Psychedelic Drugs Really Do Lead to a Higher State of Consciousness
Study participants bravely took LSD and ketamine in the name of science.
Lyuba Burakova / Stocksy
Scientists have found the first evidence of a higher state of consciousness and, unsurprisingly, it was in the brains of people who were tripping.
For the study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers at the University of Sussex reanalyzed brain scans of healthy volunteers who took one of three psychedelic drugs: ketamine, LSD, or psilocybin, the active compound in shrooms, or a placebo. (A team from Imperial College London and the University of Cardiff collected the initial data.)
The scans looked for tiny magnetic fields produced in subjects' brains to measure neural signal diversity, or the complexity of brain activity. The diversity of brain signals is a mathematical index for the level of consciousness; people who are awake have more diverse brain signal activity than people who are asleep, under anesthesia, or in a vegetative state, for example.
The researchers found that all three drugs produced higher levels of brain signal diversity than the baseline "awake" state observed in people in the placebo group. They found similar changes in signal diversity even though the drugs are very different, pharmacologically, and noted that people who reported more intense experiences had more brain signal changes.
This doesn't necessarily mean that people who got the drugs were thinking more philosophically, or that this is a "better" brain state; just that their brains operated at a different, higher level than normal.
"During the psychedelic state, the electrical activity of the brain is less predictable and less 'integrated' than during normal conscious wakefulness—as measured by 'global signal diversity,'" Anil Seth, co-director of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex, said in a release. "Since this measure has already shown its value as a measure of 'conscious level,' we can say that the psychedelic state appears as a higher 'level' of consciousness than normal—but only with respect to this specific mathematical measure."
The team wants to confirm its results with more sophisticated methods but they're cautiously excited, especially because this study could help inform discussions about medically supervised use of the drugs.
Robin Cahart-Harris, head of psychedelic research at Imperial College London, one of the schools that conducted the original experiment, said that "the present study's findings help us understand what happens in people's brains when they experience an expansion of their consciousness under psychedelics. People often say they experience insight under these drugs—and when this occurs in a therapeutic context, it can predict positive outcomes. The present findings may help us understand how this can happen."
And in what the release notes is "a striking coincidence," this study was released exactly 74 years after Albert Hoffman, who synthesized LSD in 1938, conducted his first self-experiment with the drug. April 19, 1943, is known as "bicycle day" for Hoffman's bike ride home after that fateful acid trip.
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