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British neuro-scientist David Nutt gave a presentation of his team's research into the psychophysiological effects of hallucinogens on the human brain. Working with psilocybin, this is one of the more notable research projects in progress and clear evidence that psychedelic science is finally making its way onto the mainstream arena again, after decades of moratorium and irrational fear. As I've pointed out before, brain research, neurotransmitter research, and psychedelic compound research are closely linked, and it's simply necessary for the 'illegal' substances to be present in the studies if true progress is to be made. Although I won't dwell on it here, Nutt discusses the problems and absurdities of restricted psychedelic research in his talk:
Psychedelics and the Neuroscientific Enlightenment
Nutt's team made some interesting, counter-intuitive discoveries which should be taken note of. Primarily they found that activity in the brain, measured as blood flow, actually showed an overall decrease when under the influence of psilocybin. Not only that, but "...the more the brain is switched off, the more the psychedelic effects increase". However, the down-shifting of cerebral activity was not uniformly distributed, but rather there was a reduction in the overall integration of brain processing, while the individual parts still showed activity. In other words, the harmonizing-integrating exchange of neuro-messaging across connecting hubs was notably reduced, which in practical terms should create a more scattered and distributed brain activity, as the various centers went on "doing their own thing" independently. This hypothetical state does not seem to conform very well to experiential data that refers to holistic, integrative and at times non-dualist concsiousness states. Scattered and confused experiences do exist, but not to such a degree that one can make a credible case where disjointed brain activity must cause a disjointed cognitive flow. Rather, the holistic opposite may in fact be the most common impression from Innerspace, particularly among experienced travellers.
David Nutt also comments that their various brain scans allowed specific parts of the brain that respond to psilocybin to be identified for the first time. Following up on his talk I came across an interesting video presentation (not from the conference) by one of the project scientists, one Robin Carhart-Harris:
Psilocybin & the Psychedelic State
Much like Nutt he mentions that the connecting hub(s) are turned down in the psilocybin state, and offers an analogy of an orchestra whose director has left the room, the musical result being chaotic and experimental.
However, on a phenomenological-experiential level I don't think this is an accurate description of the higher psychedelic state. I would rather say that one director (baseline) leaves the room and another one (innerspace state) enters. While known hubs and connectors may show less activity under psilocybin, the brain will still integrate its massive electro-chemical flow into a manageable unity--but this integration is semi-improvised and will happen in a different and less orthodox way than in the baseline state. The end result of this integration, as experienced a few hours into the trip, can be exceptionally powerful and creative.
Regarding visual distortions and pseudo-hallucinations in the OEV (open eye visuals) mode, Carhart-Harris talks of "a perceptual error... suppressed layers of the imaging ability are moved up in the hierarchy and made manifest" [not exact quote], which would explain those breathing walls and visions of faces. In the psychedelic state the brain "predicts appearance of faces". It is surprising to hear a modern scientist use positivist terms such as "error" and "wrong" when discussing human consciousness, but perhaps more remarkable is his disregard for the holism and intentionality that Innerspace brings forth. The way Carhart-Harris describes it, the psilocybin trip is a disjointed, chaotic experience dominated by invented visions of faces and other things that have no meaning. Again, there are trips like that, particularly among new-comers, but more than that it sounds like a low-dosage phenomenon. The research project may have produced sufficient data using only small or moderate doses of psilocybin, which could account for the incomplete view of the psychedelic experience. The most vital aspects of the tryptamine realm, such as the often radical intelligence and internal messaging faculty that my Psychedelia book refers to as the Overseer, are only encountered at full-range doses. Unless one has been through a few Innerspace trips with genuine depth, one should refrain from defining or commenting on the state. In the notes I took down when watching the video I wrote that "It seems they have too little phenomenological data, too few trip reports, and keep confusing what is typical with what is anomalous."
Harris offers some interesting input when he brings up the evolutionary aspect of the cerebral states, suggesting that "we go back to a stage in our history when we thought more primitively, magically, animistically...". Although he doesn't make the connection, this goes hand in hand with the idea of "predicted" faces that the subject tends to see in wallpaper patterns, tree foliages and such. Joining these two notions is the bio-evolutionary concept of "animacy detection", which I discussed in Psychedelia, and which refers to one of several survival mechanisms in the early hominid brain. Animacy detection entails a constant scanning of the environment to discover shapes and movement that reveal the presence of a living, physical threat, such as a predatory animal. The brain knows how to recognize a tiger hiding in the bush even when only a few parts of the animal is visible, and the animacy detection instinct matches the environment against this knowledge as part of the ongoing brain processing. Over time this ability is likely to have become epigenetic, and like its parallel ability, the agency detection, they survive to this day in the deeper parts of our brain. Based partly on the writings of anthropologist Michael Winkelman I suggest in Psychedelia that both animacy and agency detection reflexes play a part in the psychedelic visualizations, as consciousness in its unique, agitated state accesses and integrates older brain regions in order to contextualize the alien and possibly threatening state of mind. It is with this in mind that I find Carhart-Harris' comment on evolutionary retro-access during a psilocybin trip interesting.
continued in Part II above...