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Mushrooms used to be the territory of hippies, explorers, indigenous people and artists. Now tech bros and wellness gurus have taken over

On a June evening in 1955, an investment banker and amateur mycologist named Robert Gordon Wasson found himself in an adobe house high in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico, encountering the divine. That night, Wasson, his wife, the photographer Allan Richardson and about 20 local indigenous people took part in a Mazatec ritual involving psilocybe mexicana, a species of hallucinogenic mushroom. As Wasson recounted in Seeking the Magic Mushroom, his 1957 Lifemagazine photoessay: We chewed and swallowed these acrid mushrooms, saw visions, and emerged from the experience awestruck.

In the first episode of The Goop Lab, a new Netflix docuseries tied to actor Gwyneth Paltrows lifestyle and e-commerce enterprise, several of Paltrows employees fly to a Jamaican resort, in search of some modern analogue to Wassons psychedelic ceremony.

The volunteers for Goops psilocybin ritual a hodgepodge of hand-me-down indigenous liturgy, weekend-long Pilates retreat, and hollow self-help blather are all described as being deeply successful people. Gone are Wassons visions of the archetypes, the platonic ideas, that underlie the imperfect images of everyday life. In their place: the clinking of coffee mugs filled with mushroom tea; giggling and group-hugging on yoga mats; tearful sobbing by participants listening to music through wireless Apple AirPods; and people sinking into Patagonia vests repurposed as makeshift pillows.

Back in the Goop headquarters (or lab), Paltrow speaks of psilocybin as the newest, hottest healing modality. Mushrooms, as one researcher tells the Gooper-in-Chief, are back.

And in their current iteration, theyre also totally uncool.

For most people, psychedelic drugs like psilocybin and LSD are singularly associated with the 1960s American youth culture. The English psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond coined the term psychedelic meaning, roughly, mind-manifesting in 1956 to describe the effects of hallucinogenic drugs taken in a clinical context. The word, for Osmond, was clear, euphonious and uncontaminated by other associations.

But the history of psychedelics and psychedelia (that is, the culture that has coalesced around the drugs and their usage) can itself feel somewhat contaminated by certain associations. Even the phrase psychedelic 60s slips so naturally off the tongue, encouraged as much by the pleasing (euphonious, even) sibilance as the cliches conjured in the collective memory: San Francisco, Sgt Pepper, Woodstock, tie-dye, and Timothy Leary urging youngsters to turn on, tune in, and drop out. Beyond these more obvious, ready-made cultural signifiers, psychedelics helped catalyze the 80s British rave scene, facilitate Bob Dylans more introspective lyrical turn, and helped Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis throw a legendary no-hitter.

Whether these things are at all fascinating or cool is, perhaps, a matter of taste dependent on ones tolerance for kaleidoscopic tapestries, all-night dance parties, woolly talk about self-transcendence, and freeform electric guitar jamming. But the so-called psychedelic renaissance that Goop seized upon feels like part of a larger, concerted attempt, to break free of these associations. Its part reset, part rebranding effort.

Recently, Canadian businessman and TV personality Kevin OLeary (the no-nonsense Mr Wonderful from ABCs entrepreneurial cavalcade Shark Tank) announced that he had invested in a neuro-pharmaceutical company dedicated to exploring the clinical benefits of psychedelics in treating addiction. Like Paltrow, who waxes on the potential of psychedelics in a process she calls the optimization of self, OLeary an investor who has spoken to the role Ayn Rands Atlas Shruggedplayed in shaping his business acumen doesnt exactly seem like an avatar of free love, mind-expansion, and other platitudes of the psychedelic sixties. And thats precisely the point. If we are now expected to take psychedelics seriously, they must appear, well, serious.

Parsing Goops sundry claims to pseudoscience and utter quackery feels like low hanging fruit. (Paltrows company had to pay damages in 2018 after a court ruled that the benefits of a $66 jade egg, advertised on the Goop website for its role in supporting vaginal health, were unsupported by competent and reliable scientific evidence.) In the case of magic mushrooms, however, the science seems solid. Researchers at NYU, Londons Imperial College, and Johns Hopkins University, have produced reams of reputable evidence pointing to psilocybins role in easing depression, PTSD, anxiety, and even addiction.

Such research marks a resurgence of these substances in a clinical context a resurgence arguably unseen since the 60s cocktail of hedonistic recreational excess and resulting social panic stripped psychedelics of any lingering reputability. If the current surge of serious interest in psychedelics is, in any meaningful way, a renaissance, then its not reviving the cultural heyday of hippies, Hells Angels, campus protests and free outdoor rock concerts, but an earlier period in these drugs history. Before these powerful substances fell into the hands of hippies, they were largely evangelized by doctors, executives, and academics including the above-mentioned Osmond, and author Aldous Huxley, who firmly believed that the psychedelic experience be made available only to an elite coterie of achievers.

Even Wasson, one of the earliest known white Americans to partake in a psychedelic sacrament, returned to work as a high-level executive of an investment bank. Like Goops Gwyneth Paltrow, Shark Tanks Kevin OLeary, and other current vanguards of the contemporary psychedelic vogue, such early evangelists were very much part of the establishment the 60s cohort opposed: deeply successful people whose minds required, if not perspective-shattering expansion, then just a little optimization.

  • John Semley is the author of Hater: On the Virtues of Utter Disagreeability

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Love drugs could soon be a reality, and used alongside therapy to help heal broken relationships, claims a new book

For some time, it has been widespread medical practice to treat a range of psychological conditions, including depression and anxiety, with what might be called mind-altering drugs, namely selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which, as the name suggests, affect levels of serotonin in the brain. But theres one mental category that isnt considered appropriate for any kind of biomedical intervention. Its arguably the most talked about of all human states, the cause of much of our finest art, literature and music, and it is celebrated or, depending on your view, commercially exploited once again on Friday: love.

It may be a many splendoured thing, but love is a condition for which there is famously no cure. All you need is love, as the song said, but money cant buy you it. Its viewed as an emotional ideal and yet the source of untold pain and suffering. Ask any 10 people what love is and youre sure to get 10 different answers. Unsurprisingly, given that it is the stuff of romance, we tend to romanticise it. Millions of words have been spilled in trying to describe the feeling, but not many have been devoted to the biochemical processes that lie behind it.

In their new book, Love Is the Drug, Oxford ethicists Brian Earp and Julian Savulescu point out that this neglected aspect of love is just as important as its social or psychological structures. Intuitively, perhaps, weve always known this. After all, how do we explain the lack of interest felt on a new date? There was no chemistry.

Yet while we have largely come to accept that drugs that affect the brain have a part to play in treating psychological illnesses, the idea that the same approach could apply to love goes against the grain. We think of love as natural and healthy and therefore not something that is in need of what Earp and Savulescu delicately call biomedical enhancement.

The authors, however, argue that its time to change our attitudes and explore the possibilities offered by breakthroughs in biomedicine and neuroscience. If it becomes possible to safely target the underlying neurochemistry that supports romantic attachment, using drugs or other brain-level technologies, they write, then there is reason to think this could help some people who really need it.

They go further and suggest that such drugs have already been partially tested, have been used by huge numbers of people around the world, and should urgently become the subject of controlled research. The problem is the drugs theyre talking about are illegal psychoactive substances such as psilocybin and, in particular, methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), the active ingredient in the rave drug ecstasy.

They cite studies that show positive results for the use of MDMA in counselling those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and speculate that similar outcomes might be expected for couples whose relationships have hit the rocks.

But isnt that a bit of an inductive stretch? What does the effect of, say, fighting in Iraq have to do with failing romances? Earp points out that there is already a small study showing how couples in which one partner has PTSD have benefited from the regulated use of MDMA. The way the drug is thought to work on PTSD sufferers, he says, is by breaking down the defence mechanisms that prevent their being able to open up.

Our point is that trauma falls on a spectrum and relationships themselves can be traumatic, he explains. What causes a lot of relationships to break down over time is traumatic or semi-traumatic events that take place either inside or outside the relationship. People start to close down and stop sharing with their partners. Insofar as love requires a certain kind of intimacy, the defence mechanism and the kneejerk fear responses that we build up around talking about certain issues with our partners are the very things that this drug directly enables us to overcome.

As may be gathered from that response, Earp is not interested in bringing biomedical enhancement to first dates, for reasons of what he terms authenticity. He wants to focus on those who have already passed that initial chemistry test and whose love has subsequently become worn and torn by the everyday rigours of life.

If you take a drug that all of a sudden makes you feel much closer to someone than you did five minutes ago, theres a risk that its the drug doing the work rather than some sort of established compatibility between you and the other person, he says. I think it was Timothy Leary who coined the term instant marriage syndrome, where people would meet someone at a dance and think, Ooh, Ive met my soulmate and theyd go and get married and as the drug wore off, and they got to know each other better, they found they didnt actually have good compatibility.

