Psychedelic substances like LSD and psilocybin — the active ingredient in magic mushrooms — are powerful, able to transform the way that people who use them perceive the world.
Because of that, after years of prohibition, psychiatric researchers in the US are hoping to take advantage of that power to transform mental health treatment.
And as the new documentary “A New Understanding: The Science of Psilocybin” shows, the results we’ve seen so far are powerful. Perhaps most interestingly, the film shows how these substances transform the people who undergo this therapy.
“Psilocybin does in 30 seconds what antidepressants take three to four weeks to do,” David Nutt, a professor of neuropsychopharmacology in the division of brain sciences at Imperial College London explains in the film. Researchers have found that a single dose of psilocybin accompanied by therapy can have a transformational effect on mental health — like a “surgical intervention” — able to treat even cases of depression and anxiety that resist standard treatment.
The film follows the researchers and study participants that are at the forefront of this modern era of psychedelic study. Cancer patients facing distress about end of life talk about how their experience helps them overcome that distress and accept their condition. Healthy volunteers who took psilocybin for the first time to help show that it can be used safely in a therapeutic setting describe the way the “trip” changed their perception.
It’s fascinating to see.
On a basic level, a part of the brain that seems to coordinate mood and is very active in cases of depression seems to basically quiet down for a time, allowing connections to form between regions of the brain that rarely communicate with each other. This mimics an effect seen in the minds of long term meditators. Something in this experience seems to cause the “trippy” effects of the drug, which participants in this research undergo while listening to music and sitting with trained observers.
“In terms of whether these agents cause hallucinations, they’re a little bit misclassified, a hallucination is an experience in some sensory phenomenon based on a stimuli that doesn’t exist in reality, it’s internally generated,” says Stephen Ross, an associate professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine, in an interview in the film. “Versus an illusion would be looking at the wall and the wall is melting, that would be an illusion, and these drugs tend to cause more illusions than frank hallucinations, they alter how we perceive real stimuli.”
In order to cause these effects, these drugs activate serotonin 2a receptors, explains David Nichols, president and co-founder of the Heffter Research Institute.
But something about this experience — the brain activation, illusions, and hallucinations — seems to do something more profound that’s harder to understand. It’s able to reliably cause what researchers call a “mystical experience.” That experience is strongly linked with lasting effects.
“It was like you’re at the top of a roller coaster and you’re about to go down and I remember inside myself saying, ‘I’m taking my mind with me, I don’t know where I’m going but I’m taking my mind with me’ … and I felt okay and off I went,” says Sandy, one of the healthy volunteers who tried psilocybin for the first time, describing her experience.
People return from that journey changed.
“When we came back it was like someone had put on a light bulb inside Annie’s head, she was literally glowing,” says the husband of one terminally ill patient in one of these psilocybin studies at UCLA. “I felt wonderful, I think it’s an incredibly useful tool … what we did, it probably would have taken me years of therapy,” she agrees.
You can watch the trailer for the film below and a current version of it can be rented from Vimeo.