Amanda Feilding, Countess of Wemyss and March, also known as Lady Neidpath, sits cross-legged on a bench on a tiny island at the center of an artificial pond in her English country estate, a 15-minute drive outside of Oxford. At her feet is a tiny pure-white cloud of a dog, which traipses around chewing on the grass, only occasionally coughing it up.
Feilding is 75 years old. She wears a black skirt and knee-high boots and grips a tan shawl around her shoulders, on account of this being a gray November morning. From her ears hang jewelry that looks like green rock candy. Her light brown hair is frizzy but not altogether unkempt.
In the distance, peeking over a towering hedge, is her castle, built in the 1520s. “In the ’60s we called it Brainblood Hall,” she says in a posh accent that periodically turns sing-songy and high, à la Julia Child. “We always saw it as the masthead from where this change would happen.”
This change being the de-villainization of lysergic acid diethylamide, more commonly known as LSD. Feilding believes LSD has tremendous potential to treat maladies like anxiety and depression and addiction. The theory goes that the drug can manipulate blood flow in the brain to “reset” what you might consider to be the ego, allowing patients to reconceptualize their issues. Hence Brainblood Hall.
If LSD is having its renaissance, Feilding is its Michelangelo. She works 15 hours a day, seven days a week, to coordinate—and contribute to—research on one of the most highly controlled substances on Earth. And not with any old dumpy university she can find—we’re talking big names, like Imperial College London. Study by study, each following rigorous research standards, Feilding is building a case for making LSD a standard weapon in the clinical fight against mental illness. It's a path, though, that's fraught with scientific pitfalls—researchers are just beginning to understand how the human brain works, much less the mechanisms behind psychedelics.
The fact that psychedelics ended up as pariah drugs “is an example, in a way, of man's madness,” she says, toying with the edges of her shawl. “There are these incredible compounds that synergize amazingly well with the human body and can be used to have incredibly positive results. And what do we do? We criminalize it.”
To change that, she won’t just have to upend decades of draconian drug policies. She’ll have to convince a public that has, for a half-century, been told that LSD is a great evil, a drug that makes people put flowers in their hair and jump out of windows. And Feilding will have to use science to convince policymakers that her hunch is right, that LSD and other psychedelics can be a force for good.
Which would be hard for anyone to pull off, but Feilding faces the extra hurdle of not being a classically trained scientist. “Immediately if you say you left school at 16 and self-educated thereafter, people don’t believe you can do anything,” she says. “It's a funny thing.”
Typical 12th-Century Stuff
Feilding is a descendant of the Hapsburg family, a dynasty that rose to great power in the 12th century. I ask her how—typical 12th-century stuff? “Typical 12th-century stuff,” she laughs. “Duffing over someone”—a Britishism for giving a beating—“and, funny enough, someone did a family tree and the number of people, I keep meaning to underline them and put a little red star on the ones who had their heads cut off. There was really quite a lot of people having their heads cut off.”
Feilding’s branch of the Hapsburg family tree wasn’t so much the let’s-rule-the-world-and-make-lots-of-money kind of royalty. More of a stick-it-to-the-man vibe. “One was going to be executed around the Gunpowder Plot, and then his wife went to visit him and they swapped clothes,” she says. “He got out the day before his execution. I mean, they were all rather nice antiestablishment personalities.”
But they were not particularly doers, Feilding adds. And, generally speaking, to maintain a dynasty you have to at least care about cash flow. “If you spend 500 years kind of reading and doing interesting things and not making money, it tends to run out,” she says.
Accordingly, Feilding grew up in a manor her parents couldn’t afford to heat. Her father liked painting during the day, which meant he needed to do farming and chores around the castle at night. “Cutting all those wretched hedges, he had to do himself,” she says. “And he was diabetic and he’d always do them just before meal time and pass out. He was always passing out.”
Feilding adored her father and scrambled everywhere after him. “He never went by what an authority said. He always went with his own thoughts,” she says. “In a way he was quite a big guru to me. He was my main intellectual influence.”
