How Psilocybin Helps the Brain Create New Connections
By the time we have reached early adulthood; the brain and the Default Mode Network have made many neural connections and reinforced those connections with sheaths of myelin. Myelin is basically an insulator that helps speed up the electrical impulses that take place between nerve cells. Myelin is like the conductor wire that transfers electricity from one component to the other, making it flow quicker and smoother. Research and neuroimaging show us that psilocybin can aid in undoing some of those neuro connections and support creating new ones, what we call neuroplasticity.
For us these neural connections and myelin that have been created through repetition after repetition could be for better or worse. If you’re an athlete this is often a good thing, as that rehearsed repetition increases the likelihood of an automatic desired response. It’s what made Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant all-time greats, it’s what made Mike Tyson one of the best fighters to step into the ring, it’s what made Tom Brady a six-time Superbowl champion. Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code, attributes repetition and the production of myelin as a main component to what separates the greats from everyone else.
While there is evidence for the benefit of myelin, it also has its downside. These neural connections created by the Default Mode Network and strengthened by myelin, make breaking old unwanted habits extremely difficult. Unwanted habits such as when you’re driving down a five-lane freeway and someone unwittingly (or purposely) cuts you off, and your initial reaction is to curse them. Even when a conversation turns political and you immediately feel attacked and reactive. These are just a few examples of how powerful myelin can be in its role of strengthening pathways for neuro connections.
The Default Mode Network (DMN) is what psychologist believe to be responsible for our consciousness and how we perceive our environment. The DMN is a set of regions that have been shown to be active during times of processing information, consolidating experiences and memories. Psychologists believe it is the DMN’s responsibility for perceiving threats, and evaluating our external environment, and why we stereotype things or quickly jump to conclusions. Stereotyping things comes from the brain attempting to be efficient in preserving ourselves. This is also where we believe some of these unproductive habits stem from.
Now that we understand how many of these neural connections are made, how exactly does the use of psilocybin promote neuroplasticity? We can liken the neural patterns created by habits to a snowy mountain top. If you have ever been skiing, we all know the earliest part of the day is the best because the powder is fresh. Yet as the day goes on and more skiers have made their way down the trails, they create grooves. These grooves become larger and larger until they are more like ruts. Eventually most will have to follow these same ruts down the trail as it becomes almost impossible to stay out of them.
This is what it is like when we have created habits for better or worse. While we may wish to eliminate some of these habits and create new ones, because of the automatic nature of these unwanted habits, the path to rewire the neural connections is often a difficult one. This is where psilocybin aids us in creating new paths.
Research shows that psilocybin reduces the activity in the Default Mode Network, and in turn allows other parts of the brain to be more active. Regions in the brain, especially those associated with the DMN, become less specialized. This means that the brain becomes more interconnected allowing different pathways and neural connections to be made.
If we go back to our analogy of the mountain for a moment, where habits are like the ruts created by hundreds of skiers throughout the day; then psilocybin is like the snow of the nightfall that creates fresh trails allowing new routes to be forged. With psilocybin promoting neuroplasticity, old unproductive habits are easily dissolved, and new healthier ones can be created in their place. This means a healthier you, a more conscious you, a more creative you, a better problem-solver, and a more aware you. Additionally, you create more fluidity and energy in your life, fostering new and healthier habits and behaviors.
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