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What Queerness, Neurodivergence, and Psychedelics Teach Us About the Beautiful, Multidimensional Nature of Identity

It’s time we stop pigeonholing people into categories as if that can hold the complexity of who they truly are

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DoubleBlind Mag

Article by Dr. Nicole Snyder
Published on

DoubleBlind Mag is devoted to fair, rigorous reporting by leading experts and journalists in the field of psychedelics. Read more about our editorial process and fact-checking here.

“Queer is deeply personal and public. It’s intensely individual and communal. It’s a verb and a noun. It’s the sexual and the platonic. It’s identity and it’s disidentification. Queer is a rejection of the seduction of binaries.” – @DecoloniallyQueer, Instagram/Twitter

The theoretical physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein writes that the inner workings of the universe reveal how the ways we have historically oriented ourselves to each other, our environment, and the numinous is incongruous with the very essence of all matter. Particle physicists use mathematics to describe particle behaviors, e.g., the flavor of a quark, but when using the equation to observe it, find they don’t always follow the rules. They defy their own definitions. They are bizarre and elusive and beautiful: Queer.

Prescod-Weinstein sees a central implication for justice in this dissonance between how we relate to ourselves and one another—and how the universe actually operates, unpredictably and beyond categorization. Her own “experience with ‘agender’ [specifically],” she says, “was different from what a lot of trans people go through,” hesitating to locate her experience there. 

“I…think that a strong gender identification is like quantum spin—you either have an internal sense of it (a spin greater than zero) or you don’t (spin zero),” she writes in The Disordered Cosmos. “I am genderless yet in my everyday life I am gendered by others. There is a distance between what people believe my gender is and how I feel on the inside. My subconscious gender experience does not align with my physical and social sex experience.” 

Gender identity is infinitely faceted and shifting; cissex women interact with patriarchy differently than trans women and men—and women and men who have a complex gender identity and nonbinary people are regularly erased from the discussion. Observing a single facet will neither reveal the myriad complexities of a thing nor the prismatic effusion of possibilities. To imagine wholeness, one must expand the frame.

My experience is a (significant) step removed from Prescod-Weinstein who has the added othering of race and the Black experience. And I have the added experience of a neurodivergent processing brain. Still, she adeptly describes my own grapple with gender identity as I’ve not encountered elsewhere. As she dissects the universe to its bare energies, observable by their effects, but elusive at the attempt to see straight on, it feels as though there’s a quantum entanglement between her experience and mine. 

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My experience is outside the realm of judgment. It is my own. And, simultaneously, it is lived in the context of a white, cis-male patriarchy capitalist system that prioritizes dominance and the hoarding of resources. And it is daily met with, to employ a currently overused term which, nevertheless, is apropos to the discussion, “gaslighting.” Very little changes when the public discourse is an elaborative gaslighting of all who do not—cannot—present to the world this one-dimensional expression of humanity.  

This is what I love about the term Queer. Queer is identity and it is disidentification. It is a rejection of the seduction of the binary. And why I have long engaged the discipline of queer theology. I believe it is essential to the project of understanding a Being beyond categorization. And it highlights what makes queering psychedelics imperative to the task of doing policy right and facilitating psychedelics’ use in healing with excellence.

To observe psychedelic experience, quantify and qualify it, the field must include as many voices as possible. “Include” isn’t the right word. It presupposes a permission-giving entity. It implies a paternalist, patriarchal system that feigns benevolence while continuing to substantiate a system that hoards power, resources, and influence. A just, equitable, creative psychedelic science will comprise views once considered “other.” 

To borrow from Liberation Theology, the psychedelic space must employ a “preferential option” for the underresourced non-white/ cisgender male. A preference for those who possess insufficient power to effect social change means that “intermediary structures…should be freely organized, without any unwarranted interference from…dominant groups, in view of their development and concrete participation in the accomplishment of the total common good. They constitute the vital network of society. They are also the true expression of the citizens’ liberty and unity,” wrote Gerald Schlabach, emeritus professor in the Department of Theology at the University of St. Thomas, in 1968. 

It also means that members of the dominant group need to stop talking. The straight-white-cisgender male has said more than enough. I don’t mean these humans have nothing of value to say. What I do mean is that they don’t have to say it. Defer. Give due credit. Create conditions for other voices to easily be heard.1

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
Theoretical physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

We do this by returning to “the universal body.”2 Recognizing the complexity of the whole of humankind. The universal body is gay, is other-abled, is agender, is Black, is middle-aged…The universal body is Queer. So to heal the universal body, writes Bia Labate, anthropologist and founder of Chacruna, “we need more sophisticated views of healing.”3 We also need more sophisticated views of illness and intellectual capacity. Because queerness encompasses the whole—mind, body, and soul, and the community in which these queer bodies do life. 

