Brain Facts

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VISIONS PRODUCED BY DREAMING AND ENTHEOGENIC DRUGS



Anthropological records suggest that human cultures have used natural substances to induce "visions" for thousands of years in religious ceremonies. These substances were ingested as religious sacraments and the partakers believed that "god was in the plant or that God communicated though the plant" [or fungus]" (Farthing, 1992; McKenna 1992). Similarly, various cultures have had a fascination with the significance of dreaming. Cultures have believed that "dreams are messages from the gods" and that they predict the future. Numerous dreams are in the bible and most are of this type (Farthing, 1992). Neurochemical knowledge of some "visionary" substances has shed modest light on their mysterious action.


Entheogenic refers to drugs "which provoke ecstasy [flight of the soul from the body] and have traditionally been used as shamanic or religious inebriants."(Ott, 1996) The term (as first coined by Dr. R. Gordon Wasson, Prof. Carl Ruck and Jonathan Ott in 1979) means "realizing the divine within" and is preferable to hallucinogenic or psychedelic for the purpose of this discussion for several reasons. A hallucination is a "percept-like experience that the individual interprets as real, although it has no objective counterpart." Partakers of entheogenic drugs will more likely experience pseudo-hallucinations where objects of perception are altered, not created, and/or the participant knows that the vision does not exist objectively. If the participant is aware that the drug is causing the "vision", then the percept is by definition a pseudo-hallucination. True hallucinations are possible but rare from ingesting normal doses of entheogenic drugs and renders the term Hallucinogenic misleading. He term Psychedelic carries such heavy connotations to images of western civilization's drug use of the 1960's that it is hardly appropriate to use it as a blanket term for the wide array of entheogens used for thousands of years in religious ceremonies.


Modern science has identified some of the active components of such sacraments, which has provided for limited research opportunities. Scientific research on these substances is currently very restricted by the U.S. Government's social agendas. Scientific dream research has been very limited due to its inherently subjective nature. Subjective reports on both dreams and entheogenic experiences, however, are empirically useful. When coupled to our molecular knowledge of dreams and entheogens, similarities between the two states surface. Further research on entheogenic compounds coupled to dream state research will offer scientific advance in the study of dreams as well as cultural advances in understanding the value of entheogenic substances for therapeutic and religious use.


It has been suggested that the first entheogenic substance use in humans took place through naive ingestion of psychoactive mushrooms. This is theorized due to mushroom's fit of the probablr criteria of the first enthogenic substance: a reasonably small dose needed for inebriation, geographic presence in Africa at a time when all humans resided there, a lack of any needed purification or preparation, and a potential presence in climatic regions that also supported human life. It has been suggested that humans moved into the grasslands and encountered hoofed beasts which became their source of food. The entheogenic mushroom grew on the dung of these beasts and was likely explored by humans as the man and beasts evolved together. Since that time entheogenic mushroom use has spread throughout the world (McKenna, 1992). Recent accounts suggest that entheogenic drugs taken in the correct environment grant users insight into the possibility of human existence in dynamic equilibrium with their environment (McKenna, 1992). If it is true that early users were granted special insight into dynamic co-existence with their environment, it is likely that the powerful perspective the entheogens afforded its users offered them an evolutionary advantage over the "unenlightened" humans and thus played some role in human evolution (McKenna, 1992).


Numerous entheogenic substances have been adopted by various cultures throughout history (please refer to Pharmacotheon by J. Ott for a comprehensive reference). This discussion will focus on the action of natural entheogenic mushrooms, peyote, morning glory seeds as well as the purified molecules from such sources and their synthetic analogues (such as psilocybin(e), psilocin(e), dimethyltryptamine (DMT), lysergic acid amide, lysergic acid diethylamide, mescaline etc), otherwise known as the indole derivatives (tryptamines) and the phenethyamines.


