How psychedelics work: Fire the conductor, let the orchestra play
Michael Pollan explains what goes on during the mental fireworks of a psychedelic experience.
Michael Pollan is the author of How to Change Your Mind and seven previous books including Cooked, Food Rules, In Defense of Food, The Omnivore's Dilemmaand The Botany of Desire, which received the Borders Original Voices Award for the best non-fiction work of 2001, and was recognized as a best book of the year by the American Booksellers Association and Amazon.com. PBS premiered a two-hour special documentary based on The Botany of Desire in fall 2009.
MICHAEL POLLAN: So how do these psychedelics work? Well, the honest answer is: We don't entirely know. But we know a few things. One is, they fit a certain receptor site -- the serotonin 52A receptor -- and they look a lot like serotonin, if you look at the molecular models of them. And in fact, LSD fits that receptor site even better than serotonin does, and it stays there longer, and that's why the LSD trip can last 12 hours.
What happens after that, we don't really know. It's an agonist to that receptor, so it increases its activity. And this, the neuroscientists say, "leads to a cascade of effects," which is shorthand for "don't really know what happens next." But one thing we do know, or we think we know, is that it appears that one particular brain network is deactivated or quieted, and that is the default mode network. This was discovered not very long ago by a researcher in England named Robin Carhart-Harris, who was dosing people with psilocybin and LSD and then sliding them into an MRI machine to take an FMRI, a Functional Magnetic Resonance Image. And the expectation, I think, was that people would see an excitation of many, many different networks in the brain. That's what the kind of mental firework foretold. But he was very surprised to discover that one particular network was down-regulated, and that was this default mode network.
So what is that? Well, it's a tightly linked set of structures connecting the prefrontal cortex to the posterior cingulate cortex to deeper, older centers of emotion and memory. It appears to be involved in things like self reflection, theory of mind (the ability to impute mental states to others), mental time travel (the ability to project forward in time and back) which is central to creating an identity, right? You don't have an identity without a memory. And the so-called autobiographical memory, the function by which we construct the story of who we are by taking the things that happen to us and folding them into that narrative, and that appears to take place in the posterior cingulate cortex.
So to the extent the ego can be said to have a location in the brain, it appears to be this, the default mode network. It's active when you're doing nothing, when your mind is wandering. It can be very self critical. It's where self talk takes place. And that goes quiet. And when that goes quiet, the brain is sort of, as one of the neuroscientists put it, let off the leash because those ego functions, that self idea, is a regulator of all mental activity. And the brain is a hierarchical system and the default mode network appears to be at the top; it's kind of the orchestra conductor or corporate executive. And you take that out of the picture, and suddenly you have this uprising from other parts of the brain, and you have networks that don't ordinarily communicate with one another suddenly striking up conversations. So you might have the visual cortex talking to the auditory system and suddenly you're seeing music. Or it becomes palpable. You can feel it or smell it -- synesthesia. So you have this temporary rewiring of the brain in the absence of the control of the regulator.
And this appears to have a beneficial effect in terms of jogging the brain out of bad patterns. Many of the disorders that psychedelics appear to treat well are manifestations of a stuck brain, a brain that is locked in loops, a mind that's telling itself destructive stories, like 'I can't get through the day without a cigarette. I'm unworthy of love. My work is shit.' These kinds of evidence of habitual thinking in a really negative loop are relieved. And it may be that an overactive ego is what punishes us. And that relief from that dictator is exactly what some people need to free themselves from habits -- mental habits and behavioral habits. That, at least, is the theory. I think there's a lot more we need to learn, but it's a very provocative theory. And then if we have a tool for behavior change, that's a huge deal. I mean, I know, having worked on food for many years, that changing people's food habits as adults is almost impossible. We are creatures of habit in many, many ways. And the older we get, the worse it gets. So if we have something that can kind of lubricate cognition, that can shake the snow globe, as another researcher put it, this might be very helpful in helping people escape these traps.
- If your ego had a "location" in the brain, it would be the default mode network, where much of your self-critical mind chatter happens. Taking psychedelics down-regulates this brain network.
- Researchers describe the effect of psychedelics as "letting the brain off its leash", or firing the conductor to let the orchestra play. Without the default mode network acting as a dictator, areas of the brain that don't normally interact meet, producing phenomena like hallucinations and synesthesia.
- An overactive ego may be what punishes those of us plagued with anxiety, addiction and mental health disorders. Psychedelics can have a beneficial effect by temporarily killing the ego, jogging the brain out of negative thinking patterns.
