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LSD, Magic Mushrooms, and “Tripping All the Time”

By Deepak Chopra, MD

A new wave of medical interest surrounds the potential value of psychedelic drugs, spurred by a through, sensible review of a once-taboo subject by Michael Pollen in his first-person account, How to Change Your Mind.  For hallucinogens to resurface was a “come out, come out, wherever you are” proposition. LSD, magic mushrooms, and mescaline had their day in the Sixties and came out of it badly tarnished. Leaving aside various anti-drug laws largely prompted by fear, a medical researcher who looked into psychedelics would face censure, perhaps career-ending censure. At the very least such research wasn’t taken very seriously.

 

The general view of psychedelics has been that they are potentially unsafe and medically useless. What has changed this conventional wisdom is deeper knowledge of the brain. In particular, the area of the brain that seems to cause the mind-altering effect of LSD and company is the so-called Default Mode Network (DMN), a collection of regions in the higher brain that organizes and regulates a wide range of brain activity. The DMN filters out the flood of information that bombards the brain every day, selecting and controlling our response to the world.

 

Instead of feeling overwhelmed by stimuli, we approach life with a balance of judgment, experience, and self-interest. The DMN has been called the “me” network, because it functions in the brain the way the ego functions in psychology, tamping down irrational impulses and keeping them in check while organizing a balanced adult self.

 

The DMN doesn’t develop until around age five, and in the words of a current psychedelic researcher, before that age babies and young children are “tripping all the time.” They possess what the English writer Aldous Huxley called “Mind at Large.” This sounded desirable to Huxley, who was an early champion of guided psychedelic trips, because Mind at Large implies expanded consciousness, as opposed to the “reducing valve,” Huxley’s term for how we filter and obstruct all kinds of neural input.

 

To make this view respectable, psychedelics had to get past their hippie image, and brain scans proved to be the key. It is conjectured that the DMN, although totally necessary so that we aren’t tripping all the time, has a downside. Over time its automatic (i.e., default) responses become ingrained and rigid. On the one hand that may account for the stubborn narrow-mindedness associated with growing old, while on the other there may be a therapeutic tie-ins to disorders like anxiety, depression, and addiction.

By releasing the hold of the DMN, it is conjectured, psychedelics allow for an opening to altering brain function among people with these disorders. Pollen’s book should be read to get the complete story about the future promise of psychedelics. Particularly intriguing is the use of “micro-dosing,” in which tiny amounts of a psychedelic are taken, enough to loosen the grip of the DMN but not altering normal thinking. The hope is that instead of altering the mind in a drastic, trippy way, micro-dosing permits self-awareness to observe and reflect upon beneficial possibilities that a person cannot access under normal conditions.

 

All of this sounds intriguing, and every researcher makes it clear that the use of psychedelics needs to be monitored and guided—guided trips were Huxley’s preference decades ago. But the respectability lent by brain scans also contains a flaw. To a neuroscientist, the DMN is like the adult in the room, a brain region that keeps the wilder, more primitive impulses at bay. Thus a specialized group of cells has taken over the exact function Freud assigned to the ego.

 

That’s typical of our age, where psychiatry is highly dependent of pharmaceuticals to combat anxiety and depression, replacing years of expensive, time-consuming couch therapy, an approach that in the end didn’t benefit many patients. As therapy has become a matter of shifting molecules in the brain, so has everything else about the mind. But the notion that Brain = Mind is fallacious, just as it is fallacious to say that a piano composes music. Both are instruments and delivery systems for mind.

 

The fallacy crops up glaringly in the DMN, because if it indeed controls the balancing act that is the adult mind, who gave it such ability? How did it learn about the world in the first place? The DMN has no creator, instructor, or higher intelligence if those things are also brain-created. Researchers treat the DMN as if it was a conscious agent with flexible intentions and good judgment. Attributing such qualities to brain cells, which in their chemical composition are not drastically different form heart, liver, or skin cells, is a form of magical thinking. Clumps of chemicals don’t understand how life works, only consciousness does.

