Ep #1 Transcript | Brian Muraresku: Psychedelics, Civilization, Religion & the Study of Death
Updated: Sep 3, 2021
Full episode transcript below. Beware of typos!
Nick Jikomes 0:28
Welcome to the Mind and Matter podcast I'm your host, Nick Jikomes and today I'll be speaking with Brian Moran rescue. Brian is the author of The New York Times best selling book the immortality key The Secret History of the religion with no name. Brian is fluent in ancient Greek, ancient Latin and Sanskrit and spent over a decade putting together an incredible story about the intentional use of psychoactive plants in the ancient world, including scientific evidence for the ritual use of spiked beers and wines. I spoke at length with Brian covering topics related to the book, including the use of psilocybin mushrooms in the present day to treat end of life anxiety how Mystery Schools in the ancient world such as eleusis may have utilized psychedelic beverages the evidence for the potential widespread use of psychoactive plants in ritual settings in ancient times, and how all of this may have influenced early Christianity and the development of Western civilization. And towards the end, we discussed how psychedelic drugs may induce brain states similar to those produced during real near death experiences. If you enjoy this conversation, you can show your support by liking or subscribing. Hey, everyone, I want to take just a minute to tell you about an app I am partnering with called read wise, read wise is an app that organizes and helps you get the most of your digital highlights, I use it to organize all the highlights I make in my digital books on my Kindle. And so if you're like me, and you make a lot of highlights, and you'd like to revisit them often to refresh your memory, read wise is the perfect app. You can also take photos of any physical books you've highlighted and upload those. It also has cool features that allow you to share your favorite highlights and quotes from books on social media and it syncs with note taking apps like Evernote notion and Rome, you can tag search and organize your notes and highlights on read wise, and it helps you connect ideas in new ways and retain more of what you read. So if you click the link in the episode description, you can get rewired for free for two months, when you sign up for their annual plan. That plan is only $7.99 per month. And it's a relatively new app. So they're adding new features often. And if you sign up for the annual plan today, you can lock in that price, which will stay at 799 even if the price increases in the future as they add more. So if you do a lot of highlighting, and note taking and you want a good way to organize all that information, check out the link in the episode description. And with that, here is my conversation with Brian.
Well, thanks for joining me, Brian, I really appreciate appreciate you doing this. And congrats on the success of your book, the immortality keys so far. I know it's doing very well. Thank you Good to be here, Nick.
It's a great book. So I read it almost in one sitting. It's an area that I find fascinating at multiple levels. And I think it was a really unique book. A traditional academic could not have done this, just based on how many things were synthesized. But I thought we would start with the quote in ancient Greek at the very beginning of the book. And I would love if you could tell us what that quote is what it means and why. Why is that the beginning?
Brian Muraresku 3:44
Sure. So let me start with the quote it goes something like this, [Ancient Greek]. And it means if you die before you die, you won't die when you die. And you can find that on a plaque at the St. Paul's monastery at Mount Athos, in Greece, one of the holiest sites in orthodoxy. And, and I think it harkens back to an ancient Greek philosophy about this concept of dying before dying, whether by psychedelics or not, in this infinite toolkit of the archaic techniques of ecstasy, you know, plant medicine being just one among many, I think something you find again and again, including an ancient Greece, not just in other traditional societies, but at the roots of, you know, what became Western civilization at the roots of us. There is this sense that to die in this lifetime, or to achieve a sense of timelessness in mortality in the here and now is the real trick. That's that's the real secret. And so that is the key of the immortality key.
Nick Jikomes 4:52
That's fascinating. I mean, you hear a lot today. You know, prior to your book coming out, you would hear about this kind of thing from
People who are really into meditation, talking about Eastern traditions, you'll hear about it from Psychonauts, or people taking high doses of psychedelics at a music festival. But what your book really started to show me was that maybe this is not exceptional in the Western world, it actually goes all the way back to the beginning. And maybe what's exceptional is the the absence of use of the substances to achieve the sort of, quote unquote, death.
Brian Muraresku 5:27
And, and that was really one thing that fascinated me about the book. Me too. And the reason I started writing the book is because in 2007, I started reading some of the early results coming out of the Johns Hopkins experiments around psilocybin, the the compound and magic mushrooms. And again, what you immediately see are people having God like experiences or mystical experiences or mystical mimetic experiences without getting lost in the jargon, experiences that transform people in six hours, in short order on one and only dose, sometimes not repeated, like Dinah bazer, who I profiled in the book an atheist, who claimed that she felt as if she was being bathed in God's love, which is, which is extraordinary. And so you know, when I started reading those those kinds of results, what you see again, and again, is this confrontation with death. And it immediately reminded me of the confrontation with death at eleusis, which was the spiritual capital of the ancient Greco Roman world, both for the Greeks and for the Romans, you, you would go to the sanctuary, essentially, to overcome the fear of death or to transcend the body or to become an immortal again, in the here and now not not that an afterlife is something to wait on or to expect, but that the concept of immortality is something to be discovered in the here and now while you're in the flesh and blood, so that when the physical body does waste away, you transition back into that sense of timelessness. It's not a foreign experience, and the experience itself was was the key.
Nick Jikomes 7:06
So eleusis what, so what was eleusis? Really? And what did we know? What had we known for a long time prior to your book? And and how does that set up? Like why you actually set up this investigation?
Brian Muraresku 7:22
Good question. So so what we what we know, I think it's fair to say that eleusis was probably the most famous and certainly the the longest lasting mystery tradition of the ancient world. And my fast and dirty definition of a mystery tradition is a secret set of Rites or ceremonies that somehow involve death and rebirth. Again, we're coming back to this death concept. thanatology is my favorite phrase for that, you know, the the study of death and dying. And so in these ceremonies, there would be some sense of dissolving that ordinary sense of the self and being reborn into a new identity and then taking on new idea, the identity of a god or a goddess, actually, and so eleusis was just one of many mystery traditions. But I say it was the most famous because it was administered by the Greek state, we think for about 2000 years. So from 1500 BC, to the fourth century AD, ie, as long as Christianity itself has been around, there was this predecessor religion, that back in the to the best and brightest of antiquity, from Plato all the way to Marcus Aurelius. And what they all did was make this pilgrimage from Athens 13 miles northwest to this sanctuary at eleusis. We don't really know the sequence of events, but we know that some kind of potion called the kooky on was involved, and that it was drunk by these initiates, once in their life, and only once in their life. Did they then have access to the secret of secrets? to the to the mystery of mysteries, which was the confrontation with death and the discovery of their of their immortality, it was it was said that there was this vision there. And whatever happened by whatever means it was this vision, this beatific vision that convinced these folks that they would live forever, or that or that they would never die. And it disappears in the fourth century AD to be replaced by Christianity.
Nick Jikomes 9:19
So is this so it's happening from around the time of Plato all the way through the time of Marcus Aurelius? Were they participating in was this was this something for the nobility? Was this something that a small sect of people participated in?
Brian Muraresku 9:33
How common was it that I get asked that question a lot? I think I'm, I'm confident saying at some point over those many centuries, there, there would have been millions of initiates the testimony that comes down to us, obviously, is from well known figures like like Plato and Marcus Aurelius or Aristotle, who said that you know, initiates went there not to learn something, but to experience something again that there was something experience
There, and you had to pay some dues to the hereditary families who monopolized these rights. So it wasn't a cheap affair. And it wasn't necessarily easy. And you had to take time off to go through it at least that the nine days and nights you would spend in and around the fall Equinox on your initiation, but we think that there was lots of preparation in advance as well. So you're talking about some serious time doing something that is fairly irrational, you know, you're not you're not paying the bills by by making a pilgrimage to elusive. So I don't know how exclusive it was. But technically, it was open to anybody who hadn't committed murder. And who spoke some Greek, including women. As a matter of fact, at the beginning, it was exclusively a women's rite of initiation. So I'm not sure how exclusive or not I think it spoke to lots of people over those many centuries. But it wasn't it wasn't really a secret. People knew that this was a thing and it was available if you wanted to, if you could make that investment. Sure. The fact that it existed was very much not a secret. I think what happened what happened inside the temple dedicated to demister what happened when you drank the potion was very much considered secret and to and to, to speak about it was to subject yourself to the penalty of death.
Wow. Okay. So they took it. They took that part Seriously? Yeah, they were they were pretty amped up on this stuff. Yeah,
Nick Jikomes 11:25
yeah. And so I guess that's why for so long, really, up until now, we haven't known the details there. So we know that something amazing is happening, that people are talking about, at some level. They're drinking some kind of potion, but we've never known what was in the potion, what it might have been. And, and so can you tell us the story of what you ended up finding from argue chemical evidence and how that transpired?
