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Metropolitan Midi Skirt. Brittany Dress. To stay mentally well, it seems, we may have to disconnect from reality once in a while.
The sharpest tools in this box are turning out to be psychedelics such as LSD and psilocybin, the active constituent of magic mushrooms. In a pilot study by Imperial College London and the Beckley Foundation, for example, after just two doses of psilocybin combined with psychotherapy, 67 per cent of patients with treatment-resistant depression were in remission a week later and 42 per cent were still free of symptoms after three months. Larger, randomised controlled trials are under way. Other preliminary studies have found that psilocybin can significantly reduce the anxiety associated with life-threatening illnesses and help smokers to quit , and research in the s and s — before psychedelics were made illegal — suggested that LSD is an effective treatment for alcoholism.
Psychedelics appear to work by disrupting the inflexible models that govern our thoughts and behaviour, bringing alternatives to the fore. Highly stressful events such as starvation or cardiac arrest, by triggering the release of a flood of serotonin, may trip the very same switch in the brain. This may explain the psychedelic-like visual effects, euphoria and mystical revelations characteristic of near death experiences.
Remarkably, in common with the long-term effects of high doses of psychedelic observed in several studies, people who have survived a near death experience often report long-lasting improvements in psychological wellbeing and less fear of dying. Meditation provides a rather gentler alternative for those wishing to restore plasticity to their brains.
Mindfulness-based therapies have proven their worth in clinical trials for preventing relapse in depression , for example, and have shown promise in treating addiction. Rather than a chemical reboot, meditation and mindfulness dial down the activity of the default mode network by training patients to focus their attention on bodily sensations such as the breath. Over time, this has the effect of diminishing the influence of the top-down models responsible for craving and overly ruminative, self-critical thinking styles.
Another powerful altered state, hypnosis, also involves highly focused attention. When patients listen to the voice of a hypnotherapist this creates a state of absorption that temporarily suspends activity in parts of their prefrontal cortex responsible for executive control. This enhances their suggestibility, allowing the therapist to supplant the rigid cognitive models responsible for things like overeating in obesity, phobias such as fear of needles, and chronic pain.
The newest and one of the most promising therapeutic altered states is that induced through virtual reality technology. By exposing them in this safe environment to some of their worst nightmares, they can relearn unhelpful conditioning such as excessive fear of heights and paranoid delusions about strangers. Altered states even challenge the models that underpin our sense of selfhood, with potential benefits for wellbeing.
By simulating an out-of-body experience, for example, a study suggests that VR can make people less afraid of dying , presumably through the implicit suggestion that consciousness can exist without a body. The long-term effects of such experiences include a renewed sense of wonder, a greater openness to new experiences and feelings of connectedness with nature and other people. Anyone caught in possession of such substances will face up to seven years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both.
Am I Dreaming?
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Sleep, drugs and mental health: how altered states of consciousness could keep us happy Every night, we experience an altered state of consciousness called dreaming. Want to be updated when there is Science Focus news? Our best wishes for a productive day. Sign in to manage your newsletter preferences Sign in. Sign me up!