Amanda Feilding has spent 54 years experimenting with psychedelics — for the sake of science
From her family home, Amanda Feilding, the Countess of Wemyss and March, has launched an unlikely renaissance: the return of psychedelic research to the mainstream.
The 76-year-old is fresh from a month-long stint in hospital in London following complications from a broken back when she greets me halfway across the orchard of her 500-year-old family estate as the sun sets.
As she conducts me around the rambling grounds of Beckley Park, past concentric moats and eccentric topiary, she seems no worse for wear.
"I work too long and too hard, that's why I broke my back," she says.
"But the work is quite fun, and I enjoy it. I always think fun is important."
Feilding's foray into the world of psychedelics began in 1965.
"Probably the most exciting period of my life was when I was first living, learning, thinking and loving on LSD," she recollects.
"I think LSD is the queen of the psychedelics because it's so pure."
In Europe, the US and now Australia, psychedelics are again being studied as treatments for depression, addiction, trauma, and anxiety at the end of life.
And the Beckley Foundation — a UK-based think-tank researching psychoactive substances founded by Feilding — is involved in much of it.
The antidote to a bad trip
By her own admission, Feilding says at first "taking acid was like a trip to the funfair".
But just a few months later, her drink was spiked with a colossal dose at a party in London.
The perpetrator was the man who first gave LSD to Timothy Leary, the American psychologist who would go on to explore the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs under controlled conditions.
"It left a deep scar," Feilding says.
It is testament to the powerful negative effects that psychedelics can easily wreak if used irresponsibly.
It was Leary himself who popularised the phrase "set and setting" to explain the importance of both the user's state of mind and the circumstances in which they trip.
"The antidote to a bad trip is to know how it works," Feilding insists.
After months recuperating in a hut on the Beckley grounds, she returned to London in the spring of 1966 for a party where she met Dutch doctor Bart Huges.
"Bart was hypnotic," Feilding says. "He was very handsome, very quiet, very knowledgeable."
She and Huges began a passionate personal and professional relationship that involved deep study of psychoanalytic and biology texts while consuming regular quantities of LSD.
Psychedelics face the ire of the world
Beckley was the site of much of their self-experimentation.
In Feilding 's childhood, Beckley was "a magical but isolated kingdom". Her father was an eccentric diabetic who farmed at night so he could paint in the daylight.
"I had a passion for consciousness from a very early age," she says.
"Consciousness became 'my thing' because it was very lonely where I lived so you had nothing much to do but think."
She was convinced psychedelic research would change the world within five years, with Beckley the "metaphorical ship that one sailed to undertake this task".
Instead, just a year later, psychedelics were banned by international treaty, as an entire generation decided that dropping out beat dropping bombs on Indochina.
"Can you blame young people for not wanting to get shot at in a jungle, but instead wanting to have a lovely time with a girlfriend in a park?" Feilding asks half a century later. "It's just common sense."
Research projects were closed down after treating more than 40,000 people in more than a thousand studies.
Huges, meanwhile, found himself on the front page of a Sunday tabloid.
"This dangerous idiot should be thrown out of the country" ran the headline.
Shortly afterwards, a diffident Foreign Office official knocked at the door of their Embankment flat to politely announce Huges was being deported.
Despite several attempts, he was never allowed to re-enter the UK.
'To play the establishment at science was the best game'
But Feilding kept the faith.
"In that period between the '60s and the '90s one couldn't talk about psychedelics. Scientists wouldn't dare get near it," she says.
"But having grown up at Beckley, I didn't mind at all. I was used to being on the outside."
While she continued her "amateur" research, she also had parallel careers as an artist and sculptor, and for income she coloured antique prints, which she sold at a market stall on the Portobello Road.
"It was an exciting period of self-discovery, psychoanalysing myself on LSD," she recalls.
She began to collaborate and lecture on global drug policy, addressing UN panels and the House of Lords, and establishing partnerships with leading neuroscientists in the UK.
Finally, in 1997, she decided to make it official, creating the Beckley Foundation.
Having witnessed the first wave of psychedelic enthusiasm crash against the War on Drugs, she realised that further research would require better evidence than personal epiphany and fervour.
"I saw at that early point that to play the establishment at science was the best game," she remarks.
"As a single female without any letters after my name, it was very difficult to get my ideas on the world stage, but by becoming a foundation I could get a lot more done.
"It was not a foundation in the sense that it had money, but because it was a good word."
'In the 60s it was all based on self-experiment'
Feilding says she's never been doing better science than now, but there is very limited money.
She estimates the Beckley Foundation has about 20 psychedelic research projects on the go — "and I think we've got enough money to keep going for three more months or something," she laughs.