Brian Muraresku 11:54
Right. So we don't know much we had all these hints and clues we we know there's some kind of vision involved. And by the way, none of this is unique to me at all. I'm kind of following the scholarship of Watson, Hoffman and rock who released this book The Road to eleusis in 1978, and that's Gordon Wasson, the JP Morgan banker turned ethno. mycologist actually, the guy who discovers rediscover silicided containing mushrooms and bring 1955 brings them yeah, the United States consciousness basically, yeah. And unwittingly sparks the psychedelic revolution of the 60s to get together with Hoffman, by the way, who synthesizes LSD in 1938. And they they they roped in this young classicist crawl ruck, who was only a couple years older than me at the time, in 1978, he was the chair of classics at Boston University, and the three of them, although the idea had been out there. They weren't necessarily the first but but they really popularized this idea of a psychedelic potion, a psychedelic kooky on at the center of these mysteries, and they were excoriated for daring to suggest that Plato at all, were just, you know, high, high, high on drugs. Yeah. When they were founding everything we take for granted today in western civilization. So I understand part of that, I mean, the the evidence they they amassed is pretty decent. I mean, obviously, Hoffman was a kick ass chemist. Watson, for the amateur though he was was a, you know, a pretty interesting anthropologist had traveled the world, tracking down information on these kinds of mysteries, ancient and modern, and crawl rock, you know, trained at Harvard and Yale, like no slouch at the classics and put together a compelling argument from the literary data mode. What was missing was the hard botanical chemical evidence. So I spent years and years and years searching these journals and talking to people trying to figure out if there was any hard evidence for this allegedly psychedelic cookie on and I actually found it
Nick Jikomes 13:55
that, so that's amazing. What were what were the major candidates, I mean, based on their background, you've got Hoffman who's obviously the guy who synthesizes LSD, which comes from Oregon, you've got the experience of others with philosophy mushrooms in Central America, what were there was there a favored candidate compound from from that group.
Brian Muraresku 14:17
So in in their book, The Road to eleusis, they really focus on ergot. And, and by extension, the ergoline, which is to say, you know, the alkaloids that are derived from Ergo, not just LSD, by the way, which is where LSD comes from. LSD is synthesized from cultures of ergot, which is this naturally occurring fungus. It's very common, it's been around for a while. It may have been there from the very beginning of agriculture, it's you know, it's a pain in the ass today. For those who are trying to brew beer. You really can't get rid of it under the right conditions that this stuff grows on the grain infects the grain and can be toxic. So even today, you need to be really careful with it and there are all kinds of bouts of ergotism throughout the Middle Ages associated with With this with this funky fungus, so but but they focused on it, I think I think largely because of Hoffman and all of his his experience with it. Yeah. You know, in the abstract, it's just it's a very elegant theory because of how common it is. It's, it's, you know, it runs into problems because the chemistry is complicated. Yeah. And even even even today, despite the evidence that I found, even today, you know, a properly visionary cookie on it hasn't been recreated in the laboratory. We don't know what what that that active alkaloid was. But nonetheless, I went on the hunt for irga to see if there was any kind of aromatised will beer specifically because what we're talking about is some kind of brew in the in this ancient him from the seventh century BC it talks about the the ingredients of the coop Qian being barley, water, and mint. And according to Watson, Hoffman and rock, they thought those were the, you know, kind of half ingredients, the seed, you know, it was hiding the secret or got behind that, that the barley would have been infected barley. And so in looking for data on what that could have been, I eventually came across this archaeological site in Spain, where they unearth this very ancient Greek sanctuary, or at the very least Hellenistic influenced by ancient Greeks. And in the second century BC they on Earth, well, in the 90s, they on Earth, Chalice that dated back to the second century BC, and it tested positive for the remains of beer, and ergot. Exactly as was hypothesized in 1978. So the very first hard scientific data to support this theory in 42 years.
Nick Jikomes 16:37
And so one of the things that struck me as I started to read this was, you know, at first I was assuming, okay, maybe there was this specific group of people in certain times certain places making these concoctions. But based on my reading, it was actually the rule not the exception to mix things with beers and wines in the ancient world. Is that is that accurate?
Brian Muraresku 17:01
That I didn't know that when I started writing the book. And not not even 12 years ago, I mean that that kind of dawned over time, as I started reading more and more studies, and getting more into the art geochemistry, and Andrew Coe at MIT, one of the world's leading archeo chemists, it was it was his study at telecabine in Galilee, from around 1700 bc when he unearthed all this spiked wine that really kind of got me thinking about the the beverages of antiquity. And as I started talking to him, and others, it did eventually dawned on me that that beer and wine was routinely spiked with this stuff, and not just not just a god, like we found from the second century BC. But if you look at a manuscript, like dice, Gordy is from the first century AD, and at the same time, the gospels are being written lots of weird recipes and formulas for spiking wine with with all kinds of things, some of them visionary, and quite psychedelic. In fact, in Greek diet, Scorsese even talks about spiking wine with a kind of night shade that he calls the thing that would produce not unpleasant visions. I mean, so you know, and that's, that's as close to psychedelic as you can get. Who is fun to see us? So Well, we know the technology was out there. I mean, it's still an open question. how prevalent I mean, of course, there was table wine, and you know, in table beer, but Pat McGovern at you pen refers to these beverages as the universal palliatives that, that even for medicine, you know, you would spike your wine to take your medicine instead of going to the drugstore, and popping a couple pills with a glass of water. I mean, their wine was just a really versatile product, right, from nutritional to medicinal to, you know, really religious use.
Nick Jikomes 18:45
Yeah. And the other thing that struck me was, I guess, at first when I was thinking about this, I was like, wow, like they must have had, how could they have come up with this, learn how to mix things like this. But then, as I really thought about it, it actually made a lot of sense almost anywhere you look on the planet, right? You've got, you've got people using, performing what is essentially pro chemistry. So even though they don't have a theory of the periodic table, they know how to mix things in precise proportions in a very systematic way. And, you know, whether it's Iosco and the Amazon, or philosophy mushrooms and pod and central North America or Amanita muscaria. And Eurasia, Everywhere you look, in ancient times, people had quite significant botanical knowledge. And they certainly have the time, right? They weren't distracted by, you know, having a cell phone in their pocket or all these things. And in many ways, this struck me as basically a pro science perhaps people knew, to a large extent, how to mix different combinations of plant material together to achieve pharmacological effects, even if they weren't explicitly aware of the underlying chemistry.
Brian Muraresku 19:55
I think that's a great way to put it. Yeah, I would call it a rigorous science even More than a proto science and they may not have understood I mean I don't know if they did or not it's it's really complex stuff I'm not sure how much of the chemistry they knew or not they certainly knew the the botany that's what really impressed me about the the paper on telecabine that Andrew co released in 2014. There's this great line about how spiking wine with this many ingredients and I won't list them off, but it's all kinds of things that you wouldn't ordinarily think would spike wine, everything from honey and, and storax to terabit and Cypress, and all kinds of plants and species. But you know, to to spike wine with that many things they say in the paper is obviously emblematic of a very sophisticated understanding of the botanical landscape and the desire to really balance out what they say preservation palatability and also psychoactivity Yep. So that they knew what they were doing. You know, it's it's not easy to do what they were doing. And with respect to your potentially toxic plants, especially like those mentioned in dice, Gordy's, these Nightshade plants, like henbane, and Mandrake, etc, I mean, they are size, right? yet they're very clear, the ancient authors are very clear that to overdose or to get this wrong, like Mandrake, for example, that if you get your measurements wrong, it's fatal. It is a fatal potion. So they clearly knew what they were doing.
Nick Jikomes 21:21
So you find evidence of organized beer in Spain, not in Greece. So what how is this? How did you get to Spain? What do you think that means? It wasn't in eleusis. In Greece, it was in Spain. And then where it remind us what the timeline is here relative to say the the high tide of eleusis?
