The facts reported in the study
Let’s focus on the question above and see what the study has to say about it. The researchers first show that a localized increase in cerebral blood flow (CBF) does happen in the visual cortex of the subjects. This is shown in Figure 1 of the paper, which I link below for ease of reference. The third row of images (from the top) shows the CBF difference between placebo and LSD. The small red dots at the back of the brain show the increase in CBF.
Naturally, CBF is not brain activity; it only tends to correlate with it. In previous studies, the team has found only reductions in CBF when the subjects were exposed to psilocybin, so this seems to be a discrepancy. Here is how the paper explains it:
One must be cautious of proxy measures of neural activity (that lack temporal resolution), such as CBF … lest the relationship between these measures, and the underlying neural activity they are assumed to index, be confounded by extraneous factors, such as a direct vascular action of the drug.
The paper also suggests that magnetoencephalography (MEG) is a more reliable method for measuring actual brain activity because, unlike CBF, it measures brain activity directly. They write:
Rather than speculate on the above-mentioned discrepancy, it may be more progressive to highlight the advantages of … MEG.
If you then look at their MEG measurement results, sure enough reductions of brain activity were observed all over the brain. This is shown in their Figure 5, linked here for convenience:
Clearly, there is a whole lot of blue, which indicates broad reductions of brain activity in the LSD state, when compared to placebo. This is what the paper actually concludes, suggesting that the localized increases in CBF observed in the visual cortex may be attributable to measurement artifacts.
What the media is reporting
Images of the brain under a hallucinogenic state showed almost the entire organ lit up with activity.
The visual cortex became much more active with the rest of the brain, and blood flow to visual regions also increased.
Huh?! “Much more active”?! This is not said anywhere in the paper. Localized increases in blood flow, as we’ve seen above, were indeed observed, but the researchers themselves do not conclude that this means an actual increase in brain activity, let alone the visual cortex becoming “much more active.”
What’s going on?
What is behind all this
The Guardian article sheds some light on what’s happening here. Out of the five figures used in the original research paper, the Guardian chose to display this one in their article:
Well, not quite. They’ve removed all references to what the figure is actually meant to show (“V1 RSFC”), as you can see in the edited version they published. How interesting. The figure caption they added is even more peculiar:
A second image shows different sections of the brain, either on placebo, or under the influence of LSD (lots of orange).
Not only does this caption fail to mention what the figure is actually showing, it adds the evocative “lots of orange,” as if it were clear what all this ‘orange’ means. Well, it isn’t clear because the Guardian removed the explanation of what it actually means!
Let us be frank: if you were a casual reader looking at the picture, as edited and published by the Guardian, and reading its caption (“lots of orange”), what would you conclude? You would, of course, conclude that the picture shows a brain lighting up like a Christmas tree under the influence of LSD. Yet that is just about the opposite of what the technical paper says.
“What does this figure then actually mean?” I hear you ask. It’s showing the measured “resting state functional connectivity” (RSFC) in the primary visual cortex (V1), a region at the back of the brain responsible for visual processing. RSFC here is a measure of how spontaneous activity in the visual cortex correlates with activity in other parts of the brain. In other words, what the paper shows is that, although brain activity, as measured with MEG, has decreased, the activity that remains is more synchronized across brain regions. This is what the researchers were referring to when they gave the following quote to the CNN article:
When the volunteers took LSD, many additional brain areas—not just the visual cortex—contributed to visual processing.
That’s it; it’s just as simple.
How to make sense of this?
Clearly, the Guardian journalists chose one specific figure to illustrate their article (out of the five available in the original research paper) so to show a dramatic increase in something going on in the brain under the influence of LSD. Only Figure 2 of the original paper shows this, none of the four others does. The journalists also manipulated the text in the figure itself, as well as its caption, in such a way that most readers will likely interpret this something as brain activity itself. Obviously, such editing renders the message of the Guardian article much more consistent with what people expect to see under a materialist paradigm, which states that brain activity constitutes experience. I cannot pass judgment on what the motivations or intentions of the journalists were, but their choices portray the research results as confirming materialist expectations. That the results in fact do the opposite (see this essay for an explanation) is not discussed anywhere in the Guardian’s article. Why not? Why these choices?
