By Neşe Devenot
Since the 2022 publication of “Preparing for the Bursting of the Psychedelic Hype Bubble,” a JAMA Psychiatry Viewpoint by David Yaden and colleagues, a wave of scholarship and commentaries has emphasized the ethical importance of nuanced science communication about the still-nascent field of psychedelic medicine.
As the journalist Katie MacBride recently described in The Daily Beast, there is now a “growing minority” of scholars and activists in the psychedelics field who are drawing attention to “the dangers of overhyping the potential of psychedelics.” Earlier this year, the anthropologist Nicolas Langlitz described how this critical response to the ongoing “hype bubble” must be distinguished from earlier prohibitionist concerns about psychedelics, which were often characterized by moral panic during the 1960s. In place of this purely “anti-psychedelic” critique, Langlitz notes that the present discourse of critical “anti-hype” had been initiated by “forces within” the psychedelic field, as scholars and activists raise concerns about the ethical and political impact of psychedelic medicalization and its capitalistic roots. (I reflected this orientation in a recent presentation title: “You can be both pro-psychedelics and anti-hype.”)
As Langlitz observed, “The most prominent representatives of this cultural critique have been critical psychedelic studies proponents, scholars and journalists associated with the watchdog organization Psymposia,” which will celebrate its 10th anniversary in February 2024. In its origins, Psymposia was the programming partner for the largest psychedelic conference of its time—MAPS’s Psychedelic Science 2017—where it curated a full schedule of speakers on an eponymous stage. Shortly after, with firsthand insight as former “insiders” in the psychedelics field, the organization shifted to analyze how the increasingly hyped rhetoric about psychedelics was increasing the likelihood of harm.
Image: Psychedelic Science 2017 signage, courtesy of Brian Normand.
In my experience of working with Psymposia since 2019, there has been a sea change in the broader field’s reception of critical perspectives on psychedelic medicine over the past year. Previously, it had been common to find researchers and activists resisting discussions of risks and harms—whether due to fears of encouraging “bad trips” through suggestion, tempering access to newly-available funding sources, or provoking a repressive backlash against scientific research after decades of slow progress. During that time, hype contributed to the view that psychedelics might solve all of the world’s most pressing (even existential) problems, ranging from climate change to the mental illness “epidemic” to the rise of fascism. When the stakes are that high, the protection of psychedelic research and medicalization has—at times—seemed paramount. As Michael Pollan wrote in the New York Times in 2019: “There is…the risk of inciting the sort of political backlash that, in the late 1960s, set back research into psychedelics for decades. Think of what we might know now, and the suffering that might have been alleviated, had that research been allowed to continue.”
Today, “anti-hype” perspectives are increasingly mainstream. Since its publication in May 2023, a JAMA Psychiatry Viewpoint on the importance of studying psychedelic harms has become a standard reference in the field. (Previously, its authors had contributed to a related piece in this Bill of Health blog, which argued for a precautionary approach to touch in psychedelic-assisted therapy.) In recent months, the stakes for increasing research and communication about risks have been heightened by two high-profile incidents of psychedelic-related harms: the attempted crash of an Alaska Airlines flight by an off-duty pilot, and the ketamine-induced drowning death of Friends actor Matthew Perry. As Jules Evans has argued persuasively in the wake of these incidents, psychedelic hype is increasing the likelihood of harm by underemphasizing the actual risks associated with psychedelic substances and their varied contexts of use. As the field develops, psychedelic research and education can provide important correctives to such hype by incorporating critical and interdisciplinary perspectives.
While “critical psychedelic studies” was always interdisciplinary, its rise has been influenced by the simultaneous codification of “psychedelic humanities” as a subfield in its own right. (Although I have been advocating for a critical psychedelic humanities since 2010, I was one of the only humanists at early psychedelic conferences. Over the past 17 months, however—as I was invited to my first and then my sixth psychedelic humanities workshop, in short succession—I realized that something significant had changed.)
