The Brain and its Battleground

Over a weekend in the spring of 2016, Jon Backes and seven of his friends went on a hike, secluding themselves in nature at the Land of Medicine Buddha Retreat Center in the Santa Cruz Mountains. He was in his junior year at Santa Clara University where he studied mechanical and aerospace engineering. 


The day before the hike it had rained Backes recalled how beautiful the weather was. The hues of green. The trees covered in moss. "Everything shimmered in the sunlight," he said. 


Winding through the forest, Backes ventured off on his own. He found a spot where he meditated for ten minutes. On the way back to the group, Backes welcomed high-fives from the tree branches on both sides of the trail. He remembered feeling like a puppy running through nature. 


His first-time taking LSD was a pleasurable experience. A single tab, which is 100-micrograms, made him feel energized, clear-minded, and appreciative of his surroundings. "There's just a certain way that plants look when I'm on psychedelics... It's almost like they're constantly blooming," said Backes. "The key is to really know exactly what 'you're taking and to have researched what that does to you, because going into it... I knew exactly what was going to happen."


The next time taking LSD, Backes was under a great deal of stress from taking both undergraduate and graduate courses. He jumped in his car and drove 30 minutes to Alum Rock Hills in San Jose, California. Phone off and locked in the glove compartment, keys under the tire, and a dose of LSD, Backes was off. 


He recalled feeling weightless this time, as well as energized, and clear-minded. I asked about the biggest takeaway from those experiences, to which he responded:

"...finding value in discomfort. As humans, we learn from failure. But the fear of failure is debilitating and impedes progress. Psychedelics force you to confront your inner thoughts in an often uncomfortable and unrelenting way. But you always come out better after it, with a better understanding of yourself. I've been able to take the same attitude to my sober life more generally by embracing discomfort, failure, and rejection as essential parts of life."


Psychedelics are present in modern cultural practices. Some of which are popular among Silicon Valley professionals, like Backes, who use it for consciousness expansion and micro-dosing. They are not alone, either.


The Spanish Chronicler, Frey Bernardino de Sahagún, found that peyote was used in South American civilizations for more than 2,000 years before they showed up. When they did, the Conquistadors of the New World refused to entertain or participate in the native traditions, creating a power struggle between the Native Americans and the Europeans. This situations was not the first nor the last of its kind. History seems to repeat itself in current and historical events.


The telescope was first invented in 1608. In 1609, it was adopted and improved upon by Galileo Galilei, the Italian scientist and philosopher regarded as the "Father of Modern Science." Improvements to the quality and magnification led to astronomical discoveries that Galileo published in his book, The Starry Messenger. The findings concluded that the moon's surface is not smooth, but rather uneven. And it has mountains and valleys. And Jupiter has four moons. And Saturn has a ring. And Venus experiences the same phases as the moon. And there are stars not visible to the naked eye. And the 'sun's surface has dark spots.While these findings were monumental during the early 17th-century, the Catholic church had jurisdiction over the doings of scholars like Galileo. 


In 1543, Copernicus published the book On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, in which he introduced the idea that the sun was at the center of the universe and the Earth rotates around the sun. Such an idea would infer that the human senses don't have the capacity to acquire truth or that they are deceitful. Either posed a threat to the power of the Catholic Church. Thus, Copernicus' ideas were silenced. Galileo's findings, also in direct conflict, were silenced, as well. The church found Galileo "vehemently suspected of heresy," and sentenced him to life imprisonment. 


The Galileo affair is illustrative of the conflicts between scientific issues and epistemological questions. Issues that raised questions about what is at the center of the universe. About science concerning religion, politics, the humanities, literature, art, and religion. About morality concerning religion, politics, and economics. About "the truth of nature and the nature of truth," issues of scientific facts and natural phenomena, and the appropriate means of finding the truth and knowledge. 


For Galileo and Copernicus, the issue at hand was concerned with the powers of the human senses. Whether the direct observation is the only means to physical truths or whether truths can be acquired through phenomena not detectable with natural human senses. Whether the telescope is a legitimate means to learn truth even though it alters the senses. Whether the truth about Earth's motion be based on what our natural senses can see or on what we see with our senses using the telescope.