It gets worse. The CNN article is guilty of more than just being misleading: it’s outright incorrect. To say that the results “showed almost the entire organ [i.e. the brain] lit up with activity” is sensationally wrong. The figure that likely motivated this assertion (Figure 2 of the original research paper) doesn’t show raw brain activity at all, but RSFC, which is something else.
Think about all this and make your own conclusions before reading on.
In my earlier book Brief Peeks Beyond I discussed several cases of media bias towards the materialist paradigm that are entirely analogous to the above. I dedicate a long essay to an analysis of how earlier results from the same group behind the LSD study above were misrepresented not only by the media, but by one of the researchers himself (this last statement may sound incredible, but I substantiate it abundantly in the book and stand by my conclusion). Here is how I prefaced the essay in the book:
The most vexing aspect of nature from a materialist perspective happens to also be the only carrier of reality anyone can ever know: consciousness itself. Indeed, materialism would make a lot more sense if consciousness didn’t exist at all; if the entire universe consisted simply in the mechanical unfolding of unconscious processes. Clearly, it doesn’t. So how could a metaphysics that fails to explain – even in principle – the one obvious aspect of existence attain, and maintain, the status of reigning worldview? Many indications are provided in the essays of this chapter. … essay 3.5 discusses the effects of psychedelics on the human brain, as well as their implications for the materialist axiom that the brain generates all experience. This essay was the most unsettling for me to research and write, for reasons that will become clear to you after you’ve read it. For a while, in the interest of avoiding polemic, I considered not including it in this book. Yet, precisely for the reason it is so upsetting to me, essay 3.5 is probably one of the most illustrative of the overall message of this work.
With the repeat of this kind of media bias I witnessed today, I am glad I included it. That essay has now gained renewed relevance and importance, and I urge all people interested in these psychedelic studies to peruse it carefully.
Having analyzed a number of cases of materialist-biased misrepresentation and false attributions by the media, the book reaches a broader conclusion:
Materialism serves powerful economic and political interests. ‘If our confusion suits the reigning political and economic regime just fine, it is because it stands as proof that the operation to supplant the dream-space of soul and psyche with a fully controllable interface is going according to plan,’ writes Jean-Francois Martel. What forces stand to gain from the continuance of materialism? How do these forces manifest themselves in society?
Questions like these evoke the idea of conspiracies. Yet, our ordinary view of conspiracies tends to be rather caricatural: secret, powerful organizations working behind the curtain, whose goals and actions are deliberately orchestrated by hierarchies of control with an elusive leadership at the top. Secret meetings are allegedly held, secret orders issued and disseminated through myriad covert channels. Everybody in a position of any significance in society is allegedly involved; everybody except us. How likely is all this? You see, this caricatural view of conspiracies helps to protect and preserve what is really going on. If our only choice is to either believe in the caricature or absolve all players of all guilt, it is easy to see how the world is kept entranced.
It has become practically impossible to reclaim the more moderate denotations of the word ‘conspiracy.’ So let me try a different word: stigmergy. Stigmergy happens when agents co-ordinate their actions indirectly, through the local effects of their behavior in the environment. These local effects influence subsequent actions by other agents, whose effects, in turn, influence the behavior of yet other agents, and so on. This way, local actions by different agents reinforce and build upon each other, leading to the spontaneous rise of globally co-ordinated, systematic activity. Ant and termite colonies, for instance, operate according to stigmergy: there’s no hierarchy of control, no elusive leadership, no broadcasting of secret orders. Yet, the resulting behavior is systematic – following a clear global agenda – as if it were centrally co-ordinated by some kind of secret cabal. It manifests itself as a broad network of subtle local actions, biases and values, each serving powerful interests. These local dynamics build up into a system of global reinforcement; a virtual cabal, so to speak. The stigmergy has turned most of us into entranced drones, serving a mad state of affairs that is slowly but inexorably killing our humanity.
While reading this essay, you’re thinking more critically about this specific study. But how many similar articles about other studies have you casually read over the years? How many of your implicit beliefs and convictions today – ‘facts’ you take for granted – have been subtly created through exposure to similarly misleading hype? Scary, isn’t it?