Consciousness

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Demystifying the psychedelic experience

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Marta Kaczmarczyk: I have an MSc degree in Cognitive and Decision Sciences from University College London and Post-MSc in User System Interaction from the Technical University of Eindhoven (TU/e). I also worked as an academic researcher on medical and health-related mobile and web applications. What combines both of these backgrounds is my search for the most effective way to help people to get into an optimised mind and body health state.

This search for effective support tools is also a reason why I began to be interested in the therapeutic potential of psychedelics. To enable discussion on the topic and connect with like-minded individuals, I co-founded the Psychedelic Society of the Netherlands. The Society is a non-profit organisation that advocates for an open, unbiased discussion on the topic of psychedelics and the prospects of using them for improved mental and physical wellbeing.

I am also a biohacking/optimisation consultant under the project name: Embodying the Mind. My main specialisation is stress management, which I see as the basis for any health improvement.

RB: What is the underlying focus of your work?

MK: In short, the main focus of my work is health optimisation. I believe that we all can achieve optimal levels of how our minds and bodies function. The basis for this work, in my opinion, is finding tailored for the needs and lifestyle stress management practices and tools for processing emotions in a balanced non-reactive way.

I work towards propagating these ideas in multiple ways:

  • as a consultant and coach – I help people to find their way into a calmer life
  • as a speaker – I give talks on the topic of biohacking and psychedelics
  • as a psychedelic activist, blogger, and speaker highlighting good practices for the psychedelic experience

Regarding the psychedelics, unfortunately, there is very little out there on the good practices for the psychedelic sessions. Therefore, I focus a lot on informing people about crucial elements that should be met to have a beneficial outcome from the experience.

What I feel is also lacking in the psychedelic community is a discussion about these compounds from the broader perspective. I am a big fan of the systems approach, and I feel this perspective should be utilized for the psychedelic experience. That means we should be looking into how going through a session influences your body, brain, emotional state, social interactions, morality, spirituality and the way you relate to your old environment. By understanding this, we can research practices that could optimize both preparation and integration techniques.

RB: The psychedelic movement seems to be divided into two groups, those that believe in entities, beings or spirits and those who see these forms as constructs of the mind and as hallucinations. Can you say something more about the differences between these two groups and can they be reconciled?

MK: The psychedelic community is divided into people who believe in separate from self-entities or spirits and encountered them in their psychedelic experience, those who perceived them during the experience but consider them as the product of the mind, and those who have never seen them and they either treat all visions as the product of the psyche or are open to many explanations.  The most common example of people who see entities as independent are shamans who communicate with those beings and bring information from them into an ordinary world. The more scientifically inclined camp sees psychedelic visions as products of the psyche, more like symbols in dreams.

Discussion about the topic is tricky because, for some people, belief in spirits and entities is part of their identity. Therefore those conversations sometimes become very emotional as some people see it as an attack on who they are.

I am on the side of those who believe that these concepts are a product of the mind. However, I am not dismissing the people who think that entities or spirits exist as autonomous identities. For me, this is just a different way of processing information about the world and the concept of self and others. A person with firm boundaries and feelings of individuality will see herself/himself as separate from the collective and will most likely lean towards the higher perception of agency and responsibility for own actions. A person who is more rooted in the collective and tends to see herself/himself as part of the group or tribe might see reality as more interconnected and more outside of the psyche. Hence, the latter type of a person is more likely to believe in spirits and entities.

If a person who was born in our individualistic culture believes that entities and spirits are independent from their mind, I think they should ask themselves why that is so? Is that belief beneficial for them? Or maybe this is a form of coping strategy with some overwhelming emotions or unmet childhood needs? Because both options can be true – belief in independent beings can be either higher connection to others and nature and seeing yourself as part of the whole, but also it can be a protection mechanism from some uncomfortable truths or emotions. That belief can also be a sign that such a person grew up in the environment that led to fluid boundaries (for example, because parents did not respect child’s need for privacy or parent’s needs were put upfront child’s needs). People with fluid boundaries tend to have a lower distinction between self and others. So in a way, they are more interconnected with others, but in an unhealthy way because, for example, other people’s emotions can overwhelm them.

