Psychedelics as a Tool for Directed Self-Discovery

by Rory MacLeod (Creative Commons)

by Rory MacLeod (Creative Commons)

 

The following article, written by Dale Bewan (more details below post), was originally published in the Psychedelic Press UK Journal (2014 Vol.1, January)

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The phrase ‘self-discovery’ simply means ‘learning more about yourself’, especially with regards to how you think. This is something that every person does throughout their lives. However, it is usually an unconscious process – or even when not, often happens only ‘by chance’ rather than through any deliberate attempt to do so.

Directed self-discovery – whether using psychedelics or not – is the attempt to deliberately learn more about yourself rather than trusting to spontaneous insight. This is the realm of philosophers of mind, and indeed of many ‘self-help’ books (with varying levels of insight and accuracy). It is also the target of psychotherapy in general: when successful, directed self-discovery leads to a significantly greater amount of new knowledge about oneself than spontaneous non-directed self-discovery.

Psychedelic substances can be used as a tool for this kind of directed self-discovery through their ability to change the way in which a person perceives the world – and importantly, how they perceive themselves and their own mind. Being given the opportunity to watch one’s own thought processes as if from the point of view of an external observer is an experience that most people will never achieve without the use of psychedelic substances, and yet one of the most useful for self-examination and therefore self-discovery.

As every person is different and their knowledge of themselves is different, self-discovery is a very personal matter. As such, it is not possible to directly list everything that someone might learn about themselves. However, there are of course common factors between people due to our shared biology and shared societal ideas.

One such example of self-discovery that is common both in psychotherapy and self-directed psychedelic self-discovery is that of seeing one’s own weaknesses in interpersonal relationships. How you perceive your relations with people is quite often different from the way those people see them. The differences are often minor, but not always: they can sometimes lead to difficulties in relationships with friends, family and loved ones.

By looking at yourself from a new perspective, you are able to more easily take note of these weaknesses or miscommunications. You see yourself as an outsider sees you – perhaps not exactly the same as a specific external observer, as every person comes with their own biases and preconceptions that will colour their views; however, at least as someone external to yourself.

The use of psychedelic substances can broadly be placed into three categories: use as ‘a drug to get high’, use for ‘medical benefits’ and use as a religious or spiritual aid.

‘Getting high’ and visiting nightclubs or other ‘party’ environments on psychedelic substances is not an uncommon usage. Almost by definition, however, doing so in these kinds of environment to some extent distracts the user from any deeper insights about themselves. Therefore it is less than ideal for any kind of self-discovery.

That is not to say that social environments are not the correct place for self-discovery; quite the contrary – the shared experience can lead to closer bonds with your social group, which in turn leads to a better understanding of relationships with them. In this case, however, the greatest benefit is gained when the environment is more intimate than a loud, crowded social event; yet even here, once ‘the party is over’ and the psychedelic user is in a position to spend more time talking with their social group, significant self-discovery can in some instances take place.

Most (but not all) of the medical benefits of psychedelics are in the realm of psychotherapy. Along with mescaline, DMT and other psychedelics, LSD has been used with varying degrees of success in various different kinds of psychotherapy since its discovery in 1943. This usage does not always need to be in a strictly medical environment for the effects to be beneficial. When used correctly, with the right environment and state of mind (‘set and setting’), psychotherapeutic benefits are to be had without the need for a psychologist or psychotherapist to be present.

When used as psychotherapeutic medicine, psychedelics have been useful in combating addiction;1 in managing stress;2 and in helping people with various psychological disorders face the part of themselves that is responsible for their problems instead of hiding from it. All of these uses are also valid outside of the strictly medical environment. In order to understand how psychedelic substances can be used in this manner (whether controlled in a medical environment or self-directed), it is necessary to understand to a degree the mechanism by which they affect the mind.

