I keep thinking about the links between mind-altering substances, reality and the afterlife. In honour of dr. Bruce Greyson, who is actually doing research on the similarities between near-death experiences and psychedelics, I want to raise the question: are these drugs really ‘altering’ the way our brain works, or are they ‘opening’ the spectrum of what we can perceive?
Mind-altering or mind-expanding?
In the dutch language, we call psychedelics ‘mind-expanding’ substances, translated literally. This assumes that they don’t mislead us, but open up our brain to another world, different concepts, or maybe another dimension. Are the dutch up to something, or are we just disagreeing on semantics here?
Dr. Bruce Greyson seems to suspect the former. Because in his studies, he already has proven that people who go through near-death experiences, all talk about some of the same places or concepts when they come back alive. He differentiates the interpretations of what they saw according to different cultures, i.e. a Christian may describe what he saw as God or the heavens, while an atheist describes ‘a light, warming presence’ or ‘the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen’.
You can easily argue, as dr. Bruce Greyson does, that they actually saw a very similar thing, but their cultivated minds interpreted and explained the same concepts differently – inevitably matching their current world views- once back in their human form.
The curiosity of his research on psychedelics is this: could the place we see, and the things we feel when we take these substances, in (this or another) reality be the same place and things we experience when we die? And this question really, really does keep me up at night.
Especially when I hear friends seeing the same ‘imaginary’ things while using substances, without being able to communicate with each other. Could these be the same similarities that different people who survived near-death experiences describe? Could they all somehow have opened a (the same?) door that normally stays closed? I once asked my friend (as I have never used psychedelics before) whether it feels like you’re being deceived, or whether it feels like you’re actually seeing stuff that is always there, but you’re only now seeing. She whole-heartedly said the latter. For example, people often claim to see how everything in nature is connected – which matches my worldview even sober.
I think this possibility plays on my mind a lot because it’s such a bold suggestion. But, if we one day prove this to be true, it has far-reaching consequences. Not only then have we proven that there is something called an afterlife, but we can also then suggest that this place and experience is not only granted after death, but we can also ‘visit’ this ‘place’ while still being alive – through the use of psychedelics!
Un-learning to see
There is one thing I want to add to this thought experiment. The things that substance users or the survivors of near-death experiences try to describe, I sometimes recognise in children. Young children often claim to see things that we cannot see. They talk to lost relatives, see imaginary friends and sometimes describe the reality of a simple house or street completely different from adults.
When we remember the dutch description of psychedelics as ‘mind-expanding’, could it be that this expansive state is actually our natural state, and that we narrow our mind down as we grow older (for obvious reasons such as saving brain energy, order in the chaos, focus on survival)? Could it be that we unlearn to see the abundance of the world, the fullness of reality, the extravagance of the universe as adults? And could the afterlife and psychedelics be a remedy for this all?
If yes, I would love to learn to do this in the now, without any substance. Could that be a part of the future? I’d love to hear your opinion.