DEATH Case Study: Psychedelic Drugs

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This week’s Death Case Study might sound a little spacey, as if we’ve been taking a few too many visits to the astral plane or hanging out at too many silent yoga retreats. Well, you’d be wrong – we’re just keeping up with the latest research. Here we take a look at how psychedelic drugs might be used by terminally ill patients to make the dying process a little more bearable.

When did psychedelic drugs enter mainstream science?

There was a massive backlash the last time scientists started to sing the many praises of psychedelic drugs and their uses in medicine. Research into psychedelics reached its peak in the late ‘60s (this might be unsurprising to people of a certain age), with the creation of certain hallucinogens.

After the birth of LSD and psilocybin, the psychedelic found naturally in “magic” mushrooms, authorities clamped down on scientific research. There was too much in the way of hedonistic fun mingled in with all that more methodical experimentation.

Then in the 1990s, the gateway to different dimensions opened again: scientists began, on the sly, researching the use of psychedelic drugs to help terminally ill patients. Its therapeutic benefits – from reduced stress and anxiety about the unexpected to the boundary less feeling of escaping the body – captured the imaginations of certain open-minded scientists.

Treating terminally ill patients with psychedelic drugs

From a best-selling book by science writer Michael Pollan, How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics, to the increased spotlight put on recent medical studies by the media, the use of psychedelic drugs in a clinical setting is starting to gain traction.

Treating the dying with psilocybin allows individuals to overcome different kinds of fear at the end, and take up a wider view of life, death and dying itself. This is the science that’s the focus of Pollan’s book, the part of the brain where the ‘self’ resides (if we’re all agreed there is such a thing). Along with the normalisation of an holistic approach to dying, this research also raises questions about what it is to be person: why assume ‘normal’ consciousness is the right one?

The end of moral panic around psychedelic drugs near?

There’s a real resurgence in this shelved area of research, and the moral panic that made the headlines in the ‘70s seems to have died down. With social care (in some people’s eyes) falling into a crisis or an inadequate answer to the changing nature of modern dying, a bit of experimentation is on the cards. Psychedelic exploration might not be all lying in the grass, conversing with a like-minded tree trunk about the nature of life.

Find out more

Get to grips with Michael Pollan’s new book, How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of PsychedelicsIt goes into a lot of the history surrounding research in psychedelics and cognitive processes.

See our other DEATH Case Studies: from microbes to near death experiences and virtual reality technology, we’re taking a look at death from different perspectives. 

Take a look at the journeys taken by the brains of great thinkers – from Einstein’s meandering lobes to Charles Babbage’s brain severed in two and place in two different museums.

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