In Review: Dr Bruce Damer- A Visionary Approach for Hope and Action in the Era of Climate Shock

Author: Marc Devitt
A Visionary Approach for Hope and Action in the Era of Climate Shock.

A sweltering Saturday afternoon in fire ravaged New South Wales; a modest cloud of witnesses
gently precipitates around the cool inner sanctuary of Rigpa’s ‘Temple on the Park’ in Sydney’s inner
west. Cups of cold water refresh us inside as we take our seats in front of the dais, for the proposed
‘audacious two-part romp’ through the liminal borderlands between materialist reductionism and visionary mysticism.

True To His Word: The heart of the human experience. 

Bruce Damer guided us through his unique technique of endogenous-tripping; a type of non-substance induced visionary journey, replete with colours, creatures and
worlds, embracing cosmic, biological and psychological origin narratives, a theory of almost
everything, and an optimistic prescience for the future of humanity (and all species of Gaia-kind) as
we prepare to launch into the cosmos toward the stars from which we’ve emerged.
Astoundingly,
Bruce managed to weave all of this upon the frame of the psychedelic experience, sharing intimate
recollections gleaned from his close friendship with Terence McKenna, and most impressively kept it
all bolted down onto an empirical, ‘dialled in’ foundation free of any woo-woo. Yet, the edifice
constructed upon that sure scientific foundation on that Saturday afternoon was a complex of
magical and alchemical wonder which evoked and drew out the very heart’s blood of the human
experience. The act left us deeply touched by the dimensionality and sincerity of Damer’s tender
compassion, in active application, to the task of healing human wounded-ness and evoking the
fulfilment of human potential in the face of climate crisis. I’ll try and sum it up in a brief sketch.

Part One: The Geeky Stuff

Part one involved the ‘geeky’ stuff as Bruce unassumingly displayed the rigour of his commitment to
the scientific method and moreover his drive, along with several other esteemed colleagues, to
combine laboratory experiments with experiments in the ‘raw field’ of nature. As such he explained
his work in recent years with UNSW (here in Australia) in the Pilbara and in Port Hedland where the
discovery of geyserite containing fossilised microbial substance and gas bubbles provided evidence
of hot springs on land, 3.48 billion years ago, now being theorised as providing the ‘warm little
ponds’ intuited by Darwin as the possible engines originating all life on Earth. Damer and his
colleague Deamer constructed series of artificial rock pools in the lab that replicated the wet-dry
cycles underpinning their theory and successfully produced the formation of DNA, RNA and other
proteins, without any mechanical interference beyond this natural wet-dry cycling. To the
astonishment of sceptics, they were able to produce the very same on location in the hot springs of
Yellowstone national park (the sceptics had not considered the function of ionic components in the
hot springs which allowed for stable protein formation).
Following our APS event in Sydney, Bruce flew to New Zealand to continue working with scientists there, at the renowned hot springs of Rotorua, where he continues to firm up the evidence backing this remarkable biogenesis theory. Bruce drew a delightful analogy between the dynamics of these hot spring rock pools and feeding
punch card programmes (polymers) into an Altair 8800 microcomputer (warm little cycling pools) to
convey how protocells (programs) would either pop their cell walls (crash) or else remain stable
(run) in order to be selected to be run again through the next cycle of growth. Bruce showed how
this understanding of the role of hot springs in biogenesis can be used to direct the search for
evidence of life on Mars and how he is currently working with the Japanese space agency to do just
that.
We then considered the origin story of the human species in particular: Bruce’s description of an
endo-trip in which he gained greater insight into the development of the visual cortex in prosimians.
This, he proposed, was a result of altered states of consciousness, gained by the more daring of the
species, who went out on a (tree) limb to get ‘lifted’ on tree sap, thus gaining visual acuity enabling
them to see through the mesmerising patterns of tree snakes which would have otherwise left them
transfixed and helpless prey. We’ve now evolved the ability to both recognise and create complex
hypnotising patterns; thus we can use this ability to create technological ‘snakes’ that can in turn be
used to wound or to heal, to either manipulate human weaknesses, transfix and exploit, or to
enhance human vision, break beguilement and help us to heal. Bruce contrasted the role of
manipulative media transfixing us to disempowering states of consciousness, that leave us open to
exploitation, with the very different liberating and empowering work of ‘trans-tech’ at Esalen
Institute, using techno-bio-logical interfacing to help us return to a state of communal synchronicity.
From the latter state of consciousness we can recognise dis-functional patterning and clear it out in
a group setting, to free up enormous amounts of energy for new creative and healthy endeavours.
Bruce called this ‘healing the inner kindergarden’ and pointed out that what so much of these
findings highlight is that the origin of life is in common community and not in separative
competition. He linked in Ram Dass’ philosophical point of contention with what he’d called the
myth of separateness and suggested that this scientific investigation could be for biologists in the
2020s what relativity was for physicists in the 1920s.