Entheogens entered the Western world's history books when entheogenic mushrooms were first denounced by the Spaniards after conquering the Aztec empire. The Aztec term "Teonanacatl" means "flesh of God." The Spanish believed the Aztecs received the Devil in holy communion through the mushroom ceremonies. Western society (and the Catholic church) persecuted the people who partook in the holy sacrament. The use of the entheogenic mushrooms persisted, however, and was reintroduced to the Western world through R. Gordon Wasson's publication in Life magazine in1957 entitled "Seeking the Magic Mushrooms" (Wasson's opposed the title) (Ott, 1996). A second attack on entheogenic drugs mounted by the U.S. government culminated in the controlled substance act of 1970. The act outlawed entheogenic drugs (among others) and curbed scientific research with the substances. The act was heavily motivated by cultural agendas rather than by potential dangers of the drugs suggested by scientific evidence. The setback in research was devastating as neurochemical studies of such compounds offer far clearer scientific data than studies of dreams.


A brief background on sleep is necessary to familiarize the reader with the language often used in describing the physiological correlates to different stages of sleep and dreaming. Sleep research has been somewhat easier to conduct than dream research as the physiology of sleep is easily measured. Dreaming research, however, is limited by self-report techniques. Memory of dreaming is generally not conserved in waking life which complicates self-report methods of data collection. Despite these limitations, great efforts have been made to summarize the experiences of dreaming and to explain the effects of dream deprivation. Dreaming occurs throughout sleep and thus makes dream deprivation difficult to isolate from sleep deprivation. Different stages of sleep, however, have different extents of dreaming. It is selective deprivation of different sleep stages that offer us the most evidence to date on the importance of dreaming for maintaining health.


Human sleep is generally divided into rapid eye movement sleep (REM) and four stages of non-REM (NREM) sleep. In general terms, Stage IV of NREM sleep is the "deepest sleep." After falling asleep, people advance from stage I through IV. NREM sleep, specifically stage III and IV, are also referred to as electroencephalogram (EEG) slow wave sleep. People regress from stage IV back through stage I and then into stage REM sleep. This cycle occurs on average every 90 minutes in humans. REM sleep occurs in all mammals except the echidna, is absent in reptiles, and is unlikely in birds (Farthing, 1992). REM sleep is coupled to rapid back and forth eye movements (which have been shown to be unrelated to looking behavior in dreams) and have physiological sleep correlates that most closely match waking life. These include increased blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration as well as EEG readings characteristic of waking brain states, indicative of the high electrical activity of cortical regions (Farthing 1992).


It has been suggested that NREM sleep primarily serves bodily restorative function and REM sleep serves mental restorative function (Farthing 1992, Solms 1997). The function of REM sleep remains a matter of controversy. Extensive REM sleep deprivation studies, though, have suggested that there is a physiological need for REM sleep (Farthing 1992, Solms 1997). It has also been established that the majority of extensive, vivid dreaming takes place during REM sleep (Farthing 1992, Solms 1997).


Sleep mentation refers to all conscious mental events that take place during sleep (Farthing, 1992). Dreams, however, have more extensive qualities. A dream is a subjective experience, occurring during sleep, that involves (a) complex, organized mental images that (b) show temporal progression or change (Farthing, 1992). This is to differentiate dreaming from static mental images or thoughts that may occur spontaneously throughout sleep but are not characterized as dreaming. In one early study by Aserinsky and Kleitman in 1953, 740f subjects awakened in REM sleep reported dreaming compared to only 110f subjects in NREM sleep. These findings have been consistently reproduced in research. It is now accepted that subjects report dreaming in an average of 800f REM sleep awakenings (Solms, 1997). While dreams occur in NREM sleep, dreams are more vivid, more emotional, longer lasting, and better recalled during REM sleep stages (Farthing, 1992, Solms, 1997).


It is difficult for one to think about the significance of dreaming without thinking about Sigmund Freud's theories and his book The Interpretation of Dreams published in 1900. While Freud's theories about dreaming and the unconscious are interesting, his research methods (when present) are highly questionable. As the subjective experiences of dreaming and dream deprivation studies are far more valuable to this discussion, Freud's theory will not be discussed (the reader is directed to Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams or chapter 12 of Farthing's The Psychology of Consciousness for a critique of Freud's theory).


