Want to understand what’s happening in the brain when under the influence of psychedelics? The default mode network (DMN) is receiving a lot of attention these days, but what do we really know about what the science is saying?
In this conversation with Psychedelic Neuroscientist Manesh Girn, breaks down the nitty-gritty neuroscience of psychedelic states and distinguishes fact from fiction in terms of what we really know to be true in terms of how psychedelics influence the DMN in the brain, and so much more.
In this conversation Manesh Girn explores:
This is Your Brain on Psychedelics with Psychedelic Neuroscientist Manesh Girm Interview Transcript
Laura Dawn: Welcome Manesh Girn, I am so looking forward to having you on the show today, thank you so much for spending your time here with me this morning.
Manesh Girn: Yeah, thank you so much for having me.
Laura Dawn: So, I would just love to know. How did you come to studying the neuroscience of psychedelics?
Manesh Girn: Yeah, I was a variety of things kind of coming together through some weird coincidences or synchronicities, I got really into meditation and when I was around 16 as a way of that time of fighting certain feelings of depression and anxiety. And like a lot of stuff people go through in high school and, kind of, wanting a way to cope with that and I got into Zen. And as I kind of started going into meditation and reading more about eastern mysticism and got me into the self-help world.
And I was thinking about the ways in which our perception of the world within ourselves can vary so much and how that completely restructures our experience of life. And this in some way or another led me into reading stuff about psychedelics and then here are these potent compounds able to catalyze these deep spiritual experiences and transformative experiences. And I thought it was fascinating and I can interlink a lot of interest I had in mysticism in meditation in psychology and philosophy. And I thought here is a fascinating thing with a lot of potential and I want to get involved in it.
Laura Dawn: Wonderful, so on your YouTube channel the Psychedelic Scientists I love how you are very dedicated to sifting through fact versus fiction. And I’d love to translate some of the density of the psychedelic literature into narratives that are easy for all of us to grasp. And at the same time you know we’re in the midst of this psychedelic renaissance and it’s so important to be clear on what the research is really saying. And as you say in one of your YouTube videos that you know we live in a world with clickbait titles and sensationalist news reporting. So I’m curious, what are some of the main areas you think are being over-hyped in the media right now?
Manesh Girn: Right, yeah, it’s an interesting topic. So one of the things I believe to be pretty overhyped is the whole default mode network narrative. And the thing is a psychedelic experience is extremely complex and we know from brain studies that it changes, you could say activity and connections, spreading the entire brain essentially. And that even when that work has been emphasized a lot and saying how you know it kind of in codes or sense of self. And that you know it’s a different one that when work becomes disintegrated or deactivated, then our sense of self is disintegrated. And this whole narrative of how psychedelics are the ego quieter and all these things.
And there’s some truth to that for sure. But even in the studies looking at correlations with people scores on egos dissolution as a self-report it. It is actually not involving the default mode network. And it is definitely not involving only the default mode network. And even when it doesn’t all the phone never gets involved with the specific part of it like one connection or something along those lines, not necessarily the disintegration of the entire network. And moreover, the default mode network is a very complex thing that’s involved in a variety of processes, apart from self-related processes. And so, just viewing it as a self-network and saying that it has disintegrated is totally, it’s a huge simplification in some cases not totally accurate.
So I think that’s overhyped and another thing too. It’s hard because with psychedelics people often and this happened obviously in the sixties, even in the late fifties too. People become super exuberant and excited about them as if they’re a panacea. That can solve everything like policy in the water and everyone will become Buddhas or something. This essentially, and that’s really not the case. Does the essential importance of the context of sudden setting of your mindset, intentions with the experience.
And where you are when you are doing it, and also how you integrate it. And so psychedelics don’t do the work for you, but they give you a transformative experience or insights that you can then with conscious and deliberate effort to integrate into a lasting way. And so some of these articles kind of make it seem like you’re just going to take them. And all your ills are gone, but no it’s hard work and it takes courage and persistence even with psychedelics. And something important to take into account too. Yeah, those are the 2 main things I guess that come to mind.
Laura Dawn: So, can you just give us a layman’s term definition of what the default mode network is.
Manesh Girn: Yes, totally. So ok that requires us to step back a bit. So if you look at the brain it’s like you know 100,000,000,000 brain cells or neurons connected by up to 10,000 connections each. And you know this is extremely complex, like unfathomably complex, and so in order to understand it. We have to break down the brain into different kinds of components right? That’s what a lot of reductionist scientists do. Science reduces things into its components and looks out how they interact. And so one way of breaking down the brain is into brain regions. And very simply we can think of a brain region as perhaps a couple 1,000,000 brain cells neurons which we can say they activate together. We could separate the brain into kind of chunks of the brain which seem to activate together and do a common function right.
And then if we look at all the brain regions across the entire brain. If we look at how those regions correlate with each other and their activity. You could see that they cluster into sets of brain regions. And each set of a brain region is a network and so it has various ways you can define brain regions. And the various ways you can define networks. But a lot of neuroscientists kind of talk of the brain in terms of 7 primary networks.
So I’ll just list them off:
So there’s a visual network that’s involved in processing visual information from our eyes and gives us a perception of the external world. There’s a so-called somato-motor network, which is involved in our semato-sensory which is our sense of touch. And our motor which is our ability to move our muscles and basically move our body involved in those processes.
And then the network called the salience network. Which this network does a number of things. And one of the things it does, is it tags things in our environment as important. Let’s say, draw our attention to them, so that’s why it’s us who are salient. And there is this way of automatically directing our attention to things that pop out let’s say.
And then there’s another network called the dorsal attention network which is involved in directing our attention in the external world in a focused and directed way. So it’s like if you want to focus on that tree not the other trees. A dorsal attention network that allows you to focus your attention on a particular aspect of your visual experience.
And then there’s another network called the limbic network which is a network that essentially connects your lower, more evolutionarily older emotional areas with your cortex. And then it allows emotional information or inputs to influence our decision making in our thinking, that’s the limbic network.