It was a loving yet isolated family that lived in difficult postwar times. Few visitors made the trek over bumpy roads to the edge of a marshland to appreciate the castle’s wall-to-wall artworks and exquisite furniture and precariously low door frames—at least by modern standards of human height. So Feilding immersed herself in reading and, as always, chasing after her father. She had mystical experiences, like imagining she was flying down the castle’s spiral staircase. But with no hot water or heating in the mansion, winters were brutal. “I suppose we were vaguely called impoverished aristocracy,” she says.
At 16, Feilding was studying in a convent and wanted to pursue her interest in mysticism. The nuns declined her request and instead gave her books on art. She wouldn’t stand for this. So with her parents’ blessing, Feilding dropped out of high school and set off abroad to find her godfather, Bertie Moore, whom she had never met. She figured he could teach her about mysticism: He had been a spy catcher during the war, but at this point was a Buddhist monk living in Sri Lanka.
Feilding headed toward Sri Lanka and ended up in Syria. Stuck at the border without a passport, a group of drunk, big-deal Bedouins came to her rescue. “We got into this Cadillac and all the people were completely drunk,” she says. “They asked me if I could drive it”—indeed she could—“and we drove out into the desert and then we went to encampments and they all brought out their cushions and feasts.”
She never made it to Sri Lanka to find Bertie, and after half a year abroad Feilding returned to the UK to study mysticism with Robert Charles Zaehner, the famous scholar, at All Souls College in Oxford. Before long she made her way to the swinging London of the Beatles, the Kinks, the mods, and the miniskirt. In 1965, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti crashed on the floor of her flat after the Wholly Communion poetry happening at Royal Albert Hall.
Later that year, someone spiked the 22-year-old Feilding’s coffee with a massive dose of LSD. It nearly broke her. She retreated to the castle in the country to recuperate but returned to London a month later at the insistence of a friend.
This is when Feilding met the man who would shape her thinking on LSD and consciousness and mental health: the Dutch natural scientist Bart Huges. The two fell in love and began experimenting with LSD, leading them to think about it in a fundamentally different way. The counterculture at the time had embraced the drug as a way to expand consciousness. All well and good. But Feilding and Huges wanted to go deeper, to explore the use of LSD as a kind of medicine for the brain. Even after the spiked coffee incident, Feilding grew fascinated with the physiological underpinnings of the drug, as well as its potential.
“I thought that LSD had the power to change the world,” she says. “That was our work, understanding the ego and the deficiencies of humans and how one might heal and treat them with altered states of consciousness.” And not just with LSD, mind you, but also yoga and fasting, anything that would (in theory) manipulate blood flow in the brain. Including the ancient practice of drilling a hole in your skull.
By the time Feilding discovered LSD, it had been around for decades—the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann synthesized the drug in 1938. It wasn’t until five years later, though, that he would accidentally dose himself—he reckoned he absorbed the drug through his skin—and discover its profound effects on the mind. “In a dreamlike state,” he wrote to a colleague at the time, “with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.”
Hofmann wrote in his autobiography that he recognized both the drug’s dangers and its potential in psychiatry—very, very well-supervised psychiatry. But because LSD produced “unfathomably uncanny, profound effects, so unlike the character of a recreational drug,” he never fathomed that it would turn into the phenomenon that it did. “The more its use as an inebriant was disseminated, bringing an upsurge in the number of untoward incidents caused by careless, medically unsupervised use,” he wrote, “the more LSD became a problem child for me.”
It also became a problem for the United States government. Even though early studies on LSD in the 1940s and ’50s hinted at its therapeutic potential—and, indeed, psychiatrists were already treating patients with it—the feds branded it a schedule 1 drug, the most tightly controlled category, and the world followed in its prohibition.
“LSD getting out put the research back 50 years,” Feilding says. “I think there was misuse of it, and there were accidents, but, my goodness me, there weren’t many.”
The drug’s dark ages, though, are now giving way to a new era of psychedelics research, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Beckley Foundation, a think tank that Feilding runs here in the Oxford countryside, as well as California’s Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS. Both groups are not only pursuing the scientific research of psychedelics, but political action as well. That is, they advocate the worldwide relaxation of what they see as an unnecessarily restrictive grip on the use of potentially therapeutic drugs.
