Cover art created using OpenAI’s DALL-E image generator*

This is a portion of a interview transcript that IPN’s Blog Coordinator, Luke Johnson, did with PsychedelX Co-Founder, Haley Dourron, for her forthcoming podcast, Furthure.
It has been edited for length and clarity.

Luke Johnson: How did you find your way along the psychedelic science path?

Haley Dourron:

Yeah, so I actually got interested in it in my senior year of high school back in 2016. And I was always a person who loved science. I, for a period of time, wanted to go into microbiology and I don’t know, develop antibiotics or something. I was a weird high schooler, I tell you. But there was a part of me that was also very interested in more psychological and philosophical concepts and there’s always been sort of that dichotomy I suppose. 

I remember in my biology class, for some reason, I finished early – the work we had to do – and my teacher just gave me an issue of Scientific American and was like, “Oh, there’s an interesting article in here about the brain and psychedelics. You might find this interesting,” or something like that. And it was describing the research that they were doing with LSD and the DMN [Default Mode Network] and it being the ego and whatnot— you know, quite dated now in a lot of ways— but I was just like, woah, what is this? What are these things people are studying? And I got quite excited and I actually did my senior high school project about the “Psychedelic Renaissance.” So I was quite inspired and I had planned to major in biology and then ended up switching to psychology and just being like, “I need to understand how the brain and the mind are producing such strange experiences for people.”

Luke:

That’s very cool. It’s funny that it was a teacher who you had that actually spurred the interest. That’s cool. You mentioned the DMN, so the default mode network, and I’ve been reading a lot recently to prepare for my PsychedelX talk about the REBUS [Relaxed Beliefs Under Psychedelics] model and, you know, all these sorts of grand theories of how psychedelics work.

What is your take on REBUS and I guess the state of research on psychedelics’ effect on the default mode network or other sort of grand theories of psychedelic action. What do you think is important or where do you think the progress is heading in that realm of big picture stuff?

Haley: 

It’s interesting because I feel like I got tugged into this field by reading the theories. I really loved that angle and I spent years writing my own very dense, hard to decipher, I’m not even sure what it means half the time, research theory, Self-Entropic Broadening model

The interesting thing about all of that is I think that theories are helpful for inspiring questions and consolidating the existing data out there into something [so that] maybe we can begin to see what all the little pieces are leading to, I suppose. But, I will say that the early theories (not really so early, like 10 to 5 years ago)…there’s getting to be a lot more data now. So, you kind of build a theory, and as time goes on and more data is collected maybe that initial theory falls away. 

I know that with my own work with psychosis and psychedelics, what’s been especially exciting to me in a lot of ways is doing this qualitative interview study with people who have psychosis and then use a psychedelic (and also doing a survey study in a similar population of people with psychotic disorders who use a psychedelic), I’ve seen very interesting effects and experiences. Were they what my theory predicted would happen? Not necessarily, but that’s almost more exciting to me. 

As far as some of the ideas with the DMN being the ego and whatnot, I think that inspired quite a lot of people to get into the field, including me, and to really see the potential that psychedelics have to teach us more about consciousness. But there are also issues with that study and with other studies and very small sample sizes in psychedelics. So that’s a huge issue.

But the interesting thing is that despite there being some people saying, “Oh, why are we focusing on resting state” and “the DMN is not the center of psychedelic effects, therefore it’s not important, blah, blah, blah,” you know, it might still be important. It’s just– we might not have looked at all the possible angles that it could be explored with. You know, it is an important network in a variety of mental health conditions. Theories like REBUS and Thalamic gating, all of these ideas, they’re interesting and if you can pull out an experiment from those theories, even if it ends up not supporting the theory, you learn something from that experiment. It’s still valuable. So I think that there is value to these theories, even if they are sort of messy at the moment. I think as we go on, as long as we have our priors not too heavily weighted, we will be able to develop better models. 

Luke:

Yeah, that’s a fair take. You mentioned your interest in psychedelics and psychosis, and I know this has been a key area of your research.

I saw that fairly recently you were a co-author on a paper titled Longitudinal Associations Between Psychedelic Use and Psychotic Symptoms in the United States and the United Kingdom, and correct me if I’m wrong, but this was pretty big, insofar as the approach that was taken, right? It was kind of the first [study] of its kind in doing a large-scale assessment of this. Is that the case?