And then next is the so-called fronto-parietal control network. This network is involved in what researchers refer to as cognitive control or executive processing. And basically, this corresponds to the type of thinking that we do when we’re trying to solve a task. So it’s problem-solving and reasoning. And kind of folks seem to come to a solution to some problem and that’s the fronto-parietal control network.
And then lastly is a default mode network. So this network is very enigmatic and solving a variety of functions, but it’s a set of brain regions. That most importantly includes the regions of the brain that are involved in memory. So both our memory of past experiences, which is our episodic memory, and also our conceptual knowledge.
This network in turn draws on our memory, what are called internally directed processes. So basically processes that involve manipulating our memories in terms of planning into the future, which is essentially a form of imagination, and remembering our past. Which is in some sense, actually also a form of imagination too, which is interesting.
And essentially, that’s involved if I go into specific processes, is involved in inferring the mental states of other people it’s called mentalizing. How I kind of know what you might believe or think because of the way you are acting, that’s the default mode network helps with that.
It’s involved in creating this differentiation between things that correspond to us like the self-versus, not. So this so-called self-related processing. Processing of things related to us in a different way than things that are unfamiliar or not related to us.
And as I mentioned, yeah imagination processes and memory processes related to experiences also in some sense our ability to look at abstract associations between things which are called associative processing. Also involved in this mind wandering is daydreaming. When we go about our day and are being hit by all these thoughts all the time. We go into the fantasies and are constantly habitually thinking a lot of the time that’s the default mode network as well. So a lot of the thought is our sense of self in terms of our narrative identity, our story of who we are who we’ve been, who we’re going to be.
The thought is that the default mode network, including these memory regions which involve our memories of our past experiences as well as our concepts of who we are, mediate those patterns of activity related to those. Recreating this narrative in our head of who we are, and gives us our sense of being a distinct individual that is continuous in time.
Yes so, the default mode network is this complex set of brain regions involved in all these processes and then each of these processes involves a different subset of the default mode network. So there’s specialization within it too, if that makes sense. And so it’s a very complex multi subsystem brain network that’s involved in a whole variety of congruent processes, and essentially any aspect of your thinking perception or behavior that draws on memory in some form involves some aspect of the default mode network.
Laura Dawn: And I understand just the sheer magnitude of complexity when talking about the different networks. I’ve read quite often that the default mode network sits at the top of a hierarchy in the brain. Is that accurate?
Manesh Girn: Yes, actually the way I just described the networks was from the low end of the hierarchy to the high end, so I deliberately did that just now. And I actually have a paper that’s under review that corresponds to this particular model of understanding the brain. And this hierarchy we can say model or notion, or idea is based on the fact that if you look at the hierarchies in terms of, we could say, the distance from our raw sensory inputs, so like sensory processing areas, is processing information of a sense of touch, a sense of hearing, a vision, we can see that as low on the hierarchy because it’s basically just taking in information from the outside. Where the default mode network is involved in these very abstract cognitive processes that group together a lot of distinct senses you process into integrated representations you could say. Just a particular thought, you had of your future or a view of your past will include maybe visual-auditory emotional tactile sense touched aspects.
And in that sense, it’s a higher level in the hierarchy because it’s kind of above and including what’s below what I mean and also we can see in the brain that when you take information through our senses there’s both anatomical evidence. And also evidence in terms of brain imaging that those employed school up this kind of processing stream one by one each place until they peek at the default mode network in related regions. And so there seems to be what researchers call a large-scale functional hierarchy in the brain that goes from sensory processing to abstract processing in the default mode network. So that has been there for the show in a variety of methods.
Laura Dawn: I know it’s this tendency to want to oversimplify but we do know that something is happening. But the default mode network when we’re ingesting psychedelic substances and without going into, full ego disillusion. And I know a lot of people are talking about these mystical experiences and also just speaking to the 2nd half of what you initially said. Said in the opening of this conversation that it’s not necessarily all fun and games. We have to really work with them within a framework of integration. So it’s not like we’re trying to just achieve this ego disillusionment experience. But aside from that, do psychedelics help us to just even pause the story that we tell ourselves about who we are and our sense of self and our sense of self-identity. And the narrative that we have about our lives, is that happening? And is that helpful? And is that what is contributing to some of the benefits that we receive?
Manesh Girn: Yeah, definitely it definitely is. And I want to say physiologically that this stuff is definitely happening. It’s just what I’m trying to draw our attention to is that we don’t quite know what exactly that corresponds to in the brain. And the default mode network is definitely highly involved but it’s far from being totally understood.
But yeah definitely psychedelics, as you said, interrupt our typical narratives and let us peer beyond them in a temporary way. And I guess can relate to an alteration of memory-related processing within the default mode network which reduces the constraints of the tunnel vision we usually live in visiting the same types of thoughts in judgments on which basis which form the foundation for a sense of self. And by, kind of, shaking that up again a bit and allowing us to escape it. We’re now able to see things from a broader perspective and ability to change our thinking more consciously because now we’re able to see it as a subjective thing that’s separate from us.
And so psychedelic can definitely, of course, attenuate or reduce our sense of self in our identification with our thinking and thought processes in a way perhaps similar to the meditative states. And this can allow new insights to emerge, new perspectives, and then escape from habitual thought patterns that might not be so healthy.
Laura Dawn: So, when I read the literature in Neuroscience, I hear a reference to the brain being this predictive coding machine. Michael Pollan talks about it in his book and I don’t want to reduce the brain to a machine by any means. But is that part of what’s going on? I mean, is it accurate to say that we see what we believe? That we experience in the present what our neurological wiring has been pre-determined from our upbringing and that our current present moment of reality is heavily influenced and biased by our past? Is that accurate to say?
Manesh Girn: Yes, definitely. I believe that is for sure and it’s interesting, I’m not sure if you’ve come across this but Robin Carhart Harris is a lead executive researcher. Another researcher named Carl Friston who’s one of the most highly cited you know scientists in neuroscience who really talks about this stuff a lot.
They repost a model of psychedelics in terms of predictive coding so in terms of this idea that the brain is constantly trying to predict what’s going to happen and perceives the world through its predictions as opposed to what is actually happening. And before I describe the model I’m just talking of predictive coding.
