Shaking the Snow Globe: A Theory of Psychedelics

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Admittingly, I was first hesitant to write about psychedelics. For better of worse, these substances have become associated with the anti-establishment and counterculture movements of the 1960’s. Consequently, psychedelics carry a lot of stereotypes and cultural baggage from the past. Nonetheless, after reading Michael Pollan’s fantastic book, How to Change Your Mind and looking into additional research I became convinced of the potential of psychedelics to bring about transformative experiences. If used under the guidance and supervision of trained medical professionals, psychedelics have been shown to have significant positive effects in mental healthcare.

Psychedelics which include substances such as DMT, LSD and psilocybin (magic mushrooms) produce altered states of consciousness resulting in temporary changes to cognition. At a rudimentary level, psychedelics appear affect the brain’s serotonin system, fostering new neural pathways in the brain.

You may still be wondering, how one experiencing these peculiar and strange altered states of consciousness can have lasting effects on one’s perspective of the world, and effectively address a range of mental health issues.

One of the leading theories that seeks to explain how psychedelics affect the brain is Robin Carhart-Harris’ Entropic Brain Hypothesis. The theory develops a model in which different states of consciousness are ordered based on their level of entropy, or rigidity they encompass.

Many mental illnesses including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessions and eating disorders are characterized by inflexible thought patterns and fixed narratives we develop based on how we conceptualize the world. These illnesses narrow of perspectives, in which we become terrorized by our own destructive ‘egos’. Our incessant fears or past traumas become filters to how we shape our lives and view reality.  

On the other end of the spectrum are high entropic states of consciousness which are embodied by chaos. These states are characterized by disorder and flexibility.  Examples of high entropy mental states include infant consciousness, sensory depravation and psychedelic states. A basic diagram depicting this model can be seen below.

Robin Carhart-Harris Entropic Brain Theory

Psychedelics are particularly useful for individuals with on the ‘low entropy’ side of the spectrum.  They help disrupt negative patterns of thought which have become ingrained in our minds by introducing more flexibility – more entropy. Observed by scientists, when an individual is on psilocyn “thousands of new connections form, linking far-flung brain regions that during normal waking consciousness don’t exchange much information.”  A visual representation of the difference between a placebo (image A) versus a brain on psilocyn (image B) can be seen below.    

Homological scaffolds of brain functional networks 2014

 A hallmark of the psychedelic experience is ‘ego dissolution’, the disappearance of our sense of ‘self’, and a feeling of ‘oneness’ with the universe.  Michael Pollan describes his experience with ‘ego dissolution’ on psilocybin

The sovereign ego, with all its armaments and fears, its backward-looking resentments and forward-looking worries, was simply no more. Yet something had succeeded it: this bare disembodied awareness, which gazed upon the scene of the self’s dissolution with benign indifference. I was present to reality but as something other than my self. And although there was no self left to feel, exactly, there was a feeling tone, which was calm, unburdened, content.

 From a neuroscience lens, psychedelics decrease activity in the default-mode network which is considered to be region of the brain which is synonymous with ‘the self’ or what we call ‘I’. When activity in the default mode network falls off, the ego disappears temporarily liberating us from the excessive and unproductive ruminations of the mind. When this occurs, we can rid ourselves of destructive stories and ideas we hold dear, and have the opportunity to craft new narratives. 

Psychedelics may be a shortcut to achieving what long experienced meditators have been training years to attain, the relief from what Buddhists call the ‘monkey mind’ or the ‘no-self.’ In this state we are liberated from attachment, and the separation between subject and object disappears. At a minimum, psychedelics show us that there exist many different forms of consciousness and unique perceptions of reality that we can experience throughout our lives. This offers us a unique opportunity to view the world from a different lens.

  To quote William James in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience,

Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness

William James: Author of The Varieties of Religious Experience

These are no doubt powerful substances which if used in the wrong context can have negative repercussions both on an individual and societal level. Nonetheless, if used in as a medicine rather than as a recreational drug in a safe and regulated environment, psychedelics can perhaps give us a momentary glimpse of enlightenment.

Next time I’ll explore in more detail what the clinical trials are revealing about the therapeutic use of psychedelics in mental health care. 

Till next time,

AA

Gazing into the Telescope of the Mind

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For some, the term ‘psychedelics’ may illicit images of the strung-out hippie at 1969 Woodstock or the madman hallucinating, on the edge of losing self-restraint. Yes, like many other drugs or tools developed by mankind, psychedelics are a double-edged sword. Used in an improper context amongst individuals with specific mental illnesses, these drugs may exacerbate symptoms and lead to erratic behaviour. However, a renewed interest and modern renaissance of research is emerging about the potential of psychedelics to address a host of mental illnesses ranging from depression, end-of-life anxiety and addiction. Used with caution, psychedelics can be important tools for psychiatry and self-exploration, and their use extends far beyond their stereotypical image of a ‘party drug.’

Psychedelics have been described as ‘telescopes for the mind’ giving users the ability to explore the depths of their subconscious. Through this voyage people can escape the every day realities of their normal waking consciousness, and gain new perspectives and insights into how they view the world. Few personal accounts of psychedelic use have received more notoriety than that of the English intellectual Aldous Huxley. Describing his experience on mescaline, Huxley writes in The Doors of Perception,

To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and the inner world, not as they appear to an animal obsessed with survival or to a human being obsessed with words and notions, but as they are apprehended, directly and unconditionally, by Mind at Large—this is an experience of inestimable value to everyone and especially to the intellectual

To filter the immense amount of incoming information from the external environment, our brains have evolved to become ‘prediction machines.’ That is, they attempt to make sense of the present moment by comparing it to similar experiences in the past, and making predictions into how events will unfold. While this may be evolutionary efficient for our species, it can inhibit us from experiencing the joys of the present moment, leaving us in a perpetual state of anxiety.

