Join us for the fifth uniMIND Central Session with Dr. Kevin St. Arnaud to discuss his theoretical article Toward a positive psychology of psychoactive drug use, published in Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy, Taylor & Francis, 09 Dec, 2021.

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The uniMIND Program

uniMIND is the MIND Foundation’s international journal club network. With more than 25 groups at universities worldwide, uniMIND provides a well-connected platform for intellectual exchange and mutual academic support in the field of psychedelic research. To learn more about uniMIND, to join or start a group, visit our uniMIND page.

We also recommend connecting to our uniMIND community on the MIND Community Platform. Here we schedule events, discuss feedback and ideas, and more.

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uniMIND Central Sessions

Monthly web-based journal club meetings, open to everyone in and around the uniMIND community. We invite academic authors to discuss their very own publications with us.

For every session, there will be one selected text that we share here in the event description. Please make sure to read the article in advance, prepare questions and feedback. Having the authors present at our sessions can be a huge benefit in your understanding of the text and its context.

The uniMIND Central Sessions discussion format is a semi-structured conversational exchange. It is facilitated by the session host and open to input and questions from guests at any given time.

Download the article here

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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 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. 

 

 

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Field Pharmacology and Naturalistic Placebos 

 

 

  • Blog
  • Science
  • Interview
  • 10 minutes
December 1, 2021
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Post-Doctoral Researcher

Dr. Uthaug researches altered states of consciousness researcher and is especially interested in peak performance and the process of hormesis.

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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. For this interview we talked to Dr. Malin Vedøy Uthaug, formerly post-doctoral researcher at The Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London, now at Swinburne University of Technology, because she won the Willy Schweitzer Award for Young Researchers, including a prize money of 1,000 Euros, awarded at the MIND Foundation’s INSIGHT conference in September 2021.

Lucca Jaeckel: Malin, today we will talk mainly about your PhD work and about some of the things you did in your post-doc. Welcome!

You started your career as what one may call a field pharmacologist, studying how people use psychedelics in naturalistic settings. What drew you to this discipline? Was it also the “field” or “pharmacology” that initially drew you to this?  

Dr. Malin Uthaug: It’s a very good question. I think there’ve been many different variables that drew me to that. I think personal experience with ayahuasca was one thing. I was like, “Ok, this is interesting.” And I’ve always been deeply fascinated and curious about uncharted territories.

I got very curious to understand what the substance and ritual were all about. And then as I got involved in the research, my curiosity grew, and my motivation to do the research also grew.

Another part of it was that I was very fed up with the current medical approach to therapy. There’s this quote by Richard Buckminster Fuller, who says, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete” For me to be able to somehow transform the current approach to treating mental health disorders, I needed to understand what was being done differently in other contexts.

Going into the field felt very natural to me, because I thought “these people have done these ceremonies for years, so maybe it can help understand what we — in the West — are doing wrong.”

It’s been a little bit of a mixed bag, but that’s essentially how I’ve gotten involved.

L: When you’re saying you were “fed up” with the current medical approach, what do you mean by that?

M: I think particularly for trauma-related distress, like posttraumatic stress disorder, I realized that talking through the traumatic events might help some people, but others might need something else. Some might be helped by getting in contact with feelings or memories that have been repressed, by looking at them and facing them whilst feeling safe and secure. That can be quite transformational, I think. So, feeling that you are in a safe environment and having the comfort to face the discomfort — [this idea] is what I saw as something to research further that could maybe augment the current medical approach.

Another thing that I saw, for example, growing up, was that often people are given pills to deal with depression or ADHD, which seems like just putting a plaster on a boat that is about to sink. It doesn’t make things better; it just postpones dealing with the issue. I felt like if psychedelics should be used, we shouldn’t just use them as another medicine. There must be this other aspect to it, and I think we’ll get to that later in regard to rituals and all of this around ayahuasca.

L: Let’s maybe jump to that right away: You did research on naturalistic psychedelic use in very different contexts. What were some of your main findings? How does doing psychedelics naturalistically impact people?

M: From the research that I’ve done, the common denominator is that — be it ayahuasca, 5-MeO-DMT, Holotropic Breathwork®, also mescaline — [these all] seem to elevate people’s well-being and, some, decrease affect such as stress, anxiety, and depression. The increases in well-being were correlated with the ratings of the psychedelic experience, as assessed by questionnaires such as ego dissolution inventory and mystical experience questionnaire.

L: In addition to investigating the effects of naturalistic psychedelic consumption, you did one thing that I found particularly interesting. You did a placebo-controlled study in an ayahuasca retreat, where you investigated not only the changes in mental health related to ayahuasca but also related to the ayahuasca ceremony. Could you explain this a bit?

M: Naturalistic work isn’t really looked upon as the “ideal” way to research all these things because of the lack of control. So, implementing some elements of a placebo control became one of the things I really wanted to do. We had this great opportunity as one retreat center was training students to become facilitators, and one aspect of their curriculum were ceremonies where they would not be aware, whether they got placebo or ayahuasca. It was like a training for them, but we [at Maastricht University] thought: “This is a perfect opportunity to run a placebo-controlled naturalistic study.” That’s essentially what we did, and the overall finding was that set and setting played a role in the psychedelic experiences and the observed changes in well-being.

L: Do you think the people who participated in this knew that they got placebo or not? Because this is critical to the idea of the placebo effect.

M: They were aware that they could get placebo or ayahuasca. We also theorized about it in the discussion part of the paper reporting the results. We saw that both groups had psychedelic experiences but also that the ratings of the psychedelic experiences were overall pretty low compared to other studies we’ve done on ayahuasca or 5-MeO-DMT. This might have been because the dose in the ayahuasca group was low compared to other studies. However, maybe people also lowered their expectations towards the ceremony and its outcome because they knew that there might be a possibility of them getting a placebo.

L: In terms of the effectiveness of the blinding, did you ask people afterwards what they thought they’d gotten? Placebo or ayahuasca?

M: I was sitting down with these individuals the day after the ceremony. We had gotten a list of who got what, and I just asked everyone: “So tell me about last night, how was it for you?” And it was really eye-opening for me to sit there at that point in my career and to listen to people who’d had a full blown ayahuasca experience, but on paper it had said they had placebo. At that point it was like “wow, what is going on here?” as some people went on a tangent of having actual visions and hallucinations and how the experience had impacted them.

L: It’s surprising that a lot of people on placebo thought they had gotten an active dose — You mentioned already that expectancy may partly explain this, but do you think there’s also something to the ritual and social setting beyond expectancy that explains these findings? How do these factors play together to produce these sorts of outcomes?

M: One thing to clarify is that even though this was placebo control, we didn’t really account for specific parameters within the set and setting. So, this is one of the limitations of this study. It may be a starting point for other people to look at what part of the setting influences this and what part of the set influences that.

I think that people coming together in a ritual of sorts plays a role, by bringing about a sense of community, and a sense of belonging. But it should also be noted that the participants in this ceremony already had extensive experience with these rituals or retreats. In other words, we investigated an experienced group of ayahuasca drinkers, and because they had ayahuasca so many times, one could speculate whether they might have ‘learned’ to associate this ritual with an increase in well-being — and you see that playing out in the data even though they did not get ayahuasca.

L: It seems difficult to tear these things apart. Would you have any prompts for maybe how to approach this rabbit hole of set and setting in the future?

M: I think it could be cool to design a study, let’s say in the lab, where you play around with the music and just look at how it impacts the outcome variables. There are many things you can play with there, like the type of music, drums, or even smells. Many of these ceremonies make use of let’s say Palo Santo incense and things like that. Does that play a role?

Also, there’s something I’ve thought a lot about lately that came into my mind through my own experiences with freediving: The way that freedivers are preparing to dive involves not only the relaxation breathing [directly relevant to holding breath during the dive] but everything you do up until that moment. Like, what you put in your body, how much you sleep you get, what exercise you do, and all these things.

Ayahuasca ceremonies usually require preparatory practices such as a dieta, meaning certain dietary restrictions, or purging ceremonies, using tobacco and things like that. And how [does this] play a role in preparing somebody for the ceremony itself?

Something that is going to come out from my end soon is the suggestion of expanding set and setting to what I would like to term “body-set”. What I mean with this is the following: what are the internal conditions within the body at a certain point in time?

L: You are working on this right now?

M: I’m writing that paper now.

The idea with the body-set came from my own experiences with freediving. For me, it isn’t really rocket science — If you eat bad food, you’re going to feel like bad and that will basically ripple out to how your mental health functioning. If you eat a donut every day at McDonalds, you’re not going to feel great. I feel it is important that psychedelic researchers also start thinking about these things. I believe it [body set] does play a role in how people experience the psychedelic itself.

You see, with Ayahuasca ceremonies, people have the diets to clean themselves. Not only mentally, but also physically to ensure that the ceremony itself isn’t too hard. This also ties into another part of the paper that is yet to be published, which is the “Popcorn Theory”. Essentially, from my point of view, we are all like popcorn kernels, and that with the right internal — meaning, body set — and external environment we might better be able to “pop”. Popping could be freediving to 60 meters, or a cathartic moment in your therapy session with or without psychedelics.

L: Leaving these theoretical discussions behind a bit – more practically speaking, could you explain what sorts of groups you worked with and what challenges you encountered during your work “in the field”?

M: I made a very conscious decision of going to Colombia to carry out the data collection of my masters’ thesis, because I wanted to ensure that I studied something authentic, that wasn’t Westernized. I wanted to learn something new that we could potentially apply in the West. So, I visited and spoke with Shamans from the Amazon basin that were trained there.

Coming back to Europe after six months in Colombia, after Jordi [Riba] told me about 5-MeO-DMT, I started doing a bit of a literature review. Then, going from an authentic kind of style to a more neo-shamanic approach was also super interesting. Especially as 5-MeO-DMT, compared to Ayahuasca, doesn’t have this ritualistic lineage, so people had to figure out how to do this thing.

My work has been about studying a mix of both authentic and neo-shamanic approaches to psychedelic use, and in terms of differences between them or challenges [related to the data collection itself] — I think for example in Ayahuasca ceremonies, you have a big group of people doing the session together, whereas for 5-MeO-DMT it’s one-on-one. So, for data collection on Ayahuasca it was more about finding the time for the group to sit down and fill out the questionnaires. With 5-MeO-DMT it was more like, “Ok, you’re next, can you please fill this out before?”

Another important thing to mention is that 5-MeO-DMT is not scheduled in the Czech Republic. This was also one of the reasons why, even though I was doing my PhD at Maastricht University, I was living in the Czech Republic.

L: And you were always at the premises of the retreats when they did these ceremonies.

M: Yes, I lived in Colombia for six months whilst I travelled around with my friend there, who is the person who connected me to all the Shamans. So, we were travelling around outside Bogotá to the Northern part called Bucaramanga and the South around Cali. And in Prague, it wasn’t hard for me to travel to the location where the sessions were taking part, as they happened in locations around the city, and because I was based in Prague. That said, I was also involved in data collections in Spain, Germany, and Poland. So, I was travelling quite a lot. At some point I was perhaps “home” in Prague, two days a week.

L: Now, the field of psychedelics is rapidly expanding as they are being developed into medical uses and gaining more and more attention for “wellness” and spiritual purposes. Since you worked with many psychedelic retreats and people who attended them: Did you learn something that you think should inform this larger development of psychedelic expansion?

M: During the INSIGHT conference there was a lot of talk about the importance of connection and empathy — and that is one of the things that I find highly relevant for people: to feel secure enough to face the hardship that they might have repressed. And that’s not easy. Not only do you have to make sure that the therapeutic support is prime; you also have to make sure that these people are ready to face what they need to go through.