It makes sense from a number of perspectives because if you think about it, we’re in this very complex world. And if our brain constantly has to perceive from scratch every single moment and process information as it’s coming in that takes up a lot of energy and it’s actually, if you think about it. It’s more economical for the brain to come up with models that kind of, anticipate what’s going to come so all you do is maybe make slight changes to your models that you have as opposed to processing everything from the ground up again.
And also, as humans, we like consistency and stability, and predictability, otherwise our life will descend into chaos. And so the brain is trying to keep us in a state of homeostasis such that we feel like we’re in a predictable stable environment. And how it does that is by creating these expectations, or models, or priors, as the research might call it. Which represents what is likely to occur based on our past experiences. And so to go back to that Rebus model they’re proposing that psychedelics actually reduce their rigidity or the strength of our internal models and now have us suddenly become much more open to what is happening in the moment and various things that we might have been ignoring because we believe in our concepts that means really been through a filter and we’re not experiencing the world in this direct way. Yes, so I definitely agree that there’s some kind of predictive coding going on in the brain and that’s a leading model of brain function that a lot of neuroscientists agree with in some capacity. And it’s interesting to think of psychedelics in relation to that too. And we can dive much deeper into that too if you want.
Laura Dawn: Yeah I’d actually love to take it one step further and link it into how psychedelics are a potential catalyst for healing past trauma. And so from my understanding when we’re children we’re in a certain brainwave state where we’re very receptive to what’s happening around us. And neurological connections get created in the mind based on survival-based mechanisms telling us that Ok this is how we need to perceive reality, to operate within it to survive, whether it’s an abusive household or whatever the situation is.
And so, I’m curious is it accurate to say that those neurological imprints that happen and that get formed as children then we take that, and we look for that. Is that what our salience network chooses to focus on in the environment because I’ve heard a lot of varying perspectives on this, that in any given moment, we’re exposed to you know billions of bits of data. But we choose to focus on and pay attention to what we’ve been conditioned to, based on our past experience. So if we’re taught to believe that money is hard to come by or, that the world is a dangerous place, do we keep reinforcing that from a neuroscientist perspective?
Manesh Girn: Yes I think we definitely do, because, in some sense, the brain is making these hypotheses radius predictions and is trying to look for evidence that confirms them right? And so, as you said, when you’re in early childhood, when you’re really forming these models in a very strong way then you’re very sensitive to things that happen and if something is, if you have an intense experience at that age you imprint it within your brain, as like, how the world is, or how you are. And when that becomes rigidified, and it’s rigid in your brain, it’s gonna be hard to let go of it, because your brain is going to be constantly trying to find evidence for. It’s using that as a model to filter our experiences.
So it’s going to take a lot of evidence to the contrary to shake it up and sometimes no matter what you explain away things that happen and you try to fit your narrative and so it’s definitely a matter of your brain creating these models of who you are in the world, and is trying to maintain them because they give your world predictability.
And if it’s a traumatic memory or let’s say it’s a belief that I’m unworthy of success and the thing is, that belief formed in early childhood as a way of you making sense of your experience in a way of making it understood because we as humans, we need to have things make sense. And then later on, even though it’s not serving us it still serves us as a protective mechanism that protects us from the chaos of uncertainty. Right?
So even if it’s causing us all the suffering, and not allowing us to achieve our potential. We cling to it because it makes us feel safe. And if we were to let go of that then who am I? What’s the world? And it’s going to really open up this kind of Pandora’s box of questioning your assumptions about reality which can be very frightening if you’re not prepared.
And so from a brain perspective linking the salience-network, I think you know makes a lot of sense and there are a number of other things contributing for example, the thalamus. This is the region within the brain that gates sensory inputs and allows certain things in, and ignores other things, relating to the models I was discussing before.
But definitely, the salience network, because if you think about it it’s tagging things as important based on something right? Some of that is just biological, you’re going to pay attention to a big flashing light, or something really rapidly moving close to you.
But if in the absence of that, other processes contribute to what stands out for you, and yeah I would argue that it’s based on the models you have of the world and who you are because things that relate to who you are, are important for you and so you’re going to notice them if it’s important to you to recognize.
For example, how other people are reacting to you, your attention is always going to be directed to that, and you can be constantly hung up on how others perceive you. And that again is this model you’ve been internalized to understand and filter the world and so in that Rebus model I mentioned earlier is that psychedelics by reducing the rigidity of these models, we’re able to see them for what they are and it gives us the opportunity to revise them to go deep down and see is this really hold up. Is there information I’ve been ignoring? Is there a way I can revise this in a healthier way?
And I think that’s one of the main potentials of psychedelics: it’s a kind of shake up our snow globe, as some people would say it, and gives us the opportunity to reform our beliefs and fundamental models of reality in who we are, in a more healthily way.
Laura Dawn: And so, would you say that the technical term, the word that we’re using is models here, but is that synonymous with stories, beliefs, personal narratives about how the world operates and our place in it?
Manesh Girn: Totally yeah so, it’s models, beliefs, narrative, stories, Prior’s is what researchers would call it. So all these things, more or less correspond to a very similar thing.
Laura Dawn: So essentially we have this story of how reality is, and I think of it as a box and there’s a neurological underpinning to this box. And then it seems we’re trying to, every single day, use everything that we can, to fit what we experience back into the box rather than think outside of the box. And so I hear you saying that psychedelics widen that box of the possibility of being able, in those moments to reach for a new thought or a new idea, or, oh maybe it’s not this way maybe it’s that way, maybe this belief isn’t supporting me? Maybe I can choose that belief? Is that accurate to say?
Manesh Girn: Yeah, yeah totally that’s exactly it, is kind of what a role in that paper you mentioned earlier Updating the dynamic framework of thought: creativity and psychedelics. And the idea there was it was exactly that the psychedelics reduce the constraints that we have on our thinking and as it is in a language we’ve been talking about, reduce the strength of our models in explaining how things are and lowers our certainty of how things are and now we’re able to entertain all sorts of ideas previously we would think are incorrect or not worth pursuing. So it kind of expands a range of potential ideas that will take into consideration and can, therefore, allow us to get out of the rut in our thinking and see new associations and connections and yeah have more creative novel ideas, totally that.
