Psychedelics are a classification of plant-based and synthetic substances that are known for producing non-ordinary states of consciousness that are so powerful and unique that they are most often compared to near-death experiences or states of religious ecstasy. When one hears the term “psychedelic,” it’s often associated with hippies, tie-dye, and the social movements of the 1960s, but beyond the superficial associations and stigmas, there lies a rich story of ancient human history, scientific discovery, and medicinal therapy.
How Psychedelics Work
The group of substances that fall under the category of “psychedelics” includes both plants and synthetic drugs, including but not limited to cannabis, MDMA, LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, DMT, and iboga. Some of these, like cannabis, iboga, and psilocybin mushrooms, are naturally occurring in the plant world and can be ingested or smoked as they are to induce psychedelic effects. Others such as ayahuasca are made by combining two different plants and preparing them in a specific way that produces visionary effects. Beyond the plant world, man-made compounds like LSD and MDMA are synthetic laboratory creations that do not exist in nature.
So what are psychedelics actually doing in our brain? With such a diverse range of sources, it’s hard to see a unifying factor, but there are many similarities in how these substances interact with our brain chemistry. The active chemical in psychedelic substances binds to the same receptor in your brain as the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is responsible for relaying information to different parts of the brain and is closely associated with mood, sexual desire, appetite, sleep, and memory. While there’s still some mystery as to how exactly they work in your brain, psychedelics have been shown to both increase and decrease neuronal activity in brain regions such as the prefrontal cortex. The prevailing hypothesis has been that the effects of psychedelics are the result of increased brain activity, but other research suggests that compounds like psilocybin might work by actually restricting the brain regions that filter and regulate our waking consciousness, temporarily breaking down the barriers that keep our mind in a practical problem-solving state and allowing more free-form associations of memory and perception.[1. “Do Psychedelics Expand the Mind By Reducing Brain Activity?” Scientific American, May 15, 2012, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/do-psychedelics-expand-mind-reducing-brain-activity/.]
Psychedelics Throughout Human History
Psychedelics have played central roles in numerous cultures around the globe thanks to their ability to catalyze transformative experiences and revelations in those who take them. In ancient Zoroastrian and Hindu cultures, the psychedelic substance known as soma played a central role in their religion. In ancient Greece, at the dawn of Western civilization, their most sacred yearly ritual known as the Eleusinian Mysteries featured a concoction known as Kykeon, which many scholars believe was a psychedelic drink. Other cultures such as the ancient Egyptians and countless indigenous tribes also used and greatly valued psychedelics. Many of these indigenous tribes are still around today and using psychedelics as a key component in their religion and spirituality.
Psychedelic Therapy and Psycho-spiritual Healing
Today, as the restrictions and stigmas surrounding psychedelics have begun to wane, there’s a wide array of exciting new research and applications for these transformative substances. Organizations like the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), the Heffter Institute, and others have been pushing forward scientific studies on the therapeutic value of psychedelics for treating conditions such as PTSD, substance abuse, end of life anxiety, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression. Psychedelics are particularly well-suited to treat these psychological conditions because of their ability to bring a person into an unparalleled state of openness and awareness beyond their normal day-to-day egoic consciousness. In these revelatory states, people are able to see things about themselves such as chronic behaviors, past traumas, addictions, and judgements that normally operate beneath the radar of waking consciousness. After such a revelatory experience, people are often then empowered to make fundamental changes about how they live as well as how they see themselves and the world. Utilizing the power of this “peak experience” that psychedelics provide is the essence of what makes them so unique and effective.
Psychedelic therapy often involves not just taking a psychedelic substance, but doing so with a trained “sitter” or team of guides that help a person open up and have their experience in a supportive environment. This is not just true for clinical psychedelic-assisted treatment but also for the realm of psycho-spiritual therapy that you would find in indigenous psychedelic ceremonies or places like ayahuasca retreat centers where trained shamans guide people through their experience and keep them feeling grounded and supported. Psychedelics do not provide healing on their own, rather they create a visionary experience that can be used as an opportunity for people to heal themselves. Because they are so incredibly powerful, both psychotherapists and shamans agree that they should rarely or never be used alone.