A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
Note: This article is largely speculative and was written to generate thoughtful conversation on flow state, gamma brainwaves, DMT, and the relationship of the three. It is to be taken as such.
In a recent blog article I published for Highly Sensitive Refuge, I wrote about flow state and its importance to facilitate goals and increase happiness. In the article, I suggested ways to enter flow state in a conscious, meaningful way, particularly using mindfulness techniques, such as meditation.
A brainwave frequency often associated with flow state is gamma. We think of high cognitive and thinking states mostly task-oriented to be in High Beta. But gamma is a faster frequency between 25 to 140 Hz. Gamma waves are the fastest brain waves and occur most often when you are alert and attentive to a task. When your brain produces higher levels of gamma brain waves, you tend to be happier and more receptive. This, of course, is a good thing. Gamma waves produce a coherent, unified perception across brain regions. Which sounds a lot like flow state.
Now, I'd like to introduce another possible way to enter flow state. By use of microdosing psychoactive substances in a carefully controlled and monitored way. Many of the psychoactive substances have at their root a common substance, DMT.
What is DMT? It's a powerful psychedelic drug that has been used by indigenous people in South America and in other parts of the world since time immemorial as part of their religious practices. The substance is a natural substance derived from various plants and contains N-N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT). When smoked or injected, DMT produces an intense sensation which provides a most profound human experience. Psychedelics are the oldest psychopharmacological agent known to man. They have been used relatively safely for thousands of years. The key characteristic of psychedelic substances is their ability to induce a state of altered perception, thought and feeling, that is not experienced ordinarily except in cases of dreaming or religious ecstasy . To quote an early LSD pioneer, Dr. Daniel X. Freedman, "…the state is portentousness – the capacity of the mind to see more than it can tell, to experience more than it can explicate…to experience boundlessness and boundaryless events from the banal to the profound."
This quote describes the full-on, psychedelic experience that we are most familiar with, down the rabbit hole and subject to the psychedelic's active life in our bodies, as to how intense, how long, and how profound. But is there a way to tweak the dosage, to affect increased focus and concentration, and perhaps activate Gamma waves to induce a state of flow without experiencing life-altering or revelatory experiences? Let's see.
Isn't DMT (and, for that matter, all hallucinogens) dangerous?
The popular perception of psychedelics or entheogens (from the Greek, "to generate the God within.") is that they are dangerous drugs that cause reckless and destructive behavior in individuals and may lead to states of psychosis. This was the perception of leaders in government in the 1970s that lead to classifying entheogens as Schedule I substances, making them illegal by Federal law. It was promoted by conservative politicians to control unruly behavior in the youth of the day, and it intended to restore order in the status quo.
Serious research had been conducted for many years before the enactment of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. It was suggesting that these substances, particularly LSD, showed some promise in aiding in the treatment of depression and addictions. That all stopped with the enactment of this law. Research stopped, and many people went to jail for possession of these substances.
Fortunately, the restrictions on research have eased in the last few years, and progress, albeit slowly, is being made in demonstrating benefits, long known but now being shown again in controlled studies. As a result, psychedelics are generally considered safe, with a low probability of dependence or addiction. This does not mean that they are without hazards. And should not be used without some controls and considerations for legality. What is desperately needed is more research and guidance on usage for constructive purposes.
For this article, we will focus on the usage of DMT. DMT is generally inhaled, ingested, or injected and produces intense psychedelic experiences usually short, i.e., 10-15 minutes. At higher doses, the experience is intense and often seemingly otherworldly. At lower doses, the effects produce mild mood elevation and calming sensations. Interestingly, DMT does occur naturally in human and other mammal brains. Trace amounts of DMT are found in the human pineal gland and other parts of the body. This endogenous DMT helps contribute to higher-order brain functioning and learning, and memory. These are key aspects in flow state.
What is the relationship between DMT and GAMMA and Flow?
How often do humans naturally enter the Gamma brain wave state? Well, I suppose that would correlate with how often we are in a state of high alert waking consciousness. That, in turn, may correlate with the type of engagement you have with work, play and hobbies. There does appear to be a relationship between higher intelligence and gamma brainwave state activity. That does make sense since this higher brainwave state would likely be firing more often in people of higher intelligence as they often engage in highly focused intellectual activities (my speculation).
Is there a relationship between gamma brainwaves and flow state? Gamma has all the earmarks of flow state. Focused concentration, alertness, and engagement to a task. For this article, I was unable to find a study related to the two, perhaps, that study is in progress now, or maybe I just missed it. But the inference from what I was able to read does make sense to conjecture that they two are related. Both use higher cognitive functioning, memory, and prior learning to create a state of high engagement. Thus, gamma may be a biomarker of high-functioning flow.
Does DMT (or other entheogens) put us into a hyper flow state at its extreme or lower doses, a more normal functioning flow state? The use of DMT has been shown to alter the alpha brain waves of subjects and increase traveling brainwaves from the occipital region of the brain to the frontal areas. This forward traveling effect is correlated with visual perception, which appears to be enhanced with DMT usage. Alpha waves were reduced in these traveling packets, and delta and theta waves increased. However, the study pointed out that there was a liberation of sorts of lower-level information streaming forward to the brain's frontal areas, typically top-down.
