Altered States of Consciousness

19 May 2016

It’s not that difficult to alter your consciousness. You might start your day with a stimulating cup of coffee, or end it with a relaxing cocktail. Even without imbibing any substances, you can alter your consciousness by doing various activities, like yoga, meditation, or with a simple walk in the woods. But if you really want a powerful, fast, and direct way to get into a radically altered state, try taking a mind-altering drug, like LSD, peyote, or ayahuasca. 

Humans have been altering their consciousness with psychedelics for millennia, but it’s only fairly recently that we’ve been seeing scientific research on their use and effects.

Of course, back in the early sixties, when those substances were still legal, Timothy Leary and friends did some research on psychedelics. While some of their work focused on how psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) might be used to rehabilitate prisoners, what Leary and his cohorts were really interested in was the spiritual or mystical states that psychedelics could induce, and the insights about the nature of self, consciousness, and the universe that these “higher states” of consciousness were thought to provide.

Nixon once described Leary as “the most dangerous man in America.” It was a view many people at the time shared. Leary ended up being fired from his position at Harvard, he became a fugitive on the run from the law, and was eventually arrested and imprisoned for several years.

While the scientific work Leary and his colleagues did on psychedelics was important and pioneering, many think that his extra-curricular, proselytizing activities—including leading the “turn on, tune in, and drop out” countercultural movement of the late sixties (which involved many young people supposedly “frying” their brains on acid)—were ultimately to blame for these substances being outlawed. Regardless, once psychedelics became illegal, scientific research became virtually impossible. Until very recently.

We’re now entering into an exciting time for the study of psychedelics. Some new research is focused on the mind expanding aspects of psychedelic experiences, and what that tells us about the nature of consciousness. But some is investigating how psychedelics can treat various psychological conditions, like depression, addiction, and PTSD. And the results, while just preliminary, are very promising!

Now I imagine there are many skeptics out there, especially when it comes to claims about how psychedelics provide deep “insights” into the nature of reality. If you've never tried psychedelics, you might be especially skeptical. After all, there is something odd about taking a substance that messes with your brain chemistry and causes you to hallucinate, and then thinking you learned something about the world as a result. How exactly do hallucinations give rise to genuine insights about the nature of reality?

To answer that question, we need to consider some of the new research that is coming out. For example, recent studies on psilocybin found that the brain activity of someone high on mushrooms is very similar to that of babies or preschool children. The “altered” brain is less focused, less coordinated than the “normal” brain, and there is less activity in the prefrontal area—the executive part that controls goal-directed action.

You might wonder how that fact explains the possibility of genuine insight resulting from a psychedelic experience. How does having less focus and less control lead to greater insight?

Think about preschoolers, how much information they can absorb, and how quickly they learn. There’s a kind of flexibility in the mind of the very young that we lose as we get older. Little kids like to explore, to discover. When they start going to school, their attention and focus begin to narrow as they start to master specific skills.

By adulthood, this flexibility in the mind gives rise to more fixed habits of thought. What psychedelics do is bring you back to this childlike state of mental flexibility. Your attention has a much wider focus, your vision expands, and you become aware of many more things than you would if you were sober and narrowly focused. Aldous Huxley, who experimented with the with drug mescaline, described psychedelics as a "valve" that opened "the doors of perception."

This consciousness expanding aspect of the psychedelic experience is also the reason that you might not want to drop acid if you’ve got to finish some difficult task that requires a sharp focus, like doing your taxes. That being said, you can see why this expanded state could enhance creative pursuits and aesthetic experiences. It’s no accident that psychedelics are often coupled with intense musical experiences.

This broadening of focus also suggests a way in which psychedelics could help alleviate depression and addiction, conditions which might be described as involving an overly rigid or fixed focus.

Despite the new and exciting scientific research on psychedelics, there is very little data about their long term effects. That’s why we need more research. But if we really want to learn more about the potential benefits of psychedelics, we have to change our current drug policies. And maybe our attitudes too. 

Hopefully, half a century after Timothy Leary’s initial research into psychedelics, we can finally make some progress and figure out what their real potential is.

