The History and Science of Psychedelics– Psilocybin and LSD
In 1938, Albert Hofmann, a Swiss chemist was attempting to create a stimulant when he synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) instead. He accidentally absorbed a small dose through his fingertips and experienced a radical shift in consciousness. After he experimented further, he concluded the drug would be ideal for psychotherapeutic use. He began sending doses of LSD and other psychedelics, psilocybin (mushrooms and truffles), to clinics and universities across the world.
A promising decade of research began, leading to breakthroughs in understanding the brain’s neurochemistry and how the therapist might effectively treat mental illness. More than 40 000 patients were administered LSD alongside therapy between 1950 and 1965, and more than a thousand scientific papers were published. It was considered the “golden age” of psychedelic research. Many studies treating depression, addiction, emotional and physical trauma, and terminal illness, researchers found that LSD proved effective in cases where other drugs and therapy alone were not.
Psychedelic drugs have been consumed throughout history. For indigenous peoples, psychedelics use is considered both a sacred and healing act, that requires the guidance of a highly trained spiritual leader (shaman) and entails psychoactive rituals that bring humans closer to the spiritual world, in an effort to treat both physical and spiritual ills. Before the Europeans’ arrival, indigenous people in the Americas maintained their own holistic system of care consisting of spiritual practices, plant-based medicines, and community involvement. Understanding the roots within the historical origins for psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy serves as an important reference point.
State of consciousness
Psychedelics produce an altered state of consciousness that is often termed the “psychedelic experience.” It can include heightened senses and emotions; awe or terror; the feelings of experiencing birth, death or repressed memories; or a sense of profound insight into the nature of existence. Many researchers feel the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics are undeniable. But the unpredictable nature of psychedelic experience and the stigma of recreational drug use have made incorporating them into Western medicine problematic.
In 1966, the United States and in 1971 the United Nations banned the use and research of psychedelics. During this time in history, it was a time of great social unrest, “acid” escaped from the lab and found its way into unpredictable environments like college campuses and rock concerts. Horror stories emerged often exaggerated by the press. Young people (hippy movement) told their parents they no longer believed in the central institutions undergirding American society, and they certainly did not want to fight in the Vietnam war. President Nixon felt that societal values (cultural beliefs) were being threatened therefore made them illegal. He petitioned the United Nation to do the same.
Terence McKenna an American ethnobotanist and author, made the assumption that psychedelics had been made illegal “not because it troubles anyone that you have visions” but because “there is something about them that casts doubt on the validity of reality.” This makes it difficult for societies to accept them because it puts into question many beliefs (cultural/ political/ religious/ educational, etc.) which they believe could disrupt the status quo. There seems to be a great fear in Western society when we question our beliefs.
How does the psychedelic magic truffles (magic mushrooms) work?
The main psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms (or magic truffles) is called psilocybin, which is then broken down by our bodies into a chemical call psilocin. This makes its way into the brain, where it binds itself to the serotonin receptors itself (exciting them), which greatly stimulates the brain, triggering a range of auditory, visual and sensory hallucinations that can last from three to eight hours when ingesting higher doses.
They produce most of their effects by acting on neural highways in the brain that use the neurotransmitter serotonin by stimulating them. They affect the brain’s prefrontal cortex, part of the brain that regulates abstract thinking, thought analysis, and plays a key role in mood and perception.
Default Mode Network
Accidentally discovered in 2001, the Default Mode Network (DMN) made its debut when Marcus Raichle, using cutting edge Functional fMRI equipment, imaged the cerebral cortex. That same technology, paired with magnetoencephalography, or MEG imaging, was used by the team at Imperial College on subjects under the influence of psychedelics. It was also used by Judson Brewer at the UMass Medical School to image the brain activity of deep meditation states (focus attention directed inwards).
Both teams found that when these states were induced, and ego dissolution was experienced, the DMN shut down. The dissolution of the ego (personal belief systems) is a paradigmatic event reported by psychedelic drug users and experienced meditators, so it wasn’t necessarily a surprise when MEG and fMRI scans showed that egoic brain activity correlates directly with DMN activity.
The DMN is the internal chatter that leads our thoughts astray when we try to silence the interminable flow of opinions and thoughts in our head. When the brain has nothing to do the DMN flares up, defaulting to thoughts about a petty argument you had with your significant other a year age.
For many, it takes years, or even decades to silence the inner dialogue, but for those who succeed, the fruits of labor are profound. Recent research has found that the psychedelic experience, under the supervision and the right circumstances, can create the same effect, allowing for new connections to be made within the brain. According to the Carhart-Harris’s theory, our individual mental states fall somewhere along a scale of entropy. Entropy, in this case, is a measure toward a state of randomness or disorganization. On the Carhart-Harris’ scale, high-entropy mental states include those experiences on psychedelics; infant consciousness; and creative or divergent thinking. The low-entropy end included such states as narrow or rigid thinking; addiction; OCD; depression; and coma.
As we age, we tend to accept our personal beliefs as factual or true. Our introspection decreases therefore, our ego (thinking patterns) eventually turns on itself and “gradually shades out reality”. A psychedelic experience increases entropy in the brain (creates new neuropathways and freer communication across networks), loosening those bonds and opening the mind to a deluge of possibilities, many of which can be confusing or bizarre, hence hallucinations and strange thoughts. Therefore, it is important, to begin with therapy to better understand your negative thinking patterns or negative belief system. Afterwards, as the individual experiences a psychedelic “trip”, they better comprehend the information they are experiencing or in other words “it makes more sense”.
