Psychedelics: Lifting The Veil by Robin Carhart-Harris (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of psychologist and neuroscientist Robin Carhart-Harris’ TEDx Talk: Psychedelics: Lifting the Veil at TEDxWarwick conference. To learn more about the speaker, read the bio here.


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Robin Carhart-Harris – Psychologist and neuroscientist

It’s easy to be captivated by the world out there. It’s a fascinating place. It’s deserving of this attention. But what if we were to invert our focus and look inside, what would we find?

Well, I study psychedelic drugs for a living. And the reason why I do this — often could fault you — is because I think they’re special. And the reason why I think they’re special is that I believe they have a unique ability to reveal to us the very depths of our minds, dreams, and perhaps a select few other states may hint at what lies beyond the reaches of normal consciousness.

But psychedelics, in my view, are really unrivaled in their ability to do this. Now, many of you will be familiar with the word psychedelic but I doubt so many of you are familiar with its origins or what it means.

So psychedelic was a word that was coined in the 1950s by the British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond with reference to this class of drugs that I study. And it combines two Greek words: psyche and delos which when put together mean to make the mind manifest or to reveal the soul.

Now I’ve been fascinated by psychology for most of my adult life. The one question that has always bugged me is why can’t it prove the existence of the unconscious mind? Is it because it doesn’t exist? Or is it because it’s especially difficult to see?

Now I’ve come to believe quite strongly that it’s the latter. But then the key question is: how can we make it easier to see? Freud famously told us about dreams how they’re a window in on the Unconscious of Royal Road. But the problem is dreaming happens while we’re asleep. And then when we wake up, all we’re left with is this flimsy memory of what we actually experience.

So it’s while I was studying for my Masters that I found myself asking whether a drug exists that can facilitate access to the unconscious mind. I did a brief library search and I came across this book: Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations from LSD Research written by the Czech psychiatrist Stanislav Grof in 1975. I swiftly took this book out of the library. I brought it back to my room. I opened it and I read.

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Many of the phenomena in these LSD sessions could be understood in psychological and psychoanalytic terms. They had a structure not dissimilar to that of dreams. And Freud once said of dreams that they are a Royal Road to a knowledge of the unconscious mind. But to an even greater degree, this seems to be true for the LSD experience.

And finally, the capacity of psychedelic drugs to exteriorize otherwise invisible phenomena and make them the subject of scientific investigation gives these substances a unique potential as research tools for the exploration of the human mind; does not seem inappropriate or an exaggeration to compare their potential significance for psychiatry and to psychology to that of the microscope for medicine or the telescope for astronomy.

So as you can imagine, after reading these things, I was filled with a very strong sense of purpose and direction. I wrote to Professor David Nutt then at the University of Bristol. And I told him I wanted to study the brain on LSD and to see whether it looks like the dreaming brain.

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