Psychedelic drugs have been used extensively by most human cultures. Whether in social rituals, contacting spirits and the gods or to just having a good time. Drug culture became mainstream in the 1960s. Harvard professor Timothy Leary broke the mold by encouraging the use of LSD as one way to achieve ‘higher consciousness’. Last Thursday, a study announced via press release from the University of Sussex claimed evidence for these higher states of consciousness. But what does that mean?
When we talk about states of consciousness, we are usually referring to the other end of things; sleep or coma. These ‘lower states of consciousness’ are familiar to us. What might the other end of this scale look like? And what might they mean for you?
Low States and Highs
During ‘lower states’, brain signal density (the amount of signal per area) is lower than normal. Those conducting the study measured an increase in the diversity of brain signals observed in those taking psychedelic drugs (LSD, ketamine, and psilocybin – a chemical found in ‘magic’ mushrooms). This result was the same across all three drugs, despite each having different mechanisms for inducing their effects. Essentially, the psychedelic brain behaves less predictably than the square brain. But anyone who has ever been to a music festival already knows this.
Highs for Depression
The advantage to increasing brain activity in modern medicine seems tenuous – too much of an increase produces seizures after all. The researchers behind the findings hoped that their data might support the use of psychedelic drugs in the treatment of mental illnesses, an idea which has been gaining momentum despite increasing Home Office restrictions. Novel mechanisms for anti-depressants and psychiatric drugs have been thin on the ground recently, these findings open up promising further avenues of research.
In addition to the potential to discover new treatments, the data also helps us to better understand complicated psychic phenomena such as hallucinations and the idea of consciousness itself. During strange states such as psychedelia, the mind’s experience is abnormal. Some features of this set would be an increase in creativity, personal insight and reflectiveness as well as the previously mentioned hallucinations. Augmented brain signal variety may lead to these odd states of mind. Future studies plan to use this measure of brain activity in other states which alter consciousness and cognition such as mental illness.
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Any opinions above are the author’s alone and may not represent those of his/her affiliations. Any comment is based on the best available evidence at the time of writing. All data is based on externally validated studies unless expressed otherwise. Novel data is representative of sample surveyed. Online recommendation is no substitute for seeing your own doctor and should not be taken as medical advice.
Links and Further Reading
- Schartner MM, Carhart-harris RL, Barett AB, Seth AK, Muthukumaraswamy SD. ‘Increased spontaneous MEG signal diversity for psychoactive doses of ketamine, LSD and psilocybin‘ Nature Scientific Reports 7. 2017. Available here: https://www.nature.com/articles/srep46421
- Campbell J, Moyers B. The Power of Myth. Anchor Doubleday. 1988
- Wolfe T. The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. Farrar Straus Giroux. 1968
- Singer A. Divine Magic. TV books. 1997
- Huntington G. De praestigiis daemonum: the origins of psychiatric history-taking– psychiatry in history. 2015. British Journal of Psychiatry 207 (6). Available here: http://bjp.rcpsych.org/content/207/6/489
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