Inside The Johns Hopkins Psilocybin Studies
By Michael M. Hughes
Sandy Lundahl lies on a couch, her eyes covered with a dark cloth
mask. She's listening to classical music through enormous headphones:
Brahms' Symphony No. 2, the "Kyrie" from Bach's Mass in B Minor,
Barber's Adagio for Strings. An hour earlier, she had swallowed two
blue capsules containing close to 30 milligrams of psilocybin, the
primary active chemical in Psilocybe cubensis and other "magic"
mushrooms, and she's already well on her way on a trip into the
hidden spaces of her psyche.
Lundahl, a 55-year-old self-described skeptic and health educator
from Bowie, is looking for God.
Two experienced guides are with her in the room, monitoring her: Mary
Cosimano, a clinical social worker, and William "Bill" Richards, a
white-haired, 68-year-old psychiatrist and scholar of comparative
religion. He's sitting cross-legged on the carpet in front of the
couch, ready to help Lundahl--to talk her out of any negative trips,
to help her remain focused on the scenes unfolding behind the mask,
to offer a drink or some fruit or escort her to the bathroom. The
space resembles a clean, warm, but decidedly offbeat living room. The
lighting is spare and soft, emanating from two lamps. A bookshelf
holds a variety of picture books and well-known spiritual and
psychological classics like Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams and
The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. Above the
books sits a wooden sculpture of Psilocybe mushrooms. Behind the
couch are a Mesoamerican mushroom stone replica and a statue of a
serene, seated Buddha. An eye-popping abstract expressionist painting
hangs on the wall, an explosion of color and intersecting lines.
This isn't a metaphysical retreat center in San Francisco, or the
Manhattan office of a New Age therapist-cum-shaman. Lundahl's first
psychedelic experience is taking place in the heart of the Behavioral
Biology Research Center building at the Johns Hopkins Bayview campus
in Southeast Baltimore, in a room affectionately referred to by both
the scientists and the volunteers as the "psilocybin room." She's
taking part in the first study of its kind since the early '70s--a
rigorous, scientific attempt to determine if drugs like psilocybin
and LSD, demonized and driven underground for more than three
decades, can facilitate life-changing, transformative mystical experiences.
The study, which took place from 2001 to 2005, and was published in
2006 in the journal Psychopharmacology with a follow-up in 2008 in
the Journal of Psychopharmacology, made news around the globe and was
greeted by nearly unanimous praise by both the scientific community
and the mainstream press. Flying in the face of both government
policy and conventional wisdom, its conclusion--that psychedelic
drugs offer the potential for profound, transformative, and
long-lasting positive changes in properly prepared individuals--may
herald a revival in the study of altered states of consciousness.
Nonetheless, Lundahl, for one, wasn't initially impressed by the
vibrant imagery behind her closed eyelids.
"Nothing had ever been that vivid," she says four years later sitting
in her suburban living room. "There was this grid on top of
everything, all these colors. And I don't know how long, as I was
mesmerized by it, and then I started thinking, Oh, no...am I going to
be looking at this for six hours? Oh, no, no. It was interesting for
about five minutes--maybe not even. I started thinking, Oh, what a
waste of time. I said, `Bill [Richards]...Bill, this was a big mistake.'
"There was a silence, and then Bill said, `Don't second-guess your
decision.' And I realized I had made the decision to participate in
this experiment because it was a lark, because it made me look good,
and it gave me a story to tell my friends. And I thought, Now look
what happened. I'm stuck here for six hours looking at this stuff!
"And I made a vow," she says. "I'm never going to make an inauthentic
decision again. Never again. And as soon as I said that to myself it
was like--whooosh--the colors were gone. And I felt like I was being
whisked...whoa, boy...and then I went to all these other places."
Bill Richards reclines in a chair in his home office in West
Baltimore, bordering Leakin Park. He's warm and affable, with an
exuberant, almost goofy laugh. It's easy to see why the study
participants interviewed for this story speak so fondly of him. But
he becomes quiet and serious when he discusses his work. He has
conducted close to 500 psychedelic therapy sessions since the early
'60s, and there's a distinct pattern to most of them, including Lundahl's.
"First, it's sensory and aesthetic," he says. "People experience
colors, patterns, intriguing bodily sensations--what most people
think of when they think of the effects of a psychedelic drug. It's
not life-transforming, by any means. Beyond that stage, they start
dealing with psychodynamic issues--the sense of self, obstacles,
fears. It's very personal." In that stage, people often regress to
their childhood and relive emotional episodes with parents, sibling,
spouses, and children.
