Discovering connection through the psychedelic looking-glass

Discovering connection through the psychedelic looking-glass


One of my all-time favourite quotes about psychedelics is the following by Stanislav Grof:

"It does not seem to be an exaggeration to say that psychedelics, used responsibly and with proper caution, would be for psychiatry what the microscope is for biology and medicine or the telescope is for astronomy. These tools make it possible to study important processes that under normal circumstances are not available for direct observation."Grof 1980, p. 12.

This idea that the psychedelics reveal the mind is also the original meaning of the term 'psychedelic', which was first conceived by the psychiatrist Humphry Osmond and author Aldous Huxley in 1957. Their insight was that psychedelic experiences allow us to see into our minds and become aware of things that are normally hidden from our conscious experience.

A classic example of this is the revelation of a seemingly long-lost memory. Not all forgetting is actual forgetting: sometimes we forget things not because they are no longer in our minds but because we forget how to access them. You can see this happen in a "tip of the tongue" experience: for a brief moment, you're unable to recall a word that you know you know (and, of course, soon after you stop trying to remember it, it suddenly and effortlessly pops into your awareness). What can happen for single words can happen for entire chunks of knowledge or previous experiences. One can recall a class on thermodynamics (as occurred in one study) or relive an event from one's early childhood, which is quite common in psychedelic therapy. Indeed, early researchers in the 50s and 60s thought that psychedelic therapy might be effective precisely because psychedelics trigger the vivid recollection of repressed memories.

There are many other examples of how psychedelics can reveal the mind: one can have latent emotions brought to the surface, secret desires amplified beyond control, implicit beliefs made explicit in mental imagery and inner speech, and so on. These are all pretty standard examples for those familiar with psychedelics (and related practices). In this post, I want to highlight an important way in which psychedelics reveal the mind that often flies under the radar: they can enhance the phenomenal transparency of our experiences (Lyon and Farennikova 2022). Although this sounds like a complicated idea, it is actually quite simple. But it does require a bit of explanation. So, let's start with an easy example from everyday life.

Have you ever been watching a comedy sitcom and suddenly noticed its laugh track? When this happens, you get a weird and even "trippy" change in your experience. Suddenly the jokes don't seem funny anymore, the dialogue is fake, and the show's characters are replaced by the actors that play them. This change is an increase in phenomenal opacity. Before the change, your attention was flowing through the show's various features to the world of the show. For example, you saw through the actors to the characters and heard through the laugh track to the intended humour of the jokes. When you suddenly notice the laugh track, your attention stops doing this. Instead, your attention rests with the laugh track itself and no longer passes through to the intended humour. Similarly, your attention rests with actors and no longer passes through to their intended characters. In this sense, your experience of the laugh track and the actors becomes opaque. As a result, you are no longer in the world of the show, and your connection to its characters, plot, and ethos is severed.

In this example, the distinctive change is an increase in the phenomenal opacity of your experience. However, the opposite can also happen: there are also cases in which phenomenal transparency increases.

An easy way to see this is to consider what happens when you eventually forget about the laugh track. The actors transform back into the characters, the jokes become funny again, and you return to the world of the show. The experience stops feeling artificial, and the world of the show begins to feel real again. Moreover, if the show is one that you naturally connect with, you will feel genuine empathy for the characters — wincing when they are physically hurt, feeling joy for their successes, and so on. For many intents and purposes, the characters are real people.

What goes for TV shows also goes for other artistic mediums. For example, it is common for avid readers to experience a "book hangover" after they have finished a compelling novel. The story is over, but the reader keeps thinking about its world and genuinely misses the characters. In reading psychology, this experience is called emotional transportation. Not everyone experiences it, however. Some people are more easily transported into the world of the novel than others. The same is true for paintings. Some people have a hard time appreciating art: they see paint and, while they recognise what it represents (a landscape, for example), their experience stops there. For others, the aesthetic experience runs much deeper — into an emotion, a story, an existential theme, etc. In the case of abstract paintings, the experience can involve an entirely different way of thinking or being. These aesthetic experiences can be profoundly therapeutic and have transformative effects on our lives. This is why art is so often likened to food or medicine for the soul.

