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Trippy Talk: We are Made of Drugs with Dennis Mckenna

Trippy Talk: We are Made of Drugs with Dennis Mckenna
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In this very special edition of Trippy Talk, Reality Sandwich is publishing three interviews by Priscilla Duggan. As a high school senior, Duggan decided to investigate the history and science of psychedelic research for an honors thesis. For this paper, Duggan interviewed psychedelic research giants: Dennis Mckenna, Brad Adams and Ashley Booth. We are so proud to present Priscilla Duggan’s interviews over the next three weeks.

After a short introduction by Priscilla Duggan, the first interview in the series will follow with Dennis Mckenna. –RS

Growing Up Psychedelic

Living in LA, it’s hard to shelter your kids as a parent. Thankfully, that was not a concern of my own. And as such, I was exposed to every kind of person, religion, belief, experience, and setting growing up.

As a teenager in LA I was exposed to psychedelics early. The idea of “counter-culture” and identifying as a “non-conformer” is particularly popular in my generation. Ironically, both of these terms originate from a “one fish swimming against the current” situation, rather than a whole generation trying to not conform. Psychedelics, with their mysterious and extremely stigmatized past, fit perfectly into a “counter-culture” box. And duly spark the interest of the youth.

In Pursuit of Knowledge

Psychedelics sparked my interest early. I’ve never been someone who leaned toward taking “drugs” or drinking alcohol. I’m actually quite content staying sober at a party and people watching. But, there was something different about psychedelics that I couldn’t ignore. I wanted to know, why were psychedelics so stigmatized? And, why were people telling me at 17, that they made you “jump out of windows?” How did all this relate to the laid-back, hippie culture of the 60s?

I’m the kind of person that likes to do a little research on something that interests me. Knowledge is power! Who knew this interest would develop into a 100-page thesis research paper? And, go on to shape the path of the particular kind of science I want to study in college as well?

A Researcher in the Making

There was a special program open to juniors and seniors at my old school called “Honors Research.” This program allows a student to develop a year-long research paper with a mentor in a lab, generally at UCLA or USC. So, after my recent spark of interest in psychedelics and inherent love for science, I knew I wanted to study them in my Honors Research paper. 

Overcoming Obstacles

However due to the nature of my subject (drugs) and my age at the time (17), I couldn’t get into a lab and research the neuroscience, or the psychedelic therapy potential associated with these drugs hands on. And, no one else around me wanted to study psychedelics. I stuck out like a sore thumb among my peers and potentially raised the concern of the faculty. But I was incredibly eager to continue studying psychedelics because of what I had learned so far about them; their intrinsic therapeutic value and unique neuroscience. So I created a plan for my own research and method with the help of my mentor. I didn’t work in a lab that year. Instead, I gathered research by conducting interviews with psychedelic researchers and attending conferences, symposiums, meetings, and lectures.

The further I traversed into the field, the more I realized that no matter how much I thought I knew, there is an infinite amount that I did not know. But the fact that I could help de-stigmatize psychedelics through evidence-based research, excited me more than anything. By the end of the year, I had finished my paper. “Investigations In the History, Mechanisms, and Research Development of Psychedelic Drugs.”

Moving Forward

Throughout this research project, I found that people react in different ways to a topic like psychedelics. People are eager to offer plenty of opinions based on personal experience: stories they’ve heard, or books they’ve read. And every one of those opinions became critical for me to take into account.

Finding my way within the research world was intimidating. But, I capitalized on that and turned it into speculative interest. That drove me deeper into what brought me here in the first place. Even in the face of intimidating opinions from highbrow researchers, it felt valuable to listen to all corners. In an era of research trapped by its own need, to prove a proposed hypothesis, we’re becoming trained to ignore any opposing data. So, we’re drifting toward obscurantism.

So I listen and observe. Patiently, I take it all in. I watch as my own, hopefully maturing ideas, come to fruition or surprise me with another conclusion altogether.

Contributor | Priscilla Duggan

Dennis Mckenna + Priscilla Duggan Interview

PD: How did you get interested in this field? 

Dennis Mckenna: Basically, I was a child of the 60’s. And at that time you know, psychedelics interested everyone in my demographic. In some ways, that sort of distorted the situation. It came into our culture really out of left field, and most people didn’t have any idea of the history, and ethnographic historical background of psychedelics. So, the powers that be saw LSD as a threat. And in fact it was, in that it changes people’s thinking. Like taking LSD and thinking, “Well really? Do I have to go to Vietnam and kill people I don’t even know and would I want to do that?” I was interested in it from that point of view, being part of the counterculture. 

