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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:
Cognitive Phenomena : Expanded Consciousness, Lifting the Veil

James Kent

Chapter 15: Psychedelic Information Theory

Cognitive Phenomena

Cognitive Phenomena can be classified as "complex" phenomena because they typically involve the spontaneous emergence of "concepts" or "ideas" which are formulated out of "thoughts" or "feelings" that are holistic in nature. Unlike colorful distortions of raw perception from our sensory cortices or the emergence of primal impulses from our emotional brain, Cognitive Phenomena are typically defined in terms of "expanded states" of consciousness, the production of "novel memes," and the shifting or shattering of the "paradigms" through which we view reality. Cognitive Phenomena are tied closely to both concepts of self as well as the basic logic and language functions of the brain (which would be located in the prefrontal cortex), but they also rely on areas of our brain responsible for more intuitive, loosely-associative interpretations of data. Because of this, Cognitive Phenomena may seem cryptic, paradoxical, and grand in scope; the states are often described in spiritual terms of mystical awareness and metaphysical awakening; and reports from users all over the world often use the same language metaphors to describe various states of "expanded consciousness." And since Cognitive Phenomena emerge into both the "mind" and into the culture arena as fully-formed as experiential "concepts" or "ideas," they are arguably the most powerful, transformative, and easy-to-translate artifacts of the psychedelic experience.

Here is a Crude Summary of Cognitive Workflow for reference in the following sections.

I am going on pure speculation here, but I would argue that Cognitive Phenomena arise generally from activity in the enfolded layers of the cerebral cortex, particularly in the executive areas of the prefrontal cortex, and more specifically in the "predictive" or "intuitive" cortices of the anterior (rear) and dorsal portions of the frontal lobes. This "intuitive cortex" has been recently implicated in the brain's ability to make predictive "snap" assumptions about things before they actually happen — like being able to see where a flying ball will land, or being able to what someone is going to say before they actually vocalize it, or just knowing someone is "bad news" from their body language. It is interesting to note that this intuitive cortex (generally in Brodman's areas 32 and 33) is very close to Broca's area, the internal language-generating center, and these areas have  the second-highest density of 5-HT2A receptors in the entire brain, right after the visual cortex, which has the highest concentration. But everyone who has taken psychedelics knows that the visual "fireworks" are only part of the trip, and the odd transcendent epiphany or outbreak of cosmic consciousness is not entirely unheard of.

Knowing what we know of about psychedelics working as cognitive enhancers at a moderate dose and cognitive interrupters at higher dose, we can assume that Cognitive Phenomena are most likely to occur at moderate doses of psychedelics, particularly in the states that I have referred to as Going Up, The Plateau, and Coming Down. While Going Up and Coming Down, the mind may be overcome with "little epiphanies" or small, one-shot cognitive "hits" that may be perceived as inspirational, horrific, surreal, paradoxical, or absurdist (e.g. "Santa and Satan are anagrams, and they both wear red! They must be the same entity!" Or something on that order.). While on the Plateau, cognitive effects become more synchronistic and self-referential, and the epiphanies become more intense,  immersive, and fully formed. Cognitive effects can be Gnostic in nature, they can be paranoid in nature, but mostly they are like Sufi riddles, absurd and paradoxical but containing some kind of wisdom or observation about "the true nature of things." So let's take a good close look at these cognitive meta-phenomena see if we can get to the "meat" of what it going on in the psychedelic experience.

Expanded Consciousness: Lifting the Veil

Aldous Huxley was probably the first English-speaking person to popularize the notion of opening "The Doors of Perception," though poets and mystics have been speaking, singing, and writing of such things for thousands of years now. The concept is old, but it goes something like this: In our ordinary, baseline states of consciousness, we see only a tiny sliver of reality, which we perceive as the waking, semi-distracted doings of daily human existence. If we are able to remove our distractions, focus, and make our thoughts still — via meditation, chemical induction, etc. — we can fully expand our minds to go beyond this "minimally aware" state and the grasp the full totality of the now, allowing us to see reality as it "truly is." This is a central concept of meditation, yoga, and just about every mystical practice I can think of. This phenomena is often talked about in terms of "expanded consciousness" or "true seeing"; of "lifting of the veil" or "breaking through the illusion" of normal waking reality. This state often corresponds with a loss of self or a diminishing of personal ego as the awareness of the inter-connected "transpersonal self" eclipses the user's consciousness, though not always. In megalomaniacal states, the ego may be distorted to cartoonish extremes, or a suppressed "alter-ego" (or two, or three) may spontaneously surface.