 

The pitfall of psychedelics isn’t special to them; all drugs that alter the brain run head-on into the mind-body connection. If you go in and mess around with a piano, music starts to sound distorted. To go into the most sensitive areas of the higher brain runs a similar risk, but my point isn’t to sound old alarms grounded in fear and suspicion—quite the opposite. Mind at Large contains the full range of human potential, and it can be accessed naturally through yoga, meditation, and various contemplative practices. These practices also bring beneficial brain changes, accomplishing this through the most natural of mechanisms: the mind learning to know itself.

 

The time for psychedelics to come out of the shadows is now, but if they add to the false belief that Brain = Mind, the effect will not advance what is really needed, more self-awareness.  The opposite of self-awareness is the mechanistic view that a human being is a brain puppet, an underling of neural activity whose sense of self is a figment of DMN processing. Insofar as psychedelics have medical uses, we should cheer them on. But Huxley’s insight that Mind at Large is the real issue still holds true.

Deepak Chopra MD, FACP, founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation, and is Board Certified in Internal Medicine, Endocrinology and Metabolism.  He is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians and a member of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists. Chopra is the author of more than 85 books translated into over 43 languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers. His latest books are The Healing Self co-authored with Rudy Tanzi, Ph.D. and Quantum Healing (Revised and Updated): Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine.  www.deepakchopra.com

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Is It Time to Stop Believing in Magic?

By Deepak Chopra, MD

A culture can be judged by where it spends its money. One glance at the great French cathedrals speaks of the vast sums spent on building them, which if translated into current dollars would probably dwarf modern American funding of the Apollo program to land on the moon or the Hubble telescope. Medieval churchmen allocated money for God; we allocate money for science. To us, the way we spend is rational; the way they spent wasn’t.

 

Money follows history, and history follows money. The medieval world saw reality in terms of God, angles, souls, etc., which to a modern skeptic is magical thinking. Having pushed that worldview into a small corner of modern Western society, we prefer hard realities, and therefore a pittance goes to religion and philosophy while mountains of money go to science and technology. There’s no room for magical thinking anymore, and it’s no surprise that in rising economies like India and China, up to 80% of college graduates, among the men, are engineers.

 

But this picture of magic versus realism covers up a blind spot. A world like ours, organized around science and technology, indulges in its own version of magical thinking. In fact we are all entangled in it, and every day we make decisions that are based on unexamined assumptions about reality. Here are some of the leading magical beliefs that most people accept:

  • The universe is made of solid physical objects.
  • A body is a fixed object in time and space.
  • The body has sensations.
  • The brain does our thinking for us.
  • It takes only the brain to explain the mind.

 

The last time anyone with a major public personality tried to persuade people that these beliefs had no basis in reality was probably the British philosopher Bertrand Russell in his 1927 book, The Analysis of Matter. In it, Russell thoroughly exploded the notion that the sequence of physical events that make up the body and brain have any relationship to the emergence of mind, or as he narrowed it down, sensations. The atoms and molecules that participate in building a body/brain don’t have sensations. Atoms don’t feel anything. Therefore, Russell, said, it must be considered miraculous that the end product of atoms and molecules should feel anything.

 

Miracles were not acceptable to a mathematical philosopher like Russell, and he proposed a neutral stance. If it is magical thinking to believe that atoms and molecules cause us to have sensations, it is equally miraculous to think that a mind can create physical objects. The answer, according to Russell, was to claim neither notion. The basic, irreducible ground state of everything isn’t mind or matter. (I’m skimming a complex subject here. For details, see the article on “neutral monism” online at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

 

An explanation that rules out mind as the creator of the universe but also matter as the creator of mind is a negative philosophy—and that won’t do. Thinkers have sought a positive philosophy that will actually explain where mind and matter came from. At the moment, everyone’s experience is that there is a huge, unbridgeable gap between mind and matter. In an effort to close the gap, every thinker wants to be realistic. The medieval Christian notion that God created the world shifted the problem to a divine agency. Some scholastics went so far as to believe that everything in the world was taking place in God’s mind; we were part of his dream.

