Taming our world: How uncertainty, beliefs and psychedelics can create and destroy depression
As the decade of 2010–2020 begins to retreat behind us and we cast our mind back to it, there were many cultural, political and economic changes that defined it. In an age where many young Westerners had to accept the fact that the parental optimism projected on them was unlikely to manifest and uncertainty and insecurity become the norm. Older generations, comfortably settled and looking forward to retirement, were targeted by manipulative media to stoke fears of liberalism and foreigners. Encouraged by a new wave of digital content creators on Instagram and YouTube, mental health and the need to embrace and support those suffering seemed to be the one thing that left and right, old and young could agree on.
In the wake of public dialogue about chronic pain, depression, anxiety and suicide, we subsequently witnessed the tide turning decisively and rapidly on the research and legalisation of previously outlawed substances. Cannabis led the way at the beginning of the decade and has now a huge established market in the US. ‘Big Green’ has attracted huge amounts of investment even from conservative ranks, and they’re already gearing themselves up to cross over the Atlantic the moment they get the green light (badum-cha).
In the psychedelic class of drugs, MDMA and Psilocybin therapies have been awarded FDA breakthrough status for their promise in alleviating post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic depression. In the UK, which has been lagging behind the US on Cannabis legalisation, a Ketamine analogue was licenced for use as a rapid-acting antidepressant in the last month of 2019. Looking ahead to a decade with undulating geopolitical tensions and a worsening climate crisis, we can probably also expect someone we know, if not ourselves, to undergo some kind of psychedelic therapy by the time 2030 arrives. The state of our collective mental health looks set to transform over the decade, if all goes well.
What’s unusual about these drugs is that whilst they’ve been proven to be substantially more effective compared to existing treatments, we have very little understanding of how their effects can be so drastic. Owing to an effective outlaw on researching them from the 1970s until recently, we have very little understanding of how their neuronal and psychological mechanisms give rise to their effects on our physiology and the conscious experience. With most modern drug developments, we have a deep understanding of human biochemistry and use it to generate a hypothesis on what drugs might be effective. With these commonly recreational drugs, researchers are now tasked to explore them in the other direction: finding out they’re effective, and drilling down deeper into psychological models and neurochemistry.
Retrofitting psychedelic mechanisms
Earlier this year, a proposed rationale came from prominent psychedelic neuroscientist Robin Carhart-Harris released a paper modelling the brain’s processing mechanics of the psychedelic experience, in conjunction with computational neuroscientist Karl Friston. Elegantly written, it illustrates a hypothetical model of how the brain processes the world, the precise role of an ‘ego’ in its interpretation and how this delicate coding set up can warp itself to become pathological, closing off the individual from the realities of the world in a self-perpetuating loop. If you’ve not come across them before, psychological models serve as hypotheses to try and explain numerous experimental observations, linking them together in conceptual processing hierarchies. These facilitate discussion and stimulate further research to prove/disprove the predictions the model makes. Often they can be too abstract to be that useful, or have a lot of controversies and/or conflicting experimental evidence to make them seem truly valid.
For me, the model proposed by Carhart-Harris and Friston however — called REBUS, or relaxed beliefs under psychedelics — tied up a lot of loose thoughts, reframing the way I look at practically everything and providing real insight through reinterpretation. I’ve unpacked the most useful learnings from the paper in the points below, to hopefully guide others through a new look at the world and to ensure that we process it in a healthy way. Where psychedelics can be useful for addressing deep-seated mental issues, they can also help us to understand our everyday operations in the world and how we respond to it, protecting ourselves and others from depressive thinking in the longer-term.
Notion 1: We are statistical machines
For a brain trying to work out what’s going on the world, it has to deal with a stream of constant surprises. In order to navigate these in a capable way our brain operates via ‘predictive coding’, processing billions of statistical likelihoods about what we can expect to happen and making gambles that they’re true when we decide to act on them. Living systems have developed with this arrangement, bestowing themselves with an inherent tendency to resist disorder and minimise uncertainty.
These likelihoods consciously manifest themselves as our beliefs about the world. They operate in a ‘top-down’ manner, acting as a filter for all of the raw sensory information which passes through our sense organs and into our cortex. Attentional processes help us choose which sensory information to pay attention to, ignoring that which we deem irrelevant or not useful. Higher beliefs can give us context to our sensory input, helping us to interpret it into a narrative that we may pass on to memory storage areas to create new beliefs or modulate existing ones. This is learning.
Our whole knowledge of the world is, in one sense, self-knowledge. For knowing is a translation of external events into bodily processes, and especially into states of the nervous system and the brain: we know the world in terms of the body, and in accordance with its structure.