Part Two: Cosmological Exploration

Part two launched us into ontological and cosmological exploration, all the while grounded within
the appreciation of the rock pool dynamics as comparable computers processing randomly
generated polymer programmes and testing them to see if they boom or bust. Bruce proposed a
new Copernican cosmic centre – once again inspired by an endo-trip in which he was spurred to
consider the dynamics of these rock pools. It’s a triangular cycle which he calls ‘the progenote’
(pictured below):
In brief it shows how there is a kind of ‘Engine of Emergence’ at the heart of cosmos, which is conscious, recollective, interactive and actively shaping probability. Bruce proposes that it is this ‘field’ of consciousness which our limited primate brain samples and that this explains many of the other-worldly ecstatic and epiphanic perceptions of the psychedelic experience. ‘Life opens pathways to impossible events’ he asserted, relating several instances in which he had successfully interacted with this kind of triune engine of responsiveness and suggesting ways in which we might learn to do so with greater dexterity – including but not limited to the use of psychedelic substances.

In the end: “The trip is always made within” – Bruce Damer

Bruce concluded the talk by applying all of these findings to the current climate crisis and noted the urgency for climate change mitigation strategies, noting that whilst emissions reduction is surely a must, we are already inevitably going to experience some possibly cataclysmic shifts, even if the harm reduction is effective and we spare ourselves the worst case scenario. If we are able to preserve biological diversity here on Earth first, we can look toward navigating the stars and preserving Gaia’s greatest experiment beyond the inevitable ‘Venus terminator’ event 100 millennia from now, in which Earth will follow a similar fate to her sister planet on the inner orbital ring. Designs for spacecraft capable of harvesting asteroids were floated as a possible way for us to obtain the resources needed to launch into space and explore life on other planets. Such confidence was refreshing in what is so often a prevalent climate of almost apocalyptic gloom and frustration, nevertheless stressed along with the optimistic confidence was the urgency of a call to action.

Bruce encouraged optimistic and holistic effort (to which the efficient use of psychedelic tools of various sorts are undoubtedly a helpful supplement, if not an essential contingent!) in the war on stupefied inertia and stunned apathy which inevitably results from a vision too dull to recognise the predator behind the patented patterns of profit driven predators in the digital marketplace. Damer has certainly evoked from within us a confidence that, in such a struggle, the marriage of endo and exo tripping, of psychedelics and science, offers a greater probability of victory and an earnest reminder that, whatever cosmic journeys we may yet embark upon: ‘the trip is always made within’. 

To find out more about The Australian Psychcedelic Society and the events we hold, visit us at our website, facebook and sign up to our newsletter to be made aware of events near you. 

Esketamine Approved by the FDA for Treatment Resistant Depression

Marco Stojanovik

Following a review of clinical trial results and consultation with external advisors, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted approval for Spravato to be used in patients with treatment-resistant depression in the United States. Spravato is a nasal spray produced by Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc. that contains esketamine hydrochloride, a chemical mirror to the anaesthetic and dissociative psychedelic ketamine.

“There has been a long-standing need for additional effective treatments for treatment-resistant depression, a serious and life-threatening condition,” said Tiffany Farchione, M.D., acting director of the Division of Psychiatry Products in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “Controlled clinical trials that studied the safety and efficacy of this drug, along with careful review through the FDA’s drug approval process including a robust discussion with our external advisory committees, were important to our decision to approve this treatment.”

