‘Long-lost best friends’: the longevity movement finds psychedelics

<span>Illustration: Marta Parszeniew/The Guardian</span>
Illustration: Marta Parszeniew/The Guardian

When Neşe Devenot was a child, she had intrusive thoughts about death. She lay awake at night filled with the awareness of being alive, and couldn’t process how she would be dead someday.

When Devenot, a psychedelic humanities researcher and lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, had her first psychedelic experience, she watched a snowflake fall. Her vision zoomed in close as it melted into the ground.

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“I was hit with this expansive lived sense of the fact that things just keep going in new forms,” she said. “One thing goes away and it allows something else to be. It completely changed my obsessive loops that I’ve had since I was a small child.”

This kind of experience is common, Devenot said: people who take psychedelics often report feeling connected to the larger cycles of life. In 2015, the journalist Michael Pollan wrote in the New Yorker about a landmark New York University study on the use of psilocybin for end-of-life anxiety in terminal cancer patients, which brought psychedelic research back into the public eye.

Yet in early November, a very different message reigned at a 1920s-era ice factory turned indoor film studio in Miami. The tech entrepreneur Bryan Johnson appeared on a large screen, wearing a black T-shirt that read “DON’T DIE”. Johnson is best known for Blueprint, his longevity protocol designed to slow ageing, and increase years alive. (People can read a PDF of the protocol for free online, and purchase his custom olive oil.) Johnson said he reduced his speed of ageing by about 31 years through adherence to a strict diet, supplement and sleep regimen. (He also received his son’s blood plasma, and rejuvenated his penis through shock therapy.)

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That day, Johnson was sharing Blueprint at a conference called Wonderland, hosted by the company Microdose. Launched two years ago, Wonderland initially focused on the business and finance of psychedelics, compounds being researched as treatments for a wide variety of mental health conditions. This year the conference split its attention nearly 50/50 and included over two dozen panels on longevity. Its tagline was updated to “Psychedelics. Longevity. Mental Health”. Sessions covered the longevity market and investment landscape, and different medical longevity approaches and research.

“There was very clear enthusiasm in the intersection between the groups,” said Aubrey de Grey, a biomedical gerontologist and one of the first high-profile scientists to advocate for preventing or reversing ageing. He was at the conference to give a talk on rejuvenation interventions in middle-aged mice that his organization, the Longevity Escape Velocity Foundation, is working on. (De Grey, previously the chief science officer of the Sense Research Foundation, was removed after an independent investigation found he made offensive sexual comments to two female biotech entrepreneurs.)

In the past five or six years, psychedelic conferences have commonly featured booths for ketamine clinics, microdosing, nootropics, energy healing or South American retreats. But this time, I also saw advertisements for longevity clinics and “synthetic immune system technology” to extend healthspan – the healthy years during a person’s life. I overheard mentions of mushroom clinical trial results and “shamanic investing”, but also saw a proposed plan called “How to make everyone live to 120 by 2050”.

Dave Asprey, author and the inventor of bulletproof coffee, told a crowd how he is going to live to at least 180 – the keto diet is involved, as is forgiveness – and promoted his neurofeedback program, which gives live visual or audio cues of the electrical activity in a person’s brain. It costs $16,000.

What explains the crossover of these two worlds? Longevity proponents I talked to offered a few explanations – most simply, that psychedelics could improve health or lifespan by alleviating the symptoms of mental illnesses. There are some early suggestions that psychedelics can have physical effects like reducing inflammation or increasing brain chemicals and connections, which might affect longevity too.

The two fields share analogous logistical and regulatory woes. Psychedelics are still mostly illegal, and the FDA doesn’t consider ageing a disease, so it’s difficult to design clinical trials to tackle a condition that isn’t recognized. Pharmaceutical and drug development in these areas therefore takes time and faces considerable hurdles. As a result, the market in both fields is growing around individual consumer goods, like supplements, nootropics or microdosing products.

But their cultural commonalities might be the more interesting link. Some think psychedelics show promise as treatment options for various mental health conditions. Others think they will have a larger sociocultural impact: as “cures” for mental illness, or a way to facilitate mediation in global conflict, or to alter people’s behaviors and attitudes regarding the climate crisis.

Likewise, within longevity, some focus on developing tools to increase healthspan. Others think we can set our sights higher: lifespan, the actual number of years we are alive and even beating back death altogether by stopping or reversing the ageing process.

Though this is one of the first psychedelic conferences I’ve seen that explicitly pair the two topics, parts of the psychedelic world have traditionally been interested in radical life extension and the idea that a better, more spiritually evolved existence – free of death and suffering – is just around the corner.

In a Zoom call the week after the conference, Johnson said: “Psychedelics and longevity seem like long-lost best friends.”

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It’s a straightforward enough argument: if psychedelics help mental health, and mental health is part of both health and lifespan extension, then psychedelics might be an important longevity tool. “On the biology side, there has always been a good understanding that the rate of ageing is very strongly influenced by stress,” de Grey said.

After Asprey’s talk, he told me that cognitive enhancement and radical human longevity are two of his biggest areas of interest.

Asprey recently started the 969 Longevity Fund for longevity startups – named after Methuselah, who lived to be 969 years in the Bible. Asprey said he has had conversations with his business partner about whether they would invest in psychedelics too. “The answer is if it makes brains better so they can live healthier, then yes,” Asprey said.

