In my regular reconnaissance for the latest news in the world of drug and alcohol treatment I recently discovered an intriguing study on the actual effects of various substances on brain function – complete with pretty pictures of the activity created by all sorts of different chemicals. Not only did the headline, “This is what your brain on drugs really looks like[i],” capture my attention (I knew my brain didn’t really resemble an egg in a frying pan, like the old anti-drug adds would have you believe) but the colorful diagrams drew me in as well. In the past I always imagined the mental fireworks accompanied by the taking of psychedelics – could the real life images be nearly as exciting as those in my imagination?
First let me explain the title of today’s blog, which no doubt attracted attention from those looking for a new way to get high. Let me clarify: the researchers behind the MRI studies of the brain gave the participants injections of psilocybin, the active hallucinogenic in most varieties of ‘magic mushrooms’. Were I still in my days of active addiction such a discovery would have no doubt set me in a quest through the back pages of weekly papers, looking to see if such research was still ongoing and if I could sign up. In the past I’ve tried smoking mushrooms, and even seen someone try snorting ground-up ‘shroom dust at a college party (the result was an amazing amount of vomit and some pretty severe nasal congestion) but shooting up pure psilocybin would seem like the pinnacle of hardcore fungus use. For an experienced psychedelic user the results would be hard to predict, for anyone else I can only imagine the experience would be fairly terrifying.
Perhaps some of these factors explain the results of the study: significant areas of the brain actually shut down in the brains of participants given psilocybin in the study. My expectation of bright explosions across the MRI scans proved dramatically wrong. Instead the darkened images of activity show signs of ‘unconstrained cognition,’ the lack of normal communication between different areas of the brain. Because these certain areas are stifled the mind perceives things in a way totally different from its normal functioning. For me the most interesting findings derive from the fact we still know so little about the way the mind adapts and responds to substances that humans have ingested for thousands of years.
Of course as an addict in recovery I have extensively experienced the ways in which drugs affect my mind, and come to essentially the same conclusion as the scientists. “Unconstrained cognition” led to all my problems as well; I thought too much about too many things and wanted to consume any and all substances, legal and illegal, to give me relief from the pressure of over thinking. Was this what the scientists injecting their subjects with hallucinogens meant? Perhaps not, but I’m going to stop analyzing everything – call it part of my recovery.