There are tons of theories of evolution that attempt to explain how we went from single-celled organisms to the highly complicated structures we are today. I’m not getting into that entire process, but instead, am focusing on the more recent changeover from early cave-dwelling humans to the 21st century beings we are today. What happened to make us what we are? And did psychedelics help our brains evolve?
If psychedelics helped our brains evolve, there’s no telling how useful they could be in the future. It could even mean that we’re not done evolving yet!! For more articles like this one, remember to subscribe to the our Psychedelics Weekly Newsletter, your top source for everything related to this growing and important industry.
What are psychedelics?
It’s quite a question of whether psychedelics did help our brains evolve. Before getting to that, let’s identify what we’re talking about in general. Psychedelic drugs go under the heading of hallucinogens, which are a part of the psychoactive drugs grouping. Psychedelic compounds can be found all over nature in the form of magic mushrooms, DMT, peyote, and ayahuasca. Or, they can be made in a lab like LSD, DXM, and ketamine.
Psychedelics are associated with hallucinations, though different compounds cause varying effects. Hallucinations include a sensory experience that isn’t actually there, like seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or feeling something that doesn’t exist. They are also widely known for causing spiritual experiences for users; making users feel more connected to each other, and the universe as a whole; inciting feelings of euphoria, and wellbeing; altering perception, and mood; and affecting cognitive function. This all includes what users have repeatedly called ‘life-changing experiences’ connected to life and consciousness, when on these drugs.
While psychedelics have repeatedly shown to be safe, and without a death and disability count, there is the possibility of experiencing a ‘bad trip’. A bad trip is as it sounds. A generally not fun incident wherein users experience negative hallucinations, and physical symptoms like anxiety, paranoia, nausea, raised blood pressure, erratic heartbeat, vomiting, chills, and dizziness. There are several things a person can do to avoid a bad trip, which is mostly about getting the dosage correct. However, there are other things that can be controlled for, like taking the trip in a place that’s comfortable, or being around the right people.
Psychedelics have been used widely throughout ancient history, but were essentially banned after the creation and marketization of LSD in the mid-late 1900’s. The Vietnam war was likely a catalyst, as drugs were used to denigrate the anti-war movement which was tightly tied to counterculture and draft-dodging. In the US, the Staggers-Dodd bill was passed in 1968 specifically illegalizing LSD and magic mushrooms, and this was followed up by the passing of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. Globally, the UN’s Convention on Psychotropic Substances in 1971 made these compounds illegal all over the world.
What is evolution?
For most people, the idea of evolution is understood, though many see it as truth, and many see it as a lie. In all honesty, regardless of how much this answer is liked, it really is only a theory. The theory of evolution is “The scientific theory explaining the appearance of new species and varieties through the action of various biological mechanisms (such as natural selection, genetic mutation or drift, and hybridization).” This includes the “descent with modification from preexisting species: cumulative inherited change in a population of organisms through time leading to the appearance of new forms: the process by which new species or populations of living things develop from preexisting forms through successive generations.”
Essentially, it’s a theory that seeks to explain how life might have changed on this planet over time, allowing one form of living species to become something else. It doesn’t propose this happened randomly, but as a response to different factors like mutation, or the right attributes helping some survive over others in a particular environment.
I was on a message board once, where whether the theory of evolution was ‘true’ or not was being discussed. I was personally disgusted by how many medical and scientific research professionals touted it as a truth, when indeed our history cannot be tested, meaning it’s not a provable theory by default. Though changes have been identified in more recent times (like sherpas, and their acquired ability in recent history to use oxygen more efficiently at high altitudes) the reason the theory of evolution is called ‘the theory of evolution’ and not the ‘law of evolution’, is because like it or not, and whether it’s the best answer we have or not, there is no hard proof that this theory is true.
We learn a lot through history. It’s always good to remember that it was once thought the sun moved around the earth, or that tiny people were in our bodies making things function, or that letting out blood could cure illness. We constantly find new ruins and artifacts that change the story, like that neanderthal DNA can be found in our DNA, something ruled out previously. So though I myself see evolution as the best answer, unlike the scientists erroneously saying it ‘has to’ be true, I also understand it’s a huge topic for which we don’t understand everything.
While many detractors choose a more religious, god-centered story to explain how we came to be, others point to possibilities like genetic material landing on earth from a meteor, while others propose that aliens had something to do with it. And like it or not, we as a people can’t technically rule any of this out, even if the go-to answer has become evolution.
Did psychedelics help our brains evolve?
Now that psychedelics have been described, we can get more into how they might have affected the human brain through time. In fact, psychedelics are under much investigation at the moment for help with things like depression, anxiety, and drug addiction. LSD studies from the mid-1900’s did well to draw out the possible ability for the compound to help hardcore drinkers stop in their tracks. The FDA is supporting research into MDMA and psilocybin through giving ‘breakthrough therapy’ designations to both. These designations are given when research is underway on something that shows to be a better answer to a problem than a standard remedy.
