In September 2020, the UC Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics (BCSP) was founded as a space dedicated to research, training and public education on psychedelics and their role in the human brain. In May 2022, Imran Khan took on the job of Executive Director of BCSP, where he now leads the center's programs and strategy. Khan previously served as CEO of the British Science Association and as Head of Public Engagement for Wellcome, the world’s third largest philanthropic foundation.
Khan encourages his team to dig into the science behind psychedelics, as well as to explore more deeply how we relate to them—starting with the BCSP’s new website. It’s designed as a go-to resource for the public discourse around psychedelics. He’s also working on supporting the BCSP in developing a new open, accessible course on the science of psychedelics, alongside a training program for the next cohort of psychedelic facilitators.
The BCSP, which was co-founded by author Michael Pollan, professor Dacher Keltner and others, is a new academic center which focuses on three prongs around psychedelics: public education, facilitator training and culturally informed research. It joins an expanding cohort of novel academic institutions dedicated to the science of psychedelics.
We caught up with Khan on a Zoom call in the summer of 2022. Speaking to Trends w/ Benefits from his floating home in Sausalito—where, when he’s not thinking programming and strategy around the latest psychedelic science, he spends his free time trail running, reading science fiction and trying to make the perfect dal. Read on for our conversation about the future of psychedelics, his new role, and what’s next for the BCSP.
Hi Imran. What drew you to the psychedelic research space?
I’m a huge science nerd. My undergraduate degree was in biology and I’ve always had a fascination with neuroscience. I think that the biggest scientific questions out there include: Why do we perceive and experience the world the way we do? How is the mind constructed? And what is consciousness? That’s a hard line of questioning for science to tackle, because consciousness is such a subjective experience. What’s fascinating about psychedelics is that they provide a window into that subjective experience. Psychedelics produce reliable, amazing changes in how we experience the world, in a way that will allow us to study things like consciousness, the mind and subjective experience, and try to tackle that deepest mystery.
The mind is such a complex system—it’s hard to look at from the outside. It can only really be experienced from the inside. But psychedelics give us a tool that bridges the external and the internal. So they’re just hugely fascinating from the perspective of anyone who wants to know why we experience the world the way we do, and what that means about who we are.
There are many organizations turning to psychedelic research right now. What will set BCSP apart?
It’s great that there are so many organizations turning to psychedelic research. The more research, the more connections, the more scholarship we have, the better it is for both competition and collaboration.
At BCSP, we’re trying to straddle a number of different parts of psychedelic science. So, we’re doing the research—the basic science and fundamental research, what’s actually going on in the brain, what’s going on at a genetic level—but we’re not going to be doing much clinical research, partly because there’s so much excellent work going on elsewhere, and partly because Berkeley doesn’t have a medical school. So that’s one helpful constraint.
We’re also training facilitators—focusing on advanced professionals who have therapeutic, clinical, social work, or spiritual care expertise. Then we’re also doing public education and journalism.
Having those three areas—the research, the training and the public education—feels fairly unique. The mission is to educate the public, to inform public discussion and to be a slightly nuanced and sober voice on psychedelic research in the public and cultural space.
What challenges or obstacles do you think psychedelic research is currently facing?
There’s a bunch. For instance, in the U.S. and the U.K. (where I’m from), psychedelics are still scheduled substances.
In the U.S., the technical definition of that is "substances that have high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use." Obviously, if you engage with the research that’s emerging around the potential of psychedelics to treat everything from PTSD, to major depressive disorder to anxiety, that feels like a view that’s becoming out-of-date. But the fact that they’re still scheduled substances means that it’s hard to do this work. It’s difficult to do the research. It can sometimes be difficult to have conversations in public as there can be a lot of baggage around them. I think that’s definitely still a challenge.
There’s a cultural buzz around psychedelics right now. What trends are you seeing that are exciting and positive?
Right now there is an ongoing psychedelic renaissance. After decades of deep freeze, psychedelics—culturally and scientifically—are coming back into the open, and that also creates huge complexity. Science is rubbing up against politics, against culture, against regulation, against law. That’s the kind of work I’ve been doing for the last 15 years, as I’ve been really fascinated about what happens when science and society interact. How does it work well? How does it go badly? What happens when science moves beyond the lab and encounters the real world? That’s happening, moment by moment, in psychedelics right now. I find that relationship really interesting, too.