So to sum up, for me this all depends on your background and how you see the world in general. I feel that the reconciliation then could come from this perspective and not seeing the issue so black and white.

RB: You are the co-founder and a coordinator of Psychedelic Society of the Netherlands. Can you say more about this organisation and what are its aims?

MK: We established the Psychedelic Society of the Netherlands as a meeting place for people interested in learning more about psychedelics. We advocate for safe, responsible, and informed use of psychedelics as a means for exploring non-ordinary states of consciousness, for therapeutic and developmental purposes.

The Society organizes events related to the psychedelic experience. These are lectures, movie screenings, music events, art classes, and discussion groups. We aim for a holistic approach, discussing the social, cultural, therapeutic, and scientific aspects of the use of psychedelics. We provide opportunities for open discussions with experts in the field, including writers, scientists, therapists, and people with extensive personal experience. We are actively collaborating with other Psychedelic Societies around the world to spread the good news, safe practices, share speakers, and reliable information about these substances.

RB: What are the mental health and therapeutic benefits from the use of psychedelics and what are the detrimental effects?

MK: For me, the most prominent therapeutic potential of these substances is that they amplify autonomous patterns of subconscious behaviour, thoughts, and emotions, and even physical responses. In addition, the decrease in the activity of the default mode network (a network that is responsible for the control of self-awareness) dissociates a person from the process so one can become more like an objective observer of the self. Finally, psychedelics open the brain to increased plasticity. So with appropriate preparation, a participant of the psychedelic session can observe their subconscious patterns and immediately change the interpretation of those patterns. If a proper integration practice follows this, it can result in permanent improvements.

The detrimental effects usually appear if one opens to these subconscious patterns and finds material that is too disturbing or painful and has no tools to process them. If that happens, there is a risk that suppression or dissociation from difficult emotions will be amplified even after the experience. A skillful therapist can prevent this suppression. However, if the session is led by someone with less experience or done on its own, there is a risk that a person will magnify coping strategies. These coping mechanisms can vary from egomania, or a conviction that one touched the enlightened state, to decrease in self-worth or ridiculing the self or experience, daydreaming, dissociation, or depersonalization. Sometimes what is magnified are the obsessive thoughts and behaviours, which can be linked to anxiety or reward-seeking.

RB: What are the most common side effects that can result from psychedelic use?

MK: The side effects result from the destabilization of the human system during the experience and inability to bring the system back to homeostasis. Psychedelics disturb the inhibition/excitation balance of the nervous system and the brain and lead to a brief break of the usual patterns of functioning.

The most common side effects can be divided into:

Psychological issues:

– Dissociation and in extreme case depersonalization (feeling of being disconnected from one’s body, life feels like a dream, others seem to be mechanistic or not real)

– running into magical thinking

– egomania/hypomania

– excessive self-obsession

Physiological issues caused by dysregulated information processing:

– HPPD (Hallucinogen persisting perception disorder)

– inability to focus

As mentioned in my previous answers, the psychological issues are a result of uncovering suppressed emotions or patterns of thought that are too stressful, disturbing, or painful. They can be also linked to amplification of pre-session thought loops or behaviours. These loops can be either tied to anxiety or to reward-seeking. There is a possibility that if these loops become too extreme, the endogenous opioid system will try to control emotional pain and distress by releasing opiates, which act as a form of mild anesthesia and lead to an impression of disconnection from the body and eventually to depersonalization. The cortisol levels are dampened in the hope of forcing a recovery period from which a person is only able to get out when distressing thoughts/emotional loops are broken. The low cortisol puts a person in a fatigued state that causes further distress and disconnection, so this is a vicious cycle.

Manic effects are an amplification of reward-seeking behaviour. To avoid facing difficult emotions, the person chooses to cope with the pain by covering it with an increased need for rewards. This coping strategy can be further connected to magical thinking, which is an attempt to assign extra meaning to things that are ordinary or make forced connections between events that have no causal links.

Egomania seems to be a self-centred magic thinking during which a person compensates the felt pain by feelings of grandiosity and looks for signs supporting this coping strategy. If it is not linked to reward-seeking behaviour it is more excessive self-obsession that can be turned into self-sabotaging behaviour.

