Psychedelics, Consciousness & Self
Can psychedelic science help us understand human consciousness and the nature of self?
Of all the ways that psychedelics are changing our understanding of mental-health and wellness, the areas I am personally most interested in and fascinated with, is how psychedelics are advancing our understanding of consciousness and the self. Studies have now linked the psychedelic experience, dissolution of the self and dissociative states with improvements in mental health, self-compassion, connections to nature, life meaning/purpose and overall wellbeing. These studies, and anyone who has experienced states of self-transcendence or self dissolution, suggest that the experience of self is far less stable than we would like to believe. The Buddhists have long held that the self — ego — is an illusion. Could it be that science will finally come to the same conclusions and understanding of self that Buddhists have known for thousands of years? The ego is an illusion, a “useful cartesian fiction”.
Anyone who has studied psychology knows who Phineas Gage is. He was a railroad working in the mid 1800’s who suffered a massive brain injury when a 3 foot long, 1 1/2" tamping bar fired through his left cheek and out the top of his head. Remarkably he survived but the massive brain injuries led to profound personality changes in Phineas. Do a Google search for him and you can see the damage to his skull and some photos of Phineas posing with the tamping iron that rammed its way through his skull and brain.
Since Phineas’s massive brain damage did not impact any major functions necessary for survival, this gave doctors the chance to learn from his unfortunate accident. This led to significant advancements in our understanding of neuroscience and the links between the human brain and mental function. Psychedelic science may now be leading us towards another paradigm shift in our understanding of human consciousness and the self. Possibly teaching us something that Buddhists have known for centuries. There is no “self”, the ego is an illusion, a “useful cartesian fiction”.
Better late than never.
“It seems, however, that we are at a similar crossroads in Western scientific thinking regarding the mind and the brain, and it would be foolish to ignore this compelling wave of research.”
“Much like the case of Phineas Gage, psychedelics (in large enough doses) can have unprecedented effects on the functioning of the human brain. However, unlike the case of Gage, the extreme effects of psychedelics on perception are reversible, as individuals that undergo a psychedelic trip will eventually return to reality. Studying this radical shift in consciousness has huge scientific potential.”
“Quintessential consequences of psychedelics, like the ineffable mystical experience, have been the focus of theoretical attention by psychologists and philosophers for centuries, yet have often escaped formal empirical study. However, with a concerted effort from research groups worldwide, the effects of psychedelics are being put under the microscope, and can bear fruit in our endeavours to answer fundamental questions about the nature of consciousness itself.”
“We know that in normal waking consciousness, egocentric personal pronouns like ‘I’ and ‘me’ cement ourselves at the center of our universes, facilitating a constant first-person narrative. However, our experience of the self is radically changed under the influence of psychedelics and it is through this lens that we may begin to understand such phenomena.”
“Entertaining the idea that the self is impermanent, even just during a short psychedelic experience, may be the spark that some people need to induce fundamental changes in their life that can have momentous effects on their mental health. Perhaps it is these insights that are central in the therapeutic potential of psychedelics?”
Lewis Healy, Evan (2020) Where Am I? Psychedelics & The Search for Self Consciousness. Medium.