You’re nearing the end of your psilocybin journey, the thick coat of primordial patterns begins to optically disembed from the skins of your environment. Strawberries taste like an energizing river of sweet summer indulgence and pineapples taste like the youthful tang of early spring and new beginnings.
You never thought fruit could make you feel so many things, all at once. Now, it’s been 6-8 hours and your trip has officially come to a close.
You take a look around your home and for some reason the golden light of sundown flushing through the semi-open blinds of your living room windows seems a lot more vibrant and expressive than usual. It almost feels like the sun is caressing this small corner of our very big world, solely in ceremonial honor of your ethereal rebirth.
Night falls and the dawn of day crowns over your awakening. Oddly, these rejuvenating visuals of existential symbolism continue to persist for days after your journey. Colors are richer, light is brighter and darkness feels ever-more intriguing in a comfort-insulating sort of way.
Why do we experience these heightened senses post-psychedelic trips? How long do they last and what’s going on inside of our brains during these afterglow effects?
Today we’ll comb through the scientific research that’s focused itself on disambiguating this perceptual phenomena and the underlying neural mechanisms—we’ll even attempt to lexically illustrate the nature of this afterglow experience.
The Afterglow: In Your Mind’s Eye
Two of the predominant afterglow effects experienced by journeyers include a sense of interconnectedness with other humans and our planet, as well as overall mood enhancements. In a large majority of psychedelic journeys, typically through the use of serotonergic substances like psilocybin mushrooms, trip-goers report a sense of oneness with all beings and with our earth.
When actively in the experience, these substances disillusion us from identifying solely as an individual. They allow our egos and personas to take a back seat, letting us relish in the true nature of our existence—conscious awareness.
It’s here when many come to the realization that behind our perceived identity lies an eternal silence, the ‘listener’ in your head. In absence of mental thought, we sit still in this conscious awareness—the fabric of sentience that hosts our ‘identity’.
By inwardly guiding us into a state of deep meditation, these medicines detach us from the experiences, memories, and beliefs that shape a sense of self. Thus, upon return from a psychedelic experience, journeyers find conscious awareness to be the common ground and source of all human and sentient life.
This enacts a psychological openness that promotes mood enhancements of empathy, social connectedness, and unity. Of course, exercising such an all-encompassing perspective on life will inevitably further perpetuate feelings of existential satisfaction, acceptance, peace, and overall happiness.
Physically though, psychedelic-induced ‘afterglows’ can affect our ocular perspectives. Post-trip, many experience heightened senses of taste, smell, sight, and even hearing. You may notice amplified flavor notes in food.
Your sense of smell may be so magnified that your typically-stale and unmemorable stroll to the local corner store might suddenly become a sensory adventure of intense optical savor and refined aromatic immersion through lush colors, floral fragrances, and perhaps savory-sweetness of that small bakery down the street.
The afterglow phenomenon is essentially the remnant neural effect of psychedelic medicines. These lingering perceptual subjectivities don’t impair or incapacitate our physical competence, rather they accentuate the natural beauty and rawness of our inner and outer worlds.
It’s almost like seeing the world through a fresh pair of eyes, regressing us into the same curiosity and awe that inspired and meaningfully augmented life during our childhood. Afterglows produce a deeper appreciation for the environmental nuances of our everyday lives, but in a complete state of sobriety and physical/mental control.
Scientific Research on The Afterglow
In the days following your psychedelic journey, you might notice a persistence of the perceptual augmentations we mentioned above. As clinical trials continue to develop, researchers are noticing the presence of afterglow effects in their participants.
This has led several institutions to conduct their own studies on the underpinnings of these prolonged inner events. Perhaps most notably, Matthias Forstmann and colleagues from Yale University conducted a series of field studies in 2020, on the mood-enhancements and feelings of social connectedness that persist after psychedelic use.
Using the experiential statistics of 1,200 participants from the United Kingdom and the United States, researchers concluded that these social and mood enrichments were highly correlated to psychedelic use and were most pronounced in the participants who’d journeyed within the last 24 hours, compared to those who’d journeyed in within the past 7 days.
This supports the findings of other studies who’ve concluded that after only one dose of psilocybin, symptoms of treatment resistant depression were significantly reduced for at least 3 months following psychedelic use.