Haley:

So what I really like about that study…and I did not design it, I just sort of helped with figuring out a potential mechanism. Otto Simonson really designed it. But basically [this is] what we did with that study: all the people were recruited via Amazon MTurk, so it was a very, generally representative sample of people. There were multiple time points and we weren’t targeting psychedelic users specifically, so the portion of people who used psychedelics within that time span was relatively small. It’s not like we were just getting all the people going on r/LSD on Reddit writing a bunch of silliness. So that was kind of nice. 

Within that study we found that there was an interaction such that those with a personal history of psychotic disorders who used psychedelics had a reduction in psychotic symptoms at the second time point if they had used psychedelics. So that was quite interesting and is also sort of consistent with another survey that I will have coming out soon, I hope, and the qualitative research. It’s fascinating to me because I’ve thought about [how] in the survey study [that] I’m hoping to have come out soon that we found a reduction in hallucinations, and it’s like, how is that happening? I mean, maybe it’s an artifact. It could well be an artifact, but it’s certainly interesting to think about mechanistically what could be going on. 

But I will say another thing that this recent research has been maybe pointing to is that it seems like people with a history of bipolar disorder (or a high genetic predisposition to bipolar disorder) are more likely to experience manic or maybe even psychotic symptoms after using psychedelics. So that makes me wonder, you hear these instances of people developing psychosis after using psychedelics and I’m wondering maybe that’s what’s called an effective switching type mechanism. So if somebody’s given SSRIs and they have bipolar disorder, what can happen is instead of becoming depressed, they’ll suddenly go into a manic mode, and mania can include psychotic features. So, there’s a lot of complexity there. I don’t think anybody quite knows what’s going on, but the nuance that we’re finding certainly suggests that whatever is going on is more complicated than what common advice probably suggests.

Luke: Yeah, there are more questions than answers raised. 

Haley:

Yeah and I think that’s exciting, you know, because you can design any study with this population and you’re guaranteed to find something new, almost it seems.

Luke:

So I know that you’ve had an interest in science communication for a while. It’s part of the reason why you started this podcast. And I recently went on your Twitter X account in preparation for this. You’ve always been pretty active there and it’s fun to follow along and see what you have to say.

You recently tweeted, “Can you be a serious scientist and serious science communicator at the same time? Someone told me these are incompatible and that’s I hope not how the world works.”
Do you have anything to add to that point?

Haley: 

Yeah, so I was told that by somebody. But when I was saying, “I love doing research”, I don’t like doing research to such an extent that I’m just writing a paper in a silo or writing a grant and I’m not seeing how people are responding to this work. It’s interesting stuff and I want to be able to communicate that and I suppose there’s a part of me– I don’t want to just say it’s about my interest or whatever– but for me the wanting to be creative as well aspect of it, I feel like that’s kind of a better vehicle for that in some ways: science communication. So, yeah, that was what that was about. 

But I think there’s this idea that you’re either, I don’t know, Carl Sagan writing a bunch of books and TV shows or [Andrew] Huberman running a podcast, not really doing real research or something, or I guess maybe he does do some research, I don’t know. But there’s this idea that you can’t do both. And I, maybe that’s true, and I will subject myself to being a guinea pig of sorts and seeing what happens because I am going to try to do both. And people can try to stop me and that’s fine. I was told I remember in undergrad that I would never be able to do psychedelic research because “that’s not a real thing,” “that’s not a real career goal.” So, you know, we’ll see. We’ll see.

Luke:

Yeah. Haley Duorron, defying all odds, defying all stereotypes. I love it.

So, if I understand correctly, your interest in science communication is also a big part of what led you to starting the PsychedelX programming for IPN, three or four years ago. So tell me about what led you to coming up with the idea of PsychedelX.

Haley: 

So there are several things. I would say the first part of it was looking back at the experiences that I felt were really helpful for getting me to the point where I was able to start a PhD program in psychedelics right after undergrad. And for me, that was my experience of being a director of education for a psychedelic society in Atlanta, PsyAtlanta. I was putting on monthly talks for a good year and a half on all these different topics and really digging into the literature and also more public consumption, I suppose – articles about psychedelics. And creating these talks and being able to teach people about it, also while formulating some novel connections that later became papers. Both Self-Entropic Broadening Theory and the Toad paper (the 5-MeO paper) were initially thought of in that air.

