In the future, psychedelic therapy will be freely available to everyone who wants or needs it, with or without a diagnosis.
“There will be wellness centers, where psychedelic assisted psychotherapy is going to be provided to people who’ve got a problem they want to figure out at work or need some creativity or they just want to work on themselves”
That is the vision of Dr Stephen Bright, senior lecturer at Edith Cowan University, Perth and co-founder of the Psychedelic Research In Science and Medicine – PRISM – organisation. He has just published a new paper laying out a hypothesis for how psychedelics might be able to save the planet through widespread access to drug therapy.
He’s not alone either. For decades, scientists, advocates, and activists have been extolling the virtues of psychedelic drugs for the treatment of difficult and complex mental health conditions like treatment-resistant depression and PTSD. The potential benefits go far beyond these and offer the average person wellness and insight in psychedelic retreat settings.
Right now we’re in at the start of what many are calling the psychedelic renaissance. That is because new research is finally being undertaken into the benefits of these drugs – from LSD to magic mushrooms to ayahuasca and beyond – after decades of government suppression and insistence that they offered no medical benefit.
But in spite of all of this new research, showing fairly conclusively the effectiveness of these drugs, we still don’t exactly know why they work.
“We’ve got some good clinical evidence that says it seems to work for some conditions but it’s all hypothetical”, Dr Bright says. Most of the explanations as to why these drugs seem to work are based on our understanding of the default mode network – an area in the brain involved in our perception of ourselves – but that it could also relate to entering a “mystical state” or something else entirely.
“What we’ve done is come up with another idea”, Dr Bright explains, “which is that empathy may be a key component of that therapy process and as a mechanism of action”. Although he admits there is not much evidence to support the theory, “it’s a hypothesis, it’s worth testing in clinical trials”.
In support of his idea, Dr Bright draws on yoga and meditation, both of which have large bodies of scientific literature to demonstrate their abilities to increase empathy and what he calls “pro-social behaviour”. It has been shown elsewhere the similarities in brain states between a person on psychedelics and a zen master, deep in meditation.
“What we need at the moment is maybe not a dose of LSD but a dose of empathy”
Much like in the Matrix, where Morpheus uploads years of martial arts skills into Neo’s brain in an instant, if you could take a psychedelic in conjunction with therapy and gain all the empathy and kindness of a yoga master, society, Dr Bright says, would be greatly benefited.
“It seems like what we need at the moment is maybe not a dose of LSD but a dose of empathy. Whether that’s with the increased empathy comes as a result of a substance or comes as a result of engaging in some sort of contemplative practice, it really seems like at the moment, society needs empathy”.
He is quick to point out however that this work comes in the context of psychedelic psychotherapy alone: “we’re not saying that psychedelics are some sort of panacea”. There are many examples, the Manson family for one, of people who have taken psychedelics and not gained empathy. That is because it hasn’t been taken in an environment designed to foster that quality.
“It’s not like you can just put LSD in the tap water and everyone’s going to become more empathic”, Dr Bright points out, “we’re only saying that it’s going to be a useful mechanism, if it’s done in the context of this particular setting”.
Currently, the Therapeutic Goods Administration is considering an application to reschedule MDMA and psilocybin – the active component in magic mushrooms – so that they might be more easily accessed and prescribed by researchers and psychologists. The impact of such a decision could be great for the treatment of mental health conditions.
But beyond this, Dr Bright argues that a global increase of empathy in people who do not have a diagnosis could be key in helping us work together as a species and solve complex issues like climate change.
His current research looking at psychedelics and pro-environmental behaviour is showing that there may even be some relationship between the two. “If you’re really selfish then you don’t give a shit about climate change”, Dr Bright says, “so that personal behavior change is really important to humanity in terms of moving forward”.
The paper concludes by encouraging governments to reconsider the prohibition of psychedelic drugs for research and medical application. It also asks researchers to engage with the question of empathy as a functional explanation of psychedelic therapy and calls for greater clinical research.