In a study with 15 participants, half of the participants received psilocybin while others received a saline placebo. What was remarkable was that the brain re-organized connections and linked previously unconnected regions of the brain.
Beside is the simplified illustration of the connections tracked while receiving the placebo (a) and the psilocybin (b). There seems to have a greater communication across the whole brain.
Psychedelic drugs such as, LSD (acid), psilocin (psilocybin mushrooms or magic mushrooms), mescaline (peyote cactus), and DMT (ayahuasca) are all serotonergic psychedelics. This means that the active ingredients within these psychedelics bind themselves to our serotonin receptors. Serotonergic psychedelics are capable of robustly increasing neurogenesis. In a study in the journal of Cell Reports, the scientist found that psychedelic drugs increase the number of branches and dendritic spines on neurons, and also increase the number of synapses, or connections between neurons.
The changes in a neuron affected by psychedelics
In another recent study, that gained the most traction in its successful treatment with psilocybin for depression. The study found evidence of a reset mechanism in the brain that can have lasting effects, sometimes for up to five weeks. What is the most interesting is that it wasn’t the compound within the psychedelic drug that changed the person’s emotional state, it’s their personal experience during the “psychedelic trip”, especially if they have a “mystical experience” which are feelings of oneness, unconditional love and togetherness.
Magic truffles are provided by Mother Nature. They are not from a pharmaceutical company. They are safe and non-addictive. All of the studies where altered states of consciousness were studied and observed, the short and long-term safety was evaluated. There was no indication of increased drug abuse, persisting perception disorders, prolonged psychosis, or other long-term deficits in functioning. The number of adverse reactions from psilocybin were few in number, resolved quickly, and was mostly associated with the highest doses of psilocybin. The subjects that were followed for 8 to 16 months post psilocybin administration exhibited no long-term negative side effects. The safety demonstrated in the study opened the door for more research on psilocybin. Furthermore, there was no significant association found between lifetime use of psychedelics and increased mental health treatment or suicidal thoughts, plans or attempts.
Further studies are now ongoing with Psilocybin for depression, anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), alcohol dependence and tobacco cessation.
- Psilocybin has demonstrated that it can lower suicidal thinking, suicidal planning and distress. It actually improved moods.
- Anxiety significantly decreased. There was a mood improvement for 2 weeks after one treatment and the effects lasted even up to 6 months after treatment.
- There was a study by Moreno and colleagues that demonstrated patients having a decrease in symptoms.
- Patients followed a psychosocial treatment with motivational enhancement therapy for 4 weeks and then received two doses, at separate occasions, of psilocybin. Patients all had a significant decrease in alcohol use post psilocybin administration.
- A study (Roland Griffiths) has shown which included cognitive behavioral therapy and the administration of psilocybin that 80% of the participants remained abstinent at the 6-month follow-up point. What was interesting during this study is that the mystical aspect of the psilocybin experiences seemed to be a requirement for the smokers to quit successfully which suggests that the spiritual experience is a main component for transformation.
Based on the studies undergone thus far, it appears psilocybin shows potential applications to manage mental health conditions. There needs to be further studies demonstrating its efficacity with a larger population.
Set and Setting
The set and setting during a psychedelic ceremony are important factors to consider when experiencing a “psychedelic journey”. The set refers to the intent of the person, their expectations and their beliefs. The setting refers to the physical, social and cultural environment in which the experience takes place.
The indigenous people who introduced the use of psychedelics journeys always had a set and setting to their ceremonies. The tribe shared the same beliefs and expectations about the psychedelic journey. Their setting was in forest, sitting around a fire with the sound of drums to facilitate the trance state. There was a shaman or guide to help the process of those having the journey.
In the Western world, the set and setting must be carefully crafted. Since the person’s senses are enhanced during the ceremony, it renders the psychedelic experience exceptionally sensitive to context.
It’s important to have a discussion about the person’s intent, expectations, and beliefs before they begin the ceremony. When you experience a ceremony, you don’t get what you want but what you need from the experience. Therefore, being self-aware about yourself is an important factor if you wish to have a positive experience.
The setting should be in a comfortable environment. Preferable lying down with blankets to keep the person warm, candles, bathroom nearby and dim lighting. Music is also an important aspect of the ceremony. It enhances the experience. Lastly, when the experience is over, it’s important to have a variety of foods so that the person may replenish themselves. While eating, the guide(s) and the experiencer should discuss the psychedelic journey. This allows the person to integrate the information they have perceived.
When choosing to have a ceremony, the person should make sure the facilitators (guides) are experienced and open to discussing any concerns they may have. Begin ingesting a small amount of the psychedelic drug then gradually ingesting a higher dose after an hour or so. It’s important that the person takes their time and doesn’t feel rushed. It’s their experience therefore they should always feel comfortable during the process.
If an individual is interested in experiencing psychedelic drugs, I recommend reading the book “The Psychedelic Explorer Guide” by James Fadiman Ph.D. Furthermore, it’s important to do your homework. Read the research.
I believe that it is important to first beginning with a few therapy sessions to become more self-aware. This means becoming aware of your beliefs, thoughts, and emotions. Afterwards, when experiencing a ceremony, the individual won’t experience harsh surprises.
Below are a few videos to become more informed about psychedelics.
Psychedelics improve the mental health and gives a boost to the over-all well-being. Microdosing is a small dose for a full-blown psychedelic experience.
A belief is an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof. They are rooted deeply within our psyche.
The multidimensional Self is limitless. It contains your physical identity, the construct of your reality, your beliefs, your Soul and beyond.