Reimagining Mental Illness: Psychedelics, Neurodivergence, and Queer Time-Space

Mental illness can be reimagined through the lens of neurodivergence, queerness and psychedelics. Join Oliver Snyder in exploring insights.
queerness and psychedelics
Author: Rev. Dr. Nicole S. Oliver Snyder, LPC, CFSpC
By Rev. Dr. Nicole S. Oliver Snyder, LPC, CFSpC
May 5, 2023(Updated: May 9, 2023)

Lived experience isn’t binary. Experience is perceived, felt, inter- and intra-dimensional; it is known on a continuum. To conceive of this is to say, any can know that in themselves the divine is present.

“Queer is deeply personal and public. It’s intensely individual and communal. It’s a verb and a noun. It’s the sexual and the platonic. It’s identity and it’s disidentification. Queer is a rejection of the seduction of binaries.”

@DecoloniallyQueer, Instagram/Twitter

My Positionality

Space-time isn’t straight and psychedelics are queer.

Follow your Curiosity

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The theoretical physicist, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, who specializes in early universe cosmology and is the author of The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred, writes that her investigation into the workings of the universe reveals that the ways we have historically oriented ourselves to each other, our environment, and the numinous is incongruous with the very essence of all matter (Prescod-Weinstein, 2021). Principally, Prescod-Weinstein’s realization of her love of quarks led to the conclusion that “quarks are queer.” Particle physicists uses mathematics to describe particle behaviors, e.g., the flavor of a quark, but when using the equation to observe it, find they don’t always follow the rules. They defy their own definitions. They are bizarre and elusive and beautiful. Queer.

Further, Prescod-Weinstein sees in this a central implication for justice. Definitions and equations cannot explain human beings. None follow all the rules that social scientists derive, and when the ones doing the observing hale from a narrow demographic, interpretation of the data is shallow. Marquis Bey goes further when they “points out in Anarcho-Blackness: Notes Toward a Black Anarchism, ‘The gender binary is part and parcel of capitalism’s division and devaluation of gendered labor’” (in, Prescod-Weinstein, 2021). That is, the gender binary supports a socio-economic binary.

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein goes on to explain how her own “experience with ‘agender’ [specifically] was different from what a lot of trans people go through,” so, hesitates to locate her experience there. Attempting to discern how to understand it, she finds illumination in physics. “I trust that other people have strong gendered identifications, but I don’t understand it. I…think that a strong gender identification is like quantum spin—you either have an internal sense of it (a spin greater than zero) or you don’t (spin zero).” That “understanding of gender and sex is always in flux. But for now: I am genderless yet in my everyday life I am gendered by others. There is a distance between what people believe my gender is and how I feel on the inside. My subconscious gender experience does not align with my physical and social sex experience” (Prescod-Weinstein, 2021).

Prescod-Weinstein explains that gender identity is infinitely faceted and shifty, that cissex women interact with patriarchy differently than trans women and men, and that women and men who have a complex gender identity, and nonbinary people are “regularly erased entirely from the discussion.” Observing a single facet will neither reveal the myriad complexities of a thing nor the prismatic effusion of possibilities. To imagine wholeness, one must expand the frame.

My experience is a (significant) step removed from Prescod-Weinstein who has the added othering of race and the Black experience. And I have the added experience of a neurodivergent processing brain. Still, this bright shiny star of an astro-/particle-physicist adeptly describes my own grapple with gender identity as I’ve never encountered anywhere else. In dissecting the universe to its bare energies, observable by their effects, but elusive at the attempt to see straight on, a quantum entanglement of experience has been effectually made.  

And my experience is outside the realm of judgment[1]. It is my own. It is lived in the context of a white, cis-male patriarchy capitalist system that prioritizes dominance and the hoarding of resources. And it is daily met with, to employ a currently overused term, diluting its potency, but which, nevertheless, is apropos to the discussion, “gaslighting.” Very little changes when the public discourse is an elaborative gaslighting all who do not—cannot—present to the world this one-dimensional expression of humanity.  

This is what I love about the term Queer. Queer is identity and it is disidentification. It is a rejection of the seduction of the binary. And why I have long participated in the discipline of queer theology. I believe it is essential to the project of understanding a Being beyond categorization. And it highlights what makes queering psychedelics imperative to the task of doing policy right and to facilitate psychedelics use in healing with excellence [2].

To observe psychedelic experience, quantify and qualify it, the field must include as many voices possible. “Include” isn’t the right word. It presupposes a permission-giving entity. It implies a paternalist, patriarchal system that feigns benevolence while continuing to substantiate a system that hoards the power, resources, and influence. A just, equitable, creative psychedelic science will incorporate the view of the underresourced, the “other.”

To borrow from Liberation Theology, the psychedelic space must employ a “preferential option” for the under resourced non-cisgender/white/male[3]. A preference for those who possess insufficient power to effect social change means that “intermediary structures…should be freely organized, without any unwarranted interference from…dominant groups, in view of their development and concrete participation in the accomplishment of the total common good. They constitute the vital network of society. They are also the true expression of the citizens’ liberty and unity.” (Schlabach, 1968)

It also means that those who are members of the dominant group need to stop talking. The straight-white-cisgender male has said more than enough. I do not mean to say these humans have nothing of value to say. What I do mean is that they do no not have to say it. Defer. Give due credit. Create conditions for other voices to be easily heard [4]. If we say that we all belong to the community, that everyone has a seat at the table, that we value all voices, some people will need to leave the table.   

