The feeling of gaining direct knowledge of something grand or important about reality is a common aspect of mystical experiences generally and psychedelic mystical states more specifically. This is known as a noetic experience, one of the four defining qualities of a mystical experience, as propounded by the American psychologist and philosopher William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). He describes this noetic quality as follows:
Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time.
This aha moment could relate to the individual’s life or the nature of the universe itself. Briefly, the other three essential aspects of the mystical experience, according to James, are (and quoting his descriptions) ineffability: “The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words”, transciency: “Mystical states cannot be sustained for long”, and passivity: “when the characteristic sort of consciousness once has set in, the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power.” To James, ineffability and noetic quality are the two necessary and sufficient conditions for a mystical experience, while transiency and passivity are subtler and not required (although they do often accompany this unique altered state of consciousness).
Since James’ time, other philosophers and psychologists (e.g. Walter Stace, Walter Pahnke, and Ralph W. Hood) have developed further articulations of the mystical experience, adding in other defining characteristics, including spacelessness and timelessness, a feeling of sacredness or reverence, unity or interconnectedness, ego loss, and bliss or profound joy. Stace made a distinction between ‘extrovertive’ and ‘introvertive’ mystical experiences: he calls the former an experience of unity within the world, where one is unified with the objects of perception, whereas the latter is “an experience of unity devoid of perceptual objects; it is literally an experience of ‘no-thing-ness’” – a state of pure consciousness. These subsequent ideas on mysticism have gone on to influence research into psychedelics, with scales measuring mystical qualities (like the Hood Mysticism Scale) being applied to see if – and to what degree – people have a classic mystical experience.
Noetic Experiences: A Common Feature of Mystical and Altered States
There is much debate within the philosophy of mysticism about what makes a certain experience mystical, and many researchers also take issue with the application of mysticism in psychedelic science. However, for the sake of discussion, I will regard the noetic quality as a common aspect of the mystical psychedelic state, which is in keeping with James’ thought, how the classic mystical experience is widely defined, and what many people report after their most profound experiences with psychedelics.
James himself reported on the noetic quality – the feeling of immense revelation – as a key part of his experiments with nitrous oxide. The compound is also known as ‘laughing gas’, a coinage that comes from the English chemist Humphry Davy, who also used and wrote about his nitrous oxide experiences, which left him with the conviction that Idealism was true: “[W]ith the most intense belief and prophetic manner, I exclaimed…“Nothing exists but thoughts! – the universe is composed of impressions, ideas, pleasures and pains!”. In his 1882 essay The Subjective Effects of Nitrous Oxide (which you can read here), James writes:
With me, as with every other person of whom I have heard, the keynote of the experience is the tremendously exciting sense of an intence metaphysical illumination. Truth lies open to the view in depth beneath depth of almost blinding evidence. The mind sees all the logical relations of being with an apparent subtlety and instantaneity to which its normal consciousness offers no parallel; only as sobriety returns, the feeling of insight fades, and one is left staring vacantly at a few disjointed words and phrases, as one stares at the cadaverous-looking snow peak from which the sunset glow has just fled, or at the black cinder left by an extinguished brand.
He later notes that “its [nitrous oxide’s] first result was to make peal through me with unutterable power the conviction that Hegelism was true after all”. In this essay, James mentions how he was inspired by the ideas expressed in The Anaesthetic Revelation and the Gist of Philosophy (1874), written by the American philosopher and poet Benjamin Paul Blood, who himself tried nitrous and found himself experiencing states of consciousness and insights that metaphysical philosophers like Plato and Hegel were privy to. In the preface to his book Pluriverse (published posthumously in 1920), Blood states:
It was in the year 1860 that there came to me, through the necessary [medical] use of anaesthetics, a Revelation or insight of the immemorial Mystery which among enlightened peoples still persists as the philosophical secret or problem of the world. . . . After fourteen years of this experience at varying intervals, I published in 1874 “The Anaesthetic Revelation and the Gist of Philosophy,” not assuming to define therein the purport of the illumination, but rather to signalize the experience, and in a résumé of philosophy to show wherein that had come short of it.
