Do Psychedelics Really Act as ‘Non-Specific Amplifiers’ of the Psyche?

Psychedelics as Specific Amplifiers

In the 1960s, LSD was strongly tied to the counterculture movement, which included elements like the Civil Rights Movement, free speech, the New Left, anti-war, anti-nuclear, feminism, and environmentalism. Today, psychedelics are still associated with liberal beliefs, the common assumption being that psychedelics specifically induce feelings of love and brotherhood and so lead people to adopt certain political beliefs.

In an article for Scientific American, Eddie Jacobs – who is studying the ethical dimensions of psychedelic-assisted therapy – points out that there could be a causal relationship between psychedelics and liberal values. (Some earlier research finding a connection between the two can be deemed acausal since, as Jacobs says, “those with conservative attitudes tend to look more disapprovingly on illicit drug use, making them less likely than liberals to try a psychedelic drug in the first place.”)

Emerging evidence has found that psilocybin can decrease authoritarian political views in patients, as well as lead to increases in the personality trait openness [7], which is itself a predictor of liberal values. Jacobs, however, adds:

“With sample sizes currently small, more research is needed to understand whether there truly is a causal relationship at work, and, if so, what its nature might be. Perhaps psilocybin doesn’t so much induce liberal values, but rather consolidates whatever values were present before treatment.”

Even if psychedelics don’t shift someone’s political values, it may still be the case that they amplify whatever existing beliefs and attitudes someone has. If true, this would mean psychedelics are not, in fact, specific amplifiers.

Psychedelics Can Accommodate a Variety of Views

In response to Jacobs’ piece, Matthew W. Johnson and David B. Yaden – both psychedelic researchers at Johns Hopkins – stress that there is no good evidence supporting the idea that psychedelics can change your political or religious beliefs. 

For example, a reduction in authoritarianism doesn’t necessarily translate into a specific political affiliation (since both left-wing and right-wing authoritarian beliefs exist). The researchers also question the methodology of the studies showing an association between psychedelics and liberal values, arguing that such research does not reliably establish such a link.

The philosopher Jules Evans has further highlighted that psychedelics don’t always make you liberal. Meso-American cultures, which used psychedelics as part of religious rituals, did not become liberal after taking psilocybin mushrooms. Their society was strictly hierarchical and practised human sacrifice. Amazon indigenous cultures, while not as violent and bloody as the Aztecs, can still be highly patriarchal, heteronormative, and conservative. 

Then you have famous psychedelic users like Havelock Ellis, WB Yeats, and Aleister Crowley who all held some pretty illiberal views (both Ellis and Yeats supported eugenics, while Crowley championed a highly hierarchical, pyramidal view of society). 

Moreover, in a 2021 paper published in Frontiers in Psychology, Brian A. Pace and Neşe Devenot state :

“We suggest that the historical record supports the concept of psychedelics as “politically pluripotent,” non-specific amplifiers of the political set and setting. Contrary to recent assertions, we show that conservative, hierarchy-based ideologies are able to assimilate psychedelic experiences of interconnection”.

They point out that psychedelic use can be accommodated with right-wing conspiracy beliefs and neo-Nazism. In terms of the latter, the Base, an international neo-Nazi group, integrated collective LSD use as part of a neo-Pagan, male-bonding ritual. Andrew Anglin, who founded the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, had extensive experience with classical psychedelics such as LSD and psilocybin before turning into a fascist propagandist. And several neo-Nazis have cited an LSD experience as foundational to their “red-pilling” to Nazi beliefs.

With respect to right-wing conspiracy beliefs, we have Q-Anon proponents such as Jake Angeli (the self-described Q-Shaman) and William Watson, both of whom participated in the 2021 United States Capitol attack, and both have deep and extensive ties to the psychedelic community.

There are also many psychedelic advocates and those in the psychedelic industry who hold less extreme but right-wing or conservative positions. Thus, psychedelia can clearly intersect with a wide range of values and attitudes, indicating again that psychedelics are non-specific amplifiers. 

The Paradox of Psychedelic Amplification

It makes sense to think of psychedelics as non-specific amplifiers since the material that arises during a trip can be unpredictable. On the other hand, people often find that these substances amplify specific experiences, such as a feeling of the ‘divine’ or ‘holy’ (even among atheists). This is why an alternative term for psychedelics is entheogens (meaning they ‘generate the divine within’). 

Studies also find that psychedelics lead to significant and lasting increases in openness (being imaginative, curious, and interested in new experiences) and nature-relatedness (your sense of being connected to nature, which itself is a strong predictor of pro-environmental behaviour). 

Furthermore, a study published in Scientific Reports revealed that the use of psychedelics can result in significant and lasting shifts away from ‘physicalist’ or ‘materialist’ beliefs and towards panpsychism (the view that consciousness is a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of the universe). So it seems psychedelics can alter our metaphysical beliefs in a specific way.

One may want to argue that the experience of – and resulting belief in – ultimate unity owing to psychedelics is a specific effect, but this may not be the case. As the philosopher of mind Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes underscores in his book Modes of Sentience:

“‘shared experiences’ may be contingent on culture – for instance, the unitive states experiences in the West often within frameworks from the East are seemingly lacking in the indigenous American psychedelic experience.”

So what I believe we have here is a paradox, which I will call the paradox of psychedelic amplification: these substances seem to have both specific and non-specific amplifying effects. There are certain characteristics of the psychedelic experience that may encourage a specific mindset and worldview; but as we have also seen, psychedelics can amplify a variety of beliefs. What psychedelics are and what they do is, therefore, not such a black-and-white issue.

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