When it comes to physiological side effects, unfortunately, not much can be said about them because there is minimal research on the topic. There was even a debate in the scientific community, whether hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD) is a real thing because this side effect is highly unreported. HPPD is a disturbance of image processing persisting long after the experience is over. One can see trails, have blurry vision, etc. Many people do not report HPPD because this is not something that bothers them, or they are hoping that it will go away on its own. This destabilization is most likely caused by too much stress resulting from the experience and inability of the nervous system to go back to homeostasis. However, this is just my theory, and as I mentioned before, no one knows why HPPD occurs.

Less is even known about the inability to focus. Some people report brain fog after the experience. Again, this is probably linked to excessive emotional distress, but there are no publications on this topic.  

RB: What is your own personal experience of psychedelics?

MK: I have been taking psychedelics for around fifteen years. I started to take them in a more “recreational” setting with friends in nature. Back then, hardly anyone was talking about these substances as a therapeutic tool. I had been lucky because we were always taking medium doses and in a safe environment, so I had never had a bad experience. Then, I read something about 5meo-dmt and decided to take part in my first ceremony. The facilitators did not have appropriate training, and I was not prepared for this experience properly. I also did not receive sufficient integration information. I ended up being depersonalized for around half a year after this experience. The ceremony unlocked some suppressed, difficult emotions in me that I struggled to process. I used a compensation strategy of disconnecting from my body and going into overly positive mania afterward to deal with the subconscious content that was opened but not appropriately processed. When I was depersonalized, I knew there was something “wrong” with me, but no one could help me. The depersonalization ended with a massive crisis because when I was depersonalized I tended to “trust the universe” too much and overlooked many responsibilities and proper self-care.

This is why informing people about possible side effects and how to prevent, spot, and deal with them is such a big focus of my work. There are many people out there who have a similar story to mine, and they are struggling because there is limited information about the topic.

After I came out of the depersonalization, I have started to use psychedelics to decrease dissociative tendencies. But this process requires a lot of preparation, a lot of self-honesty, ensuring a perception of safety and comfort, and giving myself time and space to process it afterward. I also always make sure that I have someone to talk to afterwards who understands these processes. The mind can be deceptive, and you might be thinking that you made some improvements while all you did is an amplification of coping or compensation mechanisms. It is good to check in with someone who understands it to verify where you are taking yourself.

RB: Can there be a Psychedelic Code of Conduct?

MK: I think a Code of Conduct is much needed. After the publication of Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind there has been a surge of people interested in trying psychedelics. This created a business opportunity, and many people are trying to make money out of guiding psychedelic sessions. The problem is that many of these people have no appropriate background or are themselves in the middle of a severe unresolved emotional process. If that is the case, their services can create a potential risk of breaching participants’ safety, whether on an emotional or physical level. So a Code of Conduct that would enlist a minimum that the facilitator has to cover for the participant is needed. It should also be widely published so people who are seeking these experiences can check whether these points are fulfilled. Such a code of conduct should honour multiple approaches and be inclusive of both traditional indigenous cultures but also therapeutic and scientific models.

Here in the Netherlands, we are working on the Guild of Guides, a form of code of conduct for truffles’ facilitators. The truffles can be legally purchased in smartshops in the Netherlands, and the market of individual or group sessions is booming. Many people choose the option based on the visibility on social media, which in many cases, is not useful decision metrics. Additionally, many facilitators encouraged by positive reports in the media accept people with serious mental issues even though they have no experience or background to deal with such people. We are worried that things might get out of control, so we see a high need for self-regulation of the community, and the Code of Conduct could be one of the key elements in that process.

Many international organizations give tips on how to choose a facilitator, which is a form of code of conduct in the form of a guide. One of these is ICEERs https://www.iceers.org/interested-taking-ayahuasca/. With the Psychedelic Society of the Netherlands, we published a guide on how to choose a psychedelic facilitator http://www.psychedelicsocietynl.org/how-to-choose-a-guide/ . I would recommend reading one of those articles before deciding to go for a psychedelic session.

RB: Can you say something about your project ‘Embodying the Mind’?

