Aldous Huxley explains his conception of the brain as a "reducing valve" of consciousness in his provocative book, The Doors of Perception.
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.