Open letter to Mark Leary, Ph.D.

professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University

Dear Professor Leary:

I would ordinarily write you a personal e-mail to comment on your fascinating Great Courses course entitled "Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior," since I have a habit of writing professors and authors in an attempt to comment on some of the interesting concepts that they raise for me in their lectures and books respectively. I find that recently, however, some of my e-mails of this kind have been greeted by such curmudgeonly responses that I've decided to suspend my policy of intellectual glasnost for a while, lest the intellects that I engage in this way should "bite my head off" rather than take up my proffered gauntlet for a tete-a-tete. Hence this "open letter" to you to spare myself any unnecessary grief in the statistically unlikely event that you should prove as curmudgeonly as some of my recent correspondents.

A certain author of a certain book about DMT, for instance, informed me just last month that the heartfelt two paragraph e-mail that I sent him was too lengthy for him to read, thank me very much, given the fact that he didn't know me from Adam, this despite the fact that I had spent three hours composing it and that it dealt with personal issues of which I had 40 years of experience. Contrast this with the response to my far lengthier e-mail on a similar topic to Ernest Drucker Ph.D. (Albert Einstein Global Health Center) who not only responded to my full-page comments, but asked if he could share them with his colleagues (which he most certainly could, by the way, and with my blessings).

[Editor's note: Brian has been on the receiving end of America's status quo psychological treatments for 40 years. Therefore, it was disheartening for him to find that a doctor, of all people, was uninterested in his testimony on this subject. This "certain author's" response, however, is illustrative (or so Brian feels) of the problem with the psychological establishment over the last 50 years: it has reckoned without its host, disdaining the input and the true needs of patients. Meanwhile, it has silently acquiesced and collaborated in the government's determination to quash all meaningful research on psychedelic therapy, rather than putting up an ongoing fight in the name of science. Only now that others like the MAPS organization have led the way and thus provided cover, are researchers and doctors coming out of their cubicles and declaring "ME TOO" when it comes to their determination to speak positively about the potential use of psychedelics in therapy. This is all understandable considering the social and vocational pressure at work here, but Brian still regrets the fact that there were so few Galileos to arise during this period to provide at least a little well-publicized push-back in the name of scientific independence and freedom -- in America of all places, a country that increasingly prides itself (somewhat hypocritically in this case) on its faith in science to solve the problems of humankind!]

So here then, Mark, are my initial thoughts on your course, which you are free to engage with or ignore as you see fit, with no need to chastise me for my presumption in sending it to you directly, should you be moved to do so.

Of course, having watched only the first lecture in the series, my comments here are aimed more at the topic in general, but I have one sort of meta observation in connection to the subject of human behavior. I'm referring here to the assumption in the field of psychology that basic personality traits (particularly counterproductive ones) are, to a large extent, beyond the hope of being fundamentally changed and that we are, to a certain extent, stuck with the psychological dispositions with which we've been provided as children, whether by early environmental conditioning or genetics or both.

This is the point of view that is encapsulated in the layperson's observation that "a tiger never changes its stripes," or that "you can't teach an old dog new tricks," meaning in this case that while coping mechanisms and drug interventions (such as SSRIs) can alleviate the worst symptoms of a negative personality, there is a fundamental core self (created by environment and genetics) that will remain largely beyond the hope of true fundamental change. Tacitly acknowledging this reality, therapists of depressive patients and alcoholics seldom speak in terms of cures that they can provide but rather about helping their patients live lives "one day at a time," i.e., forever in the shadow of a core weakness which, like the sword of Damocles, is ever ready to fall back into their lives and cause problems.

These practical but pessimistic assumptions are quite understandable given the lackluster results of the status quo anti-depression and anti-alcoholism treatments in America today, but evidence shows that these assumptions may have to be modified for the better in light of the new findings regarding the therapeutic efficacy of psychedelics and MDMA in the treatment of mental illness. It turns out that there are substances out there (though the self-interested DEA would prefer to call them "drugs," or better yet "dope") which can give a person insight into their fundamental condition on this planet and open their minds to new ways to approach existing problems. This is the long-overdue message coming from research on psychedelics as therapy. These result are almost better than a cure for depression and alcoholism because these substances doe not throw problems into a subconscious closet to get rid of them (or muffle them by sedation, etc.) but rather they bring problems out into the light of day via comprehensible symbolism, thereby increasing the self-understanding of the patient and thus their ability to be creative in dealing with their conditions.

At least this is true in a surprisingly large number of cases of the trials underway. In fact, one MDMA taker (though perhaps taking the substance illegally) gave a typical response about the drug's therapeutic potential by reporting that one dose of MDMA did more for him in a day than traditional psychological therapy had done for him in twenty years (see Tom Shroder's "Acid Test").

So my point, Mark, is that psychology's assumption of the stubborn fixity of basic human personality will be modified, God (and the FDA) willing, over the coming decades as "new " substances (which in many cases have actually been used by human beings for thousands of years) see the light of day in mental health settings across America, as the scientific dark ages of the last 50 years gives way to renewed interest in treatments that were on the verge of helping millions back in the '60s, until government misunderstanding, prejudice, and ignorance usurped the role of science and threatened (implicitly and otherwise) to ruin any scientist who failed to either remain quiet on these topics or else toe the party line.

Copyright 2017, Brian Quass quass@quass.com (follow on Twitter)