Drugs

Countess Amanda Feilding Has Spent 50 Years as a Pioneer of Psychedelics Research and Altering Her Own Mental State

The Beckley Foundation director discusses science, psychoactive substances and the state of humanity.

Photo Credit: Amanda Feilding. Courtesy of the Beckley Foundation.

Amanda Feilding was born to British aristocracy, yet her path has been anything but stuffy and traditional. She's an artist and drug policy pioneer whas spent most of her life exploring altered states of consciousness. In the drawn-out hours of her “isolated childhood” in the towering Beckley Park Tudor outside of Oxford, surrounded by three moats and a vast countryside, the young Countess of Wemyss and March was often left alone to daydream. These hours of childish reverie spurred a lifelong fascination with shifting perceptions of reality.  

Photo: Amanda Feilding. Courtesy of the Beckley Foundation. Photo by Robert Funke.

Now in her early 70s, Feilding has spearheaded some of the most groundbreaking psychedelics research in the history of modern science. Despite seemingly insurmountable government resistance due to the global war on drugs, which has demonized any substances that might alter our minds, Feilding’s 50 years of work has helped to re-legitimize the study of mind-altering substances. She continues to work to shift the global mindset toward a more realistic and rational approach to drugs.

Photo: Amanda Feilding through a looking glass. Courtesy of the Beckley Foundation.

When she was 16 years old, in 1961, after the nuns charged with her education refused to allow her books on Buddhism, she says she “decided to leave school and find my own education out in the big wide world." Without any money, she traveled and ended up “out on the deserts in Syria” where she lived with the Bedouin and “all sorts of adventures happened.” She met dervish dancers who introduced her to cannabis, and studied comparative religions with Robert Charles Zaehner, a leading British professor of religion who’d written the book, Mysticism Sacred and Profane.

Five years later she was introduced to LSD, and says the experience “started a new phase” in her life. Another big shift came about a year later, in 1966, when Feilding met artist-scientist Hugo Bart Huges. Huges studied medicine at the University of Amsterdam, but wasn’t awarded a medical degree because he was a vocal advocate of cannabis use. Huges introduced Feilding to trepanation, the ancient practice of drilling a hole in one’s skull in order to improve cerebral circulation and alter consciousness. 

 “[He had] fascinating hypotheses and it gave me a whole new take on myself, and humanity, why we are such a neurotic species, and how we come to create the incredibly wonderful things we do,” Feilding said. Eventually, she performed trepanation on herself and made a short art film titled Heartbeat in the Brain depicting the process.

Photo: Young Amanda Feilding. Courtesy of the Beckley Foundation.

Ultimately, Feilding’s own experiences in consciousness exploration convinced her that humanity could benefit from realistic research into psychedelics and altered states. In 1998, she founded the Beckley Foundation, a drug science and policy think tank responsible for innovating the first study looking at LSD in humans in more than four decades. The foundation also conducted groundbreaking brain imaging research showing the effects of LSD and psilocybin (aka "magic mushrooms"), and a recent successful study of psilocybin for addiction cessation.

When she founded the Beckley Foundation almost 20 years ago, Feilding brought well-known scientists, including Albert Hofmann (the "father of LSD") and Alexander Shulgin (the biochemist responsible for resynthesising MDMA, aka ecstasy or Molly) onto her scientific advisory board.

While Feilding is a countess, her family actually had very little money, and her decision to call her organization a "foundation" was a bit of a misnomer, she says. 

“Foundation sounds as if it's a monied body which gives out funds," she said. "I hadn't realized that when I chose the word foundation, I just thought if it sounded rather founded in the establishment, it would make people feel safe and take me seriously."

Feilding spoke in depth to AlterNet about her storied life as one of the first modern women to use mind-altering substances to explore her consciousness, and her work in the field of psychedelics science, an area that remains heavily male-dominated. She discussed why she thinks psychedelics could be one potential solution to humanity’s self-destructive tendencies, and how these drugs could save the world by shifting the way we relate to ourselves and our planet. 

