Tripping in a PET scanner

The History of the Human Sciences journal covers the problem of psychedelic drug research and subjective experience. The article argues that the mind-bending nature of the drugs demand that scientists deal with the clash between the objective world view of science and the subjective experience of the participant that is often swept under the carpet in other areas of substance research.

One particular gem is where it has a report from a participant who describes his or her experience being PET brain scanned while tripping on psilocybin:

At the beginning of the trip I suddenly felt an urge to lie down in the lab. At that point, the optical ‘distortion’ began. First, I saw that some structures were moving and took up different colors and forms. From the gurney, I looked at the sink and the soap dispenser on the wall. All of a sudden, they looked as if they had been painted – as if you apply a filter to an image, which makes it look like an oil painting.

Before the scan, I went to the toilet, but I didn’t find my bearings there. All proportions were wrong: the toilet seemed to be huge, my hands were too big, the arms too long. The first minutes of the scan were also strange. When I realized the scientist in the corner of my eye, he looked like a rat, and the assistant’s face was a zombie-like grimace. As soon as I closed my eyes, my perception changed abruptly and totally.

I was gliding through bizarre geometric spaces, mostly cubic and intensively red. My field of vision was enormously wide, up to 270º, at the corners of which I perceived whispering human figures. Only with great effort, could I afterwards fill in the questionnaires. The answers did not seem suitable or too undifferentiated. Sometimes I did not understand the questions. But it was fascinating that I could read at least half of the questions on a page at the same time.

It’s a fascinating paper as it is based on fieldwork by medical anthropologist Nicolas Langlitz in a laboratory where neuroscientists are studying the effects of psychedelic substances.

It explores how the researchers’ personal experience of the drugs informs their experimental designs and hence requires them to deal with the link between subjective experience and empirical science.

For example, in one part, while piloting EEG research, a researcher has a ‘bad trip’ and the team realise they need to make the lab look more friendly and display warmer and more relaxing pictures to reduce the chances of negative reactions.

This is clearly equivalent to the well-known context effects of set and setting developed by 60s acid-heads, but obviously has a feed-back effect on the empirical science.

As there is no ‘correct’ set-up for the look of the lab but it will clearly affect the objectively recorded results, there is an interesting interplay between objectivity and personal experience.

Obviously, this happens in other settings but is typically ignored, owing to the fact that the outcomes are perhaps less dramatic, but the amplifying nature of psychedelics demands a response from the researchers.

Sadly, the article is locked behind a $25 dollar paywall so if you want to read the full text be prepared to give up the best part of a year’s subscription to Playboy. Bargain.

Link to DOI and summary of academic article.

4 thoughts on “Tripping in a PET scanner”

  1. Set and setting don’t just matter for psychedelics– psychedelics just make it extremely obvious that they matter. They have a huge impact on cocaine, antidepressants, marijuana, heroin: basically anything psychoactive. Our failure to recognize this makes us prone to drug panics over “demon drugs” and drug love-ins over “miracle cures” when in fact my miracle cure may be your demon drug in a different setting.

  2. Recalls my experience of taking ketamine in a SPECT scanner. Although it was an amazing, psychotic experience, I was rather jealous that my experiences did not include those of another subject He saw, projected onto the spinning panels of the detector, a number of TV screens that included films of little marching men.
    For me, I found that everytime the nurse touched my wrist to check my pulse, I seemed to enter into a new level of reality. Each time I thought I’d finally got back to normal, only to realise that nothing was normal at all. The fact I had exams for a MSc a few weeks later clearly had an effect as well, for I was convinced that I was being somehow tested and that if I stopped thinking, I would stop existing. Not that there was any chance of the given the number of thoughts floating through my mind.
    Although the experiment was supposed to be looking at SPECT ligands, I found the differences between different people’s experiences of a very controlled environment to be the most interesting part of the experiment.

  3. What Maia said. The same argument also applies to so-called “gateway drugs.” One person’s gateway is another person’s cement wall, for lots of reasons, including set and setting.

  4. psilocybin mushrooms for the win!

    They are excellent medicine.

    I spent a night starry eyed beneath the sky listening to the children of the night sing to one another.

    It was is & shall be a magnificent moment.

    Tell your neighbors about the medicinal benefit of the fungus amongst us.

    Turn on as many minds as probable to the notion of consuming the flesh of these gods worthy of our praise.

    Psilocybin mushrooms are good for your physical & mental health. Living evidence that something truly wondrous & magical can emerge from shit sometimes, haha.

    good medicine!

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