Monday, May 5, 2014

Descartes the Tripper

When can the perception of reality be more than real than the perspective our senses and brains formulate within consciousness? Perhaps with the help of a class of drugs pioneered by defined as hallucinogens, in particular psychedelics, such as Psilocybin, peyote and LSD. Traditionally these “drugs” have been used ritualistically in many cultures since the dawn of history. An article published by The Atlantic was aggregated onto the The Real World flipboard described the therapeutic effects magical mushrooms containing Psilocybin provide to patients suffering from anxiety. The author of the article, Roc Morin provided an adequate subheading that contextualized the nature of the story: “New York University research team is using hallucinogenic experiences to help patients come to terms with their mortality.”

The article’s first focus is of patient O.M., a 22-year-old cancer survivor and could be considered poster-boy for the study. Morin quotes him explaining the experience of breaking through to the other side of his anxiety: “I was outside of my body, looking at myself...My body was lying on a stretcher in front of a hospital. I felt an incredible anxiety - the same anxiety I had felt every day since my diagnosis. Then, like a switch went on, I went from being anxious to analyzing my anxiety from the outside. I realized nothing was actually happening to me objectively. It was real because I let it become real. And, right when I had that thought, I saw a cloud of black smoke come out of my body and float away.”

O.M.’s explanation of the hallucinogenic study is frightening to Nixon sympathizers and revolutionary to the psychiatric world. Another great mind expressed similar sentiments about the nature of the human condition. French philosopher Rene Descartes came to similar terms of his existence in the 16th century. Descartes described the “exigencies of action often oblige us to make up our minds before having leisure to examine matters carefully, we must confess that the life of man is very frequently subject to error in respect to individual objects, and we must in the end acknowledge the infirmity of our nature” in Sixth Meditation.


O.M.’s coming to terms with his illness and anxiety is the very same acknowledgement of human “infirmity”. He had finally been able to take the “leisure” as Descartes described in the form of a hallucinogenic drug and “examine matters carefully” concluding that his rumination on the cancer was causing him detrimental affects to his psyche.

Approximately 3/4s of the study conducted by New York University rated their experience taking the Psilocybin as a top 5 experience in their lifetime. This seems like a tremendous increase in satisfaction compared to taking anxiety medications such as Xanax, which O.M. described as ““Xanax doesn’t get rid of your anxiety. Xanax tells you not to feel it for awhile until it stops working and you take the next pill. The beauty of psilocybin is: it’s not medication. You’re not taking it and it solves your problem. You take it and you solve your problem yourself.”

Thinking outside the box did wonders for Descartes immortal voice illuminating a particular period of time when reason was typically vilified by the church in Europe. Perhaps the researchers at NYU are onto a marvelous breakthrough for treating Anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and perhaps one day hallucinogens will be accepted as a viable treatment. I’m guessing not likely soon, especially when one of the participants (O.M), who is also a medical student, describes Psilocybin as solving “your problems.” There is limited scientific justification currently to judge whether or not such a method will be introduced on a widespread scale. Especially when the subjects being tested are perceiving the world from what they describe as ‘outside their bodies’ even though we can see them sitting with a gaze of wonder. Similarly, just as Descartes constructed his reality of understanding the difference between wakeful life and sleep, these patients need to understand their constructions of reality are based off of everyday previous. Maybe hallucinogens are a shortcut psychiatrists have been searching for the last century for patients to understand themselves instead of having a doctor tell them what the matter is while they struggle with underlying causes of anxiety. Time will tell.

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