Opening the door to the hall of mirrors

How neuroscience research into flow states, psychedelics and left-versus-right-brain difference is developing a new understanding of mental health

© Harold Davis
© Harold Davis

The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing

Blaise Pascal

Anyone watching The Last Dance on Netflix over the last couple of weeks has seen what it is like to be in an embodied state of flow. Seeing Michael Jordan playing basketball is to be reminded of how much the exertion of expert physical skill is devoid of our self-conscious awareness. When watching MJ drive to the hoop, or sink an impossible layup in traffic, it is like watching poetry in motion, a kind of magic connecting body, mind and soul in a symphony of coordinated movement. This state of flow is a kind of immersed engagement in your environment, a oneness between doing and being, a sequence of time where time itself seems to have disappeared.

This ‘flow’ state has been investigated using neuroimaging and has been shown to represent a decrease of activity in a structure of the brain called the default mode network. This network is responsible for much of our mental processes when we are not focused on the external environment, in other words our internal chatter and mind wandering. These processes include self-reflection, mental time travel, mental constructions (ideas), moral reasoning and it is widely thought to be the network of the brain that contributes to our sense of self, what it’s like to be you, or what Freud called the ego. In a study investigating flow states, tasks that were rated by participants as ‘boring’, corresponded with neuroimaging data that showed higher activity in the default mode network, whilst ‘flow state’ activities corresponded with decreased activity. That subjective feeling of being engrossed in a task, a feeling of ‘losing yourself’ in the activity, is exactly what is happening in your brain when you are in a state of flow. The network of structures in the brain responsible for creating that sense of what it is like to be you, are essentially switched off in these states of immersion. The default mode network is of particular interest to neuroscientists, psychologists and psychiatrists as there is a belief that a hyperactivity in this network of the brain could be the neurological basis for the development of mental disorders. This hypothesis has been one of the factors that has led to the renaissance of psychiatry and neuroscience research into psychedelic experiences.

In other words the default mode network acts like the conductor of an orchestra, repressing the chaos of everyone playing their own tune, keeping the different parts in harmony

Michael Pollan in his book How to Change Your Mind tells the story of psychedelic research and how it was a promising and legitimate field of inquiry in the 1950s and 1960s. Unfortunately, due to concerns relating to the growing counterculture and anti-war movement, the Nixon Government banned these compounds, effectively shutting down a promising line of research. Robin Carhartt-Harris, David Nutt and their team at Imperial College London, are two researchers at the vanguard of this renaissance and some of their theories related to the default mode network have significant implications for our understanding of psychedelic experience, the brain and mental disorder. Carhartt-Harris and his team found that the brain and in particular, those parts of the brain involved in executive function, such as the default mode network, actually exhibited decreased levels of activity, similar to that exhibited in states of flow, which was the opposite of what they had initially expected. The brain is a hierarchical system, with the more recent, more evolved parts, including key parts of the default mode network, exhibiting an inhibitory or repressive effect on the lower parts of the brain. In other words the default mode network acts like the conductor of an orchestra, repressing the chaos of everyone playing their own tune, keeping the different parts in harmony. The neuroimaging research conducted showed that during psychedelic experiences, this conducting part of the brain essentially switches off, allowing for increased connectivity between different areas which are usually not in communication. 

This research by Carhartt-Harris and his team led to the publishing of a theory called The Entropic Brain Hypothesis, a theory which suggests that our ‘normal’ waking consciousness is the result of a slightly skewed balance between flexible and rigid states. Entropy is defined as the level of uncertainty in a system, and, as can be seen below, high entropy states are associated with flexible thought, like creative or magical thinking, whilst low entropy states are associated with rigid thought, characterised by obsessiveness and addiction. 

The entropic brain hypothesis: spectrum of cognitive states

A sustained period of time in a high entropy, flexible state of divergent thinking can lead to behaviours that demonstrate psychosis, whilst a sustained period of time in a low entropy, rigid state of thinking can lead to behaviours that demonstrate major depressive disorder or OCD. 

The term entropy is often associated with physics and relates to expansion, often used in the context of describing the universe as a system whose entropy is always expanding. There is an interesting crossover between this theory, the term entropy and the states reported by those experiencing the ‘high entropy’ of a psychedelic state. In the subjective experiences of the psychedelic state, a feeling of expansion, of oneness, what is called oceanic or unitive consciousness is often described by those under its influence. The most salient of these experiences, and the ones that had the biggest impact on patient outcomes in the Imperial College research, involves what is called a complete ‘ego death’ or the expansion of your consciousness to such a point that there is no longer any boundary between what it feels like to be you and the outside world. This ‘dissolution of self’ in turn became rated by the patients who experienced it as one of the most important experiences of their lives and resulted in shifts of personality and significant, positive behavioural change.

In a paper researching the effects of psychedelics published in 2018, researchers using neuroimaging found that LSD induces increased connectivity in the sensory and somatic motor areas of the brain, the network of neurons mapped to the sensory experiences of our skin, hearing, vision and body, whilst inducing decreased connectivity in the areas of ‘associative thinking’, which include the prefrontal cortex, responsible for most of our executive function. This increased connectivity also extended to the amygdala, which is heavily involved in the emotional processing of stimulus. So a psychedelic state is exhibited by high sensitivity to sensory information, increased emotional response and the reduced executive functions of mental time travel, mental constructions (the self or ego) and moral reasoning. 