We do this by returning to “the universal body”[5]. Recognizing the complexity of the whole of humankind. The universal body is gay, is other-abled, is a gender, is Black, is middle-aged…. The universal body is Queer. So to heal the universal body, “We need more sophisticated views of healing”[6]. We also need more sophisticated views of illness and intellectual capacity. Because queerness encompasses the whole—mind, body, and soul, and the community in which these queer bodies do life.

“Being able to feel safe with other people is probably ​the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.”

— Bessel van der Kolk in The Body Keeps the Score

The psychedelic experience is queer. It is non-binary. And it holds unimaginable insight into how we perceive mental illness, how we process information and interact with our environment (embodied and engaged), even, how we love. A binary is only creative when (creatively) applied to computer code—by a creative human. Still, computer code is not organic, living (though some might argue a computer program has a life of its own!) But even matter is energized, particles attracting and repelling creating all that is perceived of the universe—and as Chanda Prescod-Weinstein clarifies, dark matter isn’t dark and space-time isn’t straight.

So where do psychedelics fit in here? Specifically, how might psychedelic therapy inform how we approach healing personally and as a society [7]? How might psychedelics help us perceive outside the binary [8]? To be sure, there are likely as many applications to the use of psychedelics in perspectival expansion as there are individuals investigating them. I will limit my observations to three general areas currently, and perniciously, viewed in binary: mental illness/wellness, intellectual deficit/facility, and gender, and ultimately how these influence the (non)binary ascribed to the Mystery.

Why It’s Important Now

In November, 2022, Coloradoans voted in support of establishing a regulated system for accessing psychedelic mushrooms, and decriminalizing possession and use of psychedelic mushrooms in CO law for individuals aged 21 and over. Residents have already supported the legalization of cannabis use, but the relatively recent spate of publicity around research indicating the profound healing power of psychedelic substances for a range of psychiatric disorders has already prompted the Journal of the American Medical Association to observe that “…the industry ‘may even outpace the legal US cannabis market’”[9].

Around the same time, during the 2022 World Science Festival, the theoretical physicist, Brian Greene, hosted a panel that discussed the state of Psychedelics in science wherein the neuroscientist, Gül Dölen, gifted some of her research suggesting psychedelics may soften neuro-synaptic networks to a level of openness (neuroplasticity) seen at ‘critical periods’ of development [10]. That is, psychedelics may reopen critical periods of learning. A deeper question around how ‘learning’ is defined is salient here, and touched on below.

This research holds promise for those who develop autism spectrum disorder or other neuro-atypical brain processes. It also raises questions about connections between psychedelics’ action on the brain and psychotic brain processing, including the genetic link among other psychiatric conditions such as ADHD, certain learning disorders (e.g., Dyslexia), Bipolar-Disorder, and Major Depression. And it is crucial Colorado, and other states moving in the same direction, get policy right so all have equitable access to the healing potential of psychedelic therapies, and that it is done safely.

First, a story.

A participant in a retreat during which my spouse recently participated, came to the event without registering and without payment. She would arrive at restaurants where many agreed to meet for a meal assuming her own meal would be covered by someone, all the while making comments to the effect of, “God provides,” and “see, the Lord has provided.” The retreatant began to fixate on one member of the group, who, in one instance, covered her expenses, and is now the object of her guilt-inducing sagas of having no funds—wrapped in the same language of God’s continued provision for her.

While perception of the miraculous is not outside the limit of what is considered mentally healthy, this woman is an example of one whose behavior suggests a likelihood of something within the class of personality disorders. The distinction is not always clear. And how one might trust a mystical experience when a similar experience in another setting might indicate psychopathy is worth exploring.

“[T]o conjure with the passive culture and adapt to its rules is to degrade and deny the fullness of our meaning and intention…” —Adrienne Rich

The Mental Illness – Wellness Binary.

The mental health profession determines a diagnosis based on criteria outlined and described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR). Disordered mental processes are quantified by their social and internal effects. If it impacts your relationships, your job, and/or the way you think about yourself or others, in often not-so-quantifiable-yet-significant ways, you might be diagnosed with a mental disorder. Interesting to note, many of the “classic” disorders are now scheduled as spectral (e.g., Schizophrenia Spectrum Disorder, SSD). 

The trick, then, is to determine when characteristics of any given diagnosable disorder becomes diagnostically disordered. Who determines where the distress lies? When does the discomfort tip into distress? What is the source of the catalyst that effects the tipping? Because, the brain on psychedelics looks remarkably like the brain on schizophrenia. A considerable portion of artists suffer significantly with depression and anxiety. Yet their work has a profoundly positive impact on society.

Some distinguishing characteristics can be seen with brain imaging. Atrophy in cortical neurons, for instance, is associated with the development of depression and anxiety. So, psychedelics are shown to yield reductions in depression and anxiety, and promote fear extinction learning, and may do so, in part, by reducing inflammation (Ly et al., 2018). They also appear to promote dendritic growth and increase synaptic connectivity in the prefrontal cortex. It must be said, dendritic growth occurs with any new learning, but primarily in areas related to the specific learned activity.

University of Alabama at Birmingham PhD candidate, Haley Dourron, offers a comprehensive survey of the existing research investigating the use of psychedelics and their action on the structure and biochemistry of the brain, some of the resulting experiential effects, and possible ways to distinguish these changes/effects from psychosis—what the authors refer to as a “psychotomimetic-psychedelic paradox” (Dourron et al., 2022).

