Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Return of Psychedelic Research

The Beckley Foundation reprints a Salon article, Flashback! Psychedelic Research Returns, that gives a nice overview of psychedelic research over the years, within the current context of successful research on cancer patients experiencing anxiety.  Historical references going back to William James, Huxley, Leary, Pahnke, and the recent resurgence in research starting with perhaps Strassman and up to Griffiths.

I'm going to sidetrack a bit and rehash what Zaitchik refers to as an "ideal" dose of psilocybin:

Even the dose employed is the result of trial and error: The Johns Hopkins team has identified the golden mean — between 20 and 30 milligrams, roughly equal to a good fistful of strong ‘shrooms — to maximize peak experience while minimizing transitory anxiety.

That's a dose somewhere between "strong" and "heroic," maybe 4-6 grams of dried mushrooms.  I would advise against grabbing a literal fistful.  Leo Zeff, the "Secret Chief" who administered probably a few thousand trips, recommended 3 grams, but doubled that for alcoholics.  Some would comment that even 3 grams might be a lot for a first timer.  On the one hand, I like the idea of a relatively high dose to fully break through - a lower dose may not do that.  A 2.3 gram dose got me to a mystical experience, but it took 6.2 grams for me to have a decisive experience of oneness, at least the first time.  But on the other hand, if you have an opportunity to work up to that dose, that may lead to some better outcomes overall.

After a lot of successful trips and meditation, 0.25 grams is all I personally need, although I don't see much in the way of visuals at that dose.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Brain Can Rewire At Advanced Age

In a study on rats, Max Planck Florida Institute Study Shows: Persistent Sensory Experience Is Good For The Aging Brain

“This study overturns decades-old beliefs that most of the brain is hard-wired before a critical period that ends when one is a young adult”

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The neural substrates of mindfulness: An fMRI investigation

The neural substrates of mindfulness: An fMRI investigation

from the paper:
“Mindfulness” is a capacity for heightened present-moment awareness that we all possess to a greater or lesser extent. Enhancing this capacity through training has been shown to alleviate stress and promote physical and mental well-being.

As a consequence, interest in mindfulness is growing and so is the need to better understand it. This study employed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify the brain regions involved in state mindfulness and to shed light on its mechanisms of action. Significant signal decreases were observed during mindfulness meditation in midline cortical structures associated with interoception.  These findings lend support to the theory that mindfulness achieves its positive outcomes through a process of disidentification.

By refraining from subjective appraisal, as evident here in the form of decreased activity in associated brain regions, mindfulness may indeed afford a less subjective experience of each passing moment, consistent with practitioner reports and the outcomes associated with mindfulness practices described by Eastern philosophers as bare attention. Based on the findings of this study, state mindfulness is proposed to be a unique form of higher-order information processing in which subjective assessment of transient events is silenced in favor of maintaining objectivity and gaining insight into the nature of emotion.

Meditation Medicine

Meditation Medicine: A Survey of Psychotropic Drug use in the Development of Western Buddhism is a really nice article covering the intersection of psychedelics and spirituality, and mentioning a lot of big names in Buddhism along the way.

some excerpts:
... many teachers, such as Lama Ole Nydahl and Lama Surya Das, have published gripping accounts of how their initial encounters with these substances helped open their minds to the true potential of Buddhist practice.

In learning to hold my mind empty, I became aware that other levels of reality would more readily manifest. It was only in absolute stillness . . . that many subtle but extremely valuable nuances of reality appeared . . . I found this effect to be greatly amplified while under the influence . . .  This in turn intensified my daily practice.

Nitrous Oxide Brands

There seems to be a limited number of manufacturing facilities worldwide for nitrous oxide, at least for cartridges available publicly.

There are at least a couple of sources in Europe, and one in Taiwan, for the manufacture of nitrous oxide gas.  I don't have any experience with the Chinese source, I must confess I have a slight prejudice against Chinese products, having seen some Chinese manufactured health supplements testing out with substantial impurities.  Might be a different case with the gas, though.  Info would be appreciated.  Some of the Chinese brands include BestWhip, Mr. Creamy, and EasyWhippets.

The brands that I would recommend are the ones where the gas is manufactured in Belgium and then put into cartridges in Vienna, and there are some basic EU standards for purity.  To be honest, I think the purity is for the gas manufacture itself, as opposed to the gas you can get out of a cartridge.  As near as I can figure, there is no difference between the various brands produced by those factories.  Rather, the differences seem to be cosmetic changes for brand marketing.

My favorite here would be Ultra-PureWhip.

