OPEN Foundation

Day: 28 September 2017

The Mechanisms of Psychedelic Visionary Experiences: Hypotheses from Evolutionary Psychology


Neuropharmacological effects of psychedelics have profound cognitive, emotional, and social effects that inspired the development of cultures and religions worldwide. Findings that psychedelics objectively and reliably produce mystical experiences press the question of the neuropharmacological mechanisms by which these highly significant experiences are produced by exogenous neurotransmitter analogs. Humans have a long evolutionary relationship with psychedelics, a consequence of psychedelics’ selective effects for human cognitive abilities, exemplified in the information rich visionary experiences. Objective evidence that psychedelics produce classic mystical experiences, coupled with the finding that hallucinatory experiences can be induced by many non-drug mechanisms, illustrates the need for a common model of visionary effects. Several models implicate disturbances of normal regulatory processes in the brain as the underlying mechanisms responsible for the similarities of visionary experiences produced by psychedelic and other methods for altering consciousness. Similarities in psychedelic-induced visionary experiences and those produced by practices such as meditation and hypnosis and pathological conditions such as epilepsy indicate the need for a general model explaining visionary experiences. Common mechanisms underlying diverse alterations of consciousness involve the disruption of normal functions of the prefrontal cortex and default mode network (DMN). This interruption of ordinary control mechanisms allows for the release of thalamic and other lower brain discharges that stimulate a visual information representation system and release the effects of innate cognitive functions and operators. Converging forms of evidence support the hypothesis that the source of psychedelic experiences involves the emergence of these innate cognitive processes of lower brain systems, with visionary experiences resulting from the activation of innate processes based in the mirror neuron system (MNS).
Winkelman, M. J. (2017). The Mechanisms of Psychedelic Visionary Experiences: Hypotheses from Evolutionary Psychology. Frontiers in Neuroscience11, 539. 10.3389/fnins.2017.00539
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Serotonin 2A Receptor Signaling Underlies LSD-induced Alteration of the Neural Response to Dynamic Changes in Music


Classic psychedelic drugs (serotonin 2A, or 5HT2A, receptor agonists) have notable effects on music listening. In the current report, blood oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) signal was collected during music listening in 25 healthy adults after administration of placebo, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), and LSD pretreated with the 5HT2A antagonist ketanserin, to investigate the role of 5HT2A receptor signaling in the neural response to the time-varying tonal structure of music. Tonality-tracking analysis of BOLD data revealed that 5HT2A receptor signaling alters the neural response to music in brain regions supporting basic and higher-level musical and auditory processing, and areas involved in memory, emotion, and self-referential processing. This suggests a critical role of 5HT2A receptor signaling in supporting the neural tracking of dynamic tonal structure in music, as well as in supporting the associated increases in emotionality, connectedness, and meaningfulness in response to music that are commonly observed after the administration of LSD and other psychedelics. Together, these findings inform the neuropsychopharmacology of music perception and cognition, meaningful music listening experiences, and altered perception of music during psychedelic experiences.
Barrett, F. S., Preller, K. H., Herdener, M., Janata, P., & Vollenweider, F. X. (2017). Serotonin 2A Receptor Signaling Underlies LSD-induced Alteration of the Neural Response to Dynamic Changes in Music. Cerebral Cortex, 1-12. 10.1093/cercor/bhx257
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