Author Archives: ellsonke

Magic Shrooms: Can They Rewire the Brain?

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:

https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/05/15/611225541/reluctant-psychonaut-michael-pollan-embraces-the-new-science-of-psychedelics

Are We Overreacting to Coronavirus?

This article goes into detail about how human brains calculate risks in times of crises, such as the pandemic we are all currently experiencing. In passing, it addresses the mechanisms of memory (recency effect, Von Restorff effect, self-relation effect) on how people are reacting to the coronavirus. It uses these aspects of memory to argue that many people are overreacting to the virus, overestimating the threat it poses to them as individuals.
There are many biases that can influence memory. Three of these effects, briefly mentioned in the article, are the recency effect, Von Restorff effect, and self-relation effect. The recency effect is the prevalence of recently learned information in the working memory – the more recently we heard it, the easier it is to remember. The Von Restorff effect describes how an unusual item or occurrence may stick out more in the working memory, because it is abnormal. Examples from the article include the deaths of young individuals from COVID-19. The last effect, self-reference, refers to the prevalence of information that has some relation to oneself – for example, if an individual you knew passed away from COVID-19.
While the author backs up his argument with reputable sources, I do not agree with his overall message. Based off of CDC warnings and the statistics from countries around the world, I personally believe that people are not overreacting to the threat posed by the coronavirus. As a matter of fact, I would argue that until recently, a considerable number of Americans have not known many individuals who passed away from the virus, which has led to people not taking the warnings seriously enough. If he was making this argument with regards to supply hoarding, I would completely agree but he does not explicitly make this point in the article.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/traversmark/2020/03/19/this-is-the-biggest-mistake-people-make-when-assessing-the-risk-of-covid-19-say-psychologists/#1b9ad6a3ba1e

“Lucy” or Real Life?

This article discusses the idea that humans are not accessing the full extent of the brain’s power. This reminds one of the 2014 film Lucy, which is based off of the false idea that humans only operate 10% of their brains. While this may be true consciously at the most, it certainly does not apply to the vast amount of unconscious work the brain is constantly doing – making sure the body is breathing, regulating internal operations, and ensuring that the body moves when and how it should.

While the article is not proposing the distribution of brain-expanding medications to U.S. servicemembers, it does report on findings that mindfulness training leads to better performance in high-stress situations. In particular, it talks about the role that focused attention and sensory perception can play in chaotic environments, such as the battlefield. The ability of soldiers and sailors to focus their attention on specific tasks allows them to operate better under pressure, ignoring bodily stimuli that could be potentially distracting. This in turn involves the control of sensory perceptions, including the ability to focus more on a particular sensory stimulus. These suggest some support for attention theories such as selective attention and load theory.

Overall, the article seemed somewhat difficult to understand. It is clear that the author was trying to appeal to a layperson audience, including those with little to no knowledge about cognitive psychology. Their explanation of the research was a little wishy-washy. However, the article was well-written overall. Multiple studies involving servicemembers were cited, along with real-world applications and results. I found this article to be fascinating, particularly in its consideration of balancing technological advances with natural human abilities in an ever-changing world of wars.

http://cimsec.org/operating-at-the-edge-of-chaos-enhancing-maritime-superiority-through-people/43116

Pine Bark Extract or Phoney Balogney?

Memory, attention, and problem-solving are important cognitive functions, invaluable in the navigation of everyday human life. Memory allows us to know our own cellphone numbers and email addresses. Attention gives us the ability to focus on lectures. Problem-solving helps us determine which assignments to do first, what the correct answer to a question on an exam is, and which route is the shortest way to class.

Cognitive research has shown that humans tend to remember ~7 digits at a time, can tone out other stimuli by focusing their attention on a target stimulus, and that problem-solving is a complex process that involves several parts of the brain. According to this article, there are particular substances that can be taken to enhance those very important cognitive abilities. Now, this comes to no surprise to many of us – the use of substances as brain-altering catalysts has been taken advantage of for millennia. This article in particular lists five nootropics, or substances that, “if used properly and safely, enhance the cognitive functions of the user.”

While the article does cite experimental research involving humans, it does not include many details about those studies. It lists the number of participants in each substance-based study, but no actual research is cited. The only reference takes you to a pyramid scheme-esque website (nootralize.com) with several articles about the use of nootropics for a variety of issues, including gaming and e-sports, sleep, short-term memory and visualization, and reduced forgetting.

In addition to an apparent lack of concrete research, the article does not go into very much detail. Instead of more savory paragraphs, it simply lists various information such as recommended usages, side effects, and what time of day the nootropics should be consumed.

These nootropics seem a little out there – substances such as pine bark extract and citicoline. In my humble opinion, if humans were meant to have pine bark extract in their brains, we would have developed an instinct to run headfirst into trees; however, this is not the case (for many of us, I would hope). The daily reliance of substances, albeit natural ones, seems a bit whacky to me. One would hope that healthy habits, such as exercise and adequate nutrition, would be more effective and long-lasting.

Before I spend £19.95 ($25.95) on 120 pine bark extract pills, I’ll be at the gym or trying to get enough sleep to help my brain out. I would also find a more reputable source, with access to actual data.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/experience-engineering/202001/the-5-most-science-backed-cognitive-enhancers-mindfulness