Although psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin were first synthesized more than 70 years ago with millions of people having used these drugs since then, it is only recently that scientists were legally allowed to conduct extensive studies on their therapeutic potential. By all accounts, it seems like this long ‘winter’ in psychedelic research ended up being a disservice to mental health, as scientists have widely reported that psychedelic drugs like LSD, magic mushrooms, ayahuasca, and even MDMA can have a tremendous impact in therapy.
Psychedelic use is associated with significant improvements in depressive and anxious symptoms and with increased emotional well-being. They also work well in treating addiction, PTSD, and other mental health conditions. Sometimes, a single dose is enough to spark long-lasting positive effects when all other therapies have failed.
However, while most of these studies have focused on neuroimaging and mathematical modeling, not a whole lot of attention has been directed to the cognitive effects of psychedelics.
Seeking to address this gap, Natasha Mason of Maastricht University in the Netherlands investigated how psilocybin — the active psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms — impacts creative cognition.
Psychedelics and creativity: a bright idea
Mason’s interest in psychedelics from a neuroscience standpoint while she was still studying pharmacy and was reading about recent research about alternative treatments for mental health disorders.
“The literature seemed exciting: a one-time ingestion of a psychedelic resulted in long-term symptom reduction. This was unheard of in my pharmacy classes, she says. “Unfortunately, the science was young, the substances illegal, and only a handful of universities could conduct this research.”
After moving to the Netherlands, she would finally receive the support and access to tools that she needed to perform a study on the association between psychedelic use and creativity. Although anecdotally, this link is strongly supported by many people who have used psychedelics at some point in their lives, this is the first time that this inquiry has been pursued with scientific rigor.
In a double-blind, placebo-controlled study, the researchers found that a moderate dose of psilocybin improved spontaneous creative insights but decreased deliberate, task-specific creativity. They also found that the frequency of novel ideals increased a week following psilocybin exposure.
This aligns well with previous research on the therapeutic effects of psychedelics on mental health. The enhanced creative output could very well be linked to disruptions in normally inflexible thought patterns. Disrupting these patterns can unleash more creative ideas, but can also ease depression and anxiety as these conditions are often triggered by relentless negative self-talk.
The findings were presented today at a symposium on psychedelics and cognition at the Cognitive Neuroscience Society (CNS) in San Francisco. At the event, another group of scientists presented another psychedelic-related study — this time investigating the drugs’ effects on memory.
Memories and déjà vu
Researchers led by Manoj Doss of Johns Hopkins University looked at ten datasets from previous studies investigating how psychedelics influence episodic memory. Intriguingly, they found that drugs like psilocybin or MDMA inhibit people’s ability to recall specific details from memory, but enhance the encoding of memories that rely on familiarity.
“Interestingly, non-drug studies have found that when recollection fails and familiarity is high, peculiar phenomena emerge, reminiscent of someone on psychedelics, such as déjà vu and premonition,” Doss explains.
“Although psychedelics may actually help some come to tangible insights, much of the psychedelic experience might be turning up the gain of such feelings of familiarity or insight, and like non-drug studies that can induce such feelings through cognitive manipulations, these feelings can potentially be misattributed to unrelated stimuli or ideas, giving rise to false memories and illusory insights.”
Psychedelics thus could provide an opportunity to “rapidly overwrite maladaptive memories and perhaps even provide a fresh set of contextual influences that aid new encoding even once one is sober,” the scientist concluded.