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A Key to Connection

Victorian marbled paper by Orhan Cam
A Key to Connection
Researcher Sam Gandy tells us his thoughts on psilocybin’s possibilities and practicalities.
SUKAYNA POWELL

‘Magic mushrooms’ and other psychedelics are igniting a lot of conversations worldwide. Sam Gandy PhD is a researcher and ecologist with a long standing interest in psychedelics. Alongside his work in restoration and conservation, he consults and collaborates with a wide variety of groups working on exploring how experience with psilocybin affect people and shape our relationships with the world. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Sukayna: You’ve been involved in the psilocybin and psychedelic research at Imperial College London, how did you get into that?

Sam Gandy: Yes, I’m a kind of external collaborator with Imperial so I’m not directly linked to them. Robin Caharrt-Harris who’s the head of the research group knew of my interest in nature, and ecology background, and so he invited me to collaborate on some of the research that’s been going on looking at psychedelics and nature connectedness. That’s still in motion and there’s some other research that we’ve collaborated on that’s yet to be submitted that builds on what’s already been done.

SP: What is your background generally? How did you come to be interested in psilocybin and psychedelics?

SG: I love nature, so that’s my bedrock coming into this and I funnelled that into pursuing physical geography, entomology and ecology when I went to university. When I was doing my undergrad, psilocybin mushrooms were legal and you could just go and buy fresh mushrooms on the high street in Camden. Only fresh, that was the law at the time. My first experience was really bad. Went to a nightclub, had some of these mushrooms, and it was sort of just torrentially awful. But it was a very good learning experience as well; I came away with some humility and knew that if I was to ingest mushrooms again I would pay much more attention to set and setting. Obviously you read about set and setting and you get the gist of it but when you experience it first hand it really drives that message home.

I’d always been pretty much anti-drug before then, not a smoker, wasn’t that much of a drinker, wasn’t really open to other things. Because it was such an interesting experience I started reading a lot of stuff about the history, the science, the anthropology. I wanted to know all different facets of the subject from all different angles. I like writing so I started writing, I started speaking at conferences. and I started getting to know some of the academics, some of the figures in the field, particularly in the UK.

I published a few papers on psychedelics, and then eventually, around the time Robin invited me to be a collaborator at Imperial I got a job with the Beckley Foundation as Scientific Assistant to the Director. The Beckley’s been really fundamental in instigating and funding psychedelic research in the UK, and elsewhere actually. So that was cool. I’m kind of an outsider to the field: affiliated but not a direct member of these groups, and I’m quite happy with that.

SP: It’s a good position to be in.

SG: It’s definitely got its perks. I like doing the research in my own time, and contributing to that side of things, but I’m happy to do that as an independent person. I’m not that bothered about trying to make psychedelics my career. I would rather focus on ecology work these days. But I still appreciate being able to do stuff on the side.

“A BALANCED NARRATIVE DIET IS IMPORTANT – OUR METAPHORS AND ANALOGIES CAN BOX THINGS IN AND SO I TRY TO SEE THROUGH THE LENS OF SEVERAL METAPHORS OR ANALOGIES TO AVOID ONE BECOMING DOMINANT TO THE EXCLUSION OF OTHERS”

SP: There’s quite a bit of overlap, there’s some quite endangered habitats that need a lot of work if we’re to continue sustainably exploring psychedelics of all kinds – not just mushrooms.

SG: I’m collaborating on a paper actually on exactly this topic with a Beckley colleague. Like me she’s got an interest and background in psychedelic research but she’s also got a masters’ in conservation, whereas I’ve got a PhD in ecology, so we overlap. We’re looking at the conservation ecology of the different species – what should we be concerned about; how we should conserve the populations of these species; whether there are sustainable harvesting practices or policy changes – looking at it from a few different angles. That’s a big project.

SP: Can you talk a little about your experiences with the psilocybin research that you’ve been involved in, what’s that been looking at, what were the areas of interest, and were there any surprises on your end?

SG: The first study that I was involved in was called the Psychedelic Survey Study. Imperial put out an online survey, and it was quite sophisticated as online surveys go. Online surveys are really good in that they can net you quite a lot of data at minimal cost. Doing a full clinical study with pure doses of psilocybin is complicated and very expensive. It’s getting slightly easier as it’s becoming a slightly more well-worn track, but it’s still not straightforward. Survey studies side step a lot of that regulatory and financial kerfuffle. So the people at the Centre for Psychedelic Research designed this quite sophisticated survey that was prospective. Rather than asking people after their experience, it paints a stronger scientific picture if you can have two – at least two – time points, so you assess people before their experience, and then afterwards, and then we also looked at long term follow up two years later, to see how they were getting on.

