"Think of the brain as a hill covered in snow, and thoughts as sleds gliding down that hill", neuroscientist Mendel Kaelen, an Imperial College postdoc, once said. "As one sled after another goes down the hill, a small number of main trails will appear in the snow. And every time a new sled goes down, it will be drawn into the preexisting trails, almost like a magnet".
Our brains go through these neural connection trails with hands bound repeatedly, solidifying the way we think, feel, and act on a daily basis.
Fancying a cigarette and a mood disorder might not sound alike; however, both are addictions in a sense. Depression and anxiety can both trap people into the same patterns of thoughts and actions, while cigarettes do the same by delivering a sense of comfort, familiarity, and pleasure.
And in time, these paths run deeper and deeper, making it impossible to escape the groove.
Psychedelics, a class of psychoactive substances that causes changes in perception, mood, and cognitive processes, might be the fresh snowfall that lets the sled down into a new road.
"Think of psychedelics as temporarily flattening the snow," Kaelen further explained. "The deeply worn trails disappear, and suddenly the sled can go in other directions, exploring new landscapes and, literally, creating new pathways."
This is a speculative hypothesis that investigates why certain chemical compounds have such a profound effect on us.
There have only been a limited number of studies on psychedelics with small sample sizes, which we will discuss in this article. Still, psychedelics’ extraordinary effects on terminally ill and those with major depression have become so obvious that they are hard to deny at this point.
When just a study can change everything
"It’s one of these moments that really changed everything in my life. I saw this black smoke come out of me, and I just felt so at peace and so euphoric about the future."
These are the words of Octavian Mihai, recalling taking part in a trial that examined whether psilocybin, the active ingredient in "magic" mushrooms, could help cancer patients with anxiety and depression.
At the age of 21, he was diagnosed with Stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, and had beaten it, but he had been living the fear of death ever since.
With a psychiatrist and a social worker by his side, he was given psilocybin in a little capsule, and the results were striking. His anxiety was gone, and he wasn’t alone in that. The studies, conducted by researchers at New York University, with 29, and at Johns Hopkins University, with 51 patients, were released concurrently in The Journal of Psychopharmacology on November 30, 2016.
About 80 percent of cancer patients experienced significant improvements in their mental health. Side effects were close to none, and around seven months later, most of them were still holding onto that sense of peace, all from taking just one pill.
This is one of the few studies that have been conducted since the golden days of the psychedelics era. Now, a new generation of scientists is testing their potential in improving depression, anxiety, trauma, and addiction.
Another study has even discovered that a couple of psychedelic doses were enough to help two-thirds of smokers quit for at least a year. That’s the most effective smoking cessation treatment ever studied.
Through the eyes of a skeptic
However, a healthy dose of skepticism is always needed. How can a seemingly brief encounter with a psychedelic drug have such dramatic effects on one’s being?
We know that LSD molecule is shaped a lot like serotonin, a neurotransmitter found in our brains that regulates mood, happiness, and anxiety.
Scientists have also discovered that molecules with similar properties were found in mushrooms, peyote cactus, and tropical plants that are used in the psychoactive drink Ayahuasca.
Hallucinogens affect our bodies by stimulating or suppressing the activity of the neurotransmitters they are chemically similar to and dramatically change the perception of reality for three to twelve hours depending on three things: The drug, the dose, and the person.
While we have a vague idea of how they work, we still don't know for certain the ways they can be used and what they tell us about the mind itself. To gain a better understanding of this, we should take a trip down to the rabbit hole, through a colorful and vibrant history.
Life Magazine: ‘The Discovery of Mushrooms That Cause Strange Visions’
Life Magazine's May 13, 1957 issue with an article explaining "the discovery of mushrooms that cause strange visions" was what made many Americans aware of the psychedelics for the first time, and it was instrumental in popularizing their use among people.
However, it was long before that in 1936 that the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann created LSD-25. On April 19, 1943, he would drop lysergic acid diethylamide and go on a bike ride, becoming the first human ever to trip on acid.
The world was intrigued by this revolutionary substance. During the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, countless LSD experiments were carried out as researchers looked into its potential as a tool for psychotherapy.
In fact, thousands of people, including movie star Cary Grant, poet Allen Ginsberg, writer Aldous Huxley, movie director Sidney Lumet, and playwright Clare Boothe Luce, were tested and treated with LSD and other psychedelics between 1950 and 1965.
As Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix performed at Pompeii and Woodstock, more than 1,000 studies would be published and six international conferences on these studies would be held during this period.
