What is the meaning of psychedelics?
Well the word ‘psychedelic’, as most psychonauts know by now, was invented by the British psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond. Osmond first coined the term in his correspondence with famous psychedelic enthusiast and scholar Aldous Huxley. He derived the word from the Greek words, psyche, meaning soul or spirit, and delos, meaning reveal or manifest. So the literal translation is ‘mind manifesting’, or ‘soul revealing’. In this original form it was used strictly to describe drugs which gave particular effects, those which have now been discovered to act on specific serotonin receptors in the brain (5-HT1A and 5-HT2A) such as LSD, psilocybin, mescaline and DMT.
Of course the word has grown and broadened in terms of its use and psychedelic has gone on to be used to describe not only drugs but also music, arts, films, and literature. The word can be used to describe pieces of art which have been inspired by the use of psychedelic drugs.
Visual artworks may resemble visual attributes typical to the experiences, such as bright colors and kaleidoscopic patterns. Another interpretation, notable in films and literature, is that the piece demonstrates or exemplifies a type of mental or cognitive experience, such as non-linearity, or circular themes or narrative. It may also be that it is simply confusing and hard to follow. This meaning of the word converges with the word ‘trippy’, which is often used as a synonym for the word psychedelic.
It could also be that the way in which the artwork is viewed or perceived is not necessarily fixed, that it is open to multiple interpretations. This meaning reflects an aspect of psychedelic states, in which users may be able to see things from different angles or various perspectives. The offering of new perspectives is often what is appealing to many people.
Anton Newcombe’s Definition
I also like Anton Newcombe’s definition of the word psychedelic. Newcomb, from the band The Brian Jonestown Massacre, has had his share of experience, and I once read on wikipedia that his understanding of psychedelic is that it simply means ‘mind expanding’. This broadens its potential use, and really anything could potentially be considered psychedelic. This could refer to travel or other such mind opening experiences.
Psychedelics and Profound Meaning
Psychedelics can induce induce profound alterations of human consciousness, emotion, and cognition. This can result in incredibly deep and profound experiences. These experiences bring up questions about the fundamental nature of reality. And these questions ultimately turn into matters of spirituality. Because of this I often think the term psychedelic can be used to describe anything which brings up those deep philosophical questions. Who are we? Why are we here? What is our purpose? Any type of deep experience which brings up those questions, be it a near death experience or a film, could also be described as psychedelic.
I find it very interesting that people discuss the meaning of the word psychedelics when psychedelic substances themselves bring up questions of meaning. Experiences can be tremendously meaningful to individuals. They can help us assign meaning to events in our lives, and our entire journeys as humans, individually and collectively. They can create meaning, or push us to ponder if there is any meaning.
There’s not really any strict definition on what the term psychedelic means and I think it’s very fitting for the word to be open to many interpretations. Even the category of substances is debated, and these days it is also sometimes used to describe other substances such as MDMA and ketamine, which are also known as non-classic psychedelics, or now even a new term, ‘clinical psychedelic’, recently coined by Ben Sessa, on Twitter.
What does psychedelic mean to you? Let me know!