Potentially. The problem with a psychedelic like LSD is you can show what it does to people—namely, it makes them trip, sometimes very hard—but science knows little about how these drugs produce those effects. One recent study found that an LSD trip can last a good long while because when the drug binds to serotonin receptors, a lid closes over it, trapping the molecules. All well and good, but the bigger picture is still a mystery: What does LSD do to the brain to induce something users call ego dissolution, a sort of breaking down of the self?
Feilding believes the secret is the blood flow in what’s known as the default mode network, an interconnected group of structures in the brain. The thinking is that the DMN is what governs the ego, or the sense of self. “That’s where psychedelics come in and shake it up,” Feilding says, “reducing the blood supply to the default mode network,” thus releasing the ego’s grip on the brain.
In 2016 Feilding coauthored a paper with scientists at Imperial College London showing the first images of the brain on LSD. And indeed, it seems the drug dampens communication between the components of the DMN, in turn dampening the ego to produce that feeling of “oneness with the universe” that LSD is so famous for. Or so the theory goes.
But Feilding’s coauthor differs with her on the mechanism responsible for the effect. “I think blood flow is a little bit of a sideshow,” says Robin Carhart-Harris, a neuropsychopharmacologist at the Imperial College. “The brain doesn't fundamentally work through flowing blood. That’s part of it, but we know that the function is electrical, and so why don’t we measure the electrical signals?”
Which is not to say blood flow isn’t a piece of the puzzle. In that study, the measurement of blood flow worked as a complement to measurement of electrical signals, the bit that Carhart-Harris is really after. “In our forthcoming studies we've decided to drop the blood flow because of this concern that I have that it can take you off the scent,” Carhart-Harris says. “I think it’s a primitive view of how the brain works.”
But Feilding remains convinced that blood flow is the key to psychedelics. (Not that the electrical signals aren’t important. “I love neural patterns,” she says.) Recall that she works out of what in the ’60s she called Brainblood Hall. And blood is what drove her to undergo a bizarre and controversial procedure called a trepanation, in which you drill a hole in your skull to theoretically increase cerebral circulation. It’s an ancient practice that’s popped up across world cultures, usually for the treatment of headaches or head trauma. This, as you can imagine, is not backed by science.
Most people, though, wouldn’t perform the procedure on themselves. But in 1970, Feilding sat in front of a camera and drilled into the top of her forehead. “I share the film now,” she narrates in the film of the process, “in the hope that it may attract the attention of some doctor able and willing to start the essential research into the subject, without which it will not become an accepted practice, available in the national health to anyone who wants it.” (Feilding implores people to never perform their own trepanation.)
Five decades later, that research has yet to emerge, and trepanation is both unproven and dangerous, very much not a recommended practice among medical professionals. “I don't think it's a mad, scary thing,” Feilding says. “I think it's very likely to have a physiological base, which I'm going to research.”
Why now and not decades ago? “Trepanation is more taboo even than LSD, so I'm going from the base to the top of the taboo ranking,” she says with a laugh.
Three decades after her self-trenapation, a brain surgeon in Mexico performed another trepanation on Feilding. She admits the supposed effects it produces are subtle—a boost in energy, for example. “It could obviously be placebo,” she says. “How does one know? Placebo is so strong. But I noticed things like my dreams became less anxious.”
Really, trepanation is her sidequest, another way to approach the manipulation of blood flow in the brain. LSD is Feilding’s calling. LSD unleashed—not in the acid-in-every-liquor-store kind of way but, rather, as part of a new era of psychedelic therapy.
This is the future of therapy as Feilding sees it: You enter a clinic with your mind in a certain unwanted setting. Perhaps you’re ruminating over some kind of trauma. You meet with a therapist and do a relatively large dose of LSD, followed by smaller doses down the line, known as microdosing. (This has come into vogue of late, especially among Silicon Valley types who believe a minute dose of LSD makes them more creative without all the pesky hallucinations.)
“You need the peak experience to break through and change the setting,” Feilding says. “And then the microdose experience can give a little booster along the way and make it more energetic and vital and a bit more lively.”
