Compelling Studies on Drugs and Consciousness

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One of the most fundamental, and damaging, falsehoods in modern science is that all that exists is the physical world, and the closely related concept that the physical brain creates consciousness. Modern neuroscience is contributing to the rejection of this misconception through a set of interesting experiments assessing the action of various psychedelic drugs on the brain (specifically those that influence serotinergic receptors).

Scientific investigations that utilize psychedelic drugs offer measurable and functional outcomes that inform our evolving notions of consciousness and our understanding of the full nature of reality. However, let me be clear from the outset of this article that I do not recommend the casual use of such substances in a non-sacred, recreational setting. In research studies, the quality and quantity of drug administered can be strictly controlled and monitored, which is not the case in most recreational settings where such psychedelics can be dangerous to one’s health.

For purposes of scientific research, they offer compelling findings which mirror the effects of non-drug induced spiritually transformative experiences such as near-death experiences.

First is a report from Imperial College in London in 2012 in which functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) was used to evaluate various brain regions in subjects under the influence of psilocybin, the active principle in psychedelic mushrooms (the genus Psilocybe consists of over 100 species).1 The most remarkable finding of that study was that the activity of major connection regions of the brain was greatly diminished in those who were having the most profound psychedelic experiences, as opposed to the increase in activity anticipated by physicalist scientists who believe the brain creates consciousness and all of experience.

These results were confirmed by a Brazilian study published in February 2015 assessing brain activity through fMRI, this time in subjects under the influence of ayahuasca (which contains the active psychedelic compound N,N-dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, normally present in our brains but in only minuscule amounts).2 Ayahuasca caused a significant decrease in activity throughout the main junctional network in the brain, known as the default-mode network (DMN).

Just this month, the Imperial College group in London refined these observations with another confirmatory study, this one examining the effects of LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide-25), the most potent psychedelic, active in doses of 10s to 100s of micrograms.3 In brief, they report decreased integrity of the DMN and decreased alpha and delta power in another main junctional network, the exact opposite of what one would expect if the physical brain were creating the extraordinary conscious experiences.

The reason these studies are so crucial (and confounding to the materialists who believe the physical brain creates conscious experience) is that they powerfully refute the simplistic and false physicalist notion that the brain creates consciousness. The most extraordinary experiences were reported by those subjects who had the greatest inactivation of their brain’s junctional center network activity, as measured through fMRI and MEG. As the brain becomes less active, internal experience actually becomes more active.

This is completely consistent with my own experience in deep coma due to severe bacterial meningitis (as recounted in my 2012 book Proof of Heaven). As my neocortex was destroyed by the invading bacteria, my conscious awareness greatly expanded to levels unprecedented in my normal waking experiences of my entire life. That shocking reality nagged at me especially in the early months after my coma, at a time I was trying to explain the whole experience as a vast hallucinatory trick of the dying brain (defaulting to my pre-coma reductive materialist scientific beliefs, honed by several decades working as a neurosurgeon).

My doctors knew from the medical evidence in my case that my neocortex was far too damaged to be supporting any mode of robust conscious experience, including any elaborate hallucinations, drug effects or dream states. After extensive review with some of the doctors who cared for me, and with several interested colleagues in neurosurgery, it became apparent that that ultra-reality occurred because the experience was real, although it did not occur anywhere in our 4-dimensional space-time of the observable physical universe.

As is often the case with global media completely steeped in the conventional materialistic paradigm, the press reports about the most recent study falsely trumpeted the opposite of the actual findings. Both the Guardian and CNN focused on some of the fMRI images, but completely missed the astonishing conclusions of the actual study, instead misinterpreting them as showing increased brain activity as opposed to the remarkable decreases in activity the paper actually reports.

Although such scientific investigations into psychedelic drugs are crucial in our evolving notions of consciousness and understanding the full nature of reality, I do not recommend the casual use of such substances in a non-sacred, recreational setting. However, very powerful tools exist for those seekers seriously interested in pursuing the deep mystery of consciousness within us all.

Meditation is a time-proven technique for those seeking to understand the universe by going within. For those who do not yet have a reliable means of meditation I suggest the tools of differential sound frequency brain entrainment I have helped to develop with Sacred Acoustics. Co-founder Karen Newell and I travel the world sharing these tools in our presentations – a list of upcoming presentations is listed here.

