Was Syd Barrett an Acid Casualty? On Psychedelics And the Psyche — My Latest for Paste Magazine

Syd Barrett is one of the most tragic stories in rock and roll. As the founder and lead singer/guitarist/songwriter for Pink Floyd, he revolutionized rock and roll and spearheaded the burgeoning psychedelic sound of the 1960s. However, shortly after the release of the band’s 1967 debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, something changed. Barrett’s friends and bandmates claim he became more withdrawn, started playing only one chord during concerts, and even becoming catatonic. After Floyd replaced him with David Gilmour, Barrett recorded two solo albums and then left the limelight altogether until his death in 2006. Most people believe his excessive LSD consumption led to Barrett’s demise, but recent studies suggest psychedelics can perhaps improve mental health, not ruin it.

The most recent study comes from Brazil and tested the effects of a hallucinogen called ayahuasca on people with treatment-resistant depression. Fourteen people were given the hallucinogen while 15 people received a placebo. Within one week, more people who took ayahuasca claimed their depression went from severe to mild than those who took the placebo. Of course, as David Mischoulon of Massachusetts General Hospital points out, we need studies that follow patients for longer periods to see whether these effects are sustained.” However other studies that examined the effect of psychedelics on mental health found similar results.

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  1. says

    I’m a bit nervous about arguing either that psychoactives are all bad, or that they are all good. They’ve got a wide range of effects depending on the subject, and they’re unpredictable. I’ve seen people where were depressed or in a bad headspace really go toward the edge (things like ecstacy that mess with your serotonin appear to depress some people when they stop using) It seems plausible to me that Barrett may have had borderline neurochemistry to begin with, and the LSD didn’t help. The degree to which something is a behavioral problem versus a neurochemical problem — I don’t think neuropsychologists can come close to stating that conclusively — so caution would be recommended. Caution is not what Barrett did.

  2. says

    Very nice round-up of trials on psychedelics, and I love that you used Syd Barrett as linchpin for it.

    @Marcus Don’t forget that LSD itself was initially created for use by psychiatrists, and before becoming a recreational drug, actually showed quite a bit of promise in that area. With specific doses under controlled circumstances, patients often opened up a lot easier to their therapists, and reported very strong positive results from their sessions over time. Sadly, LSD got out to the public, became recreational, and then was targeted by the War on Drugs. It seems some psychiatrists are interested in re-appropriating LSD as a therapeutic drug again. No one ever claimed it cured anything, of course. It was always meant to be a tool to be used as a more humane approach to psychotherapy.

    (Incidentally, I’m fascinated by, and admittedly would like to try, psychedelics like LSD, shrooms, and ayahuasca, though I’ve always been bothered by the “spiritual” cult that’s grown up around them; drug-induced hallucinations are not “gates to the supernatural”.)

  3. says

    drug-induced hallucinations are not “gates to the supernatural

    Yeah, but when you have hallucinations that are indistinguishable from reality, it gets interesting. I tried DMT once (and maaaaan was it unsettling) and what my eyes were telling me I was seeing flatly contradicted what my memory was telling me things actually looked like. But, if I had seen god, god would have been exactly as real to me in that moment as my hand in front of my face – which, by the way, looked like a flipper with melted-together fingers. I’ll observe that a stiff dose of DMT is probably not indicated for psychotherapy, either, based on my experience.

    I have a friend who confronted a lot of overlearned behaviors from PTSD with the assistance of benzodiazepenes and alcohol (Valium and Vodka) to take the edge off fear. It worked. It actually worked. The problem is that different psychoactives’ effect might match or mismatch therapeutic interventions. The same friend who did the V&V interventions also did a talk therapy session on shrooms and found that very valuable for digging up partially buried traumatic memories. But then there was the time that (for reasons I still cannot even begin to understand) I watched “The Wall” when I was tripping, and I was a wreck for almost a week. In fact, I would say, with no way of proving it, that a great deal of my anti-authoritarianism was sharpened by that non-experience. I say “non-experience” because I experienced something that I did not actually experience. What do you call it then?

    The individual variability of psychoactives also makes me worry a bit about their usefulness in therapy, unless we studied them and understood them better. For example, a friend of mine “microdosed” on shrooms for a while, eating about 1/20 of the amount that it would take to knock my neurochem off its setpoint. Apparently I’m pretty neuroboring – it takes what would be a heroic dose for some people for me to be affected, but the response curves aren’t the same either. I believe (based on nothing) that this probably points toward some of the variations in individual response-curves – maybe one person is easier to depress because their response curves are sharper. This is all stuff that, if it were used in a clinical setting, we’d be able to figure out pretty quickly. But that’s not going to happen because psychoactives are terrifying to some people and they project their fear across all of us. What do I mean by that? Well, if you actually believed in god, and then ate a little piece of paper and god started talking to you from a burning dumpster, when you came down – what does that do to your god-belief? (I was an atheist before I ever did any drugs, but I know theists who’ve tripped and tipped toward buddhism and less personalized religions as a consequence of what I just described)

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