Brian Muraresku 21:40
Yeah, I have no idea why it winds up in Spain on I mean, which is part of the reason it hasn't been reported before, at least at least widely reported, because it's the last place you expect to find the Greek mysteries. So again, eleusis, anywhere from 1500 bc to the fourth century AD, in the classical period of the figures where we're talking about is fifth fourth century BC, so roughly 2500 years ago, the this chapel in Spain is pretty confidently dated to the second century BC, so not too long, after the classical period. I mean, there were still mysteries happening in ancient Greece. Yeah, in the second century BC, obviously, we know that Cicero in the first century BC, the Roman order is initiated. And he calls eleusis, the most exceptional divine thing that Athens ever produced. And so in between Plato and Cicero, is this place in Spain, which you know, you don't expect it to be there, I was just doing random googling To be quite honest. I was I was googling or gods in different languages, because there there's lots of words in German for it. And I figured, you know, if there's all this lore in Germany, maybe elsewhere, the words in Spanish is quoting the sweater they sent Dino, and I was looking for anything that contained that phrase. And that's how I came across this archaeological site, in Catalonia in northeast Spain. And one thing led to another I'm reading these papers that I haven't seen before. And I call the archaeologists and they get the bones. And the archeo, botanist who worked on this, this, this baby Chalice, God pcrs and I just bothered the hell out of them for a couple years and you know, I ruined their lives. But they you know, we we strike up this great relationship and I'm just trying to diligence everything there. And you know, all the pieces add up. Every time I asked a question. There, there's a there's an answer. And all the pieces line up for whatever the hell was happening there. 2200 years ago, it was some kind of reflection of the classical mysteries, all the elements are there a diameter and PR, Stephanie, and hecka t all these characters even die nisis we know they they found a vies with something like the dine Asian elements on it a very Greek vase and a very Greek pillar inside the sanctuary. I mean, it all lines up.
Nick Jikomes 23:53
Yeah, I was, I definitely want you to talk about diagnosis. But first, or a you talked about bothering these people. That's, that's actually a great technique. I bother people to figure stuff out all the time. But you know, I and most people in the world who've now read your book, which is an it's a New York Times bestseller at this point, right? Yes. So congrats on that you've definitely brought a lot of people to this. People who would have never known that this kind of research is going on. And I assume this research is not going on very much like this fairly obscure. I'm guessing it's hard to get research dollars, how how many people were looking into this stuff and doing what you're referring to is archeo botany or archeo chemistry,
Brian Muraresku 24:38
not many. And specifically, when I asked Andrew Coe, how many folks are out there like him who has you know, dual training, not only in chemistry, but also classics like me, ie the kind of person who doesn't just overlook the cookie on or the idea of a spiked wine. I mean, he understands not just the chemistry and testing this stuff, but the the rituals ceremonies and the settings and the cultural atmosphere in which these these potions were relevant to these people extremely relevant. And when I asked him I mean, he basically know that there there aren't many people out there doing this. And as a matter of fact, you know, to kind of drive the point home. I won't mention the the second find about the spiked wine, but when it came to the magnetized beer, the guy who did the testing Jordy in Spain, he's no longer an arco botanist, by the way. At some point in his career after his PhD, he was prolifically publishing on this stuff for about 10 years. And now he's doing something else. And he's quite happy. But you know, there there is no career path for him. Yeah, or at least at least not one that he perceived. And it's a story that comes up again, and again. And again. It's so funny, after I published the book, I got all these notes from archaeologists, PhDs, who are in love with this stuff and had no career track, you know, it's very hard to get funding for this stuff, exactly. As you say,
Nick Jikomes 25:58
yeah, maybe we'll circle back to that. I mean, for my own research career, so I spent about 10 years in academia, doing biology and neuroscience, where you know, you can get funding and even then it's it's very difficult and very grueling to constantly write grants, you know, that the head of a lab is really like the CEO of a small startup, and you're just raising money constantly to make it all possible. But that's, you know, when you have an NIH or Department of Defense, willing to fund top dollar research in neuroscience or something like that, or engineering, there's no you know, there's there's no funding like that for ancient art geochemistry. So I definitely have a respect for people who who have done that
Brian Muraresku 26:40
work. Me too. And you know, Andrew, he's now at MIT. He's largely been doing it on on the side developing all these resources, and developing, you know, this, this platform to really record all this data. It's it's been his side project, with no real home for arco chemistry, you know, you can't get a PhD in the hunt for ancient intoxicants. I wish you could, and maybe someday you will. But you know, for, for him and for and for me, you know, having to navigate all these silos in academia to figure out if there was any way to correlate this data, it's, you know, it's this is part of the reason it took me 12 years.
Nick Jikomes 27:21
Yeah. And, you know, another another big piece of the book, one that I didn't see coming at all until I got to it was, you know, the reason a lot of the stuff has been mysterious, and unknown is not simply because you're talking about, you know, the need to synthesize all sorts of different stuff across a wide range of time periods. You know, there's the archaeology, there's linguistics, there's the history, there's the actual chemistry and botany side of this. But a lot of this stuff, as we'll come to was actively suppressed. And that was something I mean, it clicked for me when I read about the Catholic Church and the suppression of of a lot of this stuff. But that was not something I actually saw coming. And that's something I want to circle back to. But okay, we're in Spain. It's, it's a couple 1000 years ago, people are using aromatized. Beer. You mentioned Dionysus, who, who is Dionysus. And how does Dionysus connect to this concept in the book of the pagan continuity hypothesis?
Brian Muraresku 28:19
Right? So die. nisis was a fun guy. He was he was as fun as Jesus was a couple 1000 years ago. So he's, he's the God of ecstasy, and theater, and obviously wine, but also mystical rapture. I mean, he was a god of the mysteries, his own mysteries, right, separate from eleusis. And at some point, he kind of when's his way into the temple at eleusis, as the Holy Child of PR, Stephanie, the goddess of the underworld, but he very much had his own mysteries as well, again, largely followed by women, the mind dads, who would, you know, go into ecstasy on behalf of their God, that this concept of enthusiasm, being filled with the spirit of the gods, by any means possible, biting on some kind of psychoactive IV, drinking the white wine, sucking down, you know, some kind of psychotropic goat blood, all kinds of all kinds of fun stuff we see in the literature. But again, the one the one common motif is this wine, I mean, there was a wine God. In ancient Greece for centuries, obviously, he follows on the other wine gods in Egypt in the Near East that I talked about how Osiris and L and you can follow this trajectory right into Jesus. And this is this is the pagan continuity hypothesis, not that not that Jesus is some kind of amalgamation of all these Near Eastern fertility gods and gods of wine. But if you specifically focus on the connection between Dionysus and Jesus, it's just one thing after another, you know, the sons of God born of the Virgin who introduce the vine into their mysteries who die and are resurrected. I mean, it's just this laundry list of motifs that pops up And that's particularly meaningful to me because of the Greek connection, you can draw parallels to many other gods. And and other folks have done that. And I mean, you know, 100 years ago they were doing that, but but the diagnosis connection is is really interesting. And so I follow a lot of scholarship by this guy, Dennis MacDonald, who wrote this great book a couple years ago, the Dinesen gospel, and it's he who lists out all these really interesting parallels.
Nick Jikomes 30:25
It's fascinating. So do you think so a lot of these religious traditions where you have you have a deity in the religious story that in the story literally, is killed and comes back to life? Do you think that's related to the concept of, quote, dying before you die, that when you take some of these substances, there's this metaphorical death, your egos literally being dissolved, you're being put into a brain state, where you're perceiving things in a way that's very different from the way that you normally do and your normal waking consciousness, it gives you the opportunity to quote unquote, rebirth yourself, and reinvent yourself, you know, presumably, for the better. But somewhere, it appears to have been lost. I mean, when I was a kid, you know, and I was going to Catholic school for a while, I'm not a religious person, but I had to go to Catholic school and learn, learn all of that stuff. There was no, you know, you learn about Jesus, and he's dying for our sins, and he's resurrecting, but it really almost sounds like a superhero story, like he comes back to life, to save you from yourself. But there was no concept of rebirth of the individual, that that somehow there was no concept in my education early on, that that story was supposed to be an allegory for your own death and rebirth. Alright, so it seems like somewhere along the way, at least in the West, that that was sort of lost.
Brian Muraresku 31:49
I suppose so. Or, you know, we're not reading Joseph Campbell enough, or two, or two or two of Joe Campbell to come along and write the hero with 1000 faces. And to remind us that the story of Jesus is the story of us. And the story of Dionysus is the story of us. And that the power of myth, right? Is is about examining these stories and these rituals, right? two sides of the same mythic coin, the not just the story, but the ritual behind it, the drinking of the blood, to remind us that, that this is about us. And this is this is about our death, and resurrection, that we shall die to our animal nature and be born as a spiritual being that we are spiritual beings, having this human experience. I do think that the early Christians thought allegorically, about this stuff. Because I know we know the Greeks did, for example, we know that, and we'll talk about plotinus later. But we know the Greeks had a very sophisticated understanding of these stories. As a matter of fact, there was this neoplatonic movement in the early days of Christianity, or at least into the third century AD where they were reading Greek literature already, as allegory. They were reading the The Adventures of Odysseus as a story of spiritual salvation. It's not this stupid story about a guy you know, who's wandering around the Aegean for a decade because he can't find his way home. This this, this is our, you know, our North stuffs, our homecoming. This is this is our confrontation with not just death, but the the mystery of being that is at the very center of our being. And I agreed it wasn't until I read Joseph Campbell, that I started, you know, rethinking my 13 years of Catholic school. Yeah. And then reading about how the Gnostics had the same idea that Jesus wasn't this external figure, but a guide on the path toward salvation, that to become one with Jesus is the whole point. It's there in the gospels, you don't need to read all this esoteric stuff. It's right there in the gospels, and the gospel of john about drinking his blood to become him. But you know, we forget what that all means.
