Nigel Denning: Psychedelic Therapy & Integrative Psychology

In what ways do psychedelics help? Today, let’s explore the world of psychedelics, integrative psychology, mental health, the pandemic, and a whole range of other things.

My guest today is Nigel Denning. Nigel is a Counselling Psychologist in private practise, working with individuals, couples and families. He studied in Australia and overseas with many current leaders in psychological research and theories, including Dan Siegel, John Gottman, Alan Schore, the late Michael White, and the legendary, Stanislav Grof.

Nigel Denning: Psychedelic Therapy & Integrative Psychology Introduction

Now today we are going to be exploring the world of psychedelics. We are going to be exploring mental health. We are going to be looking at all sorts of issues around that and it’s a far-reaching conversation. It’s one that I’ve been looking forward to for many weeks since I was first introduced to our guests.

My guest today is Nigel Denning. He is a Counselling Psychologist in private practise, working with individuals, couples and families. Now, Nigel sees therapy as a joint and cooperative enterprise, which is a great foundation for any health practitioners who seem to have their clients or patients achieve their full potential. And Nigel is definitely into people achieving their full potential. He redefines integrative, putting it into a psychotherapeutic perspective.

He studied in Australia and overseas with many current leaders in psychological research and theories, including Dan Siegel, John Gottman, Alan Schore, the late Michael White and as well as the legendary, Stanislav Grof. Now we cover apart from the term integrative psychology and what that means, we talk about trauma, depression, psychedelic therapies, and we touch on the pandemic and a whole range of other things. I hope you enjoy this conversation I had with Nigel Denning.

Podcast Transcript

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:00:00] Now, before I start, I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which I am recording this podcast, The Gadigal People of the Eora Nation and pay my respects to their Elders past, present and emerging.

Hello and welcome to Unstress. My name is Dr Ron Ehrlich. Now today we are going to be exploring the world of psychedelics. We are going to be exploring mental health. We are going to be looking at all sorts of issues around that and it’s a far-reaching conversation. It’s one that I’ve been looking forward to for many weeks since I was first introduced to our guests.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:00:43] My guest today is Nigel Denning. He is a Counselling Psychologist in private practise, working with individuals, couples and families. Now, Nigel sees therapy as a joint and cooperative enterprise, which is a great foundation for any health practitioners who seem to have their clients or patients achieve their full potential. And Nigel is definitely into people achieving their full potential. He redefines integrative, putting it into a psychotherapeutic perspective.

He studied in Australia and overseas with many current leaders in psychological research and theories, including Dan Siegel, John Gottman, Alan Schore, the late Michael White and as well as the legendary, Stanislav Grof. Now we cover apart from the term integrative psychology and what that means, we talk about trauma, depression, psychedelic therapies, and we touch on the pandemic and a whole range of other things. I hope you enjoy this conversation I had with Nigel Denning. Welcome to the show, Nigel.

Nigel Denning: [00:01:47] Good day, Ron. Nice to meet you.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:01:48] Nigel, integrative is a term that I feel very connected with because I’ve been in health care, medicine, dentistry for a long time. But integrative takes a different meaning in your context. Can you share with us the context of integrative psychology? 

Nigel Denning: [00:02:05] Yeah, yeah, sure. And so an integrated approach to psychotherapy is a way of trying to look at all of the different psychotherapy, all 600 odd, different discrete models of psychotherapy and starting to think more about how we can apply the skills and knowledge and the information that we’ve got to best serve the individual needs of the individual patient. 

So it’s a way of trying to bring together wisdom, knowledge, research. So that rather than having a kind of a position where on a cognitive behavioural therapist and your psychodynamic therapist and we do different things, it’s about understanding what those differences are, how they can be best brought to serve patients generally, how they can help with our case conceptualisation treatment planning, using this incredible volume and richness of different methods and different approach. 

So an integrated approach is not eclecticism, it’s about systematically engaging different modalities for different times, for different conditions, and developing a more skilful way of drawing together these differences in the service of our treatments to get better outcomes for our patients and longer-lasting outcomes.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:03:27] I mean, you’ve been a psychologist for many years and your journey I mean, it must have been a journey of picking these things up as you go into your toolkit. Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to take this more integrative approach? 

Nigel Denning: [00:03:44] Well, I guess my early influences were from the kind of humanistic branches. So Kyle Rogers, then Michael White had a strong influence on me, the narrative therapist from Adelaide, from Dulwich. We really did a lot of work and both of those were talking about the opportunities, about strengths and really trying to help people find parts of themselves. 

