Visions of a psychedelic future

This post is part of a Nature Blog Focus on hallucinogenic drugs in medicine and mental health, inspired by a recent Nature Reviews Neuroscience paper ‘The neurobiology of psychedelic drugs: implications for the treatment of mood disorders’ by Franz Vollenweider and Michael Kometer.

This article will be available, open-access, until September 23. For more information on this Blog Focus please visit the Table of Contents.

In a hut, in a forest, in the mountains of Colombia, I am puking into a bucket. I close my eyes and every time my body convulses I see ripples in a lattice of multi-coloured hexagons that flows out to the edges of the universe.

Two hours earlier, I had swallowed a muddy brown brew known as yagé, famous for its hallucinogenic effects, its foul taste, and the accompanying waves of nausea that eventually lead to uncontrollable vomiting.

Yagé has been used for hundreds, if not thousands, of years – not as a recreational drug – but as a psychological and spiritual aid that holds a central place in indigenous religion.

Romualdo, a displaced Witoto shaman who led the ceremony, was convinced of its mental health benefits and had confidentially assured me that, after the puking, I would remain in a state of heightened conciencia where I could “ask questions, solve difficulties and communicate with spirits.” “Come with a question,” he told me, “you’ll feel better afterwards.”

The main active ingredient in yagé, known outside Colombia as ayahuasca, is dimethyltryptamine or DMT, a hallucinogenic drug from the tryptamine family that works – like LSD and psilocybin – largely through its effect on serotonin receptors.

Psychedelic drugs, mental health and brain science have traditionally made for a heated combination, but a recent scientific article, published in September’s Nature Reviews Neuroscience, has attempted to more coolly assess the growing research on the potential of hallucinogens to treat depression and anxiety.

Lab studies and medical trials form a small but robust body of knowledge that reveal reliable benefits and promising future avenues. The dissociative anaesthetic ketamine has been found to lift mood – even in cases of severe of depression – while psilocybin, present across the world in mushrooms and fungi, has been shown to have anxiety reducing properties.

But while no serious bad reactions have happened during the trials, the full range of potential risks is still not fully understood, meaning the treatments remain firmly in the lab.

The caution is warranted. Psychiatrists are more than aware of hospital admissions triggered by the same drugs taken outside of controlled conditions, and so the compounds will remain as experimental treatments until the risks are fully known.

Nevertheless, the science is now developed enough for new ideas to be generated based solely on a neurobiological understanding of the drugs.

The authors of this latest review, neuroscientists Franz Vollenweider and Michael Kometer, note that success with psychedelics that largely work on the glutamate system – such as ketamine and PCP – may be due to the fact that these circuits regulate long-term brain changes. This suggests a potential path to extending the mood lifting effects of these drugs beyond the initial ‘trip’.

One key advance would be an understanding of how the chemical structure of a particular hallucinogen relates to the experience it creates, allowing researchers a neurological toolkit that could be used to trigger the beneficial effects while toning down the extreme unreality that some people find unpleasant.

Yet, it is still not clear whether such benefits are separable from the psychedelic effects and it may be that the ‘active ingredient’ lies somewhere between an altered state of consciousness and a reflective mind, as some studies on drug-assisted psychotherapy suggest.

It is also clear that a great number of ritual hallucinogens, widely used by indigenous people for their psychological benefits, have yet to be explored.

The preliminary studies on users of yagé indicate that it has potential benefits for mental health, although it remains largely untouched by more rigorous tests.

As my own investigation ends, I leave the isolated hut feeling exhausted and disoriented as the clear morning light refracts through my thoughts and casts bright trickling colours into unfilled spaces.

As Romualdo promised, I feel better, elated even, but the questions I brought remain unanswered and have similarly refracted into a thousand intricate doubts.

Link to Nature Blog Focus on psychedelics Table of Contents.
Link to Nature Reviews Neuroscience article.

I, Jacques Derrida, Used To Be A 97lb Weakling!

Anthropologist Pascal Boyer has written a wonderfully contrarian essay for Cognition and Culture criticising the “crashingly banal assumptions” behind supposedly radical theories of human nature.

While Boyer is clearly making mischief, his main criticism of the post-modernist idea that human nature is entirely socially constructed is spot on.

While there are clear social influences in how we understand ourselves, the extreme relativism of saying everything is ‘defined by culture’ tends to evaporate when examined too closely.

