Psychedelic drugs may help alleviate symptoms of depression, scientists suggest

Psychedelic drugs can have similar effects on the brain as those seen during dreams

Health Reporter

The Beatles wrote songs about them and Aldous Huxley said they could be “extremely good for anybody with fixed ideas”. Now scientists are beginning to understand exactly what happens to our brain under the influence of psychedelic drugs, revealing intriguing insights into their well-observed link to creativity.

In a new analysis of a study which saw 15 volunteers undergo magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans while under the influence of psilocybin, the active ingredient of magic mushrooms, scientists have discovered that the patterns of activity seen in their brains bore “fascinating” similarities to those seen when dreaming.

The researchers found that while activity in parts of the brain responsible for high level thinking such as planning and analysing was “disjointed and uncoordinated”, activity in more primitive areas of the brain associated with emotional thinking was much more pronounced.

They also saw that different areas of the brain were able to communicate in “novel” ways, giving the study volunteers a much larger range of potential brain states: something the researchers said could be a physical counterpart to the sensation of “mind expansion” often reported by users of psychedelics such as magic mushrooms, LSD and mescaline.

The study is published in the journal Human Brain Mapping today.

Aldous Huxley, when describing the experience of taking mescaline in his 1954 book The Doors of Perception, said that the experience was like “seeing what Adam saw on the morning of his creation”, and recalled in great detail the “labyrinth of endlessly significant complexity” visible even in the folds of his trousers. He said that the people who could gain most from taking LSD were “professors” because of the insights it could offer.

Scientists at Imperial College are currently researching whether psilocybin may help alleviate symptoms of depression.

Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, from Imperial’s department of medicine, said that the observed ability of psychedelics to give users a level of “emotional insight” was a strong argument for their use in psychotherapy, adding that they may even have a useful role in creative problem solving.

“There may be something in the loosening of the mind that occurs both in dreaming and in the psychedelic state that could be useful in terms of facilitating creative insight,”  he said, adding that the scans showed that psychedelics could promote “a more exploratory kind of thinking”. 

“Novel connections are made between different ideas and different topics,” he said. “There’s a fluidity and fluency to cognition. Only now are we forming ideas about what that might rest on in terms of changes in brain activity.”

A similar effect may be at work in forming the hallucinations and heightened perception of colour and pattern associated with a psychedelic trip.

“Much of what the brain does when we experience the world is to make predictions,” Dr Carhart-Harris said. “The brain gets quite adept at this and the world becomes more and more familiar and less surprising. Our predictions and our assumptions about the world begin firm up and we experience the world with assurance and confidence.

“What appears to happen with psychedelics is that process goes awry and the brain makes impetuous inferences about the world: this might be the basis of hallucinations. For instance, usually you look at the trunk of a tree and see the trunk of a tree. But on a psychedelic drug we may see a face in the trunk. It may be that the modules of the brain that normally process faces has ‘broken free’ and is making inferences in an impetuous way where there is no sensory evidence to call it up.”

Magic mushrooms are Class A drugs, but Dr Carhart-Harris said that any therapeutic use of psychedelics could be safe if appropriate cautions over dose and environment were observed.

See how they fly: Famed users

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Coleridge famously composed the poem Kubla Khan after waking from an opium dream caused by “an anodyne” prescribed for an illness. He fell asleep reading about the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan, and dreamed of writing 200 to 300 lines of a poem, with all the images “[rising] up before him like things”. On waking he found he could only remember fragments, which nevertheless survive as one of his best-known poems.

The Beatles

Although conspiracy theories have linked more or less every Beatles song to drug use of one form or another, Paul McCartney has confirmed that the song “Day Tripper” is about LSD. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, despite  featuring imagery  reminiscent of a psychedelic trip (“cellophane flowers of yellow and green” etc) and having LSD subliminally in its title, was apparently inspired by a picture drawn by an infant Julian Lennon.

Aldous Huxley

The author of Brave New World was an exponent of the mind-expanding qualities of mescaline, which he first took “one bright May morning” in 1953. He later engaged in a discussion with the psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond about what such drugs should be called – suggesting phanerothymic, from the Greek “visible spirituality”. Osmond won though, with his suggestion ‘psychedelic’: from psyche (soul or mind) and delein (to manifest).

News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Sport
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
News
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
people
Voices
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
voicesRenée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity, says Amanda Hess
News
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
Life and Style
CHARGE BOOSTER: Aeroplane mode doesn't sound very exciting, but it can be a (phone) hacker's friend. Turning on the option while charging your mobile will increase the speed at which your phone battery charges
techNew book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Solutions Architect - Permanent - London - £70k DOE

    £60000 - £70000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    General Cover Teacher

    £110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: Great opportunities for Cover...

    Maths Teacher

    £110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

    Maths Teacher

    £110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

    Day In a Page

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?