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A fascinating study recently released on depression/anxiety invites deep consideration about our connection to a larger, interconnected, safe universe.

The study was conducted out of NYU and published in The Journal of Psychopharmacology.  In it researchers studied the effects of one dose of the hallucinogenic drug psilocybin on cancer patients with depression and anxiety.  The results were striking.  Unlike the overwhelming majority of interventional studies on depression and anxiety using drugs and/or standard psychotherapy (usually Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) where rates of improvement are on the order of 20-50% after weeks to months of treatment, the results in this study were 80% of participants showed significant improvement in depression and anxiety after one dose that lasted up to seven months with minimal side effects.  That’s a rather miraculous result.

Examination of the details of the study and the reports of the patients provides deeper insight into what exactly the participants experienced.  A majority of them reported various intense experiences of something larger than themselves, and a sense of the larger universe being profoundly caring and safe. Further, results showed the intensity of the mystical experience directly correlated with their degree of improvement.

Psilocybin, a hallucinogenic produced by mushrooms, has been used for thousands of years in indigenous cultures for these effects.  Hallucinogenics, such as in South American peyote, have an ancient history of use in sacred rituals precisely because of their purported capacity to open human awareness up to a different, larger experience of the universe with supposed life-changing benefit.  The experiences and languaging of these participants interestingly mirror that ancient ritualistic use.

Quotes from the patients:

After seeing himself on the stretcher (a typical perspective expressed during out of body experiences), one participant stated, “I had an epiphany.”  “Why are you letting yourself be terrorized by cancer coming back?  This is dumb.  It’s in your power to get rid of the fear,” he told himself.  “That’s when I saw black smoke rising from my body.  And it felt great.”

Three years later he reported still living the effect.  “I’m not anxious about cancer anymore.  I’m not anxious about dying.”

Another stated, “I have a greater sense of peace of what might come.  I’m very grateful, beyond words, for this trial.  But you have to approach the session with the right intentions of why you’re doing it.  Because you’re going to meet yourself.”

In other words, what seemed to occur for the majority of participants was a letting go, a feeling-safer experience, and a subsequent profound shift out of the distress that they were under, on a magnitude not seen in normal studies of depression/anxiety interventions.

So, what do we do we this?  Does science offer a framework for understanding this or are we just left with a sense of mystery relegated only to the realms of religion and spiritual discussion?  I believe science can offer us frameworks for appreciating these types of results.

 

In previous writings, I often refer to a significant discussion by Einstein toward the latter part of his life and work.  He was asked by a reporter in a press conference, “What do you think is the most important question facing humanity?”  His answer was, “The most important question facing humanity is, ‘Is the universe a friendly place?’”  As I have discussed previously, he went on to expound on how our answer changes everything about how we live and what kind of a world we co-create. I have extended that discussion to include the concept that we are always asking that question deep inside in every moment of the day, and that our answer determines our next move.

I also have frequently spoken of the work of psychologist and researcher, Dr. Stephen Porges, and his work on the autonomic nervous system, how we respond to stress and the key role of safety in determining the outcome.  Both areas of contemplation are touched on in this study.  The most improved participants in the study seemed to answer Einstein’s question with a resounding yes.  Further, what they described was a sense of feeling a deep safety in life they had not known previously, one that shifted their sense of place in the cosmos, and one that left the lingering effect of resolving their depression and anxiety.

One voice out of neuroscience interprets findings such as these (and all out-of-body and mystical experiences) as simply brain capacities for an experience of unity that are tapped under certain circumstances or by chemical manipulation.  It is referred to as the “epiphenomenological (EP)” perspective, meaning consciousness is simply a product of neuronal brain firing (an epi-phenomenon) and is contained completely within the central nervous system.  Another perspective on consciousness sees the brain/CNS as more akin to a radio transmitter.  It postulates that consciousness lies at the foundation of the universe and lies outside the brain in the same way music for the radio is floating in the air all around us, and a radio simply serves to transduce the songs into a recognizable, understandable frequency and form.  There is evidence for both.  But I believe we are coming to a time when the epiphenomenological paradigm can less convincingly hold sway and increasingly shows limitations in explaining the data.  Dr. Eben Alexander, a prominent neurosurgeon and researcher who had his own profound out-of-body, near-death experience, takes this question head-on in his book, Proof of Heaven.  One by one Dr. Alexander examines all the epiphenomenological explanatory arguments for his experience and demonstrates their lack of capacity to account for the raw data.  It is not irrefutable proof by any means, but the arguments are compelling. Further, they serve the Law of Parsimony well.  The paradigm of consciousness-outside-the-body paradigm can explain and contain the data for the epiphenomenological perspective, but there is much serious data for which the EP model cannot contain and account.  (Strictly by the laws of the scientific method, we must seriously consider whether the EP model is reaching its end.)  Must we consider that the EP model is reaching the end of its usefulness as an explanation of consciousness?