The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

April M. Short: Exactly how did the Beckley Foundation come about, and how has its focus shifted over time?  

AF: In the '60s, psychedelics weren't illegal. I got to use and know them very, very well, because that's really what I was studying and I've always used myself as a laboratory. I found I could titrate them and use them by controlling the blood glucose level, and in my opinion, improve performance—improve what I did. That was very exciting. Then they became illegal, which was obviously a terrible mistake. Then we had all of those terrible things which came out of that approach: Intolerable suffering caused around the world; people's lives being ruined by being shut up in jail, by being killed, by violence and corruption and disease. Every bad genie in the bottle was allowed out because of that mistaken decision to criminalize these basic compounds which, if used wisely, are very useful.

During that period, one couldn't really talk about drugs because they were too taboo. At that point I tried to get out to the public the value of not being in that everyday level of consciousness necessarily all the time; the value of seeing things from a different perspective. As you couldn't talk about taking psychedelics or you'd be shut up in jail or something, I talked about trepanation, which is an ancient operation done since 10,000 years ago to alter consciousness, but at a much lower level than psychedelics.

Photo: Amanda Feilding in 1970. Courtesy of the Beckley Foundation.

Probably it achieves the level of a child under the age of a teen. It's a very slight lift, but I used that as a metaphor for the alteration of consciousness. Then in [the mid '90s] the war on drugs became so ridiculous and it was so obvious one couldn't do any research until one tried to reform it, so I set up the Beckley Foundation.

I actually had first called it the Foundation to Further Consciousness, then I changed the name to the Beckley Foundation, to do two things. One, to reform global drug policy and try to get it based on scientific evidence, based on rational approach and regulation of these substances. And two—most importantly, because this was my passion—to explore the phenomenon of consciousness and its altered states, and how these states can be brought about and used to the optimum benefit of the individual and indeed society.

That is still my aim, because I think knowledge of consciousness and how we can change it is fundamentally interesting to mankind. Basically, if we can enhance our consciousness, maybe we can use that enhanced consciousness to help us survive. It might help us also be healthier and happier.

That really became my life's work, which it had been before. With the Beckley Foundation, I realized I could be more effective. Being a female—which is always a slight disadvantage in these worlds—without any letters after my name, since I left school at 16... I thought I'd be more effective if I was a foundation.

I got a very impressive board of internationally recognized scientists who very kindly said they'd be on my scientific advisory board, including Albert Hofmann, Sasha Shulgin, and a lot of top English ones, like Colin Blakemore and David Nutt.

Photo: Amanda Feilding with Albert Hofmann. Courtesy of the Beckley Foundation.

Then I set about the tourings. I was horrified particularly by how, in the drug policy world, cannabis, although it was 80 percent of global illegal drug use, was never mentioned at the U.N. or other state meetings. They never mentioned it, although it sustained the war on drugs. Because, you couldn't spend billions of dollars on something one percent of the world did [i.e the other drugs], it was cannabis that built the percentage up to whatever it was.

The two substances that I knew could be used beneficially, cannabis and psychedelics, were prohibited and locked away in Schedule I—the [category for] the most highly classified dangerous substances with absolutely no medicinal value. Which absolutely was not true. I knew from years of experience that these substances have immense medicinal and psychological value, so I really concentrated on bringing them into focus, while at the same time trying to show how utterly misplaced the prohibitive approach to drug policy was. To do that, I held meetings with as many intellectuals, thinkers and leaders in that area as possible, in the House of Lords.

I had a series of very good conferences which looked into these key issues and they were quite influential. We produced reports; an important one is called Cannabis Policy: Moving Beyond Stalemate [published 2010] which was the first one to address cannabis policy on a global level, for both health and policy/how it is controlled.

It had the world's leading drug policy analyst, who was Peter Reuter, and Robin Room. They were people the U.S. government and the U.N. went to for advice. The report found that cannabis should be decriminalized, definitely, and regulated. It made a big difference at certain high levels, like the policy director of the U.N. said it made all the difference. 

