Do Psychedelic Worlds Really Exist?
And does whether or not they exist matter?
Posted Aug 16, 2020
The psychedelic world is roughly split into two. On one side exists a belief in the spiritual, philosophical, and largely esoteric world of shamanic tradition, religion, and ‘life beyond death.' The other exists in pragmatic study-based empiricism.
Regardless of standpoint, however, both parties seem to have similar experiences while on psychedelics- whether it’s coming to profound realizations, having their egos smashed into oblivion, or visiting new worlds. And often, they report these experiences as being ‘more real than real’.
But are they?
What counts as ‘real’ has long confounded philosophers. Knowledge is generally thought to come from streams: logical reasoning and induction (a priori) or empiricism and experience (a posteriori). From a logical, reason-driven perspective, the notion of psychedelic worlds existing in a sense beyond the mind seems unlikely. Experientially there may be more ground, but a lack of proper empirical setting makes it difficult to confirm.
Our ability to be implanted with false memories only makes this harder. From a range of underlying and perceptual biases and manipulation, false memories are all too easy to call into action. An experiment in the 1990s, for example, showed that 1 in 4 test participants recalled a false event in their childhood a month after their relatives assured them it really happened.
In the absence of logical reasoning and when experience alone can’t tell us the truth, what do we have left?
Although seemingly esoteric, modern neuroscience may have confirmed this notion. For some time now, researchers have been aware of the Default Mode Network- various regions in the brain that work in synchrony to give us the feeling of having an ‘ego’ or a ‘sense of self’.
Usually intact when in a sober, non-meditative state, on psychedelics such as psilocybin, DMT, and LSD, the network ‘switches off’. And research from fMRI scans has shown that this ‘switching off’ tends to correlate with mystical experiences- feelings of ego dissolution, or loss of one’s sense of self.
In this way, one could say that the Default Mode Network may well be Aldous Huxley’s idea of the brain’s ‘reducing valve’. Without it intact after all, we are open to perceiving ‘other realities’. In this vein, the reason psychedelic worlds feel real may be because they are.
But how much does it matter whether or not these psychedelic worlds are real? In a recent chat with Doblin, I presented him this question again, in reference to Huxley’s reducing valve.
“Whether or not these experiences are ‘real’ or not is not overly important. For me, the issue is more: are they useful or not? So let’s say somebody remembers childhood sexual abuse that happened when they were six months old. Is that real or not?”
“The answer is: it doesn’t really matter. It’s a symbolic representation of conflicts that they’re working with. And if they can resolve it and work through it, they can often heal. Whether it’s a real memory or not isn’t such a crucial question from a therapeutic perspective.”
Without trivializing the psychedelic experience, Doblin seems to prioritize utility over philosophical debates that arrive at an often unactionable ‘truth.' And this is no surprise. His organization, MAPS, has been trailblazing therapeutic use for psychedelics for over 34 years and is currently in the last phases of clinical trials for MDMA-assisted psychotherapy.
But it’s not just from psychedelic usage that we may have access to psychedelic worlds and modes of thought. Meditation, breathwork, and even looking out over Earth from space, if not launch us into ‘new worlds’, give us a profound sense of calm and interconnectedness with life on Earth.
“Like Google Earth, I had zoomed out … I was absolutely connected to myself, to every living thing, to the Universe.” —Patient from a psilocybin trial, 2017
“All matter in our Universe is created in star systems, and so the matter in my body, the matter in the spacecraft, the matter in my partners’ bodies, was the product of stars. We are stardust, and we’re all one in that sense.” —Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14, in his obituary by the Institute of Noetic Sciences.
Sure, whether these experiences count as ‘psychedelic worlds’ or ‘psychedelic worlds of thought’ is debatable. But the fact that they can be attained, whether on or off psychedelics, means that they’re maybe as real as any state of mind.
Just as Huxley says, perhaps these experiences are the result of the reducing valve going off duty. Or perhaps, as in the therapeutic sense, they are as real as they impact you, and ideally, for the better.