#1 Get excited

Introduction to Begin Again, a short history of psychedelic research and the main reason to get excited about this emerging field.

Hey pal, welcome to the first edition of Begin Again, a newsletter dedicated to the emerging field of psychedelic therapy and the modalities that support it. Hope you're ready to get real wise.

Why Begin Again

I chose the name Begin Again as a grateful nod to Sam Harris, whose guidance has helped me deepen my meditation practice beyond anything I ever expected. His gentle reminders to begin again during the practice were the exact flavour of compassion I needed to keep me going when I felt that sitting still with myself was just too hard. I also love the name because it speaks to the intention of this newsletter: a reminder that we're free to start again whenever the path we’re on doesn’t serve us anymore. Whether it's a change in career, a psychedelic experience that changes your worldview or just a deep breath to gather your thoughts, you can always begin again. 

After much deliberation, I decided to dedicate this first edition to all the reasons we should get excited for the reemergence of psychedelic research - yet another thing that's beginning again - and on a smaller scale, the future editions of this newsletter. I have SO MUCH to tell you.

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Blasts from the past 

Many people remember vaguely that LSD and other psychedelic drugs were once used experimentally in psychiatry, but few realise how much and how long they were used. This was not a quickly rejected and forgotten fad. Between 1950 and the mid-1960s there were more than a thousand clinical papers discussing 40,000 patients, several dozen books, and six international conferences on psychedelic drug therapy. It aroused the interest of many psychiatrists who were in no sense cultural rebels or especially radical in their attitudes. (Grinspoon L, Bakalar JB., 1979, Psychedelic Drugs Reconsidered)

So let's have a quick look at that, shall we?

We start in the 1940s, when clinical investigators were experimenting with mescaline and LSD. They noticed that these substances were inducing states of consciousness similar to psychosis, so they called them psychotomimetic.

In 1947 Sandoz started offering LSD to research institutions and psychiatrists motivated by the potential of inducing a short-term “modelled psychosis” in order to better understand schizophrenia. Sandoz suggested therapists try these drugs themselves too to better understand the state, and could give it to healthy people. Right on, Sandoz!

In 1954, in a letter to Aldous Huxley, psychedelic researcher Humphrey Osmond proposed the term psychedelic in the verse: “To fathom hell or soar angelic/Just take a pinch of psychedelic” (From the Greek psychē - ψ υ χ ?, ‘soul’, and dēloun - δ η λ ? ? ν, ‘to make visible, to reveal’). This term was made popular in the 60s by Timothy Leary (who had good intentions but kind of ruined psychedelics for everyone for a while).

In 1957 the term “magic mushrooms” was coined by Life Magazine, and only a year later Albert Hofmann identified psilocybin in magic mushrooms.

Right. So what were they all studying?

Can you read it on one breath? Alcoholism, drug addiction, character disorders, depression, neurosis, trauma, psychosis, autism, psychosomatic disorder, criminal pathology, emotional/physical pain associated with terminal diseases. 

In 1960 Sidney Cohen from the University of California surveyed clinicians about negative reactions among patients from the 50s. Of the 5,000 individuals, some emotionally ill, who had collectively taken LSD more than 25 times, only 5 (so 1 in 1,000) experienced a psychotic episode that lasted more than 20 hours. He concludes that psychotic reactions are almost completely preventable in therapeutic setting and prolonged reactions tend to subside within a week.

In 1967 things got out of control, mainly because of Timothy Leary's campaign to "turn on, tune in, drop out" (basically everybody drop acid now!). The widespread and irresponsible use of psychedelics during that time led to sensational reports of their dangers by politicians and the press. And all the positive research was dismissed overnight *shakes fist at the spirit of Timothy Leary*

And finally, in 1970 The US Government under Nixon passed the Controlled Substance Act, followed by many other countries. Jay Stevens compared the ban to the Papal Court hearing forbidding Galileo the right to continue his astronomy observations. I compare it to presenting that Cannes-winning idea to a creative director who dismisses it as irrelevant, just before Burger King wins 10 Golds with the same execution. (A more comprehensive history is here)


And then what?