Nick Jikomes 33:52
Yeah, the you bring up the gospel of john is sort of a special book in this context of, of the Bible. And you talk about the Gnostics who, who were the Gnostics, what, what is that?
Brian Muraresku 34:03
So from Ghana, or from the Greek meaning to know, the Gnostics, I always quote the best definition is from Elaine pagels, at Princeton, who was writing about the this movement in the late 70s. You know, there's this whole corpus of extra biblical books that were never included into the New Testament, at least the canonical New Testament that came down to us. There are these other books called the the non commodity corpus that's dug up in Egypt, by accident in the 1940s. And here is this whole new version of Jesus. And these other button these new gospels, by the way, the Gospel of Thomas, for example, the gospel of Judas, and they, they they tell a little bit of a different story about this, about this Jesus, you know, some of it's the same and some of it's quite different, like in the Gospel of Thomas, again Jesus is presented as not someone to be worshipped or this external, you know, paternal figure but someone to be With a friend on the path to salvation, and so the Gnostics were this heretical group of Christians, I'd say largely like in the second and third centuries AD, in the same way that the pagan mysteries disappear. The gnostic mysteries also disappear. In the fourth century AD as the church is getting more powerful and more bureaucratic, and the Catholic Church doing its, which was the only Church of all, you know, the church in Rome. And, you know, developing what became mainstream Christianity in the wake of Constantine in the early fourth century. And so they're there for a while, and then they disappear. But they stand for the proposition that there was never one agreement on who Jesus was, what the Eucharist should be, you know, spiked or not, and what it meant to achieve salvation in this lifetime.
Nick Jikomes 35:49
So, one thing we haven't talked about yet, maybe before we continue is your background. So you're obviously very linguistically gifted, what? What was your education like? And how, how did that set you up to be in a pretty unique position to put together a story like this?
Brian Muraresku 36:11
Okay, so by complete accident, I wind up at a Jesuit prep school, when I'm 14, no, I couldn't afford to go there. But I got the scholarship from the Jesuits, where Latin was mandatory, I think, for three years, or maybe the whole time. And then Greek was an elective, I wound up taking both. And by the end of it had something close to like, I mean, a college education and classics, and went on to brown to continue Latin and Greek and picked up Sanskrit and Arabic, and, you know, some some Romance languages in the meantime. But I mean, from the very beginning, I was just, you know, languages came to me, I suck at math, you know, so I can't I can't even do my taxes. But so but languages always came easy. And you know, you read enough Greek, and you will eventually ask yourself the question I asked myself, like, and it wasn't even at first, at some point, you're reading Homer or Plato, and then you're reading the New Testament, and you realize, this is the same language like why, why do classes not study the New Testament? And why do seminarians not study Homer? I mean, not not to say that they don't. But if they do, it's not really done in this multi disciplinary way. Yeah, yeah. You know, your theology department is separate from classics, by the way, at Emory University, I can I can think of, but I was, I wondered if you would, if you combine them? And what if you started reading the Gospels with that ancient Greek lens? And thinking about wine, for example, and the Eucharist, the way that a Greek would have thought about it? In the first or second century AD? And all these obvious questions start to bubble up? Like, what kind of wine was it? I mean, it's, it's like, it's a stupidly simple question. And the most obvious question, I mean, all this wine, all this wine being served every Sunday, on every continent, yeah, hundreds of millions of Christian faithful, you know, why don't we stop and ask what kind of wine was that? And the minute you start looking into that world, that very Hellenic world, you'll see all the things that we're talking about.
Nick Jikomes 38:11
Yeah, it was amazing how simple a lot of the stuff seemed, at least in retrospect, as I was reading the book, cuz, you know, again, growing up, you know, you got to you got to mass on Sunday, and you drink the wine, the quote, unquote, blood and you know, you eat the tasteless wafer. And you really, I mean, you really make it clear that, you know, when you look at the evidence, and we look at the way that people were talking about this type of stuff the whole time. It wasn't all just a metaphor wasn't all just a placebo, there were, quote, unquote, real eucharists that had active ingredients in them. So I just thought that was a really, it was a really interesting twist on stuff I'd already been exposed to in the past, but and it seems so obvious once I got you know, halfway through the book.
Brian Muraresku 38:54
Well, here's another obvious one. Again, just plan on language. Since you mentioned languages, I mean, so so wine, what I was referring to is that wine across Greco Roman antiquity, at least in the Greek language is referred to as a father makaan, which as you can hear from the word is where we get pharmacy, it means drug, like one of their words for wine, I mean, the common word was oiliness. But one of their words for wine from Homer all the way to the fall of the Roman Empire, is pharmacom is a drug that was their word for because it was so routinely mixed with medicine and all these other magical substances, that the calling of pharmacom was not crazy to them. So in the early second century, when Ignatius of Antioch is writing a letter to the Christian Ephesians, he refers to the Eucharist if you remember from the book as the pharmacom athanassios, which is the title of one of my favorite chapters, the drug of immortality. Now, is that just a happy play on words? Are we talking about you know, right, is something is something else going on here?
Nick Jikomes 39:52
Yeah. Okay, so why don't we go through I would love to go through the story of some of the things that you uncovered with respect To wine and the things that were being mixed into it, and maybe that will sort of be a natural lead in to what you described as the original one drugs. So So what did you find with respect to wine? Let's dwell on that for a while. And then let's, let's let everyone know the story about how and why a lot of this stuff was actively suppressed for so long.
Brian Muraresku 40:22
Okay, so the the quick history of wine is that I don't think we have the the material evidence that it's quite as old as beer in the book I talked about, you know, potential fines of beer fermentation as far back as 12 13,000 years ago, in the epi Paleolithic, when we go from hunting and gathering to settled life, we have really goes at least that far back, at least exactly that that's that's what the the early indicia is that it's 12 13,000 years, for some reason, unless I'm mistaken, wine doesn't go quite that far back at least the Eurasian evidence that we found, what I was seeing was more like 6000 BC, in Georgia, not too long after that at the Hajji firuz tebay. site. In modern day, Iran. Pat McGovern found wine that was spiked with terribile. So again, one of these things that would preserve the wine and prevent it from spoiling into into vinegar, basically. And then, you know, fast forward, there was another interesting wine find from the the tomb of Scorpion the first roughly 3150 bc in Egypt, just like the telecabine wine from you know, a bit later. 1700 BC, it's wine that's routinely spiked with all kinds of funky plants and herbs. And then so fast forward all the way to the first century AD and at the same time that that manuscripts from Daya Scorsese is being written his Materia Medica that talks about all of these plants and spiked wines. I, you know, I was digging through these arco botany journals looking for something like the aromatize beer, and weirdly at the exact same time, more or less published in the year 2000. Was this other, you know, underreported discovery of a really funky wine from outside Pompei, which is also interesting because it's the part of Italy that was calling to the earliest Christians in mahbubnagar IKEA which was great Greece so another, you know, territory just rife with with the Greek mystery cults, and what they what they found there in the late 90s was wine that seemingly had been spiked because they found the seeds seemingly spiked with opium cannabis henbane and black nine shade mean, so you know, fairly psychoactive, at the right doses, visionary material, and you know, what the hell is it doing there? It's, it's, I mean, it shouldn't be a surprise, based on what I just said, about the wine, you know, being spiked in Egypt and, and Galilee. And before that, in Iran, I mean, this was a hotbed of experimentation, it makes perfect sense to find a wine like that, but it's, it's, you know, it's really the the first, again, hard scientific data from classical antiquity, that I've ever found for one of these really complex, visionary ones.
Nick Jikomes 43:12
So, as we go forward in time, you know, there's there's a lot in the book around witches, this is another area where I got re educated. So my only notion of witchcraft and witches before reading this book was just, you know, the standard stereotype of a witch and old lady in the woods, mixing stuff together and cauldron flying brooms Halloween, that I never really looked at it, the way that I now look at it, which is, you know, these, these were people, in this case, women who had botanical knowledge, that was extensive, and they knew how to mix things together, I didn't know that they were mixing literal potions in the ways that you get into, they were making topicals they were making, you know, a variety of products for lack of a better term, where they were consciously brewed, and constructed to have in some cases psychoactive effects. So can you maybe tell the story of of witchcraft and what was going on at the time that the Catholic Church is really starting to rise and really persecute the people that were doing these types of things and why they were doing that?
