A New Understanding: The Science of Psilocybin – Summary and Critical Analysis

by Eric M. Fortier, B.A. | 2018

THE DOCUMENTARY FILM, A NEW UNDERSTANDING (2017) features groundbreaking research at Johns Hopkins University, University of California, Los Angeles, and New York University on the use of psilocybin in palliative care and spirituality. Primary accounts and interviews with participants and researchers in the film provide helpful illustrations of the empirical power of psilocybin-assisted treatment.

This analysis outlines and expands on the psycho-social implications of the film with the use of details directly from the publications, interviews, supplemental panel discussion, paid archives, and from a 2016 presentation given by Dr. Jeffrey Guss, the co-principal investigator of the NYU Psilocybin Cancer Research Project (the main focus of this film), on the study’s primary clinical outcomes. A brief overview of some of the science of how psychedelics work in the brain is offered.

Psychedelics and Mystical Experience
Psilocybin (pro-drug of psilocin) is considered the main active component of psychedelic mushrooms and has been safely used in experimental settings to reliably induce religious-like or mystical experiences, and produce long-term relief from anxiety and depression after a single treatment, along with improvements in attitudes, moods and personality (Griffiths et al., 2006, 2008, 2011; MacLean et al., 2011). Mystical experience (ME) refers to a phenomenon involving the often awe-inspiring dissolution of the boundaries of the self, and, in the words of William James (1910), “an immense spreading of the margin of the field [of consciousness], so that knowledge ordinarily transmarginal would become included,” bringing “a mass of subconscious memories, conceptions, emotional feelings, and perceptions of relation, etc., into view all at once,” often resulting in profound joy, ecstasy or rapture. ME is considered important, if not central, in the varieties of religious experience (James, 1936; Stace, 1960), and exists as the core foundation in the perennial philosophy (Huxley, 1945), a philosophy of cross-cultural spirituality.

MEs are measured retrospectively using the Mystical Experience Questionnaire (MEQ) or as altered states of consciousness (ASC) with more comprehensive questionnaires such as the 5D-ASC. These scales evaluate how much participants experienced the following psychometric factors: sense of unity/oneness (dissolution of the boundaries of the self; the core of MEs), visionary restructuralization (visions, hallucinatory phenomena), timelessness, noetic quality (tacit knowledge), sacredness (sense of significance and reverence), ineffability, and paradoxicality (Studerus et al., 2010). The MEQ and 5D-ASC have served to further understand psychosocial and neuropsychological implications of naturally-occurring as well as drug-induced MEs, and are central factors in this analysis.

Some research suggests that it is for its potential to reliably induce MEs that psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy leaves a profound and lasting impression on the participant, often taking place as the single most, or among one of the five most meaningful experiences of their lives (Griffiths et al., 2008; Maclean et al., 2011). High scores in measures indicative of “full mystical experience” are strongly correlated to positive therapeutic outcomes.

Suffering and Spirituality
Cancer diagnoses are commonly accompanied by depression, anxiety, existential (or psycho-spiritual) distress, and demoralization syndrome, especially in the terminally-ill. An end-of-life diagnosis is often characterized by the loss of sense of meaning, loss of hope, a sense of being a burden to others, loss of dignity, loss of will to live and desire for hastened death (Guss, 2016).

Depression, anxiety, and social isolation may contribute to the development and progression of disease, such as to the onset and mortality of cancer (Hadjistavrapoulos, 2015). In response, interventions focused on cultivating meaning and improving spiritual well-being and quality of life have been helpful in protecting against and treating these conditions (Guss, 2016; Hadjistavropoulos, 2015).

Spirituality as a term has recently been medicalized for these purposes, referring to “the way individuals seek and express meaning and purpose and the way they experience their connectedness to the moment, to self, to others, to nature, and to the significant or sacred,” according to the Report of the Consensus Conference on spirituality in palliative care (Puchalski et al., 2009). In line with these premises, the primary psychosocial platform used in NYU’s psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy study was meaning and the rediscovery of meaning (Guss, 2016).

