Dennis McKenna — An Ethnopharmacologist on Hallucinogens, The Mushrooms of Language, BioGnosis, and Illuminating Obscure Corners | The Tim Ferriss Show (#592)

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  • “…a lot of what we’re discussing can go terribly sideways even if you are highly experienced. So we’re not recommending you do any of these things.” – Tim Ferriss

Key Takeaways

  • The experience of any psychoactive drug is a combination of circumstances, pharmacology, and pharmacogenetics 
  • At some point, the fungi, the animals, and the plants separated from each other (LUCA, the last universal common ancestor)
  • We live in an artificial world reality created by our brain (reality hallucination)
    • Psychedelics disable this default mode mechanism and they open the gates of the “reducing valve” 
    • Dennis McKenna believes this is one of the most useful fortes of psychedelics; the source of the therapeutic effects
  • McKenna has nothing against synthetics; they have their place and purpose 
    • “I like to tell people synthetics are made by all-natural organic chemists, right? They come from nature, ultimately.”Dennis McKenna
  • Near-death experiences are not death:
    • “Near-death experience is maybe a reflection of the stuff that happens to your brain while you’re in the process of dying, but it is not in fact, dying.”Dennis McKenna
  • Psychedelics allow us to become better people
    • Like with any spiritual, moral, or ethical development, you have to try and believe in it
  • McKenna’s 3 favorite psychoactive plants/substances:
    • Mushrooms, cannabis, ayahuasca
  • Three of the most impressive aspects of cannabis according to Tim Ferriss:
    • The effects on sleep (be careful so that you’re not eliminating your REM cycles)
    • Turning down the volume and speed of mental chatter
    • Intense sensitization of perception of music and production of music (especially percussion)

Key Books Mentioned

Intro

  • Dennis McKenna (@DennisMcKenna4) is an American ethnopharmacologist who has studied plant hallucinogens for more than 40 years
    • Can a psychedelic experience improve your life? After decades of demonization, psychedelics are closer than ever to joining mainstream medicine. Are DMT, ayahuasca, and magic mushrooms game-changing antidotes or a dangerous waste of time?
      • Join Tim Ferris and Dennis McKenna as they talk about the therapeutic effects of psychedelics, how mushrooms expand our understanding of consciousness, and the most impressive aspects of cannabis
  • Host – Tim Ferriss (@tferriss

How the Pharmacology and the Expectations Interact

  • The experience of any psychoactive drug is a combination of circumstances, pharmacology, and pharmacogenetics (your biochemical individuality) 
    • “Taking psychedelics under “inappropriate” circumstances may not produce any significant effect because it doesn’t sync with your expectations.” – Dennis McKenna
    • You have to surrender to achieve the desired outcome
  • DMT is hard to “ignore” (especially if you smoke it), but it doesn’t work for everyone
    • Why is that? What is so unique about their serotonin pharmacology?
    • Maybe their MAO is super active, or they have low levels of 5-HT2A receptors
    • Or maybe they are natural genetic knockouts
  • Whatever the reason, most of it is still a mystery according to McKenna
    • The problem is the lack of controlled experiments; they can only do case studies

DMT and the Volcano Vaporizer

  • McKenna had some of the most profound experiences with DMT by vaping in a volcano vaporizer
    • If you put a small amount of banisteriopsis tincture under your tongue, sublingually before you smoke the vapor in DMT, “…you get this ability to just gently rise up into the place and you can maintain that for a while.” Dennis McKenna
    • Afterward, you can drift back down, and then take another hit, and go back up there 
    • McKenna assures this method is much less threatening and you don’t feel the sense of being out of control (even though you took three huge hits of DMT)
  • Every drug added into the mixture complicates the pharmacokinetic picture, and route and dosage are a key part of the dynamic

Why Do We Have Cannabinoid Receptors in Our Brain?

