Scientists Alter Consciousness Without Drugs Using ‘Hallucination Machine’

Meet the VR of psychedelic drugs.

By Sarah Sloat

on 

Imagine you’re looking around at a bustling city square, complete with shopkeepers and heavy foot traffic. But swirling jewel tones cover the ground, a muted haze flows through the air, and flowing, bulbous images of dogs and birds are attached to the people passing by. You know you’re neither dreaming nor drunk. It’s entirely possible, thanks to new research, that you’re hooked up to the “Hallucination Machine.”

The Hallucination Machine was built by a team researchers from the Sussex University’s Sackler Center for Conscious Science, including the center’s co-founder, neuroscientist Anil Seth, Ph.D. In a paper published Wednesday in Scientific Reports, Seth and his colleagues explain they created the Hallucination Machine as a means to study the mechanisms underlying altered states of consciousness without needing to use psychedelic drugs. This tool, they claim, is like a drug in its ability to make people feel like they are hallucinating.

Creating this altered state in human subjects, they explain, is tricky. Typically, people reach altered states because of psychopathological conditions or psychoactive substances, like LSD and psilocybin. Scientists have induced altered states in study participants with these drugs before to study the neural underpinnings at play, but the process is far from perfect. The Sussex University team explains that, because psychedelics have many physiological effects, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what’s changing in terms of consciousness.

The Hallucination Machine combines VR and deep machine learning.

With the Hallucination Machine, the researchers write, they are able to “simulate visual hallucinatory experiences in a biologically plausible and ecologically valid way.” The tool, which, unlike a drug, does not directly alter the person’s neurophysiology, combines virtual reality and machine learning. When a person wears it, they are immersed in “hallucinations” by watching 360-degree panoramic videos of video scenes with a VR head-mounted display. These videos are modified with an algorithm called Deep Dream, a computer program created by Google engineer Alexander Mordvintsev that modifies natural images to reflect images categorized by a neural network.

Deep Dream happens to insert a lot of images of dogs into the video, but researchers aren’t quite sure why. “One thing people always ask us is why there are so many dogs,” co-author David Schwartzman, Ph.D., told The Times on Monday.

“The short answer is we don’t know.”

In their study, the researchers used two experiments to demonstrate that the Hallucination Machine creates “visual phenomenology” — hallucinations — similar to those induced classical psychedelics. In the first, 12 participants used the machine, experienced the trippy VR, and then were asked how the experience altered from watching normal videos and being on a psychedelic drug. The participants overwhelmingly reported the experience was much different than watching a control video but qualitatively similar to being on drugs, especially psilocybin.

In the second experiment, 22 participants used the Hallucination Machine and then watched a control video. As they watched each video, they completed a task to test their perception of the passing of time. Neither using the Hallucination Machine nor watching the video caused temporal distortion. This was an important discovery, the researchers point out, because in previous studies on altered states of consciousness in which people did take drugs, they reported being confused about the passing of time. The new observations suggest to the researchers that it’s not being in an altered state that causes temporal distortion, it’s the drugs.

Examining the brain in an altered state of consciousness is important to scientists who are still are seeking to understand the biological basis of consciousness as a whole. A major hurdle to this area of study has been the use of and accessibility to psychedelic drugs. The Hallucination Machine may change this, and in turn, allow us to learn more about the unknown ways our minds can perceive ourselves and the world. (Click to Source)

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The New Science of Psychedelics: A Tool for Changing Our Minds

 

As our prosperity rises, our mental health is on the decline—and fast. Rates of depression, anxiety, suicide, addiction, and other psychological disorders have skyrocketed in recent years, and nobody knows what to do about it.

Enter psychedelics: LSD, magic mushrooms, mescaline, ayahuasca—drugs you’d expect to find at a rave or a music festival, not in your psychologist’s office. But that may be about to change, as research in psychedelics increasingly shows their potential for treating psychological conditions.

Previously known as a food and nutrition expert thanks to books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, author Michael Pollan switched tracks a bit for his latest project. His newest book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, published last year, has been an integral part of de-stigmatizing the psychedelics conversation.

In a fascinating talk with The 4-Hour Workweek author Tim Ferris at South By Southwest earlier this month, Pollan shared insights from his research and his personal experiences.

Some History

The word ‘psychedelics’ was coined in 1957 by English psychiatrist Humphry Osmond. It combines the words for mind (psyche) and manifest (delic, from the Greek dēlos). “It’s vague in a way, but it’s suggesting that these drugs bring the mind into kind of an observable space,” Pollan said. “I tried in my book to rescue the word from all the encrustation of 60s Day-Glo acid rock and see if we could reclaim it, because it means the right thing.”

It was their association with 60s counterculture, Pollan explained, that ultimately caused psychedelics’ decline as a scientific tool. By the time the public first heard about the drugs in the 60s, researchers in Europe and the US had already been studying them for 15 years, and using them to treat conditions like addiction and depression, with positive results. “The standards for scientific drug research then were different,” Pollan said. “The double-blind placebo controlled trial didn’t exist until 1962.”

