When things are getting a bit much, do you ever think: stop, take a deep breath, close your eyes…? Well, it turns out that if the thing that is getting too much is a psychedelic trip, perhaps keeping your eyes open is a better option.

Conversely, if you are tripping, and you actually want to get deeper, a new study suggests that closing your eyes could be an easy way to enhance the effects of your psychedelic. 

Recent Study Explores ‘Set and Setting’

This recently published study, (which adds a new layer to the phrase ‘going in with your eyes open’) is one of the first of its kind to attempt to measure the power of ‘set and setting’ when it comes to psychedelic trips. Anyone with an inch of psychedelic experience will have heard of ‘set and setting’, as it is a key tenet of ensuring a psychedelic trip goes as desired. 

‘Set’ refers to your mindset. Your mood, your mental health, your current emotions, any past traumas, any specific hopes for your trip. ‘Setting’ refers to your immediate environment. Your location, your company, your level of comfort and familiarity. Although closing or opening your eyes seems like a small or superficial difference, this study suggests that this small action actually is a profound part of set and setting. 

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Closing Your Eyes Creates a Stronger Psychedelic Trip

According to Big Think, the researchers of this study aimed to look into the impact of set and setting, and how various factors can decrease or intensify the effects of a psychedelic. Their specific focus was on researching the effects of keeping one’s eyes open or closed during an LSD trip, and the impact that may have on an individual’s environment, both external and internal. 

The study found that the participants who closed their eyes had more intense psychedelic experiences. This was indicated by the participant’s self-reporting, and stronger correlations with brain entropy, or by increased randomness and complexity in brain activity. 

Published in the journal ACS Chemical Neuroscience, this study is the first qualitative analysis to reveal that the influence of setting on the psychedelic experience can be measured via physiological indicators (i.e. differences that can be physically seen.) Another fascinating finding was that visual stimuli, for example, watching a video, seems to divert the brain’s attention away from the intense immersive experience that can be had within one’s own head, when you shut your eyes. Basically, if you keep your eyes open, you may miss the full extent of the internal kaleidoscope. 

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What is Brain Entropy?

But what is the aforementioned ‘brain entropy’ then? Well, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH);

“Entropy measures the variety of configurations possible within a system, and recently the concept of brain entropy has been defined as the number of neural states a given brain can access.”

It is established that psychedelics elevate brain entropy. This phenomenon is experienced by having multiple thoughts simultaneously, or seeing different images rapidly, one after another. The opposite of this experience is when an individual is sleeping or under anesthesia — here we observe reduced entropy. It is interesting to consider that these instances are often referred to as ‘states of unconsciousness’. This surely implies that when experiencing increased brain entropy on shrooms, you must be in an ‘state of enhanced consciousness’, right? 😉

Higher brain entropy suggests a deeper or more intense psychedelic experience. This phenomenon has also been spotted in studies on the ‘flow state’ or meditation. 

Why Brain Entropy is Important in Psychedelic Therapy

When considering how the therapeutic powers of psychedelics can be honed to their most effective, brain entropy is an important concept. The study authors wrote;

“…the therapeutic mechanisms of psychedelics are thought to depend on their acute entropy-enhancing effect, potentially reflecting a window of opportunity (and plasticity) mediating therapeutic change,” 

However, the strength of these therapeutic benefits may rely on the interaction between set and setting, the study’s authors wrote. This encompasses environment, mood, and expectations too. So while we know that psychedelics elevate brain entropy, this may only have effective therapeutic results if the setting is correct. 

In psychedelic clinical trials, it is generally the norm for participants to be given eye shades or told to close their eyes, sometimes while listening to music. (Interestingly, in ketamine clinical studies practitioners employ visual stimuli, to explore if it can enhance the drug’s effect.)

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How Did the Study Work?

For this study, 20 healthy volunteers were collected to take part in two experimental sessions. In one session they received a placebo of intravenous saline, while in the other they were given 75μg of intravenous LSD. Data was collected across four states: resting with eyes closed, listening to ambient music with eyes closed, resting with eyes open (looking at a dot), and watching a silent nature documentary. After the session, participants completed questionnaires that evaluated their subjective experiences in relation to intensity, ego dissolution, emotional arousal, positive mood, and imagery complexity.  

When compared to the placebo, the researchers observed that external stimuli increased entropy across the different states, with the video causing the highest absolute entropy. The researchers wrote; 

“It is noteworthy that the simple act of opening one’s eyes has an especially marked (augmenting) effect on brain entropy,” 

Stronger External Stimuli Weakens Subjective Experience

But, the researchers were intrigued to find that stronger external stimuli weakened the subjective effects of the drug, despite enhanced brain complexity. The subjective experiences were found to vary with the setting. Specifically, when the participant had their eyes closed, the correlation between brain entropy and the drug’s subjective effects intensified. The research team suggested that this created “competition” between external stimuli and endogenous (internal) LSD-induced imagery. 

One of the study authors, Robin Carhartt-Harris (psychedelic science extraordinaire) told Big Think;

“I suspect because there’s a great deal of informational complexity in the visual and auditory stimuli itself, this lifts the baseline brain complexity for processing it, and then psychedelics do what they do — i.e., lifting complexity, but on top of this elevated baseline,”

“I also suspect the correlations with subjective effects were strongest with eyes-closed [condition] because it gives more salience to the increase in brain complexity/entropy caused by the drug action — rather than the external stimuli — as with eyes closed, the latter was ‘absent.’”

Different Setting Shape Experience

The research team also investigated how different settings can mold the connection between subjective experiences and brain activity in specific regions of the brain. Keeping the eyes closed resulted in neuroimages of strong positive correlation. Positive mood was correlated with activity in the amygdala, and ego dissolution corresponded with increased entropy in the defaul mode network (DMN). 

Notably however, participants who watched the video during their trip did not show these same results. The researchers wrote;

“Strikingly, all of the observed neural-psychometric correlations vanished when subjects watched a video,”

Providing Physical Evidence for Psychedelic Lore

This study points to what psychonauts have known for a long time — that setting truly plays a significant role in the psychedelic experience. Providing physical evidence for what has long been psychedelic lore, it shows that setting impacts our neural responses, as well as our subjective perceptions. When the participant closed their eyes while on LSD, the increased entropy correlated with heightened subjective experiences. However, these effects were not evident when they opened their eyes, or interacted with external stimuli, such as videos or music. 

In any setting, psychedelics like LSD and magic mushrooms help the brain to transition into more intricate and heightened states than usual. However, this study shows that when you close your eyes they can produce the most intense and pronounced effects. The researchers said; 

“As per the findings, brain entropy escalates with LSD across all experimental conditions, yet it demonstrates the most significant shifts when participants opt to close their eyes,” 

What Do These Findings Mean For You?

So what does this all mean? Well, this finding is a boon for the psychedelic therapy field. Brain entropy is known to be one of the contributing factors as to how psychedelics, like psilocybin, are able to treat mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, or eating disorders. Identifying ways to increase this action is key for making psychedelic therapy as effective as possible. 

For the recreational user, this means that you now have a deeper understanding of how to shape your trip for your personal needs. Want to de-intensify a trip? Open your eyes, and distract yourself with some external stimuli, like a calming nature video. Want to journey further to the depths of your mind than you’ve ever gone before? Close your eyes, or chuck on an eye mask.

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Afterall, Terence McKenna’s famous Heroic Dose protocol was such; 5g of Psilocybe cubensis, taken in a dark room — eyes closed!