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The music of psychedelics

Dr. Mendel Kaelen doesn’t believe the perfect playlist for psychedelic therapy exists. After ten years of research, Dr. Kaelen, Founder and CEO of Wavepaths, has developed an evidence-based, person-centered generative music product that allows the user and therapist to create a tailored music experience.

Wavepaths provides music both for and as psychedelic therapy, Mendel explained to the OPEN Foundation: “Music is a very powerful tool and I’m confident that we can view music as a psychedelic.”

He has understood this as a result of his experiences at Imperial College in London, where he worked as a PhD and postdoctoral neuroscientist, studying music’s role in psychedelic therapy.

“Psychedelics act as an agent that can reveal deeper parts of our being deeper parts of ourselves,” he explains, “and thereby can facilitate experiences that are meaningful and potentially life-changing.”

That’s revolutionary, he says: “Psychedelic therapy research is hinting at a new paradigm of understanding mental health: that the most effective way to facilitate change is by providing an experience. Not an idea, not a conversation but a directly felt fully embodied experience.”

“I’m talking about music in itself. So what we’re seeing already right now in our community is we have psychotherapists right now organically that joined our platform that are doing psychotherapy without psychedelic drugs. They are using Waveparts as an adjunct to deepen a particular experience.”

At ICPR 2022, Dr. Kaelen will shed light on the central role of music in psychedelic therapy, and hold a presentation titled The essential role of music in Psychedelic Therapy: 10 years of research.

A few last spots are still available for his workshop “Music For/As Psychedelic Therapy”, held on Wednesday September 21. Find out more at Mendel’s workshop page on the ICPR website.

This Researcher Is Studying the Placebo Effect in Psychedelics with a ‘God Helmet’

Michiel van Elk, an associate professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Leiden, used to be  very anti-drugs after growing up in a conservative Christian community. A psychedelic experience later in life put him on a path towards psychedelic research, and today he has an interdisciplinary approach to studying different aspects of the psychedelic experience – from a religious, neuroscientific, spiritual and cognitive to social scientific. An important part of Van Elk’s current work concerns the role of placebo effects in the psychedelic experience.

In previous research, he used a device ominously called the God Helmet. This helmet is essentially a sham brain-stimulation device: participants were made to believe that the helmet would stimulate their brain – potentially resulting in a mystical experience. In reality, it did nothing at all.

Many participants -indeed- reported having such a mystical experience while carrying the God Helmet. This result creates new questions around the role of the placebo effect in mystical experiences in general, and those induced by psychedelics in particular.

This idea is further supported by the ‘Tripping on Nothing’ study in which researchers made a concerted effort to reproduce the experimental context in which psychedelics tend to be administered, including ambient music, psychedelic paintings and color-changing lights. And there also many participants reported experiences usually associated with a medium to high dose of psilocybin (Olson et al., 2022) – even though they were given a placebo.

Jasper: What is your perspective on the role of placebo effects in the psychedelic experience?

Michiel: I think that is still very much an open question. One perspective is that the effects of psychedelics are at least partially mediated by placebo effects, because people have expectations about these effects. Another is that psychedelics are essentially super placebos, by making people more suggestible – leading to a stronger placebo response. 

Placebo research is an extensive, established field, including my own research with the God Helmet. We aim to integrate this field of study with research into the psychedelic experience: How do expectations influence the psychedelic experience? And how can psychedelics increase the placebo response?

Jasper:  It seems there is still much to be discovered about the role of placebo effects in the psychedelic experience. Assuming this role is indeed there, do you think the beliefs of the researcher also play a role, in addition to those of the patient?

Michiel: Placebo effects are partially based on the perceived credibility of the experimenter. The experimenter doesn’t need to believe in certain effects himself, in order to be a credible source. 

If I wear the placebo God Helmet myself, not much will happen. But if I give it to a participant and tell them about how it will stimulate their brain, something will happen.

This has to do with authority and suggestibility. What is important is that the participant believes the story, not so much the researcher himself. I do think this also underlies many psychiatric treatments: what matters is the meaning patients attribute to the treatment and their trust in the clinician, rather than the knowledge of the effect of neurotransmitters or SSRI’s. 

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Jasper: How would you research that? Would you provide different information to different participants? Or would you measure existing differences in expectations? 

Michiel: That is indeed one option: to measure individual differences in existing beliefs. Simply asking participants what they think will happen before they take a psychedelic.

We plan to make it explicit by manipulating expectations about the dosage. We could keep the dosage constant but tell them it’s 5 grams one day and 10 grams the other.

Another manipulation is through framing, for example telling people the substance has strong visual effects, or that it induces mystical experiences. This is comparable to what smartshops [legal dispensaries of psychedelic sclerotia in the Netherlands] already do today.

Do people indeed have more ‘philosophical’, self-reflective trips if they take Philosopher’s stones compared to Hawaiian High truffles, if the packaging suggests so?

