Psychedelic mushrooms can do more than make you see the world in kaleidoscope. Research suggests they may have permanent, positive effects on the human brain.
In fact, a mind-altering compound found in some 200 species of mushroom is already being explored as a potential treatment for depression and anxiety. People who consume these mushrooms, after "trips" that can be a bit scary and unpleasant, report feeling more optimistic, less self-centered and even happier for months after the fact.
But why do these trips change the way people see the world? According to a study published this week in Human Brain Mapping, the mushroom compounds could be unlocking brain states usually only experienced when we dream, changes in activity that could help unlock permanent shifts in perspective.
The study examined brain activity in those who received injections of psilocybin, which gives "shrooms" their psychedelic punch. Despite a long history of mushroom use in spiritual practice, scientists have only recently begun to examine the brain activity of those using the compound, and this is the first study to attempt to relate the behavioral effects to biological changes.
After the injections, the 15 participants were found to have increased brain function in areas associated with emotion and memory. The effect was strikingly similar to a brain in dream sleep, according to Robin Carhart-Harris, a post-doctoral researcher in neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London and co-author of the study.
"You're seeing these areas getting louder, and more active," he said. "It's like someone's turned up the volume there, in these regions that are considered part of an emotional system in the brain. When you look at a brain during dream sleep, you see the same hyperactive emotion centers."
In fact, administration of the drug just before or during sleep seemed to promote higher activity levels during Rapid Eye Movement sleep, when dreams occur. An intriguing finding, Carhart-Harris says, given that people tend to describe their experience on psychedelic drugs as being like "a waking dream." It seems that the brain may literally be slipping into unconscious patterns while the user is awake.
"We dampen anxiety, dampen one's emotional range in the hope of curing depression, taking the sting out of what one feels."
Conversely, the subjects of the study had decreased activity in other parts of the brain areas associated with high level cognition. "These are the most recent parts of our brain, in an evolutionary sense," Carhart-Harris said. "And we see them getting quieter and less organized."
This dampening of one area and amplification of another could explain the "mind-broadening" sensation of psychedelic drugs, he said. Unlike most recreational drugs, psychotropic mushrooms and LSD don't provide a pleasant, hedonistic reward when they're consumed. Instead, users take them very occasionally, chasing the strange neurological effects instead of any sort of high.
"Except for some naïve users who go looking for a good time ... which, by the way, is not how it plays out," Carhart-Harris said, "you see people taking them to experience some kind of mental exploration, and to try to understand themselves."
Our firm sense of self — the habits and experiences that we find integral to our personality — is quieted by these trips. Carhart-Harris believes that the drugs may unlock emotion while "basically killing the ego," allowing users to be less narrow-minded and let go of negative outlooks.
It's still not clear why such effects can have more profound long-term effects on the brain than our nightly dreams. But Carhart-Harris hopes to see more of these compounds in modern medicine. "The way we treat psychological illnesses now is to dampen things," he said. "We dampen anxiety, dampen one's emotional range in the hope of curing depression, taking the sting out of what one feels."
But some patients seem to benefit from having their emotions "unlocked" instead. "It would really suit the style of psychotherapy where we engage in a patient's history and hang-ups," Carhart-Harris said. "Instead of putting a bandage over the exposed wound, we'd be essentially loosening their minds — promoting a permanent change in outlook."