Psychedelics and Consciousness: Distinctions, Demarcations, and Opportunities

Psychedelic substances produce unusual and compelling changes in conscious experience that have prompted some to propose that psychedelics may provide unique insights explaining the nature of consciousness. At present, psychedelics, like other current scientific tools and methods, seem unlikely to provide information relevant to the so-called “hard problem of consciousness,” which involves explaining how first-person experience can emerge. However, psychedelics bear on multiple “easy problems of consciousness,” which involve relations between subjectivity, brain function, and behavior. In this review, we discuss common meanings of the term “consciousness” when used with regard to psychedelics and consider some models of the effects of psychedelics on the brain that have also been associated with explanatory claims about consciousness. We conclude by calling for epistemic humility regarding the potential for psychedelic research to aid in explaining the hard problem of consciousness while pointing to ways in which psychedelics may advance the study of many specific aspects of consciousness.