Subjects are here paired to their studies for context: Matt was a volunteer for the NYU Psilocybin Cancer Research Project which examined the safety and efficacy of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy on psychosocial distress with advanced and/or recurring cancer. Annie was a volunteer for the UCLA Psilocybin study which examined the safety and efficacy of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy as a treatment for psychological distress associated with the existential crisis of terminal disease. Sandy was a volunteer in a Johns Hopkins University psilocybin study which investigated the effect of mystical-type experiences occasioned by psilocybin on the attribution of personal meaning and spiritual significance. Due to a mix of overlapping aims and methods in these studies, some generalizations have been made when accurate and useful.

All studies in the film began with 1-3 preparatory psychotherapy sessions to allow each patient to tell their stories, build a therapeutic alliance, undergo a meaning-making intervention and life review exercise, and prepare them for the dosing session. Two clinicians trained to devote reverent, focused attention to their actions and intentions then accompanied the patients throughout each 6-8 hour psilocybin experience. Dosing sessions occurred in a welcoming, comfortably furnished room, and patients were invited to lie down, put on eye shades, listen to carefully pre-selected instrumental music, and direct their attention inward and allow themselves to experience negative emotions instead of moving away from them. Follow-up integrative psychotherapy sessions helped patients contextualize and understand the experience, and prepare them for re-adjustment following the end of the therapeutic relationship.

In print
Results from these studies, and others like them, reveal a remarkable and sustained relief from anxiety, depression, and existential distress, as measured by STAI, BDI, and HADS scales, respectively (Guss, 2016; Grob et al., 2013; Carhart-Harris et al., 2016a). Concomitantly, improvements were observed in mood; psychological and spiritual wellbeing; personality; attitude towards self, life, disease progression, and death; pain perception; life-satisfaction; quality of life; with altruistic/positive social effects; and moderate to extreme positive behavioral changes. No psilocybin-attributed serious adverse events occurred, and there were no medical nor psychiatric side-effects (Guss, 2016).

A Short Review of Psychedelic Science
Positive therapeutic outcomes are most strongly associated with: depth of mystical experience, (Grob, 2013; Griffiths, 2008), intensity of Visionary Restructuralization (Carhart-Harris, Leech, Williams et al., 2012; Belser, Agin-Liebes, Swift, et al., 2017), experience of epiphany, lasting memory of the experience, and sense of love: “a loving kindness towards self, a love for people in their lives and people earlier in their life, and then this broader sense of universal or cosmic or God love” (see discussion panel).

Bossis mentions in the supplemental discussion that these therapies can help patients relive guilt, grief and work through anger. In the film, Sandy re-experienced and grieved her father’s death for the first time:

“I was just a sobbing mess during the session. Sobbing. And I experienced it as waterfalls. My body–I was a waterfall. It was just flowing. It was like my heart cracked… My heart cracked open.” Sandy then re-experienced vivid memories of her husband and saw in him “a core of divinity,” a sense which she has retained ever since.

These experiences contain visionary restructuralizations (VR), wherein episodic memories are experienced at a similar level to external stimuli, in fact interrupting it, perhaps emerging from the medial temporal lobe and flooding the visual cortex (Kaelen, Roseman, et al., 2016). The result is a lifelike surfacing of varying levels and combinations of psychodynamic and autobiographical content. In his session, Matt had a vision of whirling dervishes spinning to the Turkish tune that was playing, “and the faster they spun, the closer they felt to God–or the pinnacle of love.” Vividness of visionary restructuralization is strongly correlated to experience of meaning and significance (Kometer et al., 2013) and to measures of subjective well-being at follow-up. Psilocybin’s propensity to facilitate episodic recall (Grob et al., 2011) in this way may help patients explain and understand where their fears are coming from and how to better deal with pain. This is akin to the acceptance and mindfulness strategies applied in acceptance and commitment therapy, in which patients are encouraged to open up and explore their unpleasant emotions and their causes.

