Psychedelic Research and Experimentation: Maintaining Strong Guardrails to Prevent TESCREAL Hallucinations and Undue Influence with Neşe Devenot, Ph.D. 

Psychedelic research and experimentation are increasing around the nation under serious academic scrutiny. Findings indicate that in some instances, psychedelics may be helpful in the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), particularly among veterans, where symptoms are common in areas such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, anger, and post-concussive syndrome. In a group where suicidality shows an alarming increase, adding another therapeutic tool using appropriate caution and influence appears hopeful.  

However, as research picks up in these areas of psychology, rarely do we discuss the potential dangers of cults, mind control, undue influence, or authoritarian control surrounding the topic of psychedelics. Silicon Valley billionaires reportedly are increasingly using psychedelics in non-therapeutic ways to produce business breakthroughs. In this community, there is a societal push for others to use them in a hugely irresponsible and potentially manipulative way.  

Neşe Devenot, Ph.D., addresses many of these concerns in her paper TESCREAL hallucinations: Psychedelic and AI hype as inequality engines. Neşe is a Senior Lecturer in Writing at Johns Hopkins University. She has participated in the interdisciplinary field of psychedelic study since 2010. Her postdoctoral fellowship is in the Department of Bioethics at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, and she received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Pennsylvania. In addition, she achieved a research fellowship at the New York Public Library’s Timothy Leary Papers and the New York University Psilocybin Cancer Anxiety Study. She explores the intersections between medical humanities, psychedelic bioethics, and rhetorical analysis as a scholar. 

Neşe began our interview by explaining that her interest in psychedelic study started after a firsthand experience with LSD in college at 18 years old that she found beneficial. She discovered a profound change in her lifelong history of debilitating obsessive-compulsive disorder and social anxiety that she believes stemmed from neurodivergence. However, as she pursued the path of psychedelic study, Neşe began to realize that not everything was “light and rainbows” in this area. She said she is now pushing for a more nuanced and critical perspective on psychedelics.  

One of the areas that concerns Neşe the most is the parallels she’s noticed between discussions around the perception of all-encompassing world-saving solutions in AI or the use of psychedelics. She points out that the vast inequalities between Silicon Valley billionaires and the general population actually cause widespread harm.  

As she researched deeper into the similarities between AI hype and psychedelic hype, she found themes of ultra-wealthy billionaires using both AI and psychedelics to distract from problems caused by inequality. Recurring themes of transhumanism and longtermism provide insight into billionaires’ plans to profit from the combination of technology, psychedelics, and modified consciousness.  

The acronym TESCREAL comes from the combination of many of those philosophies, such as Transhumanism, Extropianism, Singularitarianism, Cosmism, Rationalism, Effective Altruism, and Longtermism. In her paper released in the Journal of Psychedelic Studies, the conclusion stated, “This article demonstrates that TESCREALism is a driving force in major segments of the psychedelic pharmaceutical industry, where it is influencing the design of extractive systems that directly contradict the field’s world-healing aspirations. These findings contribute to a developing subfield of critical psychedelic studies, which interrogates the political and economic implications of psychedelic medicalization.” 

Neşe noted her motivation to come forward to discuss the problems in the psychedelic research community while acknowledging her history of beneficial experiences with psychedelics. Describing the field, she recalled a time when the fear that saying anything negative about the research could undo the attempts to legitimize institutional research and academic conversation. “I think it’s actually much better if those of us who do think that there’s value and potential in these substances are the ones to mention that it’s not always a positive outcome,” she stated.   

Another area that Neşe noted concerns is the topic of tripsitters or psychedelic “guides” and the level of influence that person or persons might have within the role of a supervised psychedelic session. We discussed the risks for cult indoctrination, rape, ideological harm, and ethical complications involving multiple roles or dissolution of boundaries. I recalled Professor Alan Scheflin’s Social Influence Model. I noted the challenges of a vulnerable person in a relationship with an influencer of notable power differential, especially during an altered state.  

Neşe noted that with the limited positions available for participants in legitimate research trials, those desperate to find guided support often turn to underground channels. She cautions that there is much potential for abuse even in above-board trials, let alone in underground contexts. She discussed the delicate state known as the “afterglow” following a psychedelic experience, in which a person may be highly suggestible. She also described concerns about whether the positive effects noted in the afterglow state are reliable for reporting a cure. As individuals leave the afterglow, they may realize that the perceived benefit or cure is only temporary.  

Perhaps most concerning to Neşe is the appeal of the tripsitter role to individuals who may have a drive to exert control. I mentioned that having a videotape that is given to the client as a requirement of the session may be of benefit to protect from harm, as can be done in hypnotherapy. Other topics we discussed as potentially beneficial, especially for those with a history of cult influence, included getting a second opinion, checking in with family and friends, focusing on agency, being centered within one’s own body, and finding ethical people who genuinely care who you can reality test with. My BITE Model can also be beneficial in this evaluation.  

I reminded the audience that it’s not a small thing to take a mind-altering substance. You must ask whether you are in a safe space with trustworthy people. I suggested that people write down the experience, get a consultation to process it as necessary, and note that in unethical experiences, the individual may get blamed for adverse outcomes. I also recommended a way to start the evaluation of an experience with psychedelics, including Robert Jay Lifton’s Eight Criteria of Thought Reform.  

As we were wrapping up the interview, I reminded everyone that relationships in the “real world” matter. Sleeping, exercising, and eating good food is essential. Ultimately, we want planetary survival, not a TESCREAL hallucination.  

Resources:  

Neşe Devenot | University Writing Program | Johns Hopkins University (jhu.edu) 

TESCREAL hallucinations: Psychedelic and AI hype as inequality engines in: Journal of Psychedelic Studies Volume 7 Issue S1 (2023) (akjournals.com) 

Dave Troy Presents: Psychedelic Fascism with Neşe Devenot on Apple Podcasts 

Neşe Devenot (psymposia.com) 

Psychedelic-Assisted Psychotherapy: Contrasting Visions – Conference at Harvard

Research — Center for Psychedelic Drug Research and Education (cpdre.org) 

Silicon Valley elites are reportedly taking ketamine and attending psychedelic parties to bolster their focus and creativity. Here’s what the drugs do to your brain | Fortune Well 

Magic Mushrooms. LSD. Ketamine. The Drugs That Power Silicon Valley. – WSJ