According to brand-new research published in the journal Scientific Reports, psilocybin (the active compound in magic mushrooms) can boost insightfulness when meditating. 

In this first-of-its-kind study, the researchers explored “a dataset of functional magnetic resonance images collected during focused attention and open monitoring meditation before and after a five-day psilocybin-assisted meditation retreat using a recently established approach, based on the Mapper algorithm from topological data analysis,” 

To translate; the researchers used an fMRI machine to scan the brains of people meditating, before and after taking psilocybin, comparing the results to measure any difference. 

The Relationship Between Psychedelics and Meditation (a Refresher)

Meditation and psychedelics have long been intertwined. Both are said to affect the brain in similar ways, which is why they are both effective strategies for dealing with mental health issues. Previously, comparative studies have looked at the brain scans of those who have taken psychedelics, and contrasted them with those of people in a meditative state. 

Through this, researchers noted similar changes in the Default Mode Network (DMN) of the brain. The DMN is the part of the brain in which we self-reflect and plan. It is an essential mechanism; but for sufferers of depression and other mood disorders it is often found to be overactive. This means they can experience an imbalance of negative thoughts and feelings towards themselves. Both psychedelics and meditation affect the DMN in ways that promote feelings of inner peace and insight. 

Photo by Matteo Di Iorio on Unsplash

Additionally, both people who meditate, and those who explore psychedelics for spiritual reasons tend to be more open-minded and be similarly inquisitive about the universe. This is why many people with meditation practices take an interest in psychedelics, and vice versa. 

Note: Citizen Scientists Pave the Way

As usual, the ‘citizen scientists’ of Reddit were already deep in the research that ‘institutional science’ has just begun. There are many threads of Reddit that discuss, argue about, and advocate the combination of psychedelics and meditation. As you will see, the study we are about to explore actually puts into scientific parlance many of the experiences that Reddit users describe. For example, u/Radagastthebrowns, in the r/Meditation community wrote;

“Meditation while using psychedelics is crucial for me during many moments I utilize mediation and breathing, meditate in your own way and you’ll find it unlocks what need be unlocked.”

How The Study Worked

The new study worked like this; 36 “experienced meditators” took part in and completed two sessions of fMRI brain imaging. The first was without any interventions to establish a base. The second was after a “5-day psilocybin-assisted meditation retreat.” The study utilized a randomized, double-blind, placebo, controlled, parallel-group study design. 

The researchers explained;

“Placebo or psilocybin (315 body weight; absolute dose, 21.82±3.7 mg) was administered on the fourth day of the retreat, and the 11D-ASC questionnaire for ratings of altered states of consciousness (see Methods ) was administered 360 minutes after drug intake as a retrospective measure of subjective effects. 

Each scan session (one day before and one day after retreat) consisted of 21 min of resting-state, focused attention, and open monitoring sequences (fixed order), with each meditation lasting 7 min. For each subject both scan sessions were concatenated (with transition times excluded) and Mapper shape graphs were generated and analyzed,” 

Via Unsplash

Of the various findings, perhaps the most striking was the researchers  “found that (psilocybin-induced) positive derealization, which fosters insightfulness specifically when accompanied by enhanced open-monitoring meditation, was linked to the OT distance between open-monitoring and resting state.”

Noting that the “findings suggest that enhanced meta-awareness through meditation practice in experienced meditators combined with potential psilocybin-induced positive alterations in perception mediate insightfulness.” 

A ‘Synergy’ Between Mindfulness and Psilocybin

“Together, these findings provide a novel perspective on meditation and psychedelics that may reveal potential novel brain markers for positive synergistic effects between mindfulness practices and psilocybin,” they explained.

In conclusion, the authors wrote that “compared with meditation alone, psilocybin alters the perception of the external world, presumably by increasing informational richness, which is reflected by increased OT distances between OM and RS postretreat.” 

Magic mushrooms (via Creative Commons)
Aiming to Benefit “Individuals and Society”

In an interview with PsyPost, Berit Singer, one of the study’s lead authors, shone a light on the inspiration behind the research;

“I was interested in the technical part of the topic, because I am fascinated by how pure mathematics, especially topology, can be applied to extract important information from latent structures in data that is not apparent to other methods.”

“Psychedelic neuroscience and mediation is particularly interesting to me, because I can see that there is a lot of research needed to better understand the mechanisms of these substances and techniques, and because I wish that this will help to use them in a beneficial way for individuals and society.”

Targeting an ‘Alternative Approach”

Singer and the rest of the team noted in their research that “meditation and psychedelics have attracted increasing scientific interest in recent years.” 

Continuing, “While research on the neurophysiology of meditation and psychedelics has grown rapidly, these topics have been studied mainly from the perspective of functional connectivity, resting-state networks, and signal variability, including measures of entropy and criticality. This article targets an alternative approach in which a novel topological data analysis (TDA) method is applied to the neurophysiological study of the synergistic effects of meditation and psychedelics,” 

Opening Yourself to Natural Magic

So there, you have it. As we’ve long suspected, psychedelics, such as psilocybin are able to make us more insightful, especially when coupled with a mindfulness practice, such as meditation. Our brains and our minds are mysterious domains that we can learn to explore, opening our psyches to the magic of the universe, both invisible and visible.

Photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin on Unsplash