Manifesting Metaphorical Minds – Exploring How Psychedelic Healing Works

I was very pleased to contribute to the recent Trans-States Conference in Northhampton. Here’s the paper I presented which explores the importance of metaphor in context of psychedelic healing. Enjoy!

From at least the mid 20th century western science had clearly established the therapeutic value of psychedelic substances. The proliferation of licensed psychedelic studies in the new millennium continues to confirms those earlier findings. Currently these substances are being used to treat illnesses including post-traumatic stress disorder, substance addictions and depression. Outside licensed research environments claims of health benefits associated with psychedelic substances are legion, as are the methods of their use in healing – from underground therapeutic sessions through to ceremonial consumption in religious or shamanic settings.

This current period of history is sometimes described as the ‘psychedelic renaissance’, a term coined by clinician Ben Sessa in his 2012 book The Psychedelic Renaissance: Reassessing the Role of Psychedelic Drugs in 21st Century Psychiatry and Society. While research remains hampered in many jurisdictions by laws dating from American president Nixon’s War On Drugs, today psychedelic substances are the subject of numerous studies and conferences. 

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One of the most illustrative findings from this psychedelic renaissance, for the purposes of this discussion, is a study published in 2014 by The Beckley Institute and Imperial College in London. The study employed functional magnetic resonance imaging to reveal the effect of psilocybin, a substance first brought to the attention of western science following a gift from Mexican healer Maria Sabina of psychedelic mushrooms in the mid 20th century. Diagram (a) shows the default mode network, the ‘resting’ state of the brain and (b) the same brain after taking psilocybin.

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In this simplified visualization each circle depicts relationships between networks—the dots and colors correspond not to brain regions, but to especially connection-rich networks. In the psilocybin state. The research, published in the Journal of the Royal Society, says:

“…there is an increased integration between cortical regions in the psilocybin state and this integration is supported by a persistent scaffold of a set of edges that support cross modular connectivity probably as a result of the stimulation of the 5HT2A receptors in the cortex…We can speculate on the implications of such an organization. One possible by-product of this greater communication across the whole brain is the phenomenon of synaesthesia which is often reported in conjunction with the psychedelic state. Synaesthesia is described as an inducer-concurrent pairing, where the inducer could be a grapheme or a visual stimulus that generates a secondary sensory output—like a colour for example. Drug-induced synaesthesia often leads to chain of associations, pointing to dynamic causes rather than fixed structural ones as may be the case for acquired synaesthesia.”

The synaesthesia described in the paper emerges as interconnectivity between previously discrete brain systems, such as vision and hearing, increases. Under the influence of psychedelics we may see things in our imagination, such as whirling fractal forms, that appear to be induced by, or intimately connected with music we may be listening to. While we may imagine what is going on as a kind of chaotic cross-wiring in the brain many aspects of the psychedelic state are remarkably coherent and even possessed of a special ‘intelligence’ as well shall explore later. In short: the brain of people that are tripping is not a malfunctioning brain.

This research is one of many modern experiments designed to elucidate how psychedelic drugs work and to provide evidence upon which theories of their action may be based. 

The first wave of 20th century western scientific research into these compounds included the development of numerous models intended to explain or frame the psychedelic experience. Some of these models have been attempts at re-imagining traditional or exotic cosmologies as being commensurate with, or perhaps coded descriptions of, the psychedelic experience, other invoked ideas of the brain as a computer. 

Aldous Huxley suggested that psychedelics work by opening the Doors of Perception to an awareness of the world not mediated by the perceptual filters of language or symbolic systems. Huxley calls the wider unmediated perception revealed by psychedelic substances Mind at Large:

 ““To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funnelled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet.”

Later in the western engagement with psychedelics other writers would propose more detailed maps of the psychedelic state. These descriptions were often influenced by notions of modernist progression and Abraham Maslow style heirachism. 

The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead coauthored by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert, drew on the progression of the soul described in Tibetan Buddhism to understand the variety of mental states occasioned by psychedelics. Each of the stages of an LSD trip was imagined as being a Bardo, in Buddhism a series of intermediate states of awareness that exist between life and death.

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Leary went on to developed The Eight-Circuit Model of Consciousness (an excellent new edition of this has just been published) a hypothesis later expanded by Robert Anton Wilson and Antero Alli, that “suggested eight periods [circuits] and twenty-four stages of neurological evolution”. The eight circuits, or eight “brains” as referred by other authors, operate within the human nervous system, each corresponding to its own imprint and direct experience of reality.

