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Berkeley Experts Come Together to Shape a New Wave of Psychedelic Research

March 21, 2022
by Coby McDonald

On Good Friday, 1962—five years before the hallucinogen-fueled Summer of Love—something remarkable took place in a chapel on the Boston University campus. The Good Friday Experiment, as it would later be known, was designed by a graduate student at Harvard University named Walter Pahnke under the guidance of professor Timothy Leary. Ten seminary student volunteers were taken to the basement of the Marsh Chapel, provided doses of psilocybin (the active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms), and observed as the sounds of the Good Friday service above—sermon, hymns, chanting—were piped in. Pahnke’s aim was to see if psilocybin, delivered under such conditions, could induce a full-blown mystical experience.

Several guides accompanied the students to ease their likely transition into altered states of consciousness. These included Huston Smith, a world-renowned religious scholar and philosopher who had done some of his doctoral work at Berkeley almost two decades earlier and was now a core team member of Leary’s Harvard Psilocybin Project. Because Leary, a Berkeley Ph.D., believed that it was beneficial for researchers to trip along with their subjects, Smith was given a dose too. 

Huston Smith had meditated with Zen masters, practiced yoga with Hindu yogis, whirled with Sufi dervishes, yet true mystical experiences had remained elusive. Until now. 

In researching the world’s religions, Smith had communed with mystics around the globe—meditating with Zen masters, practicing yoga with Hindu yogis, whirling with Sufi dervishes—and yet true mystical experiences had remained elusive. Until now. There in Marsh Chapel, thanks to 15 milligrams of psilocybin, Smith experienced what he described as his first direct encounter with God. 

He wasn’t alone; eight of the ten volunteers also reported mystical experiences that they counted among the most profound of their lives. 

The Good Friday Experiment was part of what is now known as the first wave of psychedelic research. It began in the 1950s when a small group of researchers and psychiatrists began exploring the value of LSD and psilocybin as psychotherapeutic medicines. These dedicated few, working in universities, psychiatric hospitals, and independently, produced hundreds of promising studies over the next decade and a half. Meanwhile, outside the lab, a countercultural revolution was brewing that had its epicenter in Berkeley and San Francisco. As word of the wonders of psychedelics percolated out from university laboratories, the hippies embraced the consciousness-expanding substances as a path to a new way of seeing the world while having one hell of a good time.    

While Berkeley the city remains practically synonymous with the “psychedelic ’60s,” Berkeley the university largely watched from the sidelines. Though some of the biggest names in the psychedelic field passed through Cal (Leary as a graduate student and assistant professor, and Richard Alpert, aka Ram Dass, as a visiting professor), little, if any, formal psychedelic research took place on campus.

That’s about to change.

In 2020, amid a growing second wave of psychedelic research, the University announced the launch of the UC Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics (BCSP). The center will tap an uncommon alliance of scientific and spiritual expertise to explore psychedelics as tools for probing the brain and consciousness, as well as emotional and spiritual well-being. In doing so, Berkeley researchers hope to help give the field solid academic footing and avoid the pitfalls that doomed the first wave.

As anyone who has tripped knows, psychedelics can propel the mind into dramatically altered experiences of reality. There are hallucinations, sure, but also profound, often beneficial, shifts in one’s emotional and relational understanding of the world. 

A slew of recent clinical studies out of Johns Hopkins, Yale, and the Imperial College London, among others, have shown psilocybin to be an effective treatment or aid for psychological conditions including depression, addiction, PTSD, and anxiety associated with terminal diagnoses. And unlike most other psychopharmaceuticals, the benefits of psychedelic therapy often persist after just a handful of sessions—sometimes just one. It’s not hyperbole to say that psychedelics could revolutionize psychiatry.

“Some of these results are just incredible for people who were really at the end of the road in terms of what conventional psychiatry, or really any mental health treatment, has to offer them,” says Berkeley neuroscientist Michael Silver, director of the BCSP. Even psychiatrically healthy people show improved emotional and spiritual well-being after psychedelic therapy. Silver says psychedelics seem to jostle people out of mental ruts. 

“The psychedelic experience shakes up the snow globe,” Silver says. “It allows a fresh coat of snow to fall on the mountain. And instead of starting at the top and following the routes that have been previously established and are familiar and easy to fall into, you can plot a new route down the mountain that is maybe more effective or adaptive.” 

