Things to know before you decide to take a psychedelic (P.2)

Psychedelics are widely recognised for their impact on creativity. Numerous studies seem to confirm that these substances enable us to find unusual connections between available information and produce unexpected, interesting results [8]. This effect on creativity is mainly attributed to an increase in divergent thinking [9]. Divergent thinking leads to a spontaneous, non-linear and free-flowing generation of ideas. The opposite is convergent thinking, which is used to structure the thoughts that are a result of divergent thinking. Nowadays we seem to overuse convergent thinking as this type of information processing is associated with structuring and control. Hence, psychedelics by opening us to divergent mode allow for the increase in creativity.
There is a potential for abuse here, unfortunately. Many people start to overuse psychedelics – for example by blindly following the microdosing regimen, without a realisation that they have too many ideas. They struggle with applying self-criticism to all those new out of the box products of the mind assigning a positive meaning to everything they come up with. This behaviour might lead to hypomania - a gentle form of mania that is characterised by an increased propensity to take risks, having high levels of energy, fast speech, and decreased ability to execute tasks while continually producing new ideas or solutions.
The main issue with hypomania is a diminished ability to distinguish between good and bad ideas. The divergent thinking opens one to many unusual connections between facts and might lead to creating beliefs that are irrelevant to one’s everyday life. Following this, you should remember that not everything you will find in your psychedelic experience is valid. In fact, you should probably filter out a majority of your insights and the stronger the psychedelic, the more noise it is there in the message.
Scientifically this can be explained by a predictive coding hypothesis. According to this theory, the brain predicts an outcome of an action, performs the action and then receives feedback from the outside in the form of sensorial input. If the prediction resulted in the desired outcome, the action is coded with low prediction error. Psychedelics disrupt normal predictive mechanism of reality, thus increasing prediction error during the experience leading to more noise in information processing [10]. The results are disrupted thinking patterns, visual or audio information processing (that lead to hallucinations), and unusual body sensations, symptoms known to many psychonauts. Abuse or uninformed use of psychedelics might lead to a persistent change in the prediction mechanism and introduction to some mismatch between the desired outcome and action. Hypomania, as a disruption in the meaning assignment process, might be one of the results of increased prediction error. So is depersonalization and Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder.

Psychedelics will not turn you into an altruistic hippie as many people would love to believe. In fact, they can increase narcissistic traits and lead to egomania. There are many possible reasons behind this phenomena. First, egomania or increase in narcissistic traits might stem from an inability to process subconscious material and implementation of the defence mechanism as explained in the trauma part. This can be further amplified by overuse of divergent thinking and assignment of too much meaning to both internal and external stimuli. The result might be a disregard for others and feelings of superiority.
Social media play an essential role in feeding this phenomenon. We live in a strange world in which people have access to knowledge that was not available before to the masses. Unfortunately, nowadays, this knowledge comes in forms of easily assimilated short texts that you can read on social media. Spiritual methods that took our ancestors years to form and learn are now utilised without proper understanding. Additionally, many of these techniques are taken literally resulting in the propagation of ideas that have no backing in any tradition nor relevance to living in society. Many use these frameworks to create an impression of superiority and as an excuse for self-indulgence. A lot of people believe that by using psychedelics, they have access to some mysterious knowledge – a full understanding of life and that puts them on a pedestal, above average society members.

Psychological addiction
Because psychedelics offer such an attractive substitution for mundane life, they can be psychologically addictive. While psychedelics have been proven not to be physically addictive and even can be used as part of addiction therapy, [11] for some they can become a way to escape everyday reality. This phenomenon is not something that psychedelics cause – it depends on the person and his/her ability to process emotions and life issues. Nonetheless, there is an increasing number of people who rely on psychedelics as a tool for dissociation from boring reality instead of dealing with their problems. For some both cannabis and psychedelics became an equivalent of relaxing glass of wine or a few beers. While from the point of physical health this choice is much better, it seems like it is just a way of prolonging depressive states instead of dealing with them. It is just another form of medicalisation of mental problems, and the most significant risk of such behaviour is postponing solving your mental issues until they become an emergency and end in personal crisis.
Using psychedelics from time to time is not problematic, and even if the frequency of use for you in some period of life is high, this is still fine if you are not treating it as an escape from reality for a prolonged period. These substances can help to get out of self-sabotaging thought loops so increased use for a short period might be beneficial to step outside yourself and look more objectively at your life. You should be careful, however, because it is relatively easy to start depending on this tool to cope with challenging emotions or life events.

