About the Series:

This workshop series bridges the artistic community, the neuroscientists, and the general public. EDGE e.V. has collaborated with the Arts Section of the MIND Members Association to propose a series of workshops titled Sensoriality: an Immersive Approach to Art and Neuroscience through our Senses.

In this series, artists and neuroscientists make a joint effort to unfold the complexity of our sensory perceptions while at the same time trying to stimulate them. Therefore, artistic references and the artistic practice itself, together with the scientific research and its divulgation are the essential tools offered in this series.

The participants can experience how knowledge can be transferred in its natural character- dynamically, where art pieces open a free communication space between the observer and object, and in which their creative skills will be triggered.

Through diverse and immersive sessions, we are going to open up a playful space for Science, sensorial perception and creativity, to blur the border between the claimed disciplines.

Details about each workshop can be found here.

Session 6: Auditory Perception and Agapé

In this final workshop session, the AGAPE of the produced art pieces of the workshop participants as well as the art pieces of many other involved artists will be exhibited and fused together into a finissage by an immersive, transcendental sound performance experience.

In this aetheric space, we will explore the unique sound environment created by various sound artists and scientists.

Expect…

  • Exhibition
  • Performance art
  • DJs
  • Live music
  • Dance
  • Neuroscience talks

Registration

Maximum Number of Participants: 130

Purchases ticket through Eventbrite here

 

 b0bb17a0-0b81-43b1-b11d-bed0839e5232  blog-treated_Katrin (1)

Psychedelics and the Social Brain

  • Blog
  • Science
  • Interview
  • 7 minutes
April 15, 2022
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Junior Group Leader UZH & Visiting Assistant Professor Yale

Katrin Preller researches the neurobiology and pharmacology of cognitive and emotional processes in health and disease using multi-modal behavioral, electrophysiological and neuroimaging techniques.

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MIND Blog Editor

Lucca Jaeckel is completing his M.Sc. in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience at Freie Universität Berlin.

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In the MIND Bioblog series, we present personalities who have influenced the development of psychedelic therapy, research, and the culture surrounding the psychedelic experience. Dr. Katrin Preller is a Junior Group Leader at University of Zürich, and Visiting Assistant Professor at Yale University. Her research revolves around the neuropharmacology of social cognition. The following conversation covers her interest in how using psychedelics and cognitive neuroscience can help improve our understanding of self and sociality in health, psychopathology, and psychotherapy. Moreover, we take a deep dive into the question of what mechanism(s) may underlie psychedelic therapy.

Lucca Jaeckel: You did your PhD work on the neurobiological effects of psychoactive drugs like cocaine, MDMA and heroin. What interested you in studying these drugs, and what then drew you toward psychedelics after this?

Katrin Preller, PhD: When I started my PhD, I was interested in understanding what the brain does to make us feel what we feel and think how we think. I wanted to understand the neuropharmacology behind the processes that influence our everyday life. And one way to do that was to look at the neurobiological long-term consequences of perturbing the brain by regularly doing psychoactive substances. That’s how I ended up working with cocaine, MDMA, and heroin users.  

I think this work has important implications for the therapy of addiction disorders. However, it did not quite satisfy my interest in really understanding the causal influence of psychopharmacology on our thinking and emotional processing. It’s very rare that people only use cocaine or only use MDMA. That makes it really hard to establish any causal link in these types of studies. 

While working on that, I then learned about psychedelic research, which I wasn’t even aware of when I started. So, I got interested in psychedelic science and thought that this might help me to solve some of the questions that I had. Specifically, with psychedelics, we can perturb the system in a causal way. And, given the relative specificity of these substances’ effects on the serotonin system, we can make causal inferences about how receptor-level changes affect thinking and emotional processing. So that really got me into psychedelic research and is the reason I started doing a postdoc together with Franz Vollenweider.  

Of course, that was already a few years ago. My interest in psychedelic substances and their effects has, since then, broadened to also include their therapeutic potential, but I’m still very much interested in these basic neuropharmacological questions. 

Considering this “causal mechanism question,” of course the administration of a psychedelic drug and its pharmacological consequences specifically stand out as a causal factor in determining the neurocognitive, social, behavioral, and emotional effects. But there’s also this big elephant in the room, that alongside the direct pharmacological effects there’s contextual and placebo effects, such as the way expectancy and social setting influence outcomes. What do you think about this? 

I mean, this is obviously very relevant, especially for therapeutic work. But I think it’s less important for the basic neuroscientific work because we’re mainly using objective tests there — to the extent we can, of course.  

When we’re looking at, for example, brain imaging, it’s unlikely that people can consciously change their brain activity or the connectivity in their brain. So, for these basic neuropharmacological questions, I think it’s less of an issue.  

However, it becomes terribly relevant when we’re talking about therapeutic effects where we’re not necessarily just looking at the acute effects of the substance, but are interested in what happens days, weeks, or months after the experience. And this could of course, be very much shaped by expectation because we’re then looking at symptoms and hopefully symptom relief. This continues to be a somewhat unresolved issue, because it is terribly hard to blind these studies. This means that it’s also very hard to get rid of expectancy effects and also disappointment effects if people realize they did not receive the active substance.  

Moving forward, I think we really need to address this by having better control conditions. That is, of course, hard. Even if we administer another psychoactive substance as a control condition, it remains hard to blind people. We don’t really have a good solution for this right now.  

I guess a way in which one could argue that you are already studying context-dependent effects, is that you are studying the social cognitive effects of psychedelics. So, by looking at how social context is processed differently, this may give us insight into how our context is affecting the outcomes. How exactly do you study the social cognitive effects of psychedelics? And how do you think this contributes to our understanding of the clinical effects of psychedelics? 

So, the first reason why I study social cognition with psychedelics is that we don’t really understand social cognition and social interaction very well, especially not their pharmacological basis. And on the other hand, we know that basically all psychiatric disorders are characterized by a disconnection from the social environment. And this is very hard to treat with the methods that are currently available. I think the way that psychedelics are influencing how we perceive our social environment is a key mechanism when it comes to therapeutic work.  

So, what we’ve done so far is we’ve mainly looked at how psychedelics influence social processing in an acute state. We did that mainly with computerized tests trying to simulate social interactions while people are lying in an fMRI scanner. This way we are trying to objectively measure how the brain reacts to the social environment under the acute influence of a substance.  

In our therapy studies, which are being conducted right now, we don’t look at such acute effects as much. Instead, we want to find out if there are long-term consequences on social processing in these patients, and whether these potential changes in social processing also relate to symptom improvement in our patients. To do that, we perform some of these tests for which we already found psychedelic-induced changes acutely, and we do them post-acutely, a few weeks after administration. Then we test if there is a relation to treatment effects, meaning symptom improvement.  

Now, these are lab-based tests, right? I think that moving forward, it would be important to collect objective real-world data on social interaction and social ability, to really see if this effect that we think could contribute to symptom improvement is actually something that also happens in the everyday life of our patients.  

Then, what we’re also interested in, in our therapeutic studies, is the interaction with the therapist – of course this is also a social interaction and a quite important one when it comes to therapy. We’re assessing how the quality of interaction between the therapist and the patient changes or not after the administration of a psychedelic. The data are basically being analyzed as we speak; hopefully, we’ll be able to show you some results within the next few months. 

Like these real-world interactions, a lot of the things that are affected by psychedelics seem to be on a high level of complexity or abstraction. Things like consciousness, the self, and the beliefs people have about the reality of the world seem to be affected by psychedelic drugs. This makes it kind of difficult, but also interesting, to study these substances. One similarly complex issue, relevant to your work, is how self and sociality are related: how tight is the link between the two and what does it mean that humans have a social brain?  

From the studies that we have, it’s quite obvious that self-processing and social processing are linked. Still, it’s pretty hard to characterize the exact nature of that, because we have limited ability to influence social interaction, and we have limited ability to influence self-processing. Psychedelics really provide a unique window into doing that.  

It’s very clear that, in psychiatric patients, there is this disconnect between the self and the social environment. The pandemic that happened over the last two years really showed us this link very clearly—the link between how well and how much we can interact with others, and mental health issues.  