"And then...we enter the archetypal realm. Visions of Christ, or
Buddha, or Greek gods...imagery from the Book of Revelation, that
sort of thing. What's fascinating is that they often experience
things far outside of their life histories, Christians seeing the
Buddha, or someone seeing Egyptian or Hindu or other unfamiliar
iconography. Certainly not the stuff they learned in Sunday school.
It's fascinating--almost as if there's a universal cache of knowledge
they're tapping into."
After the colors and patterns stopped, Lundahl found herself in that
archetypal realm. In a crowd. Along a street.
"And I saw this jester. And he was coming down the street. I was in
the crowd, I was right there. And one side of him was totally black,
and the other side was totally colorful, and here he is, just
laughing." She closes her eyes, remembering. "And I'm getting the
image of the dark side of life, and the light side, and here is this
jester...just laughing! Laughing at the human condition, that we
humans think we have any clue as to what is really going on. And I
started chuckling, and then I started laughing, and I'm
thinking--we're so clueless! I was laughing with God, and with the
jester, and with everything, and I said to myself, `We humans, we're
just so silly! We think we know. We don't know. What is this
experience on this earth? This is amazing.' When you really start to
think about it--how could this be?"
She laughs. "And I think Bill said, `Are you going to let us in on the joke?'"
"And then, immediately, I was in a parade. But this time it was
Jesus. Coming down the street. And just wiped...totally
wiped...dragging the cross. Beaten up badly. And the crowd had
gathered." She pauses. "Now I don't have a religious background. I
don't know the Bible stories. I don't know any of this stuff. And
yet...I was right in the crowd, right at the moment when he turns and
says, `Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do.'"
She smiles, slowly shaking her head. "And it had gone from the
jester...the cluelessness of us...to the forgiveness, and the
ignorance of what we do to each other. And I felt it. And I got it on
different levels. What I do to people, what people have done to me,
what communities do, and what nations do. The cluelessness, the
ignorance. We just know not what we do."
Richards describes the final, and as far as his work is concerned,
most important, stage. "After the archetypal realm comes the mystical
state," he says. "There's a dimension of awesomeness, of profound
humility, of the self being stripped bare. In the psychology of
religion, mystical experience is well-described--unity, transcendence
of time and space, noetic knowledge, sacredness, ineffability....It's
the sacred dimension of revelation, but it can be what Kierkegaard
called `fear and trembling'--incredibly profound and powerful terrain
"People who have never studied the psychology of religion hear
`mystical,' and it sounds like `misty'. . . something vague, not very
precise or clear. We know what we're talking about, but the man on
the street doesn't. So who would want a mystical experience? I'd
rather get drunk!" He laughs.
Richards frowns upon so-called recreational use of psilocybin and
other psychedelic drugs: "There are a lot of people who have taken
psilocybin who haven't had a mystical experience. Especially college
students taking `shrooms' who experience minor perceptual changes and
view it as recreational. With the higher doses [like those in the
study], when you get to those transcendental experiences...that's not
recreational at all. If you want a recreational drug, this is not a
good drug for you. You want to be cool with your friends, and all of
a sudden you start reliving your mother's death...it spoils the party!"
Richards has had his own mystical experience, and it has informed his
work ever since.
"I volunteered for a research project at a clinic, when I was a
graduate student in Germany, and I received psilocybin," he recalls.
"I was left alone in this little basement room--those were the dark,
ignorant days before the importance of set [psychological state] and
setting [environment] had been recognized. Some of my friends had
already completed similar research, with a short-acting form of
psilocybin, and they'd had some interesting childhood memories. So I
thought I'd get some insights into my childhood." He smiles at his
own ignorance. "But what happened was a very profound transcendent
type of experience. An experience I didn't even know was possible. I
wrote a report, and I became known as `that American student who had
a mystical experience.'"
He began assisting as psychiatrists, religious leaders, and academics
came to the clinic to have their own experiences. Psilocybin, LSD,
and other psychedelics were legal at the time (they became illegal to
possess in the U.S. in 1968), and Richards' professional identity
became linked to his role as an informed and competent guide. His
academic interests shifted to the psychology of religion and
mysticism. In 1967, he moved to Baltimore to take a position in the
research department at Spring Grove State Hospital.
