Psychedelics — magic mushrooms, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), mescaline, and more — are powerful psychoactive substances that can alter the building blocks of human consciousness. They can induce changes in perception, mood, thoughts, and behaviour. 

In the last thirty years, the scientific community has started to study the potential ways in which psychedelics can benefit users, especially those experiencing severe mental health disorders such as treatment-resistant depression and anxiety. The Varsity spoke with Professor Norman Farb, at UTM’s psychology department, on why psychedelics prompted a new way of thinking about depression among scientists, and the insights of his clinical research at UTM’s Psychedelic Studies Research Program.

Psychedelics: A background

Psychedelics are a class of psychoactive substances that remain a marvel in the world of pharmacology. These drugs have a rich yet censorious history — before their popularity in science, psychedelics were embraced by Indigenous communities around the world for their cultural and spiritual importance. 

In the 1900s, these drugs enjoyed a brief period of both scientific and cultural interest in the West, often being associated with the counterculture movements of the ’60s and liberal politics. However,  restrictive and prohibitory legal measures enacted in the ’60s and ’70s, especially in the US and the UK, temporarily halted all scientific research into the therapeutic potential of these drugs. When research began again, it was heavily restricted.

Since then, psychedelics have come to represent a unique and fascinating avenue into not only treating mental illness but also exploring transpersonal psychology — the study of transcendental and spiritual experiences. In clinical research, psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, has shown surprising significance in treating — or at least improving in the long term — severe depression, addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, and other debilitating disorders that were otherwise not responsive to cognitive therapies and antidepressants. However, psychedelic clinical trial studies published during the present ‘second wave’ of psychedelic research have had small sample sizes and have not conclusively demonstrated the positive effects of psilocybin. Still, over time, psychedelics are increasingly more involved in the “mental health revolution.

Why are psychedelics effective in treating depression? 

Professor Norman Farb’s research focus is on how meditative and contemplative practices such as mindfulness and body awareness can alleviate symptoms of depression. These practices involve consciously perceiving what is happening in and around your body as a way to become more aware of your thoughts and feelings. “My broad interest is in how people get programmed into [negative] habits and perceptions and how being able to shift those habits can powerfully transform peoples’ sense of well-being, connectedness, and belongingness.” 

Feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, irrational self-judgment, and excessive rumination are common thought patterns in depression. When our minds are persistently consumed by these negative patterns, there is no longer any possibility for new experiences or information that can potentially challenge those thoughts to enter. 

“Part of why mindfulness is so effective in the context of depression vulnerability is that it’s the practice of sensing,” explained Farb. Experiencing other physical and emotional modes of awareness that could be induced by drugs can make people more welcoming of positive thoughts, or at the very least, the awareness that one has agency over their negative thoughts. 

This is where psychedelics enter the scene: they are a potential access point to contemplation and mindfulness, both of which are needed to break away from the persistent negative thought patterns that overwhelm a person suffering from depression. 

According to Farb, the mind-altering nature of these drugs “break down [our] ability to form fences in [our] mind,” potentially relieving patients from the traps of rumination about past failures, future anxieties, and other irrational and unproductive ideas. In essence, the hallucinations, unique mind states, and even transcendental experiences provoked by magic mushrooms can introduce a person to new self-narratives, meaning, connections, and possibilities — ideas that they normally would not be able to access because of depression. 

Farb comments that when people with treatment-resistant depression or PTSD are given a full dose of psychedelics, they get a “profoundly different experience of themselves and the world that they [eventually] realize how rigid their [previous] modes of perception had become. […] When they come down off the drug… they know that life doesn’t have to be like this.” 

This realization, kickstarted by psychedelics, can be when the journey to recovery begins! It’s important to emphasize, however, that success in psychedelic therapies involves both high-dose psilocybin treatments and more classical approaches to depression such as cognitive behavioral therapies

A clinical trial using psilocybin

In Farb’s current clinical trial in UTM’s Psychedelic Studies Research Program, participants are given either a microdose of psilocybin or a placebo. Due to its chemical properties mimicking that of serotonin — a chemical messenger in the brain that mediates anxiety, learning, memory, physical and sexual appetites, and more — psilocybin functions by interacting with serotonin receptors and amplifying their effects. 

The volunteer participants in Farb’s trial are suffering from acute depression and are keen on improving their mood, creativity levels, and concentration, or reducing their anxiety — all processes that psychedelics can facilitate. In fact, studies continue to suggest that the vivaciousness of psychedelic experiences can increase spontaneous creativity and cognitive flexibility — an orientation to openness that empowers individuals to see beyond the bleakness that depression brings. 

“What is significant is that everyone [regardless of whether they are on psilocybin or placebo] who starts going through the trial [begins] feeling better,” said Farb, “and I think in some ways, the trial itself has become a type of therapy.” 

Though still in its initial stages, Farb says that preliminary results from the trial indicate that “there is improvement [of mood and depressive symptoms] across the board, but that this is not necessarily related to being in the [psilocybin] group.” The supportive and reflective space that this trial provides to participants seems to play a big role in the positive results. 

Right now, recreational psychedelic use is illegal in Canada, with exceptions for research purposes like Farb’s trial. In addition to supporting future research based on microdoses of psilocybin, Dr. Farb and his colleagues hope to provide an experimental framework that makes psilocybin research less daunting to other researchers around the world. 

“We are hoping to publish very transparent guidelines, not just about what happened in the trials but how we went about getting permission from [regulatory authorities like Health Canada]… and how other people can follow in [our] footsteps.”