WSF19: The Promise of Psychedelics

On Nov. 16, 1938, Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD or “acid,” for the first time while working for Sandoz Laboratories. Although he succeeded, he put his discovery aside. Five years later, while revisiting the experiment, he accidentally absorbed some of it through his fingertips and experienced transcendence. Three days later he intentionally ingested 250 micrograms (0.25 milligrams) and proceeded to ride his bicycle home from his lab accompanied by his laboratory assistant. That day, April 19, is now known by psychedelic enthusiasts as Bicycle Day, or the day that the first acid trip took place.

For the next 25 years, psychedelics were a huge part of psychiatric study in both Europe and the U.S. More often than not, LSD showed positive effects in those who had taken it – one study in the 1950s conducted by psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond showed a 50 percent success rate in a group of recovering alcoholics who had not been able to quit drinking through any other means. However, at some point, the drug escaped the labs and made its way into the hands of not only the general population, but also Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary who, according to author Michael Pollan, became “the LSD evangelist.” Leary ended up being fired from Harvard due to his questionable research and promotion tactics (he was deemed the “most dangerous man in America” by then-president Nixon). Research into psychedelics all but ceased, and the war on drugs all but began.

That is, until fairly recently. Last Thursday night’s World Science Festival event, “Revealing the Mind: The Promise of Psychedelics,” consisted of four panelists discussing the pros – and cons – of psychedelics, which in one form or another have existed since human beings began keeping records. Moderated by Emily Senay, M.D., preventive medicine physician and assistant professor of environmental medicine and public health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, the event opened with an overview of the origins and evolution of psychedelics and how they affect the brain.

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Moderator Emily Senay speaking with the four expert panelists. Photo courtesy of World Science Festival.

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#WSF19: Risk-Taking in Extreme Sports

When we mere mortals watch extreme-sports athletes, many of us wonder: Is the risk worth the reward? What drives these risk-takers to put their lives in danger? Are we wired differently, or is it the culture one grows up in, or both? At Friday night’s World Science Festival event, “Risky-Business: the Evolution of Dangerous Behavior,” the panelists set out to answer these and other questions about human risk-taking.

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From left: David Sloan Wilson, Omer Mei-Dan, Cynthia Thomson, Abigail Marsh, and Bill Weir. Photo courtesy of World Science Festival.

Risk is subjective, agreed the panelists. If an athlete goes through the right training, then the act becomes less risky, said panelist Omer Mei-Dan, an orthopedic surgeon—and BASE jumper (wingsuit flying or parachuting from a fixed structure, often a cliff).

Take Alex Hunnold of the documentary “Free Solo” fame. Hunnold trained for two years before he scaled Yosemite’s 3,000-foot wall of El Capitan without ropes, said Mei-Dan. Now that certainly doesn’t guarantee success, but it did cement a familiarity with the terrain and establish a sense of confidence, he added. Continue reading

Working Through Trauma and PTSD

Trauma can be experienced in a number of ways, whether it is from an abusive relationship, experiences in combat, or from unprecedented experiences such as an attack, an accident, or a natural disaster.  According to the American Psychiatric Association, approximately 1 out of 11 adults in the US develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a psychiatric condition in which the feelings associated with the traumatic event stay present in a person’s life after it is over. Long term effects of PTSD can be debilitating, and those affected with it experience symptoms such as flashbacks, distorted and unpredictable emotions, and avoidant tendencies. Because of the mental anguish it causes, PTSD is a tough subject to tackle for those who have experienced it.

Last Monday, the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City hosted an event as part of their Brainwave series that tried to do just that. The talk, Trauma and the Power of Resilience, featured Oscar and Golden Globe nominated actress Rosie Perez and trauma specialist and psychotherapist Diane Poole Heller, Ph.D. During the talk, Perez and Heller delved into the ways in which trauma can be unraveled and reckoned with.