"I had the theological, philosophical, and clinical psychology
background, and I had worked with the drugs in Germany," he says. "We
did 10 years of psychedelic research in Baltimore, with grants from
NIMH [National Institute of Mental Health]."
The team had been having marked success in treating alcoholism and
neuroses with LSD and other psychedelics (in fact, the man who
founded Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson, praised LSD's spiritual
uses and wanted to distribute it as a supplement to AA meetings). But
then an intriguing new avenue of research came about by sheer
circumstance when a member of the research department came down with
terminal cancer. "Since there were such promising results with
alcoholics and neurotics, we wondered if it would be helpful for
her," Richards says. "She was open to it."
The woman's own written report in Richard's 1979 paper in the Journal
of Altered States of Consciousness reads, in part:
I was alone in a timeless world without boundaries...Suddenly, I
recognized that I was a moment in time, created by those before me
and in turn the creator of others. This was my moment and my function
has been completed....
I cannot remember the logic of the experience, but I became
poignantly aware that the core of life is love...I felt that I was
reaching out to the world--to all people--but especially those
closest to me. I wept long for the wasted years, the search for
identity in false places, the neglected opportunities, the emotional
energy lost in basically meaningless pursuits. . . .
Later as members of my family came, there was a closeness that seemed
new...All noticed a change in me. I was radiant, and I seemed at
peace, they said...I am living now, and being. I can take it as it
comes....I am still me, but more at peace. My family senses this and
we are closer."
"She experienced a dramatic decrease in anxiety and depression and
lived the time that she had left much more fully," Richards says.
"That started our interest in applying psychedelic therapy to cancer
patients." Encouraged by the dramatic results, Richards and his
colleagues conducted sessions for 91 cancer patients, mostly at Sinai
Hospital in Northwest Baltimore, over the following 10 years.
"There are a lot of people with cancer lying in bed, depressed, just
lying there, suffering, preoccupied with pain and estranged from
their family members. Sort of half alive while they're waiting for
the cancer to advance. We found that people who have mystical
experiences tend to benefit most dramatically. They resolve conflicts
of guilt, grief, estrangement from family members, breaking through
the denial and pretense that often accompanies cancer. That's
incredibly helpful. They are less anxious, less depressed, closer in
their personal relationships, less preoccupied with pain.
"And, perhaps most significantly, those who have mystical experiences
claim loss of a fear of death...that they somehow feel part of
something eternal. Not necessarily personal immortality--there's a
paradox there--it's not denying death, but that somehow in spite of
the reality of death, it's a good universe. Life makes sense. And
there's every reason to live the rest of this lifetime as fully as
possible. It's pretty inspiring."
He has many stories. The woman lying in bed, depressed, waiting to
die, who got up and danced at her daughter's wedding. A woman who
sent her two kids away to summer camp, hoping to die before they
returned, who then called each child home and personally prepared
them for her death. And Richards hopes to have more such stories; the
Hopkins team is currently recruiting people with cancer to take
psilocybin in the hopes of replicating these dramatic results.
John Hayes is a psychologist and psychoanalyst with an office in
Columbia. He's a bear-man with a gentle smile and a pronounced
Brooklyn, N.Y., accent. He also volunteered for the psilocybin study.
"Before I went to graduate school in psychology, I was in the
Franciscan order studying to be a priest," he says. "So I had an
interest in mysticism, and meditation, and contemplative prayer." He
was curious about psychedelics but never tried them, though he felt
that there might be some value in doing so, despite what he calls the
"crazy Timothy Leary stuff." And he saw the casualties of uninformed,
indiscriminate use: "There's a young guy I saw in analysis who took
massive amounts of LSD during his adolescence. And he talked about
how alone he felt, about how destructive it was. He was using it in
the worst possible way. . . to obliterate his mind because he was in
such psychological pain."
Similarly to Sandy Lundahl, the first thing Hayes felt was incredible
motion, moving out of his body and through the universe: "It was as
if I was moving through outer space, as if I was moving through
stars, through space and time. And then witnessing scenes from my
life. I'm 60 years old, you know....I saw when I was a kid in
Brooklyn, images of my brother, who died...my parents, who are long
deceased. Very vivid, immediate images."
Hayes, too, entered the archetypal realm. "I had a sense that I was
entering the dimension of the really real. The transcendent. Images
of Jesus and Mary kept coming and going. They had a sense of presence
and energy and reality to them."
