Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Matrix, Psychedelics, and Consciousness

Psychedelics are analogous to the Red Pill.

Key points

  • The Matrix movies, psychedelics, and quantum mechanics are trying to tell us that our universe is made of consciousness.
  • The Red Pill in the Matrix movies is an analogy for seeing reality from a higher perspective.
  • Psychedelics, mystics, and quantum mechanics all describe our universe from a perspective outside of it.
  • To an observer inside the 'Matrix' their world is real, but for an observer outside, it is virtual.
This post is in response to
The Emerging Revival of Psychedelics in Neuroscience

In honor of the long-awaited release of fourth movie in the Matrix series, ‘The Matrix Resurrections,’ it’s a good time to discuss the psychological and philosophical ramifications behind the Matrix’s Red Pill. More specifically, are psychedelics analogous to the Matrix’s Red Pill? Do psychedelics, like the Red Pill, represent a choice between the willingness to learn the truth about our world or to remain in ignorance. For the record, I’m not advocating the use of psychedelic drugs. As a physician I believe they may damage our minds at least in some small way. But the history and research concerning psychedelics are available and it’s important to determine what can be learned from that.

The first question that should arise before attempting to draw conclusions concerning the psychedelic experience is whether the insights that users describe are trying to tell us something important about our minds and our universe, or are they just drug-induced hallucinations? The answer: There are important truths that can be learned from the research on psychedelics, and they are drugs that induce hallucinations. To interpret the research requires separating the two. As Michael Pollan wrote in his book, How To Change Your Mind: “One good way to understand a complex system is to disturb it and then see what happens. By smashing atoms, a particle accelerator forces them to yield their secrets. By administering psychedelics in carefully calibrated doses, neuroscientists can profoundly disturb the normal waking consciousness of volunteers, dissolving the structures of the self and occasioning what can be described as a mystical experience.”

In the movie, ingesting the Red Pill resulted in waking up outside the Matrix, thereby allowing the person who took the pill to see reality from a higher perspective. Outside the Matrix, it was clear to the Red-Pill-ingesting observer that the Matrix was virtual and not ‘real.’ On the other hand, to unenlightened observers inside the Matrix their experiences were life-and-death real. In our world, people who take psychedelics tell us they see reality from a higher perspective outside the confines that define our world—outside of space and time, outside of their bodies, and even outside of our universe. From that psychedelic induced perspective those observers will often say exactly what the mystics have proclaimed for millennia, our world is made of consciousness. They tell us that not only can they become one with that universal consciousness, but also that we are one with that consciousness.

Who is to judge whether those drugged-out psychedelic experiences are merely hallucinations, or are they more akin to experiments using a particle accelerator where the secrets of consciousness can be gleaned? Quantum mechanics, the foundation of physics and the branch of physics that has been most successful in coming to the truth about our universe, is the logical choice.

Quantum Mechanics, Consciousness, and Reality

What does quantum mechanics say about consciousness and reality? It turns out that it says very much what observers high on psychedelics say, what mystics have been saying for thousands of years, and what the Matrix movies allude to. Quantum mechanics, which is based on quantum experiments done inside our world, seems to be saying that inside our ‘Matrix’ the world is real to unenlightened observers, but from a higher, enlightened perspective outside our world it is seen as virtual. Here are some facts from quantum mechanics that support the theory that our world is both real and virtual.

Quantum mechanics tells us that past, present, and future exist together, now, all at once. Einstein said the following about time: "The separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one,’ and ‘the only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once.” Outside the Matrix, looking in, an observer would say that time inside the Matrix is exactly what Einstein said it was.

Quantum theory says our physical reality is somehow randomly created by observation of a conscious mind. And it tells us that once that specific reality is created by an observation, the observation also instantly creates the history of that reality backwards in time. An observer outside the Matrix would describe the reality experienced inside it in very much the same way.

Erwin Schrödinger, a founder of quantum mechanics, told his infamous cat-in-the-box thought experiment to emphasize that quantum theory says something “absurd” about our reality. Schrödinger’s unobserved cat, according to quantum theory, was simultaneously dead and alive until an observation of the cat by a conscious mind causes it to be either randomly dead or randomly alive. But, even more bizarre, quantum theory says that if you find a dead cat you have then instantly created the demonstrable past history of its developing rigor mortis with all the requisite physical and biochemical signs. If it is found alive then the complete history of its physically developing hunger and thirst are created. This sounds very much like what an observer outside the Matrix might say. In a virtual world reality is absurd because it changes based on how the computer code determines how each observer observes that world.

Quantum mechanics appears to show that our universe does not conform to our rules of logic. Those rules say that something cannot be something and nothing at the same time, but quantum mechanics has shown otherwise. The quantum mechanical phenomena of superposition says that something can be nothing and something at the same time, that a cat can be dead and alive at the same time. Superposition is not just theoretical fluff. It has profound real-world applications, most prominently demonstrated by quantum computers, which can solve certain problems in a second that would take our best non-quantum computers centuries to solve. Is consciousness somehow like an infinitely fast quantum computer?

Continuing on with the weird, counterintuitive things physics is telling us, it turns out that everything in the universe is instantaneously connected and that everything influences everything else instantaneously; distance and time are irrelevant in this interaction. Outside the Matrix an observer would say that everything inside the Matrix is instantly connected because the computer code that controls experiences inside it is one piece of unitary computer code.

Einstein’s Problems with Quantum Mechanics

This universal connectedness bothered Einstein. He famously called it, “Spooky action at a distance.” His special theory of relativity dictates that no object or anything else — information, communication, a signal, cause and effect, etc. — that exists within space-time can travel faster than the speed of light in a vacuum. Despite that, quantum mechanics says that when I wave my hand, I cause a change, an influence, in the entire universe, be it nearby or billions of light-years away, instantly.

But the part of quantum mechanics that upset Einstein the most, enough so that he spent the last years of his life trying to get around this issue is quantum mechanics’ apparent denial of physical reality. According to quantum theory, there is not an actual object in a particular place before a conscious observer observes it and “collapses its wavefunction” thereby causing the object to be where it is observed and creating a history backwards in time of that object coming to be at that specific place at that specific time. It seems to me that Einstein felt that there had to be something like a Red Pill, a way to view the Matrix from outside the Matrix. I think this is what prompted Einstein to say, “The Lord God is subtle, but malicious He is not.” If God is not malicious then He would not have trapped us in our Matrix without creating a way out.

Consciousness Is Fundamental

Quantum mechanics keeps bumping up against consciousness. In 1931, the father of quantum mechanics, Max Planck, was quoted as saying, “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness.” In 1979 Bernard d'Espagnat, a French theoretical physicist and author best known for his work on the nature of reality, wrote, "the doctrine that the world is made up of objects whose existence is independent of human consciousness turns out to be in conflict with quantum mechanics and with facts established by experiment.” From here it is not a large leap to entertain the idea that our universe exists virtually inside a unitary consciousness. Could we call it God's mind?

What is quantum mechanics trying to tell us about our universe? It seems it is saying very much what observers on psychedelics say after they've take their Red Pill. After taking a psychedelic they say they wake up and begin seeing from the same perspective mystics see, from a perspective outside our universe, outside the Matrix. They see, and are telling us, that our universe is made of consciousness. If we listen to them, if they are telling the truth, if quantum mechanics is saying the same thing, the ramifications for psychology are profound.

More from Alan J. Steinberg M.D.
More from Psychology Today