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This is an archive version of 'Psychedelic Information Theory' Alpha chapters. The final version of this text can be found at:
The Metabolic Tripping Curve in Detail

James Kent

Chapter 11: Psychedelic Information Theory


It's the first time I've taken LSD and I don't know what to expect. I'm with some friends and we're walking in the woods in the mountains. We dropped the acid before we started hiking and it seems like we've been hiking for a long while now. One of us thinks he knows where he is going, the others are not sure. I am along for the ride. Without knowing why I begin to feel scared, not outright panicked, but a little concerned that we are walking so fast and we don't know where we are going, that we might lose our way. I begin to feel agitated that I am not in control and somebody suggests that we stop for a minute to sit on a log near a small creek and locate some landmarks.

"Are you feeling anything?" a friend asks. Now that we're resting and I've taken my bearings I am feeling a little better about the situation, but I'm still not sure about what's going on with me. "I feel alright I suppose," I say. In truth I am jittery and anxious, maybe a bit cold. I wished I had brought a jacket or something warmer than the long-sleeved shirt I am wearing. I am fidgety and having trouble concentrating, my eyes keep darting around to find something to look at to ease my anxiety. My jaw and neck feel tight, I can't seem to get comfortable. This is not what I expected. I take some deep breaths and my head feels light and dizzy. I take another and try to shake it off.

"Take a look at this rock," another friend offers. I take it, not knowing why he gave it to me, and instantly I find it completely fascinating. It is like I have never looked at a rock before, at least not in a very long time. The texture is so detailed, so intricate. The colored minerals, metals, and crystals all swirled together in some ancient furnace, veining and glittering the dark mass with shiny ribbons, and then cooling it and smoothing it to perfection over eons of exposure with running water... It all came pouring into me, the story of this rock, the story of this simple unremarkable rock, forged in the ancient earth, slowly on it's way to becoming dirt, the dirt of this mountain, the dirt that all the trees and plants are growing in. "Holy shit!" I exclaim as I grok the rock. Everyone bursts into laughter. What the fuck, I think to myself. It seems like a trick has been played on me. Have I never looked at a rock this close before? If so I have never really seen one, not like this. It was like this rock was from Venus or something, a rare unique artifact worth cherishing forever. But as I look around I see that the creek bed is covered with hundreds of rocks exactly like this one, no, thousands of them, maybe millions of them, not exactly the same but of all different sizes and shapes, these little pieces of the great mountain slowly carving away to dust through time. I suddenly feel like I have landed on an alien landscape, that I have never really visited Earth before now, and now that I am here I find it to be a very strange place.

I am lost in my reverie when someone says, "This is just the beginning, we need to keep moving if we want to get to the bridge of life and death." Although I don't like the sound of it, this is the reason we came, so now we're ready to go. My reverie is broken and I look up. "Don't Bogart my rock dude," someone says. Everyone laughs again. I pass the rock back to my friend, wondering if I will ever see it again. I stand to go as a shiver runs up my spine, exploding into my head.

This is Your Brain on Psychedelics

Now that we know a little bit about the brain, the neurotransmitters, and the arcane lexicon used to discuss these topics in the halls of academia, we can finally start looking a little closer at what happens when the psychedelic molecule hits the brain. As we will discuss in a later section, every psychedelic, hallucinogen, deliriant, empathogen, and dissociative has it's own methods and timeline of action, but each has it's own component which makes the overall experience "psychedelic" in that some (if not all) of the psychedelic rules are applied and some (if not all) of the psychedelic goals achieved. Each one of these types of drugs can produce varieties of pleasurable somatic experience, tapestries of emotionally salient sensory experience, and the dissolution of boundaries that is sought in nearly every psychedelic context.

But I cannot stress enough that the actions of these drugs are varied and dynamic, which means that they act differently over the duration of effect and respond differently to different environments and actions on the part of the user (including the ingestion of multiple drugs at once, which we will get to later in this section and next). So in the service of rooting out the core elements of why these drugs have multiple effects across a wide rage of sensory experience, I will use this section to deconstruct the various elements that span the duration of the psychedelic trip, as well as the varieties of action that may be occurring at any one point along the way. So without I further ado, I give you...

The Metabolic Tripping Curve in Detail

Figure 14: The Metabolic Tripping Curve in Detail

For every drug there is a metabolic timeline when the effects of the drug are starting, are acting at full potency, and when they are on the decline. For psychedelics, each stage of the entire trip can be very different, and the peak, where the drugs are having their fullest effect, is the most unusual of all.

Here we go, back to the basics. The metabolic "tripping curve" seems somewhat silly to discuss in an advanced text like this, but looking at the pathway of the psychedelic trip is essential to the complete understanding of how we process experience during the trip as well as after the trip. For the purposes of this discussion I will use orally ingested LSD as an example for my deconstruction of the curve, but keep in mind that these general principles apply to most psychedelic amines, weather they act over a period of minutes, hours, or days. So here we go, on past ingestion and into the deep waters of...

Coming On

Coming on is exciting, boring, and then scary, in that order. With short-acting psychedelics like vaporized DMT you can skip the boring part and go right to scary, but for the most part Coming On entails waiting around for the drug to "do something" so you can "feel it". Many people get anxious at this stage, some have second thoughts about what they are doing (too late). If LSD is ingested it will leave a phantom metallic taste, as will any psychedelic compound, particularly the kinds you have to chew (like psilocybin mushrooms) or swallow in vile brews (like ayahuasca), and even the kind you snort or take in capsules. Often when coming on there is a direct effect on digestive functions, making the user feel nauseated, constipated, cramped, or conversely diuretic. Knots in your stomach, anticipation, queasy feelings, anxiety... What is going on here?

