How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence
“Mysticism,” he likes to say, “is the antidote to fundamentalism.”
“negative capability,” the ability to exist amid uncertainties, mysteries, and doubt without reaching for absolutes,
“The Johns Hopkins experiment shows—proves—that under controlled, experimental conditions, psilocybin can occasion genuine mystical experiences. It uses science, which modernity trusts, to undermine modernity’s secularism. In doing so, it offers hope of nothing less than a re-sacralization of the natural and social world, a spiritual revival that is our best defense against not only soullessness, but against religious fanaticism. And it does so in the very teeth of the unscientific prejudices built into our current drug laws.”
The true method of knowledge is experiment.”
Stephen Ross is one such researcher. A psychiatrist specializing in addiction at Bellevue, he directed an NYU trial using psilocybin to treat the existential distress of cancer patients, to which I will return later; since then, he has turned to the treatment of alcoholics with psychedelics, what had been perhaps the single most promising area of clinical research in the 1950s.
by the end of the decade, LSD was widely regarded in North America as a miracle cure for alcohol addiction.
He credited his own sobriety to a mystical experience he had on belladonna, a plant-derived alkaloid with hallucinogenic properties that was administered to him at Towns Hospital in Manhattan in 1934.
Few members of AA realize that the whole idea of a spiritual awakening leading one to surrender to a “higher power”—a cornerstone of Alcoholics Anonymous—can be traced to a psychedelic drug trip.
Bill W.’s sessions with Cohen and Eisner convinced him that LSD could reliably occasion the kind of spiritual awakening he believed one needed in order to get sober; however, he did not believe the LSD experience was anything like the DTs, thus driving another nail in the coffin of that idea.
Bill W. thought there might be a place for LSD therapy in AA, but his colleagues on the board of the fellowship strongly disagreed, believing that to condone the use of any mind-altering substance risked muddying the organization’s brand and message.
Huxley also believed that at the base of all the world’s religions there lies a common core of mystical experience he called “the Perennial Philosophy.”
One person’s “depersonalization” could be another’s “sense of oneness”; it was all a matter of perspective and vocabulary.
“People will think they are going mad, when in fact they are beginning, when they take it, to go sane.”
(Perhaps Leary’s most endearing character trait was never to take himself too seriously—even as a guru.)
(It is one of the many paradoxes of psychedelics that these drugs can sponsor an ego-dissolving experience that in some people quickly leads to massive ego inflation. Having been let in on a great secret of the universe, the recipient of this knowledge is bound to feel special, chosen for great things.)
But the “personality” of the drug may have as much to do with the collapse of such distinctions as the personalities of people like Timothy Leary or the flaws in their research.
What doomed the first wave of psychedelic research was an irrational exuberance about its potential that was nourished by the drugs themselves—that, and the fact that these chemicals are what today we would call disruptive technologies.
It’s often said that a political scandal is what happens when someone in power inadvertently speaks the truth.
It was one thing to use these drugs to treat the ill and maladjusted—society will indulge any effort to help the wayward individual conform to its norms—but it is quite another to use them to treat society itself as if it were sick and to turn the ostensibly healthy into wayward individuals.
these powerful medicines can be dangerous—both to the individual and to the society—when they don’t have a sturdy social container: a steadying set of rituals and rules—protocols—governing their use, and the crucial involvement of a guide, the figure that is usually called a shaman.
think, the great lesson of the 1960s experiment with psychedelics: the importance of finding the proper context, or container, for these powerful chemicals and experiences.
Normally, rites of passage help knit societies together as the young cross over hurdles and through gates erected and maintained by their elders, coming out on the other side to take their place in the community of adults. Not so with the psychedelic journey in the 1960s, which at its conclusion dropped its young travelers onto a psychic landscape unrecognizable to their parents.
R. D. Laing once said there are three things human beings are afraid of: death, other people, and their own minds.
So what appeared to me as a bunch of conflicting symbols of divinity are in fact different means of expressing or interpreting the same underlying spiritual reality, “the perennial philosophy” that Aldous Huxley held to undergird all religions and to which psychedelics supposedly can offer direct access.