In the time that psychedelics have been in a deep freeze, the rest of science has moved along. We’ve got new brain imaging techniques, we can do new types of genetic analysis, we’ve got all of these tools that we didn’t have 50 or 60 years ago. I think the pace of discovery and change in this field is going to be phenomenal.
What impact do you think Michael Pollan's work has had on the enthusiasm for psychedelics in our society right now? Are there any risks that you see?
I think the work Michael has done with his books How To Change Your Mind and This Is Your Mind On Plants, as well as with the new Netflix series, has been huge. It’s been really influential in changing the public, political, cultural and media discussion about psychedelics—largely for the positive.
Michael has helped psychedelics shed some of that baggage and helped people encounter them in a new way. He’s a respected cultural commentator and writer, and I think he’s been a really distinct and interesting messenger for the field. He has, of course, played a vital and integral role in founding the BCSP.
What Michael tried to do is tell a really compelling story about psychedelics, and that landed in such a way that it changed the public conversation. I think that’s a great thing. That’s not to say that there isn’t risk. Michael is clear that these are not completely risk-free substances. It’s important to bear in mind that they’re powerful and they shouldn’t be taken lightly, either for individuals or as a whole, and we need a kind of balanced discourse and discussion for both individuals and as a society about what role they should play.
Is there anything you think that a trend in the mainstream narrative—towards a certain unbridled psychedelic enthusiasm and potential—is getting wrong, or missing?
There is a risk of people expecting too much of psychedelics. Sometimes, I hear people talk about psychedelics as if they were a cure for PTSD or depression on their own, and I’ve also heard people say things like, "If only there were more psychedelics around, we wouldn’t have climate change or war." There’s definitely part of the discourse where psychedelics are hailed as a panacea for all of our problems. That’s really worrying, and potentially dangerous, because the truth is far more complicated.
Even within a therapeutic or clinical setting, it’s really important to say that it’s usually not the psychedelics alone that can help people. It’s the combination of the psychedelic with therapy. It’s potentially misleading to suggest that psychedelics are curing—or even treating—these mental health conditions on their own.
What’s often happening is that when people are under the influence of psychedelics, they’re in a state where they are more open to therapy. So what they’re doing is creating the potential for therapy to have its effect. I think that’s true at a societal level as well. I’ve seen people also talk about psychedelics being a panacea for social ills. But you only have to look at people like the so-called "QAnon shaman" using psychedelics to see that it’s not a one-way street.
All psychedelics do is create potential. How we use that potential is as big, and possibly a bigger question, than what psychedelics themselves are doing.
Imran Khan, executive director at the UC Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics (BCSP)
What common misconceptions do you see from the opposite perspective—fear or anti-psychedelic sentiment?
The big one is policy on a regulatory level. I think there’s still a misunderstanding about the basic evidence and the basic research about the potential role of psychedelics—both their potential misuse and medical use, and both are wildly distinctive right now.
But in terms of the cultural conversation, psychedelics still have a lot of baggage, too. People still think about the ’60s and the idea that psychedelics are inherently a countercultural force. Despite Michael Pollan’s work, some people still think that you’re either a hippie, or a druggy or maybe both, if you use psychedelics. I think that’s changing, but it’s still there for quite a lot of people.
One of the first things I said when I took this role was that the psychedelics science movement owes a huge amount to the hippies and the weirdos and the artists and the independent radical scientists that have been carrying on this work while it’s been more underground. But it’s hopefully expanding beyond that now. As psychedelics become more mainstream, they become less exclusive. They become more inclusive to the people who come from a variety of different backgrounds. I think the more we can shed that cultural baggage, the easier that will be for more people to feel like psychedelics are for people like them.
On that note, what is the responsibility of an entity like BCSP to uphold ethics and accountability in the field, and how will you ensure that's done?
Two things that come to mind. Firstly, we must not gloss over the risks of psychedelics. Like any substance—including legal drugs like alcohol and caffeine—they are not risk-free. It’s important that we’re talking about that publicly and making sure that people who encounter psychedelics are aware of that.
