– Abigail Caulder –
A common first sign of a psychedelic taking effect is the feeling that something important is happening. There is a sense of something big and significant approaching – a mental pregnant pause before the world starts to change. People usually cannot tell you what is happening. They just know that something is.
This shows something important: psychedelics can cause a sense of meaning and significance without any content. Later, the experience overflows with content, served with a side of ‘Wow’ and a sense that it’s all important. Whatever network in the brain creates feelings of meaning, psychedelics seem to send it into overdrive.
But therein lies the trouble. If psychedelics can cause the feeling of significance without any content, why couldn’t they do it with false content? I don’t doubt that some psychedelic insights are real in ways that are important to people. But if you can hallucinate sights and sounds, why not meaning? Why not knowledge, memory, and insight?
That’s an uncomfortable question because the natural next question has no easy answer: How does one tell the real insights from the misleading ones?
People struggle to describe the experience of meaning, but we know it when we feel it. It’s a bit like an emotion, appearing when we sense something important or true that deeply relates to our personal values. We feel it most acutely, I think, when we are suffering badly and find some reason to keep going anyway.
Psychedelic experiences can feel indescribably meaningful, and it’s natural to want to trust this feeling. But sadly, feelings have never been facts. This is most obvious when meaningful insights directly contradict each other.
I have a friend who realized on psychedelics that all the trouble she’d had with her parents as a child did not matter. It was like a dirty shoe: no one asks where every bit of muck came from, they just clean the shoe and move on. This meant a lot to her. But after her next trip a few months later, she felt like the drug was telling her to work through all of those things again, which was also very meaningful. So did her past not matter, or did it need to be re-evaluated? They couldn’t both be true, at least not in that order.
Psychedelics have been described as non-specific amplifiers. They take what is already in the mind, intensify it, and connect it with other intensified things. Can people lie to themselves? Of course they can; you probably even know someone who is frustratingly good at it. So if we can lie to ourselves, then why can’t psychedelics amplify our self-deception? Why couldn’t they be even better at it than we are?
This is no new idea. Shayla Love has written thoroughly about it. And back in the 1960s, the psychedelic activist Art Kleps cautioned against over-interpreting psychedelic experiences: “If you can’t let go and instead grab the first lifesaver…that floats near… you will come down firmly believing that the lifesaver you grabbed was the meaning of the trip rather than the exit from it. Your new personality will be defined, not in terms of the truth, but in terms of the particular lie you happened to grab at the crucial moment.”
Lest I leave readers in despair, I do think there are ways to tell truly meaningful insights from misleading ones. To paraphrase the German philosopher Thomas Metzinger: “Just because you smoke DMT and meet the machine elves doesn’t mean there are really machine elves. It also doesn’t mean there aren’t…
… but you won’t find out by smoking more DMT.”
Let’s say you take LSD in order to help work through some anxiety attacks you’ve been having. The trip reveals a strategy for dealing with your fear. It means a lot to you that you’ve understood how your problem works, but was that feeling of insight connected to real information? It must be real—real enough—if you apply your new strategy the next time you feel anxious, and it works. If your problems persist unimpeded, that insight was probably not as profound as it seemed.
Now imagine you feel called to a new purpose in life after a meaningful psychedelic experience. Perhaps it’s eliminating world hunger, or political activism, or becoming a therapist. How would you know whether your feelings of being drawn to this goal are trustworthy? You might find out by deciding whether you are really willing to act on them, and then observing how that goes. A mission not acted upon can’t have been that important. And if you do pursue your new goal, does it still seem personally meaningful, even if it’s hard? Does it enrich your life and give you the sense of deep purpose you were hoping for? Or is something still missing?
Some insights are nearly impossible to interrogate. These might be ideas about the nature of consciousness, as well as metaphysical concepts like machine elves – though the safe assumption is that psychedelics can’t show you anything outside of your own mind. But you may re-experience an ambiguous memory, or have an idea about how your emotions tick or what you should do with your life. In all these cases, we need humility and tolerance for ambiguity. We need humility because it helps us be honest with ourselves, and besides, different people may have different and incompatible experiences on the same drugs. And we must accept ambiguity because the value of some experiences will always remain unclear.
Wanting psychedelic trips to have a special meaning is understandable, and it can be uncomfortable to give up some of the trust in profound experiences. It also isn’t wrong to let an experience just be, for a while, before picking it apart. But before new beliefs or life decisions have been based on a potentially false premise, ask the uncomfortable questions. Finding the truly meaningful insights amongst all the colorful smoke and mirrors makes them that much more meaningful for withstanding the sober light of day.
And as for the rest, it’s all right for some trips to just be nice, strange memories.
Abigail Calder is a doctoral candidate in medical neuroscience at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. Her research focuses on the effects of LSD on neuroplasticity, learning, memory, and other topics in healthy people. She also leads a study investigating the side effects of various psychedelic drugs. When she doesn’t want to think about psychedelics anymore, she goes rock climbing or crochets a tiny animal.
You can find Abigail on Twitter @NeuroCalder.