Age is just a number – Psilocybin and the road to change

There are some things you can’t change. Your age, for example. Sure, some people can (attempt to) hide it, but how old you are is an inescapable fact of life.

There are some things you can change, however. External factors, like your lifestyle or your diet, can be adjusted. But these rarely have large effects on who you are as a person, especially as you get older.

Personal development is challenging, no matter how old you are. But there’s no doubt that age can take its toll. Years of the same routine can ingrain toxic habits and thought patterns deeper and deeper, making them incredibly hard to reverse. But evidence from modern science is showing us that there is no age limit on the road to change.

************************************************************************

In 2006, researchers at Johns Hopkins University were looking for participants for a groundbreaking new study. Psilocybin, the key ingredient in magic mushrooms and truffles, had been thrust into the scientific spotlight. With clearing from the ethical council, the researchers had permission to investigate how psilocybin would affect hallucinogen-naive individuals. As psilocybin has been a backbone of spiritual practices in many indigenous cultures, the researchers thought they could finally elucidate the ethereal; does psilocybin facilitate mystical experiences?

Unsurprisingly, there was a huge amount of interest. 136 volunteers were whittled down to 54, with 36 of these ultimately deemed suitable to participate. After months of screening and check-ups, the volunteers would finally sit in a comfortable room, with suitable music, and be taken through a psilocybin trip. Trained clinicians were present, acting as guides to help the volunteers through a potentially bumpy ride.

If you didn’t know, psilocybin has a cascading effect on the outer layer of the brain (the cortex). It acts on the one of the main neurotransmitter systems – the serotonergic system. Much like a key fits a lock, serotonin molecules bind to their respective receptors in this system. This molecular binding unlocks processes involving learning, memory and cognition. Due to psilocybin having the same chemical shape as serotonin, it can be thought of as a master key, able to open the doors of perception.

Since the 1960’s, magic mushrooms and LSD (another serotonergic psychedelic) have been iconic symbols of the counterculture movement. Rather than being used for introspection, self-reflection and personal growth, they have been misconceived as party drugs, which led to their stigmatisation (and criminalised status) in 1971. However, as said before, these plants have been regarded as sacred, and used in spiritual practices for millennia. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University wanted to highlight the mushrooms sacred healing properties.

The average age of participant in the study was 46. Typically, the ability to cultivate new traits and to engage in personal growth is stunted by the age of 30. Your personality stabilises, with core traits stagnating from then on.

Many of the participants showed ingrained personality changes following the mushroom session. Amazingly, these changes persisted until at least 14 months after the trip itself, when a follow-up test was conducted. Nearly all of the participants ranked the trip as one of the top five most spiritually significant experiences in their life, with some ranking it as the most. This meant that for some volunteers, the time spent on psilocybin in a room of clinical psychologists was more spiritually significant than the birth of their own child.

************************************************************************

Life is a complex phenomena. You never know what it will throw at you, and you never know how you’ll react. These volunteers undoubtedly had no idea that this study would change their life, and ultimately change who they are. 62 years old at the time, Maria Estevez participated in the study to gain some spiritual and personal insights. She released a book about her experiences, and had this to say about her encounters with psilocybin:

“Driving home from Baltimore after my mandatory follow-up the next day, I became aware of a blaze of inspiration and communication too strong to be dismissed. One message was, “Once the door is opened, it will never again be completely closed.” I was delighted with every aspect of this revelation and the personal transformation it promised.”

It’s a rarity to see such a dramatic shift in both personality and outlook on life. Psilocybin has the capacity to do this, however, through one specific means – neuroplasticity.

As we grow and develop, our brains are inherently malleable. Fundamentally, there is a process (dubbed Hebbian learning) that allows useful connections between brain cells to strengthen, and useless ones to weaken. This can be achieved through the coordination of specific neural pathways signalling together. In short: what fires together, wires together.

The brain is in its most plastic state at a very young age. Every new experience we have as a child influences these neuronal connections, ultimately moulding our minds. We are subjected to many experiences, and, as a result, are a product of them.

But when our brains reach a certain level of maturity, this plastic state fades. Experiences are no longer as groundbreaking as they once were, which is one of the reasons why personalities tend to stagnate. Habits become ingrained, and thought patterns remain rigid.

Psilocybin, however, can induce a completely different brain state. Under the influence of psilocybin, new doors are opened. Researchers in Italy and London visualised how neuronal pathways form that allow brain regions to communicate in a way that has never been seen in waking consciousness.