Brian Muraresku 44:23
Yeah, it's that nefarious combination of women and drugs that I call the the the constant thorn in the side of the Catholic Church for a long time. They were they the witches were relatively uncontroversial. I say in the book that you know, the the church certainly had its hands full with the crusades, and other in you know, and other endeavors in Europe, but then by about the 14th or 15th centuries, the witches are becoming a problem. And specifically in Italy, and during the Inquisition, it would eventually result and it's, you know, the even the most conservative estimates are Something like 90,000 prosecutions and 45,000 executions, the figure is probably much higher than that. And I quote a figure that at some point, even one woman being targeted like that, in any given community would have had this this, this, you know, this net effect to generally, you know, lay on the conscience of millions of people. I mean, this the the the Inquisition, had a big effect in the early modern period, and not least of which was because of women and their knowledge of these herbs. This is this is the classic witch, and this is where we get the idea of them writing on broomsticks. And so I owe a lot of what I write to these these great historians, Carlo ginsburg among them. And my friend Tom Hatice writes about the witches ointment, which if you look into the botany, of the witches, women is a really another, you know, funky concoction. In fact, the Pope's personal physician, Andres Laguna, in 1554, he actually lists out the ingredients that he thought spiked, the famous glendo, the witches ointment, and he talks about the same kinds of things that I was seeing in that farmhouse and that pharmacy in outside Pompei, things like henbane, and black Nightshade, and he also mentions Mandrake, and hemlock, the idea that these went into this green ointment that allowed women the the power of flight, and that, you know, we think through some kind of law that they would smear this onto the broomstick, wedge it between their legs, and thereby absorb these toxic alkaloids to give them the sensation of flight. It's just it's really fantastic stuff.
Nick Jikomes 46:38
What do we know about the chemistry there? What what kind of compounds are in plants like henbane? And what might they do?
Brian Muraresku 46:46
That's a great question. So the These aren't, and I get this, I get this question a lot, too, because they're not they're not the classical psychedelics, right. I mean, you're freaking exact. So they're not you want to think about like the ergoline like LSD. You want to think about the tryptamines
Nick Jikomes 47:00
these like classical serotonin stimulating psychedelics.
Brian Muraresku 47:04
That's right. These are in fact, these are I think they're classified as delirious these these, you know, these are not fun experiences. These are largely tropane alkaloids, like atropine, and scopolamine, which is sometimes referred to as the devil's breath. All this all this fun stuff. I mean, the night shades Yeah, I mean, again, you really need to know what you're doing yet when it comes to tropane. alkaloids. So again, the fact that these are being mixed into a wine in the first century AD, or being mixed into some kind of undulant, in the 15th, or 16th centuries is really I mean, it's really mind boggling. They had to know, you can't do it haphazardly. Yeah. No, they can't. And even as a quick footnote, a couple of weeks ago, there was this paper released about similar tropane alkaloids, which you can find in data that were wedged into the walls of this cave, the pinwheel cave in California, I read, only about 400 years ago, that was data, but it's the very first archeo chemical evidence for the presence of psychedelics and their association with rock and cave art. You know, it's, it's, it's an old other controversial theory, like the theory about the classical antiquity. But again, we are now seeing the hard scientific evidence that people knew what they were doing. Yeah, that's really, really dangerous material.
Nick Jikomes 48:23
Yeah. And when I read that, I mean, I was fascinated by that study, the pinwheel cave, and again, it was 400 years ago. So it's a completely different time period from the story we're focused on here. But anywhere you look in history, it seems people had an understanding of the psychoactive properties of many of indirectly of many of the compounds that are in the local plant life. And they have deep enough knowledge to know that it's there, and to apparently dose it properly, so that you don't die.
Brian Muraresku 48:51
I mean, that that, that I still can't explain this notion that posology is the secret to pharmacology that if you don't know your dose that you have no, you have no business messing with plants. But they had no choice. Yeah, right. I mean, across antiquity, there was no difference between cuisine and pharmacology. It's how they got their medicine. It's how they made their cosmetics. It's how they got their nutrition. It's how they worship their wine gods. I mean, they were much, you know, much closer to nature than we are today. You know, I go to I go to the food market, they went to the garden and picked out, picked out their magical sources.
Nick Jikomes 49:27
Yeah, it made me think about a couple of things. So, I mean, you can look anywhere else. I think a good example is, you know, in the Amazon Iosco, which is, it's not just a drug, it's actually two drugs, and one of them only works in the presence of the other one, orally. So, the, the depth of knowledge required to figure that out again, it had to have, in my view, it had to have been through some sort of systematic experimentation on different combinations of local plant life to to eventually Figure out how to do that. And then, you know, fast forward to today. And my industry, legal cannabis industry in a weird way. It's almost like we're coming back to this way of of doing things. We're trying to figure out how to extract the right proportion of compounds from cannabis and other plants to make elixirs to make literal tinctures to make topicals. And, and in many ways, we're just we're just going back to what people were doing per 1000s of years.
Brian Muraresku 50:26
Yeah, in many ways, we're just trying to catch up. Yeah. And it sounds silly and cliche, this notion of forgotten wisdom, but how the hell someone figured out how to combine banisteriopsis copy with a seatbelt via vt these to induce this experience that would be long lasting and life changing. In Iosco, for example, is crazy to me, or the fact that that many, many, many variations, many admixtures of Iosco exists in the Amazon basin is even more amazing to me. So, yeah, in many ways, we're just we're just catching up.
Nick Jikomes 51:00
So we we touched on your educational background, and your your knack for languages, that was obviously something you seemed passionate about from the beginning. And it probably drove in many ways, your passion for a product like this. So the other thing is, well, I can say, from my own experience, and many, many people that you can point to, you know, online or from my own life. And the whole reason I really went into science, in general and neuroscience particular and have continued to be fascinated by that area of study was from my own experiences with psychedelics like psilocybin and like, DMT. And, you know, in reading this book, it's a very natural thought for the reader to have that maybe that was also a driving force for you. So have you experienced any psychedelics? And and what role did that play in actually driving you here?
Brian Muraresku 51:53
So I'm 100%, a psychedelic virgin. And, you know, I approached the book consciously. With that in mind, I'm still a virgin, and I probably will be for a while. Because I, you know, if you want to read a book about a white guy who does psychedelics, and finds god, there's a really wonderful Bibliography out there. And so, not only to do something new, but something that could engage people for whom psychedelics is still a taboo subject. Yeah, and these conversations, no, I'm trying to curate, with with colleagues in academia, it was important for me just to see where the data is, you know, and, you know, just being true to the data in the psychopharmacology and being true to the data in archeo, botany and archeo chemistry, I mean, that that's enough for me, for for now, it was enough to keep me interested. So, you know, I think is maybe it's insincere, that I put it off for so long, but it's, it's something in my future. It's definitely coming. But you know, I have, I can just, you know, I can ride your experiences, Nick, you can just tell me all about it.
Nick Jikomes 52:59
Well, I mean, the first thing that someone will tell you there is, you know, you can, you can put words to this stuff to some extent, but, you know, you can't download the experience into someone else, just by talking about it words, really, really, it really goes beyond words, I mean, that both figuratively and literally, you know, on a high dose of psychedelics, you are clearly in a different brain state, the patterns of activity in your brain are very different from the ones you observe in normal waking consciousness. And in many cases, your linguistic faculties literally break down. So in a very literal, literal sense, a lot of the phenomenology that went experiences on something like DMT, or a high dose of psilocybin is, you know, it's an unspeakable, literally. But nonetheless, everyone that has those experiences, I mean, pretty much without fail, is deeply moved by them in some way. And almost always for the better, even when they are difficult experiences. And speaking from my own experience, and then, you know, tying it to something you just said, and that you really go into a lot in the book is, you know, whether it's the eleusinian mysteries, or any of these other experiences that people were having, they were not, they were not haphazard experiences, they were curated experiences, people who had expertise in how to make these potions, people who had extensive experience in these in ingesting these things. We're curating the experience for other individuals. And I think that's, that appears to be where we're moving today. If you look at a lot of the research that's being done on psychedelics, there's a lot of work, not just to study them and their mechanisms of action and the clinical trials that are going on, but combining them with psychotherapy in a very curated way where people are guided through an experience and that seems to be a key component to all of these activities.