Psychedelics really give us the opportunity to study this relationship in a causal way. Hopefully they can also help us improve self-processing and social cognition, because they really are key to mental health. 

Would you say there’s something that psychiatry can learn from psychedelics about treating mental health conditions or for understanding mental health conditions, in terms of what they tell us about self and social processing?  

There’s a lot that psychiatry can learn from psychedelics, not only related to social processing. But we have a major knowledge gap here, and that is about the exact mechanism of action: Why do these substances help people? Social and self-processing are just two hypotheses among many others. What we’re starting to see now is that whatever it is psychedelics do to help patients seems to be something that is transdiagnostic. Probably, there are certain things that are more important for one indication than for others. But we see something that seems to be beneficial for a wide range of psychiatric illnesses. I think figuring out what exactly it is that psychedelics do to help patients can have a huge impact on psychiatry.  

The other thing where I think that psychedelics are making a large contribution to psychiatry is the idea of pharmacologically-assisted psychotherapy. That’s a model that may have not been getting enough attention so far. It seems like a lot of psychiatry is currently just about giving a drug and expecting that patients get better. But we know from a lot of studies, not only with psychedelics but also with regular antidepressants, that there is a synergy between therapy and pharmacological treatment. So, the drug is really augmenting the therapeutic process. And I think psychedelics very prominently bring this back to our attention. It shows that we need to consider pharmacotherapy in the context of psychotherapy.  

If we consider psychoactive drugs in general, also illegal drugs or illicit recreational drug use, do you think there’s something that is special about psychedelics or that there is something that we can learn about how we deal with drugs more generally from this substance-assisted psychotherapy scheme? 

I mean, I’m not a politician or sociologist who could really talk about issues of legalization and things like that. But what we do see is that, first of all, all psychoactive substances in a way induce some kind of altered state. The quantity and quality of this altered state may differ, of course. Along with this, the risk potential of different substances is different. Some substances are more addictive and others less, for example. And some drugs, like psychedelics, induce this altered state of consciousness, which we know is easier to navigate in a professional setting where people can help guide you through the process.  

There are similarities and there are differences. Of course, there are differences in the mechanism of action. And they have different implications for how they should be used.  

Especially when we’re thinking about medical purposes again, it is most important to understand the mechanisms of action. For this it could be really interesting to do cross-pharmacological studies. So, to compare different pharmacological agents in the same individuals. It’s difficult to compare whether ketamine actually does one thing and psilocybin something different, because we’re still lacking these studies. I think for those psychoactive agents which are currently being developed or tested as medication we should really move forward and do these cross-pharmacological studies. 

Maybe that was already one of your answers to my next question, but if you look at the field of psychedelic research at the moment, what do you think is the most important thing to focus on right now? What are the questions that haven’t been addressed before? 

We need to understand the mechanisms of action. Why do people get better? Because this will have huge implications on how the therapy should be conducted. And right now, the field is moving forward with testing psychedelic therapy for a lot of different indications and looking at clinical efficacy in small studies. This is important; I’m not questioning that. But I think it is at least as important to understand why the substances are helping people, because this will have an influence on how you conduct the therapy.  

If you are leveraging, let’s say, a neuroplastic effect, you can enhance that with certain types of trainings, for example. But if you’re thinking about these substances as inducing some spiritual or mystical effect, this will have consequences on how you conduct therapy, how you use the substance, and things like that. As long as we don’t really understand why they help, it is really hard to optimize the therapy.  

Also, as there are more and more studies and they’re growing larger and larger, we will also see that these substances will not help everyone in the current therapeutic model. There will be patients who don’t get better. By understanding the mechanisms of action and optimizing the therapeutic approach, we may eventually be able to tailor the approach to the person. I think this will be highly beneficial for patients and will really allow this line of work to make the best of the effects that these substances have. 

  

uniMIND Symposium 2022 – Program Booklet

PBL Material

The Department of Psychopharmacology at Maastricht University, uniMIND Maastricht, and the MIND Foundation invite you to the uniMIND Symposium 2022 on April 9th at the SBE Aula in Maastricht, NL, and via livestream.

This year’s symposium discussions revolve around Synergies and Crossroads in Psychedelic Research and Therapy. The program contains excellent academic presentations, interactive group discussions, and still more: as a direct result of the discussions phase (organized as a PBL-session), each group will assign a representative to partake in a panel discussion.

Online participation is entirely free. On-site attendance is limited to 150 tickets that cost 10 Euros. All funds are used exclusively in support of the event.

 

To attend online, please register via the form below

Online Participation (Form)

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Did Consciousness Arise to Keep the Body Alive?

  • Blog
  • Science
  • Interview
  • 8 minutes
March 29, 2022
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Professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience

Anil Seth is a professor of cognitive and computational neuroscience at the University of Sussex and co-director of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research Program on Brain, Mind, and Consciousness.

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“Consciousness,” wrote neuroscientist Anil Seth in a recent article for Nautilus, “has more to do with being alive than with being intelligent.” This is the central premise of his new book, Being You: A New Science of Consciousness, which departs from the notion of consciousness as a vehicle for thinking, communicating, and perceiving the world and instead proposes that these processes—and therefore consciousness itself—arose to support the physiological regulation of the body.­ “The most fundamental reason any organism has a brain is to help it stay alive,” he argues, suggesting that homeostasis itself may influence cognitive function. From this, it follows that we are not disembodied “thinking things,” res cogitans as René Descartes put it. Instead, the experience of conscious selfhood is better understood as “formless, shapeless, control-oriented perceptual prediction about the present and future physiological condition of the body itself.” We are “beast machines,” he maintains, so that all of our conscious experiences—whether of the world, or of the self—are shaped by a primal purpose of sustaining our corporeal existence.

One aspect of consciousness currently populating much of the psychedelic discourse is the notion of the “narrative self,” defined as the experience of perceiving oneself as having a continuous identity over time. Building on our recent feature article by Dr Chris Letheby, in which he argues that changes to the narrative self underly the benefits of psychedelic-assisted therapy, we asked Anil how he understands the narrative self, and how it might be disrupted by psychedelics, based on the theory outlined in his book.

SB: What might give rise to continuous selfhood—as opposed to fundamental conscious selfhood—in terms of helping an organism stay alive? Would the perception of a narrative self then presumably be viewed as a phenomenon in service of maintaining homeostasis?

AS: The narrative self—a term I first encountered in the work of Daniel Dennett—indeed contributes to maintaining homeostasis but over longer time horizons, in several ways. For example, with the narrative self comes the ability to link behaviour now to memories of what happened in the past, and to plans and prospects for the future. More generally, perceiving oneself as being continuous over long time horizons provides a predictive “scaffold” on which other, more immediate, aspects of self-regulation can be organized.

SB: Can the “self” and “narrative self” be separated? A recent article in The Guardian recounts a story from your book about a musicologist who suffered memory loss, which disrupted his “narrative self.” What role do you see memory playing in consciousness?

AS: I think the narrative self is part of the overall perceptual experience – the collection of controlled hallucinations – that underpins what it is to be a “self.”  By narrative self I mean the experience of being a continuous identity over time, with a name, a set of memories, and so on. The feeling that I am not just a conscious agent, but that I am specifically “Anil Seth.” Sometimes – in the examples you mention, the narrative self can be eroded while other aspects of selfhood remain more-or-less intact, but I doubt that any aspect of self can be completely, fully, separated from any other.

The role played by memory in all this is very interesting and not very well understood. A complication here is that there are many different kinds of memory, which again may be partially separable from each other. The kind of memory most closely associated with the narrative self is autobiographical memory – the memory of specific events related to the self. In the case of the musicologist Clive Wearing, mentioned in the Guardian article, it is this form of memory that seems to have been severely affected. But then there are other forms of memory, such as memories of how to do things, memories that sustain a fleeting presence, and so on. How all these different forms of memory relate to consciousness is an open and exciting question.

SB: To what extent might the positive effects of an “altered state of consciousness” be attributed to changes in the narrative self?

