Psychedelic Drugs: Science and Society

Publication Year: 

Images retrieved from DMT The Spirit Molecule by Rick Strassman M.D. (2001) on September 6th, 2013.

Scientists rarely acknowledge the importance of the name they give to psychedelics, even though they know how powerfully expectations modify drug effects. All undergraduate psychology students learn this in their introductory psychology courses when they review landmark studies published in the 1960s. These experiments injected volunteers with adrenaline, the “fight-or-flight” hormone, under different sets of expectations. Adrenaline caused a calm and relaxed state in volunteers told they were receiving a sedative. If told that the experimental drug was stimulating, volunteers felt the more typical anxiety and energy.
Thus, what we call a drug we take, or give, influences our expectations of what that drug will do. It also modifies the effects themselves, and how we interpret and deal with them. No other drug's name feeds back so powerfully upon the responses they elicit as do the psychedelics, because they greatly magnify our suggestibility.
In addition to what we call psychedelics, the terms we apply to the people involved in their use also impact set and setting, and therefore drug response. As one who takes the drug, are we research subjects or volunteers? Clients or celebrants? As the one giving them, are we guides, sitters, or research investigators? Shamans or scientists?
Try this mental exercise: Consider how you might look forward to your day as a “research subject” under the influence of a “psychotomimetic agent.” Then reconsider: How would you feel about your role as a “celebrant” in a “ceremony” involving an “entheogenic sacrament”? How would these different contexts affect your interpretation of the hallucinations and intense mood swings brought on by the drug? Would you be “going crazy” or having an “enlightenment experience”?
If you were administering psychedelics, what types of behavior would you anticipate in your research subject, and what sorts would you ignore? Much would depend upon whether you were giving a “schizotoxin" or a “phantasticant.” You might encourage an “out-of-body experience” in a “shamanic” context, but abort the same effects by giving an antipsychotic antidote in a “psychotomimetic” one.
Hallucinogen is the most common medical term for psychedelic drugs, and it emphasizes the perceptual, mostly visual effects of these drugs. However, while perceptual effects of psychedelics are usual, they are not the only effects, nor are they necessarily the most valued. The visions actually may be distractions from the more sought-after properties of the experience, such as intense euphoria, profound intellectual or spiritual insights, and the dissolving of the body's physical boundaries.
I prefer the term psychedelic, or mind-manifesting, over hallucinogen. Psychedelics show you what's in and on your mind, those subconscious thoughts and feelings that are hidden, covered up, forgotten, out of sight, maybe even completely unexpected, but nevertheless imminently present. Depending upon set and setting, the same drug, at the same dose, can cause vastly different responses in the same person. One day, very little happens; another day, you soar, full of ecstatic and insightful discoveries; the next, you struggle through a terrifying nightmare. The generic nature of psychedelic, a term wide open to interpretation, suits these effects.
Psychedelic has taken on its own cultural and linguistic life. It now can refer to a particular style of art, clothing, or even an especially intense set of circumstances. When it comes to rational discourse about drugs, psychedelic also stirs up powerful 1960s-based emotions and conflicts over unrelated political and sociological issues. Many of us now think “counterculture,” “rebellious,” “liberal,” or “left-wing” when we see the term “psychedelic.” I will take my chances, however, and use it throughout this book. I think it is the best term we have. I hope not to offend anyone who finds the word objectionable.

No matter what we call them, most of us agree that the psychedelic drugs are physical, chemical things. It is at this most basic level that we can begin to understand what they are and what they do.
The diagrams accompanying the following descriptions show the chemical structure of various psychedelic compounds. The balls represent atoms, the most common of which is carbon, which is not labeled. “N” signifies nitrogen; “P,” phosphorus: and “O,” oxygen. Numerous hydrogen atoms are attached to other atoms in the molecules; however, there are so many that they would unnecessarily clutter up the diagram, so I have not included them here.
There are two main chemical families of psychedelic drugs: the phenethylamines and the tryptamines.
The phenethylamines build upon “parent compound” phenethylamine.
-pages 30-32 of DMT: The Spirit Molecule by Rick Strassman, M.D.