What do psychedelics do to our brain?
Psychedelics’ phenomenological effects like Synaesthesia, Hyperacuity of sensory perception, Ego dissolution and Existential awakening are broadly described in both scientific and artistic cultures, but scientists are just starting to understand the way these substances alter brain functions.
Psychedelics are a class of compounds with a molecular structure similar to serotonin, acting like a 5HT2-A receptors agonist. Serotonin is related to stress and anxiety moderation, and 5HT2-A are specially related to active coping; in other words, they are related to active strategies to deal with adversities, reduced rigid thinking and pessimism; rising of plasticity, learning and dis learning capacity and major adaptability.
It’s already known that psychedelics alter Default Mode Network (DMN) functioning, provoking a reset-like effect, and a communication rise between brain areas that usually don’t connect with each other. These characteristics when combined produce cognitive flexibility and plasticity, a window of opportunity to be worked with psychotherapy to catalyse changes. It is important to highlight that the addiction potential of traditional psychedelics is low to negligible, as receptor tolerance rises very quickly, but also diminishes very quickly.
The analysis of perceptual changes and brain functions leads to another mystery which scientists are still trying to understand: what do they do to our consciousness?
What do they do to our consciousness?
There are some main hypotheses proposed to understand how consciousness works and how it is altered by psychedelic substances, especially the ego-dissolution phenomena. In this text, I’ll focus on a more recent perspective called The Entropic Brain Theory, proposed by Carhart-Harris and his fellows at Imperial College, which shed some light on how consciousness is altered under the effect of psychedelic substances.
Entropy is a way to understand levels of caoticism and organization of a system: The greater the system’s clutter and unpredictability, the greater its entropy, and the less the system’s clutter and unpredictability, the lower its entropy.
This theory suggests that Archaic homo sapiens had developed consciousness through a rapid entropy expansion in comparison to their ancestors, which means that they lived in a highly entropic primary consciousness state, which was very disorganized, chaotic and unpredictable. As our species kept evolving, we developed an egoic structure intending to suppress entropy, making the mind more organized and predictable.
They argue that the marks from this evolutive process from primary to secondary consciousness is observed in the development of human babies. It’s known that babies take time to form an egoic perception of themselves, an “I” perception. Until this egoic consciousness develops, they would live immersed in this primary and primitive consciousness. On the other hand, secondary consciousness, the egoic one, is built over time, from samples of reality, and from what we learn from these different samples, situations, people, or culture. Based on that, we organize reality through our own perception.
This image represents the spectrum of consciousness according to the entropy level: on the extreme left, its highly entropic form, characteristics of primary consciousness, disorganized and flexible; on the extreme right, very low entropy, a secondary consciousness in its most crystallized form, characteristics of rigid thinking and acting. The brighter yellow represents the healthy consciousness of modern adult humans, organized by an ego structure that reduces entropy, but not enough to make it rigid.
Rigid thinking and behaving is a characteristic of many mental diseases such as depression, OCD, and addiction. It’s very difficult for people to overcome this rigid state of consciousness, and that’s the point when we start to understand psychedelic functioning.
According to this theory, psychedelics reduce the cognitive processing related to our self-perception; that is, they reduce or dissolve the egoic mental filter that restricts our consciousness’ perception and makes it possible for us to experience high entropy states with high flexibility, characteristics from primary consciousness. That means that a person in mental suffering, characterized by a rigid and crystallized state of consciousness, has the opportunity to experience a highly flexible state, literally mind and cognitive openness.
The cognitive flexibility state opens a window of opportunity that, combined with an appropriate therapeutic context, can effectively help people to overcome crystallized patterns, and to envision new possibilities. In those primary states of consciousness people have a greater synaptic freedom, making it possible to connect areas of the brain that aren’t normally connected with each other, and that may explain a creativity rising, synesthetic experiences and chaos sensation.
They say that “narrow-mindedness is to pessimism what openness is to optimism and strategies that promote the latter may be effective treatments for depression”³. Psychedelic mind- openness would open a possibility to work with more optimistic future perspectives with those people.
It’s important to highlight that diving into this primary state of consciousness, a highly entropic and chaotic one, and to vividly experience your own unconsciousness involves some risks. Psychedelics don’t offer serious physical risks, or addiction potential, but there is a psychic risk if no proper cautions are taken. So, it is very important to set safe boundaries to the experience. Psychotherapeutic assisted-therapy or even religious and xamanic rituals can better structure and support the experience, from the preparation to the integration phase.
Carhart-Harris, R., & Nutt, D. (2017). Serotonin and brain function: a tale of two receptors. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 31(9), 1091–1120. doi:10.1177/0269881117725915
Carhart-Harris, R. L., Roseman, L., Bolstridge, M., Demetriou, L., Pannekoek, J. N., Wall, M. B., … Nutt, D. J. (2017). Psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression: fMRI-measured brain mechanisms. Scientific Reports, 7(1). doi:10.1038/s41598–017–13282–7
Carhart-Harris, R. L., Leech, R., Hellyer, P. J., Shanahan, M., Feilding, A., Tagliazucchi, E., … Nutt, D. (2014). The entropic brain: a theory of conscious states informed by neuroimaging research with psychedelic drugs. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2014.00020