What does psilocybin do to the brain?
Psilocybin causes modes of greater brain interconnectivity; i.e. the parts of the brain talk to each other better. This may explain the feeling of divine knowledge and synaesthesia.
Why is cannabis so euphoric?
Some scientists think it's because THC makes you forget. That means forgetting your worries and your traumas, and according to some researchers, forgetfulness is next to godliness.
Why do psychedelics make us feel so good?
Emotional processing coupled with better brain interconnectivity might explain the divine experience or the euphoric realisations that come with using psychedelics. And ultimately, an improved state of mental health.
Closed-eye hallucinations. Rebounding of thoughts in the epic chamber that is the universal mind. Revelations. Mind-bending revelations. These are the hallmarks of a psychedelic experience. But what is it about psychedelic substances like psilocybin and cannabis that open up a person’s mind to entirely new realities, altering their mood, their perceptions, and their thoughts?
There’s a harrowing lack of research into the neuroscience of psychedelics although a few rogue scientists have been deep in the idea. At the same time, it’s one thing to explain the change in brain activity under the influence in psychedelics and how that dictates the physical or mental perception of events and objects. But it’s all together another thing to explain the emotional response to the events and feelings we experience under the effects of psychedelics. What is it that bursts our hearts open into unconditional love and never-ending acceptance?
In this article, we explore these ideas and what some scientists believe is happening in our brains, bodies, and feelings when we consume psychedelic substances.
Psilocybin and connectivity.
As we are, understanding the complex integration of aspects of the brain and the essential networking that takes place in there is a huge challenge for neuroscience. What’s beautiful is that studying the effects of psilocybin on the brain has actually taught us more about the human brain (much like the study of cannabis led to the discovery of the endocannabinoid system!).
In 2014 at the Imperial College of London, a team of researchers (that included the famous Prof. David Nutt by the way) took advanced brain images of those who took a psilocybin dose and those who took placebo. The researchers observed less “constrained” brain function and greater intercommunicative modes in the brain in the psilocybin group. The researchers think this could occur as a result of stimulation of a specific serotonin receptor in the cortex.
The researchers then went on to talk about the implications of this in the real-life, hands-on psychedelic experience. There is a phenomenon called synaesthesia, characterised by the overlapping of senses. Being able to hear or taste colours or to see music are examples. The increased intercommunication between brain parts might be responsible for synaesthesia, which is commonly reported in the psychedelic experience.
Moments where it all… comes together.
Revelatory ideas and realisations are reported as part of the “mystical” psilocybin experience. But given the opportunity to explain these experiences, people define it as simply a light bulb moment. Everything simply comes together. It's not farfetched that the simultaneous merging of thoughts into a single, coherent, idea (some call it singularity) resembles the scientific observation that scientists made.
Terrence McKenna talks at great lengths about archetypes and draws on Carl Jung (he actually gave a speech to the Carl Jung Society once). He talks about the merging of these different aspects of self and the resolution that can only come with their integration. It’s obviously unclear from a scientific perspective how much the inability to make those integrations contributes to mental illness or whatever makes us feel down.
The reconciliation of memories, senses, thoughts, and emotions through interconnectedness of brain parts could be a precursor to the mystical experience that is so often reported on psilocybin.
Anandamide, man’s bliss molecule and THC; two peas in a pod.
During very clandestine research into cannabinoids in the 90s, scientists discovered the first human endocannabinoid, anandamide. It was a funny story actually, because it was the study of THC that led to the discovery of the cannabinoid receptor, which in turn led to the discovery of an endogenous cannabinoid. So you could thank THC for all this good science.
Anandamide and THC are structurally very similar. Anandamide also has some very interesting neurological properties as an endogenous cannabinoid. One of those qualities is forgetfulness. A lot like THC, spikes in anandamide levels are associated with impaired short-term memory. But this isn’t seen as a bad quality of anandamide. In fact, one of the researchers who gave anandamide its name said it was one of the very reasons that it was blissful.
Anandamide gets its name from ananda, the Sanskrit word for bliss. Raphael Mechoulam, who was on the team in the discovery of anandamide said that it was an endogenously produced antidepressant that also made you forget, because why would you want to remember every face you saw on the train that day?
In May 2020, researchers were able to inhibit anandamide in mice and could therefore observe the consequences. They found anandamide inhibition disturbed the emotional processing and tone of emotional behaviour, suggesting that anandamide’s ability to make a person forget is part and parcel of emotional health.
Remember that song, Don’t Worry Be Happy by Bobby McFerrin? That’s literally the sentiment. Cannabis has long been associated with “forgetting your worries”, but this was often looked upon as a negative consequence of cannabis use. At the same time all cannabis users know that this is exactly what makes it so damn beautiful.
Forgetfulness, something that’s always scorned, is also what we look for after a traumatic experience or an awful day. We want to forget. Because forgetting, moving on, and getting on with it are all really beautiful things. And maybe that’s what makes us feel high.
When emotional processing and increased brain connectivity come together.
The psychedelic experience is all together emotional, mental, and physical. And even though we don’t know much, we know something extreme is happening under the effects of psychedelics. We also know that something emotional happens under the effect of psilocybin — a level of emotional processing and changes in limbic brain activity that facilitate mystical experiences.
You can kind of think of it as a form of psychotherapy only there’s no therapist. You are the therapist. That “kind” of psychotherapy coupled with the fact that parts of your brain are talking to each other that haven’t spoken to each other in years begins to explain the euphoria and the highness of psychedelic drugs like magic mushrooms and cannabis.
It’s like receiving 10 years of psychotherapy in a few hours. And the long-lasting effects of psychedelics aren’t hearsay. At 6 month follow ups after only a single dose of psilocybin, patients showed lasting anxiolytic and antidepressant effects.
We want that connectedness within ourselves and our environment. We want to emotionally process these traumatic memories. The problem with psychotherapy is that it relies on the participation of the individual. With psilocybin or ayahuasca or even cannabis, it’s not asking for permission. We are essentially forced into a place that’s at once, safe to do the emotional processing and equipped with the tools for doing it. And sometimes, even if it’s not what you signed up for, it’s what you get.
This begins to touch on the importance of psychology in our long-term mental health and how understanding our own minds is fundamental to the “high” of life. What happens to us under the effect of psychedelics is a glimmer into the potential of feeling and understanding.
What makes us feel high when we use cannabis or psilocybin is us. Feeling the potential of a human brain or simply forgetting a worry to come back to what it feels like to be in your body, in your mind and in your feelings is what it means to be high. Perhaps that’s why the mind-bending, unfathomable realities and the boundless blissful feeling that comes with being high.