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Sunday, September 25, 2022

This Is How Psychedelics Hack the Brain, According to Scientists

Scientists have shed fresh light on a state of mind that they believe can help people out of psychological crises, and it’s reached by tripping on psychedelics.

In a scientific review paper published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, Robin Carhart-Harris, one of the world’s most eminent psychedelic medicine researchers, says this “pivotal mental state”, which can be achieved with the use of psychedelic drugs, provides a unique opportunity for psychological transformation. 

Carhart-Harris, the head of the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London, wrote the paper with Ari Brouwer. They compare these pivotal mental states to rowing down a river and coming to a fork. “When somebody reaches a pivotal point of stress, where something needs to change, that’s where it really matters what you do with that window and where you go with that.” 

The paper details how out-of-the-ordinary activities such as extreme levels of fasting or exercise – along with using psychedelics – can hijack the brain and lead to states where deep and rapid personal change is possible. “We argue that pivotal mental states serve an important evolutionary function, that is, to aid psychological transformation,” the paper says.

During these moments, with the brain squidgy like plasticine – and deeply held beliefs and assumptions in a state of stasis – quantum shifts in our psychology can occur, the paper says. And because these moments can be achieved through the act of tripping, Carhart-Harris and Brouwer suggest this concept could provide a glimpse into a utopian future, where psychedelics are routinely used to reroute people out of a psychological dead end. 

“One can envision an ideal future in which psychological crises are seen less as emergencies requiring immediate suppressive intervention and more as opportunities for development and growth,” says the paper.

“Humans have a pre-existing capability to have naturally occurring psychedelic-like experiences through which we change our views and behaviour in a major way,” says Carhart-Harris. But psychedelics (the word derives from the Greek for “mind-manifesting”) are a particularly reliable gateway to cathartic experiences that herald a psychological fresh start akin to rebirth, the paper suggests. 

“It’s most dramatic in clinical trials,” Carhart-Harris says. “People with severe depression are often hiding away and then after treatment with psilocybin [the naturally-occurring psychoactive compound within magic mushrooms], they feel like a different person. It’s not like they’re flying high wanting to do dramatic, impulsive things; there’s often a common contentment and equanimity, a healthy glow. It’s so rewarding when you see that, and I’ve seen it a number of times.”

He says the aim of the paper was to help explain what psychedelics do to people, in a way that makes sense in relation to other things that might be more familiar. “People can already imagine what it might be like to have a spiritual epiphany. Maybe they’ve gone through a period of psychological crisis that seemed to reach a tipping point. And that then led them to radically shift their perspective on things and all their behaviour and or their life.”

Given the common neurobiology shared between psychotic episodes and psychedelic states, as detailed in the paper, which builds on previous research, Carhart-Harris is naturally keen for high dose trips to occur in sympathetic environments.

“The rule of thumb with psychedelic states is that you provide a good set and setting,” he says. 

“What if we were to apply the same rule of thumb to psychotic episodes, particularly in their early phases? Where it is realistic to do so – rather than charging in with an injection of a neuroleptic to knock them out – what if we were to come in with calming music and supportive words?”

With the brain more malleable, free from long held beliefs and particularly open to new concepts, it’s a moment ripe for lifting people out of damaging states of mind. “In spiritual experiences, individuals may report sudden moments of clarity and insight (eg epiphanies), servicing positive self-development and renewed perspective,” the paper says.

This concept is bolstered by emerging research. The recently developed RElaxed Beliefs Under pSychedelics (REBUS) model proposes that psychedelics relax parts of the brain, allowing for information to flow from the bottom up; to enter conscious awareness and overcome ingrained cerebral hierarchies.

“A rapid shift from top-down to bottom-up dominating waves coincided very closely [with] the onset and subjective intensity of the DMT experience,” the paper says, referring to recent analyses of brain wave data. On Monday, UK regulators greenlighted the first clinical trial of the use of the “spirit molecule” to treat depression.

Carhart-Harris sketches an evolution many psychonauts may be familiar with following formative psychedelic experiences, such as drinking much less alcohol, being more present with loved ones, and being much more altruistic. But he warns that foolhardy trips can also lead to severe flight from reality, delusions and even self-injurious behaviour – possibly if one takes the wrong path along the fork. “Community and emotional support is a critical factor that pivots you towards wellness and away from more distress and confusion,” he says.

For those tripping outside of therapy sessions or ceremonies, the 40-year-old – the first person in the UK to legally administer LSD to human volunteers since the blanket ban on drugs in 1971 — is soon to launch a new app to help people prepare for psychedelic experiences and to integrate their insights into everyday life subsequently. “The mission with MyDelica is harm reduction in education,” he says. “It can provide a safety net.”

However, he does not explicitly advocate any specific tool to help facilitate quantum shifts – though he once said in jest following a retreat in the Amazon, “It’s now very clear to me that the spirits are real and science is a waste of time.”

Humans have long known how to hijack their own physiology for self-development, and the paper rightly describes psychedelic trips as just one of many ways for personal growth. But some people, it tacitly acknowledges, may find it difficult to withdraw themselves from sensory stimulation for long periods, or to go deep on meditation and yogic breathing.

“The classic [serotonin] agonist psychedelics quite reliably induce experiences of vivid sensed presence as well as magical thinking more broadly,” the paper says.

With no significant breakthrough in mental healthcare for some time, Carhart-Harris is heartened by growing global psychedelic research and the liberalisation of drug laws. “Clearly there is a sea change and, and things are moving in the right kind of direction,” he says. “Science hasn’t historically made good enough inroads into the treatment of mental health, and now is a pivotal moment.”

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