Music helps hallucinogens heal minds, scientist finds – San Francisco Chronicle

Music helps hallucinogens heal minds, scientist finds



April 19, 2017
Updated: April 19, 2017 6:02pm

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“I’m going to take you on a ride here,” the music seemed to tell a severely depressed patient who had just been given a dose of the “magic mushrooms” active ingredient. “But I won’t abandon you.”

The patient was recounting to Dutch postdoctoral neuroscientist Mendel Kaelen how a specially selected playlist, piped through a set of headphones as the patient lay on a bed, had interacted with the dose of psilocybin.


The man added that the music was saying to him, “It’s just going to be tough, and you know, you’re going through the grinder here, but you won’t be left in pieces.”

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The music helped the depression sufferer, said Kaelen, a researcher from London’s Imperial College who is one of dozens of scientists from around the globe presenting at Psychedelic Science 2017, which runs through Monday in Oakland.

Scientists are presenting hundreds of papers on the clinical use of powerful, sometimes hallucinatory drugs to treat addictions and mental disorders. Many presentations involve MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy, and LSD. The event is organized by the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies and the Beckley Foundation.

Kaelen’s talk, “The Psychological and Neurophysiological Effects of Music in Combination With Psychedelics,” details four years’ worth of data he’s collected — from brain imaging scans of music listeners on LSD to studies of sonically enhanced therapeutic mushroom trips by chronic-depression patients.

Kaelen and his team say they found that the more patients tuned in to the music during psychedelic therapy, the more their depression lifted.

“Art has this capacity to reach the deepest parts of our being, but it depends our intention, our relationship to the work of art,” Kaelen said. “What psychedelics do is help us to be more open, to lower our psychological defense mechanisms, and therefore it makes us incredibly receptive to this work of art, this music.”

Once a far-out concept espoused by hippies on Haight Street, psychedelic therapy has hit the global mainstream. For the first time in decades, researchers are testing controlled substances that cause intense hallucinations and out-of-body experiences, but also help treat mental disorders. Don’t try this at home — these are illegal drugs — but the early-phase results have been encouraging, researchers say. And at worst, they say, patients report little or no change in their condition.

Anthropologists have found evidence that primitive societies took hallucinogens as part of religious rituals. Nowadays, researchers like Kaelen perform tightly scripted, placebo-controlled trials. They usually involve a given dose of a drug for a psychological issue, plus therapy that can last for a day.

According to Kaelen’s findings, published in the journals Neuropsychopharmacology and Psychopharmacology, brain scans of 22 subjects showed that LSD reduced connectivity between the visual cortex and parahippocampus — between what someone sees, and that person’s memories and imagination. But add music to the mix, he said, and the connectivity between the two brain regions goes way up.

“We found that LSD and music together targets this brain network that is specialized in personal memories and complex visual scenery,” Kaelen said.

The music-and-mushrooms study involved 20 people, and the results are unpublished. Kaelen is presenting his preliminary findings at the Oakland conference Thursday.

For his tests, Kaelen picked songs that facilitate perception-shattering mental shifts. His playlists track the stages of a psychedelic journey: calm and relaxing for the beginning, then amping up through the ascent, to a more intense composition during the peak, and slowing down as a person returns to normal consciousness.

“During a peak, to give an example, that’s when music can become more sentimental,” Kaelen said. “It can pull people into their personal process more deeply. … It can drive these peak experiences.”

In an ideal world, he said, therapists tailor playlists to the patient and adjust it during the session. But for his LSD and psilocybin scientific studies, the music had to be the same for every patient. His challenge was to create a generalizable playlist. Most often, he uses contemporary avant-garde and ambient music because of its ability to “transcend both cultural and religious boundaries.”

One of the most common artists on his playlists is British producer, composer and artist Brian Eno.

In an email, Eno said that when he started creating his ambient songs in the 1970s, he was “very consciously making a music which didn’t carry a ‘personality’ with it.”

“I wanted to make a kind of music which didn’t make you think of another human doing something—but instead made you think of something like a landscape or a climate or a place,” he said. “My thinking was that by leaving the human out of the music I would invite people to enjoy a freer ‘ramble’ through the musical space, because it comes without somebody else’s emotional baggage.”

Eno said he has “very little experience of psychedelic drugs,” but was fascinated to learn about Kaelen’s research. The two plan to work together on projects tracking the interactions between art, music and the brain, he said.

Kaelen said he is fascinated with psychedelics research because of its ability to facilitate life-changing experiences.

“People get stuck in a certain mind state, in a certain way of being,” he said. “The way to change that is to offer an alternative mind set, an alternative way of being. And this is what certain tools can do. Psychedelics and music are two of them.”

April M. Short is an Oregon freelance writer and former editor at Alternet.org. Email: metrodesk@sfchronicle.com

If you go

Full-conference tickets to Psychedelic Science 2017 at the Oakland Marriott City Center are sold out, but some workshops have space available. Tickets are $150; for information, go to http://psychedelicscience.org/.

There are also free events Friday through Sunday at the Oakland Convention Center West Hall at 550 10th St., including an art display, a “Psymposia Stage” with science presentations, question-and-answer sessions, film screenings and interviews.

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