Like finance bros and cocaine, brain scientists and psychedelics have always gone together. The grand-daddy of psychology, William James, wrote his most influential works on consciousness under the influence of nitrous oxide and peyote, for example. It's a hot topic of conversation at my department, and in this psychedelic renaissance it's a hot enough topic that I'm regularly asked about it by non-brain sciencey people too. So I thought I'd jot down some notes.
This one is about mushrooms.
I won't spend an enormous amount of time talking about the clinical evidence related to psilocybin. The evidence is still emerging, somewhat confusing, and concerningly overweighted by commercial interest funding. Instead I'll talk a little more generally about what they seem to be doing to us, and why those things might be interesting to people.
What are mushrooms doing
You can kind-of conceptualise any given human as a nexus of two kinds of forces, outside-in forces, and inside-out forces.
We might call the inside-out forces the 'self' or something like this. It's all the ways that you try to shape the world to better suit you. Any time you want something from the world, and act to make it so---this is what we're calling the inside-out forces. The forces which comprise the entity that sits, perched behind your eyes, looking out and pulling the strings.
We might call the outside-in forces the 'environment' or something like this. The outside-in forces are all the ways in which you are shaped primarily by the world. You can think of how you respond to a beautiful vista, or how you change the way you express yourself around different kinds of people. These changes don't come from you per se, the entity behind the eyes. They are elicited from the world around you.
Now, you obviously can't draw a neat line between the two, because they act on each other. Around certain people, you are a certain kind of person because you want to be perceived a certain way. The outside-in force (the people you're around) is acting on the inside-out force (they way you want them to see you).
But the conceptualisation is important because we typically emphasise very heavily the role of the inside-out forces, often to our detriment. The strength of a perception of 'you-ness' is pretty overwhelming for most people, and it can be weird to think of ourselves as being substantially shaped by the world rather than at the direction of some internal entity. The inside-out forces feel like the most important forces.
The crucial feature of the mushroom experience seems to be that this balance is changed. As the dose increases, the importance of inside-out forces decrease and the importance of outside-in forces increase.
Before we explore what that looks like, let me explain why I think this is the most useful conceptualisation with some goddamn brain science.
The neuroanatomy of a mushroom experience
I don't want to spend a huge amount of time on this, because the evidence is a bit piecemeal and confusing.1 But we see some consistent trends:
- We reliably see in increase in overall neural connectivity. If you think of brain activity as a series of networks---regions of the brain all talking to one another, with each network associated with different kinds of functioning---we see a decrease in the typical and more stable networks we're used to seeing, and an increase in more transient network activity.
- We see a reduction in slow-wave brain activity. Now, we don't really know what brainwaves do, to be honest. But we can assume that slower brainwaves probably reflect or influence more long-range brain activity because slower waves are longer (here's a picture). This makes sense, if we're looking at more transient networks. Long-range brain activity and stable networks go together---you need something stable enough to last while the information crosses the distance.
- You see more activity in hub regions---regions that are connectors, rather than do-ers of things.
- And you seem to see increased plasticity, during and afterwards. That is to say that the neurons themselves seem do more rewiring.
All of this paints a pretty clear picture of a brain that is connecting in a way that is less focused, stable and global, but rather diffuse, transient and local.
Now, I've talked about this at great length elsewhere but the inside-out forces---our 'self-ness'---is largely a product of the patterns of thinking and behaviour we've created. Neural pathways map predictable events in the world to predictable ways of adaptively managing those events. These pathways are largely who we are. What we want from the world is determined by our routines and how they are either facilitated or interrupted by the world around us.
If what psilocybin is doing is disrupting the more stable aspects of this map, then of course that internal sense of ourselves is going to be disrupted. The strength of our habitual ways of perceiving the world and making sense of it is going to be diminished.
Instead, what will be prioritised is the outside-in forces. The increased connectivity, and the more transient nature of the connections is going to lead us to pay much less attention to what we typically pay attention to and much more attention to things we otherwise might not notice. The outside-in forces become the determining factor of the experience.
How this plays out
Using this as a template to understand the experience has been the most helpful, I think, when speaking to people thinking of trying mushrooms or trying to understand their own experiences. Here are my most common points:
The number one concern I hear reflects a fear of losing control---finding oneself in a world where nothing makes sense or you're unable to manage your experience.