Laura Dawn: One of the things we hear so often in terms of how psychedelics affect the mind is that different parts of the brain that previously weren’t speaking to each other start communicating, so what does that really mean? And what do we really know about that? And how much is that affecting this rewiring of beliefs?
Manesh Girn: Yeah, that’s a really good question. So it’s really interesting. brain regions in the brain or brain networks become more interconnected with each other as a general trend so there are in general more connections as a whole between regions in the psychedelic state. But how exactly that links to our patterns of thinking is not something that’s clearly defined at the current state of neuroscience. We can’t really say exactly what specific patterns that connect ongoing dynamic ways relate to specific thoughts. But we know that the default mode network, as I mentioned, is involved in mind wandering in daydreaming and thought processes just like that. And so the idea is that changing the interconnection between a default mode network would say in other networks more potentially now allowing the system to enter into different states.
And even within the default mode network too, there are changes and connections of course. And the idea is that every particular thought that you have corresponds to a particular pattern of interactions between brain cells between neurons. In psychedelics, the sensors are kinda relaxing of these constraints. Everything is a bit more entropic is the word I want to say. It just means it’s more unpredictable or more chaotic. And so, how that relates to the interconnection stuff is that the brain has more connections to work with. That means there are more patterns it can enter into in a dynamic way, right? And so it has the ability to enter these new patterns of connections which, kind of, weren’t present before and, which relate to new thought patterns that weren’t available before. See I hope that answers what you would ask.
Laura Dawn: And definitely leading us into the segue here of creativity and cognitive flexibility and before I get there, I just want to ask you one more quick question about this state of heightened mental flexibility and your perspectives on that window post-psychedelic experience in terms of integration.
Do you have any thoughts on how people can really leverage that time, and do you think that just the psychedelic experience is enough for people to fundamentally re-write old limiting beliefs into positive ones? Or do you feel it really requires more effort and day-to-day conscious focus and mindfulness around that and any suggestions you have for how people can leverage that time?
Manesh Girn: Yeah, totally and I mean, I’m sure anybody who is, like to approach some kind of self-help work or realize you know the brain always wants to return to some kind of default. You’ll change the pattern then soon as you slip it’s going to go flying back to where it was before. The brain is like it’s very… what’s the word, stubborn organ in terms of changing behavior. And so definitely, psychedelics open up this window of opportunity to create these neuroplastic changes and make changes in our behavior, but in order to make them last, you have to have a daily practice where you’re reminding yourself of them and trying to consciously maintain them. And this is easier at first but gets harder as you go into a new context again in your life and you get back into your rhythms and it’s so easy to fall back into a past pattern.
I mean just because you have this experience of unity, of oneness with the universe and feel this Bliss doesn’t mean a week later that you know you could be an asshole again. And as it’s totally possible and so it’s definitely important to for example so they do in the studies at least at John Hopkins is after the experience they asked them to write a narrative report of what happened and just try to write a story of how the experience went. And of course, it’s a more difficult thing to do, and part of it will be a fabrication or just an interpretation, or putting things that aren’t really there perhaps. It’s an exercise that allows you to have a means of remembering what you went through and what it meant to you and I think having something to cling onto and hold onto that reminds you of the experience and allows you to contextualize it in your regular life is super important in taking conscious steps to you know maybe write it down and make it into actionable steps because sometimes the insights will be very abstract, and you have realizations.
But then it would be you can ask yourself the question what would it look like for me to act in accordance with this insight tomorrow? Or today? and really you have to derive actual insights from these experiences and on an ongoing daily basis, as a kind of journaling practice where you write them down and keep them in your mind and try to implement them otherwise definitely, they will fade away with time.
Laura Dawn: And so, when we’re talking about this heightened window of mental flexibility, I’m curious to separate fact from fiction here in terms of sensationalist news reporting but is it fully accurate to say that psychedelics support neuroplasticity based on the research?
Manesh Girn: Yeah totally. There are studies in mice looking at how psychedelics specifically LSD and psilocybin and DMT for example can increase certain chemicals or growth factors, as they’re called, which correspond to making more neurons or maybe more connections essentially between them. And so it really gives your brain more resources that it needs to carry out these neuroplastic changes. And so, not only does it give you this shake-up of your usual patterns it’s also providing your brain with the resources to encode or substantiate the new ones. So it seems to be really working in your favor in trying to help you change and gives you the opportunity to do it. But again, neurons, new connections will only be sustained when they’ve activated over and over again, right? So if you create this new neuro-plastic connection but you’re not in some sense activating that connection in a conscious way, it’ll fade away over time because the brain’s like “oh I guess I don’t need this connection anymore.”
So psychedelics do give you the resources for neurogenesis and neuroplasticity as we call it but of course, there’s much more research is needed as to what extent can actually support these processes in a very strong and noticeable way.
Laura Dawn: And is that BDNF Brain Derived Nootropic Factor?
Manesh Girn: Exactly so that’s what I was referring to increases in BDNF through the administration of psychedelics which activate the 5HT2A serotonin receptor.
Laura Dawn: I hear it being called the miracle growth for your brain. Is that true?
Manesh Girn: I mean maybe not, I mean it’s definitely, how you could describe it. It’s like a chemical that gives resources for enabling neuroplastic connections. The Miracle Grow is a bit of a jump. I think.
Laura Dawn: That’s good to know. I am so curious to jump into this conversation around creativity and how psychedelics might help support creative thinking, and creative problem-solving. Now as soon as we use the word creativity it’s also like opening up Pandora’s box here and I really love the way the cultural narrative around how we think about creativity is starting to shift.
I mean, I know there’s probably a lot of people listening to this who think in the old paradigm that oh there’s a small percentage of people who are creative, and then there’s everyone else. And I was one of those people too and then it was in the past few years that I started really reading the research and hearing very bold statements from CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies saying that creativity is the number one most important skill set that we can foster in the 21st century.
