No, it's not the same. Photo: Ken Piorkowski / Flickr
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Study shows people prefer pain to their own thoughts – except it doesn’t

"A few bored students gave themselves an unpleasant tingle, but most preferred to sit around instead." Snappy or what?

Take a few dozen students, stick them alone in empty rooms and ask them to do nothing for fifteen minutes. Wait! First connect up electrodes to their ankles and give them the power to zap themselves when bored. This is what researchers in America did, in a study that’s been widely reported – because zap themselves those students did. It looks, on first glance, like proof that people would prefer anything – even pain – to boredom.

Writing in the journal Science, the authors concluded:

What is striking is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid."

Sounds bad, right? Students were so bored by their thoughts they decided to electrocute themselves, with a shock so painful they’d previously said they’d actually pay money (money!) not to receive it. They couldn’t even last 15 minutes with inside their own head. It makes for a bleak conclusion – except, it’s not really true. Let’s take a look at what actually happened.

The experiment had two stages. Firstly, the 42 students rated a series of external stimuli from one to nine on how pleasant they were. These ranged from gentle guitar music and a photo of a river scene to a cockroach picture and a mild electric shock. In Part 2, they were told to sit alone in a room and entertain themselves with their thoughts as best they could. They weren’t allowed to fall asleep or leave the chair, but they had the option of experiencing one of the previously-given stimuli.

Over the next 15 minutes, 18 of the 42 students gave themselves at least one shock. The psychologists from Harvard and the University of Virginia didn’t publish any data on how the electric shock – or any of the other stimuli – fared on the ‘pleasant’ scale in Part 1.

Let’s make this clear. 58 percent of the students did not press the button. And even of the ones who did, they didn’t do it often – excluding the one outlier who managed to squeeze in 190 shocks within the quarter-of-an-hour. The average number of shocks was 1.5 for men and just 1 for women.  

In addition, the intensity of the shock was pretty weak: 4 milliamperes (mA) for men and 2.3mA for women. Participants were told the shock is designed to be “unpleasant but not painful”. This chart shows from the Centre of Disease Control and Prevention gives a bit of perspective:

Lodged somewhere between a "faint tingle" and a "slight shock", you can see it's a bit of a stretch to claim painful electrocutions. And as for saying that the volunteers would pay to avoid that pain, exaggeration again. After the participants had experienced the shock, researchers asked how much of an imaginary $5 they’d spend to not receive the shock, to which most people answered about a dollar. The pain was valued at a meagre 58p.

So what does this all mean if you're locked in an empty room with just a zapper for entertainment? If we're going to extrapolate generic conclusions from a really small study, let's at least stick to the results. Chances are, you're not going to shock yourself. And if you did, once would be quite enough. Not because you're scared of your thoughts or you're unhappy in your own company, but because when you've got nothing else to do that big button screaming 'shock me' is just too tantalising to resist - and when is anyone ever in a situation like this in real life? If anything, it's a surprise so few people did actually press it. 

The whole thing might seem like a huge non-issue, but in fairness to the researchers there's a lot of interesting stuff going on here. For instance, take a look at the gender aspect: two thirds of the men shocked themselves but just a quarter of the women did – despite being subject to a weaker current. It's certainly worth further investigation. But don't be fooled by the attention-snatching headlines.

Robert Funke
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“I am happy to be proved wrong”: Amanda Feilding on drugs, trepanning, and the benefits of LSD

For the first time, scientists are investigating the effects of drugs on the brain. Meet the woman leading the charge to bring evidence into drugs policy. 

In December 2002, a backbench Conservative MP stood up in the Commons and argued for a more compassionate approach to drugs, based on treatment rather than punishment. He ended with a plea: “I ask the Government not to return to retribution and war on drugs. That has been tried, and we all know that it does not work.”

That MP was David Cameron, who, since becoming leader of the Conservative Party, and then later prime minister, seems to have U-turned on the issue. In October 2014, he refused to carry out a drug policy review despite pressure from the pro-drug reform Liberal Democrats. Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister at the time, said that he begged Conservative politicians both “privately and publicly” to “pluck up the coverage to face up to the evidence…if you are anti-drugs you should be pro-reform”.

Cameron retorted: “The evidence is what we’re doing is working. I don’t believe in decriminalising drugs.” The current Conservative government has since introduced the Psychoactive Substances (or "legal highs") Bill, to further restrict drug use with legislation.

“The poor Home Secretary [Theresa May] is behaving so ridiculously with her new bill,” Amanda Feilding, the 73-year-old Countess of Wemyss tells me, over tea at the headquarters of her drug research body, the Beckley Foundation. “It won’t work, it will cause a lot of suffering and spoil lives. David Cameron should know better.” 