One of the other things I saw in the 5-MeO-DMT sessions is that — and I also think this might be attributed to the high doses that were administered — often you see people shake, cry, or scream. This was at first a bit scary to watch, and I was wondering what was ‘wrong’. But having spent some time reflecting on it, those moments of shaking, screaming, crying might be, to some extent, a cathartic moment. And this may not be dissimilar from practices from back in the day, like exorcisms and things like that which were conducted to release ‘demons’.
These ‘demons’ may just have been built-up tension and emotions. I think it’s important to think of these moments of shaking, screaming, or crying as normal and human. I think that doing so will open up more acceptance of these cathartic moments, and people may see them as ‘good things’ rather than something to be repressed, for they actually help bring about healing.

In sum, not being scared of those moments of release is kind of what I’m trying to get to.

L: This reminds me of what you talked about in the beginning. The acceptance or normalization of “strange” or “release” experiences as well as the necessity of a feeling of security are things you may not necessarily associate with the mainstream medical model of mental health treatment.

M: When you think about it, if someone is going a bit crazy — let’s say they’re coming to their physician or end up in the emergency room because of panic attacks or so — one of the things that seem to be quite common is that the GP would prescribe something to calm them down such as valium. That, in my head, seem to repress the natural release phenomena that have started. And whatever pain that is stuck inside this person is just going to be pushed back in.

It would be wonderful if there was a space where a person had the opportunity to have such a release. So, let’s find a way for them to do that in a safe, empathic, and non-judgmental space.

L: While on the one hand this could mean that practitioners ought to do some things differently, would this also entail changes in the physical environments? Since you studied people going to these retreats, is there something you found interesting about the places that you’ve seen?

M:  I learned a lot about what not to do from the 5-MeO-DMT sessions I observed. For example, laying down, that’s a good thing. Perhaps, in a treatment room, a mattress in the middle of the therapy floor would be helpful so that people can roll around a bit — should they feel this need in their session. This may be helpful because there may be movements coming naturally that they might want to engage in. Sitting up might be a bit too restrictive. Having that space around one could be helpful.

L: I have two final questions for you. First, I would really like to hear about your post-doc work. I’m interested what you did in the last two years, what was that about?

M: I joined The Centre of Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London and I was mainly brought in to initiate a 5-MeO-DMT study in the lab, which has been a dream of mine for the longest time. Also, I launched two survey studies: one to investigate the effects of 5-MeO-DMT and another to explore the effects of Holotropic Breathwork®.

Right now, we’re at the end of the data collection of the largest prospective study on 5-MeO-DMT, so that’s really exciting. I’m going to get cracking with the data analysis very soon. The survey included many measures that haven’t been used yet for 5-MeO-DMT.

Alongside my PhD in Maastricht, I also became interested in the effects of Holotropic Breathwork® and decided to design a prospective survey study on this as well which is similar to the 5-MeO-DMT study. We will keep this study running for a couple of more months as we still need some more participants. With Holotropic Breathwork® I’ve been very interested in the phenomenon of release, because that’s also prominent with that practice.

That’s what I’ve been working on for Imperial, but I’m probably going to be moving to Australia at the end of the year [editor’s note: at the time of publication of this interview, Dr. Malin Uthaug already arrived in Australia]. I can’t talk about it much right now, but it’s 5-MeO-DMT related.

L: That would have been my next question: What’s up next? You can’t talk about the actual details of the research work, but can you tell us where you’re going and what you’re going to do there in general?

M: I’m going to be joining a team at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia. We are going to be doing a study there with 5-MeO-DMT. I’m happy to talk about the details of that study in the future when we have some clarification on the progress there.

I’m definitely looking forward to relocating. I think Australia is going to be a great experience for me. There’ll be a lot of great people and I’ve heard good things about the city. And another great part of this transition is that I’m going to be able to freedive, which is very important to me now. In essence, there are many boxes that are getting ticked that support the way I want to live my life and the way I want to be as a researcher.

L: Thank you very much, Malin!

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  Ganzfeld effect

Colors Affect Our Subjective Wellbeing and Sense of Time

 

Using the Ganzfeld method to alter states of consciousness

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  • 4 minutes
May 21, 2021
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Research Fellow at the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health at the University of Freiburg

Dr. Marc Wittman researches time perception as an indicator of cognitive functioning and emotion, employing psychophysical experiments, time perception inventories and functional MRI.

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Color has an impact on our psychological wellbeing. However, we are often not aware of this effect. The Arousal Theory of Color posits that longer wavelengths, such as red and yellow, are perceived as more activating, whereas colors of shorter wavelengths, such as green and blue, are experienced as more relaxing. For example, when asked to choose a relaxing color, the majority of people opt for blue or green rather than for red or pink, the latter of which have been perceived as energizing, non-relaxing colors. It has been shown that in the extreme, red and yellow colors lead to relatively more nervous, fidgety, and aggressive behavior in man and even in monkeys.1

The Ganzfeld technique consists of exposing a person to an intense homogenous, unstructured sensory field. This type of sensory field can be induced through constant visual and auditory stimulation. For example, through specially designed goggles, one sees a red light and through earphones, one hears “brown” noise, which sounds like a waterfall (see the photo). 

A person immersed in the Ganzfeld method

A person immersed in the Ganzfeld method. Photo by Marc Wittmann.

 

Ganzfeld is a German word coined by Gestalt Psychologists at the beginning of the 20th century and means “entire field”.2 We see only red and we hear only a waterfall. The Ganzfeld elicits visual and auditory illusions and it can induce stable—although, in most people, comparably weak—altered states of consciousness. Subjective reports of alterations referring to the visual experience of the Ganzfeld include emerging illusionary percepts, diminishing luminance, the appearance of structures such as moving shapes, and dreamlike imagery with pseudo-hallucinatory quality. Changes in the auditory modality comprise illusionary percepts like sounds of machines, chirping birds or water, and even more complex percepts of voices or music. 

One feature of altered states of consciousness during Ganzfeld exposure is an altered sense of time. In general, regardless of the induction method, altered states of consciousness can be characterized by changes in the sense of self and time. Subjective changes in the passage of time during altered states of consciousness have been studied with different induction methods, among which are: hypnosismeditation, psychedelics, when being absorbed in music or playing video games. In a recent study that used a special Ganzfeld technique where participants sit in an egg-shaped, whole-body perceptual deprivation chamber illuminated with one color, the reported experience of time proved quite distorted.3

In the just-published study with my coworkers Sebastian Kübel and Henrike Fiedler,4 we wanted to compare the experience of time in altered states of consciousness as induced through a 25-minute exposure to a multimodal Ganzfeld with differently colored light (red, green) and brown noise. Sixty-seven participants wore Kasina DeepVision Ganzfeld goggles.

Our results can be summarized in two clusters. On the one hand, we have data on the general effects of the Ganzfeld on states of consciousness; on the other hand, we can interpret our findings in regards to color-specific effects. Relating to the general effects, the more the experience of participants was altered as assessed with a questionnaire, the shorter the participants perceived the duration of the 25-minute Ganzfeld exposure and the faster the subjective passage of time. Such a relative underestimation of duration is a typical sign of altered states of consciousness, e.g., as experienced during deep states of meditation and more generally when people are in flow states while performing activities that they feel positively about. In the green condition, people felt more relaxed after than before the Ganzfeld exposure and this greater relaxation was related to an underestimation of duration and a faster subjective passage of time. In the red condition, in contrast, participants felt more agitated afterward than before. We also found clear effects between the two colors. Participants reported to be significantly more activated in the red condition as compared to the green condition and this greater activation leads to the feeling that the red session had lasted significantly longer than the green session. 

Mind-body interventions, such as meditation or yoga, as well as other relaxation techniques, have been introduced into the clinical and health sciences, as I highlighted in a recent blog post at Psychology Today.5 It can be said that the core features of altered states of consciousness act positively against psychiatric symptoms. As we were able to show, a Ganzfeld session has mild properties to induce altered states of consciousness. Especially the green stimulation in combination with brown noise definitely showed to have the potential to become the basis for a new type of relaxation-induction technique, if investigated further. 

Independent of these applications, we add knowledge to how green (relaxation) and red (activation) have different effects on us, emotionally and related to the judgment of time.

Note: This post was first published at Psychology Today on 6 October 2020, and can be found here. All rights reserved by the author. Republished with the author’s permission.

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References
  1. Humphrey N. Seeing red: A study in consciousness. Cambridge MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press; 2006.
  2. Schmidt TT, Prein JC. The Ganzfeld experience — A stably inducible altered state of consciousness: Effects of different auditory homogenizations. PsyCh Journal. 2019;8:66-81. doi:10.1002/pchj.262
  3. Ben-Soussan TD, Mauro F, Lasaponara S, Glicksohn J, Marson F, Berkovich-Ohana A. Fully immersed: State absorption and electrophysiological effects of the OVO Whole-Body Perceptual Deprivation chamber. Progress in Brain Research. 2019;244:165-184. doi:10.1016/bs.pbr.2018.10.023
  4. Kübel S, Fiedler H, Wittmann M. Red visual stimulation in the Ganzfeld leads to a relative overestimation of duration compared to green. PsyCh Journal. 2020;9:5-19. doi:10.1002/PCHJ.395
  5. Wittmann M. Timeless healing at the doors of perception. 2018. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/sense-time/201810/timeless-healing-the-doors-perception. Accessed May 3, 2021.
  ascs in sports hero

How to Change Your Mind with Exercise

Altered States of Consciousness in Sports
  • Blog
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  • 10 minutes
February 26, 2021
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Clinical Psychologist

Barbara Braun is a sports psychologist, researcher, and passionate "mover".

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“An altered state of consciousness is a temporary change in the overall pattern of subjective experience so that the individual believes that his psychological functions are markedly different from certain general norms of his normal waking consciousness.”

– G.W. Farthing

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “altered state of consciousness”? While they are commonly associated with substance use or the stereotypical Buddhist monk in meditation, altered states of consciousness (ASCs) can arise in a surprisingly wide variety of circumstances.

One of these circumstances is that of exhausting physical activity, which can both train the body and change the mind. This is because alterations in one’s subjective experience reflect not only changes in the brain, but also in other parts of the body. Different forms of movement have their unique characteristics which can facilitate various alterations in one’s consciousness: everything from running to dance to rock climbing and martial arts can produce a unique mental state.

Upon hearing this, one might wonder whether exercise-induced alterations in consciousness are even desirable. Certainly, one is in a kind of “altered state” when in pain at the end of a long workout and only wanting for it to be over. But though all who have ever been forced into gym class know this state of mind, there are other commonly experienced altered states associated with exercise which have more obvious benefits. Some of these – the runner’s high, the “Zone”, and the flow of dancing – are not only enjoyable, but are often associated with an increased motivation to exercise and psychological well-being.1–3

Before I take you through how different types of exercise can affect your state of mind, I have one important message: Exercise-induced ASCs are not reserved for high-level athletes.  Everybody who exercises can access them with enough practice and patience. So whether you’re a couch potato or an Olympian, there’s an altered state waiting for you at the end of some good, hard exercise.

“It doesn’t matter how you do it. Just get out there and do it.”

