Let’s go on a trip with psychedelics expert (and brother of Terence McKenna) Dr. Dennis McKenna. Dr. McKenna has dedicated his research career to the study of hallucinogens and psychedelics and is a founding board member of the Heffter Research Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to investigating therapeutic uses of psychedelics medicines.
We talk varieties of magic mushroom, why Dr. McKenna is a cheerleader for ayahuasca, and the connection between religion and psychedelics.
Go Big or Go Home
Are people who take low doses of psychedelics (whether “microdoses” or just small, but active doses) scared of a real psychedelic experience?
Not necessarily, but these pleasant, recreational trips don’t challenge you the way bigger doses do. Neither will the portals of space-time open for you if you stick to low doses.
Maybe that’s why mushrooms have a friendlier reputation than drugs like ayahuasca. It’s an easier trip because many people are taking low doses of 1 – 1.5 grams. On such low doses, you aren’t that estranged from reality and your trip is less immersive.
And it’s not just the dose, but also the species of hallucinogenic mushroom that changes the trip. The most common magic mushroom is Psilocybe cubensis (commonly known as Golden Caps), due to its ease of cultivation.
However, other species of Psilocybe like cyanescens and baeocystis are significantly more potent. For comparison, a large dose of cubensis is around 5 grams, while a large dose of cyanescens is only 2. The experience also changes: the first time Dr. McKenna took cyanescens, he had auditory hallucinations he never experienced with Golden Caps.
A Cheerleader for Ayahuasca
Dr. McKenna’s true expertise lies in ayahuasca — he’s been taking it regularly for 30 years, and each trip brings new something new. It’s that feeling that he’s still learning that makes him such a dedicated proponent of ayahuasca.
His experience with ayahuasca has always been in the context of traditional shamanic ceremonies in South America, doing several sessions in a short time. That said, there’s no “right” way to take ayahuasca (or any other psychedelic for that matter).
Indigenous people have developed methods of guiding the experience that work, helping to create the right mindset and setting. But what’s really important is that there is context for the experience. It can be a traditional ceremony with a shaman, it can be a neo-shamanic variation, or it can be something you make up on your own. All of these options are legitimate.
Psychedelic trips are a mysterium tremendum — a tremendous mystery — and it’s human nature to try to find a framework to wrestle with an experience that’s beyond explanation. But don’t be constrained by what other people tell you is the “one true way” of experiencing psychedelics.
Psst… Wondering about the science behind ayahuasca? Check out this 3 minute video from ASAP Science that explains what’s going on in your brain.
“Psychedelics are Inherently Safe”
So what about safety? From a toxicology standpoint, psychedelics are very safe. What you should be concerned about is your mental health.
If you’re mentally healthy, you’ll be fine as long as you pay attention to (mind)set and setting. That means taking a trip when you’re in a positive headspace, and only doing so in a safe, comfortable environment.
If you take care of those two things, your trip will probably be smooth, even if you have a moment of anxiety. If you do panic, try to breathe through it and remind yourself that you’re on a drug and the trip will eventually be over. If you have a sober sitter, ask them to put their hand on your shoulder to ground you in the real world.
Ok, so psychedelics are safe, but they are not right for everyone. Do not experiment with psychedelics if:
- You are on SSRIs
- You have a genetic proclivity to schizophrenia
- You have an underlying mental illness
- You’re in a fragile psychological place
In short, psychedelics won’t drive you crazy, but if you do have mental health problems, they can bring that to the front and be destabilizing.
What’s the worst that can happen? Hallucinogen Persisting Perceptual Disorder, where you don’t reintegrate into reality and the perceptual distortions caused by a hallucinogen continue even after the drug wears off.
For the cautious psychedelic explorer:
- Do your research. Start with Erowid.org, the best online resource on psychedelics. Find out what to expect from a trip, how long it will last, and any contraindications.
- Start with the smallest active dose possible. See how it goes. You can always take more next time.
- Make sure you’re in the right mindset and in a safe and comfortable place, preferably with a sober babysitter if you’re new to psychedelics.
- Relax and be open to the experience!
- Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide by Dennis and Terence McKenna
- The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss: My Life with Terence McKenna by Dennis McKenna
- The Invisible Landscape: Mind, Hallucinogens, and the I Ching by Dennis and Terrence McKenna
- Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge A Radical History of Plants, Drugs, and Human Evolution by Terrence McKenna
- The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker
|0:38||Psychedelics with Dennis McKenna|
|1:52||This Week in Neuroscience: Study finds link between handedness and mathematical skills|
|4:38||The audience interaction section|
|6:26||Dennis and Terence McKenna's background in psychedelics, a terminology preamble, and a few of our related past epiosodes (116: Psilocybin and the Potential for “Psychedelic Therapies” and 137: DMT - Dr. Rick Strassman’s Breakthrough Work With “The Spirit Molecule”)|
|12:05||Microdosing, recreational use and "heroic" dosing|
|14:28||Getting dosages right|
|16:51||Are there perceptual differences between types of mushrooms?|
|18:43||Psychedelics as "teachers"|
|21:26||Shamans and psychedelics|
|22:49||The actual safety profile of psychedelics and "bad trips"|
|26:07||How can people know if psychedelics are right for them?|
|29:44||Why pick one psychedelic over another?|
|32:03||Plant-based psychoactives versus man-made chemicals|
|34:15||Is there a "right" way to do ayahuasca?|
|41:46||What would the world be like if psychedelic exploration were accepted and lauded?|
|47:03||The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker|
|52:27||Ruthless Listener-Retention Gimmick: Hallucinogen persisting perception disorder|
PS: Can’t get enough of psychedelics? Sign up for our weekly Brain Breakfast.
Episode Transcript hideshow
— This Week in Neuroscience --
Jesse: So, I remember when I was a kid I had a little bit of left-hander envy. I’m a right-hander, but lefties, ya know, I think in an effort to keep kids from teasing them because they were different, it was always, "Oh, the left-handed kids are these extra special creative little special snowflakes!" That sounded pretty good from my side of the fence. But as we’ve come to learn in the last couple of decades, most of the generalizations about right-handers, left-handers, right brain, left brain, all that stuff… It’s like Johnny Depp said about the pirate’s code, they’re not so much rules as guidelines. And scientists have been looking at left-handers’ brains and trying to see how they operate and to what extent the lateralization of our cognitive morphology actually matters—if it does.
