The Brain On Psychedelics
Research into psychedelic therapy is on the rise again and is showing us positive results for helping participants with clinical issues.
One difficulty researchers in this field face is that although there can be consistency of therapeutic procedure, dosage and environment, the psychedelic experience itself is different for each person, each time. This is because we all have unique perspectives and elements that make up our egos. A single psychedelic experience cannot be replicated and is often difficult to describe. The outcomes reported by participants after the effects wear off, however, are similar and overwhelmingly positive.
How do psychedelic compounds such as psilocybin and LSD help expand our minds, change our perspective, and heal therapeutically?
To answer that you must first understand a bit about the area of your brain called the default mode network (DMN).
The Default Mode Network
This area of the brain is a group of interconnected structures that essentially is the autopilot (or default, hence the name) that takes control when you are not actively focused on a given task. It is what takes over during mind wandering or rumination. Our default mode network collects data beginning from when we are born and makes connections, finds patterns in thoughts and behavioral outcomes, and condenses multi-step learning into automatic behaviors.
For instance, remember when you learned how to walk? Most likely you don’t remember learning, yet you still know how to walk. And you know this without needing to think about it thanks to the DMN. The DMN makes our lives easier by running on these old connections and patterns which help to conserve energy we would otherwise be using for thinking of how to do things all the time.
Another example of this is when you are driving a car and somehow end up at your destination without remembering driving there. Has this same experience ever happened to you but instead of driving to where you were suppose to end up you find yourself at your workplace or at your house out of habit? If this has happened to you, this was your DMN trying to make things easier by making the assumptions based on past behaviors.
The DMN isn’t always “right”. It is where assumptions and biases lie. It is the part of the brain that registers our sense of self, our ego. All the things we associate with identity are formed throughout our lifetime and stored as our ego. These beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world, strengthen over time through repetition of thought and behavior patterns.
Before you know it, you are so strongly attached to the belief "I can't own pets" because you accidentally didn’t feed your pet fish for two weeks when you were 7 year old which ended in its tragic death.
The DMN is "autopiloting" you to believe that because it happened once (or twice or three times) in the past then it will definitely happen in the future. The problem is, sometimes we can’t tell when the DMN is getting in our way because the connections and patterns have become so embedded in our network. When this happens we begin to respond out of assumption or reactivity rather than presence. With a lifetime of these beliefs built up, it can be hard to see things from alternative perspectives and think outside of our own line of vision. Psychedelics appear to help break down these walls.
So, What Happens When You Take Psychedelics?
Through brain imaging, researchers discovered that when people take psilocybin (the compound in magic mushrooms) the default mode network reduces in activity. Basically, the DMN is quieted or in higher doses, turned off.
Side note: The same phenomenon was found in scans of people actively meditating which is pretty cool.
The quieting of the DMN allows the person to see things from a new perspective without any previous assumptions, biases, patterns of thinking, or judgements.
You are an infant again, without any ideas built about how the world is “supposed to" work or any clue what is possible or impossible. You approach seeing things for the first time with curiosity and fascination. What if you were to see your mother sprout wings and fly across the room. You might giggle. Anything is possible. Yet, as an adult you would likely feel confused or scared. Based on your previous knowledge and beliefs about the world, a flying mother should not be possible. On psychedelics, we can see things as if seeing them for the first time, as they truly are, through an untampered lens.
Now apply this concept therapeutically. Take someone who has been tormented with the memories of their past abuse leading to feelings of shame.
By quieting of the DMN through meditation or psychedelics, this person can see the trauma in a new light, without the usual fear of the memory or the buildup of negative thoughts about themselves that have now been attached to the traumatic experience.
This view of things and an understanding of a different perspective can stay with a person even after the psychedelic effects wear off. Yes, the DMN will reinstate, but there may now be far more awareness of this mechanism in action. With meditation practice and integration of psychedelic experiences into your life, you are able to quiet the DMN: to be present.
Note: If you are interested in learning more about the therapeutic use of psychedelics I encourage you to seek a therapist informed in this topic (such as myself) or look into the research that is being done. I’ve provided additional resources below. It is important to find a knowledgeable guide before embarking on these journeys.
How to Change Your Mind- Michael Pollan
The Psychedelic Explorer's Guide- James Fadiman
Good Chemistry- Julie Holland