And then kind of went down the path of the more treatment specific therapies like CBT, or ACT (Acceptance of Commitment Therapy), or Dialectic Behaviour Therapy. And I’ve trained in each of those modalities as well. So what you end up with is a kind of an ability to kind of see the experience of the other, understand it’s the presenting problem, and then work different techniques for different kinds of parts of the problem. 

So it’s really just a culmination of many, many years of studying, and I’ve done a lot of work in seeking out leaders in the field and going to study with them. So, you know, when I see your modality, I try to work with the property, the principal developer of that modality and just give get a really close understanding of what that looks like. So in more recent years, I’ve done quite a bit of work with Dan Siegel, who’s developed something called Interpersonal Neurobiology. So trying to kind of create some linkage between the brain and the underlying biology and these psychological theories. So that we’re… The study has to kind of understand the more nuanced relationship between mind and brain. 

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:05:23] It’s so interesting because from a health perspective, what we’ve been looking at is the connection between the gut and brain. And Interpersonal Neurobiology sounds like we’re staying to get down to the biochemistry of various mental states, which is so interesting, isn’t it? Because in, for example, depression or… Psychiatrists tend to reach for the prescription pad, and maybe that’s… Is that a fair assessment?

Nigel Denning: [00:05:49] Because of the way that psychiatry has been so medicalised, it’s not. It’s no longer compulsory in training to do a lot of psychotherapy training. So it’s by pharmacology is the primary modality, and the therapy is a sort of add on.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:06:05] And so but the most disturbing, I think as a consumer, I’m not, you know, of this kind of thing. It would be… Okay, if it’s a brain imbalance, what tests are done to establish that imbalance and how do we titrate our treatment? And it’s kind of alarming to know that’s actually not the case. Where does Interpersonal Neurobiology fit into that? How? How is that approach?

Nigel Denning: [00:06:33] Well, it’s using an understanding of developmental biology in the way that you know what, what would begin as heterozygotes. We start differentiating once you know, two half cells fuse and then we’re all of our thinking, all that being is premised on a biological underpinning. But that that whole developmental process from birth onwards is all held in a relational field. So, you know, the child doesn’t learn biological regulation without brokers and work as areas in the brain. 

The language centres of the brain don’t engage fully. If the child isn’t in a relationship, downregulation of hyperarousal doesn’t occur, so full modulation of the limbic brain doesn’t occur without a relationship. So what we’re talking about is the way that we emerge from our biology through relationship into this other kind of thing that we don’t quite understand called mind or consciousness, which somehow has a very close relationship with biology, but isn’t defined by it.

Nigel Denning: [00:07:42] So as an experienced meditator, for instance, you know what we see is, you know, we can through an act of will, choose to do something such as meditation, which then feeds back into our brain and changes the underlying biological structure of the brain so that the relationship between mind and brain is still one that philosophers are grappling with. 

And certainly, we don’t have a scientific detail and a great scientific understanding. So that is there’s something very clearly going on in a kind of feedback system. And so interpersonal neurobiology is really kind of speaking to the underlying biology, but trying to relate it to the psychological as well.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:08:28] It’s so interesting because I remember seeing the work of neuroscientist, David Eagleman, is in Canada anyway. He did a programme called The Brain, and he showed that children who were in Romanian orphanages for the first two years of their lives, which hadn’t even had any physical contact, let alone facial feed, was scarred or were scarred for life in those first two years. And I know the Jesuits have often said, “Show me the person at seven,” I think they said, “Show me a boy and I’ll show you the man.”

Nigel Denning: [00:09:03] I actually worked with some people who had adopted Romanian children, and when they’d gone through adolescence, extraordinary psychological illnesses, wounds that are being expressed. Because I didn’t get the whole idea of the Romanian babies to just use set up these orphanages and thought in very material terms. So the babies were fed and changed, but they were given no emotional engagement. 

And so what we now know is that the limbic brain where we’re effect is regulated, where all our social animal function comes from. It’s not for human consumption, but it is switched on through relationships. And there are seven or eight discrete circuits that create different ethics which help us socialise. And we need a human being. We need an adult human to engage that.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:09:56] Yes. And imprinted very early on in this stage. And I thought it was also very interesting in this time of botox that the inability of the child to facially mirror what is going on in the adult that they’re looking at is quite concerning.

