Neşe Devenot, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cincinnati's Institute of Research in Sensing, is studying psychedelics. Credit: Andrew Higley and Margaret Weiner
Psychedelic substances have the potential to assist individuals in modifying undesirable behaviors by facilitating a re-examination and reimagination of their self-perception.
A group of researchers from the University of Cincinnati studied participants' post-treatment journals for a 2014 study on smoking cessation, which found that psychedelic medicines were effective in assisting some individuals in quitting smoking for years.
Researchers studied participants' own words and found that psychedelics combined with talk therapy often helped long-time smokers see themselves as non-smokers. This new core identity might explain why 80% of participants were able to stop smoking for six months and 60% continued to smoke for five years.
Researchers from Johns Hopkins University conducted a 2014 study that found that participants who wanted to stop smoking and used psilocybin, the active hallucinogenic ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms, were far more likely to succeed than those who used other traditional quit-smoking methods.
Neşe Devenot, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cincinnati, conducts research on psychedelics at the University of California's Institute of Research in Sensing. Here she displays a'magic' mushroom she created for her. Credit: Andrew Higley
Neşe Devenot, a senior author and University of Cincinnati postdoctoral researcher, believes the research demonstrates the potential for psychedelics to transform self-perceptions in order to assist individuals in the face of everyday stresses and temptations.
"We saw again and again that people felt like they were done with smoking and that they were now non-smokers," said Devenot.
In the Institute for Research in Sensing, she studies the science, history, and culture of psychedelic substances.
Devenot believes that this new self-awareness may assist individuals in combating temptation or old triggers.
"It may be difficult to resist if you're unwilling to give up meat but smell a delectable steak," she added. "But your sense of who you are as someone who does not eat meat, your identity helps encourage a different choice."
Therapists provided guided imagery sessions in which participants were asked to envision smoking as a behavior outside of their core identity during the smoking cessation study. The participants wrote their experiences.
Nicotine addiction was viewed as an external force, modifying behavior for its own ends, as the zombie-creating organism in HBO's popular series "The Last of Us."
Smoking behavior is described as a parasitic manipulation, according to the Cordyceps fungi.
Albert Garcia-Romeu, a Johns Hopkins University assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, believes psilocybin might be a vehicle to help individuals make a difference through cognitive behavioral therapy.
Garcia-Romeu said cognitive behavioral therapy involves seeking out thoughts and feelings we encounter in our everyday lives, and how these relate to our behaviors. "In turn, people develop a narrative or sense of self around these thoughts and behaviors.
"This sets the stage for actually experiencing the psilocybin experience, which can both provide new insights and perspectives as well as serve as a rite of passage for that identity shift, for example from smoker to non-smoker."
Devenot claims that the sample size of the experiment was only 15 participants; the results are encouraging.
One participant responded, "I feel like yesterday was somehow fundamentally different." "I guess I'm experiencing some sort of metamorphosis!"
Several participants reported that the psilocybin therapy made quitting more pleasant than previous experiences. Another said that nicotine cravings used to be unbearable during the dosage session.
"It seems to me that the notion that cravings are not something that are real," one said.
What are the benefits of psychedelics in assisting in this transformation?
Devenot points out that people often fall into the same patterns of behavior as others, responding the same way to stressors or other triggers. She describes a downhill skier as having the same grooved route down the mountain they have ridden a thousand times before.
"It's not that simple, but it's a metaphor for how we think about psychedelics," Devenot said.
"Psychedelic substances have been compared to skiing in fresh snow." Some experts believe that you may have greater freedom to maneuver your skis anywhere down the mountain, according to the author. "Our skis may not be as susceptible to bad habits as they are, so we may try other routes."
"We're looking for approaches to assist individuals in changing behaviors and overcoming the inertia of their habits that are more in line with their objectives and aspirations," Devenot said. "Psychedelics are of particular interest to researchers."
Neşe Devenot, Aidan Seale-Feldman, Elyse Smith, Albert Garcia-Romeu, and Matthew W. Johnson, references, December 2022, Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal. DOI:10.1353/ken.2022.0022
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