AS: That’s a really interesting question, and to be honest I don’t really know the answer. There are many ways in which altered states of consciousness can be beneficial, and of course many ways in which they can be detrimental too, as we all know. For me, many of the positive effects might stem from the ways in which altered states such as the psychedelic state really make clear, in the “first person,” that the way things seem in perceptual experience – both the world, and the self – is not necessarily the way they are. Of course, this is not an insight that has to be explicitly recognized during an altered state, but I think it describes how the positive effects play out at many different levels. Altered states can alter the flow of conscious experience from their normal channels which define “world” and “self,” opening possibilities for future change, and even the experience of those possibilities – however subtle and implicit – can be a very positive thing.

SB: How do you see the theory of consciousness proposed in your new book interfacing with the psychedelic experience, if at all?

AS: The most obvious connection is in terms of how the content, or nature, of psychedelic experiences can be understood. In my book, I describe how perceptual experiences in general can be understood in terms of particular kinds of “controlled hallucination,” in which the brain’s predictions about what’s out there in the world (or in here, in the body) are updated by incoming sensory signals. A key feature of this view is that the content of every conscious experience is conveyed by a set of top-down – or “inside out” – prediction, not by the brain simply “reading out” sensory data. In psychedelics, this fine balance between top-down prediction and bottom-up prediction error seems to be altered, so that the brain’s predictions start to lose their grip on the world. Psychedelic experiences, through this lens, can be thought of as a form of “uncontrolled perception.” The real challenge is to figure out exactly how this balance is disrupted by psychedelics.

One idea, put forward by my friend and colleague Robin Carhart-Harris, is that top-down predictions become weaker, or more “relaxed,” in the psychedelic state. And in another recent study led by colleagues in Cambridge and London, we found that psychedelic hallucinations and hallucinations associated with schizophrenia can be understood in terms of distinct patterns of disruption to “normal” perceptual inference. Another aspect to this is the “ego dissolution” that is often part of psychedelic experience. Here, in general, the same perspective applies. While there has been less work done on this, the key is to understand that the “self” is a kind of perception too – and so can be altered by psychedelics in specific ways.

You can learn more about Anil Seth’s new book, Being You, on his website.

About the Series:

This workshop series bridges the artistic community, the neuroscientists, and the general public. EDGE e.V. has collaborated with the Arts Section of the MIND Members Association to propose a series of workshops titled Sensoriality: an Immersive Approach to Art and Neuroscience through our Senses.

In this series, artists and neuroscientists make a joint effort to unfold the complexity of our sensory perceptions while at the same time trying to stimulate them. Therefore, artistic references and the artistic practice itself, together with the scientific research and its divulgation are the essential tools offered in this series.

The participants can experience how knowledge can be transferred in its natural character- dynamically, where art pieces open a free communication space between the observer and object, and in which their creative skills will be triggered.

Through diverse and immersive sessions, we are going to open up a playful space for Science, sensorial perception and creativity, to blur the border between the claimed disciplines.

Details about each workshop can be found here.

Session 5: Visual Perception

Guests:

  • Neuroscience: Corinna Kühnapfel // Ian Erik Stewart
  • Art: Julia Schneider/ Eliana Araque

Vision is another sense that has evolved to be a significantly useful tool for many living beings, especially humans.

The phenomenon of sight allows for basic survival in terms of hunting and gathering, as well as, escape from a predator or threat. Vision is also essential for our communication and navigation. In the sensoriality workshop on visual processing, we will further explore the wonders of the neurological system which helps us survive and to enjoy our rich visual environment.

We will start at a basic overview of the anatomy and functionality of the human eye, look deeper into current research on brain areas processing visual stimuli, and further cover how such information integrates with other brain areas involved in triggering physical responses, higher level of decision making, and other recollection. We hope to inspire a closer and deeper look into the saturated visual environment that surrounds you.

Registration

Limited spaces (20) for the in-person events. It will also be streamed live.

Participants can sign up for individual sessions, or purchase an attendance pack. For MIND Members, there is an entry on donation.

Purchases ticket through Eventbrite here

About the Series:

This workshop series bridges the artistic community, the neuroscientists, and the general public. EDGE e.V. has collaborated with the Arts Section of the MIND Members Association to propose a series of workshops titled Sensoriality: an Immersive Approach to Art and Neuroscience through our Senses.

In this series, artists and neuroscientists make a joint effort to unfold the complexity of our sensory perceptions while at the same time trying to stimulate them. Therefore, artistic references and the artistic practice itself, together with the scientific research and its divulgation are the essential tools offered in this series.

The participants can experience how knowledge can be transferred in its natural character- dynamically, where art pieces open a free communication space between the observer and object, and in which their creative skills will be triggered.

Through diverse and immersive sessions, we are going to open up a playful space for Science, sensorial perception and creativity, to blur the border between the claimed disciplines.

Details about each workshop can be found here.

Session 4: Olfaction an Gustation

Guests:

  • Neuroscience: Corinna Kühnapfel // Ian Erik Stewart
  • Art: Julia Schneider/ Eliana Araque

Registration

Limited spaces (20) for the in-person events. It will also be streamed live.

Participants can sign up for individual sessions, or purchase an attendance pack. For MIND Members, there is an entry on donation.

Purchases ticket through Eventbrite here

About the Series:

This workshop series bridges the artistic community, the neuroscientists, and the general public. EDGE e.V. has collaborated with the Arts Section of the MIND Members Association to propose a series of workshops titled Sensoriality: an Immersive Approach to Art and Neuroscience through our Senses.

In this series, artists and neuroscientists make a joint effort to unfold the complexity of our sensory perceptions while at the same time trying to stimulate them. Therefore, artistic references and the artistic practice itself, together with the scientific research and its divulgation are the essential tools offered in this series.

The participants can experience how knowledge can be transferred in its natural character- dynamically, where art pieces open a free communication space between the observer and object, and in which their creative skills will be triggered.

Through diverse and immersive sessions, we are going to open up a playful space for Science, sensorial perception and creativity, to blur the border between the claimed disciplines.

Details about each workshop can be found here.

Session 3: Somatosensation

Guests:

  • Neuroscience: Dr. Fred Schwaller
  • Art: Julia Schneider/ Eliana Araque

Description:

The somatosensory system is one of the traditional five senses of our central nervous system: including the sensation of touch, pain, pressure, temperature, and tension. It is therefore an aggregate of thermoreceptors, photoreceptors, mechanoreceptors, and chemoreceptors that process essential sensory modalities allowing us to feel the world around us.

Unique to the somatosensory system is that it sends information to the central nervous system about both –  external and internal sensory environments. In a highly textured world – how does our brain process images and how do we deal with these „body images“?

Not only physically but also emotionally?

How deep is the impression of a sensation and what influenced this impression?

Can we actively alter the intensity of an impression?

Registration

Limited spaces (20) for the in-person events. It will also be streamed live.

Participants can sign up for individual sessions, or purchase an attendance pack. For MIND Members, there is an entry on donation.

Purchases ticket through Eventbrite here

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Conscious Breathing and Psychedelics

  • Blog
  • Science
  • Interview
  • 9 minutes
February 17, 2022
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Max Planck research group leader at the Ernst-Strüngmann Institute for Neuroscience

Martha Nari Havenith is a Max Planck research group leader at the Ernst-Strüngmann Institute for Neuroscience.

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“It’s really important to accept that these feelings have a right to be there—to accept that you have carried them with you. You’re now conscious of them, but they were there thirty minutes ago as well.”

In the MIND Bioblog series, we present personalities who have influenced the development of psychedelic therapy, research, and the culture surrounding the psychedelic experience. Dr. Martha Nari Havenith is a Max Planck research group leader at the Ernst-Strüngmann Institute for Neuroscience. Her research revolves around the notion that most brain activity is in fact not tied to external events, but rather internally generated. When she is not doing neuroscience, Martha also offers coaching in Connective Breathwork. The following conversation covers Martha’s personal and professional interest in conscious breathing and psychedelics, her work as a neuroscientist and facilitator, and how she came to know MIND.

 

Saga Briggs: Martha, how did you become interested in conscious breathing as a practice? 

