Opening the door to the hall of mirrors

The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing

Blaise Pascal

Anyone watching The Last Dance on Netflix over the last couple of weeks has seen what it is like to be in an embodied state of flow. Seeing Michael Jordan playing basketball is to be reminded of how much the exertion of expert physical skill is devoid of our self-conscious awareness. When watching MJ drive to the hoop, or sink an impossible layup in traffic, it is like watching poetry in motion. A kind of magic connecting body, mind and soul in a symphony of coordinated movement. This state of flow is an immersed engagement in your environment, a oneness between doing and being, a sequence of time, where time itself seems to have disappeared. What is interesting about this state is how internal thought and fixation of ourselves stops when we are engrossed in a task. Why this takes place is of particular interest to researchers and their understanding of the brain and mental functioning.

Flow State’s and the Default Mode Network

This ‘flow’ state has been investigated using neuroimaging and has been shown to represent a decrease of activity in a structure of the brain called the default mode network. This network is responsible for much of our mental processes when we are not focused on the external environment, in other words our internal chatter and mind wandering. These processes include self-reflection, mental time travel, mental constructions (ideas), moral reasoning and it is believed to be the network of the brain that contributes to our sense of self.

In a study investigating flow states, tasks that were rated by participants as ‘boring’, corresponded with neuroimaging data that showed higher activity in the default mode network, whilst ‘flow state’ activities corresponded with decreased activity. The network of structures in the brain responsible for creating that sense of what it is like to be you, are essentially switched off in these states of immersion. The default mode network is of particular interest to neuroscientists, psychologists and psychiatrists as there is a belief that a hyperactivity in this network of the brain could be the neurological basis for the development of mental disorders.

In other words the default mode network acts like the conductor of an orchestra, repressing the chaos of everyone playing their own tune, keeping the different parts in harmony

The idea of investigating psychedelic experiences for treating mental disorders is not new. Michael Pollan, in his book How to Change Your Mind, tells the story of how psychedelic science was a promising and legitimate field of inquiry in the 1950s and 1960s. Unfortunately, due to concerns relating to the growing counterculture and anti-war movement, the Nixon Government banned these compounds, effectively shutting down a promising line of research. Robin Carhartt-Harris, David Nutt and their team at Imperial College London, are two researchers at the vanguard of this renaissance and some of their theories related to the default mode network have significant implications for our understanding of psychedelic experience, the brain and mental disorder. Carhartt-Harris and his team found that the brain and in particular the default mode network, under the influence of psychedelics, exhibited decreased levels of activity, similar to those found in states of flow.

The brain is a hierarchical system, with the more recent, evolved parts, including key parts of the default mode network, exhibiting an inhibitory or repressive effect on the lower parts of the brain. Carhartt-Harris and his team argue, that the default mode network acts like the conductor of an orchestra, repressing the chaos of everyone playing their own tune, keeping the different parts in harmony. The neuroimaging research conducted showed that during psychedelic experiences, this conducting part of the brain essentially switches off, allowing for increased connectivity between different areas which are usually not in communication. 

The Entropic Brain Hypothesis

This research by Carhartt-Harris and his team led to the publishing of a theory called The Entropic Brain Hypothesis, a theory which suggests that our ‘normal’ waking consciousness is the result of a slightly skewed balance between flexible and rigid states. Entropy is defined as the level of uncertainty in a system, and, as can be seen below, high entropy states are associated with flexible thought, like creative or ‘dream-like’ thinking, whilst low entropy states are associated with rigid thought, characterised by obsessiveness and addiction. 

The entropic brain hypothesis: spectrum of cognitive states

Psychedelic experiences, emotion and sensation

In a 2018 paper researching the effects of psychedelics, researchers using neuroimaging, found that LSD induces increased connectivity in the sensory and somatic motor areas of the brain. This network of neurons is mapped to the sensory experiences of our body, indicating that LSD increases these signals, whilst decreasing connectivity in the areas of ‘associative thinking’, which include the prefrontal cortex, responsible for most of our executive function. This increased connectivity also extended to the amygdala, which is heavily involved in the emotional processing of stimulus. So a psychedelic state is exhibited by high sensitivity to sensory information, increased emotional response and the reduced executive functions relating to internally focused thought (thinking of the past and future, and mental constructions of self). 

What is interesting about this research is that the psychedelic state is not associated with a higher form of consciousness, but in fact a more primal, or primitive form of consciousness. The quieting of the default mode network appears to open the door to elements of our subconscious experience that are not usually available to us. The question then becomes, why do many mental health professionals believe that this state can have positive outcomes for patients?

Mental disorders including depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress, are characterised by mental constructions that can become rigid and debilitating. One theory of why these experiences have positive outcomes, is that they act as a ‘circuit-breaker’ of these rigid patterns of thought, allowing patients to regain perspective. Another possibility is that these experiences, when accompanied with psychotherapy, allow patients to access memories and emotions that are otherwise unavailable, facilitating catharsis and acceptance.