Brian Muraresku 54:59
Yeah, and I hope it stays that way. I mean, I don't think anyone expects you're going to get a prescription for psilocybin and go home, walk out, and just walk, you know, walk out the door and go home and have a great Friday night. I think that, you know, it's it's important from a therapeutic perspective that it's not just the substance, right, obviously, we know we all know about the famous setting setting. But But I think that what you're seeing in the clinical trials is exactly that is establishing the trust with the people who are there with you going through what could be a harrowing experience for some people who haven't been properly screened, or properly prepared. This is not for everybody. Part of the reason I haven't done it yet. It's just you know, this, this really isn't for everybody. And not everybody who takes psychedelics walks away, a spiritual savant. Some of them walk away, like Charles Manson, you know, so it's, it's how it's done with the intention with which it's done. That's obviously hugely important in these clinical trials, and why they get such great outcomes, whether for depression, anxiety, or end of life stress, it's because of how it's done in this very methodological way. And I would hope that when this does become legal, in the next five years or so, when the FDA has approved this stuff, that there are licensed, you know, centers out there, like we're probably going to see an Oregon in two years, I mean, that's clearly going to be a model for the rest of the country. And we'll, you know, pretty, pretty easily rewrite the mental health care industry, it's everything is going to change over the next few years. And as long as we maintain standards, I think it's a very, very powerful thing. What happens beyond that in the realm of religion, and society at large? I'm not quite sure yet.
Nick Jikomes 56:37
Yeah, there is, um, there's this wonderful quote you have in the beginning, you just mentioned what will happen in the realm of religion and how that will interact with this whole psychedelic Renaissance that's happening. There's this great Huxley quote from the beginning, I think I have it here, where he says, quote, my own belief is that though they may start by being something of an embarrassment, these new mind changes will tend in the long run, to deepen the spiritual life of the communities in which they're available. The famous revival of religion, about which so many people have been talking for so long, will not come about as the result of evangelistic mass meetings, or the television appearances of photogenic clergymen, it will come about as the result of biochemical discoveries. I just thought that was a really cool quote, what? Why did you put that in the beginning from Huxley and what talk a little bit about Huxley and what was going on at that time before we sort of went into the psychedelic Dark Ages, again, that were just emerging from
Brian Muraresku 57:41
you, and probably most of your listeners got the short end of the stick with the war on drugs. And again, not that I don't, I really don't do drugs, but just you know, as as as a as a matter of cognitive liberty. It's just it's really, it's really strange the era that we were born into post post Nixon, and not normal, and an extraordinary waste of resources. If it's one thing that doesn't belong in the criminal justice system, it is drugs, and that doesn't, that doesn't cure your addiction, if you are addicted, if you're unfortunate to be addicted to drugs, and going to jail is not the best way of kicking your habit. So we got we got that all wrong, obviously. And it's it's coming to an end in Oregon. and elsewhere, a cannabis on the international level was just D scheduled, which is really interesting. So before that, you had folks like Huxley and Alan Watts and Houston Smith, perhaps the greatest religious scholar of the 20th century, doing LSD and psilocybin and mescaline and having profound experiences and being able to talk about it. Yeah, like a bunch of scholarly gentlemen. And you know, the the quote you just read was written in 1958. I mean, it's just, it's incredible. And is it possible that after when the fog of war finally lifts? Is it possible that we can read Huxley's words and think about a responsible way to incorporate this biotechnology into some sense of whatever religion becomes in the 21st century? I mean, I don't know. I would love to think that it's possible. Not every Sunday, we're not we're not dosing the communion wine. But you know, in the same way, eleusis was a once in a lifetime experience in the same way that Dinah bazer one of the volunteers in the NYU psilocybin experiments, talks about her one and only dose of psilocybin being like being bathed in God's love. Is it possible that under the right curative conditions, we can envision these bio technologies enhancing faith or re enchanting a generation and introducing them to the concept of a spiritually led life for the very first time? I mean, this is how religions grow, by the way doesn't happen, you know, overnight, and it doesn't happen. Like as just abstract theories. Whatever was happening 2000 years ago to the Greeks and early Christians was something visceral and print found that convinced them they had found the essence of life, which is clearly missing today.
Nick Jikomes 1:00:05
Yeah, I mean, one of the one of the things that's undeniable about psychedelics, and I think, you know, part of their power and, and the, the real impact that they can have over people is, you know, unlike other methods of spirituality, you know, if you want to call it that, you know, you don't have to believe anything, you don't have to meditate in a cave for 12 years to get to the state that you might get to, if you do that meditation for 12 years, you don't have to sweep the ashram for 10 years, you don't have to learn Greek and, you know, read, you know, the entire corpus of literature, you don't have to undertake those gargantuan efforts to see that certain states of consciousness are possible, if you take the right dose of LSD, or you take the right dose of psilocybin or you take the right dose of DMT, you are going to have an experience, it's very, very different from normal waking consciousness. And it, you can definitely see why people often talk about these things in spiritual or even religious terms. And it's very interesting to think about the way you know, if more people start having experience with psychedelics, the interactions that will have in the way that will cause religious practices to evolve. And so in thinking about the interaction between organized religion, and psychedelics, where where do you think that could go, and maybe we can get there by first describing a little bit more on what actually happened in the other direction of the Catholic Church. So they really started making some heavy, heavy, frankly, violent efforts for, I think, hundreds or 1000s of years to really stamp this stuff out. So how did that end up playing out and what was what was the, the threat to the church as they perceived it?
Brian Muraresku 1:01:57
It's hard to tell. And I think there were probably several threats. And I think I'm on the record saying that I even sympathize with the church fathers. Because I can I can understand the need to nation bill at a time in the fourth century AD, when there isn't much separation between church and state, you know, their their priority was nation building, and developing some kind of Orthodoxy that people could get behind, you know, these secret rites and, and, and magical sacraments don't lend themselves well to organized religion. In fact, it's the whole point. You know, these these are, these are secrets that are passed from generation to generation. So I part of me understands the need to curate some kind of organization, right. And what happens with any organization is that the the original, the founding vision tends to become diluted over time, I quote, the Benedictine monk, David steindl, rushed at the bit in the intro of my book, who talks about this, this this conflict, this tension, this, this constant tension between bureaucracy and mysticism, is that clearly these religions are born on visionary experiences, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, it's all baked into the, the, the foundation, that's of where they come from. And at some point, you know, the brother David says, the pipes get rusty, and begin to leak and that and that flow from the original source slows down to a trickle. And I think the the goal is to try and reinvigorate that to always keep that alive to keep that mystic sense alive, not to say there's no need for organizational structure, or even doctrine and dogma. But the idea that that God, as Joseph Campbell would say, is an experience to be lived, that what we're not looking for is a meaning of life, but an experience of being alive. I mean, isn't there a way that we can curate that experience and still have respect for institutions or the history upon which these institutions were founded? I think we got it wrong over the course of Christianity, and you see the saints and mystics and visionaries under constant suspicion, and oftentimes persecution, because a direct pipeline to God is a, you know, it's kind of seen as a threat
Nick Jikomes 1:04:08
to the, the need for a middleman, which is really what the church is,
Brian Muraresku 1:04:15
which is what it was, which is what it becomes under some under some circumstances. Yeah. And, and, and doesn't have to be, because again, you can look around the world today and see 33,000 denominations of Christianity, and some of it is quite intense. And some of it is very relies very intensely on direct experience, like the Pentecostal churches in North America or the Santo diamond, who in Brazil who use a psychedelic sacrament, you know, same today as 2000 years ago, I don't think there was ever one definition over what this thing could be and how it perceived the threats to its survival. And I think that you see this religion with no name winding its way, all over the history of Christianity and Western civilization. It's We're here today. And it looks like it's reemerging in Oregon, under under a different guise, and they will continue evolving across this decade.