'LSD: The Exploding Threat of the Mind Drug That Got Out of Control'
However, as the drug culture became synonymous with acid-dropping activists and anti-war protests, psychedelics gained a stigma in the rest of society, and the therapeutic benefits they were initially recognized for were buried behind misinformation.
Nine years later, LIFE Magazine would do a 180 turn and publish, "LSD: The Exploding Threat of the Mind Drug That Got Out of Control."
The manufacture, sale, and possession of the drug was made illegal in 1966, with government films warning of a risk of chromosome damage, birth defects, suicide, and psychosis.
The psychedelics would be so culturally feared that funding for research would dry up, and getting regulatory approval would be next to impossible. This is how an entire area of research was put into deep freeze for decades.
Decades later, we now have a better knowledge of their ups and downs. We know today that psychedelics do not “scramble” your brain, are not toxic, and are not physically addictive (but they can be psychologically addictive). There is also no evidence supporting that they cause chromosome damage or birth defects.
It can be safely said that the dangers were overblown; however, that isn’t to say that the risks are zero. Street psychedelics can sometimes be laced with other drugs, and even if your drugs are pure, they are still drugs. Under the influence of these powerful substances, users might get disoriented and hurt themselves or others, which is why trying psychedelics in a safe, research setting with extensive preparation and structured support from qualified clinicians and therapists is incredibly important.
A quick look at recent research on psychedelic therapies
Starting in the 1990s, academics initiated a renaissance of psychedelic psychotherapy research that focused on depression and anxiety in people with cancer. As psychedelics are being considered as viable aids to psychotherapy, more study is moving forward and widening in scope.
Psilocybin studies got back on track in the early 2000s, with groundbreaking studies on LSD soon following.
These studies supported the findings of the early researchers in the 1950s. A government-approved study examining the effects of LSD on patients with life-threatening illnesses and anxiety disorder reported a reduction in anxiety from the therapy sessions in March 2014.
The first randomized, placebo-controlled clinical study of ayahuasca to treat depression was published in the journal Psychological Medicine in June 2018, with 64 percent of the patients who consumed ayahuasca reporting a decrease in depressive symptoms one week later.
Then, on November 22, 2019, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted Breakthrough Therapy Designation to Usona Institute's psilocybin program to treat major depressive disorder.
Today, the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research launched by Johns Hopkins and the Psychedelic Research Group founded by Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris at Imperial College both have ongoing research programs that focus on psychedelics solely.
And it doesn't end there. Nowadays, you can even find a legal, medically supervised psilocybin retreat center for professionals seeking "personal growth, emotional breakthroughs, and spiritual development". Located in Zandvoort, Holland, Synthesis Retreat offers numerous activities including the ceremonial use of "high-dose, psilocybin truffles to catalyze these transformations".
But how and why does psychedelic therapy work?
We need to meddle with the curves of the brain to answer this question, and while we know "how" to some extent, the "why" largely remains a mystery.
Here, looking at the images of the human brain on LSD and psilocybin might help us get to the bottom fo things. The first images of the human brain under the influence of LSD were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in April, 2016, by the Beckley/Imperial Research Programme.
The results showed that LSD increased connectivity between areas of the brain that normally don't communicate and suppressed the default mode network in the brain, which is the circuitry responsible for constantly mulling over the past and future, creating the sense of self, and appears to be the seat of the ego.
A similar image awaits us in the case of psilocybin. A neuro-imaging study at Imperial College in London shows that the drug appears to have made similar changes, with heavier traffic among many other connections.
Psychedelics seem to open up diverse circuits in which more connections are used and free up space among the most heavily used ones. One may wonder if, in this period of extreme interconnectivity, there is a potential for rewiring or making new connections.
Remember the snow hill example. With fresh snowfall that lets the sleds explore a new path, patients could change an ingrained behavior, like alcohol or cigarette addiction, as seen among people who've participated in such psychotherapy sessions, who stated they had an expanded sense of awareness and found new perspectives.
The rise of psychedelic treatments
This is not to argue that psychedelics are right for everyone who has experienced such circumstances. But for some, they may hold a lot of promise.
More research is needed before psychedelics can be prescribed outside of clinical trials. In fact, this might never be the case if the findings of those said studies suggest otherwise.
However, it's for certain that, these drugs have played a major role in shaping the fabric of the culture in the U.S. and many other countries, with a legacy that's brimming with countercultural revolution, military experimentation, spiritual exploration, and scientific research.
From the hippies of the 1970s to modern psychotherapy, psychedelics might offer us anything from positive personal growth to physiological benefits when used appropriately, which is why, hopefully, a colorful trip down the line awaits us.