Toward a Critique of Psychedelic Reason, #3–A Preliminary Phenomenology of Psychedelic Experience.
By Otto Paans
TABLE OF CONTENTS
3. A Preliminary Phenomenology of Psychedelic Experience
This essay will be published in five installments; this installment contains section 3.
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Toward a Critique of Psychedelic Reason
For every human illness, somewhere in the World exists the plant which is the cure. I believe that there is healing potential locked inside plants which is integral with their evolution, just as part of human evolution is to learn to tap this wonderful gift of Nature.[i]
To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet. To formulate and express the contents of this reduced awareness, man has invented and endlessly elaborated those symbol-systems and implicit philosophies which we call languages. [Every individual is its victim] in so far as it confirms him in the belief that reduced awareness is the only awareness and as it bedevils his sense of reality, so that he is all too apt to take his concepts for data, his words for actual things. (Huxley 2004: p. 11)
Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language. (Wittgenstein, 1953/2009: p. 52e, §109)
The philosopher’s treatment of a question is like the treatment of an illness. (Wittgenstein, 1953/2009: p. 98e, §255)
3. A Preliminary Phenomenology of Psychedelic Experience
If you close your eyes now, two things will happen. First, you cannot read this text any longer. And second, and in the absence of text or any visual input from the external world, the imaginative capacities of our mind takes center stage. Notice that the “black” on the back of your eyelids is not tranquil or serene. Multiple colored lines, dots, and shapes — so-called “form constants” or, if the visual system is stimulated while your eyes are shut, phosphenes –play on that surface. Once, while discussing this with friends, we noticed that all of us experienced different recurring forms, patterns, and shapes. So, strangely enough — and I encourage you to try this out yourself — you have a certain familiarity with the shapes you encounter in that realm behind the eyelids. The intensity, direction of movement, and speed of these shapes can vary. If you have a fever, or if you are tired, or if you are anxious or excited, they might behave differently than usual.
This is the first phenomenological encounter when taking magic mushrooms. All of a sudden, when you close your eyes, these vaguely familiar patterns begin to organize themselves. I am well aware of the rather peculiar way in which I am putting this, but this is — honest to Husserl — how it seems. It’s not that the patterns change in an arbitrary manner. Instead, they seemingly actively to coalesce into broadly ordered, dynamic and organic patterns that possess a higher degree of order and intelligibility.
What happens next is that these two-dimensional patterns become three-dimensional. And I mean this not just in the purely geometric sense of “acquiring an additional dimension.” Instead, they organize themselves in rapid successions that not only evoke depth and distance, but that also cause the lived body to feel that depth and distance. So, the visual information causes a physical, felt change in proprioception, hence in how the lived body orients and anchors itself in space. Or, is it the other way around, and the lived body is stimulated so that it creates different patterns of visual information? I am not sure, but there is an interesting speculation to be made here, to which I return in section 4.
With this, the sense of inner scale changes dramatically. We may sometimes feel that we’re “trapped in our heads” too much, for instance, when pondering a problem for a prolonged period of time. But with magic mushrooms comes the liberating realization that the interior of the head is a rather big place to explore: so big that you did not have the faintest idea about its farthest reaches. Or rather: you knew it intimately as a child, but you forgot it when you grew up. In a dynamic succession of landscapes, patterns, color changes, images, experiences, and sounds, the magic mushroom trip takes you literally on a tour of the landscape of your own psyche, communicated largely via patterns, colors, associations that are triggered, imaginational fragments that appear and disappear, as well as continuously zooming in and out from detail to panorama, and back again. The detail of a pattern seems to grow fractals, for instance, and all of a sudden, it turns into a highly detailed and fantastic landscape. Zooming out once more, this landscape turns into a panoramic, bird’s-eye view painted in the most brilliant of colors, only to morph into a new pattern more complicated and unexpected than the first one.
If you open your eyes, a completely different transformation happens. The environment itself seems to come alive, with the light appearing more intensely, vividly, and in a more saturated way — to some extent, this visual effect can be explained by the pupils dilating due to the psychoactive compounds. Ordinary objects acquire a multitude of meanings, that is, possible interpretations. For example, three books stacked on top of each other convey a tectonic expression rarely found in even the most sophisticated of buildings; the light of the setting sun playing on the wall opens out into a world of patterns you never knew existed. A line drawn on paper seems to become alive and moving under the tip of your pen, creating multiple meanings as it unfolds itself.