The psychedelic experience is queer. It is non-binary. And it holds unimaginable insight into how we perceive mental illness, how we process information and interact with our environment, even, how we love. 

“[T]o conjure with the passive culture and adapt to its rules is to degrade and deny the fullness of our meaning and intention…” – Adrienne Rich

The Mental Illness—Wellness Binary

The mental health profession determines a diagnosis based on criteria outlined and described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR). Disordered mental processes are quantified by their social and internal effects. If it impacts your relationships, your job, and/or the way you think about yourself or others, in often not-so-quantifiable-yet-significant ways, you might be diagnosed with a mental disorder. 

The trick, then, is to determine when characteristics of any given diagnosable disorder become diagnostically disordered. Who determines where the distress lies? When does the discomfort tip into distress? What is the source of the catalyst that affects the tipping? Because, the brain on psychedelics looks remarkably like the brain on schizophrenia. A considerable number of artists suffer significantly with depression and anxiety. Yet their work has a profoundly positive impact on society.

Some distinguishing characteristics can be seen with brain imaging between people who have been diagnosed with a mental health condition and people who have not. Atrophy in cortical neurons, for instance, is associated with the development of depression and anxiety. Psychedelics are shown to yield reductions in depression and anxiety, and promote fear extinction learning (a decrease in automatic fear responses associated with the memory of past traumas), and may do so, in part, by reducing inflammation. They also appear to promote dendritic growth and increase synaptic connectivity in the prefrontal cortex, new nerve cell growth, and new impulses that also occur when learning something new, but happen more globally with psychedelic use.4 Curiously, while we often hear about the role of psychedelics in modulating serotonin, a chemical that plays a key role in mood, a recent study finds psychedelic action may not occur by directly binding to the serotonin receptor, as in the case of SSRIs, but within the cell itself. This is what may be activating the specific psychedelic response, signaling new neuronal connections that promote neuroplasticity. Much like quarks, serotonin receptors are queer. 

According to a study by Haley Dourron and colleagues published in Pharmacological Reviews journal, psychedelic action can be described by self-entropic broadening theory (SEB), “the level of self-focus … [that] can either facilitate well-being or exacerbate mental illness.” SEB includes, the authors continue, “an increase in attentional scope…facilitating a hyperassociative style of thinking,” the ability to weave together often disparate concepts and associations, often seen as ‘free associations.’ That “hyperassociativity may create the environment in which novel insights, new solutions, and creativity can flourish,” which is also experienced in, for instance, REM dreaming.

Perspective broadening facilitates cognitive flexibility and flexibility of behavior, what, again, can be thought of as Queer. It increases openness to new experience and curiosity. According to Dourron and colleagues, perspective broadening also encompasses the experience of “awe,” and involves qualities such as “vastness and novelty.” These phenomena, they state, are described as an “‘anarchic’ style of information processing.”

So, when holding loosely the data and definitions compiled by scientific inquiry, the “normal” range broadens, and we can recognize in, for instance, neurodivergence, a display of hyperassociativity, before labeling it a “learning disorder.” The concept of an “anarchic” style of information processing is intriguing, and feels empowering to me. “Anarchic” also suggests anti-social and antagonistic behaviors. The perception of disordered and chaotic thinking is often met with negativity and suppression. With creativity, novelty is self-evident but, without curiosity, is often met with suspicion or misunderstanding, at best, or revulsion and violence, at worst.  

Intelligence is the ability to sense one’s environment, follow a non-linear set of rules, and adapt to those rules based on the outcome of one’s actions. Intelligence exists on a spectrum of capacity; all forms of intelligence deserve the right to self-determination.”

“The Machinehood Manifesto, March 20, 2095”

—S. B. Divya, Machinehood

The Neurodivergent – Neurotypical Binary

Neurodivergence refers to brain processes that do not conform to a model of neuronal connections considered within normal limits. This is most commonly determined by the effects: can the person focus (within normal limits, of course), create an outline, “accurately” solve mathematics, and resolve facial expression? Yet these also rely on data derived from contexts that are not necessarily conducive to learning, and rarely mindful of individual needs, home environment, relationship with instructors, etc. So, here’s what we know right now:

Neurodevelopmental research is currently hyperfocused on Autism-Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Here, geneticists have identified specific DNA changes associated with disorders found within the neurodevelopmental continuum (ASD, ADHD, major depression, SSD, and BPD). All five share mutations in the gene called CACNA1C. These are also linked with learning disorders by genetic markers, as well as by structural anomalies, which can often be seen on fMRIs by their distinctive neuronal activity across the brain​​.5 