Which sounds like something the authorities wouldn’t be so keen on. But medical officials in the UK and the US and elsewhere have actually been giving permission to study psychedelics of late. Still, the red tape is a nightmare, as are the costs. “There are three institutions in England which have a safe that can store psychoactive controlled substances,” Feilding says. “And then you’re meant to weigh them every week and have two people guarding the door. It's insane. But I think it's breaking down a little bit, and the more good results we can bring in, the better.”
In the States, too, research on psychedelics is humming along. The MAPS organization, for instance, is entering phase three of clinical trials—tests on humans comparing the drug to a placebo—using MDMA to treat PTSD.
What’s happening is the authorities in the US and UK seem to be coming around to the potential of psychedelics, probably because it’s too politically stupid not to. If MDMA does turn out to help treat PTSD, and indeed MAPS’ research so far suggests it does, opposing its use in therapy would be tantamount to opposing the mental well-being of veterans and active duty troops. (The thinking goes that MDMA lowers the fear response, allowing patients to reconceptualize their traumatizing memories under the supervision of a therapist.)
Again, doing this research is still a tremendous pain, but at least scientists can do it. “Before I was limited by not being able to get ethical approvals,” Feilding says. “But now theoretically it’s possible—with great trouble and vastly extra costs. I mean, they are more carefully controlled than nuclear weapons. It is mad.”
The Countess of Psychedelics
In the cavernous living room of Feilding’s mansion—near the giant fireplace, on top of a beautiful cabinet, next to a still-more-beautiful cabinet of tiny drawers atop the main cabinet—is a human skull drilled through with six holes. It’s the remains of an ancient human who for whatever reason went through multiple trepanations.
Feilding sits on a couch in front of the fireplace. An assistant comes in and asks if she wants hummus, and indeed she does, so the assistant returns with hummus. Feilding’s cook periodically pops in with updates on the imminence of dinner.
In the early days of Beckley, Feilding’s husband, the historian and earl Jamie Wemyss, who belongs to a wealthy Scottish family, helped pay the Beckley Foundation's bills until Feilding got better at fund-raising. But all the while Feilding has worried about money for the foundation. Governments aren’t exactly lining up to fund research into psychedelics. Neither are pharmaceutical companies. So she relies on private donors, but that’s never enough for the scope of what Feilding wants to do—studies, studies, more studies, to convince the scientific community and the public that there’s promise in psychedelics. “I can put up 10, 20, 30 thousand, but I can't put up hundreds of thousands,” she says.
Feilding occupies a strange niche as both a fund-raiser with specific policy goals and doer of science. She’s a co-author on all these papers that study psychedelics like psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) and LSD, but she sticks out. She's not a trained scientist. She doesn't have an undergraduate degree, much less a PhD. It’s not that she doesn’t belong, but she’s just not like everyone else.
And yet: People have this conception of science as being 100 percent objective and sober. It’s not. Any scientist, whether studying psychedelics or global warming, comes to the table with opinions and preconceived notions. Does Feilding have a more pronounced political agenda than most? She sure does—that’s what sets her apart from other researchers in the field, who’d rather focus all their attention on mechanisms of action and the like.
Feilding has 50 years of experience using psychedelics. But she also thinks like any of the classically trained scientists she authors papers with. “The real focus is not who is doing the study,” says Doblin of MAPS, “but how the study is being designed, and how sincere are the efforts to follow the gold standard scientific methodology.”
And Feilding’s studies are great, he adds. “They're the epitome of neuroscience research these days.”
Feilding comes from a long line of people who didn’t give a damn about societal norms. She sits next to the fireplace in a home her father tended at night, driving a tractor around in the darkness. Her ancestors plotted against the government. And now Feilding plots to upend not only the way humanity views psychedelics but how humanity treats mental disorders.
“We’re depriving millions of people of a better life by not making use cleverly of what has been known throughout history,” she says. “These are tools to heal, to treat, to get to another level.”
Maybe, though, the powers that be are willing to at least reconsider psychedelics. Maybe the hippies were on to something, and acid can change the world, but they just went about it all wrong. And maybe the breakthrough will one day come from a 16th-century mansion in the Oxford countryside, where the Countess of Wemyss and March toils.