Biohackers should be skeptical of Psychedelics
Thanks to Joe Rogan and different pop culture personalities psychedelics have become very popular. You’ve probably heard about them and are curious if a psychedelic trip or ceremony could be a shortcut to mental health or transformative personal development.
I remain a bit skeptical of psychedelics as a true tool for overcoming depression and personal development because that effect from them is so inconsistent. Sometimes people do have an amazingly transformative experience and gain some deep insight but a lot of times it’s just a recreational experience and of course, there’s always that chance of a terrifying bad trip.
People have asked me…
Jonathan, I’ve heard all these fantastic stories about psychedelics, how they change people’s outlook on life or help them get over addictions. Are psychedelics Nootropics?
I’ve not researched them as thoroughly as other Nootropics and biohacking technology but based upon perusal of the state of the psychedelic art research and human trials I’m going to say no.
While you could spend literally years (or decades) listening to all the podcasts singing the praises of psychedelics there’s good evidence for remaining skeptical of them.
- MAPS.org is the top resource for the scientific study of psychedelics. The vast majority of the human research showing a positive result of using them is in trials involving addicts or those suffering from PTSD, the clinical evidence of them helping depressed or otherwise healthy people is scant.
- Pubmed lists no human clinical trials with a follow-up investigation where a positive effect was noted on memory or cognition, which in contrast you can certainly find for Nootropics.
- Some research indicates impairments of memory and mental functions while dosed which is kind of what you would expect.
- The closest thing to research I could find on positive effects on personal transformation was two studies done in 2017. The first was done Assessing the Psychedelic “After-Glow” in Ayahuasca Users at the University of Barcelona which showed sustained elevations in nonjudging 2 months later in a five facet mindfulness questionnaire. The second, Effect of Psilocybin on Empathy and Moral Decision-Making interestingly found that Psilocybin significantly increased emotional, but not cognitive empathy and In contrast, moral decision-making remained unaffected by psilocybin. These studies would seem to confirm the stereotype of the hippy-dippy wu-wu psychedelic lover but don’t provide much evidence of them as transformational tools like mindfulness or brain training.
- There’s this rather terrifying phenomenon of Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder which means that auditory and visual hallucinations persist after a psychedelic experience for days, weeks or longer. And it doesn’t just happen to hardcore psychonauts who are using excessive amounts of drugs and having jarring bad trips. It can happen after just one trip. There are over 40 science papers documenting HPPD so it’s not exactly a fringe phenomenon.
Before you try psychedelics I’d urge you to watch this playlist on Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder.
Here’s what people are saying about it…
- It sounds like it manifests most frequently as floaters in your vision; which is like points of light or nebulous shapes appearing in your vision. Visual snow is reported; which is when your vision is just kind of low resolution. After images are also common; which is like seeing a trailing image of your glowing phone screen or television screen when you look away or move your phone. It’s probably not going to manifest as demons stalking you in the bathroom while you’re brushing your teeth.
- Although, some report seeing psychedelic entities in their peripheral vision even when they are totally sober. Which sounds totally creepy! There are a few terrifying cases of people whose experience of reality is totally broken by HPPD; they still hear voices and see weird things weeks or months after using psychedelics and sometimes they can’t even tell the difference between waking and dreaming life.
- Anxiety is something that those with HPPD really suffer from. They are chronically nervous about life and themselves. There seems to be some connection between HPPD and depersonalization — this is a psychological condition when you have an overwhelming feeling of disconnection from your life and your family. It just doesn’t feel like anything is real anymore.
- Social anxiety is commonly mentioned, many report that they are uncomfortable looking other people in the eyes. Low-level paranoia seems to be something that many suffer from; constantly worrying that the people around them understand how disconnected they are from reality.
- It results from classic psychedelics like LSD and DMT of course but also from MDMA.
- It seems to happen after multiple trips, it’s more frequent among chronic users of psychedelics.