– Dean Karnazes

Runner’s high

A runner’s high is basically what it sounds like: feeling amazing during and after running. Scientists have also defined it more precisely: “A runner’s high is a subjective sudden pleasant feeling of euphoria, anxiolysis, sedation, and analgesia after prolonged exercise like long-distance running.4 Prolonged exercise, in this case, means continuously moving for at least 45 minutes,5 but possibly up to several hours, like in marathons. Similar experiences occur in rowing (“rower’s high”), and they might be linked to the synchrony of movement which is so critical for high performance in rowers’ teams.6  Additionally, both running and rowing involve a specific rhythmic motion and coordinated breathing, which increases focus on the present task. And focus, too, is inherently enjoyable.7

So how does one reach a runner’s high? It likely depends on training status, level of conditioning, and one’s neurobiology. Beginners, for example, may need patience. Experienced runners suggest starting with a moderate running speed as a warm-up, then picking up the pace quickly for a few minutes after the first fatigue sets in. Then comes the hard part: push through any unpleasant sensations as best you can to achieve a consistent pace until you absolutely must slow down (and of course: don’t overdo it). If you feel a sudden surge in energy that drives you to speed up – go with it. After a while, you’ll enjoy a euphoric runner’s high.8

Why does this physical exhaustion in the body create such a pleasant state of mind? Studies in mice show that intense exercise makes the body release endorphins, but endorphins alone can’t explain the runner’s high.21 When released into the blood after intense exercise, they act primarily as local painkillers. They are unable to cross into the brain, and thus cannot induce euphoria.

Instead, researchers posit that runner’s high might be the result of the action of endocannabinoids, which counteract feelings of stress in the brain.5 These molecules are similar to those that make people feel “high” when they smoke cannabis, but your body produces them naturally. And because they are fat-soluble, they can enter the brain, and their concentration ​​in the blood also rises with vigorous exercise.4 A runner’s high, then, might be down to endocannabinoids. In fact, one study found that not only running, but also walking for 45-60 minutes measurably increases endocannabinoid levels. Still, the researchers doubt that a runner’s high can be induced by “just going for a prolonged walk.” They suspect that during prolonged exercise, one eventually reaches a threshold in endocannabinoid levels which must be crossed to reach a runner’s high. And this requires running – not just walking.5

EAT. TRAIN. SLEEP. REPEAT.

CrossFit is a relatively new training program characterized by “high intensity, constantly varied, functional movements.”9 While running comprises lengthy exercise and repeated cyclical movements, CrossFit is quite the opposite: brief, intense, not cyclical, and much more focused on the variety of weightlifting and functional strength exercises than on conditioning.

Can someone reach an altered state through CrossFit? Approaching this as a sports psychologist, CrossFit athletes of various levels often experience what they call “The Zone.” This refers to the “individual zone of optimal functioning” – when everything comes together perfectly, only the task at hand has the light of attention, and you just go.

According to the sports psychologist and former rugby player Adam Dehaty, who works with CrossFit Athletes’ on their mindsets, the Zone has eight characteristics:10

This zone of optimal functioning is mainly determined by the balance of challenge and ability. When someone’s ability to deal with a challenge is too low, they will be overwhelmed and likely fail. The reverse is also true: when something is not challenging enough, people get bored and don’t perform at their best. The Zone is the happy medium: a challenging, but not overwhelming balance between task difficulty and individual ability. This is what makes The Zone an individual zone of optimal functioning. And indeed, it is not unique to CrossFit. The Zone is a type of flow state, in which someone is fully immersed in an activity with an enjoyable, energized focus.7 Although CrossFit culture particularly emphasizes it, one can be “in the zone” during practically any type of exercise – or indeed, any challenging enough task.

With the right mindset and a well-calibrated task difficulty, entering The Zone just happens ― if you are prepared. In CrossFit, this state partially stems from a strong commitment to reaching a goal with a rigorously planned workout: Counting repetitions, focusing on the movement in the moment, and anticipating what comes next to make a smooth transition from one task to another. All of this creates a feeling of a painless flow and performance with perfect technique, which saves energy and breath. Alison Moyer, a CrossFit coach, bodybuilder, and athlete from Pennsylvania, sums it up:

„So many times in CrossFit, I’m in tune with the pain – with the shortness of my breath, the difficulty of movement, the tightness in my limbs. But then, every once in a while, I discover those rare moments … that make me feel unstoppable, unbeatable. I’m aware of what I’m doing, and aware that I’m moving, but I’ve found the place right beneath my redline where my body just takes over and goes. It doesn’t matter that I’m tired, that my mouth is dry, that I can’t breathe, or that my legs are going numb. … that feeling, the incredibly superhuman sensation, is what keeps me coming back for more.“11

Many CrossFit athletes strive for exactly this feeling of painless, concentrated flow during a workout. After all, the intense workouts like CrossFit aren’t only about what happens in the body, but also in the mind.

Connecting Body and Mind – flow through Music

“When a body moves, it’s the most revealing thing. Dance for a minute, and I’ll tell you who you are.”

– Mikhail Baryshnikov, Ballet Dancer

Dance movement therapy has been investigated as an adjunctive clinical practice in psychiatry and neurology,12–14 yet therapists by no means invented it. Trance and shamanic dances have been used for thousands of years in different cultures all around the world, and they are still practiced by many, such as the Sufi Dervishes.15

Of course, the purpose of dance-related sports is very different from trance dance and therapeutic dancing, but they all share the connection between the dancer’s internal state and the outer, visual performance.  Perfecting both is crucial in professional dancing. One beautiful example is the Olympic gold medal performance in pairs free figure skating by A. Savchenko and B. Massot in 2018.

Music on its own is certainly a powerful inducer of altered states, but the movement of dancing adds another element to it. Music leads through rhythm and style. Dancing then, means to translate rhythm and style into a flow of movement. The synergy between music and movement can create a state of flow in which people not only forget about time and their surroundings, but also feel more connected to themselves:

“Music and beats are like a lighter that is switched on: the warmth and the brightness expand in my whole body: my head moves, my body moves, my mind moves. When I dance, all of me starts melting into the sound, thoughts disappear. I feel like being out of the system, out of time and out of space. I am in my own and I feel myself in every single cell of my body.”

–Anna, from Cologne

To enter such a state, one need only to be able to immerse oneself in the feeling of rhythm, move in different ways, and concentrate. Professional dance skills are not required – nor, even, is any particular talent! Altered states from dancing arise independently of how the dance appears to other people.

Dance is unique because many of us gravitate toward it automatically. When people hear music they like – and sometimes even music they don’t – they almost unconsciously try to connect to it. They start to tap their feet, bop their heads, move their hips, or whatever spontaneous movements seem to feel right (and are socially appropriate in the current setting, of course).

Altered states in dance involve fully surrendering to this urge to move, or mastering an intentional intentional dance routine. When fully immersed in the dance, we can begin to feel so connected to the music that we lose everything else. People lost in dance feel liberated, often stress-free, and even like they are one with the rhythm, their surroundings, and other dancers. They may lose track of time and dance for much longer than they expected. This is nearly the definition of an altered state: at its most extreme, the mind is filled with nothing but dance. Like The Zone, it is another species of flow. It is an intrinsically rewarding state, and dancers who experience flow will seek it again and again.16

Conclusion

Whether you call it “The Zone,” a certain “high,” “flow,” or something else: physical exercise and movement – especially in combination with an open but focused mindset – can induce an altered state of consciousness which may come both during and after the exercise. These altered states share movement as their basis, as well as the experience of an intrinsically rewarding state of mind.

Movement is one of our basic needs and it is crucial for a healthy mind and body, as well as a healthy connection between them.2 Because physical exercise and movement have the potential for enhancing valuable states of consciousness, we can easily see them as part of a culture of consciousness – a Bewusstseinskultur. Physical exercise both decreases and prevents suffering, creating a valuable state of consciousness which may even enhance our capacity to live well and connect to other people. In turn, healthier relationships with others can lead to further valuable states of consciousness and reciprocal, enriching relationships.

As a sports psychologist, here’s my advice: If you’re feeling down, especially when you’re not sure why, it won’t hurt to move. If you are stressed or overwhelmed, focusing on moving can pull you out of that mindset, allowing you to return to your challenges later with a refreshed brain. If you are feeling lonely, movement may boost your mood – especially if you can find others who share that interest. If you are really suffering mentally, you may need to see a mental health care professional – but still don’t forget to move, because it is one of many things that might help.2,22

Movement is not the ultimate solution for everything, but I suggest that natural movements and their potential to increase the awareness and knowledge of one’s body should be cultivated in everyone’s life. Integrating movement into psychotherapeutic treatment plans may even create additional benefit beyond psychotherapy and medication.22 Furthermore, a culture that values movement and valuable states of mind has the potential to prevent mental and bodily suffering in children, youths, and adults.

It does not matter what kind of physical exercise you do. Just move. Consciously.

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.

References
  1. Fortier M, Kowal J. The flow state and physical activity behavior change as motivational outcomes: A self-determination theory perspective. In: Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in exercise and sport. Champaign, IL,  US: Human Kinetics; 2007. S. 113-125,322-328.
  2. Wiese CW, Kuykendall L, Tay L. Get active? A meta-analysis of leisure-time physical activity and subjective well-being. J Posit Psychol. 2. Januar 2018;13(1):57–66.
  3. Jackman PC, Hawkins RM, Crust L, Swann C. Flow states in exercise: A systematic review. Psychol Sport Exerc. November 2019;45:101546.
  4. Fuss J, Steinle J, Bindila L, Auer MK, Kirchherr H, Lutz B, u. a. A runner’s high depends on cannabinoid receptors in mice. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 20. Oktober 2015;112(42):13105–8.
  5. In Bestform: Was steckt hinter dem Runner’s High? [Internet]. Spektrum.de. 2020 [zitiert 30. Dezember 2020]. Verfügbar unter: https://www.spektrum.de/kolumne/was-ist-ein-runners-high/1805063
  6. Cohen EEA, Ejsmond-Frey R, Knight N, Dunbar RIM. Rowers’ high: behavioural synchrony is correlated with elevated pain thresholds. Biol Lett. 23. Februar 2010;6(1):106–
  7. Csikszentmihalyi M. FLOW: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. 2000;6.
  8. Altered States and Exercise Part 1: The Runner’s High [Internet]. Florida Running & Triathlon. 2016 [zitiert 20. Oktober 2020]. Verfügbar unter: https://www.flrunning.com/blog/altered-states-and-exercise-part-1-the-runners-high-1494
  9. Glassman G. Understanding CrossFit [Internet]. CrossFit Journal. 2017. Verfügbar unter: http://journal.crossfit.com/2007/04/understanding-crossfit-by-greg.tpl
  10. Dehaty A. In the Zone – 8 Ways to Build an Invincible Crossfit Mindset [Internet]. BOXROX – Competitive Fitness Magazine. 2017. Verfügbar unter: https://www.boxrox.com/zone-8-ways-build-invincible-crossfit-mindset/
  11. Moyer A. The Athlete’s Altered State (Athlete Journal Entry 15) [Internet]. BreakingMuscle. Verfügbar unter: https://breakingmuscle.com/fitness/the-athletes-altered-state-athlete-journal-entry-15
  12. Meekums B, Karkou V, Nelson EA. Dance movement therapy for depression. Cochrane Common Mental Disorders Group, Herausgeber. Cochrane Database Syst Rev [Internet]. 19. Februar 2015 [zitiert 23. Februar 2021]; Verfügbar unter: http://doi.wiley.com/10.1002/14651858.CD009895.pub2
  13. de Dreu MJ, van der Wilk ASD, Poppe E, Kwakkel G, van Wegen EEH. Rehabilitation, exercise therapy and music in patients with Parkinson’s disease: a meta-analysis of the effects of music-based movement therapy on walking ability, balance and quality of life. Parkinsonism Relat Disord. Januar 2012;18:S114–9.
  14. Hackney M, Bennett C. Dance therapy for individuals with Parkinson’s disease: improving quality of life. J Park Restless Legs Syndr. Februar 2014;17.
  15. Frembgen JW. DHamāl and the Performing Body: Trance Dance in the Devotional Sufi Practice of Pakistan. J Sufi Stud. 2012;1(1):77–113.
  16. Levine CL. Flow and motivation in male ballet dancers [Internet]. Wright Institute Graduate School of Psychology; 2006 [zitiert 8. Oktober 2020]. Verfügbar unter: https://search.proquest.com/openview/0204c74a04f15cff2ec722da0e12ae79/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y
  17. Brupbacher G, c, BSc. Does Music Decrease Overall CrossFit Performance? | BoxLife Magazine [Internet]. [zitiert 9. Oktober 2020]. Verfügbar unter: https://boxlifemagazine.com/music-crossfit-does-it-make-you-or-break-you/
  18. Karageorghis C, Priest D-L. Music in the exercise domain: a review and synthesis (Part I). Int Rev Sport Exerc Psychol. 2011;5(1):44–66.
  19. Jackson SA, Ford SK, Kimiecik JC, Marsh HW. Psychological Correlates of Flow in Sport. J Sport Exerc Psychol. 1. Dezember 1998;20(4):358–78.
  20. Relationships between quality of experience and participation in diverse performance settingshttp://espace.library.uq.edu.au/workflow/edit_metadata.php?id=382160&wfs_id=778 – UQ eSpace [Internet]. [zitiert 8. Oktober 2020]. Verfügbar unter: https://espace.library.uq.edu.au/view/UQ:100134
  21. Markoff, R. A., Ryan, P. A. U. L., & Young, T. (1982). Endorphins and mood changes in long-distance running. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 14(1), 11-15.
  22. Carek, P. J., Laibstain, S. E., & Carek, S. M. (2011). Exercise for the treatment of depression and anxiety. The international journal of psychiatry in medicine, 41(1), 15-28.
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Understanding the Bodily Roots of Conscious Experience