During the development of western psychedelic therapy in the mid 20th century psychoanalytic models of the state were also developed.  Stanislav Groff, one of the founders of the field of transpersonal psychology, used LSD and later breathwork in his practice. He imagined these altered states allowed subject to access and resolve issues caused by birth trauma or intrauterine experiences. 

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Around the same time writer and stage actress Thelma Moss was receiving LSD therapy in the USA to address problems that she identified as neurotic insomnia, depression and sexual frigidity. Writing under the name Constance A. Newland her book Myself and I, published in 1962, is a landmark text containing the first published case history of psychedelic therapy. 

Rob Dickins writes:

“…the text reads like an idealised Freudian analysis. A case history that displays all the key signifiers of a Freudian model like the Oedipus complex, castration and penis envy, to name but a few but that recognises the value of LSD as reaching beyond the psychotherapeutic framework.”

More recent western models of the psychedelic state include the detailed phenomenological reading of the ayahuasca experience presented by Benny Shannon in his The Antipodes of the Mind through to Andrew Gallimores highly speculative Alien Information Theory

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James Kent’s work Psychedelic Information Theory presents an approach that attempted to unify neurological findings with the subjective emergence of new insights. Kent writes:

“Like dreams, psychedelics are catalysts for generating information in the human imagination. There are many theories about the origin of this information; the subconscious; repressed emotions; the collective unconscious; genetic memory; spirit entities; alien transmission; junk data from neural excitation; and so on. Regardless of the origin it is widely accepted that psychedelics do generate information, and not merely junk data of questionable value. Psychedelics excel at producing salient information which can have a profound impact on the beliefs and identity of the subject…hallucinogens generate information by destabilizing linear perception to promote nonlinear states of consciousness.”

The ‘linear perception’ that Kent alludes can be described in contemporary neurological jargon as the default mode network, that is the resting or idling state of the brain which is dominant when we are not engaged in a task. It is this default state which psychedelic medicine typically attempts to change. The therapist, be they a licensed medic, underground therapist or entheogenic shaman deploys the psychedelic to ‘shake up’ and reconfigure the default mode network, to curate an experience which, when the drug wears off, creates lasting change. The aspiration is that altered states lead to an altered traits. People suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can lay aside their intrusive thoughts and allow joy, hope and love back into their lives. People with alcoholism can stop drinking.

But it is important to stress that this destabilization of the default mode network is not simply the pharmacological equivalent of electroconvulsive therapy, for while the neurological cross-wiring that we encounter in psychedelic experience can be wildly divergent from ‘normal’ cognition it is a neurologically coherent, phenomenologically persistent state of awareness rather than  a spasmodic seizure. The psychedelic state has similarities with the stable mental states we find in states of meditation, in flow states when we are absorbed in a task, during dreaming, and the brain states we have as infants.

So how does the psychedelic state function to change or edit the default network state? While the psychedelic state may, according to Huxley, push us beyond the linguistic realm, in order to understand how neurochemistry becomes embodied narrative and thus personal transformation, we need to appreciate how the insights from this state are expressed in language, and for that we need to engage with the concept of metaphor.

The word metaphor is itself a metaphor, literally meaning ‘carrying over’. While some writers have suggested that metaphors are merely  minor linguistic curiosities In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson they claim that metaphors are pervasive in everyday life, not just in language, but also in thought and action. Lakoff and Johnson in their seminal work point out that metaphorical language is so widespread that we hardly notice it. So in my previous sentence the metaphor ‘ideas are objects’ is so embedded in our discourse that you probably hardly noticed that I was ‘pointing’ to ideas that are ‘scattered over a considerable area’.

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Metaphors unpack complex ideas in terms of an embodied cognition. Thus the word metaphor itself unpacks the notion that ideas can be brought into relationship just as object can be carried from one place to another. Lakoff and Johnson explore numerous metaphors in their work such as ‘love is a journey’ ‘argument is struggle’ and ‘ideas are buildings’. In addition they demonstrate how any given metaphor can serve to both emphasis and downplay aspects of the complex idea it addresses. For instance the complex idea of love can be unpacked through metaphors such as ‘love is a journey’ (‘look how far we have come’) but also ‘love is madness’ (‘I’m crazy for her’) and ‘love is a physical force’ (‘we’re attracted to each other’). Each metaphor both conceals and reveals particular aspects of what we mean by ‘love’. Lakoff and Johnson note that new metaphors can be created and give an example ‘love is a collaborative work of art’ 

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In unpacking the novel metaphor ‘love is a collaborative artwork’ they explain that the metaphor is composed of entailments, relationships to other ideas, some of which are literal and others metaphorical.