Nigel Denning: [00:10:13] Yeah, yeah. Ed Tronick is an American researcher who does a lot of work. There’s some great YouTube footage of that reflective facial expression between a mother and a child. That’s his area of research. So how the maternal expression imprints on the infant expression, it’s quite fascinating watching he calls it, the “Still Face” paradox.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:10:35] Yes, of which sadly, there are too many around at the moment, I think. But we kind of met through The Mind Medicine Australia group, and, you know, I think we were both at that psychedelics summit that was held Psychedelic Therapy Summit that was held online but in Melbourne last year. You’ve had some experience with that, one of your mentors we talked about before we came on Stanislav Grof. I wondered if we might talk a little bit about that history, too, because it has such great potential yet politics seem to have got in the way? 

Nigel Denning: [00:11:11] Yeah, yeah. Yeah, exactly. So Stan was a psychiatrist working in Prague, that’s the former Czech Republic, and their hospital received a shipment of the medication from the Sandoz laboratory from Albert Hofmann, who invented LSD or discovered LSD accidentally. And Hofmann called this package to grass work, and they tested trial the medication and then started using it clinically.

And as a result of that work, Stan was invited to Harvard University to teach and was then invited to participate in the setting up of a psychiatric and forensic hospital as part of the research team in Maryland. And so they were doing quite a trailblazing work in the treatment of severe mental illness using psychedelics. And there was a huge movement. There were thousands of papers produced. 

There are these huge amounts of research going on through the 50s, late 50s through the 60s. And Richard Nixon was, well, it was a famous case where they were concerned about the impact of psychedelics on the general population. 

And I can’t remember the exact quote, but they’d never been a medicine discovered that changed the way people voted before. And so there’s just sort of a whole sort of social movement going on as well. And a lot of the work there, we’ve got these famous cases of people like Tim Leary, who was largely irresponsible in the way that he was using the medicine. 

Nigel Denning: [00:12:45] So essentially what was a good, strong clinical process going out into the community had an impact that wasn’t really understood, and the response was to shut everything down, criminalise it completely. So not to kind of educate, not to go through any kind of harm reduction processes and bring it back into the medical realm where it should sit. But instead, they just shut the whole project down so it’s 1971. And so the last clinical dose, I think, was administered by Bill Richards, in 1976. And that was the very last research project until the last decade or so.

We’ve seen a re-emergence, but Stan was a real trailblazer in that area and as frustrated with the medical system that he was operating from in those days remembering, we’re told, in the 60s and 70s, he, along with people like Anthony Sutitch and Abraham Maslow, you might be familiar with from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. 

They developed another model of psychology that they call Transpersonal Psychology and Stan with was around international conferences, brought together a whole lot of thinkers from shamanic traditions, from eastern traditions, from other sorts of experimental traditions, trying to explore the role of psychology beyond illness, beyond the personal, and into a kind of more of human potential, and that kind of led to the human potential movement.

Nigel Denning: [00:14:19] So, Stan, was a very, very and still is in his 90s now, but just a real trailblazer. And I was lucky enough to… my first mentor was a close collaborator of his. I met back in the 1980s, you know, 10 years later, I met Stan, so I had the pleasure of working with Stan over the last 30 years, and he was his Chief of Staff textbox. We actually ran a centre together in North County, in the United States and on the East Coast of North Carolina. 

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:14:54] And people’s sort of stereotypical view of LSD is that pop culture like, let’s just what do they call it, the drop in and drop out or something like that. Drop one drop out or something. But it’s fabulous. I mean, can you describe how that looks like within a clinical context? And what are some of the benefits of…

I mean, I know a lot of people have described it as one of the top five experiences in their lives, which would be very rare, no one would ever describe the treatment of any illness, be that mental or physical health as the top five experiences of their lives. Tell us a little bit about that in a clinical setting. 

Nigel Denning: [00:15:37] Yeah, that’s the top five experiences came from The Good Friday experiments and Walter Pahnke, who administered a dose of psilocybin, and Rick Doblin, the Head of the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies in the United States, tracked down the people who participated in that study. 30 years later, they were still saying that you know, about 80% of them that psychedelic experience was one of the most important, five most important experiences in their life.

What we get with psychedelics is some interesting work by a researcher from Britain called Robin Carhart-Harris, who’s recently moved to the United States. He talks about something called the default mode network, and this is what this is where, you know, this kind of interesting intercept between biology and psychology starts to occur. And what he is hypothesising is that, and there are some neurological studies that support this idea when someone’s locked in a serious state of non-responsive depression. 

