In previous installments, I’ve written about how psychedelics can help us face and work through past traumas and personal issues. I’ve also written about the mysterious healing effects of the mystical or spiritual experience that one can encounter on a psychedelic trip. These self-transcendent experiences – experiences that dissolve the boundary between self and other – have measurable healing benefits. For example, in psychedelic clinical trials, people who report more intense feelings of self-transcendence typically see the most significant symptom improvements (1).
The ineffable, sacred, noetic, paradoxical, and transcendent qualities of a mystical or spiritual experience seem to be healing in a way that is not yet well understood.
Recently, it’s been suggested that the “profound awe” such an experience provokes may serve as a therapeutic mechanism (2). Awe has two components:
1. Vastness: perceiving something much larger than yourself.
2. Accommodation: the need to mentally update concepts in order to incorporate a new experience.
For example, you might feel awe when you encounter something so vast and novel that you have to change the way you view reality (such as when you have a veridical vision or encounter an entity you believe to be real on a psychedelic trip and have to subsequently update your worldview).
One of the claimed impacts of awe is the diminishment of the “self,” or when we turn our attention away from ourselves and our personal issues and toward something else. In moving our attention outward, one can feel a sense of unity or connection with other people and the environment. Self-relevant goals become less important, individualistic tendencies are set aside, and one can actually feel physically smaller (3,4).
During a moment of awe, attention is also anchored in the present moment, seemingly expanding the sense of time around the captivating feeling (5) – a sensation that mindful awareness also achieves.
When people view awe-inspiring videos, there is reduced activity in the brain network responsible for self-referential thought, the default mode network (DMN), which supports the idea that people become less focused on themselves (6). This is consistent with research on psychedelics that demonstrate decreased DMN activation during awe-inducing, self-transcendent psychedelic trips (7,8).
However, I just want to point out as I have before, that detailing the neural correlates of an experience simply describes how the behavior is expressed through physiology. It is unclear, however, why shifting our attention away from ourselves and onto others and the environment would heal or benefit us. It may be, as some have suggested (9), that directing attention to the collective (rather than purely on the self) promotes cooperation, a valued trait in the human species. Further, how awe precisely (psychologically or neurobiologically) facilitates healing effects, whether in psychedelic use or otherwise, remains to be worked out.
But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be leveraged in the meantime. Abraham Maslow even highlighted the importance of awe-eliciting self-transcendence by placing it atop the motivational hierarchy of the revised hierarchy of needs (10). A reliable way to facilitate awe is through self-transcendent experiences, such as spending time in nature, enjoying art/music, focusing on another’s accomplishments, and engaging in spiritual/religious experiences (3,4,11).
And virtual reality (VR)?
Recently, I saw this article about a VR experience called Isness-D. The VR experience, inspired by the creator’s near-death experience, allows multiple people to join, with each person being represented as a “diffuse cloud of smoke with a ball of light right about where a person’s heart would be.” Participants can overlap their diffuse bodies – an experience called energetic coalescence – dissolving boundaries between self and other.
It turns out that this boundary-dissolving virtual experience elicits feelings of deep connectedness and reduction of ego, or sense of self, equivalent to those elicited by a medium dose of LSD (200 mcg) or psilocybin (20 mg) (12). The key metrics of the study were the depth of mystical experience and extent of ego dissolution, so it remains to be seen whether these findings translate to symptom improvement for medical conditions (e.g. anxiety or depression) similar to that seen with psychedelics. Immersive experiences, such as VR, are known to better induce awe (13) than simple videos, so it is possible that a reduction in DMN activity might be seen, but we will have to wait for those studies.
While many are focused on the possible curative neurobiological, mechanistic action of psychedelics, we shouldn’t disregard the insights and lessons that people bring back with them out of the experiences. After self-transcendent experiences, including psychedelics, many people report experiencing a strong sense of connectedness with other people and their surroundings. They return with updated ideas about what matters and what’s real.
Maybe the real lesson here is that we should take the focus off ourselves – or broaden our self-concepts to include others – and engage in experiences that instill us with a sense of awe, togetherness, and a more inclusive consciousness. Could anything be harder, but more necessary, during these divisive times?
Also, if awe is a positive, therapeutic state, and it requires you to encounter something so vastly different than what you’re used to that your mental models need updating, shouldn’t we embrace the unusual and extraordinary?
I say let’s do it. Let’s bring openness and curiosity to our everyday lives in pursuit of awe.
This blog was originally posted on The Brave New World of Psychedelic Sciences
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