Disconnect to Connect – A Psychedelic Love Story

I must have been 13, looking up at a beautifully lit starry night at a camping site in the south of France. Questioning the nature of reality, like all kids do. For minutes on end I peered into the jet black sky with my gaze completely fixed. As I did this, I noticed that the stars started to move around in a jittery fashion. It made me feel rather disconnected. Even with my limited understanding of the world, this visual distortion – one that you can all try out yourself –  made me realise that reality is probably not only ‘out there’.  On the contrary – it is primarily being constructed by your brain as a representation of reality. The stars couldn’t possibly move around in reality. It was my fixed gaze that was conjuring up this illusion.

night(Cool stuff: I later figured out that you can also do this by staring at yourself in the mirror in a room with dimmed lights. Do this for a couple of minutes without averting your gaze or making overt saccades. You will soon notice that your face will become distorted and may even turn into grotesque grimaces or even animal-like faces. Try it!)

Four years later, I took magic mushrooms for the first time.

Now boy, this was real disconnection.

Although I was looking at a jet black sky again – this time at home – beautiful colours and patterns presented themselves to me – as the stars performed a  magnificent dance.

However, this time was clearly different. The stars moved even when I looked around intensively. This was no illusion. This was a hallucination.

It was a pubescent insight into a topic and subject that would follow me till this very day: psychedelic drugs

Psychedelic night sky
Psychedelic night sky

I have learnt a lot of important life lessons while under the influence of them – and I am very sure they could also help many others find the answers they are looking for. Magic mushrooms have given me ample opportunity to discover the worlds I once dreamt about as a young boy. Not only on a philosophical, but also scientific level.

I have taken them with friends, family – and lately, primarily by myself, and I have become infinitely intrigued by their power to open up your mind to new ideas and insights, especially when taken alone.

To such an extent that, every time that I have a solo psychedelic experience, I can’t stop thinking to myself – if only every person in the world had seen and felt this amazing experience – it would most definitely be a better place.

This idea was the main reason for my participation at a TedX pitch night hosted by a university in Amsterdam. My talk was dubbed : Disconnect to Connect – a psychedelic (self) love story, and even though I was not able to fully convince the jury to send me to the main event, I noticed a lot of positive feedback and curiosity from the crowd.

You are therefore, quite literally, looking backwards at the representations and ideas that are stored in your own mind

This curiosity, and the widespread public ignorance on the topic due to decades of backwards drug policy, made me decide that it would be wise to lay down a more extensive account on how magic mushrooms work and how they could help you in your personal development, which I wanted to do anyway if I’d got to speak for a good 18 minutes.

Whenever you take mushrooms – or any other 5-HT2a serotonin receptor agonist – the standard functional connectivity of rigid circuits within your brain diminishes, overall brain activity rises, and new temporary neural communication pathways are used. Since its effect is primarily on serotonin receptors, and serotonin can be viewed as the ‘mood’ neurotransmitter, it is not strange to see that this process can bring about feelings of eternal bliss, spiritual wonder, (sadly) horror, but primarily – insight. These receptors, are located all around your body, your gut, but primarily, the higher regions of the human cortex.

sophisticated colourful entopic hallucinations
Sophisticated colourful entopic hallucinations

Half an hour after ingestion, the blackness that you normally see in your closed eye lids starts to light up, and coloured particles gently move around your visual field. It is thought that this happens due to a change in relative important of information streams. Due to serotonergic innervation, higher cognitive top down information, what is used to interpret the visual information, gets the overhand over bottom up information from the outside world that is acquired through the eye. Since there is no new visual input when you have your eyes closed, your early visual cortex starts to present to you its own fireworks, without any need for outside information. Thus, the consistent geometrical patterns are a product of the wiring of the neurons that represent our visual field.  These moving particles soon start to assemble in overwhelmingly flowing and colourful geometrical patterns, called entopic hallucination. These patterns are almost identical to the architecture and imagery found in most religions and early civilisation, hence the idea exists that all religion is partly based on consumption of psychedelic substances.