Of course MDMA is best known in this country for its starring role in the so-called second summer of love in 1988, when a generation of rave-goers discovered ecstasy, got loved up and shared the mass euphoria of dancing all night in an urban warehouse or field. The social idealism glimpsed at the beginning of that social movement soon spiralled into hedonistic excess, and it wasnt long before stories of teenage deaths related to taking the drug ruined the utopian dream.

Though largely unheard of in the UK before that summer, MDMA was already technically illegal for more than 10 years under umbrella legislation concerning phenethylamines. In the US, it was not made illegal until 1985. Earp and Savulescu are not now calling for its wholesale legalisation. They acknowledge its potential dangers, particularly if taken in the wrong situation with inadequate support, and argue that it should only be available in a therapeutic setting, under the guidance of a professional.

Kristin Kreuk and Adam Sinclair in Ecstasy, an adaptation of Irvine Welshs 1996 story The Undefeatured, set amid ecstasy users in the rave scene. Photograph: Intandem Films/Allstar

Until 1985, as Love Is the Drug reminds us, MDMA had been used by many relationship counsellors in the US. In 1998, psychiatrists George Greer and Requa Tolbert wrote in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, of their experience of conducting MDMA-enhanced therapeutic sessions with about 80 clients in the first half of the 1980s.

These clients had to give their informed consent and were selected after a pre-screening process. Then Greer and Tolbert would meet the clients in their homes, where they would administer a pure dose of between 77mg and 150mg of MDMA, with a 50mg booster if requested later on (the street drug in the UK is said to contain upwards of 150mg, and occasionally as much as 300mg). According to Greer and Tolbert, 90% of their clients benefited from MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, with some, as Earp and Savulescu write, reporting that they felt more love toward their partners and were better able to move beyond past pains and pointless grudges.

A cynic might say, whats left of love after that? But a more serious point is how to distinguish the relationships that are worth saving or enhancing from those that are fundamentally dysfunctional, when there might be a danger that the temporary high could help disguise the dysfunction.

Earp and Savulescu are careful not to be too prescriptive in their definitions of love, allowing that its pretty much whatever those who declare possession of it say it is. Equally, Earp is on guard for external paternalistic judgments of other peoples relationships. His belief is that there is a monogamy/promiscuity spectrum along which we all fall and that no position on it is more natural than any other. So one-size-fits-all classifications are destined to miss the mark.

I think it would be a mistake to say everyone should be lifelong monogamists, no matter what, and were going to enforce that through the criminal code, he says. But it would also be a mistake to say that were all just bonobos and monogamy is a thing of the past and we should have as many sexual partners as we can find. In the world of meaning, subjective experience and how we relate to each other, theres a lot of room for diverse interpretations of whats valuable.

History has a bad track record of deciding what the right relationship is, says Earp, noting that it was only very recently that homosexual love was brought within the fold of acceptability. But there is one objective criterion to which the pair do hold firm. When it comes to violent abuse, weve drawn a pretty strong line in the sand collectively as a society, he says. That is a very strong signal that its objectively a bad relationship.

The book makes several bold claims that seem the product of marketing needs rather than hardcore scientific fact. For example, it states that the biological underpinnings of romantic love are being revealed and that the prospect of real love drugs is upon us. But there remains a great deal of debate, not to say confusion, about the workings of even such fundamental biological constituents as the hormone testosterone regarding its role in the libido. And as you might expect from professional ethicists, the book is at its most impressive when considering the moral, social and pragmatic issues concerned with scientific development, rather than the details of the development itself.

If and when the aforementioned biological underpinnings are revealed, and we are able to regulate emotions and behaviour through biomedical supplements, does that suggest we will become somehow less autonomous and, consequently, more like a programmable machine?

There are lots of ways we take steps to try to shape ourselves and our self-narratives, says Earp. There are ones that were comfortable with because they dont seem to involve the brain and were a little bit scared of interacting with the brain directly.

But the fact is, he says, even words can affect our brains. He cites the example of the Oedipus myth. One moment hes happily having sex with Jocasta, feeling love towards her, the next he discovers that shes his mother. He hasnt taken any drugs but you can bet that all of a sudden his testosterone levels will plummet and his libido will drop.

Our neurochemistry is changing all the time, says Earp, and one way that can happen is by the direct administration of drugs, which have their own benefits and risks.

We just need to identify those cases where intervening with drugs or psychology or chaining our social circumstance will be likely to improve authenticity or autonomy rather than detract from it.

He speaks with such reasoned composure on the subject that it comes as a surprise to learn that he has never taken MDMA himself.

Ive been interested in that experience but I havent had the opportunity to go forward with that because it remains unjustly and inappropriately prohibited, he says.

The solution, he insists, is open research. In the meantime, well just have to continue fumbling away in the dark, breaking up and making up, trying to understand not just ourselves but the other person at least until the love drug arrives.

Microdosing: the perfect prescription?

In praise of ecstasy
Small studies have found that doses of MDMA can have beneficial effects for ex-military and first-responder PTSD sufferers; however, treatment takes place in controlled environments assisted by psychotherapy. There is no good evidence that recreational microdosing is effective or advisable.

Pot potential
Quality research on the effects of microdosing cannabinoids THC and CBD is nascent. A 2017 study found that very low doses of THC reduce stress, yet higher doses increase anxiety. In other studies, CBD has shown potential in the treatment of insomnia and a range of anxiety disorders.

Spore lore
In a recent episode of Netflixs The Goop Lab, employees of Gwyneth Paltrows wellness company decamped to Jamaica to microdose with magic mushrooms in order to solve various emotional or trauma issues. Although many Silicon Valley types are advocates, there is little high-quality evidence that this is effective.

Love is the Drug by Brian Earp and Julian Savulescu is published by Manchester University Press (20). To order a copy go to Free UK P&P on all online orders over 15

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Whether youre taking up the oboe or finessing your Finnish, scientific research offers tips to aid learning

If your aim for 2020 was to learn a new skill, you may be at the point of giving up. Whether you are mastering a new language or a musical instrument, or taking a career-changing course, initial enthusiasm can only take you so far, and any further progress can be disappointingly slow.

From these struggles, you might assume that you simply lack a natural gift compared to those lucky people who can learn any new skill with apparent ease.

However, it neednt be this way. Many polymaths including Charles Darwin and the Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman claimed not to have exceptional natural intelligence. Most of us have more than enough brainpower to master a new discipline, if we apply it correctly and the latest neuroscience offers many strategies to do just that.

Much research in the field hinges on the idea of desirable difficulties, pioneered by Profs Robert and Elizabeth Bjork at the University of California, Los Angeles. The aim is to deliberately create a slight feeling of frustration as you learn, which leads the brain to process the material more deeply, creating longer-lasting memories. Its like physical exercise: you need to feel a bit of resistance to make significant long-term gains.

Unfortunately, many of our preferred learning techniques such as reading and highlighting textbooks, or the drawing of colourful mind maps to summarise material dont offer enough mental challenge to make the information stick, leading to disappointing results. Our judgment about our learning is often biased towards strategies that feel easy and effortless, says Dr Carolina Kuepper-Tetzel, a psychologist at the University of Glasgow and member of the Learning Scientists website. But they dont translate into long-term retention of knowledge.

The following strategies will help you overcome these bad habits. Whatever you plan to learn, they will make your memory the envy of others.

Fail productively

Lets begin with the pre-test a strategy that is perhaps best explained with an example.

How do you say thank you in Finnish?

The answer is kiitos and Im guessing that most readers who arent Finnish wont have had any hope of answering this correctly. But thanks to that initial struggle, you will now be more likely to remember the answer in the future. Psychological studies show that a pre-test quiz taken before you have studied the material primes the brain to absorb the information afterwards, even if you failed to answer a single question correctly.

This is true for both the memorisation of simple trivia and the deeper understanding of more complicated material. In one study, participants were quizzed on the neuroscience of vision before reading an Oliver Sacks essay on the subject. They ended up learning 10 to 15% more than students who had instead been given extra time to read the text. Whatever you are learning, try to gauge your current understanding of the topic even if it is nonexistent.

Teach it to someone else

After taking the pre-test, you also want to continue quizzing yourself on what youve just learned. To psychologists, this is called retrieval practice and it is one of the most reliable ways of building stronger memory traces. In carefully controlled studies, retrieval practice vastly outperforms other strategies such as mind-mapping the material as you study.

As Dr Kuepper-Tetzel explains: Testing is usually seen as a way to assess knowledge. However, testing in itself is a potent learning strategy and has been shown to increase long-term retention of knowledge.

This may be one reason why flashcards a common form of self-testing dont work as well as they could. If you think self-testing is purely a means of assessing your recall, you may peek at the answer too soon whereas you need to truly rack your brain before giving in, if you want to form the stronger memory. The harder retrieval is, the more the memory for the information is enhanced, says Prof Mirjam Ebersbach at the University of Kassel in Germany.