So learning how to enhance our cognitive flexibility to be thinking outside the box and especially in the face of just so many complex challenges that we face. So I’d love to dive into creativity with you and just wanted to set that premise for people that we’re not just talking about being an artist and painting on canvases. It’s so much broader than that and I’m curious why you were interested in looking at the research between updating a dynamic framework of thought around creativity and maybe we could just start with a definition from your perspective. A definition of creativity which of course is so hard to define, but maybe we could just start there.
Manesh Girn: Yeah, I mean there is obviously a lot of discrepancy of creativity depending on the domain or where you are going to apply it. But scientists, they usually talk about creativity in terms of 2 primary components. So first, it has to be a novel idea that has to be new and going above and beyond anything that has been produced before. So it has to be novel and then also it has to be useful. It has to be clickable and in some useful way, it has to be appropriate or adaptive for a new situation because you can think of having a new idea which is not useful. You have this idea it’s totally novel and never been come up with before, but you can find a practical application. So usually in scientific research it has to be both new and have a particular use, and that’s definable. So novel and useful.
Laura Dawn: And I think that the second portion is really helpful when so many visionaries and change-makers entrepreneurs are working with psychedelics these days and tapping into these visionary states and getting all sorts of ideas. And then you know the second part is how practical is this? Because of course, we can have a lot of crazy thoughts under the influence of these substances. So just to state that in terms of anyone who’s consciously working with psychedelics to enhance idea generation and to come up with novel ideas to use the second part rationally. How useful is this and how applicable is this especially for finding solutions to the challenges we face. So in terms of your paper what did you discover about the update of the Updating the Dynamic Framework of Thought? What did you learn through that paper that you wrote on creativity and psychedelics in terms of how we need to think about creative thinking?
Manesh Girn: Yeah, so totally. So first, I would describe what that model is saying and basically, it’s a model of thinking in general that characterizes different types of thinking in terms of how much constraint is on the thinking. And this constraint can come from our emotions or bias are a kind of unconscious tendencies, or from my deliberate, kind of, conscious intention. And so we describe different types of thinking in terms of these two dimensions, like how constrained or unconstrained it was in terms of unconscious and conscious influences. So for example, if we want to think about trying to solve a specific problem that’s very, analytical and requires no creativity let’s say, just straight-up problem-solving, then you just need to have very constrained thinking too because you’re going to be deliberate. So you’re deliberately constraining it to this problem and focusing on just that problem to solve it.
Whereas in creativity there is some kind of deliberate focus, but you also don’t want to be too constrained–– too unconsciously constrained or deliberately constrained––and so I’d kind of, contrast it with normal problem-solving in that sense and having less constraints on it.
And that model which originally proposed back in 2016 in a Nature Neuroscience review paper by the professor who I worked with at the time proposed this model of mental states, or thoughts, or different types of thinking. And so what I wanted to do was to expand it to also include psychedelics and also, and really emphasize creativity because in that original paper it talked about all sorts of other types of thinking and mind wandering, dreaming and as well as creativity and goal-directed intentional thinking and it mentioned creativity in like three sentences and that’s it. And so, on this paper, I want to update it to give a more nuanced perspective on creativity and include psychedelics.
So this more nuanced perspective you could say, is adjusting the fact that creativity isn’t just one mental state you go into. It’s a great dynamic thing in the kind of terms of creativity researchers: it’s a dynamic dance between idea generation and idea evaluation.
And so these two things are distinct in terms of psychological processes and also in terms of the brain. And when we’re trying to come up with a creative idea, it involves you have to generate the ideas and oh this is a good idea, yes or no go back to generating in this kind of iterative process of going back and forth. And so in terms of the model, it means we’re going back and forth between unconstrained and more constrained thinking in this dance between them, and what the research has shown is that you ideally want to keep these two things separate so you want to have your idea generation and generate all of your ideas without evaluating them without, kind of, considering them and how useful or novel they are, and just like, get them all out and then subsequently later on you want to evaluate them in a separate process.
This is again because it ending this constraint thinking that’s needed for evaluating your ideas you can limit the unconstrained processes that are needed to generate them, right so in this paper we reviewed some of the research providing evidence for this and for any evidence for how these 2 things are different in the brain and then we include psychedelics and say psychedelics are very unconstrained state of cognition of thinking that is like very hyper associative, we find associations between various things we thought might be unrelated before but also a more visual imagistic, you can kind of see things a bit more than a visual manner, just kind of sometimes illogical you could say it jumps between different thoughts you don’t really see the connection but you hop around in your thought process and also there’s reduced need to make things realistically it has psychedelics they think they thing goes and all is let loose.
And so we’re arguing that psychedelics represent the unconstrained state of cognition that facilitates a generation of novel ideas and that is great for idea generation to create new ideas, and then you have to, outside of the psychedelic state, then evaluate them in this more directed deliberate way and that was like, the main idea of the paper.
Laura Dawn: And would you say that the unconstrained cognition aspect of the psychedelic state is facilitated by this notion that different parts of the brain that don’t usually speak to each other start communicating in new ways, is that related?
Manesh Girn: Yeah. It could be. It’s an interesting thing. I mean the real answer is I don’t really know. But in terms of what people have said; one perspective on the default mode network, for example, is that it exerts a constraining influence on the rest of the brain and keeps us as I’ve said, it encodes these high levels, these models, or narrative which makes sense of everything else and gives us a sense of stability and order. And then this particular model, proposed by Robin Carhart Harris, is an entropic brain model where basically the brain at baseline let’s say in a more evolutionarily or older brain is always in a state of unconstrained cognition relatively speaking. And that these newer brain areas it’s the default Mode network (evolutionarily newer) are constraining that unconstrained to have a natural baseline state of the brain and giving it order. And so one of the ways a psychedelic state is unconstrained relatively speaking, is because these connections which were reducing or constraining other brain regions are now altered or disrupted in some way.