Dr. Martha Havenith: For me it was really a personal thing. I had a reasonably traumatic childhood and had some stuff to clear up, so to speak. I had done the typical things: I studied psychology, did some therapy, meditation, and so on. That was definitely helpful, but I got to a point where I felt that I understood my trauma but wasn’t really feeling better—or not significantly better, at least. That was frustrating, and a hindrance for everyday life. So I started looking into things that might get me out of the cognitive understanding and more into the feeling. That’s how I got into more body-centered approaches for emotional processing. By being in that general sort of culture, I met some people who did conscious breathwork. For me, this was really a revelation because it made it possible for me to get in touch directly with the trauma, to feel how it actually felt, and to process that. Finally, I started feeling like it had been accepted, but also overwritten. The physical feeling changed. That’s how I got experienced as a practitioner. And then I got to the point where I felt like I wanted to pass it on and became a facilitator.  

SB: This was all very separate from your day job at the time, right? Are you now doing research on breathwork? And how does it all tie into your interest in psychedelics?  

MH: In my lab we do fundamental neuroscience research into how the brain works, without direct applications—psychedelics can be interesting tools for this. In the course of the body-centered work in my own personal life, I obviously also came across psychedelics. I’m not just a breathwork guide; I’m also an ayahuasca guide. I had seen what psychedelics can do for people. And I thought, well, now is a good time to start connecting that with my own research and finding out a little bit more about the basic neural mechanisms of how that happens.  

I got to know the MIND Foundation through a group Zoom call for neuroscientists who are interested in psychedelic research because I wanted to start connecting the research that I do in my lab with understanding psychedelics better. It then turned out that the MIND Foundation really wanted to expand its breathwork group. They wanted to start doing research with it, but also use it as a training in the APT framework [Augmented Psychotherapy Training], and they needed some more people for this. So, I joined the breathwork group, and we just held the first experiments in October and November. It’s going to be really exciting to find out a what happens during a breathwork session for people and how much of it depends on the fundamental physiology and the breathing, and how much of it depends on the setting. 

SB: On that note, what do we know about the different brain regions and physiological processes involved in conscious breathing? Is there any evidence for interoceptive regions, such as the insular cortex, being involved? 

MH: The neuroscience of breathwork is really in its infancy right now. And problematically, when people do breathwork, they tend to move a lot. So, all the typical things that you use in humans like EEG, MEG, MRI don’t really work. There’s one study that managed to do EEG with people doing breathwork and you can tell from the way they analyze the data that they had a hard time taking the little snippets of data that were noise-free and stitching them together. That’s one of the big reasons why we don’t have more neural data apart from the fact that it’s not yet a mainstream practice.  

The best studies so far have used the Wim Hof breathing method. In the Wim Hof method, you do regular breath holds in between the more intense breathing. As a result, the O2-CO2 balance, and therefore your blood pH — which change due to this intense breathing — normalize again intermittently. This seems to generally prevent people from entering fully into an altered state of consciousness (or at least slows down the process massively). Which also suggests that the physiological changes evoked by circular breathing (O2 saturation, CO2 depletion, less acidic blood pH) do play a crucial role at least in initiating the altered states of consciousness that can be reached with breathwork.    

The Wim Hof method specifically seems to increase conscious control of the insular cortex and PAG in the long run, and during physical challenges. Which means that if, for example, you go into an ice bath, you can consciously regulate the distress signals you receive (PAG), you can focus your perception on different aspects of your body awareness (insular cortex), and you can even activate the muscles around your ribs via the sympathetic nervous system to keep your core body temperature stable. So, you have a more conscious, intentional way of perceiving and reacting to physiological signals like temperature changes. This has been shown for the Wim Hof method but may also happen via other forms of breathwork—we don’t know that yet.  

Apart from that, what seems to happen when you do this kind of very intense breathing, where your O2 goes up and your CO2 goes down in your blood, is that this reduces blood flow to the cortex, especially to the frontal regions. That’s quite interesting because these frontal cortical regions are the more “cognitive or metacognitive” parts of the cortex—the ones that typically, let’s say, filter your experiences. So it makes sense that if blood flow to those regions slows down, the other regions can maybe act a little bit with less top-down control from those mediating regions. Unfortunately, these studies did not look at the insular cortex specifically, but my guess would be that since it’s way under the cortical surface it may be less affected. That is guesswork, though. What does seem to be clear is that, generally, sub-cortical signals from the brainstem and thalamus, which obviously carry a lot of sensory and interoceptive information, might have an easier time coming through when the parietal and frontal cortex are quieter.  

SB: This reminds me of theories of psychedelic drug effects on the brain, such as the REBUS model, which emphasizes that the perceptual changes produced by psychedelics stem from the relaxation of higher-level, top-down expectations, allowing sensory processing to influence cognition in a less constrained manner. But I wonder what inspiration psychedelic research might draw from breathwork research in terms of the causal chain of effects here. Maybe in some cases, an altered flow of sensory information happens first, which then influences the top-down?  

MH: I would love to see more research on that. I think that’s very true for two reasons. First of all, with breathwork, for example, facilitators will often start a session by saying, “Focus on feeling into your body.” And this makes it much easier to go into an altered state. Secondly, after breathwork people often report things like “I noticed a heavy feeling in my belly, and once I focused on that, emotions and insights came up.” So, people feel that there are messages coming from the body that they usually don’t notice. I think that this “opening the gates” to perceiving more on a sensory level is a really big part of this. It would be lovely to investigate the neuronal processes mediating such increased sensory flow.  

For example, I’d be interested in looking at people not during the session, but to compare, for instance, resting state brain activity of people who have done a couple of breathwork sessions with people who haven’t. If the resting state becomes more perceptive, and there is more connectivity with sensory areas, I think that would be a really good start already.  

SB: What do we know about the psychological effects of breathwork, either acute or long-term? 

MH: [In terms of long-term effects], people have done studies giving out questionnaires over one month, three months, that kind of thing. Typically, the group sizes were reasonably small and sometimes the control groups could have been better. Sometimes the control group is just people doing nothing. A couple of these studies found positive psychological changes for things like depression and anxiety. Also fear of death seems to be reduced. Empathy seems to be increased, self-awareness, openness—many of the things that also tend to get associated with psychedelics. 

SB: As a breathwork facilitator, what are some challenging types of experiences you’ve observed that commonly come up for clients? 

MH: There’s two types of challenging sessions: one is when people dig in too little, and one is when too much comes up at once.  

Sometimes, people run into their own defenses and the conscious mind does not want to let go. They’re basically fighting themselves, and that can be quite hard to break through. In this case, it’s important to try to accept those defenses in the moment and look at them, because they’re the message of the session, right? This difficulty is usually where people get into a vicious cycle where they don’t want to be defensive, but also don’t want to face their defenses. You just keep fighting yourself. One of the big lessons of doing breathwork is to stop fighting yourself.  

The other type of challenging session is when a lot of stuff comes up. A lot of emotions, for example, a lot of physical sensations. If you have a good facilitator, that should be fine. Also, we all have pretty effective filters in our consciousness that don’t let stuff come up that would be too much to handle. So, even if it’s intense, you can mostly trust your system that it’s not going to bring up more than you can handle. But sometimes it really gets to the edge. That’s one of the reasons why I generally tell people that unless you’re really experienced, don’t do sessions alone at home. Because being alone in a state like this, when you really need support, can be retraumatizing. What’s important in such situations is to trust when a really intense thing comes up and to make sure in advance that you have support there. Of course, it depends a little bit on what comes up, but basically, it’s really important to accept that these feelings have a right to be there—to accept that you have carried them with you. You’re now conscious of them, but they were there thirty minutes ago as well. You’ve been carrying them for however many years. Usually when it’s intense, it’s probably been a lot of years.  

SB: What can you as a facilitator do during challenging sessions like these? 

MH: I would say that it’s really important to not be squeamish about strong emotions. It’s very, very important that your client feels that you’re comfortable with this. That’s also why you need quite a bit of training to be a facilitator, because a lot of the time you will need to do body work at that point: You will need to hold that person or give them something. For example, if someone is very angry, you need to give them some resistance so that they can push against something or beat against something so that they can actually express themselves. You will need to be in physical contact with the person and make sure you do it in a supportive way that does not cross any boundaries. So, a lot of the training goes into becoming comfortable with physical contact but also to gain awareness of where the boundaries are. 