On the cognitive level, it seems easy to credit this "veil lifting" sensation to a loss of sensorimotor gating at the thalamus, as we discussed in the last chapter. The resulting increase in overall background noise and sensation would therefore make the moment seem more intense; case solved. But I do not think the solution is that easy. I do think there is a loss of sensorimotor gating going on in the thalamus, but moreover I believe it is an increase in activity in the cortex which triggers this loss of gating, not the other way around. Also, the notion of "lifting the veil" implies more than just a flood of noise into the brain; it is a complex concept pieced together from excited activity in all areas of the cortex, and as the rational brain gropes for a metaphor for what it is "seeing" or "feeling" this idea of "doors of perception" being opened keys into the mind very handily, and because it is a good metaphor it sticks. Now, with this concept planted in the mind, it is possible to deconstruct the unfolding of this meme in a temporal fashion, plotting the concept inception and intensity over the duration of the trip thusly:

Stage One: While Coming On you begin to realize that "things are strange" and you are felling "slightly different" than you were before. There is disorientation, anxiety, and confusion, and you cannot say for sure what is happening. At this stage, the Concept Intensity is vague.

Stage Two: While Going Up you begin to notice little details you did not notice before. Lines and colors stand out more; things are louder and more vibrant. Some things actually begin to shift and move. The transition into the state is so seamless you begin to wonder, "Is reality like this all the time, and I just never noticed?" This sensation is coupled with a titillating deja-vous, a distinct feeling that you are entering a "place" or a "state of mind" you may have experienced before, perhaps in a dream, or as a very young child. You look at the world with new eyes, fresh eyes. You begin to feel awakened. At his point the Concept Intensity is formative.

Stage Three: As you transition into the Plateau, the previous constraints of reality no longer seem to apply. Typical boundaries have dissolved; concepts run into one another; the intensity hits high gear. The ability to distinguish the real from the unreal fades and paradoxical logic is accepted as readily as rational thought. But self-aware portions of the mind are still active and functioning well enough to think, "I've never seen this before," or, "I've never had these thoughts before." The overwhelming feeling is one of, "There are deeper aspects to reality that I've never seen before, because now I see them!" The intensity of the sensation and novelty of the experience convey the distinct idea that you are being exposed to "hidden" aspect of reality: a higher vibrational state; a parallel frequency; a nearby dimension; an alien landscape; etc. At this point the Concept Intensity is explicit.

Stage Four: When you enter the fully Peak psychedelic state, the remaining self-aware portions of your mind crumble away and you are at one with the entirety of the universe. The explicit concepts you have formed in your brain up to this point are now setting the context for the immersive experience your astral (dreaming) self has now entered. If you have reacted well to the "unveiling" experience thus far, you should be ushered on a dream journey through whatever type of hidden dream reality is awaiting you. If you have been having problems with the "unveiling" and are experiencing anxiety, you will be overcome with paranoia and demonic ideation, will want no part of the hidden reality that awaits you, and will do whatever you can to shake yourself free. The range of reaction (acceptance/resistance) to the perceptual transitions up to this stage of the trip will greatly affect the formation of any trip Concepts in the mind, and how they are named and remembered later in the integrative state. At this stage, the Concept Intensity is immersive.

Stage Five: While Coming Down, your self-aware mind comes back online and begins to snatch at pieces of the experience you just went through. During Integration, the "old" reality begins to return, so you struggle to describe and remember the trip and what it was like. You distinctly remember the feeling of being exposed to a "hidden reality" that was oddly familiar. The adrenaline rush of that novel discovery causes your brain to form a very strong memory imprint of that notion, and the concepts used to describe this discovery (invisible landscapes, doors of perception, astral spirits, etc.) become colorfully detailed. Thus the nomenclature of the "lifted perceptual veil" comes into being, and the metaphorical terminologies becomes experiential truisms. At this state, the Concept Intensity is integral.

