The word ‘psychedelic’ was coined by Humphrey Osmond in 1956 as a composite of the Greek terms ‘Psyche’ (Mind or ‘Soul’) and Delos (Manifesting, ‘to make visible’), and has since been adopted into the cultural lexicon to refer to an ever-broadening array of different molecules and experiences that increasingly bear little resemblance to each other.
As the ‘Psychedelic Renaissance’ has burst into the mainstream, cultural baggage and all, the limitations of the term ‘psychedelic’ are increasingly drawing scrutiny.
In the 1960s, the label most certainly would have drawn the closest association with substances like LSD and mescaline, which were the flagship molecules of the hippie era.
Today, the leading candidates of the ‘psychedelic’ renaissance are ketamine and MDMA, which exhibit an experience distinct and separate from each other and from other more ‘classic psychedelics’, also sometimes referred to as ‘entheogens’, like psilocybin mushrooms and DMT-containing Ayahuasca.
A ketamine experience can certainly be framed as psychedelic, but the compound itself is notably designated by the World Health Organization as an anesthetic. Its prescription as a ‘psychedelic’ by many of the clinics and companies currently offering in-person ketamine infusions or sublingual lozenges as a telehealth service is technically off-label yet fully legal. The emergent psychedelic industry has placed ketamine at the forefront of its offerings over the last few years, lumping it under the same ‘psychedelic’ label as Sonoran-toad derived 5-MeO-DMT and the African root bark Iboga among many other divergent types of experiences.
Smoking ‘The God Molecule’ of 5-MeO-DMT with the indigenous Seri people of Mexico and receiving the ketamine-derived nasal infusion ‘Spravato’ from a multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical conglomerate are vastly different experiences occurring within extraordinarily diverse matrixes of environmental, sociopolitical, and economic factors.
Which begs the question: What exactly do we mean when we say someone has a ‘psychedelic experience?’
As an illustration of the limitations that the word ‘psychedelic’ runs up against when applied to the vast arena of compounds and experiences it is currently used to frame, an indigenous elder from a Colorado tribe in the United States recently remarked that he and his people were unfamiliar with the term ‘Psych-o-delic’ (sic) when discussing the cultural climate around the mescaline-containing Peyote cactus while on stage at the Psychedelic Science conference in Denver in June of 2023.
Under the ever-broadening umbrella of substances and experiences included in the psychedelic pantheon, there are a number of compounds that are considered ‘classic psychedelics’ such as LSD, DMT, and Psilocybin while another sub-category includes ‘empathogens’ like MDMA and 2C-B.
Considering that the late great drug chemist Sasha Shulgin is purported to have a library of some 500 new psychoactive compounds sitting on the shelf waiting to be investigated, and that many more entheogens and alkaloid-containing plants such Balche of the Maya people of Southern Mexico or the famous Mad Honey of Nepal are coming into the cultural purview of the ‘psychedelic renaissance’, the term ‘psychedelic’ is currently being stretched to limits that require a suspension of disbelief.
At the Breaking Convention conference in England earlier this year, legendary entheogenic researcher Jonathan Ott publicly stated his case for retiring the word ‘psychedelic’ from the public discourse around psychoactive substances and exploring new labels that are more accurate and adequately reflective of the molecules in question.
Another terminology that has been proposed and used alternately to ‘psychedelic’ is ‘psychoplastogen’.
Psychoplastogen combines the Greek words ‘Psych’ (Mind) and ‘Plast’ (moulded) and ‘-gen’ (producing) which speak to a certain class of molecules’ penchant for inducing neuroplasticity. This nomenclature works well within the context of clinical applications, as it specifically references the ability of the compounds to ‘produce rapid and sustained effects on neuronal structure, intended to manifest therapeutic benefit after a single administration.’ Psychoplastogens include Ketamine, MDMA, and serotonergic psychedelics including LSD and 5-MeO-DMT, but the designation feels more appropriate than ‘psychedelic’ given the expanded context of therapeutic and clinical administration that is implied with the term. This nod to ‘set and setting’ distinguishes these experiences as being medicalized and intended for therapeutic administration with the goal of treating a particular indication such as PTSD or depression, as opposed to being used for recreation or purposes of spiritual discovery.
It seems rather disingenuous and ultimately disempowering to the ‘psychedelic movement’ itself to fold in potentially hundreds of different molecules and experiences under the same umbrella term. As it stands today, the impending FDA approval of a compound like MDMA will certainly fuel excitement that the tide is turning and mainstream acceptance of psychedelics is at hand. But what of the fact that the ‘psychedelic renaissance’ has simply co-opted the term ‘psychedelic’ to paint any compound routed through the FDA approval process or analogous state regulatory agency as representative of the broader environmental and social aspirations that have historically driven the counterculture and the psychedelic movement?
The psychedelic conversation has shifted from a discourse around environmentalism and social equity to one that centres the military-industrial complex and first responders while third-party administrators vie to offer employer-provided ketamine therapy as a workplace benefit. Media platforms tout their ‘psychedelic jobs’ boards while sports agents and dentists have affixed the term ‘psychedelic’ to their professional titles, such that prefacing anything with the label ‘psychedelic’ elevates a title or event in the same way that a doctor’s credentials or a formal knighting does.
Advertisements for ‘Psychedelic Soccer’, ‘Psychedelic Sales Masterclass’ and ‘Psychedelic Parenting’ courses abound, whereby hundreds of new projects and businesses have taken to deploying the label anywhere and everywhere that increased public awareness is deemed beneficial for the initiative at hand with minimal discretion.
As psychedelics continue to enter the mainstream and shape public opinion and societal norms, we are charging full speed ahead with a broad strokes concept that is still extremely ambiguous and loosely defined. As such, whoever controls the narrative of the etymology behind the concept of expanded consciousness inevitably controls the framing of consciousness itself. If we want to know how that goes, here’s a link to a seminal work by a close associate of Humphry Osmond – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.