What I tried to do was hit key issues, and then try to find the very best people to write about them and get them out there. But it wasn't really what Iloved doing. What I loved doing was research into consciousness. How these psychoactive substances work in the brain, and to what degree the hypothesis of the changing blood supply and changes in neural activity underlie the changes in levels of consciousness.

Photo: Feilding (center) in the House of Lords. Courtesy of the Beckley Foundation.

When brain imaging came about, which was in the '90s, incredibly recently, that's really when I decided I should set up the Beckley Foundation because as a foundation I could much more easily get into the brain imaging world than as a private individual.

I ran it on almost no money at all, and actually have been running it ever since, 18 years, and it's been, I would say, successful at helping reform global drug policy. It's really brought about quite a lot of important changes. I've done several of these very important seminars, then in 2011 I wrote a public letter which was signed by nine presidents and 13 Nobel Prize winners, etc., saying the war on drugs must end. I think that was quite influential. 

All the time I was also doing scientific research and entering into collaborations. When I found a scientist who I thought I could work with, I suggested that we collaborated, and over the years we've had some wonderful collaborations.

We've done some very exciting research. In the last year, just to give you an example, we did the Beckley/Imperial Research Programme, which I set up with Professor David Nutt about 10 years ago, when he was still at Bristol. Then he moved to Imperial, then it became the Beckley/Imperial Research Programme. This year, we did the first brain imaging study using LSD in human subjects. It took me 50 years, basically, to achieve that goal, which is really rather ridiculous. But it was very fascinating because it showed many of the hypotheses that we had held in the '60s were true.

One of the marvelous images in it shows the communication of the brain, comparing placebo—ordinary everyday consciousness—with the LSD state. This is focusing on the visual center, and in the ordinary state there is a little area of activity in the visual center and the few related centers closeby. Whereas, in the heightened state of awareness, the whole of the brain is lit up with activity. It's a very visual expression of what is happening in the brain, on a psychedelic (see illustration).

Image: LSD brain scan comparing activity in the visual center on placebo vs. LSD. Courtesy of the Beckley Foundation. 

What is exciting about our research is gaining a better understanding of how the brain works, and the system called the default mode network, which is a network superimposed above most other networks and is very dominant in times of non-activity. It's a network which contains several key hub points which act as sensors, to repress certain impulses and control what enters consciousness and what doesn't.

In other words, it's the physiological basis of what in the '60s we termed the ego, the condition reflex mechanism which directed the blood to where it was needed. It's giving a much deeper picture of what we were looking at in the '60s when I first had my realization about how fascinating mechanisms of the brain are. It's very exciting.

 Another [study], also through the Beckley/Imperial Research Programme, was the first study to use psilocybin combined with psychotherapy in the treatment of chronic, treatment-resistant depression—that means people who have been depressed for 20 years and none of the available treatments have helped them. In that category of people there's a high level of suicide, it's a horrible state to be in.

It was a small pilot study, 20 people. It was a 67% success rate. That was very high, that was after the first week then it dropped off slightly to 43% at three months, then stayed there more or less for a bit.

What the research shows is the use of psychedelic enables a change to happen. That, and other research shows that the blood supply to the default mode network, the superimposed controlling mechanism, is reduced. The inhibiting effects of this network over the rest of the brain is lessened, so the whole of the rest of the brain kind of rises, like an anarchical state of happiness, and celebrates by communicating with itself, with each other.

There's a massive cross-communication in the brain which is normally kept repressed. You can see it some rather wonderful illustrations we've done in our research of two circles. One has got a bit of connectivity happening and the other is a mass of connectivity (see illustration).

Image: The subject on the right was given psilocybin, showing increased connectivity in the brain. Courtesy of the Beckley Foundation.

Mental illnesses like depression, addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, OCD, etc. are based on two hub centers of the default mode network becoming hyperactive in their conversation between each other. It's like, "I'm so depressed," or, "I need another drink," or whatever it is. That becomes the fixed pattern and what the psychedelic seems to do is, by depriving the energy from the default mode network, that grip, that repressive grip is lost and it enables the brain to shift into a new setting. A freer, looser, more open setting.

