In what amounts to just a touch of FUD from The Atlantic, writer Richard A. Friedman explores the issues with psychedelic and neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to change in response to environmental input.
If you’ve ever been to London, you know that navigating its wobbly grid, riddled with curves and dead-end streets, requires impressive spatial memory. Driving around London is so demanding, in fact, that in 2006 researchers found that it was linked with changes in the brains of the city’s cab drivers: Compared with Londoners who drove fixed routes, cabbies had a larger volume of gray matter in the hippocampus, a brain region crucial to forming spatial memory. The longer the cab driver’s tenure, the greater the effect.
The study is a particularly evocative demonstration of neuroplasticity: the human brain’s innate ability to change in response to environmental input (in this case, the spatially demanding task of driving a cab all over London). That hard-won neuroplasticity required years of mental and physical practice. Wouldn’t it be nice to get the same effects without so much work?
Friedman goes on to talk about the issues with psychedelics and the brain, suggesting that while they can enhance specific types of learning, the effects are overstated and may be actively harmful to some people. He writes:
Being in a neuroplastic state enhances our ability to learn, but it might also burn in negative or traumatic experiences—or memories—if you happen to have them while taking a psychedelic. Last year, a patient of mine, a woman in her early 50s, decided to try psilocybin with a friend. The experience was quite pleasurable until she started to recall memories of her emotionally abusive father, who had an alcohol addiction. In the weeks following her psilocybin exposure, she had vivid and painful recollections of her childhood, which precipitated an acute depression.
Her experience might have been very different—perhaps even positive—if she’d had a guide or therapist with her while she was tripping to help her reappraise these memories and make them less toxic. But without a mediating positive influence, she was left to the mercy of her imagination. This must have been just the sort of situation legislators in Oregon had in mind last month when they legalized recreational psilocybin use, but only in conjunction with a licensed guide. It’s the right idea.
The bottom line? Don’t go nuts and take a bunch of mushrooms on your own. I think we all know this by now, however, but it’s nice to be reminded.