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  • 8 minutes
February 12, 2021
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Philosopher and Cognitive Scientist

Anna Ciaunica, PhD, is a research associate and principal investigator focused on self-consciousness, embodiment and social interactions.

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Crucially, while not all humans will have the experience of being pregnant or carrying a baby, the experience of being carried and growing within another person’s body is universal.

The “Me” Relating to the World

Imagine you are walking on warm sand, on a sunny summer’s day, holding hands with your partner. While perceiving this environment, your brain receives and needs to integrate a cascade of sensory information coming from both outside and inside your body: the warmth of the sand, the brightness of the sunlight, the salty smell of the air, the sound of your heart pounding in your chest, the warmth of your partner’s skin touching your hand.

We usually experience a ‘real me’ that is linked to the body and which lies at the core of all of our sensory experiences, emotions, memories, and thoughts. This ‘I’ or ‘me’ is somehow always there, even if only in the background – transparently, so to speak; and it is felt as being distinct from the world and other people (the sand and your partner, let’s say).

This sense of being a ‘real me’ connected with a real world ‘out there’ makes us feel present and immersed in the flow of our daily lives. But how exactly does this work?

In a seminal paper entitled ‘Whatever next? Predictive brains, situated agents, and the future of cognitive science’, Andy Clark1 proposed that the brain’s job is to predict whatever information is coming next based on the information perceived before. Instead of being a passive sponge receiving information from inside and outside our bodies, the brain actively anticipates the world through the lens of past experiences. Whatever we have perceived and experienced before leaves traces, so to speak, in our nervous and perceptual systems. The brain uses these ‘traces’ prevailingly to spot danger. This is why it’s so difficult to forget negative events: the brain wants to keep us out of trouble. Harmless information, like the colour of the doorknob at my hotel, will likely be treated as boring and erased from memory. However, the colour of the jacket on the thief that attacked me on the street stays with me. This is an important insight stressed by Clark and other researchers like Karl Friston2 and Jakob Hohwy.3

Perception is for Survival in the Here and Now

Let’s have a closer look at the influential expression “whatever next”. Indeed, what really matters for our survival is to correctly perceive not only what happens next, but also what happens here, that is, next to my body. Take the following example.

Suppose I’m drinking a cup of coffee on a terrace on a Greek island (oh, well – I’m allowed to dream, I guess, since terraces are currently closed in my country). But let’s imagine the scene: I take a sip and next want to admire the clouds above, but while directing my attention to the sky, I see a spider on the table close to my hand. Suddenly, the perception of what is next to my hand is a high priority. Temporally speaking, both the perception of the sky and of the spider come ‘next’, that is, after me sipping coffee. But the perception of the spider next to my hand puts my defence system on red alert. Now I don’t care about the beauty of the sky anymore, or the taste of my coffee. Now, all my perceptions and thoughts and emotions are clustered around one single important fact: the spider-next-to-my-hand, and how to escape safely.

Why is this observation important?

It is important because philosophers and scientists across disciplines and traditions have focused mainly on vision and distal perception: I see the world / an apple / a red tomato ‘there’. In reality however, our perceptions are proximal and multisensory in nature.4 We constantly perceive the world and what is next to our body through our skin, for example, or through smell. However, although these ‘modest’ senses give us the most essential information about our survival, we tend to neglect them, dismiss them, or take them for granted.

We typically realise how important things are only when we lose them. For example, with the current health crisis provoked by the COVID-19 virus, many of us temporarily lost our sense of smell. People are starting to realise how important this proximal sense was to one’s sense of self and sense of presence in the world.5

Tactile Experience as a Transparent Experiential Background

Paradoxically, precisely because proximal senses such as touch and smell are so close or ‘next’ to our body, we typically underestimate their importance to us. Amongst these proximal senses, which are blended to form an almost transparent experiential background, tactile experiences have a special status in orchestrating our lives. 18 I can see at least two main reasons for that.

First, touch is mediated by the skin, the oldest and broadest organ in terms of size and function.6,7 This means that the most primitive way to meet and perceive the world around us is via touch. It gives us the most fundamental sense of presence, of reality. Recall the famous Saint Thomas anecdote: in order to believe that a wound was real on the other’s body, he felt the need to touch it. Seeing it alone was not enough.

The skin also mediates the boundary between the self and the outer world. At the same time, it distinguishes us from and relates us to the reality ‘out there’. Tactile experiences have what the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty called the inevitable duality ‘touchant/touché’: I can see someone without being seen back, but I cannot touch an object or a person without being touched back. Inevitably, by holding hands with my partner, I receive information not only about my hand, but his hand too (his skin is warm and my skin is cold, for example). This inescapable duality encouraged researchers to look at the skin as being a relational organ par excellence.8

Our Perception Starts within Another’s Body

Second and importantly, touch plays a key role in exploration and social bonding, which confers a sense of closeness and belonging.

One important yet overlooked aspect of the current debates on the nature of perception is that our most primitive perceptual experiences emerge within the body of another person. In other words, the most primitive embodiment is a shared embodiment, or co-embodiment.9 Crucially, while not all humans will have the experience of being pregnant or carrying a baby, the experience of being carried and growing within another person’s body is universal.

This means that our most primitive experiences may be fundamentally shared experiences.10,11,12,13 Indeed, well before we meet other people’s minds, we literally meet their bodies – and depend on them for survival. Remember, for the brain, survival is key. Living organisms like ourselves have an inescapable drive to live on and potentially reproduce. Humans come into the world within another’s body and initially remain dependent on the physical closeness and affection of a caregiver for survival and happiness.

In Between Bodies

The observation that humans come into the world within another’s body could have two important implications for critical questions fuelling current debates on the nature of perceptual experiences, consciousness, and self-awareness.14

First, a dynamic and complex system such as the human body needs to be able to play a double game in order to survive and potentially reproduce. On the one hand, it has to successfully maintain sensory states within certain physiological bounds: if we get too cold or too hot for too long, we die. On the other hand, the body must flexibly change these states in order to adapt to a constantly changing environment.15

If we look at the human body through this dynamic lens, it become obvious that what happens in between the organism and its environment – the boundaries – plays a key role in making sure this game is played successfully and flexibly enough to keep the organism alive. Future work on perception and consciousness thus needs to define the critical notion of “boundary” or “in between”: in other words, the process of exchanges between two states or two organisms.

The notion of a ‘Markov blanket’ has been recently advocated as a promising way to conceptualize a boundary mediating the interactions between a system and its environment.16 A Markov blanket can be roughly described as a statistical boundary that separates two sets of states. One seminal example is the cellular membrane separating intracellular and extracellular dynamics. The boundary not only separates the system from its environment, but also inherently relates the system to its environment.

Consciousness’ Bodily Roots

A second key implication resulting from our embodied emergence concerns consciousness itself, and the very definition of the term ‘minimal self’ (Ciaunica, forthcoming). Previous approaches have addressed this question by trying to find the fundamental basis of minimal selfhood.14,17 Yet another alternative is to focus on how selfhood and conscious experiences emerge and dynamically unfold across one’s lifespan. To use a metaphor, ‘minimal’ in this sense would refer to the seed that contains all the latent information about the upcoming tree, rather than the schematized and abstract structure and shape of a fully-fledged adult tree.

And if we look at how the ‘human tree’ gets off the ground (so to speak) in utero, then we simply can’t ignore its bodily and relational roots.

The same way one cannot understand what a tree is and how it functions by looking at its visible components only – branches, leaves, trunk – and ignoring its invisible roots, one cannot understand our conscious experiential life without considering its invisible basis: its bodily shared roots.

If you want to learn how to connect with both your invisible and visible bodily roots, join the next BEYOND Experience workshop – a psychedelic integration workshop that puts a lot of emphasis on bodywork, meditation, and more.

Learn more about BEYOND Experience
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.

References
  1. Clark A. Whatever next? Predictive brains, situated agents, and the future of cognitive science. Behav Brain Sci. 2013;36(3):181–204.
  2. Friston K. A theory of cortical responses. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2005;360(1456):815–36.
  3. Hohwy J. The predictive mind. London, England: Oxford University Press; 2013.
  4. Faivre N, Arzi A, Lunghi C, Salomon R. Consciousness is more than meets the eye: a call for a multisensory study of subjective experience. Neurosci Conscious [Internet]. 2017;2017(1). Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/nc/nix003
  5. Barwich AS. Smellosophy: What the nose tells the mind. Harvard University Press; 2020.
  6. Field T. Touch. London, England: MIT Press; 2001.
  7. Gallace A, Spence C. The science of interpersonal touch: an overview. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2010;34(2):246–59.
  8. Ratcliffe M. Touch and the sense of reality. In: Radman Z, editor. The Hand, an Organ of the Mind. The MIT Press; 2013.
  9. Ciaunica A, Constant A, Preissl H, Fotopoulou A. The first prior: From co-embodiment to co-homeostasis in early life [Internet]. PsyArXiv. 2021. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/twubr
  10. Ciaunica A. Basic Forms of Pre-Reflective Self-Consciousness: a Developmental Perspective. In: Miguens S, Preyer G, Morando C, editors. Pre-Reflective Consciousness. Routledge; 2016.
  11. Ciaunica, A. (2017). ‘The Meeting of Bodies: Basic Forms of Shared Experiences, Topoi, an International Journal of Philosophy. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11245-017-9500-x
  12. Ciaunica A, Fotopoulou A. The touched self: Psychological and philosophical perspectives on proximal intersubjectivity and the self. In: Embodiment, Enaction, and Culture. The MIT Press; 2017.
  13. Ciaunica A, Crucianelli L. Minimal Self-Consciousness from within – a Developmental Perspective. Journal of Consciousness Studie. 2019;26(3–4):207-226(20).
  14. Blanke O, Metzinger T. Full-body illusions and minimal phenomenal selfhood. Trends Cogn Sci. 2009;13(1):7–13.
  15. Seth AK, Tsakiris M. Being a beast machine: The somatic basis of selfhood. Trends Cogn Sci. 2018;22(11):969–81.
  16. Ramstead MJD, Kirchhoff MD, Constant A, Friston KJ. Multiscale integration: beyond internalism and externalism. Synthese [Internet]. 2019; Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11229-019-02115-x
  17. Zahavi D. Subjectivity and selfhood: Investigating the first-person perspective. The MIT Press; 2005.
  18. Ciaunica A, Petreca B, Fotopoulou A, Roepstorff A. Whatever Next and Close to my Self – The Transparent Senses and the ‘Second Skin’: Implications for the Case of Depersonalisation 2021. doi:10.31234/osf.io/u8ky6.
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The Psychedelic Compendium

A New Resource for Research on Psychedelics

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December 1, 2020
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Research & Knowledge Exchange Associate, Resources Manager

Jagoda contributes to the Drug Science Program and the Resources section.

