A few weeks ago I was in the actual library part of The Free Thought Library, the ACA’s physical base of operations here in Austin. We were going over a recent episode of Secular Sexuality in which my guest, a yoga therapist, had managed to cause a collective eye roll of the audience by clinging to her “one foot in each camp” philosophy- pitting spirituality against science. Across the room I spotted a copy of Michael Pollan’s new book How to Change Your Mind and couldn’t help but laugh. I had just started reading my own copy and could now commiserate with the authors struggle as he tries to apply a scientific approach to understanding the effects of psychedelics on individuals and society at large.
As a card carrying member of the soft sciences (#80949) I know this dance well. I bit my tongue for four years at a Christian university before entering a field where the venn diagram of people with a Masters of Science and people with a deck of tarot cards is atleast a 50% overlap. And while I’m decidedly not a practitioner of magic, I value the willingness to entertain the grey and the humility that comes from accepting you can’t know everything.
One of the dilemmas Pollan keeps coming back to is that everyone he speaks to about magical mushrooms and molecules can’t help but bestow on them some otherworldly pathos. This phenomena of mysticism seems strangely tied to psychedelics in a way we don’t often see elsewhere. Cocaine, once ingested, closes sodium channels at the molecular level until a bunch of science later, it makes people feel amazing (until they don’t). Opioids bind to opioid receptors, mimicking the body's innate use of enkephalins, dynorphins and endorphins to overachieve at something evolution figured out a long time ago would help keep us alive. For as many people who love to need these things, few people truly see them as divine. And yet somehow when we talk about psilocybin binding to serotonin receptors in our brain it’s so often in strangely whispered tones, like something transcendental is happening instead of just, you know, getting high. Even my ultra conservative preacher father, I guess in a nod to his sinful deadhead days, once told a 10 year old me “Never, never, ever, do drugs. But if someone offers you mushrooms you should probably try it.”
The unfortunate thing is that more and more it seems that psilocybin and related compounds could actually offer some real benefits for therapeutic use. Apparently the 50s saw a huge amount of promising research before a moral backlash of more traditional religions kicked in, reacting to the new gospel of psychedelics. Caught up in this turf war of magical thinking are all the folks that the science of biochemical research may have been able to help with addiction, creative thinking and healing from trauma, not because Gaia willed it or God condemned it, but because that’s how chemistry works.
The loosely defined ‘new age religion’ attempts to make similar claims of ownership on things like healthy eating, meditation, clinical hypnosis, and again, yoga. As skeptics we roll our eyes at these magical claims of radical ‘natural’ healing, quick to point out simple truths like literally everything comes from nature, organic doesn’t automatically mean healthy, and kale tastes like garbage (fight me). How much though are we missing out on the possible benefits of these proven wellness techniques, collateral damage in a war between empiricism and belief?
I’m not by any means advocating for an abandonment of evidence based living. Coconut oil, all natural and trendy, may be great, but if your doctor told you to stay away from saturated fats you may in fact be better off with the much maligned margarine. I don’t recommend meditation to a client because I believe that it once helped the buddha achieve perfect transcendence, I do it because research shows it can be effective in treating anxiety and depression in folks who haven’t had much success with talk therapy.
I don’t really know why yoga therapy is so effective at helping survivors of sexual assault move through their trauma and reconnect with their bodies, but in fairness I don’t fully understand why cognitive behavioral therapy works either. Or aspirin. Or for that matter cell phones. But they do, whether I get it or not, whether our top scientists have isolated a method of action or not. In debunking claims of the supernatural, atheists love to quote Clarke when he pointed out that “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I prefer Pollan, quoting a mysterious psychologist turned shaman explaining that “these medicines have shown me that something quote-unquote impossible exists. But I don’t think it’s magic or supernatural. It’s a technology of consciousness we don’t understand yet.” Hopefully, in our quest for understanding, we can leave some room for the as of yet understood.