(2017-08-08) Gerrans Lethe Psychedelics Work By Violating Our Models Of Self And The World

Philip Gerrans & Chris Letheby: Psychedelics work by violating our models of self and the world. Just what do these (psychoactive) drugs do? Psychedelics reliably induce an altered state of consciousness known as ‘ego dissolution’. The term was invented, well before the tools of contemporary neuroscience became available, to describe sensations of self-transcendence: a feeling in which the mind is put in touch more directly and intensely with the world, producing a profound sense of connection and boundlessness.

What we don’t really understand, though, is the more complex relationship between the brain, the self and its world. Where does the subjective experience of being a person come from, and how is it related to the brute matter that we’re made of?

For the first time ever, scientists are in a position to watch the sense of self disintegrate and reintegrate – reliably, repeatedly and safely, in the neuroimaging scanner.

Before we can properly explain the implications of this research, we need to bring in two important ideas from cognitive neuroscience

The first is the notion of cognitive binding. This refers to the integration of representational parts into representational wholes by the brain

A possible solution comes from the predictive processing theory of cognition, the second set of principles we need to introduce... it views the brain as a prediction machine that models the causal structure of the world to anticipate future inputs (Thinking In Bets)

The most successful perceptual models create a world and populate it with objects

By ‘models’, cognitive scientists mean mental representations that organise information and allow the brain to extract signals from noise

What we ultimately experience, then, is the model that we’ve learned is the best fit for the information to hand, that best predicts and accounts for our perceptions before they happen.

One startling consequence of predictive coding is that perception becomes little more than a kind of controlled hallucination. We do not experience the external world directly, but via our mind’s best guess as to what is going on out there.

Now, due to statistical regularities in the environment over time, the most predictively successful perceptual models turn out to be those that create a world and populate it with objects with particular properties, concrete and abstract, to be sensed and thought about.

This is how our brains solve the binding problem.

The ‘bad’ news is that your sense of self is nothing more than one of these rough-and-ready models

This ‘self-model’ is complex and multi-layered.

Finally, at the highest levels we can use the narrative ‘I’ to express the fact that experience is integrated and bound together across this hierarchy and through time.

How does this story explain the therapeutic effects of psychedelics?

As we’ve seen, the self-model is an integrated bundle of predictions – and lots of these predictions, built up over a lifetime of experience, can make us deeply stressed and unhappy. A person with social anxiety expects and experiences the world to be hostile and uncontrollable because she feels vulnerable and unable to cope. The self-model that produces these feelings magnifies the adversity of her social world. Similarly, people with depression anticipate and recollect failure and unhappiness, and attribute it to their own inadequacy. Their self-model makes it hard to access positive experiences, and often feeds on itself in a negative downward spiral. Because our brains are endlessly trying to predict what’s next and reduce the likelihood of error, it’s no wonder that our expectations of ourselves tend to be self-fulfilling.

for better or worse, we feel like unified entities, not complicated and precarious hierarchical models that track and predict our organismic responses to what’s happening.

That’s a big part of why psychiatric disorders such as depression or anxiety are so hard to shake. It’s almost impossible for the person to access an alternative way of being in the world.

These drugs put a spanner in the works of maladaptive self-models, because they affect the neural mechanisms that self-awareness springs from. At the point of ego dissolution, two things seem to happen. One, the integrity of the self-model degrades. And two, we no longer take it for granted that our experience must be interpreted by that model. (cf CBT, MetaProgramming)

The self itself does not exist as a persistent entity, but is a fundamental cognitive strategy

When the self falls apart and is subsequently rebuilt, the role of the self-model seems to become visible to its possessor. Yes, this offers a psychological reprieve – but more importantly, it draws attention to the difference between a world seen with and without the self. For an anxious or depressed person, psychedelics make it possible to appreciate the intermediate, representational role of the self-model. Ego dissolution offers vivid experiential proof, not only that things can be different, but that the self that conditions experience is just a heuristic, not an unchangeable, persisting thing.

The self-model plays an essential binding function in cognitive processing – but the self itself does not exist, at least not in the form of some persistent, substantial ‘soul’. Better to see it as a fundamental cognitive strategy, one which has developed over evolutionary time.

That the self is a model, not a thing, doesn’t mean it’s completely fluid and arbitrary. Quite the opposite: it is constructed from birth over many decades.

Psychedelics allow you briefly to hear your personal language of subjectivity as sound, not meaning. Whether you want to learn another language of selfhood is up to you.


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