Typical grid like entopic hallucinatory patterns
Typical grid like entopic hallucinatory patterns as seen in the minds eye as well as in religious and cultural ornaments

With enough training, concentration and a high enough dosage, entopic hallucinations can transform into eidetic hallucinations, which is the transformation of the geometrical patterns into actual representations of faces, animals and landscapes or otherworldly dimensions, which is done by even higher regions of your cortex.

You are therefore, quite literally, looking backwards at the representations and ideas that are stored in your own mind, or projecting your minds eye content on your eyelid. Surprisingly, this does not mean that you have direct control over this imagery. It comes and goes, based not on conscious, but unconscious thought. You are a mere spectator of your brains inner workings. A marvellous sight.

eidetic hallucination evolving from entopic hallucination
Eidetic hallucination evolving from entopic hallucination. Note the faces arising from the geometrical patterns.

(For a more scientific approach on the topic, read my review paper here or read Kent (2010) here)

This radical change in world perception, increase in bodily sensations and disruption of normal conscious thought due to the serotonergic excitation can altogether lead to feelings of great insight. This cognitive freedom tends to give you a more holistic overview of your world. Due to serotonergic increased neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to create new synapses, there are also now associations and connections being made inside the brain, that were once impossible. New information is created out of the old. Old ideas can become coated in a layer of bliss or are revised.

If taken alone, it can do all of that, but on top of that, since no-one else is there to assist, comfort or help you,  it can connect you as close to the thing you call ‘you’ as you could possibly imagine.

It disconnects the thing that lives inside your hardwired brain, which reconnects a self that is different than the one you usually encounter when you look in the mirror.

Literally, and figuratively.

There is not only less recognition of the face that you normally see, but also of the idea of self. It is similar to how people don’t like seeing themselves on video tapes or how their voices seem distorted. Magic mushrooms place you in a dimension akin to this phenomena, but on the contrary – it feels good. It gives your brain the room and space to re-evaluate its connections without causing the conflicts of rigid thinking in the brain.

It strips you of immediate mortal desires and feeds you with a cascade of imagery, closed eyed hallucinations, thoughts and feelings never thought possible before. Moral insights that have the power to obliterate bad behavioural patterns and humbleness for our peculiar life overflow your subjective perception.

There exists a great sense of balance and unity. Simply divine.

Jesus must have been taking this stuff, is what you think.

Unity of the mind
Unity of the mind

All in all, my discovery of solo psychedelic experimentation has been incredibly important in my personal development.

Not only due to the fact that once I am done with my bi-monthly trip, I instantly feel an unsurmountable urge to clean and tidy my apartment and room – to the great delight of my roommates.

I also have a great urge to clean and tidy and work on bettering myself. To show discipline and focus. It motivates the self when its stuck. It’s like applying an AED to the mind.

I draw up new plans, ideas for the future, and feel reimbursed in my quests in life. I feel more happy, positive, and secure.

Of course, this is a popularised and glamourized account of my experiences and the working of psychedelics in the human brain. Clearly, tons of other factors influence the richness and quality of the psychedelic experience. On top of that, there are definitely times where unnerving thoughts dominate, and I’ve had trips that did not end with a positive, but primarily pessimistic or melancholical vibe. Of course I do not follow up on every new plan of personal development. People don’t stick to every new years resolution either.

However, similar to the unpleasantness of the ayahuasca ritual, long term effects and memory recall of the experience are usually very positive, even though the initial experience can feel terrifying.

The question remains: What constitutes a successful solo psychedelic experience? How can you apply this? Based on my own experiences and the enlightening book Psychedelic Information Theory: Shamanism in the Age of Reason by James Kent –  the key component is structure.

I believe the positive effects can only occur whenever there is deliberate structure within the inherent chaos of the trip. Without structure, the experience can be overwhelming and dangerous, or underwhelming and boring.

Music acts as a timekeeping device, integrates the senses, makes the imagery more profound and is the vessel that your thoughts can attach to.