 

With no divine mind to rely upon, closing the mind-matter gap has been enormously difficult. Literally every possible answer has been proposed. Today’s fashion is for creating mind and matter out of information as the basic “stuff” of creation, or by giving every object a mind, which is known as panpsychism. But in this scramble to reconcile mind and matter, it is first necessary to accept the negative points made by Russell (among others). These negative points briskly clear the air.

  1. The universe is not made of solid, fixed physical objects.
  2. The body is not fixed in time and space.
  3. The body has no sensations.
  4. The brain does not think.
  5. The brain is not enough to explain the mind.

These statements don’t actually tell us what lies at the basis of mind and matter, but they accomplish something almost as important: they dispel magical thinking. If you try to counter any of these statements, not through blind belief but through reason, you can’t. There is no point in the evolution of the cosmos where anyone can say atoms and molecules started to think, feel, and have sensations, and yet we assume that. There is the riddle, the mystery, the miracle. If you believe that your body feels heat and cold, if you believe that your brain remembers your last birthday, if you think granite is a solid object—in other words, if you participate in magical thinking—you are not on the road to finding out what is actually real.

 

Let’s say, contrary to the current habit of accepting all of these false beliefs, that you acknowledge Russell’s negative points—then what? The door is open to getting real. What lies through the door is worth the journey it takes to get there. But looking around, one sees most people satisfied to accept the magical thinking of the conventional world because they don’t realize there is a practical alternative — an experience of reality that is experienced directly. Few people, by comparison, spend personal time, effort, and thought (it’s not a question of money) in discovering the nature of reality.

 

I don’t need to repeat my own position, which is that consciousness lies at the heart of creation. Consciousness isn’t the same as mind. Mind is active while consciousness is a silent field of pure potential. Consciousness isn’t physical. It has the potential to transform into physicality as well as mentality. In say these things, I accept the neutral position that Russell outlined, because without a doubt all of his negative points are correct. There is a common source for both mind and matter that isn’t mind or matter (Russell’s basic point). To take the next step, turning a negative philosophy into a positive one, the journey leads to consciousness, nowhere else.

Deepak Chopra MD, FACP, founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation, and is Board Certified in Internal Medicine, Endocrinology and Metabolism.  He is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians and a member of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists. Chopra is the author of more than 85 books translated into over 43 languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers. His latest books are The Healing Self co-authored with Rudy Tanzi, Ph.D. and Quantum Healing (Revised and Updated): Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine.  www.deepakchopra.com

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The Light of Love

Who are we? What is our purpose? These are some of the greatest questions that humanity has been asking since the beginning of time. Searching for the answer, we have forgotten about ourselves in the process. We are walking around earth on autopilot, numb to our surroundings, searching outwardly for something that resides inside of us.

 

 

Listen to the Madness of Rumi

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The Invaluable Skill of Paying Attention

By Deepak Chopra, MD

There’s a common grumble, generally directed at the young, that they are constantly distracted by texting, video games, and other ways to stop paying attention. But few of us have truly mastered the skill of paying attention, or even realize that it is a skill. This is because we haven’t looked deeply into how awareness works.

Attention, which is another way of describing focused awareness, is important because whatever you pay attention to grows in importance and significance. If you focus on your job, your relationship, or a favorite hobby, your attention nourishes a feedback loop–you become better at what you pay attention to. Your brain strengthens or weakens in specific areas depending on the input it receives, and paying attention provides concentrated input.  Attention can’t be faked or forced. When a schoolteacher scolds an unruly class with, “Pay attention, people!” he may get results for a few minutes, but the demand loses its effect very quickly.  Asking a restless mind to settle down and pay attention is even more futile.  The secret is to know how attention can be mastered.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are some basic requirements to be met. The first is being centered, the skill we covered to begin this series of posts. Distraction is self-defeating. Second, your awareness focuses naturally when you have a desire.  We focus on what we want.  Third, attention works best when combined with intention – envisioning a way to fulfill your desire.  When the three ingredients come together – you are centered, you have a desire, you intend to fulfill your desire – attention becomes extremely powerful.  The tale is told by anyone who has fallen in love at first sight; it’s the definition of laser focus.  But for some people the same focused attention applies to ambition, money, and power.