 What psychedelics seem to do is to momentarily alter our perceptions of reality. They ‘shake the snow globe’ in our minds suspending the mental habits and ruminations we have developed over the years. That is to say these experiences allows us to view things from a different light, through a new lens, and to redefine our associations we have with our thoughts. In fact, in one study 66% to 86% of these participants in these psychedelic trials noted that their experience was one of the most meaningful in their lives These altered states of consciousness can lead to can lead to feelings of awe and wonder. As Michael Pollan eloquently notes in How to Change your Mind,

One of the things that commends travel, art, nature, work, and certain drugs to us is the way these experiences, at their best, block every mental path forward and back, immersing us in the flow of a present that is literally wonderful—wonder being the by-product of precisely the kind of unencumbered first sight, or virginal noticing, to which the adult brain has closed itself.

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I want to explore what the recent literature in psychology and neuroscience are telling us about the value of psychedelics in mental health as well as the insights they can provide into spirituality. I am not writing from practical experience, and the research does make it clear that the psychedelics are not for everyone. Moreover, the experience is contingent on an individual’s own inner mental landscape, and the ‘set’ and ‘setting’ of the event.

However, perhaps what psychedelics can do for us is change our glasses of perception, open new doors and allow us to get a glimpse of new alternatives modes of consciousness which we could strive towards. And maybe, just maybe, they can help us change our minds.

The Science of Mindfulness

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The practice of meditation may at first seem counterintuitive or foreign to the Western mind. With the abundance of digital technologies and entertainment options available to us, why would anyone abandon these luxuries to sit alone in silence. Surely there are more productive ways one ought to spend their limited time here on earth.

Yet meditation has become a recent cultural phenomenon.  According to one study, the number of people practicing meditation has tripled since 2012. The benefits of meditation have been boasted by a wide range of professions including athletes, musicians and educators. Furthermore, many practitioners have claimed that the practice can aid with a number of physical and mental ailments.

The intention of this article is to provide an objective account of what modern-day science is telling us about the benefits of meditation. While there are many different types of meditation techniques, I want to focus on one of the more popular practices known as mindfulness meditation.  As described by Alan Watts in his book The Way of Zen, the practice involves, 

“A quiet awareness without comment, of whatever happens to be here and now. This awareness is attended by the most vivid sense of ‘non-difference’ between oneself and the external world, between the mind and its contents – the various sounds, sights and other impressions of the surrounding environment”

Scientific Studies on Mindfulness Meditation

Scientific study into the practice of mindfulness has significantly increased over the past decade. While studies have pointed to a vast array of benefits from mindfulness meditation ranging from alleviating ailments such post traumatic stress disorder and high blood pressure, some of these claims have been called into question due to poor experimental design. As Thomas Plante has noted in Psychology Today, many mindfulness studies do not incorporate randomized control trials in which meditation is compared to other established available treatments. 

However, there are a couple of key areas where concrete evidence is stacking up about the benefits of meditation. Some of these include,

  1.  A long-term meditation practice can increase resilience to stress

Meditation enables us to respond better to stressful situations. Studies have demonstrated that meditation training decreased activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that is responsible for our ‘fight or flight’ reactions to events.  It seems that there are long-term effects in reducing the intensity of stress amongst long-term meditators. As noted in Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson’s book Altered Traits,

These changes are trait-like: They appear not simply during the explicit instruction to perceive the stressful stimuli mindfully, but even in the ‘baseline’ state” for longer-term meditators, which supports the possibility that mindfulness changes our ability to handle stress in a better, more sustainable way.”

2. Improved Attention

The practice of mindfulness meditation requires an individual to be conscious of their wandering thoughts and to continue to bring their attention back to their breath. Thus, it is reasonable to expect that this would improve one’s ability to focus. Evidence has supported this claim.  

In one longitudinal study published in Springer’s Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, researchers evaluated the attention span of individuals before and after they attended a 3-month meditation retreat. They found that after the retreat meditators were able to perform better on tasks related to focus and sustaining attention.  After reassessing these participants 7 years after the retreat, many of the mental improvements were sustained amongst the participants. [1] 

3. May reduce psychological bias 

Humans are fraught with cognitive biases that distort our interpretation of reality. We have a tendency to jump to conclusions in instances where we have little evidence to support our beliefs. As Daniel Kahneman notes in his book Thinking Fast and Slow,  

The confidence that individuals have in their beliefs depends mostly upon the quality of the story they can tell about what they see even if they see little. We often fail to allow for the possibility that evidence should be critical to our judgement is missing – what we see is all there is.

There is preliminary evidence that demonstrates that mindfulness reduces negativity bias which is our tendency to focus on negative events rather than positive even when they are equal in intensity. In one study, participants were shown images that induce positive (ie. babies) and negative emotions (ie. pain) while having their brains scanned. Participants who actively practiced mindfulness meditation were shown to be less reactive when they were shown negative images than participants who had no meditation practice.

Conclusion  

While research on mindfulness is still forthcoming, it is important to note that the practice is not a panacea for dealing with issues related to mental clarity and wellbeing. For those dealing with mental distress it can work as an aid in conjunction with other scientifically proven techniques.

From a personal perspective, I see the value of adopting a ‘mindfulness mindset’. That is, it enables us to view events from an objective perspective and refrain from jumping to conclusions or devising narratives to make sense of the unknown.  That is to say, it allows us to see reality how it really is.

Hope you enjoyed this article till next time,

AA


[1] Of note all participants in the study reported that they continued to meditate after the retreat to some degree.