Sofia Beatrice Malatesta
Aggiornamento: 28 mar 2021
Psychedelic means: "mind manifesting"
The Psychedelic Experience As A Path To Personal Growth
how to best steer the experience toward meaningful realizations and impactful change: prime the brain and to build learnings into your life.
Dr. Ben Sessa, a psychiatrist and psychedelic researcher at Bristol University and Imperial College, says that It offers users an opportunity for personal growth and development.
-changing jobs to pursue their passions
-finding new solutions to creative challenges
-getting up earlier each morning to do yoga
making subconscious exploration accessible
psychedelics do for psychiatry what the microscope did for biology and the telescope to astronomy. used to access on the depths of the psyche that are usually inaccessible. Psychedelic means: "mind manifesting."
were once believed to hold great promise for treating a number of medical conditions as well as providing access to profound spiritual experiences.
Dr. Ben Sessa makes a persuasive case for the re-evaluation of psychedelics — LSD, MDMA ('ecstasy'), DMT, psilocybin, ayahuasca, peyote, ibogaine, and more — as he explores their clinical potential for treating a range of conditions from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression to autism and cluster headaches.
Major figures in the psychedelic movement — from Huxley, Hofmann and Sandison to Leary, Grof and McKenna
Users of psychedelic drugs often report that their sense of being a self or ‘I’ distinct from the rest of the world has diminished or altogether dissolved. Neuroscientific study of such ‘ego dissolution’ experiences offers a window onto the nature of self-awareness.
We argue that ego dissolution is best explained by an account that explains self-awareness as resulting from the integrated functioning of hierarchical predictive models which posit the existence of a stable and unchanging entity to which representations are bound. Combining recent work on the ‘integrative self’ and the phenomenon of self- binding with predictive processing principles yields an explanation of ego dissolution according to which self- representation is a useful Cartesian fiction: an ultimately false representation of a simple and enduring substance to which attributes are bound which serves to integrate and unify cognitive processing across levels and domains. The self-model is not a mere narrative posit, as some have suggested; it has a more robust and ubiquitous cognitive function than that. But this does not mean, as others have claimed, that the self-model has the right attributes to qualify as a self. It performs some of the right kinds of functions, but it is not the right kind of entity.
Ego dissolution experiences reveal that the self-model plays an important binding function in cognitive processing, but the self does not exist.
The Architecture of Subjectivity That the SLN is activated in such a variety of conditions, ranging from basic perceptual processing to high-level metacognition, is a consequence of the way minds evolved. The mind did not evolve to range impartially over all the information available in the world and represent its causal and conceptual structure. It allocates its resources to information which is rewarding or valuable. We define salient information as that which is repre- sented as ‘potentially rewarding for the organism’. This allows for the context sensitivity and multidimensionality of salience. It also fits with the neurocomputational interpretation of the role of the mesolimbic dopamine system as a reward prediction system whose activity makes information salient by increasing gain in target circuitry. The self-model allows us to feel that the experiences result- ing from the interplay of the salience system with other (cogni- tive, emotional, and affective) systems whose activity it coordinates belong to a consistent unified entity: the self. One interesting feature of ego dissolution is that it produces highly salient experiences (they have the ‘dopamine halo’) unmoored from normal affective responses and the sense that they are happening to the self. Our hypothesis is that this is because the self-model is no longer smoothly integrating these experiences by attributing them to the same entity. A consistent finding in the case of self-referential processing is activity in a network of midline structures whose hubs are in- volved in emotion, motivation, salience, and the switching of attention between neutral/external and self-relevant informa- tion (Qin and Northoff 2011). These structures are less active when attention is focused ‘outward’ so to speak on the percep- tual environment or on problem solving with an impersonal as- pect. It seems clear that stable, context-sensitive activity in this midline-centred network is an essential aspect of cognitive function. Organisms