Attention becomes more elevated when you focus on objects of a deeper inner longing. Almost everyone has wondered “Who am I?” but the people who actually find out are driven by a desire to know. This desire is as strong as other people’s desire for more money, status, and power. If you ask spiritual questions casually, they amount to very little. God could send you a telegram with the answers and it wouldn’t change your life. The path must be driven by desire.  Let’s say that you experience a moment of inner peace that has arrived without expectation. It’s just there, appearing in the midst of an ordinary day.

 You might casually notice it, or a train of thought could begin, as follows:

  • I’m at peace. How unusual. I like this.
  • I wonder where it came from.
  • I want to find out, because it would be good to be at peace more often.
  • I’m going to follow this experience up. It’s too valuable to forget.

This is a natural train of thought, and every self-aware person I know has followed it, not necessarily from a moment of inner peace. Some have experienced sudden joy; others felt protected and looked after; a few sensed a spiritual presence that caught them totally by surprise.  What they had in common was that they really paid attention to their experience. The process can be simplified into three steps. The next time you have an inner experience of peace, joy, love, inspiration, or insight, pause for a moment.

Step 1: Notice what is happening. Sit quietly without distraction. Soak up the experience without commenting or interrupting it.

Step 2:  As the moment fades, don’t rush away from it.  Consider how significant it is.  Put the significance into context, reflecting on how different you feel from your ordinary self.

Step 3: Make the experience valuable.  Consider how transformed your life would be if you could repeat the experience. Even more, think about a life filled with joy, peace, and love. See it in your mind’s eye; feel how beautiful your life would become.

In these three steps you are activating the emotional brain and the cortex, or higher brain, the first by fully feeling your experience, the second by applying thought and reflection.  This is how dreams come true.  You combine a vision of possibilities with the kind of focused intention that creates new pathways in the brain. The world “in here” is connected always to the world “out there.” You can’t seize an opportunity without being aware of it; you can’t nourish a new possibility without wanting to.  When awareness, desire, and intention come together, you are mastering the skill of paying attention.

 

(Originally published by The San Francisco Chronicle)

 

Deepak Chopra MD, FACP, founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation, and is Board Certified in Internal Medicine, Endocrinology and Metabolism.  He is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians and a member of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists. Chopra is the author of more than 85 books translated into over 43 languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers. His latest books are The Healing Self co-authored with Rudy Tanzi, Ph.D. and Quantum Healing (Revised and Updated): Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine.  www.deepakchopra.com

 

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Expanded Awareness: Turning the Tables on Your Brain

By Deepak Chopra, MD

Sometimes the enormous success of science leads to some wrong assumptions. In the case of brain science, the advent of sophisticated brain scans opened a window to the brain as never before. It used to be said that figuring out the human brain was like putting a stethoscope to the roof of the Astrodome to figure out the rules of baseball. That’s no longer true.

In neuroscience, as brain function becomes more and more illuminated, the assumption grows stronger that our brains control our behavior. This idea isn’t true except in a limited sense that needs to be carefully defined. There are things that your brain controls, such as the fight-or-flight response. But for the vast majority of brain functions, you have a choice how to respond. “My brain made me do it” doesn’t hold water even when it comes to things we want to blame it for.  Take mental disorders, for example. If you are depressed, there may be a family history involved, which suggests a genetic component, and the drugs to treat depression act on the brain, without a doubt. But consider the following:

  • Antidepressants often don’t work better than the placebo effect.
  • It doesn’t appear that the genetic profile of depressed people is any different from undepressed people.
  • The best basic research doesn’t indicate that serotonin levels are altered by antidepressants, or that these levels, often blamed for depression, are imbalanced in people who suffer from depression.
  • Each sufferer’s depression has its own unique profile of brain activity. There is no standard “depressed brain.”
  • A lifestyle factor like stress and bad sleep can make a major contribution to depression.

