I believe in Psychedelics

1. Psychedelics on the NHS?

Last Friday I was at the Cube cinema in Bristol to watch a documentary about the first clinical trials involving classical psychedelics in decades.

In case you missed it, in 2016 Robin Carhart-Harris led a team at Imperial College London that trialled the psychedelic treatment of 20 depressed patients, 18 of whom had ‘severe, unipolar, treatment-resistant major depression’.

The trial gave promising results, with all 19 patients who completed the follow-up showing significantly reduced symptoms of depression for at least 5 weeks after the two psilocybin sessions.

18 of these patients did not seek any further treatment (medication or psychotherapy) for their depression until after the 5-week mark.

This is remarkable for a cohort that had, on average, a history of 4 previous failed medications.

Subtitled ‘Can Magic Mushrooms Cure Depression?’, it is to the credit of director Monty Wates that his film Magic Medicine is more about the illness than it is about the controversial compound that could hold the key to its treatment.

Indeed, I would argue that the only controversy is that it took Robin Carhart-Harris and his team more than 3 years just to secure government and ethics approval to use the psilocybin.

The Class A / Schedule 1 classification of psychedelics means that scientific research, and future medical treatment, is bureaucratically arduous and expensive.

Now that this therapy has been shown to be safe, it is time we reclassified psilocybin and let the scientific community spend their time and money where it belongs: on the treatment of disease.

The focus of Magic Medicine is quite rightly not on the profound psychedelic experiences of its participants, but on the shocking symptoms and consequences of living with depression.

Psilocybin offers hope to these people and we owe it to them to do what we can to realign the law with the science.

Four separate trials have reported improvements in depressive symptoms after psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy (Griffiths et al. 2016; Ross et al. 2016; Grob et al. 2011; Carhart-Harris et al. 2016), including one in which ‘treatment-resistant depression’ was the primary criterion for inclusion (Carhart-Harris et al. 2016).

Psilocybin has shown promise in the treatment of obsessive compulsive disorder (Moreno et al. 2006), alcohol (Bogenschutz et al. 2015) and tobacco addiction (Johnson et al. 2014) and anxiety related to terminal diagnoses (Griffiths et al. 2016; Ross et al. 2016; Grob et al. 2011).
[CITATION]

Unfortunately, of course, the treatment is currently illegal in the UK.

One thing we can all do is sign this government petition to reschedule psychedelics so that researchers like Robin Carhart-Harris can redouble their efforts to find treatments for the greatest mental health diseases of our age.

2. Psychedelics and Society

Along with most humans, I am captivated by experiences of awe, moments in which my self seems to dissolve into nature, where time and space have little relevance, and which seem to unveil to me the meaning of my puny existence.

Psychedelics are by no means the only route to such experiences – look out from a mountain top, have sex, ride a roller-coaster – but, once experienced, it would be foolish to argue that they are not one of the most direct.

Such a direct experience of awe is, I believe, the birth-right of all humans. Psychedelics change lives for the good, and not just those of people who have a diagnosable mental disease.

Psychedelic experiences are associated with measurable changes of personality in the direction of greater openness.

What does that mean?

In a pilot study, Taylor Lyons and Robin Carhart-Harris found that after two doses of psilocybin the participants’ measures of nature-relatedness were significantly increased, and that their political authoritarianism was significantly decreased. [CITATION]

Not only that, but these personality changes persisted 7-12 months after the psychedelic session.

For someone who would really rather like to live in a society that is more connected to nature and less politically authoritarian, this is a good news story.

3. Psychedelics and Mundane Wonder

Psychedelics can be used as a remarkable treatment for some of the most stubborn illnesses of the 21st century.

They can be used to explore the outer limits of consciousness, experience awe and transcendence, and perhaps change society for the better.

But they can also be used in the mundane, as an extraordinary part of ordinary daily life.

Microdosing is the way that I am very glad I was introduced to LSD. I am by nature cautious and was brought up in a drug-negative society that taught me to fear altered states of consciousness.

It doesn’t help that almost everything we think we know about psychedelics is wrong.

I can scarcely believe that I would have ever had the courage to take a large dose of a psychedelic had I not learnt the small way that these compounds would not – as I had been led to understand – send me insane.

But taking miniscule amounts of a psychedelic like LSD can have a surprisingly profound effect on your day.