All of the things mentioned denote the idea that psychedelic compounds can help change the way the brain works. In fact, esketamine, (the legalized version of ketamine), as well as ketamine itself which is widely used in clinics for therapy as an off-label product, have both shown to be great helps with major depression. More so than monoamine antidepressants, which have been the pharmaceutical answer that realistically never worked. Psychedelics seem to be able to allow the brain to make new connections, and essentially, reformulate parts of itself.
Early humans did not function like we do today. Their brain capacity was much more limited, which is known by their limited abilities to establish societies, or live outside of basic, wild, animal means. We know the brain would have had to change extensively to allow us to be what we currently are (assuming evolution is the answer), meaning, something led to that happening. Maybe it was just mutation, or natural selection. Or maybe, early humans ate some plants that helped them expand their minds, and grow their brains.
More on the theory that psychedelics helped our brains evolve
So where is this idea backed up? In more and more places these days. First off, before worrying about evolution specifically, and whether psychedelics did help our brains evolve, the first thig to understand is that psychedelics may change the structure of brain cells. In 2018, Psychedelics Promote Structural and Functional Neural Plasticity was published in Cell Reports, which found four key points of interest:
- That serotonergic psychedelics (most psychedelics are in this category) increase neuritogenesis (the sprouting of neurites from a cell, which is the first step in the development of a mature neuronal morphology), spinogenesis (the development of dendritic spines in neurons), and synaptogenesis (the formation of new synapses).
- That psychedelics promote plasticity (the brain’s ability to change and adapt as a result of experience) via an evolutionarily conserved mechanism.
- That TrkB (receptor), mTOR (protein kinase), and 5-HT2A (receptor) signaling underlie psychedelic-induced plasticity. As in, these three help psychedelics to change the brain.
- That noribogaine (primary metabolite of ibogaine), but not ibogaine (psychedelic compound found in many plants), is capable of promoting structural neural plasticity.
The study was conducted on several different animals, from rats and other rodents, to zebrafish embryos. These studies were not done on humans, which should be considered when looking at results. It should be remembered, however, that we regularly rely on animal studies to give us information about what will work for humans. According to the study investigators:
“Here, we report that, like ketamine, serotonergic psychedelics are capable of robustly increasing neuritogenesis and/or spinogenesis both in vitro and in vivo. These changes in neuronal structure are accompanied by increased synapse number and function, as measured by fluorescence microscopy and electrophysiology. The structural changes induced by psychedelics appear to result from stimulation of the TrkB, mTOR, and 5-HT2A signaling pathways and could possibly explain the clinical effectiveness of these compounds.”
Going further into the possibility that psychedelics helped our brains evolve
Yet another recent study got into this idea. On September 29th, 2021, Psychedelics, Sociality, and Human Evolution was published in Frontiers in Psychology. The study authors start out by saying: “Our hominin ancestors inevitably encountered and likely ingested psychedelic mushrooms throughout their evolutionary history”, which they relate back as far as the Pliocene age.
According to researchers, “Psilocybin and similar psychedelics that primarily target the serotonin 2A receptor subtype stimulate an active coping strategy response that may provide an enhanced capacity for adaptive changes through a flexible and associative mode of cognition. Such psychedelics also alter emotional processing, self-regulation, and social behavior, often having enduring effects on individual and group well-being and sociality.”
They go on to say, “A homeostatic and drug instrumentalization perspective suggests that incidental inclusion of psychedelics in the diet of hominins, and their eventual addition to rituals and institutions of early humans could have conferred selective advantages.”
Finally, they break it down to, “the evolutionary scenario put forward suggests that integration of psilocybin into ancient diet, communal practice, and proto-religious activity may have enhanced hominin response to the socio-cognitive niche, while also aiding in its creation. In particular, the interpersonal and prosocial effects of psilocybin may have mediated the expansion of social bonding mechanisms such as laughter, music, storytelling, and religion, imposing a systematic bias on the selective environment that favored selection for prosociality in our lineage.”
They broke this into four aspects:
- Management of psychological distress and treatment of health problems
- Enhanced social interaction and interpersonal relations
- Facilitation of collective ritual and religious activities
- Enhanced group decision-making
How we really got to be who and what we are is a massive question that no one has a definitive answer to right now, no matter what they may think they know. Recent research has certainly opened the door to the exploration of psychedelics as a factor in our growth and development through history, but much more needs to be learned. If there is truth in this, it speaks volumes to what we can do with psychedelics, and how useful they can potentially be in our future growth and development.
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Disclaimer: Hi, I’m a researcher and writer. I’m not a doctor, lawyer, or businessperson. All information in my articles is sourced and referenced, and all opinions stated are mine. I am not giving anyone advice, and though I am more than happy to discuss topics, should someone have a further question or concern, they should seek guidance from a relevant professional.