They’ve been suffering their whole lives and nothing seems to work. What the idea is is that somehow their brain has adapted to the environment in such a rigid way that there’s no possibility of shift or change. And so that they’re kind of trapped in a pattern of neural linkage that’s been developed and established over usually over many years, but can happen more spontaneously.

Nigel Denning: [00:17:09] And so when we introduce a psychedelic in a therapeutic container. So what I meant by that is that the person that’s being given the psychedelic has met a therapist. They built a relationship with that therapist. That therapist understands the history of the patient from birth to now. Understands any traumas that have occurred and any difficulties, any problems in their environment. So they have, and they’ve established trust. 

The therapist is also explained a lot of both the positives and negatives that can occur through a psychedelic experience. So the person’s well-established, well-primed to then take the medicine just before they’re not in the talk session, before the medicine, the second therapist is introduced because we never do this one on one, and that’s because the length of a psychedelic session can be quite long. I mean, depending on the medicine, they can run up to eight hours and just sitting with someone, as a therapist, for eight hours is exhausting.

Nigel Denning: [00:18:22] So having a colleague in there is useful, but it’s also so when we try and work with male-female dyads because when someone goes into a psychedelic state, we can’t predict what will emerge from that. And so having a male and female present just allows for any kind of support that may be necessary if issues come up. If there’s a trauma related to one gender, then you’ve got someone else there to kind of help mitigate it. 

But what happens in the psychedelic session is new opportunities for brain linkage emerge. We’re drawing on people who will be familiar, probably now after the popularisation of neuroplasticity, and we go through a process called neurogenesis for up to five days after the delivery of the psychedelic medicine. And what this is, it’s the establishment of new pathways, new potential linkages, heaves losses neurones that fire together wire together.

Nigel Denning: [00:19:22] So what we get is this surge of new linkages occurring and so the therapeutic task is to really support that and allow that subjective emergence because everyone’s different. So we have to allow particularly in that five-window, five days of neurogenesis. 

We need to support the emergence of new patterns. And you’ll say this is what when people say in psychedelic experience was one of the best in their life. What they’ve experienced there is a completely spontaneously different way of experiencing the world. And for them, it’s kind of lingered on. 

And so in therapy, what we’re trying to do is when, when people have these new experiences and they may not always be positive, they may just have a new experience of how to approach some traumatic experiences. But we’re creating this newness and we’re trying to then support that in the therapy. In order to create this, this new set of opportunities, a new set of linkages. 

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:20:24] So the default mode network in a trauma case stops those linkages from occurring and the therapy opens up to like frees up the default mode network? 

Nigel Denning: [00:20:38] Yeah. Correct. Correct. The default mode network is a sort of the part of the structures, the linkages in our brain that we’d be familiar with when we are kind of daydreaming. It’s a sort of resting place of connections. And it’s not quite unconscious. It’s not quite fully conscious. It just kind of sits there as a resting kind of place. And when people don’t respond to psychotherapy, it’s usually because that whole structure is rigid. 

So when someone suffering from trauma, they’ve gone into a response to a situation or circumstance that they don’t have an option of dealing with, they just get stuck in singular or set of responses to that experience, and they don’t move out of it. And that’s the real tragedy of something like PTSD. It’s like being trapped within the past.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:21:33] It’s interesting because I’ve been interested in chronic musculoskeletal pain for most of my professional life. And the key factor there is that muscles have memory and that memory can go on for a lifetime. And to hear you and that’s about an injury, a trauma or an accident. And it’s interesting to hear you now on a psychological level, say we have these trapped neural linkages where we just go round and round and round and we just can’t seem to escape from them. It’s like a release mechanism of opening up that default mode network.

How sad that this has and continues to be still, I mean, I know through Mind Medicine Australia and I’d recommend this site to anybody listening because I think it’s a great organisation. I think we both agree on that. But sadly, the Australian Therapeutic Goods Association has recently not approved its use. And that was somewhat frustrating, isn’t it?

Nigel Denning: [00:22:33] Yeah, yeah. And we’ll go out that again. So what I now run my own medicine institute. So we’re a structure that’s come out of Mind Medicine Australia. And I run it with my partner, Dr Tra-ill Dowie, specifically to hold the clinical and educational component of the work. Because Mind Medicine Australia is a very broad-based charity that’s very much interested in social change and advocacy. And so Peter and Tania saw the need for a more clinically governed, probably more conservative approach to the work as well.

And so what we’re trying to suggest to the TGA is that we are really working hard at making sure that we are training clinicians in an understanding of the nuances of this work, that we’re taking this very, very responsibly and that we understand the need for very, very structured clinical, ethically governed, scientifically governed approaches and practises in this work. 