Close your eyes again, and the trip through your mind resumes, but once the trip advances further, the images become more cinematic, and less pattern-like. Imagine for a moment that you are employed in the art department of the Avatar movie franchise, and you experience that imaginary world in real-life, from different viewpoints, with a degree of creativity you did not know existed, and with the agency to massage and nudge the images that appear. In short, you experience your very own and fully natural creative agency in full force, and with an intensity you cannot — in the most literal sense of the word — comprehend.
Interesting things happen not merely in the center of the visual field. In low doses and in the initial stages of the trip, peripheral perception increases. Indeed, it has been argued that this feature provided an evolutionary advantage to our monkey-like ancestors who included magic mushrooms in their diet. After all, when you focus slightly more on movements that appear at the edge of the visual field, you might outsmart the approaching predator in a way that’s unavailable to your unlucky, mushroom-averse colleague. As the trip advances, some very interesting things happen at the edge of the visual field. If you turn your eyes sideways, you see that “blanks” appear.
We can compare it to a glitch in a video game from the early 2000s. In a 3D game like Quake, Tomb Raider, or Unreal, a careless level editor could unintentionally provide the player with an opportunity to run into the limits of the programmed world. So, you would encounter a flat, unadorned plane without any textures, because the programmers never assumed the player would get there, or some other strange visual effect. Something like that occurs also when the capacity of the brain is largely involved in processing the hallucinogenic input. I’ll discuss various links between this phenomenon and the philosophy of mind in the next section.
After a while, the hallucinogenic effects decrease, and slowly, slowly, everyday reality re-enters the scene again. There is a hint of wistful melancholy in this process: all of a sudden, the world seems to flatten out, to become less colorful, to lose its manifold character. But — very unlike alcohol — the urge at this point is not to take another dose in order to stop this process of “coming down to earth” again.
If I had to describe the state of mind immediately after a trip, I’d compare it to the state of mind one experiences after a very deep and rewarding meditation session. There is a feeling of deep connectedness, intense gratitude, a pure joy of being alive, an intense creativity burning at the heart of being and a feeling of participating in the cosmos.
At the heart of all these feelings is a deep and stable tranquility, usually described as “centeredness.” The essential difference between the tranquility one experiences after meditation, and what one experiences after a magic mushroom trip, is that after a trip, the mind seems positively reeling with creative potential. Let’s compare it to the feeling of having an inspirational moment while writing out an idea. While writing, one realizes all of a sudden, the creative potentials that a line of thinking can hold. Confronted with this promise, a rush of vital motivation courses through body and mind alike.
Indeed, we find many such inspirational instances of this in the lives of artists. Here, I’d like to single out the case of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. In so-called “dictations,” Rilke claimed to receive his poems from an inspirational realm beyond everyday experience. In a particular intense episode, Rilke finished his magisterial Duino Elegies over several weeks in February 1922, often frantically working until deep in the night. Whatever you might think of this episode, it is clear that an intense and almost superhuman motivational drive is part-and-parcel of it. Rilke worked until exhaustion forced him to retire to bed and finally get some sleep, having pushed his body and mind to the very limits of their capacities.
Such a vital motivation is part of the essentially embodied mental state after a trip. The feeling is somewhat euphoric, but also undirected. It is an urge to create and invent, yet the body is in no state to put this intention into action (trust me on this…). Luckily, this optimistic and forward-driven creative urge becomes part of one’s mindset in the weeks following the trip. It seems that the Native Americans who used the magic mushrooms traditionally claimed that the effects were tangible for three months after the trip. I cannot confirm or deny this claim, but it could be easily investigated by means of a controlled clinical study.
Interestingly, as I mentioned in passing above, the urge after a trip is not to take another dose of mushrooms. Via a serotonin-based feedback mechanism, the body becomes far less receptive to psilocybin directly after a trip, so daily use of mushrooms is out of the question. But most importantly, even while there is a wistful melancholy that accompanies the departure from the psychedelic realm, reality does not (re)appear as ugly, empty, or meaningless.
And this is of the utmost importance. It seems to me that alcohol and many other recreational drugs function as stimulants in the short term, but as depressants in the long term. They cause the condition they claim to remedy. In turn, users of these drugs feel often compelled to use them to escape an unbearable reality, only to be confronted with it again once the sedative effects wear off. Magic mushrooms, on the other hand, suffuse reality with more meaning, more depth, and more purpose. It is as if the effects experienced during the trip linger as an essentially embodied mental after-image for weeks on end. It’s not that one is high or stoned all the time; instead, it is just much easier to see the beauty and joy in one’s surrounding world.[i]
[i] For an in-depth discussion on the discussion on the phenomenology of the psychedelic, see (Sheldrake, 2021: esp. ch. 5).
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