When Michael Pollan heard that psychedelic mushrooms were being used to treat the mental distress often found in terminally ill cancer patients, he was reluctant. Then, he went a step further and decided to try them out for himself. As it turns out, psilocybin, the active ingredient in ‘shrooms,’ was being used to treat a variety of mental distresses, including depression, addiction, and fear of death.
Psilocybin is a naturally occurring psychedelic compound produced in over 200 species of mushrooms. When absorbed into the bloodstream, psilocybin is converted into psilocin, which can induce similar effects to LSD, mescaline, and DMT. Basically, they make you hallucinate and feel euphoric, but they can also trigger nausea and panic attacks. In fact, cave paintings in Spain and Algeria suggest that humans have been using ‘shrooms’ since before recorded history!
Research into the effects of psilocybin was significantly curbed in the 1960s due to strict drug legislation, but those studies that were conducted revealed that psilocin, the metabolized form of psilocybin, acts on serotonin receptors in the brain. The mind-altering effects brought on by psilocybin ingestion can last for several hours and the substance itself has a low toxicity and low harm potential. It’s no wonder someone thought to use it to treat depression!
The way psilocybin therapy for depression works is very controlled, typically with the assistance of two “guides.” Participants are prepared in advance of taking the substance due to the adverse side effects that may occur if they have a bad ‘trip.’ While the underlying mechanism of this therapy is heavily biopsychological, the work on the participant’s part is completely cognitive. The mind-altering states initiated by psilocybin allow participants to see old problems in new perspectives, primarily through the temporary disablement of what is called the “default mode network.” This is the part of the brain where self-reflection and rumination occur, which are both cognitive functions that play heavy roles in depression.
Due to the disablement of this default mode network, participants have the opportunity to, essentially, “rewire” their brains. They are able to go into the self, the ego, and change their perspective about themselves. Once those negative thought processes are stopped and altered, participants are more easily able to free themselves from the maladaptive rumination and self-reflection that is so characteristic of depression.
This information was all revealed in an interview on NPR, titled ‘Reluctant Psychonaut’ Michael Pollan Embraces the ‘New Science’ of Psychedelics. I’d argue, however, that this science is not really all that new. According to those cave paintings, humans have been ingesting magic mushrooms for thousands of years; and this leads one to think, “why?” My guess would be that it made them feel good, or better, or gave them the ability to forget about saber-tooth tigers for a while. Having listened to the interview and researched psilocybin, I find it interesting that this is not a recognized form of psychotherapy, particularly with regards to the low toxicity and low harm potential of the substance. For the most part, this is a black market form of therapy.
In terms of how this applies to cognitive psychology, it can be difficult to separate the cognitive aspects from the biological aspects. While the phenomenon is completely facilitated by a substance, the therapeutic processes are entirely cognitive. It requires the individual to challenge their self-schemas and rewire their default mode network. And if you’re still not convinced, modal senses are very much a part of cognitive psychology, and psilocybin definitely has interesting effects on each.
Overall, I found this interview fascinating. As someone who struggles with depression, I completely understand the desire to press ‘restart’ on your brain. Psychedelics might just be a way to do that. I hope that more research is done on this phenomenon in the future, and that it might be recognized as a legitimate form of psychotherapy at some point.
For those who are interested, you can listen to the entire interview here: