It is a pretty magical time for scientists pursuing the study of magic mushrooms and other hallucinogenic drugs. Just last week, for instance, a team of researchers published what they claim are the first-ever images of a human brain under the influence of LSD. This week, consider the results of a study by a different group of researchers on a different hallucinogen: psilocybin, or the psychedelic component of magic mushrooms.
That study — led by psychiatrist Katrin Preller of the University Hospital Zurich and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — found that the brains of people who had ingested small doses of psilocybin were less likely to show signs of social pain after experiencing rejection. Rachel Feltman at the Washington Post has a good explanation of the experiment:
Preller and her colleagues wanted to see what the psilocybin-associated receptors could do for something called “social pain,” which is exactly what it sounds like — the pain associated with rejection. They triggered it in their 21 study subjects by creating a computer game where a virtual game of catch was played with two other players who increasingly excluded them from the activity. Meanwhile, subjects’ brain activity was being scanned.
Before playing the virtual game of keep-away, the study volunteers were given either a placebo or a very small dose (0.215 milligrams) of the hallucinogen. After analyzing their results, Preller and her colleagues noted that when the participants were under the influence of psilocybin, their brains showed a decrease in activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and the middle frontal gyrus, which are “key regions for social pain processing,” the researchers write in their abstract. They argue that this suggests that their experience of rejection was less hurtful when they had taken the psilocybin as compared to when they’d taken a placebo; the participants’ responses to a questionnaire about their experience indicate the same thing. Additionally, other changes in the activity of two serotonin receptors indicate “changes in self-experience,” they add.
And that difference in “self-experience” is something that is often reported by participants in studies involving hallucinogens. Consider, for example, the results of a 2012 paper on psilocybin, also published in PNAS. That experiment identified two brain regions that “were silenced or disconnected from each other” after study volunteers took the drug, as science writer Maia Szalavitz reported for Time: the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex. The former is associated with obsessive thinking, Szalavitz notes; the latter, on the other hand, is linked to one’s sense of self-identity.
Perhaps, then, something about the psychedelic compound decreases a tendency toward excessive self-reflection, something people with social anxiety often struggle with. Preller told the Post that she believes her research, and other projects like it, may pave the way for new treatments for people suffering from social anxiety, and experiments in social psychology seem to back this notion up. Other scientists, for example, have found a kind of reciprocal relationship between anxiety and egocentrism: Focusing on yourself seems to increase a person’s anxiety, and anxiety likewise increases self-focus. The cliché about hallucinogenic drugs is that it “expands your consciousness”; perhaps one of the reasons people are so likely to report this experience is that it also quiets your self-consciousness.