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The Psychedelic Compendium is a series of curated lists of research articles introducing specific topics in a nutshell. Since psychedelic research is a rapidly growing field and new articles are published almost daily, we understand that it might be overwhelming to skim through a multitude of publications searching for the right one. To make it easier to find relevant research, we are introducing lists of article recommendations carefully selected by our team.  

Comprised of both open and closed access articles, our lists of recommended readings aim to lay the foundations for understanding distinct aspects of psychedelic research. Starting from basic overviews and then diving deeper into specific research perspectives, the lists highlight the most important publications in the field.  

To make the lists a handy tool for not only researchers and professionals but also journalists and the general public, we will provide a brief summary of each article. We believe that bridging the information flow between academia and society will significantly benefit both parties. High quality research combined with clear channels of communication with the public will facilitate responsible policy making and therefore result in sustainable development of the relations between science, governments, and the population. 

This post will be continually updated – stay tuned for the incoming recommendation lists! 

 

1. Recommended Readings for Psychedelic Novices

These ten articles will give you a solid foundation to start your psychedelic research journey. You will gain an overview of state-of-the-art of psychedelic research, the history of psychedelic exploration, the many applications of psychedelic substances in various fields, and most importantly, their therapeutic potential. 

 

2. Recommended Readings Introducing Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy

Psychedelic-assisted therapy has the potential to help improve global mental health. In this list, we will introduce the history and current state of the research on psychedelic-assisted therapy, as well as challenges and future perspectives. 

 

3. Recommended Readings on Psychedelics for the Treatment of Depression

Psychedelics offer a new avenue in the treatment of mood disorders. In this list, we will explore the advantages of psychedelics over mainstream antidepressants and summarize essential studies investigating the potential of psychedelics in the treatment of depression and anxiety. 

 

4. Recommended Readings – Serotonin Receptors

This list of recommended readings explores the diversity among serotonin receptors, the history of their discovery, their relations with psychedelics, and their mechanisms of mediating subjective experiences and therapeutic effects.

 

5. Recommended Readings – Psilocybin

In this list, we focus on general press articles about psilocybin research and therapy that were published mainly in larger international newspaper outlets.

 

6. Recommended Readings – Top 2020

This list of Top 10 Articles of 2020 will discuss a ground-breaking trial with psilocybin for major depressive disorder, long-term outcomes of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD, how psychedelics work in the brain, and how to produce psychedelics at a larger scale.

 

7. Recommended Readings – Ketamine

This selection of research articles on ketamine for mental health will explore its promise in treating not only depression but also the positive effects on suicidal ideation, addiction, and further symptoms of mental health disorders.

 

8. Recommended Readings – Ketamine

This list presents press articles discussing the therapeutic use of ketamine in mental health treatments and its potential modes of action.

 

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.

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Social Interoception

The case for treating mental illnesses through the body, in a social setting
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May 1, 2020
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The growing field of social interoception—which examines how social emotions arise from subjective appraisal of bodily states—calls for a rebranding of mental health issues as “social health issues” and builds the case for new forms of embodied social treatment, including psychedelic-assisted therapy. I spoke with researchers at UC San Diego, the University of Utah’s Social Development Lab, and the University of Zurich to find out more.

It was by studying a part of the brain called the insula that neuroscientist John Allmann first realized self-awareness and social awareness are part of the same functioning1. Tucked deep within the Sylvian fissure, a connectivity hub disguised as an island unto itself, the insula is one of the main brain structures responsible for translating body states into social emotions. It starts doing this for us the moment we are born, recasting intimate touch into feelings of pleasure or a harsh tone from a parent into feelings of shame. If we do not receive appropriate care as children, the way the insula encodes the relationship between our bodies and social emotions can cement in a maladaptive way, leading to a propensity for mental health issues later in life2. Mounting evidence shows that it may be possible to change this relationship, since the insula also plays a role in therapeutic practices like mindfulness meditation, body trusting, and psychedelic-assisted therapy. Taken together, these findings suggest that the link between body, self, and social emotions plays a bigger part in mental health than we might think, highlighting a need for more forms of therapy which directly target social emotions through the body.

The Bodily Self

The insula’s main function—helping us recognize what we are experiencing based on what we sense—is called interoception. It allows us to interpret an “empty stomach” as physical hunger or “butterflies” as excitement or fear. As mentioned above, social emotions arise from this process. Despite the connection between interoception and social emotions, little scientific attention has been given to the social origins of interoception.

At the University of Utah’s Social Development Lab, Kristina Oldroyd’s pioneering work suggests that early social experiences significantly impact areas of the brain responsible for interoception by influencing the development of the bodily self. Oldroyd’s research team has found that insensitive caregiving—which includes responding inconsistently to a child’s needs or rejecting distress altogether—can impair a child’s ability to form accurate representations of bodily sensations3. For example, when a child who is learning to walk falls down and feels physical pain, a sensitive response from a parent might be, “That must have hurt,” whereas an insensitive response would be, “You’re fine, that didn’t hurt, get back up.” For the child to become comfortable detecting, acknowledging, and expressing bodily cues, the parent must notice what the child is experiencing, draw joint attention to it, and label it3:

“To the extent that caregivers recognize, honor, and respect their children’s bodily experiences, the child will develop more accurate interoception,” Olroyd explains. “To the extent that a child’s bodily experiences are denied, devalued, ignored, or punished by parents, the child will find ways to avoid feeling them, and develop a distorted sense of interoception.”3

Oldroyd maintains that the way we learn to regulate physical pain is no different from the way we learn to regulate emotional pain—in both cases, we are socialized through our bodily experience. Neuroscientific studies support her theory, showing that children who are classified as having anxious or avoidant attachment styles have markedly lower insular volume than securely attached children4. If the bodily self remains unchanged throughout those children’s adult lives, when relationships become more complex and social-emotional regulation increasingly important, Oldroyd believes it is poor interoception itself which may lead to disorders like anxiety, depression, and addiction. It may also lead some of us farther away from social connection when, ironically, that may be what we need the most.

Interoception and Social Health

“One idea I’m working with,” says Andy Arnold, a psychologist and interoception expert at the University of California San Diego and Visiting Professor at Knox College, “is that interoception might be a critical mechanism for evaluating needed resources in our lives. If interoceptive understanding is turned down, then one might not be able to accurately sense the lack of needed resources [like] social connection and act accordingly.” For example, addiction could be a misevaluation of resources where you “overevaluate the drug but underevaluate other stimuli in your life,” Arnold told me, adding that the insula probably plays a critical role in this process.

It also works the other way around: substance abuse disrupts interoception and damages the insula. Brain images of people with alcohol use disorder show significantly reduced grey matter in the insula, marked by a profound loss of von Economo neurons (or “empathy cells”)5, a relatively recent evolutionary specialization in humans thought to be crucial for interoceptive sensitivity and prosocial behavior6. Paradoxically, in certain cases, damage to the insula actually reverses addictive behaviors. In a 2015 study on addiction, researchers at the University of Southern California observed: “On the one hand, alcohol dependence damages the insula. On the other hand, damage done to the insula reduces cravings for alcohol.”7

But this is not a contradiction if you view addiction as social health issue. The insula might normally motivate us to seek social reward, but if we cannot understand our social-emotional needs based on what we are feeling, we might turn to substances to resolve this uncertainty. Heavy substance use may be like putting the wrong type of fuel in the tank: when the brain and body crave social connection, giving it something else harms the engine over time although it appears to run fine. In this case, perhaps the habitual relationship with the drug outlasts the original motivation to use it. On the other hand, damaging the insula outright may destroy its record of the substance as a substitute for social reward, and therefore immediately reduce one’s craving for it.

The insula shows us just how misguided we may be in labeling disorders like addiction, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse as “mental health” issues. If interoception initially develops in the context of interpersonal relationships, then so do many of our afflictions—and so, too, should our treatments.

Connecting Through the Body

In November 2019, Arnold and his colleague, neuroscientist Karen Dobkins, published the first academic discussion of what they call “social interoception,” arguing that interoceptive ability facilitates social connection8. To understand how interoception might work in a social situation, imagine an encounter that raises one’s heart rate—a response meant to enhance alertness and prepare one for “fight or flight.” Dobkins and Arnold believe it may not be one’s physiological response per se that causes social stress, but rather one’s subjective interpretation of it. They reference a series of studies by researchers in Munich who used social stress tests designed around impromptu public speaking9 and social exclusion10 in a game setting to measure interoception. The researchers found that people with higher interoceptive accuracy reported fewer negative emotions after the challenging social situation, despite their heart rate and skin conductance being similar to participants with lower interoceptive accuracy. In other words, two people can have the same internal body state but experience completely different levels of social discomfort.

“This leads to the interesting idea that perhaps greater interoceptive accuracy allows one to identify the physiological response as resulting from an objective, external ‘social situation’ rather than an attribute of oneself,” Dobkins and Arnold say. “This could reflect better emotional regulation in social situations.” Oldroyd echoes these ideas in her own work: “It is the bias to interpret bodily signals in a negative manner, rather than the noticing of bodily signals, that contributes to both the cognitive and behavioral symptoms of anxiety.”

There is an important subtext to these statements: Maybe we are not born with our various social neuroses. Maybe we are born with a bias towards positive social signals, towards bonding with others. Poor interoception, often developed in the context of an adverse childhood, may be what shifts the bias towards negative signals. The way to shift it back, Dobkins says, would be to start listening to and trusting your body before your mind jumps to conclusions. In their own work on loneliness, Dobkins and Arnold found that one measure of interoception in particular—body trusting—predicted variations of subjective loneliness amongst university students at UCLA11, suggesting that connecting with your body allows you to connect with others, whether that means making more friends or different friends. The more you trust your own body, the better you become not only at reading yourself but at reading and connecting with other people.

“You know the feeling when you and another are ‘on the same page’?” Dobkins says. “Well, that’s not what I am talking about. That’s the mind reporting back and saying that, ‘the other person and I believe or want the same thing.’ Connection is body-based. It’s a knowing in the body. Which means you need to know your body.”

The growing field of social interoception may help us better understand and treat not only loneliness but anxiety, addiction, eating disorders, depression, and other conditions traditionally associated with thought patterns rather than body signals. In fact, social interoception may be a key piece in the puzzle of explaining how psychedelic-assisted therapy functions.

Psychedelic Drugs and Interoception

As part of the Salience Network, one of the main functions of the insula is to orchestrate activity between other networks, including the Default Mode Network and the Central Executive Network. In 2017, Robin Carhart-Harris and his research team at Imperial College London found hypo-connectivity of the insula to be “a neurobiological signature of the MDMA experience,” correlating it with reduced anxiety, altered bodily sensations, and changes in interoception12. “Further understanding of how MDMA affects the insula,” Carhart-Harris writes, “might be crucial to elucidating the neurobiological underpinnings of re-emerging interest in MDMA as a therapeutic adjunct to psychotherapy in the treatment of anxiety disorders including PTSD.” Other teams have found similar results, linking insula hypo-connectivity to the LSD experience13.

