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,


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.