Horizons: Perspectives on Psychedelics
Over the weekend of October 14-16, 2012, the academic conference "Horizons: Perspectives on Psychedelics" -- the longest-running psychedelics conference in the United States -- will convene in New York City for its sixth year. In anticipation of this reunion of intellects, I sat down for a conversation with Neal Goldsmith, the conference's emcee and speaker curator. Neal Goldsmith is a New York City-based psychotherapist with a specialization in psychedelic psychotherapy, and the author of Psychedelic Healing: The Promise of Entheogens for Psychotherapy and Spiritual Development, published by Inner Traditions. Neal partnered with Horizons' founder Kevin Balktick, an event organizer in the New York City area with a calling for distributing information on this subject. I asked Neal about Horizons' past and what's new fpr Horizons this year.
Neşe Devenot: How did "Horizons: Perspectives on Psychedelics" get its start?
Kevin had a sense of mission. He was dedicated to this topic, and he saw that there were already a lot of conferences on personal psychedelic experiences and conferences on ethnographic issues like ayahuasca. Not as many focused explicitly on research in the Western tradition, so that was the focus when he invited me to speak the first year. I loved it and we became friends, so I offered to help and we became partners.
I am the curator and the emcee and Kevin really does everything else -- he does so much for it. Although I have really the glory job of dealing with the professionals, the speakers, the people who are my heroes and idols, and also my colleagues and friends who are doing interesting research -- I get to introduce them and interface with them for a period of months while we're developing the conference. It's the best job of all I think. Kevin is the conference organizer and the event organizer and is very good at it. He does all the logistics, which is his efforts on lighting, sound, the venue itself, and all sorts of arrangements from tickets to promotion. I work with him on promotion, but there's just so much to be done, and he really makes it happen. He works on everything behind the scenes. Plus, of course, we have the volunteers, and there's probably 20-30 people who work with us over the course of the year. The event itself is also almost all volunteer effort, although we do have some money that we pay out. It's really a shoestring effort and a labor of love, so there's not much money to go around, but most of it is volunteer efforts. And ultimately it's because of the topic -- everybody is so dedicated to seeing this information get out, and seeing policies change and peoples' lives changed.
Can you tell us a little about Horizons' relationship with its venue, the Judson Memorial Church? Has it been there every year since it started?
It has indeed, and Judson is the greatest place. First of all, you can see visuals of it. You can go to the website, which is horizonsnyc.org or to facebook and take a look. We have pictures of the venue because it's so beautiful. It's a church, it's a landmark. It's right on Washington Square Park South on the NYU campus. And it's all old and gorgeous with stained glass. It's a spectacular place to have a conference, especially about psychedelics, which is a spiritual topic. They [the people at Judson] have been a pleasure to work with. It's really one of the few really spacious and affordable places that are left in Manhattan where the people support those with politically unpopular ideas. And they have been 100% behind us from the beginning. Kevin tells the story that when he went to them the first year and asked about if they were willing to do a psychedelics conference, without batting an eyelash they said "yes, of course," and it was just a logistical question and the logistics worked out. They've been completely open to hosting us each year. It's been great to work with them.
How has the world of psychedelics in general changed since Horizons' first days six years ago ?
It's been a continuing process. The fact that Kevin wanted to focus on the western research tradition -- contemporary research, not from the sixties -- meant that there was a contemporary research process going on, which we call the psychedelic renaissance. That's been going on since before Horizons came around. There was already work going on. NYU's [psilocybin research] had not started yet, but UCLA was going, [in addition to] Harvard and Johns Hopkins.
There was a lot of good research to bring in, and I think the watershed year in a way -- there are certainly different ways to mark a watershed -- but certainly one of the indicators of a turning point was 2010, when the New York Times -- John Tierney, the Science writer for the New York Times, published a front page story. It was the Tuesday before the MAPS Psychedelic Science Conference in April of 2010, and this wonderful story came out where for the first time in the popular media the writer didn't feel obliged to have to trot out the experts to talk about the dangers or the downside. It was basically a positive article about the research and it was wonderful. And it was in the New York Times, it was on the front page, so that for me marks the watershed that was 2010, and we'd been at it since 2007. This is our sixth year now. We're right in the midst of this wonderful change and it's great to be a part of it, to help the process.
I want to point out something else that has changed, which is reflected in Horizons' program: the emergence of ayahuasca. Ayahuasca is very interesting because it's an avenue for the reintroduction of psychedelics into Western civilization -- into Western society. We tried it in the sixties in a sort of confrontational way. It was as if the hippies dosed society without their knowing it, and society had a bad trip and decided, "No, no, no I'm never gonna trip again and you can't either," and shut everything down. But now over the years the enthusiasts have talked gently to society and convinced it to try again with some of the research and the renaissance that's going on.
