The Artist's Way: 25 Years of Amanda Feilding's Beckley Foundation
An Odyssey of Psychedelic Research and Drug Policy Reform, Part I
“What we have done so far is open the door. However, there is an immense wealth of knowledge to continue mining.”
2023 marks the 25th anniversary of the founding of The Beckley Foundation, the philanthropic organization started by Amanda Feilding to reinvigorate the field of psychedelic research and overturn decades of unscientific and politically motivated global drug policy.
This bimodal approach of tackling the shortage of scientific research while simultaneously challenging the drug policy status quo has significantly influenced how I think about and understand this rapidly growing field.
From Amanda, I adopted the perspective that this field, movement, renaissance—whatever we choose to call it—is as much about drug policy reform and the exploration of the varieties of conscious experiences—mystical and otherwise—as it is about the therapeutic and transformational potential of psychedelics1.
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants is a common refrain from scientists. It is an acknowledgment that their work was not done in isolation but built on the advances, efforts, and discoveries of those before them.
The revived field of psychedelic science stands on the shoulders of several giants, and few have been as impactful as Amanda Feilding and The Beckley Foundation.
On the occasion of the 25th anniversary, I’d like to share a little about Amanda and her work.
Please support The Beckley Foundation in undertaking clinical and brain imaging studies with psychedelics, educating the public about the medicinal value of these substances, and driving international drug policy reform.
The Beckley Foundation is a UK registered charity (No. SC033546), and an ECOSOC accredited NGO.
The Artist's Way: 25 Years of The Beckley Foundation
I am sure you’ve seen this iconic image before:
This is likely the most popular graphic associated with the science of psychedelics.
Each of the dots located on the edge of the circles represents a specific brain region, and the widths of the lines connecting the dots reflect the degree to which the different brain regions ‘speak’ to each other. Highly connected areas form brain networks, represented by the different colors.
The circle on the left represents the networks of the brain during ordinary waking consciousness. The circle on the right is the interconnection between different brain networks in the presence of psilocybin.
The significance is easily understood by people encountering it for the first time—“Oh, I see, psilocybin allows parts of the brain that don’t usually speak to each other to do so!”
From this insight comes an almost intuitive understanding of why and how such an experience could be profound, transcendent, and beneficial.
It is possible that this image alone has done more to inform the public about the effect of psychedelics on the human brain than any scientific paper, documentary, or bestseller.
The data for this image comes from a pioneering 2012 study titled Neural correlates of the psychedelic state as determined by fMRI studies with psilocybin—a research study that would have never happened if it weren’t for the conviction and foresight of a frustrated artist by the name of Amanda Feilding.
In a recent dispatch, we looked at the tension between two archetypes in the psychedelic arena—the Scientist and the Activist.
The Scientist’s plea is that we need more data before we get carried away. The Activist’s plea is that we are living through a pandemic of mental illness, and thus we need to create access now, not later.
"The most helpful metaphor for understanding the ‘Psychedelic Renaissance’ and the diversity of perspectives is the parable of the blind men and the elephant...
Two defining features of the ‘psychedelic elephant’—the tusks and the trunk, you might say—are the (1) scientific quest to understand these unique compounds, their effects, utility, and risks on the one hand and on the other (2) The activists’ effort to create access NOW to transformational, and even life-saving, medicines amidst a pandemic of suffering.
These two perspectives are often in tension, not unlike blind men arguing whether the object in question is a spear or a hose."
But there is, however, a third, more sensible archetype, the Scientist-Advocate.
The Scientist-Advocate recognizes the importance of both compelling data and compelling stories.
She stands at the intersection of rigorous scientific inquiry and persuasive testimony to drive meaningful change in the world.
In this way, the Scientist-Advocate is like a mixed media artist who attempts to move the world (activism) with the language of modernity (science).
And it was this approach that paved the way for the most iconic image of psychedelic research.
This is the strategy taken up by Amanda Feilding and her philanthropic organization, The Beckley Foundation, which she launched in 1998.
The dual mission of the Beckley Foundation is to kickstart the scientific study of psychedelics and to build a coalition to end The War on Drugs.
This bimodal approach is represented by the double-headed eagle in the Feilding Family’s crest, which also serves as the Beckley Foundation Logo:
Since 1998, Amanda has, through the Beckley Foundation, directed novel and impactful scientific research into psychedelics and has brought together world leaders to advocate against the War on Drugs.
"The aim has been to build our understanding of how these substances work, how they affect the brain and consciousness, and how they can be used for the betterment of humankind, in the treatment of illness, the expansion of awareness, and the enhancement of openness and creativity." —Amanda Feilding
The Artist’s Way
But The Beckley Foundation didn’t start as a conduit for scientific research and convening policymakers in halls of power; in fact, in the beginning, there was no Beckley Foundation at all; there was just an artist with a vision.
Recently, Amanda told me:
“At the beginning of the 1970s, I realized the only way to overcome the taboo was by infiltrating the establishment and using their own language to show them that these prohibited compounds are amazing and beneficial.
Initially, I set about doing that in the form of art. There are no regulations against art, so one can say what one wants to, so that’s what I did!