This finding could be significant in flow as much of flow state may be affected by memory and prior learning. With a liberated channel streaming more data inbound, DMT might influence flow. Endogenous DMT is suggested to influence the cognitive functions of the brain directly.
What does this mean to HSPs?
Because HSPs are naturally deep thinkers, deep processors, why even go there? Do we really need to ingest an entheogen to get into flow state or any other deep state of consciousness? Well, the answer is simple – it depends. It depends on the individual and how adventurous they are, I suppose. The real question is: is there a benefit to doing something like this? Without question, trying to reach flow state has proven benefits (see the blog post I referenced in the beginning). Increasing gamma brainwaves through various meditative practices were shown to be effective. The study also noted that expert meditators tended to have greater attentive states and limited mind wandering, both artifacts of flow state.
Naturally, there are other physiological benefits to meditation besides aiding in entering flow state, but taken in whole, the benefit to HSPs seems profound. Moreover, there appears to be a line of research now devoted to the neuronal correlates of meditation techniques known as contemplative neuroscience. I certainly hope this research branch bears fruit. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that meditation, flow state, and psychedelic substances inhibit self-referencing (see Default Mode Network, DMN) processing. It is somewhat related to the notion of blocking a form of self-consciousness or de se thoughts, which focus on first-person thinking.
This is especially relevant for HSPs, who spend a great deal of time doing self-referencing thinking, which can often be limiting and self-defeating. Achieving flow state via activity, meditation, or even with entheogens might aid in creating breakthrough states for HSPs (or others) locked in perpetual self-defeating mode. The ability to reach an epiphanal moment requires the ability to let go or surrender and the ability to be in a state of total absorption or attention. Again, getting into that state where the DMN is limited.
More research is needed but in the meantime.
Let's look at microdosing for wellness and mental health. Another recent study found that chronic, intermittent, low doses of DMT produced an antidepressant effect and fear extinction learning in rats without impacting working memory or social interaction.
Shane LeMaster, a sports psychologist, states that "flow is this sense where your mind suddenly just gets out of your way." He believes that flow state can be reached with microdoses of psychedelics and has found a microdose can keep him in flow most of the day. He believes flow aids in brain synchronization.
Another subject self-reporting study showed that microdosing LSD and psilocybin produced several benefits in subjects, including lower dysfunctional attitudes and negativity, higher wisdom, more open-mindedness, and greater creativity.
In addition, microdosing produced in many users helps manage depression, anxiety, and PTSD, reduced or eliminated addictions, enhanced moods, creativity, mindfulness, and emotional response.
Now with all of that said, let's remember that psychedelic substances are still, for the most part, illegal in the US and most countries of the world. There are now some states allowing some usage of these substances to limited degrees. Nevertheless, I urge caution for anyone pursuing the usage of entheogens, regardless of your intent. Things are changing for the better, albeit slowly. Keep informed.
Here are some other precautions:
Please share your thoughts in the comment section.
A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
A term has surfaced recently into my consciousness: neurodivergent. What does this mean? There is a movement afoot to expand the view of what we consider normal brain functioning that would now include many developmental disorders that would be seen as dysfunctional in the past. The thought is to expand what we now consider a wider spectrum of mental diversity. Judy Singer, a sociologist who has autism, coined the term in the late 1990s to include these disorders as normal variations in how the brain processes and functions. The idea behind this diversity is to demonstrate that although to the general population, these "specializations" might seem aberrant, in fact, they may be considered strengths, areas of specialized focus.
The argument for encasing the idea of normal divergence of human mental functioning expressed by these variations would consider them to be adaptations, which provide strengths and diversity to the human genome. Furthermore, many experts believe that because these adaptations remain within the human population, they have some evolutionary purpose and advantages. For HSPs, this should sound familiar.
This seems to beg the question, what is normal? It is reported that over a fourth of Americans and up to one-half over a lifetime suffer from some type of mental disorder. This would suggest that at some point, most of us suffer from some type of dysfunction, whether temporary or permanent. However, how much dysfunction is needed to be then termed abnormal? As Peter Kramer suggests, "If for many of the factors difference confers some degree of vulnerability to dysfunction, then we will find that we are all defective in one fashion or another." If we take into account the enormous diversity of the human genome then certainly defining normal becomes more problematic.
Does normality imply that one is free from dysfunction, or can we now agree that as we all share the human experience, we are prone to divergent functioning, which must be accounted for as part and parcel of what it means to be human? As Kramer states, "the awareness that we all bear flaws is humbling. But it could lead us to a new sense of inclusiveness and tolerance, recognition that imperfection is the condition of every life." Could then this be implied that our "dys-perfection" be the fruit of our human existence and a key contributor to overall human adaptation and survivability?
