Straddling Order and Chaos: A review of Michael Pollan's "How to Change Your Mind"
The exploration of the mind is the final frontier. We seem to have exhausted our horizontal expansion and so, we must look further inward and upward, to the deepest depths and the highest heights of our psychological experiences and wrestle with one of sciences greatest mysteries, the brain and our conscious experience.
Michael Pollan, in his bestselling book How To Change Your Mind looked to do just that. This book was a sweeping review of the history of psychedelics, charting their surprising history that began with their early embrace by the psychiatric community, their eventual demonisation in response to the counter culture of the 1960’s and their eventual rehabilitation by researchers at the end of the 20th Century. The book, whilst focusing on the history of the drugs and the authors own experiences also delves into the neuroscience behind these molecules, heavily referencing researchers at Imperial College London by the name of Robin Carhart-Harris and David Nutt, both of whom have been studying the effect of Psychedelics on the human brain.
Dr Carhart-Harris, is Head of the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London and in 2014 he laid out a theory called The Entropic Brain. Entropy is the level of uncertainty or surprise in a system, a high entropic system having a large degree of uncertainty/surprise, a low entropic system a smaller degree. There is a point of criticality in any entropic system where it is balanced between order and chaos and it appears from neuroimaging data that this point of ‘criticality’ in our own consciousness occurs in a more archaic or ‘primary’ state, a consciousness sitting below our normal waking experience. It appears as though our normal waking consciousness actively represses entropy, pushing the system into a more sub-critical state with less chaos and more rigidity. The paper focuses on how psychedelic states appear to return our conscious experiences to a more primary state, a state of greater entropy and connectivity, a less ‘repressive’ state.
The brain is a hierarchical system with consciousness being described by some as an emergent property resulting from the ‘self-organised criticality’ of the system, or in other words the brain being more than the sum of its parts, with consciousness emerging somehow from the interrelationship of neural structures. Carhart-Harris, with a background in psychoanalytic theory, discusses Freud’s theories of the ego & the id in the context of his entropic brain theory and proposes that the neural correlates of the ego have been found in something called the default mode network.
The functional centrality of the default mode network is not shared by other neural systems. Current research implies that the default mode network is the highest level of control in the brain. The default mode network serves as a conductor of the orchestra, the executive of total brain function, being relatively removed from sensory processing and predominantly engaged in higher-level, metacognitive tasks such as self-reflection, theory-of-mind (attributing mental states to yourself and others) as well as mental time travel (reflecting on the past, imagining the future). Essentially the default mode network is the centre for the creation of the narrative-self, what Freud described as the ego.
This narrative self is responsible for how we orient ourselves in the world, along with determining our goal directed activity that allows us to survive and thrive, what is called our normal state of consciousness or ‘waking/secondary consciousness’. It appears as though this state of awareness is responsible for filtering out the experiences that are superfluous to our survival, repressing more primary or entropic states, that are representative of what Freud called the id. This repression of entropy, it is proposed, is what allows us to focus on that which is immediately important for our evolutionary success, but it also blocks out many different states of consciousness that are lurking beneath our normal waking veneer.
The authors desire to integrate psychoanalytic theory into the study of mind is motivated by the gap in our scientific understanding of the unconscious, partly created by the consensus of cognitive psychology. Cognitive psychology focuses on the thoughts and subsequent actions of someone in mental distress, seeking to reduce maladaptive behaviour by creating tasks and coping mechanisms to redirect thoughts and action. The authors view is that whilst managing maladaptive thoughts and behaviours relating to mental distress via cognitive & behavioural psychology is very important, this approach only deals with the symptoms of a deeper, more intractable problem. The psychoanalytic viewpoint has been left behind by the scientific consensus of the psychology field, due to the previous inability to test these assumptions using the scientific method. The hope of Carhart-Harris et al. and others is that by examining the effects of psychedelics on the brains of both patients and ‘healthy normals’ we will be able to examine the unconscious mind and devise therapeutic methods to treat previously intractable psychological problems.
Based on neuroimaging, the administration of psychedelics appears to decouple the hippocampi region, the region responsible for the regulation of emotion and development of memory, from the Default Mode Network. This could mean that the brain is no longer repressing the signals emanating from the hippocampus, allowing access and insights into memories or emotions that we suppress or have forgotten. This hypothesis reflects the subjective reports of many people who have taken psychedelics, particularly in a therapeutic setting, reporting vivid childhood memories, forgotten traumas and visceral emotions. It is hoped that by gaining access to this deeper wellspring of mental life, and through the right integrative therapeutic approaches, this primary state can serve as the catalyst for individuals to engage with psychological issues at their source, rather than just their symptoms.
Depression is one of the most pressing of these psychological issues today. The SSRI drugs, which showed so much promise for its treatment when launched in the 1980’s do not work as well as they did and access to adequate mental health care is lacking for most. It is proposed that the hyperactivity of the default mode network (an overactive ego) leads to a narrow and intense introspection which is characteristic of depressive symptoms. An overactive ego leads to more introspective metacognitive tasks, leading to an over emphasis on maladaptive self-narrative and an increase in negative, rigid thinking characteristic of depression and anxiety.
This rigid thinking and excessive order is characterised as the ‘tyrannical’ ego, an incessantly critical voice that obscures perspective, filtering out or repressing outside experience that could potentially break pathological patterns of thought. The authors discuss how mild depression may have been evolutionary adaptive, with it potentially being a form of reality testing that allowed us to successfully and efficiently navigate our ancestral environment. However, for those suffering from treatment resistant depression, it appears as though this potentially adaptive trait has become overactive, no longer serving the individual and potentially putting their lives in danger.
Extensive research has demonstrated the astounding positive results of psychedelic experiences in improving the psychological outlook of those diagnosed with terminal cancer and people struggling with addiction and treatment resistant depression. It appears that psychedelics break the neural patterns of thought that lead to excessive rigidity of thinking, ‘rebooting’ the mind through a return to a primary consciousness that increases connectivity between different parts of the brain and allows a kind of cognitive reset.
Psychedelic therapy could possibly be a major breakthrough in the enhancement of the existing efficacy of psychotherapeutic techniques. By silencing the ego, clients or patients of therapists may be able to feel emotions that have been previously unavailable to them, recollect and come to terms with long-forgotten memories and face down demons locked deeply away in their unconscious, gaining a new sense of perspective and laying new ‘tracks’ of thought. The narrative and explanation of the ego being located in the default mode network may yet prove to be to simple, however as neuroscience and our understanding of these compounds develop, the potential for significant breakthroughs in mental health treatment could be revolutionary.