Psychedelics are known for encouraging the exploration of the subconscious, but what about the unconscious?
Since the beginning of discussions about psychedelics in academic circles, research has been done to examine their potential and understand the interactions caused within the brain. This research has continually found that psychedelics have far more capabilities than many originally thought.
However, one area of research that’s still being developed is how psychedelics affect sleep and more specifically, dreams. Learning more about this interaction is important, as it can provide more information about consciousness, brain chemistry, and mind-altering drugs.
What Is Consciousness?
Consciousness is a topic in psychological, philosophical, and biological academic circles.
There are various theories about what consciousness is. It is widely agreed upon that the conscious, unconscious, and subconscious minds are different, but what is it that separates them? One of the answers to this is sleep.
While sleeping, the brain works to process emotions, memories, and decisions. The processing is essential to being able to think critically and weigh situations throughout life. While sleeping, dreams allow us to test out various situations and explore our thoughts in creative ways. Psychedelics facilitate a similar experience, allowing the brain to examine the possibilities of both reality and the expansion of the mind.
Within scientific discussions, the neuronal correlates of consciousness (NCC) are responsible for conscious experiences. While the entire brain can be classified as the NCC, there are a few parts of the brain that play a larger role in consciousness. The cerebellum and brain stem are an important part of our current understanding of consciousness, as they help ground the rest of the body in reality.
The Brain and Sleep
Sleep is an essential part of life.
Understanding what’s going on in the brain during a sleeping state is very complex, due to the large amount of chemical and neurological changes that take place.
While the body rests during the sleep cycle, the brain is working hard to maintain neural communication, process memories, and flush out toxins. However, sleep impacts more areas of the body than just the brain. Bodily networks, such as the immune system, are directly impacted by not getting enough sleep.
The brain goes through different stages during the sleeping process. These stages allow the brain to process information and enter into unconsciousness. The REM stage of sleep happens about an hour and a half after falling asleep and is when the majority of dreams take place.
Different areas of the brain play active roles in the sleeping and dreaming processes. The limbic system is responsible for a large amount of emotion management, both during sleeping and waking times. Another important part of the brain is the cortex. If you’ve ever wondered why you dream about falling through space or being chased by a bear, you have your cortex to thank.
Brain Chemistry and Psychedelics
There are different kinds of psychedelics, with the main differences between them being their chemical makeup and interactions within the brain.
Many different psychedelics, such as LSD and mescaline, act on the 5-HT1 receptor, as well as dopamine receptors. This interaction within cells begins the chain reaction that produces a psychedelic trip.
Psychedelics both increase and decrease activity levels in different areas of the brain. They have been found to activate the limbic system and decrease activity in the amygdala, the area that is responsible for fear. This explains why some people have increased emotional experiences with lessened fear while tripping on psychedelics.
Dreams and Psychedelics
Dreams are hallucinations. Understanding this viewpoint is important, especially when beginning the discussion of how dreams and psychedelics are correlated.
In 1979, Schultes and Hofmann wrote an article that compared psychedelic trips and dream states. This is one of the first times when this comparison was made in scientific literature. The article noted that mushrooms had the potential to bring about a dreamlike state while an individual was fully awake. This sparked a pivotal discussion about the boundaries between psychedelics and other states of consciousness.
So, how are dreams and psychedelics correlated?
There are many different answers to this, but one of the most researched is the similar neurological interactions that take place. The chemicals used by the brain during a psychedelic trip are alike to those used to facilitate a dream. There’s one main chemical that both of these states have in common: serotonin.
Serotonin receptors are utilized by many psychedelics to facilitate changes within cells and begin the chain reaction resulting in a trip. Similarly, serotonin can also alter dream frequency and REM patterns, changing an individual’s sleeping state on a molecular level.
Some believe that lucid dreaming is the closest combination of a psychedelic trip and nightly dreams. While technically asleep, lucid dreaming allows the individual to manipulate their perception of the situation, much like some psychedelics do. Some articles note that LSD produces a state that’s closest to lucid dreaming, as it can be possible to alter your perception of a situation while under the influence of this drug.
There are some studies that have been done to examine the comparison between dreams and psychedelics. One study found that the similarities between dreams and psychedelic experiences are heightened emotions, self and situation perception, and fear. This aligns with the intensity that often accompanies psychedelic trips.
Another important study was done by a researcher at the University of Chicago. In 1979, Jack Cowen suggested the shapes and patterns were manifested by cortical activity within the brain. This stereotypical view of psychedelics inducing visual hallucinations has a neurological basis that connects both dreams and these mind-altering drugs. As was mentioned previously, the cortex plays an essential role in conducting dreams. Thanks to Cowen, we now know that it is partially responsible for neurological psychedelic reactions.
Perhaps Grinspoon and Bakalar said it best: “There are good reasons for applying the term ‘oneirogenic,’ producing dreams, to psychedelic drugs. In its imagery, emotional tone, and vagaries of thought and self-awareness, the drug trip, especially with eyes closed, resembles no other state so much as a dream.”