Most people have limited recollection of dreams due to the lack of encoding from working memory (WM) to long-term memory (LTM) during sleep (Farthing, 1992). This explains why we normally remember only one or two dreams per night despite an average of 4-5 dreaming periods during 6-8 hours of sleep. Dreams that are highly emotional or bizarre tend to be the dreams we remember most clearly. This is attributed to the fact that we awaken from them and commit them to LTM through waking recollection. We are most likely to remember dreams from the last REM period of the evening (Farthing, 1992). If we were to encode all dream memories as strongly as waking memories the evolutionary effect could be disastrous. The inability to distinguish dreams from physical reality could reek havoc on the maintenance of our physical health (food gathering, social relationships, shelter building, long-term tasking, etc.) The mechanism that inhibits encoding of dreams to LTM may have appeared as an evolution necessity of mammalian life. This still does not answer why we dream, but helps to explain why dreams have limited presence in our waking life.


Dreams have a familiar quality where a reality is created complete with visual perception, emotions, and the perception of cognition. Items in the dreamer's memory, events from the day, and even environmental stimuli may influence the dream. While most dream content comes from the dreamers memory, elements of the outside environment may occasionally enter. For example, experiments where subjects were squirted with water during REM sleep overwhelmingly reported dreams including water when they were awakened (Farthing, 1980). Additionally, we are all familiar with sleeping through an alarm clock that we incorporate it into our dream. Dreams are generally composed of sensory qualities such as vision in color, touch, hearing, and to a lesser extent olfaction and taste. Dreams maintain their presence in the dream world while accepting little input from the conscious mind (an exception to conscious participation is seen in lucid dreaming, presented later), little output to the dreamer's memory, and only limited environmental stimulation. The apparent "reality" and perception of emotions in dreaming, however, are extremely powerful (Farthing, 1992).


The emotional significance of entheogens may be their most profound effect. Wasson's literary capture of the intense emotional effects of the entheogenics is unmatched. He testifies to his first experience with entheogenic mushrooms in 1952:




It permits you to travel backwards and forwards in time, to enter other planes of existence, even (as the Indians say), to know God...

What is happening to you seems freighted with significance, beside which the humdrum of everyday life seems trivial. All these things you see with an immediacy of vision that leads you to say to yourself, 'Now I am seeing for the first time, seeing direct, without the intervention of mortal eyes.'

Your body lies in the darkness, heavy as lead, but your spirit seems to soar and leave the hut, and with the speed of thought, to travel where it listeth, in time and space, accompanied by the shamans singing...at last you know what the ineffable is and what ecstasy means. Ecstasy! The mind harks back to the origin of that word. For the Greeks ekstasis meant the flight of the soul from the body. Can you find a better word to describe this state? (Crahan 1969, cited in Farthing 1980, p.479)


In addition to the profound emotional effects described by Wasson, psilocine and psilocybine, the active components of entheogenic mushrooms, produce auditory, visual, and tactile alterations, profound synaestesia, and ego dissolution (Ott 1996, Farthing 1980, McKenna 1992, Grinspoon et al. 1990). The effects are similar to peak effects of LSD and Mescaline, cross-tolerance exists between the three, and it is thought that they act through similar brain mechanisms (Ott 1996, Farthing 1980, McKenna 1992; Grinspoon et al. 1990). Entheogenic drugs such as LSD, psilocybine, and mescaline have four predominant perceptual features that suggest a common underlying mechanism of action as researched by Siegel and Jarvik (1975, 1977) during the systematic analysis of the visual aspects of entheogens (Farthing, 1992). The first of which is form. Form includes simple forms as well as complex meaningful forms constructed from both memory and environmental input, similar to the varying degrees of sleep mentation. Colors, movement (simple), and complex action patterns are the other common percepts of entheogen-induced visions (Farthing, 1992). The perception of time may be drastically altered in both dream states and entheogenic states (Solms 1997; Farthing 1992, McKenna 1992, Ott 1996).


