Good drugs (e.g., psilocybin) = good news (all is not lost)

The news has been so depressing lately, it seems like a good time to post something positive. So here’s a look at some new research suggesting amazing benefits from psychedelics like psilocybin — especially for people who need help overcoming anxiety. The main question is: how do these drugs work and what new directions do they suggest for replacing loneliness with connectedness as our biology, culture, and technology continue to evolve in sync?

But first, a few laughs about how bad things have been, thanks to John Oliver.

The new research was conducted at Johns Hopkins University and New York University (NYU) and published December 1 in The Journal of Psychopharmacology. Here’s a nice overview. In this post I want to consider the brain changes produced by psilocybin (very similar to those caused by other psychedelics, including LSD and ayahuasca).

mushroomsThe participants in the study were cancer patients (understandably) experiencing lots of anxiety and depression about their illness. To quote from the Scientific American article, “more than three-quarters [of these patients] reported significant relief from depression and anxiety—improvements that remained during a follow-up survey” six months later, after taking a single dose of psilocybin (magic mushrooms) in a controlled setting. These long-term effects are exciting: lasting changes in people’s feelings and behaviour, which of course suggest enduring brain changes. I think these changes put a positive spin on how humans think about drugs, which is a refreshing change from all the negativity.

As my readers probably know, I have long divided drugs into good, bad, and somewhere in the middle. Heroin, crack, and meth…bad! In the middle we’ve got cannabis, maybe ecstasy, alcohol (for some but NOT others), and mild mood-helpers such as kratom. The good drugs — the psychedelics — aren’t good for everybody. There is always that minority who have bad psychotic-breaktrips, scary psychotic detours that may last hours or even weeks. But for most people, at least those willing to let go of their day-to-day constructions of reality (for a while), I think psychedelics can be a real boon. They can take us on a journey that reveals a universe we may not have known existed. Kinda like the explorers of the 1400s and 1500s who sailed past the horizon and discovered that the world was round, not flat. (If interested, see my piece on LSD and the brain in The Guardian, and a review in Scientific American.)

To quote from Scientific American, lead author Roland Griffiths says that psychedelics show “remarkable potential for treating conditions ranging from drug and alcohol dependence to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder….They may also help relieve one of humanity’s cruelest agonies: the angst that stems from facing the inevitability of death.” Griffiths’ interest in psychedelic research arose partly from his interest in mindfulness meditation, and he’s actually studied meditators who have taken psychedelics to enhance their “spiritual” practice. So when we look at the brain changes triggered by psilocybin and LSD, the most interesting finding is that psychedelics and meditation both reduce activation in something called the default mode network (DMN).

synapsesThe brain is divided into several functional networks, each responsible for a different kind of engagement with the world. A network connecting prefrontal (and other regions) is in charge of problem solving, something we do a lot. A network anchored in the parietal cortex (that big middle part) is responsible for shifting attention to incoming stimuli, events that are potentially important in the here-and-now. But the default mode network is a set of cross-linked regions that extend from the middle of the frontal lobes (social cognition) to the hippocampus, which keeps track of the details of memory, to parts of the cingulate cortex involved in compacting memories into a gist-like overview, to areas in the posterior cortex that underlie our perception of other people’s motives and feelings.

As the name suggests, the default mode network is “on” a lot of the time. In fact it’s where we go, so to speak, when we’re not doing much else — when we’re daydreaming, reminiscing, imagining, rehearsing tidbits of future actions and possible conversations. But what does this network actually do?

To experience what it does directly, just try to meditate or still your mind for a few minutes. All those wandering thoughts, snatches of conversation, all the what-if images…maybe if I said this, she’d say that…I should really get on with updating my me-medCV…I wonder what’s for dinner tonight…am I supposed to cook, or is it Isabel’s turn? The DMN network is what manufactures all those wandering thoughts and fantasies. (And note that more advanced meditators show less activation of the DMN.) So the purpose of the network seems to be to propagate the sense of a coherent self, an ego, a me. And the problem with that is that ALL of our worries, negative thoughts, concerns about how meaningless it all is, concerns about whether I’m going to get sick, die, be lonely, or get high, relapse, and how long that might go on…all that fussing is simply a cascade of revisions of how best to care for oneself, protecting, optimizing, enhancing…ME!

That self-involvement isn’t wrong, and obviously it has adaptive value. But it’s also precisely the condition for anxiety — the state of being uncertain about what will happen to ME. So muting the default mode network might be a very good thing, at least on occasion, leaving us less self-involved, less concerned about what might happen, and less motivated to make things “better” by, oh, you know, taking stuff.

mushrooms-treesPsychedelics release us from a preoccupation with ourselves by reducing DMN activation. They allow us to be more open, more connected with other people, with our planet, with our universe. Psychedelics can usher us through a Copernican shift from viewing ourselves as the centre of the universe to viewing ourselves as interested participants in something much larger and possibly much more interesting.

