Ordinary Doses

New research into psychedelic drugs is constrained by technological solutionism

By now you might have heard: Psychedelics are making a comeback, and not just at Burning Man. Microdosing — “the ingestion of small amounts of LSD to promote mental fitness” — is a growing practice among the Bay Area set. Venture capitalist Peter Thiel — a believer in the technological singularity — now counts a start-up psilocybin laboratory among his investments. Meanwhile, the Cryptopsychedelic Movement brings together advocates of cryptocurrencies and psychedelics, claiming that mutual exposure will increase the value of both.

Following years of advocacy by such organizations as the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies and the Heffter Research Institute, a new wave of studies is ending a stagnant period for psychedelic research that began with the substances’ criminalization in the late 1960s. In 2014, the first peer-reviewed study on LSD in more than 40 years was published. A slew of articles in major publications and a high-profile book by science journalist Michael Pollan indicate that the movement is growing, prompting some to proclaim a “psychedelic renaissance.”

If technology is producing a more complete picture of psychedelics, it’s also making them more difficult to view as fonts of mystical experience

Although the “renaissance” is still in its early years, digital technologies have already significantly expanded the horizons of psychedelic research: fMRI scans purport to reveal the real-time action of psilocybin, the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms, on the brain, and data mining algorithms have found semantic patterns across large volumes of self-reported psychedelic trip stories. (It turns out, for instance, that the phrase “ego death” is more common than “ego loss” and is most frequently connected to “insanity.”) Such research has already had some important consequences: The FDA recently approved psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression, and peer-reviewed studies have indicated the efficacy of both psilocybin and LSD in treating end-of-life anxiety associated with terminal cancer. With such promising findings, it seems the best days for psychedelic drugs lie not in the 1960s but the future.

But these scientific, technocratic methods and outcomes seem misaligned with the spiritual rhetoric that accompanied these drugs in the past. If technology is producing a more complete picture of psychedelics, it’s also making them more difficult to view as fonts of mystical experience. Subject to FDA standards and with their effects purportedly rendered in high fidelity by digital imaging systems, LSD, mushrooms, and similar substances now appear decidedly of this world, stripped of their metaphysical patina. In an interview with medical anthropologist Nicolas Langlitz, psilocybin researcher Patrick Kossuth articulated the demystified view: “Let’s assume I’m having a beautiful trip,” he said. “I’m lying there, feeling well, seeing nice colors, interesting shapes, and the music sounds very special to me. I’m also having some unusual ideas. But at any moment of the experience, I know that I’m in this state because I took psilocybin. I rationally ascribe my experiences to the 5-HT2A receptor and not to some higher power. For this reason, I didn’t feel connected to anything supernatural.”

This mundane framing may be necessary to counter the misinformation spread in the late 20th century during the U.S.’s War on Drugs. Making psychedelics seem no more otherworldly than the chemical compounds compressed into tabs of Valium and Prozac would afford legitimacy to both the drugs and the scientists working on them. At a 2014 conference on psychedelic medicine, Jag Davies, director of communications strategy for the Drug Policy Alliance, said that his job was to “make drugs look boring.”

That’s not to say that they are boring. But that view clarifies the cost of hallucinogens’ new legitimacy. Subjective, spiritual experiences are rationalized or dismissed in favor of narrow instrumentalist accounts of the drugs’ efficacy. In Neuropsychedelia: The Revival of Hallucinogen Research Since the Decade of the Brain (2012), Langlitz documents how neuroscientists working with LSD tend to diverge from early proselytizers in how they envision psychedelics’ effects. In their view, psychedelics can’t open a gateway to a higher consciousness because such a thing doesn’t exist. Some of the researchers Langlitz consulted were not willing to share any thoughts at all on the place of mysticism in psychedelic experiences. Franz Vollenweider, then director of a psilocybin and ketamine research laboratory in Zurich, told Langlitz that “the mystification of drugs in the context of brain research makes such investigations appear dubious.” This is a far cry from how the earlier pioneers of psychedelics saw things. Langlitz recounts the perspectives of Walter Stace, a philosopher who dabbled with hallucinogens in the 1960s: “It’s not a matter of being similar to a mystical experience,” Stace said, “it is a mystical experience.”

