Psychedelics have hit the mainstream as powerful new mental health treatments. But as clinicians explore what these molecules can do for our individual minds, The Bigger Picture goes further to illuminate how psychedelics can help us find new ways to make sense of and come through the crises we face around the world.
Drawing on the latest research, as well as his unique experience as a participant in a ground-breaking clinical trial investigating the potent psychedelic DMT, Alexander Beiner reveals:
- the role of psychedelics in addressing global issues such as global warming, geopolitical instability, and political polarization
- the dark side of the ‘psychedelic renaissance’ and ‘psychedelic capitalism’
- what it takes to elicit huge personal and cultural transformation through psychedelics
Embark on a journey into The Bigger Picture – a new era of science and spirituality with the potential to radically transform our perceptions of ourselves, one another, and our life on this planet.
|Hay House Inc.
|5.56(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.76(d)
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Psychedelic Renaissance
If you haven't heard the term before, the word 'psychedelic' might conjure images of the late 1960s. The Summer of Love. Tie-dye. Timothy Leary telling people to 'turn on, tune in, and drop out' of society. Or perhaps your mind travels further back, to the dawn of civilization, when shamans communed with teaching plants to navigate the spirit world. Maybe it conjures images of the people around the world who are still using psychedelics as sacraments – from the use of iboga by the Bwiti of Gabon, or of the fly agaric by the Tungusic shamans of Siberia, to the ayahuasca ceremonies of the Shipibo-Conibo of Peru or the Santo Daime church in Brazil.
If you've clicked on an article about psychedelics in the last five years, chances are it wasn't about counterculture or indigenous use, but about psychedelics' potential to treat mental-health disorders. A new wave of research, investment, and changing cultural perceptions has sparked what's been called 'the psychedelic renaissance,' with billions of dollars now being poured into psychedelics in the hope that they may offer us a way out of a growing health crisis that sees close to a billion people struggling with some form of mental illness. Someone takes their own life every 40 seconds. A sense of dislocation, anxiety, and loneliness pervades modern life, and everyone's looking for a solution.
The Imperial College Psychedelic Research Group, who were running the study I participated in, have been the source of many of these headlines; they have overseen multiple studies investigating the therapeutic and neuroscientific effects of psychedelic drugs. Over the last decade, labs like this have been reexamining how psychedelic molecules like psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) can treat some of the most widespread mental-health conditions, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The results have been so promising that psilocybin has been given 'breakthrough therapy' status for treating depression by the FDA in the USA, while 'the love drug' MDMA is on the cusp of becoming a legal medicine for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The study I participated in was different to the ones that normally make the headlines. It was non-therapeutic, designed to investigate what exactly is going on in the brain and the mind when we take DMT. Of all the psychedelic compounds, DMT has a particularly metaphysical mystique. That's partly due to the weird things that happen when human beings ingest DMT. Normally, the drug is vaporized in a small pipe and the experience lasts under 10 minutes. Despite the short duration, many people describe it as one of the strangest, most profound, and sometimes most terrifying experiences of their lives.
Some report traveling out of their bodies, visiting other intricate worlds populated by seemingly intelligent and independent entities. Sometimes these entities are friendly, sometimes aggressive, and always inexplicably weird. Many people report life-changing personal and metaphysical insights. DMT can bring us into a deep sense of connection with wider reality, and many say their experience felt 'realer than real.'
The study in which I took part was the first to investigate what happens when you extend that experience by a factor of four, and due to its highly experimental nature, only psychologically healthy (or healthy enough) volunteers with previous psychedelic experience were recruited. Even so, by the time I signed up, the researchers had decided to change the study to include four rather than five doses, as a few people had already dropped out because of the intensity of the trial.
That uncomfortable fact was one of the many fears going through my mind on that bed. I have a lot of experience with psychedelics, and as a podcaster and writer in the space, I'm up to speed on the latest research. Physically, I knew the experience was safe. But I was anxious about what I was going to encounter.
A wary caution is a common attitude among people experienced with psychedelics. However, it's often missing from all the media hype, which sometimes presents them as wonder drugs that can cure depression; this ignores just how complex these medicines are, and how little we really know about them.
What is certain is that psychedelics work very differently to normal psychiatric medicines. Psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, a pioneer in the field, has called them 'non-specific amplifiers.' His theory is that they amplify what's already in our hearts and minds. They bring up memories, insights, and behavior patterns we aren't normally aware of, and often elicit a deep sense of meaning and connectedness.
