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Psychedelics And How They Work on the Brain

Psychedelics hold much promise as a treatment for mental health disorders, thanks to what we know about how the brain and the mind experience and react to psychedelics. Sometimes, psychedelics mimic psychiatric disorders, and sometimes they can help us treat psychiatric disorders. What we know and what we’re learning about how psychedelics and how they work on the brain makes psychedelics a very promising tool in the treatment of mental health disorders.

What We Experience

People who take psychedelics experience the effects as a “trip.” Many people share that they have gained tremendous insight into things that weren’t clear before, such as spiritual insights. Psychedelics can cause people to experience the peak of joy, feel an intense connection to a greater power, and feel an intense rapture. Sometimes these feelings are so far beyond normal, that it can be hard to describe in words.

Spiritual Experiences

“Tripping” is commonly associated with the use of LSD, which is best known for producing intense psychedelic experiences including visual hallucinations and out-of-body experiences. Users can experience intensely spiritual feelings, such as “oneness” with the universe or other entities. The impact can last for a long stretch of time, and the effects can hang around for as long as twenty hours. What we’ve learned is that set and setting are very important to the experience of people using LSD – meaning, we should modify the experience by preparing for it and establishing a safe environment for experiencing the trip.

Stimulating Nerve Growth, Building New Pathways In The Brain

During my training, I was a junior resident supporting brain surgery in the UK. At the time, we knew so little about how the brain works, and our tools for studying the brain were limited, but not for lack of trying. One of my neurological supervisors was trying to stimulate stem cell production to help heal spinal cord injuries. It didn’t work then, but today, we’re using psychedelics to stimulate stem cells in the brain to grow new nerves!

Ego Dissolution

Ego dissolution is a state in which the boundary between you and the world dissolves. This may sound strange since we are usually aware of a physical boundary between our bodies and the world – namely our skin. But psychedelics can cause this sensation. I liken it to getting into a warm bath and closing your eyes. You start to relax, but instead of relaxing, your body literally dissolves in the water, you and the molecules in the water becoming one. It feels like a dream. It’s weird but that’s what psychedelics can do.

Sixth Sense

We have five senses: seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and tasting. But there’s a sixth sense that can emerge when using psychedelics. This sixth sense is synaesthesia, and it is a merging of senses. You can hear colours and see sounds. Your usual senses are not working normally. You’re lying in a dark room, at night and yet, you see flashing lights, bright colours, and scenes rolling across the back of your eyes as if watching a movie, a really vivid fantasy at that. Sometimes, psychedelics cause a person to see things that others can’t. You might swat at insects that no one else can see. You can lose your sense of time – what seems like minutes will be hours, in reality.


Dissociation is a condition in which parts of the brain feel as though they aren’t connected, whether it’s memories, behaviours, feelings, perceptions, or sense of self. For example, a friend of mine was taking ketamine for pain relief. She experienced the ketamine as a disconnect between her mind and her body, and she had to really focus in order to move her feet enough to walk. You don’t need to take drugs, though, or have a mental health disorder, to experience a dissociative state. When we meditate, we induce a dissociative state naturally!

The more we learn about psychedelics and how they work on the brain, the more they create hope for improvement. Compounds like psilocin, ketamine and MDMA open the possibilities for brain changes and clinical improvement. The caveat is that they aren’t effective ON THEIR OWN. They need to be combined with the right kind of psychotherapy.

As psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is starting to become available, such as the ketamine clinics that have opened in many areas, we’re ready to usher in a new era. Taking into account what’s legally available where you live, cannabinoids like CBD are available for therapeutic use in combination with psychotherapy, but these programs don’t use the latest evidence or tools. The next step in the promise of psychedelics is a therapy program based on the latest science. The potential is there. Are we ready?

To learn more about the psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, look for my book coming out this April from Ingenium Books, The Promise of Psychedelics.

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