MK: First of all, it is a blog and informational platform on which I share my knowledge on the topics of psychedelics and health optimisation. My expertise is a blend of my education, and both work and personal experience. I mix such ideas as systems theory, stress management, biohacking, somatic therapy, working with behavioural and emotional patterns, psychedelic preparation and integration, psychedelic harm reduction, movement therapies, and embodiment.

In addition to sharing information on the blog and Facebook page, I also provide consultancy or coaching under this name. The majority of my clients ask me for help with preparation or integration for the psychedelic experience, but I also work a lot with stress-related problems like lack of energy or disturbed circadian rhythms. Sometimes I combine both topics of health optimization and psychedelics and cannabis to give clients and advice on how to use these substances for improved wellbeing both on an emotional and physical level.

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www.psychedelicsocietynl.org

http://embodyingthemind.com/

The post Demystifying the psychedelic experience appeared first on Interalia Magazine.

How a trippy 1980s video effect might help to explain consciousness

How a trippy 1980s video effect might help to explain consciousness

Still from a video feedback sequence.
© Robert Pepperell 2018, Author provided

Robert Pepperell, Cardiff Metropolitan University

Explaining consciousness is one of the hardest problems in science and philosophy. Recent neuroscientific discoveries suggest that a solution could be within reach – but grasping it will mean rethinking some familiar ideas. Consciousness, I argue in a new paper, may be caused by the way the brain generates loops of energetic feedback, similar to the video feedback that “blossoms” when a video camera is pointed at its own output.

I first saw video feedback in the late 1980s and was instantly entranced. Someone plugged the signal from a clunky video camera into a TV and pointed the lens at the screen, creating a grainy spiralling tunnel. Then the camera was tilted slightly and the tunnel blossomed into a pulsating organic kaleidoscope.

Video feedback is a classic example of complex dynamical behaviour. It arises from the way energy circulating in the system interacts chaotically with the electronic components of the hardware.

As an artist and VJ in the 1990s, I would often see this hypnotic effect in galleries and clubs. But it was a memorable if unnerving experience during an LSD-induced trip that got me thinking. I hallucinated almost identical imagery, only intensely saturated with colour. It struck me then there might be a connection between these recurring patterns and the operation of the mind.

Brains, information and energy

Fast forward 25 years and I’m a university professor still trying to understand how the mind works. Our knowledge of the relationship between the mind and brain has advanced hugely since the 1990s when a new wave of scientific research into consciousness took off. But a widely accepted scientific theory of consciousness remains elusive.

The two leading contenders – Stanislas Dehaene’s Global Neuronal Workspace Model and Giulio Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory – both claim that consciousness results from information processing in the brain, from neural computation of ones and zeros, or bits.

I doubt this claim for several reasons. First, there is little agreement among scientists about exactly what information is. Second, when scientists refer to information they are often actually talking about the way energetic activity is organised in physical systems. Third, brain imaging techniques such as fMRI, PET and EEG don’t detect information in the brain, but changes in energy distribution and consumption.

Brains, I argue, are not squishy digital computers – there is no information in a neuron. Brains are delicate organic instruments that turn energy from the world and the body into useful work that enables us to survive. Brains process energy, not information.

Recognising that brains are primarily energy processors is the first step to understanding how they support consciousness. The next is rethinking energy itself.

Is the human brain a squishy digital computer or a delicate organic instrument for processing energy?
Installation shot of ‘I am a brain’, 2008. Cast of human brain in resin and metal. Robert Pepperell

What is energy?

We are all familiar with energy but few of us worry about what it is. Even physicists tend not to. They treat it as an abstract value in equations describing physical processes, and that suffices. But when Aristotle coined the term energeia he was trying to grasp the actuality of the lived world, why things in nature work in the way they do (the word “energy” is rooted in the Greek for “work”). This actualised concept of energy is different from, though related to, the abstract concept of energy used in contemporary physics.

When we study what energy actually is, it turns out to be surprisingly simple: it’s a kind of difference. Kinetic energy is a difference due to change or motion, and potential energy is a difference due to position or tension. Much of the activity and variety in nature occurs because of these energetic differences and the related actions of forces and work. I call these actualised differences because they do actual work and cause real effects in the world, as distinct from abstract differences (like that between 1 and 0) which feature in mathematics and information theory. This conception of energy as actualised difference, I think, may be key to explaining consciousness.