Using typical dosing categories (micro, low, museum, high, heroic), this is not really a concern at anything under a high dose. To give you an example of what I mean, consider a drug like alcohol. One could say something like 'alcohol makes you a different person'---someone less interested in future consequences and less inhibited. You wake up wondering what the drunk version of you did that might be embarrassing or problematic. You lose access to the 'normal' version of yourself somewhere along the way.
With mushrooms you don't lose access to the normal version of you in this way. You don't change into a new and different person. This is because the inside-out forces are always there, they're just a bit less important. Less of the brain is occupied in maintaining those stable and global features of yourself. What this means is that you'll be you, with the same level of control over yourself. You'll just notice things that you don't normally notice. The outside-in forces have more sway over your attention.
The only real difference in these lower doses is that you might find that putting together your thoughts is more difficult. You're more distractable, because your brain is doing less of the global, stable connectivity that supports maintaining attention over the long-term. As such, lining your thoughts up in a neat order will be harder to do. But, because you're still you---you still have access to those inside-out forces---you're perfectly aware of this. You won't be able to bake very well, but you're perfectly capable of noticing just how bad you are at following the recipe and finding something more suitable to do. It's not that you would recklessly cross the road, oblivious of the consequences. You'd be just as worried as you normally would be knowing you're more distractable and you're faced with crossing a road.
At high doses, things change a little bit. Here you start to forget that being yourself is something you can do. You're perfectly capable of it, but it might take someone (a trip sitter, for example) or something (perhaps you stub your toe) to remind you. Absent a reason to come back to yourself, you might find that you spend quite a long time being completely occupied by a particular experience---the visual patterns behind the eyes or the different instruments in a piece of music. What seems to be happening here is that inside-out and the outside-in forces are equally as likely to capture your attention, and there's many more features of the outside-in forces to pay attention to than there are of the inside-out ones. Much more stuff is happening out there than there is in here.
At the highest doses, this effect is magnified. Even when you remember you can be yourself, you might tend to have difficulty holding on. I suspect that the transient connectivity in your brain simply cannot hold together the stability required to be you for a meaningful length of time. It's preferring to put together features of the world that are much less complex. You are often at the mercy of the outside-in forces, for the very reason that there are many more features outside of you available that are more local and transient. That's not to say that the inside-out forces are gone, though. You just can't maintain the more complex ones. For example, many people have experiences of living through old memories. Memories are transient instances of inside-out forces---discrete snapshots of you. These seem pretty well suited to local, transient network activity. Or people experience hallucinations that can sometimes manifest as journeys, or snapshots of vivid and impossible things. Again, local and transient---more abstract---representations of the world that are more accessible in this state than the very complex entity that is your sense of self.
Choosing your experiences
Thinking about inside-out and outside-in forces seems to also help people shape their experiences more effectively. You hear about how important 'set and setting' are with psychedelics, which is another way of describing the heightened influence of outside-in forces. But what we really want to do is balance the inside-out with the outside-in forces to achieve the kind of experience we're looking for. Let me give you an example of what I mean.
If you take mushrooms and engage in some kind of social situation, you will have much less classic mushroom weirdness. This is because you have to attend to your inside-out forces to be social. You have to occupy a great deal of your habitual ways of being in the world to hold a conversation: to have opinions; make arguments; understand jokes; and so on. Rather than noticing how interesting the wallpaper is, or how the light is pulsing in time with the electricity, you'll instead notice many more features of the social environment. You'll become more aware of the nuances of peoples' thought, grasp their ideas more quickly, pick up on body language you'd otherwise miss and all the while feel quite present and sober relative to times on a similar dose but alone. Here, the outside-in forces are occupying your attention, but in a way that also makes you attend to the inside-out forces. This is why having a trip-sitter is so effective---if you begin to become overwhelmed by some pesky outside-in force, you can replace it with ones that bring you back to yourself by talking to someone.
This is not to say that you can't still have a negative experience with others. Our desire to be socially normative is an inside-out force that you might grapple with when talking to others---how weird you seem, or how slow. With the right people this becomes funny, but with the wrong people it might generate some anxiety. Getting the balance right means considering just what inside-out forces you might be prompting, and how well those will suit the outside-in forces you'll encounter.
