My Essay Honoring Sasha Shulgin: MDMA, Empathy and Ecstasy

Here’s MDMA, Empathy and Ecstasy, my essay for the upcoming Commemorative Edition of PIHKAL and TIHKAL, due out in fall of 2014. Printed with permission by Joshua Marker, Editor.

From the essay:

The research with psychedelic drugs carried out during the 1960’s by the Harvard group around Leary, Alpert, myself and others, led to the hypothesis, now widely accepted by all researchers in the field,  that psychedelics (hallucinogens, entheogens) are nonspecific awareness amplifiers. Unlike all other mood- or mind-altering drugs, including stimulants, depressants, tranquilizers and opiates, the actual content of a psychedelic experience can only be understood and/or explained by considering the “set” (intention, preparation, attitude, and personality) and the “setting” (physical and social context, presence and attitude of others , such as friend, guide or therapist). The actual drug (whether synthesized chemical, or plant or fungal preparation) functions as a kind of catalyst for perceptual and mental changes that can lead to insight, healing,
learning, visions and delight – or confusion, anxiety, paranoia, delusion and depression.

Impeccable scientist that he is,  Alexander Shulgin understood this immediately after his first self-experiment with mescaline and incorporated that understanding into his two monumental contributions to the scientific study of consciousness, PIHKAL and TIHKAL. Recognizing that animal studies of new pharmaceuticals provide zero useful information of their action in humans, he opted instead for the time-honored method of self-experimentation. In the introduction to PIHKAL, he wrote “psychedelic drugs provide access to the parts of us which have answers. They can, but again, they need not and probably will not, unless that is the purpose for which they are being used.” He forcefully states the case against doing so-called “double-blind” studies, which in the case of psychoactive drugs, where the effects can only be observed in one’s own sensorium and state of consciousness,  “verges upon the unethical.”

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