Scientists are looking into what psychedelics do to inspire people to act pro-environmentally.
After taking LSD, Bill stood in his kitchen in Merseyside, staring at a large tree. When the tree started to speak to him, Bill only found it strange that the tree didn’t formally introduce itself, he told VICE in 2017.
During the rest of their 15 minute chat, the tree clued Bill in to the profound fact that all life on earth plant, animal, and human was intimately connected. “It was as if someone was inside my head judging my feelings, my thoughts, and my emotions,” Bill said. “It was also a two-way street, though: I could feel how old he was he’s obviously been through a lot with the way the earth is and how the town I live in was built up around him.”
Anyone who has tripped especially outdoors – knows that psychedelics, like LSD, mushrooms, DMT, or mescaline, can provoke sensations of awe and wonder at the natural world. This has been replicated in more formal settings too in January 2018, scientists from Imperial College London found that psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, led to a significant increase in feelings of connection to nature after just one dose. Seven to 12 months later, that increase persisted.
“Before I enjoyed nature, now I feel part of it. Before I was looking at it as a thing, like TV or a painting…” one person in the study said. “[But now I see] there’s no separation or distinction, you are it.”
Psychedelics have been shown to help with addiction, anxiety, and depression. But outside the scope of mental illness, researchers are also asking how they can change personality traits and beliefs. An increase in nature-relatedness has been shown to be a unique predictor of happiness. But it is also associated with the planet’s well-being: There’s a demonstrated link between having a relationship to nature and pro-environmental behaviour.
A psychedelically-imposed connection with nature could do more than make for a Alice-in-Wonderland-esque story later. In the face of an impending climate crisis, there’s a need to know why some people are motivated to act environmentally and others not.
The United Nations recently said that there are only 11 years left to prevent “irreversible damage” from a warming Earth. And yet a Pew Research surveyfrom 2017 found that while three-quarters of Americans were concerned about personally helping the environment, only one in five actually make an effort in their daily lives. Meanwhile, the 100 companies responsible for 71 percent of global emissions take no decisive action to curb their impact, nor do governments hold them accountable.
In the face of an impending climate crisis, there’s a need to know why some people are motivated to act environmentally and others not.
Researchers find that bombarding people with facts about climate isn’t the best tactic. Dissecting the psychedelic experience could help policy makers, scientists, and journalists attempt to recreate the core feeling of relatedness that the drugs bring about: the sense that nature is a part of us, our bodies, our lives, and that we are a part of it. Capturing that might lead people to act to protect the planet, since the planet is an extension of themselves.
Ecologist Aldo Leopold wrote back in 1949, that “we abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” Since then, many other ecologists and social psychologists have proposed that a disconnection from nature is partly to blame for our inertia in responding to the climate crisis.
“The ecological devastation we are experiencing now is a side effect of a nature disconnection,” said Sam Gandy, an ecologist and scientific assistant at psychedelic research group the Beckley Foundation. “Reconnecting us to nature is something I see as one of the most important things we can be working towards right now as a species.”
Of all the factors that predict for pro-environmental behaviour, nature-relatedness and connectedness are the most important, Gandy said. And people who use psychedelics not only report more connectedness, but are also more concerned about the environment than those who use other types of drugs.
We’ve seen this before: In the 1960s and 1970s, frequent use of psychedelic drugs coincided with widespread environmental movements. Some propose that it’s not a coincidence that these things came about together. But proving that the drugs cause environmentalism is a tough claim to make, since perhaps the type of people who take psychedelics also happen to care about the environment.
Matthias Forstmann, a social psychologist and post-doctoral fellow at Yale University, tried to solidify the association in a study from 2017 that surveyed nearly 1,500 people about drug experiences, nature-relatedness, and pro-environmental behaviours, like recycling or saving water. The research controlled for other substances, personality traits, and demographic factors (like age) “and interestingly, then we only found psychedelics to be predictive of nature-relatedness,” Forstmann said.
Forstmann believes that psychedelics promote this connectedness (and subsequent pro-environmental activity) via a much-discussed phenomenon in the drug research world: ego dissolution. Normally, we have a clear understanding of where we stop and the outside world begins, but psychedelics blur that line.
Gandy agreed that ego dissolution is likely a key mechanism. Psychedelics are thought to affect the default mode network, a cluster of interconnected regions of the brain that are most active when the brain is at rest or focused on the inner self.
