Saturday, April 20, 2013

Vanessa Grigoriadis - Travels in the New Psychedelic Bazaar

Throughout human existence, human beings have used substances that produce intoxication. The most potent of these have been the entheogens - psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, salvia divinorum, and mescaline containing cacti - and in the 20th century, the creation of LSD-25 by Albert Hofmann.

When the U.S. government over-reacted to the 1960s hippie culture and declared the hallucinogens Schedule 1 controlled substances (a listing generally reserved for substances that are addictive and without medical value), the underground chemists began to synthesize these drugs themselves. Particularly in the last 25 years, these chemists have created hundreds of variations of the basic hallucinogens, each designed for specific experiences or to offer specific duration of intoxication.

New York Magazine recently posted an article by Vanessa Grigoriadis that offers an introduction to the strange new world of designer psychedelics.

Travels in the New Psychedelic Bazaar

The synthetic drugs being invented, refined, and produced today—and often shipped in from China—would have blown Timothy Leary’s mind. Who knows what they’re doing to the brains of users.

By Vanessa Grigoriadis
Published Apr 7, 2013

(Photo: Steve Smith/Getty Images)

A few years ago, on the West Coast, I made the acquaintance of a 32-year-old whom some people call “the Wizard.” He’s a nice guy, quiet, with a long beard that he wasn’t going to cut until Americans stopped killing civilians in our two wars, and a deep interest in organic chemistry. He was once a computer programmer and at another time a pot dealer. “It wasn’t uncommon for me to drive around with pounds of weed in my truck,” he says. “I’d just put on a hillbilly hat, load up the car, and throw tools in the back.” Now, though, he’d wandered through a different door and found himself in the midst of a bazaar of weird new drugs. In the Wizard’s offline world, which was made up of patchwork-­wearing hippies and Rainbow Family elders, there was acid, pot, and MDMA, usually called ecstasy, and that was about it. But on the online forums he began to obsessively frequent, the Wizard learned about a vast array of new white powders. It was as if MDMA (now being called “Molly”) and LSD had somehow melded together, producing dozens of new psychedelic substances. On the forums, there were also whole new classes of dissociatives, stimulants, sedatives, and cannabis-based products (“cannabinoids”), along with a group of drugs called “bath salts,” which, of course, have nothing to do with Epsom salts or the lavender-scented kind purchased at Aveda.

The gray market for these new drugs, referred to as “research chemicals” or “synthetics,” has gotten little attention outside the tabloid media in the past few years, even as there has been worry about Mexican cartels and cocaine and heroin rings and medical-marijuana laws. It’s not a huge market, but it is a vivid one and fervent. For young guys interested in drugs today (and the users of these drugs are “150 percent male,” as one aficionado puts it), this underground scene of hobbyists and tinkerers, hippie-meets-hipster drug geeks, who like to call themselves psychonauts, there’s no better reason to try a new drug other than it happens to be just that—new. These drug users imagine themselves as amateur chemists, proto–Walter Whites, sampling and resynthesizing drugs to achieve exactly the state of consciousness they find most pleasurable. And there are no end of drugs to play with. As Hamilton Morris, the son of filmmaker Errol and a ­Williamsburg-­based journeyman drug historian, as well as an independent chemist conducting research at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, has noted, this era “is to ecstasy what the Cambrian period was to arthropods.”

The Wizard claimed a highfalutin motivation for his interest in these drugs—it’s about studying the way that changing one’s brain chemistry alters consciousness, he says, and drawing conclusions from there about what “is” is—but it seemed to me that the drug-taking itself had become the thing. He was constantly scanning the forums to check out the best dosages and “delivery methods” of various drugs—discerning whether, say, E-Cat, a bath salt, was better taken buccally, insufflated, perhaps injected (though the Wizard didn’t like to do that), or “pegged” in a “shamanic enema,” which is lingo for putting a packet of drugs up the butt. Eventually, the list of substances that he tried, in addition to old standards like alcohol, heroin, MDMA, cocaine, marijuana, acid, ether, nitrous, hydrocodone, mescaline, and cubensis mushrooms, grew to include MDA, DOM, LSA, MDAI, DOB, DOI, DOC, DMT, K, GBL, GHB, TMA-2, AMT, BZP, 2C-B, 2C-C, 2C-D, 2C-I, 2C-T-7, 5-MeO-DiPT, 5-MeO-MIPT, 5-MeO-DALT, 5-MeO-DMT, PCP, MDE, 4-Acetoxy-DET, 4-Acetoxy-DiPT, FLEA, 4-FA, JHW-018, MPA, AM-2201, AM-2233, 4-MEC, 4-EMC, 5-APB, 6-APB, ALD, MXE, BHO, Bromo-DragonFLY, Salvinorin A, Soma, fentanyl, Dilaudid, Marinol, thujone, oxymorphone, hydromorphone, and some of the “bath salts,” which is just a catchy, ­consumer-friendly name for “synthetic cathinones,” a slew of amphetamines and MDMA-like substances invented in 2008 to mimic the chemical composition of the African khat plant. (In Belize, before his legal troubles, McAfee Virus founder John McAfee claimed to have synthesized, though he later walked this back, MDPV, a bath salt that he called “super perv powder” and that is supposed to feel like doing a bunch of meth and then, twenty minutes later, a line of very fine cocaine.*)

As we sit in front of a crackling fire at his neatly kept cabin in the woods, the Wizard smiles. “These are all awesome substances, if you know what to expect,” he says. It’s possible he may have missed a few drugs when he put together this list, he adds—given the hammering to his cerebrum over the years—but he feels satisfied that he could remember most of them.

The story that America tells itself about drugs, particularly psychedelic ones—that term, invented by Aldous Huxley, is preferred these days, since “hallucinogens” implies that one is not actually on a trip through one’s mind (or a universal mind) but seeing things that aren’t there—is that they exploded in the sixties and seventies, in circles like Timothy Leary’s and on Haight-Ashbury, then were demonized by the government and shortly dispensed with, relegated to being the plaything of curious college kids at Oberlin and Brown. These days, though, almost every drug, from pot to GHB to morphine, has been messed with, as chemists find that removing a methoxy group or adding a benzene ring makes a new drug with different properties: body-grooving with a side helping of visuals, euphoric or speedy, long or short, or administering just the right dose of primal fear. These man-made compounds were called “designer drugs” in the late nineties; you might have thought, as I did before I researched this story, that they had such a name because they were carried around by trendy types in designer Gucci handbags, but it refers to a chemist’s “designing” a new molecular compound that replicates the effects of an illegal drug.*This article has been corrected to show that McAfee only claimed to have synthesized MDPV.

(Photo: Steve Smith/Getty Images)

By virtue of being molecularly distinct, these newer synthetics now exist somewhere between the realms of legal and illegal, in the gray. That’s a big deal to most of the people who are drawn to them: those who are often drug-­tested, particularly in the Army and Navy, or trying to dodge rehab (drug tests have yet to be updated for many synthetics); less affluent users who like the fact that a lot of these drugs are extremely cheap and sometimes even found in head shops; and kids who probably don’t even know a drug dealer, but they do know how to order things off the Internet. Most of these folks are looking for legal amphetamines. The Wizard’s crowd of underground psychonauts, probably made up of about 10,000 to 20,000 people, most of whom communicate through the forums, are a little different. They’re most interested in the ability to custom-match a substance with a desire—even if, in some cases, the new drugs are substandard to known ones (making your heart race; shoving you through a fractal landscape with elves coming out of the gloaming; making you feel weird, and not good weird, but bad weird). “You can pinpoint what you want now: ‘I’d like something of four hours’ duration with mescaline effects, or twelve hours’ duration with alternating mushroom and LSD rushes,’ ” says a 37-year-old software engineer whose activity in this realm has led friends to give him the nickname of Saddam Hussein’s poison-gas henchman, “Chemical Ali.”

