TF: That’s what a participant actually said?
DE: Not just one. Two-thirds of the participants rated it among the most significant experiences in their lives.
TF: What has the Centre for Psychedelic Research been studying?
DE: We’ve been trying to understand the brain biology behind these experiences and what they can tell us about consciousness, which is a deeply abstract phenomenon that nobody completely understands. We’re also looking into whether these drug-induced experiences, together with psychological support, have a therapeutic value for a range of conditions, which at this point it looks like they do.
TF: What have been your principal findings?
DE: We’ve found that the brain under the effect of a psychedelic enters a chaotic, flexible state that allows for free-thinking and a loosening up of thought patterns. This could help with depression, where people have narrowed their thinking into negative thoughts about themselves and interpret everything in a way that confirms their negative self-image.
We conducted the first trial of a psychedelic intervention for depression in 50 years and saw very promising therapeutic results with psilocybin. In our next study, we compared it to conventional SSRI [selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors] antidepressants and the results overall favored psilocybin.
TF: Would it be right to say that, unlike conventional antidepressants, psychedelics treat the causes of depression rather than the symptoms?
DE: Yes, I think so. Psychedelics seem to dive deeply into the psyche, loosening it up, changing perspectives and allowing deep material to be dealt with in a fascinating way. In our trials, we have seen traumatic things brought to the surface and reassessed in a new light. The feeling of being trapped in the rigid, negative thought spirals of depression turns into a sense of connectedness with the universe, nature, the people around you and your own emotional life.
TF: And the changes last long after the drugs have left your system.
DE: Absolutely, which is very interesting, but we don’t yet know exactly for how long. A big question for us is how often you need to redose or have a top-up experience. A colleague at Johns Hopkins framed it as a kind of “inverse PTSD”—we know that profoundly traumatic experiences can change the wiring of your brain and cause long-lasting negative impacts on mental health such as anxiety, depressive symptoms and flashback nightmares. So shouldn’t it be possible that a deeply meaningful spiritual experience that offers a profound sense of belonging could have a long-lasting positive impact on your psyche and your life?
TF: How does this work on a scientific level?
DE: Everything that changes us leaves some signature in our biological brain tissue. A psychedelic experience might make changes in the actual brain wiring and how brain cells connect. This might create a window where we can reframe and reshape the way we think and live.
TF: It’s interesting that psychedelic users often talk about their experiences using religious and spiritual language. Is that a challenge for the scientific approach?
DE: Our questionnaires were originally based on the language people used to talk about their experiences, with terms like “mystical experiences” and “oceanic boundlessness.” These are very poetic and, and perhaps scientifically somewhat fluffy terms, but that’s because the the nature of these experiences are difficult to articulate. Some of these terms are provocative for scientists who come from hard-core pharmacology and want to measure everything on a scale of depressive symptoms. But these experiences are so rich that the language needs to be broader. It’s a new vocabulary for medicine.
TF: Can participants in psychedelic trials have negative experiences?
DE: If you have a vulnerable person with mental problems, perhaps severe depression or trauma, then a psychedelic experience can bring up a lot of subconscious or repressed material. This can also happen in a person without any mental illness. If that’s done in a safe therapeutic setting then it can be interesting and potentially very fruitful, which is what we see in the trials. But these people are prepared, supported and guided, to help them discuss and integrate the experience. It’s important to have someone who can ground you: You’re flying this airplane but we’re the cabin crew and we’ll help to make it all safe. But ultimately, as in therapy, it’s mainly for the person themselves to make sense of things.
“The brain under the effect
of a psychedelic enters
a chaotic, flexible state.”