However, it’s not exactly better, and it’s probably not the kind of expanded consciousness you’d want.

Brain activity with (left to right) psilocybin, ketamine and LSD. The red areas indicate higher levels of random brain activity than normal. Image credits: Suresh Muthukumaraswamy.

The stigma that hallucinogenic drugs carry has somewhat faded in recent years and as a result, we’ve been seeing more and more studies conducted on such drugs. It is believed that studying drugs like LSD could help us not only find new ways to tackle conditions such as PTSD and depression, but also enable us to design better drugs overall. For now, however, researchers at the Sussex University in the UK just wanted to see what effect these drugs have on our brain.

Healthy volunteers were given doses of LSD, ketamine, or psilocybin, a compound found in magic mushrooms, after which their brain was monitored to see what happened (which must have been a pretty trippy experience in itself). Researchers report that all the drugs were found to increase the magnetic fields of the brain. The subjects’ brains had more overall activity, but it wasn’t exactly the activity you’d want: it was all random.

“What we find is that under each of these psychedelic compounds, this specific measure of global conscious level goes up, so it moves in the other direction. The neural activity becomes more unpredictable,” said Anil Seth, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Sussex. “Until now, we’ve only ever seen decreases compared to the baseline of the normal waking state.”

Previous anecdotal evidence has highlighted that these drugs appear to “broaden” the scope of conscious contents, vivifying imagination and altering cognition itself. This shift in brain activity is manifested through a host of peculiar sensations, and participants tended to report similar things (retrospectively, after the experiment had ended). For all three experiments, participants reported some similar experiences:

  • strange: “Things looked strange”.
  • geom: “I saw geometric patterns”.
  • vivid: “My imagination was extremely vivid”.
  • time: “My perception of time was distorted”.
  • space: “My sense of size and space was distorted”.
  • ego: “I experienced a disintegration of my ‘self’ or ‘ego’”.
  • muddle: “My thinking was muddled”.
  • merge: “I experienced a sense of merging with my surroundings”.
  • control: “I feared losing control of my mind”.
  • spirit: “The experience had a spiritual or mystical quality”.
  • peace: “I felt a profound inner peace”.
  • float: “I felt like I was floating”.
  • past: “I saw events from my past”.
  • sounds: “Sounds influenced things I saw”.

Beyond confirming what scores of drug-takers can tell you, scientists have a better idea of how this expanded consciousness manifests itself, and they even devised a mathematical model to characterize it.

“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’.  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.”

However, they stress that there is nothing mystical about this experience. They want to demystify hallucinogenic drugs and show that it can all be explained by studying its physiological and biological underpinnings.

It’s also interesting to note that although ketamine, LSD, and psilocybin have different pharmaceutical mechanisms of action, a clear similarity in the cortical localization of changes in signal diversity was reported. The study concludes:

“Our findings of reliable changes in signal diversity in the psychedelic state suggest that further research could usefully consider less common alterations of consciousness, for example manic, dreamlike, delirious conditions. In these conditions, as in the psychedelic state, conscious scenes may be “richer”, or more “expansive” or “diverse” than normal.”

Journal Reference: Michael M. Schartner, Robin L. Carhart-Harris, Adam B. Barrett, Anil K. Seth & Suresh D. Muthukumaraswamy — Increased spontaneous MEG signal diversity for psychoactive doses of ketamine, LSD and psilocybindoi:10.1038/srep46421

Enjoyed this article? Join 40,000+ subscribers to the ZME Science newsletter. Subscribe now!

Like us on Facebook

Your opinion matters -- voice it in the comments below!