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Psychedelics and the Resilient Phenotype
“Well, if we had that kind of understanding then we would approach illness and health in a completely different fashion.”— Dr. Gabor Maté
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Psychedelics Restore the Resilient Phenotype
In 1995 the Yellowstone Park ecosystem was approaching devastation.
An explosion in the elk population, a species that feeds on riverside willows, lead to the decimation of the beaver population, a species that also enjoys riverside willows.
No willows, no beavers.
No beavers, no beaver dams.
With no beaver dams, the natural river ecosystem floundered which lead to (wait for it) downstream consequences including issues of seasonal runoff and water table recharging, a habitat that prevents fish from spawning and ecosystem-wide disturbance impacting all of life including fungi and microbes.
To understand this ecological dilemma we have to go back to the 1920s.
Ranchers and farmers surrounding Yellowstone lobbied for predator control programs which incentivized the killing of the local wolf population.
In 1926 the last wolf in Yellowstone was killed.
Prior to the local extinction, the elk population was kept in check by the wolves. With a healthy wolf population, elk herds were constantly on the move, traveling from valley to riverside to forest in order to avoid predation. Beavers were free to eat willow and make their dams.
Starting in 1926 Yellowstone elks were no longer under threat and therefore congregated around their favorite food sources, willows.
The removal of wolves was a shock to the equilibrium of the local ecosystem and the effects impacted animal life, local water cycles, plant life, forests, and microbial and fungal species.
This leads us to the emerging renaissance of psychedelic medicine.
With each published finding, psychedelic medicine is showing promise to radically improve conditions and diagnoses that have proven impossible to reliably treat.
To date, these are conditions of the mind:
Post-traumatic stress disorder
They might also be called conditions of the soul.
Or conditions of integration.
Of the spirit.
Of the nervous system.
No matter the lense that one chooses to view these conditions we should all agree that they are conditions of the “whole person”, a phrase which I admit sounds hokey and is dismissed by the kinds of people who take themselves too seriously.
So we have to unpack what that means.
These conditions are not specific dysfunctions of a single organ, receptor or gene variation.
The “Root-Cause” of these conditions of the mind are often born out disturbances from our closest and most intimate relationships—with parents, caretakers, partners, and enemies.
As the giant in the field, Gabor Mate, notes;
By far the dominant aspect of this environment is the role of the nurturing adults in the child’s life, especially in the early years…The importance of this point cannot be overstated: emotional nurturance is an absolute requirement for healthy neurobiological brain development…the child needs to be in an attachment relationship with at least one reliably available, protective, psychologically present, and reasonably nonstressed adult.”
Medical Science has excelled at understanding the specific, the acute and conditions that can be reductively defined.
But when a field becomes adept in a certain domain it bends to bias those conditions.
The conditions that fall out of that framework, chronic pain, depression, addiction, metabolic diseases, obesity, and others are poorly managed because they cannot be understood through a strict reductive framework.
When disease origin is a complex matrix of biological, psychological and sociological factors reliable treatments are tough to come by.
The neurological systems responsible for self-regulation, interpersonal engagement, motivation, executive function, love, connection, and meaning are complex and develop in response to the early environment.
Again, Dr. Mate:
“Healthy growth of these crucial systems—responsible for such essential drives as love, connection, pain relief, pleasure, incentive, and motivation—depends, therefore, on the quality of the attachment relationship. When circumstances do not allow the infant and young child to experience consistently secure interactions or, worse, expose him to many painfully stressing ones, maldevelopment often results.”
The profound results in psychedelic science, which have been acknowledged by the FDA and EMA, are in part due to the capacity to reach and affect these pathways that were set in infancy and early childhood, or malevolently scarred by trauma as an adult.
The Biopsychosocial Model of Health and Disease
In 1977 physician, George Engel published a paper that challenged the prevailing consensus of an increasingly reductive and biomedically oriented profession.
The Need for a New Medical Model: A Challenge for Biomedicine, Engel’s 1977 essay should be required reading for all healthcare provides.
I think it should be required reading for anyone involved in healthcare in any dimension especially patients, insurance executives, hospital administrators, and pharmaceutical executives.
Psychedelic stakeholders especially would do well to familiarize themselves with the Biopsychosocial Model.
“The biopsychosocial model reflects the development of illness through the complex interaction of biological factors (genetic, biochemical, etc.), psychological factors (mood, personality, behavior, etc.) and social factors (cultural, familial, socioeconomic, medical, etc.)”
Like psychedelics, the biopsychosocial model is not new, but it has struggled and operated under stigma, condescension, and misunderstanding in medical circles since its inception.
And it’s not just intended to model psychological conditions. No pathology is free from the influence of the mind and society.
“What if we actually got that human beings are bio-psycho-social creatures by nature, and actually bio-psycho-spiritual creatures by nature which is to say that our biology is inseparable from our psychological emotional and spiritual existence and therefore what manifests in the body is not some isolated and unique event or misfortune, but a manifestation of what my life has been in interaction with my psychological and social and spiritual environment?
Part of the reason that this model is not easily adopted is that no one really knows how. There is no manual, no instructions.
And I am not here to offer a solution.
I just want to highlight two ideas that have been useful for me to understand the complex conditions of the body-mind-environment and how psychedelics can foster improvement.
