Biology 202
2000 Third Web Report
On Serendip

Reification and Hallucinations

Andrew Jordan

Presumably, as students, we have all experienced the intellectual rush that occurs when we think we have gotten a new insight into something happening in our classes, or in our day to day lives, or in a paper that we are writing etc. The insight could be a connection between two or more conceptualizations, as when we finally understand or grasp some intellectual turn, or between a conceptualization and some sort of sensory input, as in when we see something in a new light, or perhaps any of a number of other things. In all cases though, something clicks into place. A connection which was formerly unclear becomes clear and seems "right". I will call this phenomenon the reification phenomenon, because in some sense what is happening in cases of "things clicking into place" is that a connection or an insight becomes real.

My goal in this paper is to address the issue of reification by asking the question of what might be at play in instances when people become convinced of the reality of sensory intuitions or conceptual connections. In exploring this issue I will be focussing on the phenomenon of hallucination through psychosis and the use of hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD and Psilocybin. As a disclaimer, let me say that little work seems to have been done in what I would call cognitive neurobiology, that is a study which starts with phenomenologically described psychological states (such as my characterization of the reification phenomenon) and then attempts to find biological correlates for those phenomenologically described states. Most neurobiological descriptions begin by looking at a physically or biologically described phenomenon, and then considering possible implications of the physical description for our psychological states. The obvious problem in the kind of discourse that attempts to find physical correlates to phenomenologically/psychologically described states is in deciding which phenomenological accounts to use. An objectively described experience may not be fundamentally different between any two persons experiencing a psychotic, or hallucinatory episode, however, their descriptions and interpretations of those episodes will rely heavily on the linguistic and conceptual tools they presently have at hand to describe the phenomenon. Kant might differently describe a reaction to hallucinogens than John Paul Sartre. The advantage of beginning with biological descriptions is of course that we need not worry about problems of interpretation. However, the disadvantage of merely biological descriptions is that it can be hard to see exactly how a description of neurons and chemicals relates to a cognitive state. The advantage of starting with phenomenological descriptions is that the conclusions can then be immediately relevant to our personal cognitive lives.

In writing this, I interviewed a handful of people asking them to describe hallucinatory experiences, both drug induced, and due to non-drug induced psychotic episodes. My goal is to work from their phenomenological descriptions toward a better understanding of where we might want to look in a further biological investigation of the reification phenomenon.

Racer X's response concerning an LSD induced experience: "Once, while eating Sunday night dinner with my family, I began to hallucinate that a flame from one of the candles on the dinner table was leaping over my head and igniting the back of my neck. I did not actually see the flame make this unlikely leap, but I somehow sensed and even knew (or thought I knew) that this strange event was occurring. Each time I sensed the flame leap, I would immediately feel a warm, tingling sensation on the back of my neck that I could dispel by turning around or by placing my hand on the warm spot."

It was this description that actually sparked my interest in the possibility of their being a reification function in the brain. It seems that the most obvious way to test whether a cognitive belief is real, is to go and look or listen to some sensory input (provided of course it is a cognitive state dealing with a physical sensible object). In Racer X's response, however, we have a case where no amount of "looking" could actually dispel the hallucination or de-reify the idea that the flame was somehow jumping off the table. He claimed to not have actually seen the flame do anything. At the same time, however, other sensations in his own body (the warm feeling on the back of his neck) indicated that his sensations of internal phenomenon were responding to his cognitive understanding of the situation and not his visual sensation of reality.

Another respondent, "Cactus Jack", described a psychotic episode which I think correlates well with the above description.

"I would often have boring, fairly transparent hallucinations. They were about as spectral as the rest of the world seemed to me then. But they seemed quite moot, just sitting there, ignored in my field of vision (or hearing) until they went away. I remember one day seeing a Christmas tree, in full regalia, sitting in front of me in my living room. My brain tried to process it as "Christmas tree," then said "there is no Christmas tree in front of me" and laughed it off. However, the image persisted for about twenty seconds. I went about my cognitive business, constantly brushing aside what was, for all intents and purposes, the sensory equivalent of a Christmas tree. But it had no cognitive claim on me. After that initial dismissal of it, it just hung in the air, flaccid, meaningless, incommensurate with the surroundings in much the way that weeds are not considered to be part of the proud landscape proper"

Unlike Racer X's hallucination, which was merely cognitive, Cactus Jack's description is one in which visual perception was actually changed. However, his sensation of a Christmas tree did not have cognitive significance for him. The hallucination was not reified, but merely figured into a background of sensations.

