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Psychedelics could help us reinvent ourselves

In 2014, a smoking cessation study led by Johns Hopkins University has found that psychedelic substances such as psilocybin (the active hallucinogenic ingredient in magic mushrooms), combined with cognitive behavioral therapy, were highly effective in helping some people quit smoking for years. 

Now, a team of researchers from the University of Cincinnati examined the post-treatment journals kept by participants in that study, and discovered that psychedelics combined with talk therapy could help people reinvent themselves, by changing their perception of who they are. In the 2014 experiment, this treatment helped longtime smokers see themselves as nonsmokers and thus develop a new core identity that made 80 percent of them stop smoking for six months and 60 percent remain smoking-free after five years.

During the smoking cessation study, the experimenters provided participants guided imagery exercises in which they were asked to see smoking as a behavior external to their core identity and nicotine addiction as an external force manipulating their behavior for its own ends. According to Albert Garcia-Romeu, an assistant professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins and co-author of both studies, psilocybin – and possibly other psychedelic substances – could serve as a catalyst to help motivate and inspire people to make a change with the aid of cognitive behavioral therapy.

“Cognitive behavioral therapy asks us to tune into the thoughts and feelings that we experience in our day-to-day lives and how those relate to our behaviors. In turn, people often tend to build a narrative or sense of self around those cognitions and behaviors. This sets the stage for actually having the psilocybin experience, which can both provide novel insights and perspectives as well as serve as a marker of that identity shift like a rite of passage, signifying the change for instance from smoker to nonsmoker,” he explained.

But how do psychedelics help with this transformation? According to lead author of the current study Neşe Devenot, a postdoctoral fellow at Cincinnati, people frequently get stuck in the same ruts of behavior, responding in the same way to specific stressors or other triggers – a phenomenon which she compares with a downward skier who uses the same grooved path down the mountain that they have used thousands of times.

“Psychedelics have been compared to skiing in fresh snow. Some researchers suggest that you might have more freedom to maneuver your skis anywhere down the mountain,” Devenot explained. “The entrenched grooves of bad habits might not have as much pull on our skis, so we can lay down other paths.”

“We’re looking for ways to help people shift behaviors and overcome the inertia of their habits that are more in line with their goals and aspirations. That’s why psychedelics are of wider interest to researchers,” she concluded.

The study is published in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal.


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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