In my experience, I find myself more open to social interaction with strangers, more appreciative of the beauty of the world, more able to focus on creative work, and more content with life.

In the words of pioneering researcher Jim Fadiman, more often than not microdosing helps people have ‘a really good day’.

Psychedelics for a Better Future?

In our hyper-rationalist culture, psychedelics are reminding us that there is another way of seeing the world.

Perhaps it’s just the re-emergence of a tradition that has been squashed in this country ever since the Romans banished the druids to Anglesey.

With the work of scientists like Robin Carhart-Harris at Imperial College London, psychedelics are showing us that transcendence can have a measurable and positive impact on our lives.

We have to be careful not to screw this up, but the time has come to support scientific psychedelic research, to support the right of individuals to explore their own consciousness through altered states, and to believe in the potential of psychedelics to change our future for the better.

Further Reading

  1. The Science of Psychedelics and Exceptional Human Experience (11 minute read) Start here for an introduction to everything I have learned about psychedelics over the last 2 years.
  2. A Really Good Day by Ayelet Waldman (16 minute read) My review of Ayelet Waldman’s book on microdosing LSD is, on the one hand, nothing more than a non-fiction book review. On the other, it is a fully-featured 3,000 word guide to psychedelic microdosing.

The Memory of Adventure

Ask me how I’ll remember 2018 and I won’t say ‘typing words into a computer’, even though that’s how I spent far too much of almost every single day.

Not all of that typing was unmemorable, of course. Writing the second series of Foiled was fabulous and I’m sure I’ll be writing about how I believe in creativity soon.

But these are the memories that stand out most in my mind from this past year:

  • Bothying in the snow-bound Cairngorms
  • Travelling around Greece, meeting with refugees
  • Cycling 1000 miles with Thighs of Steel
  • Hiking in the Brecon Beacons

In a word: adventures.

Adventure is a big word, of course. But the choice is deliberate.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, adventure is:

  • A course of action which invites risk
  • A perilous or audacious undertaking the outcome of which is unknown
  • A daring feat or exploit
  • A remarkable or unexpected event, or series of events, in which a person participates as a result of chance
  • A novel or exciting experience

Personally, I like the roguish simplicity of this definition: A wild and exciting undertaking (not necessarily lawful).

But who defines risk, peril, audacity, daring, expectation, novelty and excitement? We do. Adventure is relative and I’m claiming it for myself.

The events that are most memorable from my year are the adventures, those moments when I made an audacious move to go beyond the limits of my comfort, surrendered to novelty, and invited risk and chance.

But there is nothing in any of those definitions that limits moments of adventure to epic bike tours through foreign lands, climbing mountains and sleeping in cold huts.

So this year’s adventures also include meeting my new niece, a family reunion, applying for a job, learning how to throw a Frisbee, talking to people in saunas, and breathing deeply.

Audacity, daring, novelty and wild excitement are opportunities we can dig up anywhere, at any moment. At any moment, we can stretch out our lives like vellum and print them with memories of adventure.

Do you not feel like you live an adventurous life? Are you sure? Don’t you ever feel challenged? Don’t you ever worry that things won’t turn out, and thrill when they do? Don’t you ever see things you’ve never seen before, or talk to unexpected strangers?

Well, go on then, here, take this word – adventure!

Adventure isn’t only for polar explorers and hitmen. We can have it for ourselves.

Further Adventures

  1. Professional adventurer Alastair Humphreys reading Seneca Letter 28: On travel as a cure for discontent. A beautiful reading, set to a beautiful video. ‘Where you arrive does not matter so much as what sort of person you are when you arrive there.’
  2. The Most Interesting Country in the World: Part 1 (10 minute read) ‘At home, our comfort zone is vast, like a great big sofa, sucking us in to watch endless re-runs of Miss Marple, where the Toff murderer always gets his or her comeuppance and order is restored in the form of a pillow-dribble nap.’
  3. What Makes a Person Do a Thing? (12 minute read) ‘It seems extraordinary, but we do get scared of our power, we do fear our greatness; we sometimes feel like we don’t deserve such responsibility, or we feel like imposters when we do presume to act.’

I believe in Running

This Sunday I’ll be running the Gosport Half Marathon for the third consecutive year.

