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.
This month has been another great one for the psychedelic community; with a highlight being the release of two fascinating papers which take us a step closer to understanding exactly how LSD works in the brain.
I summarise these two articles in more depth here, but for now I wanted to focus on an overlooked part of one of the studies: and it’s to do with music.
Most of us are aware that LSD is supposed to enhance your appreciation for music – it’s probably the main thing that attracted me to the substance, and I’m sure at least some people out there are the same. I wanted to be able to appreciate music in a new way, I wanted to experience my favourite sounds in new dimensions and with expanded sensations.
Although I would soon learn that there is a lot more to LSD than letting you see pretty patterns or hear new sounds, there was still a lot of truth in the saying that LSD changes the way you hear music. Songs I’d listened to hundreds of times before had a new depth, a new character… imagine all your favourite songs being re-invented, or refreshed back to their original, first-listen glory.
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!
Call LSD ‘neurotoxic’ in a psychedelic community and see how far that gets you. You’ll probably evoke some laughter, maybe some scorn, but not much else.
For the millions of people who take LSD and similar psychedelics every year, and the tens of millions who have taken LSD since its explosion into mainstream culture in the 1960s, LSD is not a toxic drug. There have been absolutely no documented deaths from LSD overdose; the closest we’ve come was a group of partiers who snorted pure LSD crystal by accident, ingesting thousands of times a normal dose. They suffered some nasty physical effects including diarrhea and seizures, but they all survived. They didn’t even suffer any major psychological difficulties in the years following the event.
The psychological dangers of LSD are another story. Although we’ve moved past the proved-to-be-false scare stories of kids being blinded by the sun or jumping out of windows, psychedelics really do dramatically alter your perception of reality, and can certainly do some harm to your mind if used irresponsibly.
It’s these psychological harms that have been investigated in a recent study looking back at the hundreds of people who were given LSD in hospitals in the 60s and 70s in Denmark.
This one’s a little off-topic… technically it’s nothing to do with psychedelics.
You might have heard of kratom recently; it’s been in the news quite a bit, since the DEA announced in August that they wanted to make it illegal, before they fairly quickly withdrew their plans in the face of a loud public backlash. After all, thousands of Americans have been using kratom to combat prescription drug addiction or alcoholism – getting rid of kratom could cause huge damage to people’s lives.
Kratom is a plant that grows almost everywhere in SouthEast Asia. Its leaves are traditionally chewed for their sedative and painkilling properties. In the West, it’s often found in dried form, and brewed into a tea or swallowed in capsules. Kratom contains a bunch of alkaloids that have a relaxing and soothing effect. It’s like a plant-based alcohol – except, it hasn’t been directly linked to seven forms of cancer, like alcohol has.
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?
Psychedelics can treat depression. They can treat anxiety, they can help you quit smoking, they can help recovering alcoholics and they can treat cluster headaches.
But these classic psychedelics, LSD and psilocybin, can also have a nasty bite. ‘Bad trips’ have been publicised since the psychedelic culture of the 60s, including (often fabricated) tales of people jumping off buildings or staring at the sun until blind. But it’s a reality that powerful psychedelic drugs can cause traumatic experiences if not used correctly.
In the most recent edition of the Journal of Psychopharmacology, Professor David Nutt introduces two new studies that add to the growing body of evidence suggesting that psilocybin can be used to help people with anxiety or depression related to terminal illness. It’s all exciting stuff, is already being covered by major news outlets, and will no doubt help to further the cause of the psychedelic reform movement.
Psilocybin is helping people with terminal illnesses accept death
Included in the issue is a paper about ‘challenging experiences’ people encounter when using psilocybin outside of a clinical setting. It’s an interesting contrast to the unrestrained positive message we’ve been hearing about psilocybin in recent studies. Here, the authors point out that of nearly 2000 recorded ‘bad trips’, around 50 resulted in physical violence or hospitalisation. 152 of those surveyed felt they needed treatment for the long-term psychological effects of the experience, and three people attempted suicide.
The period in the 1920s and 30s where alcohol was banned nationwide in the US was a volatile time. It led to an explosion of organised crime, hundreds of thousands of moonshine-related injuries and deaths, and only a moderate reduction in the use of alcohol. The US missed out on untold millions of tax dollars in that 13-year period of prohibition – in a particularly tumultuous economic time that included the great depression of 1929.
Few people would argue that prohibition was a good idea. Although it may have reduced liver damage and moderately reduced alcohol consumption, it increased crime, led to thousands of deaths from poisoned alcohol, and unfairly targeted working class Americans. Any benefits from reducing the sale and production of a harmful drug were minor compared to the unintended consequences of criminalisation.
Ketamine is an anaesthetic drug, first used on American soldiers in the Vietnam war, and part of the World Health Organisations’ list of essential medicines. Its effects include sedation, euphoria, dissociation and psychedelic introspection, leading to its popularity as a recreational substance. Now, many psychiatrists are touting it as a miracle drug for the treatment of depression.
Over the past year, you may have seen some of the many articles suggesting that this psychedelic compound could provide relief for sufferers of depression. This surge in public interest derives from several studies over the past few years that show remarkable improvements in depression scores of patients who are given moderate doses of ketamine.
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?