Calming the Eternal Footman: Psilocybin and Cancer Psychopharmacology
A chapter within the book Psychological Aspects of Cancer (2012), by Bossis, Grob and Griffiths, has had cause to review the usage of psilocybin within clinical trials regarding psychopharmacology and psychiatry. The particular impetus behind this particular set of tests is concerned with using Psilocybin “to amelioerate psychospiritual distress and demoralization that often accompanies a life-threatening cancer diagnosis” (1). The chapter goes on to define spirituality as, “the aspect of humanity that refers to the way individuals seek and express meaning and purpose and the way they experience their connectedness to the moment, to self, to others, to nature, and to the significant or sacred.” This is intrinsically linked to all aspects of life, but no more so than to the process of “unwinding and working off this coil of mortality” (2). The chapter goes on to explain that “a growing body of literature now substantiates the importance and relevance of spiritual well-being and spirituality in palliative and hospice care.” In a clinical study carried out in 1999, it was found that up to 51% of cancer patients claimed to have “unmet spiritual or existential needs”. Such needs included; overcoming fears, finding hope, finding meaning in life, and finding spiritual resources (3).
Psilocybin is converted, by the mammalian body, into psilocin, which is a compound know as a serotonergic psychedelic. This means that psilocin creates feelings that mimic and greatly expand upon the effects of that naturally occurring neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin has a plethora of effects within the human body, with the majority yet to be fully understood; but it is known that it contributes greatly towards growth, reproduction and emotional mindset. This last effect is the most pertinent when we consider the ongoing trials discussed in Psychological Aspects of Cancer. Serotonin is a powerful neurotransmitter; therefore a serotonergic psychedelic will be capable of profound effects upon the brain under its influence. This can, if increased scrutiny is placed upon managing the set and setting of the procedure, allow for people to find a positive outlook upon that most serious and final of events that we all must go through; death, and its precursor dying. This is encapsulated beautifully by T.S Eliot in The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock (1915):
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald)
brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet – and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold
my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid
The steady arc of one’s life projected through time must always have a beginning and an end; otherwise there would be no biological need for things such as emotions. Emotions urge us on, whilst tapping at the clock and raising their eyebrows at us, as we scurry about our own personal business. But, alas! What would life be like without the accompanying rollercoaster of emotions? A dry, linear path of grey, unfeeling monotony, no less! How would T.S Eliot have ruminated so eruditely on the end of one’s time without the glory of neurotransmitters manifesting the sorrow of time passed?
Psilocybin has the ability to radically alter a person’s mindset, via experiences that could be described as numinous, or mystical. The mystical experience that can be achieved via the ingestion of certain naturally occurring species of fungus is just the sort of thing that can shake a person out of a ‘deep funk’, either by allowing a fresh perspective to be ascertained, or by the ‘shock and awe’ effects of increased serotonin-like effects on the synapses.
The trials conducted by Bossis et al. aimed to give such an experience to cancer patients. Retrospective questionnaires completed by the patients four to eight weeks after the trials using Psilocybin suggest that over 80% of participants “considered the experience to be among the five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives.” If such a naturally occurring compound can allow a self-aware being the courage and dignity to face up to the ‘eternal Footman’ with a steady hand and a clear mind, then the idea that such a compound has been controlled under law, borders on farcical. It may even prompt one into thinking that certain powers-that-be don’t actually know what they are doing. In the face of such searing myopia, all that can be done is to continue the clinical, objective research until the body of evidence becomes undeniable. Trials such as those carried out by Bossis et al. all contribute to this body of evidence in a very positive way.
1. Carr, Brian I., Jennifer Steel [Ed.]. Psychological Aspects of Cancer: A Guide to Emotional and Psychological Consequences of Cancer, Their Causes, and Their Management. Springer Science and Media. 2012
2. Schopenhauer, Arthur. Parerga and Paralipomena. E. F. J. Payne translation. Oxford. Clarendon Press. 2000 [1st 1851].
3. Moadal et al. Seeking Meaning and Hope: Self reported spiritual and existential hope among an ethnically-diverse cancer population. Psychooncology. 1999 Sep-Oct;8(5):378-85.