"Think of the brain as a hill covered in snow,” once Mendel Kaelen, a postdoc from Imperial College, said, “and thoughts as sleds gliding down that hill. 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 trap people into the same patterns of thoughts and actions, while cigarettes do the same by giving a sense of pleasure.
And in time, these paths run deeper and deeper, making it impossible to escape the groove.
Psychedelics, a class of psychoactive substances that cause 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. 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 explores why we get so profoundly affected by these chemical compounds.
There’ve been only a few studies on them with small sample sizes that we will touch upon in this writing; however, 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.
The study that changed everything
"It’s one of these moments that really changed everything in my life. I saw this black smoke sort of 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 study that examined whether psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, could reduce anxiety and depression in cancer patients.
At the age of 21, he was diagnosed with Stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma and luckily, beaten it, but he had been battling the fear of death ever since.
With a psychiatrist and a social worker by his side, he was given psilocybin in a little capsule.
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% of cancer patients showed significant reductions in psychological disorders. Side effects were close to none, and some seven months later, most of them were still holding on to 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.
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 also investigated that molecules with similar properties were found in mushrooms, peyote cactus, and tropical plants that are used in the psychoactive drink Ayahuasca.
Hallucinogens do their thing 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. In order to know that, we have to take a trip down to the rabbit hole, through a colorful and vibrant history.
Life Magazine: ‘The Discovery of Mushrooms That Cause Strange Visions’
What you’re looking at here is what made many Americans aware of the psychedelics for the first time in 1957. This little article 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 to ever trip on acid.
The world was intrigued by this revolutionary substance. During the 1950s, 60s, and 70s thousands of LSD studies were carried out as researchers looked into its potential as a tool for psychotherapy.
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.
While Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix made music 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 LSD became synonymous with hippies and the anti-Vietnam war, it earned a stigma in the rest of society, and the therapeutic benefits it was originally known for were buried under disinformation.
Nine years after, LIFE would do a 180 turn and publish "LSD: The Exploding Threat of the Mind Drug That Got Out of Control."
The possession of the drug was made illegal in 1966, educational and government films warned of the risk of chromosome damage, birth defects, suicide, and psychosis.
The psychedelics would be so culturally feared that funding for researches would dry up and getting regulatory approval would be next to impossible. An entire area of research was put into deep freeze for decades.
Research since then suggests otherwise
However, now, we know better about their ups and downs. Research since then suggests psychedelics don’t “scramble” your brain, they aren’t toxic nor physically addictive. There is no evidence supporting that they cause chromosome damage or birth defects.
But there are still some risks
It can be safely said that the risks 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.
Moreover, anecdotal evidence shows that for those who are predisposed to mental illness, psychedelics might be the push over the edge. People can be schizophrenic or have psychotic illnesses as a result.
It should be noted that some studies showed that the risks are quite low. A survey on nearly 20,000 psychedelics users found no significant associations between these drugs and mental health problems, and in fact, lifetime psychedelic use was associated with a lower possibility of past year inpatient mental health treatment."
A timeline of important studies
Starting in the 1990s, academics began a renaissance of psychedelic psychotherapy research that focused on depression and anxiety in people with cancer. Today, more research is moving forward and broadening in scope as psychedelics be regarded as possible aids to psychotherapy.
Psilocybin studies got back on track in the early 2000s, with groundbreaking studies on LSD soon following.
Moreover, the studies further proved the first researchers back in the 1940s. A government-approved study of 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% of the patients who drank ayahuasca reporting a decrease in depression one week later. The study supported the safety and therapeutic value of ayahuasca within an appropriate setting to help treat depression.
On November 22, 2019, The Food and Drug Administration granted Breakthrough Therapy designation to the Usona Institute for its psilocybin therapy for major depressive disorder, with a clinical trial that'll include 80 volunteers.
In one peculiar example, there is even one legal, medically supervised psilocybin retreat center for professionals seeking "personal growth, emotional breakthroughs, and spiritual development." Located in Zandvoort, Holland, Synthesis Retreat offers activities including the ceremonial use of "high-dose, psilocybin truffles to catalyze these transformations."
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 have ongoing research programs that focus on psychedelics solely.
What happens during a guided trip?
The doctors have learned a lot from the ancient use of psychedelics, more specifically from shamans who guided those who dared to venture into psychedelic experiences.
To ensure the patient doesn't have a so-called "bad trip", which is an unpleasant experience that can happen after taking psychedelic drugs, doctors meet multiple times with the volunteers before giving out the drugs.
Developing trust and rapport with the volunteers is crucial since they need to be made aware of anything that can be surprising or frightening and feel safe so that they can experience the drug without anything holding them back.
During the trip, the doctor might play music or put on blindfolds and headphones to limit stimulation from the outside and encourage a turn inward.
In some cases, the volunteer might be instructed to write down everything they experienced to solidify the positive effects.
How and why does psychedelic therapy work?
We need to meddle with the curves of the brain to answer that, and while we know "how" to some extent, the "why" is still not so clear.
Looking at the images of the human brain on LSD and psilocybin might help. 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 suppresses 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, which seems to be the seat of the ego.
Among depressed people, activity in the default mode network has been seen to increase. However, under favorable conditions, LSD can decrease it acutely, leading to ego dissolution.
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 the same change, with heavier traffic over fewer connections.
Psychedelics seem to open up diverse circuits where more connections are utilized and free up space among the more 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 reported by those who've participated in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy sessions, stating they had an expanded sense of awareness and found new perspectives.
This is not to say that psychedelics are right for everyone who has experienced such problems, but for a great many of us, they could possibly offer a great deal of potential.
More research needs to be done before psychedelics can be prescribed outside of clinical trials. This might never be the case too if the findings suggest otherwise. However, it is for certain that, these drugs have played a major role in shaping the culture in the U.S. and other countries, with a legacy that is 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.