This survey was recording all manner of data, but my collaboration was specifically looking at the ‘nature connectedness’ side of things – or ‘nature relatedness’ actually. Nature connectedness/ relatedness is quite a complex multidimensional construct – but essentially you can condense it down to the degree to which you feel like you’re ‘part of nature’ – the wider natural community. It’s partly experiential, partly emotional, partly based on your personality traits, your childhood contact with nature etc. There’s quite a lot of moving parts to it. It’s an interesting thing to look at because a) it’s very much linked to positive mental health, particularly wellbeing and b) it’s a strong, if not the strongest, predictor of pro-environmental pro-nature behaviour as well. So it seems like it’s got quite a big bang for your buck.

We were exploring to what degree total lifetime usage of psychedelics predicts or influences people’s nature relatedness levels.

And also whether it changes after a single use of psychedelic. And the answer was yes. Even after a single use there was a noticeable change. But lifetime total use had a really clear and strong effect on people’s nature relatedness. The nature relatedness increase as a result of psychedelic use was also correlated strongly with wellbeing increase, which is what we’d kind of expect from the rest of the literature.

We also found that having access to nature-based settings during the acute psychedelic experience positively predicted increases in nature relatedness. Bearing in mind it’s just a survey study, so we’re not aware of the type of natural settings people have access to. It could be like a little suburban garden, it could be deep in the woods somewhere. Further research will be required to control for this. Psychedelics are thought to affect nature relatedness through the experience of ego dissolution, where your subjective sense of self-identity kind of dissolves and breaks down so you’re less aware of existing as an individual being separate from everything else. When that happens in a natural environment it may produce a perspective shift that’s quite powerful and that affects how you relate to nature after the event.

This elevated increase in nature relatedness seems to persist up to two years later. We’ve done a follow up study now looking at psilocybin. I don’t know how much I can say because it’s unpublished currently, but it’s very interesting in that one of the things that comes out in reading the literature on nature connectedness interventions not to do with psychedelics – so things like ‘wilderness retreats’ and nature immersion retreats – is they can all increase nature connectedness but it doesn’t tend to be very enduring or persistent. Even if there’s a significant shift, say by about two months or three months later you tend to be either coming back down or be back down to the pre-intervention baseline. And they’re time and resource heavy approaches. You may be looking at multiple days, you may be looking at a week or multiple weeks, so in terms of rolling it out in terms of accessibility to people it’s not, I think, that viable.

To me it’s all about the long term sustained change. Even one or two psilocybin experiences can cause this kind of significant shift/ increase in nature connectedness. And that’s interesting because I’ve not seen anything else in the literature that gives results that are so sustained. It’s literally one or two five hour experiences with psilocybin.

The other key thing here is that the psilocybin was administered in a clinical environment. All the other nature interventions, unsurprisingly, are happening in a nature-based context. Whereas in this situation you can give someone psilocybin without priming them, in a clinical setting where there’s no non-human life in the vicinity, and people still have this powerful shift in how they relate to nature.

Microscopic enlargement of a human motor neurone by Rattiya Thongdumhyu
Microscopic enlargement of a human motor neurone by Rattiya Thongdumhyu

SP: So it’s a really interesting way of looking at potentially large scale relationship shifts.

SG: One of the things I should say, actually, is that connectedness in a broad sense seems to be affected by psychedelics. So, connectedness to self; to others, which can be called social connectedness, which is a big buffer against depression actually; and then nature connectedness, which might just be earth-based nature, it might be the universe; connectedness can also encompass potentially spiritual concepts or people’s idea of god. So yeah, this shift from a state of disconnection to a state of greater connectedness, definitely seems to be an important mechanism behind how psychedelics work in a mental health context. We can’t just say that connectedness directly maps onto depression but the Venn diagrams do overlap quite a bit.

These shifts tend to be reinforcing as well. Becoming more connected to one aspect tends to affect the other areas. This is similar to research that shows pro-environmental behaviour is strongly correlated with pro-social behaviour. The desire to be proactive and take care of/be thinking about the wider environment and our impact; that’s very much connected to the desire to do good to others. I see it almost like the experience of awe – awe has been found to catalyze these pro-social effects as well, because it reduces your ego right down, and you expand and connect to something much greater than yourself. And that can be therapeutic and that can be good in and of itself, you know, taking the focus off oneself.

SP: There’s some correlation there with the history of environmentalisms, and the relationship of eighteenth and nineteenth century ‘exploration’ and the development of nature photography. Had some appalling consequences, but the concept of wilderness as it developed at that time and the concept of the sublime in an aesthetic sense – you could argue that it did many of the same things psychologically for the people who were experiencing it the first time.