What if that which is being shown to us in these experiences is simply what it is at face value?  What if consciousness is larger than, and exists outside of, the brain?  What if it is simply an aspect of our interconnectedness on a non-material level?  What if our deeper existence truly is of a loving, safe universe?  What if our distress as humans, often to point of what we label as anxiety and depression, are simply the tensions that cut our awareness off from that reality on a moment-to-moment basis?  What if the unwinding of that tension can be as instantaneous as seen in this study?  Another aspect of recent neuroscience is the growing awareness that the overwhelming majority of functions in the brain are of an inhibitory nature.  What is being inhibited?  What is being “blocked off”?  Why would not most or much of it be of a stimulatory nature instead?  Is it possible, as postulated by the late, great neuroscientist and neurosurgeon, Dr. Karl Pribram, that the human central nervous system acts as that radio-like transducer, allowing us to only tap into small parts of the realm of larger consciousness, one frequency at a time, as we can tolerate?

This study also suggests key questions about the very nature of anxiety and depression.  Are these all-too-common human experiences the result of random chemical imbalance and brain misfirings?  Or are they the tension and distress that result from lack of experience of safe, loving connectedness to the whole?  If it’s the latter, is that an illusion perpetrated by our brains in certain circumstances (like near-death experiences, mystical meditative connection, or drug-induced states)?  Or, are the experiences a reflection of true reality, such that the relief is powerful precisely because it is real?  Are we having various experiences that induce unwinding of the tension and fear that block us from that awareness in the first place?  Spiritual teaching for millennia has certainly been the latter.  Is it possible scientific research is providing frameworks of understanding that are commensurate with that view of reality?

I see experiences like those in this study every day in my practice.  Part of my work as a physician involves experiential stress counseling based on creating safe environments and discharging the tensions held in the body.  At the very least, a strong sense of safe community is experienced in life-changing ways, and an even deeper mystical experience is quite frequently the result.  Is it possible that, as the Eastern mystics have spoken for thousands of years, that which is touched in those moments is actually the real world and this is the dream?

One side note with this study regards its applicability in actual practice.  Are we all just to start swallowing mushrooms?  After all, if ingestion of just one dose of psilocybin alleviates my depression and anxiety, wouldn’t more be even better?  I don’t think that’s the main take-home point.  While I don’t have any principled objection to the usage of a hallucinogenic if the results are this substantial, there are possibly criteria and limits that need to be studied and elucidated.  As stated above, one of the participants indicates that he felt his attitude and intention going into it played a significant role in the results he obtained.  Certainly every day hallucinogenics (such as LSD) are being utilized by the populace and either no particular betterment of life is achieved or often the case, there is psychological and/or neurological damage.  Even if approached through the lens of a consciousness-beyond-the-body/spiritual perspective, forcing the brain/CNS into a larger realm of awareness may not always be something a person is ready for.  It’s possible that hallucinogenics are a neutral tool with potential for good or bad outcomes and require much further study before being recommended for general use.

We are often forced to choose between taking a “scientific” or a “religious/spiritual” perspective on issues of life.  It can be frustrating and heavy and often leave a sense of nearly split personality.  I know that at times it is even difficult to write about such issues, having to dance between the two languages and ways of thinking.  Is it possible that we are beginning to see bridges between the two approaches that allow us to get out from under the burden of this dichotomy?  For indeed it is burdensome.  If we elevate religious/spiritual ways of thinking and devalue the voice and approach of science, we risk living in fantasy simply for our own emotional comfort, truncating our own growth and creating the silliness of a world where God is pitted against his own creation.  If we elevate science to the pinnacle and relegate all questions of love, meaning, purpose to the etheric realms of philosophy and religion, we risk dismissing serious data, committing significant breaches of scientific protocol, and finding ourselves trapped in a different silo of narrow, limited thinking.  Are we possibly approaching the time when the historic walls between the two worlds can begin to soften?  Is it possible that science is expanding into new paradigms that provide room for, or even suggest, an underlying reality of meaning, purpose and love?  Wouldn’t it be great if this was the Great New Conversation of our future?

 

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