Alan Watts, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are
Notion 2: The ego is one of our highest beliefs about the world
Stories about how psychedelics are being used in clinical settings to dramatically improve the symptoms of depression are prevalent in the news, and are covered favourably even by conservative outlets (if you’re in the UK: even the Telegraph and the Daily Mail). For those who aren’t aware, research has shown that just a single significant dose of a psychedelic can be enough to induce a transformational experience in an individual. Even when they’ve previously failed to respond to any other treatments and have suffered for decades, trippers can go up to six months depression-free ( Carhart-Harris et al. 2018 ).
The REBUS model proposes that psychedelics relax the beliefs our brains hold about the world which work out whether something is likely to happen or not. With these attenuated, our raw sensory processes become unleashed and may contribute to the overwhelming visuals and sensations of a psychedelic trip.
Psychedelics taken in large doses can trigger an ‘ego-death’ — the dissolution of our maybe greatest belief: our sense of self, identity and personality. Individuals report losing their entire sense of individual self, failing to see any border between themselves and another living being. This can feel like dying, or others interpret it as feeling part of the same energetic matter as the rest of the universe — ‘at one’. In this way, the beliefs that we hold to form predictions about the world give rise to our sense of self, separating from the remainder of life. Phenomenologically, we are nothing more than our set of beliefs and expectations about the world, and only we have the power to change their rules.
Notion 3: The psychedelic experience realigns your internal beliefs with reality
Changing our higher-beliefs is an ongoing process of learning, where we modulate them as we experience more sensory information about the world. Where this becomes problematic is in the depressed brain. Here, an array of pathological beliefs about the world become so tightly held that they can no longer be influenced and modulated by sensory input. Depressive thinking becomes entrenched and even self-reinforcing, self-selecting to bias sensory input, such as believing you are a burden to loved ones who want nothing more than to care for you.
The high-level systems…function to route or canalise thought and behaviour, sometimes in an overly constraining way that restricts self-awareness and obstructs new learning. If the gravitational pull of beliefs or behaviours becomes excessive, this can leave an agent feeling estranged from deeper aspects of his or her self, as well as from other people — and from a sense of purpose and meaning in life.
In the psychedelic state, these pathologically-overweighted beliefs relax. Feelings of not being good enough or ambiguous fears that something bad might happen unravel, and raw unbiased thought surges through your brain. With the tight grip of your internal puppet master loosened, the focus turns to seeing the world as it truly is and you’re able to sensitise your beliefs to the outside world again: what is actually going on? Sometimes our overweighted beliefs form to repress undesirable memories, and these may come rushing up — with professional assistance, these can be dealt with and accepted, coding them into our belief system in a more constructive manner.
We can conceptualise depression to ourselves as a specific type of disconnect between how you think the world is, and how the world actually is. Being cut off from accessing our sensory input properly can make depression self-perpetuating: when our senses are diminished and we can’t see, feel or hear as required, fear and aversion become our main tool for avoiding pain and harm. Psychedelic therapy therefore has the capacity to ‘recalibrate’ the apparatus of our brain.
“It was like when you defrag the hard drive on your computer, I experienced blocks going into place, things being rearranged in my mind. I visualised as it was all put into order, a beautiful experience with these gold blocks going into black drawers that would illuminate and I thought: “My brain is being defragged, how brilliant is that!””
We’ve already discussed the notion of new sensory data modulating existing beliefs or creating new statistical priors as a type of learning, but we can also have ‘fact-free learning’ ( Aragones et al. 2004), where a fresh perspective or frame of reference rather than new data brings about an advancement in understanding. This could be a gradual attempt to reframe existing beliefs as with cognitive behavioural therapy, or viewing the realities of your life from a third-person perspective in a psychedelic trip.
Notion 4: Psychedelics can unlock repressed memories
An important aspect to the model is inspired by the algorithmic information theory account of consciousness ( Ruffini, 2017), which suggests that the brain’s highest levels naturally envelope the content of levels below, suppressing some information as it summarises what’s going on in a reductive manner as you move further up the processing hierarchy. This sees our beliefs as ‘compressive’ because they only pull through some of the content from levels below, effectively causing their information to be ignored. If psychedelics act to relax beliefs and reduce the compression of information travelling through the processing hierarchy, it may act to liberate otherwise suppressed information such as repressed memories and allow them to reach the higher levels of consciousness.
Notion 5: Uncertain and ambiguous traumatic events are the most psychologically scarring
Carhart-Harris and Friston’s model predicts that the more uncertain and ambiguous emotional trauma is, the more likely it is to manifest itself as in your brain as an overweighted or pathological belief. As this model sees the function of the brain as trying to minimise uncertainty and ambiguity at the world, this reaction can be seen as self-protective or defensive. Because of this, any attempt to dismantle the belief, for example through rational words or triggered by a psychedelic, could be met with psychological resistance in an attempt to maintain its integrity and perceived self-protective utility.