SG: Yeah I recall reading about John Muir having all these sublime, awed experiences in nature and making an early case for protecting it. These emotions of awe and wonder did have an impact for particularly the early proponents of the environmental movement. I’m talking of course about people from within the Western or European societies. Obviously the indigenous societies had their own often much deeper and more keen relationship to nature, that goes without saying.

SP: Yes, you’re talking about people who → have come detached from that sense of connectedness, and looking at things that have re-attached them, at least in some way, even if it just leads them to create a rather artificial ‘park’ or ‘preserve’.

SG: Yeah it’s better than nothing!

“EVEN ONE OR TWO PSILOCYBIN EXPERIENCES CAN CAUSE THIS KIND OF SIGNIFICANT SHIFT/INCREASE IN NATURE CONNECTEDNESS”

SP: There’s a lot of campaigns to decriminalise psychedelics right now, and there’s a lot of concern that the same thing will happen as has happened to marijuana in many places, where venture capitalism has essentially taken over.

SG: Yeah I’m a bit concerned about how it’s playing out, or is going to play out, with the increasing corporatisation and capitalist tendrils that have snaked their way into the psychedelic arena. People get quite obsessed with seeing psychedelics as a kind of magic bullet treatment, but I’ve been thinking lately, yes they can be very effective – although we’re still in early days with the research – but we’ve got a growing global mental health crisis and it’s not like an absence of psychedelics is causing that, you know? It’s great that they can maybe help, but with how corporate capitalist systems work, I don’t want to see psilocybin co-opted, essentially, as a more ‘wholesome’ ‘organic’ form of SSRI antidepressants.

There was some magazine, Time magazine or something, with the same headline just two decades apart: then ‘the new promising antidepressant – prozac’ and now it’s ‘the new promising antidepressant – mushrooms’. I get it, but I hope one doesn’t just replace the other. Because the thing is, the reason I think that we’re getting all depressed and miserable – I’m generalising a bit but more or less – our society is built on fierce individualism, it’s highly competitive and materialistic, it’s built on consumerism, and it’s bereft of what one might term spirituality, but if you want to look at in a more secular way, connectedness, as we’ve been discussing. We don’t live in a connected society, be it connected to nature, connected to others, connected to ourselves. The ideals of this civilisation are actively sabotaging that, and we’re a social species; we thrive on connection. Trying to replace that with material possessions is doomed to fail because our brains are not wired to find lasting contentment in stuff. It’s our connection to our loved ones, to our community, to the earth, that’s what our wiring’s built for and that’s what can give us meaning, purpose, feelings of contentment, inner peace etc.

Psychedelics can help you realise that, I think, that’s part of why they’re helpful. They can take down the filters but unless we act collectively to change the playing field, change the rules of our society that’s making us all really miserable and ill, I don’t see that psychedelics are going to be particularly effective. The prime minister of Bhutan, where they prioritise happiness levels in the population rather than GDP, said prevention is nine tenths of the cure. Psychedelics are not a prevention. I mean yes, they can maybe increase resilience, but that can have a bad side; if you become more resilient to chronic levels of awful that’s not helping anyone really.

“I DON’T WANT TO SEE PSILOCYBIN CO-OPTED, ESSENTIALLY, AS A MORE ‘WHOLESOME’ ‘ORGANIC’ FORM OF SSRI ANTIDEPRESSANTS”

SP: There’s so much going on in the worlds of mushrooms, people are getting really interested, but you’re starting to get the boilerplate articles, and the scams, and the snake oil, and these biohacking silicon valley types, and people are going to be deluged with an extraordinary amount of information about mushrooms, fungi, psilocybin – all of these things that we’re still learning about. This is one of the areas where there’s a lot of scaremongering and there’s a lot of evangelism and it’s really difficult to navigate a middle path.

SG: I think it’s important to do. I remember there was a good researcher back in the fifties/sixties – Sidney Cohen. He was an LSD researcher and he was really good in that he was very balanced. He kind of butted heads with Tim Leary when rescheduling was being talked about. Leary emphasised the sparkle and the fun of it but neglected the dark side of LSD. Cohen looked at treatments that had gone wrong using it and his view was that yes, it’s safe and promising if it’s used carefully in a medical context with prior screening. Without that it can be dangerous, it should not be used without safeguards or controls in place because people can be damaged. I liked his view because it was refreshing.

