Psychedelic drugs such as LSD and ketamine cause the brain to enter a “higher state of consciousness,” according to scientists. For the first time, a new study has showed the diversity of brain activity increasing as a result of taking these drugs. Scientists say the findings could lead to new treatments for mental health conditions, including depression and schizophrenia—as well as answering fundamental questions about our conscious experience.
Anil Seth, co-director of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex in southern England, is an author of the study published in Scientific Reports. He tells Newsweek: “[A higher state of consciousness] has a very specific meaning in terms of this study, and that meaning can get a little conflated with the hippy idea of a higher state of consciousness and psychedelic drugs.
“What we mean in this study is the measure of the mathematical diversity of brain activity, which, very roughly, is how unpredictable the activity of the brain is. We use this [because] this measure has previously been applied to try to track changes when people fall asleep or go under general anesthesia, which would generally be thought of as a lower state of consciousness.”
While scientists already know that diversity lowers when people are asleep, the researchers were interested in what happens when people go the other way. People in a psychedelic state are conscious and they often report experiencing things like hallucinations. “Boundaries between self and world disintegrate and things like that,” Seth explains. “We predicted that instead of a reduction in the level of diversity [as seen when you go to sleep], we’d see an increase. And that’s what we found… it’s higher on this specific scale of diversity, or unpredictability of the brain activity. This is the first example that I’m aware of where it goes in the other direction, where you see an increase in this measure.”
Scientific testing of psychedelic drugs
Scientists have investigated the potential therapeutic benefits of these drugs for many years. LSD, for example, was first synthesized by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann in 1938. Ten years later, U.S. researchers started testing its potential clinical applications and continued to do so for decades. However, as people started taking the drug recreationally in the mid-1960s, governments made the drug illegal, and restrictions on the drug largely stopped scientific testing with LSD.
In 2014, Robin Carhart-Harris became the first person in the U.K. to administer LSD to humans for research purposes for over 40 years. Studies remain relatively few due to the difficulties getting approval to use a restricted drug. In his study, published in 2016, scientists gave participants doses of LSD, ketamine and psilocybin. They then looked at the participants’ brain activity, providing the first image showing what happens to people’s brains on psychedelic drugs.
In the latest study, scientists (including Carhart-Harris) went one step further to show not only that brain activity changes, but how it does; that the brain enters this higher state of consciousness. They measured the tiny magnetic fields produced by the brain in different states to look at differences between the three drugs and normal consciousness. Their findings showed that the baseline for brain signal diversity when people were on psychedelic drugs was consistently higher than when they were in a normal waking state.
Carhart-Harris said in a statement, “People often say they experience insight under these [psychedelic] drugs—and when this occurs in a therapeutic context, it can predict positive outcomes. The present findings may help us understand how this can happen."
This doesn’t means your brain on psychedelic drugs is better: “This is not at all judgment of quality, that higher is better,” Seth explains. “[Brain activity] is different and it’s higher on this specific one dimensional scale.”
What the study does show is the state of the brain on psychedelics is distinctive and has implications for other changes in consciousness. “What we’re doing in this study is trying to understand what’s happening in the brain… and [what] may in turn have a therapeutic effect,” Seth says. “These studies of the effects of psychedelic drugs has only just really restarted after many years in the wilderness.”
Therapeutic uses and our understanding of consciousness
One avenue of research Carhart-Harris is keen to explore is how drugs like LSD and ketamine can be used to treat conditions such as depression. His previous research showed psychedelic drugs providing some significant benefits to people with depression. But currently, scientists do not understand exactly how or why this is.
“Besides the fact that it actually changes [a depressed person’s] experience of the world—it might kick them out of the ruminative tendencies and other things—we don’t know why this is happening,” Seth says. “There are clues. For instance LSD works on the same chemical system in the brain that antidepressants work—the serotonin system. We know there’s a pharmacological link, we know there’s a change in experience and we know there’s a clinical impact. But the middle bit if you like, what are these drugs doing to the global activity of the brain, that’s the gap we’re trying to fill with this study.”
Seth and his colleagues will be doing follow-up research. He plans to focus on the basis of conscious experience by using psychedelic manipulation to change the way people experience the world. This will allow researchers to better understand what happens to the brain when people are undergoing things like hallucinations.
“If we can understand the brain basis of hallucinations then we’ll understand a lot more about hallucinations—and not just about psychedelia but also in schizophrenia and other conditions,” he says. “We’ll also understand a lot more about how our visual experiences in the normal world happen. We’re hallucinating all the time, it’s just our hallucinations are usually controlled by the sensory data that we get.” Through digging into their data, Seth hopes to understand more about the basis of conscious experience.
David Nutt, a neuropsychopharmacologist fro m Imperial College London, and advocate of increased scientific testing on the effects of psychedelic drugs, commented on the study in an email to Newsweek: “This work supports the idea we have been suggesting for several years now that the psychedelic state is a scientifically important one for neuroscience. It represents a fundamentally different state of consciousness to that of normal waking consciousness and in the words of William James—one of the founders of modern brain science: ‘No account of the universe in its totality can be final that leaves these disregarded.’
“This new paper goes further and suggest that psychedelic consciousness may be a higher form of consciousness given its increased level of complexity. It is possible this is correct.”