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Psilocybin 'markedly' boosts feelings of self-transcendence during meditation
The more research conducted on psychedelics, the closer we get to new therapeutic models.
- During a mindfulness retreat, participants that tried psilocybin reported having a richer cognitive and emotional experience.
- The effects of psilocybin were prominent even four months after the retreat.
- The combination of psychedelics and meditation is a field that's ripe for study in therapeutic settings.
In his classic work on psychedelics, The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley writes that through hypnosis or meditation he "might so change my ordinary consciousness as to be able to know, from the inside, what the visionary, the medium, even the mystic were talking about." Yet it was psychedelics — in his case, mescaline — that would not only get him there fastest, but also ensure that he got where he needed to go.
There has long been an argument about getting "there," whether by natural means (meditation, breathing techniques, yoga) or via psychedelics — a debate that reached a fever pitch during Timothy Leary's heyday and never completely went away. Fans of psychedelics profess that they offer the quickest and most encompassing route. That point is hard to argue against for anyone that's dabbled.
One question we don't often hear, however: What about both?
On a related note, where exactly is "there"?
A team in Germany set out to address the first question, which naturally led to speculation on the second. In a new study, published in Nature Scientific Reports on October 24, researchers from the University Hospital of Psychiatry Zürich gave 40 mindfulness meditation retreat participants either one dose of psilocybin, the hallucinogenic ingredient in a variety of mushrooms, or a placebo.
First author, Lukasz Smigielski, sums up the findings:
"Psilocybin markedly increased the incidence and intensity of self-transcendence virtually without inducing any anxiety compared to participants who received the placebo."
Self-transcendence has long been the central focus of both meditation and the psychedelic ritual. Yet, as the authors note in the abstract, personal change is another desired effect. This bodes well for psilocybin; in therapeutic settings, it has been shown to help combat addiction, depression, and anxiety, as well as allow those in hospice care to feel content.
Roland Griffiths Compares Psilocybin and Meditation fMRI
Transcending the self need not be an under the Bodhi Tree experience. Not feeling anxious every day of their lives is of even greater value for many seekers. In fact, transcendence, while often invoked as a lofty, otherworldly state, can be more effectively applied to loosening the grip of lifelong anxiety. The feeling of calm that ensues is the transformation (or at least points to where it lies, which is why meditation is a good addition to the ritual).
A regular mindfulness practice has shown measurable results in coping with many of the problems above. Interestingly, there is speculation that psychedelics "reset" neural networks, leading to more sustainable long-term effects without the need of daily ingestion (though microdosing might confer benefits as well). Regardless, a discussion about how both meditation and psychedelics might help alleviate tension and depression is long overdue.
For the psilocybin group on the five-day meditation retreat, participants reported experiencing more profound states of self-dissolution without any accompanying anxiety. They also felt higher levels of openness and optimism and were better able to appraise their emotional responses. The group ingesting psilocybin not only experienced these higher levels of positive affect during the retreat, but four months later as well.
"Compared with placebo, psilocybin enhanced post-intervention mindfulness and produced larger positive changes in psychosocial functioning at a 4-month follow-up, which were corroborated by external ratings, and associated with magnitude of acute self-dissolution experience."
Meditation, the team continues, appears to enhance the positive effects of psilocybin. They believe such studies will help guide the burgeoning filed of psychedelic-assisted therapy. As Ronan Levy, co-founder of FieldTrip, the organization behind the world's first psilocybin research center, recently told me, current psychotherapy models were developed in the '50s and '60s. It might behoove mindfulness facilitators to team up with licensed psychiatrists to investigate the power of this new model.
Mazatec psilocybin mushrooms during their 3 day drying time after harvest May 14, 2019 in Denver, Colorado.
Photo credit: Joe Amon / MediaNews Group / The Denver Post via Getty Images
Anecdotally, I can recall three sublime experiences utilizing this exact combination: one seated in Voorhees Mall at Rutgers University; another beside a lake while hiking in Ramapo, NJ; finally, at the peak of Anthony Wayne Mountain, part of Harriman State Park. Each time, the combination of psilocybin and meditation left profound imprints on my consciousness — so much so, I can recall these times vividly years (and even decades) later.
What I remember most from each experience is the sensation of contentment. Huxley writes that man's condition is discontent. Religion is a response to our existential dilemma, born of this planet as transient beings. Biology guarantees our shelf life, yet somehow we've tricked ourselves into believing otherwise. Psychedelics don't promise eternal life. They remind us of the fleeting nature of everything. Instead of rebelling against basic science, they help us feel okay with that situation.