As we’re discovering and exploring a medicine that we don’t fully understand. We don’t fully understand the mechanisms, we don’t fully understand the impact on consciousness. So but you know, that’s the exploration of science, isn’t it?

Nigel Denning: [00:23:47] That’s what’s so brilliant about the scientific method we work, we move into what we don’t understand systematically because we know that there are benefits here. We know that there are huge benefits in all of the trials around the world, both in the previous iteration in the 50s and 60s and in the more recent iteration of research. 

All the trials are showing really positive. It’s not a panacea, it’s not, you know, the magic pill. It’s not going to fix everyone, people, not everyone benefits, but when it benefits treatment-resistant patients, it can be quite spectacular on its results. So we need to understand that. We need to systematize it.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:24:27] Wouldn’t it be nice, though, Nigel, if every medication that the TGA approved was held up to the standard that we need to know everything about its safety and efficacy and be sure that there are no side effects? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the TGA were extending that to all medications? But let’s not go down that path too far. It’s good to hear that you and Dr Tri-all Dowie, who’s also coming onto the podcast, I’m really looking forward to talking to him, doing this Mind Medicine Institute. 

And, you know, it sounds like a course I might be doing in saying 10 years ahead too. He knows, but trauma is such a huge and growing problem. Can you talk to us a little bit about trauma? How do you define it? You know, what effects can it have? It’s a really big issue, isn’t it? 

Nigel Denning: [00:25:15] Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Trauma, trauma as we understand it is really an experience that cannot be incorporated, that may be the simplest way to kind of explain it. So something has happened to someone that their mind, their brain is unable to fully process. So the way they show the complexity of the human brain and mind work is that that unprocessable experience simply gets hived off into a lack of like a filing system in the brain. And what then happens is people forget how to get there. 

So what that means is that thing continues to influence their present behaviours without them necessarily knowing exactly how it links, and so it’s like a ghost of the past. They’re going into the future and into the present and just stalking people, influencing their behaviour, influencing their reactivities based on something that is no longer active.

Nigel Denning: [00:26:25] It can happen systematically through something we call and it’s not recognised in the DSM or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Psychological Disorders. It is in the ICD, the European manual complex trauma where things happen developmentally in childhood. We either get to too much of one thing or not enough of another. And that sets up all sorts of vulnerabilities for someone who goes off to war zones or is assaulted. 

So we get this kind of linkage between the kind of developmental vulnerability and adult experience that compounds the impact of trauma. But it all comes back to the same thing that experiences were unable to be integrated at the time that they could, whether that’s continuously through childhood or through a singular event like a major catastrophe or an assault.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:27:16] And it’s a very personal experience, isn’t it? I mean, when we start comparing one to the other, it doesn’t really work like that when we’re talking about trauma.

Nigel Denning: [00:27:25] No, no. That’s right. Because, you know, we can all, we can, 10 people can go through the same experience and you know, two of them can be fine with it. Neither of them can be impacted by it. We discovered this years ago, Dr James Pennebaker from the University of Austin, was exploring critical incident debriefing where there was wisdom at one point where, you know, wherever there was like a train wreck or something, you know, a whole phalanx of counsellors would descend on the disaster and start talking to people that processing.

And what they discovered is that for a number of people that were being processed in that way, rather than helping them to integrate the experience, what they were doing was rigidifying, creating a traumatic response. So what we’ve learnt since then is that we provide immediate caress for people that have gone through disaster, but create and normalise the opportunity to just talk to someone in the days and weeks following, but we don’t impose that on them. 

We make that an opportunity. And that way the person makes that subjective choice depending on their level of distress. And that way, we can help work through the subjective differences, too to the same experience.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:28:42] Yeah, we were talking before we came on about stress, and obviously, it’s a major focus of this podcast. But you know, I… And I’ve written a book called The Life Less Stressed. So, you know, I’ve always sort of thought of stress as either fight or flight and rest and digest. But the work of Stephen Porges and Polyvagal Theory adds a third dimension to that, doesn’t it? 

Because when people are faced with a traumatic event, often that said, “Well, why didn’t you run? Why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you just, why don’t you just lie there?” And there’s actually a neurological explanation for that. Can we talk a little bit about that Polyvagal Theory?

