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Opinion – Psychedelic Turn: How to understand the expansion of consciousness mediated by psychedelics


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The simplest way to understand the phrase “expansion of consciousness” with psychedelics implies a qualitative increase or change in self-awareness in the person who thinks and observes himself thinking. Another, less obvious, points to the subject’s attribution of minds like his to other animate and inanimate beings, root of the mid-1960s mysticism that still haunts the psychedelic renaissance.

It is no longer the stereotype of hippies who hug trees, believe in reincarnation in animals and admit the existence of elves in the forest. In the current debate over whether or not to affiliate psychedelic science with the supernatural, however, the recognition of self-conscious activity in nonhuman beings, even inanimate ones and the universe, remains at the bottom of the uncomfortable mix.

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Roland Griffiths’ group at the Johns Hopkins University (JHU) Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research has a tradition of studying this confluence of psychedelic and mystical experiences. The intensity of the second would even increase the therapeutic effect attributed to substances such as psilocybin in “magic” mushrooms, according to pioneering work by Griffiths in 2006 and 2011.

The JHU staff returns to the charge, in the journal Frontiers in Psychology/Consciousness Research, with the result of an online poll gathering 1,606 volunteers who attributed changes in beliefs after the use of a classic psychedelic (LSD, mescaline, psilocybin, ayahuasca, DMT or 5-MeO-DMT). Bingo: The researchers found that “higher mystical experience scores were associated with greater increases in awareness attribution.”

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Participants had to say whether they considered there was a capacity for conscious experience in non-human primates, quadrupeds, insects, fungi, plants, inanimate natural objects and even those created by humans. Three responses about the beliefs of each volunteer were recorded: before the trip, after the trip and at the time they answered the questionnaire.

Here is the variation in the percentages of people who changed their minds after the psychedelic experience, that is, the increase in the number of those who saw consciousness in these beings and objects:

  • non-human primates such as chimpanzees (from 63% to 83%; currently 85%);
  • quadrupeds (59%-79%; 82%);
  • some insects (33%-57%; 60%);
  • some fungi (21%-56%; 62%);
  • plants (26%-61%; 64%);
  • inanimate natural objects such as rocks (8%-26%; 29%);
  • human-created objects such as buildings (3%-15%; 17%);
  • the universe (34%-80%; 82%).

Not only has the contingent of those who believe in the consciousness of animals, vegetables, rocks, etc., increased in all cases, just before and just after the immersion, but also the percentages of those who believe in the course between the psychedelic experience and the moment of participation in the immersion have increased. survey. In some cases, this second interval was of months or years, corroborating the long persistence of the modified belief.

I tried, at the time, to participate in the computer poll, as I narrated here, but I stumbled on the precondition of having undergone a significant change of belief after a psychedelic trip. More precisely, I stopped at the implication of the term “belief”, which seemed to bias the study towards mysticism.

Why not “values”, “convictions”, “assumptions” (moral, ethical)? Much evolves as a result of these journeys of self-knowledge, but not necessarily in the direction of deities, spirits or other realities.

Not a few people experience significant, even profound, transformations after one of these dives into their own minds. They become more tolerant, flexible, open; they enjoy a feeling of communion with nature, with humanity; they reconcile with the past, their traumas, sorrows, disaffections. Why does this influx of empathy and compassion necessarily have to be framed within the mystical frame?

As already transpired in that blog note 17 months ago, the esoteric aura can warn the minds (no pun intended) of many psychiatrists, therapists and neuroscientists against the potential of psychedelics, held back by the fear of association with the stigma propagated by the prohibitionism of the 1970s. Not to mention the mentally ill patients themselves who could eventually benefit from future psychedelic treatments.

The mystical-psychedelic combo is entangled in the messianic plot woven by counterculture gurus like Timothy Leary. You can pull one end of this thread with the book “The Psychedelic Experience”, which had a Brazilian translation recently released by Aleph, in which Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert resort to the “Tibetan Book of the Dead” in composing a manual for psychonaut travelers and their guides (“trip-sitters”).

The 1964 book is a bit dated, but it has a great preface by writer Daniel Pinchbeck in 2007, from whom I borrow this quote to end the conversation: “It’s not about losing our modern cognition in favor of confused mysticism, but integrate older and more intimate forms of knowledge, capable of helping us in the search for a more balanced relationship with the human and non-human world around us”.

Spoke and said.


To learn more about the history and new developments of science in this area, including in Brazil, look for my book “Psiconautas – Travels with Brazilian Psychedelic Science”

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