Anxiety, depression, addiction, markers of the aggrieved, as if impermanence is an offense. Mindfulness, an attempt to curb superfluous "mind stuff" through acute attention to the moment, is a powerful means for overcoming disquieting thoughts. It makes for a natural bedfellow with psilocybin, that magical group of mushrooms that intensely focus our awareness on our immediate environment, both internal and external. We return from the trip relaxed and informed, transformed, a brief but powerful respite from the incessant stream of negative thoughts that tend to arise.
Is more research needed? Of course it is. The time has come to study this fascinating combination of practices, both ancient rituals designed to help us get to know ourselves and the world better. It provides, as Blake knew — and Huxley redefined — to see everything "as it is," not how we believe it should be. That's some powerful therapy.
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How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
It's hard to stop looking back and forth between these faces and the busts they came from.
- A quarantine project gone wild produces the possibly realistic faces of ancient Roman rulers.
- A designer worked with a machine learning app to produce the images.
- It's impossible to know if they're accurate, but they sure look plausible.
How the Roman emperors got faced<a href="https://payload.cargocollective.com/1/6/201108/14127595/2K-ENGLISH-24x36-Educational_v8_WATERMARKED_2000.jpg" ><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyOTUzMzIxMX0.OwHMrgKu4pzu0eCsmOUjybdkTcSlJpL_uWDCF2djRfc/img.jpg?width=980" id="775ca" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="436000b6976931b8320313478c624c82" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="lineup of emperor faces" data-width="1440" data-height="963" /></a>
Credit: Daniel Voshart<p>Voshart's imaginings began with an AI/neural-net program called <a href="https://www.artbreeder.com" target="_blank">Artbreeder</a>. The freemium online app intelligently generates new images from existing ones and can combine multiple images into…well, who knows. It's addictive — people have so far used it to generate nearly 72.7 million images, says the site — and it's easy to see how Voshart fell down the rabbit hole.</p><p>The Roman emperor project began with Voshart feeding Artbreeder images of 800 busts. Obviously, not all busts have weathered the centuries equally. Voshart told <a href="https://www.livescience.com/ai-roman-emperor-portraits.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Live Science</a>, "There is a rule of thumb in computer programming called 'garbage in garbage out,' and it applies to Artbreeder. A well-lit, well-sculpted bust with little damage and standard face features is going to be quite easy to get a result." Fortunately, there were multiple busts for some of the emperors, and different angles of busts captured in different photographs.</p><p>For the renderings Artbreeder produced, each face required some 15-16 hours of additional input from Voshart, who was left to deduce/guess such details as hair and skin coloring, though in many cases, an individual's features suggested likely pigmentations. Voshart was also aided by written descriptions of some of the rulers.</p><p>There's no way to know for sure how frequently Voshart's guesses hit their marks. It is obviously the case, though, that his interpretations look incredibly plausible when you compare one of his emperors to the sculpture(s) from which it was derived.</p><p>For an in-depth description of Voshart's process, check out his posts on <a href="https://medium.com/@voshart/photoreal-roman-emperor-project-236be7f06c8f" target="_blank">Medium</a> or on his <a href="https://voshart.com/ROMAN-EMPEROR-PROJECT" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">website</a>.</p><p>It's fascinating to feel like you're face-to-face with these ancient and sometimes notorious figures. Here are two examples, along with some of what we think we know about the men behind the faces.</p>
Caligula<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk4Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MzQ1NTE5NX0.LiTmhPQlygl9Fa9lxay8PFPCSqShv4ELxbBRFkOW_qM/img.jpg?width=980" id="7bae0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ce795c554490fe0a36a8714b86f55b16" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Caligula, left
Nero<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NTAwMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NTQ2ODU0NX0.AgYuQZzRQCanqehSI5UeakpxU8fwLagMc_POH7xB3-M/img.jpg?width=980" id="a8825" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9e0593d79c591c97af4bd70f3423885e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Nero, left
A popular and longstanding wave of thought in psychology and psychotherapy is that diagnosis is not relevant for practitioners in those fields.
Scientists regenerate damaged spinal cord nerve fibers with designer protein, helping paralyzed mice walk again.
- Researchers from Germany use a designer protein to treat spinal cord damage in mice.
- The procedure employs gene therapy to regenerate damaged nerve fibers that carry signals to and from the brain.
- The scientists aim to eventually apply the technique to humans.