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Transdisciplinarity to Address Inequality in Psychedelic Studies

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

Editor’s Note: Over five posts, and as part of the Points Pharmaceutical Inequalities feature, Gabriel Lake Carter will provide commentaries on a series of Borghesi-Mellon workshops titled ‘Psychedelic Pasts, Presents and Futures‘, funded by UW-Madison’s Center for Humanities. The first of these, below, reflects on discussions that took place during the ‘Transdisciplinarity in Psychedelics’ roundtable. Points’ Pharmaceutical Inequalities feature is funded by the Holtz Center and the Evjue Foundation.


My introduction to psychedelic studies occurred just a few months before Michael Pollan published the now (in)famous book How to Change Your Mind, which helped introduce psychedelics to the mainstream and propel their hype-train down the tracks. After its publication, I began to see more headlines promising that psychedelics could end the mental health crisis or even address climate collapse. Odd names like Compass Pathways, atai Life Sciences, and MindMed became commonplace throughout news articles, while major research institutions like University of Wisconsin-Madison, John Hopkins University, and Harvard University also began to appear in these articles as they opened their own centers for psychedelic studies to continue the research that had been forced underground during the drug policy crackdown of the 1960s and 1970s.


Even at that early stage, I found it odd that the discourse around psychedelics was dominated by biomedical jargon about receptors and economic promises of a booming psychedelic industry without much (if any!) mention of the rich and troubled history of psychedelics that have crossed cultural, legal, and medical boundaries. Where were all the critical perspectives on psychedelics that considered the impact of colonialism, the influx of capital, and the history of radical politics in relation to psychedelics? And where were the voices of community members, activists, and scholars from the humanities and social sciences in the discussion about the so-called “psychedelic renaissance?”


It only occurred to me that I, as someone trained in the humanities, could join the conversation on psychedelics when I met Amanda Pratt, a PhD candidate in English who studies psychedelic rhetoric at UW-Madison and works as a data archivist for Porta Sophia, a psychedelic prior art library that aims to combat bad patents. Amanda soon introduced me to Dr. Lucas Richert, the George Urdang Chair in the History of Pharmacy at UW-Madison, director of the American Institute for the History of Pharmacy, and executive committee member of the newly minted Transdisciplinary Center for Research on Psychoactive Substances (TCRPS) at UW-Madison. As time passed, Amanda and Dr. Richert introduced me to many other people whose voices were often less prominent–or outright ignored–when it came to the hyped discussions around psychedelics.


Our conversations eventually grew into a working group on psychedelics and psychoactives that included perspectives from the humanities and social sciences, which led to the successful acquisition of funding from UW-Madison’s Center for the Humanities to run a Borghesi-Mellon workshop titled “Psychedelic Pasts, Presents, and Futures” to explore the perspectives of people outside of biomedicine who want to discuss the current psychedelic boom. The first Borghesi-Mellon event took place on 27 September 2022 in the School of Pharmacy, where community members and scholars came together to discuss the importance of transdisciplinarity in the study of psychedelics, given UW-Madison’s new Transdisciplinary Center for Research on Psychoactive Substances. The event was split into two halves: a discussion on transdisciplinarity, and a panel that set a baseline for current discussions on psychedelics. (I will cover the baselines panel in a future post.)


The discussion on transdisciplinarity invited two scholars from different disciplinary perspectives: Dr. Sainath Suryanarayanan from science & technology studies and Dr. Neşe Devenot from literary studies. The presentations and discussion afterwards reaffirmed the need for advocates of psychedelics to grapple with the legacies and histories of capitalism, colonialism, and the inequalities created by such a system in order to achieve their stated aims of addressing the mental health crisis.


The first speaker, Dr. Suryanarayanan, comes to psychedelic studies from the perspective of a science & technology studies (STS) scholar associated with the Holtz Center for STS at UW-Madison. To discuss the implications of transdisciplinary research, Dr. Suryanarayanan drew on his own experience when researching Vanishing Bees: Science, Politics, and Honeybee Health. The issues with such a transdisciplinary approach began when Dr. Suryanarayanan tried to involve stakeholders that cross university, industry, and community boundaries in an attempt to respect their differences yet address the overarching issue: honeybee colony collapse. One main issue that Dr. Suryanarayanan identified was that the term “transdisciplinarity” often became an empty signifier that meant almost anything without addressing the structures inherent in research that often privilege certain perspectives and aims over others.


