Magic mushrooms "amplify brain's dreaming areas"

Psilocybe_semilanceata_6514Photo: Alan Rockefeller, CC BY-SA 3.0

A new study reveals not merely what millions of Americans already knew—that shrooms expand your mind—but how it happens.

Published in the neuroscience journal Human Brain Mapping, the research looked into how psychedelic drugs affect consciousness. Volunteers were given psilocybin, found in magic mushrooms, and their brain scans compared to those of a control group given a placebo.

Psilocybin was seen to increase activity in regions of the brain activated during dream sleep and which form "part of the brain's ancient emotion system," writes Robin Carhart-Harris, one of the study's co-authors at the Center for Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London.

"Psychedelics facilitate a state of 'expanded' consciousness," wrote Carhart-Harris, "meaning that the breath of associations made by the brain and the ease by which they are visited is enhanced under the drugs."

The findings, he suggests, support the idea that psychedelics temporarily diminish one's sense of having a firm and enduring personality–and that trips are akin to a waking dream.

The research expands something else, too: our understanding of potential treatments for anxiety and depression. From The Washington Post's Rachel Feltman:

This dampening of one area and amplification of another could explain the "mind-broadening" sensation of psychedelic drugs, he said. Unlike most recreational drugs, psychotropic mushrooms and LSD don't provide a pleasant, hedonistic reward when they're consumed. Instead, users take them very occasionally, chasing the strange neurological effects instead of any sort of high.

"Except for some naïve users who go looking for a good time…which, by the way, is not how it plays out," Carhart-Harris said, "you see people taking them to experience some kind of mental exploration, and to try to understand themselves."

Nature World News details some of the techniques used to measure brain activity:

In the new study, researchers also applied a measure called entropy, which was originally developed to quantify lost energy in mechanical systems. Researchers have now found that during a drug trip, entropy increases in primitive part of the brain, meaning that there are more patterns in this region. Researchers believe that the high level of coordination in this region is probably the reason behind the "mind expansion" experience reported by magic mushroom users. Previous research has shown that the brain always has an optimal level of dynamic networks active. The critical point ensures that there are never too many or too few brain networks active at a given time. The latest study shows that the chemicals in magic mushrooms and LSD can tip this critical balance and create a chaotic state in the brain.