican mushroom stone replica and a statue of a serene, seated Buddha. An eye-popping abstract expressionist painting hangs on the wall, an explosion of color and intersecting lines.
This isn’t a metaphysical retreat center in San Francisco, or the Manhattan office of a New Age therapist-cum-shaman. Lundahl’s first psychedelic experience is taking place in the heart of the Behavioral Biology Research Center building at the Johns Hopkins Bayview campus in Southeast Baltimore, in a room affectionately referred to by both the scientists and the volunteers as the “psilocybin room.” She’s taking part in the first study of its kind since the early ’70s — a rigorous, scientific attempt to determine if drugs like psilocybin and LSD, demonized and driven underground for more than three decades, can facilitate life-changing, transformative mystical experiences.
The study, which took place from 2001 to 2005, and was published in 2006 in the journal Psychopharmacology with a follow-up in 2008 in the Journal of Psychopharmacology , made news around the globe and was greeted by nearly unanimous praise by both the scientific community and the mainstream press. Flying in the face of both government policy and conventional wisdom, its conclusion — that psychedelic drugs offer the potential for profound, transformative, and long-lasting positive changes in properly prepared individuals — may herald a revival in the study of altered states of consciousness.
Nonetheless, Lundahl, for one, wasn’t initially impressed by the vibrant imagery behind her closed eyelids.
“Nothing had ever been that vivid,” she says four years later sitting in her suburban living room. “There was this grid on top of everything, all these colors. And I don’t know how long, as I was mesmerized by it, and then I started thinking, Oh, no … am I going to be looking at this for six hours? Oh, no, no. It was interesting for about five minutes — maybe not even. I started thinking, Oh, what a waste of time. I said, `Bill [Richards] … Bill, this was a big mistake.’
“There was a silence, and then Bill said, ‘Don’t second-guess your decision.’ And I realized I had made the decision to participate in this experiment because it was a lark, because it made me look good, and it gave me a story to tell my friends. And I thought, Now look what happened. I’m stuck here for six hours looking at this stuff!
“And I made a vow,” she says. “I’m never going to make an inauthentic decision again. Never again. And as soon as I said that to myself it was like — whooosh — the colors were gone. And I felt like I was being whisked … whoa, boy … and then I went to all these other places.”
Bill Richards reclines in a chair in his home office in West Baltimore, bordering Leakin Park. He’s warm and affable, with an exuberant, almost goofy laugh. It’s easy to see why the study participants interviewed for this story speak so fondly of him. But he becomes quiet and serious when he discusses his work. He has conducted close to 500 psychedelic therapy sessions since the early ’60s, and there’s a distinct pattern to most of them, including Lundahl’s.
“First, it’s sensory and aesthetic,” he says. “People experience colors, patterns, intriguing bodily sensations — what most people think of when they think of the effects of a psychedelic drug. It’s not life-transforming, by any means. Beyond that stage, they start dealing with psychodynamic issues — the sense of self, obstacles, fears. It’s very personal.” In that stage, people often regress to their childhood and relive emotional episodes with parents, sibling, spouses, and children.
“And then … we enter the archetypal realm. Visions of Christ, or Buddha, or Greek gods … imagery from the Book of Revelation, that sort of thing. What’s fascinating is that they often experience things far outside of their life histories, Christians seeing the Buddha, or someone seeing Egyptian or Hindu or other unfamiliar iconography. Certainly not the stuff they learned in Sunday school. It’s fascinating — almost as if there’s a universal cache of knowledge they’re tapping into.”
After the colors and patterns stopped, Lundahl found herself in that archetypal realm. In a crowd. Along a street.
“And I saw this jester. And he was coming down the street. I was in the crowd, I was right there. And one side of him was totally black, and the other side was totally colorful, and here he is, just laughing.” She closes her eyes, remembering. “And I’m getting the image of the dark side of life, and the light side, and here is this jester … just laughing! Laughing at the human condition, that we humans think we have any clue as to what is really going on. And I started chuckling, and then I started laughing, and I’m thinking — we’re so clueless! I was laughing with God, and with the jester, and with everything, and I said to myself, `We humans, we’re just so silly! We think we know. We don’t know. What is this experience on this earth? This is amazing.’ When you really start to think about it — how could this be?”
