Hallucinogenic Mushrooms (Psilocybin) and Ramifications For The Nature of Consciousness

How's that for a provocative title?  As we'll see, it's not as crazy as it sounds! In fact, this post is about a semi-recent scientific study that was reported in Nature and Scientific American not all that long ago. 


My most recent blog post before this one discussed alternative models for the mind/brain problem, or the "hard problem of consciousness", which attempts to answer how conscious, subjective inner experience (i.e. qualia) can arise from unconscious matter.  These alternative models assume that consciousness is primary and does not arise from matter. Instead, they hold that the brain acts as an intermediary, or as a reducing valve, or filter, or in a fashion similar to a 2-way radio transceiver.  You can poke, and prod the circuitry in a radio as much as you want looking for the source of the transmission, but you're missing the point until you realize the radio is not the source.  The broadcast waves exist separate and independent from the radio.  It's best to realize these are all just meant to be crude analogies to help us start looking at the problem in a different perspective, or from a consciousness-first perspective.  So, we shouldn't take them too far.  Of course, all these analogies are opposed to the more popular matter-first perspective, which assumes that the brain produces consciousness, which would be the more natural assumption in the eyes of most.

So, the obvious question to ask would be, is there any evidence that trumps one perspective over the other?  At this point the answer is no.  However, lets look at what one might conclude based on each perspective.  If the brain acts more like a filter one would expect that if the filter is "shut off" we would have unrestrained cognition, or an enhancement in perception.  Near Death Experiences seem to confirm this, but the jury is still out.  On the other hand, we would expect the opposite if the brain produces consciousness.  Under this model, the more intense the brain activity, the more intense the conscious experience. No brain activity would mean no consciousness, which is the materialistic view of death.

Now, let's apply this to psilocybin - the chemical agent responsible for the intense high, or the intense conscious experience,  associated with hallucinogenic mushrooms.  A study was recently done in the UK which investigated the brain activity of folks under the influence of psilocybin.  Of course, the obvious expectation in line with the "brain produces consciousness" perspective is that these guys would have their brains lit up like Christmas Trees under fMRI scanners.  On the contrary, they found an overall reduction in brain activity, which is in correspondence of what one would expect if the brain acted as a filter, while the psilocybin "loosened" the filter a bit.

To be fair, mainstream neuroscience has come up with ideas in an attempt to explain findings like these.  One posits inhibitory brain processes in one area allowing excitatory process to grow unchecked elsewhere.  However, there was no increased activity found anywhere in the brain during the psilocybin studies.  Ultimately, the problem really comes down to the fact that all mainstream theories are unproven and fall short of their ultimate goal. As David Chalmers points out,  we have made essentially zero progress in the last 100 years on answering the question of how inner conscious experience can arise from matter.  Similarly, the "consciousness is primary" camp isn't exactly able to say how the brain acts as a filter, or receiver, nor can they definitively point "out there" to some field of consciousness.



However, even the Nature and Scientific American articles (referenced below) note the following.

"In his 1954 book The Doors of Perception, novelist Aldous Huxley, who famously experimented with psychedelics, suggested that the drugs produce a sensory deluge by opening a “reducing valve” in the brain that normally acts to limit our perceptions." *

"The new findings are consistent with this idea, and with the free-energy principle of brain function developed by Karl Friston of University College London that states that the brain works by constraining our perceptual experiences so that its predictions of the world are as accurate as possible." *

As hinted at in the quotes above, there could indeed be a survival advantage to the brain acting as a filter, thereby limiting conscious experience.  One does not need to be distracted by other ethereal realms, or angels, while being stalked by a saber tooth tiger!  The body evolves within and for efficient function in this world, not the next.

The consciousness-first perspective also jives up with the age old wisdom from cultures around the world.  I'm currently reading a book by Sri Aurobindo called "The Life Divine".  Aurobindo talks about the natural and ultimate state of all things, which is referred to as Sat-chid-ananda.  Sat means being, existence, the thing that truly is.  Chid means knowledge, or the free, all-creative self awareness of the Absolute.  Ananda means Bliss, or Beatitude, or refers to the self-delight which is the very nature of the transcendent and infinite existence.  This refers to the original state of unity, which I discuss in my Middle Way, Part II blog post.  The idea that Aurobindo puts forth is that this unity is reduced into multiplicity, at least partly, by ego consciousness.  One could then view the brain as the house of ego consciousness, or the tool which enables the ego experience, or which filters the state of unity down into multiplicity.



