In recent years, the scientific study of meditation and psychedelic drugs has seen remarkable developments. The increased focus on meditation in cognitive neuroscience has led to a cross-cultural classification of standard meditation styles validated by functional and structural neuroanatomical data. Meanwhile, the renaissance of psychedelic research has shed light on the neurophysiology of altered states of consciousness induced by classical psychedelics, such as psilocybin and LSD, whose effects are mainly mediated by agonism of serotonin receptors. Few attempts have been made at bridging these two domains of inquiry, despite intriguing evidence of overlap between the phenomenology and neurophysiology of meditation practice and psychedelic states. In particular, many contemplative traditions explicitly aim at dissolving the sense of self by eliciting altered states of consciousness through meditation, while classical psychedelics are known to produce significant disruptions of self-consciousness, a phenomenon known as drug-induced ego dissolution. In this article, we discuss available evidence regarding convergences and differences between phenomenological and neurophysiological data on meditation practice and psychedelic drug-induced states, with a particular emphasis on alterations of self-experience. While both meditation and psychedelics may disrupt self-consciousness and underlying neural processes, we emphasize that neither meditation nor psychedelic states can be conceived as simple, uniform categories.
In a new study investigating the effects of LSD on volunteers, scientists found that the psychedelic enables the brain to function in a way beyond what anatomy usually dictates, by altering states of dynamic integration and segregation in the human brain.
“The psychedelic compound LSD induces a profoundly altered state of consciousness,” explains first author and neuroscience researcher Andrea Luppi from the University of Cambridge.
“Combining pharmacological interventions with non-invasive brain imaging techniques such as functional MRI (fMRI) can provide insight into normal and abnormal brain function.”
The new research falls within the study of dynamic functional connectivity – the theory that brain phenomena demonstrate states of functional connectivity that change over time, much in the same way that our stream of consciousness is dynamic and always flowing.
On a sunny day in London in 2015, Kirk Rutter rode the Tube to Hammersmith Hospital in hopes of finally putting an end to his depression.
Rutter had lived with the condition off and on for years, but the burden had grown since the death of his mother in 2011, followed by a relationship break-up and a car accident the year after. It felt as if his brain was stuck on what he describes as “an automatic circuit”, repeating the same negative thoughts like a mantra: “‘Everything I do turns to crap.’ I actually believed that,” he recalls.
The visit to Hammersmith was a preview. He would be returning the next day to participate in a study, taking a powerful hallucinogen under the guidance of Robin Carhart-Harris, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Imperial College London. Years of talking therapy and a variety of anti-anxiety medications had failed to improve Rutter’s condition, qualifying him for the trial.
Combining the psychedelic drug psilocybin with supportive psychotherapy results in substantial rapid and enduring antidepressant effects among patients with major depressive disorder, according to a new randomized clinical trial. The findings have been published in JAMA Psychiatry.
The new study provides more evidence that psilocybin, a compound found in so-called magic mushrooms, can be a helpful tool in the treatment of psychiatric conditions.
“Prior studies in cancer patients and in an uncontrolled clinical trial in depressed patients using psilocybin-assisted therapy showed promising results. Because there had not been a control group those prior studies were limited,” said study author Alan K Davis, an assistant professor at Ohio State University and adjunct assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University.
“We were interested in testing whether psilocybin-assisted therapy would be helpful for people with depression because depression is one of the most prevalent and debilitating conditions in the world.”
Mona Strelaeff survived breast cancer with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation in 2002, but later suffered from depression. She recently got permission from Health Canada to use psilocybin, the naturally occurring ingredient in so-called magic mushrooms, and says she emerged with a deeply satisfying sense of spirituality and peace.