He argued that the “anaesthetic revelation” he experienced was “primordial”, “Adamic”, and incommunicable (in keeping with James’ ineffability requirement for mystical states). He wrote to James, “Philosophy is past. It was the long endeavor to logicize what we can only realize practically or in immediate experience.” All who experimented with this psychoactive gas and similar drugs reported indescribable metaphysical illuminations, as James highlights. These other figures include Xenos Clark, Edmund Gurney, J.A. Symonds, and William Ramsay. Blood’s worldview was a pluralist mysticism because he asserted that his mystical experiences were simply experiences; he did not tie them to a grand systematic doctrine like Hegelian philosophy.
In a poem from James about nitrous oxide, there are lines like, “No verbiage can give it, because the verbiage is other,” “And it fades! And it’s infinite! AND it’s infinite!”, and “Constantly opposites united!” Here we have some of the recurring features of the mystical state: ineffability, passivity, a sense of infinity, and unity (the unification of opposites, a non-dualistic state, which is felt by many as insight into the true nature of reality). In The Varieties of Religious Experience, James also talks about unity as an essential characteristic of these transcendent experiences, a unity that can be seen as noetic (revelatory) in nature. He said his nitrous oxide experiences:
all converge toward a kind of insight to which I cannot help ascribing some kind of metaphysical significance. The keynote of it is invariably a reconciliation. It is as if the opposites of the world, whose contradictoriness and conflict make all our difficulties and troubles, were melted into unity. This is a dark saying, I know, when thus expressed in terms of common logic, but I cannot wholly escape from its authority. I feel as if it must mean something, something like what the hegelian philosophy means, if one could only lay hold of it more clearly. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear; to me the living sense of its reality only comes in the artificial mystic state of mind.
While nitrous oxide is not typically thought of as a psychedelic, we can see from these inhalant philosophers that it can, in fact, induce (and reliably so) noetic experiences, that is, the feeling of direct revelation, illumination, insight, knowledge, and wisdom. Like the classic psychedelics such as psilocybin, LSD, and DMT, nitrous oxide appears, in sufficient doses, to make users feel they are peeking behind the curtain of consensus reality, gaining direct access to ultimate reality, which impresses one with its undeniability. One may have had an abstract notion of mystical insights, such as the collapse of duality and opposites, but it is quite another thing to experience this idea first-hand.
The nitrous oxide experience is brief and fleeting; there is a sense of being confronted with a monumental truth, in all its clarity, but like James, users find this truth escapes remembrance; it seems to retreat into some enclosed domain, accessible only through mind alteration. When using nitrous oxide or DMT, one rapidly loses a grasp on the epiphany when returning to a sober state, much like the forgetting of a dream upon waking, which can be frustrating or humorous (depending on your outlook), given how titanic the revelation seemed to be.
This feeling of direct understanding is experienced by many who use psychedelics, and it is often accompanied by feelings of astonishment – or ontological shock – due to the radical reframing of reality it forces upon people (although depending on someone’s pre-existing beliefs or attitude towards the experience after it’s over, such drastic changes may not occur). The wide-eyed, slack-jawed amazement that follows noetic experiences can be especially pronounced if the revelation is of a cosmic nature. It is not uncommon during psychedelic mystical states to feel that one is experiencing the “Ground of Being” or “Being-Itself” (terms that the German theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich used to describe God) or gaining some cosmic insights, such as understanding the infinite or eternal nature of the universe or how the universe came into existence. These cosmic confrontations are often accompanied by feelings of awe, overwhelm, and disbelief. They are more likely to occur with the use of high doses of psychedelics or potent compounds (like DMT), and they are generally thought to be an unfathomable height (or depth) of human experience.