Essentially, psilocybin can catapult your mind back to a child-like state. It is in this state that experiences carry so much gravity. Your ability to learn about yourself and grow is immensely amplified, as well as the capacity to change. To be in this state, to look at the world with child-like wonder again is, to say the least, eye-opening.

It’s no wonder, then, that so many are awe-struck by the journey that psilocybin takes them on. Nick Fernandez, who participated in a psilocybin study due to his severe anxiety, said it “was the single most transformative experience of my life”.

************************************************************************

Ever since the the original study conducted by Johns Hopkins university in 2006, there has been an explosion of interest into psilocybin’s benefits. People that have undertaken these clinically guided trips have become more connected to others, more spiritually aware, and more compassionate and kind. These personality changes have been seen in participants well into their 60’s. On top of this, it’s being tipped as a miracle cure for treatment-resistant depression and PTSD, anxiety, existential distress in cancer patients, and substance addiction (to name just a few).

What must be stressed is the diversity of volunteers that are in these experiments. Some are old and some are young. Some have clinical issues while some seek spirituality. Some intend to self-reflect, and some merely want to contribute to modern science. Whatever the intention, it is clear that all the participants have been affected and touched by their psilocybin encounters.

For many it allowed them to get out of a depressive rut; the plastic state that psilocybin induces can help to relinquish the control that negative thought patterns had over their lives. For others, a titanic shift in internal thought led to a titanic shift in the way they behaved externally (for some, this manifested in the cessation of smoking or drinking alcohol).

Although you can’t change your age, it is increasingly clear that you can change your mind. Doors that have been seemingly shut for years can once again be opened with psilocybin.

Microdosing – A Journey into the Unknown

“How could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?”


– Plato, The Allegory of the Cave

An expansive and ever-shifting distortion of human perception? Colours blending and inanimate objects moving? These might be some of the images that come to mind when you think of psychedelics. But there is a movement that is growing, and it doesn’t involve overwhelming hallucinations or transcendental insights.

Microdosing, as described originally by James Fadiman in his book “The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide”, is the practice of taking a “sub-perceptual” amount of psychedelic drugs (usually LSD, or psilocybin) every 3-4 days. Sub-perceptual is, of course, a very individualistic guideline, but generally means that the effects are so minute that they barely cross one’s perceptual threshold (around 1/10 of a normal dose). In other words, if you start experiencing visual effects, you’ve probably taken too much.

The interest in microdosing has exploded in the past decade. After Fadiman released this guide, he urged users to send him reports about their experiences. This was ten years ago, and the reports are not only flooding to Fadiman, but also online: a website has been setup dedicated to the safe and standardised practice of microdosing, and there are over 46,000 reddit users following the microdosing subreddit, with posts being uploaded daily. It’s also being lauded by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, who say that using small amounts of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) has helped them ‘hack their creativity and productivity’.

Despite the anecdotal evidence mounting, there is an issue here. Without the controlled study of psychedelics using these sub-perceptual doses, it is hard to truly ascertain the positive and negative effects of microdosing. Bureaucratic and legal barriers prevent a large number of researchers from gaining access to psychoactive drugs. Most notably however, here in the Netherlands, psilocybin containing truffles have a decriminalised status, and are distributed commercially, which gives psychedelic researchers a clear advantage in the study of psilocybin (the psychoactive component in psychedelic mushrooms).

Microdosing – A Creativity Hack?

Recently, one of the first studies investigating the effects of microdosing was conducted by Luisa Prochazkova and others at Leiden University. Anecdotal evidence from microdoser’s online led the researchers to investigate how it would affect two domains: fluid intelligence and creativity. The researchers argue that creativity is comprised of two subcomponents: convergent thinking and divergent thinking. Convergent thinking is the ability to focus and identify a primary solution to a well-defined problem; one problem, one solution. Divergent thinking, however, requires cognitive flexibility to come up with as many original and abstract ideas as possible; one problem, many solutions.

So what did they do in the study? The researchers used the Picture Concept Task to assess convergent thinking, and the Alternative Uses Task to assess divergent thinking. The Picture Concept Task involved a 3×3 grid of pictures, and the volunteers had to choose one picture from each row that they thought all had a common association (for example, a bathtub, a hose and a sink all distribute water); therefore they had to converge to a fixed solution. On the other hand, the Alternate Uses Task gave the volunteers five minutes to come up with as many uses for a pen or a towel, with extra points for originality of the answer, giving them an opportunity to think outside the box. Fluid intelligence (the ability to reason and solve novel problems) was assessed through the Raven’s Progressive Matrices: there were 12 questions, in the form of a grid of pictures, with one on the bottom right missing. The volunteers had to choose (from six pictures below) which was missing from the grid.