We are spiritual beings living in a spiritual universe – we can come to know this fact by going within. Given there is but one Truth we all seek, it should come as no surprise that open-minded science that acknowledges all of the relevant empirical observations (including not only psychedelic drug experiences and epiphanies during meditation, but near-death experiences, shared-death experiences, precognition, after-death communication, death bed visions, out of body experiences, remote viewing, past life memories in children indicative of reincarnation, etc.) should help lead us towards that Truth. This will lead to a necessary synthesis of science and spirituality that is crucial to our evolution as a species and to the well-being of all life on our planet.

[1] Carhart-Harris, RL, Erritzoe D, Williams T, et alia. “Neural correlates of the psychedelic state determined by fMRI studies with psilocybin,” Proc. Nat. Acad. Of Sciences 109, no. 6 (Feb 2012): 2138-2143.

[2] Palhano-Fontes F, Andrade KC, Tofoli LF, et alia. “The Psychedelic State Induced by Ayahuasca Modulates the Activity and Connectivity of the Default Mode Network,” PLoS One (2015).

[3] Carhart-Harris, RL, Muthukumaraswamy S, Roseman L, et alia. “Neural correlates of the LSD experience revealed by multimodal neuroimaging.” Proc. Nat. Acad. of Sciences (Mar 2016).

13 replies
  1. sumanta nandi
    sumanta nandi says:

    Dear dr alexander ,

    if these psychedelic drugs makes local waking consciousness a more non-local, then placing a random number generator or setting a double slit experiment besides the object having of these drugs should have an effect on upper mentioned experimental systems.Focusing thoughts on these systems have been shown an effect ,reported by dr dean radin.

    Reply
  2. Michele Fry
    Michele Fry says:

    Dear Dr. Alexander,

    The research results you posted are fascinating. Hopefully, those entranced by exotic experiments with hallucinogens, etc., will appreciate what is actually happening and that similar results might be available using simpler means such as sound-assisted meditation, at no risk to health. That said, I wonder if any hard research is under way to evaluate self-published new approaches to binaural beat audios. Out of curiosity and in search of better audios than my old binaurals, I recently downloaded audio sets created by Tom Campbell, one of the original TMI audio developers. As you mentioned in a YouTube TMI presentation, the TMI products required updating and Campbell seems to have undertaken the task on his own. It seems that the research now in this field consists of various informal updating/enriching efforts like his. I wonder if any efforts are under way to screen these efforts, as new binaural products are published without much objective information on their potential health impact and overall effectiveness.

    Since your skills support Sacred Acoustics’ work, I’ve ordered the Light Body CD and look forward to trying the non-guided version in particular.

    Thank you for your many contributions to life and health, especially now as a pioneer of post-materialism.

    Reply
  3. Hector Toyos
    Hector Toyos says:

    Soy testimonio vivo, de que la conciencia esta fuera de nuestro cuerpo fisico cualquiera sea el organo,ya sea el cerebro o lo que se les ocurra.Precisamente,tuve vivencias perfectas de que mi conciencia estaba fuera de mi cuerpo, unico modo de comunicacion con la entidad o cosa indescrptible que de algun modo dialogaba conmigo, de un modo simple, sencillo,y justamente busque por internet y libros,a ver si le habia ocurrido a otras personas, y asi fue como tuve acceso a su libro “La prueba del Cielo” y alli vi confirmada mi experiencia.Basicamente, dejando de lado, aspectos descriptivos de su experiencia,algunos conceptos volcados en el libro,yo los intepretaria de otro modo y con otros conceptos.El mensaje fundamental que manifiesta, y lo entiendo perfectamente, es el mismo que percibi en aquel momento, que me cambio mi vida,la vision de lo que me rodeaba y la aceptacion de la muerte fisica como un acontecimiento necesario para ingresar la conciencia libre de todo peso, liviana de cargas innecesarias.No tengo ninguna duda,y lo digo desde otro lugar y circunstancia, de que la coinciencia esta definitivamente fuera del cuerpo fisico.Saludos.Hector

    Reply
  4. JUAN RUBIO LOPEZ
    JUAN RUBIO LOPEZ says:

    Thinking that our consciousness is dependent on our brain is like assuming that music depends on a musical instrument for its existence. The music instrument is just the physical medium that allows the sound to reach our ears, but it is by no means the creator of the tune. If the musical instrument disappeared, the music would still exist albeit inaudible till the right medium for its expression in this physical world was provided.

