Dr Robin Carhart-Harris is the Head of Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London. Over the past couple of years, he has been carrying out studies using magic mushrooms to treat patients with depression. The results have been overwhelmingly positive and his research has been published in reputable scientific journals like Nature. Idler editor Tom Hodgkinson sat down with Dr Robin at our summer festival in Hampstead to discuss his latest work and the psychedelic renaissance.
Tom Hodgkinson: How did you get into psychedelics?
Robin Carhart-Harris: Academically, psychology led me into it, the idea that the mind runs deeper than we ordinarily think. There exists a class of drugs, psychedelics, that can unfurl the mind and reveal its contents. They’re called “mind revealing” – that’s what psychedelic means. It just opened up a world of fascination for me, which has never let up.
TH: When I was growing up, this stuff wasn’t around but it was legendary because I was reading Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception. We were finding out about acid taking in the 60s.
RCH: ‘Turn on, tune in, drop out!’, as Timothy Leary said.
There was a feeling among the establishment that psychedelics fuelled counter-cultural thinking, anarchic thinking, and that was frightening
TH: I was fascinated. I read about Ken Kesey, the Merry Pranksters, the Tom Wolfe books and then something happened, it just vanished. During the 50s, according to Michael Pollan’s excellent new book How to Change Your Mind, psychedelic research seemed to be quite respectable. What happened?
RCH: That’s absolutely true. It was very much part of the mainstream: Cary Grant had extensive LSD psychotherapy, Robert Kennedy’s wife had LSD psychotherapy and he actually argued against the legislation that came in towards the end of the 60s. Later on, it transpired that LSD was seen as a threat, a societal threat, a psychological threat. There was a feeling among the establishment that psychedelics fuelled counter-cultural thinking, anarchic thinking, and that was frightening. There are clear examples of people within the Nixon administration essentially admitting that this is why they legislated against it. They were frightened of LSD and they were frightened of Timothy Leary telling people to experiment.
TH: Do you think Timothy Leary was partly to blame for holding back the progress of psychedelic research because there was something a bit chauvinistic about him, almost like a false guru character?
RCH: In a way, what happened with Leary reflects what happened more generally. He started out as a mainstream figure: he was a psychology professor at Harvard, he conducted credible research and he actually coined two of the most important terms in psychedelic research and psychedelic therapy, set and setting. Then he went off the rails, maybe through taking too much of the stuff, and became a self-proclaimed high priest of LSD. He started being quite irresponsible with his messages and also the substance to his preaching was pretty loose. And so, he fell out of favour with the mainstream who wanted him to stick to the integrity of science.
TH: And so the whole thing was derailed pretty much in 1971, right?
RCH: In ‘71, the United Nations “Misuse of Drugs Act” was passed, which carried over to the UK. We fell in line with the US on drugs despite evidence that on balance – and my boss at Imperial, David Nutt, is known for promoting this view — psychedelics aren’t one of the more dangerous categories of drugs. They’re being classified as Class A drugs and according to those criteria, they have no recognisable medicinal value. The science just doesn’t fit that.
TH: In one of your studies, you carried out a trial with 20 people for whom the conventional treatments for depression didn’t work. Can you describe what they might have been through before they came to your trial?
RCH: They’d tried all different types of antidepressants. Some had tried as many as 11 different varieties. Virtually all of them had tried psychotherapy, often a few different varieties. Some had even tried electroconvulsive therapy. They’d thrown the kitchen sink at their depression and nothing had worked, so we thought we’d try magic mushrooms. We’d done some brain imagery work in London that supported the idea that magic mushrooms could have antidepressant properties and so we gave it a whirl. They were in a clinical research facility but we massively transformed it — we had drapes and low lighting.
TH: So you made it look like a chill-out room at a rave?
RCH: Yeah sort of. The music wasn’t far off either.
TH: Sven Väth and Aphex Twin playing?
RCH: Yes, and some Brian Eno. People lay there with their eyes closed.
TH: The magic mushrooms you use are called a liberty cap, an indigenous hallucinogen of the UK. The doses were somewhat higher than I was expecting – would they typically get about 40 magic mushrooms?
RCH: Apparently they grow on Hampstead Heath! Typically people would need to take around ten to feel the effects; we’re giving something more like 50. That’s intentional: we’re trying to induce a transformative experience. When someone has been thoroughly depressed all of their adult life, then you want a transformation. People describe their experiences using terms like “mystical”, “spiritual” — they describe their normal sense of self dissolving.
TH: How long would this 50 magic mushroom trip last for?
RCH: About four or five hours, with a strong peak about an hour and a half in.
TH: And what was the conclusion of the study?
RCH: Well, it seemed to work! Everyone’s depression score dropped. But that can happen with any kind of intervention – it happens with placebo. So you can look at the magnitude of the drop and then how sustained it is. Going on three months, six months, 12 months, we’re still seeing significant drops. That said, people do relapse and sometimes they go back onto other medications and other treatments around six months. But to have that window of relief and to know that it’s possible, they describe as so, so valuable.
Dr Robin Carhart-Harris will be speaking about psychedelics and his research at the Idler Dinner on 30 October, along with author-turned-entrepreneur Dan Kieran. Book tickets here.