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Altered consciousness isn’t higher consciousness

by Jon Farrow
Nov 13 / 18
Psychedelics-banner-Daniel Olah
Banner image courtesy of Daniel Olah on Unsplash.

What mind-altering drugs teach us about mind and consciousness

Drugs like LSD and magic mushrooms may feel like they elevate you to a higher plane of consciousness, but philosopher Tim Bayne, a senior fellow in CIFAR’s Brain, Mind & Consciousness program, argues that this is not a useful way to talk about the phenomenon.

In a recent paper published in Neuroscience of Consciousness, Tim Bayne and Olivia Carter take aim at the notion that consciousness is a phenomenon usefully described by the terminology of “levels.” Their ammunition? LSD and magic mushrooms.

The idea that consciousness is arranged on a one-dimensional scale, from coma to sedation to wakefulness, is a pervasive one. But it’s also problematic. Some states may be intuitively “higher” than others, but what about states like psychedelic trips that are higher in some ways and lower in others? If states like this exist – and we know they do – maybe it’s time to start questioning the validity of the scale.

“Psychedelics have a lot to teach us about consciousness. For one thing, we would like to know why certain drugs have the impact on consciousness that they do, while other drugs—such as ketamine—modulate consciousness in very different ways,” Bayne says.

Psychedelics “increase the bandwidth of perceptual experience,” for instance making colours feel more vibrant. But they also impair attention and critical thinking, causing, for example, a reduced ability to understand proverbs. If you were desperate to hold on to the “levels of consciousness” framework, you could imagine that these increases and decreases might cancel each other out to some middle value, but how do you reconcile experiences that are qualitatively different? Is a feeling of oneness, or a diluted sense of time, a higher state? Or a lower one? That question loses meaning.

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According to Bayne, evidence from psychedelic states is bad news for two of the major current theories of consciousness, Global Workspace Theory and Integrated Information Theory. They both rely on a unidimensional concept of consciousness and “they both face significant problems. We are a long way from having a plausible theory of consciousness.”

Why focus on psychedelics in particular? The scientific literature is full of studies about them. We understand many of their psychological, physiological, and neurological effects. This, argues Bayne, connects the biological to the philosophical and makes them a perfect probe for studying not only the theoretical framework of consciousness, but also its biological basis, the holy grail for researchers in this field.

On the one hand consciousness is so utterly familiar to us, but at the same time our ordinary tools for understanding the world seem to be so inadequate when it comes to consciousness. It poses particularly deep and interesting philosophical challenges.

“On the one hand consciousness is so utterly familiar to us, but at the same time our ordinary tools for understanding the world seem to be so inadequate when it comes to consciousness. It poses particularly deep and interesting philosophical challenges.”

So while psychedelics might not take us to a higher level of consciousness, they may help us get a better handle on the complex, multivariate phenomenon that is consciousness itself. And that will get us closer to answering one of the deepest and oldest questions in science: what is it really like in someone else’s mind?