Taken by William in the place the article was written.
Language shapes reality. An idea pushed forward by 20th century philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, when in 1922 he wrote, “the limits of my language means the limits of my world.” Our understanding of experience is constrained by the language we use to describe it.
This is partially why I took note last month when the World Health Organization proposed renaming 5-MeO-DMT, the psychoactive tryptamine found in the secretions of the Sonoran Desert toad, to “Mebufoteninum”, a word that sounds like it could be listed under the active ingredients in Pepto Bismol.
Words matter. Yet, William James famously wrote that the mystical experience — perhaps the closest analogue we have of a psychedelic trip — is “ineffable” by nature. That is, beyond the reach of language.
We have this paradox with psychedelics of attempting to give language to an experience that by its very nature transcends our ability to define it. But in order to reference anything, it must have a name. So, for as long as humans in Western societies have been exposed to psychedelics, we have debated the words around them.
The word ‘psychedelic’ comes from the Greek words ψυχή (psyche, ‘soul, mind’) and δηλοῦν (deloun, ‘to manifest’), hence the term ‘mind manifesting’. It was first coined by British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond in 1957. One year prior, Aldous Huxley had suggested his own coinage phanerothyme (Greek phaneroein “visible” and Greek thymo “soul”, thus “visible soul”) to Osmond in 1956.
In the late 60s, it was politically correct in scientific circles to refer to these substances only as ‘psychotomimetics’, which suggested that they fostered a mental state resembling psychosis, a mental disorder broadly characterized by a disconnection from reality.
This led to the term ‘hallucinogens’ being more commonly used, which carries its own baggage due to the emphasis on hallucinating. Recently, the term entheogen has come into use, derived from the Greek words “entheos,” meaning “full of the divine,” and “genesthai,” meaning “to come into being.”
So there’s this class of compounds with different subtypes, origins and compositions; the different names paint different colors around how we think about them.
Try closing your eyes and saying a few out loud. Entheogen, tryptamine, psychotomimetics. They feel different.
But none of them really get us any closer to what a psychedelic actually is.
Of course there’s a scientific definition. The common ground among all classic psychedelics is the way they bind to and modulate specific receptors in our brain. It’s basically been agreed that psychedelics produce their effect by acting as strong partial agonists at the 5-HT2A receptors.
Because of this common mechanism, scientists agree that, in spite of substantial variation in chemical structure, the subjective effects induced by psychedelics can be considered as similar, and therefore share a name.
What does this not include? Well, a lot of stuff.
Most notably, these definitions would preclude ketamine, the only federally legal ‘psychedelic’ available in most countries right now. Dissimilar to classic psychedelics that affect the serotonin system in our brains, ketamine is a dissociative anesthetic that affects the glutamate system and targets not one system in the brain, but dozens.
So, by current definitions the one federally legal psychedelic is not even a psychedelic at all.
As psychedelics reenter popular culture in splashy headlines and consumer brands, I can’t help but wonder whether the word is being stretched too far.
If scientific and cultural tides reach a logical endpoint, this broad class of drugs will begin showing up in people’s lives very soon in very different ways and we’ll need to find responsible ways to fold them into society. In order to do so, we’ll need the right ways to talk about them.
For example, here are a few different experiences that can all be considered a psychedelic trip.
Flying Iquitos, Peru for a ten day Ayahuasca Dieta under the close supervision of indigenous healers.
Taking a ketamine tablet you ordered from an Instagram ad alone in your apartment.
Taking five grams of psilocybin capsules, blindfolded in a clinic holding the hand of a therapist you’ve met once prior.
A pinch of a mushroom chocolate bar your friend made at an intimate countryside weekend.
All of these experiences are possible today. They are all substantively different.
Much has been said of “set and setting” — that is, the expectation and environment in which we take a psychedelic; the language we use around our intentions can considerably color our experience.
Ceremonial, medical, social, healing, self discovery, spiritual development, sacrament, communication, ritual, celebratory.
The linguistic associations we focus on before and during the experience plays an important role in how we make sense of and integrate it into our lives thereafter.
Isn’t this all just semantics? Totally.
It’s about words and experience and their effect on one another.
As you read this there is a scientist in a lab coat using artificial intelligence to tinker with molecular analogues to discover a new drug for clinical trials. At the same time there is a young man on the eastern slopes of the Andes undergoing an integral part of his religious upbringing by drinking a thick ceremonial brew.
Because of words, and sometimes their shortcomings, these things are somehow the same thing.
So where do we go from here?
Who knows. But there are two distinctions that I will personally continue to draw moving forward.
The first is between medical and medicinal. Medical approval has been an effective wedge to have more pragmatic conversations about the broad class of drugs. As the conversation around treating illness matures, it seems worthwhile developing language around a wider medicinal promise of what they can teach us about the interiority of healthy individuals and the nature of mind more generally.
The second is between psychedelics and plant medicine. These again occupy very different associations. For example, you don’t often hear about people sitting in ceremony with substances like LSD or MDMA, but we do with things like mushrooms, Peyote and San Pedro. I can’t help but think that there needs to be a greater distinction between synthetic psychedelics and new lab-altered drugs, with plant medicines like naturally grown mushrooms and cacti. They are different in both makeup and practice.
The purpose of this article is not to make effable the ineffable. It’s simply to call attention to how wide the aperture of our relationship with them has grown in a very short amount of time, and to raise the question as to whether a more granular dialect is needed.
Ceremony to clinic, the cultural container needs to begin to make room for the different ways that people will begin to experience these mind altering substances.
One way we can begin to do so is to develop a more nuanced language around them.
I am very excited to share an article written by William Usdin for Funga this month.
William is an entrepreneur and investor who is happiest in liminal spaces between art and science. You can learn more about what he is up to here.