An Interview with Amanda Feilding, the ‘Hidden Hand’ in Psychedelic Science
Amanda Feilding is the Founder and Director of the Beckley Foundation. Realizing the transformative and therapeutic potential of many of the substances forbidden by the policies of prohibition, Amanda established the Foundation in 1998, and has since been called the ‘hidden hand behind the renaissance of psychedelic science and drug policy reform.’
Psymposia: Why have you dedicated your life to legalizing psychedelics?
Was there a particular trip?
Amanda Feilding: I was fortunate enough to be introduced to LSD in 1965, while it was still legal. I was amazed at its potential to expand and deepen perception and a sense of union. I had grown up with a passionate interest in the mystics and comparative religion, and the experience brought about by LSD gave substance to the words.
Could you describe this experience – was there any particular vision or powerful moment that stands out in your memory?
I found LSD – or maybe it found me. “Aha,” I thought, “this is what I have been looking for!” With LSD I could better experience the subtle energies and the interconnectedness of all things, from my inner world to the pulsating, living universe. Luck filled my sails - six months later, I started a great love affair with a Dutch natural scientist of genius, Bart Huges. He taught me many things. He proposed that LSD heightened consciousness by causing an increased supply of blood to the brain, by constricting the veins, which irrigated billions more neurons and thereby intensified perceptions – sensory, psychological and intellectual. Suddenly, I had found my path, an ideal technique to open that door to a new world view where one sees reality at a deeper level, with a clearer view from higher up the mountain. I now had in my possession the key to the Aladdin’s cave of the mind.
Bart had a new hypothesis about the mechanisms underlying changing states of consciousness, and the mechanism of ‘the ego.’ It was based on a new understanding of changes in blood supply, and neural functioning… for me it was an amazing revelation, which enabled me to use LSD as a tool to enhance my life, both in enjoyment and creativity. I decided to devote my life to understanding more about the brain, and how one can enhance its functioning – and to research and communicate this knowledge.
Are there any studies being designed looking at psychedelics and creativity? If so, what might they look like?
A study I am particularly keen on doing, is investigating the potential of LSD to enhance creativity ... using the ancient Chinese game of GO as the test. This game is a wonderful measure of intuitive pattern recognition.
What’s your most surprising finding in LSD research?
It has been gratifying, rather than surprising, to find a scientific basis for so many long-held, culturally-acknowledged aspects of the LSD experience. In collaboration with a team at the Sant Pau Hospital in Spain, we recently discovered that ayahuasca has the ability to help promote neurogenesis - the regeneration of damaged cells. This could mean that ayahuasca could be used to treat neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the same is true of LSD.
When we finally got approval for an LSD study in 2014, the results were very revealing. The study uncovers the basis of such important phenomena as “ego-dissolution” and increases our understanding of the mechanisms underlying visual hallucinations, and the synergistic effects of LSD and music. These latter results confirm the long held, but never scientifically-tested assumption that LSD and music work together to evoke emotions, visions and personal memories.
What’s the current neuroscientific theory of LSD-induced ego dissolution? Visual hallucinations?
When David Nutt, Robin Carhart-Harris, and I first began our research into psychedelics, contrary to our expectations - particularly mine - we found that, compared with placebo, psilocybin decreases blood flow and brain activity, particularly in the network of highly interconnected brain regions known as the Default Mode Network.
All the data showed reductions in blood flow and neural activity to this important network. Interestingly, the magnitude of the reduction correlated with the strength of the subjective experience.
The Default Mode Network (or DMN as it is called) closely corresponds with Bart Huges’ conception of the ‘ego’ as a top-down controlling mechanism. The brain is not a free-for-all among independent systems but a federation of inter-dependent components, that are hierarchically organised. The DMN sits at the top of this hierarchy, exerting a top-down control on activity in other brain regions that feed their information into this network, to be either repressed or routed onwards.
The censoring activity of this superimposed mechanism closely reflects Aldous Huxley’s metaphor of the brain as a ‘reducing valve,’ which normally protects us against the vast influx of information, which would otherwise flood and overload our consciousness. In this metaphor, the function of the brain is to filter the available information, and lock us into a constricted experience of the world, as expressed by Plato’s metaphor of shadows on the walls of the cave, or, as William Blake put it, ‘mind-forged manacles.’ Psychedelics free us from these restrictions -– opening us to a much more primal experience, which Huxley called ‘Mind at Large.’
More surprising, perhaps, are our findings that LSD produces lasting changes in personality! Two weeks after taking the drug, subjects reported being more “open to experiences” and “optimistic.” Interestingly, the people who reported the most positive changes in brain activity were the ones whose brain activity appeared more “entropic,” or chaotic.
