Psychedelic drug users often claim to achieve higher states of consciousness while under the influence, and now for the first time scientists may have confirmed that's true, reports MedicalXpress.com.
In a study led by neuroscientists at the University of Sussex, subjects were given controlled doses of either psilocybin, ketamine or LSD. Researchers then measured the spontaneous magnetoencephalographic (MEG) signals — tiny magnetic fields — in their brains and found that, across all three drugs, the subjects showed higher neural signal diversity, a key measure of the complexity of brain activity. That's compared to the subjects' normal waking state.
"This finding shows that the brain-on-psychedelics behaves very differently from normal," explained Professor Anil Seth, co-director of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex. "Since this measure has already shown its value as a measure of 'conscious level,' we can say that the psychedelic state appears as a higher 'level' of consciousness than normal — but only with respect to this specific mathematical measure."
The discovery of a higher state of consciousness, even if drug-induced, is a tantalizing prospect. Not only might it verify claims of some drug users, but it could lead to the development of more effective treatments for those suffering from mental impairments or depression.
"Rigorous research into psychedelics is gaining increasing attention, not least because of the therapeutic potential that these drugs may have when used sensibly and under medical supervision," said Dr. Robin Cahart-Harris of Imperial College London.
Researchers are cautiously excited by the findings, but it's also important to put these results into perspective. Neural signal diversity is just one measure of brain activity, and it's not entirely clear yet what these "higher" levels of activity indicate. Furthermore, the results do not necessarily mean that the psychedelic state is a better or more desirable state of consciousness. They also don't mean that psychedelic states produce insights that are more accurate than insights achieved during normal alertness.
The next research goal will be to identify more specifically how information flow through the brain changes during psychedelic experience, such as during hallucinations.
The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.