I’m not quite sure why. I have no particular connection or affection for Gosport, aside from this one annual occasion.

It is, however, the largest town in Britain without an operational railway station, but that’s not reeeally a good reason to run there.

No. Running the Gosport Half is just one of those young rituals without which November is now unthinkable.

Actually, emend that last sentence: the calendrical absence of the Gosport Half would make the entire russet spread of Autumn barren indeed.

Running is not the kind of master that rewards the ill-prepared, so the Gosport Half must begin with a spike in training by September at the latest.

This year training began in October; this year I expect a slower time.

As a confirmed relativist, I believe that physical exercise is as close as we come to an absolute moral good.

Unlike the sessile (to show off a new word) plants, we humans were made to move. That’s why we have Achilles heels, thermoregulation and well-developed bottoms.

Apes are rubbish at running; dogs tank out at 7 miles; and a decent marathon runner is not much slower over that distance than a racehorse, a beast whose genetic inheritance is to run.

As such, there is an honesty in exercise that is disturbingly hard to find, at least in my other work.

My annual pilgrimage to the south coast gives me an opportunity to measure myself against myself. Can I break last year’s personal best?

Certainly not without being honest to the process, and by training hard throughout the year. Nothing holds you to account like a stopwatch.

Running gets me out of bed in the morning. Running is therapy with sweatbands. Physical training is mental training. Sweat is its own gold.

Running gives us a inarguable measure of our mortality.

On the optimistic side, I am 36 years old and I can run faster and further today than I could ten years ago. It’s always good to feel like we’re making progress in life.

There are, too, plenty of older runners quicker than me: next year I could be running faster still than I do today. At my local Parkrun last week 7 runners older than me ran a quicker 5km than my personal best time.

Eventually, though, I know that my times will begin to drift, like the tide receding both imperceptibly and indubitably away from the shore.

No one can resist the tidal pull of time; but we can prepare ourselves.

And so back to Gosport.

Further Running/Reading

  1. Haruki Murakami: What I Think About When I Think About Running | The novelist explains the correspondence between putting strides down on the pavement and putting words down on the page. Link is to my review.
  2. Christopher McDougall: Born To Run | Why humans love endurance running, and how the Tarahumara can run 100 miles at speed without injury.
  3. Scott Jurek: Eat & Run | A record-breaking vegan ultramarathon runner tries to explain.

UPDATE: I finished the 2018 Gosport Half in a course personal best time of 1 hour 29 minutes and 59 seconds, in a dead heat with my ‘race manager’.

Carpe Diem: Dancing with Death

Dum loquimur, fugerit invida aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.

Even as we speak, envious time flies past: harvest the day and leave as little as possible for tomorrow.

Horace, Ode XI (65-8BC)

I’m currently reading Carpe Diem Regained by Roman Krznaric (incidentally, a book funded by Unbound – it is possible!) and this blog post is inspired by the tools and techniques he explores in the second chapter: Dancing with Death.

The ancient philosophy espoused by Horace in the first century before Christ is one of the most ubiquitous in modern culture, but its ubiquity disguises how little any of us actually think about what it would really mean to live by. Continue reading Carpe Diem: Dancing with Death

Meditations on Meditations: Contentment (10.1)

O soul of mine, will you never be good and sincere, all one, all open, visible to the beholder more clearly than even your encompassing body of flesh?

Will you never taste the sweetness of a loving and affectionate heart? Will you never be filled full and unwanting; craving nothing, yearning for no creature or thing to minister to your pleasures, no prolongation of days to enjoy them, no place or country or pleasant clime or sweet human company?

When will you be content with your present state, happy in all about you, persuaded that all is and shall be well with you, so long as it is their good pleasure and ordained by them for the safety and welfare of that perfect living Whole – so good, so just, so beautiful – which gives life to all things, upholding and enfolding them, and at their dissolution gathering them into Itself so that yet others of their kind may spring forth?

Will you never be fit for such fellowship with the gods and men as to have no syllable of complaint against them, and no syllable of reproach from them?

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 10:1

Read in front of a raging fire on a frozen starry night in the Tomsleibhe bothy on the Isle of Mull, Scotland. With grateful thanks to the Mountain Bothies Association.

