The psychedelic world is roughly split into two. On one side exists a belief in the spiritual, philosophical, and largely esoteric world of shamanic tradition and life beyond death. The other exists in pragmatic study-based empiricism.
Regardless of standpoint, however, both parties seem to have similar experiences while on psychedelics- whether extreme paranoia, or visiting new worlds. And often, they report these experiences as being ‘more real than real’.
But are they?
What counts as ‘real’ has long confounded philosophers. To put it briefly, in secular philosophy, knowledge is generally thought to come from either logical reasoning and induction (a priori) or empiricism and experience (a posteriori).
From a logical perspective, psychedelic worlds existing beyond the mind seems unlikely. Experientially there may be more ground, but the lack of repeatability of psychedelic experiences makes this questionable too.
In the absence of logical reasoning and when experience alone can’t tell us the truth, what do we have left?
Although seemingly esoteric, modern neuroscience may have an answer. For some time now, researchers have been discussing the Default Mode Network- various regions in the brain that work together to give us a feeling of having an ‘ego’ or a ‘sense of self’.
It is usually intact when in a sober, non-meditative state. But on some psychedelics and in deeply meditative states, the network can 'switch off’. And research from fMRI scans has shown that this ‘switching off’ tends to correlate with mystical experiences- feelings of ego dissolution, or loss of one’s sense of self.
In this way, one could say that the Default Mode Network may well be Aldous Huxley’s idea of the brain’s ‘reducing valve’- a filter through which we perceive reality. By adjusting the filter, you may be able to adjust how you perceive reality.
But how much does it matter whether or not these psychedelic worlds are real? In a recent chat with Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), I asked him this question in reference to Huxley’s reducing valve.
“Whether or not these experiences are ‘real’ or not is not overly important. For me, the issue is more: are they useful or not? So let’s say somebody remembers childhood sexual abuse that happened when they were six months old. Is that real or not?”
“The answer is: it doesn’t really matter. It’s a symbolic representation of conflicts that they’re working with. And if they can resolve it and work through it, they can often heal. Whether it’s a real memory or not isn’t such a crucial question from a therapeutic perspective.”
Doblin seems to prioritize utility over philosophical debates that often arrive at an unactionable ‘truth.'
But it’s not just psychedelics that provide access to potentially 'other-worldly' modes of thought. Meditation, prayer and other religious rituals, as well as looking out over Earth from space can evoke places of mind that are unusual, and perhaps even helpful.
Just as Huxley says, perhaps such experiences are the result of the reducing valve going off duty. Or perhaps, as in the therapeutic sense, whether or not they're real doesn't even matter.