Study reveals how psychedelic psilocybin improves long-term creative thinking
Psilocybin, the primary psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms, is currently the focus of an exciting new wave of clinical research. Promising experimental results are revealing the psychedelic compound to be remarkably effective in treating an assortment of mental health issues, from major depression to anxiety related to a terminal illness diagnosis. Other research is also finding the compound potentially quite effective in helping treat drug dependence issues.
Underlying all this research is the idea that single doses of psilocybin result in enduring and positive psychological changes, persisting past the acute phase of intoxication. How the drug is generating these long-lasting effects is motivating a great deal of current research, for if these medicines become legal and widely deployed, we need to understand how they fundamentally work and what the best way is to administer them in clinical settings.
A new study, led by psychopharmacology researchers from Maastricht University in the Netherlands, has delivered a fascinating insight into the longer-term, sub-acute effects of a single psilocybin dose on creative thinking. The experiment revealed unexpected temporal alterations to different creative thinking constructs that could lead to a therapeutic "window of opportunity" in the days following a single dose, whereby certain follow-up therapy interventions could be most clinically effective.
The research followed more than 50 subjects who consumed the drug at a psilocybin retreat in the Netherlands. The drug was administered in the form of a mushroom-infused tea and participants were free to roam the house and property during the acute phase of intoxication. Tests on creative thinking, empathy and life satisfaction were undertaken before ingestion, the morning after and seven days later.
The temporal effects of the drug on creative thinking were perhaps the most intriguing results from the research. In an email to New Atlas, Natasha Mason, one of the lead authors on the new study, explained the dual facets of creativity the study focused on.
"Creativity is a multicomponent construct, consisting of divergent (DT) and convergent (CT) thinking," Mason explains. "Whereas DT is a process used to generate many new ideas, in a context where more than one solution is correct, CT is considered a process of generating a single optimal solution to a particular problem, emphasizing speed, accuracy, and logic. The best example of these two processes in play is probably a brainstorming session. DT allows you to come up with various ideas or solutions to a problem, and CT allows you to pick the best solution. Although both are aspects of creativity and necessary in the creative process, it has been suggested by previous research that DT is a better predictor of creative potential, as it allows for assessment of original ideas (vs CT which leads to conventional, "correct" ideas)."
The morning following the psilocybin dose, participants displayed increases specifically in divergent thinking, but not convergent thinking. Most interesting were the seven-day follow up reports showing DT performance had returned to normal levels, but CT performance had unexpectedly increased. This strange result leads the researchers to hypothesize a potential "window of opportunity" whereby certain sub-acute phases, following a psilocybin dose, could be targeted with different types of therapeutic interventions.
"This time- and construct- related differentiation of effects of psilocybin on creativity is really interesting, when thinking of how it can be utilized in a therapeutic process," says Mason. "Specifically, it has been suggested that DT can enhance psychological flexibility by allowing individuals to generate new, more effective coping strategies. Thus the ability of psilocybin to enhance DT sub-acutely could help patients to relive events, recall various associations, and consider their situation from another perspective. Longer-term effects on CT could then be utilized in a subsequent integration session where patients discuss their acute experiences and decide on a strategy to help them cope with intensive emotions."
So conceivably, future treatment structures could consist of morning-after therapy sessions that capitalize on DT enhancements, followed up by integration sessions a week later that are framed around CT enhancements. It is still early days for understanding these long-term cognitive shifts manifested by psilocybin. This particular study only worked on a seven-day timeframe but Mason does suggest that prior work with the psychedelic ayahuasca has found CT enhancements lasting up to one month following a single dose.
The researchers are fundamentally aware of the limitations in the study and readily admit much more work needs to be done to understand how these long-term cognitive alterations induced by psilocybin are influenced by set, setting and individual expectations. The team has recently completed a placebo-controlled iteration of this same experiment with the results yet to be published, as well as looking at these same creative thinking factors for other psychedelic compounds such as ayahuasca and 5-MeO-DMT.
Perhaps the most fundamental takeaway from this compelling new study is the insight into how changes to creative thinking could play a major role in explaining why these psychedelic compounds are proving useful in treating a variety of mental health conditions. It's becoming increasingly clear these psychedelic agents manifest interesting sub-acute effects beyond the initial few hours of intoxication, and the better we can understand those post-dose transitory phases, the better we can organize effective treatment plans that utilize those beneficial periods.
"These findings highlight the possible underlying role of enhanced creativity and empathy in the therapeutic potential of psychedelics," says Mason. "Importantly, the effects outlast the acute state, potentially opening up a "window of opportunity" where therapeutic interventions could prove more effective. These findings add further support to growing evidence suggesting that psychedelics may hold therapeutic value for treating stress-related mood disorders."
The new study was published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs.