Psychedelics: More Real than Real
This article was written by Dimka Drewczynski and originally appeared in the PsypressUK 2013 Anthology of Drug Writing. PsypressUK 2014 is out now and available here.
“There is no way you can use the word “reality” without quotation marks around it.”
– Joseph Campbell
Appreciating how the world exists depends on how well you can see and interpret it. Life is basically just trying to understand the state of how things actually are and attempting to respond in the best way suited. This requires recognizing various environmental stimuli, analyzing them, and initiating some response sequence. There are countless factors involved in making any decision, in humans the most variable is how each individual thinks they should respond. But we take for granted the basic, and seemingly autonomous, nature of our sensory system, and leave it to do its own thing. For the most part, people have the appropriate amount of eyes and comparable amounts of rods and cones within them. But what if you could see more, or hear more?
Traditionally, people that claim to hear or see more are classified as deluded or schizophrenic, but it may be possible to increase your input bandwidth to provide you with a more representative worldview. Psychedelics show us our world in a different light, but are they showing us something that we are missing, something that is real?
The sensory system and the brain have evolved into a fine-tuned machine. This machine is unlike any other machine in that it changes, bends and skews all the data that comes in based on previous experience, biases, attention, current state of sobriety, mood, etc. and imbues it with all the rich textures that create our reality. However, in terms of objective bookkeeping, the brain is the most unreliable machine that could have ever evolved. Our perception of the world around us is merely an abstraction, far from the objective replication we consider it to be. Our world has been filtered through a system with some bits truncated, others stretched and some excised completely. The agents of this prejudice are the memories created by our experience and the subsequent tailoring of our sensory systems to optimize behavioural output. Learning is a dynamic process that relies on memory to encode, store and retrieve previous experiences in order to optimize this output. And, focused attention pushes irrelevant stimuli to the margins further still. You don’t need an update of the osmolarity of your lymphatic fluids when reading a novel, nor would you want to know how many leaves are on a tree while hunted by some godless killing machine. Yet although, at some level, your brain is privy to this information, evolution has deemed your consciousness too easily distracted to deal with it.
Although we are not aware of it, the pruned information looms in our subconscious (or unconscious). It can seemingly rise from the dead in the form of dreams when we lie down to sleep at night. Many studies show that our brain is more aware of this unconscious information than we think, and altered states allow slivers of this otherwise inaccessible information to shine through.
So what is our conscious awareness left with? The bandwidth of the eye is approximately 1000 bits of information per second and the ear 10000 bits per second. Most importantly, the bandwidth of the brain is much lower than that of the sensory systems. The vast majority of sensory information is distilled out of the system at a peripheral level to accommodate the limits of the brain. It is important to note that just because data input is reduced, that does not mean that it loses resolution per se. The loss of detail is then fortified by the emotional resolution of the past and present to give it tone and flavour. Therefore, the brain is not simply a recording device attached to a camera.
Our sensory system relies on both ‘Bottom-Up’ and ‘Top-Down’ strategies. Basic sensory input refers to the ‘Bottom’ and information from the ‘Top’ is related to experience and thought. It could be goal driven, knowledge-based and/or expectation-driven and it requires attention and filtering. Reality, therefore, is an internal perceptual idea of our world generated by neural processes in our brain, which get their information from both internal (top-down) and external (bottom-up) receptors.
Many subjective accounts claim that visual and auditory perception increases with the administration of psychedelic compounds. Seeing brighter colours, better hearing and noticing patterns are commonly reported. Subjective reports indicate that psychedelics may increase auditory or synesthetic sensitivity to electromagnetic noise as well. What makes research difficult is that most of these effects are qualitative, making it difficult to measure. Under quantitative scrutiny in a laboratory setting many of these claims are not replicated, although some interesting results have been shown. One of the more interesting experiments was the ‘Hollow-Mask’ study in which subjects looked at pictures of a mask, with the inside (concave) and outside (convex) being virtually the same. For ‘normal’ subjects, the inside of the mask is perceived as the outside since they are more likely to see an outside of the mask than an inside of one. However, schizophrenic subjects and subjects on LSD can consistently differentiate between the two. This implies that the mind’s ‘Top-Down’ conceptualization dominates the evaluation of reality in normal situations and that in non-ordinary states of consciousness we are more likely to adopt a ‘Bottom-Up’ strategy from our actual senses. This means we can temporarily suspend our brain’s normal filtering process and actually perceive the world as it is, not as we expect it to be.