SB: And in terms of integration?

MH: If it’s a really intense session, you want to make sure that the person returns to their everyday self. So, for example, if they’ve regressed into a childhood or infancy stage, you want to make sure that you support them in returning to their grown-up self. You want to make sure that they accept the feeling of the child they once were, but that they’re not in that state anymore.  

SB: There’s a lot of overlap between what you just described and facilitating a psychedelic session. Do you think there’s anything that doesn’t quite match up? What aspects of facilitating a breathwork session would not be appropriate for facilitating a psychedelic session? 

MH: Breathwork is interesting in the sense that because you’re breathing, you’re always in control of your own session. But also, because you’re breathing, you stay in your body. With some psychedelics, you’re quite far away sometimes, right? With breathwork, you generally stay in your body because you’re using your body the whole time; that also means that in sessions, you’re more likely to have physical processes: people moving, screaming, singing.  

I would generally say that in psychedelic sessions you’re more letting the psychedelic do the work. As a guide, you’re there as support, as people say, “to hold space,” but a lot of the time you don’t interfere a lot. With breathwork, I find that it tends to be a little bit more. You have to help people to keep breathing until they break through their conscious defenses.  

SB: But there’s a difference between interfering and interpreting, right? 

MH: That’s one thing I really appreciate about the MIND Foundation, actually: this mix of being open-minded but not trying to put a very specific interpretation on these types of experiences. I think it’s very important to respect the experiences that people have in altered states of consciousness and not feel the need to say, “This is why this happens. This is what this means.” In a lot of the more spiritual realms, people often impose rigid interpretations like, “You have now met your guardian angel” or whatever it might be. Maybe you have, maybe you haven’t. I personally prefer to not decide that. So, I really appreciate this open-mindedness of saying, “We don’t know, and we don’t have to know. Let’s try to find out the things we can actually find out, which is, for example, what’s happening in the brain at this time.”  

The breathwork study is basically one of the first steps to do exactly this, to show that, in breathwork sessions, people can have really deep experiences and we don’t have to interpret that. But we can find out what the process is. Is it the O2/ CO2 balance? Do you need a certain level of change in the pH value of your blood? Do you just need a supportive group around you? We don’t have to interpret what comes through, but we can find out which processes open the door.  

  

 

Our work at MIND relies on donations from people like you.

If you share our vision and want to support psychedelic research and education, we are grateful for any amount you can give.

About the Series:

This workshop series bridges the artistic community, the neuroscientists, and the general public. EDGE e.V. has collaborated with the Arts Section of the MIND Members Association to propose a series of workshops titled Sensoriality: an Immersive Approach to Art and Neuroscience through our Senses.

In this series, artists and neuroscientists make a joint effort to unfold the complexity of our sensory perceptions while at the same time trying to stimulate them. Therefore, artistic references and the artistic practice itself, together with the scientific research and its divulgation are the essential tools offered in this series.

The participants can experience how knowledge can be transferred in its natural character- dynamically, where art pieces open a free communication space between the observer and object, and in which their creative skills will be triggered.

Through diverse and immersive sessions, we are going to open up a playful space for Science, sensorial perception and creativity, to blur the border between the claimed disciplines.

Details about each workshop can be found here.

Session 2: Proprioception

Guests:

  • Neuroscience: Corinna Kühnapfel // Ian Erik Stewart
  • Art: Julia Schneider/ Eliana Araque

Also known as the secret 6th sense and often referred to as kinaesthesia, proprioception describes the sense of self-movement and body position.

How do we perceive the world? How do we draw the borders between the inner and the outer? What is the difference between Self- touch and the touch of a stranger? Which role do space and movement as well as the altered states of positioning and touch play in the assessment of our senses?

Registration

Limited spaces (20) for the in-person events. It will also be streamed live.

Participants can sign up for individual sessions, or purchase an attendance pack. For MIND Members, there is an entry on donation.

Purchases ticket through Eventbrite here

 blog-treated_creativity (4)  blog-treated_creativity (4)

Psychedelic-Induced Creativity: Fact or Fiction?

  • Blog
  • Science
  • Interview
  • 8 minutes
February 1, 2022
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Postdoctoral Researcher

Natasha Mason is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Maastricht, Department of Neuropsychology & Psychopharmacology.

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Ph.D. Candidate

Lukas Basedow's research is in the field of adolescent substance abuse at the medical faculty of the TU Dresden.

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Psychedelics and creative endeavors appear intimately linked throughout history. Countless musicians and artists have reportedly been inspired by psychedelic experiences. But what does the research say? Do psychedelics actually make people more creative? To find out more, I talked to Natasha Mason about study she recently published with her colleagues from Maastricht Universitywhere they explored this exact topic: Mason, N.L., Kuypers, K.P.C., Reckweg, J.T. et al. Spontaneous and deliberate creative cognition during and after psilocybin exposure. Translational Psychiatry 11, 209 (2021).

Lukas Basedow, M.Sc.: What inspired you to look into the relationship between psychedelics and creativity?  

Natasha Mason, PhD: That is a good question, and I think there are many sides to the answer. For one, there is the interesting anecdotal side, consisting of many claims from people that taking psychedelics enhances their creativity. These reports span across many individuals, with scientists, engineers, artists, authors, and famous people having made such remarks. That said, the scientific literature as to whether this is the case or not was very much lacking. There were early historical interests and very interesting studies done, which definitely started the scientific field, but they were lacking in regard to the methodological rigor we would employ today. Some naturalistic work has also been done by our group looking to see whether aspects of creativity were enhanced after participants went to a psychedelic retreat.1 However, these are self-selected samples, and there are methodological issues with that as well, so we just said, okay, we want to do the gold standard experiment: placebo-controlled, double-blind – do psychedelics enhance creativity, both acutely and in the long term, as people claim? So, it was interesting to look at this from the psychedelic research side. 

But there’s also a therapeutic side to this. Creativity or an ability to think outside the box has been found to be reduced across different psychological disorders like depression and anxiety. Individuals are stuck with their problems and unable to adapt to everyday circumstances. Thus, creativity has also been suggested to play a role in treating psychological disorders. If you can enhance creativity, then perhaps you can enhance coping and induce adaptive interpretations of life challenges. This is interesting to think about in regards to psychedelic drug action because we know these drugs are being investigated for disorders like depression and anxiety, and individuals claim they gain creative insights into their problems. Since these insights might allow for long-term therapeutic change, we thought there were overlapping variables here that also made it extremely therapeutically relevant to investigate psychedelic-induced creativity.  

L: How did you investigate whether psychedelics have an effect on creativity? 

N: Well, first, I have to explain how we define creativity because you might think of painting, music, or other arts. In the scientific literature, however, creativity is defined as consisting of two constructs. The first is divergent thinking and the second convergent thinking. I usually describe these with an example: If you think of brainstorming, as when you are trying to solve a problem, divergent thinking allows you to come up with as many solutions for that problem as possible, while convergent thinking is how you decide what the best solution is. So, this is a very goal-directed form of creativity, and our tasks assess creativity in this way.  

In the study, we used the “alternate uses task,” which is the gold standard for assessing divergent thinking. Here we ask people to come up with uses for an everyday object like a brick or a pen, and they have to write down how many different uses they can come up with. We score each response according to fluency, which is how many uses they came up with; and originality, which is how unique they are. To do this, we compare each response to those of all the other participants. For example, if I say that I could smash a window with a brick and other people also say they could smash a window, then that would be a low originality score because it wasn’t unique. For our study, we also asked how many uses they came up with that were completely new to them, meaning ways in which they had never seen or envisioned this object used before. This added the dimension of “novelty” to our measures of divergent thinking. 

