According to the Czech psychiatrist and LSD researcher Stan Grof, psychedelics are “nonspecific amplifiers” of the human psyche – they amplify whatever contents exist in the mind, be they conscious or unconscious.
This description of these unique substances has since become a widely accepted way of thinking about them. But is it an accurate description? I will argue that, while this definition is true to a large extent, there are some reasons to be doubtful; psychedelics, in other words, can in certain respects act as specific amplifiers of consciousness.
Grof’s View of Psychedelics
In his book LSD Psychotherapy, Grof – who has led thousands of LSD-assisted psychotherapy sessions – writes that:
LSD and other psychedelics function more or less as nonspecific catalysts and amplifiers of the psyche. This is reflected in the name given by Humphrey Osmond to this group of substances; the Greek word “psychedelic” translates literally as mind-manifesting.
And in Myron J. Stolaroff’s The Secret Chief: Conversations with a Pioneer of the Underground Psychedelic Therapy Movement, Grof states:
These substances function as unspecific amplifiers that increase the energetic niveau in the psyche and make the deep unconscious dynamics available for conscious processing. This unique property of psychedelics makes it possible to study psychological undercurrents that govern our experiences and behaviors to a depth that cannot be matched by any other methods and tools available in modern mainstream science. In addition, psychedelics offer unique opportunities for healing of emotional and psychosomatic disorders, for positive personality transformation, and consciousness evolution.
In his view, then, these substances helped to manifest latent psychological processes like no other tool at our disposal, and this makes them invaluable from a psychotherapeutic standpoint, as well as – he claims – a “consciousness evolution” standpoint.
When journalist David Fuller asked the psychedelic writer Erik Davis if he thought ‘non-specific amplifier’ was a helpful way to think about psychedelics, Davis replied:
I think it’s a wonderful frame because it forces us to reflect on our own reactions. Most drugs do something that’s pretty regular. But with psychedelics, all sorts of things can happen. And by talking about non-specific amplifiers, [Grof] is saying that the experience is not caused by LSD: what causes your experience is your own set and setting. So, if I have a visionary experience, that’s something of mine; if I have a hell trip, it’s something I have to reflect on.
Indeed, many in the psychedelic space now frame these substances in this way. In a previous article, I pointed out that it makes sense to view psychedelics as non-specific amplifiers because of the notion of ‘set’ (mindset), which Davis also mentions in the quote above. Psychedelics will amplify whatever your current mindset is – if you’re in a bad mood, this mood can worsen, but conversely if you’re feeling upbeat and happy, you could experience more intense positive states.
However, the paradox of set – as I call it – refers to the fact that psychedelics can also elicit extremely positive states in people with pre-existing and severe negative moods and thoughts. But it is not clear if this reflects specific or non-specific amplification.
In depressed patients, latent psychological material could materialise in a way that has a positive effect. And this could very much depend on set and setting, in support of Grof’s view. Despite being in a pre-existing negative frame of mind, if you are seeking and expecting healing – and you are in a safe and supportive environment – then psychedelics could catalyse positive capacities that are latent but unexpressed, such as joy, kindness, and compassion.
Moreover, when psychedelics do amplify negative states, this can entail a confrontation with them and their causes that, in the right context, is ultimately positive.
All of this can be in keeping, then, with the notion of psychedelics as non-specific amplifiers. Nevertheless, there is still a prevailing belief that these compounds catalyse very specific beliefs and attitudes.
Psychedelics as Specific Amplifiers
In the 1960s, LSD was strongly tied to the counterculture movement, which included elements like the Civil Rights Movement, free speech, the New Left, anti-war, anti-nuclear, feminism, and environmentalism. Today, psychedelics are still associated with liberal beliefs, the common assumption being that psychedelics specifically induce feelings of love and brotherhood and so lead people to adopt certain political beliefs.
In an article for Scientific American, Eddie Jacobs – who is studying the ethical dimensions of psychedelic-assisted therapy – points out that there could be a causal relationship between psychedelics and liberal values. (Some earlier research finding a connection between the two can be deemed acausal since, as Jacobs says, “those with conservative attitudes tend to look more disapprovingly on illicit drug use, making them less likely than liberals to try a psychedelic drug in the first place.”)
Emerging evidence has found that psilocybin can decrease authoritarian political views in patients, as well as lead to increases in the personality trait openness, which is itself a predictor of liberal values. Jacobs, however, adds:
With sample sizes currently small, more research is needed to understand whether there truly is a causal relationship at work, and, if so, what its nature might be. Perhaps psilocybin doesn’t so much induce liberal values, but rather consolidates whatever values were present before treatment.