    Reply
    • Cherry
      Cherry says:

      @Juan Rubio Lopez “Thinking that our consciousness is dependent on our brain is like assuming that music depends on a musical instrument for its existence. The musical instrument is just the physical medium that allows the sound to reach our ears, but it is by no means the creator of the tune.”
      I love this, it is so beautifully put it has an almost poetic quality to it. It’s amazing that the latest discoveries in neuroscience, quantum physics etc. continue to peel back the curtain on the nature of perceived reality in line with this fundamental truth. It certainly is an exciting time to be alive!

      Reply
  5. Michael Grosso
    Michael Grosso says:

    Hello Eben Alexander,
    The subject of this post touches on what may be the most important revolution in the history of science: the central role of consciousness in nature. You’ve summed it up in one sentence:”As the brain becomes less active, internal experience becomes more active.” Bravo! In my research, the calming of brain activity among the great yogis, mystics and shamans not only expands consciousness but liberates latent physical potentials like healing power, levitation,and much more. For further discussion, see http://www.consciousnessunbound.blogspot.com
    Best wishes, Michael

    Reply
  6. Andy
    Andy says:

    I used to be a substance dualist, but I ran out of excuses for the assumption of a material universe outside of mind. Now I’m an idealist.

    I would go on step beyond the statement that consciousness is a function of the brain and suggest that there is no physical reality outside of mind in the first place. I think that idealist philosophers like Bernardo Kastrup have clearly shown that there is no reason to default to physicalism. Idealism is perfectly tenable and more parsimonious than physicalism, and idealism does not need to explain away scientific findings like the ones in this article.

    Reply
  7. jajokem
    jajokem says:

    Hello,

    So-called hallucinatory experiences, be they induced by psychoactive substances, neuropathological states of illness, transient response to extreme stress, or the human capacity –well=developed in some–to willfully self-modulate brain function, are, by definition, perceived as more real than what we experience as ordinary reality. However, “more real” is not evidence of another realm. In other words, the perception of “more real” is neither more nor less that a state of perception. But neither is it any less a miracle than all other human experiences.

    It is not uncommon for a person who has experienced most of their life through the perceptual lens of ordinary or mundane reality to become an instant convert to a belief in the existence of an extraordinary reality outside of themselves when they undergo an experience which alters brain function such that hallucinatory perceptions are experienced.

    When that person is a highly respected neurosurgeon, the credibility that person carries within communities of believers of the existence of other realms is very high.

    The studies that Dr. Alexander cites are very important studies. They contribute to the growing awareness among research scientists and clinicians that humans are in fact information-rich, self-regulating complex chaotic adaptive systems. That we are in effect, human fractals.
    Does this knowledge in any way diminish our capacity to experience sacredness; oneness; a “knowing” that is different from everyday knowing? Not at all. In fact, through these scientific endeavours and others, the physical correlates of non-physical experience–which includes, in my opinion, experiences that are as real as anything one experiences as ordinary reality–are being revealed.

    Dr. Alexander does a tremendous disservice to this research by over-simplifying, thereby distorting its findings. He does this by taking advantage of the fact that the science of neural connectivity is very complicated and not well understood by the vast majority of persons who are not neuroscientists. In fact, even within the community of neuroscientists, for many, neural functionality is still considered to be a linear, positive and negative feedback system with no non-linear components.

    We live in very exciting times. As a neuroscientist who underwent a sustained near-death experience at the age of 18 months, the so-called extraordinary experiences that people have which are held up as confirmation of another realm, are quite ordinary for me–and have been all my life. I am thrilled beyond expression to witness neuroscience catching up with what humans tend to call “spirituality”. There’s a long way to go yet, however, and in his zeal to speed up the process, Dr. Alexander is distorting the scientific revelations contained within the research he cites. The misinformation he is disseminating serves neither neither scientific nor spiritual progress.

    Of course, all is one. WE are all-in-one-in-one-in-all. We are–functional fractals in flow with the dynamism of the universe. As is all that is. Of course, what we call Love is the impetus, the source, the generator, of that which is, has been, and always will be. This is not extradinary information beaming in from another realm. It is integral to our very (human) nature at the infinitely smallest and largest dimensions of complexity.

