Salvia divinorum is a beautiful psychedelic; it’s had thousands of years of traditional use in healing rituals, and contains the world’s most potent naturally occurring psychedelic compound. It’s also pharmacologically unique; activating a little-known receptor that prevents us from becoming addicted to substances.
The one thing that really holds Salvia above all other psychedelics is its remarkable effect on our brain networks. Salvia seems to completely shut down a very specific area of the brain called the claustrum – and this area has gathered a lot of interest from cognitive neuroscientists in the past few decades. Many scientists believe that the claustrum could be playing an important role in normal consciousness, by holding together our perception into one, cohesive self, or ‘ego’.
The claustrum is kind of like a conductor in an orchestra… keeping all the sections working together to produce one unified sound. When the conductor wanders off, things stop making as much sense… and this is exactly what we feel when we ingest Salvia!
The Accidental Claustrum
In 2014, a group of researchers published an interesting case study. They were performing brain surgery on a 54-year old woman with epilepsy, in an attempt to find the areas of the brain that might be causing her symptoms. Very small electrodes were inserted into her brain, while she read aloud from a book, to try and find the areas of her brain responsible for her seizures.
While trying to record a baseline of brain activity, one of their electrodes activated a small area of the brain including the claustrum. The patient immediately stopped reading out loud, and stared blankly ahead. She would occasionally utter a syllable or two, but nothing she said made any sense. When the electrodes were turned off, the patient returned to normal – although slightly confused. She had no memory of the past few seconds.
Being natural scientists, the doctors decided to stimulate the same area a few more times – and each time got the same effect. They tried to get the patient to perform repetitive movements before stimulating the claustrum – but when they turned the electrodes on, the patient took on the same blank look and slowly stopped performing their movements. The same thing happened when they asked her to keep repeating a word: when the electrodes came on, the patient gradually slowed down and then stopped speaking.
It appeared that the scientists had found a way to shut down consciousness at the press of a button… but amazingly, their EEG recordings showed that nothing had changed in the electrical activity of the brain as a whole. It seemed that they’d found something incredibly unique.
What these scientists maybe didn’t know is that thousands of people have been performing their own version of this experiment for many years… in their own homes. Smoking large quantities of Salvia divinorum effectively shuts down the claustrum, taking users to a confusing and bizarre world where our normal consciousness is completely blown apart. Users are often unable to speak, or speak with disjointed or nonsensical sounds. It’s difficult to move, and users often find themselves falling backwards uncontrollably. Smoking Salvia completely disconnects you from reality – which is what the scientists were seeing when they accidentally shut down the claustrum with their electrodes.
Clue to Consciousness
The reason that this study is so fascinating — especially to cognitive neuroscientists — is that this is the first time we have found a region of the brain that can shut down consciousness at the flip of a switch. The fact that stimulating this tiny area of the brain, and shutting down the claustrum, can turn a human into a staring zombie is absolutely remarkable. It really is a huge clue in the development of a theory of the neurobiological basis of consciousness.
All it takes to disconnect your consciousness and sense of self from this reality is an innocent looking plant from South America. Could Salvia have held the key to understanding consciousness all along? While in the end, the discovery may be credited to a nudge of an electrode a couple of millimetres in the wrong direction…
Koubeissi et al. (2014) Electrical stimulation of a small brain area reversibly disrupts consciousness. Epilepsy & Behavior, 37 (32-25).