One afternoon at the Jivamuktea Cafe near Union Square, Lex Pelger, a slight, unprepossessing 30-year-old with a degree in biochemistry, an evil eye pinned to his plaid shirt, digs past a copy of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and an invitation to a Bushwick burlesque party in his messenger bag, pulling out a creased, complicated chart of all the new synthetics. He points to the entry for the new hot synthetic psychedelic, the “N-bomb” (the NBOMe series), which resembles LSD in its effects but is shorter-lasting and cheaper, at about $1 per dose. You have to be careful with the dosage, which must be measured in sub­milligrams: “A tiny amount is so powerful,” Chemical Ali had told me. “I figured out that if you mix it with vodka and put it in a nasal-spray bottle, it’s a fifteen-minute come-up, peaks at an hour and a half, and you’re on your way out at two hours.” At Jivamuktea, Pelger takes a bite of his salad. “In New York, you can’t give acid away—it’s an entire day: ‘I have to do laundry,’ ‘I need to see this person,’ it sucks,” he says. “The N-bomb is less intellectual and about giant God questions than LSD, and a little bit more in your body—great for dates or art museums.” The last time he took it, he went to his favorite tripping spot in Prospect Park, then to the Asian-art section of the Brooklyn Museum. “There was this Korean pot that was so beautiful that I got it in my head that it was unsafe where the assholes and pigfuckers could see it, and I had to smash the glass and rescue it. It was the first time in a long time that I almost made a mistake with psychedelics.”

If you happen to be looking to vandalize a museum in order to rescue some Korean pots, obtaining these drugs is easier than you might imagine. Like everything else, the business of drug dealing is getting disrupted by the Internet. Some users download an encrypted web browser to purchase peer-reviewed illegal drugs on the website the Silk Road, but it’s far more commonplace for them to simply type “buy N-bomb” into Google, hit a site located abroad, and process fees through an anonymized payment service (some may rip you off, but that’s just part of the game). That the DEA has shut down U.S.-based vendors of these drugs doesn’t really have an effect on the end consumer, who still receives his package in the mail, usually stamped with a label reading not for human consumption on the front, in hopes of some protection from U.S. drug laws.

The bags usually come with a diagram of the drug’s molecular structure taped to the front, a nice wrapping paper, “and you could show it to a cop if you were ever stopped with a bag,” says one user, “and show him that the molecular structure of the drug makes it technically legal.” Like many others, the Wizard followed the recommended dosages for these drugs on, an online nonprofit sort of World Book of drugs that is funded entirely by donations. Run by a husband and wife, Earth and Fire Erowid (the names are pseudonyms), living outside Yosemite, the site has the slogan “Know your body. Know your mind. Know your substance. Know your source,” and some of its 59,000 pages of information were recently used as the most reliable source of human data on drugs in a study at UC Berkeley.

(Photo: Steve Smith/Getty Images. Photo-illustration by Joe Darrow.)

There are a few interlocking strands in this new drug culture, many familiar from previous movements, but this time woven in a different way. To start with, there’s the media and its fantasies (“MDMA makes holes in your brain”), and gurus delivering hoary mystical lore (“There is a cosmic mushroom mind”). And one could argue that drugs are an essential part of the futurist spirit of the moment, in full swoon with tech and science, and “now in the mainstream blossoming of the mid-nineties underground ‘techno pagan’ culture,” as author and psychedelic historian Erik ­Davis puts it. The process of selecting, sampling, and sometimes resynthesizing drugs is also connected to the do-it-yourself culture of computer hacking, another democratized technology. Many of these new experimenters feel that simply by journaling their experiences on the Internet, they are adding to the sum of scientific knowledge about these ­compounds—which, to a certain sort of person, means progress.

There has never been a time when we’ve been more open to the recognition that, as Hamilton Morris says, “everything is chemical in the world,” so there’s no reason to think that putting “chemicals in your brain, which is made of chemicals, is bad.” The right to put drugs in one’s own body is one that some people hold dear, a form of “cognitive liberty.” In the drug community, there’s utopian talk about what the future portends. “Every few months, we hear from someone who has just received their Ph.D. in pharmacology, chemistry, neurology, or psychology,” say the Erowids. “In 40 years, they will be senior researchers … The 2010s will be to the 2060s what the 1960s are to today.”

But there’s another way of looking at these preternaturally colorful developments. National emergency-room visits, the accepted metric for drug trends, found a record 49 novel compounds in 2011. “We’re starting to get a big-time problem with these new drugs,” says Rusty Payne, an agent at the DEA’s national office. “It turns out that we, as Americans, have an appetite for silly things like synthetics.”

For the wizard, Morris, and Pelger, the contemporary psychedelic idol isn’t Timothy Leary’s preacher man, or Terrance ­McKenna and his shamanic plants, though he’s beloved by those into ayahuasca, a psychedelic brew that Allen Ginsberg described as “a big wet vagina” or “great hole of God-nose.” Instead, it’s the original underground psychonaut and tinkerer: Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin, a Harvard-educated Dow Chemical scientist who left the company shortly after he discovered that MDMA had psychoactive properties (it’s thought that it was synthesized by Merck in 1912, by chemists looking for drugs to stop bleeding), and has basically been a one-man R&D department for synthetic drugs for the past 50-odd years. In his home lab in the Bay Area, which for decades was semi-­sanctioned by the DEA (agents liked to be able to call him when something esoteric crossed their paths) and ignored when the politics in the country started to change, Shulgin made over 100 completely novel drugs and many more variations on a theme. He tried them himself, along with a small circle of friends called his “research group” and his wife, Ann, whom he seduced through chemistry. After imbibing his compounds, the couple engaged in “absolute truth-­telling,” with Rachmaninoff forming “huge petals of sensuous violet and pink, with a stamen of glowing yellow,” finally stripping their dressing gowns for lovemaking and then sitting quietly to type “experience notes” and eat a bowl of thick Dutch split-pea soup.

The Shulgins might sound like Santa and Mrs. Claus, but Sasha’s choice to publish all the recipes for the drugs he made in two enormous “cookbooks,” titled PiHKAL and TiHKAL (“Phenethylamines [or Tryptamines] I Have Known and Loved”), was actually quite subversive. Not only did he often refrain from using illegal “precursor chemicals” when chemically composing his drugs, but he was also able to retain legal use for awhile for most of them even under the Federal Analog Act of 1986, which says that any chemical that is “substantially similar” to a controlled substance is illegal.

In fact, the recipes in his books formed the entirety of the designer-drug market in the nineties. The most popular was 2C-B, a euphoriant Shulgin described as “unbelievably erotic, quiet, and exquisite.” For these drugs, and other phenethylamines, Shulgin substituted around the phenethylamine skeleton, adding different groups of molecules to create brain stimulants, ­central-nervous stimulants, or more and more serotonin, which starts to create hallucinations. “I like Shul­gin’s 2Cs a lot,” says Chemical Ali. “2C-D is strictly visual; 2C-P is twelve hours long; 2C-B is my favorite, because it’s an ecstasylike experience—not that you’re in a cuddle puddle or anything, but you do feel good.”

Today, most of Shulgin’s compounds are gone—he supposedly burned many of them, which Morris, the self-styled drug historian, expresses dismay about, because “to burn such a thing would be like burning a painting.” Now 87, Shulgin has had multiple strokes and is suffering from dementia, and friends are soliciting donations for his care, reminding others to “think of all the ways that your life, and the lives of others, have been healed, transformed, and bettered by this wonderful man.”

Before he became incapable of inventing new drugs (colleagues don’t believe that Shulgin’s drug use added to his dementia), the research-chemical market started to change. Things ramped up in 2000, in part because the DEA managed to catch William Leonard Pickard, thought to have been the biggest LSD manufacturer in the world. Pickard’s lab, with Persian rugs and a $120,000 stereo system, was located in a decommissioned missile silo near Topeka, Kansas. The DEA claimed the lab was capable of producing 2.8 billion hits, though Pickard disputed this figure, claiming he only had precursor for 15 million hits. Acid suddenly became very scarce in the U.S. ­Users had to become open to trying new drugs. At the same time, online forums like Bluelight and Drugs-Forum introduced locked advanced-chemistry sections, where chemists of all stripes—from university professors and Ph.D.’s to amateur hobbyists like the Wizard—were able to communicate for the first time.

On a recent evening, I went to tea with Morris, a handsome 25-year-old with the desiccated–Ivy Leaguer look of a Vampire Weekend musician, and the six-one, 120-pound form of someone who couldn't care less about normal sustenance—often he just drinks a mix of vegetable and protein powder shakes for lunch and dinner. “When I was younger, it seemed impossible to me that one human being could make so many novel compounds—Shul­gin’s work, I thought, would take 100 lifetimes—but the truth is, one committed chemist working in a lab can make a new compound almost every day, and very quickly will make hundreds,” says Morris.

