Psychedelics And Neuroethics: Problems Or Possibilities?

Psychedelics And Neuroethics: Problems Or Possibilities?
As psychedelic education and retreat providers such as the Synthesis Institute prepare to offer foundational courses on ethical psychedelic care, they find themselves in a reflexive position that invites a re-evaluation of current “best practices.”


How do we define the process of “healing”? As man is not machine, should we be striving for a fully “regulated” emotional experience? Are humans not born “whole” and holistic beings? What does it mean to evolve?

The concept of an “inner healing intelligence” is essentially a developmental act, and one that is not only intrinsic to being human – but is a universal trajectory of self-exploration, maturation, and relational development across the animal kingdom. Just as a seed becomes a tree, human evolutionary processes, from the genetic to the psychological and the interpersonal, unfold within the soils of the environment. The reciprocal relationship between nature and nurture demonstrates the links between cognitive, embodied, relational, and sacred wisdom.

It is the alignment of these forces that directs an inner healing process. For example, if we cognitively choose to trust someone in spite of the embodied way we feel, this dissonance will create side-effects. Spiritual experiences can occasionally be organic and are not always instigated by psychedelic use. The term “spiritual emergence” was first coined by psychiatrist Stanislav Grof because such experiences presented the chance to “emerge” with a higher level of awareness – if correctly supported, instead of being suppressed (which can create a “spiritual emergency“).

Emotional support and awareness can offer insights, but it is sincerity, integrity, transparency, empathy, and conscientiousness that foster the trust required for authentic relating. On top of this, sustainable relationships require cultural alignment and emotional attunement. This is necessary to foster connection and coherence, creating a constructive space for processes to unfold.

What psychedelics do depends on “set and setting.” Beyond the ceremony, psychedelics invite us to reconsider some of the processes that are normalised within the societal setting. As an illustrative example, the individual and collective shifts that might occur could be focused on the following key areas:


  • Therapeutic Connections: there are many therapeutic modalities, alongside an evidence-base of conflicting approaches and results (e.g. Psychotherapy and Logotherapy). There are also new methods and styles that are being developed and commercialised all the time. However, in many successful outcomes, there is often one common thread: the cultural alignment and emotional attunement inherent to authentic relating processes, regardless of therapy style. Healthy forms of connection are healing.
  • Paradigm Shifts: the frameworks that we use to navigate the world are predominantly Eurocentric and Anthropocentric. In a more-than-human world, there may be a shift towards more inclusive, balanced (non-binary), and ecological (non-dual) paradigms and perspectives.
  • Mind-Body Dualism: current science and clinical trials are based on a model that isolates the mind (placebo). This may be re-evaluated in future. In many cases, clinical populations with mental health difficulties lack the capacity and tools to be able to give truly informed consent. The argument is that current quality of life either with or without treatment justifies experimental approaches and benefits future generations. Reconsidering the foundations of our medical culture may open up holistic insights into novel neuroethics.
  • Pharmaceutical Plants: Modern industrial processes and technology affect plant medicine production. Whereas traditional medicines focus on the personalised application of whole plant extracts, pharmaceutical grade medicines focus on the isolation and concentration of standardised compounds, producing very different interactions and pharmacodynamic effects.
  • Responsible Capitalism: there is evidence to suggest that we live in an unbalanced system which places a heavy amount of emphasis on tangible metrics of “progress.” This includes finance, evidence-base, technological development, scale, and speed. In this sense, the dominant model of Capitalism adopts a skewed incentive and value structure. This is often focused on increasing “the bottom line” – placing profits over people and fostering a competitive survival mindset which detrimentally impacts intangible elements like trust and relationships. In this sense, it has encouraged a soul-blind economy (the Friedman paradigm). Sustainable and balanced behaviours require a shift away from the perspective of “business as usual” focused on increasing shareholder returns, towards broader measures of progress targeting stakeholder returns. The concept of “the triple bottom line” places Planet and People alongside Profit, often focusing on the latter as a by-product (the Elkington paradigm).
  • Ethical Evolution: the belief that humans are separate from, or superior to, other species and the planet has led to harmful and unsustainable actions against the environment. As a result, we pursue a trajectory of extraction, exploitation, and extinction. Holistic perspectives based on real value creation and sustainable co-evolution are vital for a more diverse, inclusive, and hopeful horizon.


To avoid becoming just another thing on the conveyor belt of routinised care feeding a ‘magic pill’ approach, the ceremonial history of psychedelic medicine use and its holistic focus on environmental changes and cultural context must be brought to the fore.

Psychedelics have the potential to loosen up our usual filters and judgments and to open our hearts to deeper and more authentic ways of relating; But they also have a complex legacy, with both historical use of, and future potential for, great harm. We can either make the easy choice of propagating the problem or embody the uncertainty of embracing the possibility.

It is becoming increasingly evident that it is one element to be clinically cured and another to be holistically healed. If you are interested in further exploring these themes and responsibly contemplating the role that Synthesis plays in this dynamic landscape, then register for the 3-Day Live, Interactive Inaugural Edition of the 10-Hour Course in Ethical Psychedelic Care, taking place from February 23rd to February 25th.


“The body heals with play, the mind heals with laughter, and the spirit heals with joy” – unknown.