The human brain consumes some 20% of the body’s total energy budget, despite accounting for only 2% of its mass. The brain is expensive to run. Most of the cost is incurred by neurons firing bursts of energetic difference in unthinkably complex patterns of synchrony and diversity across convoluted neural pathways.

What is special about the conscious brain, I propose, is that some of those pathways and energy flows are turned upon themselves, much like the signal from the camera in the case of video feedback. This causes a self-referential cascade of actualised differences to blossom with astronomical complexity, and it is this that we experience as consciousness. Video feedback, then, may be the nearest we have to visualising what conscious processing in the brain is like.

Does consciousness depend on the brain looking at itself?
Robert Pepperell, 2018

The neuroscientific evidence

The suggestion that consciousness depends on complex neural energy feedback is supported by neuroscientific evidence.

Researchers recently discovered a way to accurately index the amount of consciousness someone has. They fired magnetic pulses through healthy, anaesthetised, and severely injured peoples’ brains. Then they measured the complexity of an EEG signal that monitored how the brains reacted. The complexity of the EEG signal predicted the level of consciousness in the person. And the more complex the signal the more conscious the person was.

The researchers attributed the level of consciousness to the amount of information processing going on in each brain. But what was actually being measured in this study was the organisation of the neural energy flow (EEG measures differences of electrical energy). Therefore, the complexity of the energy flow in the brain tells us about the level of consciousness a person has.

Also relevant is evidence from studies of anaesthesia. No-one knows exactly how anaesthetic agents annihilate consciousness. But recent theories suggest that compounds including propofol interfere with the brain’s ability to sustain complex feedback loops in certain brain areas. Without these feedback loops, the functional integration between different brain regions breaks down, and with it the coherence of conscious awareness.

What this, and other neuroscientific work I cite in the paper, suggests is that consciousness depends on a complex organisation of energy flow in the brain, and in particular on what the biologist Gerald Edelman called “reentrant” signals. These are recursive feedback loops of neural activity that bind distant brain regions into a coherent functioning whole.

Video feedback may be the nearest we have to visualising what conscious processing in the brain is like.
Still from video feedback sequence. Robert Pepperell, 2018

Explaining consciousness in scientific terms, or in any terms, is a notoriously hard problem. Some have worried it’s so hard we shouldn’t even try. But while not denying the difficulty, the task is made a bit easier, I suggest, if we begin by recognising what brains actually do.

The primary function of the brain is to manage the complex flows of energy that we rely on to thrive and survive. Instead of looking inside the brain for some undiscovered property, or “magic sauce”, to explain our mental life, we may need to look afresh at what we already know is there.The Conversation

Robert Pepperell, Professor, Cardiff Metropolitan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The post How a trippy 1980s video effect might help to explain consciousness appeared first on Interalia Magazine.

Is consciousness a battle between your beliefs and perceptions?

Imagine you’re at a magic show, in which the performer suddenly vanishes. Of course, you ultimately know that the person is probably just hiding somewhere. Yet it continues to look as if the person has disappeared. We can’t reason away that appearance, no matter what logic dictates. Why are our conscious experiences so stubborn?

The fact that our perception of the world appears to be so intransigent, however much we might reflect on it, tells us something unique about how our brains are wired. Compare the magician scenario with how we usually process information. Say you have five friends who tell you it’s raining outside, and one weather website indicating that it isn’t. You’d probably just consider the website to be wrong and write it off. But when it comes to conscious perception, there seems to be something strangely persistent about what we see, hear and feel. Even when a perceptual experience is clearly ‘wrong’, we can’t just mute it.

Why is that so? Recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI) shed new light on this puzzle. In computer science, we know that neural networks for pattern-recognition – so-called deep learning models – can benefit from a process known as predictive coding. Instead of just taking in information passively, from the bottom up, networks can make top-down hypotheses about the world, to be tested against observations. They generally work better this way. When a neural network identifies a cat, for example, it first develops a model that allows it to predict or imagine what a cat looks like. It can then examine any incoming data that arrives to see whether or not it fits that expectation.