Whether such experiences are veridical is another matter. I have often thought that what may be happening during a psychedelic experience is that some ‘meaning’ or ‘significance’ part of the brain becomes particularly stimulated, and that it is possible to experience an intense state of significance without a relevant object or idea to which it refers – a feeling of insightfulness and revelation without actual content. As the psychedelic researcher David Luke said of some people who encounter entities under the influence of DMT: “Even if there’s not a specific message [from the entities] there’s a sense of profundity.” This might be why it is so hard (or impossible) to communicate any insight because the user has only a strong impression of profundity, surety, and magnitude. It is not unusual, after all, for psychedelic users to say that an experience was deeply meaningful but they don’t know why.
On the other hand, I would want to moderate this scepticism with the recognition that many philosophers and psychonauts do take away specific content from their noetic experiences – and it could be that some kind of understanding is possible only when the organ of understanding, the mind, is modulated in a certain way. I would additionally want to stress that irrespective of truthfulness, the personal meaning and positive changes that result from such experiences do not have to lose any power.
It is disputed whether these special insights or intuitions are even verifiable; disagreements about this will hinge on what one believes are legitimate ways to gain knowledge. It is also possible that such insights, like into non-duality and unity, are false, albeit common. The universe could be fundamentally dualistic or pluralistic in nature (there are two or many different substances, respectively), in contrast to monistic worldviews, which postulate only one substance.
Undying conviction is not enough to establish veridicality. Towards this aim, the philosopher of psychedelics Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes argues that we can compare such experiences against the following criteria, which act as truth-testers: sensibility (what you sense with your five senses), shared objects of experience (experiencing something that others also experience), coherence with other beliefs (agreement between our sense perceptions and our prior beliefs), and rationality (being able to present reasons for believing in what we have experienced).
Sjöstedt-Hughes gives special emphasis to the shared objects of experience criterion. This is because there are many commonly reported features of psychedelic states, such as unity or the subjective nature of space and time. He quotes the philosopher C.D. Broad, who remarked, “So far as [mystical experiences] agree they should be provisionally accepted as veridical unless there is some positive ground for thinking that they are not.” Such a view is contestable, of course. Furthermore, it is difficult to verify noetic experiences in those cases when they are ineffable – when the user feels no words or interpretation can be given to them at all. This does not necessarily mean the insights are empty and useless; only that, in our waking, consensus state of consciousness, these insights are mysteriously impenetrable.
Sjöstedt-Hughes is keen to emphasise the fact that the drug-induced nature of these noetic experiences is in no way proof that they are just strange delusions. He writes that “chemically-induced correlates of mystical experience cannot per se disprove the objectivity of that which is experienced.” But to reiterate, we have to also be open to the possibility that one can have a feeling of insight without any actual insight. This could be like pure significance, which I described earlier. It would be interesting to find out if such an experience is possible, however, and whether any distinct brain states would correlate with it. Researchers have at least shown that the aha moment can be elicited using false information and applied to unrelated information. Psychedelics may be especially prone to producing false insights – for example, expecting to experience true insights means you’re going to be more likely to attribute the feeling of revelation to any ideas you come up with.
A case of illusory insight could also be the result of psychedelics making the brain hyperconnected, with the subsequent flood of information entering awareness being mistaken for cosmic insights or becoming one with the ‘universal mind’. This scenario is understandable. The hyperconnected brain, after all, can provide an individual with unprecedented access to the mind, a multitude of novel thoughts and perspectives, and intricate and arresting visions centred on life and the universe. These experiences may be truly thought-provoking but they do not necessarily mean that the altered mind has become an instrument with direct access to the cosmic and infinitesimal scales of reality. At the same time, these experiences can align with certain truths – and it should not be surprising to find that a modulated, hyperconnected brain will sometimes produce insight and at other times produce creative falsehoods, the latter of which are often appealing because they can offer us novelty, narrative, meaning, purpose, certainty, and comfort.