Findings of Forstmann’s research concluded a statistically significant (P < 0.001) causal relationship between self-reported transformative experiences during the psychedelic experience and persisting enhancement of positive mood.
This means that a subjectively positive trip will likely produce more intense afterglow effects.
To test for enhancement of social connectedness, researchers asked participants to respond to a diagram. This diagram consisted of seven images used to scale the degree to which participants included others in their self-construals.
Each of these images contains two identical circles with different degrees of overlap—picture this as a Venn diagram-type image. Throughout the seven images, the overlap varied from full separation of the two circles to almost fully conjoining, which indicates a spectrum of self-construal from no identification with others to almost-complete interconnectedness/identification with others.
Findings indicated a statistically significant correlation (P = 0.003) between psychedelic use and positive social connectedness. On top of that, there was a statistically significant (P < 0.001) correlation between degree of social connectedness feelings and positive mood.
These results strongly suggest that use of psychedelic substances contributes to increased feelings of oneness with other human beings, which ultimately serve to liven our spirits and outlooks.
Now, let’s get into the nitty gritty of this experiment—how long do feelings of social connectedness and mood enhancements persist? The large sample size of Forstmann’s research permitted very precise statistical analysis on the temporal changes of psychedelic-assisted mood enhancements.
By comparing the results of a questionnaire, researchers were able to determine the strength of afterglow effects between those that had used psychedelics within the past 24 hours and those that had journeyed within the week prior. About 69% of participants had used psychedelics in the past 24 hours and about 27% had used them in the last week.
Results indicated that the most clinically significant predictive factor of outcome variables (P = 0.031) was the recency of psychedelic use.
That’s to say that participants who journeyed the day prior reported experiencing the most prominent afterglow effects, which slowly diminished as time went by.
This was evidenced by follow-up check-ins with those subjects and by the questionnaire reports of participants who had entered the study already at one week post-trip. The findings of this study serve to scientifically confirm the presence of a psychedelic afterglow, suggesting that these perceptual augmentations are most obvious in the day following substance use and slowly subside over time.
Now, that does not mean that the psychological effects of these substances will decline at the same rate. Sensory intensifications will of course lessen as the substance leaves your system, but proper integrative measures ensure that behavioral and psychological changes are maintained and sustained.
In fact, results from a 2016 double-blind study conducted by Roland R Griffiths et al., found that 92% of study subjects demonstrated a clinically significant (more than or equal to 50% decrease compared to baseline) reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression.
The best part? By preparing the subjects appropriately and providing post-trip integration sessions, these response rates were sustained even after 6 months.
A 2015 systematic review conducted by Tomislac Majić and his colleagues, explored Peak Experiences And The Afterglow Phenomenon. Using author W. N. Pahnke’s description from 1969, the study explained how a psychedelic afterglow can be sensed as an ‘elevated and energetic mood with a relative freedom from concerns of the past and from guilt and anxiety’.
He also communicates an enhanced openness ‘to enter into close interpersonal relationships.’ Majić’s review notes the work of authors B. J. Albaugh and P. O. Anderson in 1974, which suggests that whilst in the mental state of an afterglow, therapeutic interventions prove to be highly effective (hence follow-up integration procedures), and this enhancement steadily recedes within a 2 week to 1 month timeframe.
Majić and his research partners also bring a 1996 study conducted by Charles Grob et al., to our attention. The study discusses plant hallucinogens as used in ritualistic contexts in Brazil, and notes how the religious services of the União do Vegetal are regularly segmented into two week intervals.
This is likely done to take advantage of these ‘afterglow’ effects since psychedelic-users most often report experiencing two weeks of sustained and pronounced perceptual enhancements. In analyzing the work of Griffiths et al. from 2006, Majić and colleagues suggested that the positive behavioral changes caused by psychedelic use greatly outlast the afterglow effects.
Griffiths’ study findings showed that 58% of study participants had a psychedelic-induced mystical experience (measured by the Pahnke-Richards Mystical Experience Questionnaire). Griffiths et al. then conducted a 14-month follow-up that found 50% of the subjects still felt that the psychedelic journey was one of, if not the most, meaningful and spiritually impactful experiences of their lives.
Hence why Majić concludes that afterglow effects are less durable (approx. 2 weeks) than the behavioral, psychological, and spiritual effects (sustained for 2 years in 50% of participants) brought on by psychedelic use.
