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(Credit: Suresh Muthukumaraswamy)

"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.

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