What leads to transformations in the way we understand and relate to the world?
This essay is part of a Circles in Time series called ‘Seeing Ourselves as Systems’. Sign up here to get access to future posts.
There can’t be a more magical transformation than the metamorphic process a caterpillar undergoes to become a butterfly.
The highlights reel of metamorphosis is well known. There are plenty of nursery rhymes, animations and children’s books dedicated to the caterpillar’s quest. And why not? The story has such a beautiful arc of transformation. The perfect biological equivalent to Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey.
What doesn’t make the highlights reel, but is nonetheless just as fascinating, are the changes occurring inside the caterpillar during its metamorphic transformation.
The Internal Workings of Metamorphosis
Even at the moment the caterpillar hatches out of its pin-sized egg, it is already carrying bundles of cells that are primed to become the adult features of a butterfly. These primed cells (called imaginal discs) are what eventually lead the organism to develop wings, antennae and legs. Yet during the early life of the caterpillar, the imaginal disc cells remain dormant, temporarily stunted by a growth-inhibiting juvenile hormone.
From the moment of hatching, the caterpillar has one goal—eat. And as it feeds, its guts, muscles and other internal organs grow. Everything grows. Except for the imaginal disc cells, which remain suppressed and dormant.
Eventually, the caterpillar reaches a critical size, at which point there is the active secretion of a moulting hormone called ecdysone. With this release of ecdysone, there is a shedding of skin, which repeatedly happens as the caterpillar continues to grow in size.
At this point, the juvenile hormone is still active, meaning the imaginal discs remain dormant. But as the size of the caterpillar increases, the ecdysone hormone continues to surge, and gradually the release of the juvenile hormone declines, unleashing the imaginal disc cells from their chemical oppression and allowing the caterpillar to change into a chrysalis.
With the imaginal disc cells free to grow, they do so rapidly. At the same time, each disc starts folding into a concave dome and then into a sock-like shape. While the imaginal discs are animating themselves, the bulk of the caterpillars sludgy interior is recycled into an oozing liquid soup. The nutrient-rich soup feeds the imaginal disc cells and meshes them together to form the emerging bodily features.
With almost no juvenile hormone in the system, a final burst of the moulting hormone ecdysone triggers the last stage of the process, leading to the emergence of an adult butterfly.
TRANSFORMATION FROM WITHIN
The magic of the metamorphic process is a marvel to watch unfold. Utterly spectacular, in fact. Nature’s creative genius manifested. A great example of life finding a way.
This extraordinary process—the nature of the caterpillar’s transformation into a butterfly—can feel almost otherworldly. Like some alien technology accidentally left here by a visiting intelligence from the other side of the universe. Yet, at its core, the metamorphic transformation of a caterpillar has a lot in common with human transformation.
At the root of all-natural transformations is a shift or change in the rate and quantity of bio-chemicals secreted within the organism. The caterpillar can try as hard as it likes to transform, but without a drop in the secretion of the juvenile hormone and an increase in the release of the moulting hormone, ecdysone, the metamorphic process cannot occur.
Transformation is something that happens to the butterfly as opposed to something it intentionally brings into existence through changes in its behaviour or environment. Of course, these shifts in the caterpillar’s biochemical composition are partially driven by behavioural factors (ability to move and motive to continue eating) and the context (a safe environment full of easily accessible nutrients). Still, these factors are supportive and indirect rather than primary. In fact, in the case of the caterpillar, it is better if their behaviour and environment don’t change much—eat, sleep, move and repeat, every day, in a safe, stable and food-rich environment. The mechanism that actually does the transformational work is a coordinated biochemical adjustment.
Like transformation in caterpillars, human transformation is also driven by biochemical adjustments throughout the body and brain in the form of hormones, steroids and neurotransmitters. Some well-known examples include testosterone, oestrogen, adrenaline, melatonin, insulin and cortisol.
The hormonal story is familiar when it comes to the physical transformation of a human. Think about the changes teenagers go through during puberty, for example. This is a physical transformation brought about by a changing biochemical process. A less familiar example is the ‘dad bod’ —additional weight that tends to commonly accompany the experience of becoming a father. New research suggests that the physical change in weight is primarily driven by a biochemical process brought about by pheromones released by the mother and their newborn child.
So the relationship between physical transformation and biochemical processes is clear and familiar. But what about psychological transformations?
