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Future Histories of Psychedelic Biomedicine

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

A commonly cited catalyst for the psychedelic renaissance is the renewed interest in biomedical research on psychedelics for mental health, including depression, PTSD, and addiction. For instance, popular media like Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind (2018) and its Netflix adaptation (2022) often utilize this research to bolster claims about the relative safety of psychedelics and their efficacy as a mental health treatment. The common (and simplified) narrative in these popular portrayals is that psychedelic research boomed throughout the mid-twentieth century before being swept up in the drug war and pushed underground, and yet today, after years of unjust policies and propaganda, psychedelic researchers and advocates from the past are being proven right by contemporary biomedical research.

Even though the details of this narrative may differ depending on the source, especially about Timothy Leary, the point is that the psychedelic renaissance relies on the history of prior psychedelic research that is often simplified or caricatured–if not forgotten or outright ignored. When popular media utilizes the history of prior psychedelic research, little to no reference is made to the work of humanities and social science scholars whose work reified this rich history of psychedelic research and troubled common narratives of it, such as Psychedelic Psychiatry: LSD from Clinic to Campus (2008) by Erika Dyck, The Trials of Psychedelic Therapy: LSD Psychotherapy in America (2018) by Ben Sessa, and Acid Revival: The Psychedelic Renaissance and the Quest for Medical Legitimacy (2020) by Danielle Giffort.

Such scholarship equips contemporary drug researchers and psychedelic advocates with the history and context necessary to better approach the contemporary mental health problems. In order to highlight the important relationship between humanities scholarship and biomedical research, the “Psychedelic Pasts, Presents, and Futures” Borghesi-Mellon workshop at the University of Wisconsin-Madison put together an online panel titled “What’s New/What’s Next in the History of Psychedelic Biomedicine?” The panel consisted of five current or recent graduate students and was facilitated by Dr. Lucas Richert and Amanda Pratt. The aim of the panel was to introduce and amplify relatively new voices in humanities and social sciences to bring a fresh perspective on what’s happening in psychedelic biomedicine.

Andrea Ens, the first panelist, is a PhD Candidate in History at Purdue University and studies the history of conversation therapy in North America from 1910-1970, specifically seeking to uncover how psychedelic research has been interlinked with social stigma. Andrew Jones is a PhD Candidate in the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Toronto and researches the medical use of psychedelics in state funded facilities in the United States during the 1960s, such as hospitals, asylums, etc., mainly focusing on the unethical uses of LSD in those institutions. The third panelist, Taylor Dysart, is a PhD Candidate in the History and Sociology of Science at University of Pennsylvania and examines ayahuasca as a global and scientific object in the mid-twentieth century in order to reconsider the origins of psychedelic exceptionalism. Jacob Green, the penultimate panelist, is a PhD Candidate in History at UCLA and focuses on how interdisciplinarity has been a part of research on psychedelics since its inception in the United States. And rounding out the panel, Jarrett Rose, a sociology post-doc at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, researches how culture is constructed and disseminated in psychedelic retreats based on his ethnographic research at a psilocybin treatment center in Jamaica.

Despite disparate geographical and temporal scopes in research, each panelist touched on the importance of interdisciplinarity in contemporary psychedelic research as a way to continue the history of such research on psychedelics as Green suggested, or to avoid unethical approaches to psychedelic research as those deployed in the past, such as the attempts to use psychedelics in conversion therapy as Ens pointed out, the manipulative use of LSD in state facilities as Jones discussed, or the commodification of indigenous knowledges of ayahuasca as Dysart highlighted. Interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary approaches to research are no panacea for unethical research practices, just as psychedelics are no panacea for mental health issues, but a transdisciplinary research approach does equip contemporary drug researchers with the critical tools and historical context necessary to attend to the current psychedelic boom with a better understanding of the tumultuous history of psychedelics and how it impacts their current renaissance. What seems most important, as I reflect on the event, is to place psychedelic research in its historical and social context in order to avoid entrenching myths, misconceptions, and simplified narratives of psychedelics and their renaissance, especially when it comes to figures with unethical legacies or research practices within the field.


Editorial Note: This post is part of the Pharmaceutical Inequalities series, funded by the Holtz Center and the Evjue Foundation.



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