Do non-hallucinogenic psychedelic experiences give the same therapeutic advantages as mind-blowing psychedelic trips?
For many who have journeyed with psychedelics, the essence of the journey is the mind-altering hallucinogenic experience – the trip, so to speak. An altered state of consciousness is common among classic psychedelic substances, with those who experience it reporting effects such as mood shifts, heightened sensory perception, a dissolved sense of self, and a feeling of oneness with creation.
But what happens if you take ‘the trip’ out of the trip? Is a psychedelic experience still psychedelic if you don’t plunge into the mystical void or commune with otherworldly entities? Can you reap the same therapeutic advantages from non-hallucinogenic psychedelic experiences if you don’t temporarily yield the clenched control of the ego?
Such questions are surfacing as the industry races to create non-hallucinogenic psychedelic experiences and analogs. Companies such as Delix Therapeutics and Better Life Pharma are experimenting with compounds that can impart therapeutic benefits at non-hallucinogenic doses. In other words, those who use these substances will not experience the effects of full-fledged hallucinations.
The rationale for creating such substances is multifaceted. For starters, some individuals who could potentially benefit from the neuroplastic properties of psychedelics might avoid the substances, fearful at the prospect of losing control of self. Anecdotes about ‘bad trips’ can instill trepidation about experiencing intense physical or psychological distress.
Research also informs us that many people who have undertaken a psychedelic journey do not treat it lightly. According to one survey, thirty-nine percent of participants rated it among the top five most challenging experiences of their lifetime. It’s understandable then, that there’s a perceived space in the market for neuro-plasticity enhancing psychedelic analog products that omit the possibility of a challenging trip. For individuals who wish to sidestep such an experience, the option of soaking up the benefits of a psychedelic substance without hours of hallucinations or ego death is preferable.
Research indicates that for many who journey with psychedelics, a ‘bad trip’ can later be reframed as good.
Avoiding the psychedelic trip: pros and cons of non-hallucinogenic psychedelic experiences
“Some patients have pre-conceived fears about losing control,” explains Dr. Sam Zand, founder of the Anywhere Clinic, co-founder of the Better Universe Foundation, and the Chief Medical Officer at Better U. “If they have dealt with trauma, bad trips, or panic attacks in the past, a non-hallucinogenic treatment can help overcome their apprehension.”
Will Padilla-Brown, founder of Mycosymbiotics, also acknowledges that non-hallucinogenic psychedelic journeys can impart benefits. “We know from the work of the Shulgins that non-hallucinogenic psychedelics can still offer antidepressant and addiction-cessation type results.”
One could also argue that microdosing psychedelics may still enhance neuroplasticity at sub-hallucinogenic doses. Microdosing psychedelics has been linked to improved focus, creativity and mood. However, the data available at present suggests very low doses of psychedelics do not pack the same neuroplastic punch as large doses. Little is presently known about the cumulative effects of chronic microdosing on neuroplasticity.
Padilla Brown is also somewhat skeptical about using non-hallucinogenic psychedelics for the sake of comfort or convenience.
“I think that the spirit has been a little castrated from these treatments for convenience,” he reflects. “I think these treatments may end up being needed more frequently than a good traditional trip.”
While there may be instances in which sub or non-hallucinogenic psychedelics are beneficial, many researchers, experts and psychonauts also question whether decoupling substances from their consciousness-altering effects removes their potency. Similarly, research indicates that for many who journey with psychedelics, a ‘bad trip’ can later be reframed as good.
In one recent study, for example, most participants acknowledged that unpleasant experiences during a trip had ultimately been beneficial, sometimes providing them with deep existentia,l life-altering insights. These individuals recognized that the discomfort helped to later yield transformation, and trying to avoid it would not have been for their ultimate benefit.
Padilla-Brown echoes similar sentiments.
“I believe the hallucinations, especially when accompanied by a trained medicine person or individual with a deep understanding of vibrational reality, become a powerful lesson in keeping us from repeating behaviors that made us sick to begin with…”
“I personally believe that hallucinations or ego death are intrinsically tied to physical structures in our brain. Hallucinations are our own personal interpretation of the chemical. I’ve had very personal hallucinations that helped me to understand relationships. I believe these personal interpretations of the chemical can be incredibly therapeutic,” he explains.
Zand also believes that a psychedelic experience that leads to an altered state of consciousness can precipitate healing and personal transformation.
“The perceptual shift of a psychedelic experience can accelerate the therapeutic journey by giving us a more objective perspective of self,” he says. “The ego-driven belief systems and thought patterns that live in our subconscious mind tend to dissipate during a psychedelic experience, and we can feel life through a new frame of mind. After this experience, we can analyze it and reflect if we want to maintain the rigid patterns we are now more aware of.”
As a practicing psychiatrist, Zand has observed firsthand the differences between patients who receive low doses of ketamine compared to those who receive high doses.
“We do see an accelerated growth from our patients’ post-psychedelic experience,” he reflects. “When treating with ketamine, we use low doses for medication-enhanced meditation. We also encourage higher doses for the psychedelic perspective shift.”
However, Zand also stresses that the experience of expanded awareness and perceptual shifts aren’t confined to the consumption of psychedelic substances. There are myriad ways we can encourage neuroplasticity, and some of them can be as simple as laughter, setting intentions, or engaging in creative pursuits.
“When we have a neuroplastic enhancement achieved by medication, meditation, vacation, or any creative outlet, our brain is in a more flexible state,” Zand points out. “This neuro-flexibility enhances mind expansion, self-awareness and our ability to rewire unhealthy patterns. The subconscious reprogramming of psychedelic therapy can also be replicated with transcendental meditation or priming our brains to process intentions programmed in the closing minutes before bedtime.”