Touching the Void: Psychedelics and Death

The man himself: Timothy Leary.
The man himself: Timothy Leary.
Chip Simons/Science Faction/Getty

Can psychedelic drugs help prepare terminal patients for death? Can substances like MDMA ease the dying through the ultimate transcendent experience? While the scientific study of psychedelic experience has been somewhat of a touchy subject since the 1960s, some researchers continue to seek out the beneficial aspects of these powerful, mind-altering substances. What actually goes on inside the mind during a "trip" and how might we use that to ease our passage through death?

In this episode of Stuff to Blow Your Mind, Julie and I discuss what some researchers believe may be the future of end-of-life- care. We even discuss Timothy Leary somewhat, who is a far more fascinating figure that you might suspect.

Even as we were recording this one, my mind turned to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which ensures that the dying consciousness moves safely through eight stages of death to the death point -- and beyond. Discussion of this didn't come up organically in our discussion, but if you'd like to explore that topic, I suggest reading my article "How Sky Burial Works." For a deep dive, Robert Thurman's translation of the book itself is worth a read.


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About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.