Meditations on Meditations: Praise and Service (4.19)

The man whose heart is palpitating for fame after death does not reflect that out of all those who remember him every one will himself soon be dead also, and in the course of time the next generation after that, until in the end, after flaring and sinking by turns, the final spark of memory is quenched.

Furthermore, even supposing that those who remember you were never to die at all, nor their memories to die either, yet what is that to you?

Clearly, in your grave, nothing; and even in your lifetime, what is the good of praise – unless maybe to subserve some lesser design?

Surely, then, you are making an inopportune rejection of what Nature has given you today, if all your mind is set on what men will say of you tomorrow.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.19

Continue reading Meditations on Meditations: Praise and Service (4.19)

Meditations on Meditations: Core Beliefs (3.5)

In your actions let there be a willing promptitude, yet a regard for the common interest; due deliberation, yet no irresolution; and in your sentiments no pretentious over-refinement. Avoid talkativeness, avoid officiousness.

The god within you should preside over a being who is virile and mature, a statesman, a Roman, and a ruler; one who has held his ground, like a soldier waiting for the signal to retire from life’s battlefield and ready to welcome his relief; a man whose credit need neither be sworn to by himself nor avouched by others.

Therein is the secret of cheerfulness, of depending on no help from without and needing to crave from no man the boon of tranquility. We have to stand upright ourselves, not be set up.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 3:5

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Meditations on Meditations: Adversity (4:49)

Be like the headland, on which the waves break constantly, which still stands firm, while the foaming waters are put to rest around it.

‘It is my bad luck that this has happened to me.’ On the contrary, say, ‘It is my good luck that, although this has happened to me, I can bear it without getting upset, neither crushed by the present nor afraid of the future.’

This kind of event could have happened to anyone, but not everyone would have borne it without getting upset.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.49

Continue reading Meditations on Meditations: Adversity (4:49)

Meditations on Meditations: Love (2:1)

Say to yourself first thing in the morning: I shall meet with people who are meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable. They are subject to these faults because of their ignorance of what is good and bad.

But I have recognised the nature of the good and seen that it is the right, and the nature of the bad and seen that it is the wrong, and the nature of the wrongdoer himself, and seen that he is related to me, not because he has the same blood or seed, but because he shares in the same mind and portion of divinity.

So I cannot be harmed by any of them, as no one will involve me in what is wrong. Nor can I be angry with my relative or hate him.

We were born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. So to work against each other is contrary to nature; and resentment and rejection count as working against someone.
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2:1

Continue reading Meditations on Meditations: Love (2:1)

Meditations on Meditations: Change (7:18)

We shrink from change; yet is there anything that can come into being without it? What does Nature hold dearer, or more proper to herself? Could you have a hot bath unless firewood underwent some change? Could you be nourished if the food suffered no change? Is it possible for any useful thing to be achieved without change? Do you not see, then, that change in yourself is of the same order, and no less necessary to Nature?
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 7:18

Continue reading Meditations on Meditations: Change (7:18)

Meditations on Meditations: Retreat (4:3)

People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills. But this is altogether un-philosophical, when it is possible for you to retreat into yourself at any time you want.

There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind, especially if he has within himself the kind of thoughts that let him dip into them and so at once gain complete ease of mind; and by ease of mind, I mean nothing but having one’s own mind in good order.

So constantly give yourself this retreat and renew yourself. You should have to hand concise and fundamental principles, which will be enough, as soon as you encounter them, to cleanse you from all distress and send you back without resentment at the activities to which you return.
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.3

Continue reading Meditations on Meditations: Retreat (4:3)

Meditations on Meditations: Indignation (6:27)

“How barbarous, to deny men the privilege of pursuing what they imagine to be their proper concerns and interests!

Yet, in a sense, this is just what you are doing when you allow your indignation to rise at their wrongdoing; for after all, they are only following their own apparent concerns and interests.

You say they are mistaken? Why then, tell them so, and explain it to them, instead of being indignant.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6:27

Continue reading Meditations on Meditations: Indignation (6:27)

Stoicism and The Word of God

I’ve always been somewhat in awe of Christianity: two millennia of earnest study on the nature of being and how to live the good life – all based on one book. And there is plenty of good in the Good Book. Like Mark Twain said:

[The Bible] is full of interest. It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies.

Continue reading Stoicism and The Word of God