The first thing we need to keep in mind when considering early effects of psychedelics is that tryptamines and phenethylamines are bitter, even in trace amounts, and this is because the tongue and digestive system registers them as toxic substances. Yes, toxic. The body is fully aware that an imbalance of monoamines could throw it into potentially lethal chaos, so it has developed a very refined way of keeping toxic monoamines out of your diet: making them taste bitter on your tongue and making you gag when you try to swallow them. To the brain bitter means poison, and the primal urge is to spit it out and not swallow it. This is one reason why ingesting a psychedelic monoamine is accompanied by a bitter-metallic taste and corresponding upheaval in the digestive system. Remember the taste buds connecting to the facial and glossopharyngeal nerves on the back of the tongue and the vagus nerve that controls digestion? The receptors on the ends of these descending nerves are the first line of contact the brain has with the orally ingested psychedelic, and it is wired to recognize suspicious foreign alkaloids and dangerous monoamines by sending the bitter signal to the brain. So this is how the psychedelic trip all begins.

Nausea and knotted stomachs are commonly associated with the first stage of oral psychedelic ingestion, but not always. If the body is busy with other physical activity (like dancing, walking, or hiking) then the digestive unease will not seem as intense, but for some it will always be a problem. In traditional contexts the post ingestion period is usually spent chanting, meditating, singing, dancing, or in some other rhythmic musical exercise like the beating of drums or shaking of rattles. This helps to distract the mind from the stomach and keep the brain focused on the moment. It also helps to set the tone and tempo for the massive neurochemical event to come. The sickness is just the first stage of the journey, and even before it passes the trip may begin to creep in.

Physiologically there are early reactions to the ingestion of psychedelic amines which only seem to increase anxiety, such as an amphetamine-like rise in blood pressure and respiration. The vasoconstrictive effects of many psychedelics may make the limbs feel cold and the joints feel stiff, hence the onset of psychedelic "shivers." Since seratonin plays a very large role in mediating both digestion and blood pressure, these early symptoms clearly indicate that something is messing with the body's serotonergic systems, particularly TA (trace amine) and 5HT (seratonin) receptors in the peripheral nervous system and gut. Toxic response, nausea, high blood pressure, anxiety, increased respiration, shivers... these do not sound like the hallmarks of a fun night out. Indeed, Coming On and waiting to Come On are not pleasant moments, but this is the trial that all psychedelic initiates must go through: no pain, no gain. The simple dropping of LSD seems like nothing compared to the vile bitter brews of wild flora gulped down and chewed with vigor, then held-in against all inner revolt without the complete spewing forth of your guts. This is a significant rite of passage in some cultures, the make-or-break moment of shamanic training. Cleansing and purging is indeed a significant part of the psychedelic process, but we will get to that later in this section and again in the section on psychedelics and medicine.

Now there are ways to mediate the discomfort of Coming On, and again these are right out of the shamanic handbook. 1) Watch your diet the few days before you take the psychedelic. Don't eat meats or heavy meals on the day or two leading up to ingestion, and only eat lightly on the day you journey. Take this advice at your own risk. Diet plays an important role in how quickly the psychedelic molecule is absorbed into and metabolized by your body. An empty stomach and low-blood sugar will certainly lead to a pronounced amplification of the heavy somatic effects of psychedelics, so if you are looking for a powerful way to zonk yourself into the dreamtime lickety-split then fasting is the shamanic way to go. 2) Use biofeedback techniques, such as chanting and drumming and slow rhythmic breathing exercises to mediate the spikes in blood pressure and respiration (bone rattles and atonal drones anyone?). Yes, deep breathing and the rhythmic feedback of drumming, chanting, singing, or walking (at the correct tempo) will help to lower blood pressure, ease respiration, and keep the body's regulatory systems in harmony (excuse the pun

Though Coming On is filled with uneasy anticipation, it also typically gives way to frequent yawning and somatic heaviness as the drug first becomes active in the brain. These are the hallmarks of psychoactive amine interrupting action in the cortex, making the user feel like they're getting sleepy and want to lie down. This frequent yawning does not seem to apply as much if the user is engaged in physical activity while Coming On, such as dancing or walking. While the physiological usefulness of yawning is still under debate, it seems fairly clear that it aids in lowering cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) pressure and aids in CSF re-circulation through the brain (which are not physiologically necessary if you are up and active). Since seratonin also mediates states of wakefulness and sleepiness in the brain, this early-stage yawning and somatic heaviness may be the first indication of a disruption in serotonergic efficacy in the cortex, meaning that the psychedelic molecule has hit the brain.

Going Up

Here is where we hit paradox one of psychedelic action. If Coming On is the nervous anxiety associated with waiting for something exciting and scary to happen, Going Up is the exhilarating rush of raising the curtain and starting the show. The switch from Coming On to Going Up is a miraculous thing, like the lifting of a heavy burden from the body. It is not always instantaneous, but sometimes it is. In ayahuasca rituals the shift from Coming On to Going Up is generally associated with a purge. Once the somatic uneasiness of Coming On is behind us it is like stepping into a whole new world. The body is light and warm, the skin tingles with energy, the brain sparkles and glows with wonder and awe, objects glow with a new life, geometric mandalas appear behind closed eyes, and the user is overcome with the liberating notion that anything is possible. The trip has begun and it is pure excitement.