If you watch many of these vlogs of guys talking about their HPPD, it’s painfully obvious that most of them are real idiots! This makes me a bit suspicious that HPPD or chronic use of psychedelics negatively affects your intelligence, at least your verbal intelligence. I’m not sure if this is a case of causation or correlation. Does psychedelic use (or abuse) wack your IQ down a few points? Or is it just that these guys were idiots, to begin with, and the HPPD has broken what was in the first place a loose connection to reality?
One thing that makes me a bit angry is that Joe Rogan never talks about HPPD. I had listened to The Joe Rogan Experience for years (which probably inspired me to try Ayahuasca) and while he praises psychedelics in nearly every episode he never discusses HPPD.
I did a 15-hour Ayahuasca ceremony myself in the Andes mountains a few years back and I found the experience totally underwhelming. I was hoping for some great insight into the challenges I faced and my inner battles. Despite my openness to an epiphany and proper preparation for the experience (abstaining from alcohol and strong food for about a week before the ceremony), it was a totally non-transformative event. Don’t get me wrong; I thoroughly enjoyed the music, dancing, discussion, and fellowship of the event but I experienced nothing inspirational, divine or metaphysical. After drinking two cups of Ayahuasca I just meditated by a fire under the stars for a few hours until the sun came up, which was certainly special but I think I could have actually gotten more transformation bang for my self-exploration buck if I had instead spent that time journaling, doing talk therapy with a professional or just hitting the gym.
I lived for several years in South America and knew a lot of people who experimented with and used psychedelics. Very few of them grew personally as a result of using psychedelics but most of these people were honestly just lazy losers, alcoholics, and drug addicts who fooled themselves that they were doing something meaningful with their lives by drifting aimlessly around underdeveloped countries. The only epiphany they ever experienced from doing psychedelics was that they should do MORE psychedelics.
Although, you do hear a lot of encouraging stories of people overcoming addictions or self-destructive mindsets as a result of using psychedelics. If it interests you, try it. But as the ayahuasqueros themselves would tell you don’t go into the experience with high expectations.
There’s also some risk in the psychedelic ceremonies themselves
A very free spirited woman I met many years ago in South America was heinously attacked and murdered during a ceremony in Ecuador. This was not an isolated incident, every year a handful of psychedelic tourists die during ceremonies in dangerous, underdeveloped countries and you can find numerous examples of pseudo-spiritual psychedelic gurus abusing their followers while they are most vulnerable under the influence of drugs.
The main reason why I don’t think I’ll do psychedelics again is the chance of having a bad trip. It’s impossible to quantify what proportion of trips are bad. The majority of trips are good which is why people love psychedelics but nearly every repeat user of psychedelics has a harrowing tale of a bad trip.
The experts will tell you that you can mitigate the chances of a bad trip by optimizing set and setting, being in a comfortable, safe place with trustworthy people there to assure you that everything is ok but even the most experienced psychonauts sometimes have bad trips.
A 2018 meta-analysis looked at the findings of 18 different studies of psychedelics, some takeaways…
- A finding that won’t surprise many Psychonauts, is that psychedelics promote the personality trait of openness; how open and accepting one might be of new experiences. Here’s the thing, I’m already pretty open, I’ve traveled the world, I’m quite open to learning and experiencing new things. But I’m open to novelty in a pretty rational way; I don’t take a lot of dumb risks. I see only downside in the pharmacological enhancement of my openness.
- Psychedelics also result in the trait of self transcendence and the diminishment of the harm avoidance trait. This is what you see on full display with these silly generalizations that chronic drug users always make about being one with everyone and everything in the universe. One thing I find really disappointing about these bad trip reports is that these guys will have gone through terrible, self-destructive experiences, often times injuring themselves and terrifying their loved ones but they are still quite open to using more psychedelics in the future. This just seems totally idiotic to me. It seems obvious that the psychedelics have retarded their natural, rational, self-preserving harm avoidance instincts.