ISI is said to be good, but they charge more (I believe there is more brand awareness), and yet come from the exact same factories.  SFG and Sexxy Whip come from this source as well, but the cartridges are shiny chrome and I find them slightly harder to keep track of in use.  I also find larger boxes (50 count) more difficult to deal with than the usual 24 per box.  EZ Whip I haven't tried.

The brands that I don't recommend come from Hungarian/German gas manufacture with cartridge manufacture in Hungary.  Typically, this would be the regular PureWhip brand, for example, as well as some cheaper generic unlabelled product.  Apparently there is some kind of oil that is I guess part of the cartridge manufacture, and once in a while you get some really oily cartridges from this source.  Pretty nasty.

The distributor I deal with should be pretty easy to guess from a bit of web searching.  I didn't really want to link to them considering the off-label use I recommend.  Once you've ordered with them they should offer you some price discounts.

Also check out:

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

More Quick Looks at Research

Three Insights about Compassion, Meditation, and the Brain from the recent International Symposium for Contemplative Studies:
1. We can train our brains to be more compassionate
2. Scientists are starting to measure consciousness—sort of.
3. Meditation can make you feel more connected to others.

A blog post about The Emotional Life of Your Brain, a book by Dr. Richard Davidson that is based on research around the following six emotional styles:
Resilience: slow or quick to recover from adversity
Outlook: short or long sustainment of positive emotion
Social Intuition: oblivious or sensitive to social signals
Self-Awareness: oblivious or sensitive to bodily feelings
Sensitivity to Context: unskilled or skilled at regulating emotional responses to situations
Attention: unfocused or focused

Why great ideas can come from zoning out captures the idea that a little time spent on a non-demanding task can afford some creativity.  I wonder how mindfulness would have compared?

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Recent Research - Second Looks

Judson Brewer's work is recapped in "The Healing Art of Meditation".

Brewer and his team found two notable trends in the results of the study. First, experienced meditators showed deactivation of the part of the brain known as the default mode network (DMN), a region involved in self-referential processing, including daydreaming. All three forms of meditation showed similar results. This discovery is interesting because one of the goals of meditation is to remain focused, and deactivation of the DMN seems to show that meditation is functionally doing just that in the brain. As meditators self-reported significantly less mind-wandering, these results support the hypothesis that deactivation of the DMN is related to a reduction in mind-wandering.

Gary Weber's site covers a bit of recent research in "Persistent Meditative States - How?"  On why the pleasurable states of meditation do not seem to habituate, he writes:

The big question is why the great pleasures of "thought-free" meditation, presumably operating by the same dopamine/opiod neurochemistry system, persist, and do not saturate and operate in the same way to produce less pleasure with more craving.  Patricia's paper, and Buddhism, develops the idea that our repetitive thought patterns can be viewed as a form of addiction.  If we dramatically reduce the internal narrative, the dopamine down-regulation/reduction apparently does not occur.  Instead of an endlessly repetitive stream of thoughts, the brain is engaged in a dance of open awareness with its continually changing show, and all of its concomitant neurotransmitter-induced pleasure.

And another video of Robin Carhart-Harris talking about his research.  I had not realized that his research with psilocybin was based around the idea that there may be a neurobiological basis for some of Freud's theories.  He was particularly influenced by Grof's book, Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations from LSD Research.

LSD, for example, promoted REM during sleep, and dreams, as theorized by Freud, were the key to the unconscious.  With psilocybin, decreased blood flow was seen in the primary motor cortex, thalamus, brainstem, and subgenual cingulate.  The latter was mentioned as being active in repression.  Increased blood flow was seen in areas of visual association, which is similar to REM.

Although there was a decrease in the blood flow to the thalamus, there aren't a lot of 5-HT2A receptors there, so that implies that there are indirect or feedback effects at work.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

"The Substance" - Documentary Film about LSD

testingA new documentary:

spiritualTHE SUBSTANCE – A journey through time in broad cinematic arcs, with archival material from private sources that have not been released before, newly processed international archives and principal witnesses of the historical events – and obviously Albert Hofmann, the main character who has his say time and again, interviewed shortly before his death.

albert hofmannBy coincidence rather then by design the swiss chemist Albert Hofmann makes a sensational discovery in the spring of 1943. He realizes that he is dealing with a powerful molecule that will have an impact not only on the scientific world. THE SUBSTANCE - is an investigation into our troubled relation with LSD. Told from its beginnings until today.


I'd like to see it.