I have little doubt that, within a couple of hundred years, genetic engineering will advance to allow us to modify our biological makeup, that is if we survive that long. Maybe psychedelic exploration and mindfulness meditation will help point the way toward changes that serve as improvements. Maybe the DMN could be turned down, or even turned off, through a bit of neural restructuring, to reduce our concerns for self-optimization and make more room for the rest of the world. Less anxiety, less greed, less power-mongering…more love.

Sound cheesy? What can I say? I’m a child of the sixties.








22 thoughts on “Good drugs (e.g., psilocybin) = good news (all is not lost)

  1. Nic December 9, 2016 at 4:10 am #

    Why’s the news depressing Marc? The Trump news in America outside of the liberal news lies is all positive. Carrier, Japan, etc. and he’s still 40+ days out of office. Go here and you’ll find relief: ~~ Happy Holiday Season!

    • Marc December 9, 2016 at 3:53 pm #

      I went to that site last time you recommended it. Your sources are seriously deranged, in my view. The fact that Trump just appointed a climate change denier as head of the EPA is….really all it takes for me to close that door. How much more info do we need? Oh yeah, he says he admires this guy Duterte, new head of the Phillipines, who is slaughtering addicts by the thousands — not just dealers, but users, many who have already surrendered to the police…..I mean, that’s got to make him unpopular among my readers.

      Am I missing something? Are you being sarcastic?

      • Mike December 10, 2016 at 6:42 am #

        It’s obvious that perhaps you didn’t look deep enough into Alex Jones. You would not do your research in something science-based so lightly. There’s 500 videos to review at the site this morning plus four hours of news broadcast daily. Some tips on ways to perhaps get a better feel for the other side: look into the Clinton Crime Network videos, Dr. Steve Pieczenik, Globalism v. Americanism, HRC health deception, GSoros money and destabilization etc. I enjoyed your books Marc, have empathy for addicts but none for mainstream media perception deception that is more intense and unrelenting than an acid trip. Over your way perhaps some other avenues to consider: Brexit v. global takeover and David Icke’s work.

        • Carlton December 10, 2016 at 8:33 am #

          Nic, Marc, and Mike,
          An essay on water could paint it as the elixir of life, while another can paint it as the bringer of death, neither be lying, and both be true.

          So it is with the opposing Political positions, models of Addiction, etc, etc.

          The Understanding of Politics, Addiction, etc, etc, is a different thing.

          • matt December 14, 2016 at 4:11 am #

            …and even understanding is relative

  2. Mark December 9, 2016 at 7:42 am #

    My friend and long-time mentor, Jim Fadiman, also a child of the sixties, learned about entheogens at the feet of Leary and Alpert. His book *The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide* is an excellent handbook for using such drugs safely and responsibly.

    My own DMN regulator has turned out to be … neuroscience. I was taking a solo road trip to the Rocky Mountain Dharma Center (Shambhala Center) outside Boulder, CO and I was listening to Peter Levine’s CD series, *Healing Trauma.* Suddenly some critical connections got made in my network, and I had to pull off the highway: “It’s not ME, who’s screwed up! It’s MY BRAIN!!” Somehow being able to assign this accurate attribution was deeply consoling.

    • Matty H. December 9, 2016 at 7:46 am #

      Interesting. I’ve never had much benefit from blaming my brain for my depression and anxiety. And considering the fact that it was your *change of belief* that led to your improvement, I suspect you actually didn’t either.

      • Mark December 9, 2016 at 7:53 am #

        Think of it as me being “a true believer” much like deeply religious people are able to use their faith to regulate their stress biology. Neurobiology makes sense for me … because it works. Much like trusting in Jesus works for many people, because that trust in him works to regulate their stress biology.

        It’s hard to believe in things that don’t work.

      • Karen December 9, 2016 at 11:39 am #

        It’s not blaming, it’s understanding – this is how the brain works, so this is why I think, feel or do this or that. And I think the whole point of Marc Lewis’ findings is that brain change, apart from catastrophic injury, is not permanent. Neural pathways change, by accident or by design. As a survivor of abuse, I’ve changed many neural pathways, using talk therapy, mindfulness techniques and just plain getting out there and living life. I’m reading Marc’s book The Biology of Desire, and it is giving me similar insights to the one Mark describes above.

  3. Matty H. December 9, 2016 at 7:43 am #

    Well, it seems the effect doesn’t come from some kind of permanent brain change, if I’m not mistaken. So a materialist explanation is out of the question, as far as I’m concerned.

    Also, don’t you find it interesting that it actually decreases brain activity? Not what one would expect from a brain that’s “tripping balls”, at least not from a materialist worldview.

