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LSD And Genesis

Does new brain research on psychedelic drugs and the brain offer theological insights?

And now for something completely different!

I’ve been thinking for the past few days about that new study from British scientists comparing the brain in a normal state to one under the influence of LSD. Take a look at the Guardian‘s report, especially the neural images, which are, well, mind-blowing. Excerpts:

The profound impact of LSD on the brain has been laid bare by the first modern scans of people high on the drug.

The images, taken from volunteers who agreed to take a trip in the name of science, have given researchers an unprecedented insight into the neural basis for effects produced by one of the most powerful drugs ever created.

A dose of the psychedelic substance – injected rather than dropped – unleashed a wave of changes that altered activity and connectivity across the brain. This has led scientists to new theories of visual hallucinations and the sense of oneness with the universe some users report.

The brain scans revealed that trippers experienced images through information drawn from many parts of their brains, and not just the visual cortex at the back of the head that normally processes visual information. Under the drug, regions once segregated spoke to one another.

Further images showed that other brain regions that usually form a network became more separated in a change that accompanied users’ feelings of oneness with the world, a loss of personal identity called “ego dissolution”.


Under the influence, brain networks that deal with vision, attention, movement and hearing became far more connected, leading to what looked like a “more unified brain”, he said. But at the same time, other networks broke down. Scans revealed a loss of connections between part of the brain called the parahippocampus and another region known as the retrosplenial cortex.

The effect could underpin the altered state of consciousness long linked to LSD, and the sense of the self-disintegrating and being replaced with a sense of oneness with others and nature. “This experience is sometimes framed in a religious or spiritual way, and seems to be associated with improvements in wellbeing after the drug’s effects have subsided,” Carhart-Harris said.

The drug can be seen as reversing the more restricted thinking we develop from infancy to adulthood, said Nutt, whose study appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Read the whole thing. 

Here’s a bit from the Reuters account of the study:

Scientists have for the first time scanned the brains of people using LSD and found the psychedelic drug frees the brain to become less compartmentalized and more like the mind of a baby.

A research team led by scientists at Imperial College London said that while normally the brain works on independent networks performing separate functions such as vision, movement and hearing, under LSD the separateness of these networks breaks down, leading to a more unified system.

“In many ways, the brain in the LSD state resembles the state our brains were in when we were infants: free and unconstrained,” said Robin Cahart-Harris, who led the study. “This also makes sense when we consider the hyper-emotional and imaginative nature of an infant’s mind.”

Now, what does this have to do with the Book of Genesis? I’ve been thinking of how the experiences reported by LSD users closely resemble rare mystical experiences a relatively small number of religious practitioners report — particularly the sense of the ego dissolving into a general oneness with Creation, and a sense that Creation itself is alive, and mystically unified, harmonious.

This is the portrait of the prelapsarian world of Genesis. Adam and Eve live in harmony with God and with Creation. The Fall occurred when the two individuated themselves — that is, became aware of themselves as discrete individuals with the power to turn away from God. They lost that intimate fellowship with him, and with Creation, that they had once had.

Is this not analogical to the experience of maturing from infanthood toward adulthood? Though I don’t believe in a literal Adam and Eve — I believe Genesis is a “true myth,” in the sense that it is a parable that explains profound truths to us — I believe there was a metaphysical catastrophe of some sort that caused our loss of union with God. Could it be that in order for human consciousness to arise within us, we had to experience the Fall — which, in biological terms, might have meant that the surviving hominids were those whose brains turned the experience of God off, in some sense. Note that in the brain scans, people under the influence of LSD have all parts of the brain communicating with each other, not just tiny parts.

If true, then it gives a new dimension to Jesus Christ’s statement that we must be like little children if we wish to return to the Father.

I’ve hesitated to write this because I don’t want to give the impression that I disbelieve in the Fall as a spiritual reality. But it’s interesting to contemplate what LSD might reveal to us about the nature of how our bodies mediate the spirit incarnated in them. Put another way, does the experience of LSD and other psychoactive drugs reveal the world to us as it really is (“open cleansing the door of perception,” as Huxley put it), but that we cannot normally endure and function? Or is it purely illusory? Or both?

Again, I’m simply speculating. What do you think? I’m really interested in what psychoactive drugs can tell us about mystical experience. Two summers ago, when I visited my dying friend Miriam in Amsterdam, she told me about how she had undergone recently an experience with ayahuasca, the psychoactive drug derived from an Amazon plant. It sounded terrifying to me, something I would never want to do. But something extremely profound had happened to her, revealing her hidden terror, and helping her to conquer it. She was now ready to die (from her cancer) in peace. As a Christian, much of what she had to say triggered a defensive response within myself, but I could not deny the profound effect that experience had on my friend (and when she disclosed the content of it to me, I understood).

FrameAngel / Shutterstock.com
FrameAngel / Shutterstock.com