Physical exercise is known to boost your memory, and it is best to mix both acute and endurance disciplines. Photograph: Martin Novak/Getty Images

If you are studying for exams, try to create your own questions rather than relying on past papers. Ebersbach has found that the process of question generation can itself reinforce learning, since it forces you to reformulate the material in a new way.

Perhaps the most potent technique is to teach the material to another person, since that forces you to demonstrate a deep conceptual understanding. If you dont have a willing partner, you could imagine describing it to someone, or draft an email setting out what youve learned in as much detail as possible.

Mix it up

Try not to spend too long on any one topic rather, switch between them regularly. If you are learning a new language, for example, you might rotate between two or three vocabulary topics, or switch between the different verb tenses you are practising, rather than studying them in turn in blocks. This strategy is called interleaving and like the pre-test, it can feel frustrating since you cant really get into the swing of things before moving on. But according to the theory of desirable difficulties, that is why it works. Numerous studies have shown that this momentary confusion hugely increases your long-term recall.

Besides boosting factual learning, interleaving can also accelerate your acquisition of motor skills. If you are learning a musical instrument, for instance, you might alternate between scales and the pieces of music that you are practising.

Get moving

Contrary to the stereotype of the sedentary geek, the best learners are also the most physically active, since cardiovascular exercise triggers the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and epinephrine that are essential for memory formation. This means that your mind will be most fertile after a morning jog or a trip to the gym. So try to schedule your learning around your existing fitness plan and you may experience a natural memory boost.

Change your environment

Have you ever noticed that when you return to your home town, recollections of distant events suddenly come flooding back? Thats because our memory is context-dependent meaning that its heavily influenced by environmental cues.

While context-dependent memory can trigger waves of pleasant nostalgia, it can also lead to a mental block in our factual learning. If we only study or practice a skill in one place, our memories become tied to the sights, sounds and smells of that location. This makes it harder for us to recall the same material in a new environment the exam hall, the quizshow studio, a Parisian restaurant without those cues.

To avoid becoming dependent on those cues, you should therefore try learning in different places. One experiment by Prof Robert Bjork and colleagues found that just switching rooms between study sessions increased learning by 21%.

And relax: wakeful rest helps the memory consolidate what it has learned. Photograph: ALEAIMAGE/Getty Images

Do nothing

After pitting your brain against all those desirable difficulties, give it time to recover. I dont mean regular time out like watching TV, but literally doing nothing. Prof Michaela Dewar at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh has found that wakeful rest without any external stimulation allows the brain to consolidate the memories of what it has learned.

So kick back, close your eyes and let your thoughts go wherever they want in the knowledge that your mind is busy cementing your learning for the long term.

David Robson is the author of The Intelligence Trap: Revolutionise Your Thinking and Make Wiser Decisions (Hodder & Stoughton, 9.99). To order a copy go to Free UK p&p on all online orders over 15

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Program developed by Google Health was tested on mammograms of UK and US women

An artificial intelligence program has been developed that is better at spotting breast cancer in mammograms than expert radiologists.

The AI outperformed the specialists by detecting cancers that the radiologists missed in the images, while ignoring features they falsely flagged as possible tumours.

If the program proves its worth in clinical trials, the software, developed by Google Health, could make breast screening more effective and ease the burden on health services such as the NHS where radiologists are in short supply.

This is a great demonstration of how these technologies can enable and augment the human expert, said Dominic King, the UK lead at Google Health. The AI system is saying I think there may be an issue here, do you want to check?

About one in eight women are diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. Screening programmes catch more than 18,000 cases each year in England alone, but tumours are still missed, giving false negative results, and some women are wrongly suspected of having cancer, in false positives that lead to unnecessary anxiety and invasive biopsies.

Googles AI program analyses mammograms in three different ways before combing the results to produce an overall risk score. The scientists trained the program on mammograms from more than 76,000 women in the UK and 15,000 women in the US. To see how well it worked, they then asked it to assess nearly 30,000 new mammograms from UK and US women who either had biopsy-confirmed cancer, or no signs of cancer during follow-up at least a year later.

In the US, women who go for breast cancer screening tend to be seen every one or two years and their mammograms are examined by a single radiologist. When compared with the US system, the AI produced 5.7% fewer false positives and 9.4% fewer false negatives.

In the UK, women are screened less often, typically once every three years, but their mammograms are reviewed by two radiologists, and sometimes a third in case of disagreement. The AI performed only marginally better than the UK system, reducing false positives by 1.2% and false negatives by 2.7%.

The results suggest the AI could boost the quality of breast cancer screening in the US and maintain the same level in the UK, with the AI assisting or replacing the second radiologist.

Breast cancer screening in the UK is under particular strain. The Royal College of Radiologists has identified a shortfall of at least 1,104 radiologists. In breast radiology specifically, 8% of hospital posts are unfilled, with much of the shortage due to older radiologists retiring from the NHS faster than new ones join.


What is AI?

Artificial Intelligence has various definitions, but in general it means a program that uses data to build a model of some aspect of the world. This model is then used to make informed decisions and predictions about future events. The technology is used widely, to provide speech and face recognition, language translation, and personal recommendations on music, film and shopping sites. In the future, it could deliver driverless cars, smart personal assistants, and intelligent energy grids. AI has the potential to make organisations more effective and efficient, but the technology raises serious issues of ethics, governance, privacy and law.

Chris Kelly, a clinician scientist at Google Health, said the next major step would be a trial to assess the AI in real-world conditions. Its performance could slip when it is fed images from different mammogram systems. In the latest study, reported in Nature, nearly all of the images came from machines provided by one manufacturer.

Like the rest of the health service, breast imaging, and UK radiology more widely, is understaffed and desperate for help, said Dr Caroline Rubin, vice-president for clinical radiology at the Royal College of Radiologists. AI programs will not solve the human staffing crisis, as radiologists and imaging teams do far more than just look at scans, but they will undoubtedly help by acting as a second pair of eyes and a safety net.

It is a competitive market for developers and these programs will need to be rigorously tested and regulated first. The next step for promising products is for them to be used in clinical trials, evaluated in practice and used on patients screened in real-time, a process that will need to be overseen by the UK public health agencies that have overall responsibility for the breast screening programmes.

Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UKs chief executive, said: Screening helps diagnose breast cancer at an early stage, when treatment is more likely to be successful, ensuring more people survive the disease. But it also has harms such as diagnosing cancers that would never have gone on to cause any problems and missing some cancers. This is still early stage research, but it shows how AI could improve breast cancer screening and ease pressure off the NHS.

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This is the year to start taking happiness seriously. But how and where do you find the time? Here are the tips and advice you need for a pleasure-filled year

The last time I felt joy was at an event that would be many peoples vision of hell: a drunken Taylor Swift club-night singalong in the early hours of the morning a few weekends ago.

I certainly experience joy, either as peaks of euphoria or in quiet, unexpected bursts. But as I go about my everyday business sprinting to meet deadlines, standing in front of the open fridge I wouldnt say it looms large.

I am not alone. Many of us treat joy like the good china, only warranted on special occasions. Even if we know it is within our reach, we may not see it is within our control.

But this is a mistake, according to happiness experts. Nataly Kogan, the author of Happier Now, says: Happiness and emotional health are not extras, or bonuses, or nice-to-haves theyre actually at the core of what helps us live well.

Seeking joy may sound frivolous, but being happy has been shown to promote habits and behaviours that are important to our health. A 2017 study of roughly 7,000 adults found that those with positive wellbeing were more likely to be physically active and to eat fresh fruit and vegetables. Being happy has also been linked to better sleep, better weight management, lower stress levels, an improved immune system and even increased life expectancy.

Despite the myriad benefits of joy and the obvious incentive that it feels good many of us dont prioritise it. But experts point out that our resources and energy are finite; what we put off will fall by the wayside. So, as with any goal, the first step to a joyful life is to make it a priority which may mean you need to let go of other commitments and then do the work. In other words, we need to start taking joy seriously.

As the founder and chief executive of the wellbeing business Happier, Kogan helps companies to improve their workplace culture and professionals to foster joy in their lives lessons born out of her experience of career burnout and personal dissatisfaction in her late 30s. She likens herself at the time to a ship on the ocean fine in favourable conditions, but at the mercy of any storm.

Now 44 and based with her family in Boston, Massachusetts, Kogan says she has landed on practices and tools to harness happiness as a steady, sustainable presence in her daily life. The first of these is not to think of happiness as something to pursue at a later date, when your life is in order. I lived with this idea of: Ill be happy when … as I know so many people do, she says. We have to look at emotional health as a skill, not a destination. And, as with any skill, when you practise, you do better.

The gains have been established in research into baseline happiness what in psychological literature is called our hedonic set point. It varies from person to person, but the key point is that our baseline is only half determined by genetics. That means the other 50% is up to us, says Kogan. I think that is incredibly empowering.

