What do psychedelics, meditation, and babies have in common?

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Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

The short summary is, babies and children are basically tripping all the time.

~ Alison Gopnik, Ph.D. (in Michael Pollan’s How to Change your Mind)

Have you ever been just a little bit envious of how young children experience the world?

They express pure joy when a loved one comes into view. They express genuine awe at a sound they’ve never heard. They express intense curiosity toward an object they’ve never touched.

Their facial expressions tell a story that is distinctly un-adult. The moments we have of intense emotions, especially positive ones, are few and far between. We seem to live a life far less vivid compared to our little ones.

Intuitively, we might think it’s obvious why this would be the case. Young children simply have fewer past experiences to draw upon. So, each and every experience they encounter has the squeaky-clean newness of the latest smart phone you just pulled out of its box.

But, is that a fair analogy? Probably not. You may have felt excitement when you turned that phone over in your hands for the first time, but can you really say you felt unadulterated joy, awe, or curiosity?

I’ve had a lot of new experiences in the past couple years, many I would call awesome, but the newness of these experiences didn’t translate into a child-like experience of them. So, what gives? Why does some of the vividness of life fade as we get older?

The default mode network

It turns out that researchers have discovered a pretty interesting explanation, and it lies with something called the default mode network or DMN. The DMN is a structure in the brain that was discovered (accidentally!) by Marcus Raichle in 2001 (see here).

In Michael Pollan’s excellent book, How to Change your Mind, the DMN is described as the “orchestra conductor” of the mind. It acts as a hub for much of the communication that occurs between various parts of the brain and it seems to be where the concept of “self” or “ego” is created.

The DMN stands apart from sensory processing and is activated when we are engaged in activities like self-reflection, moral reasoning, and ruminating over the past or future.

As the focal point for communication, it is suspected that the DMN acts as a highly sophisticated filter and interpreter of information created by various parts of the adult brain. This filtered and interpreted information is what we consciously experience.

By the time we reach adulthood, the DMN has learned strategies that block out the information deemed unnecessary to make accurate predictions about the world. After all, in order to survive, we can’t have our attention drawn toward the beauty of a flower while a bear is chasing us down!

In young children, however, the DMN is not yet operational. At this early stage of life, strategies for effectively dealing with all the information available in the brain have not yet been developed. This could explain why children have a whole host of strange experiences, like imaginary friends.

But, why would the child brain operate this way?

Because the child brain is set up for learning, while the adult brain is set up for survival.

In fact, studies have shown that young children are more open-minded learners than adults and may be able to perform some tasks better than adults, too (see here).

For a child, learning means figuring out what information is useful to pay attention to and what is not. So, the child brain uses all the data at its disposal to test what is worthwhile to pay attention to.

Although the child brain may get lost in the beauty of a flower, the DMN will eventually come to the conclusion that too much attention paid to a flower is not an effective survival strategy. As more data is collected, more strategies for effectively surviving in the world are developed, which ultimately means that more data is ignored or filtered out of consciousness.

Therefore, with its sophisticated survival strategies, the DMN constrains the amount of information that enters the adult consciousness. On the other hand, young children, without an operational DMN, access information that is, to some extent, unconstrained.

Could this explain why their experience of the world is so vivid? Are they consciously accessing more data available in the brain?

And, is there a way we, as adults, can ever again experience those child-like mental states of joy, awe, and curiosity?

Psychedelics

The word psychedelic may bring to mind images from the 60s and 70s of young men and women dressed in bright colours dancing with flowers in their hair. You wouldn’t be wrong.

But, what you may be surprised to hear is that these drugs have been studied scientifically for decades because of their unique effects on the human brain (see Michael Pollan’s, How to Change your Mind). Since the 1990s, researchers have been giving willing participants high doses of psilocybin (colloquially called magic mushrooms) and observing the results using brain imaging techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

It turns out that psilocybin, like it’s close relative lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD or acid), is remarkably non-toxic (see here) despite the harrowing “trips” sometimes taken by its users. To decrease the likelihood of “bad” trips, researchers use the concept of “set and setting” to put participants at ease. This involves prepping them beforehand, performing the experiment in a pleasant environment, and having an experienced “guide” help them through their experience.

