Woman stand in the dark with universe reflected on her body.
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The Insights Psychedelics Give You Aren’t Always True

The study of false—sober—insights teaches us to be wary of accepting every realization from psychedelic trips without critical thinking.

In 1966, researchers at the International Foundation for Advanced Study in California gave mescaline to 27 men who were engineers, physicists, mathematicians, architects, furniture designers, and artists.

While on the drug, one came up with a new conceptual model of a photon particle; another envisioned a new approach to the design of a vibratory microtome, a lab instrument that cuts material into small slices; and an architect produced a design for a home that was later approved by his client. The mescaline seemed to help “facilitate creative problem-solving, particularly in the ‘illumination phase,’” the researchers wrote. 

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These kinds of stories are common in psychedelic folklore, leading to the belief that psychedelic compounds lead to “Aha” or eureka moments, and that answers can be revealed during a trip in one fell swoop. Besides understanding particle physics, people often feel like they receive knowledge about themselves or the nature of the universe

In his 1902 book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James wrote that one feature of a mystical-type experience is this “noetic quality,” or a feeling of deep knowing. “They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority,” he wrote. 

But how can we tell if the insights received while under psychedelics are true? In a recent talk for the UCL Society for the Application of Psychedelics, Johns Hopkins’ cognitive neuropsychopharmacologist Manoj Doss said it’s likely that psychedelics can evoke illusory insights, or the feeling of a profound insight that is misattributed to ideas that arise during a psychedelic experience.

This too, James was familiar with. After inhaling a large amount of nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, James wrote furiously on the topic of Hegelian dialectics, a complex kind of philosophical argument. “At the moment of transcribing,” his thoughts “were fused in the fire of infinite rationality,” he wrote. But when he was sober again, his revelatory insights were incomprehensible. “Meaningless drivel,” James called them. He published an excerpt from his notebook in the journal Mind

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What's mistake but a kind of take?

What's nausea but a kind of -usea?

Sober, drunk, -unk, astonishment.

Everything can become the subject of criticism—

How criticise without something to criticise?

Agreement—disagreement!!

Emotion—motion!!!!

By God, how that hurts! By God, how it doesn't hurt!

Understanding the nature, and veracity, of psychedelic insights will be crucial if these drugs are to be taken by more and more people, especially those who will seek them out to have insights that better their mental health and well-being. 

Luckily, insights, or "Aha moments," have been studied by psychologists outside of psychedelic research for decades. Insights have been found to be unique cognitive phenomena that are often associated with correct solutions to problems, but within insight research, there’s also been recent work on false insights: insights that feel real, but are objectively incorrect. 

False insights can be induced in the lab through some simple tricks, and feelings of insight can spill over in how people regard other worldviews and facts—making untrue facts or extreme beliefs seem more true, a subject highly relevant to psychedelics. The feeling of insight does not guarantee that an insight is correct. Certainly not all psychedelic insights will be false, but recognizing that they probably won’t all be true either, despite how they feel, makes room for problematic insights to be tested, and not simply accepted as untouchable truth.

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An Aha moment is the experience of suddenly believing you understand something, or suddenly solving a problem that you've previously been unable to solve. A classic example comes from the life of Archimedes, the Greek mathematician, physicist, and astronomer. Archimedes was asked to determine if a gold crown made for King Hieron II had been mixed with silver, rather than made with pure gold—but the king didn’t want Archimedes to damage or melt down the crown while figuring it out.

Puzzling over how to do this, Archimedes took a bath. He noticed that the water splashed onto the floor when he got in, displaced by the volume of his body. In a flash of insight, he realized he could compare the crown’s volume in water to another piece of gold or silver with the same mass, and compare the density. 

A person doesn’t need to come up with a brilliant solution, like Archimedes did, for an Aha moment to exist, said Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California in Santa Barbara.  What characterizes it is that abrupt feeling of truth. 


