Psychedelics - Last Frontiers in Consciousness Research


Milan Scheidegger, MD, PhD, MA ETH HPK

The traditional use of psychoactive plants is widespread in all shamanic cultures of the world and is currently being rediscovered by science and medicine. Psychedelics uncover deep archaic layers of our psyche and thus enable transformation: They promote peak experiences, perceptual alterations, sacred communications, mystical ecstasy and meditative contemplation. Clinical and neuroscientific research into the potential of altered states of consciousness for the visionary restructuring of the self and its relationship to the environment is currently increasing. The psychedelic experience provides not only psychopharmacological insights into the neurobiology of consciousness but also raises profound philosophical and existential questions about the meaning of life in the universe.

Towards a Molecular Epistemology of Consciousness

As Freuds dream theory deepened the psychoanalytic understanding of the unconscious, psychedelics could nowadays serve as the via regia for the scientific exploration of consciousness. As a molecular-assisted epistemology, neurochemistry serves as an abstract representational and empirical exploratory space for the topographic study of phenomenal consciousness. Undoubtedly, neurochemical alterations of perception can yield astonishing experiential results as symbolized by the aesthetic beauty of Nasir al-Mulk Mosque (Iran), maybe one of the closest architectonical representations of the visual space induced by tryptamine-based hallucinogens (such as ayahuasca, psilocybin, or LSD). As such, psychedelic experiences might point to a subliminal level of information processing that mirrors the relational matrix for global evolution and consciousness in neural systems.

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Sacred Medicines in Shamanc Traditions

The entheogenic use of psychoactive plants is widespread in all shamanic cultures of the world. They were used to support ritual trance states and to release archaic powers of the psyche that served social integration and therapeutic transformation. Rituals are the central transformative elements of shamanic practice and possibly represent an ancient form of psychotherapy. Shamanic programming of biological and social structures could be conceptualized as a means of symbolic integration to promote social bonding and to minimize stress through attenuation of egocentric drives. The fact that the ingestion of psychoactive plants can induce deep existential and psychospiritual experiences in humans raises important archeo-psychopharmacological questions about the relationship between plant molecules, neurotransmitter systems and altered states of consciousness. From an evolutionary perspective, it seems arbitrary to set any boundaries as normative means of distinction between processes that occur inside or outside of our bodies: In the end, all is metabolism as proposed by Salvador Dali: "I don't do drugs. I am drugs."

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Pharmacognosis

Among the most widespread psychoactive plants that have been used for psychointegrative and shamanic purposes in human cultures we find Amanita muscaria (Muscimol), Cannabis (THC), Datura stramonium and other nightshade families (Atropine, Hyoscyamine and Scopolamine), Ayahuasca (N,N-DMT), Tabernanthe iboga (Ibogaine), Peyote and San Pedro (Mescaline), Psilocybe Mushrooms (Psilocybin), and Salvia divinorum (Salvinorin A). Besides these traditional plants also synthetic molecules have been used as means for personal exploration: LSD, MDMA, Ketamine, N2O, and various research chemicals.

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Psychedelics and Mystical Experiences

Many religious traditions agree that mystical experiences represent the highest achievement of human existence. In these states the mystic transcends the usual ego-boundaries and feels universally connected with all existence. Even after many years of spiritual practice, such states of cosmic consciousness only rarely occur. In contrast, many psychedelic users report a broad spectrum of drug-induced mystical experiences that resemble those of genuine mystics. This raises the provocative issue of a potential chemical shortcut to enlightenment.



In his Good Friday Experiment (1962), Walter Pahnke explored drug-induced mysticism in 20 students of theology that received either 30 mg of psilocybin or 200 mg of nicotinic acid (placebo) in a double-blind study design during a church service in the Marsh Chapel of the University of Boston. Post-drug and 6 months and long-term followup psychometric assessments revealed that psilocybin subjects experienced significantly stronger mystical phenomena than controls. They ranked among the most significant experiences of their lives even in the long-term followup. A high degree of persisting positive changes were reported by the experimental group compared to the control group.


Phenomenology of Mystical Experiences (according to Walter T. Stace: Mysticism and Philosophy, 1960)

  1. Feeling of unity (transcendence of subject-object-relations)
  2. Transcendence of time and space (infinity)
  3. Deeply felt positive mood (bliss, love, peace)
  4. Feeling of sacredness and awe (mysterium tremendum)
  5. Objectivity and ultimate reality (critical distance between subject and object of experience is experientially impossible)
  6. Paradoxicality
  7. Ineffability

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The Validity of Drug-Induced Mysticism as questioned by Huston Smith (The Journal of Philosophy, 1964)

  1. Some drug experiences are clearly anything but mystical and beneficial. Agreed! But this does not prove that no drug experiences are mystical or beneficial.
  2. The experiences induced by drugs are actually different from those of genuine mystics. They are obviously different in causation, but, as the Harvard Good Friday study showed, they may be experientially indistinguishable.
  3. Mystical rapture is ostensibly a divine gift that can never be brought under mere human control. This argument is, of course, unlikely to convince atheists, nontheists such as Buddhists, or those Christians who believe more in the power of good works than of grace.
  4. Drug-induced experiences are too quick and easy to be considered identical to contemplative experiences. However, if the states are experientially indistinguishable, then the fact that they rise from different causes and with different degrees of ease may be irrelevant. The philosopher W. T. Stace has called this “the principle of causal indifference.”
  5. The aftereffects of drug-induced experiences are different, less beneficial, and less long-lasting than those of contemplatives. Smith put this point eloquently, noting that if “drugs appear to induce religious experiences, it is less evident that they can produce religious lives.” Nonetheless, the fact that aftereffects may be different does not necessarily mean that the experiences are.


