Written by Chris Letheby


Review by Gunnel Minett

Psychedelic drugs got a bad reputation during the 1960’s and 70’s because of the abuse of mind-altering drugs in completely uncontrolled circumstances. They were regarded as bad and dangerous: they could result in unpredictable consequences which might ruin the lives of a lot of otherwise healthy young people. However, what was probably more important in convincing our societies to make them illegal were the very questionable experiments with psychedelic drugs conducted by the military. They wanted to see if and how such drugs might  be used in warfare. These military tests showed very clearly that psychedelic drugs have a massive effect on people who ingest them. In addition, these experiments were probably as close as we will ever get to double-blind tests since the soldiers were not always aware that they were being given drugs. With their very negative results they also showed the importance of the right circumstances under which the tests were conducted.

This book, however, argues, beyond any doubt, that psychedelic drugs can, in the right circumstances, have a profoundly positive effect. The key to their correct use guaranteeing the right setting of support, calm and security. Even just one session can achieve more prolonged positive results than treatment with other more conventional methods. The author discusses in detail the changes that people may go through as a result of drug sessions, both from a psychological and philosophical point of view. Interestingly a number of such changes have a lot in common with meditation and religious or spiritually induced experiences. The book also argues that supervised sessions with psychedelic drugs can reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression and addiction as well as giving an overall sense of improved wellbeing. 

The book concludes that, under the influence of psychedelic drugs, many people, regardless of their initial beliefs, seem to have some form of  ‘mystical’ experiences: these may involve experiencing some sense of ‘cosmic consciousness’ and are often associated with spiritual or religious beliefs. It also asks the question; ‘Do psychedelics cause psychological benefits by inducing false or implausible beliefs about the metaphysical nature of reality?’ In the author’s view, this conception of psychedelics as agents of insight and spirituality can be reconciled with naturalism, i.e. the philosophical position that the natural world is all there is. 

To substantiate these claims, the author offers a wide range of evidence, integrating empirical evidence and philosophical considerations. He discusses to what extent the drugs alter the brain in such a way that it creates the experiences. Expressions such as ‘rebooting’ or ‘defragging’ the brain computer are mentioned. Another argument is that a strong sense of losing the ‘self’ is often experienced during the sessions and that it may be the main cause of deep changes.

The focus of the book is firmly on psychedelic drugs with a few references to meditation and experiences in a religious setting.There is however another area with similar deep experiences that is not mentioned at all. That is breathwork, or breathing exercises; exercises that are aimed at changing the breathing, often through guided breathing patterns. Breathwork has also become known for its mind-altering effects. Breathwork is sometimes done within a spiritual or religious framework, or as some form of psychotherapy. However, it can also be done individually, without assistance, and still produce the same results.

The list of effects of psychedelic drugs presented in the book could just as well describe the effects of breathwork. Still there is only a brief mention of Stanislav Grof, who started out using LSD in his psychotherapy before the drug was banned in America. There is no mentioning of the fact that he later went on to develop a technique in which he guided his client’s breathing to mimic the breathing patterns he had observed during the LSD sessions. He found that the outcomes of his Holotropic Breathwork technique were very similar to those from LSD.

Given the discussion in the book as how the drugs influence the brain, it would have been very interesting to compare the effects of psychedelic drugs with breathwork sessions. The fact that merely changing the breathing pattern can produce the same experiences, opens up a whole range of new questions. Breathwork experiences can’t be linked with psychedelic drugs since there are no drugs involved. It can’t be the influence of a therapist, or school of thought, since doing breathwork without assistance can also deliver the same result. 

It is true that there hasn’t been as much research into the effects of breathwork so far. But there is a substantial amount of anecdotal evidence from around the world suggesting that Breathwork and psychedelics can have the same effects. There are also academic papers which present studies of breathwork as a cure for problems such as PTSD and addiction*. These can be compared with the examples, listed in the book, of the successful treatment of  the same problems with psychedelic drugs. 

Given the many similarities between these approaches, we can only hope that there will be a follow up to this interesting book with a proper comparison of the two treatment approaches. That kind of comparison may offer a whole new understanding of psychotherapy and the human psyche.

* See for instance “Treating PTSD with connected breathing: A clinical case study and theoretical implications “ by P.A.J.M. de Wit, R. Moraes Cruz

Published by Oxford University Press, 2021, 272PP, ISBN 978-0198843122