We also used the “picture concept task,” which assesses both divergent and convergent thinking. Here we show people three rows of three pictures, and they have to make associations between them. There is always one correct answer, with the number of correctly identified associations across the task serving as a benchmark for more convergent creativity.  Then, after finding the correct answer, we ask them to come up with all of the alternative creative answers they can. We count how many answers they have, and they write down why they made that association, which designated objective raters then use to assess originality. Finally, we had a questionnaire asking how creative they felt, not specifically during the tasks but throughout the whole testing day. It consisted of statements like “I had insights into problems,” “I had insights into connections that had previously puzzled me,” or “I had very original thoughts,” which participants rated after the testing day. 

Natasha Mason, PhD, is also one of the speakers at the uniMIND Symposium 2022: Synergies and Crossroads on April 09th at Maastricht University. The Symposium seeks to foster critical discourse towards a safe and effective medical implementation and a risk-competent enculturation of psychedelics. Register for the hybrid event here.

L: Could you elaborate on the study design and the substances participants received? 

 N: This was a between-group study with 60 people, 30 of whom received a moderate dose of psilocybin. I think the average was 15 milligrams or so, maybe a little less. “Moderate” doses are hard to quantify, but these are not ego-dissolution-level doses; people are still able to perform our tasks. The other group received placebo, of course. Comparisons were between-subjects because we were interested in the longer-term effects, which we assessed seven days after their psilocybin dose.  

L: What did you discover? Does psilocybin influence creativity? 

N: Well, we did not discover what we hypothesized to find!  We found that participants performed worse under the influence of psilocybin than under placebo in all aspects of our tasks. Both divergent and convergent creativity were reduced, yet at the same time participants reported feeling more creative. Now again, this feeling of creativity was not assessed specifically with respect to the tasks; rather, participants reported having more insights throughout the testing day.  

We also did some brain imaging to look at correlations between changes in the brain and changes behavior-wise. For this, we looked at two brain networks: The default mode network (DMN), which is involved in idea generation with regards to divergent creativity, and the task-positive network, which is more involved in idea evaluation, so this is convergent thinking.  

We found that psilocybin induced changes in the activity within these networks that correlated with our divergent and convergent thinking measures in the way we expected. More specifically, acutely reduced functional connectivity within the DMN was related to impaired divergent thinking, while acutely reduced functional connectivity between the DMN and the positive task network was related to impaired convergent thinking. 

Then, seven days later, participants returned to the lab. We mostly found no changes between the groups, but there was a significant increase in the number of new ideas people came up with on the alternate uses task for the psilocybin group. Interestingly, we also found that the more subjective creativity they reported on the acute testing day, the more new ideas they had on the seventh day.  

As for what may be going on in the brain that sustains this persisting increase in new ideas, we found correlations between acutely decreased functional connectivity in the DMN and improved performance in divergent thinking-related cognition seven days after. So, in sum, decreased within-network functional connectivity of the DMN correlated with both an acute reduction in divergent thinking and a sub-acute increase in divergent thinking – this seems counterintuitive but may be in line with previous work.  

Specifically, it is suggested that the DMN underlies the idea-generation process of divergent thinking. So, an acute reduction in DMN functional connectivity would be expected to result in acutely poorer divergent thinking performance on a creativity task. That said, previous work has found that while psychedelics decrease within-network DMN functional connectivity acutely, they increase DMN integrity sub-acutely, potentially via a neuroplastic effect on brain network function. Thus, it could be that the sub-acute psilocybin-induced increase in DMN functional connectivity facilitates the increased generation of novel ideas. 

L: It’s interesting that participants performed worse in all creativity tasks under the influence of psilocybin but reported feeling more creative. Could you explain what is going on here?  

N: We proposed two kinds of explanations for these contradictory findings. First, it could be that people think they are more creative when they are under the influence of a psychedelic, while they actually are not. A well-known effect of psychedelics is that they increase feelings of insight, profoundness, and attribution of meaning to previously neutral stimuli. Maybe you think of breaking a window with a brick, and because of this increased feeling of profoundness you believe this to be a very original thought when that is not actually the case. So, that would be one explanation.  

Another explanation, which we favored, is that there are different ways of looking at creativity. There is one type of creativity, termed deliberate creativity, which is characterized by being more attention-demanding and goal-directed. This is the type we measured in our study with these tasks. Deliberate creativity can be contrasted with spontaneous creativity  a mental state more characterized by unrestrained, bizarre, random, and unfiltered thoughts. This is less like asking people to be creative and more like people letting their thoughts flow to creative spheres. This is what is captured with our questionnaire. This distinction could mean that our results show a decrease in this deliberate, goal-directed creativity, but that spontaneous insight, this letting-your-mind-go kind of creativity, might be increased. Then, when the drug has worn off, maybe this more deliberate creativity is increased, as we have seen in our study.  

Actually, after we published the paper, there was a remark by somebody online summarizing this quite well: “You can experience some of the coolest, most interesting lines of thinking [under the influence of a psychedelic] but at the same time turning on the TV can seem like a nearly impossible obstacle.” So, participants might have had all these cool thoughts but couldn’t really do anything with them, which is very interesting with regards to how to think about the assessment of creativity and what tasks we are using to assess it.  

We are asking participants to write their answers down, and the tasks are timed and very attention-demanding. We know psychedelics decrease your attention span, motor coordination, and language production,2–4 so all of this may be influencing why we found these acute reductions in our tasks. It could be a reduction of deliberate creativity, but maybe it is also a reflection of a decreased ability to properly do these tasks, which might reduce our ability to really investigate the effect of these drugs on creativity.  

L: I noticed that all of your tasks are related to language production and wondered if that might explain the results in some way. As your tasks are really dependent on the language modality, do you think focusing on creativity in another modality might lead to different results? 

N: Yes, exactly. I think of this study as the first of many more to come. We assessed whether this substance (psilocybin) has an effect using these standardized measures of creativity. These are tasks people have been applying across the field, and I think this study needed to happen because now we can look at adaptations in methodology. We did it the gold standard way, but these tasks were validated in groups that have all their faculties, who can write and are not impaired in faculties like language production. We now definitely need to adapt this research design to people who are intoxicated, for example, by taking away the time pressure or having people talk instead of writing, or, as you said, by investigating other modalities like painting. I will say that we actually considered this, but it gets really difficult because how do you assess whether a painting is more creative or not? Do you look at the amount of color? The abstractness? Since this is not my field, I will never be able to run a study like that, but it gets harder the more subjective the judgment becomes. What is also nice about the picture concept task we used is that we could have multiple people rating the originality responses. So, multiple people went through the answers and said how original they thought the answers were and then we could compare the ratings of different raters. In the end, these tasks are already hard enough to score. I think a painting task would be even more difficult, but it could overcome some hurdles like language production. 

L: You mentioned that your findings could be explained by the difference between deliberate and spontaneous creativity. In line with what we have been discussing: Are there any standardized ways, or can you think of proper ways to measure spontaneous creativity? 

N: Sure. The literature on spontaneous creativity consists mainly of questionnaires, like the mind-wandering questionnaire, that ask participants questions like “where did your mind go” and “did you consider it creative or novel.”  Regarding actual tasks, one that we used in another study with ayahuasca is a “chain free association task” [results not yet published]. This tries to capture your train of thought. For example, you say a word like “snow,” and then you ask participants to come up with a word that is related to this, like “ball.” Then you ask what comes to their mind when they hear “ball” and so forth. You then measure the semantic distance between the words, and a larger distance is considered more creative. If I said “snow” and you said “phone,” for example, that would be considered more creative because there is a greater semantic distance to the first word. This task we tried, based on previous literature, is the only one that actually comes to mind. I am sure though that there are more out there that I am not aware of. 

L: Spontaneous creativity does sound difficult to assess in a laboratory. 

N: Exactly. Another aspect of the creativity tasks that I think will be more interesting to pathological populations is making it more personalized. Nobody cares what you do with a brick, but focusing more on a personal problem participants want to solve and seeing if they can come up with more ideas could be more relevant. That might also reduce this attentional impairment I mentioned because participants will be more motivated to actually engage with this task because they can gain something out of it. 

L: As a last question, many people reading this blog might aspire to become psychedelic researchers like yourself, so could you share some fun, exciting, interesting, or frustrating aspects of your work? 