However, you can't just take a psychedelic and hope you'll go through a profound healing process. In fact, they can be just as dangerous as they are healing. For psychedelics to be healing and effective, we need to experience them in a safe setting, within a strong therapeutic or ceremonial container that can hold us through the experience and help us make sense of our insights. When these conditions are met, psychedelics can do more than help us navigate our minds; they can elicit profound spiritual experiences.
In 2006, a Johns Hopkins study conducted by Roland Griffiths reported that more than half of participants ranked their psilocybin experience as one of the five most spiritually meaningful of their lives – right up there with marriage or the birth of a child. This 'mystical' encounter reported by so many is believed to be a key component of what makes psychedelic experiences so healing.
A major impetus for this book is the fact that the mystical experiences I've had on psychedelics have forever changed my life and how I see reality. But during the study, I wasn't lying on that bed looking for a mystical experience, or at least I didn't think I was. I had a specific goal in mind – a personal experiment I'd be conducting throughout the four months of the trial, and a question that forms the main inquiry of the book you're reading: How can psychedelics help us find new solutions to the existential crises we're facing as a species?
This is a question I've been interested in since my first psychedelic experience at the age of 18, when I was with a group of friends at a park in the Dutch city of Maastricht. I grew up about a two-hour drive away, near Frankfurt, Germany. My father is German and my mother is from Northern Ireland. My father worked in the printing industry and my mother was a teacher at Frankfurt International School, which I attended from the ages of five to 18.
Many of us who've grown up in very multicultural environments, or with two nationalities, often have a strange relationship with the idea of 'home.' However, as I sat in that park in Holland experiencing mushrooms for the first time, I felt more at home than I'd ever felt. I had a calm and abiding feeling that I had reconnected to reality in a way that would change me forever.
Over the next few years, I devoured everything I could find on psychedelics. I became fascinated with the anthropology of shamanism, neuroscience, ethnobotany, and psychedelic philosophy. I spent hours listening to recordings of psychedelic pioneers like Terence McKenna, Ram Dass, Ann Shulgin, and countless others. I began to relate to psychedelics as sacred medicines and took them infrequently, carefully, and with great respect. I spent much of my time at university writing a novel about psychedelic culture and shamanism, Beyond the Basin, which I published just after I graduated. At around the same time, I began a daily meditation practice.
In 2009, as Occupy Wall Street was at its peak, I moved to London. I met my now-wife, Ashleigh Murphy-Beiner, who would go on to become a psychologist and a psychedelic researcher. We both trained as meditation instructors and set up Open Meditation, a school in London that taught non-religious mindfulness to people and companies.
In 2011, I spoke at a small psychedelics conference called Breaking Convention at the University of Kent. At the time, even the idea of talking about psychedelics in public felt risky. Studies about the topic were starting to come out, but the taboo was so strong that many speakers were doing the math to make sure any psychedelic experiences they recounted were more than seven years old, meaning they'd be outside the statute of limitations.
Despite our nervousness, it was a magical experience. Breaking Convention was one of the first times in the UK that people had gathered to talk about the academia, science, culture, and philosophy of psychedelics. Conversations that normally happened anonymously on Internet forums were now taking place in real life, with many people from different backgrounds coming out of the woodwork and tentatively speaking about something of profound importance. More than a decade later, Breaking Convention is one of the longest-running psychedelic conferences in Europe. I went on to join the organizing committee and eventually became one of the executive directors.
It was through Breaking Convention that I met David Fuller, a former BBC and Channel 4 journalist who was volunteering to help with our press outreach. In 2017, we founded an organization called Rebel Wisdom. We were both trying to make sense of the significant cultural shifts taking place after Brexit and the US election of Trump. Because we both had an interest in personal growth and transformative practices, we believed that meaningful sense-making requires a deeper level of inquiry into psychology, spirituality, and sociology.
Rebel Wisdom grew into a media and events platform with more than a quarter of a million subscribers. Over five years, we interviewed rebellious thinkers and doers from a variety of fields, and ran live events, courses, and retreats to help people apply practices like mindfulness, collective intelligence, and shadow work; all of these undertakings helped us make sense of what's going on in the media, culture, and politics. Above all, we and other organizations like us focused on what it will take to find a way to solve some of the complex problems we're grappling with collectively.
A key insight that began to emerge as we inquired into that question was that if we really want to adapt and thrive in the complex age we live in, we need to evolve not just what we think and do, but how we do it. This means staying curious and learning to flow with change and contradiction with an attitude of playfulness, compassion, discernment, and creativity. It also means learning how to see beyond our existing frames of reality to find new insights. Psychedelics can open our minds to this way of seeing the world, more reliably than anything else I'm aware of. And so, it was particularly poignant for me that the psychedelic renaissance started to explode into the mainstream as we explored these topics.