So while there is an increased interconnection between most of the brain which might relate to increased associative thinking and seeing the relationship between things. There’s also a reduction in certain connections which might be imposing this constraining influence on more primitive brain areas. You know I hope that wasn’t too confusing.
Laura Dawn: No that was great. So it also sounds like the analogy that I’ve heard is that when we’re children were very often in lantern consciousness where our perceptual field of awareness is very wide open, and then as we age, we become more narrowly focused on Spotlight consciousness and that this psychedelic experience allows us to tap into those experiences again, of broadening our perceptual field of awareness.
Manesh Girn: Yeah, totally and that’s often how Robin and others talk about it. It definitely puts us in a more childlike state of brain dynamics that, as you said, allows a widening of our perceptual field and our ability to explore the far reaches of thinking that usually, we don’t explore because we don’t think it’s realistic.
Laura Dawn: And I’m kind of surprised actually how little research is being focused on right now in terms of psychedelics and creativity, and I understand we’re facing the worst mental health crisis in human history, and I think one of the things that I’ve been realizing is that the mechanisms for which psychedelics help support the treatment of addiction and depression seem to be the similar neural underpinnings that help us think more creatively, is that right?
Manesh Girn: Yeah totally. Yeah, it’s interesting because one of the things that, let’s talk about what the therapist said first. One of the things they found in the therapy is that one of the strong mediators of positive outcomes is, you know on one side it’s having a mystical unit of experience. But it’s also that mystical unit of experience that leads to greater psychological flexibility. ?But there’s a distinction to be made here between cognitive flexibility which is directly related to creativity and psychological flexibility, which is something that comes from certain types of therapy. And so cognitive flexibility is more creativity. In the sense that it’s the ability to not get too hung up on let’s say one thought or one interpretation of something and being able to switch between mindsets and not get bogged down in a particular issue or problem. And be fluid in our thinking, that would be cognitive flexibility. And psychological flexibility which is something that’s emphasized in the psychedelic research clinical trials.
More so corresponds to an ability to be fully present in the current moment and able to consciously control our behavior in a way that’s consistent with our values and with what we want to do as opposed to being unconscious in this acting out our impulses. And so one of the main aspects of psychedelics which enabled their therapeutic effect is because you allow people to be in a mental state where they are able to accept their current experience, accept their emotions positive or negative, accept their thoughts for what they are, was simultaneously giving you some distance from them, so you’re not totally immersed and identified with them. And therefore allowing this new space for conscious action and conscious change an ability to really reflect on what do I value, who, what kind of person I want to be, how can I act more in accordance with that and kind of give me that ability for psychological flexibility at the moment. Psychedelic enables that, but you can also see how psychedelic flexibility can give rise to cognitive flexibility.
Because if you’re more grounded in here at the moment and operating from a place of conscious choice rather than reactivity then you’re able to more easily navigate your thought process and see things from a wider perspective instead of going to tunnel vision mode. So definitely, these two things are interrelated and the exact relationship between them is you know a topic for future research but there’s definitely something there.
Laura Dawn: I’m curious about your perspective on this notion that a more connected brain allows us to see more connected reality and ourselves immersed in a more connected storyline or narrative in terms of our connection to nature, and our connection to other people and even our connection to our own selves. Do you think that there’s this neural underpinning to this experience that so many people have of enhancing their perception of how inherently we are connected to nature and to each other?
Manesh Girn: Yeah, I mean, yes it could be. How I think about it is that we could say that ego dissolution states, where our sense of being an individual self is reduced or dissolved, In some part related to this tendency of our brain to become hyper-connected, right? Because now we lose our sense of, for example, of where our body is, or where it begins and ends.
This is because the areas of your brain that integrate our sense of our bodily position are now becoming disrupted and perhaps integrating more information than they’re used to. And now your visual information is being included in there too for example. So you feel like, you’re merging with the couch you’re sitting on. And so I think increased interconnectivity of the brain is related to a sense of increased connection with ourselves, the world, and others. And so far, as it relates to ego dissolution.
So I think what’s important here is that the thing that’s maintaining our separateness from other people in the world is our narratives, our sense of ego or sense of, distinct identity. And so when that is reduced, we’ve now opened up beyond our absorption, our preoccupation, into our concerns and what’s important for us and, putting us at the center of the world. Once that kind of fades away, we naturally feel this greater connection in alignment with life and with the planet and with others and I think that could be a byproduct of increased interconnectivity but again, it’s I think it’s the ego dissolution aspect that contributes to that the most.
Laura Dawn: But we do, you see from the research that the sense of nature relatedness has really enduring effects in people’s lives, same with the personality trait openness. And openness is also directly related to enhanced creativity, creative thinking. Are you drawing any of those parallels between openness and creativity?
Manesh Girn: Yeah, I definitely see the connection there. Openness is basically yes, openness to new experiences it’s also a connection with your internal fantasy world. It’s an openness to new lines of thinking. It’s a kind of an aesthetic appreciation and it kind of makes sense as psychedelics when they put you more in tune with life and less trapped within your internal narrative you just appreciate things more and you feel more connected and when you’re in that more connected state, again, I feel like you’re less rigid or constrained or tunnel vision in your thinking in general and that can lead us to be more free with their thinking which leads to creativity and that kind of new associations, and in all the rest, so I definitely think there’s an important relationship there.
Laura Dawn: And I’m curious your thoughts on how you feel like psychedelics and plant medicines might be able to play a role in really shifting the way that humans live on this planet? I know this is such a big question but where do you see the role of psychedelics to help us think bigger and to come up with novel solutions to the challenges we face?And thinking about Einstein’s quote around, we can’t solve the problems at the same level that they were created. Do you feel like psychedelics can play a very pivotal role in helping to steer humanity’s ship in a better direction?
Manesh Girn: Yeah, I mean yeah, I think they definitely have the potential to play an important role. How I view it is like a lot of this conflict is through ego sustained division or right in a sense of separateness from each other and it’s all the internalized resentment and anger and all the rest that comes with our society these days that a lot of people are harboring and I feel like psychedelics when used in the right context with mental health professionals you know therapeutic setting have the potential to open people up and have more compassion for themselves for the world and also let go of some of that anger at some of the roots of their mental afflictions that everyone is struggling with some degree weather is diagnosable are not. And so I feel what is manifesting as all this conflict on the external collective level is like of course it’s a consequence of the internal conflicts that everyone is undergoing.