Research on the neural correlates of different types of mindfulness meditation points to the insula and the body as well. Commenting on a study on Loving Kindness, Focused Attention, Open Monitoring, and Mantra Recitation, Carhart-Harris notes that although these four meditation styles are clearly dissociated by their neural correlates, there are “a few recurrent patterns of activity modulation, in particular in the insula, an important multisensory area heavily involved in interoceptive awareness”14. He suggests that involvement of the insula in all four styles of meditation points towards “the central role of the attentional control of bodily awareness, and awareness of breathing in particular, during various contemplative practices.” As we’ve seen, body awareness is closely linked to social emotion, which may help explain the benefits of both mindfulness meditation and psychedelic therapy.

Psychedelics and Connectedness

At the University of Zurich, Katrin Preller studies the social health benefits of psychedelics. Her work in this area confirms Allmann’s notion that how we see ourselves is inextricably intertwined with social perception. For example, psilocybin and LSD have been found to reduce social pain specifically through alterations in self-processing15, which include experiences of unity and connectedness.

“One of the main aspects of the psychedelic experience is the sense of connectedness – with the universe, nature, but importantly also with the social environment,” Preller told me. “Furthermore, we see an increase in emotional empathy which may be an important factor contributing to the feeling of connectedness. In clinical trials, we are currently testing the hypothesis that this experience contributes to the efficacy of psychedelic-assisted therapy.”

In a successful series of Johns Hopkins studies targeting psilocybin and nicotine addiction, participants “identified social factors, i.e., smoking as a way of connecting with other people, that contributed to their addiction.” 16 They reported psilocybin-induced feelings of love and connection with their environment and other people, independent of smoking as a social factor, as important for quitting smoking17. “Psilocybin may have re-instated social reward processing, helping patients to overcome their addiction,” Preller speculates. “My hope is that therapy will focus more on social cognition and the social environment of patients. For example, social trainings may aim at re-instating social reward processing in addicted patients, helping them to re-connect with their social environment.”

Research on the insula and social interoception suggest that the body is the main channel through which these changes must occur. Feelings of love and connection are exactly that—feelings. It seems we must feel the social reward, hold it in our bodies, to stop needing its replacement. In doing so, maybe we restore some kind of default setting. For all we know, “connectedness” may not be an additive feeling at all. On the contrary, it may be the stripped-down, primordial sensation that the self is socially constructed. And while it may be a new feeling to the psyche, Oldroyd’s work suggests it is not a new feeling to the body. Perhaps this is why psychedelic experiences can feel so profound to some: deep in their bodies, they’ve always known.

From Global Connectivity to Local Plasticity

In April 2019, researchers at Johns Hopkins University published an animal study showing that MDMA reopens a “critical period” when the mouse brain is sensitive to learning the reward value of social behaviors18. Although it is a neurobiological study, attributing the reopening  to heightened, oxytocin-induced brain plasticity, the behavioral mechanism sounds very much like Oldroyd’s childhood theory of interoception: Critical periods were first described in snow geese in the 1930s when goslings were found to bond with an object if their mother disappeared 24 hours after they hatched, but not 48 hours after they hatched. You can imagine which goslings would be best able to socialize their bodily cues going into adulthood, assuming geese are self-aware enough to do so. In the Hopkins study, adult mice who were given MDMA showed prosocial behavior in a way normally seen only in juveniles, forming positive associations between companionship and a certain type of bedding in their enclosure. Neuroscientist Gül Dölen and her team found that this happened only if the drug was given to mice when they were with other mice, not if it was given to mice while they are alone. “This suggests that reopening the critical period using MDMA may depend on whether the animals are in a social setting,” Dölen says.

Embodied Therapy in Social Settings

Although Dölen suggests this kind of treatment may work in humans by strengthening the psychotherapist-patient bond, I would argue it is also a case for a different type of therapy altogether—something along the lines of social embodied therapy, or group bodywork led by psychotherapists. Social reward learning occurs through the body, in a social setting, in large part because we are socialized through our bodies early in our lives. If the therapeutic aim is adaptive social connection, then why not place a greater emphasis on connection as therapy?

Indeed, it seems questionable that any of us should heal as isolated subjects, when we are born to bond, and when the rest of our lives are built around connection. No matter how great your relationship is with your therapist, the dynamic is often that of an object being scrutinized under a microscope. Modern therapy still whiffs of stigmatization and quarantine—our problems so private that they must be kept a secret. Even Somatic Experiencing therapy, which at least reveals these problems to us through the body, largely treats each person in isolation. We do not necessarily have to share our problems to heal. In fact, some PTSD patients become asymptomatic after psychedelic assisted therapy sessions where no words are exchanged19. But it may be the case that we can only re-open the doorways of social learning—and heal from social illnesses—through the body, through each other, and through the part of the brain that so ironically appears to stand alone.

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.

References

1. Chen, I (2009). Brain Cells for Socializing. Smithsonian Magazine.

2. Khalsa S et al (2018). Interoception and mental health: a roadmap. Biological Psychiatry. 10:004. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bpsc.2017.12.004

3. Oldroyd K, Pasupathi M and Wainryb C (2019). Social Antecedents to the Development of Interoception: Attachment Related Processes Are Associated With Interoception. Psychol. 10:712. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00712

4. Lim L, Radua J, Rubia K (2014). Gray matter abnormalities in childhood maltreatment: a voxel-wise meta-analysis. J. Psychiatry 171 854–863. 10.1176/appi.ajp.2014.13101427

5. Senatorov V-V, Damadzic R, Mann C-L, Schwandt M-L, George D-T, Hommer D-W, Heilig M, Momenan R (2015). Reduced anterior insula, enlarged amygdala in alcoholism and associated depleted von Economo neurons. Brain, 10:305. doi: https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/awu305

6. Yang L, Yang Y, Yuan J, Sun Y, Dai J, Su B (2019). Transcriptomic Landscape of von Economo Neurons in Human Anterior Cingulate Cortex Revealed by Microdissected-Cell RNA Sequencing. Cerebral Cortex. 29, 2, 838–851. doi: https://doi.org/10.1093/cercor/bhy286.

7. Droutman V, Read S-J, Bechara A (2015). Revisiting the role of the insula in addiction. Trends in Cognitive Neuroscience. 10:005. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2015.05.005

8. Arnold AJ, Winkielman P and Dobkins K (2019). Interoception and Social Connection. Psychol. 10:2589. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02589

9. Werner N. S., Duschek S., Mattern M., Schandry R. (2009). Interoceptive sensitivity modulates anxiety during public speaking. Psychophysiol. 23 85–94. 10.1027/0269-8803.23.2.85

10. Werner N. S., Kerschreiter R., Kindermann N. K., Duschek S. (2013). Interoceptive awareness as a moderator of affective responses to social exclusion. Psychophysiol. 27 39–50. 10.1027/0269-8803/a000086

11. Arnold AJ, Dobkins K (2019). Trust Some Body: Loneliness is Associated with Altered Interoceptive Sensibility [Abstract and Poster]. Emotion Preconference for Society for Personality & Social Psychology, Portland, Oregon.

12. Walpola, I, Nest T, Roseman L, et al (2017). Altered Insula Connectivity under MDMA. 422152–2162. doi: 10.1038/npp.2017.35

13. Preller et al (2019). Changes in global and thalamic brain connectivity in LSD-induced altered states of consciousness are attributable to the 5-HT2A receptor. doi: 10.7554/eLife.35082

14. Millière R, Carhart-Harris RL, Roseman L, Trautwein F-M and Berkovich-Ohana A (2018). Psychedelics, Meditation, and Self-Consciousness. Psychol. 9:1475. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01475

15. Preller KH, Schilbach L, Pokorny T, Flemming J, Seifritz E and Vollenweider FX (2018). Role of the 5-HT2A Receptor in Self- and Other-Initiated Social Interaction in Lysergic Acid Diethylamide-Induced States: A Pharmacological fMRI Study. Journal of Neuroscience. 38 (14) 3603-3611. doi: 1523/JNEUROSCI.1939-17.2018

16. Noorani T, Garcia-Romeu A, Swift TC, Griffiths RR, Johnson MW (2018). Psychedelic therapy for smoking cessation: qualitative analysis of participant accounts. J Psychopharmacol. 32:756–69. doi: 10.1177/0269881118780612

17. Preller KH and Vollenweider FX (2019) Modulation of Social Cognition via Hallucinogens and “Entactogens”. Psychiatry 10:881. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00881https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1075-9

18. Nardou R, Lewis EM, Rothhaas R. et al. (2019). Oxytocin-dependent reopening of a social reward learning critical period with MDMA. Nature 569, 116–120.

19. The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: Marcela Ot’alora—How to Become a Psychedelic Therapist (#396): https://tim.blog/2019/11/25/marcela-otalora-transcript/

 microdosing time perception filtered  microdosing time perception filtered

Does microdosing LSD influence perception of time?

Dr. Devin Terhune interviewed by Lukas Basedow, M.Sc.
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September 28, 2019
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Cognitive Neuroscientist

Dr. Devin B. Terhune directs the Timing, Awareness, and Suggestion lab in the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London.

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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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This blogpost discusses research that is featured on MIND’s ASC Study Monitor, a curated, freely accessible, and regularly updated database of scholarly publications concerning altered states of consciousness (ASCs). This interview is the first of its kind in the MIND blog, in which we identify interesting studies through our work on the ASC Monitor, and arrange to interview the authors to discuss their motivation, background and general attitudes towards psychedelic science. The paper discussed in this interview is:

Yanakieva, S., Polychroni, N., Family, N., Williams, L. T. J., Luke, D. P., & Terhune, D. B. (2019). The effects of microdose LSD on time perception: A randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Psychopharmacology236(4), 1159–1170. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-018-5119-x

Lukas: Could you tell me what it was that drove you to study altered states of awareness, like synesthesia, hypnosis, or the psychedelic experience?

Devin: I think the starting point is that I became interested in hallucinations during my undergraduate, particularly in non-clinical populations. Then I was fortunate enough to take a course on hypnosis by a really excellent person, Jean-Roch Laurence1.  So then I studied suggestion and hallucinations during my Master’s and then my PhD was focused on the cognitive neuroscience of hypnosis. I was always interested in various other aspects of altered states and anomalous experiences, so I did a little bit of synesthesia research during my PhD. Then I became a research fellow in Oxford and the focus there was on hypnosis and synesthesia, but I was always very interested in time perception. I feel that time perception is a really fundamental feature of conscious experience.

So, I did my undergrad in philosophy and one of my absolute favorite philosophers was Martin Heidegger. Heidegger wrote, in my opinion, one of the most brilliant philosophical texts ever, “Being and Time”, in which he basically makes a really fundamental series of arguments on how critical time is for human experience. That was something that always kind of stuck with me, and when I was doing my postdoctoral research fellowship, I started doing more time perception and moved away from synesthesia research a bit.

I became interested in psychedelics primarily through my interest in synesthesia. Later I was contacted by the group that was running this microdosing study about being a consultant on a certain feature of the study. I asked them if there was any opportunity to include a time perception task directly inspired by this nice classic study by Marc Wittmann4, which showed that psilocybin led to a tendency for people to under-reproduce temporal intervals in a temporal reproduction task. So that was the origins of this particular study and that’s kind of how it all came together.

L: Perfect. Could you give our readers a short summary of the study, and explain your main findings?

D: Sure! So, based on Marc’s2 data, we had fairly good evidence that psilocybin leads to under-reproduction of temporal intervals, particularly longer ones, but we were interested in whether that effect would still be present with microdosing.