    My plea to Dr. Alexander is this. Please allow science to unfold as it is unfolding. The inherent dynamism of the universe encompasses all that is. The more we maintain our humility in everyday life, the more Mystery will reveal herself in all her glory while remaining a mystery for evermore.

    As I tell my 12 year old son, problems are to be solved. Mysteries are to be pondered. The perceived chasm between so-called science and spirituality is not a problem to be solved. It is one of the most wonderful, accessible mysteries of this time. It is in the pondering of it, the relinquishing of knowing for “knowing”, that each one of us can be witness to its grand unfolding. We each have the capacity to connect with Mystery and to be inspired by that connection to be-come the truly authentic individual we each have always been. And through which the realization that we are all one is accessed and operationalized for the greater good of all.

    Reply
    • Elizabeth Hare
      Elizabeth Hare says:

      Dear Jajokem,
      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. It deserves a thoughtful reply, and Eben has written a response that he hopes will clarify and expand on his understanding of the points you raised. For our readers, both discussions are posted in their entirety here.
      Liz, Eben’s Assistant

      Dear Jajokem,

      You raise some interesting points.

      “Ultra-reality” is not, by definition, a quality of hallucinations. In fact, many hallucinations are recognizable as such, either in the moment or shortly thereafter (including many hallucinations induced by entheogenic substances, like psilocybin, LSD, DMT, etc.). That would be the case for my paranoid delusional nightmare, the psychotic patchwork I encountered in the 36 or so hours after awakening from coma. It all seemed more real than a typical dream, even a strongly nightmarish one, but as I emerged from it I was quite aware that it was not “real”. Juxtapose that with the shocking ultra-reality deep in my coma experience, the spiritual journey through the earthworm’s eye view, Gateway Valley, and all of the layers leading to the Core, absolute Oneness but at the edge of “duality,” the emergence of any of the separation construct that makes up our universe. That experience, like so many similar NDEs and similar spiritually transformative experiences that have shifted people’s understanding of the nature of reality at deep and irreversible levels over millennia, demand a far richer level of understanding. These are not simply “hallucinations.” They are far more resistant to alteration or degradation than any other type of memories. I’ve had members of my audiences recount their own experiences that might have happened half a century earlier as if they occurred yesterday. Bruce Greyson and others have written extensively on the unusual characteristics of such memories that reveal they cannot simply be dismissed as fantasy or hallucination. The similarities of many such accounts across continents, cultures, belief systems and millennia support them as visions of a more fundamental reality.

      The reason the medical community takes my story so seriously is because they realize the extraordinary nature of my NDE, i.e. severe gram negative meningoencephalitis with the specific features of my neurologic exams, CT/MRI scans and lab values virtually always leaves its victims completely devastated, or, more likely, dead. Thus my complete recovery over ~ two months garners significant attention. Mostly, such an illness serves as a perfect model for human death by preferentially destroying the human part of the brain (the outer surface, or neocortex), and such destruction should eliminate all but the most rudimentary of experiences (given conventional neuroscience’s view of the role of the neocortex, the most powerful calculator in the brain, in organizing the myriad details of conscious awareness). Some part of the neocortex must be active to allow for hallucinations, drug hallucinations or dream states, yet my doctors knew from my medical record that such was not the case — all eight lobes were involved. Thus my profound and extensive odyssey deep within coma should have been impossible, and yet it occurred. Hence my dilemma in trying to understand it all.

      As you say, “the science of neural connectivity is very complicated and not well understood by the vast majority of persons who are not neuroscientists.” From my point of view, the cardinal sin of many neuroscientists trying to explain consciousness is that they believe that all of the answers will be found in deep enough investigations of neural networks, whereas the evidence for the reality of non-local consciousness (consciousness independent of the physical brain) is far too extensive to simply dismiss outright (I recommend for those who want to learn more to peruse the two major world-changing books from Edgar F. Kelly et al. from UVA: Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century, and Beyond Physicalism: Toward Reconciliation of Science and Spirituality (more information at http://www.ebenalexander.com/about-dr-alexander/recommended-reading/). Note that some former physicalist neuroscientists have completely abandoned any hope of explaining consciousness as a brain process: preeminent Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield strongly supports this view in his book The Mystery of the Mind (1975), Christof Koch (head of Paul Allen’s neuroscience institute in Seattle) surrendered any hope of explaining consciousness as a product of brain processes in his autobiography Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (2012), and philosopher Galen Strawson, to name a few.