With increased attention from humanities methodologies (such as “close reading”) on the subject of psychedelics, we can expect a corresponding increase in discussions about the importance of attending to psychedelic contexts, where risks are often magnified by differentials of power and precarity. Since the critical “anti-hype” is so closely tied to a humanistic and social scientific lens, this symposium could be seen as the first major psychedelic humanities initiative to launch at Harvard since its $16 million grant in late 2023. (Earlier that year, Michael Pollan characterized the psychedelic humanities as the future of psychedelic studies, in a line tucked at the end of his new preface to Brian Muraresku’s The Immortality Key: “it pushes the psychedelic renaissance into the realm of the humanities and culture, which may well be its next, and most exciting, chapter.”)
As the psychedelic humanities develops, we can also look to history to learn from “anti-hype” perspectives from the first wave of psychedelic science in the 1960s, some of which have warned about the dangers of consequentialist (or “ends justify the means”) reasoning among psychedelic advocates. For instance, Joe Welker has drawn attention to an essay by Lisa Bieberman (later Alicia Kuenning), who worked closely with Timothy Leary: “I have been told I shouldn’t publish these things, because they will weaken the image of the psychedelic movement, and that any means are justified in popularizing LSD because it is the only thing that can prevent nuclear war.” Since critical scholars have (by now) deconstructed the view that psychedelics will necessarily save the world, it is perhaps easier to see that nuance and harm reduction are not threats to the field’s survival; rather, they are essential features for ensuring scientific rigor and increasing the likelihood of benefits.
Although critical psychedelic studies is only now gaining traction, the interdisciplinary academic field of Psychedelic Studies has emphasized the importance of critical humanities perspectives since its earliest articulations. In 2013, for instance, I published an essay titled “A Declaration of Psychedelic Studies,” which began with these words: “The scientific research community is in the midst of a ‘psychedelic renaissance,’ but sanctioned platforms for mainstream discussion are heavily weighted in the direction of objective scientific research. In light of these recent advances, it is an opportune time to address the question of psychedelics and their continuing impact on culture from a critical perspective—and to confront the issues that have impeded this conversation. It is time for psychedelic research to expand from the artificial disciplinary confines of medicine and anthropology to include philosophy and other humanistic avenues of inquiry.”
I had the opportunity to develop that vision of an expanded field of “Psychedelic Studies” in 2015, when I was commissioned by the feminist philosopher Iris van der Tuin to write the first textbook chapter on critical psychedelic studies. During the research process, I realized that the chapter’s cross-disciplinary topics had never before been formally assembled as a united field. As I noted in the introduction, “This chapter is the first attempt to map the scholarly contributions to psychedelic studies at the critical intersections of gender, ecology, race, and sexuality.” As we move past a phase of “partial eclipse” by psychedelic hype, this critical field is finally well-situated to explore the full spectrum of psychedelic effects, in tandem with their extra-pharmacological (social, environmental, and contextual) influences.
The essays collected in this symposium represent a diversity of viewpoints about the field and its potential futures, rather than a consensus perspective. Despite differences in opinion, disciplinary vantage point, and level of analysis, they are united in calling attention to significant topics that have been underexplored in the dominant discourse about psychedelic medicine. As each contribution emphasizes, these oversights have ethical implications for research design, informed consent processes, and public communication. I hope that this symposium contributes to furthering conversations and generating new questions in the context of a broader “critical turn” within psychedelic studies.
Neşe Devenot, PhD is a Senior Lecturer in the University Writing Program at the Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Devenot is also an affiliated researcher with Project on Psychedelics Law and Regulation (POPLAR) at the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School.
Disclosures: Dr. Devenot is affiliated with The Ohio State University’s Center for Psychedelic Drug Research and Education (CPDRE), the Intercollegiate Psychedelics Network (IPN), the Psychedelic Educators Network (PEN), and Psymposia.