Brain Neurochemistry and Mystic Visions


The birth of Dionysus is worth telling. There is a precise description of it in the Imagines of Philostratus the Elder.

“A cloud of fire, after enveloping the city of Thebes, tears on the palace of Cadmos where Zeus leads a happy life with Semele. Semele dies, and Dionysus is really born under the action of the flame.

We can see the erased image of Semele rising towards the sky, where the Muses will celebrate his arrival with songs. As for Dionysus, he starts from the mother’s womb, thus torn, and shining like a star, he makes the brilliance of the fire pale with his own. The flame opens, sketching around Dionysus the shape of a cave[which is covered with consecrated plants].

The propellers, the berries of ivy, the vines already strong, the stems of which we make the thyrsus cover their contours, and all this vegetation comes out of the ground so willingly, that it grows partly in the middle of the fire. And let us not be surprised that the earth lays on the flames like a crown of plants.”

Philostratus ignores the fact that Semele had wanted to see the face of Zeus, her lover, and that this was the cause of her death. Zeus, kept by a promise he had made to her to fulfill all her desires, was forced to show his face of light and fire when she made the request, knowing that by doing so he would kill her, in spite of himself.

But he didn’t want to let the child she was carrying die, which was also his. Zeus took Dionysus out of his mother’s womb and put him in the great light, in a cloud of fire. However, Dionysus himself was already a being of fire and light. Philostratus describes how Dionysus’ own fire « makes Zeus’ own fire pale ».

It should be noted above all that the divine fire of Dionysus does not consume the sacred bushes that envelop his body at the time of his birth.

In a different context, Moses sees a burning bush, which is not consumed either. The Bible gives little detail on how the bush behaves in flames.

Philostratus, on the other hand, is a little more precise: a « crown of plants » floats above the fire. The metaphor of the crown is reminiscent of an aura, a halo, or the laurels surrounding the hero’s head. Except Dionysus is not a hero, but a God.

The idea of plants burning without burning in a « fire » of divine origin is counter-intuitive.

It is possible that this idea is a hidden metaphor. The inner fire of some plants, such as Cannabis, or other psychotropic plants, is a kind of fire that affects the mind, burns it indeed, but does not (usually) consume it. This inner fire, caused by plants capable of inducing shamanic visions and even divine ecstasies, is one of the oldest ways to contemplate mysteries.

This is one of the most valuable lessons from the experiences reported by shamans in Asia, Africa, or America.

What explains the powerful affinity between psychotropic plants, human brain neurochemistry and these ecstatic, divine visions?

Why is brain chemistry capable of generating a ‘vision’ of God from psychotropic stimuli?

Why is the active ingredient of cannabis, THC (Δ9 – tetrahydrocannabinol), capable, by binding to the CB1 and CB2 receptors, of delivering man to ecstasy, and to the vision of the divine, under certain conditions?

New ways of investigating the brain should be able to be used to detect the brain regions activated during these visions.

There are two main categories of assumptions.

Either the psychotropic mechanism is entirely internal to the brain, depending only on neurobiological processes, which can get out of hand when they are somehow looped around themselves.

Either these neurobiological processes are in reality only a façade, more or less shaped throughout the evolution of the human brain. They hide or reveal, depending on the case, our direct perception of a world that is still mysterious, a parallel world, generally inaccessible to sensitivity and consciousness.

The neurochemical processes disinhibited by THC release the brain, and during ecstasy give it the opportunity to access a meta-world, usually veiled, but very real, existing independently of human consciousness.

In that assumption, the neurochemistry of cannabis does not then generate « visions » by itself; it is only a key that opens the consciousness to a world that is inaccessible, most of the time, to weak human capacities.