Attributing exaggerated meaning or importance to insignificant events or experience—“misattribution of salience”—is one affect psychedelics appear to have on the brain and on subjective experience. “Attribution of salience is thought to involve dopamine-mediated processes, a mechanism that is disrupted in schizotypy” (Chun et al., 2019). How psychedelics interact with the dopamine process emphasizes the importance of discerning distinctions between the disfunction of a psychiatric condition and the benefit of a psychedelic experience. It is also important to discover whether the psychedelic action on brain mechanisms play a role in healing the mechanisms specific to problematic features of psychosis.  

As with theological interpretation, we ought also to hold loosely interpretations of scientific data. Self-entropic broadening theory (SEB), a confluence of entropic brain theory (EBT) and broaden-and-build theory, describes “the level of self-focus in entropic processing states [that] can either facilitate well-being or exacerbate mental illness” (Dourron, et al., 2022). Other factors and concepts involved include, “awe as a mechanism” (Hendricks in Dourron, et al), “cognitive-phenomenological-behavioral framework”, and “entropic processing styles (i.e., an increase in attentional scope and a decreased predictability in processing stimuli, facilitating a hyperassociative style of thinking).” Which sounds a lot like neurodivergent brain processing. (More on neurodivergence below) And, “hyperassociativity may create the environment in which novel insights, new solutions and creativity can flourish,” which is also experienced in, for instance, REM dreaming (Horton & Llewellyn, 2021).

Perspective broadening facilitates cognitive flexibility, and flexibility of behavior (Dourron et al., 2022). It increases openness to new experience and curiosity. It encompasses the experience of “awe” which seems to be “due to significant changes in network connectivity” and involves perspectival conceptions such as “vastness and novelty,” and “high information density”(Dourron et al., 2022). Dourron describes these phenomena as “a more ‘anarchic’ style of information processing” (Dourron et al., 2022). In otherwise healthy individuals (e.g., social, stable-enough emotional states to integrate into “normal” daily life), psychedelics appear to induce “hyperassociativity.”

But what constitutes “normal”? Perhaps a distinction need be made here between normal and normative. Something is normative when it establishes or derives from a standard or norm, and it is socially/culturally informed. Normal indicates the average or expected range. While both terms can be problematic as each may be determined by subjective data, the latter can be applied to measures that inform, for instance, physical health or structural integrity.

So, when holding loosely the data and definitions compiled by scientific inquiry, the “normal” range broadens, and we can recognize in, for instance, neurodivergence, a display of hyperassociativity and affiliated characteristics, before labeling it “learning disorder.” The concept of “anarchic” style of information processing is intriguing, and feels empowering to me. At the same time, “anarchic” also suggests anti-social and antagonistic behaviors. The perception of disordered and chaotic thinking is often met with negativity and suppression. Even creative thought is creative insofar as it isn’t prevented from expression. With creativity, novelty is self-evident but as such, without curiosity, is often met with suspicion or misunderstanding, at best, or revulsion and violence, at worst.

When not accessing the whole brain (experientially living into the fullness of oneself), influenced by a stereotypical patriarchal/masculine construct, the brain functions (interacts with the environment) from a top-down, hierarchical process and perception. Loosening rigid mental structures allows for the dismantling of hierarchical scaffolding, creating greater freedom for increased numbers—and kinds—of connections otherwise disallowed by the climb to the top (Carhart-Harris & Friston, 2019).

I wonder about the implications for approaches to mental/emotional health systems and models. Awareness and understanding of the variety in structural and functional connectivity might shift how and when we label it “disordered” or “dysfunctional,” versus, one’s style of brain processing.

Intelligence is the ability to sense one’s environment, follow a non-linear set of rules, and adapt to those rules based on the outcome of one’s actions. Intelligence exists on a spectrum of capacity; all forms of intelligence deserve the right to self-determination.” —S. B. Divya, Machinehood

“The Machinehood Manifesto, March 20, 2095”

The Neurodivergent – Neurotypical Binary

Neurodivergence refers to brain processes that do not conform to a model of neuronal connections considered within the normal limits (wnl). This is most commonly determined by the effects: can the person focus (wnl, of course), create an outline, “accurately” solve mathematics and resolve facial expression?  Yet these also rely on data derived from contexts that are not necessarily conducive to learning, and rarely mindful of individual needs, home environment, relationship with instructors, etc. So, here’s what we know right now.

Neurodevelopmental research is currently dominated by inquiry into Autism-Spectrum Disorder (ASD). From this research geneticists have identified specific DNA changes associated with disorders found within the neurodevelopmental continuum (ASD, ADHD, major depression, SSD and BPD). Neuroscientists discovered the mutations in the gene called CACNA1C is implicated in all five (Owen & O’Donovan, 2017). These also “share common clinical feature of anxiety.” One of these studies (2016) found that, in mice, “loss of the CACNA1C gene from the forebrain of mice results in decreased survival of newborn neurons in the hippocampus.” And, helpfully, using “a neuroprotective compound called P7C3-A20” may restore neurogenesis of the CACNA1C gene.

The specific genetic overlap is seen by “chromosomal microdeletions and duplications in 16p11.2” in, for example, ASD individuals, “and common copy number variations have been reported in ASD, schizophrenia, and ADHD. Genome-wide association studies have also revealed common risk variants among ASD, ADHD, bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia” (Yoshiro Morimoto, 2021). All five are also linked with learning disorder (also known as specific learning disorder) by genetic markers, as well as by structural anomalies (Lai et al., 2019; Rosen et al., 2018). Ne novo mutations of “postsynaptic proteins, such as L-type calcium channels and proteins involved in N-methyl-D-aspartate signaling” indicate that synaptic mechanisms may also underlie these conditions (Morimoto, 2021).

