C onnoisseurs of psychedelics often claim the drugs take them to a higher plane of consciousness, but to those who have never partaken, this can seem a vague or even pretentious description of the drugs’ effects. Research released this week, however, goes some way to demystifying the effects of psychedelics.
Scientists from the University of Sussex and Imperial College London have begun to classify the nature of the state of consciousness induced by three psychedelic drugs: LSD, psilocybin and ketamine. Brain scans of test subjects who had taken these drugs showed an increase in diversity of neuron activity - a correlate of consciousness.
Consciousness is a hard to define concept, and distinguishing between different levels of waking consciousness is even harder. Previous research, however, has identified diversity of neural signals as an indicator of consciousness: an awake brain shows much greater neural signalling diversity than a sleeping brain. This new research finds that neural signalling is even more diverse under the influence of these three tested drugs, leading some to conclude that psychedelics truly do take users to a higher conscious level.
However, the researchers preached caution when talking about higher consciousness. “While it may be tempting to describe the psychedelic state as a ‘higher’ state or level of consciousness on the basis of our findings, any such description needs to be cautiously interpreted and properly qualified,” reads the study published in Nature. Theories of consciousness are not based solely on signal diversity after all.
It is hoped, nevertheless, that this research could help us better understand the workings of the three drugs tested, and fuel further research into how they could be used for medicinal purposes, for example as treatments of depression.
Science cannot yet entirely classify and describe the experiences felt by users of psychedelics, but by demystifying their physical effects on the brain, it can at least analyse their potential benefits.