How will we eventually know which perspective on consciousness is the correct one?  I see this potentially playing out in several ways.  (1) A study like AWARE unambiguously shows that consciousness can exist independent of the brain.  (2) The accumulating evidence for psi becomes undeniable and perhaps backed up by a compelling theory.  (3) Psi and spiritual experiences become common enough amongst the population to where it will become natural to view consciousness as more than just the brain.  Or, (4) enough experiments like the one talked about here will make the consciousness-first perspective the more parsimonious viewpoint.  In reality, it will probably end up being an interplay of all these factors, plus ones I did not think of, that ultimately bring about an acceptance that consciousness is indeed primary.  As you can tell, I do feel fairly confident things will eventually trend in this direction, although I can't be sure.

Factor 4 is very similar to what may be currently happening within Quantum Mechanics.  There are two formulations of Quantum Mechanics I have been following: (1) the popular interpretation of QM where time is linear and unidirectional, which is our normal way of viewing time; (2) the time symmetric formulation (TSQM) which has a richer view on time, including a type of retro-causal influence.  Although they sure don't sound like they would be, these two theories turn out to be mathematically equivalent, i.e. they make the same predictions.  Therefore, no single experiment can trump one over the other, at least as far as we know.  Ten to fifteen years ago, TSQM was not given a high level of consideration.  Why evoke such an exotic concept of time when it provides no extra value?  Since then, however, a number of modern experiments have been done that are actually more simple and elegant to explain within the TSQM framework, while being convoluted within the standard QM framework.  Therefore, more physicists are beginning to find the TSQM framework compelling.  But, the jury is still out on which view truly represents physical reality.  More on this in a future blog post!  Perhaps more experiments could make the "consciousness is primary" model more compelling in a similar fashion.

I think all this shows, once again, that it is best for us to keep an open mind on the mind/brain problem, while waiting to see where the evidence takes us.

(*) Psychedelic chemical subdues brain activity, Nature

(**) Hallucinogenic Chemical Found in Magic Mushrooms Subdues Brain Activity, Scientific American

(***) Neural correlates of the psychedelic state as determined by fMRI studies with psilocybin, Original Paper Found In Proceedings of the National Academy of the Science, PNAS

(****) Disembodied Trippers by Bernardo Kastrup, for analysis similar, but superior, to my own.

How's that for a provocative title?  As we'll see, it's not as crazy as it sounds! In fact, this post is about a semi-recent scientific study that was reported in Nature and Scientific American not all that long ago. 


My most recent blog post before this one discussed alternative models for the mind/brain problem, or the "hard problem of consciousness", which attempts to answer how conscious, subjective inner experience (i.e. qualia) can arise from unconscious matter.  These alternative models assume that consciousness is primary and does not arise from matter. Instead, they hold that the brain acts as an intermediary, or as a reducing valve, or filter, or in a fashion similar to a 2-way radio transceiver.  You can poke, and prod the circuitry in a radio as much as you want looking for the source of the transmission, but you're missing the point until you realize the radio is not the source.  The broadcast waves exist separate and independent from the radio.  It's best to realize these are all just meant to be crude analogies to help us start looking at the problem in a different perspective, or from a consciousness-first perspective.  So, we shouldn't take them too far.  Of course, all these analogies are opposed to the more popular matter-first perspective, which assumes that the brain produces consciousness, which would be the more natural assumption in the eyes of most.

So, the obvious question to ask would be, is there any evidence that trumps one perspective over the other?  At this point the answer is no.  However, lets look at what one might conclude based on each perspective.  If the brain acts more like a filter one would expect that if the filter is "shut off" we would have unrestrained cognition, or an enhancement in perception.  Near Death Experiences seem to confirm this, but the jury is still out.  On the other hand, we would expect the opposite if the brain produces consciousness.  Under this model, the more intense the brain activity, the more intense the conscious experience. No brain activity would mean no consciousness, which is the materialistic view of death.

Now, let's apply this to psilocybin - the chemical agent responsible for the intense high, or the intense conscious experience,  associated with hallucinogenic mushrooms.  A study was recently done in the UK which investigated the brain activity of folks under the influence of psilocybin.  Of course, the obvious expectation in line with the "brain produces consciousness" perspective is that these guys would have their brains lit up like Christmas Trees under fMRI scanners.  On the contrary, they found an overall reduction in brain activity, which is in correspondence of what one would expect if the brain acted as a filter, while the psilocybin "loosened" the filter a bit.