need to be able to allocate cognitive re- sources appropriately according to whether the context requires accurate representation of the world (concrete or abstract) or the significance of the world to their goals and interests. The cortical midline structures repeatedly implicated in self- reference divide into two distinct, large-scale functional net- works. The SLN, which we have been discussing, is centred on key hub regions such as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), im- plicated in error detection and task switching, and the anterior insular cortex (AIC), implicated in interoceptive processing and conscious emotional feelings (Seth 2013). Meanwhile, the much-discussed default mode network (DMN) is centred on key hub regions such as the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), 3 By egocentric systems here we merely mean those cognitive systems that use an egocentric reference point (bodily, per- ceptual, narrative) to produce their representations. Contrast these with allocentric or decontextualized repre- sentational systems which for example represent relations that hold between entities irrespective of subjective perspective. posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), and inferior parietal lobule (IPL; Davey et al. 2016). The DMN was originally identified in neuroimaging studies of the resting brain (Raichle et al. 2001). It has since been found to be activated by many self-referential tasks, including ‘prospection’ or ‘mental time travel’—the autobiographical sim- ulation of past and future experience—and theory of mind (Spreng and Grady 2010). Of course, mind-wandering in task- free conditions often concerns self-referential themes. The pio- neering studies of Damasio, and much subsequent research, support the view that the MPFC is centrally involved in the attri- bution of personal relevance to (that is to say, the egocentric evaluation of) actual or simulated autobiographical episodes (D’Argembeau 2013). In relation to the different levels of self- modelling, the DMN is implicated in higher-level, narrative self- representation, as opposed to the more minimal embodied form of self-awareness supported by the SLN. The PCC is a functionally enigmatic region with considerably higher metabolic activity and structural connectivity than most brain areas, leading some to describe it as the ‘core node of the DMN’ (Davey et al. 2016, 390). In their analysis aimed at delineat- ing the substrates of self-reference within the DMN, Davey et al. found that the optimal model was one in which ‘self-related processes were driven by PCC activity and moderated by the regulatory influences of MPFC.’ Activity in the left IPL, which is known to play a role in the retrieval of semantic information, was also part of the core self-reference network identified by this analysis. Many intriguing findings support a key role for the PCC in self-reference. Neurofeedback studies of meditators suggest that PCC activity co-varies not with mind wandering as such, but with the experience of becoming ‘caught up’ in a train of thought. Brewer proposes that the PCC is involved in getting ‘caught up in experience’, whether it be a particularly compel- ling rumination or a drug craving—and numerous results find meditation downregulating PCC activity (Brewer et al. 2013; Brewer and Garrison 2014). Experimental results implicate the PCC in processes such as integrating information about spatial self-location and body ownership (Guterstam et al. 2015). According to one recent model, the PCC is a key hub involved in ‘tuning’ the connectivity of many other brain networks, regulat- ing the balance between internal and external attention, as well as the breadth of attention (Leech and Sharp 2014). These obser- vations about PCC function cohere with findings from psyche- delic neuroscience which we will discuss below. First, however, we turn to the generic function of ‘self-binding’ which seems to be implemented by these self-processing networks. Self-binding The concept of self-binding comes from the work of Sui and Humphreys (2015) who proposed it to explain why cognition across domains and levels is enhanced for self-relevant information. Subjects asked to classify words on the basis of self- relatedness or meaning remember more self-related words, and moreover remember more episodic details surrounding the learning of those words, suggesting enhanced mnemonic bind- ing. Meanwhile, in face processing studies, subjects are quicker to recognize their own face than friends’ or strangers’ faces, whether upright or inverted. Friends’ faces also have an advan- tage over strangers’, but only in the upright condition, suggest- ing that self-reference confers a unique Gestalt or integrative advantage. (Other results militate against an explanation of this effect in terms of mere familiarity.)
