Our perception of ourselves is at the core of our reality. Notice that when you feel good about yourself, the way you view the world changes. The sky is brighter. People are kinder. And when our self-image declines, the world becomes a darker place.
Psychedelic drugs can completely remodel our sense of self. They hold the potential to collapse the brain networks that govern our ego so that our worldview is no longer dependant on how we see ourselves. Under the influence of a psychedelic drug, you become your reality; interconnected with the world, rather than a separate entity.
The brain network responsible? The default mode network.
What is the default mode network?
The innovation of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in the 90s revolutionised the way we study the brain. fMRI allows us to view brain activity in real-time, helping researchers to understand how the brain functions during specific cognitive tasks.
The default mode network (DMN) is a term coined by neurologist Marcus Raichle in 2001. Identified using fMRI, it refers to a group of brain regions that are most active during spontaneous, absentminded thought: mind-wandering. Activity in the DMN is our brain’s resting state- or default mode.
Let’s take a deep dive into the human brain. The posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) are the two hub regions of the default mode network. The PCC is most active during introspective thought, and the mPFC when processing emotions. Together, they communicate to generate our ego.
The role of the ego is to make us feel important. This was essential for our evolutionary survival, allowing us to differentiate between ourselves, others, and our surroundings. But the ego is loud, and our perception of ourselves is not always positive. Researchers have noted a correlation between overactivity in the DMN and poor mental health.
Hard-wired negative thinking
Humans are mental time travellers; we can reminisce on our past and project ourselves into the future. But we often dwell on uncomfortable moments in our past and worry about our future. Self-reflection can easily become self-criticism, causing our DMN to go into overdrive.
Picture this. You’re walking down the street and you trip over. People notice, but everyone soon forgets it ever happened. You, however, can’t stop playing it over and over in your head. Consumed with worry and embarrassment, you struggle to sleep. It feels as though your thoughts don’t have an off button.
Rumination is a sustained fixation on a negative thought or emotion. You could be agonising over an upsetting conversation, worrying about an upcoming test, or fixating on insecurity. Whatever the thought, it goes round and round in your head, unable to stop. Rumination is the biggest predictor of mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression. It triggers a process called neuroplasticity, which hard-wires negativity into our brain- and here’s how:
Self-deprecating thoughts amplify the ego, strengthening existing neural connections in the DMN. When these thoughts are repetitive and constant, the DMN becomes stronger over time. Put simply, the more we ruminate, the easier it becomes to slip into a negative mindset.
Psychedelics interrupt the DMN
Historically, natural hallucinogens, psilocybin and DMT, have been used in holistic medicine for thousands of years. Following the discovery of LSD in 1938, the clinical use of psychedelics in psychiatry was discovered. In the 50s and 60s, LSD was investigated as a tool to treat alcoholism, though the research was halted in the 70s following a political backlash against the hippy counterculture. But psychedelic research is making a comeback.
Psychedelic drugs hijack the brain’s default mode of function. They cause the resting brain network to deteriorate, opening up the possibility of diverse communication between brain regions. This disorganised cross-talk alters consciousness, cultivating a new way of thinking.
Until recently, the psychedelic brain state has remained an inexplicable mystery. Research pioneered by Dr Robin Carhart-Harris in the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London has begun to reveal some of these neurological underpinnings; the psychedelic experience is dependent on the collapse of the DMN.
Death of the ego
In a neuroimaging study of LSD, a single high dose was able to disintegrate the default mode network; the weaker its integrity, the stronger the ‘loss of self’. When DMN regions stop talking to each other, our ego is hushed.
In day-to-day life, the ego is a barrier between us and rational thinking, as a poor self-image can be detrimental to our mental health. In the psychedelic experience, these barriers are dissolved, allowing us to see the bigger picture and confront our problems.
In the right environment, psychedelics encourage deep reflection without the restraints of a self-critical ego. In a state of higher consciousness, this unlocks the brain’s potential to form new neural connections and completely remodel our mental state.
The future of mental health
“It does not seem to be an exaggeration to say that psychedelics, used responsibly and with proper caution, would be for psychiatry what the microscope is for biology and medicine or the telescope is for astronomy.”
– Dr Stanislav Grof, 1980
The ability of psychedelics to alter consciousness has been documented for thousands of years. As our understanding of their safety is growing, scientists are now investigating controlled psychedelic use within psychiatric practice.
Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is the clinical use of psychedelic substances within a traditional therapy session. With the guidance of a professional therapist, psychedelics can override the DMN and subsequently halt negative thinking. They can evoke profound personal revelations, resulting in lasting shifts in perspective and mindset.
The results of psychedelic therapy trials have been impressive. Doses of LSD and psilocybin have shown to be hugely effective at treating depression, anxiety, and addiction. MDMA shows huge promise in the treatment of PTSD. In comparison with traditional mental health treatments, psychedelic therapy is a fast-acting intervention with long-lasting improvements, even in treatment-resistant patients.
Psychedelic therapy is said to be a reboot for the brain. Like a computer, the brain communicates in electrical signals. Psychedelics switch off self-critical brain pathways- the default mode network- and switch on new connections, encouraging a new, more positive way of thinking. It’s the human equivalent of ‘turning it off and on again.’
Scientists may understand the potential of these powerful substances, but governments are lagging behind. In the UK, psychedelics remain schedule 1 drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and many clinical avenues have failed to be explored because of these restrictions.
With an increasing body of evidence in support of their use in psychiatry, it is easy to marvel at the wonders of psychedelics. But there are many more scientific hurdles to jump; many details of psychedelics and consciousness remain a mystery.
Despite the roadblocks, the outlook for psychedelics is optimistic. They hold the possibility of revolutionising the treatment of mental health issues, and our expanding knowledge of the default mode network is assisting the process.