As a psychologist, he attempts to explain it with the words of his
profession. But it's not easy: "I had a profound, cosmic sense of
everything being connected to everything--space, time--not just my
lifetime, but time itself. And it's ineffable...like there's no way
you can bring this experience back and talk about it in regular language.
"I think what surprised me the most was that it was so clearly out of
my control. The experience is taking me, I'm not driving the
experience. I had to surrender to it and go with it. I'm hardly a
control freak, but that surprised me."
Hayes takes a deep breath: "And I'm not anxious about dying. I think
there's something about having a compelling immersion in transcendent
reality that just gives you more of a sense that...I don't know what
happens when I die, but it doesn't feel like that's it, and there's
more to life than just an animal existence that ends when you die.
And that might just be a comforting illusion." He laughs and throws
up his hands. "Who knows?"
Anne Dorsey Emmons refers to the time before her psilocybin
experience as her "previous lifetime." The 56-year-old former
clinical nurse specialist and psychotherapist left behind Western
medicine to pursue mind/body therapies and energy work. She was
ordained by the Baltimore School of Spiritual Science and serves as a
minister at weddings, baptisms, and funerals. Sitting in her
workspace, an expansive loft in a rebuilt barn, decorated with
Tibetan prayer flags, candles, and tapestries, she talks slowly, with
the precision of someone who regularly speaks in public.
Emmons also was curious about psychedelics when she was younger, but
as a psychiatrist, she only saw the dark side of drug abuse. Only
much later, after years of yoga and meditation, did she feel the time
was right. "When I heard about the study, I knew I was supposed to do
it," she says. "It felt like it was all preordained. I was primed."
Her session started out almost identically as those of Lundahl and
Hayes. "I felt my whole body opening up and I was going out into the
universe. I remember wanting to communicate with [Richards and
Cosimano], because I really wanted to contribute to science." She
laughs. "But I was too deep. I was wandering the universe and going
through wormholes and things like that. It was visual. It was kinesthetic."
But suddenly, things took a frightening turn for the worse. Emmons was dying.
"I was scared, I was crashing. I wasn't always breathing on my own.
I'd have times when I wouldn't breathe much at all, and then I would
breathe. It was kind of like...have you ever been with someone who's
dying? I've worked in hospice care. And when someone's dying, their
breathing pattern changes. And I knew my breathing pattern was
changing." She laughs, nervously. "And then I realized, OK...I'm
dying." She asked Richards and Cosimano to take her blood pressure.
They assured her she was physically OK.
"Then I was able to go with the experience. I let myself crash. I let
go." She's lost in the memory now, her face softening. "And then
something was breathing for me. I was in this void, and then all of a
sudden I was in the most incredible love and light, in this beautiful
space. I was with God. It was very, very beautiful. And then I was
able to come out of that long enough to tell [Richards and Cosimano],
`Oh, my God! I just died! Oh, my God! And I saw God!'"
Emmons sighs. "It's so hard to put into words. It's like you truly
understand oneness--that everything is one, everything is God. And
you know that in your mind, and in your heart, but to feel it in your
entire being, and to have no boundaries, to be part of everything
that is beautiful and loving...there are no adequate words to explain it."
Then she died again. This time, she didn't fight it.
"I was in Egypt, and I was a young boy on a boat. I was standing on
the back of a boat and rowing. And then I was in some kind of holy
place and I was clearly involved with helping people with funeral
rites and I was preparing the bodies. I knew I was doing something
very holy in relation to death. And I had this huge understanding
about everything that Egyptology teaches about death and dying and
preparing for the afterlife. And I just knew it. I knew that
absolutely there is life after death, that there is reincarnation,
because I saw it--it was all played out right in front of me.
"I remembered some of my patients in hospice, and my father, who were
afraid to die. And I realized what a need there is in society to get
rid of the fear of death."
If Bill Richards is the metaphorical heart of the psilocybin
research, Roland Griffiths is the brain. A 62-year-old professor in
the departments of psychiatry and neuroscience at Hopkins, he has
published more than 300 papers on drugs and behavior. The Hopkins
psilocybin study, largely of his design, was hailed nearly
unanimously for its rigorousness and its clever construction--what
colleague Richards jokingly describes as the "design
diabolical--sneaky, but good science."
Griffiths, a slender, silver-haired man, sits in the psilocybin room
discussing the complex controls built into the study.