Complex Adaptive Systems and Resilience.
Complexity and Resilience
To illustrate the idea of complex systems and resilience—topics that are no doubt worthy of a lifetime of study and which I do not pretend to present with any authority whatsoever (I can’t stress this enough, seriously, you should probably stop reading right now)— let us examine the concept by way of ecology.
An ecosystem is a complex system made up of climate, geology, plants, and animals.
“The word ‘ecosystem’ was first used in print by A.G. Tansley (1935) in his well-known paper on vegetational concepts and terms. Tansley considered that organisms… cannot beseparated from ‘the environment of the biome – the habitat factors in the widest sense ... with which they form one physical system’. These ecosystemsare regarded as the ‘basic units of nature’ and are ofthe ‘most various kinds and sizes’.”
There are more high-falutin definitions but for us, it is just important to understand that there are a lot of different components interacting with each other, none of which control or govern the whole.
And to note that Tansley noted the complex, interdependent relationship between life and the environment, just as Engel identified that biology cannot be separated from the mind or social interactions.
Shocks, Disturbances, and Black Swans
Ecosystems will routinely endure shocks and disturbances such as climate abnormalities like floods, droughts, fires, extreme temperatures, large population swings, and impacts from human activity like fracking, pesticide use, and deforestation.
Resilience is the capacity of an ecosystem to resist damage and recover from such shocks.
If a disturbance is significant enough or lasts long enough it can fundamentally alter the balance of a system by forcing the balance of the intricate relationships beyond a threshold from which it can recover and result in a new equilibrium.
Which brings us back to the Yellowstone wolves.
The Wolves Return to Yellowstone
Some disturbances to the equilibrium of complex systems radically change the patterns of energy flow, nutrient cycling, microbial mass, leading to an increased fragility of species, water, and energy cycles which can eventually no longer sustain life.
Yellowstone was on this track until 1995 when wolves were reintroduced to the park.
Elk had gotten high on the hog. In the absence of wolves, their feeding pattern cleared vegetation and devastated the ecosystem.
The returning wolves killed some of the elks, but more importantly, radically changed their behavior.
Since elk do not like to be eaten, the wolve’s presence keeps them on the move which prevents them from over-grazing any single area, thus allowing for vegetation to return, thus allowing beavers to return, thus allowing dams and all of the downstream effects of restoring the ecosystem.
The re-introduction of the wolves should be viewed as a shock to the increasingly fragile ecosystem that began in 1926, but rather than further fragilize the system, the wolves restored ecosystem-wide resilience.
I believe that psychedelics should be viewed in this same manner.
Psychedelics, Psychosocial disturbance, and Resilience
Humans are complex adaptive systems with the same patterns of interdependence but different components as ecosystems.
Instead of flora, fauna, nutrient & energy cycles, we have cells, tissues, organs, and organ systems.
Instead of external factors that affect ecosystems like flooding, fire, and fracking, humans encounter psycho-social external factors like neglect, abuse, conflict, and sexual assault.
But just like ecosystems, if the magnitude and duration of such disturbances exceed the threshold beyond which one has the resources to resist and recover then it sets the stage for maladaptive patterns of fragility.
Patterns that are more susceptible to future disturbances and which reorients one’s system to survival and threat in fundamentally different ways.
The most common way to conceptualize and describe depression, anxiety, trauma, and addiction are as neurohormonal phenomena, issues of neurocircuitry, emotional or spiritual states that are not optimal. There are many ways to think about these things, many vantage points, and many interpretations.
However, I think it is helpful and practical to think of these diagnoses as conditions of impeded resilience in the wake of some biopsychosocial disturbance.
The Role of Psychedelics
Restoring resilience and wholeness is the promise of psychedelic medicine.
The role of the psychedelic experience is like wolves returning to Yellowstone.
Wolves kill elk. People can have challenging trips. Systems such as ecosystems and humans, respond through positive adaptation to an imposed demand such as a challenge.
Trauma, addiction, depression and other conditions of impeded resilience are like Yellowstone in the absence of wolves.
It is a monoculture of consciousness. The patterns of thoughts, behavior, emotion and coping mechanisms are never challenged and for some never acknowledged.
The role of psychedelics, while commonly thought to “clear the cobwebs” or connect one with their divine nature or reveal the interconnectedness of all life, I believe can be viewed as an adaptive stressor that restores resilience to a complex adaptive system, your mind.
The metaphor extends to both the neurobiology as well as the first-person experience.
The temporary overwhelm of the serotonin system has a recalibrating capacity at the neurobiological level and the overwhelming experience one has as subjective experience is often perceived as a challenge that must be surrendered to and from this experience one can learn certain lessons that are taken with them.
“And you begin to see now how some experiences could enlighten you that you are not those patterns, and if it can give you a sense that these patterns are simply adaptations, and that there's a true self underneath that, and if they can put you in touch with the experiences that led you to adopt these patterns, then perhaps you can be liberated; then, perhaps you can let go; then, perhaps you can find the true self that doesn't have to behave in those ways anymore. That's where the liberation is.”
We’re in the midst of a revolution in consciousness, medicine, and health.
The transition, already underway, from underground, illegal and sacred to commercialized, legal and profane is fascinating, scary, and hopeful.
If you’re as fascinated by this transition as we are, The Trip Report has you covered.
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