What researchers have found is that the DMN is quieted when psilocybin is active in the brain. If the dose is high enough, participants have reported a disintegration of their sense of self, which is often accompanied by feelings of transcendence and oneness with nature, humanity, or the universe, in general. Interestingly, the loss of a sense of self correlates with the most significant drop off in activity in the DMN, which supports the hypothesis that the DMN creates the sense of self. In this state, it’s common for participants to report profound spiritual, mystical, or religious experiences.

Under the influence of these drugs, the functioning of the brain undergoes a radical change. Since information is no longer directed through the DMN, various regions of the brain interact with each other directly, forming new neural connections among parts of the brain that don’t usually communicate.

In this altered brain state, participants report all manner of fascinating experiences. For instance, it’s common for people to experience synesthesia, the condition in which one sense is also perceived by another sense (for example, the sense of hearing is also perceived visually). It’s also common for participants to feel connected to loved ones, humanity, and nature in a profound and transformational sense, feelings which can ensure for years after the experience has ended.

Does this sound familiar? With the DMN temporarily out of commission due to a psilocybin, an adult’s conscious experience may be more child-like than adult-like!

But, if we’d rather not take these drugs, can we achieve these states by other means?

Meditation

Meditation, in one form or another, has been practiced for thousands of years across a wide variety of cultures and populations. It’s been historically believed that meditation can bring benefits to the people practicing it. However, until the invention of sophisticated brain imaging technologies, this hypothesis has been difficult to test.

When experienced meditators are put into an fMRI, researchers have observed that their default mode network’s are significantly and persistently quieter compared to people who don’t meditate (see here).

If we consider that meditation is the practice of pulling our mind away from “wandering” and onto a specific task, we can begin to understand how, over time, this would impact the DMN. Since the neural pathways in the DMN are reinforced by use, just like any other part of the brain, by pulling attention away from the mental stories we tell ourselves about our pasts and futures, meditation may be training the brain to utilize the DMN less.

Over time, perhaps years or decades of practice, meditation may cause such a significant loosening of the grip of the DMN on the mind that these meditators lose much of what it means to have a sense of self. Indeed, the loss of a sense of self reported by experienced meditators seems to correspond with a quieting of the default mode network, which, again, supports the hypothesis that the DMN creates the sense of self.

Like with psychedelics, the loss of a sense of self by these meditators is associated with oneness with others and the world, which can lead to profound spiritual or mystical experiences.

Because experienced meditators experience less mind wandering due to a decrease of activity in the DMN (see here), this could lead to more focus on the task at hand, more openness to learning, and more information-rich experiences.

This, too, sounds similar to a child-like state of mind.

Conclusion

Could the conscious experiences of young children, people on psychedelics, and experienced meditators really be similar to each other?

This is a question that requires more research and more insight into what it means to be conscious. However, there are some interesting similarities that cannot be ignored.

With the default mode network (at least) muted in these states of mind, consciousness is less caught up in mind wandering and thinking about the past or future. Also, with a less active filter to constrain information, these states of mind have a broader perspective from which to see the world. Altogether, these qualities seem to lead to more appreciation for life, in general.

Does the thought of once again experiencing the world like a child make you interested in meditation or experimenting with a psychedelic drug?

At the very least, it’s intriguing that neuroscience is slowly peeling away at the complexity of the brain.

And, knowing that the vivid and pure emotional states of young children may still be within our reach is encouraging. We may not be doomed to the practical and cynical perspectives we tend to take on in adulthood.

Perhaps there’s still beauty and wonder waiting for us to (re)discover, after all.

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