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Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out: Are Drugs a Part of Human Nature?

[DIGEST: The Conversation, Harvard, IFL Science]

Nancy Reagan may have advised Americans to “Just say NO” to drugs, but her campaign did little to quell the public’s fixation. Banning them, defending them, studying them: we are a drug-obsessed species. It’s not hard to see why. Drugs like cocaine and heroin directly interact with our brains, stimulating the reward center and creating a sense of euphoria. However, psychedelic drugs, also known as hallucinogens, such as LSD and mushrooms, do not impact this same pleasure center, and in fact simply poison the body, which results in vivid hallucinations and altered states of mind. From an evolutionary standpoint, this is puzzling. Why would humans, as a species, embrace something that poses such risk? To understand what role hallucinogens have played in our evolution, scientists have been investigating our cultural history, rather than our physical growth as a species.


Most psychologists and anthropologists believe that early humans ingested these substances during religious ceremonies as a way to quickly attain meaningful spiritual experience. Although linked to human evolution, drug use did not quicken evolution directly. Rather, anthropologists now believe that the underlying religious component to this drug use enabled different communities to cohabitate in peaceful ways.

Ayahuasca ceremony. Credit: Source.

These communities touted these substances as natural ways to achieve a “heightened” state of mind that could strengthen one’s spirituality and general well-being. Over time, however, as Western religion became more prevalent, people began to associate these altered states with subversive and potentially violent behavior. As a result, use of psychedelic drugs in ceremony dwindled and was outlawed in many societies.

Counter-culturist and psychedelic drug advocate Timothy Leary believed LSD and other psychotropic drugs were necessary for spiritual enlightenment. While a professor at Harvard, Leary conducted several experiments using mescaline, a hallucinogenic compound found in some plants, to induce religious experiences in a handful of Harvard Divinity School students. Nine out of the ten students given mescaline reported vivid hallucinations, which they related to deep religious states and revelations. Leary’s experiments were cut short, due in no small part to the illegality of his methods (both mescaline and peyote were

illicit substances at the time), and after being dismissed from Harvard, his reputation as a counter-culture icon overshadowed his research. Throughout his life, Leary would argue that the supervised use of psychedelics could alter damaging behavior, such as alcoholism and criminal activity, with comparable results to traditional therapy.  

Some of his contemporaries agreed. Stanislav Grof was also examining the effect of psychotropics on addiction around the same time as Leary. Grof found that there was, “A tremendous deepening and acceleration of the psychotherapeutic process,” while his patients were on psychotropic substances. Further testing led Grof to believe that, when compared with traditional therapy, which mostly focused on suppression of symptoms, he had discovered something that could “[a]ctually get to the core of the problems.”

Leary and Grof’s experiments are just a few examples of psychoactive substances clashing with federal anti-drug statutes. Leary’s tests, in particular, led to the federal government’s classification of LSD as a Schedule 1 drug, which have no currently acceptable medical use in the United States. While many in the medical community discourage banning psychedelics, the FDA maintains an extensive list of illegal substances, many of which exist naturally.

Timothy Leary. Credit: Source.

The argument against banning psychedelic drugs has roots in their new-found uses in Western medicine. Like Leary in the 1960s, many medical professionals are experimenting with these types of drugs to treat everything from anxiety to addiction. Most widespread currently is the use of marijuana to treat those in end of life care and cancer treatment programs. This rise is accompanied by a growing movement to decriminalize the drug, which has already happened in several states, with many legalization measures going on to state ballots this November. Whether this is a result of medical progress or human nature trumping federal law is up for debate.  

These recent pushes against the established illegality of psychedelics highlight the substances’ cyclical tendencies. While puritanical and legal obstacles halted its use in the last hundred years, new studies as to their benefits and impact on human nature have been cropping up with increasing frequency, causing many to rethink their stance toward legalizing certain drugs. You probably won’t be able to buy LSD at Target any time soon, but the future looks brighter for psychotropics.