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The Science Behind Tripping Balls

Recently, my trips have been horrible. They have alternated between terrifying hallucinations and mediocre experiences, but are always followed by disgust-tinged regret. I decided I needed some help from The Experts, so I devoted last weekend to...

by Michelle Lhooq
Oct 17 2012, 4:50pm


Kevin Balktick, founder of Horizons: Perspectives on Psychedelics

According to hippies, psychedelics are like a window opening into profound introspection, or a catapult into transcendence. They are not lying. My last psychotropic moment of insight actually happened just a week ago, when I found myself simultaneously pissing, retching, hallucinating, crying, and shivering in some rancid bathroom. Fuck this, I divined in a two-second window of lucidity, drugs are a sham.

It was a crucial moment of disillusionment—a turning point in an illustrious few years of shoving random shit up my nose and down my throat. Drugs had become nothing more than cheap satisfaction followed by disgust-tinged regret, like shitty instant noodles on a boring Sunday night.

Were my receptors just fried? Would I have to resort to some kumbaya crap to coax meaning back into my trips? I needed some help from The Experts, so I devoted last weekend to Horizons: Perspectives on Psychedelicsa three-day academic conference featuring the brightest names in psychedelic research, held every fall in New York’s Judson Memorial Church.


Photos by Samantha Isom

Compared to the dozens of psychedelic summits that happen each year around the country, speakers don’t prattle on about their life-changing ayahuasca trips during some shamanistic ritual in South America (so shut up, Penn Badgly), or how much groovier everything was back in the 60s. Horizons focuses predominantly on contemporary research, meaning fewer feelings and more facts.

Here’s what I learned about the science behind tripping balls.

A Psychedelic Renaissance Is Happening, Bitches

The opening party was at the Rubin Museum, a yogi’s paradise of ancient Tibetan, Nepalese, and Indian art. There, I ran into Neal Goldsmith, the conference’s host. He invited me back to his place, where we shared a joint while he lamented the dearth of funding needed to re-classify drugs like 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine (that’s your BFF, Molly), psilocybin, and ayahuasca as Schedule II substances, despite their apparent medicinal benefits for patients with terminal cancer and PTSD, among others.

But apparently, clinical trials using psychedelics are winning increasing recognition by mainstream academia and approval from the FDA. This rebirth of psychedelics as therapeutic tools has been dubbed the “psychedelic renaissance”—which harkens back to the 60s and 70s, except minus the shitshow of excess those decades kind of collapsed into.


Kevin Balktick

There’s plenty of evidence to support this claim: Switzerland is using LSD to treat end-of-life anxiety. Mexico and Canada are using ibogaine for opiate addiction, and in America, MDMA is being tested on soldiers coming home with PTSD, while psilocybin has been championed as a miracle cure for cluster headaches.

Over the next two days, even the driest  speakers doubled as stirring leaders for this swelling movement. Ralph Metzner—a messiah in these circles for his pioneering work with Tim Leary at Harvard—began with a pretty cursory talk about the use of ayahuasca, mushrooms, and the iboga root in shamanism. But in the last five minutes, he straightened behind the altar’s lectern and boomed out rousing rhetoric like, “WHAT KIND OF SOCIETY DO WE LIVE IN WHERE HEALING SUBSTANCES ARE BANNED?” Everyone in the audience jumped to their feet with giddy applause; the academic talk had turned into a rapturous political rally at the hands of a dude who once injected DMT into his veins.

Researchers Don’t Trip as Much as You’d Think (Or Won’t Tell You About It)

Apparently, asking psychedelic scientists about their personal experiences is a major faux pas. Neal recoiled when I asked if I might be able to join in any group trips that were happening that weekend. “We are professionals,” he scoffed, “we’re probably just going to get dinner together.”

Metzner similarly snapped at a young buck in the audience who asked him during a Q&A what his favorite psychedelic is. ““I’m a researcher. Frankly, like my sex life, that’s none of your business.” Awk.

I gave the “personal question” thing one last shot with Matthew Baggott, a neuroscientist who tests MDMA’s effects on social interactions between healthy research volunteers. Despite looking like he could do the “Gangnam Style” dance like a champ, he refused to divulge whether he rolls face on the weekends, explaining, “I don’t answer that question, because if I tell people that I’ve done it, they discount my professionalism. Also, if I tell people I’ve done it they say I’m biased.”

While it is a disappointing answer, it does make sense. A field striving for mainstream medical acceptance can’t risk rumors about LSD-laced orgies.

Closed-Eyed Visuals Don’t Come from Ghosts or Aliens, Stupid

When it comes to closed-eye visuals in psychedelia, I’ve always wondered two things: 1) Where do those fractal-faced bogeymen dancing on my eyelids come from? And 2) Why do so many people report hanging out with fucking aliens when they’re on DMT?

One of Brazil’s leading neuroscientists, Sidarta Ribeiro (an expert on brain functioning during sleep, memories, and dreams), gave a stunning presentation on the neural basis of seeing intensely trippy shit even with your eyes closed. Basically, the doctor gave a bunch of experienced ayahuasca users (Brazilian shamans, essentially) a dose of the mystical plant, then watched their brain activities through an fMRI as they completed a series of visual tasks.

He found that the brain’s primary visual area was activated at the same levels whether the tripper had his eyes open or shut—meaning closed-eyed visuals were as vividly real as reality itself. Put that shit in your bong and smoke it.

He also found that ayahuasca activated areas in the brain related to vision, memory, and intention. This suggests that visions come from internal sources, like contextual associations and episodic memories. In other words, memories, movies, and environmental setting all contribute to closed-eye hallucinations. That creepy snake you thought was God during your last trip? Probably just a parceled recollection of Anaconda and the Jungle Book t-shirt you were wearing. Loser.

Later, I asked Ribeiro if he believed in spirits. “Sure,” he replied, “When people are possessed by spirits, they’re possessed by patterns of activities in their own brains which have a certain degree of autonomy.” Then I shyly asked how many times he’d endured the ayahuasca ritual, expecting a rebuke.  To my surprise, he was pretty open about it. Only twice, he said, adding that it was a rough experience.

Apparently, even neuroscientists know when to say no to a shitty time on drugs. Maybe I should learn to do the same.

Follow Michelle on Twitter @MichelleLHOOQ

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Horizons: Perspectives on Psychedelics
Kevin Balktick