Neurodiversity attempts to cover a wide range of developmental disorders, principally: Autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Dyslexia, and Dyspraxia. Autism is a spectrum disorder classified as a complex neurodevelopmental condition that includes impairment of communication and social skills, combined with repetitive behaviors, and impaired learning and executive functioning. ADHD covers a wide range of attention and organizing skills deficits that often manifest as impulsivity and distraction. Dyslexia refers to reading or writing problems that cannot otherwise be explained by a lack of intellectual, learning, or sensory issues. Dyspraxia refers to a condition in which impairment occurs in the execution of motor skills and the ability to execute a plan of action. In addition, some dyspraxic individuals may experience Sensory Integration Dysfunction, which creates oversensitivity or under sensitivity to physical stimuli. Dyspraxic individuals may also experience what is considered a type of sensory overload, which causes panic attacks.
If seen in the light of neurodiversity, are all of these behaviors adaptations? One theory proposes that these disorders result from environmental factors due to early childhood stress and trauma. Yet, complex human behaviors are rarely just products of the environment but a complicated interplay between genetics and environment. Even in their seeming dysfunction, these disorders can show the amazing adaptability of humans. It is noted that people with dyslexia can adapt to their struggle with reading to develop efficient and remarkable visual memory, which aids in reading and comprehension.
In his book, Attention Deficit Disorder: a Different Perception, Thom Hartmann argued that an accounting of ADHD might be to describe the disorder due to an adaptation from a characteristic of earlier hunter-gatherer humans now stuck in a farming society. The idea that adaptive characteristics from a different, older cultural milieu did not translate well into a society that had moved on from nomadic life to a more stationary life. The genetic traits once useful in hunting animals, i.e. hyperfocus, were no longer as important and useful in raising animals and crops. Yet, the trait survived to bring us individuals with ADHD. Hartmann argues that ADHD is not necessarily maladaptive nor a disorder but needs to be seen in the context of its original purpose. There is some research supporting this hypothesis.
Again, the point is, what is normal?
Ways in which HSPs may be considered to be non-normal.
Studies have pointed out that often highly sensitive people may be confused with having a variety of disorders including autism, schizophrenia, social anxiety disorder, and are prone to episodes of depression and moodiness. In fact, the trait of Sensory Processing Sensitivity has been referred to as introverted emotional temperament, chronic cortical/cortisol arousal, hypervigilance, and innate shyness. Thank God for Dr. Elaine Aron giving it a much more positive framing.
Nevertheless, we are a minority population within humans, which makes us a little non-standard. Many HSPs report, along with other people that are not highly sensitive, that the trait is problematic at times, making life complicated and challenging. When overwhelm kicks in, SPS can be considered debilitating to some HSPs if they do not know how to handle the overstimulation we often experience.
In addition, there is a certain amplification of life's experiences, which may lead to depression, anxiety, and fear-based limitations. Then there's the social isolation that often accompanies our introvert dominant personalities, and for the extraverted HSPs, the dealing with the need for downtime.
Yet, taken as a whole, can we say the trait is a dysfunction? I think not. I still hold true the explanation of Dr. Aron, that the trait is an evolutionary adaptation necessary within our species. It continues to proliferate through time and does have a purpose. As Dr. Tracy Cooper often says, we are a fine-tuned instrument. Fussy at times, but necessarily so, to bring about the sensory detecting purposes of our nature. To be able to detect the subtle, the nuanced, and the environmental nuggets others miss.
Is our trait (SPS) a form of specialization?
Yes, most definitely. When you consider the HSP's ability to think deeply, deeply consider, and deeply feel, that alone makes the trait a specialization - an adaptation, if you will. And that is on the backend of the processing; if you add the ability to consider and sense the subtleties in the environment to feed that backend, you add a depth and dimension that adds value to observation and deduction. To then tie it all together, you add empathy--the social emotion, which gives HSPs relatability and the ability to sense others, aid others, feel others, gives us a potent arsenal of capabilities, that despite our challenges, make us specialists amongst humans. We are the canary in the coal mine, the early warning system, and to use a crude metaphor, the pebble in the shoe, warning our fellow humans of impending trouble. We may be a pain in the ass to some, but we are necessary. If that is dysfunctional, then why hasn't nature selected us out?
Every day and it seems more so now than ever before; we expand the terms to being human. Neurodivergence attempts to continue this trend. Why not move beyond developmental disorders and include rare personality traits or minority personality characteristics such as SPS? Doesn't that add to the complex stew of human personality traits? So, what if we are neurodivergent? Should we be? We are just what we are and what nature intended for us – all of us. What if we called it “neuroinclusive?”
Please share your thoughts in the comment section.
Bill Allen currently lives in Bend, Oregon. He is a certified hypnotist and brain training coach at BrainPilots.com. He believes that male sensitivity is not so rare, but it can be confounding for most males living in a culture of masculine insensitivity which teaches boys and men to disconnect from their feelings and emotions. His intent is to use this blog to chronicle his personal journey and share with others.