The inhibiting of our ‘Top-Down’ filtering mechanism also explains why in the psychedelic state we tend to see patterns in our natural world. The concept of ‘stochastic smoothing’ is the ability to find patterns in otherwise random noise, which is amplified in the psychedelic state by increasing feedback excitation by disinhibiting our filtering mechanism. In this excited state, the brain can recognize and ‘create’ elaborate patterns on any field of noisy data, such as TV static and other textures. Most systems that appear around us in the world are actually driven by patterns, like fractals and self-similarity, which are ubiquitous throughout nature.
Tryptamine psychedelics, like LSD and psilocybin, usurp the brain’s serotonin system, which is one of the most diverse and diffuse neurotransmitter systems in the brain. These compounds bind specifically to the 5-HT2A receptor subtypes, which are the densest in the feedback circuits of the sensory processing pathways. These pathways are integral for information processing and the generation and maintenance of consciousness.
The Human Connectome Project identifies 12 hub-regions in the brain that connect areas of the brain to one another. The largest and most studied of these hubs is the thalamus, through which the sensory systems relay. Its major functions are transmitting sensory signals and the regulation of consciousness through feedback circuits between itself and the cortex. The thalamus is densely innervated with inhibitory neurons, which serve to dampen the multitude of signals coming into the brain. The feedback connections from the thalamus to the cortex are necessary for sensory perception and the progressive build-up of feedback interactions that result in our conscious awareness.
After the psychedelic compounds are ingested the result is a disinhibited thalamic filter that allows more signals through than it normally would. This, in turn, promotes excitatory feedback within the brain’s circuitry and pushes perception to its operational limit; overwhelming the network to its fullest analytical potential. The increased feedback excitation between thalamus and cortex is the direct cause of perceptual distortions, hallucinatory form constants, seeing patterns and expanded states of consciousness associated with hallucination. Psychedelics act as perceptual amplifiers creating the fullest sensory experience possible.
With all the sensory data that washes over us when the thalamic filter is opened we can easily become incapacitated by the overwhelming amount of information, but if we can harness this torrential influx we would be able to see the underlying patterns around us. Hallucinatory form constants, like fractals and lattices, are the blueprints for the laws that govern our universe. Self-similarity, a foundation of fractals, occurs when the whole is created from smaller similar parts, like repetitive building blocks. The branch of a tree being a smaller copy of the tree itself, the repetitive peaks and valleys of mountain ranges, galaxies nested in clusters, nested within super-clusters, lightning bolts, blood vessels, DNA, etc.; the examples are as infinite as the fractals themselves. Other patterns found in nature, like the meanders, waves, tessellations, spirals and crystals also rely on self-replicating units as well. These patterns, which otherwise go unnoticed, emerge vividly before our eyes under an expanded state of consciousness.
When a psychedelic binds to the surface receptor protein it initiates a response sequence within the cell. This sequence may change the cell, pass on information to another cell, it may cause the cell to divide or it may cause the cell to die. Our receptors can be viewed as self-similar units of ourselves on our planet, as proteins on the surface of the earth we take information from our reality and can change ourselves, change others, divide or die. The more accurate our comprehension of the world around us is, the more likely it is that our behaviours will benefit ourselves, others and the planet as a whole.
Bio: Dimka Drewczynski has a BSc (Hons) in Biological Psychology, in which he focused his research on serotonin, schizophrenia and hallucination, and on endorphins, opiates and salvia. He has recently completed his MSc in Neuroscience at the University of Amsterdam, doing research on the effects of antidepressants and physical exercise on hippocampal neurogenesis and also on the sex differences in learning strategy and immediate early gene activation. His main fields of interest are ethnobotany, altered states of consciousness and the hallucinogenic experience itself.