Future exploration of psychedelic drugs
ways psychedelics can be good for us!
Our own study of people living with HIV and AIDS is the first one of psychedelics to be approved by the University of California, San Francisco. Thus far, the results are small and preliminary, but the reductions in depression and existential distress have been remarkable. This is a “safe” clinical population, which means they are already facing the ultimate bad outcome: death. Modern medicine can extend their lives with medication, but it provides few solutions for their own lived experience of having a terminal illness.
For our study, we developed specific questions to ask participants the day after their psilocybin treatment, and three months later. Our goal is to understand not just whether the experience was beneficial, but the what, how, and why of the experience. Like other studies, ours includes therapists who support group experiences leading up to and following the treatment. Our aim, as with most psychedelic research, is to create a specific mindset for the participants—a goal or intention that is often worked on for weeks ahead of the treatment. The setting is a room that does not look like a hospital laboratory (think woven, groovy, patterned rugs, low lamp lighting, and a comfy couch) and emotion-evoking music played through headphones.
In the work to date, we have been struck by how the themes we were hearing resonated with research into meditation and mindfulness. Here are three key insights that are emerging from the interactions of these two branches of research.
1. Emotional awareness
Mindfulness practice and psychedelic experiences can positively alter one’s emotional process in two primary ways: increasing one’s ability to be in direct contact with the present moment (instead of being caught in emotions of the past or anticipation of the future) and enhancing experiences of positive emotions. Being with feelings in the present moment includes reducing our negative mind-wandering and bringing kindness and friendliness to difficult emotions.
A single psilocybin session helped most participants let go of rigid, negative thought patterns—in other words, it gave them a break from the relentless barrage of self-criticism and judgment, and it increased openness to their emotions. For many in the study, these acute experiences carried over into their daily lives, helping them to be present and break free of their habitual tendencies to become entangled with stressful patterns and negativity. Moreover, psychedelics and mindfulness meditation have been found to decrease reactivity in brain regions that process fear.
Similarly, after meditation, participants report being able to approach stressful situations—to which they would typically react automatically and unconsciously—in alternative, more helpful ways. For example, a person who discovers that her flight is delayed at the airport by several hours may realize that being delayed may provide her the opportunity to call a friend she has not spoken with in a while.
2. Overriding our default mode
We all have roles to play with other people that define us. Mom, dad, son, daughter, teacher, student, nurse, doctor. Memories, beliefs, impressions, and sensations accumulate to form a sense of who you are, where you have been, and what you have done. These become your personal story and the backdrop of the moments of your life. This is your identity—and the source of your ego.
“Awe may be a critically important emotional experience during psychedelic treatment in generating compassion, empathy, and overall well-being”
―Dr. Eve Ekman and Gabrielle Agin-Liebes
But identity can also become a trap. We can fall back on our default settings—our duties, our routines—sleepwalking through our days. We also tend to experience ourselves as bounded and separate entities from our surroundings. Our ego can come to exist as if it were a city with a dense wall surrounding it, living in stark separation from the rest of the landscape. This separation can be helpful in that it creates a sense of structure and organization. It helps to protect us from dangers and cope with life’s hardships.
However, excessive separation can make our lives very small. We can begin to exist inside this bounded city as if we were an autocratic leader, attempting to control it and all the surrounding cities at all costs. It can render us emotionally alienated from other people. Researchers have found that this state can be associated with depression, anxiety, and addiction.
What happens when we create a space and a time when we tear those walls down, let go of our identities, and allow for the emergence of a new sense of self, however temporary?
Meditation and psychedelics can both take us outside of ourselves, helping us to connect with others and our environment. This process of “decentering” refers to the capacity to recognize thoughts and emotions as passing mental phenomena. Neurophysiological evidence by Judson Brewer and Robin Carhart-Harris suggests that certain types of meditation and psychedelics can disrupt a network in the brain that becomes activated when we engage with self-focus (the default mode network), which reduces rumination and mind-wandering. In effect, both types of experience—meditation and psychedelics—retrain and rebalance the activity of our ego, so that it protects us when needed and rests during times of safety.
Learning to relax this excessive self-focus—for brief amounts of time, in an intentional manner—can help us expand our notion of self into greater harmony with our environment. We can integrate our sense of who we are with the things around us. We can still operate with some independence, while also existing in unity with the surrounding landscapes. Or, at least, that’s what research to date suggests—though there is still much work to be done in understanding how and why this happens.
3. Prosocial motivations, emotions, and behaviors
Compassion, empathy, and altruism. They can be motivations, feelings, and actions—but in all their forms, they bring us together. That’s why scientists call these keys to well-being “prosocial,” as opposed to antisocial. When humans lived in small tribes, we needed to share the responsibilities of daily life, such as foraging food, childrearing, hunting, and protection against animal threats. Today, a prosocial orientation is essential for overcoming some of the greatest threats to our planet, from climate change to inequality.
There is tremendous scientific evidence suggesting that meditation and compassion-based programs foster prosocial emotions such as empathy, kindness, gratitude, and awe. For example, practicing meditation increases brain activation associated with compassion when we’re shown pictures of suffering, and it also seems to lead to more compassionate behavior.
Could the same be true of psychedelic therapies? At this point, we can only speculate. A critical review of 77 studies completed by Henrick Jungaberle and colleagues from the MIND European Foundation for Psychedelic Science suggests that psychedelics increase prosocial behaviors, empathy, cognitive flexibility, creativity, personality factors like openness, value orientations, nature-relatedness, spirituality, self-transcendence, and mindfulness-related capabilities. In a recent theoretical paper, University of Alabama professor Peter Hendricks suggests that awe may be a critically important emotional experience during psychedelic treatment in generating compassion, empathy, and overall well-being. This is turning up in our own study, as participants report feelings of awe after their session. In one case, a participant described how an everyday, mundane walk outside felt profound. Others reported feelings of deep connection to the entire world, often in contrast to prior feelings of isolation and cynicism.