Ever thought about psychedelics as a possible career path? In our series Undiscovered Professions, E&M features people who work in areas that are not frequently talked about, to give you inspiration, information and incentives. This time we interviewed Mendel Kaelen, a researcher in psychedelic therapy and founder of Wavepaths, a company that develops music experiences for and as psychedelic therapy.
E&M: There’s no career fair stand that reads ‘Researching psychedelics and founding a company that offers music for and as psychedelic therapy’ – how did you get started doing what you do?
Mendel: After highschool, I wanted to become a marine biologist – I cared deeply about nature and wanted to save the ocean. But after a couple of years, I realized the research I was doing was not particularly gratifying. At the same time, I had been reading a lot of books about out-of-body experiences and I had always been interested in the concept of consciousness. So one evening, I was reading about how Ketamine can facilitate these out-of-body experiences. A metaphorical light bulb in my head switched on: there are actually drugs, tools if you may, that we can use to study states of consciousness. Fascinated, I started reading about iowaska, magic mushrooms, Peyote Cacti, and articles that outlined how these psychedelic plants have an immensely rich history. In a pursuit of deepening my knowledge, right before I finished my Bachelor’s, I went to live in the Peruvian Amazon jungle for four months. There, I experienced Ayahuasca shamanism first hand, and got even more inspired to understand how psychedelics work.
E&M: Have you ever taken psychedelics yourself?
Mendel: In 2005, after careful planning and extensive research, I tried mushrooms for the first time. Keep in mind that, even though 15 years ago there was way less research available, the evidence was clearly showing that these compounds are physiologically very safe; the main risks are psychological, influenced by our mindset and our environment. For me, taking the mushrooms was a very powerful and meaningful experience. It not only influenced my decision to study neuroscience, but to also research these compounds that have been demonised unjustly for way too long. I want to understand how we can use them in a safe environment, how they can help people. Mental health care right now is a total disaster. The available medicines and treatments are ineffective for way too many people. Most medicines, if people are lucky, only provide symptom reduction. But even then, people need to keep taking them to feel better, and a significant portion of the population does not respond to any medication or treatment at all.
E&M: You mention that the main risks of psychedelics are influenced by your mindset and our environment. What do you mean by that?
Mendel: We did a large-scale population study, looking at psychedelic experiences in a variety of settings. Turns out that people’s readiness for the experience, having a clear intention, and taking the drug in a therapeutic setting, together with drug dose, increase the likelihood for individuals to have the so called “peak experiences”. These are experiences of transcendence, of union, of awe and bliss, that, in an increasing number of studies, are associated with improvements in well-being and mental health.
There is a very clear relationship between problematic drug use in humans and stress-inducing environmental and social factors, such as unemployment, social conflict, and so on. It is important that disciplines such as neuroscience and psychiatry are starting to have less of a neuro-centric approach in understanding the complexities of human behaviour, and take environmental, social, developmental aspects into account that work in synergy with neurobiological variables.
E&M: You’re passionate about the possible benefits of using psychedelics. But how did you get from experiencing ayahuasca shamanism in the Peruvian jungle to studying psychedelics in a lab in London?
Mendel: The first step was getting accepted to do an internship at Imperial College London. During the course of that internship, I was offered to do my PhD there. I accepted! Then, at some point during my first year, I observed a scene of a patient undergoing psychedelic therapy whilst lying on a sofa, wearing an eye mask, and listening to music with headphones. And suddenly I realized, patients listen to music through almost the entire duration of their sessions, and nobody is actually asking why that is the case. Nobody was researching what kind of music needs to be played during sessions, the role and therapeutic mechanisms of music. Eventually, this became my main PhD topic. I performed research with LSD and psilocybin, as well as MDMA, analyzing the neuroscience of combining music and psychedelics.
E&M: Why does music play such a key role in our lives and why are we so strongly shaped by the music we listen to?
Mendel: There are various roles music comes to play in our lives, and various reasons why we develop the responses we have to music. At first, we need to acknowledge that before we develop our verbal, linguistic language, we already are hard-wired, before birth, to respond to musical features in sound, to build memories and associations around the various qualities of sound. We are, in essence, born into a musical world and our very first relationships are musical relationships, and our first meaning-making occurs within this very dynamic, always evolving, and very rich sea of acoustic features that we are thrown into. Then, when our identities develop, we build various attachments to music, even to artists as role models at various points in our lives, as music comes to play a supportive role in our development, almost as a third parent. Music can provide acknowledgement to our selves, our identities, our inner world, where we may not always receive this from the outside world.
E&M: Your passion for psychedelic therapy and music is combined in Wavepaths, your start-up. What motivated you to start your own company?
Mendel: In 2015 – 2016, it became clear to me that music and psychedelic therapy methods will be being implemented at a much larger scale. I saw first-hand how music can either completely transform the therapy experience for the better, or completely destroy the experience for the worse. Some patients may have powerful emotional experiences that change their entire lives with one piece of music, other patients may enter a state of intense fear, anxiety, confusion, maybe even paranoia with the exact same song. And this is exactly the challenge: people are all unique individuals that enter the session with their own unique story. People are all so different in how they respond to music; there is very little we know about the ways we can work with music in therapy. This was the motivation to start WavePaths. Realizing that there is a whole new generation of therapists, who are increasingly demanding ways to work with music in a person-centered way. The original vision, and this is still what we are doing, is that this is an opportunity to bring together advancements in computational creativity, artificial intelligence, with the understanding of neuroscience, human development, psychedelic therapy and psychotherapy in general, into one model – one framework that asks the question: how can we support this person with the right music and how can we make that process smooth and intuitive for the therapists?
E&M: Do psychedelics offer a treatment that works as beneficially for everyone?
Mendel: Psychedelic therapy by its very nature is very person-centered, and so are therapists that are trained in psychedelic therapy who would always tailor their approach to every single patient. I would venture to say that psychedelics offer a broader application than the current medication and treatments. We see that it is being developed in clinical trials for depression, PTSD, smoking addiction, alcohol addiction, opioid addiction, end of life and social anxiety, eating disorders, and the list is only growing. Literally, over the last few years, more evidence and more clinical trials emerged proving that this form of therapy is in fact safe and effective. Over the past couple of years, we have FDA [US Food and Drug Administration that, among others, approves the development and use of medical treatments] assigned breakthrough therapy status for MDMA for PTSD and psilocybin for depression. Which means that the FDA is supporting an accelerated development of this form of therapy.
E&M: How is psychedelic therapy different from more traditional mental health interventions?
Mendel: Its focus lies on the root cause of the symptom rather than silencing the symptom. Psychedelic therapy offers a fresh look at what psychological nutrition a person may need. Let’s put it this way, it helps us to see what nutrition may be needed for a plant to make it flourish and grow, rather than offering a re-painting of the leaves that turn a yellow part into green again.
Like any therapy modality, it will never be right for everyone. There are lots of people for whom psychedelic therapy may not be the right thing. But I think the very best thing that can happen for mental health in the future is for more options of therapy to be available to people. For this to happen it needs, of course, to be accepted and also to be covered by insurance policies.
Cover photo: Jr Korpa (Unsplash license)