Contemplations on Psychedelic Therapy

As part of a writing collaborative, I read the article "East meets Tech: Digital Shamanism & Closed-Loop Psychedelic Therapy" by Zach Haigney. The article covers innovations in psychedelic therapy, including the role of software games as an interface for promoting psychological growth.

After reading the piece, according to a shared prompt I shared my thoughts on it with a small group. Here is my response largely unedited from its original form.

The Big Picture

Starting with the ending: tech-enabled "multimodal biosensing" tools that can change what an individual sees, hears, smells, feels. Combined with psychedelics to put one in a changeable, adaptable environment... "the implications [of this] are incredibly compelling." Add to the mix:

  • an extraordinarily well-funded, powerful institution: UCSF, Neuroscape Division
  • charismatic trailblazers in neuroscience and psychedelics: Robin Carhart Harris and Adam Gazzaley
  • And a seemingly throw-away comment that this neurotech x psychedelic combo can revive wisdom traditions which are currently threatened by extinction.
  • What do you get? A combination of terror and excitement!

Good jumping off point for this kind of tech, needs a balanced ecosystem to support its evolution - can't be only about the science and technology!

The positives

  • The Goldilocks mental model for driving mental growth (referred to as "closed loop systems"). The basic idea is essentially simple: provide an intervention (some kind of digital tech, perhaps a game), collect data on individual's response in real-time, use that data to moderate the intervention to stay in a sweet spot of how "challenging" the intervention is.
  • Challenging equates to a kind of Goldilocks sweet spot, from which change or growth can occur.
  • This approach is resonant in me and I've used it to grow as a person in many ways: physical strength, embodiment and understanding of the relationship between my body and mind, spiritual understanding of life and being, personal development and how I relate to myself and others, work or career growth.

What's got me a bit unnerved about this whole shebang

The language used to describe much of this project and area tends toward being more medicalized (deficit focused), quantitative, analytic, growth oriented, market-based, authoritative, and individualized. For example, here's a smattering of excerpted bits, along with why this concerns me:

"The world’s foremost psychedelic researcher is joining the world’s foremost translational neuroscience lab at one of the world’s foremost biomedical research institutions."

  • Is "foremost" the best criteria to evaluate approach, tools, and leadership when it comes to programming people's minds?

The term "treatment" is repeatedly used, along with "digital therapeutics" or DTx which are described as "affect(ing) clinical endpoints through behavior modification". Plus the part about Nikhil Krishnan on a Andreesen Horowitz podcast talking about the "scalability" of DTx.

  • Is this the best ecosystem from which to approach mind-programming?

An "FDA-approved" video game to treat ADHD

  • Are major U.S. institutions in a position to evaluate, let alone regulate, this kind of tech?

References to "high precision, personalized data"

  • Considering how we use personalized data now in digital tech (i.e. largely to market products and drive traffic through consumer-based flows), the mere thought of this being used to program minds is unsettling.

What's missing

  • Discussion about the ethics of this kind of technology
  • The role of a community in these kinds of interventions
  • The broader ecosystem of our global society within which this is occuring: namely talking about existing systems and how they'll intersect with this tech
  • Who is shepherding this kind of technology into the world, and are these the right people?
  • More but this is getting long...

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