Biology

Brain scans highlight a hidden, "higher" state of consciousness

Neuroscientists claim to have found the first evidence of a "higher" state of consciousness
Neuroscientists claim to have found the first evidence of a "higher" state of consciousness
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Neuroscientists claim to have found the first evidence of a "higher" state of consciousness
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Neuroscientists claim to have found the first evidence of a "higher" state of consciousness
These brain scan images show an increase in neural signal diversity under the influence of LSD, indicating a "higher" level of consciousness
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These brain scan images show an increase in neural signal diversity under the influence of LSD, indicating a "higher" level of consciousness

Reaching a higher state of consciousness is a concept you're more likely to hear a spiritualist spout than a scientist, but now neuroscientists at the University of Sussex claim to have found the first evidence of just such a state. From wakefulness down to a deep coma, consciousness is on a sliding scale measured by the diversity of brain signals, and the researchers found that when under the influence of psychedelic drugs, that diversity jumps to new heights above the everyday baseline.

The research builds on data gathered about a year ago by a team at Imperial College London, which dosed up volunteers with psychedelics, including LSD, psilocybin and ketamine, then scanned their brains with magnetoencephalographic (MEG) techniques to examine the effects. This new study set out to determine how a psychedelic state would compare to other levels of wakefulness and unconsciousness, according to a scale of brain signal diversity measured by monitoring the magnetic fields produced by the brain.

When a person is asleep, their brain signals are far less diverse than when they're awake and aware, and past research has noted that it varies by what stage of the sleep cycle they're in. Being put under different types of anaesthesia induce even lower scores, and it bottoms out for those in a vegetative state. But this is the first time signal diversity has been seen to be higher than the normal readings of an alert, conscious mind.

"This finding shows that the brain-on-psychedelics behaves very differently from normal," says Anil Seth, corresponding author of the study. "During the psychedelic state, the electrical activity of the brain is less predictable and less 'integrated' than during normal conscious wakefulness – as measured by 'global signal diversity.' Since this measure has already shown its value as a measure of 'conscious level', we can say that the psychedelic state appears as a higher 'level' of consciousness than normal – but only with respect to this specific mathematical measure."

Interestingly, the more intense a trip the participant reported, the more diverse their brain signals appeared to be. That finding could help scientists better understand the connection between the level of consciousness and what specifically someone is conscious of.

These brain scan images show an increase in neural signal diversity under the influence of LSD, indicating a "higher" level of consciousness
These brain scan images show an increase in neural signal diversity under the influence of LSD, indicating a "higher" level of consciousness

"We found correlations between the intensity of the psychedelic experience, as reported by volunteers, and changes in signal diversity," says Seth. "This suggests that our measure has close links not only to global brain changes induced by the drugs, but to those aspects of brain dynamics that underlie specific aspects of conscious experience."

But as appealing as a higher state of consciousness might sound, the researchers (and us here at New Atlas) aren't trying to encourage drug use. The team is careful to point out that "higher" doesn't necessarily mean "better," and the key take-away from the study is that a psychedelic experience is a distinct conscious state.

"Rigorous research into psychedelics is gaining increasing attention, not least because of the therapeutic potential that these drugs may have when used sensibly and under medical supervision," says Robin Cahart-Harris, another author of the study. "The present study's findings help us understand what happens in people's brains when they experience an expansion of their consciousness under psychedelics. People often say they experience insight under these 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."

In the future, the researchers will turn their attention to trying to figure out the biological mechanics behind specific parts of the experience, such as hallucinations.

The research was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Source: University of Sussex

8 comments
guzmanchinky
I would love to try psylocybin someday in a safe controlled environment.
ezeflyer
Psychedelic drugs have been around forever. Ergot fungus, the base of LSD grew on bread. Ayahuasca, psilocybin, mescaline and marijuana has been in use ceremonially for thousands of years. Pot was found in Egyptian sarcophagus. That they have powerful medicinal properties is not in dispute. They were prohibited by Nixon to discriminate against hippies, jews, blacks, hispanics and other races: "Regarding beginning the war on drugs, "You want to know what this was really all about?", "The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I'm saying? We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did." John Ehrlichman
Douglas Bennett Rogers
How does this compare to TM?
StWils
This discovery necessarily suggests possible therapies for stroke patients and for people in vegetative states. It may well be possible to prime the pump or boost the brain of someone in a reduced state to help their brain get back it's feet, so to speak.
ljaques
@Douglas Bennett Rogers, you have an excellent question there. I'm wondering why they didn't test for that, too, though it might be harder for a researcher to standardize it for their tests. I'd love to have seen stats on that, too. @guzmanchinky, I took Pshrooms before an Alice Cooper concert in Phoenix during my alcoholic phase 40 years ago. It was only interesting enough to try a couple times. You're not missing much, and I don't believe there was ANY mind expansion from it, only hallucination. TM is much better, though it gives you no pretty colors. Now sober for going on 32 years, I don't like drugs but would see them legalized if only for the cost break to the taxpayers. Lose the illegality, lose the profits drug dealers make and many will simply dry up and go away. The expensive War on Drugs can only be won in America when American citizens stop using/wanting illegal drugs.
KaiserPingo
Conclusion is: Its a higher level of consciousness, but its useless, as the signals are uncontrollable. Nothing new in that !
Sean Reynolds
It would be great if all of the pot heads were solving the worlds problems. It just isn't the case.
howellpm
This would appear to be half of the story. if: ''Being put under different types of anaesthesia induce even lower scores, and it bottoms out for those in a vegetative state...'' and, psychedelic chemical compounds do increase the diversity [complexity and activity ] of brain cell neuronal activity.. then has there been experimentation delivering micro doses of psilocybin to 'brain dead' patients ? Nothing to lose trying..
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