Have you ever wondered why drugs cause people to hallucinate ? What are the biological reasoning behind such phenomena ? Some time back I had a lot of fun writing about how to get high and have hallucinations without the use of drugs. Since then a number of people have asked me if I am into hallucinations then how about a post on drugs that get one tripping out ? I have no problem with that, however I don't want this blog to get too far off the musical path which should be it's main focus. And beside there are thousands of blogs and forums that deal with exactly that topic and in far more detail then I could ever hope to achieve.
However, what I thought might be interesting to share is some information on how such drugs cause hallucination in the first place - a topic that has always fascinated me.
It's one thing to get high and enjoy what you see and or feel but I have always been far more interested in the bigger question of why the hell do I see what I see and why is it somewhat universally consistent in theme and characters ?
If one takes a hit of LSD or ingests some magic mushrooms, then why do they always see such vivid geometric, spiraling, intricate lattice work or the same little machine elf like creatures ?
To begin with let's look at an interesting article in Neuron journal from back in February of 2007 in which experiments were detailed that involved giving LSD to rats to compare how the brain's 5-HT2A receptor molecules reacted as opposed to activating them with non hallucinogenic chemicals. The findings in the journal were summarized over at World Science website :
When the mind-bending drug activated the receptor, it not only triggered the typical changes in the cell, it caused additional cell responses, he said. The evidence for this, the group reported, was that the LSD seemed to cause a characteristic chain reaction of brain chemistry involving a class of molecules called G proteins, which are often involved in normal signaling processes.
The significance of the difference is unknown. But it was particularly noticeable in a special layer of cells in the cortex, called Layer 5, Sealfon said. This is often described as the “output” layer of the cortex: it essentially gathers up decisions made in that structure and relays them on to other brain regions, including centers that execute physical movements.
Layer 5 also has extensive interconnections to other parts of the cortex, Sealfon said. It’s also hypothesized to contribute to a certain filtering function, in which it helps squelch unimportant information so that this doesn’t overwhelm other brain areas that don’t need it. Hallucinogens may thus disrupt this filtering, Sealfon speculated. “You have a sensory overload, a less filtered experience of your sensory input.”
What can we take from that exactly ? That LSD and hallucinogens turn off filters ? Hmmm, that reminds me of what people like Graham Hancock and Aldous Huxley talked about when they said that perhaps these drugs are more like tuning a radio - when we take hallucinogens they filter out everything to such a degree that we are left "tuned in" to another existence.
Still this doesn't exactly answer the question of why do we see what we see ? Why , when we have this "unfiltering" do we see such "sacred geometry" ? For that we may need to get down and dirty with the filthy world of mathematics. While there hasn't been a lot of research done into the field of geometric hallucinations, what is there is quite thought provoking ( and somewhat headache inducing ).
If you are interested in reading about the mathematics behind hallucinations then you can follow some of the links below, but for now I'll just try to summarize in simple terms what has been discovered so far.
The study of mathematical geometry and it's role in hallucinations has been going on since the early 20th century. In the 1920s, psychologist Heinrich Klüver ingested some peyote cactus ( which includes the active hallucinogenic compound known as mescaline ) and took note of the different kind of repeating geometric hallucinations he saw. He classified the patterns into four distinct groups which he termed "form constants" - tunnels and funnels, spirals, lattices including honeycombs and triangles, and cobwebs.
Some 50 years later, in the 1970s the mathematicians Jack Cowan and G. Bard Ermentrout used Klüver's classifications as a basis for further research where they formed a theory as to how our brain makes of believe we are seeing such patterns.
In short they suggest that such patterns are the result of specific "noise patterns" in the visual cortex which are subsequently transformed by the wiring between the brain and the eye to produce these unique geometric forms.
Their research has been expanded on over the past 40 years by a number of scientists including mathematical neuroscience professor Paul Bressloff. Bressloff is one of the leading mathematical thinkers in the world today and his ground breaking research into the mathematics behind brain chemistry is helping to evolve our overall understanding of what it is to be human.
Bressloff, in collaboration with Cowan and a number of others, used their expanded research into the mathematics of the original 1970s research to discover that the mechanisms that enable all of us to detect edges, contours, surfaces and textures in the visual world generate the hallucinations. It is when these mechanism become unstable, for example due to the influence of a drug, that patterns of neural activity arise, which in turn translate to the visual hallucinations.
I find all this quite exciting. I have long wondered why people all over the world should see the same psychedelic geometric patterns when under the influence of drugs, regardless of their age, race or upbringing. Why did cavemen paint similar images on cave walls ? This research highlights the fact the it's because we all share the same biology of the brain, the same visual cortex makeup, that we see similar patterns.
So the next time someone tries to convince you that what you are seeing is a direct line of communication to the spirit world or some kind of WIFI connection to Gaia's hard-disk, then perhaps you might want to point out that it's all just a matter of biology and numbers. Of course some people will then argue why do I see little green elves or a purple sun 10 meters above my head, my own DNA riding a bicycle and singing the theme from Bewitched ? That, I must say, is a mystery. While I can accept that hallucinations of the geometric pattern type described by Bressloff above are caused by the makeup of the visual cortex in all of us I find it difficult to find answers as to why one hallucinates full scenes involving characters that take over our entire visual field and environment. This gets into the territory researched by people like Dr Rick Strassman in his book "DMT The Spirit Molecule" which I highly recommend. Rick doesn't provide any final answers but it's great to read that there are doctors giving the topic serious consideration.
Read more about the mathematics behind why drugs cause hallucinations here :
Downloadable PDF files :