What Are Psychedelics? We Explain The Differences From Other Drugs

What Are Psychedelics? We Explain The Differences From Other Drugs

What are psychedelics? Although we can point to common psychedelic drugs, such as LSD or psilocybin mushrooms, actually defining what psychedelics are can be tricky. This is partly because some drugs are considered psychedelics by some but not by others.

However, the term psychedelic has an interesting meaning that is worth exploring. Also, while it is not clear if certain drugs are psychedelics or not, psychedelics are still characterized by unique properties.

This article will describe what defines this unique class of substances and how we can distinguish these drugs from other types, such as opiates, depressants, dissociatives, and benzodiazepines.

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What Are Psychedelics?

Psychedelics are, to put it simply, substances that lead to a psychedelic experience. This is a unique altered state of consciousness that includes significant shifts in your emotions, perception, and thoughts. A psychedelic trip achieve these effects by mainly acting on the serotonin 5-HT2A receptors in the brain. However, these drugs act on other serotonin receptors, too, as well as the dopamine receptors.

Serotonin and dopamine are neurotransmitters in the brain that influence our emotions and how we perceive the world around us. By stimulating the receptors that release these chemicals, psychedelics often lead to radically different states of consciousness and sensory experiences.

Let’s now examine the precise meaning of the term psychedelic as this will help to better answer the question: “What are psychedelics?”

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The Meaning Of The Term “Psychedelic”

The British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond famously supervised the British writer Aldous Huxley after he took mescaline, the psychedelic compound found in the peyote cactus. The result was Huxley’s highly influential book The Doors of Perception (1954), featuring a first-hand account of the writer’s mescaline experience.

In 1956, Huxley and Osmond were writing letters to each other, trying to come up with a term to refer to this class of compounds. Osmond decided on the term psychedelic. He combined the Greek words psyche (meaning “soul” or “mind”) and delein (meaning “to manifest”).

The literal translation of psychedelic, then, is “mind-manifesting” or “soul-manifesting”. So, if you want to know what psychedelics are, we can say that they are substances that reveal your mind to yourself.

During their exchange of letters, Huxley suggested his own term: phanerothyme. He combined the Greek words phaneroin (meaning “visible”) and thymos (meaning “soul”). The literal translation, then, of phanerothyme is “visible soul”.

Yet it was Osmond’s coinage that stuck and which remains with us today. This isn’t too surprising. The word psychedelic does, after all, seem to roll off the tongue a bit better than phanerothyme.

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Alternative Terms

One reason why the question “what are psychedelics?” is tricky to answer is that people use alternative terms for this distinct group of substances. People will use these alternative terms to more narrowly define the effects of psychedelics.

Let’s take a brief look at these other terms and how they contrast to the term psychedelic. This will further illuminate the wide-ranging potential of psychedelics.


Hallucinogen is a term some people may use to describe psychedelic compounds. It refers to substances that cause hallucinations. However, in 1979, a group of ethnobotanists and scholars of mythology argued that the term was inappropriate and pejorative, due to its connection to words related to delirium and insanity.

Hallucinations, which hallucinogens supposedly induce, refer to perceptions of non-existent objects or events.

However, many people who use psychoactive substances may recognize that the images or sounds they are seeing are unreal. This would make these perceptions pseudohallucinations.

Also, many people believe that what they are perceiving in the psychedelic state is real. And lastly, many of psychedelics’ perceptual effects are distortions to perception, not seeing or hearing things in the absence of an actual object or event causing those sensations.

For these reasons, the term hallucinogen does not really capture the broad effects of psychedelics.


Carl Ruck, a scholar of mythology who argued against the term hallucinogen in 1979, prefers the term entheogen. He defines an entheogen as “any substance that, when ingested, catalyzes or generates an altered state of consciousness deemed to have spiritual significance”.

Entheogen comes from the Greek words entheos (meaning “the divine within”) and gen (meaning “creates” or “generates”). So the literal translation of entheogen is “generating the divine within”. An entheogen is any compound that can have this effect.

Not everyone is comfortable using the term entheogen, however, to refer to compounds like psilocybin and DMT. Not everyone who uses these compounds has an encounter with “God” or a “divine presence”. Moreover, many users who do perceive an outside presence or being may not attach labels to it such as “divine” or “God”. For those who hold a secular, atheistic, or naturalist worldview, these terms may not feel appropriate.

If you believe the psychedelic experience is all about manifesting what’s in your own mind, rather than putting you in touch with an outside force or entity, then the term psychedelic may be more fitting.

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Plant Medicines

Other users of these compounds prefer to use the term plant medicine. This refers to the ability of certain psychoactive plants and mushrooms to help heal a variety of mental health issues. These include trauma, depression, and anxiety, among others.

However, this term refers exclusively to natural psychoactive substances. Synthetic or semi-synthetic compounds — such as LSD, 2CB, and DPT — are not considered plant medicines.