Comments (10)


mirugai's picture

mirugai

Saturday, May 21, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

THE MIND OF A BABY

THE MIND OF A BABY
 There is psychobabble; there should be ?philosobabble,? and today?s show was a perfect example.  Understanding consciousness from the comparison of the red and green and blue lights going off in the scan of a baby?s brain, and that of someone loaded on LSD? Give me a break! I?d need, as a scientist, at least some scans of the 30 square mile mycelium in Michigan (the largest living thing on earth), and a beagle, and a can of tunafish, and StoveTop stuffing mix, for comparison. I have a suspicion the same colored lights might go off.
 Don?t look for consciousness in the brain. It isn?t there; it isn?t alongside anything else. It isn?t matter, the subject of science. Those who are so desperate for explanations (mostly to confirm their beliefs (non-provables) and more nefariously their wants) make up the stuff that they think is good science to justify them. 
 I?ve used LSD and other hallucinogens.  They are freaky, fun and scary; they are an entertainment. The people that think they are the most fun want to obtain and use them without fear of getting busted. The same is true of marijuana, alcohol, Hawaiian vacations, and really extraordinary ballet.  I do not favor either American democracy or American freedom, but those who do should not restrict anyone?s right to buy and use LSD. And if America had, as it should, universal health care and a guaranteed national income paid for by taxation, (and stopped wasting money on wars and financial bailouts), let the hallucinogens loose. 
But don?t make up some b.s. about understanding consciousness (of real interest to, statistically, no one) to justify using LSD. Philosobabble.  You will never ?understand? consciousness by using science; you can only explore what consciousness is through philosophy (and poetry and comedy).

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Sunday, May 22, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Leary was a hooligan, not a

Leary was a hooligan, not a researcher. He dispensed LSD to unsuspecting victims in an innocent social setting. That's a crime, not research. But the whole question is poisoned by misapprehension of what consciousness is. It is not a state at all and is therefore not altered. It is, rather, a mode of alteration. Most modes of its being "altered" are really modes of its being crippled in the mode of altering itself it is. The most philosophically interesting drug effect is not hallucinogens, but sodium pentothal, the effects of which bring up much more troubling issues. But consciousness is a constantly recurring realization of error and an effort at correction that cannot establish any stable state of anything. It is like balance, which does not set up a stable stance, but is constantly correcting for instabilities. A drug which causes us to stumble could hardly be called an "altered state" of balance. The point is, if you don't know what you're talking about the question is of limited avail. AI, for instance, since it relies on systems of established stability, is not consciousness and cannot be, it is much more properly associated with unconsciousness. If we appreciate that difference we might be in a position to ask more pertinent questions

MJA's picture

MJA

Monday, May 23, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

The highest mind is the

The highest mind is the clearest mind, drug free. =

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, May 23, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

I had never heard the Nixon

I had never heard the Nixon pronouncement concerning Tim Leary. Calling him a "houligan" seems extreme, but everyone has their take on most everything. I've read what some of the experts have said about consciousness (i.e., Dennett's Consciousness Explained and Combs' Consciousness Explained Better) and the signature semblence between the two was that neither man explained consciousness and neither explanation was in any way better than the other. For my own part, I have opined that consciousness (in humans) is a representation of an advanced state of awareness which cannot (to my knowledge) be equaled in any other known species. It is said that animals "learn", inasmuch as they can development reactions to repetitive stimuli. My cat "knows" the sound of the treat bag and can (it appears) distinguish the rustle of that particular plastic material from a similar rustling of other plastic bags. All of this might lead us to believe that said cat possesses a rudimentary consciousness. But, she does not now know that she will age, weaken and one day die. Or, if she does know this, there is no way she can tell us what she knows.
We know what is conscious and what is not. But we cannot measure or in any way quantify consciousness. As Mirugai aptly stated, it is not in the brain. Not in the brain, no, but a representation of the capacity of having a brain that is more than its own lump of grey flesh. To say that such things as philosophy, poetry and comedy are ways of knowing consciousness, or exploring what consciousness is, is partly true. Maybe mostly true. Because if it is the ghost in the machine, it seems unlikely that we shall ever truly know it. But, it is fun sometimes to chase shadows. If you are interested in the notion of animal "consciousness", read Rupert Sheldrake. He's a maverick, but much fun.
Neuman

mirugai's picture

mirugai

Monday, May 23, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

The one thing we can say

The one thing we can say safely and certainly about animal conscience is that we can say nothing at all about animal consciousness. It is almost as difficult to say something about another person's consciousness.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Tuesday, May 24, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