So recently, this was a study published earlier this year in May of 2016 at the University of Liverpool, researchers got down to looking at the links between mathematical abilities and a person’s handedness—and this is a kid’s handedness. They had kids between 6 and 17 years of age, a total of 2,300 of them, and they gave them a battery of handedness tests, this is called the Edinburgh Handedness Inventory, which figures out if a person is really, really right-handed, really, really left-handed, kind of ambidextrous, gives them a score on that. And then, of course, we’re all familiar with math tests. They gave them age-appropriate math tests—simple arithmetic, problem-solving, algebra, stuff like that. And according to the psychologist Giovanni Sala, the study found a moderate yet significant correlation between handedness and mathematical skill. The amount of variance in the mathematics scores explained by a person’s handedness was about 5% to 10%, a surprisingly high percentage for a variable like handedness. Now you might think, "Well, okay, a left-handed kid who’s right-brained, right brain is like touchy-feely creative stuff…" This is kind of what we were taught when I was a kid. Not so much the case according to modern thinking.
But what they actually found was that a typically-handed kid, someone who wasn’t ambidextrous but was a normal amount of right-handed or a normal amount of left-handed, they tended to perform best. The most highly lateralized kids, they tended to underperform vs. the rest of the kids. Other influencing factors that they found in this study were the children's’ age, the type of the mathematical test, and the kid’s gender. So the amount to which the handedness mattered in their math skills also varied in coordination with these other attributes. But within this overall trend, there were still some interesting little highlight constellations of attributes. For example, the standout group was actually male left-handed adolescents. That constellation of traits really outperformed their peers mathematically. Why? Who knows why. The researchers don’t know why, and this was kind of one of the interesting and frustrating things from the study, is that although they found these predictive correlations between handedness and mathematically aptitudes, it wasn’t a straight linear relationship and they don’t have a holistic theory that would account for all of these different outcomes that they’ve seen.
— Main Interview --
Jesse: So, I’m about to be speaking with Dr. Dennis McKenna. If you’re familiar with Dennis McKenna and if you’ve heard him interviewed elsewhere or read any of his work, you might notice that he’s not normally introduced as a doctor. And he’s not a medical doctor, but he does have a PhD in botanical sciences from the University of British Columbia, where his dissertation, this is over 30 years old at this point but appropriate to this conversation, was titled "The Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors in Amazonian Hallucinogenic Plants: Ethnobotanical Phytochemical and Pharmacological Investigations." That’s probably more along the lines of how Dennis would describe himself, as an investigator.
I sort of think of Dennis and his late brother, Terence McKenna, as being like the Paul Revere of psychedelics. Paul Revere was yelling, "The British are coming! The British are coming!" and the McKenna brothers played a similar role in the history of the re-emergence of psychedelics in Western culture. Dennis’ career went a bit more the scientific/academic route, and Terence was more of an author and a public persona, sort of a vocal cheerleader and champion for psychedelics. But they had a fantastically interesting partnership, and actually, I read Dennis McKenna’s book, he published a book called The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss talking about his childhood and young adulthood in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. And basically these two brothers that were just fantastically curious about psychedelics, kind of wondering amongst themselves, "Why isn’t the world paying more attention to this thing over here?" But they themselves were willing to take the plunge, really explore the boundaries of these states of mind, and probably most impactful of everything that they’ve been involved with is a book entitled Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide. The McKenna brothers were really the first ones to come up with a reliable method for growing psilocybin mushrooms in the convenience of one’s own home rather than having to find some cow poop, which is where they normally grow.
So, we kind of jump right into this conversation and start throwing around a bunch of terminology, which probably isn’t really set up that well within the conversation. So I wanted to kind of pre-define a couple of things right here, and also direct you back to a couple of past episodes. In #116, we talked about psilocybin with Dr. Fred Barrett. That wasn’t talking about recreational psilocybin or anything like that, but the possible uses of psilocybin in therapeutic applications. Psilocybin is the psychoactive component within magic mushrooms, and that name will get dropped a couple of times in this conversation. In episode #137, I talked with Dr. Rick Strassman about DMT. Now, DMT is the psychoactive component within a drink called ayahuasca. DMT is a very, very powerful hallucinogen and it’s actually secreted in very small amounts within the human body, but rarely or never in amounts that would actually make somebody have a psychedelic trip. However, if it is smoked or if it is injected, it can be a really, really powerful psychedelic experience. If you just ate a bunch of DMT, nothing would happen, it would be broken down in your stomach.
However, ayahuasca, which we’ll be talking about a lot within this interview, is a drink which, without going into the details, combines two different types of plants, one of which has a lot of DMT and the other of which has components which keep the DMT from being broken down within your stomach. So the psychoactive components are able to enter your body through your digestive system and instead of a really, really intense 3-5 minute trip like a person might have on DMT, instead there’s a multiple-hour psychedelic experience. However—and I realize there’s a lot of caveats here—there’s one more thing: unlike a psychedelic like LSD or magic mushrooms that a person could conceivably take in kind of a "This is going to be fun, I’ll take a small amount and go out and hang out with my friends or go to a concert" or something like that type of environment, ayahuasca is not that kind of drug. It is not something that the human body likes, it is something that makes people want to throw up and poop themselves, and typically one or both of these things will happen. So, that’s a pretty major disclaimer. People tend to approach an ayahuasca experience the way they would approach a session with a counselor. People frequently talk about "Mother Ayahuasca" and having a relationship with this plant entity. There’s a lot of terminology around this that can sound pseudo-religious and, frankly, pretty weird, but there are people that say that this is a life-changing thing, it’s saved their life, it’s changed their life for the better, it’s made them the person that they were fated to become, and that repeatedly vomiting and pooping yourself is really a small speed bump given what you get out of the overall experience.