Nick Jikomes 1:05:09
So what? You know, if you if you could have the right curated experience under the right conditions, what would that look like? What would the compound be? And how do you imagine that actually happening? I
Brian Muraresku 1:05:21
mean, Nick would head into the forest, we would throw our cell phones into the river now. I can. Yeah, go ahead. Go ahead. I can I mean, I'm not sure I'm not quite sure how it looks. And I'm often asked, like, if, if I'm trying to really like, recreate the ancient sacrament. And part of me, of course, is this I'm dying to know what that original coupon was, I'm dying to know. And I'm dying to know what that that spiked wine from Pompei looked and tasted and felt like I'm dying to know. And I think that's important. But it's also important not to overlook the obvious that we have these substances today. And yeah, the amount of rigorous work that's been done on Scylla seibon, is enough to convince a skeptic like me that under the right conditions, it can be both safe and efficacious, and lead to these profound transformative experiences. So my, you know, subject to further analysis, my my sacrament of choice at the moment would probably be psilocybin, both with a trained therapeutic guide, and also with some kind of spiritual professional. Yeah, or religious professional. And I'm not sure that that doesn't exist yet. There's no legal domain to do that, that I know of today. Maybe in Jamaica? You're not certainly not in the US. And so but it's coming soon. It's coming. Oh,
Nick Jikomes 1:06:40
yeah. Yeah. And I think I think we'll actually be there faster than even I would have thought a year ago, I think, I think we really are making progress on that front and psilocybin as it is fascinating. I mean, both scientifically, when you look at what we're learning about it, and the brain states and induces, and how that correlates with the phenomenology. But also, in my own experience, you know, my first assignment experience when I was like, 17, like, absolutely changed me forever. That was a truly like a step change. For me, I ended up on my own, which I do not recommend, for most people's first time. Although I think that was a key ingredient for mine, I ended up you know, at the time, I was, you know, a skinny kid, who took probably more than I thought I was taking and with mushrooms. Part of the reason why legalization or at least decriminalization is so important is controlling purity and dosage. So I took quite a large dose ended up by myself in my own bed at home, as the sun was setting and long story short, I had a very profound experience I completely, I had an ego dissolution experience, not even I didn't, I had never had that experience before. And I had no conceptual framework at that age that something like that was possible. But looking back, you know, you could immediately see how that type of experience for anyone, in ancient times or present is just going to immediately change your perspective on life and, and the types of experiences that are possible and the value of being able to experience that all. I think one of the things I did want to mention to you as in many ways, I'm I guess I'm like the inverse of you. So we're both interested in a lot of this stuff. My training is very different from your training. I come from a hard science background. And I don't come with a lot of linguistic gifts and and the education that you had, and I am not a psychedelic virgin. I'm the exact opposite of that. One. One thing that I think is fascinating is, you know, my trajectory there was early on I I experienced psilocybin I experienced salvia divinorum, I experienced then LSD, each of these things multiple times, I experienced nn DMT. Later on, but many times. And then one time, I experienced five Meo DMT, in a very controlled and curated setting with a very controlled dose that was very pure. And, you know, I can talk all day long about my other experiences, but that five Meo experience stands out to me as probably the most profound one of all and immediately coming out of that. So I took, I took two inhalations. So two doses back to back. So you did the one dose and then you had the option of doing the second one, and I and everyone else who did it took that took that option, so I'll put it that way. My eyes were closed on the first one. And I was told at the beginning by the person administering it, that it was talked about in more of an Eastern framework, more of a Buddhist framework. So we were told point blank in very competent language. This is going to put you in a state of Samadhi consciousness, you're not going to have any percepts at all, you're going to you're going to reach a state that, you know, Yogi's get after 20 years of meditation, cetera, et cetera. And, and I was also told that I would reactivate, so that in the days following it, I would relive the experience to some extent, probably at night. And going into that, you know, I was sitting there as a neuroscientist, and as someone who had tried everything else, and I said, that sounds like bullshit. I've never there's no acid flashbacks, that doesn't happen. I appreciate it, but didn't maybe appreciate as much as I would the
the the way it was described in eastern terms. So I immediately came out of the first dose, my eyes closed, and there's nothing to report because again, there was no, there was no content to it, it was content less, it was just void. But as you come out of it back to normal consciousness, you have this very, very deep and visceral sensation of bliss. Like, even though there was nothing to report on, I didn't see anything, there was no, there was no visuals, literally, I just come out of it with this complete state of bliss and, and restfulness in my mind, and I immediately signal with my hands that I want to try the second dose, like immediately, as soon as I was physically able to do that. I said, Yes, let me try that again. And I didn't plan to leave my eyes open the second time, but they were and I was looking up at a light. And so in contrast to the first experience, which was void of content and complete darkness, this one was the bright white light. You know, in retrospect, as soon as I came out of it, and I could think again, I was like, okay, that is every near death experience. And every, you know, every classic description of that type of thing. You know, my life last flash before my eyes, just before I got into a car accident, or just before I went into cardiac arrest. Every, you know, if you hear people talk about a very high dose LSD experience, I think that's the brains that you get to probably with a high dose of a lot of these substances, but for five Meo it, it put you there immediately, and to an extent that I had not experienced with any other psychedelic before, and I don't have any concrete evidence for this, but phenomenologically, when I look back at a lot of the things that you talk about in your book, and a lot of the ways they're described, five Meo is the compound that really jumps jumps to the front of the list for me, I was very interested to see if you would find evidence of any five Meo usage in the book. And, you know, there's evidence historically, I think, from toads and other things that, that maybe maybe it's somehow gotten to some of these concoctions, but it's probably harder to come by.
Brian Muraresku 1:12:46
Wow. I mean, that's a first of all, that that's a phenomenal story. I feel like I have nothing of value to add from here on out. I could just listen to stories like that all day, which is part of the reason I wrote the book. I love listening to stories like that, because what you're describing, I mean, is it fair to say that you would consider that a mystical experience? Yeah,
Nick Jikomes 1:13:07
I mean, again, I'm not a religious person, and there's no need to to bundle these experiences together with, you know, overt religiosity, if that's not your cup of tea, but Yes, I would. So as a non religious person, I think anyone that would describe themselves as religious or spiritual would certainly interpret this type of experience in that way. And even if you're not like me, like I, I think it's fair to call it a mystical or spiritual experience. Because it, you know, it fundamentally alters your state of consciousness, you have no, your ego does die, quote, unquote, it obviously comes back, it's reborn, as they say, but it puts you into a state that makes you appreciate the ability to just be aware at all much more. And don't get me wrong, as I was coming out of the five Meo experience. I did have, you know, absolutely crazy and beautiful, colorful forms. I immediately as I was coming out of it, as well thought about people like Plato, and the theory of forms, and I had the I had the notion in my mind, like, oh, like maybe, you know, My mind went there. I was, like, maybe some of those early thinkers describing things like that had something akin to this. This is, of course, before I read your book, so it kind of made me dwell on that even more. But But yes, I would call it a mystical experience, you know, even Roland Griffis at Johns Hopkins, he's a straight laced and rigorous a scientist is you're going to find and he talks about the mystical type experience and he talks about a purely an academic and, and frankly, quantifiable terms, as you can so so again, these things, these experiences are powerful. You can describe them as mystical, but I want to make it also clear that that that doesn't necessarily need to come bundled with, you know, metaphysical claims that are beyond what science can describe.
Brian Muraresku 1:14:56
So then I only have one follow up question which is because now fascinated give given given your background. You know, I agree we get lost in the, in the, in the jargon. So, do you have different I mean, with all these experiences made perhaps you know climaxing in five Meo DMT? Do you think differently about life and death? Do you have? Maybe it's too personal? Do you have an intuition about what if anything happens when your physical body dies that that is informed by these experiences?
Nick Jikomes 1:15:29
Yes, I think the short answer is yes, the way that I think about that, as a scientist, as a neuroscientist in particular, as. So let's describe a little bit of what we know about the brain states that one can measure when people take something like psilocybin or a classical psychedelic, then I'll back into the phenomenology that I described and what I think might happen under a quote unquote, natural death. And when I say natural death, I mean, you're old, you're lying in bed, you're not getting hit, you're not getting hit by a truck, you are slowly shutting down due to your body being decrepid. So what do we know about the brain states of psychedelics will basically, and this was surprising to a lot of people when it started to be observed. You might naturally think, oh, without the pyrotechnics and hallucinations that you get, there must be all kinds of extra activity happening in the brain. And to some extent, there might be, but a lot of what you observe from EMG recordings, and fMRI data, at least in the cortex, the outer wrinkles of the brain, is that things often get quieter. So the the brain is literally becoming quieter, there's less chatter, it seems in the cerebral cortex. And when you start to think about it from, you know, maybe an Eastern perspective, you know, a meditation master. And when you start to actually look at the data on meditation and neuroscience, the brain states that you see from people in a deep state of meditation are, at least on a high level, not unlike the brain states, you observe when people are given fairly large doses of psilocybin. So your brain is getting quieter in many ways. And then, you know, when you think about how people talk about these things, you know, the doors, the doors of perception, being cleansed, you know, the, the Samadhi states of consciousness that are devoid of differentiated perceptions that you hear about in eastern religion, etc, etc, it starts to make a hell of a lot of sense, your brain is literally getting quieter, that includes especially the regions of the brain that we know are important for your conception of self, your ego, your ability to introspect. So phenomenologically people experience the states of ego death, and that sounds a little airy fairy until you experience it yourself. But neurologically, we see exactly, we see a pretty good correspondence to the brain states that that, you know, that the jives with that. So, going back to my five Meo description, phenomenologically, it was very much I've never had a near death experience. But as soon as I have that experience, I was like, Okay, this is, this seems to be exactly what that is, like, I see the light, everything is blissful, I have this sort of pure, undifferentiated perception. And I come out of it with this very profound and powerful appreciation for being alive at all. So what do I think is going on there? Well, I think these compounds are literally quieting down your brain, they're obviously quieting down parts of your brain that do complex things, like linguistic thought, perception, etc, etc, they're clearly not shutting down the rest of your brain, which is good because you survive these experiences. So your brainstem circuitry that's responsible for keeping your heart beating, and your lungs filled with air is still going. And that makes a lot of sense, because, you know, the more complex cognitive functions of the brain are more expensive, right? That's why they're relatively unique to humans.