“Berkeley doesn’t do clinical research. It doesn’t have a medical school. … What we’re going to be doing is basic science. Figuring out the mechanisms by which psychedelics work.” 

Michael pollan

But how do psychedelics actually accomplish this? And what can they tell us about the brain? And consciousness? Even happiness? Those were some of the questions animating early discussions between Silver and two eminent Berkeley professors, psychologist Dacher Keltner and journalist Michael Pollan, about shaping the center’s research. Keltner, founding director of the University’s Greater Good Science Center, is known for pioneering the science of awe, and Pollan’s recent best-selling books, How to Change Your Mind and This Is Your Mind on Plants, have brought conversations about psychedelics into the mainstream. The three agreed that with other universities focused on clinical research on psychedelics, Berkeley was well positioned to go deeper.  

“Berkeley doesn’t do clinical research. It doesn’t have a medical school, so that’s not our focus,” Pollan says. “What we’re going to be doing is basic science. Figuring out the mechanisms by which psychedelics work. Figuring out what psychedelic experience can tell us about perception and plasticity and consciousness.” 

The center, founded on a grant from a private donor, will have three components: research, public education, and a training program for psychedelic guides. (What it won’t have is a roof. Like many “centers” at Berkeley, it lacks a physical home.) 

The team, which Silver describes as “profoundly interdisciplinary,” brings together scholars from across the academic spectrum, including a partnership with the Graduate Theological Union, the consortium of religious studies institutions clustered on “Holy Hill,” just north of campus. “Psychedelics are by their nature an interdisciplinary subject,” Pollan says. “It bridges mind and brain, it bridges culture and nature, it bridges history and politics and law.” 

Still in the planning phase, the center’s research will be divided into two broad categories: low-dose and high-dose. 

Silver will head up the low-dose research to dig into the nuts and bolts of how psychedelics act on the brain. Volunteers will be given doses of psilocybin big enough to alter their brain function, but not so big that they can’t follow a series of tasks. Using the latest in brain imaging technology, researchers will trace the neural correlates of changes in cognition, perception, and the reawakening of neuroplasticity (the ability, characteristic of young brains, to rewire neural connections).

The research may also shed light on how our minds construct reality. As journalist Will Storr writes in The Science of Storytelling, “The world we experience as ‘out there’ is actually a reconstruction of reality that is built inside our heads. It’s an act of creation by the storytelling brain.” The brain on psychedelics tells a dramatically different story. By watching this unfold in real time, Silver says, we can gain insight into how our brains generate our subjective experience; our consciousness.

As complex as these processes are, they address what Silver calls the easy question about consciousness. “The hard part,” he says, “is what is the subjective experience?” What is it like to be

That question might require a higher dose. 

The mystery of consciousness (what it is, where it comes from) has long dogged scientists and philosophers alike. Does it simply arise from our gray matter? Or is the brain more like an antenna, tuning in to a consciousness that exists somewhere outside our heads? 

Then there’s Silver’s question of subjective experience: What is it like to be you? It might sound straightforward. You like the beach, get nervous on airplanes, hate garbanzo beans. But the totality of your subjective experience, your awareness, is known only to you. Science thus far cannot explain, quantify, reduce, or reproduce it. 

“The belief of many scientists is that eventually consciousness will be completely explained by all the physics and biology and brain processes, but that’s a complete assumption,” says Berkeley neurochemist and psychologist David Presti. “We always talk about science and objectivity. Well, consciousness is by definition subjectivity.”  

Presti, who has taught the neurochemistry of psychedelics at Cal for three decades and is a BCSP team member, believes it’s time for a more expansive science of consciousness, one that’s willing to tangle with the subjective. Particularly important are those human experiences that our current biophysical model of consciousness struggles to categorize—or dismisses entirely: “non-ordinary states of consciousness.” A full reckoning with our normal waking consciousness, Presti believes, requires examining them—and psychedelics are a way to do it. 

“Here’s this medicine that very potently reveals aspects of the mind that are not as saliently there most of the time,” says Presti. “When it comes to the nature of the mind there really is so much mystery that may be of great relevance to helping us better conceive of who we are as living, conscious beings, and how we relate to the rest of what we think reality is.” 