  • The human body produces its own version of cannabis compounds called endocannabinoids
    • Anandamides (the first endocannabinoids) are our brain’s own cannabinoids
    • Cannabis engages with these receptors, but that doesn’t mean they were designed for cannabis consumption
  • We see something similar with opiate receptors in our brain also
    • They bind to opiate peptides like endorphin and dynorphins 
    • Likewise, serotonin receptors or dopamine receptors have their endogenous ligands
    • “Neurotransmitter-like compounds found in the brain are also found in plants and fungi and they have similar evolutionary origins.”Dennis McKenna
  • At some point, the fungi, the animals, and the plants separated from each other (LUCA, the last universal common ancestor)
    • Plants optimize their relationship with everything in the environment because they respond differently (they are “stuck” in one place)
    • Sometimes the message is very simple like “stay away, I’m poisonous.”, and other times it’s “come closer, let’s symbiose.”
    • Humans evolved from the same origins, so it’s not surprising that our brains have neurotransmitter-like compounds similar to those in nature

Therapeutic Effects of Psychedelics

  • We have a limited understanding of neuroplasticity and how psychedelics might affect it
    • McKenna and others have argued that mushrooms were important in the origin of consciousness
    • When “tripping” on mushrooms, the language becomes much more fluid. That’s why some people can chant for hours according to McKenna
    • The mushroom is speaking through them. “Literally, the logos is the word. The pure logos actually flows through them.” Dennis McKenna
  • The default mode network (“ordinary” consciousness)
    • Before he heard about the term default mode network, McKenna was calling it the reality hallucination
    • We live in an artificial world reality created by our brain (reality hallucination)
    • This world is a combination of filtered sensory input linked to associations and memories
    • While this version of reality is true to some extent, it is not sufficient because our brain filters out a lot of environmental stimuli
    • Otherwise, it would just be a blooming, buzzing confusion you wouldn’t be able to navigate. 
  • Psychedelics disable this default mode mechanism and they open the gates of the “reducing valve” 
    • This be very beneficial in terms of helping us get outside of our reference frame
    • McKenna believes this is one of the most useful fortes of psychedelics; the source of the therapeutic effects
    • It’s about the ability to temporarily step outside our reference frame and look at the situation from a different perspective 
    • “But you wouldn’t want to be there all the time, because you wouldn’t be functional. That’s, again, why you have to be very selective about your set and setting.” Dennis McKenna
  • It’s a complicated topic because it relates to the way that we attach images to sounds and meaning
    • “And if you look at culture, if you look at consciousness, it’s all based on this relationship between sound, image, and meaning, or what they sometimes called portentousness.”Dennis McKenna

Mystical Experiences 

  • Astronaut Edgar Mitchell and his famous “savikalpa samadhi” experience
    • McKenna believes that Mitchell had a mystical experience
    • We know these things happen spontaneously
    • He got far out of his reference frame (not surprising since he was in outer space)
  • Roland Griffiths and the research on psychedelic drugs 
    • Griffiths and his team were pioneers of psilocybin research and mystical experiences, but they toned it down because they didn’t want to alarm people
    • They switched from talking about mystical experiences to talking about personally meaningful experiences
  • According to McKenna, it’s important to acknowledge that these experiences are experiences of transcendence
    • For some people, it happens naturally. E.g. Albert Hofmann (the first to synthesize LSD-25)
    • Hofmann had multiple mystical experiences in nature long before he took LSD
  • Bicycle Day by Brian Blomerth
    • A graphic novel about his discovery of LSD. McKenna wrote the foreword

ESPD 55 (Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs)

