Psychedelics in the Brain: A Closer Look at Psychedelic Therapeutics
Psychedelics in the Brain – Psychedelics have played a prominent role in many cultures for centuries. Specifically, people have been consuming psychedelics for religious purposes since ancient times to facilitate communication with the spiritual world.
In the early 1950s, psychiatrist Humphry Osmond began conducting research into its therapeutic effectiveness for treating substance abuse and mental health. Though his initial findings were promising, research halted in the 1960s when politics began skewing the public’s perception of these substances.
Fortunately, psychedelic research is picking up speed once again following recent legislative measures which loosened restrictions in some areas. What’s more, what we’ve learned about psychedelic therapies is wonderfully promising. Picking up where early research left off, we’re now learning just how psychedelics may exert their therapeutic potential.
Perception Through Predictive Processing
Before we can discuss psychedelics in the brain, let’s discuss the process of perception. Notably, perception follows a series of steps during which stimuli are taken in, processed, interpreted, and acted upon.
Theory suggests that our brains, in their infinite quest for efficiency, draw hypothetical conclusions about stimuli immediately, often based on past experiences. Most of the time, this process (called predictive processing) proves an efficient way to decipher one’s surroundings. However, sometimes predictive processing can be wrong. Optical illusions are an excellent example of this.
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Predictive Processing Gone Wrong
Mismatches between predictive processing and incoming stimuli are not a bad thing. In fact, this discrepancy is the basis for all learning. If incoming stimuli do not match what the brain predicts is true, then the brain encodes new learning pathways to process the stimuli more accurately next time.
However, sometimes disruptions in this encoding process can result in maladaptive inferences, such as in the case of delusions and psychosis. This may explain why early Drug War proponents likened psychedelic in the brain with psychosis despite a lack of evidence backing this theory.
How Psychedelics Affect the Brain
Notably, predictive processing involves the brain hypothesizing outcomes based on prior expectations. If the brain is relatively confident about a hypothesis, it will give less weight to lower levels of perception like experiencing and processing stimuli. Hence, perception is more rigid because it is based on firm confidence of the past.
Interestingly, some experts suggest that psychedelics may help the brain relax its belief system, thus giving more focus to the often-ignored lower levels of perception. According to a 2019 model called REBUS, psychedelics cause consumers to experience stimuli with less confidence due to a reduced reliance on past beliefs. This phenomenon is relevant for a few reasons, the least of which is to hallucinate or “trip.” More on this in a bit.
The Science of Psychedelics in the Brain
Researchers found that psychedelics interact with 5-HT2A serotonin receptors, which are responsible for things like memory and cognition. Interestingly, this rat study suggests that blocking these receptors induces cognitive inflexibility, or an inability to adjust prior belief systems.
On the other hand, activating 5-HT2A serotonin receptors, for example, with psychedelics, causes the brain to become less reliant on prior beliefs and thus more open to actual sensory information. This may explain why music tends to have such a profound impact on those under the influence of psychedelics when it otherwise would not.
Notably, because psychedelics help relax established belief systems, consumers will experience increased cognitive flexibility. This may foster in a few ways. For example, it could boost creativity, connection, or appreciation — or even help address latent emotional issues that were otherwise too triggering to address.
Another interesting phenomenon about psychedelics in the brain is the way they tend to reduce thalamus function. Specifically, psychedelics like LSD increase signaling from the cortex to the thalamus (predictions) and reduce signaling from the thalamus to the cortex (errors in perception).
To be clear, the thalamus processes information then sends relevant signals to other areas of the brain like the cortex. The cortex manages high-level thought related to things like memory, emotion, consciousness, reasoning, and language. Hence, hyper-signaling from the cortex to the thalamus could increase emotional perception, reasoning, and consciousness, while reduced information flow from the thalamus to the cortex could theoretically reduce ridged belief systems. Notably, this break in this communication pattern could explain some of the most common characteristics of a psychedelic experience.
Explaining the Psychedelic Experience
Now, let’s discuss how those effects translate into actual experiences. Essentially, consuming psychedelics may cause an increased connection between different areas of the brain (emotion, visual perception, etc.).
Interestingly, psychedelics also promote increased connectivity in brain areas that control sensory perception and processing, and less activity in brain areas responsible for interpreting sensory input. This may make the mind wander easier or loosen one’s sense of “self” (a.k.a. “ego dissolution”) to improve connection or “oneness” with one’s surroundings.
Notably, the degree to which this happens largely depends on dose size. Micro-doses, which are generally very small, may still help improve mood, reduce stress, and inspire creativity. Larger doses, on the other hand, may cause hallucinations, disassociations, and uncomfortable memory recollection. Those who consume relatively high psychedelic doses should consider an outside source of emotional support – a “trip sitter,” if you will. If nothing else, music always helps, especially if it’s upbeat and positive.
How Psychedelic Experiences Can Be Therapeutic
Psychedelics obviously have a profound impact on the brain. Their influence can cause altered perceptions, vivid hallucinations, and a disconnect from self. On the surface, this experience may seem extreme. However, it may actually be quite beneficial, especially if consumed in a controlled setting.
Notably, psychedelics in the brain may be beneficial for treating mental health conditions like depression, obsessive-compulsions, PTSD, and more. The reason for their effectiveness lies in the ability of psychedelics to reduce rigid thinking and increase connectivity. In doing, psychedelics may help people relive traumatic experiences without their triggers force-stopping the process. Essentially, this therapeutic process can help patients unpack their trauma by viewing it compassionately so they can move past it.
Psychedelics also help dissolve the ego to improve connection with other people and situations. They also tend to give consumers a higher sense of self, thereby helping them understand their role in the world. Consequently, psychedelics may help improve interpersonal connections and promote a greater sense of community.
Final Thoughts About Psychedelics in the Brain
Psychedelics hold a wealth of potential for treating mental health issues. Though research has just barely picked up again, what we’re learning about psychedelics in the brain is incredibly exciting. After all, mental health is a growing issue, and a solution may already be in our hands.
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