You need a strong ego in order to let go of it and then be able to spring back to your boundaries.”
His otherworldly experiences had humbled him, opening him up to possibilities and mysteries without closing him to skepticism—or to the pleasures of everyday life on this earth.
A psychedelic is liable to take all the boxes off the shelf, open and remove even the most familiar items, turning them over and imaginatively scrubbing them until they shine once again with the light of first sight.
The reawakening of her spiritual life led her onto the path of Tibetan Buddhism and eventually to take the vow of an initiate: “‘To assist all sentient beings in their awakening and their enlightenment.’ Which is still my vocation.”
Where that self had always been a subject encapsulated in this body, this one seemed unbounded by any body, even though I now had access to its perspective.
I was present to reality but as something other than my self. And although there was no self left to feel, exactly, there was a feeling tone, which was calm, unburdened, content. There was life after the death of the ego. This was big news.
Yet this by itself strikes me as a remarkable gift: that we can let go of so much—the desires, fears, and defenses of a lifetime!—without suffering complete annihilation. This might not come as a surprise to Buddhists, transcendentalists, or experienced meditators, but it was sure news to me, who has never felt anything but identical to my ego.
Mary suggested that having had a taste of a different, less defended way to be, I might learn, through practice, to relax the ego’s trigger-happy command of my reactions to people and events. “Now you have had an experience of another way to react—or not react. That can be cultivated.” Meditation, she suggested, was one way to do that.
Temporarily freed from the tyranny of the ego, with its maddeningly reflexive reactions and its pinched conception of one’s self-interest, we get to experience an extreme version of Keats’s “negative capability”—the ability to exist amid doubts and mysteries without reflexively reaching for certainty.
I asked her the question that gnawed at me whenever someone recounted such a mystical experience: “How can you be sure this was a genuine spiritual event and not just a drug experience?” “It’s an irrelevant question,” she replied coolly. “This was something being revealed to me.” There it was: the noetic sense William James had described as a mark of the mystical experience. I envied Olivia’s certainty. Which I suppose is the reason I decided I would smoke the toad.
A true connoisseur of being would never dream of making resolutions! I had tied myself up in a philosophical knot, constructed a paradox or koan I was clearly not smart enough or sufficiently enlightened to untangle. And so what had begun as one of the most shattering experiences of my life ended half an hour later with a wan smile.
For me, “spiritual” is a good name for some of the powerful mental phenomena that arise when the voice of the ego is muted or silenced.
The journeys have shown me what the Buddhists try to tell us but I have never really understood: that there is much more to consciousness than the ego, as we would see if it would just shut up. And that its dissolution (or transcendence) is nothing to fear; in fact, it is a prerequisite for making any spiritual progress.
So perhaps spiritual experience is simply what happens in the space that opens up in the mind when “all mean egotism vanishes.”
The gulf between self and world, that no-man’s-land which in ordinary hours the ego so vigilantly patrols, closes down, allowing us to feel less separate and more connected, “part and particle” of some larger entity. Whether we call that entity Nature, the Mind at Large, or God hardly matters. But it seems to be in the crucible of that merging that death loses some of its sting.
Actually, there were three different molecules in question—psilocin, LSD, and 5-MeO-DMT—but even a casual glance at their structures (and I say this as someone who earned a D in high school chemistry) indicates a resemblance. All three molecules are tryptamines.
A tryptamine is a type of organic compound (an indole, to be exact) distinguished by the presence of two linked rings, one of them with six atoms and the other with five.
The most famous tryptamine in the human body is the neurotransmitter serotonin, the chemical name of which is 5-hydroxytryptamine.
Some scientists have raised the possibility that consciousness may pervade the universe, suggesting we think of it the same way we do electromagnetism or gravity, as one of the fundamental building blocks of reality.
Realms of the Human Unconscious by Stanislav Grof.
“Freud said dreams were the royal road to the unconscious,” he reminded me. “Psychedelics could turn out to be the superhighway.”
He had concluded from his research, and would tell anyone who asked, that alcohol was more dangerous than cannabis and that using Ecstasy was safer than riding a horse.
