Landmark research pointing to the therapeutic benefits could have significant implications on our mental health
words Robyn Landau
Our new show, The Bigger Trip, takes us on a 3-part journey into the world of psychedelics. In our editorial series, we have a chance to dive a bit deeper, exploring the the current psychedelic renaissance, the latest neuroscience behind it, and understanding just a little bit better how they interact with our brains and bodies which contribute to new ways of experiencing ourselves, each other, and the world around us.
From microdosing to mental health, fungi to feelings, the psychedelic revolution is here. Yet with more conversation swirling and a new raft of studies and news stories on the daily, it can be difficult to keep track of what’s what. How do psychedelics actually interact with our bodies and minds, and are we ready to hail them as the answer to a world marred by mental health?
The word psychedelic literally translates from ancient Greek as ‘mind manifesting’, – essentially, it implies that psychedelics can develop unused potentials of the human mind. Fast forward through some millennia, and there’s a world of psychedelic slang being used to describe the indescribable. You’ve probably come across “tripping”: it’s inspired by the feeling of being transported to a different place, state, or mental setting when taking drugs by your mind alone. Perhaps you’ve heard ‘altered state of consciousness’ used too, used because drugs can help you explore untapped parts of your mind.
Regardless of the language, these mind-altered journeys are driven by opening new or underused neural connections, and it’s an aspect we can certainly bring to our understanding of mental health.. As we start using these new pathways in our brains, we begin to see the world, and ourselves in it, differently. This could lead to potentially long term and transformative changes in our mental and emotional wellbeing.
It goes without saying that psychedelics are an illegal substance, and can provide an incredibly intense experience. Ensuring the right set, setting, and supervision are the most important elements to any safe psychedelic journey.
What’s the science?
Before we launch into the science of how this works, it’s important to understand some of the different categories of psychedelics we’re hearing so much about. While drugs like Ketamine and MDMA (4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine) are now often included in these conversations, classic psychedelics are typically considered to be LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), psilocybin (or magic mushrooms) and DMT (dimethyltryptamine, found in ayahuasca and 5meoDMT). These categories exist based on the way they interact with the neurochemicals in our brains.
In a nutshell, classic psychedelics directly interact with, and activate the serotonin receptors in the brain (5-HT2A receptors to be exact). Serotonin is the neurochemical which stabilises our mood, feelings of wellbeing and happiness, and influences everything from aggression and anxiety to cognition, learning and our mood.
And it’s this boost in serotonin that also creates those altered states of consciousness known in the psychedelic experience. You know, the visual hallucinations that might make the walls feel like they are breathing, or the plants look like they’re moving. Or the out of body experiences people might say leads them to disconnect from their bodies and see things from above, and even the psychological changes that lead to enhanced love and acceptance. Basically, it's the increase of this neurotransmitter which helps us begin to shift our perceptions of ourselves, and the world. And it’s in these new perceptions, where a cascade of changes in the brain begin to emerge. Herein, lies the potency of psychedelics on our mental health.
How can psychedelics challenge our brains and beliefs?
As humans, we’re continually predicting future events based on our past experiences as a way to keep us safe, and make more efficient decisions. But this means we develop some pretty rigid, sticky beliefs about ourselves, our relationships with others, and the world. Over time, these become so dominant and difficult to shift that they actively push down new streams of information from our most recent experiences. This hierarchy system in our brain means that these newer bits of information don't even reach the surface of our mind, making it really challenging to make changes in the way we think, act and behave.
If you imagine our minds as a ski slope, over time, it develops ridges and grooves that make it more difficult to ski freely around. And just like a ski slope, our minds also develop these ingrained thought patterns, meaning we end up going down the same path, over and over again. Unfortunately, these sticky beliefs are often self-focused and negative, resulting in fears about the future (anxiety), obsessions (obsessive compulsive disorder), or beliefs about one's body (body dysmorphia).
