These are all typical experiences reported by people using psychedelics like mushrooms, or psilocybin.
But why are these mutual experiences so common? What kind of magic is happening in our brains?
Thanks to new and ongoing neuroscientific developments, we can actually explain our minds on mushrooms.
The neuroscientific crux of the psychedelic experience is the default mode network (DMN) – a newer discovery by neurologist Marcus Raichle in 2001.
The DMN is a central hub for brain activity. It connects the cerebral cortex to the older parts of our brain linked to memory and emotion.
Neuroscientist Robin Carhart-Harris has called it the brain’s orchestra conductor or capital city, because it’s responsible for keeping order among the mind’s many systems.
The DMN, quite literally, helps us keep our heads on straight
But there’s more to it—because the DMN is the part of the brain that lights up when we don’t have anything demanding our attention, it’s also thought to be the place where we dream, reflect or engage in mental constructions like the ego and our conception of self (which is why some neuroscientists calls it the “me network”).
The DMN governs our past memories and understanding of who we are, and is where we conceptualize present manifestations of ourselves and who we want to be in future.
In other words, the DMN is home to our consciousness.
What does the DMN have to do with psychedelics? Interestingly, as Carhart-Harris’ research team discovered, when we use psychedelics our brain activity slows down—especially in the DMN.
Quieting the DMN is basically like quieting our brain’s central control system. In that state, we can tap into a secondary realm of consciousness that’s usually trapped behind our waking consciousness.
When we enter that space, the magically transformative (yet scientifically explainable) aspects of the psychedelic experience are free to emerge.
Many people who use psychedelics report experiencing ego dissolution—an energetic feeling of oneness with all beings, which transcends ego-driven hopes and fears.
Thanks to Carhart-Harris’ research team, we now know what ego dissolution looks like in the brain. In their first experiment using brain scans of volunteers on psilocybin, they found that the greater the drop in DMN activity, the more likely the volunteer was to report losing their sense of self.
Our brains on psychedelics also look a lot like our brains on meditation, as Yale University researcher Judson Brewer noticed when the brain scans he took of experienced meditators looked remarkably like the ones Carhart-Harris found in psychedelic users.
When DMN activity decreases and the ego dissolves, we seem to trade our sense of separateness from the world around us for a more fluid interconnectedness with all existence—like a meditative state.
When psychedelics turn the DMN “off”, the brain actually shows an increase in activity in many other neural regions. In effect, we’re overriding our brain’s mental shortcuts—the useful efficiencies our brain creates so we can process information quickly.
When this happens, our brain is let loose, free to create more neural connections. More information is let in, unfiltered and unedited. Parts of our brain that haven’t really met each other before are now talking, creating a broader network of communication channels that often translate into greater creativity, innovation and openness, often changing our worldviews.
That’s why people who are colour blind have reported being able to see certain colours for the first time while using psychedelics, while other psychonauts often experience synesthesia—a term to describe when our senses get crossed, so that we can see sound, for example.
Researchers think that the newfound integration of the mind on psychedelics may explain why information that we can’t usually access during our waking consciousness, like emotions, memories and even childhood traumas, are all of a sudden available to us—sometimes in a hallucinogenic sense, as our brain’s memory and emotional centres unite with our visual processing centers.
According to Carhart-Harris, mental health issues like addiction and depression can be influenced by too much DMN-driven order in the brain, causing rigid neural pathways to become entrenched in our minds. Psychedelics can disrupt these thought and behavioural patterns, reshaping our brain’s neuroplasticity.
That’s why psychedelic-assisted therapy is slowly becoming more mainstream, especially to treat PTSD, addiction and depression.
When the DMN goes offline, an older system takes its place—one that looks a bit more like the neural systems found in children, where the underdeveloped ego takes a backseat to the unconscious.
Developmental psychologist and philosopher Allison Gopnik believes that psychedelics may be one of the few paths back into the baby mind, which explains why psilocybin users are likely to feel a childlike sense of wonder, as if experiencing the world for the first time.
A child’s brain also has more neural pathways, like an adult’s brain on psychedelics. In addition to enhanced creativity and problem-solving, this could be why some people find psilocybin useful for inner child work.
This article is intended for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice.