Our ability to recognise and sense the feelings of others is a magical tool. Afterall, they do say the eyes are the window to the soul. Today in a world of screens and scrolling it is important to still utilize the essential skill we share with our animal family — the ability to intuit and read each other. This is known as ‘recognition of emotions in facial expressions’ (or REFE). 

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An Ancient Form of Communication

And, we’re not talking about the kind of seedy reading-body-language-to-get-what-you-want scams that ebb and flow in popularity. We’re talking the ancient pre-language way that humans have always communicated in. As infants we learn by watching our families facial and body language, and it plays a large role in the culture we inherit. Of course, the context of what we read matters, and sometimes you do get it wrong. But, as a rule our instincts are pretty powerful. One of our most important traits as humans — empathy — is based on understanding and sympathizing with the experiences of others. This is something that reading facial expressions is a key part of. 

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Psychedelics Can Reduce Recognition of Negative Facial Expressions

This essential evolutionary skill is still an exciting subject for research and analysis, especially when combined with the current burgeoning psychedelic research field. And, results have been forthcoming.  A 2019 systematic review of eight previous studies on psychedelics found an intriguing result. The study, published in Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology, and carried out by a team at the University of Sao Paulo, found that psychedelics such as psilocybin and LSD reduce the user’s recognition of negative facial expressions. This is due to the modulating effect psychedelics have on the amygdala’s activity. 

A Treatment for Mood Disorders

This is exciting news for people who have trouble reading emotional states, such as those suffering from anxiety and mood disorders. For example, a person with an anxiety disorder is more likely to focus on negative emotions, at the expense of positive ones.  This means the sufferer holds on to and internalizes negative cues. This reinforces the overactive nervous system that can cause the disorder in the first place. You begin to believe that everyone around you has negative intent or bad feelings towards you. Equally, it makes it harder to recognize or believe positive emotional cues too.

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Luckily, if our REFE is improved, it has a positive therapeutic effect. The authors of the study focused on the class of serotonergic hallucinogens. This includes psilocybin from magic mushrooms, LSD, mescaline and DMT. These tryptamine derivatives bind to our serotonin-1a receptors, which results in feelings of contentment, as well as our serotonin-2a receptors, which are what causes the ‘mystical experience’. This combination causes increased feeling of satisfaction and ease while boosting the luster and excitement of everyday life. 

Psychedelics Increase Our Feelings of Connection

Psychedelics also have the quality of making the user feel less isolated. The world is no longer just about them, but all beings. In this way psychedelics can be a more holistic way of treating conditions that were previously the domain of Big Pharma. Rafael Guimarães dos Santos, a postdoctoral fellow said of the study;

“Altering emotional processing by modifying facial emotion recognition could be one of the mechanisms involved in the therapeutic potentials of ayahuasca and other serotonergic hallucinogens.”

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The researchers found 62 studies that fit their criteria, and the eight they chose to focus on were those that investigated psilocybin or LSD. Of course, the studies varied in quality. Some were small, or not placebo controlled, which the authors of the paper acknowledged. Still they concluded;

“The studies reviewed showed that a single dose or a few doses of LSD or psilocybin was associated with a modified pattern of recognition of negative emotions that could be interpreted as beneficial, since several of these studies showed that these modifications were correlated with increases in positive mood and/or anxiolytic and antidepressant effects.”

There is a correlation between depressive conditions and increased responses in the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that controls the fight-or-flight response. What the researchers are excited by is that serotonergic hallucinogens reduce the negative brain responses here. Psychedelics do affect other brain regions too, but the depression and anxiety decreasing hot-bed seems to be located in this area. 

The Power of Awe

Another theory is that the effect could be due to the awe-inspiring qualities psychedelics have. Feelings of awe, which are overwhelming yet humbling, are thought to be one of the vital therapeutic effects of psychedelics. The sense of connection and being part of something bigger is the antithesis of anxiety, which at its height makes you feel totally alone in the world. 

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By freeing people from their focus on negative emotional cues and giving them back the ability to recognise the positive, psychedelics are an essential part of mental health care. Or, at least they should soon be. With more and more people looking for natural, non-damaging alternatives to traditional pharmaceuticals, studies like this will only add to the volume of the call to research psychedelics further. 

Seeing the Good in People

Moderating the fear response is an important in the therapeutic treatment of many diseases. For a significant amount of people, current antidepressant regimens are not working. The time is coming for larger scale psychedelic studies to take the lead.

Psilocybin literally helps us to see the good in people. Pretty cool, huh?