The striking similarity of entheogenic experiences to dream experiences tempts us to seek answers as to whether the benefits of dreaming are potentially linked to the benefits of entheogens. The molecular action of visions produced by dreaming is quite possibly very similar to visions produced by entheogenic drugs. Carefully designed research could lend great insight into the mystery of dreaming, the potential therapeutic value of entheogens, and the potential for neurochemical advances.


It has been well established since the 1960s that the entheogens act primarily through the serotonin (5-hydroxy-tryptamine, or 5HT) class of receptors. (Aghajanian 1994, Ott 1996). More recent findings have added that the phenethylamine (mescaline) and the tryptamine (psilocybine) entheogens act through a common pathway. Namely, through highly potent agonist action at the 5HT-2 receptor (Aghajanian1994; Vollenweider 1998; Lyon et al. 1988). The net effect is the relative activation of 5-HT2 subtype compared to all other 5-HT receptors. (Aghajanian1994; Vollenweider 1998; Lyon et al. 1988). It is the relative increase in activation of the 5HT-2 receptors that is primarily responsible for the altered perceptions and emotions that result from the entheogenic drugs in discussion (Aghajanian, 1994).


Serotonin has also been known for some time to play a role in sleep regulation. Numerous recent findings specifically implicate the 5-HT1 and 5-HT2 receptors in regulating sleep (Pastel et al. 1993; Sommerfelt et al. 1993, Tortella et al. 1989; Sharpley et al. 1994, 1990; Dijk et al. 1989; Kirov et al. 1995; Seifritz et al. 1996; Loas 1991). Sleep studies monitoring the effects of selective 5-HT1 and 5-HT2 agonists and antagonists administration in humans and laboratory animals have had impressive findings. It has been shown that the post-synaptic stimulation of 5HT1A receptors suppress REM sleep and increase slow wave (NREM) sleep in humans and laboratory animals (Seifritz et al. 1996; Loas 1991). Additionally, recent evidence establishes that antagonists at the 5HT2 receptors caused identical disruptions in sleeping pattern (Pastel et al. 1993; Sommerfelt et al. 1993, Tortella et al. 1989; Sharpley et al. 1994, 1990; Dijk et al. 1989; Kirov et al. 1995). In other words, when the relative activation of 5-HT2 to 5-HT1 was reduced, REM sleep (where the longest and most vivid dreams take place) was suppressed. Therefore, the relative activation of 5HT2 pathways compared to other 5HT pathways is implicated in REM sleep activation. The subjective experience of dreaming is likely a result of that activation, much like the pathway responsible for the effects of entheogenic drugs.


Additional evidence implicating 5HT2 pathways in dream activation come from selective REM sleep deprivation studies. As stated before, vivid dreams may occur in any stage of sleep but the majority of long, detailed, vivid dreams occur in REM sleep. REM deprivation studies are as close as we have come to identifying the physiological need for dreaming in humans. In Dement's pioneering study (1960) of REM deprivation (Farthing 1992) subjects were awakened when entering REM sleep and not allowed to return to sleep for several minutes (to ensure that subjects required full progression through the stages of NREM sleep before reentering REM). The experiment noted several interesting findings. The first of which was an attempt for the subject to enter REM sleep almost twice as often as control subjects, suggesting a drive or need to enter REM stage. A second finding is an REM "rebound effect", or a large increase in total REM sleep time when subjects were permitted to sleep undisturbed after REM deprivation (Farthing, 1980).


