#44 Exploratory versus compensatory self-experimentation

Self-Experiments with Psychoactive Substances: A Historical Perspective by Torsten Passie and Simon D. Brandt, pages 69-110

I heard somewhere that you’re not supposed to cite abstracts, but the authors sum up exactly what I want to write about today and let’s consider the medium: a blog. And it’s my blog, I do what I want around here 😉 Passie and Brandt say, “Besides their scientific intentions, ‘exploratory’ self-experimenters intend to expand awareness and insight, whereas ‘compensatory’ self-experimenters might aim for coping with psychiatric symptoms or personality deficits” (2018, 70). As I read their text, I found this distinction to be noteworthy and it’s the focus of today’s stream.

Cover of the book called New Psychoactive Substances: Pharmacology, Clinical, Forensic and Analytical Toxicology.
Compensatory self-experimenters use drugs to make up for their “psychological deficits,” for example taking stimulants to help with depression (e.g. the depressed Freud used cocaine), while exploratory self-experimenters take “complex” or “consciousness-expanding” substances not to cope but to explore, to understand their mind, philosophical motives, etc. (Passie & Brandt, 2018, 102). “Instead of suppressing psychiatric symptoms or compensating psychological deficits, these substances tend to confront the drug takers with their deficits instead of aiding suppression or compensation” (ibid.).

It reminds me of the classic example of moving away from something or moving toward something. (I forget where I heard this and which field it comes from, maybe psychology?) Self-experimenters moving away from whatever personal stuff they got going on would likely take a substance, under the guise of research, to see whether it could help them. Considering not much information was known about many drugs starting roughly 125 years ago when self-experimenting began, according to Passie and Brandt, some researchers might have been desperate enough to try whatever they could get their hands on. After hearing some of the limited in number testimonials about specific substances, these researchers used their own bodies as petri dishes to move away from whatever ailed them.

On the flip side, we have the exploratory self-experimenters that took drugs to discover their effects, to move toward something within themselves (e.g. self-discovery) or were curious what these substances did to consciousness generally speaking (e.g. mind revealing, mind manifesting, as psychedelics are usually referred to). I liked reading Arthur Heffter’s story again, the German pharmacologist that isolated mescaline as the principal-acting alkaloid in peyote. It’s interesting and brave for him to take it himself to find out which chemical affected his consciousness. Animal testing only goes so far since the animal cannot describe its subjective experiences.

I think compensatory self-experimenters also have an exploratory vibe, but their motive stems more from desperation. If we look at the history of explorers in the traditional, geographical sense, were there some that not only explored other lands and peoples but did so out of desperation? The only example I can think of would be a captain given orders to find enemy ships abroad with the intent to capture or sink the ship and confiscate the crew’s treasures. I’m reminded of the 2003 film called Master and Commander starring Russell Crowe. They had orders to intercept a French ship. The wars in Europe between Great Britain and France spread out even to the seas on the other side of the world. The English captain’s primary orders were not to explore but to intercept, incapacitate, the French ship because doing so would have given a naval victory to the British. Hence, the idea of desperation related to compensatory self-experimenters. However, the British ship also had a scientist aboard, a botanist or related. When the British ship anchored near some islands, the scientist was able to explore the fauna and flora of this terra nova. This is exploration. I suppose desperation and exploration can be linked depending on the circumstances. Let’s dig deeper into this link.

Exploration too can have a hint of desperation. For example, the notion of putting a not so well documented or relatively unknown substance into your body to study it, is a desperate attempt to know more about the substance’s subjective effects, a last-ditch effort to know before giving study participants the substance. The reason I say last-ditch effort is because many self-experimenters such as John C. Lilly follow the rule that one should not give a participant a substance unless they themselves have taken it and know what it is like. The mental explorer of substances can be desperate in a sense to find what they are looking for, especially when the substance’s acute effects will eventually expire; there is a window of time available to the researcher-explorer to get in, find what they’re looking for, and get out. The explorer would also be desperate to come back alive and intact, that is, to not be permanently damaged in any way because of their explorations. No matter how much one controls the experimental design, mindset, and setting during the experience, something unexpected can happen. The unexpected and unknown always lurk and the exploratory self-experimenter must be prepared for anything to happen, to expect the unexpected.

I know we’re talking about “self”-experimenters, but we should also add the motives of others when it comes to self-experimentation. In what ways do others’ motives or life situations have an effect on the self-experimenter? Is there a competing pharmacologist that is on the brink of making the next big discovery, thus pressuring others to beat him to it, to make the discovery, which then leads to career advancements, more funding, better PhD students wanting to study with him and at his university department? When it comes to desperation, maybe the self-experimenter is looking for a wonder drug that can help with not only his psychological issues but those of his family and friends’ personal struggles. In these cases, the sphere of the self-experimenter expands to include a socio-pharmacological dimension to one’s motives for ingesting substances. That is not the feeling I got from reading Passie and Brandt’s historical synopsis of self-experimenters in this century and the last, but it should be considered. Please take this idea and run with it if you give me a shout out in your paper on the socio-pharmacological dimensions of self-experimenting researchers of psychoactive substances. Or contact me and we can write a paper together about this.

Passie, T., & Brandt, S. D. (2018). Self-Experiments with Psychoactive Substances: A Historical Perspective. In H. H. Maurer & S. D. Brandt (Eds.), New Psychoactive Substances: Pharmacology, Clinical, Forensic and Analytical Toxicology, (69-110). Springer.

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