Then my brother [Terence McKenna], who you probably know about, was a big influence. Being four years older than I was, he led me down the primrose path in many ways and we were like partners in outrage. I was still in high school at the time, but he was in Berkeley in the middle of the counter-cultural ferment. He discovered DMT, which there wasn’t much of it around at the time, but he was able to locate it. I mean, we were science fiction fans, we actually came it from that angle more than mysticism, and it was like this is another dimension. And, we wanted to investigate it. I don’t know if you’ve had any experience with DMT?

PD: No I haven’t.

Dennis Mckenna: Ok, or 5-methoxy-DMT?

PD: Not that one either.

Denis Mckenna: The frustration is that, it produces an amazing experience, but a very short experience. So it’s very hard to bring much back other than astonishment– “Oh my god, what happened?” But as far as getting any noetic content out of it, it’s hard.

So Terence and I were naively thinking, if we could find an orally active form of DMT, it would last longer and we would be able to get more out of it. That thinking was really naive. But that is what motivated us to go to South America for the first time in 1971.

So that led us to La Chorrera which happened to be the ancestral home of the Witoto people. When we got there, we found big beautiful clusters of psilocybin mushrooms (psilocybe cubensis) growing all over the pasture around this mission village. We knew what they were, but we had never had any experience with them.

You can think of psilocybin as a perfect orally active form of DMT. But, we didn’t know any of that in 1971. When we started sampling these mushrooms, it quickly sort of reprioritized our quest. We came to the conclusion that the mushrooms were the real mystery, not this obscure Witoto hallucinogen. So, that’s what we ended up working with, and have for many years. 

And then, I went back to South America in 1981 as a graduate student at the University of British Columbia with a different agenda. To focus my research on ayahuasca and Ukuhé, this Witoto hallucinogen, and do a comparative study between these two.

Ukuhé at the time was a dying tradition. The knowledge of ayahuasca however, has only expanded. Now, it’s like a cultural superstar or something. Ayahuasca is spreading across the planet. Potentially, it’s a catalyst for this global shift in consciousness that has to occur if we’re gonna get straightened out.

I talk about this from the angle that– the plant is trying to communicate with our species. It has been for thousands of years, but now it’s getting a little more hysterical because we’re not listening. And the message is basically that we’re sick on every level and we have to wake up. We have to re-understand our relationship with nature. The plant is a game changer in that respect, or a mind changer I should say.

PD: Western society is so sick on all the wrong things–materialism, consumerism, game theory. And, we have a horrible prescription drug problem. Do you think think psychedelics would help that? Though I feel like ​we ​are the elixirs to change that…

DM: That’s important that you put it that way. You’re right, we make the change, psychedelics are the learning tool. Psychedelics are what we can use to learn to rediscover our internal values in order to do what needs to be done. 

PD: I think in certain ways, as a Western society, we’ve developed this epistemology of prioritizing material wealth, and what religions claim to be is an epistemology that prioritizes spiritual wellness but they’re not actually.

DM: They’re not actually, right right. And they, I think they create this distortive perspective on the idea that nature exists for us to dominate, and use, and exploit, rather than partner with. So it leads to this idea of a devaluation of nature, and part of that is actually a devaluation of biology in a certain way. Because we are biological beings. Like it or not, we are machines that run on drugs.

We are made of drugs.

We are biochemical engines immersed in this tremendous chemical diversity of plant products. Not just psychoactive, but all kinds. This is how plants mediate their relationship with everything else in the environment because they’re such good chemists. They don’t really respond to their environment through behavior. They can’t run away from threats, they use chemistry to mediate everything in their environment. Fungi in the soil, or bacteria, or insects, all of these things are mediated by these plant messenger molecules, some of which happen to resemble neurotransmitters. So we can, in a sense, communicate with these plants in that way. Or, you know, that’s one way to think of it. A little more sophisticated way to look at that is that, they’re not actually these entities that are teaching us. They have a catalytic influence to help us teach ourselves.

PD: Absolutely.

DM: I think that’s the great therapeutic power of psychedelics as well. They let you step outside of your reference frame temporarily, and look at it from a different perspective. You’ve probably heard of the default mode network.

PD: Yes, actually Robin Carhart Harris wrote a paper on the entropic brain model.