As mentioned, the default mode network appears to play a role in the creation of mental constructs or projections, the most important of which is the construct we call the self, or ego.* This is why some neuroscientists call it “the me network.”
Judson Brewer, a researcher at Yale* who was using fMRI to study the brains of experienced meditators, noticed that his scans and Robin’s looked remarkably alike. The transcendence of self reported by expert meditators showed up on fMRIs as a quieting of the default mode network. It appears that when activity in the default mode network falls off precipitously, the ego temporarily vanishes, and the usual boundaries we experience between self and world, subject and object, all melt away.
This sense of merging into some larger totality is of course one of the hallmarks of the mystical experience; our sense of individuality and separateness hinges on a bounded self and a clear demarcation between subject and object.
The psychedelic experience of “non-duality” suggests that consciousness survives the disappearance of the self, that it is not so indispensable as we—and it—like to think.
The mystical experience may just be what it feels like when you deactivate the brain’s default mode network.
As a psychonaut acquaintance put it to me, “If it were possible to temporarily experience another person’s mental state, my guess is that it would feel more like a psychedelic state than a ‘normal’ state, because of its massive disparity with whatever mental state is habitual with you.”
Another trippy thought experiment is to try to imagine the world as it appears to a creature with an entirely different sensory apparatus and way of life. You quickly realize there is no single reality out there waiting to be faithfully and comprehensively transcribed.
The sheer complexity of the human brain and the greater number of different mental states in its repertoire (as compared with other animals) make the maintenance of order a top priority, lest the system descend into chaos.
Along with the default mode network, “a coherent sense of self or ‘ego’ emerges” and, with that, the human capacity for self-reflection and reason.
At the high-entropy end of the spectrum, he lists psychedelic states; infant consciousness; early psychosis; magical thinking; and divergent or creative thinking. At the low-entropy end of the spectrum, he lists narrow or rigid thinking; addiction; obsessive-compulsive disorder; depression; anesthesia; and, finally, coma.
When the grooves of self-reflective thinking deepen and harden, the ego becomes overbearing. This is perhaps most clearly evident in depression, when the ego turns on itself and uncontrollable introspection gradually shades out reality.
“Psychedelics alter consciousness by disorganizing brain activity,” Carhart-Harris writes. They increase the amount of entropy in the brain, with the result that the system reverts to a less constrained mode of cognition.*
In his view, the forms of consciousness that psychedelics unleash are regressions to a “more primitive” mode of cognition. With Freud, he believes that the loss of self, and the sense of oneness, characteristic of the mystical experience—whether occasioned by chemistry or religion—return us to the psychological condition of the infant on its mother’s breast, a stage when it has yet to develop a sense of itself as a separate and bounded individual.
While he holds with Aldous Huxley that psychedelics throw open the doors of perception, he does not agree that everything that comes through that opening—including the “Mind at Large” that Huxley glimpsed—is necessarily real. “The psychedelic experience can yield a lot of fool’s gold,” he told me.
Too much entropy in the human brain may lead to atavistic thinking and, at the far end, madness, yet too little can cripple us as well.
When the influence of the DMN declines, so does our sense of separateness from our environment.
“Distinct networks became less distinct under the drug,” Carhart-Harris and his colleagues wrote, “implying that they communicate more openly,” with other brain networks. “The brain operates with greater flexibility and interconnectedness under hallucinogens.”
The brain appears to become less specialized and more globally interconnected, with considerably more intercourse, or “cross talk,” among its various neighborhoods.
When the memory and emotion centers are allowed to communicate directly with the visual processing centers, it’s possible our wishes and fears, prejudices and emotions, begin to inform what we see—a hallmark of primary consciousness and a recipe for magical thinking.
The increase in entropy allows a thousand mental states to bloom, many of them bizarre and senseless, but some number of them revelatory, imaginative, and, at least potentially, transformative.
If problem solving is anything like evolutionary adaptation, the more possibilities the mind has at its disposal, the more creative its solutions will be.
entropy in the brain is a bit like variation in evolution: it supplies the diversity of raw materials on which selection can then operate to solve problems and bring novelty into the world.
Robin Carhart-Harris’s paper got me wondering if, at least for the mind, aging is really a process of declining entropy, the fading over time of what we should regard as a positive attribute of mental life.
A flattering term for this regime of good enough predictions is “wisdom.”
Judson Brewer, the neuroscientist who studies meditation, has found that a felt sense of expansion in consciousness correlates with a drop in activity in one particular node of the default mode network—the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), which is associated with self-referential processing.
To borrow Judson Brewer’s terms, lantern consciousness is expansive, spotlight consciousness narrow, or contracted.
“We have the longest childhood of any species,” Gopnik says. “This extended period of learning and exploration is what’s distinctive about us. I think of childhood as the R&D stage of the species, concerned exclusively with learning and exploring. We adults are production and marketing.”
drop a tab of LSD. Gopnik told me she has been struck by the similarities between the phenomenology of the LSD experience and her understanding of the consciousness of children: hotter searches, diffused attention, more mental noise (or entropy), magical thinking, and little sense of a self that is continuous over time.
“The short summary is, babies and children are basically tripping all the time.”
There are almost forty-three thousand suicides every year in America (more than the number of deaths from either breast cancer or auto accidents), yet only about half of the people who take their lives have ever received mental health treatment. “Broken” does not seem too harsh a characterization of such a system.
“Xanax isn’t the answer.” If there is an answer, Bossis believes, it is going to be more spiritual in nature than pharmacological.
“Trust and let go” as a kind of mantra for his journey. Go wherever it takes you, he advised: “Climb staircases, open doors, explore paths, fly over landscapes.” But the most important advice for the journey he offered is always to move toward, rather than try to flee, anything truly threatening or monstrous you encounter—look it straight in the eyes. “Dig in your heels and ask, ‘What are you doing in my mind?’ Or, ‘What can I learn from you?’”
“From here on, love was the only consideration . . . It was and is the only purpose. Love seemed to emanate from a single point of light . . . and it vibrated . . . I could feel my physical body trying to vibrate in unity with the cosmos
I’ve had no earthly pleasure that’s ever come close to this feeling . . . no sensation, no image of beauty, nothing during my time on earth has felt as pure and joyful and glorious as the height of this journey.”
“Never had an orgasm of the soul before.”
“I was learning a song and the song was simple . . . it was one note . . . C . . . it was the vibration of the universe . . . a collection of everything that ever existed . . . all together equaling God.”
“A high-dose psychedelic experience is death practice,”
“You’re losing everything you know to be real, letting go of your ego and your body, and that process can feel like dying.”
Patrick interpreted his journey as “pretty clearly a window . . . [on] a kind of afterlife, something beyond this physical body.” He spoke of “the plane of existence of love” as “infinite.”
William James, who suggested we judge the mystical experience not by its veracity, which is unknowable, but by “its fruits”: Does it turn someone’s life in a positive direction?
Science is being used to validate an experience that would appear to undermine the scientific perspective in what might be called White-Coat Shamanism.
what about the miracle that we are conscious? Just think about that for a second, that we are aware and that we are aware that we are aware!
when the default mode network disintegrates (taking with it the sense of self), the brain’s overall connectivity increases, allowing brain regions that don’t ordinarily communicate to form new lines of connection.
To situate the self in a larger context of meaning, whatever it is—a sense of oneness with nature or universal love—can make extinction of the self somewhat easier to contemplate.
Bertrand Russell wrote that the best way to overcome one’s fear of death “is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life.”
An individual human existence should be like a river: small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually, the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being.
He had a sense of patience he had never had before, and with me he had real joy about things. It was as if he had been relieved of the duty of caring about the details of life, and he could let all that go. Now it was about being with people, enjoying his sandwich and the walk on the promenade. It was as if we lived a lifetime in a year.”
Edgar Mitchell, returning from the moon on Apollo 14, had what he has described as a mystical experience, specifically a savikalpa samadhi, in which the ego vanishes when confronted with the immensity of the universe during the course of a meditation on an object—in this case, planet Earth.
It sounded as though the psychedelic experience had given many of them an overview effect on the scenes of their own lives, making possible a shift in worldview and priorities that allowed them to let go of old habits, sometimes with remarkable ease.
“Instead of being so narrowly focused, moving through this little tunnel of adult life,” she found that the journey “returned me to the child’s wider sense of wonder—to the world of Wordsworth. A part of my brain that had gone to sleep was awakened.
“The universe was so great and there were so many things you could do and see in it that killing yourself seemed like a dumb idea. It put smoking in a whole new context. Smoking seemed very unimportant; it seemed kind of stupid, to be honest.”
And the most important thing of all is the breath. When that stops, you’re dead.” She emerged from her journey with the conviction “that you should cherish your breath.”
He speaks of “our addiction to a pattern of thinking with the self at the center of it.” This underlying addiction to a pattern of thinking, or cognitive style, links the addict to the depressive and to the cancer patient obsessed with death or recurrence.
“So much of human suffering stems from having this self that needs to be psychologically defended at all costs. We’re trapped in a story that sees ourselves as independent, isolated agents acting in the world. But that self is an illusion. It can be a useful illusion, when you’re swinging through the trees or escaping from a cheetah or trying to do your taxes. But at the systems level, there is no truth to it.
Wherever you look, you see that the level of interconnectedness is truly amazing, and yet we insist on thinking of ourselves as individual agents.”
Albert Einstein called the modern human’s sense of separateness “a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.”*
“significant beneficial effect on alcohol misuse” from a single dose of LSD, an effect that lasted up to six months. “Given the evidence for a beneficial effect of LSD on alcoholism,” the authors concluded, “it is puzzling why this treatment has been largely overlooked.”
“Alcoholism can be understood as a spiritual disorder,” Ross told me the first time we met, in the treatment room at NYU. “Over time you lose your connection to everything but this compound. Life loses all meaning. At the end, nothing is more important than that bottle, not even your wife and your kids. Eventually, there is nothing you won’t sacrifice for it.”
The rat park experiments lend support to the idea that the propensity to addiction might have less to do with genes or chemistry than with one’s personal history and environment.
Addiction is, among other things, a radical form of selfishness. One of the challenges of treating the addict is getting him to broaden his perspective beyond a consuming self-interest in his addiction, the behavior that has come to define his identity and organize his days.
“Keltner believes that awe is a fundamental human emotion, one that evolved in us because it promotes altruistic behavior. We are descendants of those who found the experience of awe blissful, because it’s advantageous for the species to have an emotion that makes us feel part of something much larger than ourselves.”
This larger entity could be the social collective, nature as a whole, or a spirit world, but it is something sufficiently overpowering to dwarf us and our narrow self-interest.
“Awe promotes a sense of the ‘small self’ that directs our attention away from the individual to the group and the greater good.”
“Very often they come to recognize the harm they’re doing not only to themselves but to loved ones. That’s where the motivation to change often comes from—a renewed sense of connection and responsibility, as well as the positive feeling of being a small self in the presence of something greater.”
“I would look at people on the street and think, ‘How interesting we are’—I felt connected to them all.”
Watts hypothesizes that the depressed patient’s incessant rumination constricts his or her emotional repertoire. In other cases, the depressive keeps emotions at bay because it is too painful to experience them.
“putting the plaster over the wound doesn’t heal anything.”
You don’t cherry-pick happiness and enjoyment, the so-called good emotions; it was okay to have negative thoughts. That’s life. For me, trying to resist emotions just amplified them.
Once I was in this state, it was beautiful—a feeling of deep contentment. I had this overwhelming feeling—it wasn’t even a thought—that everything and everyone needs to be approached with love, including myself.”
“Depression is a response to past loss, and anxiety is a response to future loss.” Both reflect a mind mired in rumination, one dwelling on the past, the other worrying about the future. What mainly distinguishes the two disorders is their tense.
happy brain is a supple and flexible brain, he believes; depression, anxiety, obsession, and the cravings of addiction are how it feels to have a brain that has become excessively rigid or fixed in its pathways and linkages—a brain with more order than is good for it.
So many of the volunteers I spoke to, whether among the dying, the addicted, or the depressed, described feeling mentally “stuck,” captured in ruminative loops they felt powerless to break. They talked about “prisons of the self,” spirals of obsessive introspection that wall them off from other people, nature, their earlier selves, and the present moment.
All these thoughts and feelings may be the products of an overactive default mode network, that tightly linked set of brain structures implicated in rumination, self-referential thought, and metacognition—thinking about thinking.
The default mode network appears to be the seat not only of the ego, or self, but of the mental faculty of time travel as well. The two are of course closely related: without the ability to remember our past and imagine a future, the notion of a coherent self could hardly be said to exist; we define ourselves with reference to our personal history and future objectives.
(As meditators eventually discover, if we can manage to stop thinking about the past or future and sink into the present, the self seems to disappear.)
But when time travel turns obsessive, it fosters the backward-looking gaze of depression and the forward pitch of anxiety. Addiction, too, seems to involve uncontrollable time travel. The addict uses his habit to organize time: When was the last hit, and when can I get the next?
As Brewer explains it, activity in the PCC is correlated not so much with our thoughts and feelings as with “how we relate to our thoughts and feelings.” It is where we get “caught up in the push and pull of our experience.”
Buddhists believe that attachment is at the root of all forms of mental suffering; if the neuroscience is right, a lot of these attachments have their mooring in the PCC, where they are nurtured and sustained.
Achieving such a detachment from our thoughts, feelings, and desires is what Buddhism (along with several other wisdom traditions) teaches is the surest path out of human suffering.
Insel spoke of how poorly the record of mental health care stacks up against the achievements of the rest of medicine.
“A spiritual experience does not by itself make a spiritual life.” Integration is essential to making sense of the experience, whether in or out of the medical context. Or else it remains just a drug experience.
“That was a very different time. People wouldn’t even talk about cancer or death then. Women were tranquilized to give birth; men weren’t allowed in the delivery room! Yoga and meditation were totally weird. Now mindfulness is mainstream and everyone does yoga, and there are birthing centers and hospices all over. We’ve integrated all these things into our culture. And now I think we’re ready to integrate psychedelics.”
“We don’t die well in America. Ask people where do you want to die, and they will tell you, at home with their loved ones. But most of us die in an ICU. The biggest taboo in America is the conversation about death.
psychedelics have the potential not only to open up that difficult conversation but to change the experience of dying itself.
“This culture has a fear of death, a fear of transcendence, and a fear of the unknown, all of which are embodied in this work.”
“We’re all dealing with death,” as he told me the first time we met. “This is far too valuable to limit to sick people.”
But whether individually or in a group, the presence of someone with training and experience who can “hold the space”—to use that hoary New Age locution—is more meaningful and comforting than I would have imagined.
Yet even a moment’s reflection tells you that attributing the content of the psychedelic experience to “drugs” explains virtually nothing about it. The images and the narratives and the insights don’t come from nowhere, and they certainly don’t come from a chemical. They come from inside our minds,* and at the very least have something to tell us about that.
To realize, as William James concluded, that normal waking consciousness is but one of many potential forms of consciousness—ways of perceiving or constructing the world—separated from it by merely “the filmiest of screens,” is to recognize that our account of reality, whether inward or outward, is incomplete at best.
there are moments in the life of an individual or a community when the imaginative novelties proposed by altered states of consciousness introduce exactly the sort of variation that can send a life, or a culture, down a new path.
This was a way of being I treasured, but, alas, every time it eventually faded. It’s difficult not to slip back into the familiar grooves of mental habit; they are so well worn; the tidal pull of what the Buddhists call our “habit energies” is difficult to withstand.
Just because the psychedelic journey takes place entirely in one’s mind doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
(Part of the power of the ego flows from its command of one’s rational faculties.)
“A plant can’t be caged,” I heard myself thinking. “Only an animal can be caged.”
Spirits, it seems, are everywhere. New rays of relation appear between us and all the world’s Others.
The ground underfoot may be much less solid than we think.
the mind is vaster, and the world ever so much more alive, than I knew when I began.