N: First, I will say that the whole thing is fun! The whole study was fun to do, but one of the greatest aspects is the participants, who are always very motivated. Since the effects of these substances last for a long time, you get to spend a lot of time with these individuals, and they are in a vulnerable state, which often means getting to know people very well during that time. 

Two participants especially came to mind when you asked this question. One was a PhD student who was using the study to gain insight into their own work and started giving me a lecture on this very complex fundamental neuroscience topic while they were clearly high on psilocybin. They definitely tried their best and were super stoked talking about this, which was a lot of fun – even though I did not understand everything they were saying. They told me afterwards that they actually realized something about their own research during the experience and was extremely thankful that they could take part in this study. Another memorable participant experience relates to the brain imaging aspect. During part of our experiment, participants are lying in an fMRI scanner, which is always nerve-racking for me because you never know how they are going to react to lying inside this massive machine while under the influence. When you get into an fMRI scanner, you actually pass through a very strong magnetic field that can make you feel somewhat dizzy and induce a feeling of turning around a corner even though you are going straight.  

This one participant entered the scanner and was really confused and kind of shocked because they clearly experienced going around a corner and asked me why they were turning around. When I told them they were actually going straight in, they did not believe me, and I let them get out to show them that they really were going straight. Interestingly, sometimes getting participants out of the scanner was actually the hardest part, because once you are in there, it can be quite cozy with a nice blanket and actually feel a bit womb-like. Some participants were actually asking me to stay in a bit longer.  

Regarding unpleasant aspects, one of the most frustrating ones is the stigma that is still attached to this kind of research. When we post these studies online looking for participants, we get a lot of people who actually have no idea about what you are doing, saying things like, “You are a horrible person for giving drugs to people.” On the other hand, there are also participants who just think, “Taking drugs and getting paid sounds super fun” but do not take it seriously at all. So, working through this stigma and finding out if people are actually serious about participation can be a bit frustrating.  

L: Thank you, Natasha, for this interview, and let us hope that stigma will be less of a problem for the next generation of researchers! 

 

REFERENCES
  1. Kuypers KPC, Riba J, de la Fuente Revenga M, Barker S, Theunissen EL, Ramaekers JG. Ayahuasca enhances creative divergent thinking while decreasing conventional convergent thinking. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2016 Sep;233(18):3395–403.  
  2. Barrett FS, Carbonaro TM, Hurwitz E, Johnson MW, Griffiths RR. Double-blind comparison of the two hallucinogens psilocybin and dextromethorphan: effects on cognition. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2018 Oct;235(10):2915–27. 
  3. Carbonaro TM, Johnson MW, Hurwitz E, Griffiths RR. Double-blind comparison of the two hallucinogens psilocybin and dextromethorphan: similarities and differences in subjective experiences. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2018 Feb;235(2):521–34. 
  4. Sanz C, Pallavicini C, Carrillo F, Zamberlan F, Sigman M, Mota N, et al. The entropic tongue: Disorganization of natural language under LSD. Conscious Cogn. 2021 Jan 1;87:103070. 

 

 

6- Part Workshop Series offering an Immersive Approach to Art and Neuroscience through our Senses

About the Series:

This workshop series bridges the artistic community, the neuroscientists, and the general public. EDGE e.V. has collaborated with the Arts Section of the MIND Members Association to propose a series of workshops titled Sensoriality: an Immersive Approach to Art and Neuroscience through our Senses.

In this series, artists and neuroscientists make a joint effort to unfold the complexity of our sensory perceptions while at the same time trying to stimulate them. Therefore, artistic references and the artistic practice itself, together with the scientific research and its divulgation are the essential tools offered in this series.

The participants can experience how knowledge can be transferred in its natural character- dynamically, where art pieces open a free communication space between the observer and object, and in which their creative skills will be triggered.

Through diverse and immersive sessions, we are going to open up a playful space for Science, sensorial perception and creativity, to blur the border between the claimed disciplines.

Details about each workshop can be found here.

With the unstoppable evolution of technology and therefore complexity, many of us encounter a peak of sensory overstimulation and the exploration of coping activities and mechanisms are spreading through society.

But in our approach to explore different ways of mental and physical stimulation -What do we actually understand by senses? How do they work? What makes something or someone sensuous? How do our senses interact with each other? How do we experience and understand our senses through art and through neuroscience?

Session 1: Senses and The Body

Guests:

  • Neuroscience: Wolf-Julian Neumann
  • Art: Julia Schneider/ Eliana Araque

In this opening session of SENSORIALITY, we seek to offer you a fresh starting point from the neuroscientific perspective, where you will find a new way of perceiving art and exercising your own creative skills.
We aim to bring you close to the great challenge science is facing: to unravel and isolate the different circuits we have in our bodies to build a sense of reality and to navigate the world we live in.

With the support of our first guest Wolf-Julian Neumann, a scientist researching movement disorders, neurophysiology, and deep brain stimulation, we will introduce you to the world of brain stimulation where borders between illusions and sensory perception in the visual and auditory domains are blurring.

Together with the artists Eliana Araque and Julia Schneider you will have the chance to appreciate different pieces of art and will be tutored in the creation of your own art pieces. We will briefly address the intriguing phenomenon of synaesthesia and its relevance in art, as a way to welcome inclusiveness and the richness of complexity in human nature.

Breathwork/ Synesthesia and Movement/ Audiovisual Art and Artifact creation. Please wear comfortable clothes.

Registration

Limited spaces (20) for the in-person events. It will also be streamed live.

Participants can sign up for individual sessions, or purchase an attendance pack. For MIND Members, there is an entry on donation.

Purchases ticket through Eventbrite here

 blog-treated_Buchborn  blog-treated_Buchborn

Tolerance to LSD – How the Brain Bolts the Doors of Perception

  • Blog
  • Science
  • Essay
  • 8 minutes
October 15, 2021
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Research Associate at Heidelberg University

Tobias Buchborn is a German Psychologist with a PhD in Neurobiology. He is currently at the Institute of Psychopharmacology, CIMH at Heidelberg University.

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LSD had always been a once-in-a-while drug. Compared to other recreationally used drugs, the serotonergic psychedelic lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) is thought to have a rather low addiction liability1 and its consumption at high frequency has therefore never really been a topic, neither to the public nor to science. Things have changed.

Ushered in by press articles on LSD use in Silicon Valley,2,3 as well as James Fadiman’s Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide,4 a new way of taking LSD has gained public attention. Within the so-called psychedelic microdosing regimen, which is believed to enhance mood and creative thinking, people consume LSD and other psychedelic drugs in low (non-psychedelic) doses, but on a regular basis.5 Although the 21st century is said to mark a psychedelic renaissance with reawakened scientific interest in the acute effects of psychedelics, surprisingly little science can yet tell us what happens when LSD is consumed regularly, again and again.

Drugs change their face over time – Or do we?

A variety of recreationally used psychoactive drugs are notorious for their potential to lure consumers into frequent and/or long-term consumption. Although LSD does not share comparable qualities, the clinical experience with addictive substances teaches us an important lesson: the effects of consuming a drug only once in a while do not necessarily equal the effects of frequent or long-term consumption of that drug.

Addictive drugs, when taken once in a while, induce their acute effects: euphoria, excitement, or a sense of calm, to name a few of the sought-after drug rewards. When repeatedly consumed at short intervals, however, the desired effects often fade, leaving a state of pharmacological tolerance. The disappointed user might seek to overcome tolerance by consumption of higher drug amounts, which increases the burden on the body. New, usually more unpleasant effects might manifest over time, and quitting the drug may cause a withdrawal syndrome; where there used to be a burst of energy, for instance, there is now depletion.6

If the drug is properly stored and its purity remains the same, however, it is unlikely that the drug changes its properties towards the body over time. It must be the other way around instead: The body changes its properties towards the drug.

LSD’s unusual infatuation with tolerance

LSD is unusual. Tolerance with respect to LSD’s psychedelic effects comes in a rush, yet published reports on addiction-like patterns and/or withdrawal symptoms surrounding the use of classic serotonergic psychedelics are almost unheard of. Published anecdotes and experimental research in humans are generally consistent and indicate that the psychedelic experience almost completely subsides when psychedelic doses of LSD are taken around four days in a row.