I think if we are able to do psychedelics in these in if it’s means made mainstream in available to people in this therapeutic way and then get as strong potential to help start people opening more and more people up and hopefully these people who witness the healing power as it’s already happening of course then go on to share this with others and share their story and connect with different demographics, different populations, more and more people I think importantly from different demographics and not just you know already the spiritually meditative inclined people. I think that would be huge to spread through all the networks and you know allow people to see beyond their limiting narratives. But again like you know it’s not the case that people are going to take psychedelics and everything will be Ok.
It’s other people maybe are not ready for psychedelics and I keep stressing to do it with a mental health professional because difficult things can and will come up and you can like going to a dark place after taking a psychedelic of course too and so you got to be very careful with these things.
Laura Dawn: Yeah, it really does take that willingness to actually implement the changes that we want to see take root into our lives in those moments where you know we can choose to show up with more understanding and more compassion and less judgment and criticism and so I think emphasizing that it’s not just this you know take psychedelics and everything’s going to be Shanti and peaceful. We’re still in the bridge to you know a new narrative around this world that we’re living in and what are some of the parallels that you’re drawing between psychedelics and meditation in terms of neuroscience.
Manesh Girn: Laura Dawn I should say the meditation literature is a very large lot of things vary in quality and is a lot of stuff out there of overhyped biased towards presenting only positive findings in light not talking about any of the fines that didn’t pan out so giving us an unclear view of what actually is going on and how effective meditation really is for all these various things it’s being proposed as effective for. Mullick one very basic thing is that often you know in meditation specifically unlike my fullness types you are trying to create this open awareness where you’re not being attached to your thoughts and emotions in your sense of self essential and you do get similar reductions in default mode network activity in meditation as you do with psychedelics. Just of me in terms of my fullness type meditations so I think a parallel there is that as in psychedelics in meditation you are creating this mental state where you’re stepping back from your thoughts feelings stories emotions and seeing things from a broader perspective and then a perspective that will enable insight into your patterns and in kind of gives you the ability to try to change them and again this is ego you know I want to say dissolution on a series meditating for a long time and you have this experience by the ego and attenuation a reduction is can maybe a common psychological process that encourages between them.
Laura Dawn: It’s so interesting to talk about ego disillusion. When we also see ego inflation as a result of psychedelic use have you come across this or noticed this in what is that all about.
Manesh Girn: Yeah that’s so interesting I think part of it is, you get this psychedelic and you have this profound experience, and you feel, this is it, I get it! I’m the chosen one. I’m here to tell all of humanity the truth, right? And you go into this messianic kind of state and that’s very possible during an experience if you have that kind of personality tendency and you’re not grounded enough by people around you. And you start to think you know everything and you get to share with everyone from this very authoritative place and what I would say is, at the end of the day psychedelics are giving you this amazing gift. The gift of essentially unearned wisdom, unearned mystical experience right? And allowing you to enter this state temporarily, I think the right response of course is humility and gratitude and having the ability to have this experience without having to engage in rigorous mental practices for like a decade. I think some people get too caught up in that experience and assume all the work has been done for them and now they’ve entered this permanent Nirvana and know how it all is.
Or even at a smaller level just like having spiritual ego inflation where it’s like: I’m more spiritually aware than you are now. I know you’re still in your ignorant mode of functioning, identifying with your ego and your sense of self, but I saw beyond that and now I’m better than you and I know more than you are right.
Laura Dawn: And then it backfires.
Manesh Girn: Exactly, and when they do, they’re probably they’re definitely more distant from it because the ego is a pesky thing it’s, now it’s going to latch on to spirituality as its own way of creating the separateness between you and others essentially.
Laura Dawn: I read this really great quote that I’ll briefly describe, as it’s quite a long quote, but the gist of it was that, the psychedelic experience is like being choppered to the top of a mountain, and it gives you the false sense of this notion that you did all the work to get there, and that can really lead to, spiritual narcissism and ego inflation and so.
So after enlightenment, do the laundry. And for me, meditation is the practice of taking the step every day to climb the mountain. So I see it as like this dual approach. Yes, psychedelics can help to show you those mystical experiences the deeper meaning, and then when you’re done, go sit on your meditation cushion and do the work to help these changes that we want to see actually take root in our lives.
Manesh Girn: Yeah totally it’s a distinction like in the book by the leading meditation researcher Richard Davidson I think he wrote this with Daniel Goleman who is a very famous guy for emotional intelligence who was also a meditation teacher and friend of Richard Davidson. They wrote this book called You Have To paraphrase the title it’s like meditation states and traits or states versus traits and this is an important distinction is can you differentiate a particular transcended or a high state versus lasting traits things that actually create changes in your tendencies in behavior in thinking and people often complete the two and say now that I’ve entered this state these things are now a part of me and who I am which is never the case because again if you’re not doing conscious work to integrate it’s never going to last and if you think you don’t need the conscious work and then you know you’ve got some definite work to do that change your perspective too.
Laura Dawn: Yeah, how to transmute altered states into altered traits and I read that and that’s part of the journey and just seeing that, it’s a process. All of this journey that we’re on, so many people are on the spiritual path of improvement and it’s like, we never get there. There’s no arriving; it’s just one step at a time on the path.
Manesh Girn: Yeah totally.
Laura Dawn: I’m curious are you familiar with any of the neuroscience behind visualization. I call them more like visionary practices. I’ve read before that when we close our eyes and see ourselves doing something in our mind’s eye that our brain doesn’t know the difference between what we are imagining and what is actually happening in reality. Do you know anything about that?
Manesh Girn: Yeah definitely. In terms of brain activity, you can directly activate your visual cortex which is the area related to processing visual information through conscious intention. So definitely, in order to have that image in your mind’s eye, you’re actually are recreating that perception some sense in your brain so I yeah I think more or less you in terms of your brain the distinction between real visual experience and our image is a matter of degree it’s a very similar thing in that sense.