The creation of new metaphors is recognized by many therapeutic practitioners as being a crucial process in psychological healing. Mental health practitioner Judy Belmont, writes:

“Using metaphors in our therapy is quite powerful, and at times using the right metaphor seems almost magical. I have often been surprised that client resistance and confusion seems to diminish if I find the right metaphor that serves to bring on an “aha” moment in my therapy sessions.  On many occasions, using a powerful metaphor can turn a session around and bring therapist and client to a new level of teamwork, especially as metaphors often evoke laughter and positive emotion, while limiting defensiveness.”

Belmont is interested in the development of new metaphors in the context of talk based therapy, where the therapist is likely to be the originator of the transformative metaphor. Contemporary western psychedelic therapy often includes the use of talk-based therapy in the preparation for psychedelic treatment and afterwards as part of an integration process. However during the psychedelic session itself the therapist or therapist team are usually non-directive. They are there to provide moral support and safety but only the most gentle of guidance to encourage the patient to engage with the experience in their own way.  Many contemporary western therapeutic models of psychedelic healing place the curative process firmly within the control of the patient. This approach is exemplified by the psychedelic treatment protocol outlined in A Manual for MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy in the Treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder by Michael C. Mithoefer, M.D. on behalf of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS):

“It is essential to encourage the participant to trust their inner healing intelligence, which is a person’s innate capacity to heal the wounds of trauma. It is important to highlight the fact that the participant is the source of their own healing. The MDMA and the therapists are likely to facilitate access to a deep healing process, but they are not the source of this healing process.”

In a section replete with metaphors Mithoefer goes on to state that:

““Inner healing intelligence” is a concept used throughout this manual to help put the participant in touch with their innate ability to heal and grow. The following analogies may be helpful in explaining the concept: The body knows how to heal itself. If someone goes to the emergency room with a laceration, a doctor can remove obstacles to healing (e.g. remove foreign bodies, infection, etc.) and can help create favorable conditions for healing (e.g. sew the edges of the wound close together), but the doctor does not direct or cause the healing that ensues. The body initiates a remarkably complex and sophisticated healing process and always spontaneously attempts to move toward healing. The psyche too exhibits an innate healing intelligence and capacity. Seeds want to become a plant; it is the natural way. A tree always grows toward the sun; it is the tree’s natural inclination”

I suggest that this psychedelic ‘inner healing intelligence’ expresses itself through the development of new metaphorical narratives about the self and its relationships. The destabilization of the default mode network resolves into coherent linguistic cognition as new ways of thinking. Like the literal and functional reality of the novel neural connections in the psychedelic brain, there is a ‘carrying over’ of meaning between what may have been previously discrete cognitive networks.

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Evidence for the central role of metaphor in psychedelic healing and other forms of transformative insight can be found in numerous trip reports. Allow me to provide a few examples from contemporary therapeutic work with MDMA.

MDMA was initially used by an underground network of therapists active in Europe and America in the latter part of the 20th century before it became a prohibited substance. A cornerstone of the current psychedelic renaissance has been the return of this psychedelic empathogen to licensed clinical settings. A common protocol for MDMA therapy is for the patient to lie on a bed wearing eye-shades and headphones through which gentle music is played. 

Often described an ‘empathogen’ MDMA elicits compassion for both the self and others. From a clinical perspective MDMA appears to allow people to stand outside of their problems. This imaginal perspective is common to other psychedelics, notably psilocybin. The patient is able to recall traumatic memories and perceive these from a new (metaphorical/visionary) vantage point. 

One USA veteran who was successfully cured of his PTSD through MDMA therapy says: 

“I had a profound moment, I guess it felt like a bird’s-eye view of how everything went down [in Iraq] and why it happened.”

Another experience, also with MDMA therapy not only suggests the archetypal motifs of a soul flight but also the shamanic motif of dismemberment and re-aggregation:

“…she felt as if multiple pieces of her own person were swooshing back toward her, being pulled through space by a powerful magnet and reassembling coherently, solidly, back in her own body. She began singing a little song in which she welcomed back all her parts.”

MDMA is not usually considered a strongly visual psychedelic however in a therapeutic setting people often report visions as part of their healing process. These may be visions of new perspectives, events and can often includes direct encounters with spirit entities.