Now the transition from Coming On to Going Up may not be as smooth and wonderful as all that. Some people find themselves trapped in the Coming On stage for the whole trip, never getting past the initial discomfort brought on in the early stages of the trip, then just descending into heavy confusion and unease and the desire to make it all stop. Some people start Going Up before they are emotionally ready to submit to the experience, and this also causes anxiety spirals. Some people may fear throwing up or soiling themselves, and the Western social stigmas of purging and basically anything to do with bowel movements can have dreadful effects on the emotional transition from Coming On to Going Up, and can negatively influence the entire trip. These "blockages" in the projection of the psychedelic trip can be particular to an individual or can happen to even seasoned users on a particularly bad trip, possibly due to diet or just their body's own response to the introduction of a particular molecule at that time. Having been through all of these experiences on both sides of the coin, I can only offer this advice on the transition from Coming On to Going Up: If your body is telling you to get rid of something, get rid of it. Embrace the purge, let it all out. Cleansing and being inappropriately messy is all part of the psychedelic experience, if you fight it you will wrap yourself in knots. If you let it go you will feel much better afterwards.

So what is happening physiologically when we shift from Coming On to Going Up? In experiential terms, the first part of the Going Up phase is almost indistinguishable from a solid kick of amphetamines. There is a definite stimulant effect, a boost in mood and energy, and a kind of twitchy nervousness that infuses the body (paranoia anyone?). Stretching feels good. Yoga feels good. Wiggling around and snuggling and repetitive, limbering, small-motor activity feels good, especially in the spine and neck, but fine motor control (like writing or drawing) is often overcome by a mild case of the jitters. Sitting still feels good only if you are meditating and focusing on deep breathing exercises, and even so you may feel the urge to move into a more comfortable yogic posture or adjust your mudras (refined hand postures) to channel the rapid internal change in chi energy. On a low to mid dose of psychedelics the Going Up phase is a manic state where buried energy is being released or is expressing the desire to be released all over the place. The trip is finally kicking into gear, and this is where the mild perceptual distortions start to creep up on you (creeping textures, visual trails, audio echoes, enhanced sensation, etc.). Psychosis here we come...

But what is this chi energy suffusing the body? Why does it feel so electric? We will discuss the concept of chi in more detail later, but from a pharmacological analysis the components of Going Up would indicate an interaction with dopamine and norepinephrine, the endogenous neurotransmitters also released by amphetamines to create the stimulant "high." The energizing component would most likely be norepinephrine, which stimulates the body's energy production in reaction to stress and causes a manic restlessness. Norepinephrine is released into the brain from the locus coeruleus (or LC) in the brainstem, both in regular low-level rhythmic activity and rapid-fire activity in response to external stimulus. And thanks to the work of many scientists analyzing many dead rat brains, psychedelic amines (like LSD) have been shown to produce a dualistic effect at the LC, both inhibiting spontaneous rhythmic firing as well as stimulating sensory-activated firing. Got that? The rhythmic involuntary impulses go down while the elicited sensory responses are turned up. Knowing this, it can be assumed that a high-sensory environment (such as a loud, crowded, nightclub) would only increase the sensory-activated LC firing and amplify the noradrenergic stimulant effect of the psychedelic. Conversely, a low-sensory environment (like quiet meditation in darkened silence, or with a single drum beat or atonal drone) will serve to dramatically decrease or shut down LC firing altogether. And there you have it, Set and Setting strikes again, this time at the neural level.

With this simple dualistic action at the LC we get our first glimpse of how set and setting play into the experiential effects through the pharmacological gating of somatosensory inputs in the psychedelic trip. Hallucinogenic amine activity at the LC is most likely mediated by the disruption of tonic serotonergic polarization at the 5-HT2A receptors which modulate GABAergic inhibition and amino acid excitation of the LC (got that?). In other words, the psychedelic amines crossing the blood-brain barrier begin to selectively displace seratonin at the 5HT2A receptor sites which modulate the inhibition (or, conversely excitation) of the LC where norepinephrine is produced. The psychedelic then acts as a partial agonist at the receptor, which means it works sort of like seratonin, but not well enough to maintain the steady polarization across the membrane, so it has a tonic depolarizing effect and activates GABAergic inhibition of spontaneous LC activity while simultaneously stimulating elicited LC activity from sensory inputs. This aminergic modulation of intra-neural inhibitory pathways is what would be called an indirect action, but it is an action nonetheless. The inhibition of one function (tonic serotonergic inhibition) leads to the activation of another (GABA or glutamate transmission) which in turn inhibits or excites a third function (the spontaneous noradrenergic gating or the elicited noradrenergic release). But because of this indirect action on the LC, what was once an involuntary response can now be consciously gated by the user's biofeedback, most instantly mediated with contact (or lack of contact) with external sensory stimulus. So, as we can gather from the above, with a simple change in set and setting the norepinephrine response from the LC can be effectively shut down to zero or conversely cranked to eleven.

So that is one part of Going Up, the norepinephrine response mediated by set and setting. Now taking a look at the small repetitive-motion impulses and corollary loss of fine motor control, this sounds very much like a disruption of dopaminergic modulation. A complete disruption of dopamine modulation leads to symptom's of Parkinson's disease, which is shaking, loss of fine motor control, and ultimately complete physical incapacitation (all of which are readily achieved with increasing doses of Thorazine, an anti-psychotic which acts as a dopamine blocker or antagonist). But wait! Aren't psychedelics supposed to be psychotomimetics? Shouldn't they be increasing the supply of dopamine to the brain to cause psychotic effects instead of decreasing it and bringing about mild Parkinsonian symptoms? In answer to this it is my speculation that psychedelics do both, but at different stages of the trip.

