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Psychedelics Give a Glimpse of Enlightenment

Our brains may be filters that are inhibiting us from experiencing reality.

Key points

  • Aldous Huxley postulated that psychedelics can turn off filters in the brain that inhibit us from experiencing a higher reality.
  • Studies show that psychedelics and meditation can induce a similar unitive state of consciousness associated with high global brain integration.
  • Neurophysiological studies on subjects claiming enlightenment show an underlying high global brain integration during cognitive tasks and sleep.
  • Physics says everything in the universe is instantly connected. Psychedelics and meditation may allow us to experience that connection.
This post is in response to
The Psychedelic Heart
mentalmind/Shutterstock
Source: mentalmind/Shutterstock

In 1954, Aldous Huxley proposed the concept of the "Mind at Large," which held that psychedelic drugs could disable filters in our minds that inhibited us from experiencing the fullness of reality. He said that these filters reduced our experience of life to a “measly trickle.” Once the filters were removed, we would experience the higher reality of the Mind at Large, which was the experience of “perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe” all at once.

Could our brains actually be filters and reducing valves that are inhibiting us from experiencing a higher reality? Does this idea make sense with what science tells us happens to the brain on psychedelics or during meditation? Is this Mind at Large experience even theoretically possible according to modern physics? Surprisingly, the answer to all these questions is: “yes.”

Psychedelics and Ego Dissolution

In a 2021 study utilizing functional MRI scans, researchers found that “LSD untethers functional connectivity from the constraint of structural connectivity.” Normally, the brain’s connectivity is filtered and inhibited by relatively fixed neural networks based on the brain’s structure, but the main author of the study, Andrea Luppi, explained that LSD decoupled that structural relationship, allowing brain activity to be “less constrained than usual by the presence or absence of an underlying anatomical connection,” and that once that constraint is removed, “the brain is free to explore a variety of functional connectivity patterns that go beyond those dictated by anatomy.” Luppi seems to be saying what Huxley said in 1954—that LSD could disable filters in the “reducing valve” that is our minds.

Luppi's study found that the subjective experience of losing one’s sense of self while on LSD, a phenomenon known as “ego dissolution,” was associated with a state of high global brain integration. Ego dissolution is often experienced as feeling one with the universe, as Michael Pollan writes in his book about psychedelics, How to Change Your Mind.

“Consider the case of the mystical experience: the sense of transcendence, sacredness, unitive consciousness, infinitude, and blissfulness people report can all be explained as what it can feel like to a mind when its sense of being, or having, a separate self is suddenly no more," Pollan wrote. "Is it any wonder we would feel one with the universe when the boundaries between self and world that the ego patrols suddenly fall away?”

Based on this study I think it is safe to say that LSD, and by extrapolation other psychedelics, untether brain connections from their usual constraints, allowing a state of high global brain integration to occur, which is experienced as feeling one with the universe. Ego dissolution sounds very much like what Huxley proposed with his Mind at Large concept.

Neurophysiology of Ego Dissolution During Meditation and Psychedelics

Are the measured changes in brain physiology that occur during psychedelic-induced ego dissolution similar to what happens in the brains of long-term meditators when they experience a transcendent, unitive state? In a review article entitled “A Systematic Review of Transcendent States Across Meditation and Contemplative Traditions” the authors analyzed studies done on practitioners of a variety of meditation traditions (Buddhist; Christian; practitioners from multiple traditions; Vedic: Transcendental Meditation; and Yoga).

They found that during transcendent states, described by the meditators as a “unitive, ineffable state of consciousness,” the meditators had very high levels of “EEG coherence, and functional neural connectivity.” The results are similar to the neurophysiological changes observed by Luppi’s group during “ego dissolution” experiences on LSD.

Based on these two studies, and others, it may be that the subjective experience of feeling one with the universe that psychedelics and meditation induce are both caused by some similar mechanism that untethers the brain’s usual neural connectivity, allowing a state of high global brain integration to occur.

Is this, as Huxley proposed, an experience of a truer, higher reality? According to modern physics, is it theoretically possible that we could have the experience of “perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe?” Aren’t we separate from the universe?

Physics Says We Are Not Separate from the Universe

It turns out, according to quantum theory, we are not separate from the universe, and everything in the universe is instantaneously connected. Physicists Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner wrote about this in their book, Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness.

"'Separability,' they write, "has been our shorthand term for the ability to separate objects so that what happens to one in no way affects what happens to others. Without separability, what happens at one place can instantaneously affect what happens far away—even though no physical force connects the objects…That our actual world does not have separability is now generally accepted, though admitted to be a mystery…Quantum theory has this connectedness extending over the entire universe."

So, according to physics, it is theoretically possible to have an experience of being one with the universe because we are not separate from the universe. Maybe the English poet William Blake was correct when he famously said, “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.”

Maybe psychedelics can temporarily “cleanse the doors of perception” allowing a glimpse of reality? Maybe meditation can cleanse the doors of perception in a more natural, permanent way, removing the brain filters and reducing valves that stand in the way of experiencing the reality of the Mind at Large? Research on long-term meditators who claim to have achieved enlightenment seems to suggest just that.

Enlightenment: Experiencing the Mind at Large and Our Usual Reality, Together

A study comparing long-term meditators who claim to have achieved enlightenment to a control group showed significant EEG differences consistent with a state of high global brain integration during awake, cognitive tasks. Another study of self-reported "enlightened" meditators found EEG evidence of a state of high global brain integration during all phases of sleep. These studies, and others, are objective evidence that the subjective reports of a permanent state of enlightenment, of experiencing the Mind at Large while also attending to cognitive tasks, or during sleep, may not be just wishful thinking or delusions.

In summary, psychedelics appear to be able to temporarily remove “filters” in the mind, allowing a state of high global brain integration to occur, which can be associated with the experience of ego dissolution. Ego dissolution is Huxley’s Mind at Large experience. A long-term meditation practice can also cause a similar state of high global brain integration which is experienced as a “unitive, ineffable state of consciousness,” and may eventually lead to a state of permanent high global brain integration. This permanent state is claimed to be a state of enlightenment. Psychedelics appear to give us a glimpse of enlightenment. Meditation appears to allow enlightenment to be lived. As a long-term meditator and primary-care physician, I recommend meditation.

References

Pollan, Michael (2018). How to Change Your Mind. Penguin Publishing Group.

Rosenblum, B., & Kuttner, F., (2011) Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness, second edition, Oxford University Press

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