Another good example of balancing these forces comes in the form of intention setting. Whether by ritual, or journal, or simply just a preliminary reflection, taking the time to strengthen your thinking around particular want---a particular inside-out force---makes it far more likely that this will remain important as the experience develops, although it's no guarantee. In turn, the more prominent this inside-out force during the experience, the more likely it is to shape what outside-in forces take precedence---which ones you're likely to attend to, and which will have the most influence over the experience.
It seems worth noting here how dramatically the experience can shift when attention is turned to one force or another. The classic example is how all-consuming music can be. In a darkened room, with eyes closed and headphones in, music can completely take over the experience---a powerful outside-in force that drowns out any others. Knock out the headphones, or even open your eyes and you are suddenly returned to yourself---the other forces roll back in.2
And of course, these considerations must take into account the dose. The higher the dose, the more local and transient features will capture your attention at the expense of the more global and stable. The more complex the inside-out forces you want to maintain or promote, the less easy this will be as the brain shifts its preferred patterns of activity. Only particularly strong forces with many associated features are likely to be maintained at the higher end of dosing---the anxieties of the terminally ill for example; the ever-present search for purpose that infuses our walk through life; or the widespread ripples of deep-seated trauma. These kinds of things are much more likely to drive the interactions between the outside-in and the inside-out when we move past the recreational doses, assuming that the outside-in forces touch them at all.
Feeling yourself: understanding the incomprehensible
There is a particular kind of inside-out force that seems to become more accessible during the mushroom experience. We might call this the sense of the body. The brain is just the most recent addition to our nervous system. There is an older structure---the peripheral nervous system---that informs us about the state of our body. It's from here that we get intuitions---generalised senses of goodness and badness. These are typically transformed into more complex emotions later, but some remain heavily dependent on this more evolutionarily ancient structure. The best, and most relevant here, is intuitive insight. To quote:
Intuitive insight, in the sciences of the mind, refers to what we might call the 'aha' or 'lightbulb' moment. It can be distinguished from more analytic thought, like coming to a conclusion when working through a difficult mathematics problem, or figuring out how to traverse the London subway system. Analytic insight is the kind of insight that comes from trudging through information, step by step. Intuitive insight is instead the kind of knowledge that comes spontaneously, as if from nowhere: a new and urgent unforseen awareness.
Many of the perceived benefits of psychedelics, including mushrooms, come from the 'a-ha' moments people seem to have. The deep and often difficult to articulate experiences of understanding that people speak of. There is a full body release that comes with such moments of insight---psychedelic or not. An understanding that is less about the analytic, or intellectual and more about something embodied and physical. An understanding that does not happen in the brain, but in our more archaic perceptual architecture.
I think there's a straightforward explanation for this, but it's worth exploring a little bit to talk about what kinds of intuitions are more likely. Bear with me, as I walk through the low-level implications, because I suspect it's quite important to understanding the more profound insights that people have.
The straightforward explanation is detailed here and here, but very simply---the increased connectivity smashes together perceptions, ideas, and existing understandings of the world in novel ways. The increasing dominance of atypical outside-in forces means that you become aware of things you wouldn't normally notice, and so you have understandings that you wouldn't ordinarily have. You're paying attention differently, and so your habitual inside-out forces are combined in interesting ways with the outside-in forces.
At low doses, this is fun, but not profound. People often experience some mild visual distortions---breathing walls, hypersaturated colours, pulsing light. You see, your brain typically smoothes out features of your perception, concentrating on the features that are most useful. Now, with less emphasis on what you typically find important, you're starting to perceive more aspects of the world around you. The pulsing of your blood through the veins in your eyes, or features of the colour-space that are typically invisible to you.
As the dose increases, these new perceptions start to become more dramatic---perhaps you start to see everything as a sort of cartoon-version of those things for example, or see your reflection in an entirely new way. Your brain is no longer putting together objects in the same way, because it's integrating different and unusual aspects of the objects into a new and transient perception.
The more transformative aspect of this though is what it means to become liberated from the inside-out forces. So much of how you think and feel is dictated by your habitual ways of interacting with the world and the ways in which the world typically rewards or punishes those interactions. Now that those habitual patterns of thinking and behaving are less important and influential, you begin to open yourself up to new ways of seeing the world. But you also open yourself up to new ways of feeling the world. You aren't just changing the importance of outside-in forces, but also which inside-out forces are dominant.