So, what can we do to make 2020 a more joyful year?

Identify the problem

Draw a large circle, divide it into segments and label each to reflect a different area of life that you want to assess. Illustration: Adam Higton/The Guardian

Start by identifying where joy is most lacking. Sarah Waite, a London-based psychologist, suggests the wheel of life, a personal development exercise derived from the Buddhist theory of balance. Draw a large circle, divide it into eight or 10 segments and label each to reflect a different area of life that you want to assess.

There are templates online, typically along the lines of fun and recreation, physical environment, career, finances, personal growth, romance, family and friends, and health. Shade in each wedge to reflect your level of satisfaction.

The finished circle should be an overview of the areas of your life that you feel you have under control, and those that may need further attention. When it comes to deciding where to allocate resources, its not necessarily the one youve marked the lowest; its the one you really value the most, says Waite. It may be that your job is not a priority for you, so it doesnt matter if it remains only two-thirds filled.

The goal is to get perspective and clarity. The brain has evolved to be much more sensitive to negatives than positives as, historically, it has been more important for us to be attuned to hazardous situations than satisfactory ones. This negativity bias distorts our perspective, meaning it is hard to make a good decision under stress, says Kogan. People can focus on things that are not as they should be We all have our stories of why we are not happy, at work or otherwise. But small, practical steps taken to boost joy in one part of life can improve happiness across the board as momentum builds.

The big picture

Kogans first tip is to start by writing a list of what you like about your job, no matter how small. Be specific, think broadly and dont judge your list as you write it. It doesnt matter what they are, or how many there are; the idea is to shift your mindset.

Kogan suggests making it a daily habit to note three small, highly specific things that you are grateful for every morning, perhaps before you reach for your phone. Its not about pretending that nothing is wrong, its about helping your brain to get out of that negativity spiral.

Just three weeks of this consistent gratitude practice has been shown to establish new neuron connections facilitating optimism, with the effects lasting for six months. Mindfulness and self-compassion are similarly powerful, says Shamash Alidina, the author of Mindfulness for Dummies and the co-founder of the not-for-profit Museum of Happiness and more attainable than people may think.

Many equate mindfulness with clearing ones mind of thoughts entirely. This means they often give up out of frustration, says Alidina but its not about not thinking, its about being aware. Spending just a few minutes noticing your thoughts pass you by like clouds, experimenting with what Alidina calls your flexibility of attention, can equip you to stop negative spirals before they start. People associate meditation with being calm or relaxed, but its really just about not getting lost in your thoughts, he says.

What does it all mean?

Finding lasting happiness is also about what we do, particularly what we do for others. Kogan says it is important to have a sense of purpose to find what she calls the bigger why among our deadlines and meetings. Its not possible to be a happy human being if you dont feel like what youre doing is meaningful, she says.

Assessing your to-do list particularly tasks you find mundane or frustrating through the lens of Who does this help? can increase motivation, lift your mood and improve your ability to manage stress, she says. When you say: This project is going to help a lot of people my team, customers, readers, whatever your stress has context and you feel more resilient getting through it.

Helping others may seem like a circular way of boosting your happiness, but Kogan says even small gestures, such as pulling out a chair for a colleague or checking in with them about their day, releases oxytocin in the giver and the receiver. Over time, it also fosters a sense of belonging at work and can lead to office friendships one of the most common factors in job satisfaction.

The mindset shift encouraged by practising intentional kindness means it is worth doing for your own happiness, says Kogan. At 3pm every day, she receives a reminder to be kind. Sometimes that is as simple as texting someone she hasnt spoken to in a while and telling them that shes thinking of them: I cannot tell you how much that means to people.

Family fortunes

It is well known that strong relationships are important to happiness, but what those look like and how to forge them can be ambiguous. Happiness can feel very abstract, says Gretchen Rubin, the author of The Happiness Project. My approach is to think about what you want, then break it up into manageable, concrete actions that you can actually take.

In terms of improving relationships, that might look like making a regular time to call or meet a friend, committing to attend a reunion or throw a party, or having a daily exchange with someone in public. Every five days or so, Rubins family email each other an update on the boring everyday stuff of their lives, freed from any pressure to entertain or an expectation to reply. We realised that, by staying in touch with the little minutiae, we would feel more connected and its absolutely working.

Making warm greetings and goodbyes habitual at home is another small but effective shift (I always think that I dont want to be less enthusiastic than my dog, says Rubin). Such low-level commitments are less daunting to start and easier to keep up and they make a real impact. We all have different definitions of happiness, Rubin says, whether it be joy, peace, satisfaction, bliss. My way of thinking about it is: today, next month, next year are there things you can do to be happier? she says. And if there are, why not do them?

Home truths

If Rubin comes across an improvement at home that she can make in less than a minute, she does it immediately. For her, outer order contributes to inner calm, so happiness can be as simple as a clean kitchen bench or a decluttered shelf. It feels trivial and yet over and over people say: When I have control of my environment, I feel like I have control generally, says Rubin. Like making your bed every morning it gives people a lift, more than really makes sense.

Often this is understood as minimalism but there are many happy, successful people who take pleasure in being surrounded by their possessions, says Rubin. It is not a moral failing to prefer abundance, and making your personal space reflect your values and interests can be very pleasing.

Ingrid Fetell Lee, the author of The Aesthetics of Joy, agrees. Weve been taught to think about our homes through the lens of other people: whats trendy, what the design books say, she says. As a result, many of us are out of touch with how our spaces measure on our own joy meters. We may view a neutral grey palette as the height of sophistication when, in fact, what brings us pleasure is a neon front door.

Control is inextricable from exercise, sleep and good money management. Illustration: Adam Higton/The Guardian

Even the presence of different shapes can have an impact, with people finding angular objects more subconsciously anxiety-inducing than round ones. Rounded objects also tend to make environments more playful, says Lee: Not only because your mind is unconsciously set at ease, but because youre less worried about bumping into sharp edges.

Play is an effective mood-booster that is often neglected in adulthood. Rubin says she marks holidays such as Halloween and St Patricks Day with themed meals, just because, while the Museum of Happinesss pop-up installations in London and Manchester later this month are testament to the transformative effects of a ballpit on otherwise sober adults.

To bring some of that spirit into your home, Lee advises trying to imagine you are visiting for the first time: Notice how it makes you feel, almost the physiological sensation in your body, as you move from room to room. What are the things that, when your eyes land on them, make you smile or feel drained?

The key is not to feel burdened by your possessions. Owning less means you are surrounding yourself with only your favourite things, says Joshua Becker, who writes the blog Becoming Minimalist. Being intentional with the things that we own and, by extension, our money means that our lives align with our values and passions: things that really matter to us. Minimalism removes distractions so that we can free up our money, time and energy on those things that bring us real joy in life, says Becker.

Early to bed

Play, gratitude and kindness may factor into a life full of joy, but so can discipline. A sense of control is more important to happiness than many people realise, says Rubin. Prosaically enough, this is inextricable from exercise, sleep and good money management. Too often, happiness is located solely in the moment, she says, when it could be achieved through giving up sugar or alcohol, or setting an alarm to go to bed on time. Sometimes, to be happier in the long run, we have to ask more of ourselves or deprive ourselves of something, says Rubin. A happy life is not one thats focused only on the present.

Embracing boredom

In the same vein, putting off a difficult or boring task can detract from your daily experience more than getting stuck into it. Waite says she rolls her eyes at the framing of self-care as baths and candles: I love those things, but if doing your tax return is really making you anxious, maybe the kindest thing you can do for yourself is to make a start. It may not be what is typically understood by joy, but sustainable, long-lasting happiness involves recognising that there are many shades on the emotional palette.

Research shows that occasionally accepting the presence of harder emotions means you experience them less intensely and for less time. In fact, the first step towards a joyful life may be letting go of your ideas of what that looks like and recognising that it is down to you.

Part of this exercise is to recognise that there isnt anything out there that is going to make you feel good 100% of the time, says Kogan. Thats actually great news, because when we let go of this particular idea of happiness we give ourselves more opportunities to be in alignment with our lives.

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No one had any idea what to expect of a plan for people to meet in Rachel, Nevada, to see for themselves if the government was hiding aliens

In the middle of the Nevadan desert, outside a secretive US military airstrip, I found the worlds strangest social media convention.

Dozens of young, good-looking, often costumed people were running around filming each other with semi-professional video rigs. They were YouTube and Instagram stars or, more often, aspiring stars here to storm Area 51 for the benefit of their followers and free the aliens held captive within. Or at least film themselves talking about it.

Joining them was a ragged army of hundreds of stoners, UFO buffs, punk bands, rubberneckers, European tourists, people with way too much time on their hands, and meme-lords in Pepe the Frog costumes all here because of the Internet, the ironic and the earnest alike, for a party at the end of the earth.