Long-term reductions in pain and fear (anxiety) could be accomplished through a process of primary re-appraisal, leading to more healthy responses to distressing thoughts and experiences. With the eye-shades off, for example, Matt re-appraised frightening masks hung up in the room instead as “designed to scare the fear out of you,” and added that psilocybin could help “take people out of feeling paralyzed and filled with fear.” After the experience was over, Annie expressed a loss of rumination about death and about medical procedures. Matt echoed this, stating “I feel I can die now with peace in my heart.”

It is possible that reductions in pain perception could be explained by the lasting relief from anxiety and stress, which are also known to contribute to the development and exacerbation of disease.

An alternative explanation could involve a modification of the neuro-matrix, in which the self is viewed as distinct from its surroundings and “the perception of unity of the body with all of the surrounding qualities felt from the body, including pain.” (Hadjistavrapoulos, 2015). The core feature of ME is a sense of unity and oneness, characterized by a dissolution of the boundaries of the self. It is possible that this temporary disruption in the neuro-matrix could alter self-perception and therefore the experiences of pain and distress. How exactly this occurs in the brain is still a matter of debate.

Some nuroscientific observations correlated with psilocybin-induced experiences with potential therapeutic implications: reductions in thalamic gating, allowing for internal and external stimuli to flow throughout the brain (Vollenweider, 2001; Nichols, 2016); disintegration of the normal anti-phase relationship between active and resting brain states (the task-positive and default-mode networks) characterized by greater inter-connectivity and tightly synchronized communication between their respective anatomical regions (Carhart-Harris et al., 2012); reduced amygdala activity with increases in orbito-frontal and anterior cingulate (ACC) cortices, having known implications for mediating the disagreeableness of pain (Vollenweider, 2001). These findings offer an array of possible explanations for why psilocybin affects things like pain, anxiety and depression.

Pain has been implicated in disrupting interpersonal relationships, in affecting the ability to engage in work and maintain healthy economic circumstances, in contributing to depression and anxiety, and in the propensity for substance abuse (Hadjistavrapoulos, 2015). Psilocybin may reduce pain through its potent anti-inflammatory properties due to its high activity at the serotonin-2A receptor (Szabo, 2015). However, immuno-surveillance can help prevent disease progression, and the immunomodulatory effects of psilocybin are still poorly understood.

Social isolation and lack of social support also contributes to disease progression. Even when social support is available, interpersonal distress often accompanies cancer diagnoses. Hopelessness, helplessness and pessimism contribute to poor psycho-social adjustment and well-being (Hadjistavrapoulos, 2015). Recent research finds psilocybin effective for reducing social pain and enhancing empathy (Preller et al., 2015). Recent pilot studies also show promise for psilocybin-assisted treatment for tobacco and alcohol dependence (Johnson et al., 2014, 2016; Bogenschutz et al., 2015).

In the film and in the contributor panel, doctors witnessed in their participants a transformation and healing of interpersonal relationships. After Annie’s diagnosis, she became irritable and started quarreling with her husband, whom was her primary caretaker. When she returned home, her husband said that “it was like someone had put on a light bulb inside of Annie’s head. She was literally glowing,” and found that she was no longer as irritable.

Similarly, Guss describes Matt’s transformation as an “experience of being profoundly loved. Bathed in light and love and a security that stayed with him throughout the remainder of his life. And he went from being somebody who could not let himself be taken care of to somebody who could depend on others and let others love him.” This experience appears to be common and may contribute to trusting in health care providers, which could affect adherence to medical procedures.

These examples, including Sandy’s re-acquaintance with her husband, display how psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy can have important implications beyond the individual, into social and interpersonal domains, and could result in improved social support. Concurrently, psilocybin has been found to acutely increase levels of oxytocin (Studerus et al., 2010), which may improve the ability to manage stress (McGonigal, 2013), and could contribute to increased trust in the health-care providers and thereby better adherence to their recommendations.

