Sunday, March 24, 2024

Psychedelics-mindfulness relationship: My 3 takeaways from Roland Griffiths' perspective

This week I got an opportunity to conduct a mindfulness session for IIT Bombay students thanks to my friend Prof. Devdip Purkayastha. One student asked, “How are psychedelics related to mindfulness?” This was not the first time the topic of psychedelics was raised in my mindfulness session. Questions like this prompted me to study the scientific literature on the subject over the past 2-3 years and what I found was quite fascinating. In this article, I would like to present my 3 takeaways from the Rolland Griffiths interview with Tara Barch titled “Meditation, psychedelics, mortality: A conversation with Tara and Roland Griffiths”. Roland Griffiths (1946-2023) was a professor of psychopharmacology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and is sometimes called the person who led a renaissance in psychedelics research over the past two decades.

Neuroscience of psychedelics and meditation is in its infancy: When asked, “Can you give us just a brief bit of the science, the common pathways that thus far is thought between how psychedelics work in the brain and how meditation works in the brain? Like how do they both have the effects they have of giving us that enlarged sense of being?” (45:05) Rolland responds, “One answer to that is our understanding of that is truly primitive,” and then he adds, “The neuroscience of understanding how these experiences unfold with both psychedelics and meditation is exciting, there's a lot of research going on, but again, it's at its infancy”.  “One of the most intriguing things that bring meditation and psychedelics together is the observation that acute psychedelics produce a decrease in the functioning of something called the default mode network (DMN).” (46:27) This large-scale brain network is known to be active while one is engaged in self-referential thinking (past, future, social evaluation, moral reasoning, etc). DMN is also known to be less active during mindfulness practice involving attentional focus on body sensations and breath, etc. However, DMN is not an anatomically well-defined term and its function and its relationship with psychedelics and mindfulness is an active research area.   

Psychedelics-based guided therapy could act as a crash course in mindfulness: This is how Roland describes the instructions given to subjects undergoing psilocybin-based guided therapy at his lab – “We tell people, you're going to have this experience, it may or may not be pleasant. It can take all kinds of shapes and forms. There may be visualizations, there may not be. And all we want you to do is pay attention to that experience, be present with it. We're here to support you should you start feeling uncomfortable but we're going to continue to ask you to go back in. And then we forewarn people about these experiences can be very, very difficult and we'll give a metaphor. We'll say, so, for instance, with psilocybin you can get a lot of visualization and so as a thought experiment let's suppose a demonic figure appears within your consciousness and this is something more terrifying than you can imagine, it's made by you, for you. And your natural impulse is going be to run or to fight it and you want to do neither of those two. You want to just recognize it as an object of consciousness.”  (21:06) If people learn to stay with such an intense experience without getting drawn in, they feel empowered in a way that they didn’t believe is possible before. Roland feels these instructions “amount to a crash course in mindfulness” (21:06) and he calls it “meditation on steroids”. (24:43)

There is no stability in psychedelics-based investigation and is riskier than mindfulness: Both psychedelics and mindfulness enable investigation of the nature of mind. Both are risky. Roland says, “There are a couple of significant risks that can come out of psychedelic exposure, and first and foremost is that people under unsupervised conditions, unscreened conditions can just engage in dangerous behaviour and they can get disoriented, they can get panicked, they can be confused to the point that they do themselves or others significant harm. And so, these have to occur under conditions that discourage that. But apart from that, there are biological predispositions that would seem to be very unfavourable.” (42:10) He adds, “My view is that the only way to achieve stability in this investigation of nature of mind is through practices such as meditation or other embodied practices and psychedelics can be misleading and certainly don't, in my judgment, represent a path in and of themselves because there is just no stability in it. And then certainly some people can get caught in the grasping for the experience and that could derail them. And then there are certainly more risks involved in the use of psychedelics than there are in meditation.” (37:55)

While writing this article, I came across a recent New York Times article “The psychedelic evangelist” that mentions that a former colleague of Roland has filed a complaint against Roland for running his research lab like a new-age retreat centre with religious symbolism and steering volunteers towards the outcome he wanted. It is also alleged that the drugs come with unpredictable risks, such as psychotic episodes, increased suicidality, or extended emotional difficulties, which are most likely underreported by his research lab.

Do these questions related to unethical research practices change my takeaways? No. The three takeaways are quite conservative and Roland certainly didn’t appear like a “salesman” for psychedelics in this interview which occurred while he was diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer. I haven’t used any psychedelics personally yet but I am curious about these developments as Roland says, “I see them (psychedelics and meditation) as just very close cousins, and there really may be value of much better investigation of how psychedelics can facilitate the exploration of the nature of mind when put into context of meditation.” (39:15)

In a subsequent article, I plan to explore a unified framework called the REBUS hypothesis (Relaxed Beliefs Under Psychedelics) proposed by Robin Carhart-Harris and Karl Friston.

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