The researchers weren’t running around the streets asking people to microdose in the name of science though. They were recruited during a microdosing event curated by the Psychedelic Society of the Netherlands (PSN). These willing volunteers were tested both before they microdosed and 90 minutes after they ingested around 0.33mg of psychedelic truffles, which were provided by the PSN and sent to a lab afterwards for analysis.

The main component within the truffles (psilocybin) is a compound that binds to the 5-HT2A receptors in the brain, due to its very similar shape to the neurotransmitter serotonin. The serotonergic system is responsible for modulating many things, including, but not limited to, mood-regulation, cognition, learning and memory. We know that a large of quantity of psilocybin can drastically change these psychological attributes, but can a microdose have any effect?

In short, yes and no. The researchers found that after microdosing truffles, the volunteers were able to come up with significantly more original ideas (average 16.7) than before (average 12.36) on the alternate uses task, and could give more correct answers on the picture concept task (average 7.59) than before a microdose (average 6.56). However, fluid intelligence was not significantly affected

So these anecdotal claims of hacking your creativity may be right – it seems that microdosing can heighten one’s ability to problem-solve and think outside the box, but unfortunately doesn’t make you smarter. Aldous Huxley famously said, after retrospectively dwelling on his time tripping on mescaline in ‘The Doors of Perception’, that he saw the world for what it really was. He concluded that the brain acts as a sensory gate, filtering out unnecessary information, and categorising all new information based on previous experiences. Your perception of the world is the product of the information your brain lets in.

This function is useful; we would go crazy if our minds allowed the almost infinite amount of sensory stimuli into our psyche, but it can be costly. As our brains seek to predict the world correctly and act accordingly, we naturally fall into bad habits and become stuck in behavioural ruts (are you constantly checking your phone for no reason?). If high doses of psychedelic drugs allow us to completely un-hinge this sensory gate, and see the world in its unfiltered state, then low doses may leave the gate slightly ajar, which might explain how people can see a pen for more than just a tool to write Prochazkova’s research.

Another study conducted at Macquarie University in Sydney combined the surge of interest in microdosing with the power of the internet, to recruit volunteers around the world who were self-administering small doses of psychedelic drugs as part of their daily routine. These volunteers were tested over six weeks (on both dose days and no-dose days) on a variety of psychological parameters, including attention, mood, absorption, stress and wellbeing.

In the short term, the volunteers scored to be (among other things) more productive and more focused on their dose days compared to baseline, with these effects remaining significantly above baseline on the no-dose days. Other dimensions, such as happiness, creativity and connectedness, increased on dose days, but these effects quickly returned back to normal in the succeeding no-dose days. In the longer term, there was a significant drop in depression, stress and the propensity to mind-wander, and there was an increase in the intensity of absorption – a trait characterised by deep and focused attention within subjective experiences, such as being engaged in music or art.

It is important to note three things as a cautionary tale. Firstly, this study was not conducted purely on psilocybin. Around 47% reported to use psilocybin, whereas 48% reported to use LSD (another substance acting on the serotonergic system), so it is difficult to compare this with Prochazkova’s results. Secondly, both of these studies use experienced microdosers as participants, which immediately biases the sample, leading to the findings becoming less generalisable to the wider population. Finally, uncontrolled conditions in both these studies makes it impossible to gain an experiment that has a placebo condition. Who knows if the effects seen in these studies are just a product of microdosers expecting to feel more positive?

On the horizon, however, is prospective research conducted by the Beckley foundation that is going to be a first in the science of psychedelics – a blind study on microdosing – where volunteers are not aware of whether they have taken a psychoactive substance or a placebo. This would finally provide more conclusive scientific evidence about the effects of microdosing on a myriad of cognitive, psychological and wellbeing factors, without all these caveats mentioned that underpin and discredit previous research.  

It seems times are changing. The next few years investigating psychedelics looks promising to say the least. More knowledge of the benefits of psychedelics may allow society to grow and progress together with the research, with more and more people deciding to (as Huxley would put it) leave their sensory gate slightly ajar, and let in a little bit more of the world in front of us.

The best par about psilocybin therapy is the fact that we are using nature's gifts to heal.

Psilocybin: Meet Your New Therapist

How Psilocybin Therapy is Changing the Game

There is a revolution happening in the mental health industry. While everyone seems to be over-worked, over-stressed, and on the verge of quitting, something magical is starting to happen globally. In light of current dissatisfaction, people are being illuminated to one simple fact: It doesn’t have to be this way.

(more…)