Psychedelic Therapy and Psychodrama Impact Brain Similarly

A hot research topic in universities around the world involves the effect of psychedelic drugs have on the brain and mental health. These studies seeks to prove that psychedelics like psilocybin and LSD can effectively address various mental health issues, like depression, OCD, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The early research on these topics has been promising and his partly responsible for the efflorescence of State and local governments legalizing its possession and use.

In fact, research on brain responses to psychedelics is currently being done at some of the world’s most prestigious universities. In 2000 John Hopkins School of Medicine was the first to obtain approval for reinstituting research into psychedelics. The success of their early research has caused them to be so committed to this research that they’ve opened a center for psychedelic & consciousness research.

Similar research on the therapeutic effects of psychedelics is taking place at many other universities such as Columbia University in New York, The University of Texas, UC Berkely, Mount Sinai Health System, Imperial College U.K., Washington University, and many others. Even the department of Veteran Affairs has begun such research.

Applying Complex Systems Theory to Explain How Psychedelics Impact the Brain

Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris[1] is one of the most well-known researchers in this field. In his most recent paper, currently under review, Dr. Harris indicates that “[T]here is growing evidence for the safety and efficacy of psychedelic therapy in mental health care. What is less understood, however, is how psychedelics act to yield therapeutic results.” Dr. Harris proposes that “psychedelics act as destabilizers — both in a psychological and a neurophysiological sense.” Carhart-Harris, Pattern Breaking: A Complex Systems Approach to Psychedelic Medicine, (last checked 12.28.22).

To help make sense of this, Dr. Harris explains brain function from a neuroscience perspective by applying Complex Systems Theory (CST) to human behavior. The brain, consciousness and human behavior are interrelated complex systems. CST applied to the brain can explain human behavior as a mix of external factors and feedback systems that create self-organization that is not fully comprehended.

When operating well, this “intrinsic dynamical organization” sits on the precipice of a “critical point” between order and disorder. If there is too much randomness (entropy) the system (brain function & mental health) degrades and becomes dysfunctional. Excessive order can be detrimental too, although the effects it has on people differ from those of chaos.

From a CST perspective, human behavior exhibits “a functionally useful balance between self-maintenance and adaptability. While in this state of stasis, in Dr. Harris’ terms, the brain “surfs” uncertainty, and beneficially adapts to changing environmental conditions.

Sudden transitions in this stasis can occur due to external forces such as might happen when the stock market crashes. A psychotic or depressive episode can also cause a “tipping,” and such tippings can cascade into other of the system’s components. Dr. Harris points out that such tipping can also be functionally useful and produce “global” transformation.

From a CST perspective, psychopathology is described as a specific set of behaviors (dynamic patterns) that arise from a person’s interaction with their environment. Through “experience-dependent reinforcement” these behaviors deepen, and while the brain still “surfs” uncertainty, it does so using different, abnormal strategies.

In cases of trauma, the experience imprints a memory that causes a significant narrowing of the brain’s ability to respond to uncertainty. Whereas a non-traumatized brain will have robustness and resilience while “surfing uncertainty”, a “traumatized brain” becomes too reinforced and rigid. This “stuck state” affords “reduced degrees of freedom, i.e., fewer possibilities for other forms of thought or action. It therefore affords a ‘narrower’ state of being.” Harris, pg. 12.

Certain stuck states can create dysfunction. According to Dr. Harris:

In depression, patients often continually ruminate about their failings, reiterate thoughts of guilt, and engage in self-critical inner narratives. In addition, drug craving drives behavior that is specific, narrow, and rigid; individuals with addiction ruminate on their preferred substance(s) of abuse: why they can’t get away from it, where they need to go or what they need to do to get it and pay for it etc. In obsessive-compulsive disorder and anorexia, there is excessive rumination about threats to the person, i.e., the effects of eating or overeating.

Carhart-Harris, Pattern Breaking: A Complex Systems Approach to Psychedelic Medicine, (last checked 12.28.22).

As with addiction, ancillary behaviors such as paying for drugs via prostitution or binge-purging in eating disorders, can work to further reinforce the disorder through repeated and reinforced feelings such as shame. Similarly, although often inadvertently, interpersonal relations can shape around the illness, creating a psychosocial matrix of continued reinforcement e.g., living among fellow drug addicts. All these factors and others, will work to entrench canalized thought and behavior (Waddington, 1959).

Stuck states cause individuals to find it difficult to deal with uncertainty. When confronted with uncertainty a “stuck” individual will revert to prior behavior rather than creatively adapting to the surprise. “From a psychopathology point of view, this means that it is likely that, faced with prolonged high levels of surprise, an agent will be “stuck” in that state, even after being removed from that environment – a psychological condition that may be associated with PTSD.” Harris, pg. 14.