There are a couple of ~10 minute clips from subjects in the Roland Griffiths - Johns Hopkins psilocybin cancer study:

Participant 1

Participant 2

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Psychedelics and Jhanas

Reasonable people agree that psychedelics make it easier to have mystical experiences, but there does seem to be a fairly hard party line in the Buddhist communities against the use of such substances.  I think these communities mean well, some people can have bad experiences, some people can get addicted, and you can certainly get results with lots of meditation, but for me I'd have to say psychedelics have been very helpful on my spiritual journey.  It is prudent to say that these substances can be tricky, but to be honest, I don't think I'd be walking around occasionally experiencing the world as one if I hadn't experimented with these substances.

These are my observations on the general ease of popping into jhanas and/or directly experiencing that "the universe is one" on various substances:

Alcohol.  Useful perhaps for taking the edge off, i.e. relaxing, particularly if you've got something on your mind, but I don't see much spiritual utility beyond that.  Small doses are recommended, and I'd say higher doses are most definitely contraindicated.

Cannabis.  Mildly useful.  I would say cannabis cracks the spiritual door open, but it's just a crack.  Hard to fit through, but possible on rare occasions.  There might be more to say about certain strains that are more psychedelic, but I don't really like those personally, I'd just as soon take a real psychedelic.  Doses can be taken as high as is comfortable, maybe as long as you are avoiding stupor, but I guess that is code for moderate.

Nitrous Oxide.  Fairly useful.  This opens the spiritual door wide enough so that you can easily turn sideways and make your way through.  Can be habit forming.  I'd recommend moderate amounts, every other breath.  I think there is a stronger pull towards daydreams and fantasies with this drug that should be remedied with mindfulness.  For me, primarily useful in combination with other substances as opposed to by itself.

Psychedelics.  Very useful.  Relatively small amounts can open the spiritual door wider than with Nitrous Oxide.  Moderate amounts remove the door completely, larger amounts remove the walls, ceiling and floor as well.  Can bring up apparently challenging emotional material.

Piracetam.  This seems helpful, but I have no direct feel for its isolated effects in regard to jhanas.  Since it boosts psychedelic potency while increasing what we might call powers of awareness, it's very plausible.

My experience is fairly basic with the jhanas through the 4th, and only recently the 5th. Some very light familiarity with them while sober, and maybe we should consider these vipassana jhanas if you want to be technical.  But particularly with psychedelics, which make these experiences really stand out, I experience 2nd jhana and 4th jhana very regularly, generally several times in a session, and on rare occasion the 5th.  Since I am experiencing those, I am almost certainly experiencing the 1st and 3rd as well, but I'm not quite as familiar with those.  I need to do some remedial work there.  The 2nd jhana material is quite showy, this is the one associated with the so-called Arising and Passing nana, the classic "big experience" people talk about with joy, bliss, love and light.  This is often simultaneous to a decisive experience of oneness, but I find the oneness tends to come just about anytime, even sometimes while sober.

Staying present helps in terms of the experiences I am pointing to.  I pointed to the need to be especially wary of daydreaming while on nitrous oxide.  I literally "vote" on whether I should stay mindful or not, particularly while on these substances.  I don't keep an actual numerical tally, but each time I return to the present I evaluate where my mind has been.  If I was in a "good" fantasy, that's a vote against being present.  If I was in a negative, neutral, or meaningless stream of thought, that's a vote for being present.  The results, both in terms of voting as well as popping into mystical states point towards being present, so I try to abide.

I also wanted to point to the usefulness of these substances in terms of picking apart consciousness, studying it, seeing all the parts of which it is composed.  There are a lot of insights to be had that might be a lot more difficult to stumble across if all you have to play with is ordinary sober consciousness.  In this sense the spiritually opening drugs make for a kind of sandbox or practice field in which some of the normal hard constraints have been removed, and one can play, poke around, and experiment.

Meditation and EEG

My current thoughts on meditation and EEG.  To be honest I've moved away from EEG more towards pure meditation.  I'd like to think there may be something there with EEG feedback for meditation, but I'm not sure I've come across anything I would categorically recommend.  There are multiple approaches, and at least from my perspective, many difficulties. 

A typical alpha feedback approach is okay, I suppose, but personally it tends to make me a little drifty, i.e. a lot of the time I was doing that type of feedback I was in trance or daydreaming.  I know there are some arguments for feedback without being fully aware, but after getting seriously into meditation, I don't really like the idea of it too much.  If you have someone that is naturally more prone to anxiety, really needs some calming down, maybe doing a lot of alpha or alpha-theta, and even drifting off a bit might make some sense.  After all, Jim Hardt and Les Fehmi get their results with alpha.  But I find it often makes it somewhat more difficult to stay mindful.  Who knows, maybe that's a good thing, having to work harder to be more mindful, like exercising a muscle or something.  But I'm thinking maybe not.