Last but not least, and thank you for bearing with me during this long introduction, we talk about a psychedelic threshold. That’s kind of the point at which a drug trip on a psychedelic stops being, "Oh, you know, I feel pretty normal but maybe colors are a little twinkly" or something like that, and crosses over into that, "Wow, I am really thinking differently. I may or may not still feel like myself, but whatever the differences are, they’re no longer just perceptual differences but instead I am processing the world differently." Another term that gets mentioned is the "heroic dose," which is a term that Dennis’ brother, Terence McKenna, actually coined, which is sort of shorthand for an amount of a psychedelic substance—and obviously the amount and dosage varies depending on what the substance is—but an amount that is well beyond what anybody would do for a recreational purpose. You wouldn’t take this amount of a psychedelic and attempt to hold a conversation or go out and have a good time with your friends. This is an amount you take because you want to go spelunking in your own consciousness and see what’s down there. If you think of yourself as a ship, you have officially lost sight of the shore, you’ll wash back up on the beach sometime but you don’t know exactly when or where that’s going to be—that’s a heroic dose.
And finally, last but not least, we’re not actually talking about this in this episode, but at the very beginning of the conversation it was just something that Dennis and I were talking about as I hit record, and that is microdosing. Now, microdosing is taking a very small amount of a psychedelic substance but not so much that you actually cross that psychedelic threshold. You just might kind of feel something a little bit, but you can still go to work, do your job, carry on a conversation, do your taxes, all that stuff, with zero chance that a pink elephant is gonna walk through the room or that your plants are gonna start talking to you. And microdoses are worth talking about in their own right, but that’s not what we’re going to be talking about here. So if you’re hoping to learn about microdosing, you came to the wrong place this episode. But if you want to hear about macrodosing, then I present you Dennis McKenna.
Dr. McKenna: People do advocate microdosing and they say LSD is very good for that, and also low amounts of mushrooms or psilocybin every day. I haven’t done that myself, other than just once or twice. I have not done it on a regular basis. I’m sort of a chauvinist about it in some ways, like I say, "Well, this is for people who don’t actually want to grapple with the beast in a certain way." They’re basically chicken shit to what a real psychedelic experience is about. But I think that’s not fair. Maybe there is some benefit for it. I mean, I know a number of people I respect who really swear by it, but honestly I haven’t tried it myself.
It’s interesting how people have this idea that, for example, mushrooms are somehow easier than ayahuasca or less transformative or whatever, and I think maybe that’s because people are used to taking low levels of mushrooms. You can take small amounts of mushrooms, more than a microdose, an actual active dose, but a low dose, and you can have a great time. It’s a wonderful recreational psychedelic or whatever. But if you push the dose, and a lot of people don’t, but if you push the dose, you realize this is every bit as challenging as some of these others. It is not to be disrespected, it’s not to be taken lightly at all because it can put you into some pretty challenging places at the heroic dose level. People sort of assume that because it’s so friendly at the low dose level, that that’s what it is. They can take it for years at level and they just use it recreationally and they never really suspect that if they just pushed it a little bit, the portals of space-time would open and they’d go through and it’s a whole different ball game. I’m not faulting them. I mean, people say you should never use these things recreationally. I’m not sure that’s not necessarily a bad thing, to use them recreationally. But you do miss out on what you might learn from the higher doses.
Jesse: Yeah, I feel like the analogy that comes to mind between microdosing and passing the psychedelic threshold is like the difference between drinking a glass of water and going water-skiing. Both of them are completely worthy pursuits, they’re just two different things.
Dr. McKenna: Yes, two different things, for sure.
Jesse: With plant-based or fungal-based hallucinogens, the active ingredients are coming from living things, and so dosing can be a real issue because you never know exactly that living thing, how much of the active ingredients it’s going to have produced. I’m sure a lot of people have experienced maybe taking a dose that they thought was going to be a comfortable, manageable, recreational-level dose and winding up blasting on a further trajectory than they’d intended to. How often does that happen? How big a concern is that for people, getting these dosages right with the plant and fungal-based psychedelics?
Dr. McKenna: Well, I mentioned people who make that mistake, but something to bear in mind is there is actually quite a lot of variation in potency between different species, and the one that you usually encounter is cubensis. Psilocybe cubensis, that’s the golden cap tropical mushroom, that’s the one that’s very easy to cultivate, that’s the one that most people cultivate, and that’s what’s you run into. Some of these other species that are also now being cultivated, they’re not so easy, but there are methods… So things like psilocybe cyanescens, or azurescens, or baeocystis, or even semilanceata, these are tiny—well, not that tiny, but they’re not very impressive mushrooms in terms of what they look like. But, boy, they can be extremely potent; they’re about twice as potent as cubensis, usually. So if you take 5g of cubensis, which is considered the heroic dose, or at least the lower end of the heroic dose, that’s about 2g of psilocybe cyanescens. If you wisely assume, if you’ve got cyanescens and you say, "Well, 5g of this, that’s what’s Terence McKenna says and that’s what I’m taking," you’re likely to be quite surprised by how strong that is.
Jesse: Other than the potency, as far as the actual amount of chemical per amount of mushroom, is there a perceptual difference the way that, for example, getting drunk on beer doesn’t feel the same as getting drunk on tequila, even though it’s the same amount of alcohol molecules that wind up in your bloodstream?
Dr. McKenna: Well yeah, there is a perceptual difference. There is a point, at higher doses these things tend to be obviously a lot more visual, but also I guess more immersive at the lower doses. And again, set and setting is so important here. The lower doses, that’s why you can take a gram or a gram and a half and go to a party or go to a social situation and have a fine time, because you’re really not that estranged from reality.
Jesse: But if we remove the variable of dose… So, a theoretical person is getting the same amount of psilocybin in either case, but the variable is just one mushroom breed vs. the next, is there a perceptual difference there?
Dr. McKenna: There are qualitative differences between species, yeah. I mean, I haven’t taken a wide spectrum of species, but I’ve tried a couple of different kinds, particularly cyanescens. And I noticed the first time I took cyanescens, it was interesting because I took about 2g, I knew what it was, and I got all of this auditory stuff that never comes up with cubensis, like this constant buzzing and tweeting and twittering, these sort of electrical sounds in my head with this mushroom. I was with a companion and she also had exactly the same experience. And then a few months later, we both took the same mushrooms in pretty much the same circumstances, and there was none of that. So, I don’t know. I mean, I guess this is a good example of the importance of set and setting. It could be the same product exactly and the same circumstances and it may turn out differently next time. Why that should be and what all that auditory stuff was about, I have no idea because that rarely comes up for me with that particularly.