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Heightened sensitivity to environmental data is a common feature for people who express these conditions. Psychedelics, too, are known to profoundly augment sound, sight, and touch in an internal-yet-transpersonal manner, yet, may reset the perception of overwhelming discomfort that comes with real-world heightened sensitivity—shifting neuro-atypical processing (i.e., as “disordered”) to creative advantage.6  

model of brain connectivity
Dominant patterns of background noise driving the brain network.The spatial complexity of the background noise in control is significantly higher than in ASD, as quantified in the inset (Wilcoxon ranksum text, p<<0.01). Numbers on top of the plots show the values of spatial complexity. | Domínguez, L. G., Pérez Velázquez, J. L., & Galán, R. F. (2013). A Model of Functional Brain Connectivity and Background Noise as a Biomarker for Cognitive Phenotypes: Application to Autism. PLOS ONE, 8(4), e61493. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0061493

Connectivity is a crucial piece, write Luis Garcia Domínguez and colleagues, as ASD brains “appear to have more functional connectivity between neighboring regions and less between distant regions than do neurotypical people’s brains…” or, in certain networks. It also appears that traits associated with autism are related to disruptions in the default-mode network, the part of the brain commonly associated with the “ego,” much like psychedelics do. Connections to areas of the brain that are involved in social cue recognition tend to be weaker or delayed in ASD brains.7 Psychedelics (with therapeutic integration) may activate connections to regions associated with social cue recognition, while leaving intact the brilliance of the unique regional-tight connections in the ASD individual.

“There is a world beyond ours, a world that is far away, nearby and invisible.” 

—María Sabina

The Gender (Non)binary

What is more, other ASD studies found higher rates of ASD diagnosis among those identifying as gender diverse, and increased prevalence of cisgendered individuals among those on the autism spectrum. Transgender and gender-diverse individuals scored higher on the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ), the Systemizing Quotient (SQ), the Sensory Perception Quotient (SPQ) and lower on the Empathy Quotient (EQ) compared with cisgender males and cisgender females.

While lower EQ scores are more prevalent among autistic individuals, this may reflect difficulties with identifying another’s mental state, not necessarily lacking desire to respond with an appropriate emotion (as with individuals with psychopathic/antisocial personality disorders who show intact cognitive empathy with impaired affective empathy). As with any who present with difference, a traumatic encounter with “normals” may result in a response that appears aggressive, especially when “appropriate” affect isn’t easily accessed.8

Empathy and human-felt connection are influenced by countless factors, and not what we always assume. For instance, the role of Oxytocin, a chemical in the brain associated with bonding and love, may not be as critical in pair binding and in empathy as prior research suggests.9 

Psychedelics are shown to increase serum oxytocin levels in concert with serotonin levels. Yet Friederike Holze, a Clinical Pharmacologist at University Hospital Basel, Switzerland and his colleagues found that the 5HT2A receptor antagonist ketanserin reduced serum oxytocin levels, but not the elevated LSD-specific induced levels of empathy, further supporting the thesis that empathy and social bonding features are not dependent on oxytocin levels and signaling. A similar study with high dose psilocybin (30mg) produced similar effects, but, unlike LSD, also found increases in plasma oxytocin levels. Oxytocin is clearly involved in emotional bonding, but like quarks and serotonin, also seems to be queer. (The difference between “serum” and “plasma” oxytocin is beyond the scope of this article, but doesn’t impact the hypothesis, more broadly, that Oxytocin levels can increase or decrease from a psychedelic.)

The thing is, the field of ASD neuroscience research continues to frame autistic brain processes, such as aggression, as consistent with distinctly “masculine” features. All while clearly demonstrating that transgender and non-binary individuals process more consistently with systemizing their environment than any other population, irrespective of assigned sex. 

Science – Creative-Imagination Binary

The very act of doing science is queer. It is specific and generalizable. It is an individual and a communal project. It is a rejection of the seduction of assumptions. Science begins with a question born out of imagination, of wonder. 

Psychedelics queer our thought patterns, facilitate divergent thinking ability (a primary feature of dyslexia), and increase openness to new experience and creative, novel thinking (versus the inflexibility that hierarchy of power differentials maintain). Because a hierarchy is always only about the individual, it is linear and lacking potentiality. Entropic processing is fluid, and fluidity is inherently creative, difficult to pinpoint and communal. 