Even though Dr. Suryanarayanan expressed worry about the term transdisciplinarity, he suggested that STS could bring many insights to psychedelic studies that might help move towards transdisciplinary work. STS, according to Dr. Suryanarayanan, helps to debunk the myth of science that is taught in K-12, specifically the ideas that science is objective, that it does not involve politics or personal values, and that it leads to continual progress and advancement. With these insights in mind, Dr. Suryanarayanan argued that STS helps raise important questions about psychedelics, including: what do the histories of colonialism, capitalism, and racism play in the role of psychedelic science? What are the patterns of power and capital in psychedelic science? What are the dominant views of mind, body, and science? Who is marginalized in these views? What are the political implications of such a view? STS helps challenge the notion of a pure, progressivist biomedical science as it relates to psychedelics.


The second speaker, Dr. Devenot, has brought humanities perspectives to psychedelics for over a decade, including the recent article “Right-Wing Psychedelia: Case Studies in Cultural Plasticity and Political Pluripotency,” which has been covered in a previous post by Amanda. Dr. Devenot approaches psychedelics with a background in literary studies and researches how the humanities, specifically literary scholars and poets, have been involved in research on psychoactives for centuries. Back in the 1800s, for instance, scientists gave nitrous oxide to poets at doses that were hallucinogenic in the hope that poets might have a grasp on the language needed to describe the experiences since there was no ready-made language available.


In terms of transdisciplinarity, Dr. Devenot stressed that one of the main benefits of psychedelics is their transgressive power insofar as they help to “denaturalize the natural” of Western hegemony. Why this matters to a discussion of transdisciplinarity is that it means one perspective—whether biomedical, economic, humanities, or otherwise—is insufficient to “denaturalize the natural.” Dr. Devenot made it clear that a major hurdle to transdisciplinarity in psychedelic studies is that the current hierarchies remain intact in the sense that the sciences retain the financial and cultural capital to be the most powerful actor in psychedelic studies. What this means is that, despite the best intentions to include transdisciplinary perspectives, much of the discourse around psychedelics remains wedded to a biomedical view. Such hierarchies are often bound up in the ego and power of specific actors and institutions, which leads to a lack of discourse around issues of diversity, inclusion, access, and abuse in psychedelic spaces.


Pictured (L to R): Amanda Pratt, Dr. Neşe Devenot, Gabriel Carter, and Dr. Sainath Suryanarayanan

After the event, I had the opportunity to share a meal with Amanda, Dr. Suryanarayanan, and Dr. Devenot whilst reflecting on the day. Over dinner, we discussed what such transdisciplinary perspectives might afford psychedelic studies if given the chance. My own reflection is that the importance of transdisciplinarity in psychedelic studies involves contending with the histories that influence the current psychedelic renaissance, including the dominance of biomedical research, the wake of capitalism and colonialism, and the naturalization of particular hegemonic views of science, mind, and body. If psychedelic advocates are serious about their views that psychedelics can help improve wellbeing, address mental health issues, or even create a liberatory politics, then they must take into account the social, cultural, economic, and political systems in which these experiences and research take place. Each individual brings their own (mind) “set” to the psychedelic experience, but the (overarching) “setting” of current psychedelic experimentation and research occurs within a neoliberal capitalist framework that seeks to treat individuals as failures instead of considering the system that inculcates the issues in the first place. Building on the perspectives of Dr. Suryanarayanan and Dr. Devenot, the aim of transdisciplinarity, at least as it relates to psychedelics, involves contending with the systems in which these psychedelic experiences and research happen, including the legacies of capitalism, colonialism, sexism, racism, and the abuses of power that occur within this matrix of inequality. The inequalities present in this system, which exacerbate the mental health crisis, cannot be ignored as the psychedelic hype-train barrels down the tracks.


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