A recent study found a moderate lasting increase in personality trait Openness, and that 90% of patients reported increased psychological and physical self-care, after a single psilocybin session, and that these changes were recognised by family members (Maclean et al., 2011).

A New Hope
The profound effects of this therapy on depression and anxiety, for the individual and those around them, along with its short-term duration compared to traditional psychotherapy, provides rich research opportunities that might also lead to dramatically reduced cost of palliative and health care along with priceless human experiences for the dying. The researchers hope to eventually make psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy available to those with diagnoses of major depression and other anxiety disorders, and not just to the terminally ill.

New York University (NYU) Psilocybin Cancer Research Project
Grob, C. S., Bossis, A. P., & Griffiths, R. R. (2013). Use of the classic hallucinogen psilocybin for treatment of existential distress associated with cancer. In Psychological Aspects of Cancer: A Guide to Emotional and Psychological Consequences of Cancer, Their Causes and Their Management (Vol. 9781461448662, pp. 291-308). Springer US. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4614-4866-2_17
Participant: Matt (1961 – 2010)
  • Jeffrey Guss, MD, psychiatrist in full time practice in New York City. Co-principal investigator, director of psychedelic therapy training for therapists working in the study.
  • Stephen Ross, MD, Principal investigator.
  • Anthony Bossis, PhD, Clinical psychologist at NYU. Co-principal investigator. Specializes in palliative care.
NYU staff interviewed in film:
  • Jeffrey Guss
  • Stephen Ross
  • Anthony Bossis
“Adults aged 18-76 with both a cancer diagnosis (any stage) and a DSM-IV diagnosis of either ‘Acute Stress Disorder,’ ‘Generalized Anxiety Disorder,’ ‘Anxiety Disorder due to cancer,’ or ‘Adjustment Disorder with anxious features’”
Experimental design:
“Double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over design; two dosing sessions. Entire length of participation: 9 months. Either placebo first or psilocybin (0.3mg/kg) first, then followup 7 weeks later, then opposite condition (pla>psi and psi >pla), with preparatory and integration sessions before and after dosing sessions.”
Preliminary results:
Reduced anxiety, improved quality of life, enhanced psychological and spiritual wellbeing, and a greater acceptance of life-changes brought on by cancer.
University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Psilocybin study – phase 1 trials
Grob, C. S., Danforth, A. L., Chopra, G. S., Hagerty, M., McKay, C. R., Halberstadt, A. L., & Greer, G. R. (2011). Pilot study of psilocybin treatment for anxiety in patients with advanced-stage cancer. Archives of general psychiatry, 68(1), 71–78. doi: 10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2010.116
Participant: Annie (1953 – 2009)
  • Charles S. Grob, MD, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics and Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. Founding board member of the Heffter Research Institute. Lead Researcher at Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute.
  • Alicia L. Danforth, MA;
  • Gurpreet S. Chopra, MD;
  • Marycie Hagerty, RN, BSN, MA;
  • Charles R. McKay, MD;
  • Adam L. Halberstadt, PhD;
  • George R. Greer, MD
UCLA staff interviewed in film:
  • Charles Grob
Experimental design:
“Double-blind, placebo-controlled investigation examining the safety and efficacy of oral psilocybin (0.2mg/kg) as a treatment for psychological distress associated with the existential crisis of terminal disease., i.e. Psilocybin for Psychosocial distress associated with advanced or terminal cancer. Subjects were encouraged to lie in a bed wearing eye shades during the first few hours as well as to put on headphones to listen to pre-selected music. The experiments were conducted in a clinical research unit in a decorated room for a pleasing and comfortable environment, with a treatment team present with the patient for each 6-hour session.”
“12 adults (11 women) aged 36-58 years, with both advanced-stage cancer and a DSM-IV diagnosis of either ‘acute stress disorder,’ ‘generalized anxiety disorder,’ ‘anxiety disorder due to cancer,’ or ‘adjustment disorder with anxiety.’”
Brief Psychiatric Rating Scale, 5-Dimension Altered States of Consciousness Profile (5D-ASC), Beck Depression Inventory (BDI); Profile of Mood States (POMs), and State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI)