But on closer inspection, it generally turns out that the initial, amazing, challenging statements in fact disguised crashingly banal assumptions. Suppose you point out to your academic ideologue that, for instance, if maleness and manhood really are completely unrelated… then it is puzzling that an extraordinarily vast number of [socially constructed] “men” happen to be [chromosomal] “males”, and that such a coincidence is spooky. You will probably be told that you did not quite understand the original statement. What it meant was that the meaning of maleness could not be derived from possession of the Y chromosome…

Or if you point out that some forms of insanity occur in many cultures at the same rates, that they trigger highly similar behaviors, are associated with the same genetic predispositions and correlate with similar neuro-functional features, you will be told that you did not understand. What was meant was that the cultural construal of madness was not derived directly from brain dysfunction…

At which point, you might be forgiven to think something like “so that was what all the fuss was about?” and you would be right of course. When push comes to shove, the flamboyant, earth-shattering, romantic, swash-and-buckle assault on our entrenched certainties seems to be, well, a bit of a damp squib.


Link to Boyer’s essay ‘There is no such thing as sexual intercourse’.

Language as a thought magnet

Today’s New York Times has a wonderful feature article on how language shapes our perception of the world.

The infamous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis claimed that our understanding was limited by language and has long been used as an example of a ‘dead theory’ but new evidence is suggesting that certain aspects of a language can indeed influence how we think

The NYT piece is a wonderfully engaging look at the studies which have shown how our perceptions are biased by language and is written by linguist Guy Deutscher.

Some 50 years ago, the renowned linguist Roman Jakobson pointed out a crucial fact about differences between languages in a pithy maxim: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” This maxim offers us the key to unlocking the real force of the mother tongue: if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about….

In recent years, various experiments have shown that grammatical genders can shape the feelings and associations of speakers toward objects around them. In the 1990s, for example, psychologists compared associations between speakers of German and Spanish. There are many inanimate nouns whose genders in the two languages are reversed. A German bridge is feminine (die Brücke), for instance, but el puente is masculine in Spanish; and the same goes for clocks, apartments, forks, newspapers, pockets, shoulders, stamps, tickets, violins, the sun, the world and love.

On the other hand, an apple is masculine for Germans but feminine in Spanish, and so are chairs, brooms, butterflies, keys, mountains, stars, tables, wars, rain and garbage. When speakers were asked to grade various objects on a range of characteristics, Spanish speakers deemed bridges, clocks and violins to have more “manly properties” like strength, but Germans tended to think of them as more slender or elegant. With objects like mountains or chairs, which are “he” in German but “she” in Spanish, the effect was reversed.


Link to ‘Does Your Language Shape How You Think?’

2010-08-27 Spike activity

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

The New York Times covers the latest in the saga of whether there is a virus associated with chronic fatigue syndrome.

A lovely example of metaphorical priming over at the BPS Research Digest: feeling clean makes us harsher moral judges.

National Geographic discusses the intriguing question of why royal families have traditionally not been subject to the incest taboo.

Considering the news that the trapped Chilean miners are being sent antidepressants, Frontier Psychiatrist asks so what is the appropriate mental state for a trapped miner anyway?

Wired Science covers an important new criticism of the role of ‘kin selection’ in evolution – the idea that traits can evolve which may not promote personal survival but boost the chances of close relatives reproducing.

Body awareness illusions. Adapted for the pub. An excellent post over at Neurophilosophy. Please note: you need to be able to feel your body for them to work.

Science News reports on new research on how the 5,000 year-old body of ‘Ötzi The Iceman’ was buried and how he died in the first place.

Where does the meaning in words come from? Child’s Play discusses the relationship between words and the world and how they acquire their significance.

New Scientist discusses new research on the mechanics of hanging to try and understand what exactly kills people who are hanged – we still don’t know for sure.

Why are small towns more likely to produce sports stars than big cities? Frontal Cortex has some fascinating coverage of some counter-intuitive research.

The New York Times are in the midst of a science meltdown with their dire pick-two-studies-at-random-and-free-associate technology and the brain series. Want to join the fun? Nothing’s Shocking has a guide to writing your own.

There’s a discussion in meshing the evolutionary psychology of relationships and jealousy in homosexual couples over at Bering in Mind.

Not Exactly Rocket Science looks at when working as a team works out better than working individually. The key, it seems, is effective communication.

The mere presence of women seems to bring health benefits to men, according to research covered by The Economist. In which case, male physicists in danger, male psychologists virtually immortal.

Neuroskeptic covers an important study on the interaction of environment and genetic risk for psychosis. If it sounds technical, read carefully as it challenges many assumptions about schizophrenia ‘being genetic’.

Children seem to have a stereotyped view of robots, according to a new study of children’s drawings covered by New Scientist.