While the majority of people who experienced shadow side of the psychedelic use enter a state which for them seems to be exciting and positive – like egomania and hypomania, there are some who might stare into an abyss of despair and lack of meaning as a result of using these substances. Psychedelics tend to amplify your state, and if you are in a dark place, they might make it even darker. If you think life has no meaning and your actions do not bring expected results you might find a lot of information to back it up when you enter the divergent thinking state during the experience.
The best example of this effect is how people who have bipolar disorder react to psychedelics depending on which side of the mania they are. Bipolar disorder is characterised by periods of either hypomania – excessive energy and belief in one’s powers, and on the other side, periods of severe depression. Depending on when a person ingests a psychedelic, it might either amplify positive or negative views on life.
There has been some research on how different substances affect the mood. In case of bipolar disorder, for example, ketamine has been shown to be effective in getting a large proportion of people out of negative episodes [12], while other psychedelics have been reported to amplify these states [13]. Sometimes the difference might be very subtle. For example, different Ayahuasca brews, depending on the ingredients and proportions, might be either helpful or harmful for people with bipolar disorder [13]. So if you are looking into using psychedelics as a treatment for your condition, it is advisable to do condition-specific research on the Internet or contact a person that has knowledge on this topic – psychedelic friendly psychologist, therapist or neuroscientist, or just simply look for other methods.

Role of anxiety
The outcome of the psychedelic experience very often depends on whether a person went on a beautiful journey or experienced a bad trip. While it is relatively easy to prevent a bad trip by ensuring good set and setting and being surrounded by positive, caring people, sometimes the response to substance depends on the internal matters. People with high anxiety levels are often very controlling and situations in which they feel a lack of a grip on what is happening might be very frightening to them.
Psychedelics, and often cannabis, loosen up the ego structures which might feel like loosening of control. If a person panics during this process and tries to stop the experience, he/she might initiate paranoia or psychotic attack which will either end when the substance wears off or after being given a sedative drug. Such anxiety induced paranoia is what is commonly described as “bad trip”. Therefore, if you are highly controlling person with episodes of anxiety or panic attacks precaution is advisable. Try meditation and breathing techniques first to learn how to surrender, and if you are determined to try psychedelics, start slow with microdosing and then build up the dose gradually. Some people report an increase in anxiety already on microdoses – if this is you, be careful as higher doses may be very challenging.

Cultural differences
Another important topic that is rarely discussed in the media is the cultural difference between Westerners and traditional medicine providers. If this issue is talked about, it is mostly approached from the conflict or cultural appropriation aspect. Many westerners visit Central or South American countries to try Ayahuasca or one of the mescaline cacti, and a significant number of them arrive with an ignorant attitude that leads to misunderstandings, conflicts, abuse and other unpleasant interactions for which neither of the sides can be responsible.
There is another aspect of ingesting such powerful substances with people from alien to us communities. These people grew up in entirely different conditions, and they have no or little understanding of the traumas of people living in the Western world. Many people in our culture were brought up in conditions lacking unconditional love and acceptance, with primary carers and society pressing for achievement. A lot of people hold this lack of acceptance in themselves and struggle with finding peace because they continually seek approval and love that was missing in their childhood. Shamans who grew up in Amazon forest have no way of understanding these problems. They have a different set of traumas. There are numerous anthropological reports in which we can read that the pursuit of the mystical experience is at least strange to the Amazonian people.
Why would you expect to receive a healing from the person that cannot understand what your problem is? Those people use methods that were tailored to their tribe and life in the forest, not in the technological, cold analytical world. And while they try to adapt to our needs, these adaptations are usually based on clients’ requests for mystical experience, not for the process that would enable full healing.
This does not mean that you should not go to Amazon to drink Ayahuasca or eat Peyote or San Pedro cacti with an indigenous facilitator. What it means is, if you decide to embark on such a journey prepare yourself with someone who is a Western therapist or a person who understands our culture’s psychological problems. I would also advise not to dive into deep waters and go for a 5-day retreat. Drink Ayahuasca once and then give yourself time to integrate it. Follow up such a session with talking to the same person that prepared you.

If you read this article and want to try psychedelics and have some questions or would like to get some advice on the experience that you had in light of the information contained in the text, you can contact me to arrange a consultation.

[8] B. Sessa (2008) Is it time to revisit the role of psychedelic drugs in enhancing human creativity? Journal of Psychopharmacology. Volume: 22 issue: 8, p. 821-827 doi
[9] K. P. C. Kuypers, J. Riba, M. de la Fuente Revenga, S. Barker, E. L. Theunissen, J. G. Ramaekers (2016) Ayahuasca enhances creative divergent thinking while decreasing conventional convergent thinkin. Psychopharmacology, Volume 233, Issue 18, p. 3395–3403
[10] S. Pink-Hashkes, I. van Rooij, J. Kwisthout . Perception is in the Details: A Predictive Coding Account of the Psychedelic Phenomenon. (In writing)
[11] B. Sessa (2005) Can psychedelics have a role in psychiatry once again? Journal of Psychopharmacology, Volume 186, Issue 6, p. 457-458 doi
[12] A. C. Nugent, N. Diazgranados, P. J. Carlson, L. Ibrahim, D.A. Luckenbaugh, N. Brutsche, P. Herscovitch, W.C. Drevets, & C.A. Zarate Jr (2014) Neural correlates of rapid antidepressant response to ketamine in bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorders, Volume16, Issue2, p. 119-128
[13] video