After 25 years of silence, in 2006, the second wave of psychedelic research started looking at the therapeutic potential of psilocybin - the “magic” ingredient in magic mushrooms, that luckily didn’t carry any of the stigma from the 60s. People suffering from OCD showed improvement after 24 hours. Patients with anxiety and depression in end-stage cancer showed significant reduction in anxiety even after 3 months, and their depression scores were still low after 6 months. A long-term study on tobacco smoking with psilocybin showed 80% maintained complete abstinence 6 months from treatment. In London, the Imperial College team found significant decrease in depressive symptoms for up to 6 months for people with major depressive disorder. Meanwhile, at John’s Hopkins in the States proved again the value of psilocybin in reducing anxiety and depression in patients with life-threatening cancer. And that was just the start. Holy shit.

It’s worth noting that I’m only talking here about the fairly recent history of these substances in the West. It’s hard to tell when they originated, but they’ve been used in rituals and ceremonies around the world for hundreds and even thousands of years. For example, the use of Ayahuasca was first mentioned in 1858, and French explorers first encountered Ibogaine in 1900 in Gabon.

Anthropologists have found evidence for the use of magic mushrooms for thousands of years in cave paintings dating back to 6000 and 4500 BCE in Algeria, or 3000 BCE in the Americas (in fact, these sacred ceremonies still exist in Mexico).

This stuff ain’t new.

Annals of Hope 

So if you’re looking for a reason to get excited about the so-called psychedelic renaissance, consider their potential to change the way we approach mental health.

The psychedelic research team at Imperial College London (which you’ll hear lots about in the coming editions) have already emphasised how psychedelics “reset” the brain. Recent clinical trials with psilocybin have shown incredible success in treating disorders like depression, PTSD, OCD or end-of-life anxiety. And what do all of these have in common? A mind that’s stuck in rigid ways of thinking. If you’ve even been depressed or anxious, you know how difficult it is to think outside of the loop of gloomy, disempowering thoughts. 

The reset mechanism of psychedelics can be observed at many levels. At a neurological level, psilocybin mainly affects two areas of the brain by reducing blood flow to them: the amygdala, where we process emotions like fear and anxiety, and the default-mode network, which coordinates many regions of the brain to create our sense of identity (more on that soon). By lowering activity in both of these regions, our stuck ways of thinking are freed, so we produce new associations which allow us to see things in a new light. 

Emotionally, people tend to emerge from a safe, guided journey with valuable insights, and their mood tends to remain much better over the course of months. Physically, they come out with a deeper appreciation for their bodies which translates to better diet, exercise and a reduction (and even cessation) of drinking or smoking. Intellectually, people often have big insights and revelations about themselves, their life, the nature of reality, and they feel more creative. And, finally, spiritually, if they are so inclined, they come back feeling more connected to themselves, others and a higher purpose.

It’s no wonder why Rosalind Watts, the clinical lead from Imperial’s team emphasises the analogy of a clinically controlled psychedelic experience being like 10 years of therapy in one day.

And I haven't even told you yet about the physiological effects of the psychedelic Ibogaine, which is showing great effectiveness at treating opioid addiction (plenty more newsletters to come), or the benefits of these substances for the "healthy" side of the population.

Dept. of Further Investigation 

Bad Trips Bureau 

If you're thinking of other ways of giving yourself a reset, here's a drug-free way (although it does include a lot of alcohol). Have you considered displaying your traumas and worst behaviours on TV, and then watching it all while millions judge your life choices, bully you and send you death threats? It really seemed to work for the participants of the Netflix series Love is Blind - which I'll admit, shamelessly, that I actually enjoyed watching. 

(If you're new to this, it’s basically an experiment where fairly attractive participants blindly date each other in separate pods and only see each other after they’ve proposed to the person they feel the most connected to. Then they have a couple of weeks of cohabiting until the wedding, when they decide whether they remain together or not. Yes, it's that insane.)

While the experiment itself was a bit cruel, I'm glad the show included the cast's reunion a year and a half after filming. I don't want to give any spoilers in case you do decide to watch it - but I'll just say that it filled my heart with hope and love even for those I'd previously disliked.

Thank you for reading this far! Hope you found this valuable. In the next edition we'll look at how psychedelics actually work in your body and psyche, and who should and shouldn't take them.

Big hugs! (don't worry, I washed my hands)

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Hi. At the end of 2019 I quit my job in advertising to retrain as a psychedelic therapist. I wrote about it here. I've now started this newsletter as a tool to share some of the best insights and experiences from my retraining process. If you like it, please share it with others, and support me on Patreon.
Logo is designed by my lovely and talented friend Paula.