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Rosie Perez (L) speaking with psychotherapist Diane Poole Heller (R). Photo credit: Asya Gorovits 

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Challenging the Perception of Early Achievers

Forbes publisher Rich Karlgaard is a self-professed late bloomer. At 26 years old, he was a graduate of Stanford University (which he says he got into on a fluke) working as a security guard, with little direction in life. It wasn’t until soon after, when he was given an opportunity to be a technical writer, that he “felt a cognitive renaissance in that path.”

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Kevin Ochsner. Photo courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art.

At last week’s Brainwave event at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, Karlgaard sat down with neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner, whose lab studies emotion and self-control at Columbia University, for a conversation about late bloomers. What started as an exchange about their personal experiences soon became a discussion over the pros and cons of early focus versus finding one’s path later in life.

Both guests criticized the pressure placed on children by schools and oftentimes parents to be high achievers at early ages when critical capabilities are still evolving. Kaarlgard cited research by Harvard’s Laura Germine and colleagues, who reported that different capabilities peak in different stages of our lives. For example, raw speed in processing information seemed to peak around age 18 or 19, while the ability to evaluate other people’s emotional states did not peak until the 40s or 50s.

Ochsner warned of defining achievement too narrowly, as standardized tests, such as the SAT and GRE, often do, without taking into account other forms of intelligence, especially emotional intelligence. Historically, passion and reason were treated as distinct, “as one rises, the other falls,” he said. But that model does not match the research. Gut feelings and insight are largely driven by systems associated with emotion, he said.

Ochsner told the audience that when interviewing Ph.D. candidates at Columbia, he won’t consider applicants who don’t show interests beyond academics. These students have proven they’re very good at being students, in a set structure, he said, but being a Ph.D. student is like being an entrepreneur of your own company. They need to be able to handle criticism and choose their areas of study, he explained. Demonstrated characteristics like maturity and resilience score high during his application evaluations.

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Rich Karlgaard. Photo courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art.

Passion as a driving force to success was a theme revisited throughout the night’s discussion; early achievers often seem to know what they want to do from a young age and receive validation for it, while late bloomers may want to explore options before settling down in one area, Karlgaard posited. Being a late bloomer is “the perfect intersection of our deepest passions and talents,” he said.

Both speakers had ideas on how to nurture curiosity and exploration in a data-driven world. Karlgaard proposed a skilled trades track in school (what used to be called “shop”), gap years in between high school and college (but not just a long vacation), and mandatory service, whether military or community service.

Ochsner circled back to the importance of nurturing emotional or social intelligence so that you can “learn how to get out of your own way and access your own potential.” He pointed to the work being done at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, where they have designed curriculum for schools that supports the development of emotional intelligence.

Ochsner also called out what he saw as trends in education that have not proven to work. Assigning homework at early grade levels and over-planning kids’ afterschool activities have not been proven to help them succeed, he said. Taking away recess is a “huge mistake.”

With that food for thought, Tim McHenry, director of programs and engagement at the Rubin Museum, closed the night’s discussion by tying it back to the museum’s Himalayan roots, noting the increase in meditation in classrooms and the growing scientific validation for it, as a way to achieve a sense of balance.

Brainwave events are planned through September. To see the remaining events and to purchase tickets, visit the Rubin Museum website.

– Ann L. Whitman

Coping is Not Created Equal: A Woman’s Military Experience

Human beings have always been resilient creatures. Whether we realize it or not, we possess the ability to adapt to various situations and survive them, often without even noticing how we managed it. Unfortunately, that does not always mean that the ways we adapt and what our coping mechanisms are can be healthy or particularly beneficial to us, whether in a short-term situation or in the long run. Avoidant coping mechanisms (or ones that involve the person basically withdrawing into themselves) can be especially harmful for various reasons, so figuring out why some may choose them is important.

How to cope with personal trauma was the theme of “Finding Resilience and Making Change in the Military,” a recent Brainwave series program at the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan.

The program paired Anuradha Bhagwati, an Ivy League educated Marine Corps veteran, with Jennifer Chan, Ph.D., a pharmacologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

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Bhagwati (left) and Chan (right). Photo: Rubin Museum

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