This data suggests a need for REM sleep but does not suggest what that need is. The most interesting findings are the symptoms of REM sleep deprivation (note that these subjects had full nights of sleep, but no REM sleep): Anxiety, irritability, difficulty concentrating, increased appetite, and even (although rare) daytime hallucinations. Attempts to reproduce these findings, however, have had limited success. An explanation for this is that dreams take place in other sleep stages. As such, it is currently impossible to conduct studies on total dream deprivation. Let's consider the findings briefly with the understanding that the data is marginal and that very little dream deprivation data exists. In a separate study, knockout mice lacking the 5-HT2C receptor experienced increased appetite and overeating, implicating the receptor in appetite suppression. (Tecott et al. 1995). REM deprived patients also exhibited increased appetite; possibly due to the subjects' decreased activation of 5-HT2 pathways that would normally occur during REM sleep and vivid dreaming. The other mood disturbances could also be a function of under-activation of the 5-HT2 pathways. It is possible that the entheogens could prove useful in therapy to treat the mood disturbances that surface in REM-deprived patients. Anxiety, irritability and difficulty concentrating are common withdrawal symptoms from various addictions, suggesting the potential clinical use for entheogens in substance abuse treatment. Evidence for the clinical value of entheogens in treating alcoholism has been demonstrated (Ott, 1996).


The data at this point is admittedly modest. It is provocative enough, however, to encourage further research on the subject. The relaxing of legal restrictions on entheogen research would contribute to the collection of quality data on the subject. Dreaming studies that administer entheogens and other powerful 5HT-2 agonists should prove useful in explaining dream/entheogen induced visions. Additionally, methods that allow for complete dream deprivation studies and scanning studies that monitor the activity of 5-HT pathways while the subject is dreaming could prove useful.


Lucid dreamers may be valuable subjects in the study of 5HT2's role in dream-induced visions. Conscious awareness enters the dreamer's world during lucid dreaming: The dreamer is aware that he is dreaming, usually triggered by an especially unusual dream occurrence where the dreamer 'realizes' that he must be dreaming (by flying, breathing under water, etc.) (Farthing, 1992). Lucid dreamers often exert voluntary control over the contents of the dream and its direction, much like entheogen user. Some lucid dreamers have the ability to signal to experimenters that they are dreaming, usually through specific pre-established eye movements or fist clenches (Farthing, 1992). This form of subject signaling from could allow researchers to identify neurochemical markers unique to dreaming, regardless of sleep stage. This knowledge could be valuable in labeled 5-HT scanning studies mapping the activation of 5HT2 pathways and regional differences in brain activity that are specific to dreaming, as opposed to the current and more crude measures specific to REM sleep. Research embracing advanced methods will likely continue to unlock the mysteries of the neurochemical mechanisms of both dreaming and visionary entheogens. The results of such research has profound potential for clinical treatments ranging from mental disorders to addictions as well as the advancement of our understanding of dreams.


We are all familiar with the experiences of dream induced visions. They vary in intensity and we are somehow prevented by neurochemical mechanisms from remembering and controlling them. Most people will find that with effort dreams may become easier to remember and easier to control (Farthing, 1992). Those who enjoy lucid dreaming add element of conscious power and control to sleep-induced, 5HT-2 pathway activation. The conscious control is essentially a cortical "breakthrough" in the inhibitory mechanisms of sleep. Entheogenic drugs trigger visions of striking similarity to dreams through similar brain mechanisms. Entheogens allow for "visions" like those of dreaming with one crucial difference: The inhibitory mechanisms of sleep that prevent control of our dreams as well as prevent their recollection are absent. Entheogens induce the mental liberation of dream states while simultaneously permitting conscious control and environmental stimulation. Whereas in dreams one is afforded only modest environmental input (i.e. alarm clock) and modest control (some in lucid dreaming), entheogenic drugs allow dreaming with the conscious control, memory in tact, and environmental cues as powerful as when awake. It is no surprise that many users of entheogenic drugs report the emotional significance, spiritual clarity, and dissolution of the common ego as a liberating and renewing experience.


Entheogenic drugs and dreams alike have a special place in the evolution of humankind and its value systems. Profound musical inspirations and scientific discoveries of the past century have even been inspired by them. Our ancestors religious views and values were influenced by their faith in visions communicated by entheogenic drugs and dreams. In an age of environmental destruction and moral erosion, the knowledge afforded by dream and entheogen induced visions could not be more valuable. Let us hope that our culture is fortunate enough to open our minds and build on the mysteries our ancestors have explored for ages.

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