People remark, questionnaires and things, there's an afterglow to a psychedelic, which can often make them more open, more happy people. Other people, family members and so on, also report this, that there seems to be a deep level of change, of the person being more open.

It's small research at this point, but we supported research at John Hopkins of overcoming nicotine addiction, tobacco smoking addiction with psilocybin. That was a study we started years ago, and that had an amazing 80 percent success rate, and is now undergoing a bigger more controlled study.

What it indicates is that something furiously interesting is happening, and we should really quickly try to make up for the lost time and research this on a bigger scale. Then, more importantly, provide access to psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy for people in need. That can spread both from, most obviously, people suffering from all of those terrible afflictions which can ruin lives, to the other end of the spectrum which is helping people with marriage problems, wanting to break through into a new area of spirituality, transformation, or overcoming neurotic blocks. There are all sorts of blocks which are kind of based on this rigid thinking that sets into the default mode networks.

Image: The areas that contribute to vision are more active under LSD (right), which was linked to hallucinations. 

There are two main hub centers, which psychedelics seem to shake free and enable the person, the self, to go to a deeper level of the personality. To approach the trauma, get through the layers of repression, which protect the trauma and protect the person from the suffering which is held within the trauma, the memory of the trauma. It is good for the personality to free the trauma and let it go.

AMS: Right. They let [the trauma] get processed without activating those fear centers and other triggers in the brain.

AF: Funnily enough I was talking last night to a very interesting psychiatrist who had given psychedelic psychotherapy in America before it was illegal. He said you could do two years normal psychotherapy with a psychedelic in one sitting. You just got to a deeper level of a person.

It's criminal for the authorities to make it so difficult to research these things. It took me, you could say, 20 years before I was able to do a brain imaging study of LSD. Of course psychedelics can be dangerous when misused, but not that dangerous. Of all the drugs, tobacco and alcohol kill far more many people. Alcohol kills far more people than all illegal drugs put together. It's wrong to deprive people, not only to ruin people's lives by putting them in prison and all the other horrible things which happened, but also to deprive people of possible treatment. Basically ancestors have always used these substances as medicines, and it's not good enough that the U.N. is saying they have no medical applications and are deeply dangerous, because it just isn't so. They do have medical applications.

Photo: Amanda Feilding giving a speech. Courtesy of the Beckley Foundation.

It's urgent that countries, individual countries can do this. They don't have to wait for the U.N. They can reschedule cannabis and psychedelics into a lower schedule, which frees up doctors to be able to prescribe them and scientific research to be able to be done with them. That is a very first step to take in drug policy. That, and decriminalizing all drug use, basically. It doesn't do anyone any good by criminalizing it.

I think maybe we're getting a little bit nearer to those steps, and that's very exciting. I think maybe the older generation, more of them who have experimented with psychedelics in their youth, and in the younger generation they've grown up to kind of see more clearly that it's all been a little mad, this overreaction to these compounds which are treated as if they are more dangerous than nuclear weapons. They're protected in a higher grade of security than nuclear weapons.

That's what I've fought for the past 50 years, is how do you take these wonderful fruits of the gods, you could call them, out of this misplaced prison box they've been shut up in? To teach society that they have great value, they need to be treated with respect, but they can uplift man and bring out the nobler qualities and increase creativity and love the neighbor, love the world. They're capable of I think making man and woman the noblest creatures that they can be kind of thing. 

Hopefully it's getting unraveled. People will benefit at many levels, beginning with maybe helping treat these horrible illnesses which are becoming a plague. I also think that very low dose of LSD could be very beneficial for conditions of cerebral insufficiency, like dementia and Alzheimer's. Indeed, it's been shown they can have amazing effects at clearing cluster headaches, or treating cluster headaches.

There are these different areas where we can, with the best science, work out how to improve things. That's what I find very exciting to be involved in.

AMS: Given your background as a British countess, how did you first become interested in psychedelics, the war on drugs, consciousness and all of the things you’ve spent the last 20-plus years focused on?