 

There is still controversy in this area, but one can reasonably say that depression isn’t a simple disease, and that its complexity is such that no straightforward cause-and-effect can yet be established. The fact that someone responds to antidepressants must be balanced by the fact that another patient won’t respond; in addition, there is the mystery of why traditional couch therapy can improve the same areas of the brain that antidepressant drugs target.

 

Likewise, the simple model for addiction, which holds that the brain causes illicit drugs like cocaine to trap the addict, should be viewed with caution. The Freudian notion that childhood traumas cause adult psychiatric problems is no more than a half truth.  Yet millions of people casually accept the assumption that their brain is in control of their behavior, as when someone says, “I’m a bit OCD” or “I have uncontrollable food cravings” or “I’m so addicted to chocolate.”

 

Several years ago I co-authored a book to turn the tables on this kind of thinking, with the noted Harvard Medical School geneticist Rudolph Tanzi.  It was called Super Brain, because we wanted to demonstrate that higher brain function is within a person’s capacity as the one who uses the brain instead of the other way around. Not just the user, either. You have the ability to inspire and guide your brain. You are not the victim of its hard wiring. The brain is a flowing, dynamic, ever-changing organ that responds, all the way down to the genetic level, to the kind of input you give it.

 

Every cell in the brain stays in balance by being incredibly sensitive to the input it receives, forming a feedback loop where input alters output.  As a result, the brain’s system of soft wiring is highly malleable, as is its ability to heal, produce new pathways, generate new cells, and send better messages to the other trillions of cells in your body. You can assert your control over your brain by becoming a better user of it, which means supplying positive input in place of negative input.

 

That’s the simplest way to put it, and by now the difference between positive and negative input isn’t a mystery. Good sleep, moderate exercise, meditation, stress reduction, a balanced diet, and the absence of toxins like alcohol and nicotine should be seen as input to the brain. But if you want to directly impact your brain to optimize its function, there are mental habits that make a huge difference.

 

Since this post has limited space, I’ll simply list these habits – they are discussed in detail in Super Brain – because they play a major role in making sure that your brain doesn’t get stuck in old pathways and functions.

  • Remain open to as much input as possible.
  • Don’t shut down the brain’s feedback loops with judgment, rigid beliefs, and prejudices.
  • Don’t censor incoming data through denial.
  • Examine other points of view as if they were your own.
  • Take possession of everything in your life. Be self-sufficient.
  • Work on psychological blocks like shame and guilt – they falsely color your reality.
  • Free yourself emotionally – to be emotionally resilient is the best defense against growing rigid.
  • Harbor no secrets – they create dark places in the psyche.
  • Be willing to redefine yourself every day.
  • Don’t be judgmental of yourself and others.
  • Don’t regret the past or fear the future. Both bring misery through self-doubt. 
  • Pay attention to one thing at a time. Avoid distractions and multitasking.
  • Cultivate self-awareness through meditation, contemplation, and self-reflection.

Life has become so materialistic that it’s easy to assume that your brain’s functioning is beyond your control, or that the strongest way to change it is through prescription drugs. The truth is far otherwise 99 percent of the time. Nothing is more powerful for changing the brain than being the best user of the brain that you can be, and hopefully you can go further to guide and inspire it.

Deepak Chopra MD, FACP, founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation, and is Board Certified in Internal Medicine, Endocrinology and Metabolism.  He is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians and a member of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists. Chopra is the author of more than 85 books translated into over 43 languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers. His latest books are The Healing Self co-authored with Rudy Tanzi, Ph.D. and Quantum Healing (Revised and Updated): Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine.  www.deepakchopra.com

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