This research appears to show that psychedelic experiences allow for some of these rigid mental constructions to be switched off, providing a reset and a new, balanced perspective.

The Divided Brain

A sense of balance between competing ways of viewing the world is exactly what is proposed in Iain McGilchrist’s magnum opus The Master and his Emissary. This book, twenty years in the making, detailed the neurological research into the different “views” of the left and right hemispheres of the brain. McGilchrist makes clear that, despite the burgeoning amount of pop psychology stating otherwise, both hemispheres are involved in what the brain does.

Where things differ however, is in how the brain does what it does and how the different hemispheres ‘view’ the world. The left hemisphere’s view is more sequential and fixed, processing information linearly toward some objective that it has picked out of the broader context. In contrast, the right hemisphere takes a broader, big picture view of the world, developing implicit understanding (as opposed to knowledge). This includes the understanding of metaphor, imagery, an ability to see patterns and read facial expressions and to appreciate art and the harmony and melodies of music. 

One of McGilchrist’s central concerns, is that the left’s fixed, sequential, linear view of the world leads to a re-presentation of reality, one devoid of the broader context. According to McGilchrist, the left hemisphere’s view is a reproduction, essentially a virtual reality, which is mostly interested in objects and ‘things’ as opposed to people and the environment. When our representation of reality becomes detached from the broader context for long periods, our experience can become what he terms, a ‘hall of mirrors’; an oppressive sense of being trapped within the mental constructs of our own thoughts.

Psychedelic experiences appear to open a door to this hall of mirrors, allowing a window to the outside world; a reset and rescue from the matrix of the associating minds representation of reality

This sense of being trapped in the hall of mirrors maps onto the type of rigid thinking typified by a low-entropy state in The Entropic Brain Hypothesis. Psychedelic experiences appear to open a door to this hall of mirrors, allowing a window to the outside world, a reset and rescue from the matrix of the associating minds representation of reality. There is a clear overlap between flexible or rigid thinking and the left and right hemisphere’s view of the world, between the grasping and sequential processing of the more rigid, left hemisphere and the contextually rich, intuitive understanding of the more flexible view of the right. Thousands of years of ancient spiritual traditions have spoken of the need for balance in the way we view the world and current psychological and neuroscientific research appears to have now caught up.

Bringing it all together

Whilst our sense of self and our ability to plan and reason are critical to our daily lives, it appears that these elements of our thinking can become counterproductive if they do not take into account a broader context. With the increasing digitisation of our leisure, work and social interactions there seems to be a creeping tendency to allow a more fixed, re-presented view of the world to dominate, potentially contributing to the significant increases in depression globally. Psychedelic experiences have been shown to be an effective treatment for many individuals suffering from intractable mental disorders. Organisations like MIND Foundation in Europe and Mind Medicine in Australia, along with many others, are working to educate mental health professionals, governments and the wider community as to their benefits and risks. By building awareness about these experiences, along with an understanding of who might benefit, we can remove some of the ‘war on drugs’ dogma that has shut down any debate regarding these treatments and begin to build a new paradigm of understanding for mental health treatments.

Straddling Order and Chaos: Psychedelics and The Entropic Brain

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of the earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree

T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding

The exploration of the mind is the final frontier. We seem to have exhausted our horizontal expansion and so, we must look further inward and upward, to the deepest depths and the highest heights of our psychological experiences and wrestle with one of sciences greatest mysteries, the brain and our conscious experience.

Michael Pollan, in his bestselling book How To Change Your Mind looked to do just that. This book was a sweeping review of the history of psychedelics, charting their surprising history that began with their early embrace by the psychiatric community, their eventual demonisation in response to the counter culture of the 1960’s and their eventual rehabilitation by researchers at the end of the 20th Century. The book, whilst focusing on the history of the drugs and the authors own experiences also delves into the neuroscience behind these molecules, heavily referencing researchers at Imperial College London by the name of Robin Carhart-Harris and David Nutt, both of whom have been studying the effect of Psychedelics on the human brain.

Dr Carhart-Harris, is Head of the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London and in 2014 he laid out a theory called The Entropic Brain. Entropy is the level of uncertainty or surprise in a system, a high entropic system having a large degree of uncertainty/surprise, a low entropic system a smaller degree. There is a point of criticality in any entropic system where it is balanced between order and chaos and it appears from neuroimaging data that this point of ‘criticality’ in our own consciousness occurs in a more archaic or ‘primary’ state, a consciousness sitting below our normal waking experience. It appears as though our normal waking consciousness actively represses entropy, pushing the system into a more sub-critical state with less chaos and more rigidity. The paper focuses on how psychedelic states appear to return our conscious experiences to a more primary state, a state of greater entropy and connectivity, a less ‘repressive’ state.

