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Psychedelics and Consciousness

August 11, 2023

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The concept of human consciousness is a marvel and a mystery, and this remarkable state of being can be altered through different kinds of experiences. 

Psychedelic substances have been proven to create strange yet fascinating changes to our awareness – also known as our consciousness – that have begged the question of the nature of consciousness within regards to the unique insights that psychedelics may provide. 

What is consciousness?

To begin, let’s start off by defining what consciousness is. 

Generally, consciousness is defined as an awareness of yourself and the world. It is the recognition of our thoughts, memories, feelings, sensations, and environments. This awareness is highly subjective and personal to each individual existing in this world.

Human beings have several various states of consciousness, which include: 

  • Dreams
  • Meditation
  • Hallucinations
  • Sleep
  • Hypnosis
  • States induced by psychoactive drugs

These different states each serve biological and social purposes that are critical to human survival – they allow us to learn and evaluate new information and integrate senses from our environments. 

There are different levels of consciousness, but the two most common states of awareness are:

  • Consciousness – everything you are aware of
  • Unconsciousness – memories not accessible to your awareness

There are different altered states of consciousness that can be accessed, although they are not as common, such as higher states of consciousness. 

Often linked with spiritual or mystical experiences, higher states of consciousness involve an elevated state of awareness. This involves people developing a deeper understanding with themselves and the world around them. 

Examples of higher states of consciousness include: mindfulness, transcendence, intense focus, adrenaline rush, and meditation. 

Many have started to wonder if psychedelic-induced states of consciousness can also lead to these higher levels of awareness. This is yet to be scientifically studied. 

Understanding consciousness and psychedelics 

Psychedelic drugs – also known as hallucinogens – are a group of substances that change or enhance sensory perceptions, thought processes, and energy levels. The unique changes that are produced by these substances have captivated researchers and scientists, and it has been proposed that psychedelics may provide insights to the intricacies of consciousness. 

This presents a particular challenge… studying the relationship between psychedelics and consciousness is contingent on what exactly is meant by the term “consciousness.” The definition of consciousness has been battled over for thousands of years since the first explorations into the complexities of the mind. 

Since the term “consciousness” is so subjective, it presents “hard” and “easy” problems of consciousness. 

A study on Psychedelics and Consciousness: Distinctions, Demarcations, and Opportunities dives deep into this dual theory of consciousness. 

The “hard problem” of consciousness refers to explaining what phenomenal consciousness is:  phenomenal consciousness is the first person subjective “what it is like” to be an organism. It’s the immediate, subjective experience of fully being – which cannot be observed directly by anyone else – and it’s not clear that a scientific answer is even possible to explain this. 

The “easy problem” of consciousness consists of observable problems that can be scientifically explained, such as how attention, perception, and behavior work. In contrast to the hard problem, psychedelic research may be able to shed some light on the easy problems.

Psychedelics are thought to help aid scientific investigation into consciousness by being able to produce substantially altered states of consciousness of a particular kind.

When exploring the relationship between psychedelics and consciousness, it is important to establish which sense of the term consciousness is being used. Psychedelics have the ability to influence many phenomena associated with the easy problems of consciousness, however there is little scientific indication that psychedelics have an effect on the hard problem of consciousness. 

What the future holds 

While consciousness has intrigued philosophers and scientists for thousands of years, there is still a long way for us to go in understanding the concept.

Future studies are looking towards measuring people’s beliefs about the nature of consciousness, and how psychedelic experiences tend to impact those beliefs.

Moving forward, more research is needed to determine the effects of psychedelic substances on consciousness – the full potential of scientific advances on psychedelics and consciousness is only beginning to be tapped into.

Megan Binder

B.A Psychology

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