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John Kounios, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Drexel University and coauthor of The Eureka Factor, has shown through brain imaging and behavioral experiments that insights do seem to be the result of a real and distinct kind of emotional and cognitive process, not just a typical new idea with an emotional flourish tacked onto it. 

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There is also research showing that when an Aha moment accompanies a solution, it's more likely to be right, said Ruben Laukkonen, a postdoctoral fellow at The Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. In studies using a task called the “remote associates,” people are given three words, and they have to come up with a corresponding fourth word. When people solve these problems, sometimes they have an Aha moment and a solution pops into their mind. Other times, they solve it through more slow and careful analysis. In these studies, if people had an Aha moment, they were more likely, on average, to have gotten the correct answer.

People may have learned that this Aha feeling is often associated with correct solutions throughout their lives, Kounios said. It might be why when people have an idea that feels like an Aha, and it's accompanied with a sense of profundity, they’re more likely to think those ideas are true. When we have Aha moments, we often treat its content as sacred. James Joyce wrote in Stephen Hero, his posthumously published autobiographical novel, that epiphanies must be recorded “with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.” 

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But even in those laboratory studies, Laukkonen said, false insights were lurking amongst the true ones. False insights were when people had the same feeling of sudden knowing, but what they “knew” wasn’t correct. Researchers have mostly followed and tried to characterize true insights, but recent work has turned to examine these false insights. 

In 2020, Laukkonen and colleagues gave people an anagram to solve, and then presented them with a fact that was either true or false. When people successfully unscrambled the letters in the anagram, and felt an Aha moment doing so, they were more likely to think that false facts were true—misattributing the Aha feeling from the anagram to whatever the fact was.

This worked for world views, too: people were more likely to endorse statements like “free will is an illusion” if they were given a key word, like “illusion,” in a scrambled format first. “If we elicit a little insight experience, even using something as trivial as an anagram, that feeling that is elicited can color anything that's happening at that moment,” Laukkonen said. The feeling of insight could essentially be moved around and put onto other things.

In another recent study from this year, Hilary Grimmer, a PhD candidate at The University of Queensland, Laukkonen, and others were able to elicit an Aha feeling in people who were objectively having a false insight. 

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People were given a list of words that all shared an association, like wheelbarrow, seedlings, glove, and soil. Then, they were given an anagram that looked like a word that would belong with that list, but actually didn’t. For example, paired with the list of gardening words, they would be given the anagram for “endanger,” which shares a lot of letters with the word "gardener." People would solve the anagram as "gardener," and feel like they had an Aha moment even though their solution was incorrect.

These studies showed different kinds of false insights: In one, people who had a true Aha moment from solving an anagram misattributed that feeling to other, untrue, facts. In Grimmer’s study the Aha moment occurred around a solution that was objectively wrong. But both reveal how the feeling itself of the Aha moment isn’t always paired with the truth. 

"It seems like that feeling can just exist on its own," Grimmer said. "We can have the same feeling of insight, regardless of actual truth."

People on psychedelics won’t be solving anagrams and responding to facts; their insights will be more complex, and so will the contexts around them. But knowing that the feeling of insightfulness can be elicited with false information, or moved around and applied to unrelated information, is essential when considering insights that come from psychedelics. 

Doss thinks a number of factors could make psychedelic experiences a breeding ground for the feeling of false insight or knowing. Studies have found that in a psychedelic experience, words or concepts that wouldn’t typically be associated can be relatable. While the people in Grimmer’s study were misled to think “gardener” based on the gardening words, this could mean that more tenuous associations could prime people to have false insights while in an altered state. 

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People can be set up to expect true insights, based on what they're told at the outset of a trip. “When people are told under psychedelics that they will come up with certain insights, you're going to be more inclined to attribute the feeling of insight to the truthiness of ideas that you might come up with,” Doss said. “I think all these things kind of come together in a perfect storm to potentially create something that feels very real but doesn't necessarily have to be."