And there's also other avenues. That's the research side, the medical side, but there's also the spiritual side, the religious side if you will. The Supreme Court has several cases where the use of ayahuasca has been approved for traditional and syncretic churches from Brazil and Peru that have been allowed to come up to the United States. Slowly ayahuasca's use is spreading and the interesting thing about ayahuasca is that, as a method for reintroducing psychedelics to Western civilization, they're gentle -- not the drug experience itself, but the way it's being done. Ayahuasca is generally introduced in a ceremonial context with a relatively mild dose, and there's lots of support and love and kindness and care and altruism. It's a much gentler, safer way to reintroduce psychedelics to Western society than the way we did in the sixties. So both the medical tradition, which is what we do -- but also ayahuasca -- has emerged since Horizons has been operating. We began to see a lot of proposals to present on ayahuasca research -- not just talking about the experience or from a shamanic perspective, but anthropological, Western-style research done down south, often by South American anthropologists. We found that we really needed to accommodate that as well, so Sundays have become our ayahuasca day, in part. And it's still in the research tradition, but generally speaking Sunday focuses on ayahuasca. Saturday tends to focus on the Western, more laboratory-focused research tradition. Friday night we have an art and music celebration, but it's not really part of the conference, it is more of an opening reception on Friday evening.
What sets Horizons apart from other psychedelic conferences and gatherings?
The research focus -- Kevin's vision, and my focus too when I came on board -- is not so much cross-cultural, although I'm interested in that as well, but is moreso in the Western psychotherapeutic, clinical research, and the use of psychedelics in psychotherapy. There's a lot of Western research in that area going on at Johns Hopkins, NYU, UCLA, just everywhere -- Harvard, Yale, and Europe as well. Most of the conferences, with the exception of Psychedemia, by the way -- I want to point out that your conference, Psychedemia, is a wonderful addition to the academic focus and the cross between psychedelics and academics. You focus a little bit more on cultural history and that sort of thing as well. We're a little more clinically-oriented, I think. It's a wonderful thing to see this blossoming of interest, and I'm happy that it's in the research tradition -- but any tradition at all [would be helpful]. To bring this information to the public in a respectable, reliable, and safe way is fantastic. We were really the only game in town as far as focusing on research, and you all at Psychedemia are now focused on research as well, but have a different and broader agenda. That's a little bit about the positioning of Horizons.
Has Horizons seen many major challenges over the years?
Not so much. It is a shoestring operation and so in the beginning we ran in the red a little bit. We're in the black now -- but not that far in the black. We don't really make a profit. But we haven't lost money recently, and it's a labor of love, so that's perfectly okay. It's been slow growth, but we've grown. I think we started in the 200's, and now we're around 500 or so in attendance, so that's been great.
I imagine the non-profit status might have helped with that a bit?
It was a couple of years ago that we got non-profit status. So that does help -- it's true. The biggest challenges we have are the fact that we're a low-staff, low-funded operation, so we scurry hard. One of the things we do for our speakers, for example, is we pay for their airfare and their transportation, but when they come to the city we can' t really afford to put them up in hotels and reimburse them for that, so we find people locally who are enthusiastic and friendly and supportive who will make a bedroom available to a speaker. So far each year we've managed to find a friendly home apartment here in the New York area. So that's been a challenge -- not a difficulty, of course, because we've succeeded each time -- but it's work you have to arrange and interface with people and get it all set up. It's much easier to write a check to the Hilton. The challenge is operational, but it's not a bad challenge. It's just how we operate. It's been great -- I love doing it, and like I say -- the community has risen to the occasion every time, and that's also gratifying in itself.
Have there been any positive surprises over the years -- something you weren't expecting but that you really valued or cherished?
Well there's so many of those things that have to do with the content, usually. Alicia Davenport from the UCLA project gave a talk on the work that we were doing with cancer patients. She brought a bouquet of flowers and put it in front of the podium when she spoke, because the person she was going to be speaking about and showing a short clip on had recently passed away. It's a positive moment in the sense that it's warm and it's beautiful that we can help people like that now before they die. So there's so many moments like that, which are poignant and beautiful, and those are always surprising and always beautiful positive surprises. There's been any number of those.
At the end of the conference each year we have a panel, and all the speakers who can stay -- usually it's most of them -- get up on the stage together and have a conversation. I remember one year -- I can't remember if it was 2009 or '10 -- the speakers got into a bit of a conflict and started arguing a little with each other on stage. And that was great because it's an open-air debate and it's all for the good. The members of the audience were thrilled, because they saw some of the debate and machination that might often go on behind the scenes in the professional community. They saw this played out for them a little and shared with them a bit. It's that kind of event -- that surprising kind of serendipity thing -- that the audience loves.
