In our last blog post “Are we living in a conscious universe?” we looked at a new theory of consciousness called “integrated information theory”. IIT was developed in an attempt to understand the link between the physical world and our experience of consciousness.
In trying to understand what physical systems give rise to our experience of consciousness, IIT makes a basic assumption; that consciousness is part of the basic fabric of the universe. At first this may sound unscientific… but in fact we assume many fundamental laws in science. In physics we assume a fundamental link between matter and gravity without being able to see examine the link directly. James Maxwell had to assume some fundamental electromagnetic laws to develop a theory of electromagnetic fields. And in a similar way, IIT assumes that consciousness arises from physical systems due to some fundamental laws of the universe.
The details of IIT are complex, and involve quite a bit of computational neuroscience. Overall, the basic idea is that any physical system that contains feedback systems has at least some level of consciousness. IIT predicts that our brains, with their highly connected and complex feedback systems, are highly conscious – which we can confirm from our own experience.
So what does IIT predict about the psychedelic state? What changes in the way that information is organised in our brains during the psychedelic experience, and how does that fit in with IIT’s model of consciousness?
Last year, the computational neuroscientist Andrew Gallimore attempted to describe what IIT predicts about the psychedelic state. Matched up with the results of recent brain imaging studies, IIT tells us some interesting things about how the psychedelic experience changes the way we see the world.
Psychedelics and IIT
When we ingest psychedelic compounds like psilocybin or LSD, we experience many changes in our perceptions. We may see colours as being brighter or with increased saturation. We may hear sounds we’ve never heard before in familiar music, or see motion in stationary objects.
As well as all these changes in perception, we also notice dramatic changes in consciousness. We may become more aware of our own emotions. We may find ourselves making connections we would never have made before. Basically, we start thinking in a totally new, unique way.
Recent neuroimaging studies have given us the first detailed views inside the brain during these dramatic changes in perception and consciousness. Robin Carhart-Harris and his group took images of people’s brains during a psilocybin-induced psychedelic experience. They found that psilocybin caused the brain to enter a state of ‘high entropy’. Basically, the brain makes lots of unique connections between areas that don’t usually talk to each other, and our normal patterns of thought are dissolved. In other words, the brain had become highly disordered.
Does this mean that the psychedelic experience is random, disordered and chaotic? Sometimes it can be… but most people will tell you that the psychedelic experience can produce moments of brilliant intuition and creativity, by opening up new ways of seeing the world.
IIT seems to confirm this idea. When we look at the highly disordered, entropic brain that we see in Carhart-Harris’ neuroimaging studies through the lens of IIT, we see a beautiful picture of an expanded consciousness…
IIT proposes that a single consciousness is made up of a large collection of ‘concepts’, which themselves are created by specific structures of integrated information. The concept of an apple, for example, is created by specific groups of interconnected neurons in your brain.
Concepts are connected to each other through ‘cause-effect repertoires’ – basically all the possible ways that your systems of concepts can be connected. For example, the colour orange (cause repertoire) connects to the thought of an orange (concept), which may connect to the thought of an apple (effect repertoire). This is a basic train of thought, and the concept here (an orange) could have many different causes, and many different effects, producing a large range of different possible trains of thought (or cause-effect repertoires).
In normal consciousness, our cause-effect repertoires are set in stone (part A, below). Thinking of an apple probably won’t make you think of too many other things, because the systems of concepts in your brain are not connected in that way. But in the psychedelic state, our cause-effect repertoires become expanded: it’s possible to make more connections between concepts (part B, below). In the words of Gallimore, a concept becomes “about more things” in the psychedelic state.
So the psychedelic state allows us to make more connections between concepts than normal. This makes sense, as experienced psychonauts will know that the normal lines between ideas become blurred during the psychedelic experience (supported also by recent research).
Although we make more connections and think in unique patterns during psychedelia, creating a “richer” form of consciousness, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a better form of consciousness. IIT is still at an early stage, so can’t predict exactly ‘how much’ consciousness is present in the psychedelic state compared to normal thought. But what it does tell us is that the psychedelic state processes less information. Because the ‘reality cone’ of conscious experience is expanded during psychedelia (see below), our thoughts become less focussed and we can’t engage in simple tasks as effectively.
This has an interesting implication for the potential benefits of psychedelics. We’ve evolved to have brains that focus our attention on tasks, while still allowing a certain amount of entropy that produces a flexible form of thought. We’re capable of being creative, while still being productive and focussed (this is the ‘entropic brain’ theory of conscious states). Psychedelics tip our consciousness over the carefully balanced pattern of normal thought, making us more creative, but at the cost of practical focus.
According to IIT, psychedelics might not help us process lots of information; but they may hold huge potential in being used as a tool for creativity. Psychedelics change the way the systems of our brains connect, allowing us access to new concepts and ideas.
The creative state of mind produced by psychedelics could help us in many ways. Maybe it could even help us reach an understanding of the fundamental laws of consciousness that govern the physical requirements of experience…
…understanding our own existence is surely something worth striving for.
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Carhart-Harris et al. (2014) The entropic brain: a theory of conscious states informed by neuroimaging research with psychedelic drugs. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 8:20
Gallimore AR (2015) Restructuring consciousness – the psychedelic state in light of integrated information theory. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 9:346
Oizumi, Albantakis & Tononi (2014) Integrated information theory 3.0. PLOS Comp. Biol. 10(5)
Tononi & Koch (2015) Consciousness: here, there and everywhere? Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B. 370