He also recognised that you had lots of psychedelic gurus and therapist sorts popping up and proclaiming themselves. It seemed to Cohen that a suspicious amount of these self-labelled gurus/therapists seem to be exhibiting psychopathology – they seem to be narcissists. I feel like we could do with a bit more of that kind of balanced view of what’s going on now, because there is dodgy stuff. It’s a mixed bag, the psychedelic world. Recently it came to light that some self-labelled therapist and her husband, they’d been behaving inappropriately with some shadier underground aspects that are linked to the Mazatec in Mexico, who use mushrooms in their practices. But she would only give mushrooms to people paying top dollar, whereas in the Mazatec context the only way you would have a mushroom session is when you were given a direct referral to a shaman from a member of the community. You can’t just go online and book. So yeah, I’m a little concerned with how it’s shaping up in some respects. It’s a good thing to manage expectations between avoiding overhyping and challenging scaremongering and misinformation.

SP: Like you’ve said, there are communities in the world who have safe, well-managed, informed systems for using and utilising psychedelics and mushrooms in their spaces, and so there’s some concern about over regulating – so it’s only available in a medical setting. There’s a lot of very careful negotiating to do it seems.

SG: Yeah it’s complicated. I like what they’ve done in Oregon, they decriminalised small amounts of drug possession across the board but they’ve got a special exemption for psilocybin where psilocybin mushrooms will be legal for therapeutic use but not just in a medical context. I think they will need to work out the small print of what is meant by that, but they’re making it broader than a purely medical model, which sounds promising in terms of trying to move forward with something that’s both inclusive and respects the power of these things.

“A SUSPICIOUS AMOUNT OF THESE SELF-LABELED PSYCHEDELIC GURUS/ THERAPISTS SEEM TO BE EXHIBITING PSYCHOPATHOLOGY – THEY SEEM TO BE NARCISSISTS”

SP: It’s going to be a very interesting testing ground for a lot of community, legal, medical… all sorts of structures. We’ve touched on it already, but just from your perspective, on any front, what are you most looking forward to? What do you think people should be looking into more? What’s exciting?

SG: Imperial are involved in a study looking at the effects of psilocybin in healthy, psychedelic naive people, and I’m quite interested in that. A lot of the research so far has been on clinical populations – and totally that makes sense and should be prioritised but I’m personally interested in, as Bob Jesse, one of the instigators of the modern psychedelic renaissance, put it, the ‘betterment of well people’. How can they change people who are already healthy and high functioning in a beneficial way – and I would say that nature connectedness is part of that.

There’s some research looking at psychedelics as potential scientific creativity enhancing tools, particularly in a scientific context, because quite a few big discoveries in both the arts and the sciences have come from dreams, and the psychedelic state is basically like an ‘on tap’ dream state. We need new ideas, we’ve got an immensely challenging few decades ahead of us and we need to maximise our potential for generating insights and new perspectives, and I wonder if perhaps psychedelics could be helpful here if used in the right context by the right people.

What else? I guess the mystical experience side of things. It’s a controversial topic in scientific circles – a lot of clinicians and scientists don’t like the term mystical and because of that they’re sort of a bit dismissive of it, but one of the most solid findings from the sum total of psychedelic research so far is the importance of the mystical experience in predicting long term psychological benefits and outcomes in both healthy and clinical populations, so to neglect it and dismiss it or try and sweep it under the rug because it makes you feel slightly uncomfortable because of the terminology seems a bit silly to me.

“NATURE CONNECTEDNESS/ RELATEDNESS IS QUITE A COMPLEX MULTIDIMENSIONAL CONSTRUCT – BUT ESSENTIALLY YOU CAN CONDENSE IT DOWN TO THE DEGREE TO WHICH YOU FEEL LIKE YOU’RE PART OF NATURE”

I feel like people’s experiences should be honoured. They shouldn’t have to slot into a pre-existing secular reductionist therapeutic model, you know, and if that does happen it may reduce the benefits. Yes it needs to be handled in a grounded rational way, because there is the potential for spiritual emergency; and the possibility of spiritual narcissism and spiritual bypass issues. But then there’s all the positives as well, and if someone’s had a deep mystical/spiritual experience and the therapist dismisses it outright, this is likely to reduce the positive psychological benefits that come with such an experience.

There needs to be much more nuance. A more agnostic perspective is perhaps the most scientifically neutral thing going forward. I think either you’re very much centred in the materialist reductionist model, or very much on a kind of transpersonal ‘it’s all spiritual’ model, but there’s some middle ground to be tended there that’s not been looked at that much currently. Middle grounds all round. It’s a messy old tangled subject. Lots of different moving parts and facets to it. But certainly interesting.

Photograph of sunlight on water by Anna Pakutina
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