Jesse: Psychedelics just seem like the rare example of the time when "Been there, done that" does not hold up as a statement. I’ve gone skydiving on a couple of occasions, and the first time it was just an absolute thrill, and then the second and third time it was just like really a letdown. It was like, "Well, gosh, it was kind of the same as last time." By the third time, I just never felt the need to do it again. And I’m sure that there are higher levels of skydiving, and if you’re not strapped to the back of an instructor it would be a different thing, but it just didn’t feel like it really had that much further to go after the initial experience. Whereas psychedelics seems like it’s gonna be something new every single time.
Dr. McKenna: I think there’s a lot more to explore in that kind of thing. With skydiving, even though I would never do it and I’m terrified of the very idea, but I’m not an extreme sports kind of guy, I like to do things where my survival is pretty much assured… But after you’ve done that two or three times, it simply is what it is. If you don’t get the adrenaline rush, what’s the point? But psychedelics, you have the entire world of consciousness and the unconscious, as well. These are places are as vast as continents, or even more so, so I don’t think you ever run out of things to explore. It’s as vast as the imagination.
Some people have said—in fact, I think Ram Dass, or maybe it was Alan Watts who famously said, "When you take psychedelics, once you get the message, hang up the phone." I totally disagree with that. I think that’s a complete misunderstanding of what the psychedelic experience is, because these things are not a message that you pick up the phone and get your voicemail. These things are teachers; these things are actually entities in a certain way that you enter into a relationship with. A wise teacher always knows more than the student, always has more to tell you. You’re not going to get the whole story out of one or two encounters. So I think if you’re serious about using these things in a shamanic way or in a fairly serious way, they are your allies, they have much to tell us, and you shouldn’t assume that just because you’ve done it a few times, "Okay, I get it, I don’t need to do this anymore." Maybe for some people that works, but I think if you really want to learn, you have to stick with it. I mean, I’ve been taking ayahuasca probably on a regular basis for 30 years, and I’m still learning new stuff from it. Every time, it comes up with something new. That’s partly why I don’t feel compelled to give it to people or become a shaman or anything like that. Some people have that calling. I don’t. Part of the reason is I feel like, well, really I’m still learning about this stuff. I’ve only been in this relationship for 30 years, you know? So, there’s a lot I haven’t learned yet.
Jesse: Well, I think you’re probably being unduly modest. If you don’t have the credentials, at this point, to be a psychedelic shaman, it’s hard to imagine who does.
Dr. McKenna: Well, maybe so. But I just don’t see myself in that role. I see myself as more an educator about ayahuasca, and I work with curanderos who are really excellent and skilled at what they do. I could never be as good as they are. So, I guess I see my role as being one of kind of a cheerleader for ayahuasca and convince people that they should really have the experience. I mean at the end of the day, a shaman is a facilitator, really. A shaman who is clear about what they do, they won’t present themselves with a lot of ego, that "I’m the great shaman who’s going to lead you through this." A good shaman has the sense to step back and let a person interface directly with the medicine, because the medicine is the real teacher, and it’s that direct interface between you and the medicine that’s important. The shaman can facilitate that relationship through their practice, the singing of icaros, the things that they do to sort of modulate or hold the space, as they call it, an appropriate setting so that this dialogue, this relationship can unfold in a way that is safe, in an environment that is conducive to paying attention. And also the person has the added reassurance that the shaman is there, "If I really get into trouble, there are things the shaman can do to help bring me back to center." They’re really usually pretty common sense things, maybe a little massage or singing an icaro over a person. It’s amazing how you can use these tools to really help people get back to their center if they feel threatened or anxious. That’s what a shaman does. It does work. There’s a lot more to it than that, but it works.
Jesse: I’d like to roll back to something that you said earlier, which was that you don’t like feelings of physical danger. But I think a lot of people listening, particularly those who have had bad trips or challenging experiences, whatever the proper nomenclature is these days, you’re probably one of the more daring people they could think of because you’ve gone to some of the far shores of psychedelic interspace, where some really, really scary things can happen. You might not necessarily be in physical danger, but at the time you’re not in a position to even realize that. Can you dissect that a little? Because especially maybe for people that are listening who have not had psychedelic experiences themselves, they might not realize quite how scary things can get.
Dr. McKenna: Right, I think a point that is important to make is that psychedelics are inherently safe from a toxicological or pharmacological point of view. If you pay attention to set and setting and you’re conscious about any drug interaction issues that you may have—this is stuff you should think about ahead of time. If you’re taking SSRIs, for example, you should not take ayahuasca. Whether you should take another psychedelic like psilocybin is another question. Chances are it won’t interfere with it, it may actually reduce the effect in SSRIs. So, you want to be clear about all that before you take a psychedelic. And then if you get into some difficult places, and that happens… Sometimes I say there really is no such thing as a bad trip—well, that’s not true, because trips can go seriously bad, but if you’ve paid attention to setting, chances are it’s going to be smooth. Even though there may be moments of anxiety, moments of panic, even, that’s not necessarily a bad reaction. You just have to sort of remind yourself you’re on a drug, it’s going to be over in a few hours, and just try and bring yourself back to your baseline just through breathing, or just calm down.
The worse thing that can happen is I’m absolutely terrified, I’m anxious. But if you just grit your teeth and hang on, you will get through it. And then if you have a facilitator, or shaman, or even just a sitter, someone who is there who can maybe put their hand on your shoulder, in that context that can be extremely reassuring, and you say, "Oh, okay, things are actually really okay." We encourage people to do trust the medicine to a certain extent, and I think what that means is let go, don’t resist it. You’re obviously taking it for a purpose, and the idea is to induce a profound altered state. You’ve made that commitment. So once that starts to happen, let it happen. Let it go. You can’t control it. The more you try and control it, the more terrifying it becomes, so you have to make the decision ahead of time, "I’m going to trust the medicine and surrender to it as much as possible," knowing that you have thought you’ve controlled every variable ahead of time that might possibly be a real threat. So you might have a feeling on a psychedelic—this happens on ayahuasca, it happens on every psychedelic—that you’re either going crazy and you’re never going to recover, or you’re dying. And chances are neither one of those things are happening, but you may be utterly convinced that they are at the time. That’s the point where you just have to hold on to your hat and go with it, just surrender to it.