"First...we ruled out volunteers with previous exposure to
hallucinogens," he says. Having experienced users in the study would
introduce subject selection bias--those who had unpleasant
experiences would be unlikely to volunteer, and the study's other
blinding mechanisms would fail because the drug's unique effects
would be immediately recognizable. "And then we went to an extreme
about keeping [Richards and Cosimano] blinded to the design of the
study. Out of the two sessions for each volunteer, the volunteers and
monitors were told the volunteer could get one or more doses of
psilocybin of varying potency, and they could also receive 13 other
drugs, such as nicotine, caffeine, or dextromethorphan. For these
generally drug-naive people, they weren't sure...and with that came a
kind of surrendering to the experience."
In fact, the subjects received either a high dose of psilocybin or an
active control--methylphenidate, the prescription stimulant commonly
known by its brand name, Ritalin. Interestingly, many of the subjects
had significant, quasi-mystical experiences while under the influence
of the Ritalin, though they were not as powerful nor did they have
the long-lasting behavioral effects as the psilocybin-induced
experiences. A common comment from the volunteers was that the very
act of listening to well-chosen classical music for six or more hours
with eyeshades on, while lying on a couch in a supportive environment
and being encouraged to go inward, was, in itself, a very powerful thing.
Griffiths has studied drugs and behavior for over 30 years, but his
interest in the neuroscience of spirituality began when he started a
program of meditation in the early '90s.
"That [meditation], for me, opened up a spiritual window, for lack of
a better term," he says. "It really prompted an interest in questions
that had simply not been meaningful previously--questions about the
nature of mystical experience, the nature of spiritual
transformation." And then a serendipitous series of meetings changed
his entire career.
A friend of Griffiths, a former director of the National Institute on
Drug Abuse under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Charles R.
Schuster, attended a professional conference, where he met Bob Jesse.
Jesse had been a vice president at Oracle Corp., the software
company, before leaving his position to found the nonprofit Council
on Spiritual Practices in San Francisco, an organization "dedicated
to making direct experience of the sacred available to more people."
Schuster introduced Griffiths to Jesse, and the two talked at length
about comparative religion, neuroscience, and spirituality. Jesse
suggested that a scientific study of psychedelic drugs might answer
some of Griffiths' questions about the biology of religious experience.
Griffiths was intrigued, but skeptical--and cautious. "Being someone
who grew up in the '60s, I was well aware of those compounds, and
curious about them. But by the time I got to graduate school in '68,
it was pretty clear that if you wanted to succeed as a
psychopharmacologist you weren't about to start proposing research
with the classical hallucinogens."
He agreed that the type of research Jesse proposed was worth doing,
but the task--actually trying to get it to happen--was daunting.
Griffiths had seen what Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, and other
psychedelic promoters in the '60s had done to kill legitimate
scientific research, along with urban legends about LSD causing
chromosomal damage and people jumping off buildings convinced that
they could fly. "There was a perfect storm around those compounds,
where they became labeled and demonized as extraordinarily dangerous
and highly abusable," he says. "And as a society, we made this
decision--because there was no single person who was responsible for
this, or no single set of entities--but as a culture we said, `These
drugs are too dangerous to even study in humans.' It wasn't a single
decision maker, it was a co-conspiracy between the federal funding
agencies, law enforcement, the political process, and academics. Each
of those groups ratcheted up the degree of difficulty involved in
undertaking research like this. It became impossible."
But Griffiths decided to try. And a National Institute on Drug Abuse
grant, along with a promise of funding from Jesse and the Council on
Spiritual Practices, at least provided the financial resources. Then
Jesse played matchmaker. "You need to meet Bill Richards," he told
Griffiths. Griffiths wanted to do the research, and Richards, who
also happened to live in Baltimore, had experience guiding close to
He now believes the research would never have happened if he hadn't
met Richards. "I don't know whether I would have even begin to
consider the study without Bill," Griffiths says. "It would be
hubris." And he still marvels at the serendipity. "It's not me that
initiated this, and not Bill, and not Bob [Jesse]," Griffiths says.
"It's all the pieces converging. The feeling that it was supposed to happen."
When he discussed the idea with his colleagues, however, they were
skeptical. "Working with these drugs is like the third rail,"
Griffiths says. "You don't touch that without damaging your career. I
pitched it to my colleagues to see if they'd object. They were very
discouraging. And if I couldn't persuade them, I had the FDA, DEA,
and the IRB [Institutional Review Board] ahead of me."