What I am speculating here (speculating) is that during the initial Going Up phase of a trip the psychedelic acts as a partial dopaminergic antagonist by disrupting the uptake or production of dopamine somehow. One would assume the primary culprit to be direct action at the D1 and D2 dopamine receptors, but this could also be do to secondary inhibitory effects at the substantia nigra and the ventral pons (catching up to your Latin yet?) where dopamine is projected to the brain. One might speculate that psychedelic amines have a similar effect on the dopaminergic nuclei as they do on the LC, the locus coeruleus where norepinephrine is released, and thus a dualistic rhythmic inhibition and sensorial stimulation effect is produced (set and setting again). This would be speculation though, I do not think there is any direct evidence to prove that psychedelics effect the dopaminergic nuclei this way (even in rats) though it would be easy enough to test. But the main point to consider is this: because all of the aminergic modulatory systems work in concert to produce our everyday walking-talking consciousness, any significant disruption in both the seratonergic and noradrenergic systems would necessarily trigger a corresponding loss of modulatory synchrony with dopaminergic systems. Whatever the underlying cause, my assertion is that the primary dopaminergic systems are mildly interrupted during intermediate psychedelic onset (Going Up), which means that dopaminergic systems are temporarily and intermittently demodulated, thus producing a mild corresponding loss of fine motor control and a jittery unease.

It is my speculation that this dopaminergic interruption is most extreme in the initial transition between Coming On and Going Up. I believe this is the exact reason why many psychedelic explorers prefer to "roast a bowl" of good marijuana right at that transition point, which is often referred to as "bowl time". The introduction of THC into the system may counter-act the dopaminergic interruption and provide a kind of neural "lubrication" at the exact moment the primary modulators are beginning to step out of synch. Though this is interesting to ponder, I will set that aside for now and instead discuss the use of psychedelics in concert with other drugs and pharmaceuticals in more detail in the next chapters.

As far as perceptual effects are concerned, the progression from the final stages of Coming On into the final stages of Going Up is a journey through reality going steadily askew. The hard world we normally live in slowly becomes a shifting landscape, creeping and pulsing with shadowy undulations which stretch and squish the volume of time and space itself. Your frame of vision may seem to slowly tilt and twist, light and sound become more vibrant. Previous "background noise" seems to stand out more. Little details stand out. Bright moving objects leave visual trails, loud noises echo and reverberate. When you close your eyes music and sound swirl in your head. Geometric lattices dance across your eyelids. You are definitely "in it" now. Most orally ingested psychedelics pass into this territory in a little under an hour, perhaps an hour and a half. If you have fasted and have an empty stomach (or have taken an extremely large dose) you can expect to cut this time in half. With a vaporized and inhaled psychedelic like DMT the transition through all of these effects may take only 45 seconds or less. So keep that in mind when they say your mileage may vary. Either way, by now you're tripping balls for sure. Congratulations, you've finally made it to...

The Plateau

Remember those jittery anxious feelings, that sense of oncoming rush and excitement? Well, that's all gone now, and so is most of everything else you try to remember. Once the user has finished "Going Up" the neural firing patterns in the brain have been significantly de-modulated and consequently re-modulated to a whole new firing frequency. The body has responded to the initial interruption in aminergic modulation and a cascade of events has caused the brain to "ramp up" to meet the new challenges. We have now made it through the initial awkward up-shifting stages between "coming on" and the "primary psychedelic state," or the Plateau, and it is an entirely different state of being altogether. The neural hardware is no longer acting out of synchrony, in fact it seems to be fully awake and thrumming right along with an entirely new vibration. Welcome to the psychedelic experience.

Now many of you may be wondering what we're doing here on the Plateau. Shouldn't we be Peaking right now? Well, yes and no. I throw this stage in because there is a large experiential difference (as well behavioral difference) between what I call the Plateau (what most people call Peaking) and what I call Peaking (what most people call being Passed Out). In short-acting psychedelics, or on very large doses of long-acting psychedelics, the user may zoom right past the Plateau and head straight into Peaking, but for many psychedelic trips it is not the Peaking stage that the user seeks, it is really the Plateau. So what is the difference? In very gross terms the Plateau can be described as "upright peaking," a state of psychedelic intoxication where the user is experiencing the full perceptual effects of the drug but is also able to remain upright, cognizant, and active in the physical world. In contrast, while fully Peaking the user is essentially physically incapacitated, but we will get to that in a minute.

In truth, managing the state space between the Plateau and Peaking is a very delicate balancing act, and if you are not familiar with the psychedelic state you may not even be able to tell the difference between the two. But there is a big difference, and navigating the transitions between the two states may be as easy as the transition between moving around and being active (Plateau) and being still and closing your eyes (Peaking). But if you take too much of a psychedelic (such as a heroic dose) you will have no choice in the matter, you will be Peaking weather you like it or not, and there is little you can do to control it.

So this is where the value of knowledge and experience comes in, targeting that "sweet spot" I spoke of earlier where the user is fully immersed in the psychedelic experience yet not fully overcome by it. This all comes down to finding the appropriate dose range for the desired effects. For example, if you are attending a festival and wish to have a great time walking around, meeting people, listening to music, dancing, etc., you do not want to be fully Peaking, you want to be on the Plateau. If you were Peaking you would be totally lost in the experience, confused, deranged, possibly completely incapacitated, and that is not where you want to be in an unsafe and uncontrolled environment. In contrast, the Plateau is a somewhat manageable state space where the user can experience the most extreme of psychedelic effects and still have conscious control of their body, able to slip in and out of Peak experiences depending on their level of focus and corresponding physical interactivity. Of course, experience with Yoga and other meditation techniques are quite helpful for managing these transitions.

