The understanding of our own senses changes the way we perceive the body. The way our senses interpret surroundings provides a basis for us to comprehend how the world around us works. But what happens when bodily senses are distorted and the limits of our sensual comprehension are challenged? Can we really trust our senses and can a new relation to the body and senses be found?
It does not take much scrutiny for the trust of bodily senses to be challenged, vision for example can be tested by simply observing an image. Exploring how a still image can be perceived to be moving by our eyes questions how our senses and body interact.
Optical illusions confuse our brains, as our eyes try to tell the brain what is happening within the visual spectrum, but our eyes have limited ways of expressing to our brains what they can actually see. This means we can see colours, shapes or moving objects that aren’t actually there.
In many cases we still do not know why or how optical illusions occur, but mostly it is a miscommunication between how our visual senses and our body interact. The brain has to ‘fill in the blanks’ from the limited information provided by our eyes, most of the time when the brain does this it can mix different pieces of information together to judge distance and brightness for example. However sometimes, the language communicated from our eyes to our brain is misunderstood to make optical illusions and thus makes us scrutinise our own senses and our sensual understanding of the external world.
One Illuminating way of changing how we perceive our senses is mind altering drugs that change our conception of how we process our senses. Used throughout history for many different purposes, psychedelics alter all forms of sensual intake.
In terms of what psychedelics do to our senses, they can cause users to see images, hear sounds, and feel sensations that seem real but do not exist. In doing so users can experience sensations that are enjoyable and mentally stimulating and that produce a sense of heightened understanding. In these scenarios sensual experience is heightened allowing for new observations of how senses work, touch becomes more sensitive, sounds seem to become higher fidelity, sense of time is warped and visual hallucinations permeate vision. If our senses can be manipulated in this way, can we truly trust our senses to interpret experience?
How psychedelics work
Our brains are tricked into heightened senses by psychoactive ingredients, for example in magic mushrooms psilocybin is ingested. The body breaks it down into the active drug psilocin, which has a similar chemical structure to serotonin, meaning it can bind to and stimulate receptors in the brain. This amplified stimulation causes perception of things without any real stimulus – or hallucination.
On top of this the brain temporarily rearranges itself by inhibiting normal brain activity and immediately creating new stable brain connections. This makes it harder to determine reality from fantasy, amplifying the intensity of thought. Specific emotional regions of the brain are chemically activated, which can lead to a sense of expanding consciousness. And because temporary altered paths are generated in the brain, ‘thinking outside of the box’ becomes extremely natural.
New relation to the body
The functions of psychedelics can perform as a tool to shape a new relation to our senses. As psychedelics make the brain function differently they can shape new ways of thinking about our physical and mental functions. In terms of the physical body, mind altering substances often lead to a sense of acceptance and gratitude, this has proved helpful to those who have doubts about how they are seen by others. Psychedelics also bring awareness to the cultural and social norms of how the body is meant to be presented, as it breaks down the barriers of thought, the expected norms we apply to ourselves become less infallible allowing people to feel more comfortable with their own self image.
In the realm of mental health many studies in scientific settings have shown psychedelics to increase well being and satisfaction with life for months after consumption. Clinical testing of psychedelics has been difficult for scientists over the last decades as many governments have made trials of the substances illegal. As laws have been changing, advanced research has proven psychedelics to treat depression, anxiety and PTSD. In addition those living with terminal cancer or on life ending treatment have been brought closer to loved ones and more become more accepting of death because of the use of psychedelics.
The abilities of psychedelics can dramatically improve the way people live their lives, while mental health is not often talked about in regards to the body, the scope of psychedelics to improve wellbeing place them in an imperative position within the discourse around how we relate to our own bodies. The insights that can be gained from mind altering substances grant a new form of awareness that can be important in breaking preordained conceptions of what it means to relate to the body and thus they become an important aspect when understanding different approaches to the body.