Noetic Experiences, Metaphysics, and Consciousness
Now I would like to connect the nature of psychedelic noetic experiences to the ideas of Baruch Spinoza, the famous Dutch philosopher who reconceived the notion of God, positing that God was identical to Nature. This pantheistic worldview, as described in Spinoza’s work Ethics (1677), rejects the idea of a personal god or an individual creator, as is found in the monotheistic traditions. He was writing in opposition to “those who feign a God, like man, consisting of a body and a mind, and subject to passions.” Only July 27, 1656, he was excommunicated from the Spanish-Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam (this ban, separating a person from the Jewish community, is known as herem). While we don’t know for certain what Spinoza’s “monstrous deeds” and “abominable heresies” were that led to such a harsh punishment, it is reasonable to surmise that he professed beliefs he would come to detail in his works, such as the rejection of a transcendent, personal, law-giving God and the immortality of the soul.
Spinoza argued instead that God or Nature is one eternal substance consisting of “infinite attributes”, and this single substance possesses an “infinite intellect”, which comprehends those attributes (of these attributes of God, Spinoza says we have knowledge of only two of them: thought and extension). To Spinoza, there is an idea of everything in God or Nature.
Interestingly, during intense psychedelic states, it can feel as if one comes to know all the secrets of the universe; all questions are answered at once, and no mysteries remain – it is as if one has become omniscient. This can be thought of as a kind of total noetic experience, in which there is not only the feeling of deep understanding of some important truth but a deep understanding of the All or the Ultimate Truth.
Could these kinds of noetic experiences lend credence to Spinoza’s conception of God? Well, they could, if we assume that the total noetic experience I have described is a way of either understanding the infinite intellect, coming in contact with its reality, or even becoming one with it (in a state of mystical union). According to Spinoza, “the human mind is a part of the infinite intellect of God”. It would be quite radical to claim that such a mind, when altered by a psychedelic compound, could go from being an aspect of God to being the fullness of God. Genuinely encountering the Totality that is God or Nature under the influence of a psychedelic is an extraordinary claim as well. Many people have such experiences, nonetheless, and remain convinced that they were not just subjective in nature but objective too. It is difficult to assess the supposed objectivity of these claims, but relating them to panpsychism and other theories of mind may be helpful.
We should note here that Spinoza was also a panpsychist since he posited that mind (thought) is an attribute of the eternal and infinite substance that is God or Nature; and since God or Nature is everything, then everything has the aspect of mind. Every object has both a unique mode of extension and a corresponding mode of thought. As he writes:
a circle existing in nature and the idea of the existing circle, which is also in God, are one and the same thing … therefore, whether we conceive nature under the attribute of Extension, or under the attribute of Thought … we shall find one and the same order, or one and the same connection of causes….
The panpsychist position that mind or consciousness is a fundamental and pervasive feature of the universe might sound implausible. However, it’s worth underscoring that the position does not state all kinds of matter and all particles have the kind of subjectivity and complex consciousness possessed by sentient creatures like humans. Atoms, for instance, are presumed to have a very basic form of consciousness.
There is a strand of panpsychism known as cosmopsychism, which may further help link Spinoza’s God to psychedelic experiences. This position states that the universe as a whole is a conscious subject, with all entities and properties, including minds like ours, being aspects of the conscious universe. Spinoza’s philosophy effectively advances such a position since God or Nature has the property of mindedness: it possesses an “infinite intellect”. Moreover, in keeping with cosmopsychism, his system of thought views matter and minds as aspects of this greater conscious entity. So now the relevant question is as follows: Can psychedelics allow one to connect to this supermind (through contact or unification)?
In trying to answer this question, I would like to combine the cosmopsychist view with the reducing valve theory of mind (which I discussed in my article on experiencing the impossible on DMT). This latter theory was first put forward by the French philosopher Henri Bergson, adopted by the English philosopher C.D. Broad, and then subsequently popularised in Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, with Huxley feeling confident about the veracity of this theory, after having reflected on his experience with mescaline.
Bergson came to believe that the human brain and nervous system served an eliminative function, rather than a productive one. By this, he meant that the purpose of the brain and nervous system is to keep stimuli and information out of conscious awareness. Huxley used the term ‘reducing valve’ to describe this function of the brain. In The Doors of Perception, he quotes C.D. Broad, who said:
The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful.