A more recent study confirms comorbidity is also found structurally in these so-called psychiatric illnesses (Taylor et al., 2023). Brain map typography may be different, but network mapping remained the same irrespective of single diagnosis. This neurobiological and clinical overlap highlights the spectral character of psychiatric conditions, opportunities for transdiagnostic treatments that target a shared brain network, and the implications of psychedelic therapies for conditions not otherwise considered for such treatment [11].

Other recent studies of the brain’s functional connectivity mapping reveals overlaps in ASD, SSD, BPD and ADHD, with sensory data processing (a key feature in ASD diagnosis): “The brain connectivity maps … show some similarities [in] an increase in connectivity between the thalamus and sensory-motor areas of the brain and a decrease in connectivity among visual areas” (Moreau et al., 2023). Thalamus activation is also involved in psychedelic sensory activation.

Heightened sensitivity to environmental data is a common feature for people who express these conditions. Psychedelics are known to profoundly augment sound, sight and touch in an internal-yet-transpersonal manner, yet, may reset the perception of overwhelming discomfort that comes with real-world heightened sensitivity. As more individuals with neurotypical brains use psychedelics—especially in fields given to negatively categorize individuals with neuro-atypical processing brains (i.e., as “disordered”)—the collective view of the latter might shift and see the value in, even advantage of such ways of engaging with/processing the world [12].  

Connectivity is a crucial piece to this discussion. “Autistic people’s brains appear to have more functional connectivity between neighboring regions and less between distant regions than do neurotypical people’s brains…” or, in certain networks (García Domínguez et al., 2013; Just et al., 2012; Supekar et al., 2013). It also appears that traits associated with autism are related to disruptions in the default-mode network (Buckner et al., 2008). Connections to areas that are involved in social cue recognition tend to be weaker or delayed [13]. Psychedelics (along with therapeutic integration) may activate connections to regions associated with social cue recognition, while leaving intact the brilliance of the unique regional-tight connections in the ASD individual.

As psychedelic science is constantly evolving, the latest discovery that serotonin is not the natural 5-HT2A receptor activator, but that it is intracellular 5-HT2ARs that “mediate the plasticity-promoting properties of psychedelics,” (Vargas et al., 2023) is curious. Much like quarks, serotonin receptors are queer.

I wonder about the implications for the education system. Whether increased awareness and understanding of some of these mechanisms at play, alongside invitations to those who present with neurodivergent brain processing to participate in creating instructional models that not only accommodate/access divergent learning apparatuses, but recognize the value in those who processes differently, might bring more learning opportunities for neuro-typical andatypical processers alike.

“There is a world beyond ours, a world that is far away, nearby and invisible.”

—Maria Sabina

The Bender (Non)Binary

Several sets of studies researching elements associated with ASD investigated the rate of autistic spectrum diagnosis among those identifying as gender diverse, and the prevalence of cisgendered individuals among those on the autism spectrum. The criteria were marginally varied, but consistent with general indications of autistic traits, specifically, empathy, systemizing, and sensory sensitivity. The studies showed higher rates of gender diversity among autistic individuals compared to non-autistic, the prevalence four times that of the non-autistic in one of the largest studies (Warrier et al., 2020).

Comorbidity of all but schizophrenia among transgender and non-binary folks is also found in two studies, but is still seen in a separate dataset (Rosen et al., 2018; Warrier et al., 2020). And in one of the two, higher rates of learning disorders were found with the trans- and nonbinary-identified compared with cisgender individuals (Huang et al., 2020).  

A collation of data from standardized psychometrics, found that transgender and gender-diverse individuals scored higher on the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ), the Systemizing Quotient (SQ), the Sensory Perception Quotient (SPQ) and lower on the Empathy Quotient (EQ) compared with cisgender males and cisgender females. Cisgender males scored higher on the first three and lower on EQ compared with cisgender females. Effect sizes were larger in autistic cisgender males and cisgender females than autistic trans and nonbinary.

Addressing the low EQ dimension, clinical psychologist, Simon Baron-Cohen, developed the Empathizing-Systematizing (E-S) theory (Baron-Cohen, 2002), which classifies individuals according to two dimensions: empathy—the ability to recognize others’ emotions or mental state (“cognitive empathy”) and the desire to respond to it with a relevant emotion (“affective empathy”); and “systemizing, defined as the drive to analyze or build a rule-based system,” (Greenberg et al., 2018) and are considered to be the classic characterization of ASD. Yet indications of what the data gleaned from these measures actually indicate can be imprecise.

Empathy and human felt connection are influenced by countless factors, and not what we always assume. For instance, the role of Oxytocin in pair binding, a deeply felt human connection, and in empathy, may not be as critical as prior research suggests. A recent study with prairie voles indicated that vole pairs with mutant oxytocin receptor function successfully produced, fed, and nursed pups to weaning [14] (Berendzen et al.). The authors noted that natural variations occurred in small guide RNAs (sgRNAs) that affected Oxytocin receptor coding sequence efficiency. Specific targeting was necessary for controlled study, but this fact reinforces what one might intuit, that social bonding is not exclusive to oxytocin signaling.  

Psychedelics have been shown to increase serum oxytocin levels in concert with serotonin levels. Yet Holze et al., found that the 5HT2A receptor antagonist ketanserin reduced serum oxytocin levels, but not the elevated LSD-specific induced levels of empathy, also supporting the thesis that empathy and social bonding features are not dependent on oxytocin levels and signaling (Holze et al., 2021). A similar study with high dose psilocybin (30mg) produced similar effects, but, unlike LSD, also found increases in plasma oxytocin levels (Holze et al., 2022). Oxytocin is clearly involved in emotional bonding, but like quarks and serotonin, also seems to be queer.