  • ESPD 55 is a four-day online symposium hosted and curated by Dennis McKenna (23 – 26 May 2022)
    • It’s the 55th anniversary of the original ESPD 
    • The original ESPD (2017) focused on the unexplored dark corners of ethnopharmacology
  • They have many interesting topics
    • One of the speakers is presenting on psychedelics found in sponges and marine sponges
    • They will have a forum on the need to destigmatize coca 
      • Coca is a wonderful medicine (not to be mistaken with cocaine) 
      • Coca is just at the center of Andean traditions and medicine
      • It’s nutraceutical potential, herbal medicine that could be very beneficial
  • There will also be a session on mitragyna speciosa (also known as kratom). Many people have questions about its opium-like depressant qualities
  • “History of Psychoactive Plants and Fungi in Chinese Medicine,” by Jonathan Lu
    • A subject we rarely hear about in mainstream conversations about psychedelics
  • “We want to kind of stake out an area, look into the obscure corners, but still important and kind of highlight the work that remains to be done.” Dennis McKenna

How Does McKenna Relate to Death and Mortality?

  • The only honest answer about death is that nobody knows what happens when you really die
  • Near-death experiences are not death:  
    • “That is maybe a reflection of the stuff that happens to your brain while you’re in the process of dying, but it is not in fact, dying.”Dennis McKenna
  • Is there anything that persists after death? McKenna hopes there is, he is open to the possibility
  • People taking psilocybin for end-of-life therapy 
    • Very often, their insight is “Yes, I’m dying, but I’m alive now.” McKenna adheres to the same mindset
    • “I mean, we’re all dying, Tim, slowly, fast, whatever. Important thing is, that we’re alive now. Make the most of it. That’s what I think.”Dennis McKenna
  • Giving in to despair is tempting, but it’s not a solution to anything
    • If you reach the point of saying there is no hope, then there really isn’t any hope
    • You have to keep moving, in any way you can
  • How does McKenna try to make a difference in the world? 
    • BioGnosis Project
      • “Slowing down the degradation and depletion of our natural habitat is a small thing but it’s our thing. It’s what we’re doing. I think maybe it’ll make a little difference.”Dennis McKenna

Overharvesting and Endangering Plant Species

  • Ayahuasca vs pharmahuasca 
    • Perspectives on the pharmaceutical version of the entheogenic brew ayahuasca
    • Is the synthetic route creating pharmahuasca alternatives viable?
    • Ayahuasca, peyote, and iboga are on the verge of extinction
    • Pharmahuasca is a fine alternative, but it’s not ayahuasca. It has its uses, but it’s a completely different drug
  • McKenna has nothing against synthetics; they have their place and purpose 
    • “I like to tell people synthetics are made by all-natural organic chemists, right? They come from nature, ultimately.”Dennis McKenna
  • He wants to see more effort in developing relationships with indigenous communities to produce medicines instead of encouraging people to e.g. go to South America to take ayahuasca
    • “Encourage these communities to produce them and take the medicine to the people, rather than people to the medicine. Develop ways that are legal to export them to North America, Europe, and so on.”Dennis McKenna
    • Bring the medicines north, rather than the people south

Psychedelics Are Our Co-evolutionary Partners 

  • McKenna believes psychedelics allow us to become better people
    • Like with any spiritual, moral, or ethical development, you have to try and believe in it
    • “We’re midway between the apes and the angels right now.”Dennis McKenna
  • These dynamics are essentially biological processes, and they play themselves out over millennia
    • Humans are always going to have a relationship with plants as long as we don’t drive them, or ourselves into extinction

McKenna and Tim on Their Cannabis Experience

  • McKenna’s 3 favorite psychoactive plants/substances:
    • Mushrooms, cannabis, ayahuasca
  • Benefits of cannabis:
    • Stress reduction, and relaxation. Also helps with sleeping 
    • Very good for insight and writing
    • Cannabis is kind of like this benevolent, loving, feminine medicine.” Dennis McKenna
  • Tim only recently got “proper” exposure to cannabis
  • Three of the most impressive aspects of cannabis according to Tim Ferriss:
    • The effects on sleep (be careful so that you’re not eliminating your REM cycles)
    • Turning down the volume and speed of mental chatter
    • Intense sensitization of perception of music and production of music (especially percussion)
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