Keep in mind, I was a single woman with no money, no letters after my name, and then after 30 years of great effort to bring about change, I thought, “My God! This is a hard uphill struggle, and I haven’t gotten very far”
So then I decided to change my ‘persona,’ and as a conceptual artwork, ‘Become a foundation.’”
This strategic pivot from an artist intent on changing the world through her art to what she described as a “Trojan Horse Strategy” of becoming a foundation gave her the platform—almost immediately—to become much more impactful.
As a foundation, Feilding was able to assemble a board of influential international scientists that would serve as advisors and collaborators.
With their support, she convened a series of seminars at the House of Lords in London on drug policy reform for leading policymakers, scientists, and notable leaders from around the world.
Simultaneously, she developed collaborative relationships with researchers from the most prestigious institutions, with whom she partnered to design and carry out landmark research.
Psychedelic Science & Drug Policy Reform
Amanda and The Beckley Foundation’s purpose is two-fold:
To scientifically investigate the effects of psychoactive substances on the brain and consciousness; to harness their potential benefits and minimize their harms; to learn more about consciousness and brain function; and discover and explore new avenues for treating illnesses and enhancing well-being and creativity.
To achieve evidence-based changes in global drug policies to reduce the harms brought about by the unintended negative consequences of current prohibitive drug policies; and develop improved policies based on health, harm reduction, cost-effectiveness, and human rights.
Since 1998, Amanda and her collaborators have produced some of the most important scientific and policy work that has paved the way for the nascent psychedelic field.
Among the many collaborators and research programs that Amanda spearheaded, I think three stand out:
The first fMRI study with psilocybin (The Beckley/Imperial Research Programme)
In 2009, Amanda Feilding, a young Ph.D. candidate named Robin Carhart-Harris, and a professor of psychopharmacology named David Nutt designed a research program to evaluate how psilocybin affects blood flow, brain activity, and neural connections in the brain.
The study would be the first to use advanced neuroimaging technologies to peek into the workings of the brain during a psilocybin experience.
The fruits of their labor were unveiled in the 2012 paper Neural Correlates of the Psychedelic State as Determined by fMRI Studies with Psilocybin in the preeminent journal PNAS and led to the publication of several other influential papers.
As a testament to the far-reaching implications of this pioneering research, the UK’s Medical Research Council awarded a significant grant for a follow on study to evaluate the potential of psilocybin as a novel therapeutic for Treatment-Resistant Depression.
The first clinical trial of psilocybin-assisted therapy for Treatment-Resistant Depression
This grant from the Medical Research Council allowed the Beckley/Imperial Psychedelic Research Programme to conduct the first clinical trial of psilocybin for people living with Treatment-Resistant Depression (TRD).
The results of this small, open-label study captured the attention of the scientific community and galvanized global interest into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.
Twenty patients living with Treatment-Resistant Depression for an average of eighteen years were given two doses of psilocybin a week apart.
One week after treatment, all subjects experienced a decrease in depression scores. At five weeks, 21% of subjects were in complete remission.
This study culminated in the landmark paper Psilocybin with Psychological Support for Treatment-Resistant Depression: an Open-Label Feasibility Study.
The first study using psilocybin to overcome nicotine addiction in collaboration with Johns Hopkins University
Another landmark study that Amanda initiated was the study for overcoming nicotine addiction using psilocybin-assisted therapy at Johns Hopkins University.
This study came from Amanda’s own experiences in 1966, when, acting as both patient and therapist, she took a single dose of LSD with the strong intention of overcoming her addiction to smoking nicotine.
She overcame her habit for good.
Over thirty years later, when talking with pioneering scientist, Roland Griffiths of Johns Hopkins University, about a possible collaboration, she suggested establishing a clinical trial for overcoming nicotine addiction with psilocybin-assisted therapy.
The open-label trial produced remarkable results: six months after receiving psilocybin-assisted therapy for smoking cessation, 80% of the participants (all previous heavy smokers), were still smoke-free.
Laying the Groundwork
To say that these three research programs have merely contributed to the reemergence of psychedelic research would be a massive understatement.
They have been foundational.
The neuroimaging trials from the Beckley/Imperial Research Programme provided crucial data for emerging models of conscious states and brain mechanisms under psychedelics from Robin Carhart-Harris and Karl Friston, one the most cited neuroscientists in the world.
The trial of psilocybin-assisted therapy for Treatment-Restistant Depression paved the way for commercial clinical trials aiming for FDA approval—now in the pivotal third and final phase of the drug approval process.
And the collaboration with Johns Hopkins on smoking cessation with psilocybin ultimately led to the National Institute of Health (NIH) awarding the first grant in over a half-century to directly investigate the therapeutic effects of a classic psychedelic—a watershed moment in the field of psychedelic research.
The Next 25 Years
As the title of this piece suggests, there is much more to come from Amanda and the Beckley Foundation.
In two weeks, in Part II of this series, we’ll cover:
The latest research project from Amanda and The Beckley Foundation, what she calls the Double Headed Research Programme, is a six-study mosaic that includes trials of both high and low doses of LSD— her favorite compound—with cutting-edge brain imaging techniques.
As well as an update from Beckley Waves and Beckley Psytech—projects Amanda spearheaded with her sons to help carry her mission forward and see her vision brought to reality during the next 25 years.
See you next time.
Perhaps they’re related?