While lower EQ scores are found among autistic individuals, this may reflect difficulties primarily with recognition of another’s mental state, but who still desire to respond to it with an appropriate emotion (versus individuals with psychopathic/antisocial personality disorders who show intact cognitive empathy with impaired affective empathy). “Difficulties with cognitive empathy tend to lead autistic people to avoid or be confused by social situations, rather than to act with cruelty” (Greenberg et al., 2018). As with any who present with difference, a traumatic encounter with “normals” may result in a response that appears aggressive, especially when “appropriate” affect isn’t easily accessed [15].    

The E-S theory is also referred to as the “Extreme Male Brain Theory” (EMB). A Greenberg et al., article makes clear EMB does not mean to indicate and implicate “all male characteristics (such as aggression),” as if aggression is gendered in the first place. And yet, the field continues to frame autistic brain processes as consistent with distinctly “masculine” features. All while clearly demonstrating that transgender and non-binary individuals process more consistently with systemizing their environment than any other population, irrespective of assigned sex.

A number of early studies in the ASD investigation actually measured prenatal testosterone levels (pT) and conditions that effect cortisol and androgen levels. They are inconclusive, and they are asking the wrong questions (Dooley et al., 2022; Kung, Constantinescu, et al., 2016; Kung, Spencer, et al., 2016). Structural differences of the brain can be attributed to genetics, biological factors, impacts of environment, and nutrition and substances ingested, among myriad factors. Aggression isn’t a “masculine” trait that must be accommodated.

Rather, as anthropologist, Agustín Fuentes, explains, “males’ use of physical aggression … is a cultural co-option of a biological potential and not a specific evolutionary adaptation in our species” (Fuentes, 2016, 2022). Indeed, even size differentials (predominantly in height and muscle mass) are relatively insignificant across ethnicities, and is culturally derived (Fine & Duke, 2015b). Fuentes continues:

“Humans are naturenurtural—a true synthesis and fusion of nature and nurture. It is best to think of gender/sex as a dynamic system of interaction rather than one physical part (biological sex) and one cultural part (gender); in humans, you can’t have one without the other.”

Just so, the social sciences, too, must be engaged with the same scrutiny. Interpretation of historical cultural schemas, such as derivatives of division of labor, skill and behaviors is achieved by developing “ways to unfold and reconstitute the past in three dimensions” (Arnold, 2012). And with what Maria Papaspyrou calls, “Femtheogenic Consciousness,” which connects all things through time and outside it, into Kairos “that hold the eternal moment—past, present, and future—in unity” (Papaspyrou, 2019). It is essential for all fields of science to continuously reevaluate technique, tools, and assumptions, and to do so with the greatest diversity of voices possible.

Because, when working with psychedelics, there is no recorded difference in the subjective effects of LSD and psilocybin in general (Dourron et al., 2022, p. 984; Holze et al., 2022) and none specifically between male and female participants (Holze et al., 2021). That significant number of researchers believe the primary effects of psychedelics is associated with the default mode network, and no difference is found in the neural network and structure between sexes with psychedelic use, suggests difference is primarily learned and socially induced. Given that no significant biological difference in brain structure and processing can be identified, but significant gender disparity is found across socioeconomic strata, distribution of domestic labor, and all levels and fields in the workforce is apparent (Fine & Duke, 2015a).

The implications are profoundly important. Psychedelics has the potential to inform theories or assumptions of difference (non, spectral, etc.). Understanding the mechanisms involved can reinforce the need to recalibrate methodologies and assumptions developed in scientific inquiry itself. The use of psychedelics itself can also serve to create greater openness and appreciation for the beauty of uniqueness, while part of a universal whole—conceptually difficult to achieve when entrenched in dualities and binaries.

Science – creative-imagination binary

The very act of doing science is queer. It is specific and generalizable. It is an individual and a communal project. It is a rejection of the seduction of assumptions. Science begins with a question born out of imagination, of wonder. Just so, I wonder: Would a psychedelic’s promotion of “a wider range of functional connectivity motifs, and correspondingly a broad repertoire of subjective states with high information richness” (Dourron et al., 2022) help fill in (or create) some of the functional connectivity clusters that often challenge real-world relational exchanges (especially in ASD)? Or might psychedelics exacerbate the issue?

If “[i]ncreases in neural entropy during the acute effects of LSD are predictive of increases in openness to new experiences two weeks later,” (Dourron et al., 2022) might psychedelics ease the rigidity of connections enough to allow for less anxious personal connections? As social anxiety is significantly present among young adults today, and excessively prevalent among ASD individuals, the salience of this question is notable.

Psychedelics queer our thought patterns: “Entropic processing is subjectively marked by a sense of unpredictability and increased information richness due to the weakening of mental schemas, facilitating new ways to conceptualize stimuli” (Dourron et al., 2022)[16]. Neural entropy’s unraveling of predictiveness brought on by psychedelics and which characterizes “divergent thinking ability” (a primary feature of dyslexia), increasing “openness to new experience,” and that “language becomes significantly more entropic” (possible impact on aphasia?), all “suggest that the association between neural entropy and expanded thought-action repertoire should be explored further” (Dourron et al., 2022). And exploited by the scientific effort itself.

What is more, a “leaky filter,” or “reduction in cognitive inhibition,” facilitates attention to a broader range of stimuli that otherwise would be deemed irrelevant, and is super important for creative thinking (Dourron et al., 2022).

