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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Salvia divinorum is a unique psychoactive plant that has been used in religious ceremonies for centuries. But could its use go beyond the spiritual? Salvia has also been used traditionally as a painkiller at low doses, and recent research suggests that Salvinorin A, the main psychoactive compound in Salvia, may be the key to developing a non-addictive painkiller. Could this mystical plant really have medical potential?
Salvia has been used in religious ceremonies for centuries in Mesoamerican culture
A common issue with modern painkillers is that they are often very addictive. Many effective painkillers, such as morphine or codeine, can lead to addiction with improper use. In America,more people die from prescription drug abuse than heroin. An ideal painkiller would relieve pain without causing addiction; this is where Salvia may come in useful.
Salvia divinorum is a really unique psychedelic drug. Like many interesting psychoactive plants, Salvia has been used culturally for centuries. The Salvia plant was grown in secretive groves by the Mazatec tribe in Oaxaca, Mexico. The tribe chewed Salvia leaves in religious rituals, revering the healing and psychoactive properties of the plant. In the 1960s, anthropologists visited the tribe and took cuttings of Salvia to the western world. Salvia contains the most potent naturally occurring hallucinogen we know of. See here for more information about Salvia divinorum.
Flowering Salvia divinorum
Along with the classical psychedelic effects such as visual distortions, Salvia also induces feelings of strange movement, shifting realities and a loss of control. Scientists often call Salvia’s effects ‘psychotomimetic’, meaning Salvia mimics the delusions experienced in disorders such as Schizophrenia.