Jesse: You talked a lot in your book about I guess what I would sort of almost call a psychedelic apprenticeship to your older brother, where you were still a younger kid living at home while he was off at college at Berkeley, and some of this information was leaking back to you in dribs and drabs over the course of his visits and things like that. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how somebody who is psychedelically inexperienced might know whether psychedelics are going to be right for them. Do you think this is something absolutely everybody and their dog should try, or is it only for certain people? What are your thoughts on that?
Dr. McKenna: Well, no, certainly psychedelics are not for everybody. That’s #1. Some people should never take psychedelics. And you don’t always know if they have maybe a genetic proclivity to schizophrenia, or if they’re in a fragile psychological place, or if they have reason to think that there is some underlying mental illness, that these things can erupt. Psychedelics will not drive you crazy, but if you are crazy, you may not even know it, it can bring that up to the front, and then it can be very destabilizing. It’s very rare, even if their trips are longer than usual, almost everyone will recover within 24 to 48 hours of taking it, which would be a long time. There is a syndrome recognized called hallucinogen-persisting perceptual disorder or something like that, I’m not sure I’m getting the words in order. But this is where the person doesn’t really reintegrate, and these perceptual distortions continue, and delusions and confusion, and that usually comes because they had underlying psychological vulnerabilities to this. It’s hard to know ahead of time if you have it, especially if you have no experience with it.
So, a couple of things to do if you’re curious about this: #1, totally inform yourself about it, and what you should expect, what particular medicine you’re taking. Go to Erowid.org. I always recommend Erowid.org, it’s the best online resource for information about psychedelics. Go to the vault, go to the one that you’re planning to take. The trip reports are invaluable because then you see other people’s experiences and the kind of spectrum of experiences you can have. So once you’ve informed yourself and you feel like you’ve got a pretty good knowledge base, then the next thing to do if you’re—again, this is for the inexperienced who are getting their feet wet, you don’t have to plunge in over your head immediately. Start with a small dose, see how that goes. And then the next time, you can take a slightly bigger dose. You can work your way up to the point where you say, "Okay, this is where I want to be. I don’t need to go higher than this." It’s the old Sasha Shulgin approach. He even had a rating system: +1, +2, +3, +4. A +4 was a completely life-changing, transformative, incredible, transcendent experience, and a +1 was not so much—a nice "twinkle," as he would call it. There’s nothing wrong with proceeding cautiously. You don’t have to take the heroic dose the first time out. In fact, that would be a silly thing, that would be a thoughtless thing. You should proceed carefully. Start with a low dose, see how that works. Next time, do a little more and see how that works. Slowly work yourself up to the point where it’s getting where you want to go, but you’re able to be comfortable in that place.
Jesse: As somebody who’s experimented with a wide variety of both I assume the synthetics as well as the natural substances—
Dr. McKenna: You might be surprised. I’m not as much of an experimentalist as you might think. But anyway.
Jesse: —What I’m wondering is we’ve talked a lot in this conversation about both ayahuasca and mushrooms. How do you make the decision, "This is gonna be the weekend where I do ayahuasca," vs. "I’m feeling like mushrooms now." Is this like a white wine vs. red wine for dinner? What calls that coin toss for you, on one psychedelic vs. another?
Dr. McKenna: There is no set approach to it, except maybe ayahuasca. I probably take ayahuasca much more regularly than anything else, just because I’ve been working with it for a few years and I know what the effect is and the way that it’s used. I take ayahuasca when I go to South America and I do organize these retreats down there. So the way ayahuasca is used in these circumstances is you usually do several sessions in a short time. Like in the retreats I do, we have seven days, we do three sessions, each with a day in between for reintegrating, processing, thinking about it. And so you do a series of three, the first time kind of gets you "into the space." As my curandero says, "The ayahuasca gets in you." Once it’s in you, it’s there, it takes a while to go away, so the second time is usually the time when things really open up and builds on what you learned the first time. Take it again, and then the third time is kind of the integrative experience, where you’ve been through it, you’ve been opened up, and now you get sewed back up, if you will, and sent back out, and you’re integrated. There’s variations on this. I mean, three sessions is kind of minimal. Some people say you really should have six sessions. But these are individual preferences.
Something like mushrooms I don’t take very often. I take it maybe once or twice a year, and it kind of depends on when the circumstance comes up. But I take it in a different way. I always take ayahuasca in a ceremonial situation. Mushrooms, I usually just take it by myself or maybe with one other person. It’s not a big ceremonial setting for me for that.
Jesse: Now, you used the term plant teachers there, which has this nice reverential sound. It’s hard to imagine you saying chemical teachers if it was from something other than a plant. Do you think that there is something more authentic, or good, or noble, or just inherently nice about plant-based psychoactives or psychedelics vs. something that was invented in the lab, a man-made chemical?
Dr. McKenna: No, actually I don’t. I think that plants and psychedelics obviously have a longer tradition of use. I’m kind of a pantheist than an animist in a certain way, and I think that just because something is a synthetic molecule, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a soul. I mean, Alexander Shulgin, who was certainly into synthetics, that’s what he did, but he would talk about his little drug souls that, to him, each of these compounds that he made was a sacred thing. He respected it, it had its quality. And people say, "Well, synthetics are no good, it’s gotta be organic, it’s gotta be natural." But remember, all the synthetics are also made by all natural, organic chemists, right? And this is part of what we were talking about: these don’t originate outside of nature because we’re not outside of nature. They’re products of human cleverness. I think it’s great that we have the cleverness to make so many different compounds. That’s the reflection of the creativity of modern organic chemistry and science. It’s not that we can’t make these things. The question is are we wise enough to use these things, and that’s where we’re lacking, that’s the whole issue with technology, in a way. I tell my students there’s no such thing as a bad drug, but there’s plenty of bad ways to use drugs. The moral dimension originates within us, not in the technology, and I think that’s important to keep that in mind, because especially in conversations about drugs, we give the substances a power that they don’t have. We speak as though they were demons or pathogens when we talk about the heroin epidemic or what cocaine has done to inner cities. Cocaine didn’t do any of those things. The drugs don’t do these things, it’s how people use these things.