Three months earlier, on 20 June 2019, the podcaster Joe Rogan released an interview with Bob Lazar. Lazar is a cult figure in UFO circles; he claims to have studied flying saucers at Area 51, the classified air force base in Nevada where the US government is rumored by some to make secret contact with extraterrestrial beings.

Rogans millions of listeners heard the interview.

A Joshua tree in the desert. Photograph: J Oliver Conroy/The Guardian

One of those listeners was Matty Roberts, a college student, anime enthusiast and video gamer in Bakersfield, California. Inspired by the Rogan podcast, Roberts created a joke Facebook event: Storm Area 51, They Cant Stop All of Us. According to the plan, people would meet in Rachel, Nevada the closest town to Area 51 in the early morning of 20 September, then swarm the defenses and see for themselves if the government was hiding aliens.

Things snowballed. Within hours, the page had thousands of RSVPs. Within days it had more than a million. The air force warned that things would end badly for anyone attempting a raid. The FBI paid the hapless Matty Roberts a house call.

So he came up with a brilliant pivot: why not channel this momentum into a Burning Man-style music festival in the desert? He joined forces with Connie West, the operator of Rachels sole inn and restaurant, to plan what they called Alienstock.

Then came the first schism. Scornful of the internet interlopers, the Alien Research Center in nearby Hiko, Nevada, decided to host its own Area 51 event the same weekend for serious ufologists.

Roberts and West pressed on. But the town of Rachel (population: 54) lacked the infrastructure to handle thousands of conspiracy theorists and gawkers descending on rural Nevada. The local authorities feared potential calamity: people dying of dehydration in the desert, angry landowners, madmen with guns.

On 10 September, nine days before the event, Roberts backed out. He wanted no involvement in a Fyre Fest 2.0, he told the media. He accused West of being insufficiently prepared for the coming flood. Budweiser offered to sponsor a free, alternative Alienstock event in a safe, clean venue in downtown Las Vegas. Roberts urged people to go there instead.

West refused to cancel the concert in the desert. Shed already sunk thousands of dollars of her own money into the event, she told reporters as she held back tears. Alienstock would happen, she said, whether anyone liked it or not.

Now there were three rival events all happening on the same weekend one in Las Vegas, another in Rachel and a third in Hiko. No one had any idea how many people were coming.

I came equipped with a duffel bag of Hawaiian shirts and a case of vape cartridges, which I hoped to use as currency in the event of civilizational collapse in the desert.

But the desert would wait. The Area 51 Celebration in downtown Las Vegas did not get off to a promising start. When I arrived, shortly after 7pm, the outdoor venue heavily bedecked with glowing neon alien signage was mostly empty except for cops and local newscasters. A DJ blasted dubstep to a bare dancefloor. The venue even had a swimming pool, bathed in green light and watched by a bored-looking lifeguard.

Matty Roberts. Photograph: J Oliver Conroy/The Guardian

I feared it might be a long night. I ordered a whiskey-and-water; the bartender filled a plastic stadium cup to the brim.

Then people started trickling in. Everyone was wearing their best alien-themed rave attire: one woman wore a shiny, and discomfitingly rubbery, head-to-toe alien costume. Another had a Rick-and-Morty-patterned dress. Three men tore up the dancefloor in matching alien-motif onesies. Someone carried a sign that said GREEN LIVES MATTER.

I talked to two people whod driven six hours from Tucson, Arizona, on a whim to attend. One was wearing a Flat Earth Society T-shirt, though he said it was ironic.

I spied Matty Roberts in the center of a swirling mass of people, holding court. He was wearing a Slayer hat and black T-shirt; his long, dark hair flowed majestically down his back. He looked like a heavy metal-listening, Mountain Dew-drinking samurai lord, surrounded by courtiers and supplicants. I fought my way over.

He was in high spirits. Im absolutely amazed at how things turned out, and its incredible, he told me as he signed autographs. I opened my mouth to ask a follow-up question but he was swallowed up again by the crowd.

By around 9pm, there were a couple hundred people jerking spasmodically to dubstep.

A woman who introduced herself as Shereel (C-H-E-R-Y-L) said she was happy to be at the rave but disappointed she couldnt make the event in the desert.

This is the first time since Roswell that people like us are all coming together, she said. Even if nothing happens, we tried.

The DJ interrupted his set to thank Matty Roberts and give a special shout-out to Bob Lazar. The crowd cheered.

A warm wind was whipping through the arena. As the wind buffeted us and the rave lights flickered overhead, you could almost believe a UFO really was about to descend.

The alien statue outside the Alien Research Center, Hiko. Photograph: J Oliver Conroy/The Guardian

The next morning I got in my rental car and headed north.

The outskirts of Las Vegas casinos, strip clubs, endless billboards for personal injury lawyers dropped away rapidly. Now there was just desert in every direction, stunning in its vastness and austere beauty. Mountains towered over the highway, surrounded by hilly plains of cacti and scrub.

Soon most human settlement was gone. There was nothing alongside the highway no strip malls, no fast food joints, and, I noticed, worryingly few gas stations. I had at least two hours of driving ahead, though I knew I was going in the right direction: every vehicle I saw was a police car, an RV or a news satellite van.

As I drove I listened to rightwing talk radio, then Top 40, then country, then a Bible discussion call-in show, then some Spanish-language stations, then static. A talk station interviewed the mother of a police officer killed by an undocumented immigrant. Sean Hannity made fun of the climate strike, and every talkshow discussed the New York Times recent, partly retracted accusation against Brett Kavanaugh. It was, they pointed out, yet another sign of bias in the liberal media.

The first gas station was bustling with people buying water and jerry cans of gas. In the parking lot there was a camper van marked AREA 51 HERE WE COME.

Finally, two hours north of Las Vegas, I saw the exit for State Route 375 also known, since its formal renaming in 1996, as Extraterrestrial Highway.

The US government owns thousands of square miles of land in northern Nevada. The area is big enough, and empty enough, to detonate a nuclear bomb which the government has, on hundreds of occasions.

The Groom Lake airfield Area 51 is part of a massive complex of military installations. Their activities are classified and the skies above are restricted air space. Little is known about what goes on there, though the air force tests experimental stealth aircraft, which may account for some UFO sightings.

Of course, military pilots are themselves known to report seeing what they refer to as unexplained aerial phenomena. (Even the New York Times has reported on it.)

In the 2000s, Congress established an advanced aviation threat identification program to study the problem. The program wasnt classified, but it operated with the knowledge of an extremely limited number of officials, according to Politico. The then Nevada senator Harry Reid helped secure the funding.

Thats the end of the history lesson. The reader is free to investigate further and come to their own conclusions.

On the way to Rachel, I stopped at the rival festival at the Alien Research Center in Hiko. It was heavy on souvenir sellers, though there were some hardcore ufologists. A group called the Mutual UFO Network (Mufon) gave me a pamphlet offering certification to be a field investigator.

Signs and concertina wire at the Area 51 checkpoint. Photograph: J Oliver Conroy/The Guardian

If anything, the ufologists were more the exception than the rule. I had expected most Area 51 Stormers to be conspiracy theorists, 4chan types, or people on the fringe political spectrum, but a lot probably most were normies on a lark, or foreigners in search of peak Americana.

Two young men one Swiss German, the other Japanese told me they were friends whod met at an English as a second language program in New York. A group of Britons told me theyd been taking a road trip up the west coast, heard about the Area 51 business, and decided to take a detour.

This was a common theme: Well, Id been thinking about taking a road trip anyway, sooo

When my car turned the last switchback into the valley toward Area 51, the car radio, theretofore static, suddenly started blasting Smetanas M Vlast in eerie, crystal-perfect sound. The aliens, it seemed, were classical music buffs.

Rachel came into view a tiny, one-horse town besieged by cars and tents and camper vans. Including the cops, EMTs, festival organizers, and so on, there looked to be a couple thousand people not the two million who had RSVPd to the Facebook event, nor the 30,000 the sheriff feared, but more than I thought would follow through.

Contrary to the wild warnings about a Fyre festival 2.0, things appeared mostly under control. Festival marshals waved me along to an assigned lot.

My neighbors at the parking lot-slash-campsite were a punk band called Foreign Life Form. They werent part of the planned music lineup, one Life Form explained as he ate Chef Boyardee room-temperature from a can, but when they heard about Alienstock, it seemed like fate. They were trying to find the concert organizer to get added to the billing. To help seal the deal theyd painted their faces and arms green.

A member of the punk band Foreign Life Form, body painted green, eating a can of Chef Boyardee at his campsite. Photograph: J Oliver Conroy/The Guardian

My other neighbor, an erudite, joint-smoking history podcaster from Oregon, wore a T-shirt that said Take me to your dealer. He and his son had had the shirts custom-made; the Life Forms were disappointed they couldnt buy some.

Getting to the actual entrance to Area 51 took another 20 minutes of driving on an unmarked, unpaved road. Clouds of chalk billowed behind the cars coming and going.

