Encounters with Psychedelics: Attuning spaces, figures and ways of knowing
Led by: Tehseen Noorani (Durham University, UK)
This comparative ethnography, initiated as part of our project Participation's Others: A Cartography of Creative Listening Practices, documents the differences, overlaps and possible bridges between three different ‘sites for inquiry’ into psychedelic substances – clinical research, the underground psychedelics movement and traditional healing practices. The project draws together modes of attunement, engagement and knowledge production in each of these sites.
Project Background and Summary
After a long hiatus marked by the US Controlled Substances Act of 1970, university-based research into psychedelics is on the rise again. This project situates the recent resurgence of clinical research into psychedelics within broader frameworks for understanding and engaging psychedelics, which are variously understood as ‘psychoactive drugs’, ‘non-specific amplifiers of consciousness’ and ‘plant teachers’.
From December 2013 to Summer 2015, I worked with a team at Johns Hopkins University’s Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit in Baltimore, USA, where medium and high doses of psilocybin – the key psychoactive compound of magic mushrooms – are being administered to individuals to help induce smoking cessation. Initial results show that volunteers do very well, with roughly 80% cessation rate at the 6-month follow-up stage. Yet recent studies such as these reveal little about how psychedelics have lasting effects on people’s subjective states. From 2013-2015, I conducted retrospective in-depth qualitative interviews with the volunteers from the Hopkins study, aimed at gaining experiential insights into how the changes took place. Such qualitative research remains rare in the university research. However they can offer a lot - so-called ‘mechanisms of change’ are difficult to pin down, unsurprisingly given that ineffability and noetic clarity are defining aspects of mystical experience (Pahnke, 1969). This raises a challenge for building a scientific body of knowledge around the experience of psychedelics-facilitated trips.
Stepping back, the burgeoning clinical research is not - nor has ever been - the only game in town. The underground psychedelics movement, centered upon the figure of the psychonaut, has thrived through digital archives such as the Erowid vaults, and the work of underground chemists and pioneers such as Alexander and Ann Shulgin. Online, detailed trip reports abound, often with scrupulous recording of settings, mindsets and dosages, and experiences of encounters with non-human and more-than-human entities, together with the knowledges imparted therein.
Stepping back once more, a third site of inquiry into psychedelics with existing but under-documented links to the current clinical research entails the myriad traditional healing practices, in different parts of the world, which involves the use of psychedelic substances as plant teachers in ceremonies and rituals that can be traced back as far as the earliest existing manuscripts of the Aztec civilization. Traditional healing is less concerned with research into plant teachers than research with them, reflecting the terminology of teacher over that of tool.
Together these sites of inquiry reveal a multiplicity of ways that psychedelics-facilitated experiences are understood, communicated and brought into association. Framing concepts, figures and artifacts vary across the sites, some more easily translatable than others. Spaces are made in very different ways, and ideas of 'safety' take on distinct meanings. Practices of aggregating numerical measures (notably the statistical sciences) differ from practices of aggregating narratives. This project uses ethnographic and qualitative research methods, including interviews with traditional healers, forager-psychonauts and university-based researchers, to explore the challenges and potentials that emerge when placing these sites alongside one another, as sites of encounter, inquiry, insight and connection.
It is hoped that this project will provide the basis for learning from, through and with psychedelics in different ways. One example is to generate resources for imagining new forms of participatory and/or collaborative research that sit across more than one of these sites of inquiry. Another is to rethink democracy, participation and our ideas of 'participatory democracy' through what we learn from psychedelics. Finally the project asks how inquiry into psychedelics challenges and reconfigures how we understanding 'experience' and 'inquiry' itself.
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If you would like to connect with this project, contact Tehseen
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