If the reducing valve of the mind did not exist or it allowed all information in at all times, it would, as Huxley argues, make survival impossible. Reiterating C.D. Broad’s point, he states:
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.
On mescaline, Huxley was flooded with what he calls ‘Mind at Large’, the conscious mind with the filters of the brain and nervous system removed. More than 50 years after Huxley promulgated the reducing valve theory of the mind, scientific research into the effects of psychedelic drugs would come to vindicate the idea. In 2016, researchers from Imperial College London published a landmark study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing the results of the world’s very first images of the brain on LSD.
One of the key findings from the study was that LSD decreases communication between brain regions that constitute the default mode network (DMN), a collection of hub centres that we now know restrict the amount of sensory information that enters conscious awareness. The DMN is essentially the reducing valve that Huxley had in mind; it controls communication between brain regions, creating a somewhat segregated brain.
However, the reducing valve theory proposed by Bergson and Huxley seems to go beyond the confines of the physical brain. This would be possible if we think of the brain as a receiver or modulator of consciousness that exists outside of us, rather than an organ that produces localised consciousness. According to this hypothesis (postulated by the neurophilosopher John R. Smythies and the writer Graham Hancock), the brain is a modulating or tuning device, with its relationship to consciousness being like that of a TV to a TV signal – consciousness manifests in the particular way it does for us in the way that a TV signal manifests as moving pictures on the TV screen. Change the tuning device, via psychedelics for example, and what appears on the ‘TV screen’ changes. While contentious and subject to various criticisms, the receiver or transceiver theory of consciousness, when combined with the reducing valve theory, could allow our minds to be open to much more information than if we suppose that the brain produces consciousness.
Related to this idea, Huxley writes, “Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe…each one of us is potentially Mind at Large.” And what is the Mind at Large if not the mind of Spinoza’s God – the infinite intellect? If you were to perceive everything in the cosmos under the influence of psychedelics, which many users report, then combining cosmopsychism with the reducing valve and receiver theories of consciousness could be one way to explain such a phenomenon. We do not under any normal circumstances experience the completeness of Mind at Large, God, or Nature – the total noetic experience – because this would be, and is, overwhelming. It simply does not serve the purposes of practical consciousness, but rather, impedes it. A DMT breakthrough does not lend itself to thinking or acting in any practical or useful way.
Cosmopsychism is not the only way to augment the reducing valve theory to illuminate noetic experiences. Bergon’s ideas on memory may be relevant, too. In his work Matter and Memory (1896), Bergson claims that there exists pure memory, which has a virtual nature – it does not reside in our brains or anywhere physical. It is, instead, a non-actual repository of all past events, the contents of which can be actualised at different times, depending on our present needs and concerns and what we need to make sense of the present. Pure memory, this radical idea of Bergson’s, is the totality of memories existing, eternally, in a virtual state. The mind as a reducing valve limits the contents of pure memory that reach our conscious awareness. But if psychedelics can weaken or disable this reducing valve, then we can be more open to the vast repository of pure memories: all past events. If one had such access, would this not fit in with the nature of the total noetic experience, with the conviction of becoming the mind of God?
This is not to say that accessing more of – or even the totality of – pure memory would correspond to Spinoza’s God, but it might at least help explain why people come out of a psychedelic state convinced they saw or understood everything. The notion of ‘everything’ is relative. Being aware of more (but not all) of Mind at Large or pure memory could feel like the totality, in light of its immensity.
I think it will also be enlightening to consider noetic experiences with Spinoza’s concept of the intellectual love of God in mind. “Knowledge of God is the mind’s greatest good: its greatest virtue is to know God,” says Spinoza, and this highest good, he believed, could be attained by all. Since God or Nature has been conceived as an infinite substance, it is, by that very nature, the greatest thing that can be known. This kind of knowledge proceeds from an adequate idea of one of God’s attributes to an adequate idea of God’s essence, of a singular thing, which is the cause of all the modes or modifications of God (i.e. every attribute in existence).
