Tripping on psychedelics may actually free the mind, a new study suggests.
The new research, complete with the first modern brain scans of volunteers who got high on (illegal) LSD, shed light on how the drugs affect brain activity in order to produce their mind-blowing effects.
The findings build on previous studies that looked at the effects of other psychedelics like magic mushrooms, whose psychoactive ingredient is a compound called psylocibin.
For their new paper, researchers had 20 healthy volunteers visit a clinic on two different days. On one day, they got a 75-microgram LSD injection (considered a “common” oral dose from the non-profit psychoactive drug database Erowid); on the second day, they got a placebo.
Then, they used three different brain imaging techniques to measure and compare blood flow, brainwaves, and functional connections within and between brain networks in people on the placebo and under the influence of the drug.
‘Seeing sounds’ and ‘hearing colours’
Their scans were illuminating: People high on the drug appeared to process their visual world in fundamentally different ways from people who were not using. This suggests that — rather than simply getting their data on images from the visual cortex — the users were pulling data from multiple parts of their brains.
In other words, regions of the brain that normally don’t exchange information were chatting it up with one another, creating patterns of activity unseen in people who aren’t using the drugs.
Here’s an image from the new study showing activity in different areas of the brain for people either on the placebo or after being dosed with LSD:
Both of these observations build on previous studies looking at magic mushrooms, which appear to encourage the brain to virtually sprout new links across previously disconnected areas, temporarily altering the brain’s entire organizational framework.
This is markedly different from the way our brains normally work — typically, the activity in our noggins flows along specific information highways called neural networks. In those injected with psilocybin, cross-brain activity showed distinctly different patters, as if freed from its normal, rigid framework.
Here’s a data visualisation from a 2014 magic mushroom study comparing the brain connections in the brain of a person on psilocybin (right) and the brain of a person not given the drug:
“The brain does not simply become a random system after psilocybin injection,” the authors of the magic mushroom (psilocybin) study wrote, “but instead retains some organizational features, albeit different from the normal state.”
These new connections are likely responsible for psychedelic users’ descriptions of things like “seeing sounds” or “hearing colours.”
Psychedelics, depression, and anxiety
The new patterns also provide some insight into what may influence some of the antidepressant and anti-anxiety effects some users have described experiencing during and after their trips.
In a 2012 study, Imperial College London neuroscientist David Nutt, one of the authors of the newest LSD study, found that in people drugged with psilocybin, brain chatter across traditional areas of the brain was muted, including in a region thought to play a role in maintaining our sense of self. In depressed people, Nutt believes, the connections between brain circuits in this sense-of-self region have become overpowering. “People who get into depressive thinking, their brains are overconnected,” Nutt told Psychology Today. Negative thoughts and feelings of self-criticism become obsessive and overwhelming.
Loosening those connections and creating new ones, Nutt thinks, could provide intense relief for some.