      Speaking of Christof Koch: his interpretation of the 2012 study on psilocybin from Imperial College in London was identical to mine, as he wrote in Scientific American Mind (May 1, 2012). His subtitle was “To the great surprise of many, psilocybin, a potent psychedelic, reduces brain activity.” Make no mistake: these repeated observations of reduction in brain activity in major integrative centers in the most extraordinary psychedelic drug experiences are crucial pieces of evidence about the brain-mind relationship, and the fundamental nature of reality. The explanations will ultimately require a fundamental shift in the assumptions built deeply into our scientific world view — assumptions biased in pure physicalism, that the only stuff in the universe is physical stuff, and that the brain creates consciousness. In fact, no human being has ever experienced physical stuff directly, as much as our brain-mind fools us into believing that. We have only experienced the inside of our own consciousness, an internal construct or model of what we presume to be “out there,” so any explanation of reality (or “Theory of Everything”) ought to begin with a very robust explanation of the relationship between the world “out there” (including our physical brain and body, which are also “out there” in the physical universe, outside of our mind and all of its internal constructs) and our perception of it.

      I am intrigued by your comments about your NDE at age 18 months, and your apparent boredom with others’ extraordinary accounts as being quite ordinary to you. I hope you will share more about your viewpoint about such experiences and the clues they might offer about the nature of reality. I share your thrill about neuroscience catching up with “what humans call ‘spirituality,’” as you put it. You can tell I’ve moved far beyond the simplistic falsehoods of physicalism, and trust that you have, too. The neuroscience I support and study envelopes far more than the physical realm alone.

      I am sorry you see my blog posting as “over-simplifying” and distorting — as you point out, the science of neural connectivity is very complicated. From my perspective, that is only the beginning of “very complicated.” The full answers will require a far grander viewpoint than that hosted by any physicalist neuroscientist. Christof Koch and I seem to be very much in agreement, at least as pertains to the psilocybin paper. I do not agree with you that I am distorting the scientific revelations of the research papers mentioned in my blog.

      Full understanding will require far more than just full knowledge of the workings of the physical realm. And that will require a complete reworking of our fundamental metaphysical assumptions about the nature of reality. Physicalism is simplistic, kindergarten level – hence its appeal to so many in our culture, deeply asleep and woefully unaware. It is time to awaken.

      Best,
      Eben

      Reply
  8. mark0bravo
    mark0bravo says:

    Thanks for writing this blog report – it is very interesting.

    I agree completely that consciousness is not created by the physical brain — one only needs to learn meditation (calming of the brain) to experience an increase in consciousness due to a decrease of mental activity.

    Thank you for writing your book and sharing your story. There is one truth — that we are ONE with GOD.

    Reply
    • Ross_Gaines
      Ross_Gaines says:

      ” one only needs to learn meditation (calming of the brain) to experience an increase in consciousness due to a decrease of mental activity.” very well put. It’s amazing how this is reported across age groups, backgrounds, cultures and times. This common truth – of the ‘kingdom within’ has been spoken about by sages since history began.

      ‘Man, know thyself’ – 3 simple words pointing each of us to our own connection with who we really are – something so deep and profound beyond expression.

      Reply
  9. Elisabeth
    Elisabeth says:

    Eben, I’m glad you had your near-death experience, and I’m happy you’re strong enough to handle opponents. You do it very beautifully and gracefully. I’ve used LSD in my early 30’s, to make contact with my dead mother. Didn’t work out as planned, but the rich colours and images were totally amazing. I’ve never had that much fun with my eyes closed! Normal waking consciousness never, ever made me see such shapes, images and colours, never! I totally believe it when you say that evidence points towards less brain activity in such drug experiences. It kind of opens you up to another realm, it really does! The brain gets in the way, somehow, doesn’t it? God, I should really start meditation again, thanks for reminding us and thanks again for all your work!

    Reply
  10. Tom Mayer
    Tom Mayer says:

    Dear Dr. Alexander

    I don’t understand the working of the physical brain, I do know that meditation especially in viewing landscapes, waterscapes people in general and animals always lifts me up. When I can help someone it has a very calming effect. I never gave much thought to this until I read your books, map of heaven sits at my bedside. Thank you. Tom

    Reply

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