Jonathan Cole's Skepticism About Psychedelics

Part 2: Why would such a proponent of psychological cocktails be concerned?

Posted Oct 05, 2020

 RobinOlimb/iStock Photo
Source: RobinOlimb/iStock Photo

This post is Part 2 of a two-part series. You can read Part 1 here. 

Fleeing from your psyche into the arms of drugs: I am not a purist about the use of recreational drugs. It's when they begin to hijack meaning that I take notice.

A group of Parisian psychoanalysts has thought deeply about the human condition as transcending bacterial and human cells, molecules, receptors, and brains. This group of researchers examines the ways in which human psychology links to physical disease. And in an absolutely brilliant paper by psychoanalyst Marion Oliner, we hear how excessively turning to drugs poses a significant threat to your body—not physically, but mediated by the psychology of turning to something external.

In this paper, she explains that when we turn to drugs to resolve existential issues, this kind of "external" solution to an internal dysregulation has risks. The concrete go-to replaces the work that needs to be done. In many patients, these psychanalysts have observed that your body pays a price for avoiding reflection. This association has struck me as a clinician as well.

The work of facing and dealing with the human condition involves serious reflection (and I would add, connecting with a way of "being") and without this kind of reflection and way of being, we risk ignoring our troublesome emotions. With emotions having nowhere to be or go, "the body takes part in the conversation." In these instances, contact with external objects replaces the nourishment we need from our inner worlds. And our physical well-being suffers. 

One key question that is unlikely to be answered by "scientific investigations" is whether psychedelics open the door to this inner world, but in so doing, usurp our agency. In providing the gifts of surrender, self-scrambling, and transcending the limits of our perception, do psychedelics replace the healing effects of agency and self-authoring? I would say that it depends on how you use them, but this is quite likely.

How do you relate to the drugs? On the one hand, many find the boost a welcome change, and even transformative. I have little doubt that the experience is powerful, relieving, and transformative for those people. On the other hand, this experience may eclipse the agentic elicitation of transcendent states that people can achieve themselves if they do not give up. It's not just meditation that can induce this state of bliss, awe, or self-scrambling. Beauty, love, and a great bicycle ride can have this effect as well, though many would object that the psychedelic effect, due to its visual impact, is far greater. Regardless, even with beauty, love, and a bicycle ride, how you experience yourself relative to the stimulus matters.  

When we use drugs, perhaps we stand to gain more if we straddle the boundary between giving in to them and being agents of our own lives? Perhaps that is why some psychedelics require a kind of ritual ceremony that recognizes them as being "apart" from the self? After all, the drugs would be powerless without your brain.

Whether it is Prozac or psilocybin, Dr. Cole's concerns about drugs being a form of "mind control" may not be as absurdly conspiratorial as they may seem. In fact, given his profound understanding of poetry, music, and psychoanalysis, he is one source of wisdom I would not ignore. As I experienced him asking on many occasions, what if the relief you experience is connected to a psychedelic narrative that is not true? What if you were not in fact raped by a close relative, but it felt like that? Or if you should not disrupt your marriage, but you might? 

Also, can we "steal" from these depths of consciousness without ramifications? I don't claim to know these answers, but the questions seem worthwhile.

Psychedelics without "psychiatry": Also, any psychotherapy that accompanies the use of psychedelics would be more likely to be effective if we did not limit ourselves to the unreliable diagnoses of psychiatry, or to the oversimplified reliance on brain studies to reveal the "truth." What if, rather than using psychedelics to treat "depression" and "anxiety," they were conceived of as doors to another way of being and thinking than psychiatry has offered.

What if suffering is not an illness but a signal to a truth that you are not what your thoughts would deem you to be? What if psychedelics could herald a new era of the science of the mind by not invoking the brain alone? What if you listened to the sound of psychedelics and realized that your entire body is connected and that you are connected to all else in the world as well?    

Back to Dr. Cole: So, as for whether Dr. Cole's skepticism is warranted, I would be inclined to say "yes." Such a liberal, truly experimental, and open-hearted pioneer is worth listening to.

Instead of rushing ahead to another decade of mostly disappointing trials like the decades based on the increasingly unimpressive monoamine hypothesis of depression, running after another group of molecules, receptors, or brain/mental experiences, we might look beyond the brain to networks outside of ourselves. As one physicist recently suggested, the entire universe may be a neural network similar in structure to the human brain.

And as Oliner suggests, dialing into this network by "excessive recourse to external and organic processes" will likely diminish one's own line of communication with inner objects. In my opinion, our own abstractions are a superior source of psychic power when we connect our agency with them, compared to the perceptions and self-scrambling offered by external objects. And as scholars like Michel Fain and Pierre Marty point out, replacing our abstractions with dazzling perceptual experiences or "pseudoclarity" places us at risk of lifelong narcissistic deprivation of the self, and even more disturbingly, premature somatic disorganization, though we may go out with a bang.