Evening light is breaking through the leaves of London’s Battersea Park, where three friends – Amanda Feilding, Joe Mellen and Bart Huges – are tripping on acid.
It’s the height of the 1960s and the group are talking animatedly about their shared passions – the ego mechanism, cerebral circulation – as a pigeon named Birdie nestles into Amanda’s shoulder, cooing affectionately and pecking her neck.
But this isn’t just a bunch of hippy waffle. These sunny outings are an integral part of the trio’s pioneering investigations into LSD.
Fifty years later, those same hypotheses about psychedelics and brain function are finally being recognised by science.
Today Amanda is director of the Beckley Foundation, a think-tank which has been an instrumental force in global drug policy reform. At 74, she has proved a tireless and often lone voice fighting for research into the potential benefits of psychoactive substances.
Countess Feilding of Wemyss and March, to use Amanda’s full title, is a descendent of King Charles II. She still lives at Beckley Park in Oxfordshire, where she grew up; it’s a beautiful three-towered Tudor hunting lodge, complete with moats, and reachable only by a long, bumpy track. But like many people born into a British peerage, Amanda’s grand title didn’t equate to wealth.
“My childhood was quite unique because it was very isolated,” says Amanda, sitting in her wood-panelled study surrounded by books on drugs, science and spirituality. “We had absolutely no money, so no petrol, no heating, no school uniforms, anything like that. The whole upbringing was slightly on the wild side of life.”
Inspired by her godfather, a Buddhist monk, Amanda became fascinated by the mystics. After winning a science prize aged 16, she asked the nuns at her school for books on Buddhism and mysticism, but they refused – so she left to go travelling in the Middle East with no money and no passport, ending up in the entourage of a Bedouin Sheikh.
But it was back in London, during her early twenties, where she met Dutch chemist Bart Huges as well as Joe Mellen, whose writing on trepanation – drilling a hole in the skull to expose the brain – made him a cult figure.
Together they began to experiment with LSD, exploring how increased blood ow and ego suppression could help unlock the mind.
“[These early experiments] made me realise this was something worth dedicating my life’s energies to understand,” says Amanda who, in person, comes across as an eccentric aunt brimming with captivating tales.
Take the story of Birdie, for instance. She met him as a featherless fledgling before nursing him back to health with Weetabix and warm milk on a paintbrush. “We were definitely in love,” she says. “He was never in a cage and lived freely wherever I was, in the house or outside. Our relationship was so close, we had several indisputable telepathic communications.”
Together with Bart and Joe, Amanda’s research contributed to a wealth of scientific evidence on the effects of psychedelics. But as acid found its way out of the laboratory and into the hands of countercultural figures like Timothy Leary, the establishment panicked: LSD was banned, research was curtailed and Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs.
By then, Amanda began pursuing other avenues to enhance brain function. In 1970, she directed documentary Heartbeat in the Brain, trepanning herself on camera in an attempt to dispel stigma around the procedure.
She even ran for Parliament on the Trepanation for the National Health platform in 1979 and 1983. “It’s all part of the same intellectual process, exploring how cerebral circulation can be restored to the level it was in childhood, before the skull was sealed.”
In the early ’90s, Amanda promised Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who discovered LSD in 1943, that she would restart research into his “problem child”.
She got serious about activism, founding the Beckley Foundation in 1998, raising support for increasingly ambitious studies. In 2016, after years of regulatory hurdles, The Beckley/Imperial Research Programme published two groundbreaking studies.
One was the first UK government-funded research into psilocybin as a treatment for depression. Three months in, 42 per cent of patients remained depression-free.
Then, the world’s first LSD imaging study charted how the drug affects the brain, validating Amanda’s early hypotheses about a system now known as the Default Mode Network.
“That’s basically the ego mechanism that keeps us in control of ourselves. It centres our experience by altering perceptions and keeps everything normal.”
Both studies generated significant scientific and media attention around the world.
“I think it really was a changing of the tide,” says Amanda. Still convinced that psychedelics could help tackle some of the greatest challenges in modern medicine, she is determined to establish enough scientific evidence to justify continued research.
This year, the Beckley Foundation is supporting more pioneering studies on psychedelics, from ayahuasca’s potential to generate new neurons – which could help people with neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s Disease – to the role of psilocybin in treating PTSD.
“All the great societies had [psychedelic experiences] at their core, from Egypt to Ancient Greece – the basis of western civilisation,” she says. “But all of this knowledge has been suppressed; it became taboo… The purpose of my work is to help transform society to not be so scared of the wilder shores of consciousness – to use psychedelics to develop a new understanding of it, to discover possible treatments for illness and to help us find our way through the jungle.”
Find out more about the Beckley Foundation.