Nigel Denning: [00:29:23] Yeah, yeah. I mean, there are some anatomical issues around the Polyvagal Theory. So I’m not an anatomist, so I won’t go there. But I mean, Bruce Perry also talks about this. We’ve got Alan Shore talking a lot about this as well. So there are this different sources for this. And Dan Siegel in his Interpersonal Neurobiology talked a lot about it as well.

So biologically, we begin as a hyper-aroused little animals. You know, like at birth, human beings can’t do much. They wriggle toward, wriggle away and that’s about it. You know, in the first days, we had to learn our reflexes. We have to learn how to organise vision in the first weeks and months of life. We learn how to hear and then we learn how to regulate ourselves. The thing is if you look at, say, a baby zebra, a foal being born, they’re up and moving within a few hours, and the herd is supporting them and they’re off. 

Nigel Denning: [00:30:26] Now, human beings are dependent for years. And we start with an amygdala so that’s the part of our brain, a little walnut-shaped thing on each side of our head around our ears. The amygdala is the main organ that regulates fear response and survival response. So fly, fight, freeze and we’ve got a hippocampus partially formed at birth. 

So at first, we just upregulated little animals wanting to survive, totally dependent on the neurological structures of the adult to either down regulators or leave us in a constantly upregulated state. If that adult doesn’t have the skill, ability, availability to provide that neurological downregulation. So we stay in this upregulated state and we’re vulnerable. We adapt to it. We find ways to kind of operate in this hyper-aroused sort of state.

Nigel Denning: [00:31:26] And that’s how we kind of, that’s a cause of biological basis of a lot of suffering for people. It’s the fact they haven’t learnt, they haven’t been shown because I haven’t had the right relational feel. And this is where therapy comes in. This is the corrective experience in therapy. We teach people how to downregulate and we teach people how to engage processes in their brain and in their minds to help down-regulate that wild animal hyper arousal that we’re all subject to.

Now, the problem in trauma or in any psychological suffering is when the upregulation, the hyperarousal response of flight fight isn’t working, we can’t fight our way out of it. We can’t run away from it. We can’t go there. The secondary and the more powerful response is downregulation hypo arousal. 

Now, the little rabbit will do that regularly when it’s out grazing. And you know that it intuits the hawk above. It will go into a state of freeze and… its muscles. It sits in something called striatic anxiety. With this tensing of muscles and a change of heart rate, change of breathing and the animal is just frozen. And that gives them an opportunity for the predators not to see it an opportunity to survive.

Nigel Denning: [00:32:43] There’s a secondary down regulatory mechanism, however, when the animal is attacked and it can’t get away, it’s about to die, organs start to shut down and it creates a death-like state. And this is what Dan Siegel calls the “Dorsal Dive.” The dorsal vagal system shuts down organs, and that gives one last opportunity for that animal to survive because a predator in the wild will often lose interest in an animal once it stops fighting and struggling and will leave it for later. 

And so that animal gets that one last experience to open its eyes, make sure the predator is not there. Jump up, shake off all the cortisol that it’s switched off these organs. And you see this in some of the National Geographic videos, where an animal escapes a predator, they shake, they quiver, and then they runoff. Human beings, unfortunately, due to the complexity of our minds, often don’t get the opportunity to shake off those traumatic kinds of events and they stay ossified. And that’s one of the problems that we face when we’re working in therapy. 

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:34:00] One of the things I was going to ask about Mind Medicine Institute, you know. You mentioned that you and Tra-ill Dowie are putting this together. Can you describe a little, and there’s training involved, I wondered if you might just share with us what kind of a programme is that, that prepares a practitioner for this kind of therapy?

Nigel Denning: [00:34:20] One of the training that our flagship at the moment is a Certificate in Psychedelic Assisted Therapy. And what we’re trying to respond to, in part, is the TGA’s concern that by rescheduling this medicine, there are not enough practitioners out there that understand it. 

So we’ve got a 16-week programme where we have an international faculty and many of the researchers who date back to the first legal iteration of this work. So long, long histories of working in this field, understanding both the positives and negatives of it, and we bring that training in. We also incorporate an experiential component.

We use holotropic breathwork as a non-ordinary state experience so that we can legally talk about what it’s like to come to intercept the default mode network, to have a different experience with a healthy group. We’re not talking about this being therapeutic, it’s experiential training. And so we help people understand the nuances so that the training is structured like a trial where we go through a whole process of setting up preparation and helping people understand what this state change is all about, leading them through a state change experience, helping them integrate it.

Nigel Denning: [00:35:34] Modern Medicine Institute is also building structures around ongoing professional development and supervision to support people that have come through the training. So it’s not just now you’re training, now got to do what you like. We’re saying let’s really build a structured and supportive community of practitioners so that we can bring this work through together. 

