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Can Psychedelics Lift the Veil to Consciousness?

Psychedelics are mysterious compounds and science doesn’t really understand how they work. Partly, because research on them was banned and partly because their effects extend to alter the state of consciousness itself. Their primary effect is to trigger non-ordinary states of consciousness, which is colloquially referred to as Psychedelic Experience or Trips. These non-ordinary states of consciousness are often compared to the state of consciousness experienced in meditation and near-death experience. What we do understand about psychedelics is that these compounds trigger the 5-HT2A serotonin receptors, which modulate the sensory perception and cognition in our brain. This is because the shape of these compounds resembles serotonin, so much so, that some compounds fit the 5-HT2A receptors better than serotonin itself! However, what is not known is how exactly the compounds manipulate the receptor to induce changes in perception and cognition.

Robin Carhart-Harris, and his team — The Psychedelic Research Club from The Imperial College, London, study the effect of psychedelics on the human brain using F-MRI machines. What they discovered is that rather than just exciting parts of the brain, a part of the brain network was actually down-regulated. This part is called the Default Mode Network, it’s a tightly linked set of structures connecting the prefrontal cortex to the posterior cingulate cortex and some other centres of emotions and memory. The Default Mode Network has been associated with things like self-reflection, the theory of mind, the ability to impute mental states to others and the ability to shift through the mental states through time, creating a strong sense of identity. Basically, it’s the part that deals with our Ego.

Ego is that part of our psyche that helps us form a distinct sense of self. This is the part that identifies the boundaries of us and other things. The Default Mode Network seems to regulate that part. In the hierarchy of the brain, the Default Mode Network sits on top and orchestrates and regulates every other part. It takes all our experiences and actions and adds the perspective of self-identity to it. Psychedelics take this part out of the equation thus giving a sense of ego dissolution also popularly known as Ego Death. So when this ego dissolution occurs the other parts of the brain that don’t usually interact with each other start doing so. Thus producing effects like synesthesia and the ability to see music. As ego subsides and the boundary of self-identity thins, we also experience being one with the universe.

Being one with the universe, as many of you may be familiar, is an important part of many eastern philosophies like Hinduism and Buddhism. A lot of eastern meditation is focused on getting in touch with Brahman, or rather making oneself realise that Atman(self) is Brahman(universe). In some schools of thoughts of Hinduism, such as Advaita Vedanta, Brahman is identical to the Atman, is everywhere and inside each living being, and there is connected spiritual oneness in all existence. This realisation sounds very if not completely identical to the experience provided by psychedelics. It seems like the experience provided by psychedelic is an unevolved version of the complex interpretations of Advaita philosophy. Advaita Vedanta school of thought assumes, among other things, that there exists a state of consciousness where we are connected to all other consciousness of this universe, a form of panpsychism.

So does that mean that consciousness extends to all matter and not just things with brains? Guilio Tononi, a neuroscientist, proposed an ambitious theory to explain consciousness called the Integrated Information Theory (IIT). This theory suggests that panpsychism might not be so far-fetched after all. The core identity of IIT suggests that —

The quantity and quality of an “experience” are an intrinsic, maximally irreducible property of a complex of mechanisms in a state — the property of informing or shaping the space of possibilities (past and future states) in a particular way, just as it is considered to be intrinsic to a mass to bend space-time around it. 

IIT claims that a system is conscious if it possesses a property called Φ, or phi. Phi is the measure of a system’s “integrated information”. What that implies is that various systems can have various levels of consciousness which is their intrinsic property.

While this theory is a developing one and has yet to iron out its kinks, it provides an interesting perspective to the term ”consciousness” and the theory of panpsychism. And Psychedelics are one of the easiest ways to experience this. But while doing drugs is easy and meditation is hard, some swear by the fact that a higher level of this experience can be achieved by meditation than by psychedelics. So, if not much, these psychedelic compounds can definitely serve as an advertisement to all that can be achieved through meditation.

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