Jesse: So, I’d love to get your thoughts on this: I’ve done mushrooms going back for a decade plus now, a healthy handful of occasions. I’ve never done ayahuasca yet, despite definitely being curious about it, but I’ve sort of always been turned off to the idea that there is this ceremonial aspect about it. I’m really curious to see how my body would react to that chemical condition. I don’t want to kind of go into somebody’s preconceived, ritualized approach to it. I just kind of want to see how it would feel to me, and I haven’t gone through the effort of seeing how to just get my hands on some of it and use it maybe with a small group of friends rather than in a more traditional setting. Do you think because people have been using it in South America for eons and eons now, that there is a right way to do ayahuasca? Or is that just the way that it is commonly done, but there might be other equally appropriate inroads to the use of that compound?
Dr. McKenna: No, I don’t. I don’t think there is a right way to do ayahuasca, or any of these things. I think that it’s good to acknowledge that indigenous people who have used these things for so long have developed methods that work, right? And the ritual context, it’s all part of this set and setting dynamic. It’s important that there be a structure and it’s important that there be a context for the experience, and that’s part of the set and setting. But that said, the context, you have a lot of leeway. I mean, it can be a traditional ayahuasca ceremony with the shaman and the ritual as it’s traditionally practiced. It can be some kind of neo-shamanic variation on that that’s not traditional but it might borrow from those things. Or it can be something that you completely make up on your own. I don’t think any of these things are not a legitimate way to approach it. A lot of people say, "Well, you should never do ayahuasca outside of a ritual context." This goes back to what I was saying previously. It’s the medicine that is the teacher. It’s the shaman or the facilitator, the sitter, whatever—those people can be important, but ultimately it’s the medicine that is the teacher. And so if you trust the medicine and if you trust yourself enough to just sort of get into this direct relationship, that’s fine. I see nothing illegitimate about that, as long as you approach it respectfully and carefully, that’s the most important thing. And I have known people who have felt the calling to become shaman or ayahuasqueros, and they go to South America and they apprentice to someone, and they do the dieta and all this stuff, and that’s fine, that’s the traditional approach.
But I also know people who basically they just do it on their own, they make it themselves, they take it themselves, and they learn just as much, and I don’t think that that’s illegitimate at all. That’s the beautiful thing about psychedelics in general, I think. You don’t have to have a belief system, you don’t have to have faith. I mean, you may participate in a traditional ceremony for ayahuasca. I do all the time. That doesn’t mean I necessarily believe everything. I find it a compatible set and setting. I do not necessarily buy into the cosmology, I don’t necessarily accept all these spirits. That’s their worldview, it’s fine, and it works for them, but I don’t have to buy into these beliefs to experience the medicine and benefit from the traditional set and setting. The same thing goes with some of the churches that use ayahuasca. I mean, they definitely want you to join the church and accept the doctrine, and like every other church, they want you to believe. Well, I’ve taken ayahuasca with the UDV a number of times. I don’t believe in their doctrine, but I believe in their medicine. And they’re good people, they’re ethical people, but I’m not a practicing member of the UDV. Fortunately, I don’t have to be, they invite me to come. But really, it’s the direct experience with the medicine that you benefit mostly from, and there’s a natural impulse in some ways to find a framework for this stuff.
Jesse: That’s a great point. That’s really well said.
Dr. McKenna: That goes on all the time; that goes on with any real mystery. The psychedelic experience is really truly what we call the mysterium tremendum: it’s a tremendous mystery. It’s terrifying, it’s fascinating, you can’t take your eyes away from it. I mean, it’s the real deal and it’s a direct experience. And as humans, we have this tendency, when we’re confronted with a real mystery, which is almost by definition ineffable, you can’t really express it, we have this tendency, we want to put a linguistic box around it, we want to put a framework around it. This has always gone on in religion. I mean, it’s ironic because the mystics of a religion, they encounter these mysterium tremendum, whether it’s drugs or some other thing, and then the religion comes along and tries to put a framework around that and basically do everything they can to neutralize that personal experience. I mean, they want to protect you from that—that’s something that only the priests should have access to, and then they will tell you what you’re supposed to think about it. So, this is part of the objection that I have to religion, because they’re not facilitating actual transformative experiences, their mission is to make sure you don’t have those because they’re too dangerous. They’re dangerous because they suggest to people that they should question the status quo. They give you "funny ideas," right? That’s what Terence used to call them, "funny ideas."
Jesse: The fear of the unknown is something we all feel as humans, though. I think when we discover something that is really mysterious, it’s natural to want to somehow contextualize it. It just feels like there’s this gaping vacuum in our sense of how the world works if we don’t try to at least come up with a half-assed answer.
Dr. McKenna: Yeah, exactly, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I mean this is what we do when we’re confronted with something like this naturally. Whatever capacity we have to understand it kicks in because we want to understand it, we want to explain it to ourselves. And you may come to a point where you can say, "Well, I just really can’t explain this, so I just have to accept that this is beyond explanation." What I think we should be cautious about is grabbing on to someone else’s explanation of what it is. Everyone’s experience is unique, so you should be careful to—"Oh, the UDV has a model for this," or, "The Santo Daime has a model," or, "The Catholic church has a model for it." These are not models that you came up with. These are kind of like accepted explanatory frameworks. You can adopt them if you want, but I think in some ways you miss out because then you don’t come up with your own understanding of it. And really, in some ways, taking psychedelics, people have religious experiences, they have transformative experiences, they have all kinds of things, so we tend to think of this as a spiritual activity or people take it for spiritual reasons. And that’s legitimate, but we should remember it’s also a scientific activity in a certain way. It’s curiosity that motivates us to access these altered states, and curiosity is what drives science at base. It’s that impulse that we have to push the envelope, to try to make sense of the world.
Jesse: That’s a great point of intersection for a question that I really wanted to get your thoughts on, especially in light of your book. So the 1960s, that was when the space race was going on and there was this push by humans to get off the planet, explore extraterrestrial space, and at the same time there was this big popular push towards the exploration of inner space with psychedelics. And one of these two pursuits was lionized in popular culture and the early explorers were made heroes and household names, and the other one was driven underground and made a felony. I would just love to hear your thoughts, somebody who was more a participant on the felony end of that, those two explorations that were going on simultaneously. If we looked at an alternate history where the world was flipped on its head and 50 years ago psychedelic exploration had been politically lionized and for whatever reason space exploration was poo-pooed, what do you think would have happened? What would the world be like now?