So specifically, we were interested in the question of whether the effects of psilocybin in Marc’s study are attributable to the direct neurochemical effect on time perception versus psilocybin triggering various types of altered states of consciousness that then have an indirect or a subsequent carryover effect on time perception. Basically, the question is if the neurochemical effects are sufficiently strong to elicit a change in your perception of time even though it doesn’t actually produce altered states of consciousness.

In the study we had 48 participants, they were elderly individuals so that’s an important kind of confound that needs to be acknowledged. There was a placebo condition and 3 microdose conditions of 5, 10, and 20 micrograms of LSD. So when the participants completed the task, we also had them complete self-report measures of various types of subjective states. The ones that we looked at were whether they felt any kind of drug effects, any perceptual distortions, any unusual thoughts, any experience of feeling high, and whether they felt a change in attention.

What our results seem to suggest is that the participants had a sense of feeling a little bit different – like they’re picking up on something. But they didn’t have perceptual distortions or unusual thoughts, they didn’t really feel high per se, and they didn’t really notice any changes in their attention. Based on this, it appears pretty clear that there’s no kind of pronounced altered state of consciousness under microdosing.

Then the principal result we looked at for the temporary production task was median reproduction times. So basically, how long the participants would hold down the space bar after encoding a stimulus interval of a circle that’s presented on the screen. That gives us an idea about the extent they’re under-reproducing or over-reproducing which in turn can provide us with an indirect measure of the extent to which they’re underestimating or overestimating the stimulus interval. We used a wide range of intervals from 800 to 4,000 milliseconds. Marc Wittman in his study only found effects for in the range of about 4,000 milliseconds onwards. We found that when you compare the three LSD conditions versus the placebo, the participants would over-reproduce the intervals. So they would hold down the space bar longer when completing this task than the participants in the placebo condition.

Interestingly enough, the effect was only present for 2,000 milliseconds onwards. Now, there’s a number of different ways of interpreting these data and I should say that I’m not firmly committed to any particular interpretation given that it’s early days in our understanding of these effects. In the paper we briefly entertained a number of possibilities and suggested that given how far after they had received the dose it might be a late-phase dopaminergic effect. This idea is based on animal studies that suggest that there’s an early phase where LSD functions as a serotonin agonist and then a later phase where it functions as a dopamine agonist. We were never completely satisfied with that interpretation, however.

As I’ve thought about these data a bit more, I’ve begun to think that these results might be better understood within the context of Bayesian models of interval timing. Essentially, these models stipulate that our perception of time arises from sensory information regarding a stimulus that is shaped in part by priors, which we form from the statistics of our environment. The extent to which the prior influences our perception is referred to as “prior weighting”. Prior weighting or de-weighting will be greater in certain individuals or may differ across contexts, psychedelic states, and so on.

Prior weighting, more generally, provides an elegant explanation about how our expectations can often shape our perception. Applied to temporal reproduction tasks, the prior would be the mean stimulus interval. An interesting consequence of prior weighting is that longer stimulus intervals are under-reproduced because the prior draws the reproduction time closer to the mean whereas shorter intervals are over-reproduced, again, drawn closer to the mean. This account provides a very nice explanation of a classic effect in the time perception literature: Vierhordt’s law, which is that we tend to over-reproduce shorter intervals and under-reproduce longer intervals. If we apply this type of account to our data, a simple interpretation is that microdosing produced a tendency to down-weight priors, that is, reduce their influence. This then led participants to over-reproduce long intervals. That may also explain why the effect is restricted to the longer intervals.

If this interpretation is true, microdosing should have also led to under-reproduction of the shorter intervals. Interestingly, there was a very weak tendency for this to occur although it was nowhere near statistical significance. What makes this interpretation even more interesting is that it aligns very nicely with a recent model of psychedelics by Carhart-Harris and Friston, which proposes that psychedelics produce a down-weighting of high-level priors3. For anyone that is interested, I presented this newer interpretation of our data at Breaking Convention in August.

L: You already mentioned Marc Wittmann’s study on time perception and there was another study by Wackermann et al.that you also cited. In this study they also found under-reproduction of time intervals in a very low dose of psilocybin compared to a placebo condition. How does that fit in with your results showing an over-reproduction with a low-dosed psychedelic?

D: So there is a bit of an inconsistency across the studies. I don’t have any concerns about it being an artifact or anything like that. In terms of why there’s a discrepancy: There might be differences between psilocybin and LSD of course. I think a lot of people just put them in the same camp all the time I think that’s something we want to be careful of. Another argument is of course the level of the dose and how comparable these doses are across the two different drugs. The third would be the possibility that there might be different phases with LSD but not with psilocybin. Lastly, I believe their test was conducted 60 to 90 minutes after dose, whereas our testing took place almost three hours after dosing.

L: Another thing that you mentioned in your paper is that this over-reproduction was the most pronounced at a 10 microgram dose. Could you say why you think this dosage would produce the biggest effect?

D: I wouldn’t want to say much about that to be honest. Again, this gets back to this issue that we basically have 12 participants in each condition which is actually pretty good for a psychedelic study but it’s not super sensitive. I wouldn’t overinterpret the fact that the effects are most pronounced in the 10-microgram condition.

One possibility is that because we don’t have baseline effects that we just randomly ended up with a few people in that group that have a baseline tendency for over reproduction and that they just started a little bit higher and then the LSD effects are uniform across the different doses. Because if you look at that figure what we tend to find is that the 20 microgram tended to almost always be higher than the 5 microgram, hinting at some dose effects there. But they might have been disrupted a bit by potential baseline differences.

If you follow the Bayesian model outlined above, focusing on the reproduction times might not be the most valuable way to look at the data. Rather, according to such an account, with greater prior de-weighting, you would expect that the slope of the reproduction times would become steeper (again, reflecting over-reproduction of the longer intervals and under-reproduction of the shorter intervals). Interestingly, we analyzed the slopes of the reproduction times and found that the slope was indeed steepest in the highest dose. Again, we have to be careful given the sample sizes, but this suggests that this interpretation might be more parsimonious.

L: How has conducting this experiment influenced your opinion on microdosing as a practice that supposedly induces all kinds of psychological benefits?

D: I don’t think this study has really informed my opinion on that per se. I think it does provide a good starting point for indicating that there do seem to be some effects on a fundamental feature of consciousness which is time perception. Nevertheless, we have to be careful because time perception is intrinsically linked with attention and working memory and other types of core cognitive functions and it is possible that these effects are totally attributable to changes in attention or working memory. It’s theoretically possible that we are basically modulating attention or working memory and that’s having subsequent kind of carryover effects on time perception.

Now in terms of microdosing more broadly: Probably due to my background in philosophy, I’m by nature a very skeptical person about everything I hear about in science, and I am consistently bombarded with very strong claims and it makes me very nervous. Personally, I wouldn’t just start microdosing in the hopes of enhancing my creativity or cognition or something like that without any kind of evidence base to back that up.

I doubt that there’s going to be like any negative or harmful effects of microdosing. It’s probably going to be, for the most part, harmless. But I think that people just generally should be more skeptical and not jump on some kind of random bandwagon or craze when there’s little empirical base for it. As a scientist I try to base my decisions on the empirical evidence in front of me, and what I can say is I think microdosing is sufficiently interesting from a therapeutic and cognitive standpoint to be conducting more multi-faceted research on.

I’m certainly excited to see more research and I hope that I’ll be able to be involved in some of it, but it always depends on what kind of opportunities arise. I’m hoping that we’ll get a chance to do further research on either microdosing, suprathreshold or even psychedelic doses of these drugs.

L: If you could do whatever you like, what would be your next scientific project?

D: The ideal study I would like to do, if practical limitations were not in place, would again involve a temporary reproduction task. Have the participants complete a task at baseline and then have them complete the task approximately every, say, 45 minutes and go up to in the range of maybe about at least three or four hours and to see the effects there. But I would also do it at multiple microdoses as well as psychedelic doses, so that way we can then dissociate the dosage effects.

Also, I would do a more systematic investigation regarding self-reports of altered states of consciousness. Attention is one thing; we also don’t have any information on emotion. Emotion is known to impact your perception of time, so basically when someone is elated, they may experience time as passing more rapidly and they might underestimate time, whereas if somebody is very depressed then time tends to kind of drag on. I would probably ask some questions about mind wandering and attentional lapses, as well. If we did that we could compare psychedelic versus microdoses and we’d also be able to explore these different phases of the drug and potentially be able to say something more intelligent and more informative regarding if there is robust evidence for these different phases or not.

Also, the self-report measures would be able to tell us in a more systematic way to what extent these effects might be attributable to some type of alteration of consciousness. I feel pretty confident that they’re not attributable to an altered state, but I wouldn’t rule that out completely because we only got to measure a few different dimensions of conscious experience.  The effects seem to be independent of the ones we measured but of course we didn’t measure everything; so, there’s a number of things that are unexplored.

L: One final question: We have a lot of students reading the blog, can you give any advice to students looking to work on altered states of consciousness?

D: Working in these fields, I think that you’re at a disadvantage in terms of getting a job and staying in academia, so I think that you have to overcompensate perhaps by publishing more and maybe getting a bit luckier. Nevertheless, I think it’s all about the supervisor and the environment, so anyone that wants to work in these fields should identify a passionate supervisor. Someone who works in the field and can provide appropriate mentorship.

I think there’s also something to be said for doing some mainstream research alongside this type of work to have a kind of a proper grounding in in other research areas. My PhD was on cognitive neuroscience in hypnosis but in the context of that I did a lot of work on executive functioning and cognitive control and a lot of the work I do on time perception is concerned with more conventional aspects of time perception. I think it can be a bit dangerous if you’re working solely on fringe topics because of how you might be perceived by your colleagues. However, beyond all else I tell all my students that it’s critical to identify something you’re passionate about and then pursue that!

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.

Notes and References:
  1. Jean-Roch Laurence: https://www.concordia.ca/artsci/psychology/faculty.html?fpid=jeanroch-laurence
  2. Wittmann M, Carter O, Hasler F, Cahn BR, Grimberg U, Spring P, et al. Effects of psilocybin on time perception and temporal control of behaviour in humans. J Psychopharmacol. 2007 Jan;21(1):50–64.
  3. Carhart-Harris RL, Friston KJ. REBUS and the Anarchic Brain: Toward a Unified Model of the Brain Action of Psychedelics. Barker EL, editor. Pharmacol Rev. 2019 Jul;71(3):316–44.
  4. Wackermann J, Wittmann M, Hasler F, Vollenweider FX. Effects of varied doses of psilocybin on time interval reproduction in human subjects. Neuroscience Letters. 2008 Apr;435(1):51–5.
 language psychedelic research filter  language psychedelic research filter

Schedule 1 Drugs or Breakthrough Therapies?

Reflections on the role of language in psychedelic research

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February 28, 2019
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Ph.D. Candidate

Marco Aqil is a Ph.D. candidate at the Spinoza Centre for Neuroimaging in Amsterdam.

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“Trasumanar significar per verba non si porìa; però l’essemplo basti a cui esperïenza grazia serba.”

Paradiso I, 70-72 


Recently C.J. Büche wrote an in-depth analysis of the role of particular representations of psychedelics in popular media in the “psychedelic renaissance”1. In addition to his work, different ways of describing psychedelics can also be examined in scientific discourse. Paying attention to language choices may offer significant insight into the cultural and personal assumptions of the authors. With due exceptions: in some cases, researchers may have been constrained by funding agencies and ethical committees to describe psychedelics in negative terms, regardless of their own convictions, as a precondition to carry out and publish their studies.