Jasper: One of the challenges, in my view, is that you can’t control what people read or have already heard about psychedelics – and how that affects people’s expectations. Is there a way to measure those beliefs and use them as a variable?

Michiel: In practice this is very difficult, because to include individual differences such as these, you need humongous sample sizes. In studies with placebo brain stimulation like with the God Helmet –  where we place something on people’s heads that supposedly stimulates their brain, which in reality it does not – we do measure what these participants’ beliefs are regarding ‘brain stimulation’. Whether they believe it really exists, what they’ve read about it, etc. However, nothing consistent was ever found there! 

Recently a paper in Nature argued convincingly that if you are interested in establishing a relationship between brain measure X and an individual difference measure Y – like the relation between personality and cognitive performance – you need thousands of participants to establish such an effect. This basically illustrates that in almost any study that has looked at the brain – behavior correlations are severely underpowered.

Jasper: That highlights the importance of open science practices like data sharing. 

Michiel: Absolutely. What I would like to see more of is collaborative science, where many different institutions adhere to the same protocol and collect data together. Recent clinical trials with psychedelics successfully employed this model for the Phase II studies for example. However, when it comes to fMRI studies, we are currently not even close to this being a reality. Fortunately, recent attempts have been made to share data more, like analysis scripts between different institutions. That is an important and exciting step forwards!

Jasper: Thank you for offering your thoughts on this topic. Lastly, I would like to ask you: What do you think the status of psychedelics will be in your field of cognitive psychology in the year 2032?

Michiel: Interesting question. I hope different psychedelics will be developed with a more clearly defined mechanism. For example a clearer neurotransmitter profile. Lsd and psilocybin stimulate the 5HT2A receptor but also have many different downstream pharmacological effects, making it difficult to attribute their effects to this receptor alone.

Ketanserin helps a lot already but psychedelics with greater specificity would make this much easier. In this context I also understand why experienced psychopharmacologists are a bit skeptical about psychedelics  – pharmacologically speaking it is not a very ‘clean’ manipulation. However, that makes these substances so interesting at the same time as well!

Recently, Jasper Lucas talked to Michiel in a wide-ranging conversation wide ranging discussion about issues surrounding the psychedelic science field. This is part two of their conversation. Van Elk runs the PRiSM lab at Leiden University, which studies psychedelic, religious, spiritual and mystical experiences, and has received a prestigious NWO (government) VIDI grant to study the effects of psychedelics. He is the author of the book ‘A sober look at psychedelics’ – available in Dutch – and is also a speaker at our upcoming conference ICPR 2022

How Depression Can Be Treated with a Psychedelic Trip

If you’re interested in psychedelics, then you might have heard of the work of Robin Carhart-Harris, who conducted much of the most relevant research in the world of psychedelics together with his team at Imperial College in London.

In this look back at ICPR 2016 we will highlight the talk he held about his team’s trials with psychedelics-assisted psychotherapy, where he also showed some beautiful visuals of his team’s brain research, which happened to become some of the most famous psychedelic brain imagery known on the internet. 

Like our upcoming ICPR 2022 near Amsterdam, the edition in 2016 strove to bring together as many relevant studies from psychedelics as possible, and Carhart-Harris’ talk was most certainly a highlight. His research has been cited often and his talk was one of the best-watched from that year’s ICPR on our Youtube channel.

In his talk, Carhart-Harris talks about the results of his research – that psychedelics can cause a rise in cognitive flexibility, neuroplasticity, creative thinking, imaginative suggestibility, emotional lability, positive moods, and optimism. 

He also touches on the idea of depressive realism, a trend he has seen in patients suffering from depression. He describes their depression as a “sort of delusion”, where his patients “don’t see the world as it really is. There is this really quite evident pessimism bias, that is normalised post-treatment with psilocybin.”

A testimony of one of the participants is featured in the talk:

26:35 — ‘Although it’s early days yet, the results are amazing. I feel more confident and calm than I have in such a long time. My outlook has changed significantly too, I’m more aware that it’s pointless to get wrapped up in endless negativity. I also feel as if I’ve seen a much clearer picture. [Now] I can enjoy things the way I used to, without the cynicism, without the oppression. At its most basic. I feel like I used to before the depression.”

Brain Scans

One way to go about investigating psychedelics is by making fMRI brain scans. These scans are made of healthy and depressed individuals before, during and after a psychedelic experience. This way, the brain can be observed for changes.

Through these scans, the team got insights into the inner workings of the brain during psychedelic trips, and how they correlate with described experiences of volunteers, like ego-death. This is a type of experience in which people who are under the influence of psychedelics describe a certain loss of self, and a deeper connection with the wider universe or nature. 

Carhart’s studies have highlighted that the Default Brain Network may be connected with our sense of self – our ego –  and that the lower activity of this network during a psychedelic session may be associated with the occurrence of ego-death.

