Our minds remain open when the LSD wears off

Gul Dolen

Photo illustration by Mark Riechers/Midjourney (TTBOOK)

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When I ask friends if they’ve taken psychedelics, I hear the same kind of thing all the time. They’ll say, “Yeah, back in the day, you know, in college or at a rave, or hanging out with friends.” It was like a rite of passage when they were young. 

But you could argue the people who would benefit the most from these mind-bending experiences are people my age, middle-aged, or older. Because psychedelics have a unique capacity to open up the mind so that everything feels fresh and full of possibilities, especially as you get older. It’s so easy to get stuck in a rut, but under a psychedelic, the brain can become more plastic. This time period, though, is limited. It might just last a few days or weeks. So it’s really important to understand this critical period when our minds are so open—and also so vulnerable.

These periods of high plasticity are what Gül Dölen has been studying for years. She’s a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins with both a Ph.D. and an M.D., and she’s done some groundbreaking studies on the critical periods psychedelics can reopen, including in octopuses. Yeah, she’s given MDMA to octopuses, who she cheekily calls “psychopaths of the ocean.” Normally they’re asocial but, on MDMA, they become affable. 

Steve Paulson: What happened when you gave MDMA to octopuses?

Gül Dölen: It was the California two-spot octopus, Octopus bimaculoides. They are asocial. When we started those experiments, we made sure to keep them in separate chambers, under flower pots, because we knew that if they had access to each other, they would probably kill each other. So it was a little bit of a surprise that when we gave them MDMA, they ceased to be asocial. They were spending all their time in the social chamber. And this tells us that the brain circuitry for sociality exists in these octopuses, but that it’s normally suppressed outside of the reproductive window. Normally, it’s turned off. It also suggests that for whatever reason, octopuses evolved to be asocial because it was adaptive for whatever hunting strategy or lifestyle strategy evolution imposed on them. But given that all other cephalopods are social, compared to octopuses, there’s something unique about the strategy that octopuses have chosen where being asocial is so adaptive.

For a text version of this conversation, continue reading over on Nautilus.