Meeting Your States of Consciousness
Part III: Psychedelics
[CONTENT WARNING: This article contains mention of controversial subjects, intended for responsible readers. Psychedelics are Schedule I drugs in the United States; the information in this article is intended to be descriptive, not prescriptive.]
Myriad Methods of Modifying the Mind
Our investigation into the functions of sleep and the benefits of meditation showed us already how dynamic the mind can be (despite its stoic perch just behind our eyes). As in waking life, when we sleep or meditate the mind might work diligently as if on a calculus problem, or it meanders through treasured memories, or it turns inward and tries to comprehend itself.
Within these profound states—calculation, recollection, revelation—lie an infinity of experiences. Solving that calculus problem might accelerate your thinking on to more mathematical theorizing. Reminiscing about your elementary school soccer championship makes your heart race, as if you were still running up that grass field toward the goal. Realizing that you have a bad habit of procrastinating brings a pang of guilt—but also renews your resolve.
Or, maybe a headache makes that calculus problem look like ancient hieroglyphics. You have a pick-up soccer game today, but you’re exhausted from pulling an all-nighter to study geometry. And you should get your laundry done—but you lost your favorite summer camp t-shirt, and you can’t look at a pair of socks without shedding a tear!
What do you do?
You might cue up some re-runs of The Office, just to give your brain a break and cheer up with a few laughs …
… But there’s a bottle of ibuprofen in the cupboard, and a slushy coffee in the fridge.
What’s the difference?
The calculus problem, the soccer game, and the television show are all a step removed from the internal processing going on in your mind. They might lead you to feel frustrated, or proud, or amused, but only through your personal filter of perception. Your friend might breeze through the calculus but cringe at the risk of getting his jersey stuck in the goalposts like he did at that fateful championship game all those years ago!
Yet, if you share the frozen coffee, it’s likely that both of you will feel energized and ready to hit the soccer field. Caffeine in the coffee physically travels to your brain and binds to adenosine receptors—because caffeine has a similar shape as the adenosine molecule, it can fill those receptors and block adenosine from getting in too. Adenosine and caffeine are nearly opposites, which is why swapping adenosine for caffeine has such a noticeable effect: if you were drowsy, you become awake and alert. Caffeine also stimulates skeletal muscle contractility, which is why you might get fidgety after a morning latte—though, notably, caffeine doesn’t actually make you faster or stronger (or smarter); it just makes you want to move (or do calculus), and so you tap into your natural ability more easily.
This same principle is also why we talk about pharmaceuticals (drugs)—even coffee—with words like “poison” and “cure,” and not “upgrade” or “downgrade.” Most drugs only augment the systems already in place in the body. Stimulants like coffee increase the activity of the central nervous system to oppose tiredness; sedatives decrease central nervous system activity to avoid hyperactivity; cannabinoids and opioids block physical pain; and antidepressants and neuroleptics regulate dopamine—the exploration-reward neurotransmitter—to relieve psychic turmoil. We have pharmaceuticals for most everything, from headaches to itchy feet, all designed to efficiently return the body to a ‘functional state.’
However, ironically, the body acts largely opposed to any drug, perceiving it as a threat to its functioning. The body treats even benign and habitual performance-boosters such as caffeine as ‘strange disturbances’ and immediately works to flush it out and to craft a compensatory mechanism in the event that it is reintroduced. This process—drug tolerance—can be accomplished in myriad ways; to counteract caffeine the body simply sprouts more adenosine receptors, meaning that you’ll eventually be sleepier than you ever were before your first cup of java. Drug tolerance is an iterative, intermittent process, so it can be reduced over time—but tolerance is still a significant obstacle when treating chronic diseases, like attention-deficit disorder, major depression, and chronic pain.
What is there that is not poison? All things are poison, and nothing is without poison. Solely the dose determines that a thing is not a poison.
(Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, or, Paracelsus)
Drug tolerance can be a root for addiction if the body’s defense is intrusive enough, driving users to take increasingly large amounts of the drug just to feel functional. Unfortunately, deviating from the usual dose of a drug or mixing several kinds can produce wildly different effects; some are benign, but others can be disastrous or paradoxical. Diphenhydramine—or, Benadryl—acts as a common allergy medication when limited to a dose of around 100 milligrams, but an excessive amount produces profound confusion and unsettling hallucinations.
Sublime Distinction in Psychedelics
Dissociative hallucinogens such as diphenhydramine, salvinorin A (‘salvia’), and even ketamine produce hallucinations which seem to really be ‘there.’ Classic or serotonergic hallucinogens, called psychedelics, typically do not produce these kinds of hallucinations, despite their mischaracterization in popular culture. In fact, psychedelic translated from its Greek roots means, “to make the mind visible (or, ‘shine’)." Fittingly, these drugs induce a sort of ‘showcase’ of the capabilities of the mind. Visual effects are most apparent: objects crisp up, colors brighten, patterns emerge—and may drift, shift, and lag. Sounds echo and blend together, too, and songs are more liable to get stuck in one’s head.
Perception of the mental world also sharpens, and often accelerates.
Recognizing the familiar angles of a pentagon in a slice of okra might spur on an investigation into the symmetry of a butterfly’s wings and the fractal growth of cabbage …
There’s so much mathematics to be found in nature!
Didn’t some Greek guy say that the world was made of shapes?
He had a cool idea, but my okra slices don’t fold into a dodecahedron …
Rocks really are cubes! How about that. What else did Plato say?
… “[D]ivine providence brought our world into being as a truly living thing, endowed with soul and intelligence.”
… From here, perceiving a parallel between the cosmos and the brain, the psychonaut might experience the more existential effects of the drug: they might feel affirmed in their place in the universe, believing that all brains were predetermined to exist, and thus also feel a profound interconnectedness to other living things.
Psychedelics can also produce effects which are challenging and even temporarily debilitating. They commonly produce wakefulness to the point of insomnia, so strong is the drive to analyze. The increased mental perception may also drive introspection of personality flaws, trauma, and fears, or it may drive delusions of plots and calamities. The function of the mind may even be distorted, not just misled, leading to time distortions, thought loops, déjà vu, complete disorganization of thought, or even profound memory suppression. These call attention to the mind in a different way—by showing the mind in disarray.
Psychedelics, like meditation, affect the default mode network (DMN). 5-HT2A serotonin receptors—popular binding sites for psychedelics—congregate around key nodes in the default mode network (DMN) as well as in another key network called the salience network (SN), including the cingulate cortices. Long-term use creates similar structural changes as meditation in the DMN: the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) also thins out, while the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC)—a part of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC)—thickens.
However, the intrigue of psychedelics is in the relationship between these two networks—salience and default—and how it changes during a psychedelic experience compared to afterwards. During the psychedelic experience, connectivity between
these two networks decreases, but as the drug wears off it seems that the network relationship is ‘rebuilt’ and even becomes stronger than baseline.
What might explain this?
Intra-network connectivity, especially in the DMN, can increase or decrease during the experience—which mimics activity patterns of major depression (and other psychiatric disorders). Hyperconnectivity enables rumination, especially in excessive criticism of oneself. Hypoconnectivity has been associated with autism, Alzheimer’s, and schizophrenia.
Thus, it could be that the psychedelic experience ‘tunes’ the brain as we would tune a radio—adjusting the connection so that the ‘signal’ is clear and accurate. Or, to make a more accurate metaphor in comparison with meditation: taking psychedelics would be like scraping off and redoing the face of this clay sculpture to give it a moustache and a smile, while meditating would be more like slowly reshaping the face.
Still, I find it quite wondrous that these psychedelics, which are commonly extracted from natural plants and fungi, produce such a similar end result as can an innate state of consciousness.
I will refrain from making a definite claim, but—why is it that meditation and psychedelics both can produce more balanced, more creative, and more compassionate thinking?
More importantly—what’s holding us back from that now?
Thank you for reading this series on States of Consciousness, and check back regularly with the Sprout and S.T.E.M. blog for more articles on local life, life-long learning, and highlights from recent advances in science, technology, engineering and math.
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