Altered States

We’re reposting Mary Carpenter’s Sept. 18, 2017  on the healing power of altered states of consciousness and accessing the brain’s default mode network—with the idea that these troubled times might call for dramatic remedies.

“ALTERED STATES” of consciousness can change an individual’s personality (thought to remain relatively fixed after age 30) and have “tremendous healing power,” according to psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, 1960s researcher of LSD as a therapeutic tool, at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere.

Altered states have been explored by ingesting drugs like LSD, psilocybin and the recently popular ayahuasca (which involves vomiting) and with an “extended” meditation practice, which can take months or years to develop; also for some through sensory deprivation, lucid dreaming and other “natural” means.

The healing powers of altered states are traced to slowing or redirecting blood flow away from brain structures responsible for rigid habitual thinking, obsessions and addictions —as well as from thoughts focused on the self and daydreaming, which arise as background chatter when the brain is “at rest.”

Known as the brain’s “default mode network,” these structures make up what’s known as the “emotional brain,” responsible for feelings, behavior, motivation and long-term memory. Located in the frontal and pre-frontal cortex and the limbic system, these structures, including the amygdala and hippocampus, have been implicated in everything from depression to creativity.

“Whether or not your default activity is helpful or harmful depends on where your mind automatically tends to go,” Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director at the University of Pennsylvania’s Imagination Institute, told New York Magazine. “Our greatest source of suffering isn’t the default mode, but when we get stuck in the default mode:” a disturbed default mode network (DMN) is a mechanism in depression.

Bypassing the DMN puts the ego out of commission by dissolving boundaries between self and the world, according to John Hopkins psychologist Matthew Johnson, who researches the effects of psilocybin (magic mushrooms). What Johnson calls a “primary mystical experience” includes “a transcendence of time and space, a sense of unity and sacredness and a deeply felt positive mood” that is highly correlated with successful therapeutic outcomes.

Personality change—becoming more open-minded, tolerant, and interested in fantasy and imagination—was experienced by most of the healthy volunteers in Johnson’s two psilocybin studies, in 2006 and 2011, and confirmed in interviews with their family members, friends and colleagues. In the earlier study, 1/3 of participants rated their psilocybin session the most spiritually significant experience of their lives, ahead of the birth of a child or death of a parent.

“Early results suggest that when used by people without a family history or risk of psychological problems, psychedelics can make us kinder, calmer and better at our jobs…more open-minded and generous,” according to a Washington Post story.

Maybe most significant, the effects persisted in follow-up interviews at one year or longer —“an unprecedented finding” for a drug taken only once, New York University psychiatrist Stephen Ross told The New Yorker. Ross noted “incredible results” in a number of studies testing psilocybin in the treatment of depression, addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other mental problems.

While psychedelics might provide what some call a “cheat code to enlightenment,” risks associated with illegality and unpleasant physical and mental experiences have turned some “psychonauts” toward different kinds of breathing —such as mindful breathing, coherent breathing and yoga breathing.

Examination of natural breathing rhythms has linked electrical activity in the brain that enhances emotional judgment and memory recall to different kinds of breath: inhaling and exhaling and breathing through the nose and the mouth. Recall was better for images viewed while inhaling, for example, in research by Northwestern University neurology professor Christine Zelano, who notes: “When you inhale you are in a sense synchronizing brain oscillations across the limbic network.”

In the years since LSD became illegal, Stanislav Grof created “Holotropic Breathwork”—holotropic from the Greek, meaning moving toward wholeness. The technique involves deep, fast breathing accompanied by music of specific vibrations, as a route to what Grof calls “non-ordinary states of consciousness.”  Breathwork usually takes place in three-hour sessions, offered in day-long workshops around the country.  The music changes for different phases of the session.

The technique is trademarked and can be facilitated only by those certified by Grof Transpersonal Training, although instructions for DIY breathwork abound.  Reasons for starting out with an experienced guide include risks, such as panic attacks brought on by rapid breathing; and tetany, in which excess oxygenation causes muscles of the body to tighten up.  Also, people starting out can feel uneasy and disoriented. (Those with lung conditions like asthma should check with a doctor.)

For the future, the new Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research will focus on research—building on studies to date at Johns Hopkins on the effects of psilocybin in over 350 study participants—and this fall will publish a new study on the use of psychedelics in treating depression.

—Mary Carpenter
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