"There is no evidence that communion with entities during psychedelic experiences is not an illusion."
The 'Talking Tree' at The Bellagio, Las Vegas. Photo: Sarah Ackerman, via / CC By 2.0
"I was in my kitchen, staring at this massive tree," says Bill in Merseyside, recollecting one of the times he's done LSD. "Suddenly he started speaking to me – although he didn’t introduce himself, which I thought was strange. It went on for about 15 minutes. He told me he knew who I was and that he'd been looking at me for a while. I felt like I was standing naked before the world, and the tree looked me up and down, and inside of me, and said, 'Ah, you're alright: you can stay.'"
It’s likely that, while you've been watering it, you'll have mumbled something to the cactus on your coffee table or the yucca tree by your window. But there are some people who claim to have actually communicated with plants – and nature at large – after taking acid or other psychedelics. Most pass these conversations off as mere hallucinations, but others – usually the types who take mushrooms once and then get very into wind chimes – believe the plants really were talking back.
"The tree then said, 'There’s more to be told.' It was massively enlightening and I need to return when I can," Bill continued. "It helped me understand how every living thing – plant, animal, human – in the world is interconnected. It was as if someone was inside my head judging my feelings, my thoughts and my emotions. It was also a two-way street, though: I could feel how old he was – he's obviously been through a lot with the way the earth is and how the town I live in has built up around him. I felt like he was almost judging me to see if I was right to be in that headspace with that connectivity. I have never felt so much peace and bliss."
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So regardless of whether plants really are sentient creatures who we're only able to understand with the aid of psychedelics, it's clear that – to some – it doesn't really matter. As Bill says, "Just because it's in your head, doesn't mean it's fake or not real."
But what's going on in the brain to cause this sensation?
Thanks to cutting-edge neuroimaging we’re closer now than ever to making sense of the workings of an acid trip: LSD, essentially, makes your mind relax. There are specific parts of the brain that suppress spontaneous activity, meaning this stuff exists only in the background; you're not aware of it and it doesn't normally affect your vision. LSD allows all of this stuff to enter your stream of consciousness, which, in turn, allows the visual patterns typical of LSD to manifest.
This loss of inhibition leads to increased levels of activity in the brain and can result in an increased synchronisation between different cognitive processes. For instance, you might experience temporary synesthesia, where one sense – sound, let’s say – is simultaneously perceived by other senses. You could be listening to music and, whenever there's a certain pattern or tone, you might start seeing a particular colour.
This is what leads to the phenomenon of ego dissolution or oceanic boundlessness, when it feels as if the borders of your body aren't there any more and your your ego is spread around your environment, as well as the rest of the universe. When you feel as if you’re at one with nature, able to communicate and interact with trees, flowers and bushes.
"I will remember this deep voice forever, like a sound coming from the centre of the earth, flowing inside me."
Once they're at this point, what are the people who believe they've had a profound connection with a flower getting out of it?
Louis, from the west of France, had one of the deepest conversations he's ever had, with a tree in a forest near a free party, after taking two 200ug blotters. "It was very inspiring," he says. "I think that, at this moment, I knew I was cured from the pain caused by my break-up and by the death of my grandfather. I spent a lot of time chatting with my new mate, along with some flowers nearby. They told me that my recent break-up wasn't completely my fault and that I needed to think about all the good things that awaited me and learn from my experiences. It wasn’t like I was talking to a wall that didn't respond; I heard them advising and comforting me.
"We also spoke about my recently-deceased grandfather. He explained that everything shall return from where it came, that I don’t need to worry about him and that I should just remember the lessons he taught me and keep my morale up. I will remember this deep voice forever, like a sound coming from the centre of the earth, flowing inside me. It was like I was talking to someone who’d known me since I was born."
LSD was accidentally discovered, in 1938, by a chemist looking for a blood stimulant, and doctors soon began experimenting with, researching, and prescribing the drug. However, after prohibition in the late-1960s, research was forbidden and did not begin again until 2014.
Now, thanks to more open attitudes around testing illicit drugs – and new scientific tools and technologies, such as magnetic resonance imaging – we're finally beginning to understand the effects of LSD on the human brain.
At the forefront of the research into these effects is Enzo Tagliazucchi, a neuroscientist at the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in Amsterdam.
"There is no evidence that communion with entities during psychedelic experiences is not an illusion," he explains on the phone from Buenos Aires, when I ask if LSD really allows users to communicate with nature. "Why this particular illusion appears under certain drugs is unknown, but should be addressed by future neuroimaging experiments."
So hey, maybe those plants really are chatting back to you, or maybe they're not: we need to wait for researchers to carry out more studies before anything can be said definitively. But what's certain is that – as Bill and Louis show – these experiences can be truly affirming and life-changing, regardless of their authenticity.