And yet, tolerance seems to go as quickly as it comes. Within less than a week of discontinuation, the original intensity of the psychedelic experience can be reignited.7 In an early human study from the mid-1950s, psychedelic doses of LSD were given daily for two to three weeks, or even up to three months. By the end of the repeated LSD dosings, tolerance was so profound that when researchers replaced the drug with mere water, subjects did not even recognise that it was not LSD they had received. Nor were there any signs of withdrawal.8

Most of the research on human tolerance to LSD was done back in the 1950s and ’60s. While there is large agreement on the quick rise and fall of psychedelic tolerance, there are still a lot of questions that have remained unanswered ever since. In most of the performed experiments, LSD was given for a few days only, usually in daily increasing doses or in repeated, full psychedelic doses.7 Microdosing, as it is done today, was not common back then. Therefore, we do not know if and how tolerance develops when LSD is given in microdoses every other day for months and years. Importantly, the mechanisms whereby psychedelic tolerance arises in humans remains largely undiscovered: If it is not the drug that changes, what is it within the body that renders LSD inactive? What is it that the brain does to bolt the doors of perception seemingly at a moment’s notice, then go on and re-open some days later?

Bolted doors – When LSD cannot find its interaction partner in the brain

In order for LSD to alter consciousness, it needs to be carried to the brain via blood flow and bind to receptors embedded within the membranes of brain cells. A singular cell can be thought of as a tiny room in the brain. Its membrane, in this analogy, is like a flexible wall or a fine net that separates the individual cell from other cells. A receptor can be thought of as an even tinier bead-chain crumpled together into the cell’s membrane so that one part of the chain protrudes to the outside and the other part protrudes to the inside of the cell. There is a myriad of receptors within a given membrane, but the most important interaction partner for LSD is called the serotonin (5-HT) 2A receptor.

LSD approaches the cell from the outside, binds to 5-HT2A receptors, and allows for the receptors to relay LSD’s unique message through the membrane and into the cell. One of the highest concentrations of 5-HT2A receptors in the body can be found within the membranes of so-called pyramidal cells, which populate the outermost layer of the brain (i.e., the cortex)9. Pyramidal cells have far-reaching branches that are well suited for integrating sensory, emotional, and cognitive information from all around the brain. It has been suggested that proper integration along the given branches and the “decision” of the pyramidal cells to pass information on or to keep it mum is key to whether it enters consciousness or gets denied.10 LSD has been shown to increase the responsiveness of cortical pyramidal cells to incoming information11 leading them to release more of their neurotransmitter glutamate12. Glutamate carries an excitatory message which invites other neurons to follow suit, become more responsive themselves, and thus help to spread the word sparked off by LSD. According to the current scientific understanding, it is this LSD-5-HT2A-glutamate triad that represents one of the cellular key principles of psychedelic activity.

So far, so good; but what does all of this have to do with tolerance? Suppose it is indeed the cortical LSD-5-HT2A-glutamate interaction that holds the key to the doors of perception. In that case, it might be a wise move for the brain to interfere with this interaction to become tolerant and regain its original balance. Given the lack of human research into this field, possible evidence for such interference can only be gathered from the animal kingdom. As in humans, LSD targets 5-HT2A receptors in animals to affect their behaviour. Rats, similarly to humans, also develop tolerance to LSD.7 When treated with LSD for five days, rats not only become tolerant to LSD’s behavioural effects but also show downregulation of 5-HT2A receptors in the cortex of the brain.13,14 Downregulation means that the receptors are internalised (i.e., engulfed by the cell) and then decomposed within the cell15,21 so that they no longer provide a binding partner for LSD. The removed receptors are rapidly replenished when LSD is withdrawn, though, so that upon re-application LSD can bind to them again. At first sight, the cortical 5-HT2A downregulation found in rats nicely mirrors the come-and-go character of tolerance in humans. However, whereas first signs of tolerance in rats and humans are already detected on the second day following ingestion, cortical 5-HT2A downregulation has been shown not to appear before the fifth day of repeated LSD treatment.13 Thus, although important, 5-HT2A downregulation might not be the only process involved in the development of psychedelic tolerance.

To identify what other processes might be involved, we performed a study on tolerance to LSD in rats at the Institute of Pharmacology and Toxicology of the Otto-von-Guericke University in Magdeburg. We found that repeated LSD treatments reduced the capacity of glutamate to bind to its receptors in the cortex of tolerant rats, and that certain subtypes of glutamate receptors, namely mGlu2/3 receptors, became less responsive when stimulated.16 Intriguingly, these changes in the cortical glutamate system were visible before there were any signs of 5-HT2A downregulation. This could perhaps help explain those phases of tolerance that can be detected before five days of treatment. If we were to think of LSD binding to cortical 5-HT2A receptors as a “spark”, we could think of the downstream release of glutamate (or other such relay systems) as the “tinder” needed for the psychedelic message to spread. In this analogy, then, LSD tolerance can begin via thinning out the tinder well before the spark itself is quenched.

Differential tolerance – Is it safe to chronically (micro-)dose LSD?

When consumed in psychedelic doses and only once in a while, LSD – relative to other drugs of recreational use – is generally thought to exert rather low toxicity on the body’s organ system.17 And consumption of low doses of psychedelics leads to lower plasma levels18 and lower binding to receptors than consumption of normal or high doses.19 Therefore, if psychedelic doses of LSD are rather safe for the body, one might expect low doses to be even safer. Although there is nothing to be said against this for once-in-a-while or short-term use,18,20 one should still keep in mind that acute safety does not necessarily equal chronic safety.

In our research on tolerance to LSD in rats, we investigated hyperthermia and so-called “wet dog shakes”, two bodily effects that, like psychedelia, are mediated by LSD activating 5-HT2A receptors. LSD-induced wet dog shakes continued to occur when small doses were repeatedly given once or twice per day but subsided as some of the small LSD doses were exchanged by medium doses, or were given at a four-hour interval. LSD’s effect on body temperature was even more resistant than wet dog shakes: Hyperthermia subsided only when most of the small doses were exchanged by medium doses.21

These findings point to two crucial characteristics of LSD tolerance: Firstly, tolerance depends on the dose and interval of consumption. The higher the dose and the smaller the interval, the more likely it is that animals become tolerant. Secondly, tolerance to LSD arises with respect to different effects in different ways, a phenomenon known as differential tolerance. Differential tolerance has also been shown for some of the bodily effects of LSD in humans: Effects on body temperature and blood pressure, for instance, only inconsistently indicate tolerance development.7

Similarly, when recreational microdosers were asked about their experiences, they reported a variety of side-effects. These included psychological effects like emotional instability, distractibility, or insomnia, as well as bodily symptoms like headache or dysregulation of body temperature.22 Thus, despite the rapid vanishing of psychedelia upon repeated intake of full-dose LSD, it overall turns out to be quite difficult to predict how the body adapts to a chronic supply of LSD – which effects decrease, which increase, and which pop up perhaps after long-term consumption. Purity and concentrations in a typical LSD blotter may vary, users might not strictly stick to the exact same intervals of consumption, or even be tempted to increase doses over time. Concerns of differential tolerance should, therefore, not be dismissed lightly when thinking about the safety of chronic LSD (micro-)dosing.

All of this, of course, does not exclude the possibility that repeated (micro-)doses of LSD may safely be applied in a (clinically) supervised context and/or even have therapeutically beneficial effects.23,24 It highlights, however, that the scientific understanding of the consequences of frequent and long-term LSD intake is in its infancy. Short-term tolerance to LSD might result from more discrete adaptions, such as 5-HT2A and glutamate receptor downregulation; long-term adaptions of the body to LSD – depending on the dose, interval, and length of intake – might be much more elaborate, though.25 More research is needed to tease out possible benefits and/or detriments of frequent use of psychedelics. Future research should not be restricted to the brain and psychological read-outs but perhaps also look at other organs, which express receptors psychedelics have high preference for.

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For Further Information
References
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