And then there’s the particular issue of how psychedelics are used in therapy. We’ve seen and read and heard about some troubling instances of abuse in that context. One of the things I’d like us to do is make it really clear how unacceptable that is. And when we’re training our cohort of psychedelic facilitators, that will be part of what that cohort discusses. There’s a special consideration that needs to be made when people are undergoing psychedelic therapy or psychedelic facilitation. They are incredibly vulnerable, much more vulnerable than they would be under normal therapeutic context. These are often people who have suffered deep trauma. I think we need to have even higher standards in psychedelic therapy and psychedelic facilitation than we would normally, and that’s something that BCSP is going to be talking about publicly more and more.
When it comes to the training program for psychedelic guides, many places offer versions of this. What are the issues with the options that are already available? What does BCSP plan to do differently?
The biggest challenge is that because this is all so new, and because so much needs to happen so quickly, the field as a whole needs more rigor. It needs more frameworks around it.
For instance, we don’t really know just yet what is the best way to train facilitators and therapists. Of the different models that are out there, how do we test and improve them? How do we do a deep evaluation study of these programs so that we can determine what works, what can be improved, what might be less helpful? We need to innovate new models so that in a few years’ time, we have a program that is well-studied and well-evidenced and is meeting a societal need.
We’re starting from a new place in terms of developing large-scale training programs here. There’s a lot of work that’s been done on this previously, but in terms of scaling, that is new. One of the ways in which we want to address that is by doing that evaluation, as well as doing the training itself. So the BCSP is going to be evaluating and studying our training program and publishing the results. We hope that we can build on the successes we have, but also the changes we make.
Any moment that sticks out that has been particularly impactful since you started with BCSP/doing this type of work?
Only a few weeks ago, Ann Shulgin passed away. Ann was the wife of Alexander ‘Sasha’ Shulgin, who was almost single-handedly responsible for developing many of the psychedelics we use today. He was a brilliant scientist. She innovated and invented a lot of the therapeutic and facilitation models that are now used. Together, Ann and Sasha did a huge amount for the field.
Ann’s passing provides a kind of really valuable contrast for us. As people are getting so excited about what comes next, there’s also a generation of people who have been working at this for their entire lives in a context which was much much harder than the context we have now, where you didn’t have all of these prevailing forces looking toward the psychedelic renaissance. It was still very much underground. We owe a huge debt to that generation, and that generation is not going to be with us much longer. I think it provided an important counterpoint to what’s happening right now—a moment to reflect and value the work that has been done by so many people, who will probably never get as much credit as they deserve.
Is there anything new and upcoming with BCSP to highlight for folks to look out for?
There are two big ones. One is that we just launched our new website and it’s a really comprehensive look at everything from the science, to the policy, to the spirituality of psychedelics. We’re hoping it will grow into one of the premiere public resources for psychedelic information. It’s not explicitly about us as a center, but it’s about research in the field as a whole.
We’re also developing an online course. There’s a longstanding course that’s been available at Berkeley called Drugs and the Brain that’s been led by David Presti, one of our faculty. We’re working with him to turn that into an open and accessible online course that everyone around the world can take. We think that will be a huge moment in the opening up of psychedelic science to the public. That’s going to launch next year.
What else do you think it’s important to share when it comes to psychedelic research?
It can be easy to get swept up in all of the policy and the cultural change that’s going on. But I think it’s important to emphasize just how little we know about how psychedelics work. We have a really basic understanding of the brain receptors that different psychedelics bind to—but we have very little idea of the changes that happen as a result of that. If you ask a scientist, ‘Why do people trip when on psychedelics?’, the truth is we don’t really know. We have a very basic, mechanistic explanation, but that doesn’t unpack anything about the experience. And that experience is so integral to their therapeutic context.
Why are people so much more open to therapy? Why can they reevaluate themselves and their relationships with other people when they’re on psychedelics? We really don’t know—and that lack of knowledge means there’s just so much potential for research, but it’s also important that we do the science. For instance, when it comes to using MDMA to treat PTSD, the clinical trials that are going on right now seem to show that it works, but we’d also love to know why it works—that would help us understand and improve psychedelic medicine going forward.
We should be excited about the changes, but we should be clamoring for more debate and more discourse. We also need to look at the science and acknowledge just how ignorant we are about these substances, and how important it is for us to understand them better.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Gina Tomaine is a writer based in Philadelphia. Find her work on her website, and follow her on Twitter. Note: Gina Tomaine and Imran Khan are acquainted, and briefly worked in the House of Commons of the U.K. Parliament for Dr. Evan Harris at the same time in 2009.
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