Laura Dawn: I have a theory that there are moments these windows that open up in my own psychedelic experiences where I am very visual in my internal realm and my theory is that if I really hold the vision of what I want to create with my life and I’m under the influence of psychedelic substances and there’s more neurochemistry that’s happening in the brain and there I mean the higher degree of mental flexibility that I’m enhancing my capacity to rewrite old beliefs and old storylines. Do you have anything to say on this theory that I have?
Manesh Girn: Yeah, no totally I mean it makes sense to me. Also, I’ve read a lot of self-help books that talk about visualization and this is a really famous one called psycho cybernetics from way back in the sixties I think. And the main idea of the book was in order to create lasting change in behavior you have to change your unconscious self image and the way to change is self-image is to consistently visualize what you want to be as if it’s already occurred right. To visualize what it would feel, for you to be this successful as a businessperson. And as much sensory detail as possible, because the brain can’t differentiate necessarily between real and imagined experience will start to believe that is true and will create these changes in your mental tendencies and I think the psychedelics, they totally make sense to me that you know your visualization ability might be amplified and.
You’re in this kind of open childlike state where you can internalize beliefs perhaps easier if you approach this with a conscious intention and meditative focus. It could definitely be much more potent than if you weren’t on a psychedelic. So I mean although I don’t know if that’s supported by research or anything, but it makes sense to me and can very well be the case.
Laura Dawn: It makes sense to me too and I’ve also talked to some people. I don’t know exactly what the research was. I listen to one researcher at the world AYA conference talking about some recent studies that they’re doing now around brain wave states and he talked about the capacity to go into gamma brain wave states which is this hyper-connected state, and I’m curious if you have seen any research around psychedelics and shifts in brain wave states?
Manesh Girn: Yes so and a lot of the papers found at Imperial College London they’ve collected data that speaks to brain states you know often they talk about one of the particular ways that they focused on is alpha waves and what’s interesting about alpha waves is that they seem to, they correspond to a relaxed state in Often when your eyes are closed just more alpha rhythms you can say brain generally speaking and other research has proposed the idea that alpha waves correspond to a greater reliance on our internal models on our predictions on our police narratives etc.
For example in the psychedelic insoles Ivan I think Else the 2 there is reduced to alpha activity within or reduced Alpha power in the area of the brain called the most serious English cortex which is an area that we can say as has been relayed to suffer late processing and is related to our memories of past experiences and so we get this localized spatially specific reductions in Alpha band power that seem to relate to reductions in our sense of ego or self and also similar stuff in visual areas too. So they haven’t necessarily focused on Gamma that I’ve seen but they’re having to say look I am not familiar with all of them but definitely, one of the main things they focused on is to post here a scene where the cortex, I reduce will it at the sense of self.
Laura Dawn: And we do know that psychedelics have this capacity to open up our subconscious realms. Is it your understanding that the subconscious mind is associated with state brain wave States and is that have to do with the way that it’s affecting the default mode network.
Manesh Girn: Yes, like in my mind it makes more sense than mention it related to the Alpha band activity because the idea with this of conscious mind emerging in the experience like how I understand it is that again we’re going back to this idea of models being reduced in the rigidity is that typically our models which in code are ego narrative as well as very on the idea of understanding how the world is. These represent what’s pushing away our subconscious repressed aspects of mind which is our unprocessed memories and emotions and so on we’re kind of with our stories and narratives explaining them away and covering them up and so when these stories and narratives are being blown apart are reduced. Now there’s much more space for these previously explained away or ignored things from our past to come up into our awareness you know such that we have to acknowledge and then dress them in some capacity again Alpha has been related to our models or predictions and so perhaps destruction of Alpha related activity can lead to yeah again these little lower-level memories and emotions to come up because now they have more space and they’re not being pushed away.
Laura Dawn: That was a great description so just to wrap up this conversation where we’ve covered so much ground how do you feel like the research that you’re doing in terms of the neuroscience of psychedelics is changing the way that you relate to your everyday life and the way that you perceive reality do you feel like the narratives that you’re learning from what you’re studying are infiltrating your own personal perceptual view of reality.
Manesh Girn: Yeah I think so, I think I’ve always somehow had a psychedelic mindset looks from and on my late teens in the sense that I’ve always tried to maintain an awareness of the limitations of my perspective and can be open to having this fluid sense of self where I’m not attached to a particular identity and try my best to always be growing, always be changing, and not holding on to my conceptions of reality and how I think things should be, which is the way I want to relate to meditation I get spiritual practice if you want to call it that. And I think seeing this stuff come up in the research about reducing our kind of how hard we cling to our models of who we are and how the world is, really reinforces this to it at the end of the day life is happening.
We’re experiencing new things and the actuality of experience is far beyond our modern minds and a book’s ability to fully comprehend it. And by living within our models and holding onto them we’re limiting our experience of life and shutting ourselves off from particular opportunities. And so really it really supports this view of trying to live life perhaps one moment at a time and being open to different possibilities and flexible changes then and the need to adapt to new situations and things with an open mind.
Laura Dawn: What a wonderful note to end on. Thank you so much for sharing all your intelligence and wisdom on this podcast. I really just appreciated this conversation so much and a lot to digest and chew on.
Manesh Girn: Of course, truly my pleasure. I definitely, this is a lot of fun and I’m so glad you invited me to be on your show.
Laura Dawn: Thank you so much.
Manesh Girn: Thank you.
Manesh Girn is a Neuroscience PhD student at McGill University and has been lead or co-author on over a dozen scientific publications and book chapters on topics including psychedelics, meditation, daydreaming, and brain networks. Manesh currently has ongoing collaborations with Robin Carhart-Harris and others at the Imperial College Center for Psychedelic Research and is investigating the brain changes underlying psilocybin, LSD, and DMT. He has had a passionate interest in psychedelics and their scientific investigation since his teens and also runs a YouTube channel called Psychedelic Science that provides accessible discussions of the latest research findings.
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