She laughs. “And I think Bill said, ‘Are you going to let us in on the joke?’”
“And then, immediately, I was in a parade. But this time it was Jesus. Coming down the street. And just wiped … totally wiped … dragging the cross. Beaten up badly. And the crowd had gathered.” She pauses. “Now I don’t have a religious background. I don’t know the Bible stories. I don’t know any of this stuff. And yet … I was right in the crowd, right at the moment when he turns and says, `Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do.’”
She smiles, slowly shaking her head. “And it had gone from the jester … the cluelessness of us … to the forgiveness, and the ignorance of what we do to each other. And I felt it. And I got it on different levels. What I do to people, what people have done to me, what communities do, and what nations do. The cluelessness, the ignorance. We just know not what we do.”
Richards describes the final, and as far as his work is concerned, most important, stage. “After the archetypal realm comes the mystical state,” he says. “There’s a dimension of awesomeness, of profound humility, of the self being stripped bare. In the psychology of religion, mystical experience is well-described — unity, transcendence of time and space, noetic knowledge, sacredness, ineffability … .It’s the sacred dimension of revelation, but it can be what Kierkegaard called ‘fear and trembling’ — incredibly profound and powerful terrain to travel.
“People who have never studied the psychology of religion hear `mystical,’ and it sounds like `misty’. . . something vague, not very precise or clear. We know what we’re talking about, but the man on the street doesn’t. So who would want a mystical experience? I’d rather get drunk!” He laughs.
Richards frowns upon so-called recreational use of psilocybin and other psychedelic drugs: “There are a lot of people who have taken psilocybin who haven’t had a mystical experience. Especially college students taking ‘shrooms’ who experience minor perceptual changes and view it as recreational. With the higher doses [like those in the study], when you get to those transcendental experiences … that’s not recreational at all. If you want a recreational drug, this is not a good drug for you. You want to be cool with your friends, and all of a sudden you start reliving your mother’s death … it spoils the party!”
Richards has had his own mystical experience, and it has informed his work ever since.
“I volunteered for a research project at a clinic, when I was a graduate student in Germany, and I received psilocybin,” he recalls. “I was left alone in this little basement room — those were the dark, ignorant days before the importance of set [psychological state] and setting [environment] had been recognized. Some of my friends had already completed similar research, with a short-acting form of psilocybin, and they’d had some interesting childhood memories. So I thought I’d get some insights into my childhood.” He smiles at his own ignorance. “But what happened was a very profound transcendent type of experience. An experience I didn’t even know was possible. I wrote a report, and I became known as `that American student who had a mystical experience.’”
He began assisting as psychiatrists, religious leaders, and academics came to the clinic to have their own experiences. Psilocybin, LSD, and other psychedelics were legal at the time (they became illegal to possess in the U.S. in 1968), and Richards’ professional identity became linked to his role as an informed and competent guide. His academic interests shifted to the psychology of religion and mysticism. In 1967, he moved to Baltimore to take a position in the research department at Spring Grove State Hospital.
“I had the theological, philosophical, and clinical psychology background, and I had worked with the drugs in Germany,” he says. “We did 10 years of psychedelic research in Baltimore, with grants from NIMH [National Institute of Mental Health].”
The team had been having marked success in treating alcoholism and neuroses with LSD and other psychedelics (in fact, the man who founded Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson, praised LSD’s spiritual uses and wanted to distribute it as a supplement to AA meetings). But then an intriguing new avenue of research came about by sheer circumstance when a member of the research department came down with terminal cancer. “Since there were such promising results with alcoholics and neurotics, we wondered if it would be helpful for her,” Richards says. “She was open to it.”