Philip Gerrans and Chris Letheby Masterclass

22 November 2019,
Institute of Advanced Studies, UWA
Honours Students, Postgraduate Students, Early Career Researchers, Academics, Professional Researchers


Image of mind - conceptual

21 November

Public Lecture
Engineering Empathy

Psychedelic Therapy: unbinding the self

An IAS Masterclass with Professor Philip Gerrans, Professor of Philosophy, University of Adelaide and 2019 Institute of Advanced Studies Visiting Fellow and Dr Chris Letheby, Philosophy, The University of Western Australia.

Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is making waves in psychiatry. A growing body of evidence suggests that one or two doses of LSD or psilocybin, in controlled conditions, can reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, and addiction for many months. The psychedelic treatment model differs dramatically from standard treatments, and rivals them in rapidity and efficacy, leading some researchers to speak of a “new paradigm” in psychiatry. However, despite a wealth of knowledge about the neuropharmacology of psychedelics, it is not yet understood how they produce lasting benefits with just one or two administrations.

This masterclass explores a theoretical model of psychedelic therapy based on the framework of predictive processing. According to this framework, the brain is an inference engine that builds models of the world to predict its own future inputs. Our everyday conscious experience of self and world is in effect a “controlled hallucination”—the brain’s current best guess about the causes of its sensory signals. By temporarily disrupting the functioning of high-level cortical networks, psychedelics induce a state of “ego dissolution” in which the brain’s self-model is taken offline.

This state of ego dissolution is experienced by volunteers as the sensation of merging with the cosmos, but therapeutically speaking, it provides an opportunity for rigid and maladaptive self-models to be “rewritten” during the window of plasticity induced by the drug. This model of psychedelic therapy has interesting connections to recent psychological findings on “self-binding” and philosophical accounts of explanatory integration in the mind and brain sciences.

About the Presenters

Professor Gerrans studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University. During his PhD he became interested in the relationship between philosophy, cognitive neuroscience, and psychology. He started out working on autism and theory of mind. He then became interested in psychiatry, especially delusions, writing a book, The Measure of Madness, about the relationship between fundamental neuroscience and psychology and philosophy. Professor Gerrans has an ongoing collaboration with researchers at the Swiss Centre for Affective Sciences which informs his research into the connections between emotional processes and self-representation.

Affective disorders such as social anxiety and depression are a focus of this research, which links up with much earlier work he did on the Cotard delusion (in which people say they have disappeared or no longer exist). He anticipates that that project will lead back to developmental psychology, since it seems many disorders have a source in the developmental relationship between emotional regulation and other aspects of cognition. Most recently he has extended these interests into collaborative work (with Chris Letheby) on the explanation of psychedelic experience.

Dr Chris Letheby is a philosopher of mind and cognitive science, working on issues arising from the use of psychedelic drugs in psychiatry and neuroscience. His doctoral research, conducted at the University of Adelaide, presented the first systematic analysis of psychedelic experience within the framework of 21st century philosophy of cognitive science. He is currently (2018-2021) Lecturer in Philosophy at The University of Western Australia and Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Adelaide on the ARC-funded project ‘Philosophical Perspectives on Psychedelic Psychiatry’. His monograph ‘Philosophy of Psychedelics: Naturalism and Psychiatric Mysticism’ will be coming out with Oxford University Press in 2019.