DM: So, we construct this model of reality, and that’s the reality that we inhabit. It’s partly made up of sensory data. Then, you associate that sensory data with memories, other things that you’ve learned, previous experiences, associations, suppositions, abstractions, all of these ideas, all of these elements that go together to create this model of reality that we inhabit. And psychedelics temporarily disrupt that. That can be a good thing, because it disrupts habit. It can disrupt entrained behavior, like addiction, like depression, these sorts of things are really habitual behaviors in a certain way. And a person has the opportunity to then respond to that, to integrate that by changing behavior. And that’s why I think with psychedelics, the integration, what happens after the session is very important. It defines: “Ok, I’ve learned all this new stuff, how do I integrate this into my post-experience reality?”

PD: Obviously, there’s a hole in public knowledge and a stigma surrounding psychedelics from the 60’s and 70’s. What is your response to that hole in public knowledge? Do you think there’s a way to fix that?

DM: The general public’s ignorance of science is rather abysmal. Most of them don’t even know what science is or what it does. You know the number of people that can reject the idea of climate change for example. That’s a pretty good example of the widespread ignorance. So that’s one thing. Then when you narrow that down to drugs well, it’s very easy to dismiss the whole topic. Drugs are this huge category and it never gets more granular than that. Like wait a minute, what ​kind ​of drugs are we talking about? Some are stimulants, some are psychedelics, some are sedatives, you know there are many different kinds. People don’t make those distinctions. To talk about drugs as a huge scary category is not a helpful conversation. 

So I think it’s a matter of educating people. And then of course, sometimes it’s said, if you haven’t ever taken a psychedelic, you can’t really understand what we’re talking about. So there is that element that the proof is in the pudding. I mean a single psychedelic experience, whatever the drug, can do a lot to educate people about what it really is, because they have all these misconceptions. 

PD: And like you said, it’s hard to argue with someone who has such a narrow structured mindset about this kind of topic already.

DM: Right. “Don’t bother me with facts, my mind is already made up.”

Unfortunately, this attitude permeates society. Now even more than before. And there was always plenty of it, but now one of the things that dismay me, I mean among many things that dismay me about what’s happening to our culture, but one of the things is this very anti-science attitude that people have. Not to say that science is the only answer, or that it’s absolutely true and nothing else is true. Science itself should be questioned. Properly practiced science questions its assumptions. Have you ever taken courses in philosophy or philosophy of science?

PD: No.

DM: I think sciences should require a course or two in philosophy of science because it forces you to think about “what is science” and how it works. And there are many people that go in to science and they never really think about what it is that they’re doing. They can learn all the techniques, they can run the machines, they can crunch the data, they can be very successful scientists in terms of their career and getting grants and so on, and that’s all great.

But science is about more than that, it’s a search for truth actually. You know you never actually prove anything, all you can do is say is that the hypothesis fits what we know. It could be totally wrong. So in that sense, science is a very powerful human epistemological invention or technology in a way.

PD: What are your personal views on therapeutic versus spiritual versus recreational use? And, with the future of psychedelic integration, do you see any dangers or problems?

DM: Here’s the thing. I’m very happy to see that psychedelics are more or less becoming accepted now. Or, slowly being accepted into bio medicine as a therapeutic modality. This should’ve happened a long time ago. The current approach of bio medicine toward mental health care is almost criminal. This over reliance on psycho-pharmaceuticals, most of which are ineffective, or barely effective. The lack of real interaction between the patient and therapist.

I am worried a little bit about the, how to put it? As something like psilocybin is accepted as a therapy into bio medicine, then does that mean that you have to be able to afford it? Be able to go to a clinic where this is offered? What if you’re poor? Or, don’t want to take synthetics? What if you’d rather eat mushrooms? Should you be prohibited from doing that? On the one hand, we’ve got a patient who could go to a clinic and take psilocybin, but if you want to go to a retreat center and take psilocybin, that’s illegal? That doesn’t seem right to me.

PD: So that would be therapeutic versus spiritual and recreational use…

DM: These are words that are hard to parse. People say well, “One should not use psychedelics recreationally.” But let’s parse that for a minute, what does that really mean? I mean look at the word. “Re-creation” is not that far from “rejuvenation.” So, properly used, I think recreational use can also be therapeutic. It can also be spiritual. You can’t separate these things. It doesn’t really work. You can’t go to a clinic and say, “I’m only here for the therapy, don’t bother me with the spiritual stuff.”

PD: Getting into this project, my teachers were reminding me to focus on the science part of this and not the spiritual side.

DM: You cannot ignore the spiritual aspect. And for the first time, this elusive phenomenon, this elusive aspect of human experience is available to scientific study. That’s a huge thing. And people will say, “Well that devalues it. And if you look at it scientifically it’s not really a mystical experience. Or if you take a drug to have it it’s not a real one. Only natural spontaneous ones are real mystical experiences.” To which I say, “that’s bullshit.”

