Psychologist writes sober book about psychedelic drugs
Psychedelic drugs like magic mushrooms and LSD are embraced by some and seen as lethal by others. Cognitive psychologist Michiel van Elk delved into the world of psychedelic drugs and wrote a surprisingly sober book about them. ‘Without first-hand experience my story wouldn’t be complete.’
When it comes to psychedelic drugs, the world seems to be split into two camps. One believes that magic mushrooms and LSD are lethal, whereas the other sees drugs like these as a panacea to all sorts of medical disorders. The two camps have become so entrenched that it is incredibly difficult to talk about psychedelics honestly and openly.
Time for a sober voyage of discovery, Assistant Professor of Cognitive Psychology Michiel van Elk decided. Because if you examine all the claims about the pros and cons of psychedelics, what are you left with? Van Elk’s book Een nuchtere kijk op psychedelica (A Sober Look at Psychedelics; 24.99 euros, Das Mag) was recently published.
Let’s begin with the elephant in the room: you yourself used different types of psychedelic drug before writing the book. Why was that?
‘Without first-hand experience, the story I tell in the book wouldn’t have been complete, so like a kind of anthropologist I did participant observation. I used truffles and took part in an ayahuasca ritual [ayahuasca is a hallucinogenic drink, ed.].
‘I did participant observation, like a kind of anthropologist’
Doesn’t that cloud your objectivity?
‘That’s a trap you have to avoid as a researcher. I’m aware that bias can play a part, and I cover that in my book. You can anticipate for that in science by building in checks and balances. I was awarded a Vidi grant from the NWO [Dutch Research Council, ed.] last year to research, in the most open and transparent way possible, what psychedelics do to the brain. It’s important to note certain hypotheses before you start your research and not to change these throughout. It’s also important to publish your data so that others can repeat the research. If you meet these requirements, then some experience of psychedelics can actually be useful from a scientific perspective because in your research design you take account of the intense experiences of the participants, for instance.’
What are psychedelic drugs?
Psychedelics are drugs that make you see and experience the world differently. Your idea of time and space can change. Most people call such an experience a trip, and psychedelics are also called hallucinogens. Examples of hallucinogens are LSD, magic mushrooms or truffles, 2C-B, salvia and ayahuasca.
What exactly do you want to tell people with your book?
‘I’ve written a book that takes the middle ground, so between sceptics and enthusiasts. Whereas some people imagine a nightmare scenario of hallucinating people going mad and jumping out of the window, others have an extremely rosy picture of psychedelics solving all sorts of psychological problems. In the book I show that the two extremes are largely incorrect or unproven.’
‘The two extremes are largely incorrect or unproven’
Let’s begin with the negative effects. What is wrong about that such claims?
‘The stories are often massively over exaggerated. I myself come from a strict Pentecostal community, and was brought up with the idea that all drugs are the work of the devil. But along the way I discovered that the nightmare scenario isn’t true. Psychoses are mainly triggered by drugs rather than caused by them. A psychosis is already there beneath the skin and would probably rise to the surface in other stressful situations too. A bad trip is fairly easy to avoid with a sober guide and a pleasant environment. And flashbacks afterwards – no hard evidence for this has ever been collected.’
And the positive effects?
‘Opinions are still divided. There are lots of claims, for instance, that psychedelics can help with all sorts of disorders that relate to rigid thought patterns, such as OCD, depression, anxiety disorders and addictions. But there is no way near enough evidence for this, so we can’t say with any certainty whether there is a positive effect. There is increasing evidence that people with posttraumatic stress disorder can benefit from treatment with MDMA. And scientific research has proven that healthy users of psychedelic drugs almost consistently put this in their top five most meaningful experiences, often together with having a child or other life-changing events.’
You yourself come from a very religious family. What do your old school friends say about your unusual research field?
‘They think it’s a phase, that after my religious years I’m now going through a kind of delayed puberty. I hope they’ll read my book and will be able to see the material through my eyes, with the same sceptical fascination.’
Text: Merijn van Nuland
Copyright of photo in text: Apollo via Flickr
Read also: MDMA and virtual reality as trauma treatment
Military veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder often have symptoms that are both chronic and complex. Professor by Special Appointment Eric Vermetten is looking for new ways to help them deal with these. One possible medicine: party drug MDMA.