People who have taken psychedelic drugs often attest to experiencing deep insight into their state of being. Now, researchers may have proven for the first time that these drugs can and do actually place those who take them into a higher state of consciousness.
Published in the journal Scientific Reports, the study has found that those who have taken LSD, ketamine, or psilocybin (the active compound found in magic mushrooms) seem to have increased neural signal diversity.
“The present study's findings help us understand what happens in people's brains when they experience an expansion of their consciousness under psychedelics,” says co-author Dr Robin Cahart-Harris in a statement. “People often say they experience insight under these drugs – and when this occurs in a therapeutic context, it can predict positive outcomes.”
One way in which neuroscientists measure consciousness is to look at something called neural signal diversity. This assesses how complex a brain’s activity is at any given time and provides a mathematical index of the level of consciousness. For example, a waking brain has more diverse neural activity than a sleeping one, which means it has a higher state of consciousness.
When the researchers from the University of Sussex and Imperial College, London, looked at the neural signal diversity of volunteers given one of the three different psychedelic drugs, they found something surprising. The brain signal diversity was higher in those who had taken the drugs compared to a baseline of someone who is simply awake and aware, suggesting that they have a heightened sense of consciousness.
“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,’” explains Professor Anil Seth, from the University of Sussex. “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.”
This does not, the researchers point out, mean that those taking these drugs have a “better” or more advanced state of consciousness than those who are not taking it, but it does raise some interesting questions. One of these is that while all three drugs analyzed are psychedelic, all three work in different ways, which actually lends support to the fact that the results are fairly reliable.
It has been posited before that the controlled use of such substances could be used to treat conditions such as depression. It is hoped that what they have found out in this study may help inform how the drugs could be used in a medicinal context.