Cameron's story shows that the political route to drug reform is beset with obstacles, which is perhaps why Feilding’s greatest successes after a life spent fighting the stigma around drugs have been in science, not politics. “For the first years I concentrated on the drug policy, because without changing drug policy you can’t change the science.” 

And it's paid off. In the past several months, the Beckley Foundation, founded in 1998 and based on Feilding's estate at Beckley Park, Oxfordshire, has released two groundbreaking studies into the effects of drugs on the body. “Two weeks ago, we released the results of the first imaging study on the brain on LSD,” Feilding explains. “On Monday we’re launching the first study ever to use psilocybin [the active ingredient in magic mushrooms] for depression.”

Both studies are unprecedented, partly because of the obstacles to obtaining approval for any experiments involving illegal drugs. The UK government classifies both LSD and psilocybin as having “no recognised medicinal or legitimate uses beyond potential research use”, and even for research, you need a special £5,000 license from the Home Office to use them at all. 

This explains the giddy excitement in the air at the launch of the LSD brain imaging study at the Royal Society weeks before we meet at Beckley. Feilding sits alongside David Nutt, the former government drugs adviser who was sacked after Alan Johnson, home secretary at the time, accused him of “campaigning against government policy”. (Two other members of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs stepped down in disgust, and the three then set up the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs.

This piece of research was crowdfunded through a campaign which initially asked for £25,000, but ended up raising over £50,000. As multicoloured scans of the brain on LSD flicker behind him, Nutt tries to explain just how momentous this day is, and how glad he is that the barriers to this kind of research are beginning to break down. “I’m getting old,” he says, as Feilding nods. “I want to open the door for the next generation.” 

Feilding presents a Beckley report on drug reform on at the Presidential Palace in Guatemala. Image: Courtesy of the Beckley Foundation.

The psilocybin study, launched a month later, could be even more groundbreaking. Twelve volunteers with medication-resistant depression were given two doses of psilocybin a week apart. The drug lifted depression in all the volunteers for three weeks, and in five of them for three months. 

Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, the lead researcher on both this and the LSD study, has pointed out the study’s limitations – it did not involve a placebo, for one. But he adds that “new treatments are urgently needed” in this field, and the study shows, if nothing else, that this is a “promising area of future research” – indeed, if its results could be replicated on a larger scale, it could be the most effective treatment ever found for serious depression. Feilding compares the effects of psychadelics to spoken, therapy, as opposed to existing anti-depressants: “What is so good about this psychadelic-assisted therapy is that it seems to reach a much deeper level of the self awareness in a relatively quick period of time.” 

The theory behind both of these studies, which is yet to be fully proven, is that many mental illnesses come from an overly-rigid “default mode network”, or pattern of activity in the brain. As our brain matures, its functions harden into repetitive patterns, which are necessary for us to live our lives, but can also be repressive and over-efficient. Feilding believes that drugs like LSD “loosen” the network, and that these effects can outlast the drug in your system. These treatments could be a chemical form of cognitive behavioural therapy, which relies on the same idea: that damaging thought patterns could be overriden, and mental illnesses thus conquered. 

“There’s been a kind of big breakthrough in the acceptability of... these psychadelics to be classified as the amazing tools they are for healing some of our most intractable diseases, like OCD and depression,” Feilding tells me now. Seen against the backdrop of our political landscape, the medical route to drug policy change looks extremely clever, as it focuses on scientific progress and medicine, rather than liberal social values. It is, it seems, far less palatable to stand in the way of science than to condemn drug users as criminals. 

 

***

 

Feilding first rose to notoriety as a pro-trepanning activist and artist, who performed the operation on herself, and filmed, it, in 1970. She was 27 at the time, and a piece in the New Yorker on the film described her as a “young Englishwoman of fetching looks and formidable family”, who, in the film, “cut off her fringe and applied the drill”.

By then, she had already studied art and eastern religions, after leaving formal education at the age of 16. At Beckley, she gestures out of the window at the lush grounds: “I grew up here, which is a very isolated environment – nothing much to do except mooch around and think about the self. So I had a passionate interest in the mystics from a very early age.” She describes herself as “self-educated, with no letters after my name”. However, her family, as the New Yorker noted, is indeed formidable: her father, Basil Feilding, and mother, Margaret Feilding, were both descended from the Habsburgs as well as two illegitimate children of Charles II. 

In the 1960s, she also discovered psychedelics (which were then legal), and found them to be “an amazing tool with which one could enhance one’s life”. Since then, her focus has strayed from trepanning, though she would one day like to return to it: “I long to have time to put together some really good research on it,” she says. I ask what effects it had on her, and she responds with a scientist’s scepticism: “It’s very difficult to be sure. I think I observed a relaxing. At the time, I put it as being like the tide coming in, a lifting and relaxing.”