Notion 6: The relaxation of higher beliefs and a focus on lower sensory input is akin to dissolving the ego and focusing on the current moment
Reawakening ourselves to our senses may sound familiar. For anyone who’s ever tried mindfulness meditation before, we are trying to coach our minds to shift away from top-down puppet thoughts by noticing and feeling our raw bottom-up sensory inputs — ‘the now’. The reduction of the ego or sense of ‘self’ is a core ideal of Buddhism and a goal of meditation.
Mindfulness training also encourages you to not judge any thoughts that arise or experiences that you go through. Following the model, it seems this may work to prevent the formation of high-level beliefs or allow the uncoupling of them from bottom-up information. With fewer top-down beliefs operating, we don’t make assumptions about our everyday experiences and rely just on our bottom-up inputs, living life with ‘beginner’s mind’ — a concept termed ‘shoshin’ in Zen Buddhism. Brain imaging backs up that this way of operating results is better for subjective wellbeing — it appears that feelings of happiness depend not on how well things are going generally, but when we find they are going better than we expect ( Rutledge et al. 2014 ). Having fewer beliefs may mean we surprise ourselves more frequently with positive outcomes to trigger positive emotions.
Notion 7: Pathological higher beliefs about the world may characterise a whole host of mental illnesses
Carhart-Harris and Friston also propose that the model can extend beyond depression, and can explain a host of psychopathologies:
We propose that many, if not most, psychopathologies develop via the gradual (or rapid — in the case of acute trauma) entrenchment of pathologic thoughts and behaviours, plus aberrant beliefs held at a high level, e.g. in the form of negative self-perception and/or fearful, pessimistic, and sometimes paranoid outlooks. We also propose that these pathologic beliefs are ascribed excessive precision, weight, or influence in many psychiatric disorders.
Extrapolating the model to our everyday
At its crudest level, we can understand our brain operating as a filter on the world, and this filter is set up over time based on our experiences and learning. On a daily basis, our physical bodies have to navigate a continuous onslaught of entirely random movements, situations or outcomes. Our brain has evolved to give us a sense of control over this chaos, guiding us to avoid pain and doom and seek social and sexual success. Over the millennia, it seems we’re also driven to make our moment on this planet more than fleeting, seeking to somehow make our mark on it with the hope that we won’t be forgotten as quickly as we lasted.
The result of this filtering means we consciously experience a limited selection of the sensory smorgasbord available to us at any one moment, and the conscious representation of the situation we end up with is a direct result of the top-down filters we’ve applied. 100 different brains experiencing the same scenario would have 100 different interpretations.
With psychedelics, we experience a slackening of this filter and a sensory assault ensues. We might see colours or stars in a brand new way, or feel that we’re part of the same entity as other humans, plants, or even the energy of the universe. Abandoned by rational thought and hurtling through a limitless expanse, it can be one of the most profoundly beautiful experiences of your life, or one of the most harrowing.
The ability to make predictions about the world has another role to play in our survival. When we weave these predictions together into a conscious narrative, we begin to collect stories that we can pass on to others. In turn, we can receive knowledge back through these stories, allowing us to assimilate predictions about the world without needing to experience them for ourselves.
Stories are the cognitive tools we have evolved in order to understand and interact with the world. We dream in stories and out inner voice provides the narrative to our waking hours, making sense of the world through stories in which we are the heroines, history is our warm-up act and the rest of the universe is the backdrop to our lives. Many of us understand our lives as ‘a journey’ with our purpose being a destination’, and we may be ‘lost’ or ‘at a crossroads’ in our lives. Storytelling is a universal human trait. It emerges spontaneously in childhood, and exists in all cultures. We tell stories before we can talk, using mime or gestures…Storytelling attaches emotions to events and, in part because of this, it makes stories memorable.
Transcendence: How Humans Evolved through Fire, Language, Beauty and Time, Gaia Vince
These stories become the beliefs we hold about the world, and the psychedelic experience has the power to unravel those stories into their constituent facts. In the integration period following a trip, unbound by our depressive stories, we are given the chance to rewrite our narratives afresh to read more authentically, healthily and positively.
This post is the first in a series called Taming the World, where I’ll build on these ideas from Carhart-Harris and Friston to try and explain some of the malaises in our current culture, and whether reframing them shows us a better and happier way to live. In part 2, I’ll move on to considering how our top-down beliefs connect to our social intrapersonal experiences to understand better the conditions in which they form, and how we can prevent the formation of toxic narratives without the need for psychedelics.
Originally published at https://www.thekykeon.com on January 19, 2020.