The Default Mode Network (DMN) is by now a familiar name in popular psychedelic circles. It’s a collection of brain areas that talk loudly to each other when we’re not doing any focussed tasks – basically when we’re daydreaming, thinking about ourselves, or conceptualising the past or future.
We know two important things about the DMN: it’s overactive in depression, and psychedelics can help to reset it. Studies have shown that classic psychedelics LSD and psilocybin can dramatically reduce the chatter of the DMN during a psychedelic experience, and allow it to re-form itself into a more stable network afterwards – correlating with decreased depressive symptoms.
Salvinorin A, the main psychedelic component of Salvia divinorum, is not at all like these classic psychedelics. While LSD and psilocybin mainly activate 5-HT2A receptors in the brain, and produce highly visual and often introspective psychedelic experiences; Salvinorin A has barely any 5-HT2A activity, instead activating kappa-opioid receptors and sending users on bizarre and often horrifying trips.
I’ve written (and spoken) fairly extensively about the weirdness of Salvia, and what it means for consciousness. Salvia disrupts an area of the brain called the claustrum, and this is correlated with an almost complete dismantling of typical conscious experience. Our usually coherent and coordinated stream of sensory perceptions, understanding of selfhood, and grasp of the concept of time, dissolves into a barely comprehensible array of pure sensation. Existence is literally ripped apart, in a very fundamental and powerful way, which is not seen as often in classic psychedelics.
Now, new research has shown that Salvinorin A is also connected to the DMN. Twelve experienced psychonauts were given doses of Salvinorin A while in an MRI machine, which showed that the unique psychedelic reduced the connectivity of the DMN in a very similar way to LSD and psilocybin.
It’s been said in a number of different ways, perhaps for as long as psychedelics have been around: psychedelics make you more flexible.
Flexibility can mean different things. It could mean the personality trait of openness– a behavioral flexibility to new experiences and concepts – which has been shown to be increased after psychedelic trips… It could mean the increase of entropy, or disorder, seen in your brain while taking a psychedelic… Or it could mean the change towards more tolerant viewpoints that psychedelics are likely to induce.
In the language of psychologists and therapists, psychedelics can help us foster something called psychological flexibility. And this may be a crucial reason for why psychedelic-assisted therapy can be so powerfully transformative.
Hello! If you’ve come here from my Breaking Convention talk looking for references and sources, you can find them in the list below. The talk itself is right here, and after the sources you can find the full-length article based on this talk.
This is a modified excerpt from an article I co-wrote for Synthesis, the full version of which you can find here.
Mystical experiences have been the cornerstone of religious and spiritual practices for millennia. From early Christian mysticism to Zen Buddhism, almost every religious path allows space for experiences that give a more direct connection to the more mysterious aspects of reality.
Broadly speaking, a mystical experience is anything that is hard to comprehend or describe with rational or simple language. Generally, it is short-lasting, feels immensely meaningful or profound, and shatters some of your preconceptions. You may encounter paradoxical or alien concepts firsthand, such as non-duality; a realization that nothing in the universe is truly separate, or impermanence; an awareness that pretty much everything is temporary.
This article was originally published under a different title on The Third Wave.
Psychedelic research has given us so much. Thanks to the revival of psychedelic science, we’ve (re)discovered that psychedelic therapy can benefit sufferers of severely debilitating conditions where current treatments fail. We’ve started to develop an understanding of what psychedelics do to the brain, and how psychedelics can have such transformative power…
But there’s still something missing.
The “physicalist” view of reality struggles to explain the phenomenological aspects of the psychedelic experience.
Why is the mystical or spiritual experience so valuable for healing? Why does our mindset matter so much in determining the effects of a psychedelic? Why, after all is known about the brain, can we still not explain the correlation between physical structures and subjective experience?
Depression, despite affecting millions worldwide, is still a condition that we don’t fully understand.
In fact, we understand it so poorly that typical pharmaceutical treatments indiscriminately target whole neurochemical systems, resulting in unstable effectiveness and a host of side-effects.
Up to 44% of people suffering from depression have not found relief from typical antidepressant therapies. Even patients who find some form of relief from the usual prescribed antidepressants need frequent doses, sometimes causing unpleasant side-effects, and these drugs often lose their effectiveness after several years of treatment.
But where pharmaceuticals are failing, psychedelics could be a new hope.
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?
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.
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!
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?
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?