Ketamine, Consciousness, and John C. Lilly

Featured image: Ketamine under a microscope by Sarah Schoenfeld

First synthesized in 1962, the veterinary anesthetic ketamine, or what John C. Lily famously dubbed “Vitamin K”, has made it back into popular discussion this year. A study from the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex reported that ketamine, along with LSD and psilocybin, creates a “higher state of consciousness” in the brain.

The phrase “higher consciousness”, interestingly, doesn’t mean what we think it means. The scientists involved in this study are using it as a technical description for “mathematical diversity of brain activity.” Essentially, we know the brain is doing more when it’s on these hallucinogenic substances.

“[The] global conscious level goes up, “ said Anil Seth, a professor of neuroscience at Sussex, “the neural activity becomes more unpredictable… Until now, we’ve only ever seen decreases compared to the baseline of the normal waking state.”

What’s so interesting about this study — aside from our general excitement about new research in the field of psychedelics and consciousness studies — is that “randomness in brain activity” correlates with a deeper and richer state of conscious experience.

“Open your mind” as the saying goes, but The Guardian quips that the hippy view, “mystical nonsense,” is essentially dispelled with this discovery. After all, the study reveals solid, physiological evidence of what’s going on in the brain during psychedelic states. “Maybe this is a neural signature of the mind opening.”

But many non-reductionist scholars of consciousness would beg to differ. For Rupert Sheldrake, Larry Dossey, Dean Radin, and many other scientific and medical researchers, the notion that brain states can dispel non-material explanations for consciousness is more of a bias of scientific materialism than incontrovertible fact. Psychonauts, medicine healers, and consciousness researchers who embrace a non-materialist view of the mind can celebrate this research while tossing out the scientific reductionism at the door.  

“There is a clinical efficacy with these drugs,” Anil Seth told the Guardian, creating solid, conservative step towards clinical trials. This is great news. Psychedelics aren’t a panacea for our society-—as some may advocate—but their adoption into clinical spaces and increasingly positive social perception as effective healing modalities is transforming the stigma against altered states of consciousness.

Ketamine and Depression Treatment

Ketamine was fortunate to remain a Schedule III substance since 1999—despite pressure to include it in Schedule I—and that has helped contribute to its availability for scientific study.

Research has found that ketamine is better at getting across the blood brain barrier, unlike SSRIs and other widely available antidepressants, and even had a ‘sustained’ effect for days after treatment.

In 2012, Science published an editorial these continued studies, arguing that ketamine appeared to outpace the existing antidepressant pharmacology. Most importantly, the studies reported “what is arguably the most important discovery in half a century.” Mainly, that ketamine produced positive results—within hours—in treatment resistant patients suffering from depression.

These kinds of results are crying out for more research and further trials, and as Phil Wolfson points out in his own trials focused on subjective and experiential reports, the antidepressant effect was short term and required multiple, ongoing treatments. It’s nevertheless very promising when compared to the kinds of psychiatric drugs (which vary wildly in their effectiveness and even safety) available today.

Depression is a complex spectrum of mental states, feelings, perceptions, and experiences with multiple causes. Wolfson points this out in his excellent talk, “The Varieties of Ketamine Experience,” at the Psychedelic Science conference, which I recommend viewing. You’ll also get an excellent rundown on where to start if you’re curious to learn more about this drug.

(K)osmic Consciousness and John C. Lilly

“In the province of the mind, there are no limits.” – John C. Lilly

In 1874, Benjamin Blood wrote The Anesthetic Revelations and Gist of Philosophy, much to the interest of William James, who promptly tried nitrous oxide for himself. “The urge to write philosophical tracts is probably the most serious side-effect of nitrous oxide,” jokes Karl L.R. Jansen in Ketamine: Dreams and Realities.

It was John C. Lilly’s extraordinary psychonautic autobiography, The Scientist that really helped to popularize anesthetic in psychedelic culture (and for the curious, this is a must-read). “He spent decades exploring his own mind using psychoanalysis, flotation tanks, LSD, cocaine, and prodigious quantities of what he called ‘Vitamin K’,” Karl Jansen writes. But The Scientist also describes a precarious journey with the drug, involving many hospital visits, often veering between profound cosmic insight and paranoid High Weirdness.

“The book begins with a creation myth, in which there is only pure consciousness. This then splinters into the various distinctions leading to matter and anti-matter, space and time, and the Big Bang. Parts of this pure consciousness separated off to assume an individual existence for a period. One of these parts was called John C. Lilly.”

Lilly was truly a pioneer for the modern psychonaut. He popularized the usage of floatation tanks, human communication with dolphins, and even inspired the 1980 SciFi horror film Altered States (a weird metaphysical 80s classic that I have to recommend to the reader). As usual, it’s science fiction that picks up on the cultural currents before anything one else. While we’re at it, we could venture to guess that Fringe‘s eccentric scientist Walter Bishop, with his love of LSD and flotation tanks, was inspired by Lilly’s personality.


Back to Lilly’s Ketamine experiences for a moment. Lilly developed a relationship to “Vitamin K” that was precarious at best (he continued taking ketamine even at the age of 83), but believed that it increased the encounter with synchronicities, drawing from Carl Jung’s work and Arthur Koestler’s “Roots of Coincidence.” He would dub the usage of K with his other experimental methods as “coincidence control centers.”

His wife would call it “seduction by K” and Lilly—in spite of himself— would warn about the dangers of using it too much.

Lilly would report his subjective state being transported to the year 3001, of malevolent “solid state” machine entities seeking to control the Earth in subversive plots, but at the same time, his descriptions from Ketamine trips would border on levels of profound, non-dual mystical realizations.

“So why not enjoy bliss and ecstasy while still a passenger in this body, on this spacecraft? Dictate thine own terms as passenger. The transport company has a few rules, but it may be that we dream up the company and its rules too.

There is only internal peace, internal bliss, internal transforms of everything into joy, in the one place one really lives. There are no mountains, no molehills… just a central core of me and transcendent bliss.”

John C. Lilly, The Center of the Cyclone: An Autobiography of Inner Space, 1972

Lilly’s experiments with ketamine go far beyond the scientific study of “higher consciousness” (i.e. “increased random brain activity”) and leap us into the profound, if Chapel Perilous, metaphysical odyssey of selfhood. But we can, and should, have both the profound flights of subjective mysticism and the grounding research of therapeutic science to keeps us balanced in the 21st century.

If we’ve learned anything from this exploration of Ketamine, it’s that there’s so much more to discover.

Recommended Reading / Resources

The Varieties of Ketamine Experience, presentation slides by Phil Wolfson, MD

The Scientist: A Metaphysical Autobiography by John C. Lilly

Of Mountains and Molehills, by John C. Lilly

The Ketamine Papers: Science, Therapy and Transformation, edited by Phil Wolfson and Glenn Hartelius, PhD

The Erowid Vault

Psychedelic drugs induce ‘heightened states of consciousness’, brain scans show, The Guardian

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