Should Breakthrough Psychedelic Research Make Us Question Our Assumptions About Mental Illness?

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By Jonathan Dinsmore

Since the lifting of the irrational 30-year ban on psychedelic research around the turn of the millennium, scientists have been proving once again what researchers in the 50s and 60s had already begun to find: psychedelics are extremely promising treatment tools for some of the most prevalent and often treatment-resistant psychological disorders like depression, addiction, and PTSD. We truly live in very exciting times for psychedelic research.

Given the overall state of the world’s mental health, this research is sorely needed, and long-overdue. With the kind of success rates we’ve been seeing, with lasting relief sometimes from one or a few sessions, it’s reasonable to predict that these remarkable substances will play an increasingly important role in the treatment of many mental illnesses, and hopefully will also be sanctioned for safe use in other contexts, as well.

While their effectiveness is becoming more and more established, psychedelics’ “mechanism of action” is perplexing to many psychologists, particularly to believers in prevailing ideas about mental illness and treatment. They’re clearly working, but why or how are they working? What is the cognitive or neurological basis for their sometimes near-miraculous treatment success?

One thing that’s not yet being discussed enough is how the high success rate of psychedelic therapies can be seen as a challenge to dominant mainstream paradigms about psychiatric epidemiology (the study of what causes mental illnesses), particularly the reductionist biological chemical imbalance theory, and related ideas. While we’ve all heard psychedelics are working, the largely untold story is how the way they seem to work should cast doubt on prevailing theories of mental illness.

Reductionism in Psychology

Psychology today has become dominated by the idea that most common mental disorders, particularly mood disorders like depression, can be explained by reducing mental activity to things like chemical imbalances in the brain, a wrench in the neurochemical gears so-to-speak, which are generally more or less random and/or biologically predetermined. While the psychological sciences have acknowledged more recently that depression is more complex than that, the idea remains prevalent among psychiatrists, and the overall view of mental illness in general remains mechanical and biological.

In other words, scientific reductionism in psychology dominates the scene, and determines how mental illnesses are understood, and treated. Like the universe itself, according to philosophical materialism which many think of as “the scientific worldview”, mental illness is considered a random, meaningless occurrence, which is best controlled by adding new chemicals to the brain to offset the error, and perhaps implementing cognitive-behavioral changes through the efforts of the conscious, rational mind. We are biological robots in a meaningless universe, and mental illness is like a computer malfunctioning.

This has become the predominant model in the orthodox paradigm of psychiatry, yet many in the field have contested reductionist psychology from the beginning, whether on the grounds of being economically motivated by the pharmaceutical industry, or as part of a larger philosophical rejection of the cultural shift towards scientism. This has come to be known as the biopsychiatry controversy.

There are many reasons for objecting to biological reductionism in psychology, but the general idea is that a sizeable dissenting minority of psychologists believe reducing everything to brain chemistry and other scientifically measurable variables isn’t enough when it comes to understanding the human mind. Even in a purely materialistic universe, the inability to account for the role of emergent qualities in psychological health goes largely ignored, under this model. While this skepticism of the reduction of the psyche is a powerful intuition in itself, there are also good reasons for believing in the limitations of biopsychiatry on a rational basis, as well.

Psychology has a rich history of non-reductive theories which emerged from other types of methods of investigation, including the humanistic and depth psychology traditions, as well as transpersonal and contemplative approaches, to name a few. Could these now alternative theories of the mind help us understand the findings of the psychedelic renaissance; to go even further, could their legitimacy even be implied by psychedelic experiences, themselves?

Psychedelic Revelations of the Mind

It’s difficult to dive very deeply into studying psychedelics and their impact on the mind without running into ideas and phenomena that are heretical to the mainstream “scientific worldview”. This no doubt contributes to the apprehensiveness with which scientists and regulators have approached them. Some psychedelic researchers and other intellectuals have suggested non-reductionist theories about the positive effects of psychedelics, which most in the field of modern psychiatry reject a priori, such as psychodynamic or even transpersonal ideas.

These alternative perspectives often pertain to branches of psychology which recognize and deal with things outside the purview of biopsychiatry (meaning things that aren’t so easy to measure), and which aren’t taken seriously by materialism. These include phenomena such as the dynamic between the conscious and unconscious mind, and its importance to psychological well-being, and potentially transcendental components of the human psyche, or at least the importance of transcendental states of consciousness. Because they are difficult to measure and prove, all these are things which the biopsychiatry crowd usually relegates to the realm of pseudoscience, or speculative fancy, and denies their very existence.

Yet, in light of the therapeutic and transformative effect of psychedelics, these ousted theories do seem to be granted a rise in validity. This is not to say that the findings of cognitive neuroscience research into psychedelics are no longer relevant, but an honest assessment of the psychedelic experience in all it’s profound strangeness coupled with its therapeutic success should at least call reductive assumptions into question. If psychedelic experiencers and researchers observe the emergence of unconscious material, and mystical or other non-ordinary states of consciousness, and these seem to act almost like a miracle cure for many of our psychological ailments, why should we ignore what that implies about the ailments themselves?

Depths and Heights Encroaching

The problem (for reductive explanations) is that some of the findings of psychedelic research indicate that their unique action, which can sometimes bring almost overnight cures or at least long-lasting one-time treatments, may pertain to both the emergence of psychological content from the unconscious mind, and also their ability to take people to the heights of human mystical experience. Most people who have encountered psychedelics in culture know of the profound realizations or otherworldly qualities they’re said to have, and in the lab, they are not so different. What’s surprising to those totally disconnected from the very idea of spirituality is that they work so well.

