Awareness, Consciousness, and Drugs

By Gradient · Oct 8, 2011 · ·
  1. Gradient
    I thought I might use this space to do some preliminary exploration of concepts that I find interesting and related to all drug-modified sensory and perception. If I find that I've enough to say on any of these topics, I'll go ahead and thread-up. Yes, basically mental masturbation.

    1. How awareness seems to work: sensory prediction
    Despite a little over a half-century of dedicated research, consciousness and awareness remain somewhat nebulous concepts. When stated in conversation, we all know what's being referred to; we all accept that every healthy human, when conscious, is accurately aware of its surroundings. Despite such central roles played in our day-to-day lives, neither are intuitive in the least - and have required a bevy of clever tricks to slowly develop a fundamental understanding of what's meant by the word awareness.

    Among the various exercises used to probe the characteristics of awareness, there are a few that I find particularly neat. Think: were you just aware of the sensations generated by the chair you're sitting upon, your feet on the ground, or the sound of your air conditioner and/or refrigerator whirring? While there are a handful of cognitive disorders that render individuals constantly distracted by, and painfully aware of, such sensory input - the majority of humans give little-to-no thought to such stimulation. In fact, it'd be disadvantageous to do so. This is because such stimulation is quickly integrated into what you expect to sense given past experiences - and take for granted as fundamental characteristics of a given environment. This system applies to every single sensory system - and extends even to our perceptions of the passage of time.

    Thus, we're constantly comparing sensory inputs to our own, internally-generated, sensory predictions. Given that, it seems awareness of your surroundings occurs predominantly when sensory inputs are incongruent with those your brain has learned to predict. In other words, you become aware of features of your environment when they puncture your internal model of your surroundings. Is it too quiet - perhaps your air-conditioner/refrigerator is broken? Are you currently thinking about how many humans are outside your home? Would you if you suddenly heard the sounds of a riotous crowd just outside your door?

    I would argue that many drugs distort this experience- and pattern-based sensory prediction system that guides awareness. It's unfortunate that researchers of consciousness have been bridled by drug-laws, as the experiences they generate almost certainly offer unique insights into how the cogs in this system interact. Consider an individual in the throes of a profound stimulant addiction. Such individuals tend to be overly-paranoid, and will perceive inappropriate patterns in their environments; uniformed men staking-out their home, conspiracy theories, hypochonriasis, etc. are all symptoms of this dysfunctional sensitivity to environmental stimuli. Another way to state this, in the context of this short snippet: such individuals' system of prediction is simply inaccurate, and awareness is incapable of deciphering discrepancies between what's predicted and what's occurring. Effects of stimulants are, of course, just one example of this system modified.

    2. What's the difference between waking-consciousness and sleeping-consciousness? sensory anchoring & weighting
    Anyone familiar with research of brain activity during sleep knows that such activity during dream-sleep strongly resembles waking-brain activity. How is this possible, and why can't we, therefore, live in a dream?

    The answer is, some individuals DO have trouble distinguishing between dream and waking realities. This is due to the fact that awareness is modulated by the quality of sensory inputs - and in some cases, this system is dysfunctional; data coming in from our sensory systems 'anchors' perception. Intact visual systems prevent the majority of us from believing there are things present that aren't actually there - prevent delusions from guiding behavior.

    Can you tickle yourself? - and I mean really give yourself uncontrollable fits of giggles and spasms? For the majority of us, the answer is no. When someone else is doing the tickling, however, we tend to experience silly sensations along a spectrum of severity - occasionally being so severe as to induce powerfully negative emotional responses. Something quite interesting concerning some schizophrenic patients, however, is that many ARE capable of tickling themselves. Research suggests a distortion in such individuals' integration of their own motor activity and resulting sensory activity - their brains' prediction system, anchored by their own motor activity - causes them to respond similarly to how a non-schizophrenic individual would to someone else tickling them. They respond like you'd respond to someone else surprising you with a tickle fit.

    So, in other words, your awareness is anchored by what your senses tell you is occurring. Some find it surprising that about 1/3 of our brains are dedicated to vision alone. While you're sleeping, your eyes aren't notifying you that you aren't soaring through distant nebulae or dancing in a lush masquerade ball - so such experiences become tangibly real and immersive; they become believable, as the rest of your brain is un-anchored and free to run wild.

