A Case for Study of Psychedelics and Consciousness

Kala Kshetram — Lotus on temple ceiling , Thillai Natarajar Koil,...
Lotus on temple ceiling , Thillai Natarajar Koil, Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu (Source: Arjuna Vallabha)

Navigating everyday mundane life is just what it is – life. A few of us do indulge in time for reflection and meditation. Some of us pursue complex rituals to achieve meditative state and some do it in much more aggressive manner such a working in a “flow” state. The goals are different, but from time to time we do achieve “different” states of consciousness momentarily – but never densely getting involved in deciphering them, understanding them. Even eastern societies, which have spent considerable amount of time and efforts in past to understand consciousness and trying to organize it are now somewhat leading life in a set of the same “normal state”. I get reminded of someone I know who was visibly angry about discussions on sexuality, but would pray to a Shiva lingam daily – without knowing the philosophy that it encompasses. Much of our lives we may navigate with such opacity in our actions. Still, from time to time, we do peek into our consciousness itself. Maybe praying to a Shiva or Allah didn’t help today, but your mom smiled at you and ran her hands through your hair and your heart melted with a rush of hormones in your body. You experienced something. And along these lines, I’ll discuss some possibilities of understanding states of consciousness.

Life, Universe and Everything

While searching some thing unrelated, I recently stumbled upon the following video, parts of which I will discuss in this blog.

Having never ingested any mind altering chemical yet, this video fascinates me. First, its not some random dudes or Vice News collecting YouTube likes and cash by playing with LSD and creating “you won’t believe..” click-baits. Secondly, and most importantly, it is a very interesting summary and attempt to mathematically classify/categorize mental and physical experiences upon ingesting a chemical. The tone remains scientific and inquisitive and there is an attempt to classify visual patterns in altered states under DMT influence – with a special focus on hyperbolic geometry. The people behind this look like serious folks attempting to uncover at least some mysteries of consciousness and meaning of life. And its refreshingly new work in the field of study of consciousness. Andrés has attempted to quantify bliss algorithmically using fMRI imaging and theory of harmonics. I am new to the realm, but these folks are like modern age Yogis with tools of science in one hand and skepticism in another. New age philosophies may evolve and limits of our understanding itself may get tested in these circles.

This specific talk was delivered at a new club at Harvard called Harvard Science of Psychedelics Club and what follows are some of my views on it.

Math and Nature

So, my first solid introduction to fractals was in the Parallel Computing Systems course I took during my PhD. Our instructor had asked us to parallelize creation of a dragon curve – probably a Heighway Dragon or Twindragon using OpenCL and observe the speedup. I took the opportunity to investigate other fractals and what awestruck at Mandelbrot Set and its co-relation with Logistic Map. In one equation I could see the similarity between seemingly magical population stabilization as well as striking similarity with Cyclamen leaves that have similar (but not same) patterns – just one equation folds and unfurls new and unrelated phenomenon in nature.

Mandelbrot Set Pattern on Cyclamen Leaves - EPOD - a service of USRA
Source: Thalia Traianou

Andre’s talk opened my mind further and first introduced me to the tangible difference between euclidean geometry and hyperbolic geometry. I could associate with it better now. Next, what just amazed me was how the variation in DMT doses brings about varying changes in experiences. Multiple variables are responsible for what happens. Keeping aside the awesomeness of actually experiencing world in complex geometrical patterns, the actual geometry you “reach” changes with how much mg of DMT you take. So hyperbolic geometry may manifest in higher doses as your “trip” progresses and you may see beings and other objects. This is the visual part. At the same time, you also “feel” – this again is interesting. Bliss states have been observed along with confusion on seeing entities. The mind tried to makes sense of what it sees, the chemicals keep it grounded. Things seem unreal but not totally unfamiliar. Of course, these are what I hear from some brave psychonauts (as they call them) who took DMT and write about their trip experiences. For a more comprehensive read, you can go through this work by Andres. It is just so interesting to see the patterns that we experience are very very close to nature manifesting such things and allowing us to perceive them even in our “normal state”.