What about quantum leaps in our understanding of ourselves or how the world works? Big shifts in how we relate to others? Life-changing realisations? The dropping of beliefs, adjustments in values or the integration of seemingly opposing ideas? Are these sorts of transformations biochemical?
I have written in the past about the structure and functions of the brain’s dopaminergic system and the role it plays in pleasure, motivation, desire, pursuit and attainment. In short, dopamine helps us navigate the world in search of sensations that we know will bring us pleasure (and helps us escape pain/discomfort). Dopamine does this by focusing our attention on the object of desire—a sort of tunnelling towards a pre-defined reward.
Stepping back and looking at the system as a whole, you can think of dopamine as a sort of cognitive coach that helps us learn what is good (or pleasurable) and helps us focus on getting more of that pleasurable good. This learning mechanism has its downsides, yet it is necessary for navigation and moving around our world. We feel would be lost and paralysed without it.
Although the phenomenological orientation of dopamine-driven action feels forward-looking (desire, attain, pursue), it is actually backwards-looking—dopamine encourages a search for more of what brought us pleasure in the past.
Sure, surprise and uncertainty can trigger a dopaminergic response, but that isn’t what it is helping us look forward. Focused learning for the sake of attaining some expected reward can encourage growth, but this is more a byproduct, a task in service of attainment, rather than an end in itself.
So dopamine appears to be important for motivation, action and gradual change through ongoing learning but not necessarily the transformative sort of change I’m exploring here.
What about serotonin?
Another interesting candidate for psychological transformation is the notoriously mysterious neurochemical serotonin.
The primary role of the serotonergic system was, for a long time, thought to regulate mood by moderating anxiety and stress while promoting patience and coping. It helps us slow down, feel calmer, less impulsive, more present, less aggressive and increase our tolerance towards stress. Besides mood regulation, serotonin also appears to be involved in setting sleep rhythms and digestion.
If the personified epitome of dopamine is the Western startup founder constantly sprinting to their next milestone, the epitome of serotonin is the Buddhist monk, patient, calm and peaceful. Well, that would be a simple story about the two systems anyway.
But isn’t the full story…
Recent research is suggesting that serotonin has a second and very different function within the brain. The function is to open a temporary window of hyper-plasticity for greater adaptation under conditions of heightened stress.
This serotonin-driven window of plasticity is what the neuroscientists’ Robin Carhart-Hariss and Ari Brouwer call a Pivotal Mental State (or PiMS for short).
PIVOTAL MENTAL STATES
Okay, so we know that the primary function of serotonin (5-HT) in the brain is to enhance adaptive responses to stressful situations. We also know that it appears to do this via two distinct pathways.
The first is a passive coping pathway. This is what the serotonin system is classically known for— it calms us down, makes us less impulsive, helps us manage enduring stress and all the rest of it.
The second is an active coping pathway associated with heightened plasticity, which enables us not just to endure, but actually, identify and overcome sources of stress by changing our outlook and behaviour.
To nerd out for a moment, the passive coping pathway is largely mediated by signalling at the postsynaptic 5-HT1A receptors, while the active coping, plasticity-inducing pathways are mediated by signalling at the postsynaptic 5-HT2A receptors found mostly in basal ganglia and cortex. 5-HT1AR dominates under ordinary conditions, with 5-HT2AR signalling becoming increasingly active as the stress arrives at a critical point. It is this critical point of stress that upregulates the serotonin 2A receptors that give rise to pivotal mental states.
There is an excellent paper called the tale of two receptors that goes into the differences between 5-HT1AR and 5-HT2AR in more depth.
So to recap, pivotal mental states (PiMS) are transient, hyper-plastic mind and brain states with exceptional potential for mediating psychological transformation.
To break it down more concretely, there are three identifying criteria for PiMS:
Elevated cortical plasticity
An enhanced rate of associative learning
A unique capacity to mediate psychological transformation
A useful analogy for the sort of brain plasticity we are talking about here is annealing—the process by which firm metal is heated up to the point that it becomes malleable enough to change its shape and structure.
THE PiMS MODEL IS OUTCOME-NEUTRAL
A unique aspect of pivotal mental states is that they are.. well.. pivotal.. rather than deterministic. That is to say, PiMS does not favour positive or negative outcomes. It creates the opportunity for change without determining the path change moves along.
The direction that the psychological transformation moves towards is therefore largely determined by context. ‘Context’ in the widest sense of the word—from the individual’s biological predispositions all the way through to the immediate and remote environmental context.
