It’s one thing to say that psychedelic mushrooms "open your mind," but it’s another entirely to demonstrate its dream-like effects in a scientific study. Yet, that’s what one group of researchers appear to have achieved in a study published today in Human Brain Mapping.
these effects are akin to what we experience when we dream
In the experiment, researchers injected a dose of psilocybin — the chemical that gives "shrooms" their kick — into a group of 15 participants, reports The Washington Post. Another group, the control, didn’t receive the drug. Then, using brain imaging technology, the researchers looked at the areas of the brain that were activated in both groups. This allowed them to determine that psilocybin increased the volume of activity in regions of the brain that are usually activated when we dream, during sleep. It also increased brain function in regions that are associated with emotion and memory. According to the researchers, these effects are akin to what we experience when we dream.
"It’s like someone’s turned up the volume there, in these regions that are considered part of an emotional system in the brain," Robin Carhart-Harris, a neuropharmacologist at Imperial College London, told The Washington Post. "When you look at a brain during dream sleep, you see the same hyperactive emotion centers."
Mushrooms dampen our egos
Given that people who take psychedelics often describe their experiences as dreamlike (mushrooms don’t typically lead to the pleasant and rewarding "highs" that one might expect from other drugs), these findings might not seem surprising to some. But consider this: psilocybin didn’t just unlock emotion — it also decreased activity in parts of the brain that are associated with our sense of self, or our ego. This intriguing combination appears to allow users to consider their emotions in a different, broader, and often more positive light. As Carhart-Harris wrote in an article for The Conversation, this "may explain why psychedelics have been considered useful facilitators of certain forms of psychotherapy."
The findings are completely novel, so their "validity needs to be further tested," wrote Carhart-Harris. If the results do hold up, however, they may finally give us a biological basis for the "consciousness-expansion that is one of the hallmarks of a psychedelic experience."