The essence of God, in Spinoza’s view, is its existence, or eternity. Eternal usually means ‘existing forever in time’ but Spinoza redefines it to mean “existence itself, insofar as it is conceived to follow necessarily from the definition alone of the eternal thing.” So eternity is existence. A thing is ‘eternal’ if the very definition of it includes existence, i.e. we cannot conceive of it not existing. Spinoza explains this definition as follows: “For such existence, like the essence of a thing, is conceived as an eternal truth, and on that account cannot be explained by duration or time, even if the duration is conceived to be without beginning or end.” This highlights how Spinoza’s definition of eternity does not relate to time or duration. He calls God’s eternity “the infinite enjoyment of existence, or, in bad Latin, of being.” Spinoza also defines God as being “absolutely infinite, i.e. a substance consisting of an infinity of attributes, of which each one expresses an eternal and infinite essence.” The eternal, singular substance that is God, he argues, “can only be conceived as infinite”; God cannot be, as the modes of God can be, conceived as greater or smaller, divided into parts, or limited by duration. As an eternal and infinite being, God has no boundaries or limits.
When we possess an adequate idea of God, formulated in this way, Spinoza says the mind passes to the highest state of perfection that it is possible to experience. The result is that we experience joy to the greatest degree, and because this kind of knowledge involves an understanding of God as the cause of this perfection of the mind, a love for God then arises. Spinoza calls this the intellectual love of God (amor dei intellectualis). It is the knowledge of God combined with an emotional experience. For Spinoza, the intellectual love of God involves “blessedness” and “true peace of mind”.
The German Romantic poet Novalis called Spinoza a “God-intoxicated man” and we can apply this label also to the person who has a psychedelic mystical experience. Spinoza’s concept of the intellectual love of God certainly has a parallel with these altered states. For when one has a noetic experience, the kind which pertains to eternity and infinity, such as a felt understanding of eternal existence and the infinite universe, this is often accompanied by a sense of the divine, sacred, or holy, a feeling of reverence and worship, and the highest feelings of joy, ecstasy, bliss, and peacefulness. Could we not say that such an experience is the intellectual love of God that Spinoza talks about?
These mystical and noetic experiences could be interpreted in this way, but perhaps they do not always neatly align with the metaphysics and intellectual love of God that Spinoza has in mind. Maybe in some instances, the feeling of ‘eternity’ in the psychedelic mystical state is unrelated to time and duration, in keeping with Spinoza’s philosophy – indeed, many people do report their psychedelic experiences to be happening ‘outside of time’ or with time becoming meaningless. The mystical experience of so-called pure existence or being, occurring in a state of timelessness, might also correspond to Spinoza’s notion of God’s essence as existence, which is equivalent to eternity. On the other hand, many psychedelic users feel that their altered state of consciousness was eternal in the sense of it lasting forever, and other notions of Spinoza’s God may be lacking; there may be feelings of psychedelic-induced reverence and love but not be directed towards this special kind of being that Spinoza calls God.
It is difficult to establish the veracity of noetic experiences. A study published in Scientific Reports found that psychedelics alter metaphysical beliefs, moving people away from a belief in materialism or physicalism and towards panpsychism. These supposed metaphysical insights, gained during a psychedelic experience, might be genuine, false, or partially true. Those insights that are the most common may indicate to us where the truth lies; yet it is also possible that these shared experiences, while profound and earth-shattering, are reflections more of the brain architecture and psychology all humans share, rather than reflections of a grand metaphysical truth. There may even be a middle ground between both views: our shared biology could, via the influence of psychedelics affecting us similarly, allow us to connect to genuine insight and wisdom.
In any case, I find it fascinating that many noetic experiences induced by psychedelics resemble so closely the metaphysical ideas of certain mystics and philosophers throughout the ages. If anything, this speaks to the importance of the psychedelic state – a shift in perspective that may inform and clarify our views on the nature of reality and consciousness. To this end, psychedelics can be thought of as invaluable chemical allies, which, in certain circumstances and when used appropriately, can aid the search for truth.