When entering the Plateau it can be assumed that the psychedelic amines are now snuggled safely into the receptor sites in the cortex and are busy "doing their thing." At this stage the perceptual effects described at the tail end of Going Up only intensify, and soon the brain is overcome with a state of heightened sensory awareness that is unlike anything ever felt before. With the eyes open every surface crawls and pulses with fractalline geometric glyphs or oozing cellular patterns, with eyes closed the mind is overcome with fully-formed hallucinations of both the familiar and the bizarre. White noise in the head turns to vocal babble, and then into concrete words and phrases, and eventually orchestral symphonies of sound. Auditory hallucinations repeat and recur and ping around the brain in loops, each iteration becoming zanier and crazier until you have a full-on Spike Jones cacophony of Loony Tunes sound effects echoing round-and-round in ever-tightening spirals into infinity. Each new word and experience lights up a string of synchronicities and cognitive car wrecks in your head that leave you either stunned with jaw-dropping awe or laughing your ass off at the absurdity of it all. The world is awash in wonder and excitement as you try to sort out what is going on and why you have never felt so alive before. The journey to this place has been long and arduous, but now that you are here you can see why so many have come and continue to return. The Plateau is a place of shrieking delight, quivering horrors, and endless possibilities. In a word, fun.

While trying to figure out what is going on in the brain at this moment may seem like a tough one, we can make some basic assumptions from what we have learned so far and go from there. First of all, with tryptamine hallucinogens like LSD and DMT, the primary receptor interaction appears to be at 5HT2A (seratonin) receptors sites, particularly those in the dendritic arbors of the layer V (5) pyramid cells of the cerebral cortex. For those of you who didn't understand that last sentence, it may be helpful to know that the outer layer of the brain (the cortex) is arranged in layers of cells, layer I (1) being at the top (towards the outside) and Layer VI (6) being at the bottom (towards the interior of brain). All sensory information that hits the cortex is bounced through these densely networked layers. Layer I is predominately filled with apical dendritic arbors (tree-like dendrites) that seem to act like complex "top down" signal aggregators which send holistic information back down through the underlying maze of pyramid cells in layers II, III, IV, and V. It is interesting to note that these apical dendrites arbors have the highest density of 5HT2A receptors in the brain, and are thought to be the primary site of action for all psychedelic drugs. The pyramid cells of layers II, III and IV (sometimes called granular cells in the sensory cortex because of their rounded shape) are heavily networked with each other, passing signal information arising from both lower and higher cortical layers laterally through the cortex for routing, cross referencing, and sensorial contextualization within the brain.

In contrast, the pyramid cells of layer V (the layer where primary psychedelic activity is indicated) have long ascending dendritic arbors which catch holistic top-down signal originating in layer I (as well as from the networks of layers II, III and IV), and then pass that signal directly back down along axons into the brainstem and spinal cord for cognitive and sensory feedback mediation with motor control and the other senses. For example, axons from the pyramidal cells in layer V of the visual cortex (occipital lobe, back of the brain, remember?) project from the cortex back down to the superior colliculus and the pons on the upper brainstem, creating a cortical feedback loop with the lower sensory processing regions of the brain, presumably for "top down" focus of attention and tracking of moving objects in space (trails anyone?). In addition to sending axonal branches back down to the lower brain, layer V pyramidal cells also send recurrent collaterals that branch off of the descending axons, reverse course, and ascend back up into the intermediary cortical layers for further intra-cortical feedback processing. And so, with this little snippet of knowledge we have a working mechanistic model for psychedelic signal theory in action: The excitation of layer V pyramidal cells in the sensory cortex via partial 5HT2A receptor agonism in the apical dendritic arbors creates elicited sensory feedback loops on both the intra-cortical and trans-cortical levels, thus creating many of the unique perceptual phenomena related to the psychedelic trip (and you can quote me on that).

Now layer V pyramidal cells are not the only neurons with axonal projections to the lower brain (layer III and layer VI cells also have descending axonal projections), nor are they the only cells with 5HT2A receptors (though they have a very high density), nor are they the only ones that send collaterals or form complex networks with their neighbors. Indeed, the layers of pyramid cells in the cortex are an orgy of cross-networked top-down and bottom-up feedback mechanisms that control everything about you from your sensations, thoughts, and actions to your very awareness and memory of the existential self. All of these cortical layers work in concert to direct the flow of signal traffic through the cortex and brain at large, and while it would be overly reductive to assume that layer V pyramid cells are the only cortical cells stimulated in the psychedelic state, it is nonetheless reasonable to assert that any significant excitation to layer V pyramid cells is essentially like turning the brain's sensory feedback processing mechanisms up to full tilt boogie. We will be looking at this particular interaction in more detail later when discussing connectivist models of consciousness and the specific perceptual effects that could arise from the various feedback interactions within the pyramid cell groups of the cortical layers.