At the end of the road was a drab military checkpoint flanked by concertina wire and threatening signs. The sign prohibiting photography was clearly a dead letter.

Rotating shifts of law enforcement officers of every variety sheriffs deputies, state troopers, game wardens, park rangers kept a watchful eye on everything. They seemed relaxed, though, and looked like they were having as good a time as the ostensible Stormers. After all, this was an excuse for them to hang out at Area 51, too.

(To my knowledge, no one actually raided Area 51, besides the two Dutch YouTubers who had tried to sneak through the perimeter two weeks earlier and ended up in jail instead.)

In addition to YouTube vloggers and Instagram influencers, there were more than a few actual journalists. Watching them scurry around diligently with tape recorders reminded me that I needed to find a Quirky Character who could give On-Scene Color. A talkative UFO buff would be ideal but the other journalists had already claimed most of the good ones.

I couldnt avoid noticing a pair of men in huge, papier-mache Pepe the Frog heads. The vloggers loved them, and the Pepes enjoyed mugging for the cameras. My God, a girl said, theyre adorable.

Under their frog heads, the Pepes were two young Latino guys from California. When I asked them what they thought of the frogs association with the alt-right, one seemed confused. The other nodded in recognition but claimed he just thought the symbol was fun.

He said, Its all about the

Memes, finished the other. They both laughed.

Two Pepe the Frog enthusiasts. They said they were unaware of its alt-right association. Photograph: J Oliver Conroy/The Guardian

I asked if it wasnt weird for them, as Latinos, to embrace a symbol affiliated with white nationalists.

Yeah, I mean, theyre a little, like, extreme for me sometimes, one said. But sometimes you feel like theyre right about some stuff.

I said, Like what?

Like clown world.


Clown world.


Like the idea that were all living in a world of clowns, he clarified.

Tendrils of fog hung over Alienstock. The temperature was dropping fast and the sun was low and pink in the sky. The sunset was sublime but I had a long drive to my motel ahead and a sick feeling that I should have left half an hour ago.

I bade farewell to the history podcaster. He reminded me that the area was open grazing land. Watch out for the steer, he said. They go right out into the road.

The next morning I debated whether to squeeze in another trip out to Alienstock and couldnt quite find the willpower. It was time to get back to civilization, I decided. Or at least Las Vegas.

I stopped at the gas station in Alamo, near Rachel. The town felt hungover, and it still had a day to go. Most of the locals seemed unsure quite how to feel about the whole thing. It was a boon to the local economy, yes, but also a financial disaster for the county government. There were rumors that the district attorney was planning to sue Connie West, or Matty Roberts, or even Facebook.

Most, though, just seemed excited at the idea that their corner of the world might become something bigger than a gas stop on the way elsewhere.

Everyone vowed that next year, theyd be ready.

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As Australias first trial for psychedelic therapy for terminally ill patients gets under way, a growing movement says it could also help other conditions

In August 2016 I went to New York for the first time. On the second evening, as the sun slipped behind the building across the street, I was sitting on a long couch on the top floor of an old church. All around me instruments were scattered on the floor singing bowls, tuning forks, rainsticks, Tibetan bells. At the foot of a wall carpeted completely in moss, dripping like the jungle in the baking heat, was a large bronze gong.

On the table in front of me two small ceramic bowls contained a capsule of 125mg of pure MDMA and a chilli guacamole with three grams of powdered magic mushrooms stirred through it. I eyed them nervously. I was terrified that I was going to lose my mind but I was more scared that nothing would happen at all, that I was too broken for even this radical treatment.

Id left Australia to take psychedelics with a therapist. Almost a decade of regular talk therapies for depression had done little to explain why I still felt so numb, trapped and terrified. A few months earlier Id tracked down a guy online who said that, while it wasnt a magic bullet, he might have something that would help. I cant name him because its still completely illegal.

He was sitting across from me and after Id swallowed the contents of both bowls he handed me a padded eye mask and suggested I lie back on the couch. I heard him move across the room in the steamy darkness as I tried to relax and focus on my breathing. Moments later I heard the first strange notes from the gong.

2016 was a breakthrough year for psychedelic therapy, not just for me. In May, a study from the Beckley Foundation in partnership with Imperial College London found that two-thirds of their participants with treatment-resistant depression were in remission a week after a therapy session with psilocybin, the active chemical in magic mushrooms. One participant said: I found I felt more connected, to myself, other people, nature, life in general. I felt alive, rather than distant and isolated and cut off.

In November 2016 two US university studies jointly published their findings: 80% of the terminally ill patients who had similar psilocybin sessions experienced significant reductions in depression and anxiety.

The following week the US Food and Drug Administration announced that it was approving the final phase of trials of psychotherapy for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) using MDMA.

Meanwhile, in Australia nothing. At the end of 2015 Psychedelic Research in Science and Medicine (Prism), a non-profit research association formed in 2011, had its second application for a study of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy knocked back by Deakin University. The email from the deputy vice chancellor for research said: The university will not engage in research that has the potential to damage its reputation as an ethical organisation.

Dr Martin Williams, president of Prism and a medicinal chemistry researcher at Monash University, got the message loud and clear. We realised then that it was going to be a hearts and minds operation on our behalf, that we were going to have to be an advocacy organisation and play the long game, he says.

The momentum has been building for decades overseas. In 1986 Rick Doblin, a trainee therapist with a PhD from the Harvard Kennedy school, founded the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (Maps) to overturn the decision by the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to criminalise MDMA use. Initially a drug used in the 1970s by American therapists to enhance their clients feelings of trust and openness during sessions, MDMAs effects had become too popular to contain and, like LSD a couple of decades before, it broke through into wider culture leading to a blanket ban on recreation and research.

Doblin, a shambling sun-bear of a man with a perpetual smile, initially launched an appeal against the DEA decision through its own legal channels, and won. However, the DEA disregarded the ruling so Maps opted for medicalisation taking MDMA through several phases of clinical trials to establish its safety and therapeutic efficacy. I just knew from personal experience, from working with patients, that MDMA was so different from the way the government was trying to present it, so much better, that eventually the truth would come out, says Doblin. Did I think it would take 32 years? No.

It was only last year that the full results of six phase-two trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy were published, in Lancetand the Journal of Psychopharmacology. Of 107 patients with treatment-resistant PTSD who were administered the drug in two or three seven-hour sessions, with therapists, eye mask and music, 68% were in remission at the 12-month follow-up. Its about twice the success rate for the gold-standard treatment for PTSD: prolonged exposure therapy.

MDMAs therapeutic properties emerge from a combination of factors. Its most acute effect is to significantly dampen the activity of the amygdala, the part of our brain that regulates fear response. While it relieves anxiety and stress, MDMA also sharply increases the brains supply of serotonin and oxytocin, the neurotransmitters primarily responsible for mood regulation and social bonding.

A recent study in Nature suggested that MDMA can temporarily return the brain to an early development state of exuberant brain plasticity that fosters renewed social reward learning. The American psychiatrist Julie Holland says: You basically couldnt design a molecule that is better for therapy than MDMA.

A former firefighter, Ed Thompson, was overdosing nightly on a combination of booze and benzos when he entered a Maps trial in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. The trauma of losing nine colleagues as they fought a warehouse fire beside him, the worst firefighting loss in the US since 9/11, was compounded by a chronic illness afflicting his twin baby daughters.

My body felt like it was going to explode from the inside out … I was underwater and drowning, he told me last year. After three all-day MDMA sessions with two therapists beside him, he no longer met the criteria for PTSD. It was just an incredible time of healing.

In 2017 the US Food and Drug Administration declared MDMA a breakthrough therapy, and Doblin expects it to be a legal medicine in the US again by 2021. Phase-three trials have begun at 15 sites in the US, Canada and Israel and will roll out across Europe this year after agreement with the European Medicines Agency.

In Australia a proposal for an MDMA trial with just four participants is slowly moving through the approvals process, this time at Edith Cowan University in Perth. Stephen Bright, senior lecturer in addiction studies at the university and vice president of Prism, says it supports the trial, and the wider community is increasingly open to the idea. The public are generally receptive, he says. All the stuff Im talking about depression, trauma, addiction they have been touched by in some way. At the end of the day, the evidence says that psychedelic therapy is effective at treating a range of conditions.

Nigel Strauss, a Melbourne psychiatrist and trauma specialist who worked with Prism on its failed proposal, says the way psychedelic therapy works is a challenge to prevailing medical assumptions. Psychedelic drugs are a whole change of perspective, he says. These are meaning drugs, and the whole concept of meaning eludes people and they think its hocus-pocus. These are concepts that dont fit easily into medical science at the moment particularly in this country.