Psychedelics and Psychotherapy

According to the pioneer of LSD psychotherapy Stanislav Grof (1980), psychedelics can be seen as a catalyst or amplifier of mental processes. If properly used LSD could become something like the microscope or telescope of psychiatry. At lower doses (psycholytic therapy), psychedelics promote imaginations, regressions and transference phenomena that facilitate emotional-cognitive understanding and personal development. At higher doses (psychedelic therapy), cosmic and mystical experiences as well as feelings of unity and ecstasy may occur that facilitate neurobehavioral transformation on a deep existential level. According to Ralph Metzner (2001), psychedelics permit a reconnecting and remembering of the totality of our experience and facilitate problem resolution through empathy, openness, compassion, peace, acceptance, forgiveness, oneness, and caring.

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Most notably, Sigmund Freud might have anticipated the hidden potential of mind-altering substances in his Outline of Psychoanalysis (1949):

„The future may teach us how to exercise a direct influence, by means of particular chemical substances, upon the amounts of energy and their distribution in the apparatus of the mind. It may be that there are other undreamed of possibilities of therapy. But for the moment we have nothing better at our disposal than the technique of psychoanalysis.“

Currently, research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics resumed after many years of legal prohibition. Psychedelics might thus provide powerful tools for the exploration of the last frontiers in neuroscience research: Understanding the nature of consciousness and treating mental disorders of modern civilization, as noted by Albert Hofmann in "LSD - My Problem Child" (1980):

„I believe that if people would learn to use LSD's vision-inducing capability more wisely, under suitable conditions, in medical practice and in conjunction with meditation, then in the future this problem child could become a wonder child. … I see the true importance of LSD in the possibility of providing material aid to meditation aimed at the mystical experience of a deeper, comprehensive reality. Such a use accords entirely with the essence and working character of LSD as a sacred drug.“

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Philosophical Implications of Psychedelic Experiences

In contrast to classical drugs of abuse that stimulate the dopaminergic system (e.g. cocaine, amphetamine, alcohol) and thus trigger addictive behaviors and self-centered cravings, serotonergic drugs (e.g. MDMA, LSD, ayahuasca, mescaline, psilocybin) attenuate egocentric drives by transcending ego-boundaries and promoting deep existential feelings of empathy and social connectedness that may have therapeutic potential when used in appropriate settings. In this perspective, consciousness should not be conceptualized solely as a by-product of brain activity but as a global field of information processing through relational experience at the ecosystems level that forms the basis for the creation of meaning.

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According to James Kent's Psychedelic Information Theory (2010), psychoactive substances destabilize linear perceptions of space and time to produce fractal states of frame layering, bifurcation, and infinite frame recursion. If normal human imagination is bound within the limits of linear infinity, psychedelic perception is expanded to the limits of exponential or fractal infinity. Psychedelic perception thus presents a progressive nonlinear bifurcation of recursive self-similar information corresponding to both internal and external perceptual space. The psychedelic layering of internal and external perceptions creates a timeless, transpersonal perspective of a fractal or holographic rendering of time and space.

Phenomenologically, the aesthetic qualities of psychedelic experiences are mostly perceived as deeply familiar because the subject of experience is identified with the non-linear psychedelic state of fractal self-similarity that is also represented by Mandala art or other fractal phenomena in nature.
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Other examples include simulations of the universe that reveal striking patterns of self-similarity when compared to the anatomical structure of neurons. The same applies also to cities at night from space when compared to neurons under the microscope. From a holistic perspective, patterns of self-similarity emerge on different cosmic levels of organization and integration as a consequence of the evolutionary dialogue between material form and semantic meaning.
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Pansemiotics - an Ecosystem of Mind and Meaning

Psychedelic cosmology deeply resonates with notions of pansemiotics and ecology of mind. With reference to C.S. Peirce this self-organization theories encompass an ecosystem of meaning that includes not just natural processes but also the world of cultural symbols up to the level where we recognize ourselves as being part of a cosmogenic process of global evolution that transcends time and space. In this pansemiotic universe of signs and symbols, mind manifests as a higher-order coordination of material processes of self-organization. Thus, interactions on the level of biological evolution can already be conceptualized as „proto-signs“ that constitute parts of the overall evolutionary history. This process of generation of meaning starts with states of higher probability and emerges towards an equilibrium that is set by material (bottom up) expression and mental (top down) selection (cf. Scheidegger 2014). Being identified with this cosmology, psychedelic awareness calls us with our capacities to consciously co-create into an infinite sense of responsibility towards the global ecology of consciousness.

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Disclaimer: The information on this website is not intended to encourage the use of ethnobotanicals or psychoactive substances. Transformational Psychotherapy specifically cautions against the use of psychedelics in violation of the law, without appropriate professional guidance and monitoring, or without careful personal evaluation of potential risks and hazards.