Creative, novel thinking (versus the inflexibility that hierarchy of power differentials are compelled to maintain) is made increasingly accessible with psychedelic use. Entropic processing is adaptable, versatile, fluid. And fluidity is inherently creative, difficult to pinpoint, and communal. Because a hierarchy is always only about the individual, it is linear, and lacking potentiality. Sexuality itself is culturally derived, one’s “Erotic Plasticity” determining the degree to which sex drive is impacted by society, culture, and individual environment (Baumeister, 2000; Baumeister, 2004; Baumeister & Twenge, 2002).   

Entropic processing as it informs gender fluidity makes possible a perspective that frames the concept not so much as observing a move of a point on a spectrum (continuum, array), but as encompassing the continuum—or, at least, extending across larger swaths of it. Humans defy categorization every time a category is ascribed (or prescribed). To speak of perspectival expansion is to imply expansive range (versus merely a shift of a single point), and, perhaps, reaching into other dimensions.     

Love every leaf… Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day, and you will come at last to love the world with an all-embracing love.” —Fyodor Dostoyevsky

A Nonbinary Mystery

Mystical experience cultivates such perspectival expansiveness. Mystical experience is inevitably religious, according to David Steindl-Rast, OSB, who explains, “Fortunately, I have not yet come across a religion where the system didn’t work at all. Unfortunately, however, deterioration begins on the day the system is installed” (Steindl-Rast, 1990). I wonder about a system that welcomes the “easily bored,” or who tries a thing and then thinks of a new thing. Our cultural system rewards those who “stick with it,” and criticizes the one who, once implementing an idea that takes off, begins considering other ways to engage the process. Yes, following through is important to participating in community. Still..

Too, that mystical experience is a significant feature of human experience, perception of that mystery-source/meaning-attribution weighs heavily on the psyche of the individual. Gendering a mystery further stunts any gain in meaningful experience and the ensuing communal intimacy (coherence, belonging, etc.), as well as the fullness of joy and pleasure derived from participating in the numinous.

The strength of an individual’s identification with a strict gender binary is not mutually exclusive of one’s perception of the Source with whom that one has communed. Still, expanding the perception of genderedness of the mystery will impact self-identification of the same; and vice versa. Blurring the binary will invariably lessen the compulsion to not only categorize others, but also suspend one’s instinct to turn (unwarranted) expectations inward—which only results in strengthening the probability of living out of one’s wounds, inflicted by the shame of not conforming to those categories. Gender norms inform one’s conception of the mystical experience; inevitably, in turn, codified, institutionalized, and then politicized.

The psychedelic-awakened vision of the numinous is most often nonbinary, vast, indescribable. At once evoking concepts from the individual’s cultural and faith traditions, and challenging them. For a psychedelic assisted therapist and/or clergymember in the U.S. it is particularly crucial that one has an openness to such a view. Otherwise, the guide is liable to at best, stunt the experience for the journeyer, at worst, compound religious and/or racial trauma. To illustrate this point, professor emeritus at Iliff School of Theology, Tink Tinker, begins his courses by stating, “Colonialism is Christianity. Christianity is colonialism. They go hand in hand so that the violence of Christianity is the violence of colonialism” (Tinker, 2019).

These are all shifts, expansions, anarchic information processes that are (judged) unruly yet valuable to the human instinct to create and re-create. We are all prone to shove others into categories in order to feel better about ourselves when another’s ideas and thought processes do not conform to a perceived majority (or demands from a significant agent of authority). The psychedelic space is creating its own norms. It must continue to disrupt them. Those who are nonbinary, neurodivergent, other-abled, nonwhite—other—are well-suited for this role.

“You cannot use someone else’s fire. You can only use your own. And in order to do that, you must first be willing to believe that you have it.” —Audre Lorde

Inter/intra-dimensional Awe

So what characterizes the psychedelic experience of the numinous? Professor and Clinical Psychologist at University of Alabama at Birmingham, Peter Hendricks, suggests it is awe. Awe tends to be directed outward, and to be inclusive, versus euphoria, which is a primarily solo experience (Hendricks, 2018). And a primary experience related to a sense of awe, openness, and wonder is nature relatedness. Nature relatedness is a personal connection to nature that is expressed as a benevolence toward and affinity with nature, and is positively correlated to psilocybin use. The same correlation was not made with the other classic psychedelics (excepting only slightly with DMT) (Forstmann et al., 2023). Specific to nature, it is an increased “awareness and understanding of all aspects of the natural world, even those that are not aesthetically appealing or useful to humans” (Forstmann et al., 2023).

The strong connection between awe and nature is apparent. The experience of awe is also universal and can be accessed as a collective emotion. The communal character of awe naturally extends outward, seeming to require expression (e.g., protect, appreciate, nurture, understand the nature of the object of one’s awe). And awe does not see usefulness in the other, something to be controlled or exploited. Awe only appreciates, enjoys, stands in wonder, and calls it “beautiful.”

Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and founding director of the Greater Good Science Center, refers to awe’s communal instinct as “moral beauty,” a bearing witness to others’ kindness, generosity, courage. Keltner asserts that awe and wonder aren’t generated by monuments of power, but in the simple, the ordinary (Keltner, 2023). In his article, Keltner refers to a 2012 Harvard Divinity School’s Ingersoll Lecture on Immortality, given by Toni Morrison in which she explains, “Allowing goodness its own speech does not annihilate evil, but it does allow me to signify my own understanding of goodness: the acquisition of self-knowledge” (Walsh, 2012)[17].