Trials consisted of short-term and long-term studies in which one group of patients were given esketamine nasal spray alongside a traditional antidepressant, while a placebo group received saline and a traditional oral antidepressant. Individuals taking esketamine showed significantly more improvement, occurring in less than 24 hours after the first dose, and a greater length of time to relapse of depressive symptoms than those taking placebo.

Medical ketamine treatments in the US date back to 1970 when the FDA first approved its use as an anaesthetic.  Many ketamine clinics have since emerged though to offer intravenous (IV) administrations ‘off-label’ – meaning for a different medical use than the FDA has approved and not covered by health insurance plans –as a fast-acting treatment for severe depression. This follows the results of numerous published studies since 2000 showing significant decrease in depression symptoms in patients who felt no meaningful improvement on other antidepressant medications.

“This is a game changer,” said John Krystal, M.D., chief psychiatrist at Yale Medicine and one of the pioneers of ketamine research in the US. He calls ketamine “the anti-medication” medication working differently than those used previously to treat depression.

In other treatments SSRIs – serotonin reuptake inhibitors – are used based on the ‘chemical imbalance’ hypothesis that people with depression have a deficit of serotonin. However, this hypothesis may not fully explain depression with growing research showing a link to a build up of proteins in the brain under stress. This makes neurons less adaptable and less able to communicate with other neurons.

Ketamine works by triggering glutamate production, which prompts the brain to form new neural connections to repair the damage. The new pathways give patients the opportunity to develop more positive thoughts and behaviours.

While SSRIs tend to work as long they are in your system and can be difficult to come off, the effects of ketamine continue afterwards. ”It’s the reaction to ketamine, not the presence of ketamine in the body that constitutes its effects,” said Dr. Krystal.

Although esketamine works similarly to ketamine – its mirror molecule – Janssen Pharmaceuticals opted to pursue approval by the FDA for its use rather than ketamine for a number of reasons. Importantly, its chemical makeup allows it to bind more tightly to the glutamate receptors, making it two to five times more potent, meaning patients need a lower dose. It was also patentable and therefore profitable in contrast to ketamine that is widely used. And it escapees the baggage associated with ketamine as a ‘club drug’.

Still, the approval comes with a number of regulations.  The drug must only be administered as a nasal spray in a certified clinically supervised setting and used in conjunction with oral antidepressants. It can only be given to patients who have not responded successfully to two previous antidepressant treatments.

Because of the risk of sedation and dissociation, patients must stay in the doctor’s office for at least two hours of monitoring after receiving their Spravato dose until the doctor determines the patient is ready to leave. The Spravato never leaves the facility.

In all, this is a significant advancement for helping people struggling with treatment-resistant depression and an exciting step in the discovery of the medical potential of ketamine and other psychedelic drugs.

With efforts underway in the US could Australia follow next to decriminalize magic mushrooms?

Marco Stojanovik

On June 4th Oakland followed Denver to become the second city in the US to decriminalize psychoactive plants and fungi, including mushrooms, cacti, iboga, and ayahuasca. This means the city’s law enforcement will no longer investigate or prosecute people for their use, sale, and distribution. Now instead, proponents argue that resources can be freed to pursue violent offenses.

According to Oakland councilmember Rebecca Kaplan this policy is consistent with ongoing criminal justice reforms. “We need to continue to act to help end mass incarceration and the war on drugs,” she said.

Advocates for reform cite a growing body of research suggesting that psychedelic drugs are safe and therapeutically beneficial with low potential for addiction. Studies around psilocybin especially suggest that it can effectively treat obsessive-compulsive disorderdepression,  end-of-life anxietyaddiction, and cluster headaches, and that it can help people quit smoking and deal with alcohol dependence. There’s also growing evidence that the drug can induce mystical states that promote positive changes in personality such as openness, optimism, and sociability.

“This is getting the word out about the healing power,” said councilmember Noel Gallo. “Many people in communities of color and communities of trauma are not getting access.”

With similar campaigns occurring in Oregon, Iowa and across California, activists hope this is the beginning of a wider national movement in the US towards legalisation.

