Can Psychedelics Expand Our Consciousness?

So how should we think about the psychedelic-ingestion experience in connection with a search for enlightenment? Research in neuroscience certainly shows real change in the brain from the action of psychedelic drugs. But I don’t think it’s enough to say that the outcome of any given trip is a matter of which drug one ingests — and of individual luck.

Like everything else humans do, ingesting psychedelics — even if we are totally alone while doing so — is a cultural matter, and the outcomes are culturally contingent. Anthropologists Greg Downey and Daniel Lende, who co-blog at Neuroanthropology, each made the same point to me in separate emails this week when I invited them to respond to Harris’s passages about enlightenment through psychedelic drug use: “One could say that Harris goes a bit far,” were Lende’s words. He continued:

“Certainly taking 100[micrograms] of LSD will produce a big pharmacological effect on the person; whether that relates to some understanding of personal significance is a more open book. Many anthropologists would say that he’s over-emphasizing the individual view of things, in line with Western approaches to the mind. Put differently, the link between psychoactive effect and meaning is mediated by the immediate context, personal history, the framing given to the use, and larger cultural patterns.

I’m sure there are people who have rather muted responses to psychedelics, or exaggerated responses, and part of that will lie in the person’s biology, from genetics to states of arousal to how they’ve learned to interpret psychedelic experiences.

And as I might put it as an anthropologist, experiences of spirituality can also be had through engaging with others, for example, talking to someone who has had psychosis (rather than Harris’s exaggerated view of it, likely not grounded in personal experience but cultural ideas) or talking about transformative and spiritual experiences with others.”

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