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Bruno Dubuc, Patrick Robert, Denis Paquet, and Al Daigen




Wednesday, 9 September 2020
The combined effects of meditation and magic mushrooms

Today I want to tell you about a study entitled “Psilocybin-assisted mindfulness training modulates self-consciousness and brain default mode network connectivity with lasting effects,” which a research team from the University of Zurich published in the journal NeuroImage in August 2019. As the title suggests, this study combined two methods of modulating the brain: engaging inmindfulness meditation and taking the hallucinogen psilocybin, a psychoactive molecule found in “magic mushrooms”. Previous studies had shown that both of these methods produced a similar effect: they gave subjects the impression that the boundaries between their bodies and their environments were dissolving (a state of consciousness often referred to as ego dissolution). But in this study, the research team wanted to find out whether combining these two methods might make this effect stronger and longer-lasting.

In this experiment, 38 subjects who were experienced meditators went on a five-day meditation retreat during which they received a single dose of either psilocybin or a placebo. This was a double-blind study: neither the subjects nor the persons administering the doses knew who was receiving the drug and who was receiving the placebo. Six hours later, the participants filled out a questionnaire about their levels of states of altered consciousness.

The day before the retreat and the day after, the subjects also underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging of the functional connectivity of their brains while they engaged in two different forms of meditation: first, focused attention meditation, and then open awareness meditation.

The results showed, first of all, that compared with the subjects who received the placebo, the subjects who received the psilocybin were more likely to feel this effect of the boundaries between themselves and the rest of the world dissolving. The results also showed that in terms of functional connectivity (which parts of the brain tended to work together), when the subjects were engaged in open awareness meditation, the psilocybin-induced ego dissolution appeared to be associated with decoupling of the medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortexes of the default mode network.

What makes this observation especially interesting is that ever since the default mode network was discovered some 20 years ago, it has been associated with processing of the sense of self. This study would seem to have shown that for experienced meditators, a five-day meditation retreat combined with a single dose of psilocybin can induce positive, lasting changes in the connectivity of brain networks associated with their perception of themselves in the world. I say positive and lasting because, when the subjects were evaluated four months after the retreat, the levels of change observed in the connectivity of their default mode networks were correlated with positive general changes in their attitudes about life, their relationships with themselves, their social behaviour, and their affect and spirituality.

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