Magic Mushrooms Expand the Mind By Dampening Brain Activity, May Help Depression
A new brain-scan study helps explain how psilocybin works — and why it holds promise as a treatment for depression, addiction and post-traumatic stress.
If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.
Based on this idea, Huxley posited that ordinary consciousness represents only a fraction of what the mind can take in. In order to keep us focused on survival, Huxley claimed, the brain must act as a “reducing valve” on the flood of potentially overwhelming sights, sounds and sensations. What remains, Huxley wrote, is a “measly trickle of the kind of consciousness” necessary to “help us to stay alive.”
A new study by British researchers supports this theory. It shows for the first time how psilocybin — the drug contained in magic mushrooms — affects the connectivity of the brain. Researchers found that the psychedelic chemical, which is known to trigger feelings of oneness with the universe and a trippy hyperconsciousness, does not work by ramping up the brain’s activity as they’d expected. Instead, it reduces it.
Under the influence of mushrooms, overall brain activity drops, particularly in certain regions that are densely connected to sensory areas of the brain. When functioning normally, these connective “hubs” appear to help constrain the way we see, hear and experience the world, grounding us in reality. They are also the key nodes of a brain network linked to self-consciousness and depression. Psilocybin cuts activity in these nodes and severs their connection to other brain areas, allowing the senses to run free.
“The results seem to imply that a lot of brain activity is actually dedicated to keeping the world very stable and ordinary and familiar and unsurprising,” says Robin Carhart-Harris, a postdoctoral student at Imperial College London and lead author of the study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Indeed, Huxley and Blake had predicted what turns out to be a key finding of modern neuroscience: many of the human brain’s highest achievements involve preventing actions instead of initiating them, and sifting out useless information rather than collecting and presenting it for conscious consideration.