MANICS & MYSTICS
So pivotal mental states can mediate highly divergent psychological outcomes that strongly depend on the context in which they arise. As Brouwer and Carhart-Harris argue in their PiMS paper, this is why spiritual and psychotic experiences exhibit such similar features (strong emotional tone, ego-dissolution, hallucinatory visions, internal voices, etc).
And the similarity isn’t a new observation either:
“The schizophrenic is drowning in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight.”
~ Joseph Campbell
Interestingly, it isn’t just the pivotal mental state itself where there are similarities between spiritual experiences and psychosis. The build-up (or the prodrome as psychiatrists call it) to psychosis shares a lot in common with the transformational spiritual experiences too. Examples include a loss of interest in worldly pursuits and pleasures, followed by an increase in interest in supernatural, paranormal, religious and ritual domains. Thoughts and beliefs begin to feel unrelated to the self, third-person perspective taking starts occurring and rising dissociation of subjective awareness.
A key underlying feature is the build-up of chronic, enduring stress, followed by acute stress, which gives rise to the pivotal mental state and psychological transformation.
INTENTIONALITY, SELF-INDUCED STRESS & POSITIVE OUTCOMES
In terms of context, the positive outcomes appear to be strongly linked to having an intention to take on chronic stress. When there is intentionality driving the chronic stress (a sense that I chose to do this), the likelihood of positive spiritual experience increases.
There are lots of great spiritual examples of this—Jesus, isolating and fasting in the wilderness before his breakthrough. Francis of Assisi gave up his wealth and riches to pursue a difficult life supporting those living in poverty. Mohammed and Lao Tzu both sought extreme solitude prior to creating their famous philosophies. Prince Siddhartha, of course, experienced a high level of self-induced chronic stress before he reached enlightenment under the bodhi tree.
“Let my skin and sinews and bones dry up, together with all the flesh and blood of my body! I welcome it! But I will not move from this spot until I have attained the supreme and final wisdom.”
~ Prince Siddhartha, Buddha
This necessity of self-induced stress in achieving spiritual transformation becomes even clearer when you start thinking about all the ascetic rituals that different cultures throughout human history have practiced. Sweat lodges, fasting, yogic breathing, isolation, self-inflicted body pain, self-mortification, South American vision quests and extreme dance ceremonies such as those performed by the Native Indian Sundancers are all good examples of intentional, enduring, stress-inducing practices that open up the opportunity to enter into a pivotal mental state and have a positive spiritual experience.
Furthermore, it is well known that the primary receptor in the brain that psychedelic compounds such as psilocybin are acting on is the serotonin 2A receptor (5-HT2AR). This makes sense if we consider the similarities between the psychedelic state and sorts of stress-induced 5-HT2AR activation associated with both spiritual and psychotic experiences.
THE PURPOSE OF PIVOTAL MENTAL STATES
What is the adaptive function of the pivotal mental states and this 5-HT2AR system? Why do we have it?
The leading hypothesis is that the system has evolved to allow humans to experience a sort of psychological ‘fresh start’ or allostatic recalibration.
Again, in line with pivotal mental states, the outcome of an allostatic recalibration process can be adaptively positive. Still, the same mechanisms could just as easily result in a new or reinforced maladaptive strategy, such as a psychotic ‘flight from reality’ or the progressive reinforcement of unhealthy defence mechanisms.
There is inherent risk here. The 2A receptor shakes the cognitive snowglobe with the intention to laydown a more adaptive schema, but maladaptation is possible too.
It makes sense that we wouldn’t want to live in a state where we are experiencing continuous allostatic recalibration. That we would only need this sort of domain-general overhaul in our outlook (loosening of our internal predictive models of the world) when faced with stressors that are signalling to us that there is a need to reconfigure responses in relation to perceived, co-occurring environmental threats.
As Friedrich Nietzche famously wrote in Thus spoke Zarathustra, “You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame; how could you rise anew if you have not first become ashes?”
If we want a psychological transformation, we have to let go of old views about ourselves, the world, and particular situations.
Our brains’ 5-HT2AR system, and the proceeding pivotal mental state, allow for this letting go to take place. While our genetic predispositions, previous experiences of adversity, careful curation of the immediate context and a sense of intentionality, all increase the chances that whatever fills the vacuum will transform us in a positive direction.