Some of the brain scans from the research team at Imperial, from 2012.

12:40 — “We see quite reliably a relationship between the magnitude of the disintegration and the default brain network. [..] The greater the disintegration of the default mode network, the greater our volunteers’ ratings of ego-dissolution. ”

During the psychedelic experience induced with psilocybin, the parts of the brain associated with the Default Brain Network show a drastic reduction in activity, often creating the experience of ego-death. The compulsive activity of the Default Brain Network also has been associated with patients that scored higher in depression ratings.

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The Default Brain Network and the Self

Robin Carhart-Harris’s argument is that the Default Brain Network may be the source of what most adult people call the ‘ego’. This network is known as the Default Mode Network because, during our daily lives, this brain network becomes more active when we are idle

The Default Mode is actually a really important part of our mental stability. This network is responsible for keeping our routines in check, making sure that our pending matters stay afloat, and that we’re not overlooking anything.

The mental activity generated by the Default Mode Network is usually stable and consistent day after day. This daily consistency in addition to the fact the DMN is the ‘standard’ mental voice, may contribute to the illusion that the Default Mode Network is the self.

12:58 — [The Default Brain Network is]: “Arguably the best candidate we have for the neural substrates of the self, or the ego, or our identity and personality.” – Robert Carhart-Harris

By analyzing the brains of participants who consumed psilocybin, Carhart’s team noticed that there was a process of renewal happening within the structure of the brain, almost like a general mind reset. This process of rebirth has been reported many times by psychedelic subjects.

17:50 — “We can think of the mind or the brain is reset in the same way that you can think of a computer is malfunctioning and throwing up an error message and you are wondering what you can do. And then you press the reset button and it comes back working nice and smooth as it should.”

In more recent years, Carhart-Harris has worked on building a more unified model of the workings of psychedelics in the brain. He founded the Psychedelic Research Group at Imperial College in London and focuses on the action of psychedelic drugs in the brain, and their clinical utility as aides to psychotherapy, with a particular focus on depression. He still studies the brain effects of LSD, psilocybin (magic mushrooms), and MDMA. 

Robin Carhart-Harris will not be speaking at ICPR 2022, but his colleague and the new head of the Psychedelic Research Group at Imperial College will: David Nutt

Notes about the author: Alexandre Perrella is a writer for Cabbanis!

The Doors of Perception

The Doors of Perception. Aldous Huxley. Vintage Publishing. ISBN: 978-0099458203

In this philosophical essay, released as a book, Huxley details his experience with mescaline over the course of one afternoon. 

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The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead

The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert. Penguin Books. ISBN: 978-0141189635

The authors process the concepts of death and rebirth presented in Tibetan Book of the Dead as a metaphor for the experience of ego death or depersonalization that is commonly experienced under the influence of psychedelic drugs. The book also describes broadening spiritual consciousness through a combination of Tibetan meditation techniques and psychotropic substances.

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The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Tom Wolfe. Transworld Publishers. ISBN: 978-0552993661

Wolfe presents a firsthand account of the experiences of Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters, who traveled across the US in a colorfully painted school bus became famous for their use of psychedelic drugs such as LSD in order to achieve expansion of their consciousness. This book has long been considered one of the greatest books about the history of the hippie movement.

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LSD Psychotherapy: The Healing Potential of Psychedelic Medicine

LSD Psychotherapy: The Healing Potential of Psychedelic Medicine. Stanislav Grof. Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). ISBN: 978-0979862205

Drawing on his 1960’s studies of LSD-assisted psychotherapy, Grof outlines a new cartography of the human mind, one which accounts for experiences such as shamanic trance, near-death experiences and altered states of consciousness. This vision is also the foundation for Dr. Grof’s revolutionary new Holotropic Breathwork.

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LSD, My Problem Child

LSD, My Problem Child. Albert Hofmann. Oxford University Press. ISBN: 978-0198840206

In a highly candid and personal account, the father of LSD details the history of his “problem child” and his long and fruitful career as a research chemist. An essential read for anyone wanting to learn about how LSD originated and Hofmann’s view on its transition to recreational use.

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The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge

The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. Carlos Castaneda. Simon & Schuster. ISBN: 978-0671600419

A mixture of narrative experiences and scholarly analysis, this book describes the effects of three hallucinogenic drugs taken by a graduate student under the supervision of a Yaqui Indian shaman.

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True Hallucinations: Being an Account of the Author’s Extraordinary Adventures in the Devil’s Paradise

True Hallucinations: Being an Account of the Author’s Extraordinary Adventures in the Devil’s Paradise. Terence McKenna. Ebury Publishing. ISBN: 978-1846044250

McKenna recounts a psychedelic journey in the Colombian Amazon with his brother. 

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22 May - Delivering Effective Psychedelic Clinical Trials

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