So I found that [to be a] really valuable experience, but I was aware that a lot of other people didn’t have a platform where they would want to go talk about psychedelics. And maybe somebody could start their own YouTube channel or something like that, but that’s not quite the same thing as having a community of people be able to support you in refining those ideas and whatnot. So that aspect of it was inspired by my experience in what’s called a Supplemental Instructor Program that they had at Georgia State, where they were teaching us how to critique people’s teaching styles, while we were also developing lesson plans, and how to communicate information effectively. So I wanted that element of it too. 

So bringing together those two experiences, and then finally another thing that I think really led to the start of PsychedelX was just that there were these ideas out there like REBUS and whatnot that I felt were very dominating discussions. And it’s like, certainly people have other ideas too, let’s make space for those ideas to start to be developed. Let’s encourage people to be bold and to just go for it. Because I think that’s a huge part of science, is just going for things. Even if [you’re] wrong, you’ve got to start somewhere. You’ve got to toss those ideas out. So wanting people to do that and formulate a community that was conducive to that as well. 

Luke:

So creating a space and opportunity for people to share not just ideas, but hopefully new and unorthodox ideas related to psychedelics. I remember, the first PsychedelX we were kind of just figuring things out as we went and you had a number of different workshops. One of them I think you still have done each year, at least did it this year for the programming.

What was it like for you to prepare these workshops and the programming of psychedelics? Where did that come from? Was that from prior experience that you had with PsyAtlanta?

Haley: 

No, it was interesting… The first year that I was putting all this stuff together, it was quite chaotic. And I was just like, if I want to teach people to share their unorthodox ideas and to communicate effectively, how do I do that? 

And then I just started watching YouTube videos about how to do public speaking, and thinking of what I’ve done to do public speaking. Thinking of what would make talks stand out, and watching people who I thought were excellent speakers and just taking notes on what they were doing. Doing everything from screenshotting their slides and dissecting what the aesthetics of their slides were, and how they were speaking, and all of this. Jjust trying to package that for people. And through doing that, I learned quite a bit about speaking myself. I think that creating those workshops has enabled me to get better at doing talks as well, or at least I hope so, maybe not. Maybe I’ve gotten progressively worse and I’m just not aware of it. 

But yeah, it was a lot of fun. And I’ve seen a lot of people use PsychedelX as a launching pad for bigger things. Like Uma [Chatterjee] comes to mind with her work on OCD and PTSD and people’s potential response to MDMA-assisted psychotherapy.

Luke:

It seems like your hopes and dreams for PsychedelX have definitely come to fruition and it’s really neat to have seen that. I’m curious, obviously PsychedelX is in its fourth year now and it’s kind of like, you let your baby grow up.

Do you still talk with the people who organize it? What is your connection with PsychedelX at this point?

Haley 

It’s interesting because I feel like one of the better networks of people I have, for just learning more about weird things that people are researching in the psychedelic space, is through people who’ve been in PsychedelX or have been involved with the program. Different people are running it [now] and maybe I’ll do a workshop here or there. But this podcast Furthure may be a PsychedelX 2.0, but with me leading it, I guess. I’m going to draw back on those people and I’m going to invite them to be guests in the podcast, and maybe I have some plans for Furthure that are a little bit broader than just the podcast. But those are yet to– that will unfold in time. So, we will see.

Luke:

I’ll end it by asking you about what I think is one of your most interesting areas of research, which was the deliriant research paper, A Qualitative Analysis of First-Hand Accounts of Diphenhydramine Misuse Available on YouTube. Tell us about that study.

Haley: 

Yes! Thank you!

So this is how you know I’m a real public health researcher [reference to a cut part of the interview]. I go on YouTube and I analyze videos. No, but seriously. 

So I became aware of people doing high doses of diphenhydramine or Benadryl in college because there was somebody in my dorm who did it and they were hiding in a closet. And I was like, what is going on here? I noticed that there was like no research on diphenhydramine. When I initially started writing this paper, it was right around the time of the so-called Benadryl challenge, when people were taking high doses of Benadryl because they were bored and filming themselves on TikTok.

Luke: I did not know that. I didn’t know– that was like a weird COVID phase thing?

Haley: 

Yeah, yeah, it was a very brief phase, but I was like, oh, this is legit. And a few people ended up in a hospital, and I think there were a few deaths because of it actually. But anyway, I was like, okay, I’m actually gonna write about this. And how can I study something that we don’t know much about at all? I’m like, okay, there’s a lot of publicly available information on YouTube that is very phenomenologically rich – people just ranting about their experiences for like for 20 minutes. So I analyzed that and it was also interesting because I was also learning at the same time what are the sources of information that people are accessing about doing this drug.