One final respondent, Mr. T, gave a more general characterization of hallucinatory experiences induced by Psilocybin. His characterization was that certain things which are typically just cognitive phenomenon "felt" as if they were somehow objectively "out there" in the world. Especially experiences of human emotions in others such as sadness anger and timidity seemed to take on a more objective character such that someone might actually look timid for instance. He claimed that at the time of the hallucinatory experience he felt he had a more objective insight into peoples emotional states and dispositions because the insights didn't feel like mere interpretations of behaviors but seemed to be "out there" even though fundamentally the sensations were not different. "They (other people) looked to me to be timid in much the same way that something might look to me to be red". Other studies have shown that upon using Hallucinatory drugs, users "visualize objects previously seen or imagined" (1)..

Admittedly, three responses are not enough to draw any significant conclusions about how reification figures into a picture of the human brain. These three responses do however indicate that perhaps cognitive states trump sensory input when it comes to our claims about what is real. For that reason, looking to the linguistic centers of the brain would be a good place to start in looking at how things are reified, as language is the most obvious articulation of our conceptual capacities (some might even argue that language is what enables our conceptual capacities).

A brief biological description of the role of psilocybin and LSD will be necessary at this juncture. Psilocybin and LSD are both chemicals that in many ways resemble the neurotransmitter serotonin. (2).The two drugs therefore can bond to the same receptor sights as serotonin. LSD has been shown to bond more readily to serotonin receptor sights specifically the post-synaptic 5ht-2 sights than serotonin itself, but is less effective in playing the inhibitory role that serotonin plays on these sights. Therefore, though LSD is an inhibitor, when compared to naturally occurring Serotonin it actually functions to stimulate the neuron to which it is bound. (3).Psilocybin, also binds at 5ht-2 receptor sights, and it can be inferred that it functions similarly to LSD. (4).

The regions of the brain that have the greatest density of serotonin receptor sights are the locus coeruleus, the Raphe Nuclei and certain areas of the cerebral cortex. (3). The locus coeruleus has been shown to have an effect on perception of changes in the environment, while the Raphe Nuclei has a role in regulating levels of sensory input perhaps prohibiting over-stimulation. (1).. It is possible that because LSD and Psilocybin act agonistically in these regions of the brain that the users of these drugs experience heightened sensory awareness and possible hallucinations.

There is also some indication that serotonin plays a role in language (3).Studies on autistic children have shown that areas of the left side of the brain responsible for language exhibit lower levels of serotonin than normal, which might partially explain the problems in linguistic development that autistic children encounter. (5).There are also hypotheses that Serotonin might play some role in Schizophrenia. This hypothesis was first considered in the 1950's when it was realized that people using the drug LSD exhibited similar psychological states to people suffering from schizophrenia, and that LSD was chemically similar to serotonin. (6). Schizophrenia is a disease characterized by disorganization of speech, and of cognitive function. People suffering from schizophrenia often have difficulty getting concepts to "stick" to objects. The respondent Cactus Jack describes the life of the Schizophrenic as a world of concepts that have less or no bearing on an extra-conceptual reality. Also, early onset schizophrenia in children often leads to improper language development. A National Institute of Mental Health study concluded that over 50% of child onset schizophrenics exhibited delayed language development. This is another indicator of a possible connection between serotonin and language. (7).

In the descriptions of hallucinatory experiences, which I collected, it seemed that it was the cognitive or linguistic connections that were drawn rather than the sensory stimulation which lead the hallucinating subject to believe that their experience was somehow "real". These cognitive connections did not require sensory input to back them up, which has interesting implications for the respective roles of sensation and cognitive understanding in our grasp of reality. In some sense it seems that sensory input takes a secondary role in our grasp on reality. If the hypothesis that serotonin plays a large role in language use and acquisition holds up, then looking to serotonin receptors especially in the linguistic centers of the brain might be a good place to start in attempting to find a biological explanation of the reification phenomenon. It is generally agreed that LSD and other related hallucinogenic substances have a significant effect on our ability to conceptualize, and on our ability to relate concepts to external objects. Since serotonin seems to bond to similar sights as LSD and Psilocybin, and many of these sights figure into language use, then there may be some indication that human's use of language figures in some significant way into our ability to conceptualize.

WWW Sources


2)DR. Albert Hoffman,

3)The Effect of LSD on the Human Brain,

4)Clinical Research,

5)Antidepressant therapy may aid autistic children,

6)The Neurophysiology of Schizophrenia: Etiology and Psychopharmacological Treatment,

7)Understanding Schizophrenia: A Guide for People with Schizophrenia and Their Families,

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