In addition to the perceptual effects related to cortical stimulation, the Plateau is often associated with tide of energy welling in the body that bestows what feels like supernatural powers. If you are dancing you may find yourself striking elaborate yogic or kung-fu poses, twisting and writhing in snake-like contortions as the spine and limbs flow in perfect harmony with the music. Suddenly you are a puppet on a string, totally in the moment, jumping, leaping, spinning, running, ready to just let loose... it all feels so good. Every cell in the body is awake, alive and perfectly tuned, nothing seems beyond your reach. Should we pin this feeling on a sudden rush of dopamine and norepinephrine squirting up into the brain, perhaps in response to the initial interruption and imbalance felt during the Going Up stages? Maybe the mind has become so excited by what it is feeling that adrenaline has now started pumping through your body as if you are in an extended free-fall through space. Whatever it is, it is intense. You've been unchained from the bounds of gravity that have held you your entire life, you feel like you can fly. Some people even try to fly, which is not advisable and can be extremely dangerous if attempted from (say) a balcony or rooftop. However, if you must test this new ability, then running around and flapping your arms like a deranged chicken is relatively harmless (maybe even fun?). And when you are finally out of breath you can collapse on the ground, look up at the world spinning ceaselessly around you, close your eyes, and before you know it you're...


Well here we are. Finally. And man if it isn't strange. If my description of the Plateau sounded like Peaking to you, well, then, you haven't been there yet. Admittedly many psychedelic trips — even fully entheogenic trips — never quite make it to Peaking, and this is primarily because the user has (consciously or unconsciously) self-selected a moderate dose to keep from going fully prone and being completely overcome with immersive hallucinations in a potentially inappropriate place. This is a question of ingestion context again: dose, set, and setting. On many psychedelic trips only mild effects are preferred, and are in fact quite manageable and potentially enjoyable within the context of even barely controlled recreational events like music concerts, raves, and public festivals. In this lower-dose range of psychedelic use the user doesn't really Peak as much as Plateau at a comfortable, functional level and then proceed to "ride the trip out" to the end. However, there is also another stage where the user goes beyond all that and becomes immersed in a totally different world, a seamless synthesis of reality and imagination fused together in an alchemical symphony of sensorial wonder. Well, that's how it is for the user. When viewed externally the Peaking user may be confused with someone who is "totally zonked out" or a "babbling freak". Don't worry, this is normal and to be expected. If this is not what you were looking for than you've come to the wrong place, because this is it baby, this is what you get.

But don't get me wrong. I make no value judgment on being totally zonked out and babbling and freaky as long as it is in a safe environment where extreme exploration does not lead to hazardous activity. But at the risk of totally reducing what for many is an extremely sacred exercise I will say this: in this fully-immersive psychedelic state (or Peaking) there are typically only one of four things you will be doing from an outward/external perspective: Sitting or lying down (preferred) probably listening to music (good), maybe intensely meditating (also good) or maybe even watching TV (oh no!); Dancing your ass off (also good, give it a good shake!), probably to loud thumping music; Walking around like a tripped-out zombie (dangerous, please remember rule #5 - don't freak out!); or getting intimate with another human being (also good). Now that may seem like an overly simplistic reduction but let's be honest, that comprises the vast majority of traditional and modern peak-state psychedelic use, though substitute fire for TV in pre-industrialized cultures and we're good. I would hazard to say, in very gross terms, that the fully-Peaking cortex is so completely overwhelmed with noise and stimulus that voluntary, ego-driven behavior is near impossible, and only the most primal human behaviors can be elicited in response to stimulus, behaviors such as mating, walking, dancing, sleeping, dreaming, purging, and cellular regeneration. Can you believe I said that? Wow! What I am asserting here is that if the body is acting outwardly in the fully peaking state it is acting impulsively and on a kind of genetic automatic pilot, driven by a mix of cognitive confusion (sometimes blissful, sometimes not), emotional need (sometimes healthy, sometimes not), and genetic imperative (well, it is what it is).

Now this last statement may seem like an extreme reduction and unnecessary hyperbole, but I would like to clarify that I am talking about the fully peaking state, the state where most people would be passed out, curled up in a ball (or cuddle pile), or hiding under the bedcovers and hanging on for dear life. There are varying degrees to this spectrum based once again on ingestion context, but within the typical moderate-dose psychedelic trip the actual peak really lasts only a few minutes to under an hour, and even in heroic doses the peak may only last an hour or two at the outside (multi-drug effecting notwithstanding). The longer-acting psychedelic amines typically have peaks and valleys where the user slips in and out of conscious awareness of hard reality, both peaking for a few minutes (though it may seem like hours and hours) and then dropping back down into the Plateau to get one's bearings, go to the bathroom, or respond to an external inquiry like "Dude, are you okay? Dude, can you hear me?" However, the moment your body becomes still and focused it goes right back up and begins Peaking again, returning to the ancient dreamtime and the primal impulses that rule in that domain. Typically people go prone while they are Peaking and succumb to the internal visions of the mind's eye, heading off on a dream voyage across the bridge of life and death, cavorting with disincarnate spirit entities, getting sucked through trans-dimensional wormholes, etc. In some cases the body may continue to act outwardly, either totally immersed on the dancing, convulsing or writhing around, talking (vocalizing?) in a stream of consciousness babble, or possibly engaged in weird and unusual behaviors like re-enacting a birth scenario or trying to mate with inanimate objects (or, you know, whatever might be close by).

