Issue 10

Decimating the Ego: Exploring the Discourse Around Dreams, Drugs and the ‘Trip’ to Scientific Discovery

In his address for the German Chemical Society in 1890, renowned chemist August Kekule recounted how the idea of linking atoms came to him one day when he fell asleep by his window and dreamt of gambolling atoms. Twinning and twisting, the atoms morphed into a snake seizing its own tail and this image inspired Kekule’s structure of the Benzene molecule. 

Seen as divine instructions, spiritual communication and an expression of our innate desires and fears, dreams and the unconscious mind have always fascinated human civilizations. With advanced technologies in the field of neurobiology and Oneirology (i.e. the scientific study of dreams) at our disposal, modern scientists have been able to stray away from mere theories and get an actual glimpse into our dreams. A study published in the journal Science Direct On 18th February 2021, illustrated how for the first time, scientists were able to communicate with participants while they were lucid dreaming (a form of dreaming wherein the dreamer is aware that they are in a dream state and can actively participate in their dreams, interact and engage with and even modify their environment). Using electrophysiological signals, people were able to perceive questions from an experimenter and provide answers to basic yes-and-no questions and even solve elementary math problems. 

This is a major breakthrough for the scientific community as we have finally been able to get an insight into the dream state, a state of unconsciousness that has inspired many scientific discoveries like The Theory of Relativity, Theory of Evolution, The Periodic Table, etc. Srinivasa Ramanujan, the eminent, self-taught Mathematician, claimed that his formulas were presented to him in his dreams by the Hindu Goddess Namakkal. He would see visions of flowing blood (the symbolic mark of the Goddess), followed by a hand that would write various elliptic integrals. He dedicated his work to proving these theorems which led to the discovery of the infinite series, elliptical functions, the analytical theory of numbers, continued fractions, and more than 3000 mathematical theorems. 

In her book, The Committee of Sleep, Deirdre Barrett arrives at a simple explanation for why so many scientific and artistic discoveries have been inspired by dreams. It turns out when the mind intakes data while awake, it can later synthesize it and process it in an extremely efficient way while it is in an unconscious state. That’s why sometimes the best solution when facing a difficult problem is to just sleep on it

Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of the Id-Ego-Superego also helps substantiate Barrett’s theory. Although Freud’s theories have been widely contested, his ideas can still help us conceptualise the complex aspects of our conscious mind. In his essay, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Freud established that our conscious mind is made up of three elements – namely id (which is the primitive, instinctual part of the mind), ego (which is the realistic part that mediates and controls the desires of id) and the superego (which is our moral conscience). In an unconscious state, the id comes to life in the form of dreams, expressing our innate desires and primal fears, while the ego and superego are suppressed. Since there is less concern about social and moral values, dreams can often feel irrational and nonsensical, bizarre. But at the same time, this state of unconsciousness, allows us to freely explore our ideas in a new reality unbound by conventional logic and reasoning and unconstrained by rational, realistic thinking. Thus, enabling us to come up with creative solutions to complex real-life problems by providing us with the necessary conditions to look at our problems from an entirely new angle. 

Operating on the same principle as the Committee of Sleep theory, the use of psychedelic drugs have also shown a similar increase in creative thinking and problem-solving skills. Drugs such as LSD, Psilocybin, Peyote, etc. dissolve our ego and help us create new neural networks (by establishing new pathways and increasing  connectivity throughout the brain). This phenomenon, known as “ego death”, is an experience that changes the way we perceive ourselves, our personalities and how we look at the world around us. As people tend to lose their sense of self-identity they can dissociate themselves from worldly concerns and events. 

Research conducted by International Foundation for Advanced Study has shown that with the use of LSD, an astonishing number of subjects were able to achieve significant breakthroughs in their work and showed a significant improvement in three conventional creativity tests. Although there are risks associated with consuming these drugs (such as suffering from hallucinations or having a bad trip), these risks can be minimised if the drugs are taken in a controlled setting and administered under the supervision of an expert. 

Inspired by Aldous Huxley (the English writer English and philosopher), who noted his experience with psychedelic drugs in his book, The Doors of Perception, many scientists began micro-dosing on psychedelic drugs to enhance their thinking. Nobel laureate Dr Kary Banks Mullis claimed that he ‘seriously doubted’ if he would have been able to invent the PCR (i.e. a technique that facilitated easier isolation and testing of DNA) without using LSD. Other prominent scientists such as Francis Crick, the Nobel Prize winner who discovered the double-helix structure of DNA and Physicist Richard Feynman have also been known to use psychedelic drugs. Even Steve Jobs said that using LSD was “one of the two or three most important things he had done in his life.” 

Hence it is evident that there seems to be some correlation between the exhibition of higher levels of problem-solving and creative thinking skills, and our unconscious mind in the absence of ego, rationality and the laws of our reality. Although, it may take us a while before we are able to gather new and advanced empirical evidence. Psychedelic drugs defined the 1970’s era, and later, became integrated with the anti-Vietnam War movement. This led to the demonisation and stigmatization of psychedelic drugs and resulted in an immediate drop in funding for research related to psychedelic drugs. 

However, in 2020, 5 states in the U.S. legalized marijuana and this change in attitudes is credited to multiple reasons such as a decline in religious affiliation, punitiveness, and a shift in media coverage for the same. Today, organisations such as the Beckley Foundation are actively working towards conducting more research in order to understand the implications of psychedelic drugs on our minds and integrate their use in modern society. The new research projects in the field of neuroscience and the effects of psychedelic drugs, coupled with the recent breakthroughs in Oneirology, thus, hold tremendous potential for expanding our understanding of the unconscious mind and our ability to induce creative thinking.  

Ashana Mathur is a student of Economics, International Relations and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

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