Psychedelics made their way into European and American research labs in the early 20th century. The scientists examined the cacti plants and mushrooms that contained the substances called mescaline and psilocybin, soon realizing their hallucinogenic effects. They found evidence for their potential benefits, including treatment for people suffering from mental health disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The psychedelic, Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), has been shown to be successful in treating some cases of addiction. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) co-founder, Bill Wilson, stated that taking LSD during the 1950s at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Los Angeles, California is what caused him to quit drinking. Yet it was around that time period that research into psychedelics was put to a halt.



Mark Haden is the Executive Director at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) Canada and a professor at the University of British Columbia, School of Population and Public Health. 


In a study of Indigenous communities where psychedelics are legal, Haden found that the Ayahuasca community doesn't place an age restriction on access to psychedelics. And in the Peyote community, children are given access once they reach puberty. He noted that "the transition is celebrated with [access to] the psychedelic experience."



During our interview, Haden recalled the "cultural battle" between the Baby Boomer generation and their parents' generation, the Traditionalists. Baby Boomers, who were anti-war and anti-government, believed in the "American Dream," and equal rights and opportunities. They challenged authority and valued relationships, results, and personal gratification, personal growth, and preferred spending money over saving money. Their parents, the Traditionalists, having lived through World War II and the Great Depression were patriotic. They believed in saving money and delayed gratification, and valued family, community, and order. 


The two generations went head-to-head. Baby Boomers rebelled against their parents, who Haden recalled being viewed as "capitalistic [and] greedy business people." The Traditionalists response to their behavior was that it was "amoral [and] needing to be controlled." Baby Boomers posed a threat to the national narrative at the time, that the U.S. symbolized prosperity and individualism. 


"During 1950 to 1965, the amount of research on psychedelics was over a thousand research papers, and the tens of thousands of subjects experienced a range of psychedelics," said Haden. "There was a massive database accumulating about the fact that they had significant benefits. They were still relatively naïve, but they were on the track of saying these things are beneficial [and] they criminalized them anyway." 


While giving an interview, Dennis McKenna, Ph.D., an ethnopharmacist and research pharmacologist, stated:

"Psychedelics are the antidote to propaganda. In some ways, they help you develop a mindset that sees through all that. That's the real reason they're considered dangerous. Psychedelics make you have funny ideas, but funny ideas are dangerous ideas. So that's the reason psychedelics are prohibited. Because they encourage you to think for yourself." 


Swiss chemist, Albert Hofmann, was researching migraine medication when he grabbed a vial from a shelf that contained LSD-25. Not knowing what the substance would do, he decided to self-experiment. It opened his eyes to a new experience, which he detailed in his publication, titled LSD: My Problem Child. Hofmann explained the workings of LSD: 

"It is likely that alterations of nerve conductivity and influence on the activity of nerve connections (synapses), which have been experimentally demonstrated, play an important role. This could mean that an influence is being exerted on the extremely complex system of cross-connections and synapses between the many billions of brain cells, the system on which the higher psychic and intellectual functions depend. This would be a promising area to explore in the search for an explanation of LSD's radical efficacy. In the 1960s, psychedelics became heavily associated with the counterculture movement. The nature of LSD's activity could lead to numerous possibilities of medicinal-psychiatric uses, as W. A. Stoll's ground-breaking studies had already shown."


Stanislav Grof, Czech psychiatrist and founder of transpersonal psychology was among the first to self-experiment with LSD after Hofmann. He was curious about the effects of LSD has on the human psyche. During an interview, he explained, "I realized we have absolutely no proof that consciousness is generated in the brain. Very, very few people realize this, including the scientists. So those are tremendous contributions that the psychedelics can bring." 


Haden's induction on the matter is: 

"I think it works for some people, and other people would like to explore different states of consciousness, different senses of spirituality, different kinds of meaning and purpose to life, connecting with others, connecting with their partner relationship, improving communication. If the various substances can offer some people benefits then they should be allowed to have those experiences... as these medicines are available and they can help things, like couple's functioning, creativity, and a sense of spirituality in the world, then why not? I think people should have the choice. Nobody, who doesn't want to do it, should tell people who do want to do it that they can't. Nobody who does doesn't want to do it shouldn't tell people who don't want to do it that they must."


The potential benefits of psychedelics are continuing to emerge. Organizations, such as MAPS and the Beckley Foundation, are amid putting together a science-based campaign to reverse the prohibition of psychedelics using a post-prohibition model.

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