Dr. McKenna: Well, if that had happened, I don’t know if it would have happened, but I get the point. You know, I’ve often speculated, it’s interesting to speculate, when Columbus first got to the new world—like he was the first one—but when he got to the island of Hispaniola, that was where they originally landed. The indians there, indigenous people there were using cohoba snuff, which is a DMT snuff; they were also smoking tobacco. So when Columbus got there, he saw them doing these things. Well, tobacco, that really impressed Columbus and his men because it was so dramatic, combusting these huge three-foot long cigars and drinking smoke, it was very, very impressive.
Jesse: And the tobacco from back then, it was actually stronger, more potent than what people are used to now.
Dr. McKenna: Right, it was just active smoking, it was a very dramatic thing. Columbus took tobacco back to Europe with him. He left the cohoba snuff behind because it didn’t seem like such an interesting thing, because you take it and not much happens, it’s all inside. And so I’ve often wondered, what would have happened if he had left tobacco behind in the new world and brought the snuff back with him and changed European history as much as tobacco did? I mean, who knows? But it might have made Western culture quite different if we had integrated psychedelics into our culture that early. The thing is though, our culture, Western culture, does not value inner experience. This has always been a dichotomy. The East, for example, is very much about value of looking inward. The West is all about looking outward. And this goes back to what I was saying about funny ideas—we mistrust inner reflection, we mistrust unconventional ideas because they’re unconventional, so they’re a threat to the existing world order, so we just don’t value that kind of experience as much.
Jesse: It’s hard to imagine an alternate history of planet earth where a culture like indigenous people of the Amazonian rainforest that use ayahuasca were the dominant ones who settled the rest of the globe. At least in our popular mythology, we think of these cultures as being kind of happy the way they are and maybe not having some of that internal discord that leads to, "Well, you know, we’ve gotta go find the spice islands or take slaves from elsewhere," or whatever it is that motivated the age of exploration.
Dr. McKenna: That’s exactly it, that’s why they didn’t do these things, because they’re kind of happy the way they are and they just don’t have this impulse to spread across the world, to conquer people, to extract resources, to do all the things that seem to drive the mania of Western culture. Indigenous people don’t seem to have that impulse, much to their detriment in some ways, because we can point to the impact that global culture, Western culture, has had on these pretty fragile indigenous societies. But maybe we’ve reached a point where they’re beginning to get their revenge in a certain way, but in a way that is appropriate—they’re not conquering, but the West is becoming fascinated with these indigenous spiritual traditions. So the plants, they are conquering us in a certain way, as they sort of emerge on a global stage. And the West is ready for this now because our own spiritual and cultural institutions have been hollowed out, they are so devoid of any actual spiritual significance or anything satisfying on that level. The people are desperate for those kinds of experiences and they’re looking outside their culture, because our culture doesn’t offer that. I mean, there’s nothing religious about religions. They’re political institutions, another way to keep people ignorant and keep people in line. And people are not satisfied with that, they want direct experience, they want actual encountered with the mysterium tremendum. They’re not gonna find it in any of the established religions, it’s long since been exorcized. All the transformative power has been sucked out of it. Now it’s just a hollow ritual. I mean there’s good reason to think that in early Christianity, for example, drugs were used, probably mushrooms were used in these early extentiations of these religions. But not anymore, and they would be horrified at the mere suggestion.
Jesse: So, before we beat up on Western culture too much, are you aware of, or have you read a book, called The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker that came out a couple years ago?
Dr. McKenna: I have not, no.
Jesse: Honestly, I think you would get a giant kick out of this book. It is one of the most well-researched historical books, and yet at the same time, incredibly optimistic as far as the future of humanity. He shows pretty persuasively how humanity is on a nice trajectory. It’s like, our chances of being killed by our fellow man now are so much less per capita than they have been at any point in history, and basically things have been going on like a nice slope with pockets of problems here and there. And there’s backsliding, but basically for the last several thousand years things keep getting better and better and better, everything from the likelihood that a kid is going to be abused by their parents to the likelihood that you’re going to be murdered by your neighbor, to whatever else. I feel like it’s a nice antidote, some of the data in that book and the ideas that are put forward there, to the idea that, "Well, you know, culture is just getting worse and worse and everything is so A-personal, and the ancients had it right and we’ve got it wrong." It’s not something we can necessarily talk about now, but I just thought, having read your book and talking with you, I thought it would be a great book to bring to your attention, something that I think you might actually really enjoy.
Dr. McKenna: Yeah, I think I would, too. I tend to agree with—nobody can argue that, in a lot of ways, things have gotten a lot better. We have better healthcare, we don’t have to work as hard, we have many conveniences and so on. The general trend is to get better. But that said, it’s important, I think this is one of the things that ayahuasca especially, and other psychedelics, one of the reasons that they’re going on to this global stage is to send us a message, and the message is that we have to overcome our separateness from nature, or we have to re-understand that we’re not separate from nature. We’re part of nature, and we’re not only a part of nature but we’re not even in control here. Because I think the biggest challenge that we face is the tremendous damage that we’re doing to the global environment, destabilizing the homeostatic feedback mechanisms that keep conditions on the planet within narrow parameters that life can tolerate. I think we’re actually in danger of upsetting that, because for the first time we have the ability to impact the planet on planetary scales.
And so, things are getting better, but what we need to do is bring our wisdom in sync with our cleverness. We can do lots of things, we’re very clever, but because of that, we’re a very dangerous species. Simultaneously, we’re the most promising and the most dangerous thing that evolution has come up with so far. What I say is people have got to become conscious of this and bring our ethics and our clarity and how we choose to deploy technology, how we choose to use things in sync with our tremendous abilities, because right now we can tend toward thoughtlessness and carelessness, and we don’t realize really how fragile the situation is. So, I’m optimistic on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and I’m pessimistic the rest of the time. I do think, though, that for global culture to be rediscovering psychedelics, which the indigenous people have been stewards of for so long, now we’re rediscovering it on a global scale. I think that has to be good, right? Because they are plant teachers, and we have forgotten the lessons, and we need to go back for some remedial learning so that we can learn to live more in harmony with nature and obviously harmony with each other. These teachers can tell us how to do that, but we have to listen.
