Around 200,000 years ago, a huge jump occurred in our evolutionary ancestors. The size of the human brain doubled in a short period of time, and no one really knows how or why. One theory, known as the stoned ape hypothesis, suggests that migrating hominids consumed psychedelic mushrooms as they searched for new places to thrive. Thanks to these mushrooms, there was a rapid increase in their consciousness and cognitive ability. A biological cheat mode that gave birth to early art, language, and technology, all leading to the evolution of big-brained homo sapiens like you and me.
It’s a contested theory, but regardless of its truth, naturally occurring psychedelics have been around as long as us clever monkeys, and they’ve played an important part in our societies for as long as we’ve been grouping together in small communities to increase our chances of survival.
Psychedelics are a hot topic today. They have re-emerged in glorious technicolour to drive a modern renaissance. In the lab, in the therapist’s chair and in the living rooms of locked down explorers across the world, mushrooms, LSD and more are once again in vogue. News about their potential covers our TVs, newspapers and phones. It’s impossible to ignore that the collective consciousness is in awe of how amazing these compounds can be once again.
But when you take a step back, psychedelics are fucking crazy. Anyone who has dipped their toes into a hero dose will strain to tell you a tale of an incomprehensible experience that to the sober mind sounds, well, ridiculous. Cinema has long tried to recreate the uncreatable, the closest attempt, in my mind, are the strikingly accurate experiences of Hunter S Thompson in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, but even that just scratches the surface of what it is really like when you are sucked through DMTs psychedelic tube into the vast nothingness of the machine elf world.
Indeed, one of the unifying features of the psychedelic experience is that it is unquantifiable, unexplainable. The scientific community has done its best to describe the indescribable with the word ineffable: the experience is difficult to put into words. Even though we can’t quite describe it, so many of us are still drawn to it.
On the face of things, we’re conditioned to believe that psychedelics should be avoided at all costs. Drug education in schools from the 70s up to recent years has centred around horror stories and disasters. One dose of LSD is enough to make you believe you’re an orange and peel off your skin. Magic mushrooms make you think you can fly the first time you try them, especially if you’re in a grimy 80s high rise. The general consensus is that psychedelic compounds themselves are nature’s way of warning us off consuming certain species. Eat me, the Bufo alvarius toad says, and prepare to endure a psychedelic horror show.
Despite evolution and educations best attempts, people are actively seeking out these experiences in ever-increasing numbers. The most recent edition of the Global Drug Survey shows a steady rise in the use of substances such as LSD, magic mushrooms and 2CB.
Ignoring the best efforts of Ms Tytler and nature, we are queuing up for our next psychedelic experience. But why?
I asked Professor Adam Winstock, the founder of The Global Drugs Survey, why he thinks more people are seeking out psychedelic experiences. “The increasing positive media focusing on the therapeutic potential of psychedelics and the possible role of microdosing on wellbeing is likely a driving factor. It’s easier than ever to get drugs like LSD delivered in the post and magic mushrooms can be grown anywhere. Psychedelic drugs have an excellent safety profile when compared to stimulants, like cocaine, and are considered very good value for money.
“Beyond that, people are experiencing a loss of community and faith, there is a huge attraction for drugs that can add spiritual meaning to people and allow them to consider their connection to themselves and others, but most of all, a lot of people think psychedelics are fun!”
Curious about what drives everyday people to consume substances that drive us to the edge of reality, I turned to some online psychedelic communities in search of their motivations. For many, psychedelics act as a tool for healing. “I use [psychedlics] as a mental reset button,” one user tells me. “sometimes life can be overwhelming and I feel that I may be straying from my path in some sense that may be ultimately leading me to unhappiness. They help me recenter myself and my focus on living every day with intention and purpose. Psychedelics have helped pull me out of slumps, helped me see the colour in the world, and feel more connected to those around me.”
Psychedelics have helped pull me out of slumps, helped me see the colour in the world, and feel more connected to those around me
Another common theme is the journey, “I started just to have fun. Now it’s more spiritual and therapeutic.” one use replies, while another says “I started with psychedelics when I was 16 and at that time it was probably some form of escapism. Almost 20 years later, although in a much different way and in less frequent intervals, I continue to use psychedelics from time to time. For me, nothing has the ability to put things into perspective quite like a good trip can. Although they’re not a cure-all, nor the answer to my problems, I find them amazing tools that have helped me through some of my toughest moments on earth. I attribute some of my more intense experiences to helping me quit hard drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol, and overall taking better care of my physical and mental self. I personally feel that these substances can help a lot of people if used correctly and with the right intentions.”
Humans are naturally inquisitive, and curiosity seems to be a strong pull, with many people admitting they just wanted to see what was really behind the psychedelic curtain. “For as long as I can remember, I’ve been very interested in consciousness. I’ve found [psychedelics] to be very interesting, as a way to explore consciousness in ways that just aren’t possible sober. How they can really bend and mould your conscious experience as if it were play-doh” someone tells me, another simply says “So I can peek into secrets of the universe.”
The motivations for modern psychedelic use appear to be wide-reaching, from simple pleasure and exploration to healing and development, but what unified every respondent was the outcome. Almost every person I spoke to summarised their motivations with a common feeling that psychedelic use was in some way good for them, that they reconnected with lost creativity, appreciation, clarity and motivation. While there is undoubtedly going to be some bias in the answers from a pro-psychedelic community, the end result seemed to be that psychedelic use resulted in an overwhelmingly positive outcome. No matter how crazy psychedelics may appear before and during our experiences, we’re chewed up and spat out the other side feeling like better people.
All of this left me wondering, what were my motivations when staring at a sheet of sunflower blotters 20 years ago? How did I rationalise jumping off into a great unknown, certain only that I was heading straight into some intangible new world? One person’s reply summarised it all so perfectly, “Sometimes I just want to see how far the rabbit hole really goes.”
With love and thanks to the Reddit Psychedelics community for their openness.