Peaking is a truly out there state of mind, totally beyond the control of the user, and bound to get messy even in the best of circumstances. Over the centuries drug-taking humans have instinctively figured out how to manage the transitions between these intense psychedelic peaks and valleys with multi-drug effecting, such as the use of smoked cannabis to make the peaking effect stronger and the use of smoked nicotine to buffer the full peak state and bring the waking Plateau back into focus. But in general terms the fully Peaking user is out of it. Sometimes an experienced user can "shake it off" if the Peak gets too heavy, literally shaking the arms and legs and twisting the head trying to get reality to snap back into focus (Hokey Pokey anyone? That's what it's all about...). This rapid physical activity not only re-activates the voluntary motor circuits but also keeps user's attention focused on the now as opposed to letting time and reality slip off into the swirling psychedelic void somewhere. I will discuss the physiology of this technique (and others) in later sections, but be advised that on an extremely large dose of psychedelics even this technique won't work, you are most likely out for the count. If you have taken a heroic dose you will be prone, flattened, overcome, consumed... your mind is simply scattered to the wind and there is little you can do about it but let go and enjoy the ride (or maybe take an anti-psychotic like chlorpromazine to block it out). If you can remember to keep breathing that is a good thing, but more often than not you will not remember anything, and your body's autonomic systems will now be in control.

When talking about Peaking in these terms it is useful revisit Hobson's AIM theory from the "Dream Drugstore", which postulates (in rough terms) that the dreaming/psychotic state is brought on by a disruption of the aminergically modulated functions of the brain (rationality, external signal input, memory, contextualization of self, consciously controlled ideation) and conversely increases the cholinergically modulated functions (sleeping, internal signal input, dreaming, emotionally controlled ideation, memory interruption). Hobson also points out that psychosis is closely linked to abnormal dopamine transmission, and that LSD (and most likely other psychedelic amines) likely act as a dopaminergic enhancer, which would seem to be the primary cause of their psychotic effects. But to bring all these various theories together I will state the following: I believe the dopamine-interruption model of psychedelic action is more closely related to the effects you might see in the intermediary and sub-Peaking dose ranges. Given the way that the brain's signaling mechanisms work together, I am willing to wager that dopamine plays a crucial role in modulating or fine tuning the synchrony of pyramid cell firing within the networked complexes of the cortical layers, and that this enhanced dopaminergic action works in concert with the elicited feedback loops to produce both hyper-articulated re-constructions and de-constructions of reality, dependent on dose, context, and the conscious attention of the user. This is the most pharmacologically detailed description of the psychedelic event in it's waking stages, up to the far reaches of the Plateau, that you are likely to find anywhere. But once you are Peaking, Hobson's aminergic/cholinergic AIM model is a more accurate description of what's going on experientially: The fully Peaking mind has lost it's entire sense of self; all real-world context vanishes; the mind is ruled by primal emotional impulses; identity spirals into a dream-world of irrational, paradoxical, and delusional ideation, etc., etc.

Now there are exceptions to this rule, I'll admit. I have seen people who were obviously Peaking but they were also animated and doing things, typically not normal things, but you know... things. The outward behaviors of people in this state can be strange to say the least. Usually it is a kind of harmless babbling or laughing, sometimes it is a hellish trip through many emotionally charged states. Sometimes nudity is involved, sometimes hysteria is involved, sometimes violence is involved. This is where things in the happy-happy psychedelic universe of sunshine and flowers and rainbows can spiral out of control and get messy real quick. This is why it is essential to have some kind of pre-arranged safety net if things get out of your control. Proper attention to set and setting is vital, or your psychedelic head trip can spiral into a real-life nightmare, a nightmare you may not remember the next day, but everyone else involved certainly will. Be prepared.

I'll talk a little bit more about the kinds of strange experiences people have in a Peaking states when discussing Closed Eye and Fully Immersive effects in a later section. Please note that the information I have provided here covers only the most general aspects of this extreme end of the trip. In reality the "flicker-world" between the waking Plateau and the fully immersive Peaking state is not a clear-cut line, and you may find yourself surging in between the two states every few moments at moderate to high ranges, dependent on your focus and surroundings. And if you are skilled enough and experienced enough you may even be able to find that slippery area in the middle where full immersion and cognitive control merge seamlessly into one hyper-lucid state. This is, of course, where the shaman walks, and the shaman does not arrive here by accident. It is knowledge, it is training, it is experience. A pinch too little and you walk the Plateau for the entire trip, and there is only limited magic there. A pinch too much and you are obliterated to the winds, overcome with too much magic to grasp onto. But in the middle there is the sweet spot, the liminal zone where the shaman's magic is at full power without the magic fully overpowering the shaman. I cannot stress enough how important it is to know your substance and dose range for achieving the desired range of effects. And learning the dose-range and potency of each substance is not hard. What is hard is having the foresight to plan the right dose for the desired effect. So what is your desired effect? If you are at all uncertain about your own ingestion context, then by god take a break and spend at least a few minutes thinking about why you are doing what you are doing before you inhale any and all drugs put before you. Are you a shaman or a slave? The answer is in your actions, not your words.

Coming Down

Ah, yes, what to be said about Coming Down. It can be alternately one of the greatest, sweetest moments of your life, or conversely a long bumpy train ride through a never-ending hell of soul-worn existential misery. While Peaking may take all the glory for it's intense, drooling, infinitely-recursive squirt through the timeless ever-groovin' void, Coming Down is equally important in terms of the impact on the user, as this is the first stage of the trip where internal integration begins. While walking on the Plateau we get a good look at ourselves and have a rare chance to take a higher perspective of who and what we actually are, or could have been, or still might be. Integrating from that is psychologically chewy but not totally mind-blowing. But in the Peak you are obliterated into the raw noise of nothingness, no distinction between personal genetic expression and the quantum cascade of the universe unfolding around you. That is a hard vacation to come back from. Moments ago you were tripping across the spiral void with the electric Buddha monkeys who secretly control the weather (or whatever) and now you're back in your body, mentally tweaked, physically wrung-out, and the walls are still crawling with the creeping crud. And you have to pee, but you try and you can't, and it is starting to bug you. The stiffness you felt earlier is returning, but it is more like fatigue now. If it has been a good journey up to this point you may find yourself bathed in the deep joy, calm, and self-satisfaction that comes from handling such a challenging emotional event with aplomb and finesse, possibly filled with ideas of the future and brimming with previously unseen potentials for your life. If it has been a bad journey you may feel, well... like shit. You'll feel bathed in shit, unable to shit, and totally stuck to the shit you were carrying with you when you started the trip, only now it's more tangled and convoluted within you. If you are alone and struggling then the existential misery now begins, the desperate grasping at the straws of reality becomes even more desperate. What have I made of my life... one might ask. How did I get this way?