The trouble is, while these generative models can be super efficient once they’re up and running, they usually demand huge amounts of time and information to train. One solution is to use generative adversarial networks (GANs) – hailed as the ‘coolest idea in deep learning in the last 20 years’ by Facebook’s head of AI research Yann LeCun. In GANs, we might train one network (the generator) to create pictures of cats, mimicking real cats as closely as it can. And we train another network (the discriminator) to distinguish between the manufactured cat images and the real ones. We can then pit the two networks against each other, such that the discriminator is rewarded for catching fakes, while the generator is rewarded for getting away with them. When they are set up to compete, the networks grow together in prowess, not unlike an arch art-forger trying to outwit an art expert. This makes learning very efficient for each of them.

As well as a handy engineering trick, GANs are a potentially useful analogy for understanding the human brain. In mammalian brains, the neurons responsible for encoding perceptual information serve multiple purposes. For example, the neurons that fire when you see a cat also fire when you imagine or remember a cat; they can also activate more or less at random. So whenever there’s activity in our neural circuitry, the brain needs to be able to figure out the cause of the signals, whether internal or external.

We can call this exercise perceptual reality monitoring. John Locke, the 17th-century British philosopher, believed that we had some sort of inner organ that performed the job of sensory self-monitoring. But critics of Locke wondered why Mother Nature would take the trouble to grow a whole separate organ, on top of a system that’s already set up to detect the world via the senses. You have to be able to smell something before you can go about deciding whether or not the perception is real or fake; so why not just build in a check to the detecting mechanism itself?

In light of what we now know about GANs, though, Locke’s idea makes a certain amount of sense. Because our perceptual system takes up neural resources, parts of it get recycled for different uses. So imagining a cat draws on the same neuronal patterns as actually seeing one. But this overlap muddies the water regarding the meaning of the signals. Therefore, for the recycling scheme to work well, we need a discriminator to decide when we are seeing something versus when we’re merely thinking about it. This GAN-like inner sense organ – or something like it – needs to be there to act as an adversarial rival, to stimulate the growth of a well-honed predictive coding mechanism.

If this account is right, it’s fair to say that conscious experience is probably akin to a kind of logical inference. That is, if the perceptual signal from the generator says there is a cat, and the discriminator decides that this signal truthfully reflects the state of the world right now, we naturally see a cat. The same goes for raw feelings: pain can feel sharp, even when we know full well that nothing is poking at us, and patients can report feeling pain in limbs that have already been amputated. To the extent that the discriminator gets things right most of the time, we tend to trust it. No wonder that when there’s a conflict between subjective impressions and rational beliefs, it seems to make sense to believe what we consciously experience.

This perceptual stubbornness is not just a feature of humans. Some primates have it too, as shown by their capacity to be amazed and amused by magic tricks. That is, they seem to understand that there’s a tension between what they’re seeing and what they know to be true. Given what we understand about their brains – specifically, that their perceptual neurons are also ‘recyclable’ for top-down functioning – the GAN theory suggests that these nonhuman animals probably have conscious experiences not dissimilar to ours.

The future of AI is more challenging. If we built a robot with a very complex GAN-style architecture, would it be conscious? On the basis of our theory, it would probably be capable of predictive coding, exercising the same machinery for perception as it deploys for top-down prediction or imagination. Perhaps like some current generative networks, it could ‘dream’. Like us, it probably couldn’t reason away its pain – and it might even be able to appreciate stage magic.

Theorising about consciousness is notoriously hard, and we don’t yet know what it really consists in. So we wouldn’t be in a position to establish if our robot was truly conscious. Then again, we can’t do this with any certainty with respect to other animals either. At least by fleshing out some conjectures about the machinery of consciousness, we can begin
to test them against our intuitions – and, more importantly, in experiments. What we do know is that a model of the mind involving an inner mechanism of doubt – a nit-picking system that’s constantly on the lookout for fakes and forgeries in perception – is one of the most promising ideas we’ve come up with so far.

Hakwan Lau

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

The post Is consciousness a battle between your beliefs and perceptions? appeared first on Interalia Magazine.