Research Briefing: Blowing your mind, according to science

This research briefing is co-published with the excellent Report on Psychedelics, you can find their weekly news briefings here.

In The Research Briefing:

  • Shamanic practitioners show similar brain changes as those on a high dose of psychedelics
  • Psychedelics and mindfulness meditation find each other
  • Naturalistic mescaline use leads to positive mental health changes

ALTERED STATES OF CONSCIOUSNESS

The shamanic state of consciousness

If you’ve ever been swept away by music, moved to elation by your favorite artist, or touched by a song from childhood. Then you know that music has the ability to change your state of consciousness. A study this week was the first to investigate the brain states of experienced shamanic practitioners and found that their brains changed in ways similar to the psychedelic experience, and even exceeding them on many measures.

The shamanistic practitioners (shamans) had an average of 20 years of experience and were holding 13 healing sessions each month. The 18 shamans were matched with 19 other participants of the same age (56) and sex. The shamans entered the shamanic healing state by thinking of healing someone whilst listening to a drumming recording.

What did the study find?

  • On the Altered States of Consciousness questionnaire (OAV) the shamans scored much higher than the control participants.
  • Surprisingly, they even scored higher than the average participants in 43 studies with psychedelics. Shamans had the highest scores on the subscales of 1) complex imagery, 2) experiences of unity, 3) spiritual practice, and 4) insightfulness.
  • Their EEG-measures (level of electrical activity in the brain) showed higher ‘criticality’ in the gamma waves, something also seen with psychedelics like LSD and a possibly indicator for more awareness, consciousness or entropy.

This paper shows the truly flexible ability of our brains and the way they, with years of experience, can be trained to react so strongly to music. A future paper by Emma Huels and colleagues will further investigate the cognitive effects of the shamanic trance state.

MINDFULNESS

Combining psychedelics and mindfulness for maximum benefits

Mindfulness meditation (MM) is the deliberate practice of learning to become more mindful. Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy (PP) consists of one to three high-dose psychedelic sessions with more therapeutic sessions before and after. Both MM and PP can lead to improvements in mental health and lower scores on depression, pain, and smoking.

Payne, Richards and Liknaitzky investigate the literature on both topics and propose a variety of ways both can be used synergistically. They propose that PP can serve as the compass, an initial boost to show what is possible. MM can then be the vehicle to sustainably work on problems someone is facing.

Which synergies are there? The top 3:

  • A psychedelic experience may serve as a reference point for novice meditators, to show what is possible (e.g. non-dual experiences, decreased self-referential thinking, interpersonal connectedness).
  • A psychedelic experience can motivate the novice meditator to continue on the path and possibly also help by raising general motivation to act in line with their values.
  • MM may extend the afterglow effect of a psychedelic experience and retain a sense of proximity/likeness through meditation.

This paper proposes a variety of mechanisms that confirm earlier work. For instance, a study found that psychedelics increase mindfulness, and that it even increased the depth of practice for experienced meditators.

MESCALINE

Positive Life Changes After Mescaline Use

A variety of studies have shown that the use of psychedelics can lead to positive changes in mental health. The psychedelic experience is often seen as one of the most memorable experiences of someone’s life.

A survey study found that, for those suffering from anxiety, depression, PTSD, alcohol- and substance use disorders, their conditions improved significantly after mescaline use. For instance, of the 452 respondents in this study, 41% reported experiencing depression at the time of their most memorable mescaline experience. Of that group, 86% reported improvements after the experience.

What did this study find out?

  • Psychological insight, was the only significant predictor after controlling for the acute mystical-experience and ego dissolution. Or in other words, the lessons learned and possibly integrated led to better outcomes.
  • Not many studies have looked at the relationship between classical psychedelics and PTSD. This one showed that for those suffering from PTSD (n=72), 76% improved and this effect was most pronounced for those with a stronger mystical-type experience.
  • Although it has been used for centuries, mescaline remains understudied and no RCT studies, to our knowledge, have been done. This research could be the impetus that helps start more studies into this interesting molecule

At this current time, we can use all the tools that are available to use to improve our mental health. And although psychedelics don’t directly target the core of many societal problems, studies like this one show the potential for improvement.

Research Report Readout

After attending an ayahuasca retreat, participants were less neurotic. This large study with 256 participants showed changes up to three months later. Expectancy and placebo effects did probably account for a significant part of the results.

Ayahuasca has again been shown to help treat addiction. In a 7 month treatment plan (Takiwasi), that also included purges and other medicinal plants, 36 participants improved on scores of mental health and decreased in craving for drugs.

Psilocybin-assisted therapy reduces suicidal ideation and ‘loss of meaning’. This follow-up study found that 4.5 years after treatment, patients treated for anxiety and depression also scored lower on these measures.

Rafael Dos Santos and colleagues present an overview of the literature of classical psychedelics for depression. The review includes 8 modern studies and highlights the need for new treatments.

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