Even if psychedelics don’t shift someone’s political values, it may still be the case that they amplify whatever existing beliefs and attitudes someone has. If true, this would mean psychedelics are not, in fact, specific amplifiers.
Psychedelics Can Accommodate a Variety of Views
In response to Jacobs’ piece, Matthew W. Johnson and David B. Yaden – both psychedelic researchers at Johns Hopkins – stress that there is no good evidence supporting the idea that psychedelics can change your political or religious beliefs.
For example, a reduction in authoritarianism doesn’t necessarily translate into a specific political affiliation (since both left-wing and right-wing authoritarian beliefs exist). The researchers also question the methodology of the studies showing an association between psychedelics and liberal values, arguing that such research does not reliably establish such a link.
The philosopher Jules Evans has further highlighted that psychedelics don’t always make you liberal. Meso-American cultures, which used psychedelics as part of religious rituals, did not become liberal after taking psilocybin mushrooms. Their society was strictly hierarchical and practised human sacrifice. Amazon indigenous cultures, while not as violent and bloody as the Aztecs, can still be highly patriarchal, heteronormative, and conservative.
Then you have famous psychedelic users like Havelock Ellis, WB Yeats, and Aleister Crowley who all held some pretty illiberal views (both Ellis and Yeats supported eugenics, while Crowley championed a highly hierarchical, pyramidal view of society).
Moreover, in a 2021 paper published in Frontiers in Psychology, Brian A. Pace and Neşe Devenot state:
We suggest that the historical record supports the concept of psychedelics as “politically pluripotent,” non-specific amplifiers of the political set and setting. Contrary to recent assertions, we show that conservative, hierarchy-based ideologies are able to assimilate psychedelic experiences of interconnection.
They point out that psychedelic use can be accommodated with right-wing conspiracy beliefs and neo-Nazism. In terms of the latter, the Base, an international neo-Nazi group, integrated collective LSD use as part of a neo-Pagan, male-bonding ritual. Andrew Anglin, who founded the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, had extensive experience with classical psychedelics such as LSD and psilocybin before turning into a fascist propagandist. And several neo-Nazis have cited an LSD experience as foundational to their “red-pilling” to Nazi beliefs.
With respect to right-wing conspiracy beliefs, we have Q-Anon proponents such as Jake Angeli (the self-described Q-Shaman) and William Watson, both of whom participated in the 2021 United States Capitol attack, and both have deep and extensive ties to the psychedelic community.
There are also many psychedelic advocates and those in the psychedelic industry who hold less extreme but right-wing or conservative positions. Thus, psychedelia can clearly intersect with a wide range of values and attitudes, indicating again that psychedelics are non-specific amplifiers.
The Paradox of Psychedelic Amplification
It makes sense to think of psychedelics as non-specific amplifiers since the material that arises during a trip can be unpredictable. On the other hand, people often find that these substances amplify specific experiences, such as a feeling of the ‘divine’ or ‘holy’ (even among atheists). This is why an alternative term for psychedelics is entheogens (meaning they ‘generate the divine within’).
Studies also find that psychedelics lead to significant and lasting increases in openness (being imaginative, curious, and interested in new experiences) and nature-relatedness (your sense of being connected to nature, which itself is a strong predictor of pro-environmental behaviour).
Furthermore, a study published in Scientific Reports revealed that the use of psychedelics can result in significant and lasting shifts away from ‘physicalist’ or ‘materialist’ beliefs and towards panpsychism (the view that consciousness is a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of the universe). So it seems psychedelics can alter our metaphysical beliefs in a specific way.
One may want to argue that the experience of – and resulting belief in – ultimate unity owing to psychedelics is a specific effect, but this may not be the case. As the philosopher of mind Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes underscores in his book Modes of Sentience:
‘shared experiences’ may be contingent on culture – for instance, the unitive states experiences in the West often within frameworks from the East are seemingly lacking in the indigenous American psychedelic experience.
So what I believe we have here is a paradox, which I will call the paradox of psychedelic amplification: these substances seem to have both specific and non-specific amplifying effects. There are certain characteristics of the psychedelic experience that may encourage a specific mindset and worldview; but as we have also seen, psychedelics can amplify a variety of beliefs. What psychedelics are and what they do is, therefore, not such a black-and-white issue.