Mind Wondering

Curating Curiosity

Tag: psychedelics


That’s the question the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) has been attempting to answer for years with their MDMA-assisted psychotherapy trials.

For those who came for the MDMA, but don’t know much about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), WebMD defines it as…

A mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.

It’s been described as being permanently locked in the fight-or-flight response state, with perceived threats causing your stress hormones to spike higher than normal and stay there for extended periods of time (many people are locked in this state for years).

I first heard of this condition after getting stabbed at 15 years old and becoming severely anxious and depressed in the coming years. Six months after this traumatic incident, I attempted to take my own life by slitting my wrist with a straight-edged razor. I’d been in therapy and on anti-depressants for a while at that point, but I still didn’t feel like I was getting any better. The therapy sessions were more about me trying to prove to myself that everything was okay than actually opening up about the terrifying thoughts and fears swirling around in my head. I was worried if I told my therapist that when I was driving I was afraid every car that was behind me for more than half a mile was following me I’d be labeled a paranoid schizophrenic and thrown in the psyche ward. Large crowds scared me. New people scared me. Even seemingly unrelated anxieties, like those of being in the presence of a girl I liked, would trigger intense emotions that seemed unbearable.

I was suffering from PTSD. I continued to suffer for years until time and enough self-help books to fill a library began to slowly wither away the constant worries I’d been plagued with. It was hell, and many people are stuck in that hell right now. They’re soldiers, police officers, and sexual assault victims. They’re your neighbors, co-workers, and family. They probably never speak of the pain they’re in because it hurts too much. They need help, but have tried other therapies and medications and nothing seems to work.

Enter MDMA.

For anyone that hasn’t been to Coachella in the last decade, MDMA can be thought of as Ecstasy or Molly, although the latter two drugs are very often cut with other dangerous chemicals making them much less safe. However, the effects these drugs have on the brain are nearly the same. Each increase the activity of three brain chemicals…

When combined, these chemicals work together to increase energy and happiness (dopamine), enhance formation and retrieval of memories and focus attention (norepinephrine), and promote a sense of well-being and empathy (serotonin).

The idea behind using MDMA in psychotherapy was that the feelings produced by the drug would greatly enhance the value the sufferer received during their therapy session, so much so that just two to three eight-hour sessions could produce long-lasting results. And that’s exactly what MAPS has observed in the trials they’ve undertaken to get the drug approved by the FDA. The completed studies have been limited mainly to combat veterans, sexual assault victims, and police officers and firefighters who had not responded to other treatments. On average, these people had been suffering from treatment-resistant PTSD for nearly 18 years. Cut to one year after their MDMA-assisted psychotherapy sessions and 68% of the participants in the Phase 2 trials no longer met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD.

Calling any treatment a Magic Bullet is a misnomer, but after the impressive results in Phase 2 trials, the FDA gave MDMA-assisted psychotherapy its Breakthrough Therapy Designation.

According to the FDA’s official FAQ section…

breakthrough therapy designation is for a drug that treats a serious or life-threatening condition and preliminary clinical evidence indicates that the drug may demonstrate substantial improvement on a clinically significant endpoint(s) over available therapies.

MAPS is beginning their Phase 3 trials now, the final phase before the FDA decides whether or not MDMA can be prescribed legally as a treatment for PTSD. Assuming the newest trials go as well as the previous ones, MDMA-assisted psychotherapy could be available as a treatment option for PTSD within the next two years.

If that happens, many people with treatment-resistant PTSD might find a way out of their personal hell by combining therapy with a chemical that’s been said to “feel like Heaven.”

Can Psychedelics Change Your Mind for the Better?

One of my favorite books of the year is Michael Pollan’s “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence”. While reading it I nearly wore the skin off the tip of my pointer finger highlighting entire passages on my Kindle.

Don’t let the length of How to Change Your Mind intimidate you. It’s a page turner and I breezed through this book as quickly as any novel I’ve read. It reads like three books in one: A history of psychedelics, the neuroscience behind them, and Pollan’s personal accounts having taken them for the first time in his 60s. A common theme throughout the book is the potential for psychedelics to enhance the well being of those suffering from things like depression, anxiety, and addiction, as well as allowing for “the betterment of well people.”

The book is littered with gems such as the story of Oscar Janiger, a pioneer in LSD research, who personally administered the compound to Aldous Huxley and Cary Grant. Later, Grant would credit psychedelics for ridding him of his sadness and vanity.

“I’ve had my ego stripped away. A man is a better actor without ego, because he has truth in him. Now I cannot behave untruthfully toward anyone, and certainly not to myself.” –Cary Grant

While the stories of famous figures were especially fun to read, the part that piqued my curiosity most had to do with the changes in the brain that psychedelics actuate.

Research being done at Johns Hopkins on patients suffering from anxiety due to life-threatening cancer suggests that a single experience with a high-dose of psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) is enough to lessen their fear of death, with many people reporting that it was completely eradicated. Scientist’s believe this has to do with the psychedelic’s ability to quiet a person’s default mode network, the part of our brains we often refer to as the “ego” that’s responsible for self-related thinking and mind wandering. An over-active default mode network leads to obsessive self-reflection and negative patterns in thinking that are common in addicts and people suffering from depression.

Shutting down the default mode network for a period of time can be terrifying, as the ego will attempt to remain in control for as long as it can. But if you’re willing to surrender, you can experience a sort of ego death that allows for wonderful things to happen. As Pollan explains…

No longer defended by the ego, the gate between self and other is thrown wide open. And what comes through that opening for many people, in a great flood, is love. Love for specific individuals, yes, but also love for everyone and everything—love as the meaning and purpose of life, the key to the universe, and the ultimate truth.

What separates How to Change Your Mind from the rest of the literature on psychedelics is his detailed research and skeptical eye. His isn’t the conversion story of Allen Ginsberg, who, having taken psilocybin with Timothy Leary, “got on the phone and started dialing world leaders, trying to get Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Mao Zedong on the line to work out their differences.” His is a subtler shift. He advocates for the use of psychedelics in a controlled setting, with someone trained to not only help you through the trip, but also make sense of your experiences and integrate them into your life after.

One of the biggest benefits Pollan sees with psychedelics is their ability to tell us something about our minds…

This, I think, is the great benefit of exploring non-ordinary states of consciousness, the light they reflect back on ordinary ones, which no longer seem quite so transparent or so ordinary.

I don’t know what the lasting impact of this book will be, but I can say that I’ve noticed a profound shift in the cultural conversation regarding psychedelics over the past few years, and especially in the months since Pollan’s book came out. I myself am hopeful that these compounds can be studied more widely in the future and the benefits people of different cultures have been experiencing for millennia will be used to help change our minds for the better.

For more from Michael Pollan, check out his talk with Tim Ferris on YouTube here:

…or download it on iTunes here…

Michael Pollan – Exploring the New Science of Psychedelics 


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