As much as I hate to bring this discussion down to the level of bowel movements, it is important to talk about purging and psychedelics. As we discussed earlier, fasting, cleansing and having an empty stomach can dramatically increase the onset time and efficacy of any psychedelic drug, and in many ways I think it is instrumental to setting a positive context for a trip. I'm not saying you have to be extreme or anything, but just the fact that you are forced to think about intent before even entering the space does a lot to create a solid ingestion context on which to build a decent trip. Coming Down is not the place to learn that lesson. Coming Down is the place to enjoy the rewards of what you have accomplished.

Now I am not saying that you need to have an empty stomach and a good purge to have a good trip and a pleasant coming down experience, but I will say that it helps immensely. Rainforest shaman have some of the most brutal cleansing regimes in the world, spending many days consuming even more vile brews to fully cleanse their intestines (and liver, blood, body, etc.) of excrement, toxins, and parasites before they take the visionary voyage. This may seem a tad extreme, but it is a vital practice in the rainforest, and should be just as vital in the modern world. Without going into too much detail here, it is my firm belief that one of the most therapeutic properties of psychedelics is their ability to cleanse the body of toxic elements. If the psychedelic comes into contact with an organism full of toxic elements (shit), then it has to spend the majority of it's power just doing the basic job of cleaning the place up. If that job has already been done via dietary cleansing, fasting, ritual purging, etc., then the psychedelic's visionary powers go to work immediately and with greater intensity. I will discuss the cleansing dynamic in more detail in the section on psychedelics and medicine, but right here, while you are Coming Down, this is where all that ritual focus and intent pays off.

Setting for Coming Down is also extremely important. Sunsets and sunrises are the optimal setting for this strangely poignant and nostalgic state, but sitting by a warm fire is also nice. Having a hot tub and a killer sound system may be even better. Sufficed to say you want a warm, comfortable place to "land" and to re-integrate your "self" back into your "body" without saying "Ew! It's my stinky body again! Run and hide!" So, in short, if your body is clean and warm and in a safe place when you return from your peak experience then your Coming Down and consequent integration will be much smoother. Conversely, if your body is cold and miserable and malnourished and full of toxins, you may just want it to end, soon. But sleep won't come, not for a while. This is a time for reflection. Is it positive reflection? Have you planned your trip well? Did the ritual pay off? Or are you in more of a mess than you were when you started, wrung out and strung out, and unable to find comfort in anything at all? If it is the latter then perhaps you should learn from your mistakes and be better prepared next time, if there is a next time.

Pharmacologically it seems obvious that at this time the psychedelic has been metabolized, or is being metabolized, and you are slowly returning to "normal" or baseline. As your body recovers from the massive psychedelic event it may feel spent, your brain may feel fatigued, but it is winding down for now, even if it takes a while to finally spin out and sputter into something resembling sleep. As the psychedelic exits the body it leaves a tide of neurochemical dross in it's wake. Perhaps you are now flush with seratonin, feeling sated, good, at peace. Perhaps you are depleted of both seratonin and dopamine and are now agitated and shaky, unable to focus and feeling totally wrung out. Either way it is good to have rituals for coming down, something that helps you transition back into a neurochemical balance more in keeping with standard operating parameters. If you have tripped through the night you are no doubt tired and a full stomach will help you sleep and recover. Some people find it trendy to post-dose with something like tryptophan or 5-HTP to help recover spent seratonin, but this is probably unnecessary as long as you have a belly of nutritious food and at least two good sleep cycles (six hours) under your belt to digest and recover.

If you have dieted and fasted in preparation for a trip you should break your fast in the final stages of coming down. You will know when because your body will not want drugs or smoke or anything but a simple nutritious meal, preferably something with fruits, yogurts, nuts, grains... breakfast stuff, nothing too spicy. Maybe even some lean meats and hearty proteins to fill up your belly. If you are serious about the cleansing aspect of psychedelics you will no doubt have prepared a healthy breakfast in advance, and when you find it waiting for you at the end of the trip you will only have yourself to thank for it, and it will taste all the better. Knowing that the "you of the past" was considerate enough to do a favor for the "you in the now" is a good way to return home to yourself with open arms. This is where ingestion context and integration comes full circle: you have unraveled yourself from top to bottom and must now come to terms with what you have found. Did you like what you saw? Did something scare you? Do you feel troubled or hopeful? This is where the heavy thinking begins, the turning over of events to try and sort out what happened. You should write now. Draw now. Talk now. Watch TV (oh no!), comfort your brain with high-concept consumer media. We have met our innermost selves and stood face to face with our own oblivion, yet now we must set all that aside and return to the task at hand, which is living out our lives with a renewed sense of hope, wonder, and purpose... In a perfect world.

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Tags : psychedelic
Rating : Teen - Drugs
Posted on: 2005-04-18 00:00:00