I’ve never been more bullish on the fact that I’m going to live to at least 180

Dave Asprey

“If somebody is mentally more at peace, more empowered, more enabled, wants to execute on their habits and is not depressed, that person is going to do all the right things to live longer,” said Halland Chen, a clinician also who calls himself the “Longevity Doctor”.

He largely sees psychedelics being used in the longevity space as a bodily and cognitive performance enhancer. As the legal landscape allows, Halland said that he would in the future incorporate psychedelics into his clinical practices. “What else is gonna give that deep level of insight?” Halland asked.

Psychedelics will be combined with other technologies like “reprogramming the epigenome, gene therapies, organ and body fluid replacement, mitochondrial replacement”, as well as lifestyle changes, according to Maximilian Unfried, a PhD student from the Kennedy Lab at the National University of Singapore Centre for Healthy Longevity. His bio says that his personal goal is to “live healthy and joyfully to 120 years”.

Asprey shared this sentiment. “I’ve never been more bullish on the fact that I’m going to live to at least 180,” he told me. “The tech is so much better now than even a few years ago, and it’s getting better and better.”

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Devenot isn’t convinced that psychedelics’ potential effects on health fully explain the overlap with longevity research. Plenty of other things are beneficial for mental and physical health, she said.

Instead, she thinks the psychedelic and longevity worlds both harbor a growing interest in a transhumanist future, or a future when humans evolve past our current biological capabilities through science. “I wouldn’t say it’s most people who are in the field, but there is a heavy contingent of folks that see psychedelics as coming into mass awareness, and being used as part of a transformation,” she said.

Jules Evans, a philosopher and director of the Challenging Psychedelic Experiences Project, wrote this year that “evolutionary spirituality” has long been present in the psychedelic-interested and longevity communities. This is the idea that once we take control of our evolution we can create “higher beings” through the use of psychedelics, or other technological advancements, he said.

Later in his life, Timothy Leary, the Harvard professor who said in 1967 to “Turn on, tune in, drop out”, also turned his attention to life extension through a philosophy he called Smile or “Space Migration, Increased Intelligence, Life Extension”. Christian Angermayer, a prominent investor in psychedelics, is also funding longevity companies. Angermayer writes on his website that he believes ageing can be “prevented, cured and reversed”. The billionaire Peter Thiel, who is also a psychedelic research investor, said that he plans to live to be 120, and has signed up for cryogenic services to freeze his body. (Leary did too, but pulled out before his death, choosing to be cremated instead.)

This year, the Longevity Science Foundation, a fund that committed $1bn over the next 10 years for research projects, is asking for proposals in psychedelics and longevity, and about how psychedelics might influence age-associated mental and brain diseases. Richard Skaife and Henri Sant-Cassia, co-founders of the Conscious Fund, an investment fund focused on psychedelics, recently started Longr, dedicated to longevity.

“We’re not necessarily trying to help people live forever,” said Toby Sorabjee, Longr’s chief operating officer. “Really, what we’re trying to do is to improve people’s health. You can’t truly have health from a longevity perspective, without mental health.”

There are a number of the spokespeople certainly in our sector who are prone to hyperbole

Gregory Bailey

Not all longevity funders are sold completely on the marriage to psychedelics, or what it means. Sorabjee worked in psychedelics before longevity, and thinks that longevity has a lot to learn from psychedelics, including on access. “Unaffordable treatments such as blood transfusions, cryogenic chambers, luxury all-inclusive offerings are quite similar to what you may find in the psychedelics clinic, and they’re inaccessible to 99% of individuals,” Sorabjee said.

Gregory Bailey, a co-founder and the executive chairman of the longevity company Juvenescence, said he hadn’t seen any data suggesting psychedelics have a direct anti-ageing effect. “Where I do think they play a significant role is in mental health, which is absolutely involved in a healthy trajectory, longevity and anti-ageing,” Bailey said.

He also worries that there are “zealots” in both sectors. “There are a number of the spokespeople certainly in our sector who are prone to hyperbole and allow the naysayers to take their shots at us,” Bailey said. “I think you see the same thing in the psychedelic community.”

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Psychedelics for radical life extension, not just improving health, is, Devenot said, “at odds in some ways with a lot of the core insight that people tend to report from psychedelics”, which can be a coming to terms with death, such as the experience she had.

“There’s a certain current in psychedelics which is like, psychedelics will help us accept death, and perhaps believe in the afterlife,” Evans said. “On the other side, there’s this transhumanist thing that says death is the worst thing that could happen, and we shouldn’t accept death.”

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Psychedelics, and the experiences they bring about, are thought to be influenced by set and setting: the mindset and environment people take them in. Devenot thinks these acceptance-of-death insights could decline, “discouraged by the set and setting of this longevity hype cycle”.

Johnson doesn’t see a tension between these two psychedelic-adjacent approaches to death. “You could say: die before you don’t die,” he said. (This phrase comes from an inscription above the door of St Paul’s Monastery in Greece, and was projected in drones at this year’s Burning Man festival.)

Furthermore, Johnson thinks that psychedelics could even help people to move beyond an acceptance of death. Psychedelics could help people aspire to beat death, he said, because they provide experiences that are radically different from everyday consciousness. “If you want to build a ship, don’t ask the crew to gather up wood,” Johnson said. “Teach them to yearn for the sea.”

When I asked Johnson if he would consider psychedelics part of his own longevity repertoire, he paused and then said: “They are my greatest teacher.”