This isn’t the work that’s going to be done by one person leading from the front. This is work that’s going to require interdisciplinary teams to talk together about their respective wisdom, knowledge and experience so that the doctors can talk to a psychiatrist, can talk to psychologists, can talk to psychiatric nurses or chiropractors, and we can build an intelligent community that can hold complexity. 

And we’re building other training to support that skill set. So training around techniques like mentalization and medical mission and collaboration and really building strong and developmental psychology. So building a strong educational container to support the clinical emergence of this as a practise.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:36:47] Now you mentioned holotropic breathing and I think that came about as a response to making psychedelics illegal but still wanting to achieve similar results. Can you talk to us a little bit about holotropic breathing?

Nigel Denning: [00:37:02] Yeah, yeah. So when Stan Groff was when they’re training institute, their experimental institute was closed with the LSD research in Maryland 1871 Stan was invited down to S-1, which is a facility on the west coast of the US, where a lot of emergent kinds of interest was coming. Their head of staff when Stan took over was Fritz Perls, the man who developed the Gestalts Therapy. So this was a very vibrant kind of community of therapists and interested people. Gregory Bateson actually died of excellence.

Gregory Bateson, the founder of Systems Theory Cybernetics. So this is a very dynamic, intellectual kind of and experiential environment that Stan went into. There are a lot of people they were bringing Eastern practitioners in as well. So and in the east, breathwork has been there forever – Pranayama in the Hindu traditions, [Inaudible 00:38:04] in Middle Eastern traditions and their different kind of traditions. 

And Stan and his wife, Christina, just saw the effect of breath and went, “Oh, that’s similar to what we were, the experiences that we were getting with the LSD. Let’s develop it.” And so it was a completely, completely independently defined derived process that uses a combination of relaxation, accelerated and deep breathing, music, and relational support to bypass the default mode network to create new opportunities to experience self.

Nigel Denning: [00:38:41] It’s a very interesting tool, hasn’t had as much systematic research is probably it deserves. But Robin Carhart-Harris, the guy I was talking about before the default mode network theory, is now researching holotropic breathwork because it’s a great analogue for people who don’t want to take other medicines or obviously can’t because they’re illegal at the moment. 

But even in a trial situation, some people, you know, can get the altered state because when you’re doing the breathwork, unlike psilocybin or LSD, the breathwork gives you choice. You can always come out of the state because it’s something that you’re consciously and organically doing through accelerated deep breathing.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:39:28] Is the whole a traffic risk. What would the Holy Tropic breathwork be? A sort of training wheel version of psychedelic therapy to give people confidence that they could go somewhere that they may not have been before…

Nigel Denning: [00:39:40] Exactly. 

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:39:40] I was going to ask you and I will ask you now anyway because we’re still talking is the focus open particularly over the last 20, 30 years of the individual? The rights of the individual have become paramount, and I think..

Nigel Denning: [00:39:55] It’s their obligation.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:39:56] Yeah. And I think some wonderful things have come from that, you know, gay rights, women’s rights, the right of the child, the child, you know, domestic… And all these things are very positive if we focus on the individual. But social media has allowed us to take that focus on the individual to another level.

Nigel Denning: [00:40:15] Well, this is part of why Tri-all and I are so, so absolutely fixed on really talking about a developmental model, because in the West, developmental psychology generally follows the work of Piaget, who sees who stops theorising in adolescence. So what of all our rights are doing is kind of elevating, you know, the 16-year-old to the ultimate kind of standard in our society. And that’s the kind of emotional regulatory level that we allow our leaders to occupy.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:40:57] Wow.

Nigel Denning: [00:40:58] So we’re not talking about how do we go through development as adults, how do we measure it? How do we talk about it? How do we see it? If we were that mature as a culture, Vladimir Putin would never become a leader. Donald Trump would never become a leader because their developmental failings would be so obvious that we would recognise that by giving someone like that power, you know what could possibly go wrong? 

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:41:28] Well, I’ve often thought that you know, I found the election of Donald Trump disturbing enough. But what I found far, far more disturbing was that after four years of Donald Trump, actually, 10 million more people voted for him than did the first time. And yes, Biden won. And that’s okay, that’s fine. But that was probably the most disturbing thing of all and the need for, did you say social evolution or revolution?

Nigel Denning: [00:41:57] Evolution. We’ve had enough of revolution. We realise, hopefully, that brutalising each other to create change probably isn’t the type of change we need. 