As far as the stuff I've tried, the only thing I can think of that I would consider taking another look at is a design I came up with that rewards left frontal gamma, and right parietal alpha, like this:

  • F3 Gamma (37-43) up
  • P4 Alpha (8-11) up
  • P4 Beta (15-25) down

So you're rewarding Gamma around one of the sites that Davidson's research suggests, and you're in line with basic symmetries, i.e. you're rewarding fast wave on the left frontal and then slow wave on the right parietal, so maybe that's something to look at.  Rewarding the left frontal Gamma seems to help keep me more present.  But like I say, these days I'd just as soon meditate.

The trick with the Gamma is that it is really easy for movement/artifact to give false readings there, but there are some things you can do.  Requiring that a short moving average (500ms) of Gamma increases, as opposed to the raw amplitude, seems to help quite a bit.

For meditation, whatever the approach, the goal is to be continuously aware of the here and now.  My favorite for that would be Mahasi style vipassana.  A good intro might be the Practical Meditation Instructions ("Mahasi Lecture") mp3 found on a Vipassana Hawaii webpage.  It's just some old Mahasi stuff read aloud, but I'd recommend it.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Psychedelics and Brain Imaging

Psychedelics and Brain Imaging is an interesting video of a recent talk by Dr Robin Carhart-Harris who recently published a paper on "Neural correlates of the psychedelic state as determined by fMRI studies with psilocybin."

Basically, psilocybin decreases activity and connectivity in the Default Mode Network (DMN) that has to do with internal activities, daydreaming, and the narrative sense of self.  This would be in contrast to the Task Positive Network that involves focused attention.

The decrease in connectivity and competition among networks ("profound decoupling") that was seen with psilocybin is similar to that seen in deep meditation as well as early schizophrenia or pre-psychosis.  These are all states that reflect a disturbance in ego boundaries.

Mindfulness does similar things in terms of the DMN, and interestingly, so do a number of treatments for depression that reduce medial prefrontal cortex activity, including SSRIs, ketamine, cognitive behavior therapy and psychotherapy, and sleep deprivation.  He described upcoming research to investigate the use of psilocybin for depression.

The connectivity in the DMN was described as being something along the lines of "constraints," and there are relationships between increased connectivity and neuroticism on the one hand, and conversely decreased connectivity with agreeableness and extroversion.  High connectivity predicts rumination and depression.

From the Q&A there was a comment about the constraints, if you will, and the filters that were proposed by early consciousness explorers such as Blake:
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.
Also the observation that the reduced connectivity seen with psilocybin or meditation might have something in common with the undeveloped brain of a child, or perhaps like our distant evolutionary ancestors.

A few minutes were devoted to a study on MDMA which noted a distinct positive shift, with bad memories having less activation and good memories having increased activation.

... I hate watching these things on my computer, and as Vimeo currently doesn't make it easy to download video, I found a freeware app that did the trick at

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The site R Psychologist (focused on the R programming language for statistics) has a nice collection of commentaries and pointers to mindfulness research.  Seems like a pretty smart guy, and he gets extra points in my book for having a Karl Pilkington quote at the bottom of the page.

Psychedelics in the Media

Thanks to Roger Sterling's recent LSD trip on Mad Men, Huffington Post did a video montage of TV show drug trips.

Meditation increases the depth of information processing and improves the allocation of attention in space

The article "Meditation increases the depth of information processing and improves the allocation of attention in space" examines the ability of meditators to rapidly change their attention from large scale to fine detail.

The task is probably best described from the text:

Attentional resources are limited and constrain the capacity to process information. In particular, there is a limit to how quickly attention can be allocated and reallocated to a different object or parts of the same object. This limitation becomes particularly evident when considering that the visual world is intrinsically organized in a hierarchical manner. For instance, a forest has trees, and a tree in turn is composed of leaves. This example reflects the ubiquitous embedded relation between global and local parts present in the world. When attending to the global shape of an object, such as a tree, there is less attention available to attend to the fine grained detail, such as the leaves, and redirecting attention between levels – from the global shape to the local details or vice versa - is known to be inherently slow. In psychophysical tests subjects are typically much faster in detecting the global pattern than the local detail; this phenomenon known as the “global precedence effect”.

From the discussion:

Meditators did not only exhibit a strongly reduced global precedence effect, they were also overall much faster than controls, with an average advantage of more than 100 ms. This effect cannot be explained by a speed-accuracy trade-off in the meditator population, as accuracy was overall very high and comparable between groups. Altogether, these results suggest increased speed of processing along with improvements in the distribution of attentional resources in the meditator population.