The Science of Psilocybin and the Ego-centric Brain
A recent study conducted by Carhart-Harrisa et al., and published in the PNAS scientific journal, offers a glimpse of the effects of the drug psilocybin, which can be found in “magic” mushrooms, on the human brain. The study monitored the brains of 30 individuals using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) after the participants were injected with a dose of psilocybin. The findings were discussed in a recent article in Psychology Today:
The researchers were surprised to discover that drug effects were associated with decreases in activity in a number of key brain areas, rather than the expected increase. This finding has led to speculations about the relationship between brain activity and mystical states experienced under psychedelic drugs. However, the actual implications of the study’s findings are far from clear.
The fMRI scans revealed that brain blood flow decreased following the psilocybin injection, when compared to activity when a saline injection was given, which indicates that psilocybin reduces activity in the brain.
Activity in areas regarded as important network hubs that maintain the connectivity of the various areas of the brain showed the most consistent deactivation. These areas are known as the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC).
These two areas appear to play important roles in the regulation of self-awareness as they are particularly activated when people are asked to think about themselves.
The intensity of the alterations of conscious experience reported by the volunteers was proportional to the decrease in brain activity. That is, the more brain activity decreased, the more vivid the “trip” experienced.
In normal conditions, the mPFC and PCC areas of the brain typically show a considerably higher activity than other parts. The study’s authors aligned their findings with Aldous Huxley’s assessment of the human brain, “The mind is a reducing valve.”(The Doors of Perception)
“[Aldous Huxley] compared the brain to a ‘reducing valve’. In ordinary perception, the senses send an overwhelming flood of information to the brain, which the brain then filters down to a trickle it can manage for the purpose of survival in a highly competitive world. Man has become so rational, so utilitarian, that the trickle becomes most pale and thin. It is efficient, for mere survival, but it screens out the most wondrous part of man’s potential experience without his even knowing it. We’re shut off from our own world.” – Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
Carhart-Harrisa et al. believe that the “mind expanding” effect that one would experience when consuming psychedelic drugs is a result of the reduced brain activity in the mPFC and PCC areas of the brain, no longer shielding the individual from the world around us:
“The results [of the study] seem to imply that a lot of brain activity is actually dedicated to keeping the world very stable and ordinary and familiar and unsurprising,” says Robin Carhart-Harris
In the recent years, many new studies have been conducted in an attempt to understand the effectiveness of psilocybin in the treatment of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety, and in helping terminally-ill patients come to terms with dying. Carhart-Harris has stated, “Probably the most reliable finding in depression is that the mPFC is overactive.” (source: Time Magazine) Carhart-Harris et al.’s newest study may create a foundation for additional research into the area of treating depression with psilocybin in order to pacify the brain.
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About the Author
Anna Hunt is writer, yoga instructor, mother of three, and lover of healthy food. She’s the founder of Awareness Junkie, an online community paving the way for better health and personal transformation. She’s also the co-editor at Waking Times, where she writes about optimal health and wellness. Anna spent 6 years in Costa Rica as a teacher of Hatha and therapeutic yoga. She now teaches at Asheville Yoga Center and is pursuing her Yoga Therapy certification. During her free time, you’ll find her on the mat or in the kitchen, creating new kid-friendly superfood recipes.
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