Human history is rich with stories, tales, and fables of experiences with higher powers and unexplainable encounters with both human and non-human life forms. How do we even begin to understand these complicated and intangible outcomes? The human brain is still a total mystery, as we have yet to fully understand human consciousness and its impact on our perceptions.
Just because you can see it doesn’t mean you should believe it. And just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t believe it.
We can’t see humor, yet we can wholeheartedly experience it.
We can see colors, but we can’t physically feel them.
We can smell flowers, but we can’t hear them.
Yet, in every example provided, research has shown that humor can cause changes in our subjective experiences of reality, colors can be felt and associated with other senses like music (synesthesia), and flowers and plants exude different frequencies that radio transmitters and electronic instrumentation can pick up.
Every lifeform vibrates and oscillates at various frequencies, and as humans, we possess the ability to perceive, process, and respond to our environments. And while these standard states of consciousness are commonly attributed to our waking state, we all possess the ability to be in an array of mental and cognitive states that can profoundly affect our perceptions of our world.
So what happens when we’re placed into an altered reality? What occurs during a mystical or spiritual experience? And how do our brains and bodies respond to these experiences?
The term “ecstasis” (similar to ecstasy) describes a profoundly unusual state of consciousness, which can be further described as a Non-Ordinary State of Consciousness (NOSC). Stanislav Grof, a highly prolific researcher in the field of psychiatry, consciousness, and transpersonal psychology described these experiences as: “characterized by dramatic perceptual changes, intense and often unusual emotions, profound alterations in the thought processes and behavior, brought about by a variety of psychosomatic manifestations, ranging from profound terror to ecstatic rapture… There exist many different forms of NOSC; they can be induced by a variety of different techniques or occur spontaneously, in the middle of everyday life.”
This state of “ecstasis” can be placed into three categories:
1.) In-The-Zone; “Flow” states
2.) Contemplative and mystical states
3.) Psychedelic states
This is where things start to get interesting, because all of these states correlate with similar neurochemical and neurophysiological changes in the brain and central nervous system. Yes, you read that correctly!
Transcendental and spiritual experiences, similar to optimal “flow states,” have accompanied numerous reports in religious references and collections dating back millennia. However, these experiences didn’t become part of the mainstream discussion until Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal work on “flow states” opened the public’s perceptions of the similarities between these various states of consciousness.
As more hypotheses have been developed and tested, research surrounding the potential mechanisms at play has advanced our knowledge of how the brain changes during these altered states of consciousness.
With normal states of consciousness, we see widespread activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for executive function, taking action, and inhibition of unwanted actions. During this time, we find ourselves stuck in the high-frequency beta range, which is accompanied by a steady drip of stress chemicals like norepinephrine and cortisol.
Early hypotheses posited that altered states of consciousness produce “transient hypofrontality,” which shuts down the prefrontal cortex, allowing the subconscious areas of the brain to exhibit some rare control. We are no longer focused on the past or future during these periods, which allows us to focus on the present, prolong perceptions of time, and turn off our inner critic.
Interestingly enough, the subconscious brain is far more efficient when it comes to reaction time and the processing of data. For example, energy used for temporal processing during altered states is further allocated to processing more data per second, causing moments to seem longer than they are, and giving us the perception that “now” appears elongated. Sounds familiar to a psychedelic trip, a mystical experience, and a coveted spiritual moment, doesn’t it?
During these altered states of consciousness, we see hyperactivity of the Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex (DLPFC) and hypoactivity of the prefrontal cortex, causing brainwaves to move from slower beta waves to dreamy alpha and deeper theta. Norepinephrine and cortisol are replaced by dopamine, endorphins, anandamide, serotonin, and oxytocin.
We also see a decrease in neural activity in the Default Mode Network (DMN), a prominent brain network responsible for self-reflective thinking and internal processing mechanisms. Disintegration of the DMN has been associated with dissolution of the ego and improved clinical outcomes in recent psychedelic research.
We can also train the brain to get into these altered states of consciousness to optimize learning and accelerate high-performance habits by utilizing neurofeedback mechanisms.
And this is where psychedelics, mystical states, and the optimal “flow state” converge. Neuroscientists find each of these brain states challenging to decipher using only diagnostic testing and neuroimaging. So we can’t always tell if someone is on a psychedelic or having a mystical experience. And that’s a trip within itself!
With that being said, how should we move forward with our understanding of consciousness and human spirituality? Could it be possible that there are multiple realms or dimensions, the kinds reliably induced by high-dose psychedelic experiences, that exist independently of and simultaneously to everyday conscious reality?
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Though ketamine gained a reputation for being dangerous and easily misused and abused, it wasn’t until 1999 that the US classified it as a Schedule III controlled substance. While it is often associated with the party scene, ketamine therapy is helping change the lives of many with severe depression, PTSD, OCD and even chronic migraines.
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In the 16th century, Spanish chroniclers attempted to eradicate ritual use of peyote cactus among indigenous American cultures, which led to the plant’s eventual prohibition in 1720. In the face of adversity, several indigenous communities righteously persevered, continuing and preserving their sacred practice in clandestine secrecy, and even managing to spread it widely over the last 150 years.
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