AF: I had a fairly interesting, but in many ways very beautiful upbringing, but in complete isolation at the edge of the moor. I had nothing much to do except kind of think about consciousness and life and death, all those sorts of things. That became my passion, the subject of consciousness in its altered states, that was always my passion for some reason, from a very early age. Then I started studying Buddhism, Hinduism, Eastern religion when was about 10. I got rather obsessed with them. 

I started out studying, then I experienced a change in consciousness, first when I was 16 through smoking cannabis, and then five years later when I first experienced LSD. That was a major change. Then about a year later, I met this scientist, Hugo Bart Huges, who had these new hypotheses about the brain, the physiology underlying consciousness, how the distribution of blood changes with different levels of consciousness. The level of consciousness is dependent on the cerebral circulation, and obviously the brain function, which follows. [Meeting him] was a very changing element, because it also enabled me to understand how one could live and work at this elevated level of consciousness. 

It was a new way of looking at consciousness, physiological basis to consciousness. This is pure hypothesis, but I think probably we'll find that quite a lot of it is true: the underlying action of the psychedelic substance is to increase the blood supply and neuroactivity in the brain.

Photo: Young Amanda Feilding. Courtesy of the Beckley Foundation.

At first I couldn’t see how you could sustain an altered level of consciousness, [like LSD].  ... I found that by keeping your glucose, blood sugar level normal [while on LSD]—you could do that by eating vitamin C, so the body can make adrenaline which puts glucose into the blood—suddenly you can do all those cognitive tasks also, but at a higher level. That was very, very exciting. I could think, talk, I read the complete works of Freud, I did all sorts of things which you wouldn't normally imagine doing on LSD. You can do them with extra inner psychic energy, and that was very exciting.

At that point, I realized that LSD is a tool you can use to enhance your consciousness. For me, that was a major breakthrough. I thought, humanity could be incredibly brilliant, but in some ways it’s suffering from a lack of consciousness.

AMS: Right, humanity’s basic flaw.

AF: We overcompensate for it by all the brilliant things we do, which are totally amazing, but underneath it all we are somehow faulted, sad, suffering, and doing horrible things. Horrible and stupid things. It has always been my passion to try to understand better why is humanity suffering in this way? Why does it impose this suffering upon itself?

Humanity's been developing ways ever since we stood upright—sport/adrenaline, standing on the head, fasting, deep breathing, yogic exercises, eating psychoactive substances, even getting pregnant gets you high. There's all sorts of different ways. They're all techniques we've evolved, which can enhance, can increase the volume of blood in the brain and the action of the brain cells.

Anyway, that became my particular passion, and my aim was to find doctors to research this information.

What can be more fascinating than the core of what we are? In a funny sort of way, it's not really a subject anyone is interested in, least of all science.

Photo: Amanda Feilding, 2012. Courtesy of the Beckley Foundation. 

Now, consciousness has become an acceptable subject but expanded or altered consciousness is way beyond the path. Until maybe now. I think just now this last year or two, possibly, the tide has turned. Possibly a realization is breaking through at some level that these compounds, which alter our state of consciousness, can actually be interesting.

I think they're highly interesting, because I think our survival depends on our consciousness. Therefore the more we can know about how we work, and how we might be able to adapt it, the better for the individual and also for society. Anyway, that became my gain, in a way, to try to learn more.

AMS: It’s interesting that just as we’re facing drastic climate change and a threat to life on this planet as we know it, psychedelics research and consciousness exploration are experiencing a kind of renaissance. Scientific study of psychedelics and consciousness is becoming more and more acceptable.

AF: Right. In a way, it's very tied up. LSD was discovered roughly the same time as the atom bomb, a kind of internal complement to the atom bomb. I think the '60s explosion of the culture of LSD has been very denigrated, but actually there are a lot of good new concepts that are working their way through society, like healthy eating and spirituality. The philosophies of the East, caring for the environment, compassion, all of those sorts of things came out of the '60s and LSD.