Entropic processing as it informs gender fluidity makes possible a perspective that frames the concept not so much as observing a move of a point on a spectrum (continuum, array), but as encompassing the continuum—or, at least, extending across larger swaths of it. Humans defy categorization every time a category is ascribed (or prescribed). To speak of perspectival expansion is to imply expansive range (versus merely a shift of a single point), and, perhaps, reaching into other dimensions.    

Blurring the gender binary will invariably lessen the compulsion to not only categorize others, but also suspend peoples’ instinct to turn (unwarranted) expectations inward—which strengthens the probability of living out of wounds, inflicted by the shame of not conforming to those categories. Gender norms inform peoples’ experience of the mystery; inevitably codified, institutionalized, and politicized.   

Love every leaf… Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day, and you will come at last to love the world with an all-embracing love.” 

—Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Inter/Intra-Dimensional Awe

So what characterizes the psychedelic experience of the numinous? Professor and Clinical Psychologist at University of Alabama at Birmingham Peter Hendricks suggests it is awe. Awe tends to be directed outward, and to be inclusive, versus euphoria, which is a primarily solo experience, he writes. And a primary experience related to a sense of awe and wonder is nature relatedness. 

Nature relatedness is a personal connection to nature that is expressed as benevolence toward and affinity with nature, and is positively correlated with psilocybin use. The communal character of awe naturally extends outward, seeming to require expression (e.g., protect, nurture, understand the nature of the object of a person’s awe). Awe doesn’t see usefulness in the other, something to be controlled or exploited. Awe only appreciates, enjoys, stands in wonder, and calls it “beautiful.”

association between psilocybin use and overall NR
Association between psilocybin use and overall NR. Raw correlations between experience with psilocybin and overall NR (standardized) in psychedelic-experienced participants, across genders (left) and separated by gender (right), including fitted loess curve. | Forstmann, M., Kettner, H. S., Sagioglou, C., Irvine, A., Gandy, S., Carhart-Harris, R. L., & Luke, D. (2023). Among psychedelic-experienced users, only past use of psilocybin reliably predicts nature relatedness. Journal of Psychopharmacology. https://doi.org/10.1177/02698811221146356

Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, refers to awe’s communal instinct as “moral beauty,” bearing witness to others’ kindness, generosity, courage. Keltner asserts that awe and wonder aren’t generated by monuments of power, but in the simple, the ordinary. In an article for UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine, Keltner refers to a Toni Morrison lecture in which she explains, “Allowing goodness its own speech does not annihilate evil, but it does allow me to signify my own understanding of goodness: the acquisition of self-knowledge.”10

Allowing goodness its own speech invites expansiveness, a spacetime perspectival shift. A new hypothesis in physics may offer conceptual assistance here: a three dimensional time–one dimensional space rubric which explains what it would look like for an observer moving faster than light in a vacuum, thus accounting for the existence of superluminal objects. From the superluminal perspective, only one dimension retains its spatial character; three are time dimensions, “aging” independently. From our perspective, a particle appears to move simultaneously in all directions of space.

To allow goodness its own speech invites the observer to conceive of movement not bound by lightspeed or a single trajectory, but at a pace different from accepted limits. The Dutch theologian, Adrian van Kaam, refers to such time dimensionality as the “pace of grace.” And U2’s Bono views it from another facet when he sings, “grace finds goodness in everything,” and “[grace] travels outside of karma.” Grace sees goodness from a limitless perspective, goodness moving simultaneously in all directions. This imagery of traveling faster than light while within it, suspended in time while moving, shining, permeating—everywhere, everywhen—is also often evoked in the psychedelic experience. 

Even substance-free mindfulness practices in group settings have been shown to promote synchronization, collaboration, and openness to others’ perspectives, and increased capacity to transcend polarities. It is nuanced. And nuance presupposes spectra, subtlety. Subtlety necessitates a closer look, precipitated by curiosity. It’s in this desire, even compulsion to know and understand one another, that community connection can strengthen and become more—more of what it might be, has the capacity to be—the capacity to think otherwise.  

“You cannot use someone else’s fire. You can only use your own. And in order to do that, you must first be willing to believe that you have it.” —Audre Lorde

Bad Trips and Theological Reckoning 

The more we learn, the better our assessments become, followed closely by more effective approaches to meet that information (to remedy or not, discontinue or direct or relegate to the philosophical, or merely stand in wonder at the unfathomable). 

