As the important role psychedelic medicine could play in mental health care is increasingly recognized, questions have been raised about whether or not ketamine, a novel treatment option for conditions such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD, is considered a “psychedelic.”
Before we can tackle this question, it’s important to first understand what qualifies as a psychedelic experience.
What is a Psychedelic Experience?
Where did the term “psychedelic” come from?
The term “psychedelic” was first coined in the 1950s by English psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond. The word is derived from the Greek word “psyche” (mind) and “delos” (to reveal), to mean “mind-manifesting.”
For thousands of years before the official creation of this term, psychedelic compounds derived from plants, animals and fungi have been used by various cultures medicinally and in sacred and religious ceremonies.
Non-western cultures have used psychedelics for thousands of years in medicinal traditions and healing ceremonies. The purpose of many of these ceremonies was to connect individuals with both the self and the non-self, such as Spirit and the cosmos, to understand patterns that exist internally and externally and how to relate to them. These practices were rooted in a belief that learning about and better understanding oneself enables an individual to be a better person both individually and within their community.
Psychedelic experiences often provide insights and deepened understanding into one's emotions, habits, and patterns- in relation to themselves, to others, and to the current world they live in, both spiritually and non-spiritually.
Today, psychedelics refer to “a loosely grouped class of drugs that are able to induce altered thoughts and sensory perceptions.”
Subjective Components of a Psychedelic Experience
One commonly described characteristic of the psychedelic experience is that it is difficult to put into words. Individuals who have taken psychedelics often report struggling to communicate their experiences in a way that they feel adequately reflects the journey as a whole.
The powerful internal experience and cross-dimensionality invoked by psychedelics is often described as impossible to fully convey through language.
The “ego” can be described as a person’s subjective self-identity: the image they hold of themselves and their sense of themselves as a “me” that is separate from the external world.
At higher doses, psychedelics can temporarily dissolve this distinction between the self and the rest of the universe, often resulting in feelings of deep unity, transcendence, connection, and peace. Instead of feeling as though we are one individual entity, psychedelics can briefly invoke an expansion of perspective where we see ourselves as part of a greater whole. This experience can lead us to a feeling of ‘oneness’ that can help us let go of self-judgment and release negative and incessant thought patterns, eliminating feelings of anxiety, worry, and fear.
Out of Body Experience
Another commonly reported feature of psychedelics is their ability to induce a state where the user feels as though they are viewing themselves from a third-person perspective. This “out-of-body” experience essentially creates a temporary detachment from the usual vantage point through which we view ourselves and the world from within our physical body.
Many psychedelics users report that this shifted point of view creates a state in which they are able to observe their inner worlds more objectively, facilitating a deeper and more insightful exploration of their thoughts and emotions.
Another feature of the psychedelic experience is an alteration in the perception of time. During the experience, users may feel as though time is passing slower or faster than usual, or even that they are “outside” of the bounds of time entirely. This may be explained by the fact that our perception of time is tightly connected to our emotions, our awareness, memory, and our overall state of consciousness - all of which are altered during the psychedelic experience.
One interesting note: the ability to generate such an altered state of consciousness is not limited to the consumption of psychedelic substances alone. Other practices, such as holotropic breathwork and certain meditation techniques, can also produce similar effects.
Ketamine as a Psychedelic
One definition of psychedelics refers only to a class of drugs known as serotonergic hallucinogens. Serotonergic hallucinogens include psilocybin, LSD, mescaline, and DMT, and drugs from this class are commonly referred to as “classical psychedelics.”
The alterations in perception, mood, and numerous other cognitive processes exerted by classical psychedelics is linked to their actions at 5-HT receptors, a type of serotonin receptor in the brain. Unlike classical psychedelics, ketamine targets the activity of a different neurotransmitter in the brain - glutamate, rather than serotonin. This difference in mechanism is one major reason behind the debate of whether or not ketamine should be classified as a psychedelic.
Although ketamine produces effects via a different mechanism in the brain than other psychedelic compounds, many individuals argue that limiting the definition of a psychedelic compound purely to its pharmacological effects is a reductive stance.
The stance that ketamine should rightfully be considered a psychedelic is based upon the similarities between the psychoactive properties and subjective experiences invoked by ketamine and classical psychedelics.
From a therapeutic perspective, ketamine is also considered to have the same positive effects as traditional psychedelics, providing similar client outcomes in clinical research despite the different neurological systems targeted.
Why Classifying Ketamine as a Psychedelic Medicine is Important
Ketamine’s classification as a psychedelic is a matter of looking holistically at the effects of the compound on the brain. As psychedelic therapy continues to deliver positive outcomes for mental health, accessibility becomes an important aspect of the larger conversation.
Research supports psychedelic medicine as a promising new treatment for mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD, including demonstrating positive impact on:
- Quality of life and well-being
- Lower dependence on other substances such as alcohol
- Suicidal thoughts and ideation
- Overall greater sense of purpose and connection
As a legal and FDA approved substance, ketamine is providing patients with the ability to overcome their daily mental health challenges more quickly and with more options for treatment.
The argument for this classification of ketamine as a psychedelic thus seems less important to discuss the “what” and more important to discuss the “how.”
The Effects of Ketamine
The key components of a psychedelic experience aren’t the only place in which ketamine resembles a psychedelic, though it checks all these boxes often in a single experience and at a low-dose.
Quite similar to LSD and psilocybin are the effects ketamine has neurobiologically. The difference is in the systems in the brain they affect but not the effects they have, which are similar across all these psychedelic compounds.
The days following any psychedelic treatment session are pivotal. Research shows that neuroplasticity, or the ability to adapt your brain and form new neural connections, is increased and activity in the Default-Mode Network (DMN), the system responsible for the sense of self in space, is decreased.
Combined, these serve as a powerful potential to make lasting changes and transformation. This can be seen across the traditional form of psychedelics such as LSD and psilocybin, as well as FDA approval-tracked MDMA and ketamine.
Is Ketamine a Psychedelic?
Adaptability to the definition would proclaim that yes, ketamine is indeed a psychedelic.
The substance itself targets different neurobiological areas of the brain then traditional psychedelics, it has phenomenological similarities and similar neurological impacts and results, supporting the argument that ketamine is a psychedelic medicine.
This classification allows it to be utilized in clinical psychedelic therapy modalities and establishes more credibility as it becomes the primary clinically prescribed application of psychedelic medicine.
Ketamine treatment when paired with proper intention set and setting, customized dosing and careful integration is a safe and powerfully effective form of psychedelic medicine, producing a psychedelic experience from beginning to end.
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