Why Element of Play Needs More Attention in Conversations About Psychedelics

September 25, 2023 13:09:40

After decades of criminalization in most countries across the world, psychedelics are finally having their moment in the light. Early research in the 1950s and 1960s indicated that psychedelics had some therapeutic potential, but new drug-safety policies from the FDA halted further research efforts and relegated psychedelic use to a select few. However, recent successes in drug-reform campaigns in the United States has given psychedelics another chance without the mostly political barriers that prevented its research in decades past.

A growing body of scientific literature now shows that psychedelics such as LSD, psilocybin, ayahuasca and DMT may have the ability to treat several mental disorders safely and effectively. With most of this research still in its infancy, researchers are constantly striving to understand how psychedelics interact with the human body to deliver mental-health benefits.

One aspect that has been somewhat neglected in the increasingly heated conversation about psychedelics is the element of play and how psychedelics can essentially snap the brain back into a child-like state of flexibility and learning. Play can be defined as our ability to see malleability and possibility in the most mundane of things. For instance, while a simple stick is nothing but a stick to an adult, a child’s imagination can allow them to use the stick as jumping-off points for all kinds of fun games.

When applied to psychiatry and mental health, the creativity, open-mindedness and flexibility granted by “play” can help us recontextualize past narratives about ourselves and the world.

Compared to adult brains, children’s brains are extremely plastic, meaning they are primed to observe the environment and quickly learn and adapt. This is why children learn new things relatively quickly while they are young but seem to lose this ability as they grow older. While all human brains experience neuroplasticity and can change their connections, structures and functions in response to intrinsic and extrinsic stimuli, children’s minds exhibit a high but temporary level of plasticity.

Researchers posit that psychedelics deliver many of their mental-health benefits by inducing neuroplasticity and helping the brain slowly wean itself off of maladaptive psychological habits. These habits include ruminations and obsessiveness that are associated with conditions such as addiction, anxiety and depression.

Psychedelics have proven to be especially effective at changing people’s perceptions of themselves, the people around them and the environment at large, often in a positive and life-changing way. This feature of psychedelics can enhance the element of play by allowing our brains to revert to that child-like state where the world was in the palm of our hands and possibilities were only limited by our imaginations.

Companies that are operating within the psychedelics space, such as Compass Pathways PLC (NASDAQ: CMPS), are doing the best they can to deliver novel treatments to tame the tide of the mental-health crisis. If the treatments they develop restore adults to the child-like state of high levels of brain plasticity, so much the better for the patients.

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