We’re talking about the evolution of the synthetics industry, which Morris has been closely watching and chronicling for Vice magazine. Morris says that, with notable exceptions like some designer benzos, Ph.D.’s at mainstream university labs made most of the big innovations in post-Shulgin synthetics, mostly while developing drugs for other purposes. For example, the N-bomb was a product of a Free University of Berlin chemist who was researching schizophrenia. “Synthetic cannabinoids” were discovered by Clemson University professor John W. Huffman when he probed cannabinoid receptors to regulate nausea and appetite during cancer treatment.

Patents for these drugs are easy to find on Google Patents. That’s where many underground chemists and ­research-chemical vendors look for new drugs to synthesize, in hopes that their quasi-legal nature will help them get rich while staying out of jail. Once the drugs are on the market, gray-market tinkerers take them into their own labs or study them and make modifications—some members of the advanced-chemistry forums made variations on Huffman’s synthetic-pot group, for example, each with its own trip.

Academic researchers aren’t happy about this, for the most part—the theft of his patented drugs, Huffman has said, is a “royal pain in the rear end.” They truly did not intend that these drugs would be taken by humans. There aren’t even tests on rats for some of this stuff.

But with no FDA, making large batches of these drugs is surprisingly easy. All you have to do is send a CAS number (chemical I.D.) to the one country in the world that’s best at making all sorts of weird chemicals, from HGH to soy sauce to the plastic goo that forms Walmart toys—­China. Morris has checked out a couple of Shanghai labs where vendors outsource drug production and says they make other drugs there, like off-market Viagra. “The [Chinese plants] may not be up to the standard of a Merck pharmaceutical manufacturing plant, but many are producing high-purity products, with surprisingly few compounds containing dangerous contaminants” or misidentified ones, he says, describing standing on a shipping dock with barrels of synthetic pot doubtlessly headed for the U.S.

For most underground psychonauts, direct-from-China is now the preferred source of drugs, other than a clandestine chemist who can be trusted, and with China in the picture, there are fewer and fewer of those in the U.S. “Clandestine chemistry is a dying American folk art,” says Morris.

Says a law-enforcement official, “China’s a mess. We’re not going to go over there and just tell them they’re dropping the ball. It’s being done, but sensitively. It’s a monster challenge.”

Underground psychonauts like the Wizard and Chemical Ali might not be as accomplished researchers as Huffman, but they think about their drug use as research, too, and keep their own notes on their experiences, just as Shulgin did. Unlike some ­users’ “trip reports” on the forums, which say things like “in the presence of the God-head I forget who and what I am,” “the time has come for change, and the change is paradise,” “I felt like my heart was being flogged by a miniature devil,” or declare “nothing made sense!!!,” the Wizard’s usually kept things light. His report on 16 milligrams of 2C-E reads: “At 1:30am, Tera, my girlfriend, has vomited two times now. (Sidenote, she vomits on everything, including water.) We have been listening to a wide range of music, however the choice songs of the night were ‘Lodi Dodi’ by Snoop Dogg and ‘The fluffy little clouds’ by the Orb. What a combination, eh? Paul compares it to 5 hits of LSD and 75mg of MDMA. Tera and I disappear occasionally through out the night for the sexual escapades that 2c-e always has on us. At about 3am, we go back upstairs and Paul and I rant a while about the U.S. government and such. (Sidenote, pre-rolled joints are required if you plan to smoke weed during your trip, LOL.) Overall, the experience was wonderful, however I still prefer the 20mg dose, as it’s almost double the intensity.”

Offline, the drugs began to dribble into the hypersocial 24-hour YOLO party-people scene, particularly among the older crowd—“gravers,” or adult ravers, in neon and feathers—and among the BDSM community. The Wizard was even playing with his sexuality, coming out as bisexual and establishing a “Temple of Discord” with a big pink lacquered cross in his three-car garage. Some in the polyamory scene, of which Pelger is also a part, are embracing the new ketamine drugs, like 3-MeO-PCP. “Those are lovely—the best sex drugs and dissociatives out there, I would say,” says Pelger at Jivamuktea. “Longer than K, about two hours, a little goopier, a little less boundaries between skin.” He pauses. “It’s great for people in the kink community, too. If you want to do some hard play, like take your sex-worker girlfriend, knock her out for two hours, and have men come in and fuck her and film it and let her wake up and watch it, then it’s a safe way to do that.”

Of course, dangerous games become not games at all if someone forgets where the lines are. That’s always been the thing with heavy drugs, mental structures can give way without warning, which can be exhilarating—or something else.

As he got deeper into drug use, the Wizard began living a Summer of Love lifestyle in a contemporary world, and as it turned out, it wasn’t that hard to do. He began taking road trips up and down the West Coast in a 1979 Chevy school bus, though he soon flipped it for a regular car—it turns out that it costs a lot in gas to drive a school bus a thousand miles. He bought a scale and reagent tests so that he could be sure of what he was taking—put a little bit of the solution, usually mixed with sulfuric acid, on the drug, and it turns a different color for each type. He also started calling himself a “harm-reduction specialist,” offering “medical missionary” services at underground parties, and wrote this ditty:
Traveling from town to town
From show to show
Testing that shit, and letting them know
With his laptop in hand he’s ready to post
Wherever he’s at from coast to coast
Be it pills, liquid, powder, or gel
Best rep it properly or else he’ll yell
Letting people know what the drugs ­
really are
Mandelin and Marquis
[various names of reagent tests]
He’ll even show up to test at parties
So the next time that you are at a show
Ask “who has a test” and then you’ll know
That the harm reduction
specialists are far and few
But they’ll tell you what’s in a pill,
and not just that it’s blue
It sounds wholesome. But it was so easy to cross the line from drug fan to DIY chemist—doing simple extractions of DMT and salvia and learning about more advanced chemistry from someone making AMT and 2C-I—and, from there, a small hop to selling these wares. Soon, he and his friends were dealing drugs at festivals like Earthdance, the Oregon Country Fair, and Bonaroo, which he calls “Bustaroo” because a friend was busted there. “He got high on a Greyhound and ended up passing out waiting at a layover,” says the Wizard. “When the police woke him up, they found a few pounds of mushroom and 500,000 hits of a research chemical called DOB.” He strokes his beard. “The cops said he was a chemist, but I know enough to know that he wasn’t the chemist.”

This sounds like such an interesting world, doesn’t it? There’s only one problem—unlike with LSD, pot, or mushrooms, which are known to be among the safest drugs on the planet, people die from synthetics. Not a lot. But a few. Bromo-DragonFLY, a drug pilfered from the Purdue University lab of pharmacologist David Nichols for commercial release and considered to be the strongest serotonin agonist in the world, caused some people to lose their arms after taking high doses. “It clamped down so much on the blood vessels that the limbs die—you’re literally strangled from the inside,” says Jeff Lapoint, a medical toxicologist and emergency physician at Kaiser Permanente. After hearing stories like this, Chemical Ali and his group of “fellow travelers” decided to take a “threshold dose” of 1 milligram of each package they get in the mail and wait a day, for safety reasons. The Erowids even advise users of esoteric drugs to have a blood-pressure and pulse-monitoring device on hand. “When one takes a new and unstudied drug, one makes oneself a human guinea pig,” they say. “The drug may be perfectly safe. It may even be beneficial. On the other hand, after three uses one might suddenly find one’s body frozen up with symptoms resembling Parkinson’s disease.”

Then, of course, there are the freak-outs. It’s been impossible to miss these stories in the news, which loves a zombified drug-apocalypse story as much as it did during Reefer Madness in the twenties and doesn’t care much if mental illness enters the picture. On the N-bomb, an actor on FX’s Sons of Anarchymurdered his landlady in the Hollywood Hills, dismembered her cat, then killed himself. Bath salts have been blamed, among a zillion such stories, for making a Pennsylvania couple “slash their 5-year-old daughter repeatedly as they attacked the ‘voices in the walls’ ”; a guy in Maine get off his motorcycle and try to hit cars with a piece of wood; a woman try to cut out her teeth with a knife; and a man at a Tampa nightclub named Rat Soap fall into a bath-salts-induced seizure—clubbers tried to save him by putting a Valium in his mouth and wrapping him in plastic, but he died.

