A recent study has shown that Psilocybin and LSD increase the fractal dimension of thought patterns as observed through magnetic resonance (fMRI) images of the brains of subjects under the influence of either of the two psychedelic substances.
Psychedelic research helps reveal the nature of consciousness
Though the study has yet to be peer-reviewed, it has yielded some promising results that not only shed light on how psychedelics affect consciousness, but also open new avenues of research into the study of consciousness itself.
As a result of the illegal status of psychedelics, modern pharmacological research on consciousness has centered on the administration of anaesthetics to test subjects. While these studies have shed some light on various aspects of consciousness, they have been limited in that anesthetics effectively suppress consciousness. Psychedelics, on the other hand, do just the opposite. They stimulate a shift in consciousness and also leave their subjects awake and able to recount and remember their experiences, opening up an entirely new dimension of inquiry.
In this recent study, datasets of fMRI scans of subjects under the influence of LSD or psilocybin were compared against models that measure the degree to which a given dataset exhibits fractal behaviour. This was done to determine whether psychedelics increase the exhibition of fractal characteristics in thought patterns and to what degree.
Fractals are more than visual art
This is important because current research indicates that consciousness itself is manifested through the fractality of thought patterns in the brain. The degree to which the mind is able to incorporate novel information and formulate interpretation is correlated to the degree of a thought pattern’s fractality as it approaches a ‘critical point’ where it undergoes what is called a ‘phase change’.
This can be illustrated using another instance of a system exhibiting increased fractal nature as it approaches a phase change, which is the process of northern rivers thawing out in the spring as their temperatures cross the freezing/melting point of water, undergoing a phase change from static solid to dynamic liquid.
In winter, a frozen river, like an unconscious mind, cuts a hard unchanging line through the landscape. But as ambient temperatures rise and this energy enters the crystalized water, complex patterns begin to emerge as the ice breaks up. Slowly but surely, the phase change takes hold and large chunks of frozen water begin to flow around each other and continue to fragment into ever smaller pieces, until one day the transition is complete, and the water, now entirely liquid, has passed the critical point and entered a new phase.
Explaining the mechanism of a ‘trip’
Consciousness occurs where fractality is near its maximum on the course to phase change, just as the river becomes more and more complex as the ice breaks up into smaller and ever more varied shapes on the road to pure liquidity. On the other side of that shift lies an emergent field, one that bares little resemblance to its previous form. Simplicity reemerges from a complexity that was itself produced from simplicity as a new phase takes hold on the system.
Interestingly, while larger doses of serotonergic psychedelics such as LSD and psilocybin push consciousness ever closer to the criticality of phase change, just like the arrow in Zeno’s Paradox, they never reach this point.
As it turns out, this is a good thing because when consciousness crosses this point the result is akin to an epileptic state, evoking seizures. Illustrating this further is the fact that this epileptoid state can be achieved with large doses of certain psychotropic drugs such as 5 meo-DMT (which is similar in structure to psilocybin) or a combination of LSD and lithium.
The implications of this research are staggering as they relate to both our understanding of how psychedelics affect consciousness and our understanding of consciousness itself, opening exciting new avenues of inquiry in both fields while also driving home the importance of making substances like LSD and psilocybin easier for researchers to access and administer to test subjects.
Our community owes an ever-growing debt of gratitude to Robin Carhart-Harris, one of the lead researchers of this study, who recently spoke to the World Economic Forum at Davos on the importance of accepting these substances, among others, as both tools of scientific inquiry and powerful therapeutic agents.
It seems that the failure of long-held legal and social stigmas against psychedelics is inevitable in light of his work, alongside that of many other gifted and inspired researchers.
For people who are scientifically inclined or otherwise interested in learning more about this study, the article can be found here.
Varley, Thomas, et al. “Serotonergic Psychedelics LSD & Psilocybin Increase the Fractal Dimension of Cortical Brain Activity in Spatial and Temporal Domains.” BioRxiv (2019): 517847.