Your brain receives around 11 million bits/second of sensory information coming in from your various sense organs; however, your conscious mind can only process around a maximum of 200 bits/second (with 50 being a common estimate).3 In The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley likened this function of the brain to the concept of a reducing valve. When you take a psychedelic substance, the effectiveness of this ‘reducing valve’ is limited – you open yourself up to the opportunity to process a much greater amount of the raw sensory data, even if its unstructured nature can make it difficult to focus on just one thing.

Psychedelic substances don’t simply block or limit this ‘reducing valve’, however. In order for your conscious mind to be able to receive more information for processing, it is necessary for other functions of your brain to be limited. The main effect of psychedelics on your perception and view of the world can be described as a breaking down of your natural filters. Everything you see, hear, taste and feel in normal life is passed through a kind of filtering system in your brain. These filters have evolved over the millennia to help us determine what is ‘important’ and not overload us with ‘unimportant’ information. If our distant ancestors were being charged at by an angry mammoth, they did not want to stop to admire the pretty flowers (or more precisely, those who did were unlikely to pass on their genes).

This ‘filtering’ concept can be interpreted in more than one way. It is often used in discourse to describe the idea of a consciousness as an external property to the brain itself or simply ‘mind-at-large’, which is then filtered by the brain giving us the consciousness that we experience. Here, I am using the term in a more grounded scientific sense: not a filtering of a ‘totality of consciousness’, but rather of the sensory data that comes in. That is, what reaches the consciousness has been limited by the filters, as what the senses pick up is far in excess of what consciousness is able to usefully process. The senses still pick it up and record it not only because it’s useful subconsciously, but also partly because evolution is less than perfect and there’s no way to develop an eye that sees only ‘useful’ things – instead, you just catch everything and then filter what you don’t need in a ‘post-processing’ step within the brain.

Another – perhaps more technically precise – way of explaining these filters is that your brain has evolved to apply concepts to sensory input. The sensory input comes from your sensory organs (eyes, ears, skin and so on) to your brain’s thalamus. Normally, information is then taken from the frontal cortex to apply a ‘concept’ to this sensory data. Once the concept is applied, the sensory data itself is ignored or thrown away and only the concept itself is processed. You have the concept and so no longer need the raw data. This is the function that psychedelic substances limit – the direct application of the concept to the sensory data.

Because psychedelics break down these filters between your senses and conscious mind, no longer do the filters stop you noticing things or make you decide that certain things have less significance than others. It is as though you are a child again: everything you sense is new, and you are sensing it for the first time. The benefits of this can be profound if you allow them, and can be considered the core effect that allows the use of psychedelics for self-discovery.

In the late 1960s, Dr William McGlothlin noted that people involved in previous studies reported positive (life-enhancing) after-effects on personality, interpersonal relationships and so on – even when the use of LSD was intended only to study the substance itself rather than have any therapeutic effect.4 Together with McGlothlin, the eminent researcher Dr Sidney Cohen performed a study focusing on this.5

In this study, low-dose LSD (25 µg), high-dose LSD (200 µg), and amphetamines (20 mg) were administered to volunteers and compared with two control groups. During the study, the volunteers were not directly interacted with; they simply lay on a couch listening to music for the duration. That is to say, the experiment was designed to measure only the influence of the drugs given, and not be influenced by other activities.

Two weeks after taking the drug and then again six months afterwards, the volunteers were interviewed to measure their state of mind. The results of these interviews showed that for the group taking 200 µg of LSD, over 40% of individuals experienced ‘some after-effects’ and just fewer than 20% of individuals experienced ‘deep after-effects’. The most common effect was ‘greater understanding’ followed closely by ‘greater introspection’, with scales measuring ‘more tolerance’, ‘less materialistic’ and ‘less egocentric’ all showing high values as well (McGlothlin 1970).