Much like in general media, a variety of contrasting descriptions of psychedelics can be found in scientific media. At least three kinds of language can be identified: in the first, psychedelics are described as with no medical utility and high potential for abuse (“Schedule 1” drugs in all respects)2. In the second , they are considered potentially key to a better understanding of brain function3 and breakthrough treatments4 for otherwise untreatable psychiatric conditions. In the third kind of language, psychedelics are described only or mainly as “psychosis-inducing drugs”5, and considered medically useful in the study of psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia. This subdivision is of course a simplification to some degree: the same authors may use different language in different papers, and “mixed” accounts are also possible.

Schedule 1 Drugs

The first kind of language, summarized by the statement that psychedelics are drugs with a high potential for abuse and no medical utility, has little to no scientific basis6. This stigmatized view of psychedelics can be traced back to a political heritage of the 1970 Controlled Substances Act and the subsequent War on Drugs, and is rapidly disappearing from scientific publications in light of more recent and more rigorous evidence. Nonetheless, it is important to note that:

1) Contemporary clinical trials have been carried out with small sample sizes, highly restrictive screening processes, under constant professional medical supervision, and not always with the possibility of a fully double-blind placebo condition7. All these factors may have contributed to their success. This is not to diminish the impressive results of these rigorous and difficult studies (particularly in treatment-resistant populations); but rather to suggest avoiding hasty conclusions, such as that psychedelics may be risk-free panaceas for any and all psychiatric disorders.

2) While there is evidence that at the population level, the risks of psychedelics have been overstated8, there is no conclusive evidence for the safety of psychedelics at the individual level, and particularly little understanding of persisting effects such as HPPD9. Non-professional “therapeutic” practices involving the use of psychedelics outside clinical settings therefore present a significant amount of risk. This risk is potentially higher than with recreational use, not only because of the high variance in subjective and environmental factors already intrinsic in psychedelic experiences, but particularly because these practices target populations with potentially unaddressed neurobiological issues and high psychological sensitivity.

Tools and Medicines

The second kind of language, which describes psychedelics as useful medicines and important tools for scientific research, (re-)emerged recently with the contemporary and less politically-constrained wave of psychedelic research led by groups at Imperial College London and Johns Hopkins University, among others. The term “psychedelic renaissance” commonly refers to these lines of research, whose merits are many, undeniable, and documented extensively elsewhere10. In this context, it is worthwhile only to remark that some of these studies may also be criticized for using culturally specific terms (e.g. “mystical experiences”, “ego-dissolution”) under the implicit assumption that they reflect somewhat universal or biologically-grounded phenomena, which need not be the case.

For example, non-western cultures using psychedelics may lack the concept of a contemplative “mystical experience”, or the dualistic views of subject/object and internal/external implied by “ego-dissolution”. Therefore, they might experience and interpret the same neurological phenomena according to an entirely different ontology. Influential cognitive theories, such as predictive coding, indeed suggest that cultural and personal expectations (as well as language itself11) should powerfully shape the content and interpretation of psychedelic experiences, in agreement with a long history of observations12.

Models of Schizophrenia-Like Psychosis

The third kind of language is particularly interesting, because it has been and still is quite widespread, despite raising a host of scientific and philosophical questions of its own. Does it make sense to characterize psychedelics only or mainly as “psychosis-inducing drugs”? Is their psychiatric utility only or mainly to be found as models of “schizophrenia-like psychosis”5?

The canonical definition of psychosis is based on hallucinations, aberrant salience, and delusional beliefs, and appears water-tight in identifying pathological cases. However, it is only so because it relies on a specific, shared set of beliefs and assumptions. Language characterizing psychedelics only or mainly as “psychosis-inducing drugs” cannot be fully justified empirically, but instead has to rely on a very specific a priori judgement about the content of psychedelic experiences, as well as unstated assumptions about what constitutes real, how much of it is socially constructed, and importantly in this context, how much of it is accessible through language.

These questions have been the subject of intense philosophical debate for millennia, but are glanced over in some scientific papers using this kind of language. “Reality” is implicitly assumed to be deterministic, mechanistic, and fully encompassed by analytic language and mathematical laws: a worldview still prevalent in life sciences today, inherited from 19th-century physical sciences. However, even physical sciences have long since moved away from this view: Gödel’s incompleteness theorem and the quantum mechanical uncertainty principle, like modern Pillars of Hercules, pose fundamental limits to the systematically knowable reality. Furthermore, the social sciences inform us that much of what we commonly refer to as “real”, or at least acceptable, is determined by societal consensus, not by scientific examination. The humanities posit that language itself, let alone reality, has countless possible interpretations (with the escape of pragmatism: not all interpretations are equally useful).

The definition of psychosis is therefore at least as much culturally and socially determined as it is scientific. Psychedelic experiences, too, are heavily influenced by culture, both in their content and its interpretation. This suggests that particularly in scientific papers regarding psychedelics, all assumptions (e.g. what constitutes “real”, how much of it can be conveyed through language) and constructs (e.g. “psychosis”, “mystical experience”) should not be taken for granted as if they were empirically determined scientific facts, but rather carefully examined to avoid potential confounds.

Is the psychiatric utility of psychedelics only or mainly to be found in modeling “schizophrenia-like psychosis”? At first glance, psychedelic experiences can indeed share common features of schizophrenic psychoses: hallucinations, mania, paranoia. However, research shows that there is no straightforward link between any substance model and schizophrenia13. From a metacognitive viewpoint, after taking psychedelics, most people maintain a sense of the induced experience being somehow different from the ordinary reality of everyday life (note that both may be experienced as “real”, but real in different ways)14. Some schizophrenic patients do exhibit such a “double bookkeeping” pattern, or the ability to distinguish between the ordinary and hallucinatory realities they experience. But this is not true in all cases: in “single-bookkeeping” schizophrenic psychoses, hallucinations and ordinary reality are not distinguishable, and both are automatically taken at face value. In such cases, other substance classes, for example anticholinergic hallucinogens15, would provide a more accurate model. Furthermore, auditory verbal hallucinations, an important hallmark of schizophrenic psychoses16, are not a prominent feature of psychedelic experiences. Once again, a different class of substances (amphetamines) and modality of use (chronic rather than acute) may provide a more suitable model17.

A fortiori, the evidence showing long-term, population-level positive effects of psychedelics on suicidality and mental distress18, as well as the recent clinical trials on depression in terminally ill cancer patients19, clearly show that the psychiatric utility of psychedelics goes far beyond modeling psychosis6. Even if the premise is accepted that psychedelics are only or mainly “psychosis-inducing drugs”, one would have to concoct a convincing explanation for why inducing a “schizophrenia-like psychosis” turns out to be a positive choice for mental health, both at the statistical level in the general population and in medically controlled clinical trials. The available scientific evidence therefore suggests that there is more to psychosis (and even more so to complex psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia) than psychedelics can teach us about it; and vice versa, there is far more to psychedelics than what they can teach us about psychoses and psychotic disorders.

The conclusion seems warranted that language characterizing psychedelics only or mainly as drugs inducing “schizophrenia-like psychosis”, or suggesting any straightforward relation between the two, is at best a limited account, at worst misleading, and based upon unstated and questionable assumptions. For completeness, it is worth remarking that a similar line of criticism could be raised against language characterizing psychedelics only or mainly as “mystical-experience-inducing drugs” or “ego-dissolving drugs”; but this has not been the case in any serious scientific publication to date, hence why the criticism here was directed specifically towards the language of “psychosis-inducing drugs”. The same goes for any other attempt to oversimplify these complex phenomena and reduce them to a single aspect without taking potential cultural and linguistic confounds into account.

Language and Mechanisms: the Ineffable Medicine

For sake of brevity, let’s not discuss the languages of “unifying” theories of psychedelic effects20, which ultimately require a unified theory of conscious experience, an incredibly interesting but extremely difficult task for all the obvious reasons. There is no consensus in the scientific community when it comes to the specific mechanisms that should mediate the potential benefits of psychedelics for psychiatric conditions. Some researchers propose that they are due to reduced inflammation21, others to increased neuroplasticity22, others again (among which the key groups of the psychedelic renaissance) suggest that reaching an ineffable “mystical experience”19 or “ego-dissolving”23 psychological state is actually the crucial factor in the therapeutic process. Back to language again: “The Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao”. This age-old remark becomes relevant again in the context of psychedelic research. What is the most appropriate language to scientifically study experiences for which perhaps the most common subjective report is that the experience itself lies “beyond” or “outside” of language? Is there anything at all we can say about such ineffable concepts and experiences24?

The emerging picture is fascinatingly complex and far from settled. In the future, language choices will play a crucial role25, as they can build both bridges and walls between (apparently) contrasting theories. Psychedelics seem to resist all attempts at simplistic, systematic, complete characterization: even the most widely accepted neurophysiological mechanism of action (agonism at the 5HT-2A receptor26) does not directly explain why substances with entirely different receptor affinity profiles can have highly overlapping effects with those of psychedelics, for example Salvinorin A27, a kappa-opioid receptor agonist and the active compound in the plant Salvia Divinorum; or ketamine, an NMDA-receptor antagonist with hallucinogenic properties at specific doses28, capable also of increasing neuroplasticity22 and showing great promise in the treatment of depression29. Furthermore, the downstream effects of functional selectivity at the 5HT-2A receptor are still being worked out30, and recent analyses31 show that affinities for muscarinic and opioid receptors may also be relevant for predicting the reported subjective effects. These difficulties might discourage the scientific study of psychedelics, but seen in a different light, they greatly increase the potential contributions of these substances to science and medicine.

In conclusion, these reflections suggest a few general points that, if implicitly understood and explicitly implemented, might be useful to productively move forward in the field of psychedelic research:

  1. All assumptions and constructs should be double-checked with particular care to diminish cultural and linguistic confounds.
  2. Different scientific descriptions may be valid at the same time, although differing in scope and degree of supporting evidence.
  3. Theories should be treated as models and perspectives rather than complete and definitive explanations.

Psychedelic research is already stretching the boundaries of scientific language and methods. One might speculate that a paradigm shift in the way we view the relationship between brain processes and subjective experiences will be necessary in order to obtain a fully satisfactory, naturalistic account of these remarkable phenomena.

Or perhaps even that won’t do.

This article was first published on the APRA blog.

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.

References

1. Büche CJ. The De-Politicisation of Psychedelics [Internet] [Master’s Thesis]. [London]: University College London; 2018 [cited 2019 Jan 30]. Available from: https://medium.com/@celestinjohannesbche/the-de-politicisation-of-psychedelics-bf89d280c9ef?fbclid=IwAR0UmOuaWSD-JkOcxKw0DM83kAxZh1n_8h98VGT82qsODMWIw9oinyA2l7I

2. Hu Q-D, Xu L-L, Gong Y, Wu G-H, Wang Y-W, Wu S-J, et al. Lysergic acid diethylamide causes photoreceptor cell damage through inducing inflammatory response and oxidative stress. Cutan Ocul Toxicol. 2018 Sep;37(3):233–9. 

3. Kyzar EJ, Nichols CD, Gainetdinov RR, Nichols DE, Kalueff AV. Psychedelic Drugs in Biomedicine. Trends Pharmacol Sci. 2017 Nov;38(11):992–1005. 

4. Schenberg EE. Psychedelic-Assisted Psychotherapy: A Paradigm Shift in Psychiatric Research and Development. Front Pharmacol [Internet]. 2018 Jul 5 [cited 2019 Jan 30];9. Available from: https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fphar.2018.00733/full

5. Vollenweider FX, Vollenweider-Scherpenhuyzen MF, Bäbler A, Vogel H, Hell D. Psilocybin induces schizophrenia-like psychosis in humans via a serotonin-2 agonist action. Neuroreport. 1998 Dec 1;9(17):3897–902. 

6. Rucker JJH. Psychedelic drugs should be legally reclassified so that researchers can investigate their therapeutic potential. BMJ. 2015 May 26;350(may26 20):h2902–h2902. 

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