Could psychedelics help scientists treat mental illness?
Albert Hoffman, the first scientist to synthesize and learn about the psychedelic effects of LSD described how he felt after ingesting LSD in 1944.
I suddenly became strangely inebriated. The external world became changed as in a dream. Objects appeared to gain in relief; they assumed unusual dimensions and colors became more glowing. Even self-perception and the sense of time were changed. – Albert Hoffman –
Hallucinogenic plants have been used for thousands of years in ceremonial settings and are now being discovered and studied in our western society. Scientific literature has been published about the effects and uses of psychedelics but most of the information remains hidden to the public eye.
No matter the misuse or use of psychedelics it has played an important role in our society and will probably continue to do so. It is therefore crucial for everyone to be educated and have a clear understanding of the use of psychedelics.
The Connection Between The Dream & Psychedelic State
Within the last decade, researchers have made important steps in the connection between the dream state and the psychedelic state. They are particularly interested in how these drugs alter the mind and how they might be helpful in the treatment of mental illness.
The waking state is just one form of consciousness we all experience. Studying other forms of consciousness like when we are sleeping or under the influence of drugs can give the researchers a more comprehensive form of the human mind and how it can be treated.
Recent research has looked into those different states of consciousness to understand how psychedelics transform our experience of reality and how they can help achieve in treating mental health illnesses.
Many restrictions and these drugs being classified as illegal have slowed down scientific progress. However, persistence has given scientists the opportunity to use neuroimaging tools to map the changes in human consciousness with the use of psilocybin, a psychedelic molecule found in mushrooms. They found that the neurophysiological changes appeared similar to the studies found in dream neuroimaging.
However, researchers wanted to find stronger evidence between the connection of users in the dream state and users ingesting psychedelics, not only did they look the same in the brain but also felt the same. It is this connection that is crucial to understand how these different states of consciousness manifest in people and how they can be manipulated to offer better help for psychiatric care.
Enzo Tagliazucchi, a researcher at the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina who studies human consciousness states that MRI scans can help you see similarities in different states of consciousness, but limitations to this approach exist and overlook perception entirely. Furthermore, he also says that it’s possible for consciousness states to look similar but the subjective feeling is different.
Tagliazucchi wanted to investigate this further, he and his student, Camila Sanz conducted a study to compare drug users with dreamers. They used an original approach to get around the restrictions these drugs have and used online testimonials of drug user’s experiences with these substances. They used analytical tools to study the content of thousands of testimonials to find out which drug was most similar to dreaming.
The scientists analyzed the language people used to describe their experiences with drug use and their dreams. They compared these reports to identify similar expressions and phrases that could have a connection between the two experiences.
Of all the drugs that were tested, psychedelics such as LSD, ketamine, and deliriants reported similar experiences to that of dreaming. Users often reported how their self-awareness and perception were distorted when on these drugs much like in a dream state. Thus, the scientists were able to concur that a psychedelic trip feels like a dream.
Psychedelics Show Promising Results For Therapy
There has been recent interest in using psychedelics in the treatment for mental illness. There have been large trials of the use of ketamine or psilocybin to treat depression and MDMA to treat PTSD, the results were promising.
In a trial of psilocybin treatment used for treatment-resisted depression, 67% of patients were not depressed for a week after two sessions and 42% remained depressed after 3 months.
Amanda Feilding, director of the Beckley Foundation a UK-based think tank at the forefront of psychedelic research and drug policy reform stated that
Mental health treatment has relied heavily on SSRI antidepressants. Patients need to take these every day and 30% of patients had no beneficial effect and experienced side effects. – Amanda Feilding –
She also says that the pharmaceutical company has not come up with any new drugs in over three decades.
Moreover, her research has shown the use of psychedelics in therapeutic processes with remarkable results.
Tagliazucchi also adds to the growing popularity of research which suggests psychedelics could be given safely to improve treatment and make psychotherapy more beneficial. He concludes that the state of consciousness a psychedelic user feels will induce them to naturally be insightful and precisely state the issues they may be facing.
Studying the connection between the dream and psychedelic state allows researchers to reexamine the idea that working with patients in an altered state may be beneficial in treating them. Psychedelics can create a transient dream state which may be possible to access unconscious memories and thoughts.
Tagliazucchi says that more research needs to be done but that psychedelics may be the way to access deep into the unconscious mind, transform the links between the patient and therapist, and get a deeper insight into what the patient is experiencing.
Robert Carhart-Harris, a neuroscientist at Imperial College London who has worked extensively with psychedelics stated that
Psychedelics alter the mind and reveal aspects of it that we are not aware of. Psychiatry has dominated the cognitive model for 70 years and has given interesting insights but has also deprived the field by denying the existence of the unconscious mind.
– Robert Carhart-Harris –
He also says that we need an understanding of the unconscious mind, otherwise we will only ever see the surface of psychiatric diseases and treatments.
Psychedelics Could Change The Future of Therapy
Scientists continue to obtain solid evidence that the dream state, acute psychotic state, and the psychedelic state all share important similarities as they look and feel the same, and we can start to think about psychiatric diseases in new ways.
Carhart-Harris explains that
Maybe psychedlics can help us think more carefully about how we should treat early psychotic episodes instead of giving medicine as soon as someone displays signs of psychosis. If we treated the psychotic state early just as how we manage a psychedelic experience, with calming music and the therapist calmly meditating the patient through the episode, we might have more positive results. – Robert Carhart-Harris –
Researchers have not yet agreed on the best ways to administer psychedelics and what the effects are but they are absolutely certain of one thing. It won’t be possible to make any further scientific advances on psychedelics unless the demonization and prohibition that has surrounded psychedelics for decades finally come to an end.