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Psilocybin, IQ, and The Stoned Ape Hypothesis

Does consuming psilocybin increase IQ scores? There are many reasons this is of particular interest. For one, we have been looking for an “IQ pill” for a long time now with no luck. The main choices are nootropics like modafinil, Adderall, etc. Unfortunately, these don’t seem to work too well. Second, there are obvious benefits to a higher IQ, particularly in the labor market (Gwern, 2016; Strenze, 2015; Salgado and Moscoso, 2019). Third, as I will discuss shortly, even a minimal but significant increase in intelligence due to psilocybin may have some exciting implications for the so-called Stoned Ape hypothesis.

Why might psilocybin increase IQ scores? Well, the main driver of these effects would be neurogenesis. Many studies have found that psychedelics play a significant role in improving cognitive functioning through depression, fixing minor debilitative disorders, and abolishing the conditioned fear response in the brain.

Study in Rats

Catlow et al. (2013) injected one group of mice with a low dose of psilocybin and another with saline. They found the psilocybin injected group gained new neurons in the hippocampus. Before the mice were given psilocybin, they were placed in a freeze monitor box where they were conditioned into a fear response. This conditioned fear response was significantly reduced in the psilocybin treated group. In rats, other tryptamines were associated with increased dendritic arbor complexity and dendritic spine growth and synapse formation (Ly et al., 2018).

Clinical Study

We can rationally expect these effects to translate to humans due to the success of treating depression with psilocybin. A clinical study gave 12 patients with treatment-resistant depression psilocybin. The participants received two total doses, each very low to moderate size and seven days apart. They found that there were significant reductions in depression (Carhart-Harris et al., 2016). Unfortunately, there was no control or placebo group, so proving the causality is difficult.

But, when the treatment group has a treatment-resistant major depressive disorder and faces substantial effects over a long time, it is unlikely this was due to a placebo effect or a random happening. Carhart-Harris et al. (2017) found similar results in strong effectiveness of treating depression with psychedelics and saw these were related to changes in the amygdala.

Griffiths et al. (2016) used a random, double-blind cross-over trial to find if psilocybin helped treat depression and anxiety in cancer patients. They found that after moderate-large doses of psilocybin, the treatment group faced significant decreases in death anxiety and depression and increases in quality of life, meaning, and optimism compared to the placebo group. Community observers also observed these changes in the participants.

So, from what we can tell, psilocybin can treat major disorders and probably causes neurogenesis in the brain. 

Anyways, what does this mean in the long run?

Stoned Ape Hypothesis

The following hypothesis has been heavily mocked or ignored by the scientific community. And it’s understandable why. It sounds crazy. But I ask the reader to suspend their disbelief for just a moment and consider the possibility. One central mystery in modern evolutionary biology is the doubling in brain size for some two million to two hundred thousand years. Thus far, little plausible explanation has been given for why this occurred. In 1994, Terence McKenna proposed the Stoned Ape hypothesis to argue that the size of the brain increase was due to epigenetic neurogenesis, which happened through the casual consumption of Psilocybe cubensis. 

Why does McKenna’s view even make sense? As our primate ancestors left the jungles and traveled the desert areas, they needed to look for food. When you look for food, you’re typically looking for things like footprints and dung as they tell where animals have been.

The most prevalent fleshy mushroom found within animal dung, like that in hippopotami, cows, etc., is Psilocybe cubensis. We now know that 22 primate species consume mushrooms, giving this theory some more credence.

Hence psilocybin inclusion in the diet shifted the parameters of human behavior in favor of patterns of activity that promoted increased language; acquisition of language led to more vocabulary and an expanded memory capacity. The psilocybin-using individuals evolved epigenetic rules or cultural forms to survive and reproduce better than other individuals. Eventually, the more successful epigenetically based styles of behavior spread through the populations along with the genes that reinforce them. In this fashion, the people would evolve genetically and culturally.

The issue is proving psilocybin usage is beneficial or that it even increased intelligence in some way. That is where the theory of psychedelics and IQ comes in.

Do Psychedelics Increase Intelligence?

Even then, the amount of studies is minimal. That said, most indicate a potential increase, albeit a probably small one. Here is a table summarizing the research I found:

I should note that any increase at all is potentially beneficial. When discussing the brain size increase, we are talking 200,000 years to 2 million years. If our primate ancestors were consuming these drugs every day, perhaps multiple times a day even, then the effects of one dose being minor are radically multiplied insignificance. Since psychedelics may increase intelligence, there is undoubtedly a stronger argument for the Stoned Ape Hypothesis.

Modern Implications

If the Stoned Ape hypothesis is correct, then other things must be true about psilocybin usage. We would have to show somehow that high doses of psilocybin are associated with language-making abilities. This latter is expected to be true because psychedelics are associated with a more significant tactile response and a greater love for your surroundings, finding beauty in more things and getting a more extensive response when touching, seeing, or listening to various things.

Once again, I ask the reader to suspend their disbelief for a moment. Say one of our ancient ancestors is looking through the desert for food and comes across Psilocybe cubensis. If it is responsible for extinguishing the conditioned fear response, we know he could certainly hunt better. The same goes for visual and audio perception. Additionally, the group may take these and experience greater empathy which is shown across many studies. This is of particular interest in the creation of civilization. Bravery and altruism are great things to have in coordinating a group.

And so, if this is true, perhaps we ought to change the way we view these drugs. We see their benefits, and if we could somehow give more credence to the Stoned Ape hypothesis, we would understand that we are forever indebted to them for allowing Homo sapiens to arise and create modern civilization. Indeed, it would almost cause mass participation in psilocybin usage.

A study done by Hendricks et al. (2017) found that psilocybin usage decreased criminal behavior by ~20 percent. Imagine the consequences if everyone took these drugs. A 20 percent drop in crime would be extraordinary.

But, maybe for more conservative readers, this is extreme, this is ludicrous, etc. Fine. Say psychedelics have some effect on intelligence. What could you do to make this beneficial to you? I can hardly advocate we treat these breathtaking experiences, which can be very anxiolytic for many people, as an automatic IQ increases.

But, more and more evidence is increasing towards the benefits of microdosing. This is essentially taking a very small dose of psilocybin or LSD, maybe five days a week. It can also be combined with Lion’s Mane, a legal, medical mushroom that encourages neurogenesis, and with niacin which spreads the effects around the brain, allowing more excellent coverage of regeneration of neurons.

Microdosing is known to be used by coders and business people in Silicon Valley. And if it is all that helpful for things like creativity and cognitive functioning in general, then it will automatically put these people at an advantage. A small dose will not bring about any visuals, at least after the first day of microdosing, and so it will not have the same anxiolytic effect large amounts of psilocybin might have.

Psychedelics May Have an Effect on Intelligence

In conclusion, I think the Stoned Ape hypothesis is certainly plausible, especially with some, however non-conclusive, evidence that psychedelics may increase intelligence. If this is true, we may consider rethinking how we view our relation to psilocybin and mushrooms in general, perhaps.

We still can’t prove the Stoned Ape hypothesis, but we could demonstrate that psychedelics affect intelligence. It requires a proper study, maybe two, which looks at the effects of one or more large doses in the first one and the effects of microdosing in the second one.

One may bring up the Algernon argument when discussing the lasting effects of psilocybin microdosing on IQ, but this is not all that important if one decides to continue dosing, especially with next to zero risks. Indeed, in a study using Lion’s Mane to help cognitively disabled people, there were substantial, positive effects on IQ, but if the user stopped dosing, then it went away. Overall, this whole thing needs more research, and I think it should be done in respect of free inquiry and the desire for scientific improvement.

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