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:42:08] You know, it’s so interesting too, Nigel, that I’ve never, ever thought of the theory of evolution as a political statement. But it is so obviously is. I mean, the survival of the fittest. The selfish gene is a beautiful moment for neoliberalism and capitalism and all of that. And yet something wonderful happened when two individual cells came together and cooperate, not to mention 50 trillion of them.

Nigel Denning: [00:42:37] Exactly, exactly. And that’s, you know, that’s really our core message in line. You know, take responsibility for connection because you can’t go into a non-ordinary state and not feel like the people that get value from it. I should say, are the ones that feel some form of connection. That could be a connection with self, could be a connection with others, or could be a connection with the cosmos. 

But what they get is a connection. And our job as therapists is to help hold that in their personality structure on the other side of the state change. And then what you’re doing is you’re holding people at a higher level of organisation. You’re holding people at that level of awareness that we are connected. 

Looks like if I’m gouging everything I can to create an empire for myself, a whole bunch of people are going to suffer. And if I don’t care about that and if I continue with the selfish gene or this, you know, survival of the fittest, we’ll go the way that most species go.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:43:45] Yeah, you know, you’ve articulated so many great ideas and in messages here, I wondered it just finally taking a step back from your role as a psychologist because we are as individuals on a health journey through life in this modern world. I wondered if you might tell us what you thought was the biggest challenge for an individual on that journey. 

Nigel Denning: [00:44:06] I suppose, you know, it goes back to Socrates know thyself. Well, now that that that’s the biggest challenge for any human being on this planet. And if we do know ourselves, then we start to realise that we can do extraordinary things. We’ve got extraordinary obligations to our community as well.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:44:25] Wow, that is fantastic. Nigel, thank you so much for joining us today. I’ve so enjoyed talking to you and look forward to actually exploring Mind Medicine Institute and some of the wonderful things you guys are doing. Thank you so much. 

Nigel Denning: [00:44:39] Beautiful. Thanks very much, Ron. Lovely to meet you. 


Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:44:45] Well, what a wonderful episode that was, I mean, I could have sat and talked to Nigel for hours, and hopefully one day I’ll get that opportunity. I’ll certainly explore Mind Medicine Institute and the wonderful things that they’re doing, talking about social evolution. I mean, is there a need for that? 

As we have as we just talked through there about the individual and how the focus has been on the individual, and that comes with great responsibility. And this ties so much into some of the other podcasts we’re doing with elder indigenous people about indigenous knowledge and what we can learn from lessons from the past. And we have so much to learn.

And this whole idea of psychedelic therapy, which I first attended a film put on by Mind Medicine Australia, which explored three individuals’ experiences with post-traumatic stress. And these were long intractable conditions for these individuals and their own experience through these guided psychedelic therapies and the exciting possibilities there. 

And for therapy, particularly a therapy focussed on mental health, to have 80% of its individuals who’ve undergone that therapy describe it as one of the top five experiences in their lives, even 20 or 30 years after the therapy, it’s quite an extraordinary statement.

And the default mode network is such an interesting one because it’s also an area of the brain that is the focus of meditation when we meditate. It kind of allows the default mode network to make more connections. Those neural linkages, which we get trapped in and many of us to, you know, something happens at work and you think about it at night or something traumatic has happened to you and it just goes round and round and round in your head and you’re trapped. Those neural linkages are trapped, and we need to connect with other parts of our brain and having that done in a guided and structured way is a very, very powerful tool.

I was very excited to have been introduced to Mind Medicine Australia over two years ago. I attended the summit last year, which was fabulous. I am definitely going to be doing that course at some point in the next year or so, and I’m very keen to connect with some of the people on that faculty who were brilliant. Tri-all Dowie will be joining us in another podcast coming up. I’m hoping to connect with many indigenous elders or people in the indigenous community so that we can learn from that 65000-year-old culture.

So we have so much to learn about connecting. Not just with ourselves, not just with each other, not just with our community, but connecting with the land, connecting with the planet because we are all connected so we are all affected. Look, so much in that episode. I hope this finds you well. Until next time. This is Dr Ron Ehrlich. Be well.



This podcast provides general information and discussion about medicine, health, and related subjects. The content is not intended and should not be construed as medical advice or as a substitute for care by a qualified medical practitioner. If you or any other person has a medical concern, he or she should consult with an appropriately qualified medical practitioner. Guests who speak in this podcast express their own opinions, experiences, and conclusions.