Years before I tried any psychedelics or even cannabis, I had a pretty trippy experience through meditation alone. At the end of an intense breath work class I lay down to close my eyes, and was met with bright exploding fractals and mandalas cavorting across my closed eyelids. These visuals were accompanied by a feeling that I was melting into the floor and the world around me. I felt a sense of oneness with the world that felt both strange and familiar, and made me start to giggle. Years later when I had an opportunity to experience psychedelics, I couldn’t help but notice that they often took me to the same post-meditation mindset. The more I asked around, the more I realized I was not alone in this. So what gives?
Why do psychedelics and meditation feel similar? The simple answer is that they influence the brain in similar ways. Both meditation and psychedelics affect, among other things, a regulatory system in our brains called the Default Mode Network (DMN). This network of neuronal connections is thought to be responsible for the “autobiographical self,” our mental framework that maintains an individual’s story and sense of self over time. Both meditation and psychedelics quiet the DMN’s activity, allowing a wider variety of neuronal connections and mental processes to take place.
SO MY BRAIN HAS A “DEFAULT MODE”?
Yes, not only does your brain have a default mode, it has an entire network to keep this default mode in place. According to Michael Pollan, one of the most notable researchers on this subject, it “is a critical hub in the brain that links parts of the cerebral cortex to deeper and older structures involved in memory and emotion.” While the full scope of its functions and capabilities are not yet understood, it is believed to be responsible for creating a “consistent story of ourselves across time, which is key to the formation of self-identity.”
PSYCHEDELICS AND THE DEFAULT MODE NETWORK
If you have ever experienced a psychedelic substance, or even just cannabis (which also decreases DMN activity), you have experienced a noticeable shift from your “default mode” of regular consciousness to something… different. Perhaps you had a more expansive state of mind, thinking outside of your usual thought patterns. This is because your brain is literally experiencing a more expansive state, as new neuronal connections increase and expand to interconnect more areas of the brain. The DMN temporarily relaxes its grip on our mental functioning, allowing this “expanded” state of consciousness.
MEDITATION AND THE DEFAULT MODE NETWORK
A strikingly similar drop in DMN activity has been measured in the brains of those who meditate. Just like psychedelics and cannabis, meditation encourages neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to form new neuronal connections and change over time in response to experiences).
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE DEFAULT MODE NETWORK GOES QUIET?
What is the one major revelation that is most commonly reported through both meditation and psychedelics?
A feeling of oneness with everything.
That feeling of intimate interconnection with all that is, that feeling of oneness, is also known as “ego dissolution” or “ego death.” The ego, the part of ourselves that says “I AM THIS, THIS IS ME,” takes a step back. It is at this moment that the DMN lessens its hold on our mental processes.
This is why the DMN is thought to be the neurological location of the ego; and the softening of the ego’s influence corresponds with a decrease in DMN activity. Both psychedelics and meditation possess the ability to liberate one’s mind from the clutches of both the ego and the DMN, bringing quite a new and somewhat literal meaning to the idea of an “expanded” state of consciousness!
WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN FOR THE FUTURE OF MENTAL HEALTH?
Meditation has long been praised for its ability to exert positive influence on mental health. Psychedelics are now gaining an increasing amount of attention for having similar benefits.
There are many reasons for this, but the lessening of DMN activity paired with the encouragement of neuroplasticity seem to play key functions in “rewiring” the brain.
When our brains are free to form new neuronal connections, we are able to work through destructive thought loops that may have previously made us feel stuck. New neural pathways in the brain mean fresh new thought processes, which can help to overcome challenges such as depression, anxiety, and addiction.
As scientists continue to study this, we uncover more and more of the mysteries on how our brains work, and how we can work with them. My prediction? A future in which both meditation and psychedelics are utilized to support mental health. That is where it looks like we are heading, thankfully!
HOW TO EXPERIENCE PSYCHEDELIC MEDITATION FOR YOURSELF
As we know by this point, psychedelics and meditation have some pretty similar effects on the brain! So why not explore this a little by trying a psychedelic meditation? No, you don’t need to actually do psychedelics to have a psychedelic meditation experience (as I learned years ago!). There are particular varieties of meditation and yoga that powerfully emulate the effects of a psychedelic experience, in that they produce a similar expanded state of consciousness.
A few forms of psychedelic meditation to look into include:
If your curiosity has been piqued by this article and you would like to learn more, check out the following resources:
–Psychedelics, Meditation, and Self-Consciousness
–How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan
–MAPS: Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies
–Art of Living Foundation
–Homological scaffolds of brain functional networks (this article also contains the actual scientific image that my artistic interpretation up above is based on)
Have you had a psychedelic experience through meditation or yoga? Or have you had a meditative experience through psychedelics? Let me know! My hope for humanity is, by understanding more about the mind, we can unlock more clues about the magical mysteries of life. And THAT is magic.