An essential point here is that opacity and transparency can vary over time and between people. Some people are easily absorbed in a TV show, while others get hung up on its production qualities. Some people have profound life changing experiences in art galleries, while others are bored to death (complaining that "I could paint this"). These differences are not necessarily good or bad. For example, the ability to get lost in a novel may seem like a good thing — indeed, it appears to track one's general ability to empathise with others in real life (Bal and Veltkamp 2013, Djikic et al. 2013). However, there's a reason we describe it as "getting lost". It can be challenging to disengage, and the experience can become rather unpleasant. Indeed, you can find people on the internet asking how to cure book hangovers. More generally, most of us have a tendency to become lost in our thoughts, letting them take on a reality that they don't have to have. Again, that's not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be problematic if the thoughts make our experience unpleasant and drive undesirable behaviours and decision making. For this reason, various meditative practices are often a good solution to this problem: by repeatedly practising opacity shifts, one learns how to let one's attention stop at the thoughts themselves, before they take on a reality of their own.

So, there is no absolute sense in which opacity and transparency are good or bad things. It depends on the circumstances. However, what we can say is that the inability to have an opaque or transparent experience is a bad thing. In general, it is best not to get stuck in specific ways of thinking and experiencing — especially if they are unpleasant or cause us harm.

One of the defining challenges of our generation is that we become entranced with social media. Indeed, engaging with social media is designed to be as transparent as possible to get us emotionally hooked on it. This is an excellent example of being stuck with too much transparency, and it's a case in which meditation can be of great benefit. Meditation can help us disengage from the posts and images and avoid getting caught up in the often false reality portrayed through their selective filters.

However, although this is an important problem, we face a much more significant challenge. A defining problem of our entire culture, which has existed for many generations, is that we are profoundly disconnected. We are disconnected from each other in the same way we can be disconnected from the show's characters when we notice its laugh track. We are disconnected from nature in the same way we are disconnected from a painting's world when we fail to see into the picture. And so on.

Once you notice this point, you can see it everywhere. For example, as the comedian George Carlin once observed, the way we speak is constantly evolving to introduce more opacity into our experiences through euphemistic language. Euphemisms create representational masks to disconnect us from reality. Planes no longer fall from the sky; instead, they experience a drop in cabin air pressure. Human resource managers don't tell people what to do; they advise staff of the new corporate policies. The Bush administration didn't torture; it used enhanced interrogation. You get the idea — the list is endless.

Language is just one mechanism that keeps us stuck in opacity. Social media is a particularly pernicious one: at a superficial level, it has connected us like never before, but at a deeper level, it has made us more disconnected. It's also especially tricky because it is inherently mixed: highly transparent in some respects (for example, when we feel FOMO) and opaque in others (for example, when we forget there is a real human being on the other side of a tweet). The industrial food complex is yet another example: we are increasingly disconnected from our food (even though we eat it!). In so many ways, we are profoundly disconnected, to the detriment of ourselves, each other, and the planet.

This is where psychedelics have a vital role to play. One of the leading ideas about the effects that psychedelics have on the mind is that they loosen it from its usual constraints (Carhart-Harris 2018). The consequences of this are variegated, but one important effect is the freeing of attentional resources. This, in turn, allows for changes in phenomenological opacity and transparency. For example, the onset of hallucinations can draw your attention to the representational nature of your experience — quite similar to what happens when your attention is drawn to the laugh track. Of course, not all hallucinations are like this, but some have this effect of drawing you back, away from the world. This is an increase in opacity. But perhaps what is more distinctive about the effects of psychedelics is that they increase transparency: they draw you deeper into reality. Similar to what happens when you are engrossed in an excellent novel, your experience of the world takes on a new level of realness. Indeed, it's very common for people to report the experience as "more real than real" and that everyday experience is an illusion — a mere shadow of the hidden reality revealed by psychedelics.

We can think of this as the looking-glass effect of psychedelic experiences. Stanislav Grof's analogy with microscopes and telescopes is quite apt in this respect. Like microscopes and telescopes, the psychedelic looking-glass allows us to see deeper into reality. This can happen during a psychedelic experience, but also afterwards — that is, psychedelics can teach us how to increase the transparency of our experience during regular life. Kary Mullis' discovery of the PCR technique (for which he won a Nobel prize) was very likely an example of this:

"PCR's another place where I was down there with the molecules when I discovered it and I wasn't stoned on LSD, but my mind by then had learned how to get down there. I could sit on a DNA molecule and watch the polymers go by... I've learned that partially, I would think, and this is again my opinion, through psychedelic drugs... if I had not taken LSD ever would I have still invented PCR? I don't know, I doubt it, I seriously doubt it."Kary Mullis, 1998.

