Rachel Feltman relays the findings of “the first [psilocybin] study to attempt to relate the behavioral effects to biological changes”:
According to a study published [Thursday] in Human Brain Mapping, the mushroom compounds could be unlocking brain states usually only experienced when we dream, changes in activity that could help unlock permanent shifts in perspective. … In fact, administration of the drug just before or during sleep seemed to promote higher activity levels during Rapid Eye Movement sleep, when dreams occur. An intriguing finding, [study co-author Robin] Carhart-Harris says, given that people tend to describe their experience on psychedelic drugs as being like “a waking dream.” It seems that the brain may literally be slipping into unconscious patterns while the user is awake.
Carhart-Harris elaborates on his findings:
While the psychedelic state has been previously compared with dreaming, the opposite effect has been observed in the brain network from which we get our sense of “self” (called the default-mode network or ego-system). Put simply, while activity became “louder” in the emotion system, it became more disjointed and so “quieter” in the ego system.
Evidence from this study, and also preliminary data from an ongoing brain imaging study with LSD, appear to support the principle that the psychedelic state rests on disorganised activity in the ego system permitting disinhibited activity in the emotion system. And such an effect may explain why psychedelics have been considered useful facilitators of certain forms of psychotherapy.
In other words, the sense of self and selfishness that we deploy routinely in our practical and daily lives can be attenuated with psiloybin. Feelings of empathy, connectedness, and calm take their place. It’s not permanent, but merely seeing the world from this mountaintop can change your perspective in the foothills and valleys of ordinary existence. It is not for nothing that psilocybin’s effects have often been very similar to those of long-term intensive meditation and prayer. The Dish, for these reasons, has extensively covered the therapeutic and spiritual benefits of psilocybin over the years. But over at Patheos, Gene Veith looks at the new study with a jaundiced eye:
[It’s] is being hailed as revealing positive benefits. What interests me is what the scientists and the media consider to be beneficial. The active ingredient in the mushrooms makes people more emotional, puts them in a continual dream-like state, turns down their higher cognitive abilities (that is, makes them less rational), and dissolves their ego, making them less “narrow-minded.” Note that in our postmodern culture, such assaults on the mind are all considered good things!
An assault on the mind! It is rather its fuller and deeper opening up away from “the deadliness of doing.” Or, as Carhart-Harris puts it, it “increases the breadth and fluency of cognition” rather than stunting it. It is what the mind, properly understood, was made for.
(Photo: Fresh Colombian magic mushrooms. By Photofusion/Universal Images Group via Getty Images. GIF of the psilocybin compound via Wiki.)