Psychedelic Ego Dissolution ‘Classic’ (serotonin 2a receptor agonist) psychedelics such as mescaline, psilocybin, and dimethyltryptamine (DMT, a key constituent in the South American beverage ayahuasca) have a long history of religious, spiritual, and medicinal use in various cultures (Sessa 2012). Serious scientific interest in these sub- stances was sparked by the accidental discovery in the 1940s of the extremely potent psychoactive effects of lysergic acid dieth- ylamide (LSD). During the 1950s and 1960s, psychedelics were studied intensively as models of psychotic and mystical states, as psychotherapeutic agents, and as instruments for mapping the varieties of human consciousness (Osmond 1957). However, uncontrolled use of the drugs in the context of the hippie coun- terculture led to socio-political controversy, culminating in the virtual cessation of human psychedelic research for some decades. Since the early 1990s this research has been slowly but steadily resuming, with greater methodological rigour and aided by the many new technical and theoretical innovations in the mind and brain sciences. Several small studies have re- vealed preliminary evidence for the safety and therapeutic effi- cacy of carefully controlled psychedelic administration (Griffiths et al. 2016; Ross et al. 2016; dos Santos et al. 2016a). Meanwhile, neuroimaging investigations have begun to identify neural correlates of the changes in cognition and consciousness caused by psychedelics (dos Santos et al. 2016b). The remarkable variability and alleged ineffability of psyche- delic experiences pose barriers to describing these states. But some progress has been made on charting the phenomenology of the ‘antipodes of the mind’ (Huxley 1954; Masters and Houston 1966; Shanon 2002). Psychedelics alter many aspects of experience: sense perception, emotion, cognition, and the ap- prehension of time and space. But of all their effects, perhaps none is more provocative than the profound alteration to the or- dinary sense of self or ego known as ‘ego dissolution’. The countercultural icon Alan Watts, responsible for popularizing both Eastern religion and psychedelics in the 1960s, wrote: ‘there are certain types of change which are usual enough to be considered characteristic of psychedelics: the sense of slowed or arrested time, and the alteration of “ego boundary”—that is, of the sensation of one’s own identity’ (1964). Psychedelic sub- jects often report that their sense of being a self, or ‘I’, distinct from the rest of the world ‘out there’, is weakened, altered, or abolished during the intoxication. Ego dissolution experiences often occur in the context of mystical states in which the ordinary sense of self is replaced by a sense of union with an ultimate reality underlying all of manifest existence—the famous ‘cosmic consciousness’ experi- ence. Shanon describes the content of this apparent metaphysi- cal realization as ‘idealistic monism with pantheistic overtones’ (2002, 163). The propensity of psychedelics to occasion such ex- periences goes some way to explaining their history of religious use. Indeed, intellectuals such as Watts and Aldous Huxley were initially drawn to psychedelics due to a prior interest in mysticism. With respect to ego dissolution, it is worth noting that apprehending the non-existence of the individual self is a central goal of Buddhist meditation (Albahari 2014). There is evi- dence that mystical states are important for the therapeutic ef- fects of psychedelics (Garcia-Romeu et al. 2016) so explaining the ego dissolution experience is a crucial step in theorizing the mechanisms of psychedelic treatment. Early theoretical speculations about psychedelic ego dissolu- tion strikingly anticipated the key ideas we will develop in the rest of the paper. Savage (1955) and Klee (1963) both suggest ex- planations of ego dissolution in terms of failures of mecha- nisms of cognitive integration, and view these compromised perceptual (particularly interoceptive) integrative mechanisms as the basis of the self-model: ‘Lacking a reliable inflow (or inte- gration) of stimuli, particularly from his body, the subject has lost much of the basis for his self-percept’ (ibid., 465). Both au- thors also liberally refer to the breakdown of cognitive processes of expectation (cf. prediction) in explaining psychedelic ego dis- solution. These early speculations sit very comfortably with currently influential theoretical frameworks in cognitive neuro- science, and suggest a bidirectional, mutually reinforcing rela- tionship between self-representation and cognitive integration. Another important point is that ego dissolution is not an all- or-nothing affair. Different aspects of self-awareness may be more or less disrupted in different ways on psychedelics. Various authors have suggested that some vestiges of self- awareness are preserved in most, if not all, psychedelic experi- ences (Pahnke 1969; Shanon 2002), which helps explain the puz- zling fact that