Can Psychedelics Change Your Brain?

New research is exploring how natural and synthetic psychedelics affect the brain.

Overlap of woman's head and clouds

While indigenous people have used psychoactive plants for millennia to attain heightened mental states, the contemporary psychedelic era kicked off in 1943. That’s when Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann ingested an ergot derivative called LSD that he had developed for industrial use — and it sent him on a psychedelic trip.

Hofmann described LSD as a way to access “the mystical experience of a deeper, comprehensive reality.”

A wave of LSD therapies for depression, anxiety, and other psychological issues quickly followed. One of its most prominent beneficiaries was screen icon Cary Grant. “During my LSD sessions, I would learn a great deal,” Grant once told an interviewer. “And the result was a rebirth. I finally got where I wanted to go.”

Yet by the 1960s, psychedelics were regarded by much of the scientific establishment as dangerous — even a route to mental illness. And, until recently, that was more or less the consensus among physicians.

Today, a new wave of research is exploring how natural and synthetic psychedelics affect the brain. This trend is the focus of journalist Michael ­Pollan’s 2018 bestseller How to Change Your Mind.

One study at Imperial College London began from the hypothesis that psilocybin, a psychedelic compound produced by certain mushrooms, would increase brain activity, given the vivid thoughts and sensory experience users describe.

Yet scans revealed a surprise: Test subjects’ brain activity actually decreased, particularly in the default-mode network, a region associated with the ego or sense of self. Activity in this network also seems to abate in the brains of expert meditators.

Exploring the potential of psychedelic drugs to rewire the brain has suggested a number of therapeutic benefits, particularly for anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Johns Hopkins University launched its Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research in 2019 to study these substances; it has already collated data linking psychedelics to positive clinical outcomes for smok­ing cessation as well as for depression and anxiety in cancer patients.

Johns Hopkins scientists also found that study subjects reported feeling more open to experience after using psychedelics.

A 2019 study in the Journal of Psychopharma­cology, based on voluntary reporting, suggested a link between LSD use and reduced alcohol consumption in a small population of problem drinkers. A 2015 survey polled more than 190,000 Americans and concluded that psychedelic use may reduce suicidal impulses.

For the time being, the legal administration of psychedelics is limited to controlled medical settings, where trained researchers and therapists can help support positive therapeutic results.

Still, this growing body of evidence suggests psychedelics might eventually become an important tool to support more integrated brain function and improved mental health, one that may eventually be more widely used to treat a range of conditions.

This article originally appeared in “How to Change Your Brain” in the June 2020 issue of Experience Life.

is a writer and novelist in Minneapolis. He’s also the cofounder of Logosphere Storysmiths.

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