What LSD tells us about human nature | Marc Lewis

Our brains, with their intrinsic propensity to segregate, are designed to veer toward over-control. Psychedelics blow all that apart and we are capable of learn from them

I was in San Francisco last week, visiting my brother and revisiting the years we spend there as young men. We strolled through Golden Gate park, two guys in their sixties, admiring the giant sequoias, exotic gardens, and gold-green grasslands cascading westward to the ocean. And we reminisced about our epic acid trip back in 1969, in that very place, “when hes” primed for escapade and self-discovery.

There were four of us. We each swallowed our little purple tablets Happy landing, guys! then started strolling westwards through the park. About a half-hour afterward arrived upsurges of energy in our belly, anticipation of something huge about to happen, exhilaration and anxiety as though approaching the brink of an unknown waterfall. The park was so beautiful. Bird song was everywhere, more nuanced than Id ever noticed.

And then the world transformed. The patterns of branches, the smell of the eucalyptus, the hubbub of other people, barking dogs, twittering birds, mixed and disintegrated at the same period. My sense of I stretched, extending the boundaries of my perception like an unfurling posy. I lost track of who I was, where I was, where I stopped and the outside word began and then all that disintegrating, reconverging and reshuffling somehow collapsed into a sonorous oneness, the deafening droning of an utterly peaceful universe.

LSD was frightening, beautiful, and incomprehensible, life-changing you might tell educational with a wry grinning for the uninitiated. Not only that. Along with other psychedelic drugs it fashioned our subculture, became symbolic of a unique time and place. It was the beacon for a bunch of kids intent on discovering something true and universal underlying the political and social silliness of mainstream society, Nixon, the Vietnam war, and all the rest of it.

What we sought in LSD is what humans have always sought meaning hidden behind the transitory folly of human strives that lead nowhere. What we attempted was the enlightenment that the Buddha yearned to show us, and that for thousands of years has remained so elusive.

Was this just idealistic folly, narcotic fever? Did we have our heads up our butt, imagining ultimate beauty because we were so wholly in the dark, so expertly narcissistic, so uninspired by the challenges that our parents and figureheads wished us to face?

A group of drummers entertains protesters during the Peoples Park demonstrations in 1969, which the author attended during the course of its student days in California. Photograph: Ted Streshinsky/ Corbis

The Higgs boson of neuroscience

When I got home again, three days ago, a couple of neuroscientific experimentations had just been published in two periodicals simultaneously, claiming to show exactly what went on in the brain when people took LSD. Within two days, these findings migrated from scientific journals to newspapers and media channels around the world, including the Guardian. One of the works senior authors, David Nutt, a respected neuropharmacologist, was quoted as saying This is to neuroscience what the Higgs boson was to particle physics.

Though that might exaggerate his occurrence, we are capable of forgive Nutt his exuberance: the findings are indeed extraordinary. Healthy volunteers were injected with LSD while lying in an MRI scanner, and subjected to several other neuroimaging methods at the same day. This amounted to an arsenal of measurement that previous decades of psychedelic researchers could only dream of. It wasnt Golden Gate park to be sure, but lying in that magnetic chamber, with their eyes closed and their brains open, with streams of numbers spilling from their lobes into data files soon to be translated into images, these people watched LSDs intricate hallucinations unfold behind their eyelids. And at the same hour they reported experiences of ego dissolving very much like those we experienced in the park.

What was most remarkable about the research is that the degree of ego dissolving reported by the participants correlated with a specific neural transformation. To get through the pragmatics of day-to-day life and the demands of survival, brain activity naturally distinguishes itself into several distinct networks, each responsible for a specific cognitive function.

The three networks most closely examined by these scientists include a network for paying attention to whats most salient, a network for problem-solving, and a network for reflecting on ones own past and future. There is also a natural segregation between high-level( abstract) cognitive the regions and low-level( concrete) perceptual areas, most notably the visual cortex. These distinctions are thought to be an essential design feature of a functional human brain.

The impact of LSD was to diminish connections within each of these networks, relaxing the bonds that maintained them intact and distinct, while increasing the cross-talk among them. In other words, the normal etiquette of the brain requires segregation among networks that have different functions, and that etiquette was blown to bits.

Now most parts of the brain were communicating with most other parts of the brain. Concrete sensory experiences, like vision, intermingled with cognitive abstraction, and cognitive abstractions reshaped visual imagery. Perhaps thats what explains the intricate fractal elaboration that people see in the branches of a bush while tripping on acid. The perception of salience and refinement of a sense of ego are hashed together like potatoes and gravy. The brains and their owners no longer distinguish between what is most important, how to get stuff done, and who in fact is the arbitrator of the importance of the stuff that needs to be done.

The brains of subjects lying awake with their eyes shut, under a placebo, left, and the drug LSD, right, visualized using functional MRI. Photograph: Imperial College London-The Beckley Foundation/ Reuters

Religion v psychedelics

Some thousands of years ago, the Buddha defined human personality as the recursive cycling of habits habits of acquisition, of craving and grasping. They led to the quest pleasures that were sure to fade and the avoidance of suffering that could not be avoided in a cycle of life, ageing, and death. In reaction, his adherents chose asceticism, the practice of over-control. From the Buddhist monks who stripped themselves of consolation and the Hindu sadhus with their rites of self-mortification evolved new religions.

There went endless lists of edicts that Jews, Muslims, and Christians still impose on themselves: what one was not allowed to do, on which days, with what repercussions if one failed. Our attempts to wrest liberty from habit, universality from local custom, truth from delusion, have generally amounted to a set of rules to increase control, to partition and segregate, to style hierarchies and obey codes.

It seems that our brains, with their intrinsic propensity to parse and segregate, were well designed to veer toward over-control in response to the adversities of existence. Or, more accurately, we came by our tendency toward over-control because it manifests a key principle of brain design.

But nature provided us with a different antidote to isolation and irrelevance. LSD was created in a lab in Switzerland in the 1930 s. But other chemicals with the same psychedelic properties dwell in the flesh of cactuses throughout North America( mescaline ), mushrooms saw across much of the north hemisphere( psilocybin ), and the vines of the Amazon( DMTayahuasca ). These naturally evolved chemicals undo the locks our brains construct to keep us on the straight and narrow, seeking short-lived victories over inevitable failures.

Humans have collected, cultivated, distilled, and manufactured all kinds of drugs for thousands of years. Some of them alleviate pain and bestow consolation. Others offer the energy we sometimes need to complete our chores. And our old friend alcohol helps us relax and have fun. But the psychedelics contribute nothing to our day-to-day run. Instead, we use them to see the bigger scene, to connect with a reality that is difficult to see employing our commonly functioning brains. We are literally small-minded most of the time. And though meditation and mindfulness nudge us toward openness, acceptance, and relinquishment of our egoes, humen continue to turn to psychedelics to wake us up to the possibilities of a universal perspective.

Not all narcotics are created equal, and I would never encourage anyone to soothe their existential inconvenience with heroin or amphetamine, both of which I have taken. But psychedelics have a value I cant assistance but admire. And now we understand more about how they do what they do. A simple code unlocks the gates in our brains, gates that normally act as walls.

I hope that these discoveries dispel just enough mystery to promote us to keep exploring.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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