Then came this terrible hand of neurotic repression, because, after all, society is just a projection of the internal world, which is the brain controlled by the ego. Or as it is now called, the "default mode network,” which is the repressing structure or network within the brain. Then we had the awful closing down with the war on drugs. It's really deprived patients in need of possible treatment for 40 or 50 years, and now I think we’re slowly coming out of that period, hopefully.

AMS: Could you explain a little more what you mean by repression?

AF: Really, it's repression of directing the blood supply to where it's most needed, to the center where you have to perform, to decide, whatever that is. But it's controlled by understanding and it turns into repression of thought. Repression of parts of the brain, and consciousness, so whole parts of the brain get deprived of blood supply, their function is kept low.

This is what we've observed in our very recent research on the default mode network, on the brain energy, looking at changes in how the networks of the brain control our consciousness.

Now through our research, which is what I intended, we’re finding out to what degree the different thoughts are reality. That's very exciting.

AMS: How did you get involved in the drug policy side of things?

AF: I’ve always thought, even before they became illegal, it was quite obvious it was a crazy mistake to criminalize these compounds, and indeed all drugs. It just drives them underground, and has all sorts of terrible consequences, which it did have. Now, hopefully, people are beginning to recognize these harms on a bigger scale. That's why I got involved in drug policy, because I realized I couldn't do any scientific research into these areas until we actually changed drug policy. It was really impossible to get near them.

AMS: You mentioned being a woman in the research world without all the letters after your name. I recently spoke with Katherine McLean, who has done a good amount of research at Johns Hopkins University on psilocybin, psychedelics and the consciousness of well-being. She made it very clear to me that typically, women are less vocal in general when it comes to consciousness and psychedelics, and all of the things we're talking about today.

Would you talk about why you think that might be, and your own experiences and choices as a woman in this arena?

AF: Yes. I think there's no doubt, generally, the consciousness and the outside world is male dominated. I think that's a projection of the ego, which is a controlling mechanism based on repression, controlled by the world. I think on the whole, males are more controlled by the world than females, who tend to be more intuitive and emotionally motivated. Not necessarily, but maybe as a general gender.

In my own home life, women, the female was always equal. I wasn't brought up with that feeling of intellectual inferiority by being female, but I notice it very much in the male world. I used to say what I wanted to say to my partner, and ask them to say it for me if I wanted to get it noticed.

Photo: Young Feilding. Courtesy of the Beckley Foundation.

Particularly, we are very much a world which is controlled by symbols. If you don't have the letters after your name, you can't expect to be taken seriously that you know anything about the subject. I tend to work behind the shadows, and try to talk through people who do have the letters after their name because then they're taken more seriously.

The aim is to change society for what I consider the better, which is being freer and more open. Indeed, it's more like what our research is showing us, that's why it's rather exciting, this imaging research that we're doing at the moment mainly at the Beckley/Imperial Research Programme, is that when you reduce the repressive part of the ego, the default mode network, there is more general activity. There's more possibility of creative, of putting together an original idea. Seeing something in a new way, and obviously that can turn into chaos.

One doesn't want it to go too far, so there's a happy medium where you have a bit of extra stimulation that's still under the control of the ego. You need control to be able to concentrate. I think the best is a balanced male-female interaction, actually.

AMS: I've thought a lot about feminine and masculine qualities of psychedelics and various plants that are psychoactive. The things we label in society as masculine and feminine, I think are brought out in a more balanced way often when people ingest these substances and are brought to these different levels of consciousness. Do you agree, and could you speak to that if it applies?

AF: Yes, I do think so. I think they have a tendency to lift a person above their lower conditioning into a slightly higher, more elevated level of consciousness which is slightly above those verbal conditioning of right and wrong. In that way, I think psychedelics are wonderful aid to relationships. I think a gentle dose of a psychedelic can help a couple see each other's points of view more easily, because the restrictions imposed by the thinking of the ego's default mode network are kind of fairly male in their verbal controlling repressive approach.

Not to say that females aren't also flawed, but a loosening, a general loosening, that can be to everyone's advantage and in overcoming conflicts like between warring nations, it's more easy to see the other person's point of view when you raise a little higher up the mountain in the psyche.