And who can forget the cannibal in Miami? That’s the Haitian guy who abandoned a purple Chevy (Koran in the back seat) and ripped his clothes off on the causeway, attacking a 65-year-old homeless man for eighteen minutes. Cops had to shoot him six times to get him to stop, at which point only 20 percent of the victim’s face remained intact, mostly a goatee. The media storm over this attack got so intense that Chuck Schumer, the government’s loudest advocate for making these drugs illegal, was able to push a new federal synthetics act past the opposition of Rand Paul and others. In the summer of 2012, Obama signed it into law, making most of the 2C class, as well as a few bath salts and Huffman’s drugs, illegal, with manufacture and sale punishable by up to twenty years in prison.

That the day after the synthetic-drug-control bill was passed the coroner finally released a toxicology report showing the cannibal was high only on THC, the natural kind, is neither here nor there. The more important fact is that it took only a few months for vendors to start selling a new set of drugs: The cannabinoids went from AM-2201 (illegal) to UR-144 (legal), and there was suddenly a new bath salt called a-PVP, which users on the forums declared good, although it “smelled very much like sperm” when insufflated. The trip is far from over.

The wizard seemed as hale and sharp as a 32-year-old ingester of hundreds of unknown drugs can be expected to be. Which didn’t mean that he was unscarred by his experiences. In his life, he felt that fate had always been on his side, but weird things started to happen. In fact, his local post office told him that his packages were being watched. Then an ex-girlfriend stole a bunch of synthetics and $40,000 from him; a few days later, she was stopped speeding in a construction zone and consented to a search of her car. The cops seized 2C-I, 2C-E, LSD, oxycodone, ketamine, MDMA, and a rare GHB “pro-drug” (whose chemical composition, different from GHB, is converted to it by the body’s enzymes when ingested) that the law-enforcement lab had never seen before. “There’s pictures of my pink-elephant blotter 2C-I on the DEA’s website because of that!” says the Wizard. As his business expanded, he began working with a lower-level dealer, a guy he knew from high school, who was “all about making money, and misrepresenting things, like a lot of people are,” he says. “He’d call 2C-I ‘synthetic mescaline,’ which it is technically a derivative of, but it’s not, at all.”

A couple of months later, the lower dealer was caught capping off a pistol at a lake. The cops took him in, and he said he had something to tell them if they’d let him off on the charge—he could turn them on to a major source of acid. When the dealer came back to talk to the Wizard, he told him that he’d met some guys who were “big fans” of his work, and the Wizard’s ego, the thing he was supposed to be destroying with all this, got puffed up. He gave the informant 2C-I, 2C-B, and Bromo-DragonFLY, but the agents kept asking for “real acid”—they didn’t want to deal with prosecuting someone in an analog case, which can be hard to win because juries are easily confused by chemistry.

The Wizard said he’d see what he could do. A week later, he put twenty vials in a Starbucks bag, a taste before they said they’d purchase two raw grams, and went to meet his friend at the mall. “Suddenly, there were five SUVs all around me, and guys in plainclothes with guns—honestly I thought we were getting robbed,” says the Wizard. “I might have been a little high.” When he said he wanted a lawyer, “the cops said, ‘Shut up, this isn’t a movie.’ I said, ‘Oh, they don’t have civil rights in movies?’ I got in the cop car, and just to be a dick, I said, ‘How much do I need to pay to get out today?’ ‘You’re not getting out today,’ the cop said. ‘We’re the DEA.’ That’s when I shut the hell up.”

The prosecutor on the Wizard’s case was interested in whom he knew, but he refused to talk. He might have run, but for the ankle bracelet. His friend, a naturopath once close to Shulgin, said that they could found an institute for research chemicals on Native American land. In the end, the judge was relatively lenient: The Wizard was sentenced to five years in federal prison.

The new psychonauts are comfortable with the notion that their explorations will have casualties, that all of the seekers won’t necessarily make it back. “All of this [experimentation] is producing valuable toxicological information that would never exist otherwise,” says Morris, who also notes that if the government hadn’t made so many drugs illegal, probably no one would be taking synthetics and risking their lives at all. “Because of THC’s benign nature, cannabinoids have long been considered one of the safest drug classes,” he says, “but now there are instances of people becoming addicted to synthetic cannabinoids or even reports of death.”

Besides, even scientists inside the academy believe that these drugs have uses beyond Burning Man. “These research compounds have the potential to teach us something about brain chemistry and different neural circuits—they’re potentially gold mines of information,” says Julie Holland, a New York psychiatrist and editor of a book on cannabis and another about MDMA. She talks about a study in Arizona using psilocybin to treat OCD. “Are you going to get those people high on mushrooms every day? No. But is it possible that the mushrooms are targeting a particular receptor beyond the way that Prozac or any other SSRI works?” It’s a matter of refining the medicines we have. When your car needs oil, you don’t just lift up the hood and pour oil on the engine. “It’s possible that SSRIs that flood the entire brain with serotonin aren’t the answer—maybe working on one circuit where your anterior cingulate is.” Holland believes that it’s a foregone conclusion that the next decade will include a new generation of Big Pharma meds based on marijuana. “You’re going to have medicine for inflammation and metabolism tickling the cannabis receptors—they’ll act like cannabinoids, but aren’t going to get you high.” (Harvard Medical School professor John Halpern recently started a company, Entheogen Corp., to develop 2-bromo-LSD, a non-hallucinogenic LSD analog, to treat cluster headaches, one of the most painful conditions in medicine.)

Some academics who study drugs view the research-chemical scene as an annoying sideshow, pointing out that it’s pretty hard to tell the difference between drugs in the same class with similar durations (MDMA and 2C-B, for example). The focus, they think, should be on gaining mainstream acceptance of old-line psychedelics, and they’re excited about current studies on psilocybin, the magic in magic mushrooms, for end-of-life care at Johns Hopkins and NYU. A privately funded group, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, is studying the ways MDMA can help soldiers with post-traumatic-stress disorder (therapists schedule sixteen non-drug sessions as well). Their goal for the next ten years is to reinstate the original use of MDMA, which was embraced by the psychiatric community in the seventies, and force the FDA to approve prescriptions for use during therapy.

The pathology of the underground psychonaut isn’t hard to imagine, and not that different from the video-game addict or extreme-sports obsessive—someone who also likes the rush of alternative reality more than the quotidian one. Real life can remain at a standstill, with jobs and relationships less important than surfing the edge. The possibility of addiction isn’t to be underestimated. “The reward circuit in the brain is very clever,” says Richard Friedman, director of the psychopharmacology clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College. “When you’re off the drugs, the background pleasure state of your brain may be changed for a week, a year, or even permanently. This is a wild social experiment.” Nevertheless, some users say they’ve had spiritual breakthroughs. “I know now that there’s more to the world than science has been able to explain so far, and it’s not to be feared,” says Chemical Ali. “I don’t have a death wish, but I’ve practiced death. When it happens, it will be fun, a cool experience.” He’s talking to me on the phone with a Björn strapped to his chest, and the baby boy inside, only a few weeks old, starts to wail. “I do feel like I should put this stuff away, at least for a while,” he says, “because I have something to live for.”

The Wizard’s story is a cautionary tale, almost a parable, but the government may start to take a closer look at this world. The Feds even recently scheduled 2C-N, a necessary intermediate for the manufacture of many synthetic drugs, though it doesn’t actually get you high—but it is useful in a synthetics lab. Morris calls the current situation an “infinite game of cat and mouse,” where the government schedules a drug, then chemists race to find a new legal compound. “Three weeks ago, we had our first detection of new derivatives, PB-22 and 5F-PB-22,” says Kevin Shanks, a forensic toxicologist in the Midwest. “Quinoline derivatives are uncontrolled by the federal government, and I see them becoming prevalent very quickly.” Adds Lapoint, the toxicologist: “Until we can break the model of releasing a new chemical that retains the same affinity for the receptor of an illegal drug but is structurally dissimilar enough that you can avoid getting popped, this is the new normal. Brick-and-mortar quasi-legal head shops are hard enough to stop, but the Internet vendors are fully whack-a-mole … The new drug dealer is the mailman.”

Will the cat finally catch the mouse? Some psychonauts fear that the government, in desperation, might take a pharmacodynamic backward approach, looking at the receptor activated by the drug and scheduling backward from there, claiming that any organic molecule that binds to the CB1 receptor and makes you stoned is a schedule 1 drug. * But then they’d have to schedule other drugs with CB1 affinity, including Tylenol. And they’d be “banning specific states of consciousness,” says Morris. “If the plan weren’t so futile, it would be utterly terrifying.”