But something has shifted. In January St Vincents hospital in Melbourne announced that Australias first trial of psilocybin-assisted therapy for 30 people with terminal illnesses will start in coming months. It is believed the mind-expanding and mystical properties of the psychedelic experience might be especially effective at relieving the existential angst and hopelessness that often accompanies a terminal diagnosis. When youre working with psychedelics you can reliably expect these deeply embodied transformational moments, says Rosalind Watts, a clinical psychologist working on the Beckley/Imperial trial.

Williams, who is co-investigator on the St Vincents study, which Prism has helped organise, says what has been called the psychedelic renaissance overseas is more like the dawning of a new age in Australia, where there is no history of psychedelic research. Its definitely a major step forward because as long as we achieve positive results from the research, then we expect to move that into therapeutic practice in a period of time perhaps five to 10 years, he says.

Not everyone is so enthusiastic. Sandy McFarlane, the director of the centre for traumatic stress studies at the University of Adelaide, wonders if psychedelics researchers have been drinking the Kool-Aid: Adequate evidence from carefully controlled trials is yet to be published, particularly by individuals who are not advocates of the therapy. Let the data speak for itself as with any treatment.

Gillinder Bedi, a senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne who has previously run US studies of the pharmacology of MDMA, agrees that some advocates are a bit much: They are the true believers. Scientists are a little bit uncomfortable with the language that gets used. I dont think that [organisations like Maps] understand the effect of coming from the counterculture on the people outside it.

For Bedi their findings are almost too good to be true: The results Ive seen are unique the effects are really clear. Its just that theyve been in small studies and theyve been conducted by people who have massively vested interests in the whole thing Theres a part of me that goes, Why did your data end up so neat and nice? Im not sceptical about the rigour of the science, Im just confused more than anything.

But Bedi insists that contrary to its reputation MDMA is safe to use therapeutically: Its pretty clear now that we can administer it in a controlled environment with appropriate supervision pretty safely. Psychedelics studies exclude people with a history of psychosis or mania, as well as those with certain medical conditions that the drug effects could exacerbate. If its given to people who are well screened beforehand, those risks can be controlled.

The Prism team was cagey about the St Vincents study until the moment it was announced, but Williams has noticeably relaxed his attitude discussing psychedelics in the Australian context. I think theres been a broad shift in the public discourse, which has been this ongoing process, probably since the results of the clinical trials in the US and Europe were first communicated, he says. Its thanks to the great groundwork of Maps and others overseas that were at the point we are now at all.

A new non-profit called Mind Medicines Australia launches next month to coordinate training more therapists to meet the potential demand. Williams and Strauss are planning a study of psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression, modelled on UK research.

For more than a decade, the Beckley Foundation has developed groundbreaking psychedelic research in partnership with Imperial College London. They produced the first brain scans of the LSD and psilocybin experience which suggest that, rather than amplifying neural activity as expected, psychedelics appear to selectively inhibit the default mode network, which regulates executive brain function like a disciplinarian teacher. When psychedelics take it out of the picture for a period, a whole bunch of new connections and neural activity fires up like exuberant children, allowing a wider range of phenomena to reach conscious awareness. Brain scans of long-term meditators have shown the same pattern.

The novel neural connections facilitated in the psychedelic state can lead to lasting changes. A 2018 Beckley/Imperial study using data from their previous depression trial measured significant increases in the personality domain of openness three months after the single high dose of psilocybin.

It replicates similar findings from Johns Hopkins University in the US. Albert Garcia-Romeu, who is leading another Hopkins psilocybin study, told me that openness goes hand-in-hand with reductions in symptoms such as rigid negative thinking. [It] has shown association with overall happiness and quality of life, so in that regard I think it can be an important piece of the puzzle in terms of psychedelics therapeutic potentials, he says.

Ian Roullier, a participant in the Beckley study of treatment-resistant depression, described how he experienced it: Depression is a very narrow, restricted state and taking psilocybin really helps you to zoom out a lot more I felt a lightness within myself and more of a freedom. Like MDMA for PTSD, psilocybin has just been given breakthrough therapy status for treatment-resistant depression and large-scale trials are being rushed through across Europe.

For me, about an hour and a half after I lay down in New York, I took off the eye mask and sat up to a world transformed. For as long as I could remember there had been a wall of glass between the world and me, trapping me in a numb limbo that a litany of talk therapy and medications couldnt touch.

Like magic, the wall was gone. Everything I looked at had a new clarity and immediacy as I drank it in. It was as though an iron knot of tension in my forehead, which contracted my whole body in its clenching grip, had suddenly dissolved. I felt calm, confident and connected. I didnt feel like I was tripping I felt like myself for the first time in years. It was the purest relief Id ever known.

Almost three years later Im back living in Fremantle but its all changed. I had spent past Western Australian summers in bed, staring at the wall with the blinds down. This year Im up at five most mornings making the most of the rising sun: gym, swim, long walk on the beach, and in the studio by eight this morning to finish off my edits before uni. Id always wanted to write but the words wouldnt come, and while I still have to work bloody hard to keep the show on the road, its all flowing now.

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Monster hits by K-pop bands and Spanish-speaking rappers show its not necessary to sing in English to conquer the world, says Caroline Sullivan who writes about music for the Guardian

A band has attained a certain stature when its world tour consists of an imperial sweep through four continents, with just half a dozen concerts in each. The South Korea-based girl group Blackpink are currently midway through just such a jaunt next month, they arrive in Europe to play six dates (London and Manchester included).

Remarkably, this high-visibility procession is the first time the K-pop quartet have toured outside Korea or Japan; more remarkable still, theyve released just one album and a scant handful of tracks and while theyve made English-language videos, most of their material is in Korean or Japanese. Nonetheless, theyre adored by a worldwide fanbase, for whom language is no barrier. Recent industry figures underline the strength of the global music market, with some suggesting the place of the English language at the forefront of pop is diminishing.

Blackpink, whose most streamed single, Ddu-du Ddu-du, has had 735m views on YouTube, are the latest manifestation of what is looking like a baseline change in how pop is conveyed. Until recently, English was its lingua franca, and to sing in any other language relegated an artist to the second tier, successful only in their own region, unless they had a rare border-crossing novelty hit.

But in 2018 a bubbling linguistic pot came to the boil when worldwide breakthroughs by the K-pop boybands BTS and Monsta X, and Spanish-speaking rapper/singers J Balvin, Ozuna and Bad Bunny, all of whom make a point of performing in their own languages, upended convention. Blackpinks album became the first by a female K-pop group to reach Americas top 40 chart, and the most streamed song globally of 2018s last quarter was DJ Snakes Spanish-language Taki Taki. The idea that the public would listen only if they understood the lyrics? Wrong, it turned out.

The boyband BTS Photograph: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images

Whats more important is the feel of the tune as it spills out of a smartphone, not to mention the relatability of the artist (Ddu-du Ddu-du, for instance, asserts that Blackpink are pretty and savage, and if youre a 13-year-old Blink as fans call themselves whats not to love?). Even without the boost provided by the 40 million Americans who speak Spanish as their first language, Colombian Balvin and Puerto Ricans Ozuna and Bad Bunny would likely have made headway in the US by dint of releasing consistently exciting music. (Though Balvin has been spreading himself thin, collaborating with the likes of Liam Payne and David Guetta on tracks that are more marriages of brands than musical love matches.)

And Indias huge industry could be the next to see its artists claim new territory, writes Tim Ingham of Music Business Worldwide: Spotify is expected to launch in the territory in the coming weeks, with a heavy focus on striking up relationships with local artists. The firm recently inked a global content licensing deal with Indias biggest label, T-Series, which also happens to be the owner of the worlds second largest YouTube channel, with over 60.5 billion plays of its videos to date.

So, its farewell, then maybe to English as pops primary force. Perhaps it was inevitable: there are 7.5 billion people in the world, and only 5% 360 million are native Anglophones, meaning that it has ben punching far above its weight. The globalisation of pop feels, as do so many current cultural shifts, like a necessary redressing of the balance, and not an unwelcome one: having reviewed sold-out London shows by BTS and Monsta X last year, I can verify that you dont need to understand Korean to get it. (It helps that their music, and that of Blackpink, is an instantly recognisable tumult of electronic pop with rappy bits the musica franca of every teenager in the world.)

And yet not so fast. In listening to music, there are times when, for English speakers, only English will do. Its rhythms and intonations suit particular genres, notably rock and the singer-songwriter strand of indie, where wordplay and apt turns of phrase often crop up. Theres no real substitute, especially in gloomy moments, for listening to some familiar song and feeling that the songwriter knew exactly how you felt when they wrote those twisty little couplets. English might be ceding some of its supremacy, but the music businesss centre of gravity is still the US and the UK, and Anglophone musicians wont be turfed out of a job for a while yet.

