What Can Psychedelics Teach Us About the Nature of Our Neurodiverse Realities?

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Have you ever wondered if your psychedelic encounter resembles that of others around you? Or how a congenitally blind person might experience the cacophony of hallucinations commonly associated with psychedelic states? Dr. David Luke, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Greenwich, certainly has. His exploration into the anomalous nature of psychedelic experiences across the neurodiversity spectrum examines altered states of consciousness to fascinating depths, with each oasis of discovery bearing fruits ripe for further research.

Accessing “altered states of consciousness” is a universal anthropological phenomenon. Be it through meditation, hypnosis, trance dance or breath work, humans seem hardwired to seek out neurochemical alterations of their experience for religious, spiritual, therapeutic, and recreational purposes. A well-known, ancient tool to access these altered states is psychedelics.

Common (albeit extraordinary) and well-researched experiences include explosive, colourful visions and a long-lasting positive mood, as well as mystical perceptions of unity and a sense of the divine. Dr Luke’s research focuses on anomalous psychedelic experiences, such as those encountered by neurodivergent individuals with autism, synaesthesia and congenital blindness.

“Albert Hofmann, the inventor of LSD, had an experience of synaesthesia on his very first LSD trip, the world’s first LSD trip, in fact.” – Dr David Luke, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Greenwich.

Neurodiversity (ND) refers to a variation in the human brain regarding sociability, learning, attention, mood and mental functions. “Neurodivergence intersects with psychedelic experience in this larger umbrella of anomalous experience,” explains Dr Luke. Studying the space where psychedelics and neurodiversity meet is a “really nascent research area”, nevertheless one that could be extremely useful for the development of psychedelic therapies to manage these conditions, as well as providing a deeper understanding into the multifaceted nature of our co-existing realities.

Autism and psychedelics

Dr Luke cites unpublished research from a recent survey on recreational use of psychedelics in autistic adults. He found that respondents had “less difficulties interpreting and navigating social situations” following psychedelic experiences, as well as an “enhanced ability to navigate and label their own feelings.” These initial findings build on a 2018 study which found that autistic adults who underwent MDMA-assisted psychotherapy demonstrated “rapid and durable improvement in social anxiety symptoms.”

Congenital blindness and psychedelics

Do blind people experience the mind-bending, visual hallucinations associated with psychedelics? Dr Luke found himself asking this question after learning of research studying near-death experiences with a blind sample. Near-death experiences are generally defined as out-of-body and are usually “suffused with visual content,” such as “flashes” through the “mind’s eye,” Dr Luke explains. Many also report witnessing a sort of “life review” montage and a “tunnel of light.” The research found that “two thirds of congenitally blind people had this visual phenomenon” where they saw their body from an outside perception.

Given the nature of congenital blindness, whereby individuals are blind from birth and don’t even develop a sense of light and dark, “it’s extraordinary that two thirds of congenitally blind people report having these classic, visual-like phenomena during the near-death experience,” marvels Dr Luke. Utilizing the “conceptual overlap between near death experiences and intense psychedelic experiences,” Dr Luke conducted research in which he interviewed a blind respondent who reported being “able to see” during a psychedelic experience. However, Dr Luke goes on to say that the research is still in its infancy, due to only having a “tiny handful of respondents.”

“You can think of our whole experience as being an ongoing psychedelic hallucination, of an ordinary kind.” – Dr David Luke, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Greenwich.

Nevertheless, these mysterious findings bring up a fascinating conceptual gulf. “How do we know what it is they [blind respondents] are trying to describe about their visual experience when they have no prior visual experiences to relate it to?” Dr Luke ponders openly. Evidently, both in cases of near-death and psychedelic experiences, blind individuals are “not actually seeing,” he clarifies. This is “some kind of visual mental imagery which seemingly relates to the external world.” With logic-defying questions abound, Dr Luke asserts that this is an “extraordinary phenomenon” and thoroughly deserving of further research, he asserts.

Synaesthesia and psychedelics

Usually experienced from birth or developed in early childhood, synesthetes can hear colours, feel sounds and taste shapes. Synaesthesia is also a commonly reported psychedelic experience. “Albert Hofmann, the inventor of LSD, had an experience of synaesthesia on his very first LSD trip, the world’s first LSD trip, in fact.” This is corroborated by Dr Luke’s research, which shows that classic serotonergic psychedelics, such as LSD, are more likely than not to induce (temporary) synaesthesia.

The same drugs which induce synaesthesia in people who don’t have the condition, also tend to enhance synaesthesia in people who do have it congenitally. These findings identify a “common underlying pathway” as to the neurochemical and biological causes of synaesthesia.

However, temporarily acquired synaesthesia differs from congenital synaesthesia. While psychedelic synaesthesia isn’t characterized by consistent sensory hallucinations, its congenital manifestation is “very specific, it’s consistent,” explains Dr Luke. “There’s usually a very specific colour associated with the stimulating sensory input.” For example, synesthetes might always describe Monday as being a “very specific blue.” However, Dr Luke highlights an exception he encountered in a case study of “permanent long-term” synaesthesia caused by an accidental overdose of 2CB, which did demonstrate synaesthesia which was specific and consistent.

Just the tip of a metaphysical iceberg

With as many fascinating insights as there are confounding enigmas, Dr Luke’s research into anomalous perceptual experiences extend beyond the intersection of neurodiversity and psychedelics. “I’m really interested in the possibility of direct perception of the world through mental imagery,” he says. The mind’s eye, he continues, is “vastly stimulated through psychedelics,” and so his interests journey into more exotic and controversial transpersonal psychedelic phenomena: precognition, clairvoyance, telepathy and shared visionary experiences. Though somewhat taboo in the west, these are “very much normalised” in shamanic traditions. Dr Luke’s work strives to bridge the boundary between these different realities, through a scientific lens.

Given the arbitrary nature of individual, day-to-day perceptions, notwithstanding the neurodiverse spectrum in which we coexist, it seems wise to use terms like ‘reality’ loosely.

“You can think of our whole experience as being an ongoing psychedelic hallucination, of an ordinary kind,” muses Dr Luke. His ambitious explorations into the conscious psyche hack playfully at the mysteries which surround our shape-shifting, multitudinous nature of being. These are enigmas which – as of yet – evade any meaningful scientific explanation. Could psychedelics be a tool to uncover these metaphysical mysteries? Given the immense upsurge of psychedelic research in recent years, it’s safe to say that this cliff-hanger is likely to be continued.

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