Thoughts on DMT Research

Limits of Visual Comprehension? What is also very interesting to observe is in the the actual overlapping between what your visual sensors are telling you and the very same patterns that exist in nature. Such geometries exist around us, (in broccoli, corals, crystal lattices) and can be mathematically deduced. At the same time, our brain starts to see all things in these “wallpaper modes”. Metaphorically, it is as if your eye leaves the body, becomes small and sharp as a laser beam and traverses the microscopic structures in materials that surround us while at the same time also remaining in your head and looking at the world as is in its normal dimensions. Then superimposing both these projections. I think there are some possibilities on why we experience what we experience while on DMT:

  • Our brain could potentially have the capability to synthesize DMT endogenously in lower doses (research is ongoing). Since most of our matter has very familiar, mathematically defined structures, so does our brain and its perception mechanism and what defines (the yet unknown) consciousness. Hence, we could be accustomed to DMT since ages – we just don’t know it yet. We evolved with the molecule evolving with us (serotonin and melatonin are structural analogous chemicals human body produces) There may be ways to unlock our heightened perception via meditation (again, maaaybe), or very scientifically via direct vapors/oral ingestion of similar compounds. So, in the past we actually may have had mechanisms in our primitive minds to understand the tripping wallpaper modes and things we call DMT objects and structures while in a trip – but we don’t really have access to it anymore since our consciousness is now limited – our “normal state” is now just too normal maybe. So, DMT acts very chemically here – no magic – just pure reactions happening in a meatbag.
  • Another possibility is that we actually unlock parts of our brain momentarily via chemicals and we do really unlock very radical and unaccessed consciousness states, but since we can’t understand what we are perceiving, our brain tries its best and projects very fundamental mathematical structures that the brain can comprehend while giving a meaning to it somehow – keeping depth perception there momentarily for example and projecting patterns over 3D objects. In addition, while discussing the yet non-qualitative part here – chemical interactions are also responsible for similar ones that serotonin etc would produce – bliss, love. So, a complex interaction of our brain making sense of heightened conscious states and some of the base “feelings” is what we are left with. We may discover deep inner workings of the mind, nature and everything. Maybe opportunity to answer the eternal questions about our existence that various religious figures have tried over millennia, but failed.

Similarity with religious elements. All such experiences have been very similar and consistent to religious/yogic experiences we have heard/read about. Infact, such is the influence that we have codified much of this in the form of practices that elevate our conscience. Yogic practitioners consistently (but till now, unscientifically) have reported very similar experiences to DMT – experiencing entities, oneness with each and every element of nature, pure bliss, unlocking of Sahasrara Chakra via Kundalini and visualizing chrysanthemum state patterns (adapted to Lotus forms in India) . Such has been the significance in Indian traditions that most ancient and even modern temples have incorporated such patterns and symmetries in their architecture – as if constantly reminding us of the brief glimpses one might see of the “other side”. There is high probability that much of religion is result of folks that were high on chemicals or genuinely had unlocked heightened consciousness via meditation etc. And then, returning from the trips, explained positive experiences to benefit the rest of humankind living in its “normal state”. Almost all enlightened folks/prophets have been described throughout history as being compassionate, calm, devoid of ego or any extremes of emotions. I believe DMT in a proper context of self-awareness may be delivering such a mental alteration as well – and of course many new folks have reported this (till now unscientifically as well) in the New Age thought driven spirituality.

Material and energy interactions. Condensed down to a very fundamental form, it seems quite true that all our conscious states are a result of material and energy interactions – a constant intermixing and transformation of this happening in our body. Very similar things happen on cosmic scales as well to large amounts of matter and energy. In that sense the approach to this may seem very nihilistic. Everything is actually nothing. All our emotions, ego, achievement, everything we’ve loved, hated, created and the whole existence is insignificant in terms of how they happen and on larger scales. Thus, our complete consciousness and and any attempt to alter conscience is also meaningless since it arises from such matter-energy interactions. But herein lies the catch – we still have to find if there is meaning or not in order to judge whether this nihilistic hypothesis is true or not. And for that, DMT altered states at least provide a more grounded tool to explore this next unknown realm.

We see very different phenomena very similarly visually – shapes on leafs, lightning, corals as well as galaxies – showing there is some math, but then there is also enough chaos and still undiscovered/unexplained phenomenon that is observed while on psychedelics. So, there is much left to understand why we see what we see. As a scientist, this is enough for me. There is an unknown observed phenomenon, and we must understand what it is. Even if we are insignificant, consider this as an exercise small enough to indulge our senses. I hope to see some good coming out of this research that pushes boundary of our understanding of not just structural and functional components of our brain, but also our conscience. I also hope to access untouched areas of my brain someday to understand it and our existence better. If society is willing to accepted “trippy” temple ceilings and some total unscientific religious BS as truth, it should also normalize research on psychedelics for truly and holistically understanding science of the brain.

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