Natural or Artificial Psychedelics – Which are Best?

As promised in a previous post I’m going to try adding a few videos in which I explore particular subjects. These are unscripted and so inevitably I think of extra stuff to say once I press ‘stop’. This one presents as few thoughts about the relationship between natural and artificial psychedelics, and an exploration of where we consider the limits of nature and culture to be.

And a few extra points…

One additional thought is that there is now a vast range of laboratory synthesized chemicals (mostly still uncommon enough that they don’t have well established street names). Subtle variations in their effects was one of the things that inspired Alexander Shulgin to explore various ways of tweaking the phenethylamines (MDMA, 2CI, 2CB etc) and the tryptamines (LSD, A-LAD,  5-MeO-DiPT etc). As we gather more data about these substances, and as clinical exploration continues, we will hopefully gain a much deeper understanding of the pharmacology of psychedelic space. The complex relationship between molecular shape and subjective effects is subtle indeed. Reading Shulgins’ work it’s fascinating to learn how tiny changes in molecular structure can significantly change the activity, dosage range, duration and subjective experience of substances that maintain a common set of chemical characteristics. There is perhaps something of an analogy with smell here, in that just because two molecules look structurally similar does not necessarily mean they smell the same. Smell appears to be a process where the Newtonian ‘shape’ of molecules is one factor along with the fuzzy complexity of quantum biology. (You can also check out some of the fine grain psychopharmacological theory about psychedelics in this fascinating presentation by Thomas Ray at Breaking Convention 2017.)


Shamanic journey

Having access to this range of psychedelics means we can explore the potentials of this space, and that’s what humans do. Our ancestors discovered the chemical key that unlocked the DMT in Psychotria viridis and rendered it orally active. They invented ayahuasca. The work of Hofmann, Shulgin, Manske, Nichols et al. is part of this lineage, this tradition of entheogenic chemical exploration.

(Incidentally, Canadian chemist Richard Helmuth Fredrick Manske first synthesized DMT in 1931, many years before it was unequivocally identified in organic sources.)

Sure ‘natural’ organic psychedelics are great, but I come from a culture where our entheogenic revival was initiated by LSD. This laboratory product was what transformed Western culture. It opened the way for the return of the plant medicines into the society I inhabit. For that I give thanks to the Bunsen burners, the reaction vessels, the pipettes, and of course to the curious twist of fate whereby a Swiss chemist ‘accidentally’ ingests this incredibly potent substance that his alchemy has brought to birth. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Finally, on the matter of the relative benefits of organic or synthetic psychedelics I think we should be mindful of the option of Arch-Mushroom curandera Maria Sabina (Peace Be Upon Her).

Albert Hofmann visited María Sabina in 1962 and brought her a gift; a bottle of psilocybin pills that Hofmann had synthesized. After trying the pills Maria Sabina announced that there was little difference between their effects and that of the Psilocybe mexicana she used in ceremony. She then thanked Hofmann saying that with these pills she would now be able to serve people as a healer even when the mushrooms were out of season.

This is a great story. A respected shaman sees no great difference between a spirit from the laboratory or from the landscape. And more than this, she explains, why she is pleased to have Hofmann’s medicine; to use it when the natural substance is not available, and to use it to help others.


Chemical romance

My culture did not have access to entheogens for many generations (they were there in the landscape but we had forgotten them). Since the time of Eleusis we’ve been cut off from ‘the medicine’. It took that chance laboratory discovery, and subsequent archetypal bicycle ride, to return my society to a connection with the psychedelic gnosis. Like Maria Sabina says, when the plant medicine isn’t available the synthetic spirit is just as good so long as we keep to our intention – to take these trips for the benefit of ourselves and for all beings.



Summer programme

Stuff we are doing…

Nikki and I are holding a series of retreats at St.Nectan’s Glen. The May retreat is fully booked but please keep an eye on our Facebook page and/or send us your email so we can keep you up to date. We are planning another retreat in July, then September and November.

I’m presenting a celebration of the 75th anniversary of the first intentional LSD trip on Bicycle Day, 19th April in London. This will be a participatory ritual journey, from Eleusis to Acid.

I’m is also facilitating a day long workshop on Sigils, Talismans and Magic Signs at Treadwell’s in London.

Nikki and I have the honour of providing the opening and closing ceremony at the Third Summer of Love gathering in Amsterdam in July. This is going to be an awesome entheogenic ceremony. The next day (yeah, really!) we’ll be providing talks for the Netherlands Psychedelic Society, and the day after that, a workshop on magic and altered states of consciousness. Stay tuned for more details.

In August we’ll be in Wales to run a shamanic workshop  We’re also speaking at Beyond Psychedelics in Prague in June and Ozora in Hungary at the end of July.

Hope to see you soon!

Julian Vayne

Witch on DMT – For Science!

DMT is an iconic substance; one of the central ingredients of the magical potion ayahuasca, fuel for the entrancing soliloquies of Terence McKenna and the beautiful art of Pablo Amaringo. This powerful psychedelic was also the one that the fabulous Nikki Wyrd was injected with at the winter solstice last year – for science!

Nikki was a participant in an experiment conducted at Imperial College, London. In due course I’m sure she will publish exactly what happened, but she can’t share much at the moment because the experiment is ongoing (and no one wants to mess up the data). Both physiological and psychological information was collected, as subjects had the chance to take this often highly visual psychedelic in a clinical setting. The aim is to understand more about how this substance operates, its potential to help us explore how the brain (and mind) works, and the mechanisms by which it exerts its possible therapeutic effects.


Actual pics of Ms Wyrd as psychonaut to follow once the research is complete!

