A “Rough Guide” to Psychedelics: exploring the history, experience, science, safety and business of psychedelics (part 1/5)

This is Part 1 of a 5 Part “rough guide” to psychedelics. Read this series if you want to deepen your understanding of the subject across a variety of sub-topics.

Part 1 is an introduction to psychedelics, why you should care and a short history. For the rest of the series, read Part 2: The psychedelic experience; Part 3: The science of psychedelics; Part 4: Safety in psychedelics; Part 5: The business of psychedelics.

Read the Chinese translation of this article here:

​​Over the past 2 years I’ve spent a lot of time immersed in the world of psychedelics — I’ve been reading, listening, watching, spending time with healers, activists, entrepreneurs and investors in the space. And of course experiencing. I’ve become an active angel investor and donor in the field, and I’ve hosted and facilitated discussions with fellow creatives, entrepreneurs and investors — not as an expert but as a seeker, as I still have much to learn.

We are in a new psychedelic renaissance, and I’m passionate about the enormous impact these substances will have on healthcare, wellbeing and human consciousness as they move from illegal, to decriminalised, to clinically legal, to eventually recreationally available to “all”. (“All” is an aspirational goal since countries like Russia and China are likely to continue having punitive drug policies for a long time yet.)

I decided to write this series to distil some of what I’ve learned into a bit of a “rough guide” to the world of psychedelics. If you are interested in learning more about this area, I posit that this is a good place to start, precisely because I am a seeker and not an expert, and therefore I’ve done my best to strip out the complexity, present what I think is the most important starting information, and organise it into digestible frameworks.

Here’s what I will cover.

  • Part 1: What are psychedelics and why should I care? And a short history
  • Part 2: The Psychedelic Experience
  • Part 3: The science of psychedelics
  • Part 4: Safety in psychedelics
  • Part 5: The psychedelics industry

Many conversations in psychedelic circles start with a generic, often predictable introduction to people’s relationship with psychedelics. I’m going to skip this as these stories, whilst beautiful, are best reserved for more intimate settings. Suffice to say, I’ve had some transformational experiences, and as I learn more about the science, history, culture and impact, my enthusiasm for the topic only continues to grow. If this piece can do the same for some of you, I’ll be delighted.

Finally before kicking off, my DMs are open for continued conversations, learning, inspiration and opportunities. Whether you’re an entrepreneur, investor, activist, researcher, healer. I welcome hearing from people who are active in this area. You can find me on my personal website, Twitter, IG, LinkedIn.


Photo by Engin Akyurt from Pexels
Photo by Engin Akyurt from Pexels

A good place to start is the etymology of the word. Psychedelics is from the Greek psyche: mind, and delos: make visible, reveal. So psychedelics help us reveal the mind; or as Aldous Huxley famously said, open the Doors of Perception.

They are a class of compounds that induce a heightened state of consciousness, characterised by a hyperconnected brain state (more on this later). The best known psychedelics are psilocybin (found in Magic Mushrooms), DMT (found in Ayahuasca), mescaline (found in Peyote and San Pedro Cacti) and LSD. In the industry of psychedelics, the definition has been broadened to include MDMA, ketamine, and in some cases cannabis (although I had a fascinating conversation recently with cannabis and psychedelics entrepreneur Gavin Sathianathan, who shared his opinion that the omission of cannabis from much of the psychedelic rhetoric is driven by racism. A bigger topic for another time).

Psychedelics may be the best treatment we have to the growing mental health epidemic humanity faces. A number of psychedelic trials have been awarded Breakthrough Therapy Designation by the United States FDA, since clinical evidence has shown that they offer a substantial improvement over existing therapies. What’s more, they don’t require keeping people in a medicated state as per the huge industry of antidepressants such as SSRIs, and they also have minimal side effects vs traditional pharmaceuticals (excluding the trip itself). In 2017, 17% of the UK adult population took antidepressants (over 7M people), and 4M of these patients were long term users [1]. We need a better approach.

Sean McLintock, founder of the psychedelics-focused venture capital fund Neo Kuma, said that “we [humanity] are re-learning holistic healthcare”. And psychedelics will form a big part of that re-learning.

He added: “One of the biggest problems in the mental health space is the lack of personalisation and individualisation for patients. It’s very much a one size fits all approach, and it’s been this way for 50 years. Whereas in psychedelics, personalisation is going to be very prominent going forward in driving the wider adoption of these treatments”.

Beyond mental illness, psychedelics can also bring about profound experiences. In a study by the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, 80% of those who received psilocybin said it was one of the five most meaningful experiences of their lives; 50% said it was the single most meaningful experience [2]. Many of the participants said they were left with the sense that they understood themselves and others better and therefore had greater compassion and patience — a change reported by their colleagues, friends and families too. Psychedelics may also improve creativity and problem-solving abilities. Apple’s Steve Jobs said taking LSD was one of the most important things he did in his life.

Surely this all sounds too good to be true? How do they work? How can they have such profound and wide-ranging effects? I will dive into more detail on the “how” later, but for now, consider this metaphor from Mendel Kaelen, a leading psychedelic researcher in the field and founder of psychedelic music startup Wavepaths. He said “you can think of your mind as a snow-covered hill, and your thoughts are sledges. A path is pressed into the snow, it gets deeper and deeper, and soon it’s hard to escape that groove. A psychedelic trip is the fresh snowfall that lets your sledges explore new paths”.


Photo by Gradienta on Unsplash
Photo by Gradienta on Unsplash

Psychedelics have been used across the world for thousands of years. These mind-altering plants and fungi were used in rituals for their healing powers as well as for pleasure. There is evidence of psilocybin on cave paintings in North Africa from 4000 BC. And in Central America in 1300 AD, the Aztecs referred to these magic mushrooms as the “flesh of the gods”.

From the late 1800s there was a flurry of “discoveries” by Western scientists — mescaline was isolated from peyote in 1897, followed by ibogaine in 1901, MDMA in 1912 and, famously, LSD in 1938 by Albert Hofman. In 1955, R Gordon Wasson, a banker from NYC, famously travelled to Mexico to take psilocybin under the care of a curandera (healer) called Maria Sabina. He wrote about this experience in Life Magazine and this opened the floodgates for Western psychedelic tourism into Mexico.

Much progress was being made by healers, scientists and psychotherapists in understanding these compounds and their wide-ranging effects. Until the swinging 60s, after which they were outlawed. The abridged version: LSD became mainstream, the US administration linked this consciousness-expanding drug with the rebellion against the Vietnam War, and psychedelics were outlawed. First in the USA with LSD in 1966, then other psychedelic substances in 1970 with Nixon’s Controlled Substances Act; followed by a global ban in 1971 at the UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances.

For the next few decades, psychedelics went underground. Healers continued to practice all over the world, recreational use continued, but scientific research took a big hit for the next few decades. However a number of passionate campaigners, activists and scientists continued to work hard on building the case for clinical research, and in the past 10–15 years things have been changing.

The psychedelic renaissance is the optimistic term that is used to describe the current period of accelerated research, policy review and investment into this space. The Covid-19 pandemic has unfortunately accelerated the mental health epidemic all over the world; something needs to shift in human healthcare and consciousness. The psychedelic renaissance couldn’t come at a more needed time.

Click here for Part 2: The psychedelic experience.

With thanks to Sean McLintock, Tom McDonald, Alastair Moore, Dr Henry Fisher, Sjir Hoeijmakers and Andre Marmot for contributing or reading drafts of these posts.

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