Serotonergic psychedelics and personality: A systematic review of contemporary research. - PubMed …
Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2018 Apr;87:118-132. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2018.02.004. Epub 2018 Feb 13. Systematic Review
A younger, reckless Jonathan took ecstasy several times with friends at parties and night clubs. I had a bad trip once when we got just too high and a mediocre trip once when we failed to hook up with girls who came over to my apartment at 4:00 AM because we were too high. Those two mildly bad experiences were all I needed to motivate me to not touch ecstasy again. These psychedelics users after being psychologically (or physically) scarred by their drugs and bad trips remain open to trying psychedelics again like a beaten woman who pathologically keeps returning to her abusive lover.
An article that appeared in Live Science emphasized the point that “A Single Psychedelic Drug Trip Can Change Your Personality for Years”, so it may not be like weed or alcohol that you can walk away from with no permanent negative effects after a negative experience.
A Single Psychedelic Drug Trip Can Change Your Personality for Years
So, you decided to "turn on, tune in and drop out" - and you didn't like it. Can you ever fully turn off, tune out and…
According to scientific literature, HPPD is pretty rare, however, if you watch some Youtube playlists of people talking about their bad trips it would seem that a lot of psychedelic users suffer from some HPPD, especially following bad trips. Many report after effects that are typical of HPPD; floaters in their vision, trailing lights, and general anxiety. You can confirm this anecdotally by just asking some psychonauts who you might know, most of them will admit that in the days and weeks following their trips things are just a little off; they see lights or things that shouldn’t be there.
Psychonauts seem to agree that psychedelics experiences are manifestations of what’s in our consciousness; what we are worrying about and what we are hoping for. It seems that HPPD results frequently from bad trips, the most terrifying thought during the most terrifying of bad trips is that you’ll be stuck forever in the psychedelic hell you’re experiencing. So you get really focused for several hours on the idea of being stuck in a negative psychedelic state and this manifests as HPPD.
You might say…
Jonathan, I’m not the type of person that loses their shit. I have a strong mind. I wouldn’t let my emotions run my life. If I did a psychedelic trip I would prepare properly, I wouldn’t do all these idiotic things that people do that seem to cause bad trips.
Sure, you might carefully prepare yourself emotionally and physiologically for your trip but what about the people that you trip with? Are all of them as psychologically stable as you? When I did ayahuasca I did it with about 25 perfect strangers what if one of them wasn't as well prepared as I? What if one of them did cocaine the night before and got in a fight with their girlfriend which caused them to have a bad trip? That would at the least have disturbed my sublime experience. To what extent are bad trips contagious? I’m not sure but in retrospect, it seems pretty foolish to do a psychedelic trip or ceremony with a bunch of strangers.
Psychedelics don’t belong in the same risk-reward category as Nootropics, Mindfulness or diet hacking.
You might be saying…
Ok Jonathan, I can see why doing jarring psychedelics trips is risky but what about microdosing? That’s probably not a bad idea, right?
A placebo-controlled study published in PLOS ONE in 2019 tracked the experiences of 98 microdosing participants. From its abstract:
Analyses of pre and post study measures revealed reductions in reported levels of depression and stress; lower levels of distractibility; increased absorption; and increased neuroticism.
Statistically according to the self-reporting of the participants, the microdosing resulted in…
- Decreased feelings of depression and stress.
- Decreased mind wandering.
- Increased absorption; a type of focused attention characterised by deep involvement with particular aspects of subjective experience… Individuals with high levels of trait absorption are likely to report intense engagement with nature and aesthetic involvement with art
- Interestingly, a small increase in trait neuroticism was observed. Which is a little unexpected, nobody really wants to be more neurotic.
- Microdosing appears to intensify emotions both positive and negative. Which sounds good if you’re just going to be happy all the time, but if you’re going to have normal ups and downs in your mood microdosing will make the negative feelings more acute. The researchers postulate that this explains the uptick in neuroticism.
- Microdosing did not result in greater creative thinking, mindfulness, sense of agency or overall quality of life.; which are mindset characteristics that we all probably want to cultivate more of.
