The Meaning-Enhancing Effect of Psychedelics Can Be Both Helpful and Harmful

meaning-enhancing effect of psychedelics

During a psychedelic experience, everything can appear more meaningful and significant – everything in both the outer world (what we are perceiving) and the inner world (all the thoughts and ideas we are having). Geometric hallucinations can appear deeply significant, as can spontaneous insights about ourselves, the world, and fundamental reality. Psychedelics have long been known to be meaning- and significance-enhancing agents, but there has been little research on how this might translate into benefits or risks.

The psychedelic researcher Ido Hartogsohn published an article in 2018 in Frontiers in Neuroscience on the meaning-enhancing effects of psychedelics. He “argues that the tendency of these agents to enhance the perception of significance offers valuable clues to explaining their reported ability to stimulate a variety of therapeutic processes, enhance creativity, and instigate mystical-type experiences.” I would like to explore how the meaning enhancement occasioned by psychedelics can entail not just benefits but risks as well. The pitfalls of meaning enhancement need to be highlighted so that we can avoid them.

Psychedelics Induce Profound Feelings of Meaning and Significance

One of the main effects of psychedelics is the enhancement of the perception of meaning. Whatever the object of our attention may be, psychedelics can cause it to appear dramatically more meaningful than it otherwise would be. In Aldous Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception (1954), the author describes that under the influence of mescaline, objects were “all but quivering under the pressure of significance by which they were charged.” This is a common experience. Everything in the field of perception can burst with significance.

In psychedelic mystical states, the feeling of meaning can reach profound heights. A 2006 study on psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy found that “67% of the volunteers rated the experience with psilocybin to be either the single most meaningful experience of his or her life or among the top five most meaningful experiences of his or her life.” The experiences are felt to be extremely meaningful. In a sense, this should come as no surprise, given that psychedelics are commonly described as magnifiers, amplifiers, or augmenters of consciousness. This means, then, that they can “intensify mental phenomena and cause them and their significance to appear bigger, vaster, and more dramatic than otherwise,” as Hartogsohn points out.

The Therapeutic Benefits of Meaning-Enhancement

The meaning-enhancing effect of psychedelics contrasts with the way that SSRI antidepressant medications seem to work. These medications can be effective, but for many people, this is tied to their ability to diminish the intensity of emotional experiences, allowing people who are otherwise overwhelmed by feelings to cope and function. But this is a general emotional blunting effect: both negative and positive emotions are diminished. Many people who take them, then, find that they lead to a less dramatic, more flattened experience of the world. Psychedelics, conversely, have the opposite effect: they amplify emotions as well as their meaning. Hartogsohn states that “SSRI therapy…functions by diminishing emotional volume, thereby making experiences more bearable, while psychedelic therapy functions by amplifying emotional volume and demanding that patients “face the demon.””

He goes on to explain how the amplification of meaning relates to psychedelic therapy. Firstly, many treatments can work through the placebo response, which many researchers prefer to call the ‘meaning response’ (expecting and believing a treatment to be working encourages that very efficacy to occur). The concept of meaning response advances the idea that subjective experiences of knowledge, symbols, and meaning can have significant biological and therapeutic effects. The meaning-enhancing effect of psychedelics automatically involves the enhancement of the placebo response, which can help explain why psychedelic treatments can be so effective. 

Moreover, psychedelics can enhance the meaning of the psychological context (set) and environmental context (setting) of a psychedelic experience. This is why it’s important for a person’s mindset and the environment in which they have the experience (which includes social and cultural factors) to be primed in a positive and meaningful way. Expectation, intention, and the relationship of the patient to the psychedelic therapist can all be meaningful, and such meaning can be amplified in the psychedelic experience, contributing to positive experiences and sustained change.

In addition, mystical experiences and insights can be enhanced by the meaning-amplifying properties of psychedelics. As Hartogsohn puts it: “mystical-type experiences and insights obtained on psychedelics subjectively appear more significant than comparable non-psychedelically induced experiences and insights by virtue of the meaning-enhancing action of these drugs.” Since both mystical-type experiences and insights have been associated with the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics, it appears that meaning enhancement could play a pivotal role in this relationship.

Philosophers, sociologists, and psychotherapists have long warned that modern, industrialised societies are suffering from a crisis of meaning, linking this dearth of meaning to the rising prevalence of depression, suicidality, and other forms of psychological distress. Feelings of meaning in life are correlated with increased psychological well-being. This leads Hartogsohn to consider the following:

Could psychedelics help fight rising rates of psychopathologies by bolstering individual and social sense of meaning and purpose? We are unquestionably still far from answering such questions, but evidence does point to potentially significant implications which the psychedelic meaning-enhancement model might have for fortifying society’s resistance to mental pathology.