Lapoint starts spitballing about what may happen in the future. “If I was a [research-chemical drugmaker], I’d want to make a structure of an endogenous chemical,” he says, “one that’s already in your brain and [can be enhanced] to hit the right neurotransmitters to get you high. The problem is that if you took this drug out of your brain and tried to eat it, it would be quickly broken down by enzymes. But you could tweak these [naturally occurring] structures, or add a substance that inhibits these enzymes, and you would get a psychoactive effect.” This would surely stump regulatory officials. Lapoint is completely against the proliferation of these drugs—he’s not interested in more patients in his ER. Still, as a man of science, he can’t but marvel at this type of reverse-engineering. “Whoa,” he says. “That would be really cool.”

*This article has been corrected to show that the psychonauts fear the government's approach will be "pharmacodynamic backward," not "pharmacode dynamic password."

JOSEPH LEDOUX - For the Anxious, Avoidance Can Have an Upside

Joseph LeDoux wrote this article on anxiety recently for the New York Times' Opinionator column. He examines the use of negative reinforcement — reinforcement that occurs when a behavior prevents a stimulus from occurring — as a better form of learning. It becomes relevant in relation to trauma:
Cues associated with a trauma or other stress may start out with a narrow focus — the place where something bad happened — but may widen to include similar places, things or situations.  People with anxiety become very good at avoiding these cues as a way to control anxiety. Avoidance can be so effective that it prevents one from recovering from trauma or otherwise dealing with anxiety. 
As we’ve seen, people with social anxiety often cope with their problem by avoiding social situations altogether. This is not practical or beneficial. But neither is forcing oneself to show up at parties and just try to ride out the anxiety. A more effective treatment approach might be to combine anxiety-producing exposure with strategies that allow one to gain control over the anxiety trigger cues.

LeDoux is a professor of neural science at New York University and director of the Emotional Brain Institute. He is the author of The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life, Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. After dark he is a singer and songwriter in The Amygdaloids.

For the Anxious, Avoidance Can Have an Upside

April 7, 2013

Shortly after 9/11, I wrote an editorial in the American Journal of Psychiatry with Jack Gorman, a psychiatrist with whom I was collaborating. Many people seemed to be coping with the extraordinary events of the terror attacks by staying close to home and avoiding going back out in the world. This was not unexpected since avoidance is a well-known form of coping with traumatic events. Politicians were urging people to go back to work, to re-engage in social activities, to get on with life. Gorman and I thought this was really good advice because of something I’d discovered in my work as a neuroscientist.

I had spent much of my career studying how the rat brain learns to respond to cues associated with danger. To do this, my colleagues and I presented rats with a tone followed by a mild electric shock in a conditioning box. When we presented the tone to the rat later in a different box, he would freeze in his tracks, and would continue this way even after the tone was turned off. This kind of defense response is very potent. Once the tone acquires significance as a threat, it remains so throughout the life of the rat. The learning can be weakened by exposure to the tone in the absence of the shock, but much research shows that these extinguished responses resurface if the rat is returned to the box where the shock had occurred, or is subjected to other kinds of stress.

JooHee Yoon

Exposure therapy is commonly used to treat fears in people, but as with rats, the effects are fragile. Stress, for example, can bring back successfully treated fears.

By 2001 we had already started a new line of work involving a variation on this theme. We conditioned the rat in the usual way and then a couple of days later played the tone in another box. The rat of course froze. But as soon as it made any kind of movement, the tone was turned off. The next time, more movement was required to turn the tone off. With a bit of training like this, the rat learned to run to the other side of the chamber as soon as the tone came on, escaping the tone, and eventually it learned to avoid the tone altogether by running to the other side as soon as it was in the box.

Why did the rat learn this response? Learning in animals (and people) is often based on reinforcement. So what reinforced the response? There was no shock involved in the second phase of the study. The response was learned because it eliminated the threatening tone. This is called negative reinforcement — reinforcement that occurs when a behavior prevents a stimulus from occurring.

Unlike rats that extinguish their reactions to threats by exposure, rats that had been trained to master the tone, showed no signs of being threatened by the tone later, even in the original context where the stressful shock had occurred. Once they had this kind of control, the threat was irrelevant.

We viewed this learned response where the rat takes control of the stress as a form of active coping. Gorman and I argued that getting on with life in the wake of 9/11 was like this. Each time one went to work or to meet with friends, that person moved a step away from being frozen in place, and avoiding life. It was a step toward active coping.

Cues associated with a trauma or other stress may start out with a narrow focus — the place where something bad happened — but may widen to include similar places, things or situations. People with anxiety become very good at avoiding these cues as a way to control anxiety. Avoidance can be so effective that it prevents one from recovering from trauma or otherwise dealing with anxiety.

People with social anxiety problems, for example, can easily circumvent anxiety by avoiding social situations. This solves one problem but creates others, since social interactions are an important part of daily life, including both professional and personal life. But if one is avoiding situations where these cues are likely to be encountered, the opportunity to extinguish fears by exposure never occurs and the anxiety continues indefinitely.

Yes, our rats were performing avoidance responses. They were avoiding the tone. But when avoidance involves behaviors and thoughts that directly engage with the stress-related cues and events in order to change their impact and allow the organism to exert control over them, it is useful, a form of active coping. We call this proactive avoidance. Proactive avoidance involves what has come to be known as agency. When the person gains control of situations through their own actions, anxiety diminishes.

As we’ve seen, people with social anxiety often cope with their problem by avoiding social situations altogether. This is not practical or beneficial. But neither is forcing oneself to show up at parties and just try to ride out the anxiety. A more effective treatment approach might be to combine anxiety-producing exposure with strategies that allow one to gain control over the anxiety trigger cues.

Michael Rogan, who was a researcher in my lab when the active coping work was first being done, currently treats people with social anxiety. He suggests to his clients with social anxiety that they should, when at a party, identify strategies for temporary escape and avoidance (go into the bathroom, step outside to make a call), and also use previously learned relaxation techniques (controlled breathing, imagery, mindfulness), to “chill out.” In this way, as in the rat studies, behaviors that succeed in reducing anxiety are reinforced, and each subsequent social event is a bit more tolerable.

Once the person has learned to take action rather than simply react in the presence of anxiety-provoking cues, the cues become irrelevant, as they did for the rats. Rogan says that people who learn to control anxiety triggers in this way, like our rats, do much better than those who don’t.

A New Pathway

Much has been learned about the brain mechanisms underlying passive and active coping in rats. Freezing, the rat’s version of passive coping, is known to depend on a specific set of connections in the brain — specifically, between two regions of the amygdala: the one that processes incoming signals about the external world and the one that regulates innate reactions like freezing (via outputs to the lower brainstem). The active coping response, proactive avoidance, by contrast, requires that the information processed in the input region be redirected to a different output controller in the amygdala, one that engages goal-directed actions.

While freezing is a natural first line of defense (since predators respond to movement), it can be a problem — persistent freezing prevents active coping. Indeed, some rats, like some people, have difficulty in switching from this natural and dominant tendency to freeze when action is called for. These chronically frozen rats and people are stuck in a pathological avoidance mode. If the innate output of the amygdala that controls freezing is shut down, the rats readily make the transition to proactive avoidance.

An important key to successful treatment of people with anxiety — including social anxiety — is overcoming freezing and other forms of passive coping. In our work with rats, we are seeking ways to shut down the freezing outputs of the amygdala using behavioral or drug approaches that can be safely applied to people.

A major conceptual issue is how the re-routing takes place naturally within the amygdala, allowing the shift from freezing to active coping and thereby preventing pathological avoidance and allowing proactive avoidance and agency. Recent work has shown that connections from the prefrontal cortex, a region important in behavioral control, to the amygdala are important in allowing the shift to take place.

The amygdala has long been thought of as the accelerator on the threat train, and the prefrontal cortex the brakes. But the new work suggests that the prefrontal cortex is not just the brakes, but also the switch that controls the track on which the train travels. Figuring out how to more effectively engage the prefrontal cortex in this switching will hopefully suggest new treatment approaches.

Although avoidance has a bad rep in the field of anxiety, the nature of avoidance needs to be considered when discussing its implications. When avoidance prevents one from dealing with life, it is maladaptive. But when avoidance is proactive and part of active coping and agency, it helps the person control the accelerator, brakes, and the track switches. It is a useful adaptive activity.

