People come in all shapes and sizes and so do their personalities. For most folks their individual personality simply provides a bit of flavor to their life, their relationships. For others, personalities that are more extreme can lead to success or failure in life, contentment or persistent unhappiness, obsession with work or happiness with life as it is with family and friends. Psychedelic medicines have been found to be very effective in combating problems like depression, PTSD, and substance abuse. Can psychedelics change personality too?
How Psychedelic Medicines Work
Unlike standard medicines for anxiety or depression that do their jobs as long as a person is taking them, psychedelics only require a dose or two to do their work and the benefits can last for months and even years after a single treatment. These substances work by directly affecting the brain circuits that are turned on and off by serotonin, a neurotransmitter. Rather than temporarily depressing or stimulating the circuits psychedelics cause long term change. What a person typically experiences after psychedelic treatment is a sense of connectedness, increased introspection, improved sense of well-being, relaxation, and even spiritual experiences. People report increased empathy and a sense of peace. How these medicines can affect personality is because their effects last so long and because the changes essentially constitute a rewiring of the brain.
How Does a Psychedelic Change Personality?
This issue was studied by doctors at Johns Hopkins University. They gave one dose of psilocybin and found that six out of ten people experienced a change of personality that lasted at least a year, which is as long as they did any follow up on test subjects. Personality change was more likely in subjects less than 30 years of age and less likely in those over age 30. What was affected by the psychedelic medicine was openness which relates to feelings, abstract ideas, general broad-mindedness, and imagination. Researchers observed that the changes they saw far exceeded those normally seen in adults over decades.
The More Anxious a Person Is the More Psychedelics Change Personality
Neurotic personality types are constantly obsessed with worries and concerns that are generally out of proportion to the realities of their everyday lives. These folks are constantly processing fear and anxiety via the fear control center of their brain, the amygdala. What psychedelics can do is change the brain circuits by modifying how they process serotonin in the short term and by decreasing brain activity in this part of the brain over the longer term. Excessive worry is something that is essentially practiced by a person making it stronger, just like exercise builds muscles. Turning off the processing of excessive worry, fear, and anxiety reduces the strength of that tendency over the long term. Because psychedelics “turn off” excessive worry and anxiety they would be expected to work the best in people who are more anxious and worried and that is what research shows.
Personality Versus Emotion
If you have a frightening experience, you become afraid. If you have repeated frightening experiences, you are repeatedly afraid. If you come to believe that life is always frightening and that you need to constantly be on guard, that becomes part of your personality. Emotions contribute to personality and personality filters how often and how strongly we feel emotions. While there are medicines that relieve short term anxiety they typically do not help with an anxious personality as much. That is where a medicine that changes brain circuits, like a psychedelic, comes into play. Psychedelics have been shown to help with depression and PTSD for years. They are given as adjuncts to coaching or counseling sessions in which the person is able to recall the events that led to their constant fear, flashbacks, and depression. Because the therapy causes long term changes in how the brain processes memories as well as events in daily life they are effectively treating personality to the extent that it causes recurring and troubling emotions like fear and depression.
The point of treating someone with psychedelics to alter their personality is not to make someone more financially successful or a prolific writer but to alleviate the constant fear and worry that plague neurotic individuals, those of us who live lives of constant fear, depression, and worry.