The psychedelic experience is one that many people have pondered, but is still beyond full scientific understanding. That lack of understanding by our culture has been a key factor in impeding these fascinating substances from going mainstream for therapeutic use – until now.
As the landscape around psychedelic research continues to evolve, Leaf Magazine caught up with Dr. David B. Yaden – a postdoctoral psychedelic researcher at Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, for a behind the scenes look at the latest developments in the emerging field – and how he found himself immersed in the world of psychedelic science.
It has been a long journey to attaining the position you hold today – could you give us some background info and a breakdown of your education? Where did the motivation come from to make it this far in your field?
My journey to becoming a scientist studying psychedelic drugs started with an experience I had in college, that actually had nothing to do with drugs. It was an experience that seemed to come completely out of nowhere – of total unity and feelings of love for everyone and everything. I learned later that people call this kind of moment a ‘peak experience’ or ‘mystical experience,’ and I was lucky enough for it to happen to me spontaneously while lying on my dorm room bed. It left me wondering, ‘What the [expletive] just happened to me?!’ That experience was so important and so positive in its effects, but it only lasted for a few minutes at most. Afterwards, I became fascinated with how brief experiences can have a long-lasting positive impact. For a while, I studied comparative religions, philosophy, neuroscience and psychology, just to see if I could find something to help me understand my experience. The most important book that I found with all of this reading was one by William James called “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” By the way, if you’ve had one of these kinds of experiences, you can help our research by describing it here (https://www.varietiescorpus.com/).
I got my PhD in psychology, which trained me in how to measure and conduct studies on these kinds of experiences. You can ask people to think back to their experiences and describe them, but to do good scientific work, you really need to be able to cause these experiences in a controlled setting. That’s where psychedelics come in – they provide a tool that researchers can use to trigger these positively transformative experiences in the laboratory. Researchers are currently finding all kinds of benefits (as well as a few risks) associated with using psychedelics to treat disorders like depression and addiction.
Johns Hopkins is a global leader in the field – can you give some insight into the program itself? What drugs, in particular, has your team been researching?
The Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins is currently the world’s largest lab studying psychedelics. Researchers like Roland Griffiths and his colleagues have been studying psychedelics since around 2000, but this new center (funded by Tim Ferris and a group of philanthropists) will allow a lot more psychedelic research to happen. We have studied many psychedelics like DMT, 5-MeO-DMT, and especially psilocybin. Psilocybin has shown a great deal of potential as a treatment for mental illnesses while also being pretty safe when administered in clinical settings.
There are so many open scientific questions about psychedelics. First, how does this substance change the brain to produce such a substantially altered state of consciousness? Second, how do set and setting influence this altered state of consciousness? Third, how does the experience (and associated brain changes) from psychedelics tend to result in such positive psychological changes for so many people? Last but not least, what are some of the risks of taking psilocybin and when should some people avoid taking it for safety reasons? These are just a few of the kinds of questions that we’re conducting research to address.
Walk us through the average day of a psychedelic scientist? Is that the proper term?
I love being a scientist and I feel incredibly grateful that I can spend my time trying to understand psychedelics and other questions about how the mind works … but it’s not very glamorous! I start my morning by making coffee and practicing meditation for about twenty minutes. I make sure that I write every day, so I usually spend the rest of the morning writing about new findings, describing a new theory or summarizing previous research findings. In the afternoon, I analyze data from studies that we’ve already run or work on launching new studies, which involves a huge amount of paperwork and thinking through safety issues. I try to schedule meetings later in the day, after I’m fried from writing and analyzing data. In the evenings, I usually go for a walk by the river in Philly to decompress. I work pretty much every day. I should say that this is how life looks for me during the pandemic – once it’s safe for the lab to return to normal, I will be administering psilocybin to study participants and helping to guide psychedelic sessions.
What are some of the greatest challenges to progress you and your colleagues have faced in your field?
I wrote an article with my advisor (Roland Griffiths, PhD) and my wife (Mary ‘Bit’ Yaden, MD) that describes a bunch of my worries about psychedelic research and use. Basically, I’m worried that there will be a lack of the necessary amount of care with psychedelics. These are really powerful psychological experiences that we’re talking about. The biggest challenge that I see is getting people to slow down and think carefully and realistically by paying attention to what the scientific evidence has to say. In general, we’ve already seen during the 1960s how psychedelic research and recreational use can go wrong and lead us to a dead end. We have an opportunity as a society to treat psychedelics with more respect this time around. My recommendation is to stick to what the science says.
What has been your most shocking or unexpected finding in your work at Johns Hopkins?
One of the early findings from psychedelic research at Johns Hopkins continues to blow my mind. Roland Griffiths and his colleagues found that in a sample of people who were given psilocybin in a supportive setting, two-thirds of them reported that the experience was among the top five most meaningful experiences of their entire lives. In other words, people who took psilocybin and laid down on a couch with eyeshades for a few hours said that the experience was almost as meaningful as events like graduating, getting married, or the birth of a child. That, to me, is an absolutely amazing fact and the findings have been replicated in many studies since.