The anti-establishment subculture embraced psychedelics. But in 1965—the year the US first deployed troops to Vietnam—the government and the media started demonizing the drugs. They were labeled as immoral, and stories abounded about people having bad trips, ending up in psych wards, or staring at the sun until they went blind (the first two did happen, but the last was made up).

“Nixon regarded LSD as one of the reasons that boys weren’t willing to go fight in Vietnam,” Pollan said. For most of history, he explained, young men sent to war to defend their country just went—they didn’t ask questions. But suddenly, young American men were asking questions—big ones, like “Is this a just war?” and “Is this something I want to fight for?”

“LSD encourages people to question all sorts of frameworks in their lives, and may have contributed to that,” Pollan said. “It was a very threatening drug.” At least, Nixon thought so, and as a result he started his war on drugs. Psychedelics research gradually ground to a halt, and the drugs stopped being taken seriously as having any medical potential.

Until now, that is.

Changing Our Minds

Pollan shared that what really got him interested in psychedelics was hearing about their effects on people who’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer. “They were paralyzed by fear of death, and they had these transformative experiences that in many cases completely removed their fear. It was the most astonishing thing,” he said.

The drugs have shown promise for alleviating a host of other disorders, including anxiety, depression, and addiction. Psilocybin is being used (“with striking success,” as Pollan put it) in a study of smokers at Johns Hopkins and a study of alcoholics at NYU, and has potential to treat eating disorders as well.

If it seems surprising that one type of drug could treat so many different disorders, consider their common link: they all involve repetitive loops and destructive narratives. The part of the brain where this takes place—called the default mode network—is the part of the brain psychedelics affect, in the sense that the drugs quiet the network, thereby giving users a chance to escape destructive patterns of thought.

The default mode network is a group of structures in the brain that connect the cortex to the areas involved in memory, emotion, and other inwardly-focused thinking, like self-reflection. The default mode network is least active when you’re focused on a task, and most active when you’re at rest without any external stimuli—which is when you start to daydream, remember things about the past, imagine things about the future, and simulate or replay your interactions with other people.

“When they image the brains of people on psychedelics they expected to see a lot of activity, but they were surprised to see that the default mode network was suppressed, with less blood flow and less energy going to it,” Pollan said. “If the ego has an address in the brain it’s somewhere in this network. And this is the region that gets quiet.”

Though we do know this much, we don’t know a lot more, about either how psychedelics work or how the brain works. “Our understanding of the brain is really primitive,” Pollan said. “We know psychedelic drugs bind serotonin to a receptor, then there’s a cascade of effects leading to synesthesia.” What takes place during that cascade, though? No idea.

There may be modes of communication going on in the brain that we don’t even know about yet; Pollan cited a 2018 study where a hippocampus—the brain region associated with memory—was sliced in half, and neurons on either side could still interact without direct contact.

“It’s really important to be humble in anything we say about the brain,” Pollan said.

Keeping Them Changed

If what takes place during psychedelic use is a temporary rewiring of the brain—the compounds are out of the brain within four to eight hours—why is it that using the drugs has an enduring effect on so many people?

“It’s not a purely psychopharmacological effect that they’re having, it really is the experience,” Pollan said. “It’s kind of like a reverse trauma. Many people who undergo this treatment say it’s one of the two or three biggest experiences of their lives.”

The most positive and lasting effect of psychedelics, he explained, is the experience of ego dissolution. It’s our egos—our sense of ourselves—that write and enforce destructive narratives. “The ego builds walls. It isolates us from other people, it isolates us from nature, it’s defensive,” Pollan said. “And when you bring down those walls in the psyche, there’s less of a distinction between you and that other, whether that be other people in your life or the natural world or the universe. There’s this incredible flow, and powerful feelings of love and re-connection.”

Though the experience may last just a few hours, people often feel that the insight or epiphany they have isn’t just a subjective opinion or idea, but a deeper revealed truth; the mind can be reset in a way that would take years of sessions with conventional therapists or psychiatrists. Just as a single trauma can put your mind on a new path, perhaps permanently, a single mystical experience may be able to do the same.

“The mind has certain moments where right angle turns happen, and perhaps it can happen in a positive way as well as a negative way,” Pollan said.

Moving Forward

The psychedelics renaissance is coming at a time when new tools for mental health are sorely needed.

Other branches of medicine—cardiology, oncology, infectious disease—have made huge strides in the last 50 years, both in reducing suffering and prolonging life. But mental healthcare has essentially been at a standstill since the introduction of the antidepressants known as SSRIs in the 1980s.

To go from their current classification as Schedule 1 drugs—high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical use—to getting approved as a medicine, psychedelics need to go through the standard three-phase FDA approval process: first an open-label, no-placebo pilot study, followed by a placebo-controlled trial, then a larger placebo-controlled trial.

Pollan believes MDMA and psilocybin could be approved within five years; the FDA has granted breakthrough therapy status to both, which means they actively help researchers design trials that will move the drugs to approval. MDMA is already in Phase 3 trials.