I think that's to be gained. I think in the male-female dance, I think both are slightly different qualities and the ideal is a blending of the best of the both.

As a female in a male-dominated society, I have noticed how one's words are taken less seriously because one's female.

AMS: Right. Things are still so male-dominated. There are so many examples to show that patriarchy is still very much alive and well in the whole western society model. Maybe because of that, or relating to that, I've noticed a trend in my personal experiences interviewing people about psychedelics, especially plants, that they bring out this so-called feminine energy. The intuitive, compassionate, dreamier, more encompassing approach to the world. That, in turn, becomes this leveling, balancing effect. 

AF: I absolutely agree. Just as the atom bomb is the expression of the male mind working at its most excessive, psychedelics enhance the female approach in a sense of being freer and looser and more intuitive. More multitasking, more of the different areas of the brain are communicating and functioning. That is a fact.

Amanda Feilding. Photo by Robert Funke. Courtesy of the Beckley Foundation. 

What our research has done, one knew these things long before the science was done, but the science is a kind of modern religion and it shows the data on which people, the male brain, can finally believe it because it's shown through scientific data, if you like. Everyone who took a psychedelic long before brain imaging still had the realization that it's an experience of consciousness where the controlling constrictions and repressions of the ego are turned off.

All of that you sense from the experience. What our research has done is show the neural and cerebral circulatory foundations to those thoughts. That's appealing because it becomes more convincing in this male-minded dominated society we live in, where one lives a simple truth to alter the perception.

AMS: You mentioned earlier indigenous societies have been continuing to use psychoactive, psychedelic substances forever. They never questioned their intuition.

AF: In cave paintings for instance, you can see that they were on psychedelics from the flair of the line. I'm sure the ingestion of these mind-altering substances was one of the major factors at the root of human evolution and the development of language and spirituality and art and all the things which produced us human beings. I think it's absolutely integral to our evolution, and it would be lovely for society to kind of replace it, to the place of honor where it should be held.

Not to say that it's for everyone at all, I think psychedelics are for a minority group of people who like to go to further shores of consciousness, is a minority sport. I think it's useful both for the individual and for society, because they can bring back fruits which, if you stay in the lowlands, you don't necessarily reach. That can be useful.

The number of people one knows, surely you know, a public figure is Steve Jobs who says that they would have never had invented that or thought of that or had that breakthrough, opened that school for untouchables or whatever it was, without the realization it got through a psychedelic experience. Many many lives have been changed, millions of lives have been changes, I think, for the better because of these experiences.

It would be lovely if society got to the point where people who had experienced advantages through the use of these substances felt freedom to be able to say, Yes, I've gained from the experience. At the moment, people risk losing their job as a teacher or a lawyer or a doctor if they said those things. 

Photo: Amanda Feilding. Courtesy of the Beckley Foundation.

I think the government should get out of this controlling, repressive mistaken kind of act they're in, which is a very male-dominated act, actually. Not to say that female's any better, in our country, we have a woman prime minister, who had just recently made illegal all psychoactive substances, even those that were going to be made in the future. Don't think that females necessarily are so much better.

I think the times have changed, and I think some psychedelics can be a very valuable tool in the changing of this, if you know what I mean. It's a balancing act, it's letting go of the repressive patterns. If you look on it as a pattern in the brain that compulsive talking between the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex, which are the two hub centers which get fixed in a rigid compulsive conversation which underlies mental illness, that's what happens, what outlines misgovernment of these other characteristics of the human animal.

Meditation, exercise, extreme risk, living on the edge, all overcome those patterns of repression. Psychoactive substances such as psychedelics can achieve this in a very reliable way if used with knowledge. I think that they are a way for humanity to improve itself and increase its chances for survival, become a happier and better-mannered creature. Let's hope, slowly, slowly, our rulers will see that they shouldn't be Schedule I. Put them in their respectful place where intelligent people can make use of them for healing and even enjoyment, if one dare say it.

April M. Short is a freelance writer who focuses on health, wellness and social justice. She previously worked as AlterNet's drugs and health editor. 

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