Researchers from the University of Zurich interested in the effects of psychedelic drugs and meditation on brain regions involved in self-awareness have recently conducted a randomised, double-blind study – published in the journal NeuroImage – to find out what happens in the brain when the aforesaid two interventions are used in tandem.
In the study, 38 experienced meditators were each given a single dose of either psilocybin or a placebo during a 5-day meditation retreat. Six hours after receiving their respective compounds, the participants were asked to report on altered states of consciousness, or lack thereof.
The participants were also scanned using an fMRI machine both the day before and after the retreat to gauge any changes in brain connectivity while resting and while engaged in either mindfulness or open awareness meditation.
As expected, the group which received the psilocybin were more likely to experience a sense of oneness with the Universe – more commonly known as “ego dissolution” – while engaged in open awareness meditation under the influence of psilocybin.
This experience was accompanied by a decoupling of functional connectivity between the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex of the so-called “default mode network”, which was previously found to be heavily involved in processing feelings of self (among other things).
“We here report for the first time psilocybin-induced functional connectivity changes in self-referential brain networks in a group of experienced meditators after a mindfulness retreat,” wrote the researchers.
While changes in brain activity in response to a psycho-active substance are not exactly remarkable in themselves, the interesting thing about this study were the accompanying positive changes in attitudes towards life, social behaviour, mood, and spirituality as many as 4 months post-intervention.
“Our double-blind study presents a notable case because its participants were primarily in middle adulthood and already engaged in meditative practices, and yet the psilocybin-treatment group still reported a significant beneficial effect of the retreat.”
Among the causes proposed by the researchers for the effects were cognitive reappraisal, self-inquiry, and self- and world-related insights that may lead to persistent changes in psychological well-being and social behavior.