We're structured -- we don't do concurrent sessions in our structure. Everything is a part of the session -- everything is the entire room. It's one big church sanctuary room -- stained glass as I described it. It's big. We fit everybody in there and there's one speaker at a time. It's very homey in a way, and over the two days, if you sit next to the same people, you end up developing a bit of a camaraderie. It's an opportunity for people in the community to meet one another, to attend a topic of interest with like-minded others, and it helps to establish community as well. The evening events, such as Friday night's evening reception, are also important for community building. The reception this year is going to be held at the Rubin Museum on 17th Street and 7th Avenue, which is a spectacular Asian art museum out of Himalayan art with beautiful surroundings. Saturday night there will be a big MAPS fundraiser/dance party/reception as well. It's a community-building effort, and that's always part of the benefit that comes out of it.
Is there anything else that's new for Horizons this year?
This year we've got a nice, full lineup. Matt Baggot, who's a neuroscientist and post-doctoral fellow in psychiatric genetics at the University of Chicago, is going to be talking about what the alterations in consciousness caused by drugs like MDMA tell us about the workings of the brain. We have Alex Belser, who's a fellow at NYU in the department of Applied Psychology. He's going to give us an update on the NYU psilocybin project and what they have been finding. We also have Amy Emerson, who's the Director of Clinical Research at MAPS -- the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. Amy is going to talk about MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD research. Her subtopic is "Bridging Biology and Psychology," and she will also give an update on MAPS. We have Kevin Feeney, who's an attorney and editor and publisher of the Oregon Medical Marijuana Law Reporter. Kevin's going to talk about the legal issues surrounding ayahuasca. We also have Charlie Grob from the UCLA psilocybin project. He's a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the UCLA School of Medicine and the Director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Harbor/UCLA medical center. He just recently completed the psilocybin project at UCLA, so he's going to talk about those findings but also about his perspective on the field. He's really one of the early researchers in this psychedelic renaissance, and he's going to give his perspective on the key issues in the field and also on the prospects for the future.
We have Roman Hanis who is the Director of the Paititi Institute in Brazil -- it's an ayahuasca research and cultural center. He recently sponsored some anecdotal research -- small sample research -- where he brought individuals with specific illnesses such as Crohn's disease, diabetes, and cancer, down to the the Amazon, to the Paititi Institute, where they created special ayahuasca brews that were meant to treat those particular illnesses and had a physician on board to take data and observed the findings. They had some very good results, and they are now in touch with some U.S.-based research studies to see whether they can collaborate to do something more statistically rigorous. But there's very interesting suggestive data on that. By the way, we looked hard to find somebody who could talk about the medical uses of ayahuasca -- there's been a lot of claims about curing cancer and things like that. We wanted to find something with data that you could look at. So that's why we have Roman on board. We're having James Kent, who's the author of "Psychedelic Information Theory." He's going to talk about shamanism in the age of reason and his approach to explaining psychedelic phenomena, including hallucinations and the visual aspects. We have Mariavittoria Mangini, a family nurse midwife for 25 years. She's going to be talking about the impact of psychedelic experience in her midwifery practice -- both birth and death midwifery. Ralph Metzner is also coming this year. He is one of the three original researchers from the Harvard Psilocybin/LSD study from the early sixties under Timothy Leary, and has been a professional in his own right. He's a Professor Emeritus at the California Institute of Integral Studies, and he's also the director of the Green Earth Foundation. He's going to talk about his perspective on psychedelic ecology. And then finally, we have Sidarta Ribeiro, who is a neuroscientist professor and director of the brain institute in Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil. Dr. Ribeiro is going to talk about the neurophysiological correlates of the ayahuasca experience. We've got a bunch of hard science clinical laboratory work as well as interesting ayahuasca research.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
You asked a favorite moment of Horizons of the past. I like when we've had debate. I like when the panel discussion had a little bit of a furor. I liked when we were doing an open discussion during one of the question and answer periods. One of the members stood up and complained that there were too many white men on the stage. We take those sorts of feedback to heart, and I like when we get feedback. I like when we're wrong in a way because we learn from that. I like when we grow. But personally, the best moment for me at Horizons is every year when I stand on the stage on the very first day and I look out at hundreds of people who are passionate and enthusiastic about this topic, and it makes me feel so wonderful to be amongst that community and to be in the process of sharing this information as well. To me that's always my favorite moment at Horizons.
Thanks so much for all the work you're doing! I'm really looking forward to Horizons this year, especially after all the energy generated at Psychedemia. See you soon!
(Thanks to David Wilder for transcribing the interview.)Tweet