The psychedelic researcher, Prof. Torsten Passie, uses a metaphor to describe this process.6 You are on a ship, perhaps even the captain of that ship, sailing the high ocean. Somewhere on the vast and mostly empty ocean is an island; and on this island is treasure. You do not know where the island is, and you have been sailing for a long time now. After a while, many people begin to give up hope. Maybe the treasure is a lie; maybe there is no island – just ocean forever. They become despondent and stop searching. Taking LSD is like getting in a helicopter, flying to the island, seeing the treasure, and then flying back to your ship. You still don’t have it; but now you know it’s real. You know it’s there. And you know you can get to it. This is a very powerful motivator.

The way in which you decide to prioritise your trust in how you experience the world can also be altered quite significantly by psychedelics. If you are walking down the street and suddenly, out of the corner of your eye, you find that you notice – just for a moment – a giant green bug-eyed alien, what you believe based on this varies from person to person. Some people will believe that giant green bug-eyed aliens exist – after all, they just saw one. Others may believe they have been slipped a hallucinogenic drug (however, this kind of ‘hallucination’ will not happen on psychedelics; so only those who have never taken one will be likely to believe this). Yet others still may believe they have gone mad, or are asleep and dreaming. And others still may simply believe that the alien they saw is a very convincing fake.

Before having ever taken a psychedelic substance, many people will completely trust their senses. They believe that if they see something, it is there. However, after the use of psychedelics they become more aware that their senses are just a viewport to reality – they are not reality itself. Senses can be wrong, and in fact often are. The person has seen the world unfiltered, and now knows how much there is in day-to-day life that we interpret in a distorted way, or even do not see at all. If they were to get a glimpse of that ‘alien’ after having taken psychedelics, their reaction would much more likely be to dismiss it as a false interpretation of reality – an illusion created by their mind from an incomplete glance at something that is most likely much more mundane.

An oft-repeated term that you hear when reading or talking about psychedelic experiences is ‘consciousness expansion’. This is a phrase that can invoke negative perceptions in people not familiar with psychedelics. It is not that the phrase is inaccurate; it is more that it has been used (and abused) so often for so many different things that the real meaning is difficult to decipher unless you have direct experience of it.

As it happens, many uses of the phrase are not entirely incorrect. They talk about breadth of thought; or about depth of thought; or even about ‘getting in touch with your inner self’. While they are not wrong, these descriptions miss the point by focusing too narrowly on the effects of consciousness expansion and not on what it really is in and of itself: in the context of psychedelics, talking about consciousness expansion specifically means ‘having more consciousness’.

This may also sound somewhat confusing or meaningless at first; however, it is easy to picture if you go the other way around. Have you ever been ‘less conscious’ than normal? Pretty much everyone has at one point or another, and for many of us it is a regular occurrence. When you first wake up in the morning and are a bit groggy before you’ve had your morning coffee; when you are daydreaming and don’t pay attention to the world around you; or when you ‘switch off’ in front of the TV in the evening after work – these are times that you’re less conscious than normal. You are certainly not ‘unconscious’, but you’re also not fully conscious.

When you take psychedelics, you experience a state that is even more conscious than your regular state; just as your regular state is more conscious than your groggy just-woke-up-and-need-coffee state. This comes as a surprise to some people, as they assume – quite incorrectly – that their normal state of being was the most conscious they were capable of being.

Being less conscious tends to mean you are less alert: you notice less than normal, you think more slowly, and the topics that you think about are both shallower and in a narrower range than normal. Being more conscious – that is, experiencing consciousness expansion – is therefore quite logically the opposite. You are more alert: you notice more than normal, you think more quickly, and the topics that you think about are both deeper and wider-ranging than normal.

If you hold religious or spiritual beliefs or are open to the idea of consciousness having the ability to transcend reality rather than purely as an aspect of the function of the brain, it is possible that consciousness expansion through the psychedelic experience will strengthen these beliefs. Feelings of ‘oneness with existence’, ‘out-of-body experiences’ and ‘ego death’ – a transcendent state in which the concepts of I and me cease to have meaning – are all common experiences on higher doses of psychedelics. It is also relatively common – but by no means universally experienced – to come into apparent contact with beings that appear to shape or control reality.