The Risks and Pitfalls of Amplifying Meaning Through Psychedelics

There are several pitfalls associated with the amplification of meaning in the psychedelic state. Firstly, if psychedelics enhance the meaning of all insights, not just true or helpful insights, then people may be more inclined to believe false and maladaptive ideas. Researchers have already argued that this is an epistemic risk of psychedelics that needs to be reckoned with. Rather than clarify one’s view of the world and alter beliefs in a way that promotes psychological health, meaning-amplification might lead to common pitfalls of psychedelic use, including an inflated ego, narcissism, a messiah complex, conspiracy thinking, and cult-like behaviour.

It’s possible, on the one hand, for meaning enhancement to improve creativity. Hartogsohn notes: 

By magnifying the perceived significance of creative challenges and insights psychedelics provide users with the impetus to pursue new, less obvious lines of ideation that they might otherwise have ignored; and with enhanced motivation to explore new creative directions to their fullest ramifications…. By imbuing possible solutions with a magnified sense of meaning and plausibility, psychedelics might assist in reducing inhibitions, self-criticism, and kindle greater concentration and enthusiasm for creative exploration.

On the other hand, he adds that: 

psychedelics might also enhance the perceived significance of such creative breakthroughs. As with spiritual experiences, this is not to say that creative-breakthroughs with psychedelics are invalid, but that one should be aware of the tendency to overstate the importance of such breakthroughs, particularly during, or shortly after psychedelic experience.

If psychedelics cause “mental and external phenomena to appear immensely more significant”, this can lead to benefits like “a reenchanted experience of the world”, which can feel restorative for anyone who feels burdened by a disenchanted view of the world. However, this enhancement of significance can also “facilitate magical thinking”, otherwise known as superstitious thinking, which is the belief that your ideas, thoughts, actions, words, or use of symbols have the power to influence the course of events in the material world.

Meaning enhancement entails potential psychological risks as well. Hartogsohn emphasises that:

the meaning-intensifying properties of psychedelics also play a key role in precipitating what has been described as their psychotomimetic or psychosis inducing properties. The increased intensity that psychedelics bring to experience, and the increased significance with which they imbue mental objects can manifest itself equally in spiritual epiphanies as well as in paranoid thought patterns, intensified anxieties, amplified fantasies, and other pathological thought patterns.

In addition, amplifying meaning through psychedelics can present some ethical problems. Is it ethical to artificially increase the meaning of experiences and relationships? Doing so can increase the risk of a therapist crossing professional and moral boundaries as well as the impact this will have on the client. Some might also argue that amplifying meaning beyond its normal dimensions turns many experiences and insights into delusions, offering people only illusions of profoundness. There is, indeed, a worry that this effect of psychedelics could lead to therapists, guides, or practitioners deceiving clients under the influence or, alternatively, it could result in clients engaging in self-deception. Hartogsohn disputes this line of reasoning, however:

The argument seems compelling at first, yet it is arguably flawed. It relies on the assumption that there exists one “correct” mental framework from which to approach the world and that any psychochemically induced digression from that norm is inherently wrong. In practice, human ability to meaningfully relate and to authentically appreciate experiences is contingent on myriad factors of everyday life, and arguably strongly disrupted by the circumstances of life within atomized, competitive, high-stress, bureaucratized societies. The psychedelic perspective could thus be viewed along a two-poled spectrum which runs the gamut from utter depletion of meaning to overwhelming abundance of meaning.

We are still left with the question of whether there is anything wrong with using a chemical to find more meaning in life and in one’s relationships. Studies demonstrate that these artificially-stimulated insights prove to be meaningful and helpful in the long run. Nonetheless, the psychedelic researcher Dennis McKenna contends that we cannot separate a ‘drug experience’ from any other experience we have in life:

All experience is a drug experience. Whether it’s mediated by our own [endogenous] drugs, or whether it’s mediated by substances that we ingest that are found in plants, cognition, consciousness, the working of the brain, it’s all a chemically mediated process. Life itself is a drug experience.

Yet even if this viewpoint is taken on board, it does not resolve the thorny epistemic, psychological, and ethical risks that have been outlined. In any case, for those who are suffering from severe psychological distress, the question of whether it is wrong to artificially enhance meaning may not seem that important or relevant. The highest priority will be the alleviation of suffering. 

Furthermore, we can challenge the notion that there is something ‘wrong’ or ‘unreal’ about the levels of meaning experienced in the psychedelic state. The perception of meaning is always subjective and its significance, content, relevance, and helpfulness depend largely on the attitudes, outlooks, beliefs, and interpretations of the individual who directly experiences it. Of course, that individual (or others) may question the veridicality of highly meaningful experiences, but this takes us more into the realm of philosophy, which deserves a separate, in-depth discussion.

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