Scientific evidence of a ‘higher’ state of consciousness has been found in a new study measuring the effects of psychedelic drugs on human subjects. Using sophisticated multidimensional spontaneous magnetoencephalography (MEG), neuroscientists in the UK observed sustained increases in neural signal diversity, a measure of the intricacy and complexity of brain activity of people under the influence of psychedelic drugs, compared to when they were in a normal conscious waking state.
By measuring the tiny magnetic fields produced in the brain, investigators found that a measure of conscious level, e.g., the neural signal diversity, was reliably higher when subjects were under the influence of LSD, Ketamine and Psilocybin. In fact, all three hallucinogens produced similar signal diversity.
Mind-Altering Psychedelic Drugs
Understanding concepts of consciousness, as in awareness and insights, was sought out by the stoics and epicurean philosophers of the Hellenistic period and remains one of the unsettled challenges of modern science. Historically, attempts at steadfast definitions of consciousness are at best subjective and phenomenological in substance. In the 60s, Harvard University professor Timothy Leary, PhD, AKA the Pied Piper of Psychedelic 60s , encouraged his students to drop out (of college and mainstream life) and “turn on” via the use of mind-altering hallucinogenic drugs, in this case, LSD. Regrettably, many students listened to Leary. Bad trips, psychoses, hospital admissions, suicides, death during hallucinations and numerous medical and psychological consequences became front page news. Consequently, LSD was not studied again until 2014 when Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris and colleagues administered LSD to humans for research purposes—the first such research in nearly 50 years.
Carnhart-Harris asserted that psychedelic drugs perturb one’s consciousness in a novel way, and thus can be utilized as powerful tools for studying the mechanisms and neuro paths toward higher consciousness. The working hypothesis was that psychedelics known to produce unusual altered states of consciousness, including awareness of rich phenomenal content, would yield scores of signal diversity that exceeded those in a normal waking state.
These data were attained by reanalyzing MEG recordings from pre-derived benchmarks of spontaneous signal diversity. The variance in MEG signals were compared for both post-placebo and post-psychedelic drug administration in order to test whether these changes in signal variance could be related to subjective phenomenological descriptions obtained following drug administration.
Despite the differing pharmacological action of the three drugs, investigators observed a clear similarity in the cortical localization of changes in signal diversity measures. In addition, overlapping spatial distributions over the occipital and parietal cortices were noted.
Why Does This Matter?
Historically, investigations to determine levels of consciousness were designed to contrast global changes in brain activity in persons during different levels of consciousness including various sleep stages under different forms of anesthesia and during wakefulness. In contrast, this study was designed to isolate neural changes that accompany alterations of conscious levels, independently of changes in general physiological arousal.
The results show that the state of consciousness on psychedelics is distinctively different, when compared to our normal conscious state. The noted signal changes resulting from psychedelics has further cracked the door open to our understanding of consciousness and perhaps implications for how changes in consciousness may be of benefit. However, the measures applied in this study focus on signal diversity and may be independent from having an insight, integrative learning or cognitive enhancement or behavioral application. Moreover, this data does not suggest that psychedelic drugs are harmless, therapeutic or causative of higher brain function or awareness, in line with these researcher’s nosology. The big takeaway here is that our brains are different on psychedelics, (no surprise there) and just perhaps this “different” can lead to something positive. More research is sure to follow.