Caroline Sullivan writes about rock and pop for the Guardian

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As we delegate more responsibility to technology to run our lives, we must regulate it, says the mathematician Hannah Fry

Robert Jones was driving home through the pretty town of Todmorden, in WestYorkshire, when he noticed the fuel light flashing on the dashboard of his car. He had just a few miles to find a petrol station, which was cuttingthings rather fine, but thankfully his GPS seemed to have found a short cut sending him on a narrow winding path up the side of the valley.

Robert followed the machines instructions, but as he drove, the road got steeper and narrower. After a couple of miles, it turned into a dirt track, but Robert wasnt fazed. After all, he thought, he had no reason not to trust the satnav.

Just a short while later, anyone who happened to be looking up from the valley below would have seen the nose of Roberts BMW appearing over the brink of the cliff above, saved from the 100ft drop only by the flimsy wooden fence at the edge he had just crashed into. Itkept insisting the path was a road, he told the Halifax Courier after the incident. So I just trusted it. You dont expect to be taken nearly over a cliff.

I can imagine Robert was left red-faced by his blunder, but in a way, I think hes in good company. When it comes to placing blind faith in a piece of software, his mistake was one were almost all capable of making. In our urge to automate, in our eagerness to adopt the latest innovations, we appear to have developed a habit of unthinkingly handing over power tomachines.

All around us, algorithms provide a kind of convenient source of authority: an easy way to delegate responsibility, a short cut we take without thinking. Who is really going to click through to the second page of Google results every time and think critically about the information that has been served up? Or go to every airline to check if a comparison site is listing the cheapest deals? Or get out a ruler and a road map to confirm that their GPS is offering the shortest route?

But already in our hospitals, our schools, our shops, our courtrooms and our police stations, artificial intelligence is silently working behind the scenes, feeding on our data and making decisions on our behalf. Sure, this technology has the capacity for enormous social good it can help us diagnose breast cancer, catch serial killers, avoid plane crashes and, as the health secretary, Matt Hancock, has proposed, potentially save lives using NHS data and genomics. Unless we know when to trust our own instincts over the output of a piece of software, however, it also brings the potential for disruption, injustice and unfairness.

If we permit flawed machines to make life-changing decisions on our behalf by allowing them to pinpoint a murder suspect, to diagnose a condition or take over the wheel of a car we have to think carefully about what happens when things go wrong.

Back in 2012, a group of 16 Idaho residents with disabilities received some unexpected bad news. The Department of Health and Welfare had just invested in a budget tool a swish piece of software, built by a private company, that automatically calculated their entitlement to state support. It had declared that their care budgets should be slashed by several thousand dollars each, a decision that would put them at serious risk of being institutionalised.

The problem was that the budget tools logic didnt seem to make much sense. While this particular group of people had deep cuts to their allowance, others in a similar position actually had their benefits increased by the machine. As far as anyone could tell from the outside, the computer was essentially plucking numbers out of thin air.


What is AI?

Artificial Intelligence has various definitions, but in general it means a program that uses data to build a model of some aspect of the world. This model is then used to make informed decisions and predictions about future events. The technology is used widely, to provide speech and face recognition, language translation, and personal recommendations on music, film and shopping sites. In the future, it could deliver driverless cars, smart personal assistants, and intelligent energy grids. AI has the potential to make organisations more effective and efficient, but the technology raises serious issues of ethics, governance, privacy and law.

From the inside, this wasnt far from the truth. It would take four years and a class-action lawsuit to get to the bottom of what was going on, but when the budget tool was eventually handed over for scrutiny, a hint of what we all have to fear from the unrestricted power of machine decision-making was revealed.

The algorithm was junk. The data was riddled with errors. The calculations were so bad that the court would eventually rule its determinations unconstitutional. It had, effectively, been awarding benefits at random. And yet, when dressed up as a slick and glossy new computer programme, the algorithm brought with it an air of authority that was difficult to argue against.

In the days before proper regulation of medicines, you used to be able to bottle up any coloured liquid and make a small fortune selling it as a cure-all. Today, in the still largely unfettered world of AI and algorithms, were seeing people make bold, unsubstantiated and sometimes irresponsible claims about their inventions.

Theres only one way to prevent this. I think its time we started treating machines as we would any other source of power. I would like to propose a system of regulation for algorithms, and perhaps a good place to start would be with Tony Benns five simple questions, designed for powerful people, but equally applicable to modern AI:

What power have you got?
Where did you get it from?
In whose interests do you use it?
To whom are you accountable?
How do we get rid of you?
Because, ultimately, we cant just think of algorithms in isolation. We have to think of the failings of the people who design them and the danger to those they are supposedly designed to serve.

Dr Hannah Fry is a lecturer in the mathematics of cities at University College London. Her book Hello World: How to Be Human in the Age of the Machine is out now

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Motor neurone disease and physics both played a part in her split from her husband Stephen Hawking, she says. She talks about the challenges they faced in their 30-year marriage and about how close The Theory of Everything was to reality

Here is Stephen Hawkings verdict on the movie about his marriage: it needed more science. And here is Jane Hawkings verdict: it needed more emotion. Those opposing views on The Theory of Everything, which brought Eddie Redmayne an Oscar and a Bafta for his portrayal of Stephen and Felicity Jones Oscar and Bafta nominations for her portrayal of Jane, reveal a great deal about not only the personalities of the worlds most famous scientist and his former wife, but also one of the major strands of difference in their relationship.

But the truth is that science is probably more absent from the film than emotion, because what the film represents is a triumph of Janes experience and persona after decades in which the family was viewed solely through the prism of Stephens genius, who as well as being the worlds best-known scientist is also the worlds best-known sufferer of motor neurone disease (MND).

Today there is an aura of unassuming achievement around Jane, who is sitting in the conservatory overlooking her garden in a quiet corner of Cambridge. Meeting her feels like fast-forwarding through time to meet an older Felicity Jones, so accurately did the actor represent her subject. But then, talking to Jane, it all turns on itself again: the reality was, she says, that she and Stephen met Jones and Redmayne when they were researching their roles, and was later astounded to realise how closely her mannerisms, gestures and speech patterns had been noted. When I saw the film, I thought: shes stolen my personality!

Jane Hawking: The difficulties of dealing with Stephens disease were much greater than they appear in the film.

Her relationship with Stephen started when both refused to be daunted by the fact that Stephen had just been diagnosed with terminal motor neurone disease. They ploughed into marriage in the face of his parents pessimism about its chances of success, and had three children. In the face of pressures that were almost too much to bear, and alongside her friendship with another man, they somehow kept their marriage together for a quarter of a century before ending it with a remarkable degree of equanimity.

Does the film present an accurate portrait of their marriage, which began at Trinity Hall in Cambridge in 1965?

The important thing is that the feelings, where they are there, are very much true to our experiences. So from an emotional point of view, its spot on. The only thing is that theyve had to minimise the strains and struggles, because in our real life the difficulties of dealing with Stephens disease were much greater than they appear in the film.

And, yes, the impression given in the film that she and Stephen managed to split up without too much acrimony and that Janes new partner and now husband, musician Jonathan Hellyer Jones, became part of their immediate family is indeed an accurate one (although for a long time after they met, their relationship was platonic).

Jane met Jonathan when, to give her a break from the constant demands of caring for Stephen, a friend suggested she should take up singing in the local church choir, run by Jonathan. It was 1977. The Hawkings, then parents of two young children, were living in Cambridge, where he was garnering a reputation as one of the most glittering scientists of his generation. Jane, though, was isolated and overwrought. How much were the demands on their marriage the product of Stephens disease without it, might they still be married today? Jane isnt sure: although his health was a huge strain, there were others. From the outset, Stephens eccentric family made no secret of the fact that they didnt think the marriage would survive.

Stephens mother once said to me, We dont like you because you dont fit into our family. On another occasion she learned by chance that the Hawkings were planning to move to Cambridge so they could be there when the marriage foundered, as they were sure it eventually would.

Jane and Stephen Hawking in 1974.

But it wasnt just about a lack of support from the wider family. The truth was, there were four partners in our marriage, says Jane. Stephen and me, motor neurone disease and physics. If you took out motor neurone disease, you are still left with physics. Mrs Einstein, you know, cited physics as a difference for her divorce …

During their marriage, she says, Stephen would retreat into himself. And, though he tried to explain physics to her, she always felt shut out of the world that was so crucial to him. But the stresses of MND were not solely or even mostly down to the physical difficulties of the condition; what brought even greater disruption to their lives was the advent of the carers who shared their home, who disapproved of aspects of their lives, and whose presence meant they could never have the privacy that every family needs to thrive.

They whispered about us and they undermined me, says Jane. Its clear the pain is still there. One of those nurses, Elaine Mason, went on to become his second wife, though the two later divorced. This is an episode of their lives Jane is reluctant to rake over, although it was this relationship that tipped the Hawkings into splitting up, rather than her relationship with Jonathan. Why did they carry on for so long, even after she had met Jonathan and become close to him? She says it never felt like a choice: she loved Jonathan and depended on him for support, but she absolutely loved Stephen as well.

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