Solving the Hard Problem with Idealism

I’ve spoken a lot on The Psychedelic Scientist about the neurobiological basis of consciousness. I’ve written about how scientific research into psychedelics is helping us piece together how consciousness works. By understanding exactly how psychedelics alter our brain function, we come closer to understanding how consciousness is constructed in our brains, but, as I’ve tried to make clear in my posts, all this fascinating research doesn’t solve the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness – that is, why does consciousness exist at all?

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Figuring out what parts of our brain correlate to our experiences, or precisely what organisation of information is required to elicit consciousness, will not solve the hard problem: “Why are we even experiencing any of this in the first place?”

I’ve faced a fair amount of criticism that my posts focus too much on the neurobiological basis of consciousness (let’s call it the ‘soft problem’) – so I think now’s a good time to address the philosophers and psychonauts who want to know what the subjective psychedelic experience can tell us about solving the hard problem.

So let’s leave the research behind for a minute and talk about non-reductionism, idealism, and a psychedelic universe.

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The Accidental Claustrum

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.

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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!

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Compassion in the Stock Market

Compassion is not the first thing that comes to mind when we think of economics or the stock market. Modern economics is more often a negative force than a positive one. Debt, bribery, greed and corruption are always associated with money – values like love and empathy… not so much.

Does this make money automatically a bad thing? Maybe money is just a necessary evil, maybe economics is the crumbling foundation on which we must build our extravagant society.

But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way. What if we could create a form of economics that didn’t create debt, but negated it? What if we lived in a world with a compassionate currency that rewarded good deeds rather than greed?

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Can integrated information theory explain the psychedelic experience?

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.

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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?

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Are we living in a conscious universe?

Are you conscious right now?

That’s a pretty easy question to answer. You might say that’s the only thing in life you can ever be totally sure of. You are experiencing existence from moment to moment, and everything else beyond that is… well, just conjecture.

Is a dog conscious? What about a spider? Or a tree? Where do we draw the line of conscious experience, and how can we ever understand something so abstract?

We are always getting closer to understanding how our brains work – and we can link certain physical processes in the brain with behaviours and thoughts – but that still doesn’t answer the hard question: why conscious experience exists. As a philosopher might put it, why is there “something-that-it-is-like-to-be” me? Why does experience seemingly arise from physical systems?

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One argument, supported by logical reasoning, is that conscious experience can’t be explained reductively; that is, we can’t explain how I experience colours by reducing the problem down to its most basic parts. Reductive explanation could show me how my brain processes colours, and how it produces all sorts of colour-related behaviours (i.e. stopping at a red light), but it could never explain my own perception of the colour red. Why is my perception of the colour red like this, and not like feeling rain on my skin, or hearing a musical note?

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LSD and associative thinking

Earlier this year, researchers at Imperial showed us the first ever detailed images of the brain on LSD. The images showed that LSD massively increased connectivity in the brain, freeing it from its usual boundaries. Now researchers are starting to piece together how LSD breaks down these boundaries of normal consciousness, leading us to an understanding of the workings of the mind.

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MRI scans from Carhart-Harris et al (2016) show how LSD increases brain connectivity

In a recent study from the same UCL group, funded by the psychedelic research charity the Beckley Foundation, researchers looked into how LSD affects our ability to recognise simple objects. The researchers recruited ten participants for their study, almost all of whom were experienced with psychedelic drugs. The subjects attended two experimental sessions: one where they were injected with LSD (40-80μg), and one where they were injected with a placebo. During both placebo and LSD sessions, participants took an object recognition test. They were shown images of simple objects like pieces of clothing or vehicles. As soon as an image appeared, the participants had to name the object as quickly and accurately as they could.

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Turning up the creativity dial

Swirling colours, delirious patterns, groovy rhythms and otherworldly vistas. These are some of the first things that come to mind when we think about psychedelics. The unique fashion and culture of the 1960s was influenced by the popularity of psychedelic drugs like no other time in our history; the colours, patterns and hair-dos of that time stand out like a carnival in our recent timeline.

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Pink Floyd, Jefferson Airplane, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles… the list of bands influenced by psychedelics could go on and on. Aldous Huxley’s works, still hugely influential to this day, are clearly inspired by his experiences with mescaline and LSD. Steve Jobs took LSD in college, and called it “one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life”. The inventor of PCR, a breakthrough biomolecular technique that has revolutionised medical research, said that LSD gave him the intuition that allowed him to make the ground-breaking discovery. Artists and architects, authors and entrepreneurs have been finding inspiration in LSD, mescaline, psilocybin and DMT for decades.

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The Consciousness Conduit

The aptly-named ‘hard problem’ of consciousness: why do we experience? Why do we perceive colours and sounds? Why do we feel emotions?

On the surface, we can track the mechanical basis of all these sensations. We can look at a network of firing neurons and say, “there, that’s the perception of the colour red”. But we can’t explain how that links to our actual experience of the colour red. We currently have no neurobiological or physical explanation for how subjective experience results from complex systems of neurons.

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It seems as if there is no reason why subjective perception would have evolved in us. We just don’t need it. To escape a predator, I just need my brain to recognize a rustle in the bushes and make my legs move. To stop at a red light, I just need my neurons doing their jobs of recognizing the colour red, and pushing on the brake pedal. Where does my subjective perception of these events actually matter? On the surface, I am no different from a robot.

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