Striving for Social-Emotional Health: Amanda Nickerson at TEDxUniversityatBuffalo

Amanda B. Nickerson is a licensed psychologist and associate professor of school psychology, University of Buffalo. Nickerson's research and teaching interests include: 
  • assessment of and intervention with children and adolescents having emotional and behavioral disorders; 
  • school crisis prevention and intervention; 
  • child and adolescent family and peer relationships. 
She teaches courses in social, emotional, and behavioral assessment; psychotherapy with children; a research seminar; and an interdisciplinary course on emergency preparedness in schools. She received the National Association of School Psychologists Presidential Award in 2006 for her work on developing a standardized school crisis prevention and intervention training curriculum.

Striving for Social-Emotional Health: Amanda Nickerson at TEDxUniversityatBuffalo

Published on Apr 18, 2013

Associate Professor Amanda Nickerson holds a Doctoral and Master of Arts in School Psychology from the University of South Carolina and a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from Bates College. Her research focuses on violence prevention and intervention with an emphasis on bullying. She has also researched the critical role of parent and peer relationships, as well as strength-based assessment and intervention approaches for students with emotional and behavioral disorders. Dr. Nickerson's talk will focus on enhancing the social-emotional health of children and adolescents, emphasizing the critical strengths and skills needed for success. She will also talk about how schools and families can promote these strengths.

Friday, April 19, 2013

An Empathy Video That Asks You To Stand in Someone Else's Shoes

This was posted at NPR's On Being last month - this moving video speaks to the complexity of each human being, and "the stories that go unsaid but float just beneath the surface."

An Empathy Video That Asks You To Stand in Someone Else's Shoes


If you could stand in someone else's shoes... Hear what they hear. See what they see. Feel what they feel. Would you treat them differently?
These words end this incredibly beautiful video produced by the Cleveland Clinic, a nonprofit medical center that integrates clinical and hospital care with research and education. We spend quite a bit of effort here at On Being focusing on the sound of the human voice and how each guest adds to our collective discussion. We attempt to draw out the best of their stories and experiences in all its messiness and glory. This video speaks to each person's complexity, the stories that go unsaid but float just beneath the surface.

Titled "Empathy," this video was presented by the health care organization's CEO Toby Cosgrove at his annual State of the Clinic address on February 27, 2013. And it gets at a point that immunologist Esther Sternberg explores in her work and personal life: how new knowledge about the physical spaces of our lives can stress us, make us sick, or help us be well and connect with others.

For so many years, our hospitals and clinics were sterile, perfunctory structures that ignored the humanity of its patients and focused on the programmatic structure of its spaces. Ms. Sternberg explains:
"Hospitals are built like mazes because typically you have the old original small hospital building and then they keep adding wings to it, which hospitals until recently were designed really to optimize the diagnostic tools, you know, the X-ray equipment and the blood-drawing and so on rather than the human being that's going to be in that building. Airports too. Just think about an airport."
Folks like John Cary of Public Interest Design and others are at the forefront of a burgeoning field focusing on human-centered design. And, the nonprofit organization The Center for Health Design launched an initiative in 2000 called the Pebble Project, which uses an evidence-based design approach to "better understand the implications of the built environment on healthcare outcomes." They're learning how the built environment can affect everything from medication errors at cancer institutes to the efficacy rates of recovery with acuity-adaptable rooms (staying in the same room for admission to discharge) to the way caregivers work. They're not only collaborating with healthcare providers and medical industry partners, they're also drawing from the expertise of architects and design firms such as Herman Miller.

In the end, it's about human connection. When we relate to those around us by understanding their back stories and their circumstances, we improve the way we work, the way we live, the way we take care of one another, the way we relate going forward and, as Martin Luther King Jr. would say, building the "beloved community" that edifies us all.

Shrink Rap Radio #347 – Somatic Experiencing for Trauma Work with Suzie Gruber and Jerry Allen

Dr. Peter Levine's Somatic Experiencing is one of the most popular somatic psychotherapies for PTSD and survivors of trauma. Their website offers this brief definition of SE:
Somatic Experiencing® is a body-awareness approach to trauma being taught throughout the world. It is the result of over forty years of observation, research, and hands-on development by Dr. Levine. Based upon the realization that human beings have an innate ability to overcome the effects of trauma, Somatic Experiencing has touched the lives of many thousands. SE® restores self-regulation, and returns a sense of aliveness, relaxation and wholeness to traumatized individuals who have had these precious gifts taken away. Peter has applied his work to combat veterans, rape survivors, Holocaust survivors, auto accident and post surgical trauma, chronic pain sufferers, and even to infants after suffering traumatic births.
The SE models seeks to balance an unbalanced nervous system. Here are two graphics that help to explain the model.

The image above is how we are when healthy, the image below shows how trauma disrupts the system and leaves us either over-activated (anxious, restless, emotionally flooded, and so on) or under-activated (depressed, dissociated, fatigued) and quite often bouncing back and forth between these two states.

Levine has written several excellent books on SE, two of the best are Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma: The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences (1997) and In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness (2010).

Shrink Rap Radio #347 – Somatic Experiencing for Trauma Work with Suzie Gruber and Jerry Allen

Posted on April 18, 2013

Suzie Gruber, M.A., SEP., holds advanced degrees in chemistry & psychology She spent 15 years in biotechnology before returning to her first love helping people transform their lives. A Somatic Experiencing Practitioner in private practice in Sebastopol, CA, Suzie assists practitioner trainings while piloting an effort to apply SE to the child welfare setting.

Jerry Allen, MFT, MPH, psychotherapist, health educator, musician, and currently in training in Somatic Experiencing®. With 23 years in child protective services helping families undergoing abuse, stress, violence and addiction, three black belts in Aikido, and a lifelong interest in resolution of stress, conflict and development of healthy families and communities.

Check out the following Psychology CE Courses based on listening to Shrink Rap Radio interviews:
A psychology podcast by David Van Nuys, Ph.D.
copyright 2013: David Van Nuys, Ph.D.

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Martin Heidegger Talks About Language, Being, Marx & Religion in Vintage 1960s Interviews

Martin Heidegger is one of the great and most influential philosophers of the 20th century - and he is also one of the most divisive figures in philosophy due to his service to the Nazi party during the 1930s and through 1945. He later explained his affiliation with the Nazis as a matter of circumstances - he did what he had to do in that particular atmosphere.

It's hard to buy that explanation. For a few decades, Heidegger's long-time lover and intellectual defender Hannah Arendt, "helped usher Heidegger back into the intellectual version of polite society, indeed assisted in preventing his ostracism as a Hitlerite, at least by those who considered his notoriously opaque use of philosophical language to offer something of value beneath it—apart from further opacity."

Arendt was 18 when she became Heidegger's lover, and even after the war they maintained a "warm" relationship with him, as the above quote reveals.
As the extent of Heidegger's enthusiastic embrace of Nazism becomes more apparent, and as it becomes ever clearer that the allegiance was not merely opportunistic and careerist but derived from a philosophical affinity with his Fuhrer's effusions, it becomes impossible not to reexamine certain questions. Such as: How much did Arendt know about the depth of Heidegger's allegiance? Did Heidegger lie to her? Did she believe him the way she believed Eichmann? Did she assume his complicity with the genocidaires was something careerist and banal? Or worse, did she know? And did she disingenuously (or self-deceptively) construct her false banal Eichmann from her false banal Heidegger?
Despite all of this, Heidegger remains a major figure in European philosophy, and there are few contemporary philosophers who do not owe him some intellectual dept.

Martin Heidegger Talks About Language, Being, Marx & Religion in Vintage 1960s Interviews

April 18th, 2013

German philosopher Martin Heidegger, whom readers of post-structuralist theory have to thank for popularizing the ubiquitous phrase “always already,” was a very labored writer who coined much of his own terminology and gave many a translator migraines. His prose betrays an obsession with the power of language that many of his students and successors, such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, inherited in the construction of their own elaborate theories. While Heidegger’s first book Being and Time (1927) had enormous influence on Existentialist and Phenomenological thought, he also wrote extensively on technology, theology, and art and poetics, engaging with the ideas of Edmund Husserl, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and the romantic German poet Friedrich Hӧlderlin.