A therapeutic intervention that helps people get out of this stuck state requires the “induction of destabilization.” Harris, pg. 16. In his research, Dr. Harris is exploring “the idea that psychotherapy may trigger clinical change by destabilizing unhealthy patterns of thinking, and that psychedelics are strong candidates for catalyzing this.” Pg. 18.

According to Dr. Harris:

The basic entropic action of psychedelics is linked to a rich psychological experience that enables novel or diverse cognitive and affective perspectives. This richness and novelty is arguably the inverse of the narrow, canalised cognitive and behavioral styles that characterize psychopathology. Pg. 17.

Carhart-Harris, Pattern Breaking: A Complex Systems Approach to Psychedelic Medicine, (last checked 12.28.22).

Dr. Harris believes a classic psychedelic experience can free the brain from stuck trauma patterns. The brain surf’s chaos as a means of expansion rather than as a means of pattern reinforcement. This yields many therapeutic benefits. Other psychedelic studies show that psychedelic assisted therapies and mdma assisted psychotherapy, are especially effective.

Psychodrama and Psychedelics Impact the Brain Similarly

Psychedelic and psychodrama therapies can both disrupt set patterns of thinking to allow for more spontaneity and openness. In this way, both psychedelics and psychodrama are very similar. This is merely hypothetical, as no research has been done on the effects of psychodrama on the brain. Nonetheless, the theories of J.L. Moreno and Dr. Harris are quite similar.

Moreno originally published his theories in the first edition of Who Shall Survive? A New Approach to the Problem of Human Relations. (1934). In this very arcane work, Moreno sets forth his basic principles of spontaneity, with the “Cannon of Creativity” as the cornerstone. Hale, Conducting Clinical Sociometric Explorations: A Manual for Psychodramatists, pg. 5 (1981).

According to Moreno, the source of all spontaneity is the “Godhead.” We receive our spontaneity from this source when we are in co-creation with it. Moreno defined spontaneity as “the variable degree of satisfactory response an individual manifests in a situation of a variable degree of novelty. The root of this word is the Latin sua sponte meaning of free will’ [or from within oneself] (Moreno and Moreno 1975:270).

Spontaneity is the ingredient in the creative process which provokes creativity. Hale at pg. 6. Spontaneity can be thought of as readiness for an action and creativity the idea. Garcia, A. & Buchanan, D.R. (2000) Psychodrama. In P. Lewis and D.R. Johnson, (Eds.) Current Approaches in Drama Therapy. Springfiled, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publishing, LTD., pg. 171.

The twin concepts of spontaneity and creativity are responsible for the formation of our cultural conserves. Cultural conserves are the given patterns, relationships, or products of our society. Garcia, pg. 171. The cultural conserve is comprised of the mass of all existing creations ideas and information, form and design, all structures, one’s life-experience and the finished products of any creative process. Hall, pg. 6. The cultural conserve represents order and the status quo.

Moreno viewed life as a series of spontaneity tests. All dysfunction is caused by a lack of spontaneity and/or creativity, while all functionalities can be attributed to an adequate amount of both. Garcia, 172. Paralysis occurs when we are faced with a new situation, and we become frozen and are unable to act. In Dr. Harris’ terms, our prior traumas have caused intractable brain pathways. We are stuck and therefore unable to surf uncertainty in a beneficial way.

Moreno similarly believed that a paralysis of spontaneity occurs when we experience trauma. During and after a traumatic event, the information about the event is stored in the body, mind, emotions, and spirit. Garcia, pg. 176.

Moreno believed that when we get trapped in our past, it is because our spontaneity and creativity were insufficient to help us at the time, so that a piece of us is snagged on the past as a sweater would be snagged on a bramble bush. Garcia, pg 176.

In psychodrama the protagonist has the opportunity to recreate the past and correct the scene changing the history so that he disentangles the snag from the bramble and moves more freely in his present-day life.

He may correct the scene by expressing emotions unexpressed until now; he may gain a new insight into the experience; and he may find another, more satisfying way to end the scene than the way it occurred in his literal past. Garcia, A. & Buchanan, D.R. pg. 176.

Psychodrama is said to be “spontaneity training”, aiming to help participants increase spontaneity. By Moreno’s way of thinking, a lack of spontaneity is at the root of psychopathology.

