Exploring The Pros And Cons Of Psychedelic Use
Dr. Brandon Weiss discusses his new research on psychedelics and positive personality change.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | December 14, 2021
A new paper published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that using psychedelics such as psilocybin, LSD, and ayahuasca can promote positive and long-term personality changes — for instance, becoming less quarrelsome or critical with others and becoming less upsettable and anxious. However, there are downsides that should be considered as well.
I recently spoke with the lead author of this new research, Dr. Brandon Weiss of Imperial College London in the United Kingdom, to discuss his findings in more detail. Here is a summary of our conversation.
What inspired you to investigate the topic of psychedelic-induced personality change and what did you find?
Psychedelic experiences are associated with profound changes in the way people relate to themselves, others, and the world around them. They seem to indelibly elicit a sense of meaning that individuals rate as the foremost meaningful in their lives. More than this, a good portion of previous work has demonstrated long-term changes in traits such as negative emotionality and openness, among others.
Personality is incredibly useful because it encompasses so much of the manners in which people think, feel, and behave in the world and differ from each other. In fact, there are even new systems of mental illness that seem to fit into the framework of the Five-Factor Model of Personality (Neuroticism/Negative Affectivity, Extraversion/Detachment, Openness/Psychoticism, Agreeableness/Antagonism, Conscientiousness/Disinhibition).
Given this, personality is a useful tool for understanding how human beings psychologically and behaviorally change following psychedelic experience. If there are meaningful changes, the Five-Factor Model of Personality should pick it up.
We invited people in the general population who were planning to have a psychedelic experience to answer questions about their personality and level of social connectedness before their experience and two weeks following and four weeks following their experience. We focused on personality traits that are related to building and keeping up harmonious relationships with others. These traits include agreeableness (including empathy and compassion), which is associated with relationship satisfaction, lack of conflict, and longevity of relationships; extraversion, which is associated with peer acceptance, network size, and popularity; and neuroticism (or negative emotionality), which is associated with relationship conflict, dissatisfaction, and dissolution. We also focused on two types of social connectedness, one measuring perceived belongingness to others and society, and another measuring a person's relationship with human beings in general.
We found that on average, there were two traits that showed meaningful change after their experiences. First, people seemed to report that they were not as quarrelsome or critical in their interactions with others. Second, people reported that they were less easily upset by things and less anxious. We also observed that people showed greater reductions in anxiety who were more anxious before their experience, suggesting that there may be more potential benefits for those with higher neuroticism. This last point however will need more evidence to convince us.
Third, there was some evidence that people who came into the experience with a lower ability to occupy the mental perspectives of others increased in this ability following their experience. Fourth, we found a small increase in perceived belonging to the community and society. And finally, because our sample is fairly large and if anything there is a bias in our sample toward positive changes, it is notable where we did not find changes. We did not find changes in compassion, openness, or conscientiousness.
In general, the main findings were that people tended to become less critical and quarrelsome and less anxious and easily upset four weeks following their experiences. We're looking forward to learning more about how psychedelic experiences may be helpful for things like aggression, disagreeableness, and conflict-proneness — tendencies for which there are not very widely used or effective therapies/programs.
Although these results are very interesting and make worthwhile contributions to what we know, approximately 80% of the sample we began with dropped out of the study before completing it. Therefore, we cannot say that this is a fully representative sample of the general population. In addition, it could be that mostly those who had good experiences stayed in the study whereas others dropped out. For another similar study that had only 20% dropout, this link could be interesting, but this additional one was not looking at psychedelic use in the general population.
Can you give a description of the types of psychedelics that have been studied by researchers in the past?
The number of different types of psychedelics is growing rapidly in today's research environment, with articles emerging seemingly every day that focus on new types and modalities. In the modern era, perhaps the heaviest focus has been on psilocybin, which has been studied in relation to many treatment targets including treatment-resistant depression, terminal illness-related anxiety, substance misuse, OCD, and anorexia. LSD was studied heavily before the Controlled Substance Act in 1970, and continues to be studied today albeit to a lesser degree. Ayahuasca involving an indegenous décoction of NN-DMT-containing shrubs (e.g. psychotria viridis) and a monoamine oxidase inhibitor-containing vine (e.g. banisteriopsis caapi) has been studied in relation to depression, personality change, substance misuse, and neurological changes. Intravenous DMT has been studied recently in relation to functional and electrophysiological brain changes, and 5-MEO-DMT (which originated in the secretions of the Bufo Alvarius toad, but can more sustainably be found in a synthetic form) is gaining increasing attention in the context of spirituality and depression.
Meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies are increasingly applying effort toward modifying these molecules to enhance treatment efficacy. Controversially, pharmaceuticals are in many cases altering the molecule not to influence treatment efficacy per se, but to make it function for a duration of time conducive to lowering labor costs from clinicians. The Iboga root is also under study as a treatment for opiate dependence and other areas of substance misuse.
What percentage of the U.S. population has used psychedelics?
Estimates of psychedelic use in the U.S. come from studies of 2010 U.S. population survey data. Authors observed that approximately 32 million lifetime psychedelic users existed in 2010 in the US population (17% aged 21-64 years; 22% males and 12% females). Lifetime psychedelic use was greatest among people aged 30-34 years (20%; 26% males and 15% females).
Did you find any gender differences or other demographic differences in your study?
We did not find differences by sex in our recent study, but a similarly sized naturalistic study of ayahuasca retreat-goers showed increased changes in Extraversion on the part of male versus female participants.
Can psychedelics become habit-forming or addictive? Are there other downsides to their use?
Most classic psychedelics, involving primary action at the serotonin 2A receptor, are considered to have a different addiction profile relative to other drugs that act on the dopamine pathway like caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, opiates, and cocaine. Studies have found that psychedelics do not reinforce use like other drugs do. For example, a study found that rhesus monkeys showed no more preference for psychedelics than for saline solution. This may be a product of psychedelics not being reliable in delivering good versus challenging experiences. We know that moderate to large doses of psychedelics are associated with dramatic changes in consciousness for relatively long periods of time. For this reason, people may not be impelled to enter into repeat experiences lightly. Other research has found that it would be difficult to develop dependence to psychedelics because tolerance advances so rapidly. Dr. Nichols has stated that "daily administration of LSD leads essentially to complete loss of sensitivity to the effects of the drug by day 4." However, different psychedelic compounds do appear to produce different levels of tolerance.
Psychedelics do carry risks including the potential for hallucinogen-persisting-disorder, a condition characterized by persistent hallucinogenic effects including perceptions of light and sound. Psychedelics are also considered to place individuals at heightened risk for psychosis, based on case studies and anecdotes by Dr. Charles Grob. For this reason, current studies are careful not to include in their samples people with a family history of schizophrenia or Bipolar disorder.
Psychedelic experiences are also considered highly dependent on the mindset and setting one is in, and can be associated with challenging experiences, though these are not necessarily without benefit, as people frequently wrestle with difficult psychological material in constructive ways that produce resolution and/or create a sense of surmounting challenges. Most research has found that adverse experiences tend not to persist permanently.
Are certain personality types more likely to use psychedelics?
We actually have collected unpublished data from 200 individuals with psychedelic experience that is strongly suggestive of a preference for psychedelic use by people with higher openness and neuroticism. Openness is characterized by a tendency toward cognitive exploration and neuroticism is associated with negative emotionality.
How might your research inform clinical efforts to improve unhealthy personality traits?
A very timely question. Research from two of our studies have supported a potential salutary effect on negative emotionality and antagonistic personality. The former is fairly convergent with depression/anxiety but also includes emotional impulsivity, volatility, and reactivity to stressors. The latter involves personality styles that involve a rude, quarrelsome, and manipulative demeanor.
Every study of clinical disorders also has implications for personality traits. For example, current studies of OCD and anorexia will hold implications for the effect of psychedelics on rigidity and constraint as personality traits. One of the tentative findings from our studies is that the positive effects of psychedelics may be more likely for people at certain levels of personality versus others. For example, there may be more potential for change in negative emotionality among people who are particularly high in this trait.
Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where do you hope to see the research go from here?
We are keen to continue testing our findings in larger and new samples. For example, Imperial College is actively recruiting people worldwide who are themselves preparing for ceremony experiences. Those interested can participate at PsychedelicSurvey.com. I think it will be very interesting to continue exploring the potential for psychedelics and psychedelic-assisted therapy to reduce anger reactivity, quarrelsomeness, and criticalness. Studies that would be very helpful toward this end include those that use a disharmony-focused therapy (such as components of Dialectical Behavior Therapy) and recruit people who are low in agreeableness to start. Should the changes we observed here find replication, countless interesting questions emerge: most intriguingly, what are the mechanisms for why these changes are taking place in people's psychology and in their neurobiology.