Between 2020 and 2022, psychedelic medicine received a gold rush of investment, with dozens of psychedelic pharma companies raising close to $2 billion in stock-market flotations. At the time of this writing, it's estimated that it will grow to be worth $8.3 billion globally by 2028.5 The counterculture visions that fired up that first Breaking Convention started taking a backseat to boardroom negotiations. The positive clinical-trial results coming out of labs like Imperial and Johns Hopkins added a new kind of credibility to psychedelics, as did books like Michael Pollan's How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics.
The more recent climate around psychedelics is worlds away from what it was during that first Breaking Convention in 2011. The press stopped telling stories about people jumping out of windows high on acid, and instead started publishing glowing articles about the promise of psychedelic science. Some investors have even claimed that psychedelic pharma companies could solve the mental-health crisis for good.
What We're Missing
In 2020–2022, I started to cover this psychedelic gold rush journalistically. It started with a film I made called The Rise of Psychedelic Capitalism, exploring the nuances of what happens when a complex, transformative experience hits the realities of capitalist market forces. In the process, I noticed just how fast the narrative was changing, and how much was being lost in the race to medicalize psychedelics.
Psychedelics were being framed not as agents of social transformation, but as exciting new mental-health drugs. In many ways, this approach has been tremendously successful. Research is booming in psychedelic science. Celebrities like Will Smith now openly talk about their ayahuasca journeys. Psychedelic pioneer David Nutt, who leads the Imperial College Psychedelic Research Group, pointed out when we spoke that most of the resistance to legalization is now coming from more conservative clinicians within the medical establishment; a recent study suggested that almost 60 percent of the general public in the UK are in favor of reclassifying psilocybin.
But despite its undeniable success, the commercialization of psychedelics has had unintended consequences. The experiences we have on psychedelics are highly influenced by our cultural expectations, as well as our set (our state of mind), setting (where we are), and dose (how much we take). Psychedelics alone don't necessarily lead to transformation; change is brought about when psychedelics are taken in combination with a practice like therapy or a religious ceremony.
When you change the dominant cultural narrative around these medicines, you change how people experience them. The risk is that big pharma, the well-being industry, and biomedical psychiatry create a narrative around what psychedelics are, who they are for, and how they are allowed to be used – which narrows their tremendous potential for social change. It also presents a real risk that, like many forms of therapy, psychedelics become accessible primarily to the wealthy.
I will return to the debate around psychedelic capitalism throughout the book, revealing just how complex it is. On one hand, all the investment pouring into psychedelics is creating mainstream acceptance and has the potential to help millions of people. On the other hand, it might come at the expense of the very message psychedelics often teach us: We need to change.
If you read enough glowing headlines about psychedelic science, or the many PR releases put out by psychedelic pharma companies, it can appear that we understand what needs to change to solve the 'mental-health crisis.' From the perspective of biomedical psychiatry, our depressions, anxieties, and addictions can be fixed with new drugs or therapies.
However, this is only one part of a much bigger story, and relies on an assumption that mental illness exists primarily within us. From another perspective, the mental-health crisis is a collective howl from the heart of consumer culture. A howl that warns of socioeconomic disparity, with children from underprivileged backgrounds four times more likely to suffer mental-health afflictions than wealthier peers. A howl that comes straight from the epidemic of our loneliness, and from skyrocketing rates of teenage mental illness driven by predatory social-media algorithms.
Clinical psychologist Lucy Johnstone has argued that placing the source of illness within the individual ignores the complex set of conditions that have led to their illness. She says we shouldn't be asking, 'What's wrong with you?' Instead, we should be asking, 'What happened to you?' Johnstone represents a growing awareness among psychologists that it may be our environment, cultural values, and economic situation that drive our increasing rates of depression and anxiety, as well as our thoughts and biology.
The best chance we have of healing the mental-health crisis is by zooming out to look at the bigger picture and addressing it from the roots. This is no simple task, because it asks us to fundamentally change how we live, both individually and collectively. The early promise of the counterculture that sprang up in the 1960s and 70s was that psychedelics could do exactly this. They could offer a deeper understanding of how we've created our shared reality and give us the ability to make a new choice. They could decondition us from the cultural values that are making us so sick by reconnecting us not just to ourselves and one another, but to that which we have distorted in our hyper-individualistic, blindly consuming culture: the sacred.