    Vision isn't a simple system. Take the case of an individual born with sight, rendered blind by a chemical explosion - who endured blindness throughout adolescence and adulthood for 43 years, attaining considerable success in business and downhill speed-skiing. He learned to adapt to the absence of sight. After these 43 years, however - he underwent a new surgical procedure that promised to restore his vision. The day the bandages were removed, everyone was baffled; he indeed had visual experiences, but they were completely alien and utterly incongruent with those he'd once known as a child, prior to his injury. After weeks and weeks of recovery, his brain slowly re-learned how to integrate the stimuli from his eyes to the rest of his sensory experience - and now enjoys completely functional sight. In other words, by comparing visual stimulation with tactile, motor, and auditory experiences - the brain was able to appropriately weigh visual stimulation to decipher an accurate depiction of events. All this to say: vision is a profoundly complex process, and the brain performs a feat of computation to render visual stimuli useful and not overwhelming.

    Psychedelics, dissociatives, and deliriants are prized for their unique cognitive and sensory effects - and for many, their visual effects are their most attractive. We're capable of literally seeing in completely new ways under the influence of such compounds, becoming sensitive to nuances we never before considered - as well as observing the effects of various facets of visual experiences functioning in distorted ways. Sensations of floating or flying tied to transient absence of depth perception induced by Salvinorin A, dancing shadows-turned to interact-able humanoids induced by diphenhydramine, and awareness of molecular similarity & unity with all matter in the universe triggered by breathing and melting walls induced by LSD and psilocin are all examples of such vision-based changes in cognition. I would argue that, largely due to this modification of our visual experience, cognition is permitted to get a little more creative with conceptual association; our brains aren't anchored by visual experiences in the same way under the influence of psychedelics as sober, permitting us to experience and learn about the universe in novel and unique ways.

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  1. Synesthesiac
    "Something quite interesting concerning some schizophrenic patients, however, is that many ARE capable of tickling themselves."

    Never knew that, that's really interesting!

    When you say "I would argue that, largely due to this modification of our visual experience, cognition is permitted to get a little more creative with conceptual association" are you referring to cognition getting more creative with all brain systems due to the visual changes, or cognition getting more creative in primarily visual and sensory systems?

    Your example of the blind man reminds me of the experiment performed by George Stratton "Transformation of the perceptual world" in about 1900, who gave some subjects some glasses that inverted their vision. After a week or so of them wearing the glasses apparently everything flipped back up the right way even when wearing them. After this when they took the glasses off because their brain had inverted their visual field everything looked like it was upside down for a few days until their vision flipped again and they could see normally.

    The fact that vast majority of what we see is not there at all but created by our minds is fascinating. At school I used to stare at a tiny point on a desk for a while and if I stared long enough at it any small object (pen, ruler) that were over 10cm or so behind it would completely vanish from the desk. As soon as the pupil moves the slightest bit from the spot you were looking at the object instantly re-appears though. Basically showing that your brain fills in very large sections of your peripheral vision if there is a large pattern or uniform color and texture it can fill in for you. Try it, it works. Once when using a delerient I seemed to have effects this part of the brain that effects peripheral vision, as I could see faces all around me on objects, but every time I looked at them they would vanish and move back to the periphery of my vision.

    While we're on the topic of association and vision I watched an interesting Horizon documentary the other day, "Do You See What I See". It shows a clip of a tribe that has been taught colors differently from birth, they give colors names according to the brightness or darkness of them as well as other criteria. So dark blue and dark green might have the same name, which leads to them not being able to tell the difference between colors that to us are glaringly obvious, like the difference between red, blue or green. They see no difference between them. I expect that a drug induced trip to them would have very different colors than the average westerner.
  2. Gradient
    I'm referring to cognition becoming more creative, including all brain systems, due primarily to visual changes - and specifically in the context of reduced sensory anchoring. As the system comparing that which occurs in our visual fields to that which our brain tells us is occurring is distorted in ways (apparently) unique to families of psychedelics - our brains are free to make novel associations between other sensory events. I’d also argue that this is a generalized effect, not purely relegated to the senses – but triggered by reduced sensory anchoring.

    I know some have argued that synesthesia is the fundamental effect of psychedelics - and while I do appreciate that this is among some of the potential effects, this isn't the dominant effect that I've experienced. In fact, it's been somewhat rare in me. For me, psychedelics generate a kind of tangibility to ideas that’s simply impossible while sober. For example, I can not only visualize - but experience the event of 2C-E hitting various receptor proteins, making the proteins contort in response, and allowing a flux of charged ions to flow through massive populations of ion channels embedded in an ocean of undulating membranes.