If a person lacks spontaneity, it is because they are thwarted by the cultural conserve rather than inspired by it. They are unable to bring creatively to a novel situation. Without spontaneity a person’s behavior becomes a “robotic” and they are unable to meet a novel situation adequately. This is what Moreno calls “pathological spontaneity.”

Psychodrama encourages spontaneity in participants, aiming to reach the same level of creativity as a genius, while also aiding to eliminate any psychological or emotional blocks.

Moreno saw that mental issues were frequently paired with an absence of “healthy spontaneity,” and those with emotional or psychological issues responded with “an inadequate novel response” or “illness-induced spontaneity.”

Moreno believed that spontaneity was like energy in that it could be neither created nor destroyed. What varies is our ability to access this force. In psychodrama, catharsis happens when a block to spontaneity is removed.

Psychodrama, therefore, as spontaneity training, allows a person to embrace life more fully, in living color, with the full panoply of actions and emotions. To live, as it were, in the here and now. Psychodrama subsequently allows the protagonist, who has successfully removed the spontaneity block to surf uncertainly and successfully adapt and respond to unexpected life events.

Bringing the Two Theories Together

According to Dr. Harris, with CST we have human behavior “sitting on the precipice of order and disorder.” The same is true with Moreno, with the substitution of the cultural conserve for order and spontaneity with disorder. Human behavior sits on the precipice of the division between the two.

In Moreno’s way of thinking, full unbridled spontaneity comes from the source, what he called the Godhead. Creation happens when spontaneity is brought to creativity. This is the essence of what Moreno called the Cannon of Creativity.

Gaining knowledge and developing comes from exploring the unfamiliar, not the known. Disorder is the place of creation. Most of the world’s major religions have God creating order out of disorder. According to the book of Genesis, God encounters the primordial unformed world (tohu and bohu), and using the attribute of His word brings order to it.

Moreno calls this organizing force the Godhead, gave this power in form of spontaneity, to humans thereafter. The hero’s journey similarly necessitates entering chaos, the wilderness, or underworld, conquering the disorder, gaining knowledge, and crafting something new to give back to the cultural preserve.

Dr. Harris further posits that aberrant human behavior occurs from overlearning. The brain responds to trauma by laying down neuropathways that become ingrained. His research suggests that when the brain is exposed to psychedelics, new pathways can be developed, helping the neuropathways to “grow out of” the ingrained pathways. In this metaphor, the ingrained neuropathways would be akin to Moreno’s cultural conserve.

Dr. Moreno believed that thwarted human behavior could change by bringing spontaneity to the individual. In a classic psychodrama experience, the protagonist begins to explore their concern in the present day, within his or her own cultural conserve. In the encounter, the protagonist goes back in time to an event that caused the flow of spontaneity to be obstructed.

During the psychodrama, when the protagonist realizes that their spontaneity has been thwarted, they experience a catharsis of abreaction. Bringing this new learning into the present, the protagonist can experience a catharsis if integration. The thing that had blocked the spontaneity has now been removed, and the protagonist returns to the present day with their spontaneity resuscitated and its flow refreshed. A perfect hero’s journey.

When speaking of psychodrama, one might say “how can you change what actually happened?” The fact is that in reexperiencing the situation a new way of kinesthetically through the body in action the protagonist is implanting new information about the prior experience in the neural pathways. The aspect of changing history is profound, and it neutralizes traumatic incidents and builds a new frame of reference. Garcia, A. & Buchanan, D.R. pg. 176.

Psychodrama is a disruptive event that causes a rewiring of the protagonist’s the brain. Bringing it all together, it can now be said that, like psychedelics, psychodrama creates new neuropathways. However, whereas psychedelics impact the entire brain, psychodrama is more selective, and offers a partial rewiring addressed to a specific traumatic event.

Research into the potential of psychedelics is exciting and appears to be yielding many positive results. Early research suggests that LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) and psilocybin mushrooms have long term efficacy when treating depression and anxiety. They are also helpful in treating addiction including alcohol use and substance use disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder, as well as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) anxiety.

For at least 6 decades psychodrama practitioners have used successfully used psychodrama interventions to treat these disorders. Neuroimaging research may prove that the connection between psychodrama and psychedelics on brain and behavior is real, not just theoretical.

[1] Robin Heads the Psychedelic Research Group within the Centre for Psychiatry at Imperial College London, where he has designed several functional brain imaging studies with psilocybin (magic mushrooms), LSD, MDMA (ecstasy) and DMT (ayahuasca), plus a clinical trial of psilocybin for treatment resistant depression. He has over 50 published papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals; two of which were ranked in the top 100 most impactful academic articles of 2016. Robin’s research has featured in major national and international media, and he has given a popular TEDx talk.