But the Food and Drug Administration, after reviewing Griffiths'
proposal carefully, approved the study. "The IRB at Hopkins reviewed
it more thoroughly and carefully than any protocol I've been involved
with," he says. "And it's a huge credit to Hopkins as an academic
institution that they did not cave to political or public-relations concerns."
In 2000, the study was approved, and in early 2001, the team enrolled
the first subject. Since then, Griffiths has given high doses of
psilocybin to 55 volunteers in over 100 sessions.
High doses of psilocybin don't always engender experiences of bliss
and union and oneness with God, however. Though they were well
prepared, screened, and supported by a veteran like Bill Richards,
nearly one third of the volunteers experienced strong or extreme fear
at some point during their experience. Four of the 36 had classic bad
trips--the entire experience was dominated by anxiety and fear. And
two compared their time in the psilocybin room to being in a war.
David Shurtleff, director of the Division of Basic Neuroscience and
Behavioral Research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, warns of
the potential dangers. "The negative experiences of some of the
individuals emphasizes how unpredictable the response to psilocybin
can be even under highly controlled conditions, and the potentially
serious dangers associated with taking this drug outside the
controlled environment of the laboratory," he says. "The main concern
we have at NIDA in relation to this work, which was also expressed by
Dr. Griffiths, is that the public will walk away with the message
that psilocybin is a safe drug to abuse. In fact, its adverse effects
are well known, although not completely predictable....Psilocybin can
trigger psychosis in susceptible individuals and cause other adverse
psychological effects, such as paranoia and extreme anxiety--some of
which were reported in this study."
Griffiths concedes that the unpleasant reactions bother him. "We
optimized subject selection, preparation, and support," he says. "And
yet 30 percent of our folks said that it was an extraordinarily
fearful experience. We don't know how to eliminate that, or if it can
be eliminated. It's a mystery."
But out of all 36 volunteers only three people said they'd never do
it again. And 67 percent--even 14 months later--rated their
experience as among the five most meaningful spiritual events in
their lives. "Notably," Griffiths says, "No one indicated [he or she]
had been harmed by the experience," in spite of the fear and
paranoia. Even one of the subjects who compared his time on the couch
with fighting a war claimed it had helped him. "I'm a different
person," he told Griffiths. "I don't want to do it again, but it was
valuable to me."
And Griffiths is impressed by the results of their 2008 follow-up
study, which showed that the positive changes in outlook and behavior
were lasting. "Unlike most behavioral change that occurs
incrementally--like learning to ride a bike, in successive
steps--mystical experiences appear to have the ability to reorganize
human behavior and perception dramatically. . . all at once," he
says. "And that's what conversion experiences are--experiences of
great insight, or of religious meaning, that push people to
reorganize their priorities, their perceptions of the world
drastically. And they change in ways that are most often
good--altruistic, pro-social, and open to new experiences."
It's a biologically normal phenomenon, Griffiths says: "We're all
wired for this experience. The final question is how can these
experiences...to what use can they be put?"
Huston Smith, author of the classic textbook The World's Religions
and an esteemed scholar of comparative religion, wrote in a
commentary on the Hopkins team's 2008 follow-up study: "In the end,
it's altered traits, not altered states, that matter. `By their
fruits shall ye know them.' It's good to learn that volunteers...had
lasting benefits. But human history suggests that...even the most
extraordinary experiences provide lasting benefits to those who
undergo them and people around them only if they become the basis of
Anne Dorsey Emmons continues to do what she terms "the work." She
beams when she talks about her life after the study: "I see beauty
everywhere. It's incredible. I was living downtown...and even all the
buildings--I saw their form and their structure as incredibly
beautiful. Like the factories, things I used to find ugly, I could
see their beauty now." She channeled her newfound perceptions of
beauty into creative pursuits: journaling, writing poetry, and
painting. She shows off her paintings. One is an abstraction of her
transcendent experience, a group of bright purple, blue, and orange
circles rising from a fiery explosion of color--impressively composed
for someone with no formal artistic training using household
acrylics. (View a gallery of examples of Emmons artwork and poetry.)
"It's been a little over four years [since the study], and I'm just
now receiving the full benefit of the work, because I've been able to
integrate it," she continues. "So much happens all at once, it takes
years to understand and fully integrate it and use it....People need
to understand that there's a disciplined part of the practice. You
must be able to stay grounded and have the support to process it all."