Enter Dacher Keltner, Cal’s resident emotion expert, mapper of the subjective experience, and shepherd of BCSP’s research of the ego-dissolving kind. Studies under his direction will involve guided, high-dose psychedelic experiences aimed at better understanding how the drugs improve people’s lives. 

Studies demonstrate that psilocybin can occasion “mystical-type experiences,” the degree of which is measured using far-out-sounding questionnaires, including Hood’s Mysticism Scale, the 5 Dimensions of Altered States of Consciousness scale, and the Ego Dissolution Inventory.

The science is clear: Psychedelics can and do have a positive effect on mental health. “But how long does that stay with you?” Keltner asks. “If we can start to understand the things that psychedelics potentiate or activate that help you, we have actionable knowledge” that can be used to help people get the most from the drugs.

Using emotion mapping tools developed in his lab, Keltner hopes to trace the contours of the subjective psychedelic experience. Researchers could then correlate feelings or mindstates experienced while tripping—oneness or serenity, for example—with bodily changes like shifts in immune response.  

Keltner has spent years studying the phenomenon of awe, which he defines as “the feeling of encountering vast mysteries that transcend our understanding of the world.” Whether inspired by staring into the Grand Canyon, listening to Mozart, or walking in the woods, his research has shown that awe is linked to improved physical, mental, and spiritual health. And it may also be an important facet of what many researchers believe holds the key to the transformational power of psychedelics: the mystical experience. 

You have to develop a protocol that guides people through the experience. And here’s a chance to ground it in a really rich multidisciplinary science of awe and beauty.” 

dacher keltner

Like Pahnke’s Marsh Chapel study 60 years ago, recent studies have demonstrated that psilocybin can occasion “mystical-type experiences.” The degree of mystical-ness is measured using one of several far-out-sounding questionnaires, including Hood’s Mysticism Scale, the 5 Dimensions of Altered States of Consciousness scale, and the Ego Dissolution Inventory. The latter includes statements respondents rank from 0 to 100, such as “I felt a sense of union with others,” “All notion of self and identity dissolved away,” and “I felt at one with the universe.” Studies show that the higher the score on these scales, the stronger and longer lasting the positive effects of psychedelic therapy.

Mystical experiences can be life-changing, but researchers have long questioned the longevity of the drug-induced variety. Following his Good Friday experience, Huston Smith wrote, “Drugs appear able to induce religious experiences; it is less evident that they can produce religious lives.” As Keltner puts it, “You took LSD, you were in a mosh pit, you crowd-surfed, and you felt like you were one with the universe,” he says. “And now you’re back at your job.” What now? 

In psychedelic therapy, there’s a concept known as integration, the process of assimilating the emotional breakthroughs and insights gained while tripping into daily life. 

“You have to develop a protocol that guides people through the experience,” Keltner says, to help them better integrate their psychedelic journeys—whether in a therapy session or a mosh pit. “And here’s a chance to ground it in a really rich multidisciplinary science of awe and beauty.” 

Looming over the field of psychedelic science like an old trauma is the complete collapse of the first wave of research. Once touted as psychiatric wonder drugs, everything changed as LSD and psilocybin use proliferated in the counterculture.

Looming over the field of psychedelic science like an old trauma is the complete collapse of the first wave of research in the 1960s and ’70s. Once touted as psychiatric wonder drugs, everything changed in the mid-1960s as LSD and psilocybin use proliferated in the counterculture (thanks in part to bathtub chemists like Cal dropout Owsley Stanley, acid supplier to the Grateful Dead and alleged inspirer of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”). With the country in social and political turmoil, psychedelics came to be seen by mainstream America as a threat to young minds and the social order. It didn’t help that Timothy Leary became the face of psychedelic science. Leary’s research had often appeared to many of his colleagues more like drug-fueled parties. And after his dismissal by Harvard in 1963, he evangelized for the wider use of psychedelics and famously implored the nation’s youth to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” 

A moral panic ensued, and in 1970, LSD and psilocybin were classified as Schedule I substances, meaning they had no accepted medical use. Studies ground to a halt as access to the chemicals, and to funding, dried up. 

“It was really catastrophic for research, and by extension, mental health,” Silver says. “To the extent that these are mental health medicines, it’s terrible that there was no research for all this time.” 