autobiographical memories can apparently be formed of these putatively selfless episodes (Metzinger 2005). Moreover, there are aspects of psychedelic phenomenology which may not be explicitly described as ego dissolution but are still readily explained by our account. Subjects often find their attention drawn to stimuli which they normally would not no- tice; as Watts puts it, psychedelics ‘make the spotlight of con- sciousness a floodlight which... brings to light unsuspected details—details normally ignored because of their lack of signif- icance’ (2002). Attention is no longer guided exclusively by adaptive and egocentric goals and agendas; salience attribution is no longer bound to personal concern. Subjects often become less defensive and better able to view their own thoughts and feelings dispassionately—one main ra- tionale for early therapeutic use of these drugs (Eisner and Cohen 1958). It is worth pointing out that subjects are not con- fused about their bodily or cognitive boundaries here; they know they are having the experience. Rather it seems as if the experiences, although intense and fascinating, are no longer au- tomatically attributed to an entity. A very common experience is to see one’s own dysfunctional emotional or behavioural pat- terns, and the possibility of alternatives, with striking clarity (Shanon 2002, 162–3). There is a tendency towards decentring and the objectification of self-related phenomena which ordi- narily are taken very personally and evoke strong emotional re- activity (Soler et al. 2016). All of this suggests that, even when the ego is not felt to dissolve altogether, the contents of con- sciousness are less filtered through considerations of self- relevance than is usual. Various cognitive processes which are usually tightly coupled to self-representation become decoupled from it. Psychedelic experiences which lead subjects to strongly en- dorse descriptions of ‘ego dissolution’ tend to feature dramatic changes, such as the weakening of bodily boundaries or the loss of the sense of ownership for thoughts and actions. The account we will propose suggests that such paradigmatic ego dissolution experiences are on a continuum with, and susceptible to the same kind of explanation as, less dramatic experiences which may not be described as ‘ego dissolution’ (cf. Letheby 2017). These phenomena all result from disruption to predictive self- binding processes; the differences depend on which specific as- pects of the self-model are compromised, and to what extent.
Conclusion Dennett (1992) famously argued that the self is a ‘centre of nar- rative gravity’ akin to the centre of gravity of an object: an ab- straction, but no less real or predictively useful for that. On the predictive coding construal of the integrative self, the self- model functions as a centre of representational gravity—not just in narrative processes but also in lower-level affective, bod- ily, and spatial processes. It is a representation of the 0point0 around which everything else revolves. But crucially, it is not a representation as of a mere point, but as of a particular. This is why we reject Dennett’s metaphysics of selfhood, as well as Hohwy and Michael’s claim that the self-model has enough of the right attributes to qualify as a self. If our conjectures are right, the content of the self-model is Cartesian: it is of a substance or an entity which has the proper- ties and experiences. And here we agree with Metzinger that there ‘is just no entity there, no individual substance, and scien- tifically we can predict and explain everything we want to pre- dict and explain in a much more parsimonious way’ (quoted in Marshall 2016). Thus, our view is structurally analogous to Mackie’s (1977) error theory of morality, conjoining the psycho- semantic claim that the self-representation is as of a Cartesian substance with the ontological claim that no such substance ex- ists. It is also substantially similar to Metzinger’s views about the self-model, developed in the context of a specific case and a mechanistic proposal (self-binding on predictive processing principles) about how the model performs its adaptive func- tions for the organism. All of this fits smoothly with the idea that the DMN and SLN implement narrative and embodied aspects of self-representa- tion, respectively. The self-representation as we conceive it serves as an organizing principle at different levels and in dif- ferent domains of processing. Perceptual representations are or- ganized in an egocentric space; interoceptive representations are interpreted as signals of adaptively relevant events or ‘core relational themes’ (Prinz 2004); and narratives are structured around the fortunes and prospects of a protagonist. At all levels, salience is attributed, attention directed, and information inte- grated in accordance with the relevance of information to the organism’s goals. As James Kingsland (2016, 209) puts it, ‘we have evolved into an ape that takes things personally’.