While brain imaging may be able to locate downstream mechanisms that are activated when the owner of that brain is experiencing awe and wonder, it can neither quantify it, nor define it merely by observing the precise activity therein. It also cannot produce a map of when the mystical experience turns to existential terror. When, or where, does the shift occur from the ability to embrace cognitive accommodation and new knowledge to unrelenting cosmic anxiety? 

experiment procedure
Experimental design and procedure. Participants were presented with three different types of videos (awe, positive, or neutral) in either the absorption instruction condition or the analytical instruction condition. During each trial, participants were first presented with a task instruction, followed by a 30-s video and following the video they were required to rate the video for feelings of awe, arousal, and valence and to report the number of perspective changes (in the analytical condition) | Arciniegas Gomez, M. A., & Sauter, D. (2019). The neural correlates of the awe experience: Reduced default mode network activity during feelings of awe. Human Brain Mapping, 40(12), 3561-3574. https://doi.org/10.1002/hbm.24616

After a second psilocybin session that culminated in a diametrically different experience from her first, Harvard Divinity School student Rachel Petersen recalls the Hebrew Bible narrative of Job—who never receives an answer to his suffering, but, rather, is reprimanded by God for demanding answers that are beyond understanding. And yet, Job persists in his belief, holding devotion with the question. Job’s story also recalls the poetry of St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul. Rather than describing a withdrawal of God’s presence, as some have interpreted the sonnet, it is a love poem that recognizes the constant presence of the Divine that remains while surpassing the senses, usurping them. In utter sensory darkness, the cosmic light of dark matter—that can only be detected by its effects—radiates on the edges. In the midst of absolute deprivation.  Because, in the end, a person must be silent to allow goodness its own speech. It is a queer space—at once sheer terror and awe-some. To remain is to welcome the unpredictable, simultaneously moving in all directions, traveling faster than light while within it, suspended in time while moving, shining, permeating—everywhere, everywhen. With awe, and at the pace of grace, we move together—everywhen in all directions. 

Footnotes

1 A collection of 30 plus diverse considerations for implementing these conditions can be found in, Psychedelic Justice: Toward a Diverse and Equitable Psychedelic Culture. (2021). (Clancy Cavnar, Beatriz Caiuby Labate, Ed.). Synergetic Press. See also, Williams, M. T. (2020). Managing Microaggrressions: Addressing Everyday Racism in Therapeutic Spaces. Oxford University Press. And with the wisdom of Ralph Metzner, psychedelics invite a “no-talking ritual structure, Metzner, R. (2015). Alies for Awakening: Guidelines for productive and safe experiences with entheogens. Regent Press.

 2 Nicholas Powers, PhD, 1/18/2023, Chacruna/Naropa University, CO Prop122: Where do we go from here? forum.

3 Bia Lebate, PhD, 1/18/2023, Chacruna/Naropa University, CO Prop122: Where do we go from here? forum.

4 It must be said, dendritic growth occurs with any new learning, but primarily in areas related to the specific learned activity.

5 Inflammation on the brain and low functional connectivity may explain the low dopamine levels that impact depression, specifically. In one study, anhedonia (ability to experience pleasure), and motivation were only marginally improved by increase in dopamine activation. Therapy and dopamine activation along with reducing inflammation increased functional connectivity in corticostriatal reward circuits, improving anhedonia and motivation. Bekhbat, M., Li, Z., Mehta, N. D., Treadway, M. T., Lucido, M. J., Woolwine, B. J., Haroon, E., Miller, A. H., & Felger, J. C. (2022, 2022/10/01). Functional connectivity in reward circuitry and symptoms of anhedonia as therapeutic targets in depression with high inflammation: evidence from a dopamine challenge study. Molecular Psychiatry, 27(10), 4113-4121. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41380-022-01715-3

6 See Brock Eide, Fernette Eide. (2023). The Dyslexic Advantage (Revised and Updated): Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain. Plume.

7 Dyslexic processing brains have more functional connectivity between distant regions than both autistic and neurotypical brains. Unfortunately, the research on dyslexic processing is paltry by comparison.

8 A trauma response engages the executive control network in the brain to compensate. And there is less signaling between the amygdala and default mode network for those with psychopathologies. For instance, individuals with PTSD respond to any discomfort by overgeneralizing threat. Zhu, X., Suarez-Jimenez, B., Lazarov, A., Such, S., Marohasy, C., Small, S. S., Wager, T. D., Lindquist, M. A., Lissek, S., & Neria, Y. (2022, 2022/11/21). Sequential fear generalization and network connectivity in trauma exposed humans with and without psychopathology. Communications Biology, 5(1), 1275. https://doi.org/10.1038/s42003-022-04228-5

9 Previous mice studies clearly show that for mice lacking oxytocin receptor function, lactation and nurture are impossible.

10 Keltner describes what he calls social power: awe has low social power; elevated power is afforded greater rewards and freedom. But in the long-term, elevated power weakens community, and therefore, society as a whole. When society prioritizes awe, the community is strengthened—and flat, that is, power is shared.

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