    Here's an example. During one experience, I imagined it almost like a trapeze act in a massive sphere drifting in outer-space, where all the acrobats represent some element of drug-receptor interactions: acrobats representing drug molecules swing about wildly with no particular rhyme or reason until they approach less mobile, acrobats representing receptor proteins - at which point the receptor-acrobats contort their bodies to embrace the drug-acrobats. After a period, they swing too hard for their grip to sufficiently bind them – at which point, other acrobats swing by, snagging the drug-acrobats to fling them down into the net below (termination and elimination of effects). The visualization was initially focused on following one acrobat, but then I began to imagine the trapeze act en masse – and the visualization was able to follow my cognition, accommodating the profound complexity at play.

    This visualization would be virtually impossible without the aid of a psychedelic to coax it out of me. Additionally and importantly - I'd very likely never even approach the willingness to engage in such an imaginative exercise without psychedelics; this kind of information is presented somewhat dryly in textbooks and most lectures, and receptor-ligand interactions are profoundly complex - rendering the information quite data-dense, requiring a massive amount of memorization of the various proteins facilitating the events. Psychedelics, however, engendered this kind of a magic context into which all of the various proteins could fall into place and obtain roles. It almost assigned a social fabric to neuropharmacology, which would undoubtedly strike psychedelic-naïve neuroscientists as patently absurd. To be perfectly frank, as I alluded to in my prior entries (Serendipitous Lessons from Psychedelic Side-Effects and Beautiful Biochemical Ballet Revisited) - psychedelics were largely my inspiration to pursue research in neuroscience, and I'm now privileged enough to have been accepted into a top institution in the country ‘despite’ this drug use. I'm completely certain that this would've been impossible without the kind of creative inspiration I described.

    I love Stratton’s experiment. It’s such a simple and effective approach to tweaking the visual system to elucidate the system’s plasticity. Incidentally, I was actually discussing it with another DF member quite recently.

    I’m not sure I’d state that the majority of what we see isn’t there at all. Rather, I’d suggest that the majority of what we see is but a fraction of what’s there and dynamically active. This, of course, is regularly used as ammunition by believers in super-hero-esque deities (with sort of lame, schizoid powers) to suggest that we can never hope to approach the real truth. Technological advances make quick work of that argument, however – enabling humans to see gamma rays, visit distant nebulae, and establish several completely feasible origins of organic molecules without any need for an undead zombie god to set things in motion. To argue that this track record won’t continue for some reason is simply an argument from ignorance, a failure of imagination, or – even more tragically (and often) – both simultaneously.

    Damn, it appears that clip is currently unavailable. I’m curious: are the tribe members literally unable to distinguish between dark blue and green – or do they simply identify both colors as the same thing? In other words, is this a physiological phenomenon – or is it more of a social convention. This reminds me of a physiological phenomenon that’s similar to this suggestion; a notable population of females express one additional photoreceptor that’s responsive to a wavelength of light that’s indistinguishable in most humans (and all men). Most humans would identify two adjacent pieces of red paper with a very subtle difference in the wavelength of light they each reflect as identical. A sub-population of females, however, possess a photoreceptor excited by additional wavelengths of light in the red spectrum – and therefore see the colors as quite distinct. Therefore, they would likely call the two pieces of paper as light red and dark red (or otherwise – I couldn’t tell ya due to this y chromosome of mine).

    While that’s inherently interesting, what’s more interesting to me is the fact that those of us with the most common distribution of three types of cones never yearn for that extra photoreceptor; we don’t tend to say to ourselves: ‘shit, I’m really missing out!’ Similarly, when I first began studying synesthesia, I always thought that such individuals must have quite a hard time navigating society with such cross-talk occurring. According to many interviews of such individuals, however, an extreme minority of them actually experience even slightly debilitating synesthesia. Quite the contrary; they often wonder how it must be to live without their unique cognitive experience – and often don’t realize that they’re synesthetes until they realize that other humans don’t experience the color red as a sharp sensation, cinnamon apple flavor, or particular day of the week/month/year. In other words, it still blows my mind that the brain, and its emergent mind, thoroughly adapt to the resources at its disposal to function comparably to its peers.
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