Hallucinogens – don’t choose ignorance

In response to Dr Lowenstein’s letter (November 2014), I would like to speak up in support of the special issue of The Psychologist (September 2014) that focused on hallucinogens. I thought that the articles in this edition gave a well-balanced selection of views, highlighting both the potential research benefits of hallucinogenic drugs (‘A brave new world for psychology?’ by David Nutt) as well as the dangers and potential harm they can cause (‘When the trip doesn’t end’ by Henry David Abraham). In addition, I found the excellent articles on the cultural context and history of hallucinogens (‘Cultures of chemically induced hallucinations’ by Vaughan Bell) and on how these drugs actually work on the brain (‘How do hallucinogens work on the brain?’ by Robin Carhart-Harris, Mendel Kaelen and David Nutt) extremely interesting. I’ll admit that this is not my field of professional work or academic interest (as an educational psychology PhD candidate and education professional), but despite the lack of direct relevance to my work, I found these articles to be engaging. The world of hallucinogens is not one that the majority of people will ever have direct experience of, and it is absolutely right that the potential harms of these drugs are taken seriously, but it is still an interesting topic to read about and one that could well be useful to those undertaking psychological research in this field.

I do not believe that these articles were glorifying hallucinogenic drugs nor was there any suggestion that these drugs would be suitable for use in all psychological treatment or research. I’m sure there will be many psychologists who agree with Dr Lowenstein’s opinion that ‘there are much better ways to achieve contentment and to make one’s life worth living’. I agree with this myself. However this doesn’t mean that the other side of the debate shouldn’t be heard or that potential benefits for psychological treatment and research shouldn’t at least be discussed. I did not get the impression that, as stated in Dr Lowenstein’s letter, this issue of The Psychologist was advocating hallucinogenic drugs. The articles were airing various views within the debate and these views should be free to be expressed. It is important that we, as psychologists, make an effort to expand scientific understanding and don’t choose ignorance for the sake of long-held presumptions.

I also find it puzzling that Dr Lowenstein makes a distinction between alcohol and substances that lead ‘to some form of addiction’. Alcohol is an addictive substance and it is well known what damage this can cause to people’s health and lives. I don’t understand why it would be acceptable to distinguish alcohol from ‘smoking and the use of substances that can only be considered drugs generally’.

I believe that The Psychologist is doing a fantastic job of broadening people’s horizons and research interests by entering into the debate on controversial subjects, such as hallucinogenic drugs, and I hope that unnecessarily conservative views do not discourage future publications on other contested subjects. I for one have no objection to being tarred with the brush of seeking to expand my psychological knowledge and I hope the majority of psychologists will feel the same.
Laura Oxley

I was disappointed, but not surprised, to read Dr Lowenstein’s comments on hallucinogenic drugs (Letters, November 2014). Before hallucinogenic drugs, such as LSD, were banned in the early 1970s they were used as an adjunct to psychotherapy. Much research was done and published, most of which is lost in the mists of time (for those who are interested the complete archive of the Psychedelic Review, 1963 to 1973, is available at www.maps.org/psychedelicreview). Whilst many of the papers are dated, reflecting the counter-culture of the 1960s, there are a lot of potentially useful research findings, most of which will not have been replicated. For details of modern research there is the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, (MAPS) website (www.maps.org), which is well worth a visit.

As an example of current research in the UK and Italy, the work by Petri et al. (2014) on psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient of magic mushrooms demonstrates that ‘the homological structure of the brain’s functional patterns undergoes a dramatic change post-psilocybin, characterized by the appearance of many transient structures of low stability and of a small number of persistent ones that are not observed in the case of placebo’. Such new connections, in the therapeutic context, may lead to new insights and consequent psychological change and growth, thus there are important implications for psychological therapy and possibly for neuropsychological rehabilitation.

It is unfortunate that Dr Lowenstein uses the term ‘tinkering’, which belittles the research currently being carried out and does nothing to advance the frontiers of psychology or neuroscience.
Clive Sims CPsychol, CSci
Ipswich, Suffolk

Petri, G. Expert, P., Turkheimer, F. et al. (2014). Homological scaffolds of brain functional networks. Journal of the Royal Society Interface, 11. doi:10.1098/rsif.2014.0873

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