What is interesting about this research is that the psychedelic state is not associated with a higher form of consciousness, but in fact a more primal, or primitive form of consciousness. The quieting of the default mode network essentially opens the door to our subconscious experience, returning us to a state that likely had more in common with our prehistoric ancestors, where instinct ruled. The question then becomes why would this state have such positive outcomes for patients? One possibility is that it allows for a ‘circuit-breaker’ in the positive feedback loops involved in the rigid thought patterns characterised by addiction and depression, allowing patients to see the bigger picture. Another possibility is that these experiences, when accompanied with psychotherapy, allow patients to access memories and emotions that are otherwise unavailable, subconscious, leading to catharsis and acceptance.

This research seems to show that our mental constructions of self can essentially be switched off for a time, allowing for a kind of reset. Mental disorders including depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress, all include mental constructions that can become rigid and debilitating. Worrying excessively about the past and/or the future is a key characteristic of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, whilst being unable to change unrealistic beliefs results in behaviours related to obsessive compulsive disorder. In all of these cases the mind has engaged in a kind of positive feedback loop of thinking that it can’t break, leading to the spiral of rumination in depression, or the cyclical nature of addiction or OCD.

But why, should an overactive sense of self lead us to become more susceptible to mental disorder? Why wouldn’t this “higher-level” of consciousness, lead us to an improved sense of wellbeing? Dan Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard and a prominent researcher into happiness may have part of the answer. Gilbert refers to the Prefrontal Cortex, a key hub in the default mode network, as an ‘experience simulator’; something that represents a mentally constructed reality based on our narrative of self and our ability to plan and to reason and maps this onto the external world. His research details how much of the mental constructions we develop and of what we think will make us happy, is often overestimated. He refers to this as impact bias and shows that major life events often don’t have the lasting impact on our happiness that we think they would. In other words, our states of unhappiness are often caused by a poor ability to forecast what we think will make us happy, whilst the subsequent stress generated by our actions trying to attain those desires and the resulting disappointment of that attainment can keep us in a state of dissatisfaction. In a sense we are always in a state of wanting, jumping from one imagined pleasure to the next, allowing the goal directed part of the mind to continue calling the shots. In something like depression the experience simulator has essentially gone into overdrive, developing negative, critical mental constructions that become impossible to break out of and the balance between the simulated world view of the mind and the broader context is lost. 

A sense of balance between competing ways of viewing the world is exactly what is proposed in Iain McGilchrist’s magnum opus The Master and his Emissary. This book, twenty years in the making, detailed the neurological research into the different “views” of the left and right hemispheres of the brain and in a breathtaking sweep of 2,500 years of western culture, investigated how imbalances and equilibrium between the hemispheres’ have contributed to various pendulum swings of culture and history. McGilchrist makes clear that, despite the burgeoning amount of pop psychology stating otherwise, both hemispheres are involved in what the brain does. Where things differ however, is in how the brain does what it does and how the different hemispheres ‘view’ the world. The left hemisphere’s view is more sequential and fixed, processing information linearly toward some objective that it has picked out of the broader environmental context. In contrast, the right hemisphere takes a broader, big picture view of the world, developing implicit understanding (as opposed to knowledge), interpreting metaphor, imagery, an ability to see patterns and read facial expressions and to appreciate art and the harmony and melodies of music. 

McGilchrist argues that the hemispheres, when operating properly, work together in a kind of Hegelian Dialectic, with a synthesis of the two different world views leading to a kind of Gestalt whole, something more than the sum of its parts. The coda of McGilchrist’s thesis focuses on his hypothesis that in the last 150 years there has been an increasing tendency to see our world through the more fixed and machine-like left hemisphere. Much of this he puts down to the increasing levels of machine-like ways of working inherent in modern life, developments such as bureaucratisation, mechanisation and the view of workers as interchangeable parts are all typical of a left-hemisphere view of the world. One of McGilchrist’s central concerns and one which echoes Dan Gilbert’s research, is that the left’s fixed, sequential, linear view of the world leads to a re-presentation of reality, one devoid of the broader context. The left hemisphere’s view is a reproduction, essentially a virtual reality which is mostly interested in objects and ‘things’ as opposed to people and the environment. When our representation of reality becomes detached from the broader context for long periods, our experience can become what he terms, a ‘hall of mirrors’, an oppressive sense of being trapped within the mental constructs of our own thoughts leading to an excessive level of self-consciousness resulting in mental illness.

Psychedelic experiences appear to open a door to this hall of mirrors, allowing a window to the outside world; a reset and rescue from the matrix of the associating minds representation of reality

This sense of being trapped in the hall of mirrors maps onto the type of rigid thinking typified by a low-entropy state in The Entropic Brain Hypothesis. Psychedelic experiences appear to open a door to this hall of mirrors, allowing a window to the outside world, a reset and rescue from the matrix of the associating minds representation of reality. There is a clear overlap between flexible or rigid thinking and the left and right hemisphere’s view of the world, between the grasping and sequential processing of the more rigid, left hemisphere and the contextually rich, intuitive understanding of the more flexible view of the right. Thousands of years of ancient spiritual traditions have spoken of the need for balance in the way we view the world and current psychological and neuroscientific research appears to support this. 

Whilst our sense of self and our ability to plan and reason are critical to our daily lives, it appears that these elements of our thinking can become counterproductive if they do not take into account a broader context. With the increasing digitisation of our leisure, work and social interactions there appears to be a creeping tendency to allow a more fixed, re-presented view of the world to dominate, potentially contributing to the significant increases in depression globally. Psychedelic experiences have been shown to be an effective treatment for many individuals suffering from intractable mental disorders and organisations like MIND Foundation in Europe and Mind Medicine in Australia, along with many others, are working to educate mental health professionals, governments and the wider community as to their benefits, as well as risks. By building awareness around the benefits and risks of these experiences along with an understanding of who might benefit, we can remove some of the ‘war on drugs’ dogma that has shut down any debate regarding these treatments and begin to build a new paradigm of mental health treatments.

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