The Psychonaut’s Dilemma

By Albert Garcia-Romeu|May 31, 2016

During an earlier era of psychedelic research, the 1950s-70s, some scientists believed that in order to ethically administer psychedelics to others it was necessary to first experience them oneself.

This is part 4 of the Coming Out of the Psychedelic Closet series. IntroPart 2 | Part 3 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Conclusion

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As a psychologist and a research scientist, I’ve found that the topic of psychedelics can be sensitive and complex. There are a number of growing edges where important conversations are beginning to happen. I would like to focus here on two related interwoven perspectives, clinical and scientific, where I think further discussion is warranted.

From a clinical standpoint, it is crucial that counselors, therapists, social workers, and medical and mental health professionals do their best to create a safe space where clients or patients can discuss their concerns and experiences without fear of judgment. For those who do choose to come out of the psychedelic closet, having a safe sounding board such as a trusted counselor can be an invaluable asset. By cultivating an openness and curiosity toward patients’ and clients’ experiences that may differ from our own, we move closer to a stance that does not pathologize the unfamiliar, further alienating and potentially harming those we are trying to serve.

From a scientific standpoint, there has been growing interest in conducting research with psychedelics at institutions around the world. This covers a wide gamut ranging from molecular and preclinical models with cells and animals, to studies in humans on neurological and psychological effects. Along with such work, new discussions are emerging around the nature of psychedelics and their therapeutic potentials, bringing a number of important questions to light.

For instance: What is the role of culture in studying psychedelics such as ayahuasca and psilocybin, which have served in aiding spiritual rites among indigenous peoples for centuries and are now finding their way into a largely secular, scientific setting?

What is the role of subjective experience in studying and understanding psychedelics in the first person, and how can such approaches be reconciled and integrated with third-person methodologies such as neuroscience and behavioral pharmacology?

What kinds of training and precautions are necessary for people to safely administer psychedelics to others? Is personal experience with psychedelics valuable or appropriate for individuals administering psychedelics to others in laboratory or clinical settings?

The last question in particular speaks to an issue I’ve dubbed “the psychonaut’s dilemma” in dialogue with my friend Dr. Peter Addy.

During an earlier era of psychedelic research, the 1950s-70s, some scientists believed that in order to ethically administer psychedelics to others it was necessary to first experience them oneself. Indeed, this was a standard procedure for some researchers. However, an opposing view posited that if one wanted to treat depression, for instance, it was immaterial whether or not they had experienced depression themselves or had taken antidepressant medications and that, furthermore, personal experience with the topic of study made it impossible to be objective or scientific.

Thus arises a sort of catch-22 for individuals working with psychedelics: If they’ve had personal previous experience, they can be attacked for being unscientific and possibly biased, and if they’ve not had such experience, they can be criticized as uninformed and ill-prepared to help someone navigate the sometimes challenging terrain of a psychedelic experience.

Additionally, as Dr. Devenot has pointed out, in the straight-laced world of academia, admission of one’s interest in psychedelics can sometimes be problematic. While we have made significant progress on some of these subjects, we still have a long way to go – in part, I believe, because there may be no hard and fast “right answers” to such quandaries. Rather, these topics inform part of a larger, continually evolving discussion.

Ultimately, I think whether or not one chooses to disclose their interest or previous experience with psychedelics is a personal decision that depends on a number of individual and contextual factors. For instance, someone may not be enthusiastic to come out of the psychedelic closet if they are pulled over for a broken taillight while in possession of illicit drugs, but this of course begs the questions of which drugs are legal and why and – perhaps – which types of experiences are socially acceptable. But these remain questions for another time.

I am not advocating either for or against any particular position with the exception of promoting unconditional positive regard in clinical settings. My main interest lies in bringing these questions to light for further consideration.

Read part 5: The Asymmetric Risk of Coming Out in Queer and Psychedelic Communities

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Albert Garcia-Romeu

Albert Garcia-Romeu, Ph.D. is a member of the Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences faculty at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a Guest Researcher at the National Institute on Drug Abuse Intramural Neuroimaging Research Branch, where he studies the effects of psychedelic drugs in humans, with a focus on psilocybin as an aid in the treatment of addiction.