During the psychedelic experience, these mental hierarchies are relaxed, allowing us to hear, listen, and incorporate the flow of new information. It’s like we can pay attention to things we were previously taught to ignore. This helps to create long term changes in the way we think, act and behave, even after the psychedelic experience has ended.
How should I be approaching it?
At the heart of this relaxed thinking is a reduction of activity in the Default Mode Network, or DMN for short. This collection of brain regions can be thought of as the ‘seat of self’ in the brain, and is activated when we spend time thinking of ourselves. All those moments of rumination, daydreaming, or over analysing, this is your DMN at work. And as we know, it feels seemingly impossible to switch off at times.
When psychedelics quieten this chattering self-focused part of our brain, it helps break down these all-consuming, self-referential, pre-existing beliefs. They help us pay attention to new pieces of information that help shift perspectives about the way we think in the long term. And it’s these long term changes that make psychedelic-assisted treatments for illnesses like depression exciting. This is especially true when you consider that half of the patients who are currently diagnosed with depression do not respond to antidepressant treatments.
What do current studies and therapies say?
At the moment, there are no psilocybin-based drugs (or any psychedelic for that matter) approved for depression. Which means psychedelic therapy is now administered as part of clinical trials, of which the treatment model is becoming standardised as a 4-stage process – assessment, preparation, experience, and integration. Typically, it includes one or two sessions where participants ingest a psychedelic (often psilocybin, LSD or Ketamine) alongside a trained therapist or guide for the duration of the experience, as well as the crucial preparation and integration stages of the treatment.
Unlike antidepressants, which require a long-term course of treatment, some patients need just one or two sessions to produce 6-12 month effects. Studies of addiction patients show tobacco smokers had an 80% abstinence rate 6 months following, and patients with alcohol use disorder reduced drinking 8 months following treatment. Depression trials show similar results. Studies of those suffering from advanced stage cancer as well as drug-resistant depression had significant decreases in depression from 1-6 months after treatment. The fast onset of these experiences, and long term impacts of the sessions are why some are calling psychedelics potentially new “fast-acting antidepressants”.
However, the long term results from these experiences don’t come without their own challenges. While most standard antidepressants work by diminishing the intensity of an experience which allows individuals to cope with overwhelming feelings, psychedelics do the opposite. They amplify consciousness, intensify perception and the emotional reaction, which acts to reinforce connection rather than facilitating disconnection as antidepressants do. This encourages participants to turn towards their often challenging, highly potent emotional landscape to work through issues versus masking them. Similar to other forms of therapy, it is essential to be led by an experienced practitioner to help patients reach the potential of what lies on the other side of these deep sessions.
What about day-to-day life?
The impact of psychedelics don’t only come in the form of support for medically diagnosed conditions. It can begin to have an impact on our daily lifestyle and habits. After psychedelics, people often report improvements to their diet and exercise, reduced alcohol consumption, increased time spent in nature, volunteering, engaging with art and simply taking more time out for themselves. These everyday lifestyle shifts are often essential to a sense of ongoing everyday wellbeing.
What’s the takeaway?
There is still more research to be done in this field, and taking psychedelics in an environment that isn't safe and controlled can pose many risks. These drugs have impact our cognition, perception and coordination, and individual experiences are highly unpredictable. Whether you’ve taken, heard about, are moving towards or running away from the current psychedelic revolution, there are some essential things we can all take away from the way psychedelics change our minds to improve our health. It’s about thinking differently, going beyond the constrained and often limiting belief systems we naturally cling onto as humans.
The science is clear - no matter how we get there, the more we can open ourselves to new experiences, the more we can move beyond these predictive, hierarchical brain systems that keep us walking the same paths, telling ourselves the same stories, and keeping us in the same circles. What lies beyond these “safe” systems we hold so dear is a world and way of moving through it which holds so much more for us than our wildest imaginations. All we have to do is simply open ourselves to it.