The Third Culture John Horgan

The Quiet Resurgence of Psychedelic Compounds as Instruments of Both Spiritual and Scientific Exploration

The story that has gripped me lately is the quiet resurgence of psychedelic compounds as instruments of both spiritual and scientific exploration. This trend is unfolding worldwide. I just attended a conference in Switzerland at which scholars presented findings on the physiological and psychological effects of drugs such as psilocybin, LSD and MDMA (Ecstacy). At the meeting, I met an American chemist who had synthesized a new compound that seems to induce transcendent experiences as reliably as LSD does but with a greatly reduced risk of bad trips; a Russian psychiatrist who for more than 15 years has successfully treated alcoholics with the hallucinogen ketamine; and a German anthropologist who touts the spiritual benefits of a potent Amazonian brew called ayahuasca. Long a staple of Indian shamans, ayahuasca now serves as a sacrament for two fast-growing churches in Brazil. Offshoots of these churches are springing up in the U.S. and Europe.

Several non-profit groups in the U.S. are attempting to rehabilitate the image of psychedelic drugs through public education and by supporting research on the drugs' clinical and therapeutic potential. They include the Heffter Institute, based in Santa Fe, New Mexico; the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, MAPS, based in Florida; and the Council on Spiritual Practices in San Francisco. One notable supporter member of the Council on Spiritual Practices is Huston Smith, one of the world's leading religious scholars and the subject of a recent Bill Moyers special on PBS. In his forthcoming book Cleansing the Doors of Perception, Smith argues that psychedelics, or entheogens, as he calls them, can serve as valid catalysts for spiritual transformation. The question is, will this new psychedelic movement founder, as its predecessor did in the 1960's? Or will it bring about the profound spiritual and social changes that advocates envision?

JOHN HORGAN is a freelance writer and author of The End of Science and The Undiscovered Mind. A senior writer at Scientific American from 1986 to 1997, he has also written for the New York Times, Washington Post, New Republic, Slate, London Times, Times Literary Supplement and other publications. He is now writing a book on mysticism.

Further Reading on Edge: "Why I Think Science Is Ending" A Talk With John Horgan; "The End of Horgan?"