To clarify, do you mean "entropic" brain activity during the trip, or in the base personality?
Entropic brain activity occurs during trips, but the degree of entropy varies according to the individual. The long-term sensations of increased openness and empathy occurred after the trip, as consequent changes to the base personality.
Johns Hopkins had similar findings with psilocybin that the psychedelic experience has a lasting impact on personality. To flip this on its head, how does personality affect the psychedelic experience? Is there evidence for a "psychonaut" personality profile most likely to benefit?
I think that psychedelic experiences have had an affinity with creative types for millennia. As an artist and a researcher of altered states of consciousness, I can always recognise the creative hand inspired by heightened awareness. How that state was achieved, whether by dancing, chanting, breathing or the ingestion of psychoactive plants and animals, which affect the workings of the psyche in a special way, is impossible to know for sure. However the marks left behind in the artwork of such ancient civilisations as Chauvet, Tassili, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Crete, Eleusis, and Mesoamerica tell of a deep involvement with enhanced states of consciousness at the very core of human development.
What's the role of science in exploring the psychedelic experience? And where do you see science as limited?
I think that only with the best scientific investigation can the curative properties of these invaluable compounds be discerned, and harnessed for the good of mankind. Culturally, psychedelics have played an exceptional role in shaping society, but much of their therapeutic potential has yet to be explored. Although, with the advent of brain imaging technology, there are many promising recent developments, the extent of psychedelic research is still very small, and the limitations put in its way are immense. These include the problem of getting ethical approvals, the problem of obtaining the materials, which can cause delays of years, and vastly inflate the costs, the problem of storage, and the problem of finding funding, among others.
Aside from the political red tape, are there inherent questions that elude the scientific method?
Within the realm of scientific investigation, possibility and ingenuity are infinite, and technology always catches up, allowing the realisation of one’s dreams (think: the advent of brain-imaging technology in the ‘90s). The only limitations come in the form of governmental red tape and access to sufficient funding. Since the taboo of illegality on these substances interferes with government-funded research, it is up to us to continue to keep propping open the doors to serious scientific investigation.
The UK recently passed the draconian Psychoactive Substances Act 2016. Can you talk a little about this?
The New Psychoactive Substances Act passed into UK law on 26th May 2016. It is a blanket ban, intended to address the “cat-and-mouse” approach to prohibition previously taken by manufactures of novel psychoactive substances (NPS), who tweak compounds tirelessly to produce new, legal versions of banned substances. But this demand for NPS, despite their obvious risks, is largely an unintended consequence of an unsatisfied demand for legal access to popular psychoactive substances, such as cannabis, MDMA, and psychedelics. Most NPS that have emerged in recent years are synthetic cannabinoids, reflecting the demand for natural cannabis, which is, by every measure, considerably safer than the synthetic cannabinoids.
How do you feel the US and the UK compare in terms of progress in drug reform?
There’s a saying which, I think, fits the relationship between US and UK politics rather well: “When America sneezes, England catches a cold.” And now, America’s skinning up. Over 25 US states have begun to legalise both medical and recreational cannabis, and it’s encouraging to think that it’s only a matter of time before the UK follows suit.
How do you envision psychedelics being regulated (or not) in a post-prohibition world?
I think we should carefully regulate the production of a few popular, medically well-understood, low-risk psychoactive substances, beginning with cannabis, MDMA, and psilocybin. All psychoactive substances involve risks, but when taken out of the hands of criminals and recast in a legal, regulated market these compounds would be considerably safer than alcohol.
Which psychedelic do you think will be legalized first, and for which application?
VolteFace Magazine, whose Board of Editors I am a member of, recently conducted a poll of British MPs, with the result that the majority support the legalisation of medical cannabis. I think that a legal, regulated cannabis market for all should be the first step, alongside the rescheduling of the classical psychedelics from schedule 1 to schedule 2, to allow physicians to prescribe them where appropriate. Jamaica, where I chaired a two-day conference dedicated to strategizing the creation of their regulated cannabis industry, is now implementing cannabis tourism initiatives, proving that legal access for all can be a great asset to a country’s economy.
What was it like presenting psychedelic research to the British Royal Society?
The fruition of many years’ perseverance. I was delighted to be able finally to keep my promise to Albert Hofmann, my dear friend and the synthesiser of LSD, to instigate a study involving humans (albeit several years past the date!). The Beckley/Imperial Research Programme has grown in a wonderful manner, and it was exceptional to be in the company of so many who have worked on turning the dream of this study a reality.
What's your favorite drug?