Do Psychedelics Expand the Mind?


On his latest Netflix special, stand-up comedian Bill Burr has a psilocybin mushroom story that sheds some light on the question: do psychedelics expand the mind?

Here’s a YouTube clip if you want to hear the story yourself (warning: NSFW language).

At first, Burr says, he felt calm and enjoyed the experience. But then, this deep feeling of unworthiness and loneliness washed over him, and he couldn’t shake it.

Burr thought of his wife and his kids to ground him, but the sinking feeling told him that even his own family didn’t love him.

“All right,” Burr says, “what the f*ck is this? Because I know that’s bullshit.” Burr says he realized that depressed feeling was the anxiety he felt as a child.

Now, what can we make of this story? Despite the change in his brain activity, you could argue that Bill Burr’s mind didn’t “expand.” If anything, he had a negative trip, and his sober, rational thoughts returned him to reality.

We know psychedelics alter your sense of perception and awareness. This goes without saying. But do psychedelics expand the mind? Or is it all a cultural phenomenon we associate with psychedelics?

What does the science say?


How Psilocybin Works in the Brain


Before we can answer whether psychedelics expand the mind, we must look at how psychedelics work in the brain.

Psychedelics work with the neurotransmitter serotonin by binding to the 2A subtype (5-HT2A) receptor. Other neurotransmitters are also involved, such as dopamine, norepinephrine, GABA, and glutamate.

Once upon a time, it was believed psychedelics increased activity in the brain. However, recent studies have indicated the opposite is happening. 

Aldous Huxley (author of Doors of Perception) believed psychedelics acted as a “reducing valve” in the brain. And research indicates he might have been right.

One study used fMRI to study psilocybin in the brain. The researchers saw reduced brain activity in the prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortex.

Researchers believe these two interconnected regions are involved with emotional regulations, cognitive processing, and introspection.

The study’s authors concluded that specific brain regions that usually coordinate with each other get diminished with psilocybin.






How Lysergamides (LSD) Work in the Brain


A study from the Beckley Imperial Research Programme was the first of its kind. Researchers scanned brains on LSD in real time.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, these findings are akin to the discovery of the Higgs-Boson particle in physics.

This study used the latest technology to scan brains and compare the results of a group on LSD to a group using a placebo. The researchers used MRI, and DAT scans to show how the brain’s Default Mode Network (DMN) reduces on LSD. 

The DMN is the scientific term for where our ego comes from. It filters our perceptions and awareness, allowing us to stay in control and act in the world.

When the DMN is reduced, we become less ego-driven, slipping into a baby-like existence. A reduced DMN means less rigidity in forming new associations.

Essentially, psychedelics expand the mind by reducing brain wave synchronization. So brain waves are less coordinated. Reducing the traditional separations in the brain allows for greater connectivity and communication. 

Brain waves associated with creativity and well-being help explain why users report dream-like states of consciousness on psychedelics. 

This study also saw how LSD caused the Retrosplenial cortex to disconnect. This part of the brain is crucial to our sense of self.

Do psychedelics expand the mind? Possibly, by reducing brain activity. But what does that mean, exactly? 

How can you expand your mind by diminishing your brain’s DMN?


How Do Psychedelics Expand the Mind?


Traditionally, researchers thought psychedelics expanded the brain. Recent research is turning this idea on its head. Psychedelics reduce brain activity and possibly expand the mind.

Our brain works hard to filter out the chaos and noise of the universe, so we can focus on what keeps us happy and alive.

If you view the brain and mind as essentially the same thing, then can you say psychedelics expand the mind? When you reduce your brain’s activity, you experience a primordial state of awareness. 

Would this be an expansion or a return to a “lower form” of being?

Suppose you view the mind as a separate, emergent metaphysical property. Then yes, in that case, you could say psychedelics do expand the mind. 

But how? If the mind is emergent of the brain, for example, wouldn’t a diminished brain produce a duller mind?

Perhaps philosophy is better suited than science for an answer. Consider how philosopher Alan Watts put it,

“It’s as if you had a light covered with a black ball, and in this ball were pinholes, and each pinhole is an aperture through which the light comes out. So in that way, every one of us is a pinhole through which the fundamental light—that is, the existence itself—looks out.”

Perhaps psychedelics aren’t expanding the mind insomuch as they’re broadening the pinhole. 

In that sense, asking if psychedelics expand the mind is like asking if psychedelics puts you in touch with the primordial “ground of being,” that persists throughout the universe. 

And in that case, the answer is yes. Psychedelics expand the mind by reducing brain activity and connecting us with a larger phenomenon. You can call it consciousness, mind, enlightenment, god, dark matter – whatever you want!


What About Bill Burr?


But what about Bill Burr? When he tried psychedelics, did his mind expand?

It seems like it didn’t. It sounds like Bill Burr had a bad trip by involuntarily recalling the anxious feeling he had as a child. But then, he used his rational mind to talk himself out of the bad trip.

So psychedelics won’t expand the mind if you don’t take enough? Is that the lesson? But then look at meditators. They’re expanding the mind without psychedelics.

What specific neurobiological conditions must exist to result in being aware of one’s self? 

What is the relationship between the mind and the brain? Or between the mind and the serotonin receptors in the human gut?

Until we have these questions answered, the question, do psychedelics expand the mind, won’t have a definite answer.

For now, we can say psychedelics reduce brain wave synchronization, thereby altering our conscious state. Whether you consider that an expansion of your mind will depend on what you believe about the experience.

But for what’s it worth, going in and out of a psychedelic state from time to time is an excellent way to put things in perspective. And if that doesn’t count as expanding the mind, then nothing does.


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