Allowing goodness its own speech invites expansiveness, a spacetime perspectival shift. A new hypothesis in physics may offer conceptual assistance here: a three dimensional time–one dimensional space rubric which explains what it would look like for an observer moving faster than light in a vacuum, thus accounting for the existence of superluminal objects (Dragan et al., 2023). From the superluminal perspective, only one dimension retains its spatial character; three are time dimensions, “aging” independently. From our perspective, a particle appears to move simultaneously in all directions of space.

To allow goodness its own speech invites the observer to conceive of movement not bound by lightspeed or a single trajectory, but at a pace different from accepted limits. The Dutch theologian, Adrian van Kaam, refers to one such dimensional time as the “pace of grace” (Muto, 2013). And U2s Bono views it from another facet when he sings, ‘grace finds goodness in everything,’ and ‘she [grace] travels outside of karma.’ Grace sees goodness from a perspective that accepts no limits, goodness moving simultaneously in all directions. This imagery of traveling faster than light while within it, suspended in time while moving, shining, permeating—everywhere, everywhen—this view also often evoked in the psychedelic experience.

To be sure, enduring mystical-type effects are seen with psilocybin ingestion, resulting in increased rates of spiritual meditation practices (Griffiths et al., 2018). One study with “gay-identified cis-gender men with human immunodeficiency virus” in psilocybin-assisted group therapy, showed significant freedom from emotional avoidant tendencies, and an increase in “prosocial attitudes (joy, gratitude, love, care, compassion)” alongside a shift from a trauma-dominant narrative to one of growth-dominant (Agin-Liebes et al., 2021).

Even substance-free mindfulness practices in group settings have been shown to promote synchronization, collaboration, and openness to others’ perspectives, and increased capacity to transcend polarities (Agin-Liebes et al., 2021; Fine & Duke, 2015b; Oliver-Snyder, 2019). It is nuanced. And nuance presupposes spectra, subtlety. Subtlety necessitates a closer look that is precipitated by curiosity. It is in this desire, even compulsion to know and understand one another, that community connection can strengthen and become more—more of what it might be, has the capacity to be—the capacity to consider or think otherwise

“Awe may be the quintessential binding emotion that drives social integration and cooperation. If evolution ultimately selects for cooperation (e.g. Gowdy & Krall, 2016; Nowak, 2006), it follows that awe represents the pinnacle of human experience. Awe may be the quintessential binding emotion that drives social integration and cooperation. If evolution ultimately selects for cooperation (e.g. Gowdy & Krall, 2016; Nowak, 2006), it follows that awe represents the pinnacle of human experience.”

Bad Trips and Theological Reckoning

The amount and kind of information we can gather with continuously evolving imaging technologies (micro and macro) and genetic decoding code is staggering. The more we learn, the better our assessment becomes, followed closely by more effective approaches to meet that information (to remedy or not, abort or direct or relegate to the philosophical, or merely stand in wonder at the unfathomable).

I am an information glutton, a dominant type 5 on the Enneagram of Personality. Understanding the mechanisms behind phenomena is very helpful to me. I want to explain what is happening and find creative ways to address a situation based on all the data my brain contains—and that it can conjure and deduce from it.

Yet while brain imaging may be able to locate downstream mechanisms that are activated when the owner of that brain is experiencing awe and wonder, it can neither quantify it, nor define it merely by observing the precise activity (or lower activity, specifically in the default mode network, as with awe) therein (Guan et al., 2018; van Elk et al., 2019). It also cannot produce a map of when the mystical experience turns to existential terror. When, or where, does the shift occur from the ability to embrace cognitive accommodation and new knowledge to unrelenting cosmic anxiety?

Harvard Divinity School student, Rachel Petersen, after a second psilocybin session that culminated in a diametrically different experience from her first, warned that psychedelic therapy and research must consider every case with curiosity and cognitive accommodation (versus data sets and correlative extrapolations from extraneous information). An approach to psychedelic research must include the perspective that is apparently derived from psychedelic use itself. To proceed otherwise is to in actuality do harm.

Petersen recalls the Hebrew Bible narrative of Job who never receives an answer to his suffering, rather, he is reprimanded by God for demanding answers that go beyond any understanding. And yet, Job persists in his belief, holding devotion with the question. Job’s story also recalls the poetry of St John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul. Versus describing a withdrawal of God’s presence, as some have interpreted the sonnet, it is a love poem that recognizes the constant presence of the Divine that remains while surpassing the senses, usurping them. In utter sensory darkness, the cosmic light of dark matter—that can only be detected by its effects—radiates on the edges. In the midst of absolute deprivation.

Here Petersen offers better questions: “What if we asked: ‘How did it shift your notion of the potentiality of your own mind? Of the affordances of soul, world, spirit? What do you know now that you didn’t before? How do you know that you know?’ These are the questions I think bad trips stand to answer” (Petersen, 2022).

Because, in the end, to allow goodness its own speech, one must be silent. It is a queer space—at once sheer terror and awe-some. To remain is to welcome the unpredictable, simultaneously moving in all directions, traveling faster than light while within it, suspended in time while moving, shining, permeating—everywhere, everywhen. With awe, and at the pace of grace, we move together—everywhen in all directions.