Rather than investigating questions of mind, body, and consciousness, the new psychedelic science, in Langlitz’s estimation, instead offers a framework for assessing personal attitudes toward technology — in particular, its growing reach into deep parts of our psyche. In other words, psychedelics are not only legitimized by technology but are best understood themselves as technology. This suggests that the inverse might also be a useful proposition: that technology is psychedelic. Philosopher Byung-Chul Han, among others, has suggested that habitual internet use changes our minds at levels beyond our conscious apprehension. The metrics of social media make us rethink the importance of life events we post about; feedback from self-tracking devices changes our attitude toward physical habits. Digitization and measurement translate the nuanced phenomena of our lives into instructions: walking becomes a quest to take more steps; photography, a game of editing and strategic hashtagging for more likes.

This transformation of daily existence into a series of incentives may provide a sense of order and clarity. But we ultimately risk losing a sense of the intrinsic worth of experience. This is essentially the same dilemma with psychedelic research. Rationalizing and instrumentalizing the drugs may make them more situationally useful, but it may also preclude their more exploratory, experiential uses.

To find clear meaning in psychedelic science, Langlitz suggests we need not only digital research tools but also methods that favor open-endedness over a neat path to scientific conclusions. But the current wave of psychedelic science demonstrates what critic Evgeny Morozov has called “technological solutionism”: “an endemic ideology that recasts complex social phenomena like politics, public health, education, and law enforcement as neatly defined problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimized — if only the right algorithms are in place.” The new psychedelic research threatens to retrofit the drugs to a solutionist approach, which may account for Silicon Valley’s enthusiasm. Despite their history as holy medicine and channels for divine contact, psychedelic compounds are seen by current researchers as therapeutic solutions to complicated afflictions like depression and addiction. When the compounds’ spiritual and cultural history is acknowledged, it remains restricted by the materialist entrapments of scientific orthodoxy — the mystical encounters of psychedelia can be proclaimed only as temporary neurochemical phantasms.

Rationalizing and instrumentalizing the drugs may make them more situationally useful, but it may also preclude their more exploratory, experiential uses

Some have challenged this logic — at a recent event held by Chacruna, a psychedelic advocacy network, scholars and advocates explored the impact of profit motives on psychedelic studies — but such instances are exceptions, not the rule. Psychedelic enthusiasts of the old school are generally not in a position to critique the tech industry’s enthusiasm. The resources available to study these substances remain limited, and their checkered reputation remains too a significant barrier for psychedelic advocates to criticize any source of funding and legitimacy.

Nonetheless, the tension between instrumentalized and exploratory approaches to psychedelics should not simply be dismissed. If the long-term impact of psychedelic research is shaped by the psychopharmaceutical industry, it would threaten the social potential of a psychedelic revival. The intertwining of mind-altering drugs and politics in the 1960s sparked a movement that embraced communitarianism over individualism and promised an immanent new consciousness. Of course, such optimism proved premature, but the promise of a psychedelic politics didn’t end with the new millennium.

Before his death, cultural critical Mark Fisher was working on a book titled Acid Communism, a vision for a post-capitalist world that drew from the reality-altering effects of hallucinogens, along with the culture they inspired. In some ways the work was a more optimistic follow up to his Capitalist Realism, which addressed the famous question — attributed to several different Marxist thinkers — of why is it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Fisher argued that capitalism disguises itself as a social inevitability, foreclosing the possibility for another political order to emerge and making anyone who would propose alternatives seem out of touch with reality.