I do not think it devalues the mystical experience to say well yes your brain is responding in these particular ways, which is what you can measure from outside. And really in some ways this is the challenge of neuroscience in the 21st century. Just in the broadest way, how do we cross the threshold between the things that we can measure about what the brain does from the outside, with all these cool instruments that we have, neuroimaging technology and all that? How do correlate that with what’s actually happening to the experiencing person on the inside? And it’s tricky. You have to be so careful about the words you use. Ideas like “inside” and “outside,” you know they don’t have any meaning, everything is inside.

PD: We can only describe what we know how to describe.

DM: What we experience is an inner subjective experience. And the characteristics of the mystical experience are in part an understanding that duality is an illusion. You know, we are not separate from the rest of the world, we are one with the cosmos, and all of these sort of spiritual, mystical tropes that they apply to the mystical experience. You have to be aware of how sort of charged these simple terms are, and you have to be sort of careful of how you use them, if you really want to understand it. Saying well “is this outside? Is this inside,” well maybe these terms don’t mean anything. Maybe there is no outside or inside.

PD: So, we think that we define the world in certain parts with our language, but really the world exists, and we are just defining what we know how to define. But it all exists outside of us.

DM: Does it? I mean we assume that something exists outside of us that is actual reality. I mean that’s the thing. We assume that there is an external world of some kind, that is not us, but what we are experiencing is this model that we construct and that we inhabit. You know we inhabit this hallucination. Which presumably, is something our brains create. But then, you get into the awkward conversation–well does it come from our brain or is our brain more like a detector? I mean these are the toughest epistemological questions–

PD: And we could argue forever about this.

DM: Exactly. I think psychedelics are even valuable in that respect because they invite you to think about these things. And this is good because we don’t really understand consciousness. We don’t really understand what it is to be conscious, and what are the limits of consciousness. You know, I mean it’s interesting the parallels between what you might call the contemporary scientific worldview and the indigenous worldview. I For example, in the indigenous worldview, everything is intelligent–trees, rocks, the sky, everything has a certain intelligence. Science is coming around to this idea. The idea that plants are intelligent for example. This was completely wacko a few years to talk about it, but now there’s actually research that shows plants are intelligent in the way they interact with the world.

PD: As far as the future of therapy, do you think that one psychedelic seems more promising than the others?

DM: No I don’t. There are multivariate situations. With just the example of addiction treatment. I think certain things like ibogaine, for example, seem to be very well suited for treating certain kinds of addiction, especially opioid addiction. In part because it disrupts this habitual relationship, but there are also neurochemical things going on that make ibogaine different than other psychedelics.

But ayahuasca can also be very powerful for addiction, and psilocybin as well. It really depends on the set and setting and how it is applied. You know, you’re probably aware of the psilocybin work with smoking addiction. It never would have occurred to me that psilocybin could be useful for smoking addiction. Because I smoked for a long part of my life, took plenty of psilocybin, and never really had the impulse to quit smoking as a result of that. I quit later but that was a different dynamic. 

PD: Would that relate to what you were saying earlier? That in a therapeutic setting the integration of the trip is so important?

DM: This is the whole thing with the set and setting dynamic. There’s the set, the setting, and obviously the medicine and the dose. Those are the big variables. And the set is, in a way, the most important. People say that the set is your intention, what you bring to it. But it goes way beyond that in my opinion. The set is you. The set is what you bring to the table, it’s everything you may have learned, as well as your intention and your preparation. I think the reason the psilocybin therapy works so very well with tobacco is that these people are seriously motivated to quit. They have not been able to. They get a lot of therapy before they ever take the psilocybin. And, they get a lot of therapy to follow up. That’s why it works.

PD: Right, because they’re willing.

DM: They’re going into it with the idea that this will help them quit smoking. That is their intent. But then, they’re bringing to it, also as part of their set, their lifetime of being a smoker, all the guilt that that creates, all the damage to their health and everything that that creates. That’s part of their history too. So they bring that with them to this experience. And we all do. The total “set” that you bring to the experience is your whole life, and everything you’ve experienced.

PD: That makes a lot of sense.

DM: It makes sense doesn’t it? For example, my brother told me before I had ever taken LSD, “be sure you read Psychology and Alchemy by Carl Jung before you take LSD.” I mean I didn’t listen to him, I went ahead and did it. But afterwards I realized, had I read that book before I ever took LSD, I would’ve appreciated it much more. So this self-education process is part of developing the set yourself, that you want to bring to the psychedelic experience.

Contributor | Priscilla Duggan + Dennis Mckenna

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