In the Face of Massive Depression World-Wide, the High Priestess of Hallucinogens Amanda Feilding Is Exploring Microdosing
The Countess of Wemyss, Amanda Feilding, may be the only leader in psychedelic research and drug policy reform who can say with certainty that she’s distantly related to Charles II. She’s almost certainly the only one who grew up in a castle on an English estate, though her description of it is more late Grey Gardens than Buckingham Palace.
Feilding recalls being intrigued by altered states of consciousness as a lonely and isolated girl. “My mother was a Catholic,” she says in a warble not unlike that of a kindly British aunt. “And sometimes the wonderful singing in church with incense, one could go often to an altered state.”
As an adult, she studied comparative religion at Oxford and immersed herself in the learning of mystical experiences. Now 74, Feilding has never lost her interest in altered states of consciousness. In fact, she has pursued the topic with zeal, even going so far as to perform and film a self-trepanation procedure, or drilling into the skull to remove a piece of bone, an ancient medical procedure thought to relieve pressure and increase blood flow in the brain.
The Oxford UK-based Beckley Foundation, founded in 1998, is her research brainchild. But her research and experiments in consciousness go back more than 50 years, when she first started using LSD. “I set up Beckley to explore consciousness and its altered states,” she says. “Our research has shown that we can treat chronic depression, addiction, PTSD, all of these psychologically based conditions.”
Her instincts about the healing properties of psychedelics have been validated through studies at NYU and Johns Hopkins administering psilocybin and MDMA. These studies, using a high dose of psychedelics, seem to reduce the symptoms of many mental health disorders.
Currently, Feilding is eyeing the LSD microdose trend. The Silicon Valley crowd, always in search of new technology to enhance creativity and productivity, has led the microdosing trend, garnering a lot of attention even from staid publications like Business Insider and The New Yorker. Building on this momentum, she is attempting to secure funding for an exploratory brain-imaging study to gain insights on how microdosing could also be a tool in the battle for improved mental health.
“We humans, incredible species, we dominate the world with all the clever things we’re doing,” she muses. “But we’re seriously flawed and have some serious psychological problems.” According to the World Health Organization, depression is the leading cause of disability and ill health worldwide. More than 300 million people around the world suffer from depression, some of it treatment-resistant.
Depression is much more complex than persistent sadness and loss of interest. It also increases rates of addiction, suicidality, heart disease, and diabetes, lethal in their own right. Feilding believes that mental illness may set maladaptive patterns in the brain, which then become the norm. The world is then viewed through the maladaptive lens, perpetuating the pattern.
“What the psychedelics do is shake that setting and open it,” she explains. “It’s the elixir of consciousness, and when the person sets the right intentions, it can reset the badly maladaptive setting. So all of a sudden they say, ‘aha! What a bore this is.’”
So far, informal microdosing studies have been led by James Fadiman and Sophia Korb, who have analyzed results from those who self-report microdosing experiences. Thousands of people have submitted their observations, reporting improvements in mood and vitality, enhanced focus, and boosts in motivation, creativity, and pattern recognition.
Feilding observed similar characteristics during her own LSD experiences in the 1960’s while playing the ancient Chinese game of Go with friends. “Me and the people I played with took it very seriously. I did not like losing,” she laughs. “I found that if I was on LSD and he [her opponent] wasn’t, I won more games. What it enables you to do is to see the board better. It’s an encasement of space, you’re capturing space on the board.”
Thinking of her Go games of the past, Feilding is keen to start Beckley’s microdosing brain-imaging study. “The cohort size I’m going for is by no means my perfect cohort size,” she explains. “One would like the size to be very big. But because of the costings, and particularly if you’re dealing with controlled substances, it can double the cost of everything.” Feilding says she would be satisfied with 20 people on LSD and another 20 on placebo as a start.
But money is a very real problem, and despite the “foundation” part of Beckley’s name, it is not awash in cash. “The Beckley Foundation is funded with great difficulty,” she says. “I would love to be really hitting on all cylinders with the research I want to do.” Feilding is in one stage or another of developing the protocols and recruiting scientists for around 20 studies, all of which need funding. To finance them all, she estimates needing to raise around five million pounds.
Many of the studies Beckley has implemented have focused on high doses of psychedelics that create a “mystical,” or “peak” experience. These are the doses that have been more formally correlated with improvements in mental health. In fact, the more intense the peak experience, the better the outcome.
MIcrodosing is meant to work quietly and behind the scenes. Fadiman recommends microdosing 1/10 of a standard dose, or a “tenner.” Feilding believes that the right dose likely varies from person to person, and that a microdose, which can be taken with more regularity, could potentially be a “smart drug” to improve well-being, mood, and cognitive functioning.
Feilding, who was doing LSD every day in her Go days, says her aim was to hit the sweet spot where vitality and creativity are enhanced while still being fully in control of her behavior. The research Beckley has thus far compiled on the “peak experience” shows that participants felt:
- A sense of unity with all things
- Ego dissolution
- Transcendence of time and space
- A sense of insight into the ultimate nature of reality
- Feelings of ineffability and awe
- Profound positive emotions, such as joy, connectivity, and love
Microdosing also seems to produce positive benefits, but less profoundly. Microdosers report:
- Improved mood and vitality
- Enhanced focus
- Boosts in creativity
- Increased motivation and drive
- Remaining in control
Psychedelics, researchers believe, cause the brain to turn off its Default Mode Network, the part of the brain that houses the ego and the referential self. When the brain is not occupied with an attention-hogging task, the DMN lights up and may wander off into daydreaming, worrying, recollecting, and ruminating. Recent research has shown that high activity in the DMN is increasingly linked to depression and anxiety.
Previous LSD brain-imaging studies led by close Feilding associates David Nutt and Robin Carhart-Harris show that, when using 75 mcg of psychedelics, brain networks became more unified while others, like the DMN, go offline, leading researchers to hypothesize that LSD could help reverse intractable, restrictive thoughts. “Psychedelics can induce a state of high plasticity,” says Feilding, “enabling profound shifts in thoughts and behavior to be achieved, rapidly.”
Feilding is pleased to see a groundswell of clinical evidence showing what she’s always believed, that psychedelics can improve the human condition. Whether the microdosing brain-imaging study will show the same results as the higher-dose studies is yet to be seen, but she is optimistic. “I hope that we will have a better understanding of how microdosing can benefit mental health and society,” Feilding says.
Microdosing, she believes, might serve as a more palatable way to open doors for increased psychedelic therapy and gain some additional mainstream exposure. She welcomes widespread and positive publicity, proclaiming, “I always thought that the way through the taboo was through the very best science.”