Matthew Johnson: “Psychedelics are tools for understanding the biological nature of consciousness”

Matthew W. Johnson, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, is a leading expert on the effects of psychedelics. He is an experimental psychologist with expertise on psychoactive drugs and the psychology of addiction and risk behavior with many years of experience in academic research in psychopharmacology and addictions and human research with psychedelics. Aside from psychedelics, Matt conducts behavioral economic research on decision making, addiction, and sexual risk, is a widely published author on psychedelics, and has been interviewed by international media channels as an expert on drugs and addiction. Beside many important research findings, Matt also published safety guidelines for human psychedelic research in 2008, which facilitated safe initiation of psychedelic research at a growing number of universities.

How do you feel about the current situation around psychedelics?

This is a very exciting time in which psychedelics are being carefully reconsidered by mental health professionals. This is exciting not only because psychedelics may constitute breakthrough treatments for very difficult to treat and debilitating disorders, but because they are also tools for understanding the biological nature of consciousness.

What do you consider to be the biggest challenges of the current psychedelic movement?

The risk is that careless investigators with an inclination toward provocation but with little clinical research experience will harm the field by not appropriately applying safeguards and by drawing resources from more credible and experienced investigators.

Do you think psychedelic experience (and/or altered state of consciousness induced by other means) should be compulsory part of training for mental health professionals?

Matthew Johnson at Beyond Psychedelics 2018

That is a complicated question. I would advise against requiring consumption of psychedelic compounds as part of mental health professional training because these substances do entail some risk. For example, we cannot administer psilocybin to a patient who has a vulnerable cardiovascular system. It would therefore be problematic (and not permissible by authorities) to require someone to take such as medical risk as part of a job requirement to be a therapist. However, there are other ways to have psychedelic experience besides consuming a drug, and some of these, like meditation, may have a different risk profile. Therefore, I could imagine the possibility that such a non-drug psychedelic experience might be a legitimate requirement for a mental health professional. The devil would be in the details.

How do you envision the ideal society in terms of psychoactive substances and altered states of consciousness?

I am not sure what is ultimately ideal, but the closest approximation would be the society described in Aldous Huxley’s novel “Island.”

What do you consider to be the greatest benefit of psychedelics?

Under appropriately safeguarded conditions, the ability to occasion an experience that is less burdened by the complexities of one’s self-identity.  

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