Now anyone who has been paying attention to the fact that substances such as DMT have regularly proved (for millennia) both philosophically useful (in terms of helping people explore consciousness) and healing (in various ‘traditional’ psychedelic cultures) may wonder why we need such research? There are several answers to this, including the strategic one; that increased licensed use of psychedelics may lead to a wider social acceptance that these are valuable, rather than dangerous, substances. Another reason is that detailed scientific studies (this year will see researchers injecting people with DMT whilst inside fMRI brain scanners) can help us measure and understand exactly what happens to DMT in the body.

Science helps us to learn real data, supportable facts, which sometime challenge our assumptions. For instance; in the case of DMT it now considered something of ‘fact’ that it is produced in the pineal gland. The notion that this most visionary of chemicals is made in the third-eye chakra is a pretty cool one. This idea may have originated as a conversational suggestion from Rupert Sheldrake, and appears as a conjecture in Rick Strassman’s seminal DMT The Spirit Molecule. It’s an idea that is not without merit and it has to be said that today, 20 years after Strassman’s work, there is still research to be done on the chemistry of the pineal (at least judging by a kitchen conversation between Ben Sessa and David Luke I was party to a couple of weeks ago). However even if the pineal gland does make DMT, it appears unlikely that it could be the main source of endogenous DMT. That honour, it seems, belongs not to the ajna chakra but instead to the lungs.

A chemical cascade involving the enzyme INMT, which is always present in the lungs, could produce DMT in amounts  sufficient to create significant alterations in consciousness. The location of DMT production in the lungs also points towards an answer for why we have DMT in our bodies (and the bodies of many, many other living things) in the first place. It could be, as per the mythology, that DMT is there in order to let us crash into a universe of elves in order to impressed by their dazzling non-Euclidian architecture. It could perhaps have been encoded into us by some ancient alien race from Sirius or wherever, or sharpening Occam’s razor, or it could be something much more pragmatic and important to our biology.

What DMT is for in the body is the subject of some fascinating research by the charming Dr Ede Frecska. If you watch his video (filmed at Breaking Convention in 2015) you will get to hear what, for my money, is one of the best opening lines of any presentation on psychedelics: “I have a dream to have DMT in an ampule for IV use in every operating room, every intensive care unit, and every emergency vehicle.”

It appears that DMT acts to stop cells dying, it slows damage caused by oxidative stress and that’s why it is one of the few substances which are actively transported across the blood-brain barrier in humans (the others are glucose and vitamin C). As Ede explains in his engaging lecture there is a clear (and testable) chemical pathway, focused around the lungs, for our bodies to make DMT and for it to be rapidly absorbed by the brain for its neuroprotective benefits.

This scientific insight has lots of fascinating consequences. It means, for example, that we have a clear physiological mechanism by which the body could be flooded by psychedelic DMT at birth, perhaps at death, and when the body is under oxidative stress. Knowing this perhaps adds an additional layer to our understanding of the power of breathwork. Ritual practices such as full immersion baptism and many other body technologies for changing awareness may also make use of our endogenous DMT, encouraging the lungs to allow this psychedelic to persist in the bloodstream from where it is actively gobbled up by the brain.

I wonder whether the subjective effects of DMT echo what is going on at a cellular level? I wonder whether all those fractals, faces and, for some, the deep sense of the reality of the experience, is something that serves to stimulate us when we are in trouble? Small amounts of exogenous DMT certainly increase attentiveness, so maybe the call to ‘sit up and pay attention’ in the DMT trance is a turned up version of a biologically rooted ‘hey! Pull yourself together!’. At higher levels of endogenous DMT, the creation of an internal landscape, of the type we might encounter in the exogenous DMT trance, could be a property that serves to keep the operating system of consciousness running (i.e. awareness of an apparently objective external world) while the hardware (the brain) is under stress. Maybe DMT space is what the brain does until it can reboot, a hyperdimensional screensaver before normal consciousness comes back online? It is also interesting that current research suggests that DMT may have a directly healing effect on the brain (probably through its effect on the sigma-1 receptor).

Whether the effect of DMT on subjective experience is something that has been evolutionarily selected for, or whether it’s just one of those wacky epiphenomena (or the work of hyper-dimensional aliens…), is open to question. What is perhaps more certain, given recent research, is that those visitations by Guardian Angels, ancestors and other imaginal beings in moments of physical crisis (such as near drowning) could be visions made accessible by the production of DMT in the body. (Note, this isn’t the same as saying these things are not ‘real’ – whatever that means, see my article on the subject).

Many wonderful scientific insights into psychedelic substances will be presented later this year at the mother of all psychedelic conferences Breaking Convention. The lastest scientific investigations, funded by groups such as MAPS, The Beckley Foundation, and others, will bring cutting edge information to the conference. Add to this a goodly assortment of psychonauts, independent researchers, historians, shamans and others, and you’ve got a powerful psychedelic potion indeed! I’m pleased to know that some of the scientific data I’ll be hearing about will have been gathered with the help of practising spiritual psychonauts such as Ms Wyrd (who, probably, as a result of many years spent in meditation, was able to remain perfectly still during her DMT assay, producing electroencephalogram readings that were, according to the researchers, ‘impeccable’).

Finally, I hope and indeed pray that we can, as psychedelics ask us to do, keep our minds open as science and magic meet in our renewed quest to understand how best to use these marvelous substances.



STOP PRESS! More science news; a few hours before releasing this blogpost, a paper revealing the crystal structure of the human 5-HT2B receptor bound to LSD was published. Yet another speck to add to our ever-growing pile of knowledge.