The brain is a hierarchical system with consciousness being described by some as an emergent property resulting from the ‘self-organised criticality’ of the system, or in other words the brain being more than the sum of its parts, with consciousness emerging somehow from the interrelationship of neural structures. Carhart-Harris, with a background in psychoanalytic theory, discusses Freud’s theories of the ego & the id in the context of his entropic brain theory and proposes that the neural correlates of the ego have been found in something called the default mode network.

The functional centrality of the default mode network is not shared by other neural systems. Current research implies that the default mode network is the highest level of control in the brain. The default mode network serves as a conductor of the orchestra, the executive of total brain function, being relatively removed from sensory processing and predominantly engaged in higher-level, metacognitive tasks such as self-reflection, theory-of-mind (attributing mental states to yourself and others) as well as mental time travel (reflecting on the past, imagining the future). Essentially the default mode network is the centre for the creation of the narrative-self, what Freud described as the ego.

This narrative self is responsible for how we orient ourselves in the world, along with determining our goal directed activity that allows us to survive and thrive, what is called our normal state of consciousness or ‘waking/secondary consciousness’. It appears as though this state of awareness is responsible for filtering out the experiences that are superfluous to our survival, repressing more primary or entropic states, that are representative of what Freud called the id. This repression of entropy, it is proposed, is what allows us to focus on that which is immediately important for our evolutionary success, but it also blocks out many different states of consciousness that are lurking beneath our normal waking veneer.

The authors desire to integrate psychoanalytic theory into the study of mind is motivated by the gap in our scientific understanding of the unconscious, partly created by the consensus of cognitive psychology. Cognitive psychology focuses on the thoughts and subsequent actions of someone in mental distress, seeking to reduce maladaptive behaviour by creating tasks and coping mechanisms to redirect thoughts and action. The authors view is that whilst managing maladaptive thoughts and behaviours relating to mental distress via cognitive & behavioural psychology is very important, this approach only deals with the symptoms of a deeper, more intractable problem. The psychoanalytic viewpoint has been left behind by the scientific consensus of the psychology field, due to the previous inability to test these assumptions using the scientific method. The hope of Carhart-Harris et al. and others is that by examining the effects of psychedelics on the brains of both patients and ‘healthy normals’ we will be able to examine the unconscious mind and devise therapeutic methods to treat previously intractable psychological problems.

Based on neuroimaging, the administration of psychedelics appears to decouple the hippocampi region, the region responsible for the regulation of emotion and development of memory, from the Default Mode Network. This could mean that the brain is no longer repressing the signals emanating from the hippocampus, allowing access and insights into memories or emotions that we suppress or have forgotten. This hypothesis reflects the subjective reports of many people who have taken psychedelics, particularly in a therapeutic setting, reporting vivid childhood memories, forgotten traumas and visceral emotions. It is hoped that by gaining access to this deeper wellspring of mental life, and through the right integrative therapeutic approaches, this primary state can serve as the catalyst for individuals to engage with psychological issues at their source, rather than just their symptoms.

Depression is one of the most pressing of these psychological issues today. The SSRI drugs, which showed so much promise for its treatment when launched in the 1980’s do not work as well as they did and access to adequate mental health care is lacking for most. It is proposed that the hyperactivity of the default mode network (an overactive ego) leads to a narrow and intense introspection which is characteristic of depressive symptoms. An overactive ego leads to more introspective metacognitive tasks, leading to an over emphasis on maladaptive self-narrative and an increase in negative, rigid thinking characteristic of depression and anxiety. This rigid thinking and excessive order is characterised as the ‘tyrannical’ ego, an incessantly critical voice that obscures perspective, filtering out or repressing outside experience that could potentially break pathological patterns of thought. The authors discuss how mild depression may have been evolutionary adaptive, with it potentially being a form of reality testing that allowed us to successfully and efficiently navigate our ancestral environment. However, for those suffering from treatment resistant depression, it appears as though this potentially adaptive trait has become overactive, no longer serving the individual and potentially putting their lives in danger.

Extensive research has demonstrated the astounding positive results of psychedelic experiences in improving the psychological outlook of those diagnosed with terminal cancer and people struggling with addiction and treatment resistant depression. It appears that psychedelics break the neural patterns of thought that lead to excessive rigidity of thinking, ‘rebooting’ the mind through a return to a primary consciousness that increases connectivity between different parts of the brain and allows a kind of cognitive reset.

Psychedelic therapy could possibly be a major breakthrough in the enhancement of the existing efficacy of psychotherapeutic techniques. By silencing the ego, clients or patients of therapists may be able to feel emotions that have been previously unavailable to them, recollect and come to terms with long-forgotten memories and face down demons locked deeply away in their unconscious, gaining a new sense of perspective and laying new ‘tracks’ of thought. The narrative and explanation of the ego being located in the default mode network may yet prove to be to simple, however as neuroscience and our understanding of these compounds develop, the potential for significant breakthroughs in mental health treatment could be revolutionary.