To be fair, mainstream neuroscience has come up with ideas in an attempt to explain findings like these.  One posits inhibitory brain processes in one area allowing excitatory process to grow unchecked elsewhere.  However, there was no increased activity found anywhere in the brain during the psilocybin studies.  Ultimately, the problem really comes down to the fact that all mainstream theories are unproven and fall short of their ultimate goal. As David Chalmers points out,  we have made essentially zero progress in the last 100 years on answering the question of how inner conscious experience can arise from matter.  Similarly, the "consciousness is primary" camp isn't exactly able to say how the brain acts as a filter, or receiver, nor can they definitively point "out there" to some field of consciousness.



However, even the Nature and Scientific American articles (referenced below) note the following.

"In his 1954 book The Doors of Perception, novelist Aldous Huxley, who famously experimented with psychedelics, suggested that the drugs produce a sensory deluge by opening a “reducing valve” in the brain that normally acts to limit our perceptions." *

"The new findings are consistent with this idea, and with the free-energy principle of brain function developed by Karl Friston of University College London that states that the brain works by constraining our perceptual experiences so that its predictions of the world are as accurate as possible." *

As hinted at in the quotes above, there could indeed be a survival advantage to the brain acting as a filter, thereby limiting conscious experience.  One does not need to be distracted by other ethereal realms, or angels, while being stalked by a saber tooth tiger!  The body evolves within and for efficient function in this world, not the next.

The consciousness-first perspective also jives up with the age old wisdom from cultures around the world.  I'm currently reading a book by Sri Aurobindo called "The Life Divine".  Aurobindo talks about the natural and ultimate state of all things, which is referred to as Sat-chid-ananda.  Sat means being, existence, the thing that truly is.  Chid means knowledge, or the free, all-creative self awareness of the Absolute.  Ananda means Bliss, or Beatitude, or refers to the self-delight which is the very nature of the transcendent and infinite existence.  This refers to the original state of unity, which I discuss in my Middle Way, Part II blog post.  The idea that Aurobindo puts forth is that this unity is reduced into multiplicity, at least partly, by ego consciousness.  One could then view the brain as the house of ego consciousness, or the tool which enables the ego experience, or which filters the state of unity down into multiplicity.



How will we eventually know which perspective on consciousness is the correct one?  I see this potentially playing out in several ways.  (1) A study like AWARE unambiguously shows that consciousness can exist independent of the brain.  (2) The accumulating evidence for psi becomes undeniable and perhaps backed up by a compelling theory.  (3) Psi and spiritual experiences become common enough amongst the population to where it will become natural to view consciousness as more than just the brain.  Or, (4) enough experiments like the one talked about here will make the consciousness-first perspective the more parsimonious viewpoint.  In reality, it will probably end up being an interplay of all these factors, plus ones I did not think of, that ultimately bring about an acceptance that consciousness is indeed primary.  As you can tell, I do feel fairly confident things will eventually trend in this direction, although I can't be sure.

Factor 4 is very similar to what may be currently happening within Quantum Mechanics.  There are two formulations of Quantum Mechanics I have been following: (1) the popular interpretation of QM where time is linear and unidirectional, which is our normal way of viewing time; (2) the time symmetric formulation (TSQM) which has a richer view on time, including a type of retro-causal influence.  Although they sure don't sound like they would be, these two theories turn out to be mathematically equivalent, i.e. they make the same predictions.  Therefore, no single experiment can trump one over the other, at least as far as we know.  Ten to fifteen years ago, TSQM was not given a high level of consideration.  Why evoke such an exotic concept of time when it provides no extra value?  Since then, however, a number of modern experiments have been done that are actually more simple and elegant to explain within the TSQM framework, while being convoluted within the standard QM framework.  Therefore, more physicists are beginning to find the TSQM framework compelling.  But, the jury is still out on which view truly represents physical reality.  More on this in a future blog post!  Perhaps more experiments could make the "consciousness is primary" model more compelling in a similar fashion.

I think all this shows, once again, that it is best for us to keep an open mind on the mind/brain problem, while waiting to see where the evidence takes us.

(*) Psychedelic chemical subdues brain activity, Nature

(**) Hallucinogenic Chemical Found in Magic Mushrooms Subdues Brain Activity, Scientific American

(***) Neural correlates of the psychedelic state as determined by fMRI studies with psilocybin, Original Paper Found In Proceedings of the National Academy of the Science, PNAS

(****) Disembodied Trippers by Bernardo Kastrup, for analysis similar, but superior, to my own.