It’s not uncommon to hear recipients of psychedelic therapy say things like, “It was like years of therapy in one night,” or therapists reporting that “Miracles are becoming — not mundane, but pretty normal around here.” Since psychedelics are being found to accelerate psychotherapy by allowing people to discover underlying issues which had been inaccessible to normal therapeutic practices, this arguably implies that there are unconscious elements that influence and perhaps cause mental illnesses, a view long held by depth psychology known as psychodynamics

Although the unconscious is not necessarily outright rejected by all cognitive scientists, some of whom have proposed a more reductive “New Unconscious”, it has generally been rebuked or deemphasized by the more science-oriented modern trend in psychiatry. The subjective psychedelic experiences of therapy recipients where unconscious material seems to be brought to the surface of consciousness, therefore, calls this rejection into question and deserves further investigation. This is compounded when some neuroscience indicates the validity of psychodynamic models, as well.

While psychedelics’ effects on the unconscious psychodynamics are only slightly explored in the literature, psychedelic mystical experience is a far more heavily researched topic, and its long-lasting psychological benefits have been a central point of the larger discourse around psychedelic research since the time of the Good Friday experiment, in 1962. Some have noted that the benefits of psychedelic mystical experience may relate to their ability to enhance the perception of meaning, another area where science remains agnostic beyond questionnaire measurements. The phenomenon of ego dissolution, where a person’s sense of self is temporarily obliterated to be born anew like a phoenix, also seems to be a major part of what creates these transformative effects.

Tracing from Cure to Cause

Although we typically approach illness by first investigating its cause and then using that knowledge to find its treatment, it is possible to do the reverse, when effective treatments already exist. We can learn more about the cause of a problem through what treats it best; in this case, a better understanding of the epidemiology of mental disorders may be derived from the very fact that the psychedelic experience treats or resolves them better than other methods, and this is most pointedly true in the case of depression.

The negative implications of psychedelics’ success for the chemical imbalance theory of depression aren’t difficult to see. Conventional biopsychiatry wisdom says that depression is a random chemical imbalance, although in more recent years they have broadened it to include “caused by a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors. (NIMH)” The ability of psychedelic mystical experiences to drastically improve or even cure depression, potentially by enhancing meaning, should be a clue that depression may have causes which are simply difficult to measure, and therefore not amenable to a scientific definition.

For instance, some have proposed that a major part of the epidemic of depression is something deeper than a mere chemical imbalance, but is instead a side-effect of a cultural swing towards the philosophy of materialism. Of course, many deny this connection, or even that materialism is inherently depressing, but it’s hard not to see this as straw-grasping. You don’t have to have a doctorate in philosophy to recognize that scientific materialism is dreary, as it basically tells us that we are little more than dust in the wind of a meaningless, purposeless, cold and cruel universe. To deny the inherent bleakness of this perspective is an exercise in futility; I won’t belabor the point here. What’s worse, this is now put forward as the intellectually orthodox worldview.

Naturally, this is not to say that scientific materialism and its intrinsic nihilism are the only reason that people get depressed; no doubt, various factors like economic disparity and poverty, political chaos, childhood development issues, and trauma play a huge part. Regardless, the fact that psychedelic experiences both help with depression and tend to make people more spiritually-minded should give the bio-centric psychiatrists pause. Just because it’s difficult to measure or explain, is it really so hard to see how psychedelics’ ability to show that we might be more than just space dust successfully treats people’s depression, and that this might shed light on a major cause or contributor to the disease itself?

A War of Ideas On the Battlefield of the Mind, and It’s Casualties

The point of critiquing reductionism in psychology is not that we should leave the psychiatric sciences behind us, but rather that a pluralism of methodologies and theoretical approaches have their place, in our quest to understand and heal the human mind. Measuring the activity and chemical levels of the brain during mental illness, or during the psychedelic experiences that seem to treat them, need not lessen or replace other theoretical systems, but instead can supplement them. It doesn’t have to be either/or.

This seems like a fairly pragmatic, diplomatic, and agreeable assessment, but unfortunately, psychology has become a casualty to a much larger ideological war of scientism against all things immeasurable. Psychology is merely one domain, one battlefield in this philosophical conquest, but a critically important one because so much of our suffering or well-being hinges on our having the best understanding of the human mind we can achieve.

One result of this parsing out of anything that can’t be scanned, measured, or repeated in a lab is that the default treatment for mental disorders has become (conveniently for pharmaceutical giants) psychoactive daily medications like antidepressants. We have reached a point in psychiatry where the central goal is essentially to chemically engineer the population’s neuro-soup, until all can be productive members of society, ideally in a way that is highly profitable. The fact that antidepressants aren’t really working comes as no surprise to those who never believed in the adequacy of biopsychiatry, in the first place.

While many seek refuge from guilt or blame in the biological definition of their mental illness, the reality is that understanding our illnesses to be more than just random neurochemical accidents, but perhaps fragmentations or distortions of the psyche which can be healed, can replace biological fatalism and reliance on daily doses of Xanax with hope and progress towards restored mental health. Psychedelics can help us make great leaps towards that brighter future, once we recognize and integrate the things they are showing us, and let go of our outdated ideological assumptions. 

About the Author

Jonathan Dinsmore is a writer and digital freelancer with a degree in psychology, and a passion for all things philosophy, science, spirituality, and psychedelics.