In the short film above, see the man himself in excerpts from a lecture and three different interviews. The footage comes from a 1975 documentary called Heidegger’s Speeches. Heidegger first discusses some theory of language, quoting Goethe, then, in an interview, talks about how he came to the central preoccupation of his philosophical career: the “question of being,” or Dasein. The third interview concerns Heidegger’s thoughts on Karl Marx. He quotes Marx’s radical dictum, “philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it,” and offers a critical perspective based in hermeneutics. In the fourth and final interview segment, Heidegger proffers some thoughts on religion and communism.

For a much fuller picture of Heidegger’s life and work, watch the BBC documentary above, from their Existentialist series “Human All Too Human” that begins with Nietzsche and ends with Sartre. And this page also has video of a number of philosophers discussing Heidegger’s work, which left such a lasting impression on the character of late modern and postmodern thought that it’s hard to find a contemporary philosopher who doesn’t owe some sort of debt to him.

It may be impossible to overstate Heidegger’s importance to twentieth century European philosophy in general, and upon several prominent Jewish thinkers in particular like his former student and lover Hannah Arendt and ethicist Emmanuel Levinas. But it also must be said that Heidegger’s legacy is tainted with controversy. While it’s typically good form to separate a thinker’s work from his or her personal lapses, Heidegger’s lapses of judgment, if that’s what they were, are not so easy to ignore. As the documentary above informs us, Heidegger was a Nazi. A reviewer of a recent biography colorfully sums up the case this way:
Let’s be clear about this: Martin Heidegger, a thinker many regard as the most important philosopher of the twentieth century, was indeed a bona-fide, arm-aloft, palm-outstretched Nazi. Zealously renewing his party membership every year between 1933 and 1945, his commitment to the National Socialist cause was unstinting. Nowhere was this more in evidence than in his public role as rector of Freiburg University, where he praised ‘the inner truth and greatness’ of Nazism in his 1933 rectoral address, and later penned a paean to murdered Nazi thug Leo Schlageter. Heidegger was no token fascist; he was jack-booted and ready. Wearing a swastika on his lapel at all times he, alongside his proud, virulently anti-Semitic wife, also practised private discrimination against Jews, from fellow existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers to his one-time mentor Edmund Husserl. Not that he was without friends. In fact his friendship with Eugene Fischer, director of Berlin Institute for Racial Hygiene, lasted years.
Heidegger’s Nazi sympathies are hardly evident in his philosophical work, yet it is still difficult for many readers to reconcile these facts about his life. Some refer to a 1966 Der Spiegel interview in which the philosopher explained away his Nazism as exigent circumstances. Sort of what we call today a non-apology apology. Others, like onetime admirer Levinas, don’t find the task so easy. In a commentary on forgiveness, Levinas once wrote, “One can forgive many Germans, but there are some Germans it is difficult to forgive. It is difficult to forgive Heidegger.”

You can find more resources on Heidegger in our archive of free online philosophy courses.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Meeting of the Minds: Interview with Karl Pribram

Karl H. Pribram is a seminal figure in the history of neuroscience and the study of consciousness. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, his work in neurobiology established the prefrontal cortex as the seat of executive function. With that discovery, Pribram became instrumental in ending the barbaric practice of frontal lobotomies.

Here is a brief section of the Wikipedia entry on Pribram's Holonomic Brain Model:
The Holonomic Brain Theory describes a type of cognitive functioning based on Fourier transformations, which convert space-time coordinate systems (x,y,z) into spectral coordinate systems (each point represented as a fractal). The term ‘holonomy’ was first used to express a specific co-ordinate system along generally-applicable guidelines.[1] Holonomic processing has recently been labeled “Quantum Holography” in its application to image processing in tomography as in PET scans and fMRI imaging.[2] It is also used for processing images in digital cameras. Dennis Gabor, in 1947, discovered optical holography when he demonstrated that the information pattern of a three-dimensional object can be encoded in a beam of light, which is more-or-less two-dimensional.[3] The subsequent discovery of the laser beam added credence to this theory. Star Trek popularized the concept of humans being “beamed” up into space ships, essentially being converted into beam particles through Fourier transformations. 
Karl Pribram, who fashioned the holonomic brain model of cognitive function in 1987 in collaboration with David Bohm, conjectured that the reason subatomic particles are entangled is because at a deeper level of reality these particles are not individual but actually extensions or emanations of the same wave-forms.[4] Pribram and Bohm agreed that some sort of “super hologram” contains all the information about the past, present, and future, much like a compact disc that still contains spatial information that can be read, or decoded, by a laser beam. As particles have been associated with wave motions, they can be seen during wave cycles to enter and exit singularity, which is how entanglement (like “quantum entanglement”) is achieved. Scientists in the early 20th century experimented with electrons and discovered the dual nature of these fundamental particles of matter, namely, that electrons, like other quantum particles, are only perceived as individual units when they are in actuality wave-forms existing in multiple spots simultaneously.
This is a short interview, but there are not a lot of videos of Pribram on the web. Fortunately, he has put many (maybe most) of his papers online.

Meeting of the Minds: Interview with Karl Pribram

Karl H. Pribram is a professor at Georgetown University, in the United States, and an emeritus professor of psychology and psychiatry at Stanford University and distinguished professor at Radford University. Board-certified as a neurosurgeon, Pribram did pioneering work on the definition of the limbic system, the relationship of the frontal cortex to the limbic system, the sensory-specific "association" cortex of the parietal and temporal lobes, and the classical motor cortex of the human brain.

To the general public, Pribram is best known for his development of the holonomic brain model of cognitive function and his contribution to ongoing neurological research into memory, emotion, motivation and consciousness. He is married to American best selling author Katherine Neville.

Medicinal Uses for Psychedelic Drugs (UTNE Reader)

The current issue of the UTNE Reader has an article about the ressurgence of entheogens (psychedelic drugs) in the treatment of mental illness and other issues, such as fear of death in terminal cancer patients. It's a balanced and non-sensationalistic overview.

One of the more promising research (to me) is in the use of MDMA (ecstasy) in the treatment of PTSD - the work done by MAPS has shown significant benefit.

Medicinal Uses for Psychedelic Drugs

May/June 2013
By Don Lattin, from Spirituality & Health

Photo By Bruno Borges

You get out of your body and look back and see what is wrong with you. I saw the shell of the person I didn’t want to be and stepped out of it.

Ric Godfrey had the shakes. At night, his body temperature would drop and he’d start to tremble. During the day, he was jumpy. He was always looking around, always on edge. His vibe scared the people around him. He couldn’t hang on to a job.

He started drinking and drugging, anything to numb out.

Years passed before a Department of Veterans Affairs counselor told him he had severe post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The former Marine had spent the early 1990s interrogating prisoners in Kuwait. Years later, he was still playing out the Persian Gulf War.

Counseling helped a little, but the symptoms continued. He went to rehab for his substance abuse, then tried Alcoholics Anonymous. “That went on for 10 years,” he said. “I don’t know how many times I hit rock bottom.”

Then one of his Seattle neighbors—a woman who also suffered from PTSD—told him about a group of veterans who were going down to Peru to try a psychedelic drug called ayahuasca, a jungle vine that is brewed into a tea. Indigenous Peruvians called it “sacred medicine.” A wealthy veteran had started a healing center in South America and would pay all his expenses.

The next thing Ric knew, he was crawling into a tent on a platform out in the middle of the Amazon jungle. The sun went down. The shaman gave him the tea, a blessing, and a pail in which to vomit.

“Your body will not keep it in you,” Ric recalled. “At first, it’s the worst thing you’ve ever done in your life. Then all of a sudden you blink your eyes and you are not there anymore. You get out of your body and look back and see what is wrong with you. I saw the shell of the person I didn’t want to be and stepped out of it. It was the most amazing thing. I’ve taken lots of drugs before, but I never remembered. I think this is the key. You actually gain knowledge from this. I don’t even consider it a drug. It’s an eye-opener. It makes you think about stuff. Your deepest, darkest secrets, stuff you have been holding on to since you were eight years old—it washes out of you, and you feel like a totally different person. People look at you differently. Your whole world changes before your eyes.”

Three years later, Ric Godfrey says he hasn’t had a single symptom of the shakes or night terror since he came back from the jungle. He’s relaxed and holding down a great job.

“I’ve always been afraid that someone was out to get me, but I don’t have that fear anymore,” he says. “I still like to sit with my back to the wall. I still have certain military idiosyncrasies, but I’m not afraid anymore.”