She sees a much-needed role for psychedelic therapy in modern
society. "If psychiatrists and psychologists took this...it would
shift their paradigm," Emmons says. "That's a good place to start.
Then you get them opening up the system for more tools to be used."
And her work in hospice care convinces her that psilocybin and other
psychedelic agents could be immensely valuable: "To not be afraid of
your own death is huge. So just to begin there would be a huge gift.
And then the people who were around the dying would see that, and it
would have a multiplying effect.
"I used to live in my head," she says. "And I don't anymore. And it's
so much nicer to be in my heart. So much nicer."
Sandy Lundahl's life also changed dramatically after the study. Like
Emmons, she says it took years to fully integrate the eight-hour
journey. After having an unpleasant image of her body under the
influence of the psilocybin, she committed herself to a diet and
exercise program and lost 35 pounds--something she had been trying to
do, without success, for years. She stopped going to her church
because it felt too confining and restricted. She reconnected with
and grew much closer to her husband. She now reads extensively on
matters spiritual and metaphysical. In the classes she teaches in her
home, Lundahl is much more empathetic and has noticed improved
relations with her students. And she says her insights into death and
despair, brought on by reliving her father's death and its
aftereffects on the couch at Bayview, helped her in her work on
She also had her own surge in creativity: "I journaled for two months
afterward. I'm thinking of writing a book about the experience and
all the changes in my life. And not just writing--I want to tell the
story. To present it. I want the effects, putting it to music."
Lundahl commissioned artists to re-create images she saw, and those
visions from inside her mind now decorate the walls of her house.
In his more optimistic moments, Bill Richards imagines what the
future could hold for psychedelic research, now that his and
Griffiths' pioneering study has found wide acceptance. "I fantasize
about an interdisciplinary research and retreat center, where people
interested in having this experience could be medically screened and
psychologically prepared for it," he says. He leans back in his
chair, folding his hands. "I use the metaphor or driving a car. Some
people should never drive--the blind, epileptic, or of poor
intelligence. If your only familiarity with driving a motor vehicle
was from working in an emergency room, you'd probably argue that
automobiles should be banned. It's the same with these
compounds--people need to be screened and prepared, just like getting
a driver's license."
He pauses. "[Our research] is part of the education of a culture.
These are radically different drugs. They are not for `getting high.'
We have to move beyond the concept of getting high and seek to become
more mature human beings. These compounds are just one tool to help
"We have a long way to go," Richards says. "But sometimes cultural
change can happen rapidly."
Indeed, it appears that a sea change in attitudes toward psychedelic
research is taking place across the globe. In the United States and
Europe, studies are approved or under way using LSD, psilocybin,
ibogaine, and MDMA (Ecstasy) for the treatment of anxiety and
depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, posttraumatic stress
disorder, substance abuse, and addiction. Griffiths and Richards
recently co-authored "Human Hallucinogen Research: Guidelines for
Safety," published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, which
distills their decades of experience and puts forth a set of best
practices for future studies.
Rick Doblin, the founder and president of Multidis-ciplinary
Association for Psychedelic Studies, a non-profit organization
devoted to advancing the study of psychedelics, is excited by the
renaissance in research: "With psychedelic psychotherapy research at
Harvard Medical School and spirituality/mysticism research at Johns
Hopkins and the University of Zurich, we've re-entered the scientific
mainstream," he says. "Our primary consideration now needs to be to
pace the growth of research and our public education efforts so that
we can build public support without triggering a backlash.
Considering the dire need for healing and for global spirituality,
this is a challenge that we should and must be able to meet."
If the changed lives of the Hopkins psilocybin volunteers is any
indication, and if similar research shows equally positive results,
Lundahl, Hayes, Emmons, and the others who spent a day in the
psilocybin room may one day be seen as pioneers who paved the way for
bringing what was once a rare and misunderstood phenomenon to the
larger population. Richards and Griffiths certainly hope so.
"It's an honor to be with someone having a transcendent experience,"
Richards says. "It feels like sitting beside Buddha when he's
awakening. It's not a research subject in front of me--you feel that
the person is infinitely wiser than you.
"The experiences aren't in the drug," Richards says. "They're in us."
The research team is currently recruiting people with a current or
past diagnosis of cancer to take part in psilocybin research, details
of which can be found at cancer-insight.org.