But Fisher thought that a noncapitalist future could manifest, if only we knew where to look for inspiration. Acid Communism was to explore the possibility that psychedelia might open radically new political landscapes. Plan C, a political collective with which Fisher was associated, describes how he believed that “the consciousness changing effects of psychedelia, which worked through pop culture to embed a notion that reality is plastic and changeable,” and so could be used to raise class consciousness. He argued that the tendency of psychedelics to destabilize concrete notions of self and society could be leveraged for political benefit. Thus the psychedelic experience should not be charged with escapism — as it often had been by critics from the 1960s onward — but investigated for its ability to reshape the world.

This sentiment had also been voiced by the most famous figures from psychedelic history. Timothy Leary’s well-known mantra “tune in, turn on, drop out” has often been censured as a command to disengage from society, but in his autobiography Flashbacks: A Personal and Cultural History of an Era, he argues this is a misreading. “‘Drop out’ suggested an active, selective, graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments,” he noted. “‘Drop out’ meant self-reliance, a discovery of one’s singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change. Unhappily my explanations of this sequence of personal development were often misinterpreted to mean ‘get stoned and abandon all constructive activity.’ ”

Still, it’s easy to interpret the directives of Timothy Leary and his contemporaries as aligned with the Silicon Valley model: tune in (to yourself), turn on (to the solution — in this case, drugs; in others, a digital screen), drop out (of seeing your problem as not your own, but society’s). Many 1960s thinkers of Leary’s ilk scarcely remarked on the fact that rejecting involuntary commitments is a luxury that not everyone can afford. This is perhaps even more true now than during the economic boom of the 1960s.

For Fisher, this was not an abstract matter. On his blog, k-punk, he wrote frequently about his lifelong struggle with depression, which he argued stemmed from capitalism’s competitive, inherently antisocial nature. Capitalism, he claimed, preempts any thoughts, feelings, and ways of being that it cannot exploit for market value, which in turn leads to an almost unbearable sense of estrangement. If we accept Fisher’s view of depression as produced by the current political order — a regime supported by the tech industry — then political overhaul is the ultimate cure. In his vision, the pro-social, self-transcending and irreverent qualities of psychedelia are a threat to the psychopolitical mechanisms by which capitalism maintains its authority. Depression, however, tends to be understood in terms that suit pharmaceutical companies, as neurochemical and individualistic rather than a structural social condition. Technological solutionism fortifies capitalism by reinforcing this view, holding individuals responsible for complex situations that could only be resolved through social action. Why consider politics when we can manage these issues with a pill?

The innovations and interest of the tech industry may be required to give psychedelic research momentum, even if it may work against its broader political potential. Notably, the people who need psychedelic therapy the most may need it with the tech sector’s signature quick rollout times: The success of MDMA in treating post-traumatic stress disorder in war veterans — a group at high risk for suicide — has already been confirmed. Current studies are exploring psilocybin’s potential for treatment-resistant depression and anxiety associated with cancer. These populations wouldn’t benefit from the long-term effort required to dismantle capitalism, and they shouldn’t have to wait for that to reap some of the benefits of psychedelic research.

But it’s ultimately not a matter of seeing left idealism and techno-scientific pragmatism as cancelling each other out. In the most optimistic view, psychedelic science will have us innovating ourselves out of the psycho-political chokehold that strangles our social imagination. Legal LSD taken for anxiety or to boost our brains at work will probably not end up turning everyone on to socialism and thus dissolving the industrial forces that backed its development. But the fact that psychedelia is blessed by the technology and pharmaceutical sectors does not prevent it from potentially expanding our political imagination. The special qualities of psychedelic therapy may make it impossible to suppress its political implications.

For this to happen, scientific research on psychedelics must continue — which will at times require dialogue between the profit-oriented companies and those who see psychedelics as a challenge to the normative order of industry. The political potential inherent to the psychedelic experience is too important to ignore. Psychedelic research demands the input of those who have reflected deeply on what the special nature of its experience can do not only for individuals, but society. It will require openness to values that are at odds with technological solutionism if the long-term outcome of the psychedelic revival is ever to truly serve us all.

Emma Stamm is Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Villanova University. She specializes in critical theory and philosophy of technology. Her website is www.o-culus.com and she’s on Twitter @14floating.