What is a "Psychedelic Experience"
Psychedelic therapy and the psychedelic experience are entering a period of renewed individual and collective interest, most notably for the initial evidence pointing to their ability to catalyze individual healing and transformative processes.
As interest and public awareness of these experiences grow, naturally a curiosity arises to learn more about what the psychedelic experience is, and how it serves as this catalyst for inner transformation. But how do you define a psychedelic experience? Are there classic hallmarks that are common across a wide spectrum of individual experiences?
Although all experiences are different, each individual will have their own unique experience when working with psychedelics or within psychedelic therapy, and each experience itself will be unique for that person. There are a few consistent hallmarks, or defining character traits, that we can point to that provide a general overview of what the psychedelic experience is and what it can do.
Defining a Psychedelic Experience
Let’s begin with a simple definition of terms. The term "psychedelic" was originally coined by English psychiatrist Humphry Osmond in a letter addressed to Aldous Huxley back in the 1950’s.
It is a combination of the Greek words "psyche" (mind) and "delos" (to reveal). This gives us the common definition of psychedelic as "mind-manifesting". Clinically, psychedelic refers to a class of compounds that reliably induce this state in individuals at certain dosages.
When combined, the psychedelic experience is a direct, embodied experience of how an individual’s mind works. This sets the foundation for the deeply introspective potential that these compounds and experiences have to offer individuals.
Psychedelic experiences often provide individuals unique insight, emotions, or experiences of why and how they are the way that they are. They discover where patterns of behaviors emerge from, how they relate to themselves, others, and the world, and the current state of who they are at the time of the experience.
Factors of a Psychedelic Experience
There are a number of common traits, or hallmark characteristics, of a psychedelic experience. Psychedelics are often also said to be able to induce a "mystical experience" —a profound experience with a number of unique qualities not often afforded in day-to-day waking life.
It is important to note that for several decades there has been an interest in officially defining a universal taxonomy of characteristics of the psychedelic experience, but there is no currently universally accepted taxonomy to date. These are simply common traits and generally accepted definitions from those across academic disciplines.
Factors of a Mystical Experience
William James, a prominent American Psychologist, is often credited at having compiled a robust overlook at the hallmarks of a mystical experience, many of which apply to the classic traits of a psychedelic experience. These are:
- Ineffability: A sense of being unable to effectively or adequately put the experience into words or language. A sense of the experience being "beyond language", something that cannot be described in words, but rather must be directly experienced at the level of the individual.
- Noetic Quality: The sense that the experience provides insight or access to information or sensations that were previously inaccessible at the level of normal, waking consciousness.
- Transiency: The fact that these experiences are often fleeting, and are not often sustained for more than a few minutes or hours at the most.
- Passivity: The distinct sense that the mystical or psychedelic experiences happen to an individual, that it is outside the realm of direct control or influence by the individual.
- Unity of Opposites: A feeling of wholeness, the reconciliation of paradoxes or opposites. A felt sense that everything both internal and external to the individual is part of a greater whole.
- Timelessness: An experience of being beyond time, outside of the confines of the linear progression of time in a realm that is realm, but not bound by limitations of time or space as it is commonly understood.
- The True “Self”: A distinct sense that the experience unfolding here is extremely real, that the “Self” you see is perhaps a more "real" or "true" Self than normal waking consciousness.
These seven hallmarks of a mystical experience are commonly included in the understanding of a psychedelic experience, and you will notice many similarities here, with a few variations or alternative manifestations, in the classic markers of a psychedelic experience.
Factors of a Psychedelic Experience
There are several similarities in psychedelic experiences and mystical experiences, as part of what provides the profundity of psychedelic experiences is that they can induce mystical experiences in individuals.
- Ineffability: A common overlap between the mystical and the psychedelic is that they both appear to be beyond language as an adequate description. It is challenging to encapsulate the totality of the experience into language and phrasing.
- Novel Experiences/Insights: The psychedelic experience can provide or induce novel experiences, emotions, insights, revelations, or connections that were not previously known, understood, or embodied as reality.
- Ego Dissolution: A distinct trait of the psychedelic experience is the dissolution of the sense of being an isolate, separate Self, an ego.
- Timelessness: Another overlap with the mystical experiences, psychedelic experience can often bring about a sense of timelessness, that the experience is taking place outside of time.
- Higher Order Reality: A sense of "seeing True Reality" or a higher order reality than what is commonly available in ordinary waking consciousness. A distinct feeling that whatever is experienced as being almost "hyper-real."
- 3rd Person Perspective: Psychedelics and their mind-manifesting nature can often bring about a third person perspective: a sense of looking back at yourself and your psyche as if from a detached observational position. It is this perspective that helps include the novel insights, emotions, or understandings that can arise in psychedelic experiences.