For example, people start to find all sorts of mundane things quite interesting. The way the light falls on the ceiling, or the bubbles fizzing in a glass. Your interests, you see, are largely a product of your inside-out forces. With its influence reduced, your interests expand too. Interests are a feeling---how has the thing you like paying attention to rewarded you in the past. Liberated from your more trained responses to the world, you start feeling interested by more things. It is something like being returned to infancy, or early childhood---a time when you didn't know what was worth paying attention to, so your body was finding reward in the novelty of everything.
Importantly, these new feelings stick, after the experience. If you notice the amazing intricacy of the woodgrain patterns in your coffee table, the next day, when sober, you can still capture some of that interest. Remember that increased plasticity is a reliable feature of the neurochemical influence of psilocybin. Your brain is re-wiring, just a little bit, but enough to capture that feeling for the future. Mapping the experience of feeling generated in the less complex and more ancient peripheral nervous system to the well-defined inside-out forces maintained by the more modern brain.
I have frequently referred to the fact that higher doses reduce your capacity to maintain complex features of the world. This might not be the most accurate description. It might be better to say that higher doses reduce your capacity to maintain intellectual features of the world. That the increasing diffusion of network activity in the brain is better suited to capturing more abstract patterns available in these newly available outside-in forces. Patterns that exist, but exceed our ability to capture in language or rationalise with higher-order thought. Patterns that we can only recognise with the courser architecture of the peripheral nervous system---patterns we can feel but not intellectualise.
I suspect that at high doses, the kinds of profound and inarticulable insights people describe are these. Patterns that exist, but sit just on the borders of what we can perceive and understand. I don't think this is an outlandish claim. There are many features of the world that are simply not available to us as humans. We can conceive of these things at an intellectual level, but I suspect that mushrooms allow us to feel them---permitting a more suitable architecture of our body access to perceive and respond to them. And so, later, when we reflect on these experiences---because of the plasticity mushrooms enable---we can still access these understandings in a physical way, but it's very difficult to access them at the level we are accustomed to and articulate them.
This article is taking longer to write than I anticipated, so I won't say much here. But there is really no clinical evidence, at the time of writing, that sub-threshold microdosing3 does anything over and above a placebo. Now, if we can get at the placebo or (no-cebo) effect this way, then I think it's quite valuable. But I think we shouldn't get too carried away with it. If you don't take enough paracetamol to notice, then you didn't take enough paracetamol. If you don't take enough psilocybin to notice, then you probably didn't take enough psilocybin.
Again, remember the template---the increased dominance of outside-in forces relative to inside-out ones. If you don't notice the difference, even if they're there, how much good can they be doing? The inside-out forces are powerful, and the benefits of mushrooms seems to be that we see a reduction in their power, so why not reduce them to a level where the changes are evident to you? I'd suggest considering my section above on control---there's little to lose on a supra-threshold4 dose, especially if you take the advice of my section on balancing the inside-out and outside-in forces. Your dose can still be small, but this way you can be certain that it will actually be effective.5
Again, I will return to fill this out in more detail, but I'm very interested by the historical association between suggestibility and psychedelics. I wonder just how difficult this is to explain, given the increased influence of outside-in forces alongside the changes in neuroplasticity. It might just be that you let go, a little bit, of the way you see the world, and adopt more the way someone else sees the world. But there might be some interesting interactions here.
For example, a relatively recent6 study found that the big-5 personality trait conscientiousness was related to suggestibility while dosed with LSD.7 As conscientiousness went up, so did suggestibility. Now, problems with the big-5 model notwithstanding, this is a kind-of weird finding. Conscientious people are typically characterised by more control over their behaviour. Taking our model of inside-out and outside-in forces, it would be a fair assumption to make that conscientious people have much stronger inside-out forces. The authors suggest that maybe the loosening control of what they call the 'inner experience' and what we are calling the 'inside-out forces' means that conscientious people have more lee-way to change. But this seems a bit off to me. If they have stronger inside-out forces, why would that be more reduced with psychedelics?