    • Karen December 9, 2016 at 12:36 pm #

      The blog says psilocybin decreases the activity of the Default Mode Network, not brain activity as a whole.

    • Marc December 10, 2016 at 3:46 am #

      I’ll have to look again, Matty, but the “decrease” in activation could mean that there’s more cross-network talk than within-network talk, as with that study last spring on LSD and network dynamics…, it could be a relative measurement issue. In fact, spread-out activation just looks “less” in fMRI and other technologies….so perhaps my description was blurring these distinctions.

      And you’re right: the long-term effects don’t seem to result from a lasting state of DMN underactivation….rather, looks more like personality changes that would imply much subtler brain changes. Still ANY change in outlook, perception, mood, etc means brain change. There is no way to separate the biological from the psychological. And with meditators, the long-term change does seem focused at least in part on the DMN.

  4. Mark December 9, 2016 at 7:46 am #

    Here’s another DMN Regulator that often works for me, drawn from Jill Bolte Taylor’s book, *My Stroke of Insight.*

    • Jeffrey W Skinner December 9, 2016 at 9:15 am #

      Brilliant insight in that link. Storytelling and it’s limitations are central to consciousness.

    • Nancy December 9, 2016 at 10:56 am #

      Love this link. Thank you!

  5. Nicolas Ruf December 9, 2016 at 8:55 am #

    Embroidering the cushion of familiarity

    • Marc December 12, 2016 at 10:05 am #

      What are you talking about?

  6. Jeffrey W Skinner December 9, 2016 at 9:11 am #

    Where on your basic continuum of mood/brain altering drugs do you place the most common psychiatric meds, antidepressants and benzos? They are probably the most widely used psychoactive drugs.

  7. William Abbott December 9, 2016 at 12:23 pm #

    I think you have struck gold here Marc– and thanks for the lucid desscription of the DFN– which alot of the time is a self defeating bugaboo for many . Focussed awareness types of meditation take us out of the DFN but to another place where anxiety can be found and ameliorated — without the resorting to pharma . Not that Im against a little help if the narcs arent lurking . Thanks for this one

  8. Shaun Shelly December 9, 2016 at 1:31 pm #

    Hey Marc, long time since I been here! Happen to have missed a flight so stuck in a hotel, when I was supposed to be back with Sonja – Friday being the one night I don’t work.

    Have you read the Harvard divinity student study using psilocybin during Good Friday Mass? And the longitudinal follow-up? How the experience – good or bad – still rated as one of the most important life experiences years later? Really interesting stuff. There were actually a couple of these studies.

    Certainly any hallucinogen expands the boundaries of thinking – and literally makes new connections. I recently read some work on the role of hallucinogens in helping engineers and scientists find solutions and ideas. So why is there such current caution? The development of new and independent thoughts, while to be encouraged when incrementally small, has long been seen as a threat to the status quo when the magnitude of the change/impact can seem miraculous.

    Not only independent thought, but independence – a repeated use has often led to a “desocialisation” – something that is not to be encouraged if the status control is to be maintained.

    Indeed Psibocylin has led many to the mystical – the same intense feelings brought about by “experiencing God” and finally “seeing the light”. The drug experience is framed as “inauthentic” – a poor attempt at replicating the divine. Sex leads lovers to shout “oh my god!” rendering their lover divine. Such euphoria cannot be left unchecked and guilt-free.

    I have wondered if this is where the deep rejection of drugs comes from in puritan society – such experience is so potentially mind altering, so encouraging of independent thought and independence that it should firmly be vested in the control of a deity. Even the societies that embrace the use have created a ritual and responsibility and administration is reserved for the representatives of the gods.

    But of course, I am not the first to have wondered – Richard Wilmott, Derrida, Zinberg, Siegel and others have had these thoughts, and David Nutt tells me his next book will be on the neuroscience of religion and drug use.

  9. Jaz January 13, 2017 at 1:00 am #

    Not all hallucinogens deserve the same endorsement; LSD for example can be quite harmful compared to DMT.
    As a Psych undergraduate I have noticed swift disregard (and shaming to anyone who dares to start a debate) regarding alternative interventions for anxiety and depression. Why are we still held back by harmful and ineffective treatments (e.g. antidepressants) when we have knowledge of more natural chemicals that have more lasting effects and without the terrible side effects of common treatments? we cant blame pharmaceuticals by themselves – if we can’t even have a conversation regarding alternatives in an academic setting.

  10. Lisa Martinovic January 15, 2017 at 2:56 am #

    Marc, I’m guessing you’ve probably tracked this story, but just in case you haven’t I’m linking here as I think you’d appreciate it. About a writer who used microdoses of LSD to deal with her bipolar disorder:

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