It’s a history that today’s psychedelic researchers aren’t eager to repeat. 

As Pollan recounts in How to Change Your Mind, the backlash was fueled in part by often exaggerated media stories implicating psychedelics in bad trips, psychotic breaks, and even murders and suicides. “What we saw in the ’60s was journalism that was initially irrationally exuberant about psychedelics,” he says. “And then the press turned in the other direction. You couldn’t find a positive article about psychedelics after 1965.” 

Pollan, who will direct BCSP’s public education program, says the key to avoiding a similar path is solid, reliable information that addresses the promise of the field without shying away from the problems, something the center strives to do via its twice-weekly newsletter, The Microdose. Soon, the center will offer fellowships to train reporters to cover the growing beat. 

“We hope to do what journalism does for any field,” Pollan says, “which is hold the players accountable.” 

As in the “psychedelic ’60s,” we are again seeing a boom in psychedelic use outside the lab. However, this time around much of it appears to be in the context of a growing underground therapy scene. Psilocybin and LSD remain Schedule I controlled substances federally, but some cities (including Oakland) have already decriminalized psilocybin, and California appears poised to do the same. As regulations loosen, experts believe a boom in demand for above-ground, certified psychedelic guides is on the horizon.  

Berkeley education professor and BCSP team member Tina Trujillo worries that quick and dirty training programs could prepare guides with “just enough to go out there and be dangerous.” To head off that scenario, she is directing a training program that will provide graduates with an unusual title: psychedelic chaplain. 

Chaplains are by definition spiritual care experts. This fall, the program’s first cohort of psychologists, psychiatrists, and spiritual care professionals will learn to assist patients before and during their psychedelic journeys and reflect with them afterward. The curriculum, developed in partnership with UCSF and the Graduate Theological Union, will be informed by an uncommon blend of spiritual wisdom and the latest cognitive neuroscience. 

One of the greatest challenges facing the new field, Trujillo says, is access to psychedelic care by communities of color. The field is largely a white, privileged space, she says. Despite the prevalence of concepts like “oneness” and “unity,” psychedelic therapy “is not immune from these social and political dynamics that characterize almost every other space where humans exist.”

A stigma about psychedelics, and drugs in general, among communities of color is one of the persistent legacies of the ongoing war on drugs. “They know that they are disproportionately penalized for drug offenses,” Trujillo says. “They know they’ve got more to lose. They can’t seek out this research without taking much greater risks.” 

She hopes that a diverse pool of trainees from an array of religious and spiritual traditions can help ensure that a wide spectrum of people access the guidance and care that they need. The hope is that the “Berkeley model” of psychedelic facilitation will become a standard used around the world.  

Huston Smith, who died in 2016, returned to Berkeley in 1983 as a visiting scholar. He taught religious studies until his retirement in 1996 and continued to speak about the profundity of his own psychedelic experience. Smith remained steadfast that the substances could provide deep spiritual insights. But not always. “Psychedelic experiences can range from ecstatic euphorias to terrifying hells and bum trips, from transformative revelations to meaningless hallucinations,” he said in a 1998 interview. The key, he insisted, was proper context. 

In a larger sense, context is what may allow today’s psychedelic renaissance to steer clear of the cultural shoals the first wave wrecked upon. There is no youth-led psychedelic revolution putting society on edge, no Leary-like evangelizing scientists grabbing the spotlight and obscuring the very real potential of psychedelics to better human lives. The war on drugs appears, at long last, to be losing steam. 

And yet psychedelic science remains fraught territory; it’s unlikely to ever shed its counterculture baggage entirely. So where better to advance the field into new frontiers than Berkeley, where the countercultural past isn’t baggage at all, but rather a point of pride? Berkeley wouldn’t be Berkeley without it. 

This complicated past informs the big picture goals of Berkeley’s center: better trained psychedelic guides, a better informed public, and deeper understanding of the brain and the subjective psychedelic experience. And the multidisciplinary team the BCSP has assembled is also well positioned to shed light on the wilder aspects of the psychedelic experience—the mystical, the ineffable, the transcendent, the weird. Huston Smith would be pleased.

Coby McDonald, M.J. ’17, is a freelance writer, podcast producer, and frequent contributor to California

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