Jesse: So, thank you so very, very much to Dennis McKenna for taking the time for that conversation. Dennis is very giving with his time, not just on this podcast but the world in general. He’s a very visual figure in the world of psychedelics, and as self-effacing and humble a guy as he is, he’s really kind of a big deal. If you were to draw like a scattergram of inventors and explorers and stuff like that, I would kind of put the ‘60s psychedelic explorers—psychonauts, as they’re sometimes called—somewhere south of the Wright Brothers, but probably on an equal par as the astronauts as far as being people that were willing to go to a strange, dangerous, remote place and come back and offer reports for the rest of humanity. That might sound like quite a lofty pedestal to put people on, but if you think I’m off base there, go watch the movie The Right Stuff about the founding of NASA and how most of the early NASA astronauts were test pilots for supersonic jet fighters. These were fighter jocks that were willing to fly these planes with the full understanding that they might crash and die and burn up and never be seen again. That’s kind of the comparison that I would draw for people that are going to be taking 5g to 10g of magic mushrooms. That’s possibly hard to understand if you’ve never done a psychedelic, but if you have, it’s probably quite clear. In any case, my hats off to Dennis McKenna.
As I mentioned before, Dr. McKenna is on the board of something called the Heffter Research Institute. This is a US-based nonprofit organization focused on finding practical applications for psychedelic technologies. They’ve got projects going on at any given time, and even more projects they would probably like to be going on. They do take tax-deductible donations, and we will have a link to their website on the page for this show. Keeping it on theme, let’s move ahead to the Ruthless Listener-Retention Gimmick.
— Ruthless Listener-Retention Gimmick --
Jesse: So as Pollyanna said, "Every dark cloud has a silver lining," and as the Grateful Dead said, "Every silver lining has a touch of grey." That was a pretty positive pro-psychedelics main interview, so to kind of balance things off a little bit, I did want to bring to your attention one of the potential downsides of psychedelics. Psychedelics, physically they’re actually pretty safe. If you’re not prone to psychosis or have psychotic breaks, history of mental illness in your family, things like this—I mean, there’s definitely a lot of caveats as to who might want to try psychedelics. But, by and large, given that these are typically Schedule I drugs and have all this negative stigma around them, you’d think that these would be addictive substances that can knock you over dead, which is not the case at all.
But I told you I was going to have sort of a word of warning here. And there is a word of warning, and that is something called hallucinogen-persisting perception disorder, which, in addition to being somewhat of a tongue-twister, this is a mysterious condition—mysterious because we don’t know how prevalent it is and we don’t know exactly what the mechanism of action within the body is—but the medical community takes it seriously enough that it is listed in the DSM, that is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is kind of like the big, official, medical canonical text of ways that your brain can misbehave. And HPPD, or hallucinogen-persisting perception disorder, is what they call it when some of the visual effects—typically visual; it could sometimes be auditory too, but it sounds like 99% of the time, this is visual—when some of the visual effects that are associated with psychedelic trips don’t go away after a person sobers up. Something in the sensory system of their brain kind of stays locked in this trippy visuals phase, and even though the person realizes that what they’re seeing is a visual illusion, they don’t stop seeing it. They can’t shake it off and drink a strong glass of water and come back to normal. It can stick with them for weeks, months, in some cases years and decades.
Now, one of the common questions about HPPD is are these flashbacks; is it the same thing as an LSD flashback? The answer on that is no. These were sort of conflated terms for a long time, particularly in the 1960s and ‘70s, but flashbacks, it’s now pretty well accepted, are essentially a post-traumatic stress disorder response to a situation that originally occurred while a person was tripping on a psychedelic. So, that’s a flashback. In a flashback, a person could not really have a grip on what’s real or what’s not. But it’s also sort of a quick time-boxed thing—it’s happening, then it’s not happening, it sucks, but it’s over. HPPD, on the other hand, is just an ongoing visual perceptual disorder. Your vision sucks, but it doesn’t suck in just like a "you need a pair of glasses," it sucks in a psychedelic sort of way. Examples of possible symptoms include afterimages, color confusion, the reduced ability to discriminate color—so that could be like color blindness—difficulty reading, like text may sway back and forth, letters may vanish into an alphabet soup; there could be flashes of colored geometric patterns, halos around objects, size distortions, or visual static or snow.
So, a lot of symptoms, all kind of nasty. But here’s the weird thing: again, they don’t know why this happens. This has been associated with drugs ranging from LSD, DMT, 5-MeO-DMT, MDA, MDMA, psilocybin, diphenhydramine, PCP, synthetic cannabis, and other things that you probably haven’t heard of and I probably can’t pronounce correctly. But there’s a whole lot of them, and to make matters even more confusing, of course most people that use these drugs never wind up with HPPD, and there are people that wind up with HPPD that have never done any of these drugs. Researchers stress that visual abnormalities can be caused by lots of different things. Examples include migraines, brain infections or lesions, epilepsy and a number of mental disorders ranging from schizophrenia to Parkinson’s disease. But for a person to be diagnosed with HPPD, these other potential causes must be ruled out. Which almost sounds as if if none of these other likely suspects are available a person has a history of psychedelics use, then they kind of blame it on the psychedelics and say, "Ah-ha! It was that acid you did!" Which seems a bit unfair, but they’ve got a name and they put it in the DSM and it’s a thing. But because the use of psychedelics is neither necessary nor sufficient to cause HPPD in people, it kind of seems like they probably shouldn’t have the "H" for "hallucinogen" in the name, and when they actually tease apart what’s going on within the brain to cause this disorder, they might reclassify and rename it. That’s just me speculating. But this is worth paying attention to, it’s something that does happen on occasion. Most people that wind up with HPPD as a result of psychedelics use, it happens pretty quickly. They don’t build up a very long psychedelic resume before this happens.
Finally, the probability of developing HPPD after consuming a hallucinogen is not known, but the number has got to be pretty small. In a review article on the subject, researchers John Halpern and Harrison Pope wrote, "The data do not prevent us to estimate, even crudely, the prevalence of strict HPPD." They noted that in their evaluation of 500 Native American church members who had taken the hallucinogenic cactus, peyote, on at least 100 occasions, none of them had HPPD.