So yeah, people reported seeing things such as hat man. That was a common thing. We also characterized something that we call a pseudo person. So people would report interacting with people that they were familiar with, like their parents or friends or whatever, and then they would just disappear. And they wouldn’t be searching (later, coming down) as to if it was a real or imagined event, these interactions with pseudo people. So, very different than entities on DMT or something like that. And people described having auditory hallucinations – hearing, like, a fan and thinking that there was rock music playing from it. Having a very dysphoric time in general too, which is strange for a drug that some people for whatever reason decide to repeatedly do.

So yeah, it was very bizarre. I don’t think many people have paid attention to that paper, but it’s very intriguing to me because the scope of weirdness that is produced by people taking an allergy medication, it’s just bizarre. So, I also think it kind of mimics psychosis, maybe, in some ways that are even more pronounced than what you would get from psychedelics.

Luke:

Yeah, I don’t know if you remember this, but you had a lot of people volunteer to transcribe some of [those videos] and I watched like two or three 20-minute videos by this same random guy who had made a few of these videos. And I just remember being so mind boggled by how bizarre– and how much of the epitome of a bad trip that his experiences were. I don’t understand why he kept doing it though.

Did you get any inkling of understanding why people who’ve done [diphenhydramine] multiple times choose to do that?

Haley 

Hahaha. Oh man, this is like– I want to have on [my] podcast at some point somebody who’s done diphenhydramine repeatedly to ask them. Like I’m serious. Once this is posted, please contact me about this. But from my understanding of the videos I watched where people were doing it repeatedly, it seemed to be motivated in part by a desire to have a very strange experience. So people found that interesting.

Luke: Yeah, like boredom almost, just people being bored.

Haley 

Uh huh. But what weirded me out especially is when there were people who had access to more fun drugs, like even cannabis, or you know, maybe they even knew about dextromethorphan or DXM, and they would choose to do diphenhydramine… repeatedly. So I don’t understand. 

If you do DPH [diphenhydramine] and you want to tell me why you keep doing it, please contact me.

Luke: Do we understand the pharmacology of it? Why it occasions these crazy experiences?

Haley 

So my understanding of it, which I would have to go back and read more about it, is it somehow is becoming anticholinergic when you’re taking a very high dose. So it’s producing effects that are similar to what you would get from something like atropine, scopolamine, plants like datura. 

Luke 

Yeah, very strange pharmacology…

Cool, well thanks for letting me ask all these different questions and hear your takes and hear about your research. 

Haley 

Yeah, great talking to you.

 

To listen to the full interview, stay tuned for the launch of the Furthure Podcast by Haley Dourron by following her on X: https://twitter.com/HDourron 

If you’re interested in writing for this blog, email Luke Johnson at lhjohnson1999[at]gmail.com.

*Cover image initial prompt: “Design a landscape banner art for the publication of a blog post that is a partial transcript from a podcast interview about psychedelics. I want there to be a very colorful, painted, almost starry night sort of feel to the image, however I want the colors to be mostly purple, pink and red. The image should depict two people sitting across from each other on opposite sides of the image speaking into podcast microphones with headphones on. Use the two attached images as inspiration for how the two individuals are depicted, one is male, the other is female.”

About The Author

Haley Dourron in Black and White

Haley Dourron, PhDc

Haley is a Ph.D. candidate in the Drug Use and Behavior Lab at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her research focuses on the neurophenomenological effects of psychedelics and their potential for inducing lasting behavioral changes. Haley pioneered the creation of IPN’s PsychedelX program in 2020 and 2021 along with the rest of IPN’s Research and Professional Development Team (now called IPN Labs). Currently, she is working on a pioneering psilocybin-assisted therapy trial for cocaine dependence. Haley’s work also delves into the parallels between psychedelic-induced states and psychosis. Explore her research publications here: Haley Maria Dourron – Google Scholar

Follow Haley on X

More IPN Blogs

The Story of My Psychedelic Book Collection

Cover art from created using DALL-E 2 (prompt: Psychedelic Library Inception) and Canva, by author In the corner of the dark, cold storage room of my family’s basement, a collection of fascinating books awaits. Broadly about altered states of consciousness, but mostly...

read more

What is IT?

Cover art from @carlosthechemist  Psychedelics Psychedelics allow us to move away from this three-dimensional world – a place where we usually only believe what our five senses can perceive, where time plays out in chronological order, where our logical minds usually...

read more