#145: Dennis McKenna: A 30-Year Psychedelic Education

September 09, 2016

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 experiences that work, helping to create the right mindset and setting.  But what’s really important is that there is a 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:

  1. Do your research.  Start with, the best online resource on psychedelics.  Find out what to expect from a trip, how long it will last, and any contraindications.
  2. Start with the smallest active dose possible.  See how it goes.  You can always take more next time.
  3. 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.
  4. Relax and be open to the experience!

Further Reading

PS:  Can’t get enough of psychedelics?  Sign up for our weekly Brain Breakfast.

Read Full Transcript
Show Notes
  • 00:00:38

    Psychedelics with Dennis McKenna

  • 00:01:52

    This Week in Neuroscience: Study finds link between handedness and mathematical skills

  • 00:04:38

    The audience interaction section

  • 00:06:26

    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”)

  • 00:12:05

    Microdosing, recreational use and "heroic" dosing

  • 00:14:28

    Getting dosages right

  • 00:16:51

    Are there perceptual differences between types of mushrooms?

  • 00:18:43

    Psychedelics as "teachers"

  • 00:21:26

    Shamans and psychedelics

  • 00:22:49

    The actual safety profile of psychedelics and "bad trips"

  • 00:26:07

    How can people know if psychedelics are right for them?

  • 00:29:44

    Why pick one psychedelic over another?

  • 00:32:03

    Plant-based psychoactives versus man-made chemicals

  • 00:34:15

    Is there a "right" way to do ayahuasca?

  • 00:41:46

    What would the world be like if psychedelic exploration were accepted and lauded?

  • 00:47:03

    The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker

  • 00:52:27

    Ruthless Listener-Retention Gimmick: Hallucinogen persisting perception disorder

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