A systematic study of microdosing psychedelics
The phenomenon of 'microdosing', that is, regular ingestion of very small quantities of psychedelic substances, has…
Microdosing seems to be a pretty mediocre stimulant of the type of mindset we want! Nootropics, like the adaptogens, diminish depression and stress. Cognitive enhancers like the Racetams diminish mind wandering. It seems that nearly every benefit offered by microdosing is offered by Nootropics or mindfulness practice. With microdosing, the juice is just not worth the squeeze, Nootropics are a whole lot cheaper than microdosing and microdosing involves procuring and consuming illegal drugs. You can’t buy credible, trustworthy LSD or psilocybin (verified as pure with a certificate of analysis) from a reputable e-commerce store online that stands behind the quality of its product. The only way to get it is to send cryptocurrency anonymously to some criminal out there lurking in the underworld of the internet.
I came across a single notable study of Psilocybin vs Depression that was optimistic about positive long term effects.
12 patients (six men, six women) with moderate-to-severe, unipolar, treatment-resistant major depression… Depressive symptoms were assessed with standard assessments from 1 week to 3 months after treatment… Relative to baseline, depressive symptoms were markedly reduced 1 week … and 3 months… after high-dose treatment. Marked and sustained improvements in anxiety and anhedonia were also noted.
This is an encouraging preliminary study but the sample size of 12 patients is quite small.
Psilocybin with psychological support for treatment-resistant depression: an open-label feasibility…
Psilocybin is a serotonin receptor agonist that occurs naturally in some mushroom species. Recent studies have assessed…
You might be saying at this point…
But Jonathan, there’s so many researchers and scientists that say that psychedelics are good! They help people overcome PTSD and drug addiction. There’s so much encouraging research on psychdelics…
I’m actually a bit skeptical of all this very fashionable psychedelics’ science. If you listen to many of these scientists talk about psychedelics it’s clear that they really like psychedelics personally and are often recreational users themselves, they are very far from being objective researchers. I’m just a bit skeptical of positive scientific results that come from very biased researchers. I really like Nootropics like the Racetams and I know that if I was put in charge of conducting a scientific trial on Racetams that I would be pretty biased towards finding a positive result. Go watch some podcast interviews with psychedelics’ researchers and you’ll see this bias on full display, they have a lot to say positively but they’ll barely mention the possibility of a traumatic bad trip or the lingering effects of one’s reality being broken by HPPD.
I consider psychedelics a high risk, dubious reward last resort option for treatment-resistant depression and addiction, there’s a lot of better, more proven solutions to try before you put the psychedelic bullet in the revolver, spin the chamber and play Russian roulette with the chance of a bad trip or HPPD.
Taking Psychedelics for Personal Growth?
If personal development is what you are interested in there are just a lot better options than psychedelics.
- If you want to get over past trauma and move past self-destructive patterns and habits do journaling or talk therapy.
- If you want to enhance your creativity or cognition do Nootropics.
- If you want to enhance your intelligence do Dual N-Back brain training or read intellectually challenging books.
- If you want to improve your empathy, overcome anxiety or self-defeating thoughts habituate a daily meditation practice.
- If you want to cultivate more expansive thinking so that you are inspired to create an innovative start-up, write a great book or create profound art get outside of your comfort zone! Do things that make you uncomfortable. Seek and surround yourself with beauty.
- If you want to reach ecstatic flow states more often take more social risks, go new places and challenge yourself, cultivate more focus, do HRV training, or pick up a hobby like surfing.
- If you want to feel more at one with everyone why don’t you do something good for others? Go volunteer your time to a charity that actually helps people.
- If you want to overcome adolescent self-centeredness and learn some humility take on the ultimate challenge of parenthood or do what I did and get married.
I’ve long said that discipline is the ultimate lifehack for personal growth because if you have discipline you can get almost any thing that you desire. None of the research on psychedelics notes a positive effect on discipline resulting from psychedelics use. Psychedelics are so appealing because they seem to offer a shortcut to genuine, arduous personal growth.
I only did psychedelics once so I’m not an expert but if you really listen to the people who do them repeatedly, it seems like the main personal growth “benefit” of psychedelics is just that they make you want to do MORE psychedelics.