It is therefore very easy to interpret these experiences as being directly what they appear to be. The experiences can be interpreted as direct contact with aliens, god(s), or a truly conscious universe. Should you already believe in such things, the experience can be interpreted as confirmation of your beliefs. Should you not believe in such things, but fail to use critical thinking, then it may stimulate or create a belief in these things. To do so, however, is to avoid the exact kind of analysis necessary for self-discovery. It is an ‘easy out’ – even if it doesn’t feel so at the time. It gives an explanation for the experience without the need for further consideration and can even therefore hamper self-discovery rather than assist with it.

This may sound unnecessarily harsh to believers of these things. If, for example, you believe in the idea of a soul or higher personal consciousness that transcends the physical realm, then experiencing the sense of ‘looking at yourself from without’ is likely to strengthen this belief and to read here that it is ‘hampering’ rather than helping self-discovery may be considered an unfair assessment.

I am not a believer in any of these things. I am in many ways an empiricist – I believe in what can be seen and measured. And I most especially believe that Occam’s Razor should be respected when positing the objective cause of subjective experiences. During my own personal psychedelic experiences, I have had powerful mystical experiences which, were I more accepting of the idea of supernatural or metaphysical concepts, could easily have led to a different philosophy.

Empiricism is not, however, necessarily ‘cold and uncaring’ as many portray it to be. A belief in a structured and rules-based universe does not conflict with behavioural philosophy based on emotional values. I believe that consciousness is an emergent property of the functions within the brain; but that doesn’t mean I can’t love. I believe that there is no life after death; but that doesn’t stop me having morals. My own self-discovery through psychedelics has led me to the realisation that precisely because there is no higher meaning or grand plan to the universe, then the most important thing is to enjoy my life to the fullest. These experiences have taught me how to examine myself and use the knowledge gained to improve myself in ways that will better reach this goal.

The psychedelic experience itself can be very powerful and influential on the mind. It does this through neurochemical interactions that we understand to a degree, but not yet fully. Psychologically, these effects allow us to examine ourselves and our minds from a perspective that we don’t normally have the opportunity to do. This perspective may make us happier, or conversely may traumatise and depress us. Either way, the act of self-discovery gives us greater knowledge of ourselves. This knowledge can then be used to determine how to make changes in our lives, making them richer, fuller and happier than they would have been had we never had the chance to gain this knowledge.

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Works Cited:

1 MacLean JR, MacDonald DC, Byrne UP, Hubbard AM. The use of LSD-25 in the treatment of alcoholism and other psychiatric problems. Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol 1961;22:34–45.

2 MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies). LSD & psilocybin-assisted therapy for anxiety. Available at http://www.maps.org/research/psilo-lsd/

3 Encyclopædia Britannica online. Information Theory -> Physiology. Available at: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/287907/information-theory/214958/Physiology.

4 McGlothlin WH. Long-Lasting Effects of LSD on Certain Attitudes in Normals: An Experimental Proposal. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1962. Available at http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/papers/2006/P2575.pdf.

5 McGlothlin W, Cohen S, McGlothlin MS. Long-lasting effects of LSD on normals. Journal of Psychedelic Drugs 1970;3:13–19.

6 Bewan D. Dropping Acid: A Beginner’s Guide to the Responsible Use of LSD for Self-Discovery. CreateSpace (Amazon), 2013.

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Dale Bewan is the pseudonym of a passionately curious man, who has had first-hand experience of many psychedelic substances, but none more so than LSD. Aside from psychedelics and psychopharmacology, Dale has a wide range of interests and skills, covering everything from historical linguistics to software design to astrophysics. His recently published book Dropping Acid: A Beginner’s Guide to the Responsible Use of LSD for Self-Discovery is available at Amazon[.]com, other online retailers, and leading bookstores.

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