Interview with Daniel R. George

The next few months we’ll be highlighting authors who have published in Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry.

Daniel R. George is an Associate Professor of Humanities & Public Health Sciences at Penn State College of Medicine.

He earned his Ph.D and M.Sc in medical anthropology from Oxford University. He is co-author of The Myth of Alzheimer’s (St. Martin’s Press, 2008) and American Dementia (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021). 

What is your articleAncient Roots of Today’s Emerging Renaissance in Psychedelic Medicineabout?

We use a historical lens to examine the use of psychedelic therapies over time, translate ancient lessons to contemporary clinical and research practice, and interrogate the practical and ethical questions researchers must grapple with before they can enter mainstream medicine. Given the COVID-19 pandemic and its contributions to the global mental health burden, we also reflect on how psychedelic therapy might serve as a tool for medicine in the aftermath of collective trauma. Ultimately, it is argued that a “psychedelic renaissance” anchored in the lessons of antiquity can potentially help shift healthcare systems—and perhaps the broader society—towards practices that are more humane, attentive to underlying causes of distress, and supportive of human flourishing.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your research interests. 

My main area of research is dementia and Alzheimer’s disease with a focus on supporting quality of life and using arts-based approaches in long-term care settings. More recently, I have grown interested in the Deaths of Despair crisis that is, in part, lowering life expectancy in the US. I am concerned about the mental health issues in this country, and that has helped lead me to be more open-minded about how psychedelics might have a role in caring for people who are in pain. I have also been thinking recently about how psychedelic approaches—perhaps microdosing—might potentially be useful in long-term care settings, especially given the lack of anti-dementia drugs. I am also broadly interested in public and community health and have helped start a farmers’ market and community garden on our hospital campus.   

What drew you to this project? 

The Deaths of Despair crisis and the magnitude of mental health challenges we face has been a main path into psychedelics research. In this paper, we ask whether we can learn anything in our current therapeutic milieu by studying and appreciating how human beings have used psychedelics for millennia.  

What was one of the most interesting findings?

The preliminary data showing the effectiveness of psychedelics and guided therapy in, for instance, treating depression, death-related anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders, and other conditions is quite striking. Much more needs to be investigated, but there is something here worth exploring, scrutinizing, and pursuing.

What are you reading, listening to, and/or watching right now?

I just started The Brothers Karamazov. Have also recently been reading random passages from the Bhagavad Gita. 

If there was one takeaway or action point you hope people will get from your work, what would it be? Not to reject psychedelics out of hand and to try to separate these compounds from the culture war discourse that has shaped our perceptions of them since the 1960s. We need to burst out of that paradigm and think imaginatively, empathetically, and, of course, scientifically, especially given the scope of mental health challenges we face. 

Thank you for your time!

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