Biological Markers of Psychedelic Experiences
The psychedelic experience is largely phenomenological, or subjective. The effects are felt largely within your mind and direct experience, though with that said, there is emerging science around the neurobiology of psychedelic experiences.
Perhaps one of the most promising aspects of neurobiology impacted by psychedelic compounds is lowered activity in the Default Mode Network (DMN). The DMN is most active when you aren’t actively engaged with your external environment. It’s responsible for orientations through spatial awareness, helps provide autobiographical memory, and gives the sense of your body ending at the point of your skin —overall, it gives you the sense of being you.
With many psychedelic compounds, and in the psychedelic experience, there is a lowering of activity in the DMN, and an increased connectivity throughout the rest of the brain. Given the definition above, the sense and definition individuals have of being a single body moving through space can begin to lower as well. This is often the catalyst for the sense of "unity" or being "connected to everything" that commonly arises in the psychedelic experience. By expanding the locus of Self, individuals have the sense that they are everything around them, or that they are deeply connected to (not separate from) everything around them.
The second major neurobiological pattern that arises is a plethora of new connections being formed. In normal waking consciousness, many disparate parts of the brain may not talk to each other. Through psychedelic experiences, they may begin to connect and send signals.
This can provide the fertile ground for novel insights, experiences, and emotions. An example of this is the experience of synesthesia, or the mixing of sensory perceptions. Individuals might be able to "see" sound as a color, or taste the flavour of a painting. This is in part due to the new connections being formed.
As more science and research is done on the nature and mechanisms of psychedelics and the psychedelic experience, you can expect to see a deeper understanding of the neurobiology of these experiences emerge as well.
The Totality of Experience
Everything listed above may sound powerful. New brain connections? Novel emotions and feelings of unity? A mystical experience beyond time? When listed out like this, these sound like a beautiful, accessible experience — why wouldn’t you want to try?
It’s important to recognize that psychedelics can provide a totality of experience. Nothing is off the table. This is an important realization when approaching this work for personal healing or growth. There are parts of yourself or patterns of behaviour that you may have hidden away, that you don’t want to look at.
Experiences like the dissolution of the individual ego, though it can grant access to a more expansive sense of Self, can also be a challenging process to go through if you have never had an experience like it before.
Psychedelics are not panaceas or “magic pills,” the work is often not easy or straightforward. Working with the experiences and fully integrating them afterwards can take some real effort. It’s important to recognize this point, and it can be an important life lesson itself: Increasing your exposure to sensitivity and positivity also increases your exposure and sensitivity to challenging emotions or experiences. All of these aspects of being are a part of you, and the psychedelic experience will often present you with the full range of the human experience.
The depth of the experience is what makes them powerful and beautiful at times. To be struck by its beauty is to come out of the fear of being alone, and to see and love yourself fully as you are right now. These are important aspects, but the path is not always an easy one to walk.
When moving forward with powerful experiences, be safe, work with trained professionals, and take the time energy to prepare adequately and integrate fully afterwards.
What if I Didn’t Have These Same Experiences?
Although the characteristic hallmarks and neurobiology of the psychedelic experience listed above are commonly understood as defining traits of the experience, this does not mean that each one happens every time.
Everyone’s experience is unique, and a timeless mantra of this work is that "you don’t get what you want, you get what you need." For some individuals, deep emotional healing is what’s necessary, and there may be some cathartic release in the experience, rather than the mystical experience of unity with everything.
If you have had an experience that didn’t feel like this, don’t worry. Nothing went wrong, you have to trust in your body’s inner healing intelligence to deliver what you need and that it knows as well what is needed for the experience and for your healing journey.
Everyone’s experiences are different, reading someone’s story does not mean that you will have the same experience —whether the individual’s journey was positive or negative.
Your experiences can also vary from session to session, as you are a constantly growing and evolving individual. Each time you embark on a psychedelic experience you will have a different experience.
Some may be more mystical, some more emotional, others more cognitive, and potentially, others with little activity at all. This is why working with trained and experienced practitioners is important. They can help you prepare for and integrate the experiences properly, to help you reframe the experiences and weave it back into your day-to-day existence.
The psychedelic experience is becoming a major player in the treatment of mental health conditions. It is providing those in need of treatments, and those previously resistant to others, a path forward.
Perhaps it is specifically due to the largely ineffable nature and ability to reveal our true selves to ourselves that makes psychedelics so powerful. As more individuals are introduced to psychedelic medicine, it is helpful to have shared definitions, shared understandings, so that all individuals can make informed and effective decisions for their own healing journeys.
This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. If you are in a life-threatening situation, call the National Suicide Prevention Line at +1 (800) 273-8255, call 911, or go to the nearest emergency room.
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