- Sam Harris: Can Psychedelics Help You Expand Your Mind? - Big ... ›
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The Ministry of Loneliness<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/I5FIohjZT8o" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p><a href="https://www.jimin.jp/english/profile/members/114749.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tetsushi Sakamoto</a>, already in the government as the minister in charge of raising Japan's low birthrate and revitalizing regional economies, was appointed this <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">month</a> to the additional role. He has already announced plans for an emergency national forum to discuss the issue and share the testimony of lonely <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/12/national/loneliness-isolation-minister/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">individuals</a>.</p><p>Given the complexity of the problem, the minister will primarily oversee the coordination of efforts between different <a href="https://www.insider.com/japan-minister-of-loneliness-suicides-rise-pandemic-2021-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ministries</a> that hope to address the issue alongside a task <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">force</a>. He steps into his role not a moment too soon. The loneliness epidemic in Japan is uniquely well known around the world.</p><p><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hikikomori" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Hikikomori</em></a><em>,</em> often translated as "acute social withdrawal," is the phenomenon of people completely withdrawing from society for months or years at a time and living as modern-day hermits. While cases exist in many <a href="https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00247/full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countries</a>, the problem is better known and more prevalent in Japan. Estimates vary, but some suggest that one million Japanese live like this and that 1.5 million more are at <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/article/japan-hikikomori-isolation-society" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">risk</a> of developing the condition. Individuals practicing this hermitage often express contentment with their isolation at first before encountering severe symptoms of loneliness and <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/01/200110155241.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">distress</a>.</p><p><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kodokushi" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Kodokushi</em></a>, the phenomenon of the elderly dying alone and remaining undiscovered for some time due to their isolation, is also a widespread issue in Japan that has attracted national attention for decades.</p><p>These are just the most shocking elements of the loneliness crisis. As we've discussed before, loneliness can cause health issues akin to <a href="https://www.inc.com/amy-morin/americas-loneliness-epidemic-is-more-lethal-than-smoking-heres-what-you-can-do-to-combat-isolation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">smoking</a>. A lack of interaction within a community can cause social <a href="https://bigthink.com/in-their-own-words/how-religious-neighbors-are-better-neighbors" target="_self">problems</a>. It is even associated with changes in the <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/loneliness-brain" target="_self">brain</a>. While there is nothing wrong with wanting a little time to yourself, the inability to get the socialization that many people need is a real problem with real <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/brain-loneliness-hunger" target="_self">consequences</a>.</p>
The virus that broke the camel's back<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/Hp-L844-5k8" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> A global loneliness pandemic existed before COVID-19, and the two working in tandem has been catastrophic. </p><p>Japanese society has always placed a value on solitude, often associating it with self-reliance, which makes dealing with the problem of excessive solitude more difficult. Before the pandemic, 16.1 percent of Japanese seniors reported having nobody to turn to in a time of need, the highest rate of any nation <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">considered</a>. Seventeen percent of Japanese men surveyed in 2005 said that they "rarely or never spend time with friends, colleagues, or others in social groups." This was three times the average rate of other <a href="http://www.oecd.org/sdd/37964677.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countries</a>. </p><p>American individualism also creates a fertile environment for isolation to grow. About a month before the pandemic started, nearly<a href="https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/01/23/798676465/most-americans-are-lonely-and-our-workplace-culture-may-not-be-helping" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> 3 in 5</a> Americans reported being lonely in a <a href="https://www.cigna.com/about-us/newsroom/studies-and-reports/combatting-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">report</a> issued by Cigna. This is a slight increase over previous studies, which had been pointing in the same direction for years. </p><p>In the United Kingdom, the problem prompted the creation of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. The commission's <a href="https://www.ageuk.org.uk/globalassets/age-uk/documents/reports-and-publications/reports-and-briefings/active-communities/rb_dec17_jocox_commission_finalreport.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">final report </a>paints a stark picture of the U.K.'s situation in 2017, with millions of people from all parts of British society reporting feeling regular loneliness at a tremendous cost to personal health, society, and the economy.</p><p>The report called for a lead minister to address the problem at the national level, incorporating government action with the insights provided by volunteer organizations, businesses, the NHS, and other organizations on the crisis's front lines. Her Majesty's Government acted on the report and appointed the first Minister for Loneliness in <a href="https://time.com/5248016/tracey-crouch-uk-loneliness-minister/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2018</a>, <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tracey_Crouch" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tracey Crouch</a>, and dedicated millions of pounds to battling the problem. </p><p>The distancing procedures necessitated by the COVID-19 epidemic saved many lives but exacerbated an existing problem of loneliness in many parts of the world. While the issue had received attention before, Japan's steps to address the situation suggest that people are now willing to treat it with the seriousness it deserves.</p><p>--</p><p><em>If you or a loved one are having suicidal thoughts, help is available. The suicide prevention hotline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.</em></p>
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