She shows me a human skull on her sideboard: a gift from a friend, she says. It is peppered with six marble-sized holes.“He was an Irish nobleman thousands of years ago,” she tells me with hushed excitement. "He was certainly trepanned, but one really doesn’t know why he did it so many times!”

Both Amanda’s long-term partners, Joseph Mellen, with whom she has two children, and her current husband, James Charteris, 13th Earl of Wemyss, have also undergone the operation. “In both I’ve noticed a change, though very subtle. My husband had chronic headaches from childhood upwards, and would lose a day a week to it. After trepanation, he’s never had a headache.

“All the historical explanations for trepanning about ‘letting the devils out’ and so on were obviously inaccurate, but I would suggest we’ve thrown away the baby with the bathwater there.”

 

*** 

 

Since moving her focus from art and trepanning to scientific research, Feilding has benefited from a slowly changing approach to drugs. She has found a strong ally in David Nutt, who has long campaigned for a more evidence-based approach. Meanwhile, Johann Hari’s book Chasing the Scream, published January 2015, shows the tangled politics of drugs policy all over the world, and piles up evidence that global drugs policy is not designed to reduce drug death and addiction. Since Alan Johnson's sacking of David Nutt, the atmosphere has changed even in parliament itself: during a debate on the Psychoactive Substances Bill, Conservative MP Crispin Blunt said he had used poppers himself, and called the bill “fantastically stupid”. In recent years, MPs like the Conservative Charles Walker and Labour’s Kevan Jones have even talked openly in the House of Commons about their own mental health problems.

Last week, the Royal Society for Public Health released its strongest statement yet on drug policy, in the form of a report that argued drug use should be viewed as an issue of public health, not a criminal matter. Moreoever, it suggests that the policies around illegal drugs should be merged with alcohol and tobacco policy, not least because “alcohol and tobacco cause far greater harm to health and wellbeing than many of their illegal counterparts”.

Statements of this kind would have been unthinkable two decades ago, and it may be that Feilding has had something to do with the changing landscape. When the Beckley Foundation was first set up in 1998, Feilding began inviting key figures to “carefully designed seminars at the House of Lords”. “It was Chatham House rules, as the whole subject was completely taboo,” she explains. She claims that the head of Russian drug policy, neuroscientists, and European police chiefs all attended these seminars. “A lot of those people have become key players now.” Since then, she has continued to advise political leaders worldwide on drug policy. 

Feilding as a young woman. Image: courtesy of the Beckley Foundation.

The Royal Society for Public Health report also notes that “most UK adults use psychoactive drugs”, whether they be alcohol, cocaine, or prescribed by a doctor. As such, psychoactive substances are embedded in human experience, as they have been for thousands of years. Almost all societies have well-recorded use of drugs as social practice, whether that be Ayahuasca, khat, or Bacardi breezers. Feilding points out that yoga, meditation and fasting are all a form of consciousness-altering high: “I don’t think Christ was against this practice. Fasting gets you high. I would imagine, probably, Christ would come from a background of mystical use of altered states of substances.” 

The Beckley Foundation is now building on its bedrock of successful studies, often working from the instincts of Feilding and other scientists about the possible benefits of certain compounds. “I used to be rather a good Go player, and in the 1960s when it was all legal, I won more games of Go if I was on LSD. I’m a good pattern recogniser.” The sheer lack of scientists working in this field, however, means that a lack of testable hypotheses isn't really an issue. “It’s like an orchard rich with fruit which no one’s been gathering,” she says with a smile, “So the fruit is just there, waiting to be picked.”

So is she suggesting that we all have unfettered access to all drugs, all the time? No – unless the evidence suggests that this would reduce their harm. Much of Feilding’s work is about establishing a more evidence-based scale for measuring the positive and negative effects of drugs, and through this research she has concluded that the western world's decision to lump for alcohol and tobacco as our legal, accepted drugs of choice was an unfortunate one. “We made the wrong choice. The sad thing is, alcohol has many good qualities, but it kills millions of people worldwide. Cannabis does not kill people, even from an overdose. One would never pass alcohol now as a legal drug. It would be seen as too toxic – whereas psychadelics are not toxic, at least pscilocybin and LSD aren’t.”

Feilding’s core message and life’s work, despite its trappings in history, science and art, is simple: the fact that we know so little about these compounds is wrong-headed, even dangerous. She wants the evidence base to be established – even if it contradicts her instincts about the benefits of psychadelics in particular. Beckley-partnered research into LSD’s effects has actually shown it reduces blood flow to the brain, contrary to what Feilding hypothesised about increased blood flow and freer thought. For now, she guesses that this may be because patients were lying in CAT scanners, and had nothing to do or think about.

“But who knows? I am very, very happy to be proved wrong,” she says. “I am happy whatever way it goes. What I want to do is know.

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.