What Psychedelics Teach Us About Play Psychedelics, while not magic bullets, hold great magic. One of them is to invoke our ability to play, writes Ross Ellenhorn. By Ross Ellenhorn September 20, 2023

We are in the midst of a new psychedelic renaissance. Drugs like MDMA and psilocybin are being ushered into mainstream medicine, promoted as miracle cures for a host of psychiatric woes. But as psychedelics come to be seen as treatments for various types of psychological suffering, we are overlooking one of their most precious offerings: the potential for play.

“Neuroplasticity” is the word many mental health professionals are now using to describe the positive effect of psychedelics; a process in which the brain sort of loosens up, becoming flexible and open to learning (Childrens brains, for instance, are highly plastic.) Plasticity is why researchers believe psychedelics show promise in helping individuals who are suffering from psychological complaints related to obsessiveness, ruminations, and habitswhat professionals diagnose as depression, anxiety, and addiction. And its one reason psychedelics help people in general, moving them from a sense of repetitiveness in their lives to a more expansive, awakened encounter with the world.

Neuroplasticity primarily focuses on cognition, emphasizing the role of thinking. But thats where the idea of a more flexible brain misses the most interesting and most human element in psychedelics: Experience, not just thinking, has always been the central way psychonauts talk about the effects of these medicines, especially in regard to mystical experiences: When we open the doors of perception, were not just thinking differently, were experiencing differently; encountering the world in a new or altered way through our thoughts, yes, but just as importantly, through our feelings, perceptions, intuition and gut instincts.

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In our increasingly data-driven society, where the measurable and visible aspects of life often receive higher validation and credibility, the significance of subjective experiencethe sentient (experiencing) “you” that interacts with the worldis diminishing. Thats a problem, since you really cant describe a soul or a self without starting with the idea that they are, at base, sites of experience. Things get soulless fast when we define people as merely thinkers.

In this sense, it is no coincidence that prominent researchers who are studying the transformative effects of psychedelics consider mystical experiences as the core therapeutic component of these substances. Neuroplasticity fails to encapsulate this crucial aspect in any shape or form. On the other hand, play, its more profound, engaging, and spiritual cousin, does.

Play has been given too fun a rap in our culture. For children and adults alike, play can obviously involve fun and amusement. But play is so much more than that, and is very serious business.

To understand what I mean by play, imagine a lump of clay in your hand. It exists independently of you. Yet here you are, able to mold it. Thats the first thing to understand about play: Its the act of taking something into your hands or mind and experiencing it as pliable.

Play is most awesome and even magical in its ability to make us see possibility and malleability in things that, unlike wet clay, appear completely inert. Think about a child playing with their toys. These toys are manufactured by others, and thus exist in an external world to the child, and they can be as solid as a wood block. Yet the child playing with them experiences their toys as if they are as compliant, as ready for possibility, as wet mud in their hands. When we adults play with ideas, were doing something very similar, looking at all angles of some theory or concept that may seem like settled law. Thats what places this mindset at the center of psychological change, which depends on our ability to take a more flexible and innovative approach to old narratives about ourselves, and to see possibility in revisions to those stories that often motivate us to alter our lives and change our relationship to our suffering.

In many ways, proponents of psychedelic-induced plasticity seek precisely this qualitya departure from habitual thoughts and behaviors through a more flexible worldview. However, they fall short by limiting their focus to thinking.

Back to the clay: you shape it, forming something entirely unique. Whatever you make from it, this clay will become a creation: something from you that exists independently of you.

Thats the next thing to understand about play: Through it, the invisible landscapes of our inner lives merge with the visible world we all perceive in our own unique ways. When we play, we always play with someone or something: its always a relationship, an encounter between the me of our original, creative impulses and a not-me of a world that goes on without us, as the great psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott called it in his seminal 1971 book Playing and Reality. Play thus acts as an antidote to the isolation and disconnection inherent in psychological sufferingit is inherently collaborative and connective.

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Think, for a moment, about listening to your favorite song. While you may have had nothing to do with the creation of this cherished gift from the land that is not-you, what you gain from listening to it is tremendously dependent on your own unique being: You chose the song, the song means something to you, it reflects your particular taste in music and it might be your favorite because it resonates so powerfully with your own memories and experiences. In fact, its nothing to you without your me.  Its also nothing if it were never written or played by the not-me of musicians. The whole event is a collaboration between the ineffable space of your unique soul and a world made by others; and the end result is a one-of-a-kind encounter.    

Winnicott called the in-betweenness generated in play transitional meaning a sort of experiential space and a particular state of mind you enter when you play, created between (a subjective) you and the (objective) world. Not unlike a psychedelic trip in this way, with its sense of interconnectedness, a loss of a solid ego state, and a deep feeling of being related to everything. The sensation that the partition between here and there has become very thin is constantly with me, wrote Bill W., the founder of AA, about his psychedelic journey, capturing well the here of me, and the there of not me, and a thinning of the barrier between the two.

When youre in this transitional space, you experience what Winnicott called going-on-being: a sense of life coursing through you, your soul stirring, and a self emerging alive here on earth. It is in playing and only in playing, wrote Winnicott. that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self. So heres another important aspect of play: it conjures you to life.

Play also evokes our perception of life within other living beings. As you mold the clay, you perceive it as imbued with vitality. If that sounds a little far out, recall the child playing with her toys: an intrinsic element of her play is her summoning of life to those toys, seeing them as animated.

This, too, is a central element of the psychedelic experiencethe recognition that the world around us is alive, vivid, animated, its vitality extending beyond our individual existence. Remarkable, when you think about ithow play performs two really important tasks that are both central elements of religion (especially early religions) and central themes in psychedelic experiences: stirring souls to a feeling of greater aliveness and animating the world around us.

None of us always vibrantly experiences the relationship between the outer world and our inner life. We sometimes feel lonely, isolated, dislocated and empty inside. These feelings (and lack of feelings) come up when weve not been able to enter into a playful mindset.  Play is always about being in relationship, since play is always an act of playing with something else, whether that be other people and beings, toys, ideas, imagination, words, tools, instruments.

Through play, we also encounter the vitality within the space between ourselves and the external world. While the idea that this middle space has a life of its own seems a little mystical, Ill bet you know the experience of an us that has its own spirit and character. Think of a great night out with friends. Do you think back on one friend making that night great, or do you think about the group, and a sort of unique spirit to that group?  If you chose the latter, that is what Im writing about: a sense of an unseen party to your party, the unique space you formed by relating.

Because we live in ecologies, life is something that flows between us. Play gives us access to this living middle element since its an inherently collaborative and relational activity.  As do psychedelic experiences, by the way.

Psychedelics are not magic bullets, but they do hold great magic. In the religious realm, they are the substances people have been taking for centuries as a way to reach the divine, and the encounters people experience today with deities cant be swept under the rug as mere drug-induced states. Psychedelics also offer access to deep secular magic: a conjuring of life in ones being and in others, an alertness to the strange and beautiful novelty of the world around us, an experiencing of ones connection to this world, and the ability to take what seems solid within us and mold it like clay.

In other words, to do the thing we are already equipped to do, since it is the most human thing to do: play.