And that's why those things probably shut down first. So if you start to think about a natural death experience, you know, think by analogy to walking outside in the wintertime, with no coat, and no gloves, your fingertips are going to get cold and your toes are going to get cold in way before other parts of your body. Because, you know, we've evolved to have these built in robustness mechanisms, meaning that your your body knows keep the heat on your vital organs and shut heat off from the other areas first, because if you lose a couple of fingers, that's unfortunate, but you'll survive. But if your heart stops beating, or your lung stops breathing, or your brain shuts off, then the whole the whole body is over. So there's an order of operations, the things that are absolutely essential, are maintained and shut off last. So when you think about a natural death, an old person on their deathbed, and you think You know, everything sort of slowly shutting down, right, your kidneys are gonna shut off before your heart right. And in your brain, there must also I would, I would expect be an order of operations, the very metabolically expensive and sophisticated neural networks in your cortex that allow you to speak and do calculus. And logically reason are going to shut off before the circuits that are responsible for low level perception and breathing and vital functions. And so I think, in a near death experience, or an actual death experience, as those higher order brain areas shut off, but the other ones are still online, you have this quieter brain, you have a lack of normal perception of the ego and subject object distinctions and so forth. But you still have a certain level of quote unquote, pure conscious awareness. And I think psychedelics and meditation practices and things like this, simply put you in a state that is not unlike that. Hmm. So that's what I think is going on. And so I think, you know, coming out of those experiences for me, I, I now know or appreciate more, that when it does come time for my own brain to shut off permanently, I know that that can and will be one of the most blissful and important experiences of my life. And in in those seconds or minutes, in between having a fully aware and differentiated state of consciousness, and deaf, you will be at an undifferentiated state, meaning you're not having specific perceptions, there is no linguistic thought, and there is no perception of space and time. So I'm not saying right, you live forever, and there's a place that you go, that's really fun to hang out, and everyone you knew is there having a great time. But in those moments before you truly expire, there is no sense of time. And while you're in that perception, there's not only no you, there's no center to the experience, but there's also It feels like forever.
Brian Muraresku 1:22:01
There's not you either,
Nick Jikomes 1:22:03
right? So there is this, it's just interesting to think about in that way. And I do quite strongly believe based on the neurological data that we have, and the phenomenology of these experiences. And the way people describe them, that, you know, when you go into altered states, whether it's with a drug or yoga, or whatever it is, I think putting you into a brain state that's not unlike what happens when your body is shutting down. And that's why there is this deep connection between near death experiences and mortality and spirituality and psychedelics,
Brian Muraresku 1:22:36
you would have been quite welcome on the steps of the School of Athens. My friend, Plato once wrote that true philosophy is nothing else but the practice of dying and being dead. This This is why the Greeks were obsessed with thanatology the study of the death and dying process. I mean, there's been a whole conversation about thanatology, because I mean, what else? What else is there? How do we forget, you know, when you wake up in the morning, that you will die someday, I think it's something that should be meditated upon, every single day. Because I think if you do do that, I mean, you having experienced that me not having experienced that through five Meo but through other experiences, which is the conversation I rarely have. But But clearly I've I've had my own near death experiences, which is why I'm really attracted to to psychedelics and how they imitate that and how they imitate perhaps the natural dyeing process, to focus on that, to study that and to make that the epicenter of your scholarship, to me is true ancient philosophy because I think what it does is it connects you back to the real world, you know, without having to preoccupy ourselves with the fear of death, or, you know, or being so I don't know, scared of it in such a way that we have all these unconscious, you know, anxieties, that that, that arise and all these ways that we distract ourselves in life to ever, you know, to prevent ourselves from thinking about our mortality, I think to have a healthy relationship with death puts you in the here and now and in my case, you know, lets me love my family more lets me try to be as present as I can and enjoy the little things. This is what Cicero said about looses that, to live with joy and to die with a better hope it's both. So it's also having it's not only having no fear around death, it's also living with joy and living fully present and appreciating this this this fleeting moment, in timelessness that we seem to be inhabiting.
Nick Jikomes 1:24:36
So what if you're comfortable talking about it? What what kind of experience were you referring to?
Brian Muraresku 1:24:43
So, without getting into details, I when I was five, I had a near death experience. My older brother knocked me in the forehead accidentally, with with with a golf club, and had one of those interesting near death moments. moments that I found somewhat replicated in intense periods of meditation when I was a teenager, and in my early 20s, I mean, things I wasn't necessarily looking for things I didn't know how to interpret at the time. But not unlike the all the chatter, just kind of quieting down. It doesn't happen very often. But when it does, it's, it's the kind of thing that you never forget. Right, right. And so without having done psychedelics, when I read the literature, when I listened to you, and the hundreds of other stories I've heard over the past decade, it's just it's, it becomes clearer and clearer to me that we're all talking about this same toolkit of archaic techniques. And, again, if that can help us both live with joy, and die with, with better hope. I mean, what else? Is there worth studying in life?
Nick Jikomes 1:25:52
I completely agree. And I know that we only have a couple minutes left. So, you know, let's say that, you know, some, some wealthy individual or some government agency, or potentially the Vatican says, you know, what, we we really, there's more to be discovered here. And and what one thing I loved about your book, is you uncovered a lot, but there's still clearly a lot to be discovered. So if if you had the resources, and you have the team that you would, you know, the all star team of archaea, archaeologists and classicists, and so forth. Where Where would you be looking at? What would you be looking for to, to continue this?
Brian Muraresku 1:26:30
Yeah, I do think we've only scratched the surface. And I only present my book as proof of concept, not for the presentation of any smoking guns, it's just to show that some of this data has been overlooked, right. So whether it's the spike beer or the spike one from 20 years ago, I think it only it only serves the proposition that there are all these chalices and cups and vessels that haven't been tested. So in my mind, I mean, there are dozens and dozens of sites that I want to visit and dig in the dirt with Andrew Koh at MIT. I mean, and the the sites that I see, I mean, all over the Holy Land, for example. And anywhere you see the the ancient pagan mysteries bumping up against the Christian mysteries are the kind of thing that really interests me. So you're going to see that in a place like ski fabulous, in modern day Israel, where churches are built on top, you know, of pagan foundations, are you going to find that in Greece, for Italy, North Africa, Egypt, I mean, you're gonna find it all over the Mediterranean. But you know, I'm interested in everything. I'm interested in ancient Judaism, too. I'm interested in Islam, interested in the Vedic tradition? And you know, all for the purpose of if this is if this stuff was important to us in the past? should it matter in our present? And what does it mean for the future of pharmacology and medicine and religion and society at large? I mean, again, like Huxley said, are we sitting on biotechnology that could change the world? Not just for therapeutic purposes, but for but for all of us? And how does that, you know, how does that get unveiled over the next decade? I have no idea. But if I had the funding and the Vatican on my side, I'd be a very, very happy boy the next decade.
Nick Jikomes 1:28:17
Well, I think that's a great place to end, Brian, thank you for writing this book. I know you worked on it for something like 12 years, I think it was truly a heroic effort. And like I said, No, no traditional academic could have put something like this together, in my view, and I know it's quite successful. You're selling a lot of books. So I'm happy people are reading this. It's a fascinating story. Just Just in terms of the writing, it's it's a page turner, you know, kind of reads almost like a, it is a mystery book. But you know, I always wanted to know, what was happening in the next chapter. Because there's a cliffhanger at the end of each one. I've had a few different conversations where I'm just casually describing this to people or someone asked me, What are you watching? What are you reading? And at least a couple times where I describe this book, and before I'm even done, I'm told by the other person, I just ordered it on Amazon. So it's a it's a very captivating story to to almost anyone, I think.
Brian Muraresku 1:29:12
Oh, cool. Thank you. Thank you for your service. The family will be happy next. Thank you.
Nick Jikomes 1:29:18
Yes, well, I'll let you get back to your daughter's Thank you very much, Brian, for taking the time. I really enjoyed this. I am certainly going to follow you and follow all of the the fields of study that are related to this. As as new discoveries emerge.
Brian Muraresku 1:29:33
Thank you, and I try to keep things updated. I will be better at it next year. But it's it's the immortality key.com if you go there you can see this and all the other media appearances updates on the film, and other book projects and I tried to be good on Twitter. So I'll keep you updated, man.
Nick Jikomes 1:29:52
Great. Well, thanks again, Brian. And have a great day. You too.
Unknown Speaker 1:29:55