The Afterglow: In The Brain
So what’s going on in our brain during this afterglow experience? Well friends, we’ve actually written an entire head to toe guide on the physiological effects of psychedelics, during and after a trip.
Briefly though, this amplified sensory activity deemed as an ‘afterglow’ is likely caused by the substance’s serotonergic effects and stimulation of neural plasticity. Studies have shown that serotonergic psychedelics like LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), psilocybin mushrooms, DMT (N,N-dimethyltryptamine), ibogaine, and ketamine, increase and strengthen neural communication.
The molecular structure of these compounds allows them to mimic serotonin (5-HT) in the brain, and thus activate 5-HT2A (serotonin) receptors. Since serotonin mediates feelings of satisfaction and happiness, it’s evident why positive mood enhancements are so widely reported.
Studies also show that serotonin levels are correlated with harm-avoidant behaviors. This helps us understand why measures of psychological openness usually demonstrate stark increases in clinical studies. Openness is key for experiencing the feelings of oneness and interconnectedness frequently associated with psychedelic trips.
However, as a society, our sense of selves are highly constricted and a large contributor is our constant exposure to news reports of criminal activity—conditioning fear of other human beings and thus promoting our social tendencies to avoid extensive interaction with unfamiliar faces.
So how do these increases in serotonin during a journey impact our perceptions outside of one? Well after we trip or after our microdosing regimen has come to an end, our brains have all of these new serotonin receptors, but don’t have sufficient serotonin to activate them.
So they compensate by producing those same high levels of serotonin, which of course foster continued feel-good sensations of interconnectedness and overall contentment. In essence, psychedelics equip the body with blueprint-like tools that let our brains continue to restore its own function, independently.
Whereas reuptake inhibitors like SSRIs, can only encourage increased serotonin circulation when the medication is in your system. The brain cannot block reuptake on its own, which is why after ceasing use of SSRIs, our bodies experience discontinuation symptoms of brain zaps, migraines, nausea, insomnia, anxiety, irritability, and mood swings.
Neural plasticity of our signaling pathways is also one of the mechanisms by which psychedelics promote these continued feelings of empathy and human communion. Psychedelics physically extend the dendritic spines of our cells through a process called spinogenesis.
They also increase the growth of neurites through neuritogenesis. These processes essentially allow the ‘limbs’ of our neurons to extend further and thus create more points of neuronal contact to strengthen and enlarge signaling pathways for amplified brain-to-brain communication.
If we take a look at a study led by Ling-Xiao Shao et al. in 2021, we learn that one dose of psilocybin can produce a 10% increase in not just the length of neuronal connections, but also the number of connections.
This amplified communication bolsters overall cerebral function, but most pressingly, it establishes new memory domains which serve to engrain and reinforce the positive experience of interconnection brought on by psychedelic use. Effectively fortifying new long-term behavioral patterns, but also likely lending to the mood and social enhancements of psychedelic-induced afterglows.
The afterglow phenomena is a positive, highly reported sub-product of psychedelic use. While its effects are not everlasting, they do service a healthy and fluid transition back into our day-to-day mental matrices. Psychedelics have an almost primordial intelligence that somehow, someway, never fails to nourish our souls with exactly what is needed.
That’s why many say that an inherently ‘bad trip’ doesn’t really exist. A trip that revealed cosmic truths you thought you weren’t prepared for? Perhaps.
A trip that unveiled frightening layers of conditioning and trauma, but ultimately aided you in your process of self actualization? For sure. The nature of truth may be uncomfortable and raw, but only because it’s a product of an illusion that has likely sat with us for far too long.
Do you feel ready to meet the beautiful lioness of truth that exists within and beyond us? To conquer sheltering beliefs that hamper a more fruitful sense of existence? If so, we would love to help.
Our experienced facilitators spare no effort to ensure your whole-hearted preparation for, and integration of the psychedelic experience. So if you’re up for it, we encourage you to book a consultation.
We’re here to help you make the best informed decisions and ultimately, to guide an experience that feels productive and authentic to you because in the end….
“We are all on a journey called life. We are a little broken and a little shattered inside. Each one of us is aspiring to make it to the end. None is deprived of pain here and we have all suffered in our own ways. I think our journey is all about healing ourselves and healing each other in our own special ways…we’re all just walking each other home.”
– Ram Dass