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Surprising Science

Can Psychedelics Make Us More Content?

Recent research in psilocybin, LSD, and MDMA, which all affect our serotonin receptors, suggest these substances can help make us content. 
A man sits in at the park on a cool autumn afternoon November 17, 2005 in New York City. New York, and the entire East Coast, has been experiencing an unseasonably mild autumn thus far. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Among the many professed life goals hash-tagged on social media—beauty (205.2 million on Instagram), success (25.5 million), money (26.1 million), power (19.7 million), and handstands (4.3 million)—contentment (240k) doesn’t fare well. We generally want more than we have, which doesn’t promote a content life. Yet many common psychological disorders, including anxiety and depression, are rooted, at least in part, in our lack of contentment. We’re not okay where we are, so we fret about the future, what we don’t have, what our peers do have, and how we’ve arrived at this point now.

There’s a strong argument for pursuing a content life, especially in a country as rich in opportunity as America. As he writes in his book, The Hacking of the American Mind, Robert Lustig labels serotonin the contentment molecule. He contrasts it with dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for our pursuit of pleasure. We love the quick squirt of dopamine when thinking highly of ourselves—#blessed (83.2 million). The slow and steady path toward contentment doesn’t get as much traction in an age of instant gratification.

Of the many ways Lustig suggests cultivating contentment—meditation, cooking, exercise, mindfulness, volunteering, conversations—psychedelics is an interesting one. As he recently told me, he’s not promoting these substances per se. Science is what matters, and after reading a highly circulated Michael Pollan article on psychedelics aiding people during end-of-life care, he decided to investigate the topic. Even then he spent a lot of time making sure he got the science right:

When my editor and I sat down to discuss Chapter 8 [“Picking the Lock to Nirvana”] that was the chapter we discussed the most. We spent five times as much time on Chapter 8 as we did on any other chapter because we wanted to make sure we got it right, because it potentially has a propensity for abuse.

Lustig found that certain psychedelics do indeed relate to contentment. The structure of serotonin, a monoamine neurotransmitter responsible for making us feel content, was confirmed in 1953. Though researchers initially discovered its presence in the brain, serotonin is predominantly found in our gastrointestinal tract, a fact that is helping us better understand our emotional relationship with food.

The serotonin-1a receptor is responsible for contentment, the serotonin-2a receptor for mystical experiences. Psilocybin and LSD bind to both, whereas mescaline only binds to 2a—hallucinations without emotional satisfaction. That might explain why a host of recent research in psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms,” and LSD are showing beneficial results in a variety of cognitive disorders. As New Scientistreports,

Mental illness has reached crisis proportions, yet we still have no clear links between psychiatric diagnoses and what’s going on in the brain – and no effective new classes of drugs. There is one group of compounds that shows promise. They seem to be capable of alleviating symptoms for long periods, in some cases with just a single dose. The catch is that these substances, known as psychedelics, have been outlawed for decades.

That is changing, slowly, as more organizations explore the therapeutic potential of psychedelics for healing trauma, addiction, depression, anxiety, fear of death, and other mental and emotional afflictions. This could open new doors in treating patients across the spectrum, something the usual course of treatment—selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which boost serotonin by blocking neuronal reabsorption—is proving ineffective at. Though 8.5 percent of Americans take SSRIs, the efficacy rate hovers at only 20 percent.

SSRIs require regular doses, whereas a single 25 mg dose of psilocybin showed a reduction in depression for three weeks in 100 percent of volunteers, with 25 percent of participants still feeling the benefits three months later. Brain scans show neurons firing more synchronously after psilocybin and LSD, which plays a role in reducing each person’s obsession with their ego, the very part of their identity promoting certain cognitive disorders. (Interestingly, flow states exhibit similar results in ego-reduction.)

Research in MDMA, which Lustig says also binds to dopamine receptors, is showing similar promise. Used in couples counseling before being outlawed during the Nixon administration, it is now being fast-tracked by the FDA for review and potential approval after showing promising results treating PTSD in soldiers and other sufferers.

While MDMA does not exhibit the same intense mystical qualities of these other substances, it appears to help PTSD victims recall memories without the trauma associated with the event thanks to the release of oxytocin—and by binding to serotonin receptors. As Lustig writes about MDMA,

It heightens excitement and sexuality and postpones fatigue and sleepiness, because the dopamine receptor is activated; it increases euphoria, because the serotonin-1a receptor is activated; and it even gives the added bonus of minor hallucinations, because the serotonin-2a receptor is activated, although the bonus “mystical experience” is not part of the portfolio.

When sufferers of PTSD take part in memory reconsolidation, in which they recall painful experiences, after ingesting MDMA, there is no actual pain. They’re able to integrate their traumatic experience without the accompanying anxiety. Three weeks into my divorce a dose of MDMA served as a powerful therapeutic tool: I was able to recognize the arc of life as continuous, helping me moving beyond negative thoughts of finality. Perspective is everything.

Lustig’s warning above about addiction isn’t particularly relevant to psychedelics in the way opioids are physical addictive, though people do become hooked to the feelings that certain substances, especially MDMA, provide. If psychedelics are valuable their clinical potential needs to be studied and, if proven effective, implemented. Otherwise it becomes a wild west similar to the opioid crisis, with people dosing themselves with no knowledge of efficacy or strength.

Current interventions, while raking in billions for the pharmaceutical industry, are generally not working. We shouldn’t outright dismiss these pills; my six months on Xanax dealing with anxiety disorder proved beneficial. Individual chemistry needs to be considered. But this also means we need to stop treating this hormone as illegal and that one as sanctioned if we truly want to find solutions to chronic cognitive and emotional pain. That just might mean integrating psychedelics into our healing regimen.

Derek Beres is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.


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