Because the term plant medicine excludes many psychedelic compounds, which may offer incredible healing to people, many find the term too restrictive. The term might suggest that the healing from plants is fundamentally different from the healing people get from, say, LSD.

In addition, psychedelics can be used for varying purposes and entail all kinds of effects, which may not involve healing.

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Psychedelics Compared To Other Drugs

To better understand what psychedelics are, we need to compare and contrast them with other types of drugs. Indeed, there are certain aspects of psychedelics that make them quite different from many legal and illegal drugs.

The Effects Of Psychedelics Are More Unpredictable

Within a single psychedelic experience, you can experience drastic shifts in effects. In one moment you can experience a state of anxiety, in another, profound joy and euphoria. With eyes open, objects can breathe and change colors. With eyes closed, you can perceive intricate geometric patterns and fractals.

Also, your second psychedelic trip can differ wildly from your first. And when tripping with others, your trip can involve specific experiences that no one else is having. In other words, the effects of psychedelics can be somewhat unpredictable.

This is not the case with many other types of drugs.

When you drink alcohol, snort cocaine, or take a Valium, you pretty much know what the effect will be. And when you take these drugs with others, everyone’s experience will be largely similar, providing everyone is taking the same dosage.

In contrast, people can take the same dosage of a psychedelic but have very different experiences.

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The Effects Of Psychedelics Vary Significantly Based On Set And Setting

The variability in the effects of psychedelics is partly due to the impact of set and setting. Set includes your current mood, personality, mental health, past history, beliefs, attitudes, values, and the intentions and expectations you have when going into a psychedelic experience.

Setting, meanwhile, refers to the environment in which you take the psychedelic. It includes the people you trip with, tripping alone, your surroundings, your culture, whether the experience is guided or unguided, and the music you listen to during the experience.

While dosage clearly makes a big difference to the quality of a psychedelic experience, so too do set and setting. Your mindset and environment can change the intensity of an experience, as well as drastically shift it in a positive or negative direction.

On the other hand, the effects of other types of drugs are not dependent on set and setting to the same degree. Whether you take an opiate alone or with others, on a good day or a bad day, the high will pretty much be the same.

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Psychedelics Are Non-Addictive And Anti-Addictive

Many other types of drugs can, for many people, lead to addiction. This would include tobacco, alcohol, opiates, benzodiazepines, and stimulants. These classes of drugs are abused by millions of people worldwide, often resulting in compulsive use, despite negative consequences.

The classic psychedelics, conversely, are non-addictive. This is partly because the experiences are often psychologically intense and sometimes challenging. These are not experiences you would want to have every day.

Their non-addictive nature also relates to the fact that tolerance to these drugs builds quickly. It is difficult to have an effect from these drugs after more than a few days of use. This is not the case with other drugs that people become physically or psychologically dependent on or addicted to, such as opiates, benzos, or stimulants.

Psychedelics are actually anti-addictive. They are available for use in the treatment of addiction. Indeed, psilocybin can help you combat addiction to other types of drugs, such as nicotine. Meanwhile, ibogaine is useful in the treatment of opioid addiction.

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MDMA, Ketamine, And Cannabis

People will disagree as to whether MDMA, ketamine, and marijuana should be classed as psychedelics or not. This is because they might have some psychedelic effects, but they are generally known to have other sorts of subjective effects.

Many refer to MDMA as an empathogen or entactogen — meaning it leads to experiences of emotional openness, empathy, and connection to others. It may, nonetheless, manifest aspects of the mind in the way psychedelics do.

Ketamine can lead to vivid perceptual changes, but it is also a dissociative because it causes users to feel detached from their self and environment.

Finally, cannabis may have psychedelic effects when consumed in high doses, and especially when taken as an edible (which leads to a different experience). However, in general, being high or stoned from cannabis is not like tripping.

Due to the fact that MDMA, ketamine, and cannabis can have psychedelic effects, they may classify as non-classic psychedelics. Some people, for instance, refer to ketamine as a dissociative psychedelic.


The debate about whether the above drugs count as psychedelics or not continues, and it is an interesting one. But this debate doesn’t mean we cannot separate psychedelics from other drugs. The experience of taking cocaine is clearly not like the experience of taking psilocybin.

Psychedelics stand out as substances that have a wide variety of effects and applications. Moreover, they change the lives of users in ways that other types of drugs don’t tend to do.

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Sam Woolfe

Sam Woolfe

View all posts by Sam Woolfe

Sam Woolfe is a freelance writer based in London. His main areas of interest include mental health, mystical experiences, the history of psychedelics, and the philosophy of psychedelics. He first became fascinated by psychedelics after reading Aldous Huxley's description of the mescaline experience in The Doors of Perception. Since then, he has researched and written about psychedelics for various publications, covering the legality of psychedelics, drug policy reform, and psychedelic science.

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