Tune in, turn on, save water: what psychedelics could teach the Anthropocene

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It may come as no surprise that people who’ve taken psychedelic drugs tend to feel a certain connection with nature. After all, psychedelics and Earth Mother-loving hippie culture share a certain heritage. Yet a new study adds an intriguing wrinkle to the stereotype: maybe it’s not just a hippie thing. Maybe there’s something about the drugs that, regardless of one’s predispositions, nurtures a love of nature and a change in one’s environmental behaviors. Maybe there’s a lesson in there.

Writing in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, psychologists Matthias Forstmann of Yale University and Christina Sagioglou of the University of Innsbruck describe a general-population online survey of 1,487 people and their experiences with psychedelics, relationship to nature and propensity to save water, recycle and generally live more sustainably. Past psychedelic use tracked with ongoing pro-environmental behavior. That in turn tracked with considering nature “to be an essential part of what they are,” says Forstmann, with chemically experienced respondents often viewing themselves as “inseparable from nature.”

Those relationships held after accounting for personality traits and demographic variables. Wrote the researchers, “It is unlikely that the association we found can be entirely explained by a collection of personality traits stereotypically associated with psychedelic users (e.g. being of the ‘hippie’ type).” Instead the drugs, which at a neurobiological level alter memory, self-awareness and perception in ways that often manifest as an ego-dissolving sense of oneness with the world, seem to have effects that can last long after the drug wears off.

Forstmann and Sagioglou warn that their findings are correlational. More research is needed to be sure about cause-and-effect relationships. And as people self-reported their pro-environmental behaviors, more research is also needed to be sure that nature-loving former psychedelic users really do recyle. That said, the relationship makes sense. The closer people feel to the nonhuman world, the better they should want to treat it.

The findings fit within a larger trend of serious-minded research on psychedelics. In the last two decades, some clinical scientists have described the potential utility of these compounds in treating depression, addiction and other mental disorders. That research isn’t yet mainstream; it’s challenged by institutional skepticism and regulatory hurdles, and if it’s difficult for clinicians at top-tier research centers to prescribe psychedelics for serious medical problems, it’s hard to imagine them being sanctioned to promote water efficiency and habitat conservation. But that’s not the point, say Forstmann and Sagioglou.

Rather, we might learn why these drugs have the effect they do, then try to apply those lessons in more conventional fashion. Helping people understand “their intimate, reciprocal relationship with nature, even without the use of chemicals, may have promising effects for promoting pro-environmental behavior,” says Forstmann. Psychedelics could, in an indirect way, help bring us closer to environmental enlightenment.

Source: Matthias Forstmann and Christina Sagioglou. “Lifetime experience with (classic) psychedelics predicts pro-environmental behavior through an increase in nature relatedness.Journal of Psychopharmacology, 2017.

Image: Lori / Flickr

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