Traditionally, structure was provided by the shaman and the ceremonial setting. Chanting, music, rituals and certain preconceptions, ideas and explanations about what was happening to you gave a strong set and setting for a successful spiritual experience.

Typical shaman preparing a participant for a ayahuasca ceremony
Typical shaman preparing a participant for a ayahuasca ceremony

Hence, indigenous tribes thought they were not seeing the content of their brain, but believed they were visiting the elders in the spirit world or alien visitors from outer space.

Sadly, within a solo psychedelic experience, there is no chanting shaman. You are the shaman. Herein lies the power and danger of solo psychedelic experimentation.

Since there is no chanting, music is your main structure. All that I’ve explained above is only possible when there is adequate music entering your ears. It’s astonishing how strong the influence of music is on the psychedelic brain and the subjective experience it creates. Music greatly influences the quality and strength of the closed eyed imagery, as well as your appreciation of that what you are seeing. Since music taste is so unique, it is up to the person to beforehand make a selection of music that he seems fit. However, due to state that you’re in, ambient music is almost always the best choice. Preferably, repetitive, calm, trippy songs, without vocals. Vocals distract you of your inner speaking voice. You want to let your own voice free.

Music is your friend
Music is your friend

Music acts as a timekeeping device, integrates the senses, makes the imagery more profound and is the vessel that your thoughts can attach to. Researchers from the Jon Hopkins university found that without music, participants never reported reaching spiritual heights or feelings of divinity. Music is detrimental to a positive outcome and re-evaluation after the trip.

The second form of structure that you need is adequate knowledge on the topic. Knowledge on the preparation, body weight-dosage and ingestion of the substance, as well as possible side effects, duration, and peak-dosage levels. Basic knowledge on the brain’s visual system, hallucinations and consciousness is also advised. If you take these things to the table, chances are much more likely that you actually learn something from the experience instead of just being fairly confused for a couple of hours. In order to use psychedelics to help you investigate yourself, you do not want to be busy rationalising what is happening to you, asking questions when it might be over or being afraid that things might get out of control. Remember that you have no shaman to tell you these things during the experience.

You are the shaman.

Minds eye

Since you are the shaman, you also need a plan. Write down the things you want to think about or deliberate on beforehand. Place them in a logical, chronological order, ranked on personal importance, or inter-dependency. Read this list carefully before the effects start, and answer your questions directly after the effects wear off. Don’t bother thinking about writing down stuff during the trip on pen and paper. It will only ruin the experience. If you really feel like you need to remember everything, record the experience and vocalise your thoughts. Like dreams, you’ll forget 90% of the individual constituents of your trip. But like dreams, the information will come back if you apply structure.

All this structuring might come off as a little neurotic. Truly spiritual people or actual shamans might criticise me for the fact that I take away some of the mysticism of the experience by imposing such constraints. However, I believe that this is truly necessary.

What will the trip teach you?
What will the trip teach you?

Imagine the following: You’re going on a trip to South America, but you don’t plan anything in advance. You don’t speak Spanish, you don’t know the different cultures, and you don’t know where to start or when to stop your trip. You don’t know the history, nor the current political situation of the countries. You don’t bring a map, nor a telephone with internet connection to search for information.

What can you possibly learn from such a trip? What would be your take home message? Even though you are somewhere foreign and cool, it wouldn’t teach you anything. It would be a total chaotic disaster. You wouldn’t get far, and it might just as well end with you being captured and ransomed by a paramilitary group in the jungle or you turn yourself into jaguar lunch.

Similarly, a psychedelic trip, especially a solitary one, does not come without its dangers when you are unprepared.

But for a prepared mind that is yearning for meaning and answers, I would say that there is hardly anything more profoundly transformative and infinitely beautiful than a solo psychedelic experience.

Are you prepared?

Author: Ruben Boyd

My name is Ruben Boyd, an aspiring science journalist and a graduate of the Cognitive Science Research track of the Artificial Intelligence Master at the VU - William James Graduate School. My roots lie in Psychology, and in 2014 I proudly obtained my Bachelor of Science at the VU Amsterdam.