"Some of the trials we are running have an 80 per cent success rate where the current techniques would be half that," she says, citing Phase 2 studies on smoking addiction at Johns Hopkins University in the US.
She suggested the smoking cessation study, which involved two all-day therapy sessions in which participants were given a high dose of psilocybin from magic mushrooms, because she quit smoking due to a single LSD trip in 1966.
"People have these very profoundly moving experiences with psychedelics that can cause brain changes and personality changes that are long-lasting," explains Albert Garcia-Romeu, a researcher at Johns Hopkins.
"They persist long after the drug experience, changes to brain areas like the amygdala and its reactivity to perceived threats or cravings like cigarettes."
Research funded by the Beckley Foundation has begun to explain why.
In 2008, Beckley initiated a partnership with Imperial College, London, after Feilding found a willing collaborator in Professor David Nutt, editor of the Psychopharmacology journal and senior government advisor.
"I persuaded Dave," she says. "He is a brave man, and he was a badminton player so he's quick on his feet, and we always had fun working together."
For his part, Nutt describes Feilding as "a delightful friend" and chuckles extensively when asked to sum her up in a sentence.
He insists that the research initiated at Beckley "has led to a step change in our understanding of the brain mechanism of psychedelics and laid the foundation for the clinical research that has restarted".
Together with lead investigator Robin Carhart-Harris, they have pioneered the neuroanalysis of the psychedelic experience.
"Brain imaging added a wonderful new element," Feilding says. "In the 60s it was all based on self-experiment."
Studies show increase in connectivity between brain areas
Neuroimaging studies undertaken as part of the partnership showed a high dose of psilocybin greatly increased connectivity between brain areas that don't normally communicate.
This interconnection can be chaotic, but it can also be profoundly fruitful, as it greatly increases neuroplasticity.
In a qualitative study, a single high dose of psilocybin caused 85 per cent of people with treatment-resistant depression to experience enduring reconnection to the world, other people and themselves after their trip.
Two-thirds were in remission from depression a week after their psilocybin session.
"I felt alive again, rather than distant and isolated and cut off," one participant told me about the months after the trial.
A before and after visual schematic of this novel cortical networking shows a brain in normal resting state, neural regions largely keeping to themselves.
The brain on psychedelics, meanwhile, is a technicolour explosion, with different areas all communicating with each other at once and making new connections.
Subsequent research from the Beckley/Imperial Research Programme showed the same pattern with participants who had taken LSD.
Beckley/Imperial neuroimaging has identified a part of the brain called the "default mode network" implicated in the rumination, self-consciousness and rigid thinking characteristic of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Psychedelics reduce blood flow to this part of the brain, allowing formerly suppressed neural networks and regions to light up.
"With the loss of the repressive control of this government all the other centres start communicating," Feilding explains.
"So you have a more chaotic and entropic form of consciousness, but also a much richer and more flexible form of consciousness."
'A tipping point has been crossed'
After her early years taking daily doses of LSD, and perceiving benefits to both creativity and cognitive function, Feilding launched the first placebo-controlled study of microdosing this year.
It follows innovative Australian research that found depression and stress levels significantly reduced over a six-week microdosing regime.
This month, an Australian-first trial will begin treating terminally ill patients with psilocybin to assess its efficacy at helping them accept their prognosis.
Dr Marg Ross, who is leading the study at St Vincent's Hospital in Melbourne, is effusive.
"We owe Amanda a great deal of gratitude for her advocacy and support. Without it, this type of research may never have been possible."
The Beckley Foundation is also in preliminary discussions with Australian medical researchers about using microdosing to assist in palliative care - a world-first.
"Currently, I'm doing breakthrough research on cognitive decline and how to rescue it, as well as improve mood and pain management, all relevant in palliative care," Feilding says.
Beckley currently has three separate research projects at Brazilian universities investigating LSD's effects on neuroplasticity and neurogenesis at the cellular level and in animals.
A recent US study found that psychedelics promote increased synapse number and function.
While she eschews anecdote in favour of scientific method, Feilding herself shows evidence of benefiting from her extensive psychedelic experience.
"I'm currently working on 15 or so different research projects and somehow I'm on top of them all, I work 15 hours a day, and I lead from the front," she says.
"Funding is the thing I desperately need. I think because I live in a beautiful old house people think, 'oh, she's got all the money she needs', but I can't fund this research alone."
In 2017, psilocybin was declared a "breakthrough therapy" by US and European regulators.
Indications are it could be a legal medicine within three years.
A submission to the ongoing Royal Commission into Victoria's Mental Health System suggested the Australian government could be close behind, with our regulators signalling readiness to accept international results as sufficient to reschedule and regulate psychedelic medicine.
"I'm very pleased a tipping point has been crossed," Feilding says.
"I think it could be an immense benefit to an ageing community for society to know how these compounds work."