One the concept of the "perceptual veil" is integrated into the nomenclature of the psychedelic user, it is very difficult for them to look at the experience in any other way. The concept itself is "self-revealing," and has enough of a novelty impact to be "self-imprinting" within memory, but that does not mean the concept is "true" in that alternate realities actually exist. The extrapolation of "alternate dimensions" is just one reaction to the entire "lifted veil" concept. Some may call it "the enlightened mind," opened to "Gnostic wisdom," others would call the "psychotic mind" overcome with "delusions of grandeur." I am of a mind that it is something different altogether, and that it is not very difficult to describe when you get right down to the particulars. In short, the "lifted veil" phenomena comes down to three distinct perceptual events happening in succession:

  1. As the psychedelic begins to take effect, the senses are enhanced and perception of reality is amplified. There is a sharper processing and rendering of reality, things are focused and magnified. Thus, the newly amplified signals of reality are perceived as an extra "spectrum" of signal that has been layered over the top of existing perception. At this point, the user may actually be seeing things that are real that they have never noticed before (small objects, hidden patterns, elaborate textures, intricate details, etc.), thus expanding their alertness and awareness of reality, thus "expanding their consciousness."

  1. As the effects of the psychedelic become stronger, the user begins to see things that are not real, but has difficulty distinguishing where the actual perceptions end and the distorted hallucinations begin. Loss of rationality in another part of the brain implies there is no qualitative difference between the two data streams, and that both versions of reality (real/distorted) are accepted as valid. "Expanded consciousness" slips into "distorted consciousness," and the user is generally unaware of the transition.

  1. As the drug takes full effect, there is a narrative arc where "reality" actually does entirely crumble away, leaving only "distorted reality," thus verifying the user's initial feelings of having "opened their mind to an alternate space." The ontological problems arise when the user attempts to ascribe this "alternate space" to an externalized location somewhere (spirit realm, hyperspace, alien dimension, etc.), which is where the mystical terminology comes in handy because it sounds right, even if it is vague and poorly defined.

By deconstructing the "arc" by which this concept unfolds, we can see how it is tempting to make the logical leap from "enhanced perception" to "supernatural perception" while in the psychedelic state, thus the metaphors of fairy lands, spirit realms, and hyperspatial entities feel more plausible. But if the reality is that psychedelics progress from "enhanced perception" to "distorted perception," then a more solid line needs to be drawn between what is "real" and what is "illusory" within that state. Within the Peak it is extremely easy to convince yourself that "reality" is an illusion, and that the "illusion" you have found yourself in is now the "real" reality. However savory and poetic this notion may be, it is an ontological can of worms (as the Matrix movies so long-windedly demonstrated). But the point I am attempting to make is that there is a difference between "expanded consciousness" and "distorted consciousness," and the perceptual states vary within the psychedelic experience based on the dose range and the timeline of action within the nervous system. While the "veil" may be lifted for one part of the trip, it may be wrapped around your eyes during the next part of the trip, and it is best to know the difference between the two or you risk getting wrapped up in semi-accurate metaphors of hidden realities and alternate dimensions when trying to explain what you have experienced.

Now I am not flat out denying the existence of alternate dimensions, higher vibrational states, spirit worlds, etc., but I find them very specious. I'll talk about these immersive states a little later, but what I do want to stress right now is the experiential accuracy of this feeling of "expanded consciousness" as "the veil is lifted" and the user sees reality with "new eyes." Without having to resort to talk of spirit realms and such, this is a very real perceptual event that is reported by just about everyone who is exposed to psychedelics for the first time, so there is something worth exploring here. It seems to me there is a very clearly defined, highly focused state that can be achieved where the perceptual veils actually are lifted and reality can be perceived without any gating or rational preconceptions blocking the raw sensation of the now, thus leading to a hyper-aware state of consciousness. All of this is accurate, more or less. But this is a very different thing than being granted entry into an alternate dimension, and the distinction should be made clear. The "veil being lifted" is a basic sensory amplification of what we already know and see, coupled with a "higher cognitive perspective" of our local reality that we normally don't get.

While it is nice to know that "expanded consciousness" can quickly give way to "deluded psychosis," navigating between the two states can be quite difficult at time unless you are very familiar with the psychedelic state. But a simple rule of thumb should be that sitting in the lotus position (legs crossed, back straight) and breathing deeply leads to the kind of quiet focus needed for enhancing basic mystical perception; closing your eyes, lying down, and listening to music are generally triggers for more immersive states with narrative flow. It should also be noted that dose range matters here. "Lifting the veils" is a cognitive phenomenon associated with low to moderate dose range activity, a kind of "getting your feet wet" for novice explorers. Lift the veil a little and you get a peak at what's out there. Lift it too far and you get knocked over backwards. 'Nuff said.

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Tags : psychedelic
Rating : Teen - Drugs
Posted on: 2005-08-19 00:00:00