Ben Sessa has employed MDMA as part of a therapeutic process to help people with chronic alcohol addiction. He notes numerous examples of metaphorical ‘visionary’ experiences on the part of his patients. These include clients clearly seeing (with eyes closed) symbolic events which read more like accounts of ayahuasca journeys than of MDMA. One patient experienced a profound visionary narrative that included descending into the underworld, meeting and interacting with ancestors, and undergoing symbolic purification. Ben writes:

“Given that she [the patient] cannot – or will not – embrace my formulation that [their] experience is an internal, psychological (neurological) one, but rather is convinced she truly, “saw through to the other side” (which is what she told me this morning), to commune directly with her dead relatives, I guess we have to chalk this one down as a genuine full-blown psychedelic spiritual-mystical experience. This is relatively rare in MDMA users.”

While such experiences may be rare the descriptions that MDMA patients relate are all metaphorical though some may appear more literal. One subject who has PTSD said:

“It was amazing it was like I got to do brain surgery on myself, and go into my mind and see the thought patterns and the belief systems that had calcified in there and rewrite them”.

In another example a subject with PTSD recounts how while under the influence of MDMA he had a vision of descending into the basement of a building and meeting a red-eyed entity. Within the experience itself, he was able to recognize this being as being emblematic of his own rage. Once the patient embraced the visionary being he was able to attain a profound healing insight:

The nature of metaphors, as the deployment of embodied knowledge to illuminate abstract ideas, fits naturally with the action of psychedelic substances. In these examples the common metaphors – of descending in order to ‘get to the bottom of things’ and of ‘seeing is understanding’ – are present.

At the level of the individual neuron psychedelics increase plasticity and dendritic connections. At the level of functional brain systems they dramatically increase the interaction between previously discrete brain regions. Thus the subjective ‘carrying over’ of metaphor has a solid (physical) neurological basis observable through techniques such as fMRI scanning. 

The importance of this multi-levelled  ‘carrying over’ or more succinctly ’connection’ emerges strongly in contemporary psychedelic therapy. Lead clinical psychologist at Imperial College Rosalind Watts conducted a study with people suffering from treatment resistant depression who were treated with psilocybin therapy. Of the 17 out of 20 participants who responded positively to the experience all of them described a feeling of ‘disconnection’ as being part of a core component of their depression. This sense of ‘disconnection’ was only identified by these patients during of after the psychedelic session and not before. 

Ecologist Sam Gandy discussing psilocybin therapy explains how this sense of connection extends beyond the self and into the wider natural world: 

“In both clinical and non-clinical populations we can see this nature connection increase [with psilocybin use]. There are a few correlative studies that show that psychedelic users tend to be more nature connected, but it’s hard to know what causes what, but there are some studies now that show [psychedelics] do have a causative role to play…with the Imperial [College] depression subjects a follow up study on their nature relatedness at 7-12 months later they still rated very highly for nature relatedness.”

It would seem that the connectivity in the psychedelic mind allows us to discover re-connection within the self, within our social context, and our place within the whole of the natural world. (Or as we occultists would say ‘As Above, So Below’.)

Globally we are facing an epidemic of depression, identified by the World Health Organization as the  leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide. We are also in a time of mass extinction on our planet as a result of human activity. In this context the deployment of psychedelic healing, through which the individual can come into a more sustainable, healthy relationship with the self and the world, could offer a powerful mediciine not only for individual wellbeing but could perhaps help change the apparently suicidal trajectory of our species as a whole.

To conclude:

The psychedelic state is one in which novel and coherent connections emerge at the neurochemical, neurofunctional and subjective narrative levels. When conducted in a supportive set and setting a coherent ‘inner healing intelligence’ is activated in a way that enables radical psychological changes to happen that can persist long after the drug effect wears off. The insights occasioned by psychedelics are often described in metaphorical terms because metaphors are a key process through which we understand abstract experiences, such as psychological states, by reference to embodied reality. The sense of connection that psychedelics induce goes beyond the individual, allowing us to come into new, healthier relationships not only with ourselves and our community but the biosphere as a whole.

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As psychedelic therapy develops it may become useful for clinicians to understand the favoured metaphorical language and cultural discourse of patients in order to support their inner healing intelligence. It the light of our current ecological and mental health crises it may also be beneficial to develop methods to encourage more people to seek healing through the psychedelic state for the benefit of themselves and all other beings.

Julian Vayne

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