When we say we know the

When we say we know the difference between consciousness and unconsciousness, what we really mean is the difference between responsiveness and unresponsiveness. Opine all you want, if you are unresponsive you are not conscious in it.
I have had first-hand accounts of what Leary got up to, by one of his students.

MJA's picture

MJA

Tuesday, May 24, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

"Animal consciousness", that

"Animal consciousness", that would most certainly include us as well. 
Levels of consciousness is another wonder to me. I have found nature to be truly immeasurable and so it must be that our consciousness is immeasurable too. There is though a consciousness that is clear, a consciousness that is true, the light, King's light at the end of the tunnel, the One that connects all things equally, the Promised Land, you know the rest, freedom at last. The pure, the absolute consciousness, the light that shines from a child's eyes, how do we get there? Are we already there or here but cannot see anymore, cannot see the light that simply is? If we had the truth or were the light, how did we loose it and can we get it back again? And if we do get here again, see clearly again, would it be our duty to teach others to see? Can One teach the blind to see? 
The eastern philosophers found enlightenment by clarifying the mind through meditation. Descartes of the west found the same method of clarification by removing all thoughts of uncertainty reducing himself to"I". Is "I" the light we are searching for? Is "I" really me? Are we not all "I"s, One "I"?  And it was Einstein who believed the solution to every problem can be solved though the same process of simplification. Is the truth more simple than thought? Have we all over complicated our thoughts blinding ourselves to what is? Are we the light?
I wonder...
Einstein said something like: if he could be a member of any group he would like most to be among the true searchers, for which there are only a few living at one time. For me, I would most like to be with everyone and that everyone at One time could see.
Be One,

 

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Wednesday, May 25, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Descartes was establishing

Descartes was establishing the anchor of antecedence for his progression of inference, taking the continuity of that progression between that antecedence and its conclusion as a priori or self-evident. But it ain't neither! Actually, if the issue is the anatomy of consciousness, EEG evidence shows that there is a discontinuity between brain activity and awareness of it. That is, it is proven there is brain activity before the event is reported conscious. Though there is, perhaps, effective contrary evidence in our ability to hit a baseball. After all, if it's a matter of timing, we are clearly better at effectuating it than we are at reporting it. In any case, even continuity between termini, like beginning and end, antecedence and consequence, premise and conclusion, does not result in oneness. And that continuity is probably the most dubious concept in all philosophy, East or West.  

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Saturday, May 28, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

I'm not sure of Alison's

I'm not sure if Alison's child centered focus helped or hurt this show.
I don't think we should think of LSD as a gateway to childhood creativity or childhood as a model for an altered state.  I say that as one who has dropped acid, taken ayahuasca and chuma.  I admit not remembering childhood well enough to be an authority there by experience. Similar is not the same... however you interpret a brain scan.
This is a very exciting topic.  An historical take on this would have shown many cultures that respected and utilized these drugs with effect.  None used them to build bridges or conquer poverty AFAIK.  There is value in this study if it is done without confusing focus from unadulterated reality - it would in fact refine that focus if done well.  I worry that it might lead some down a false path.  That would be sad.  Those who want to take this path already can.  I'm not sure we need to enable it any more than we already do.

HeatherHarris's picture

HeatherHarris

Thursday, June 9, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Harold: Let me know if you

Harold: Let me know if you are looking for particular plastic materials like rapid prototyping, 3D additive, SLS, and plastic models etc. I can make a perfect for you regarding this. I would feel good if I help you.

 
 
 

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