I think perhaps a better explanation would be that conscientious people are much better at understanding and manipulating automatic, or otherwise unconscious processes, for better or worse. If this is the right way to think about things, then what we are seeing is a better integration of these particular inside-out forces and the newly influential outside-in forces.
Notes on dosing
I think it's worth making a final note about dosing. Obviously I completely eschew any responsibility for anyone treating this as advice without taking the proper considerations---talking to a medical professional (which I am not), investigating the legality of psilocybin in your jurisdiction etc. But I do have some thoughts given it's increasing use in recreational and therapeutic settings.
Firstly, there are two things that seem to reliably predict the best outcomes in psilocybin use:
- previous experience (see e.g. here). If you've done it before, then you're much more likely to have optimal outcomes from a trip; and
- reaching a state of oceanic boundlessness, as researchers call it. If you experience feelings of one-ness with the world, or a sense of eternity, you're much likely to have better long-term outcomes.
The former is sensible if only because one is obviously likely to be less nervous if they're familiar---remember the changing influence of inside-out forces. Nervousness and stress are much more likely to take over when the part of you responsible for calming those things is made less important. Taken together, it's probably not a great idea to jump right in, but to more systematically work up to higher doses.
If it were me, I'd want to do something like the following.
Firstly, if you've never taken mushrooms before, I'd start very small indeed because a non-trivial proportion of people are hypersensitive. Maybe the equivalent of 0.3g dried or something like this. This is going to be a sub- or close-to-sub-threshold dose for most people. If it affects you more strongly than this, then you want to sort-of modify the standard online dosages to match your subjective experience.
Then I'd go for the typical threshold dose. For most people this will be between 0.5g and 1.5g dried. Work your way up as comfortable until you're getting some mild visual distortions, and some occasional periods of interesting patterns of thinking. You should feel completely in control---confident that you'd be capable of doing anything you'd typically do (even if some of those things aren't as appealing as they usually are). You want to try this two or three times once you get there so you can get a feeling for just how different the experience can be under different conditions. For example, do it at home the first time, and at a party or out in nature the second.
Then I'd go for the typical museum dose---for many people something between 1g and 2.5g dried. Here we're essentially looking for a more dramatic version of the threshold dose---quite different ways of thinking about everyday phenomena, and more substantial closed and open eye visuals. Again, you should feel basically in control, although at this point you'd recognise that some activities wouldn't be very sensible to participate in. And, once again, recalling the section above on 'choosing your experiences', you want to do this a couple times in different settings to get a sense of how things change under different conditions.
It would only be at this point I'd start walking my way up towards the larger and heroic doses. You want to be fairly familiar with the way your perceptions and thinking change when taking mushrooms, and in particular, you want to feel like the only surprises you'll have is the content of the experience and not the form. At larger doses, remember, you start to have trouble holding on to the inside-out force that you'd most commonly call your self. You want to find yourself in a place that you're welcoming this new way of putting together the world, and not in a place where you're fighting it. This latter case is likely to result in the quintessential bad trip.
Alright, so I didn't really finish this article. Then again, perhaps it will never feel finished. The number of conversations I have on the subject increases with every passing year, and the depths of these experiences are still becoming known to us. You'll just have to enjoy what I do have, until I come back to it.
A quick anecdotal aside. I was once privy to a story in which someone on a fairly high dose was having quite a bleak experience. Some general restlessness and visuals that were entirely brown and unappealing. It occurred to them that jerking off might be an interesting thing to do, and despite some difficulty keeping their mind on suitable subject matter, managed to complete the task. Immediately upon orgasm, colour flooded their visual world and the restlessness was replaced by general contentment. Their experience was completely deranged by their arousal, and when that had been satisfied, their experience was dramatically different. Keep that in mind when you read the section on feelings. ↩
I.e. microdosing so little that you don't notice the effects. ↩
An amount that results in a noticeable effect. ↩
Anecdotal, but on this advice, a combat fighter acquaintance noted that a sparring session on a slightly supra-threshold dose resulted in noticeably more creative combinations. ↩
At least recent relative to most suggestibility research, which was conducted in the somewhat less ethically-oriented military-funded research in the 60's. ↩
We will assume that LSD is doing a roughly similar thing to mushrooms---the clinical evidence finds similar changes in the brain. ↩