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[1] I am grateful for this reminder during a conversation with the gorgeous human, Ohio State University’s Center for Psychedelic Drug Research and Education PhD Candidate, Rafaelle Lancelotta, 1/16/2023

[2] Research design and protocol that validates diverse knowledge systems (cultural, socioeconomic, gendered/agendered, neurobiological/chemical), will inform psychometrics, and, in turn, definitions of illness and what is legitimate care/prescription—and then, who gets to decide what the parameters are, or what they indicate.  Labate, B. C., Antunes, H., de Assis, G. L., Gomes, B., Smith, M., & Cavnar, C. (2022, 2022/10/01). On epistemic injustices, biomedical research with Indigenous people, and the legal regulation of ayahuasca in Brazil: The production of new injustices? Transcultural Psychiatry, 59(5), 705-710.

Smith, M., Labate, B. C., Antunes, H., Assis, G., Gomes, B., & Cavnar, C. (ibid.). Access and benefit-sharing legislation: An ethnobiological approach to overcoming epistemic injustices through intercultural dialogue. 711-713.  

[3] Liberation theology is an interpretive system of Christian scriptures and doctrine first coined by the Jesuit priest, Pedro Arrupe, in 1968, and quickly became political praxis for Latin American theologians. It states that the church is to prioritize the formation of communities “where all of the peoples but more especially the lower classes have, by means of territorial and functional structures” power to affect societal changes. Schlabach, G. W. (1968). Medellin 1968 (excerpts). Conference of Latin American Bishops. Retrieved 2/19/2023, from

[4] A collection of 30 plus diverse considerations for implementing these conditions can be found in, Psychedelic Justice: Toward a Diverse and Equitable Psychedelic Culture. (2021). (Clancy Cavnar, Beatriz Caiuby Labate, Ed.). Synergetic Press. See also, Williams, M. T. (2020). Managing Microaggrressions: Addressing Everyday Racism in Therapeutic Spaces. Oxford University Press. And with the wisdom of Ralph Metzner, psychedelics invite a “no-talking ritual structure, Metzner, R. (2015). Alies for Awakening: Guidelines for productive and safe experiences with entheogens. Regent Press.  

[5] Nicholas Powers, PhD, 1/18/2023, Chacruna/Naropa University, CO Prop122: Where do we go from here? forum.

[6] Bia Lebate, PhD, 1/18/2023, Chacruna/Naropa University, CO Prop122: Where do we go from here? forum.

[7] Evoking the Shamanic practice of discernment, seeing a wholeness where division has been inflicted, Metzner, R. (2017). Ecology of Consciousness: The Alchemy of Personal, Collective, and Planetaary Transformation. Reveal Press.   

[8] This question recalls for me the U2 song, Grace: “she travels outside karma.”

[9] Referencing the JAMA article, “The Rapid Rise in Investments in Psychedelics—Cart Before the Horse?”

[10] World Science Festival, “Psychedelics: Chemicals, Consciousness, and Creativity”. (9/8/2022)

[11] Inflammation on the brain and low functional connectivity may explain the low dopamine levels that impact depression, specifically. In one study, anhedonia (ability to experience pleasure), and motivation were only marginally improved by increase in dopamine activation. Therapy and dopamine activation along with reducing inflammation increased functional connectivity in corticostriatal reward circuits, improving anhedonia and motivation. Bekhbat, M., Li, Z., Mehta, N. D., Treadway, M. T., Lucido, M. J., Woolwine, B. J., Haroon, E., Miller, A. H., & Felger, J. C. (2022, 2022/10/01). Functional connectivity in reward circuitry and symptoms of anhedonia as therapeutic targets in depression with high inflammation: evidence from a dopamine challenge study. Molecular Psychiatry, 27(10), 4113-4121.

[12] See Brock Eide, Fernette Eide. (2023). The Dyslexic Advantage (Revised and Updated): Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain. Plume.

[13] Dyslexic processing brains have more functional connectivity between distant regions than both autistic and neurotypical brains. Unfortunately, the research on dyslexic processing is paltry by comparison.

[14] Previous mice studies clearly show that for mice lacking oxytocin receptor function, lactation and nurture are impossible.

[15] A trauma response engages the executive control network in the brain to compensate. And there is less signaling between the amygdala and default mode network for those with psychopathologies. For instance, individuals with PTSD respond to any discomfort by overgeneralizing threat. Zhu, X., Suarez-Jimenez, B., Lazarov, A., Such, S., Marohasy, C., Small, S. S., Wager, T. D., Lindquist, M. A., Lissek, S., & Neria, Y. (2022, 2022/11/21). Sequential fear generalization and network connectivity in trauma exposed humans with and without psychopathology. Communications Biology, 5(1), 1275.

[16] All of these features raise the question of whether psychedelic use among policy-makers and other leadership groups might hold significant potential for facilitating creative (novel) thinking (beyond known structures), increased openness to one another (authentic consideration of other ideas/perspectives), and more inclusion/diversity among the leadership. 

[17] Keltner describes what he calls social power: awe has low social power; elevated power is afforded greater rewards and freedom. But in the long-term, elevated power weakens community, and therefore, society as a whole. When society prioritizes awe, the community is strengthened—and flat, that is, power is shared.

The content provided is for educational and informational purposes only and should be a substitute for medical or other professional advice. Articles are based on personal opinions, research, and experiences of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Psychedelic Support.

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Author: Rev. Dr. Nicole S. Oliver Snyder, LPC, CFSpC
Rev. Dr. Nicole S. Oliver Snyder, LPC, CFSpC
Nicole Oliver Snyder is a counselor and ordained clergyperson with over 20 years of experience, and author of, Leading Together: Mindfulness and the Gender Neutral Zone. Nicole’s unique mindfulness-based practice is centered in compassion and inclusion, healing-wholeness and radical self-love. Check out her website.

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