Psychedelic drugs are back. Not that they ever really went away. You could always find them on the street, in the psychedelic underground, and along the more enlightened edges of the drug culture. What’s new is that these powerful mind-altering substances are coming out of the drug counterculture and back into the mainstream laboratories of some of the world’s leading universities and medical centers. Research projects and pilot studies at Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Purdue University, and the University of California, Los Angeles, are probing their mind-altering mysteries and healing powers. Psychedelic drugs like psilocybin and Ecstasy are still illegal for street use and cannot be legally prescribed by doctors, but university administrators, government regulatory agencies, and private donors are once again giving the stamp of approval—and the money needed—for research into beneficial uses for this “sacred medicine.”

“This field of research is finally coming of age,” said David Nichols, a veteran researcher and recently retired professor from the Purdue University College of Pharmacy and the Indiana University School of Medicine. “As Crosby, Stills, and Nash said, it’s been a long time coming.”

Leading the campaign in the new wave of government-sanctioned research is the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), an independent nonprofit that has raised millions of dollars to fund an ongoing study into the use of MDMA, also known as Ecstasy, to treat returning war veterans and rape survivors suffering from PTSD.

In the first phase of that study, MAPS researcher Michael Mithoefer, a psychiatrist from South Carolina, treated 21 patients. Some participants were given MDMA with psychotherapy, while some got a placebo along with their therapy. Researchers hoped to show that MDMA’s ability to enhance trust, empathy, and openness would make it easier for patients to recount a traumatic event. It did. Over 80 percent of those who received MDMA had no PTSD symptoms two months later, compared with around 25 percent of those who got the placebo. Patients with MDMA-assisted therapy did better than those treated with traditional prescription drugs, such as Zoloft or Paxil.

In November 2012, Mithoefer and his colleagues released more results in a paper published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. It showed that the benefits of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy were sustained over an average of three and a half years from the time the drug had been last ingested, an exceptionally lengthy period for a follow-up study. Furthermore, there were no reports of lasting harmful effects from exposure to the drug.

Rick Doblin, the executive director of MAPS, envisions his organization as a self-supporting nonprofit that will train therapists, run its own clinics, and distribute Ecstasy to doctors and psychologists.

MAPS now controls 960 grams of Ecstasy that was legally manufactured in 1985 by Nichols, the Purdue University chemist. That’s enough for between 4,000 and 5,000 doses, and it has not lost its potency. “It’s still the world’s purest MDMA,” Doblin said.

The use of psychedelic drugs for therapeutic purposes is not without controversy, however. In the 1950s, writer Aldous Huxley warned that psychedelics can take users to “heaven or hell”—for some, a path to enlightenment; for others, the spark for psychosis.

Huston Smith, a scholar of world religions who was another early explorer, noted the drugs can mimic “authentic religious experience” but questioned whether altered states of consciousness actually change the way people live their lives.

Smith also issued early warnings that today’s “ayahuasca tourists” might consider. While “sacred medicine” may be helpful for someone who was raised in a Native American religious culture, it may prove disastrous for an outsider unprepared for a mind-blowing trip. “History shows that minority faiths are viable, but only when they are cradled in communities that are solid and structured enough to constitute what are in effect churches,” Huston writes in an essay titled “Psychedelic Theophanies and the Religious Life.” More recently, the dangers of using psychedelics without medical supervision were illustrated when a man died after ingesting ayahuasca at the same Peruvian retreat center where Ric Godfrey had his life-changing experience.

Doblin and other advocates of psychedelic-assisted therapy acknowledge that these powerful substances—while not as addictive as drugs like alcohol, heroin, or cocaine—can be abused by recreational users. They propose a system in which they can be prescribed by doctors and administered by trained therapists.

Nevertheless, researchers and advocates contend that psychedelic drugs, used under close supervision, hold great promise for a deeper understanding of the connection between the brain and human consciousness.

“Where does our capacity for consciousness come from?” asked David Presti, who teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s still a huge mystery. It’s the biggest mystery of all in science, and psychedelics are the most powerful probe to study that connection.”

In an interview in his office in the Life Sciences Building on the Berkeley campus, Presti held up a large piece of dried ayahuasca vine. He said brain scientists are confirming what shamanic cultures around the world have known for millennia. “These substances have a profound capacity when used under appropriate conditions to be catalysts for real transformation in people, for real healing.”

A Johns Hopkins study of psilocybin and mystical experience is a good example. Follow-up surveys of 36 “hallucinogen-naive adults” who took psilocybin under the supervision of Roland Griffiths, a professor in the departments of psychiatry and neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, found that two-thirds of them rated the sessions as being “among the five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives.”

Griffiths’ work on the behavioral and subjective effects of mood-altering drugs has been largely supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health. Along with Charles Grob, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at UCLA, he has studied the effects of psilocybin to treat anxiety in cancer patients—their research found that low doses of psilocybin improved the patients’ mood and reduced their need for narcotic pain relievers. Another Johns Hopkins researcher, Matthew Johnson, has begun a new pilot study to see if the active ingredient in psilocybin mushrooms, commonly called “magic mushrooms,” can help people overcome their addiction to tobacco.

Griffiths’ personal interest in meditation inspired his study of psilocybin-occasioned mystical experience in healthy volunteers. One research subject, Brian, who asked that his last name not be used, recalled, “I was unified with everything. I still had enough awareness to get up and walk to the bathroom, but everything was so incredibly beautiful that I laughed and cried at the same time. I was one with it. It was just incredible—one of the top five experiences I have ever had in my life.”

The experience was so spiritually profound that Brian recommitted himself to his study of meditation and Buddhism and in late 2012 was scheduled to be ordained as a monk in the Soto Zen tradition.

For Presti, outcomes like Brian’s are not surprising.

“One of the ways psychedelics work is by reducing our psychological defenses. They allow the person to become aware of uncomfortable feelings and thoughts so they can come to the surface and be therapeutically processed,” he said. “Nobody knows exactly how these things work, but there may be some kind of hard rewiring that goes on in the brain. They may increase neuroplasticity—make the neurons more susceptible to forming new connections.”

He believes the substances should also be studied as a possible treatment for depression.

“But there is a lot of resistance to this from the pharmaceutical industry. The last thing it wants to see is a substance people only use once or twice. They want us to use something every day for the rest of our life. That’s how they make money.”

Other researchers are troubled that the new wave of psychedelic research is blurring the lines between spiritual experience and the hard science of medicine.

“We are not purveyors of spirituality. Having an epiphany is not a part of medicine,” said John Mendelson, a senior scientist at the California Pacific Medical Research Center in San Francisco. “Most of medicine is not predicated on making you better than you are. It’s getting you back to where you were. There are lots of people and things out there can make us feel better, but our job is to diagnose and treat and fix diseases.”

That view is no longer going unchallenged.

A new generation of dedicated psychedelic drug researchers has emerged on university campuses across the nation. Many of them gathered last September at a “Psychedemia” conference at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. They see their mission as “integrating psychedelics into academia.”

“Psychedelic studies are entering the mainstream,” said Neşe Devenot, a young graduate student at Penn and a lead organizer of the multidisciplinary conference. “You can talk about this now at the dinner table without coming across as some kind of fanatic.”

During a lunch break at the weekend conference, one of the wise elders in the field of psychedelic drug research, Johns Hopkins psychologist William A. Richards, sat in the cafeteria in the basement of Houston Hall, surveying the buzz of intergenerational excitement. Richards has been exploring these realms since the early 1960s with such luminaries as Stanislav Grof, Abraham Maslow, Walter Pahnke, and, yes, Timothy Leary.

Richards knows there could be another backlash against psychedelic drug research, not just by those who are still fighting the “war on drugs” but also by academics who resist the idea that scholars should seriously study something as slippery as spirituality.

“But if mysticism is to emerge from silent monastic cells into the bright light of scientific discourse, I see no alternative,” Richards says. “We have arrived at that frontier where the growing edge of true science meets the mystery of the unknown. Here faith takes over, either belief in something or belief in nothing. These experiences are not in any drug. They are in us.”

Don Lattin’s latest book is a memoir titled Distilled Spirits: Getting High, Then Sober, With a Famous Writer, a Forgotten Philosopher, and a Hopeless Drunk. Reprinted from Spirituality & Health, (January/February 2013), a bimonthly magazine that reports on the current spiritual renaissance.