Going by Mullis' description, his experiences with LSD taught him how to visualise the world of molecules in such a way that made it easier for him to discover the PCR technique. Importantly, this visualisation was based on his knowledge of the molecular world, which is knowledge involving models, approximate formulas, etc. So it is not as though the LSD was helping see directly further into reality. Rather, the LSD was teaching him how to see through his models into the world of molecules that they depict. This then enabled him to discover new things about the molecular world that that those models represented.

That's an example of the psychedelic looking-glass facilitating a scientific innovation, but it can help us see other important things as well. In particular, it can help us find connection by bringing us experientially closer to the world and each other. The psychedelic looking-glass therefore unlocks a potential of the human mind that is sorely needed in our age of disconnection. While meditation can help us avoid getting lost in an endless maze of connections, psychedelics can help us find new, deeper, and more genuine ones.

When we look at the recent wave of psychedelic research, it is clear that psychedelics increase phenomenal transparency in this way. For example, people often report feeling more connected to nature through a more transparent experience of it:

"Before I enjoyed nature, now I feel part of it. Before I was looking at it as a thing, like TV or a painting. You're part of it, there's no separation or distinction, you are it."Watts et al. 2017, p. 534.

Here we see another key idea closely related to connection: unity — in this case, being one with nature, rather than distinct from it. This is another consequence of increased transparency and is a form of ultimate connection: you are so connected to something that you begin to merge with it. Learning how to ride a bike is an example from everyday life that nicely illustrates this phenomenon. When we start, we're disconnected from the bike: it's a thing that we are trying to engage with. But once we learn how to ride, we become one with the bike: it becomes more like an extension of our body rather than something distinct from us.

Other examples abound in the psychedelics research literature. Another important one involves music. People report feeling more connected with music, and, again, so much so that they feel at one with it:

"I felt that I was part of the music and I was in the music, it was me. It wasn't just me listening to music. I was the music. I was the drum, or the flute, or the violin, and I was really part of that." Belser et al. 2017, p. 374.

Indeed, in many cases, it seems that the psychotherapeutic transformation is carried out by the music itself:

"The music was fantastic, actually—the music that they had. I remember at one point, I thought, 'It's not the drug doing this—it's the music.' The music felt like it was what was making things happen." Belser et al. 2017, p. 374.

Again, this fits exceptionally well with the idea of a psychedelic looking-glass — or perhaps, in this case, a psychedelic hearing aid. The effect of the psychedelic is to help the individual experience a deeper connection with music, which then performs therapeutic magic on their mind. There's a sense in which the mind becomes the music and thus takes on its structures, emotions, and meanings. As a result, music is often a potent force in psychedelic therapy (and therefore needs to be used carefully).

There are many more examples we could consider, but a final one worth mentioning is the enhanced connection with one's self and with others:

"I feel more in touch with who I really am — my real self, myself that's connected to everyone and everything." Belser et al. 2017, p. 374.
"[It] just opens you up and it connects you.. it's not just people, it's animals, it's trees — everything is interwoven, and that's a big relief... I think it does help you accept death because you don't feel alone [...] That's the number one thing — you're just not alone." Swift et al. 2017, p. 499.

Here, the increased transparency takes on an existential form of connection. Indeed, it's common for people to report not just feeling more connected with others, but being in union with others. Said another way, the psychedelic looking-glass allows us to see that we are all genuinely the same in a deep and essential sense — fragments or different perspectives of one underlying consciousness. As William James put it: we are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep.

This effect of psychedelics increasing connectedness is so ubiquitous that it has been hypothesised as a central mechanism of psychedelic therapy (Watts et al. 2017). This fits well with the thought that an underlying problem of our culture is a profound opacity in how we experience reality — an opacity that disconnects us from all that we care about and all that is possible for us. Psychedelics help by freeing our minds, allowing us to discover hidden realities of meaning and connection through phenomenally transparent experiences.