Despite the tangle of 1960s hairdos and long beards, Psychedemia blew minds in 21st-century fashion at Houston Hall this weekend.
Psychedemia, a new Penn conference, brought together an interdisciplinary panel of university scholars to discuss the new state of scientific knowledge about psychedelic drugs and their place in modern culture.
Through this more legitimized lens, the conference aimed to advance the idea that psychedelics could be explored “rationally, responsibly and to the benefit of humankind.”
“What do people think of when you say the word ‘psychedelic’?” Matt Young, a Neuroscience Ph.D. student at Penn and co-organizer of Psychedemia, posed rhetorically.
Narcissistic proclamations of gullible youth that “they’ve gotten a personal revelation” or that they’ve been “given the secret code” to some “ridiculous world view” may be hard to swallow for serious academics, said one of the panelists, J.P. Harpignies, an affiliate of the environmental nonprofit, Bioneers.
These negative misconceptions are a hindrance to researchers trying to gain funding for investigations involving psychedelics.
“Those images are 40 years old … knowledge that’s not up to date,” Young said.
One conference attendee from the University of Illinois said that the focus of her Ph.D. dissertation was on how researchers of psychedelics can better “present themselves as credible researchers.”
So far, such presentations have not manifested in any appreciable manner at Penn. According to Young, the Penn Neuroscience Graduate Group, one of the largest and most diverse in the world, does not have a lab devoted to the study of psychedelics.
Even so, the founders of Psychedemia were able to procure funding from the Penn Medicine Neuroscience Center, along with the Perelman School of Medicine, the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, the School of Arts and Sciences Student Government and several other SAS departments, to host the three-day conference.
Over the weekend, researchers presented findings in topics ranging from using psychedelics to treat depression and existential anxiety in late-stage cancer patients, to how altered states of consciousness can serve as tools in understanding the human mind, and to psychedelics’ role in facilitating creativity and innovation.
Richard Doyle of Penn State University advocated the conception of LSD as an “information technology” tool, a “fruitful way of working with our consciousness.”
“LSD is deeply entwined in the technological landscape,” he said, referring to the early West Coast tech boom that was steeped in the psychedelic subculture. Innovators like Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA, and Nobel Prize winner Kary Mullis, a crucial figure in developing the biomolecular tool of PCR, are said to have had their “Aha!” moments while on LSD.
“The fact that [psychedelics are] made by plants really shouldn’t deter us,” Doyle concluded to applause.
“Some people should never, ever take these substances,” however, Harpignies warned. Most psychedelic drugs are widely accepted to be non-addictive, but there are other potential dangers. As with essentially all drugs, their effects on the brain are not fully understood.
Several Psychedemia participants reflected on their altered perception of psychedelic drugs post-attendance. According to College senior Monica Rocha, the conference’s air of legitimacy certainly “changed [her] perspective.”