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Anyone who has been to London knows that navigating a wobbly grid full of winding streets and dead ends requires an impressive spatial memory. In fact, driving in London is very demanding. Brain Changes in Urban Taxi Drivers: Compared with Londoners driving a fixed route, taxi drivers had higher amounts of gray matter in the hippocampus, a brain region important for the formation of spatial memory. the effect will be greater.
This study is a particularly exciting demonstration of neuroplasticity: the innate ability of the human brain to change in response to environmental input, in this case the spatially demanding task of driving a taxi across London. Hard-won neuroplasticity required years of mental and physical practice. Wouldn’t it be nice to get the same effect without so much effort?
Hallucinogens such as psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, and ecstasy, along with anesthetics such as ketamine, can increase neuroplasticity in users within hours of administration. take hallucinogens For the express purpose of making their brains a little more flexible. With just a little drop of acid, your brain rewires itself. There are many anecdotes in the popular media suggesting that microdosing of LSD or psilocybin is possible. develop diverse thinkingthe more free and associative type of thinking that some psychologists associate with creativity.
Research suggests that psychedelic-induced neuroplasticity can actually enhance certain types of learning, especially in terms of overcoming fears and anxieties associated with past trauma. But claims about the transformative, brain-enhancing effects of psychedelics are almost always exaggerated. We don’t know. And there’s reason to suspect that such changes could be positively harmful for some people.
The idea that human and animal brains are resilient in response to everyday experiences and injuries is nothing new. The philosopher and psychologist William James is said to have first used the term. plasticity We go back to 1890 to explain the changes in neural pathways associated with habit formation. We found that these changes occur not only between neurons, but also within them. individual cells budding new connections Reorganize for all kinds of experiences. Essentially, this is a neural response to learning that psychedelics can activate.
I also understand that hallucinogens can cause changes in the brain. Injecting mice with psilocybin It can stimulate neurons in the frontal cortex to grow by about 10% and sprout new spines, projections that facilitate connections with other neurons. It also moderated stress-related behaviors. This effect persisted for more than a month, indicating persistent structural changes associated with learning. Presumably, a similar effect occurs in humans. (Investigating changes in single neurons requires sacrificing subjects, making comparative studies in humans impossible.)
The problem is that all these changes are not necessarily all goodNeuroplasticity means that the brain and mind are put into a state of susceptibility. The effect is like putting a glass vase back into the kiln, flexible and easily reshapeable. Of course, you can make the vase more functional and beautiful, but you can also ruin it. Above all, psychedelics make us very impressive thanks to their speed of action and magnitude of effect, but the final effect is still highly dependent on context and impact.
We are all experiencing what is called heightened neuroplasticity. sensitive period Brain development typically unfolds between the ages of 1 and 4, when the brain exhibits unique responses to environmental inputs. This helps explain why children effortlessly learn all sorts of things, like skiing or how to speak a new language.surely do Something in an environment stimulating enough to take advantage of this state of neuroplasticity. If you have the misfortune of being neglected or abused during a time when your brain is hypersensitive, the effects can be detrimental and long-lasting.
Being in a state of neuroplasticity improves your ability to learn, but it can also lead to negative or traumatic experiences and memories being burned into your mind while taking psychedelics. Last year, my patient, a woman in her early 50s, decided to try psilocybin with a friend. A few weeks after being exposed to psilocybin, she recalled a painful and vivid memory of her childhood that triggered an acute depression.
Had a guide or therapist been with her when she stumbled, helping her reevaluate these memories and reduce their toxicity, her experience might have been very different. , without a positive influence mediating it, she was at the mercy of her own imagination. This must have been the kind of situation Oregon lawmakers had in mind when they legalized recreational psilocybin use last month, but only in conjunction with a licensed guide. .
In fact, researchers and clinicians are finding clues as to whether people who frequently microdose psychedelics and roam with enhanced neuroplasticity are more vulnerable to encoding traumatic events. To know, we need to compare a group of people microdosing with a group of people who haven’t taken it for a period of time to see if, for example, the incidence of PTSD is different. there is. Importantly, people should be randomly assigned to either microdose or abstinence. In the absence of such studies, we are now involved in large-scale, uncontrolled social experiments. The results are inevitably messy and inconclusive.
Even if opening the brain for change was all good, the unlimited promise of neuroplasticity—the ability to rejuvenate and rebuild the brain regardless of age—is far from scientific evidence. is exceeded. Despite claims to the contrary, each of us has an upper limit to how flexible our brains can be. It is a window of opportunity. As we age, we gradually lose neuroplasticity. Of course, you can keep learning, but it takes more effort than when you were younger. Part of this change is structural. At age 75, the interconnectedness of neurons in the hippocampus is significantly less than at age 25. This is he one of the main reasons older people find their memories not as vivid as they used to be. A dose of psilocybin can slightly strengthen these connections, but it won’t make your brain behave like it’s 50 years younger.
This reality has never stopped a highly profitable industry from catering to the anxieties and wishes of the elderly, especially. You don’t have to search long online before finding all sorts of supplements that claim to keep your brain young and sharp. (sounds familiar?). Benefits are very modest, and limited to the cognitive tasks you practiced. By memorizing the sequence of numbers, you will be better at remembering numbers. You don’t get better at, say, chess by moving on to another skill.
We lose neuroplasticity as we age, and for good reason. Don’t let your brain rewire itself too much to retain experiences. Yes, we lose cognitive fluidity along the way, but we also gain knowledge. It’s not a bad tradeoff. After all, being able to use all your accumulated knowledge is probably more valuable to an adult than solving new math problems or learning new skills. More importantly, our very identities are encoded in our neural architecture.
At their best, psychedelics and other neuroplasticity-enhancing drugs do some wonderful things, such as speeding up treatment of depression, reducing anxiety in terminally ill patients, and alleviating the worst symptoms of PTSD. You can do.It studied the use of psychedelics and found that patients were given hallucinogenic drugs. psychiatric treatment options when the evidence backs it up. But endless self-enhancement with drugs is just an illusion.