People might have different thresholds, even under sober conditions, for how much information they need to have an Aha moment. “You might have 10 pieces of information in your head and if all 10 of them snap together, you have this coherent insight about something,” Kounios said. “But what if only nine of them snap together, or eight of them snap together?" It’s possible that psychedelics could lower that threshold, Kounios said, to create Aha moments with less input.

Another important lesson from insight research is that some people may be more swayed by insights, and the positive feeling that comes with them. In 2020, Kounios and his colleagues used electroencephalography (EEG) to measure brain activity when people solved anagrams with Aha moments, finding that in the moment of insight, there was a sudden burst of high frequency brainwaves.

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Some people in the study were high in a personality trait called reward sensitivity, a trait that is found in thrill seekers and others motivated by pleasure. In those people, there was another burst of brain activity a tenth of a second after the insight in the brain’s reward system, the same area that is engaged when people eat delicious food, take addictive drugs, or have orgasms. People who were not high in reward sensitivity didn’t exhibit this. Kounios said it suggests that some people can have an insight without always having the feeling of pleasure or emotion alongside it. 

Though the study didn’t collect subjective reports, Kounios said that anecdotally, those who were high in reward sensitivity got really into the tests, and thought they were fun. “People like having insights,” Kounios said. “It’s why a lot of people like to do crossword puzzles, read murder mysteries, have creative hobbies, do research—they get a thrill from Aha moments.” 

David Yaden, a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins who studies the subjective effects of psychedelics, thinks that it’s important to parse out the different kinds of Aha moments that different people may have while on psychedelics. 

Not all insights can be tested, the way an anagram can be right or wrong. A person might have insights about the nature of reality or about their life, like realizing they should quit their job, or move to a different city; these kinds of insights will be hard to measure. 

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But there are others, like the predictions of events that may or may not happen, which could be tested. Creative insights could be judged by others for their novelty and usefulness. Simply put: before making the claim that psychedelics lead to more true insights across the board, that should be measured. 

Psychedelic insights could also be assessed for an alignment with therapeutic goals or overall well-being. If a person has the insight that they’re not worthless, or that they are connected to others, that might align with the goal of improving depression symptoms. 

These kinds of insights might not be falsifiable, but could be valuable to a person for their healing process, Laukkonen said. But in the cases when an insight feels real, but isn’t helpful or true, the fact that the feeling is separate from the content can be useful, especially in responding to complex or traumatizing experiences, or pushing back on the “guru effect,” when people have insights that feel very authentic about their position over other people, or their reasons to cross ethical boundaries. 

“There's certain types of insights that I think that people need to be very cautious with,” Doss said. 

Not all psychedelic insights will be false, and many may be true insights, or just helpful, unfalsifiable ones. But knowing that the feeling of insight is able to be disentangled from the content of the insight itself is important—it paves the way for critical thinking and examination of an insight later on. 

It can be difficult to question epiphanies that come with an Aha feeling, and they may be subjected less to ethical or critical analysis, Yaden said. Grimmer said that insight moments, under sober conditions, are more closely held onto. They have a memory advantage, people remember solutions that came with an Aha. 

“Some people suggest that once we've had an Aha moment, whether it's true or false, some amount of us will kind of always believe it because of that unique way with which it arrives in our consciousness,” Grimmer said. “They seem kind of sticky.” 

But all insights, true and false, should lead to more examination after the Aha moment—whether it occurs on psychedelics or not. “It goes along with an idea that it's important to have epistemic humility,” Yaden said, meaning we should be humble about our knowledge and what we think we know. “The noetic quality doesn't excuse not having epistemic humility.”

And checking an insight doesn't diminish the value of Aha moments. “It just means that like any other thing that people do, it can be wrong,” Kounios said. “I’ve always told my kids in school: when you do a math problem, check your results. The same logic should be applied to insights. If you have an Aha moment, check it. What do you have to lose?”

Schooler agreed that insights should be revisited later on. “When Archimedes had his idea, he still had to put the crown in water and see if he could actually calculate it,” he said. “It's important not to just stop at the epiphany phase.”

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