Your brain on psychedelics and meditation

This one’s from a couple issues ago in The New Yorker, which mainly goes to show how far behind on my reading.

Journalist Michael Pollan explores the resurgence of medical/psychological investigation into psychedelic drugs — for decades now a difficult, if not verboten, area of research. In particular, researchers are looking at how carefully guided trips can help terminally ill patients better cope with death. We’ve mentioned Pollan before, mainly related to his investigations into food and diets.

One section in particular caught my attention:

He discovered that blood flow and electrical activity in the default-mode network dropped off precipitously under the influence of psychedelics, a finding that may help to explain the loss of the sense of self that volunteers reported. (The biggest dropoffs in default-mode-network activity correlated with volunteers’ reports of ego dissolution.) Just before Carhart-Harris published his results, in a 2012 paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a researcher at Yale named Judson Brewer, who was using fMRI to study the brains of experienced meditators, noticed that their default-mode networks had also been quieted relative to those of novice meditators. It appears that, with the ego temporarily out of commission, the boundaries between self and world, subject and object, all dissolve. These are hallmarks of the mystical experience.

If the default-mode network functions as the conductor of the symphony of brain activity, we might expect its temporary disappearance from the stage to lead to an increase in dissonance and mental disorder—as appears to happen during the psychedelic journey. Carhart-Harris has found evidence in scans of brain waves that, when the default-mode network shuts down, other brain regions “are let off the leash.”

What that says is that both psychedelics and meditation act on the same part of the brain, the area that scientists closely identify with our ego — our “I” that is doing all our looking and categorizing of our world. Also the one that has those fluctuations of the mind we are trying to slow via yoga.

It’s not a perfect fit, as obviously with the ego put on a brief holiday, other parts of the mind spin of their own accord. But … well, it was something. And the whole article is worth a look.

Posted by Steve