Effects of Psilocybin on the brain

Leading psychopharmacologist Roland Griffiths discloses the ways that psychedelic drugs can be used to create spiritually meaningful, personally transformative experiences for all patients, especially the terminally ill.


The Potential of Psychedelics

Psychedelics like psilocybin (the psycho-active compound found in magic mushrooms), used respectfully and intelligently, are a powerful tool for healing. As reported in the peer-reviewed literature by research leaders like MAPS, Johns Hopkins and Imperial College London, they can significantly improve outcomes in those struggling with treatment-resistant depression, alcohol addiction, opioid addiction, end-of-life anxiety and PTSD where conventional interventions have had little success.

Even trial participants without significant mental illness have shown enduring improved psychological functioning following psilocybin interventions that produced ‘mystical’ experiences – sudden, benevolent and profoundly meaningful experiences that result in rapid transformations in behaviour, cognition and emotions. Wellbeing measures positively impacted included interpersonal closeness, gratitude, a sense of purpose or meaning in life, forgiveness, daily spiritual experiences, religious faith, social engagement and coping.

And increasingly we understand why. Modern neuroscience indicates that psychedelic substances such as psilocybin have the capacity to dial down the activity of the default mode network (DFM), a group of interacting brain regions believed to be the cognitive architecture with which we painstakingly construct our ego.

This `I’ infrastructure is believed to help our unusually big brains filter the bewildering mass of sensory and cognitive input they are deluged with millisecond by millisecond through the prism of a constructed self, prioritising information – by creating the neural equivalent of algorithms based on memory and perceived goals – that is most relevant to that self’s individual survival and success. But this rigid efficiency comes at the expense of all sorts of other possible dimensions of thought. When we ingest psychedelics, those rigid neural circuits soldered into the motherboards of our brains by where and how we’ve been raised short-circuit, in a sense.

“It appears that when activity in the DFM falls off precipitously, the ego temporarily vanishes, and the usual boundaries we experience between self and world, subject and object, melt away.” — (Investigative journalist Michael Pollan, from his bestselling book, How To Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence).

When the ego recedes, disorder and entropy are re-introduced, returning our brain to a more primitive, childlike, ‘primary state’. New neural bridges are able to spring up and connect previously distant parts of our brains. Self-awareness, narrow-mindedness and fixed certainties about our self and its place in the world fade for a while, and we are freed of our usual traffic of prejudice, expectation and judgement. The stage is set for the penetration of new ideas, insights, concepts and levels of perception. 

In essence, then, these substances are capable of shifting our entire world view in just a few hours. This is important, because many disorders, such as depression, anxiety, OCD and eating disorders, are characterised by cognitive rigidity, a pattern of inflexible and repetitive thoughts and behaviours; whereas the ability to flexibly adapt in order to meet situational demands and realise our purpose is important for thriving in a constantly shifting world. 

And thanks to the phenomenon of neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to change and adapt as a result of experience – we have the capacity to retain and build on these new neural connections, meaning that within a relatively short timeframe, accompanied by integration, enduring change is possible. 

Risks & Safety

While physical side-effects of ingesting psilocybin are usually limited to some reporting nausea and headaches during the experience, psychological side-effects are possible. This risk can be significantly reduced – and benefits greatly enhanced – by the creation of a safe, non-judgemental space overseen by specialist facilitators guided by safety protocols.

Safety protocols in psychedelic-assisted therapeutic work are collectively described as ‘set and setting’, a phrase coined by Harvard psychologist and psychedelics advocate Timothy Leary in the Sixties, to describe the mindset with which you approach taking a psychedelic and the context in which you journey.

Set describes how well-prepared you are, both personally and with the guidance of your facilitator/s. At the physical level, for example, not being on any other substances, including alcohol or contraindicated medications, and declaring any medical conditions, such as a history of heart problems, that could leave you vulnerable to potentially dangerous physiological side effects. Then there is the quality of your diet, indicating how well you resource your body nutritionally for what can be a physically demanding experience.

Mentally, it can include ensuring a lack of any history of psychosis, which can be badly triggered by psychedelics, and that you are well-informed about the substance you’ll be taking. And emotionally, it means considering the support infrastructure you have around you — family, friends, community, therapist, grounding practices like yoga and meditation — to lean on in order to stabilise should difficult material arise.

Setting describes where you’re doing it and who you will be with. Does it feel welcoming, safe and legally sanctioned, and will your needs be met? How experienced is your guide/s and do you trust him/her/them?

Our set and setting:

  • A clinical screening call at first point of contact with our psychotherapist
  • A second onboarding call with our head facilitator, Alexander Faubel
  • A psychotherapist on site during each retreat
  • A facilitation team with extensive experience working with psychedelics as well as other healing modalities, including trauma-informed body-breath-mind practices and transformational coaching
  • Pre-retreat breathwork and meditation practices to begin the process of equipping guests with the tools to self-regulate and ground
  • Grounding, stabilising trauma-informed yoga, breathwork and meditation sessions during the retreat, before and after ceremony
  • A beautiful, purpose-built retreat space in The Netherlands surrounded by nature
  • Healthy, organic vegetarian/vegan cooking overseen by an Ayurvedic nutritionist
  • Follow up integration calls with the retreat group and facilitation team
  • A comprehensive integration ‘manual’ and extensive package of options for integration work in the weeks and months following the retreat

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