In Australia, however, misinformation, prejudice, and academic conservatism have stalled psychedelic research and moves towards their medical use and decriminalisation. Since 2011, the non-profit organization Psychedelic Research in Science & Medicine (PRISM) has been working to interest universities and the psychiatric fraternity in Australia to begin psychedelic drug trials to much resistance.

 “Australia has a rather isolated group-think mentality, unfortunately,” says Dr Martin Williams, President of PRISM. “Our political class are just very, very scared and they’re very risk averse. Universities likewise.”

A decades-old stigma remains around these substances as illicit drugs. Traditional framing focuses on their potential risks and adverse consequences and sidelines their therapeutic potential. With a stigma-induced public resistance it’s politically divisive and unwise for policymakers to support reforms.

A lack of support on the part of for-profit pharmaceutical companies has also hindered progress. Many of these patent-free psychedelics need only a few doses to provide long-term effectiveness, in contrast to standard SSRI anti-depressants which require long-term ongoing use. The potential for profit is massively reduced.

Nevertheless, attitudes are changing. In December 2017, Dr Margaret Ross, the palliative care clinician at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne, discovered Williams efforts and contacted him about working together on a trial with her patients who have not responded to anti-depressant or anti-anxiety therapies.

Gaining the financial support of $1 million from philanthropists Tania de Jong and Peter Hunt through their charity Mind Medicine Australia (MMA) and the necessary regulatory approvals from the federal and state authorities the trials began this year in April.

Terminally ill patients are being given a single dose of synthetic psilocybin – the psychoactive compound in mushrooms – in conjunction with therapy sessions. The aim is that these patients will be given a new perspective on their lives, easing the anxiety and depression which often overcomes as death approaches.  According to the hospital three in every 10 palliative care patients can experience extreme distress in their final months.

Dr Margaret Ross speaks at our recent Mushroom Day event in Sydney.

Dr Paul Liknaitzky, a psychology researcher at Deakin University and one of MMA’s scientific advisers, explains that the drug works by disabling the ‘default mode network’ – the ‘resting state’ of the brain associated with a person’s typical way of thinking. The default mode networks of people who have depression tend to become hyperactive repeating the same negative thoughts. By disabling this it is hoped that patients can detach themselves from their thoughts and concerns to gain an altered look on their situation approaching death.

The results of similar research in the US have been promising. Studies at New York University and Johns Hopkins University found that a single dose of psilocybin assisted by psychotherapy significantly reduced anxiety, depression, and existential distress in terminally ill cancer patients. Six months after 51 patients were treated at Jon Hopkins University, 80 percent showed significant decreases in depressed mood, while 83 per cent reported increased life satisfaction and 67 per cent reported the experience as one of the top five spiritually meaningful experiences in their lives.

“The US study was really profound: some people were able to transcend their ideas about dying. It really relaxes those old rigid ways we have built up in the way we look at the world,” Dr Margaret Ross explains.They had remission of symptoms [of psychiatric distress]. It was rapid, it was dramatic, and it was beyond impressive, because it lasted for up to six months.” 

The Australian trial seeks to build upon the studies in the US from cancer sufferers to those with other terminal conditions.

“Our plan is not to replicate research that has been done overseas,” says MMA’s de Jong. “We’re investing in being ready for when, and if, the regulators overseas reschedule these medicines.”

She’s referring to the push for a rescheduling of psilocybin to allow for its use as a prescription medicine. In the US the team of researchers at John Hopkins are proposing that the drug be reclassified from the most restrictive Schedule I to Schedule IV, making it available for prescription albeit within a clinical settingMeanwhile, MMA hopes to see it reclassified from an Australian Schedule 9 substance to Schedule 8 allowing its prescription with explicit government approval.

If the Australian trial, along with others occurring internationally, confirm the promising results of the initial studies, rescheduling could occur within the next five years. The campaign for Oakland and Denver style decriminalisation may be a long one in Australia. Yet, the progress being made in medical trials here and around the world leave one optimistic that the stigma is fading and widespread acceptance of their therapeutic potentials is nearing closer.