The biggest bottleneck is funding. The studies are expensive and controversial, and the National Institute of Mental Health has a minuscule budget compared to that of the National Institute of Health. Thus far, psychedelics research has been privately funded.

“It’s not a right-left issue, especially when it comes to treating soldiers with PTSD,” Pollan said. But there is the issue of how to incorporate the drugs into mental healthcare as we currently practice it. The pharmaceutical industry isn’t interested in a drug people only need to take once; likewise, the therapy business model depends on people coming back every week for years. Even if this shifted, therapists would need extensive training before being able to administer psychedelics.

“I think we’ll figure it out, but it’s a whole new structure, a whole new paradigm, and that may take a little while,” Pollan said. After all his research, though, he for one is highly optimistic.

“One of the things that excites me most about psychedelics is that yes, there’s a treatment here—but they’re also very interesting probes to understand the mind,” he said.

“[Psychiatrist] Stanislav Grof wrote that psychedelics would be for the study of the mind what the telescope was for astronomy or the microscope for biology. Now that is an audacious claim—but I no longer think it’s crazy.” (Click to Source)

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Real life Zombies: High on a new street drug called flakka, Truly Frightening

Now the practices of the sinful nature are clearly evident: they are sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality (total irresponsibility, lack of self-control), idolatry, sorcery, hostility, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions [that promote heresies],  envy, drunkenness, riotous behavior, and other things like these. I warn you beforehand, just as I did previously, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.  Galatians 5:19-21 Amplified Bible (AMP)

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Called flakka, but known on the street as ‘gravel’ and by chemists as alpha-PVP, the terrifying hallucinogen has earned a reputation as one of America’s scariest drugs – and it’s being synthesised in China and shipped in the kilograms to Australia.

Users can order the drug online and have it delivered to their mailbox the next day, or find an synthetic alternative in their local sex shop shelves – with no understanding of its dosage or contents.

Tyren Edwards, National Chief Scientist at Safe Work Laboratory, told Daily Mail Australia flakka was easier to get a hold of than methamphetamine in Australia.

‘Methamphetamine is harder to get hold of than flakka in Australia, it’s definitely out there … (but) you can only judge it on the seizures of synthetics which are hardly ever reported.’

Mr Edwards said as little as six grains of flakka was enough to send a user into a chemical state of oblivion, and could result in death in just 10 minutes.

He said the drug could be manufactured for just $0.75 a hit.

Videos of flakka users in the US show people writhing on the ground and screaching, hiding from non-existent gunman, running naked through city streets, trying to have sex with a tree and claiming they are God. (Click to Site)

Religious leaders get high on magic mushrooms ingredient – for science

Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore enlists priests, rabbis and a Buddhist to test the effects of psychedelic drugs on religious experience

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A Catholic priest, a Rabbi and a Buddhist walk into a bar and order some magic mushrooms. It may sound like the first line of a bad joke, but this scenario is playing out in one of the first scientific investigations into the effects of psychedelic drugs on religious experience – albeit in a laboratory rather than a bar.

Scientists at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore have enlisted two dozen religious leaders from a wide range of denominations, to participate in a study in which they will be given two powerful doses of psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms.

Dr William Richards, a psychologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland who is involved in the work, said: “With psilocybin these profound mystical experiences are quite common. It seemed like a no-brainer that they might be of interest, if not valuable, to clergy.”

The experiment, which is currently under way, aims to assess whether a transcendental experience makes the leaders more effective and confident in their work and how it alters their religious thinking.

Despite most organised religions frowning on the use of illicit substances, Catholic, Orthodox and Presbyterian priests, a Zen Buddhist and several rabbis were recruited. The team has yet to persuade a Muslim imam or Hindu priest to take part, but “just about all the other bases are covered,” according to Richards.

After preliminary screening, including medical and psychological tests, the participants have been given two powerful doses of psilocybin in two sessions, one month apart.

The sessions will be conducted in a living room-like setting at New York University and Johns Hopkins in Baltimore with two “guides” present. The participants will be given the drug and then spend time lying on a couch, wearing eyeshades and listening to religious music on headphones to augment their inward spiritual journey.

“Their instruction is to go within and collect experiences,” Richards said, after presenting his work at the Breaking Convention conference in London this month. “So far everyone incredibly values their experience. No one has been confused or upset or regrets doing it.”

A full analysis of the outcomes will take place after a one-year follow-up with the participants, whose identities are being kept anonymous. “It is too early to talk about results, but generally people seem to be getting a deeper appreciation of their own religious heritage,” he said. “The dead dogma comes alive for them in a meaningful way. They discover they really believe this stuff they’re talking about.” (Click to Site)

DEA claims cannabis holds no medicinal value even as the federal government owns the PATENT on its use as a medicine

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(NaturalNews) For decades, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), of the herbcannabis sativa, has been at the top of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) hit list. This targeted plant and its natural properties continue to be classified as a schedule one drug on the DEA’s senseless drug scheduling system. Cannabis is listed alongside meth and LSD for having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” The DEA is adamant about controlling cannabis, even at a time when state governments are decriminalizing it altogether and allowing for its use in medical treatments. (Click to Article)