Psychedelics promote pro-environmental activity via a much-discussed phenomenon in the drug research world called ego dissolution.
“This is a fundamental component of where the ego is thought to reside, your sense of self,” Gandy said. “When that’s relaxed, it essentially dissolves your sense of self as being something separate from the universe. So perceived boundaries between self and other break down and result in a self-nature overlap.”
Once a person starts to humanise nature, or anthropomorphise it, they may start to feel empathy. “If I feel close to nature or feel one with nature, I start to ascribe human-like attributes to nature,” Forstmann said. “Like the capacity to feel pain or to be sad. If I feel that nature is suffering, then maybe I want to treat it better.”
Forstmann is now working on a placebo-controlled trial that will look at the effect of psychedelics on nature-relatedness and ego dissolution. This stricter study design could help rule out some other confounding factors, one being that people often trip in nature, making it difficult to differentiate the impact of the outdoors on the drug experience.
It’s unclear whether being exposed to the natural elements is a crucial piece of the puzzle there are some anecdotal reports where people took drugs in labs and still reported feelings of connection, Forstmann said. But Gul Dolen, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University, thinks that what happens during a trip is important.
Dolen studies synaptic plasticity; synapses are the connection site between two neurons and contribute to the ability of our brains to learn new things and behaviours. She has given MDMA to animals like mice and octopuses, and found that it can return the brain to heightened levels of plasticity. In humans, that could lead to the ability to form new associations and new beliefs.
Other researchers, like biochemist David Olson at the University of California Davis, have similarly found that psychedelic drugs can change the structure of neurons in the brain to increase the number of dendrites, dendritic spines, and synapses – which all play a part in plasticity of the brain. He has called psychedelics and other compounds that can trigger this kind of brain re-organization “psychoplastogens”.
Still, taking a psychedelic and dwelling on previously held ideas could simply reinforce them. To turn someone environmentally unmotivated into an activist, they should be introduced to the concepts of nature-relatedness and the importance of climate action during the trip, Dolen said. If that’s done during a re-opened window of plasticity, then those effects can last well beyond the duration of the drugs’.
“Then, you could teach them that new relationship to the earth,” she said.
To turn someone who is environmentally unmotivated into an activist, they should trip while being introduced to the importance of climate action.
So should we give everyone psychedelics in the woods in order to save the planet? In a GQ interview, Michael Pollan, the author of the recent exploration of the life-changing nature of psychedelics, How to Change Your Mind, acknowledged that psychedelic experiences could possibly address the “environmental crisis, born of our sense of distance from nature: our willingness to objectify nature and see it merely as a resource.”
But he followed up with a dose of reality: “Then you need to stand back and say, ‘Wait, is it possible to prescribe a drug for an entire country?’”
Psychedelics are still illegal, and not suitable for everyone – some people with a family history of psychosis could be at risk with these compounds. But figuring out how to promote, as Aldo Leopold called it, a sense of “we-ness” without the drugs could help protect the planet from future harm.
Spending more time in nature is one simple way to increase relatedness. But Gandy said that communicating to others that humans are part of the ecosystem needs to be done in an emotionally compelling way. A recent study found that nature connectedness increases more when children participate in creative and art-based activities compared to educational nature walks.
Gandy and Forstmann also wonder if there is a way to portray nature-relatedness with virtual reality which has been able to induce out-of-body experiences and affect biases and mood. A poignant vision of nature can cause powerful cognitive shifts, similar to what happens to astronauts when they experience the overview effect. Seeing our planet in its entirety helped them to rise above the notion of politics and feel a sense of connectedness to the planet as a whole and a desire to protect it.
Biologist EO Wilson wrote that people are born with an affinity for other living things and nature, a theory he called the biophilia hypothesis. It posited that most of our evolutionary history has been in relation to nature being able to find food and shelter, understand the land, and find one’s way around different locations and so a psychological connection to the natural world could have been selected for throughout the millennia. (After all, more people visit zoos each year than NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB events combined.)
That legacy is there for us to tap into, Gandy said through drugs or otherwise. “I’m very much aware and deeply appreciative of all the things that psychedelics can potentially do,” Gandy said. “But to me the environmental [application of psychedelics] and the implications of that are more pressing and more important and need more attention than anything else. There’s got to be that emotional, empathic connection to it in order to motivate behavioural change.”