Neuroanthropology has a good response to the latest upsurge in ‘meme theory’ silliness. Ideas do not self-replicate, as any pub bore will tell you.

There’s an excellent piece on the pitfalls of labelling patients by diagnosis or by joky names over at The New York Times. If you read only one piece on clinical work this week, make it this one.

Wired Danger Room covers the news that while the US military have rejected the use of a ‘pain ray‘, it’s now been adopted by the US prison system.

A new paper in Frontiers in Computational Neuroscience covers the very early days of computational neuroscience. Wonderfully geeky with great photo.

The Wall Street Journal Blog says city traders are giving up cocaine for pot and pills. Damn that economic downturn.

As well as making you talk rubbish, amphetamine puts a strain on blood vessels in the body, according to research covered by Science News.

In the News covers a truly shocking report about the extent of sexual abuse in US prisons.

There’s a fantastic interview with Oliver Sacks on prosopagnosia (‘face blindness’) over at the New Yorker Podcast. He writes a locked article in this month’s edition.

The Wall Street Journal discusses how speaking in another language can alter our view of the world.

The recent upsurge in interest in the medical uses of psychedelic drugs is discussed over at Addiction Inbox.

Wiring the Brain has a great discussion of the synaesthesia-like ‘coloured hearing’ in William’s Syndrome. The blog is just getting better and better by the way.

Another study finds that oxytocin is not a universal ‘trust drug’ and is covered by New Scientist.

The Washington Post reports on research finding that drinking a glass of water before meals can promote weight loss. BigPharma to sue for water patent shortly.

Why are drug trials in Alzheimer’s disease failing? The Lancet has an editorial discussing the problem.

Solitude conjures imaginary companions

I’ve just read a fantastic study on how loneliness, or even a brief reminder of it, leads us to see human-like qualities in objects around us, believe more strongly in the reality of God and supernatural beings, and even perceive pets to be more human-like.

The research, led by psychologist Nicholas Epley, is wonderfully conceived and speaks to how we seem to psychologically ‘reach out’ when we’re lonely to the point of wishful thinking.

But as well as being an interesting study, the scientific paper is wonderfully written. It’s quite poetic in places and I particularly liked the first paragraph of the ‘Discussion’ section – where scientists discuss the significance of the findings.

Needless to say, academic research papers are not usually quite so lyrical.

And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I’m lonely—
I’ll make me a world . . . (Johnson, 1927/1990, p. 17)

Physicists have the scientific tools to suggest that Johnson may have gotten his poem profoundly wrong, but psychologists have the scientific tools to suggest that Johnson may have gotten his poem profoundly backward. In three studies, people who were chronically disconnected from others (Study 1) or momentarily led to think about disconnection (Studies 2 and 3) appeared to create humanlike agents in their environment— from gadgets to pets to supernatural agents such as God. These studies go beyond simply demonstrating that social disconnection leads people to seek companionship from nonhuman agents, showing that social disconnection can alter the way these agents are conceptualized or represented. Lonely people cannot make themselves a world, of course, but they can make themselves a mindful gadget, a thoughtful pet, or a god to populate that world.


Link to PubMed entry for study.
pdf of full text of the scientific paper. revamp

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Delusions of pregnancy, in a man

A 1999 case report describes a 29-year-old man who developed the delusional belief that he was pregnant.

Mr. R., a 29-year-old married man from a semi-urban background with 8 years’ education, was brought by his wife to the outpatient department at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bangalore, India, with a 2-month history of suspicious and assaultive behaviour. He would look at the sky and say that everyone including God was trying to assault him. He also claimed that there was a baby in his abdomen.

He believed that he had Jesus in his abdomen to start with, but later reported that Jesus had flown away through his mouth, but was replaced by a human baby. He was sure that the child was 40 days old and it was the same child his wife was having. He could also feel the movements of the child and was sure that it was growing. However, he did not have any other symptoms of pregnancy. He was withdrawn and his food intake was inadequate.

Although the case reported here wasn’t the first case of male delusional pregnancy ever described (though, admittedly, they are rare) this one was of particular interest because, although the gentleman recovered, he later developed another brief psychosis where the delusion returned.

For the second time, he believed himself to be carrying a child. Curiously, both incidents occurred when his wife was genuinely pregnant.

Although there is no clear explanation for why it occurred in this particular case, there is, however, evidence that men show hormone changes when their female partners are pregnant, possibly linked to a well-known syndrome called ‘Couvade syndrome‘ where men can show sympathetic signs of pregnancy.

We’ve discussed delusions of pregnancy before although they are, unsurprisingly, much more common in women.

Link to PubMed entry for case report.