“State-Trait Anxiety Inventory trait anxiety subscale showed significant reductions in anxiety at 1 and 3 months follow-up; Beck Depression Inventory showed improvement of mood significant at 6-month follow-up; Profile of Mood States showed improvements in moods (but did not reach statistical significance).”
Johns Hopkins (JH) University psilocybin study
Griffiths, R., Richards, W., Johnson, M., McCann, U., & Jesse, R. (2008). Mystical-type experiences occasioned by psilocybin mediate the attribution of personal meaning and spiritual significance 14 months later. Journal of Psychopharmacology (Oxford, England), 22(6), 621–632. doi: 10.1177/0269881108094300
Participant: Sandy
  • Roland Griffiths, PhD, professor of Behavioral Biology & Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University. Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and Department of Neuroscience, Johns Hopkins University, School of Medicine, Baltimore
  • William (Bill) Richards, PhD, Clinical psychologist at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, Baltimore. Background in Religious studies, psychotherapy and comparative religions.
  • Matthew Johnson, PhD, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Johns Hopkins University, School of Medicine, Baltimore
  • Una McCann, MD, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Johns Hopkins University, School of Medicine, Baltimore
  • Robert Jesse, Council on Spiritual Practices, San Francisco
  • Bryan Richards, PsyD – Psychologist, Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center
  • Mary Cosimano, MSW – Research Coordinator and Guide
Johns Hopkins staff interviewed in film:
  • Bill Richards
  • Bryan Richards
  • Roland Griffiths
  • Mary Cosimano
Experimental Design:
“Double-blind study investigating the psychological effects of a high (30mg/70kg (0.42mg/kg)) oral psilocybin dose for 1, 2, or 3 sessions, in which participants were encouraged to close their eyes and direct their attention inward.”
Hallucinogen Rating Scale (HRS); APZ (assessing altered states of consciousness); Mysticism Scale (9-point version); Pahnke-Richards Mystical Experience Questionnaire; NEO Personality Inventory (NEO PI-R); Positive and Negative Affect Scale – Expanded Form (PANAS-X) for how one feels; Quality of Life Inventory raw score; Measure of Actualization Potential; Spiritual Transcendence Scale; Faith Maturity Scale – 12 item version; Functional Assessment of Chronic Illness Therapy – Non-Illness – Spiritual Well-Being Scale (FACIT- Sp-NI-12).
36 hallucinogen-naïve adults reporting regular participation in religious/spiritual activities.
“14-month follow-up demonstrated 58% rated the experience as being among the five most personally meaningful experience of their lives (11% rated it as the single most), and 67% rated the experience as being among the five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives (17% rated it as the single most); subjective reports found 64% of participants indicated improvements in well-being/life satisfaction; 61% reported moderate to extreme positive behavior change as a result of the experience. 22 of the 36 volunteers (58%) had a ‘complete’ mystical experience (based on APZ sub-scales of Oceanic Boundlessness and Visionary Restructuralization, the Mysticism Scale and the Pahnke-Richards Mystical Experience Questionnaire), and these measures predicted high ratings of personal meaning and spiritual significance at follow-up. Score of Negative affect on the PANAS-X scale, raw score on the Quality of Life Inventory, total score on the Faith Maturity Scale, and mean score of the Measure of Actualization Potential questionnaire, were most correlated with high personal meaning or spiritual significance at 14-month follow-up.”
Other researchers interviewed
  • David Nichols – Adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Former professor at Perdue University (the only major academic lab in the world doing preclinical research on psychedelics – funded by NIDA). Founded the Heffter Research Institute in 1993, in which he is the Director of Preclinical Research.
  • Robert J. Barnhart – board member of the Heffter Research Institute and MAPS. Creator of ‘ A New Understanding’.
  • David J. Nutt, MD – Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London
  • Amanda Fielding. Founder of The Beckley Foundation

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