Toward a Critique of Psychedelic Reason, #5–Elaboration 3, & Conclusion.
By Otto Paans
TABLE OF CONTENTS
5. Elaboration 3, & Conclusion
This essay will be published in five installments; this fifth and final installment contains the third part of section 4, the Conclusion, and the REFERENCES.
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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)
There is definitely a link to philosophy of mind. Notably Daniel Dennett and Stanislas Dehaene have formulated elaborate theories on how the brain processes information. Dennett’s so-called Multiple Draft theory is — simply put — that out of a mass of incoming sense data, series of successive and overlapping judgements are being created. So, the mind is like a busy newspaper editor who selects and orders events that will be considered. Notwithstanding the fact that many more events happened that day, the editor decides what is important and edits the paper in such a way that a certain image appears.
My speculation is that the brain-on-mushrooms is too busy with the imaginational workload, and that the main editor is overworked for the time being. The result is indeed a literal “lack of judgement.” The brain no longer fills in the blanks but instead leaves them be. In a normal, sober situation, the brain would have extrapolated from incoming perceptual input, and would have generated a seamless, high-res perceptual picture. But now, the brain does not perform this capacity, letting parts of the judgment-based image fall apart.
However, while the faculty of judgment is overworked (most likely due to a decrease of activity in the frontal lobe), the faculty of imagination is having a field day. This is probably why one has no inclination at all to judge when tripping on mushrooms. Things are just as they are, and judging is neither needed nor desired. Interestingly, the wide variety of materials that the imagination encounters increases the connections in the brain enormously. This fact certainly helps to explain the creativity and spontaneity of the visions and ideas that keep appearing during the trip.
Dennett took Turing’s idea of a “workspace” as inspiration for his multiple Draft model (Dennett, 1993). The concept is simply that in a targeted processing area, data, events, and actions are ordered in such as way that meaningful patterns emerge or certain (mental) actions can be carried out. Neuroscientist Bernard Baars (Baars, 1996, 1997) extended this idea into the realm of neuroscience and has proposed the idea of a “global working space.” The idea is roughly similar to the cache memory in a computer: the computer cannot access all memory at once, since the “accessing” capacity is limited. However, it keeps a small quantity of memory space free for items that are often needed or that will be needed in the near future.
Likewise, the mind cannot access all memories, images, ideas and speculations at once. It would simply result in mental chaos and use too much capacity. The global workspace serves as a “working room” where the material that is related to the task one works on or focuses on is kept close by (Dehaene, 2014). Compare it to sitting in the reading room of a library: you cannot read all the books at once, but you may ask the librarian to fetch some volumes on a certain topic for you. These volumes serve as references non a given focus area that you can use quickly, and that may lead to new ideas or insights that can be retrieved at a later time.
Psychedelics have the strange effect of exponentially enlarging and deepening the global working space as well whatever retrieval mechanisms we use for retrieving, ordering, and connecting information, tapping into the deepest recesses of the mind with a speed and spontaneity that is breathtaking. The downside is that at that very moment, you can do very little to put the idea into practice; or, alternatively, that really interesting ideas and vision disappear with the same speed as with which they arrived.
These speculations are to some degree borne out by scientific studies: the brain on psilocybin lights up like a Christmas tree, multiplying connections and the neural firings. In a study by Petri et al. (Petri et al., 2014). A group of test subjects was provided with a placebo compound, while a test group was provided with psilocybin. The brain activity of both groups was mapped and visualized, as has been depicted below:
As the authors of the paper contend:
This [finding] supports our idea that psilocybin disrupts the normal organization of the brain with the emergence of strong, topologically long-range functional connections that are not present in a normal state. The two key results of the analysis of the homological scaffolds can therefore be summarized as follows (i) there is an increased integration between cortical regions in the psilocybin state and (ii) this integration is supported by a persistent scaffold of a set of edges that support cross modular connectivity probably as a result of the stimulation of the 5HT2A receptors in the cortex (Petri et al., 2014).
So, the psilocybin does not only establish more connections, but it establishes connections between regions that are scarcely or not at all connected. Given what we know about the plasticity of the brain, such episodes have lasting (and indeed literally mind-shaping and thought-shaping) effects that permeate affect and cognition for prolonged periods of time. We can now also see why the neural configuration induced by psilocybin is so potent: on the one hand, the imagination has a field day, while the main editor is not engaged in judging, and the entire brain is involved and massively activated. For this reason, psychedelics are now prescribed for those who suffer from treatment-resistant depression. It seems that they can bring about a breakthrough that modern medicine is currently unable to (Jarral, 2023).[I]
Not coincidentally, it is notoriously hard to describe what transpires during a trip. Part of this difficulty lies in the fact that — as per the Huxley quote with which we began — our everyday cognition is indeed a “measly trickle” of processing the massive amount of data that our brains receive, via the senses or the body more generally. As Terrence McKenna describes it:
Major conceptual and linguistic difficulties are involved in conveying to people precisely what this experience is like…. These experiences range from mild tingling in the feet to being in titanic and alien realms where the mind boggles and language fails. And one feels the presence of utterly unspeakable, the wholly Other. Memories fall, gritty and particulate, like the snows of yesteryear. Opalescence anticipates neon, and language gives birth to itself. Hyperbole becomes impossible. And therein lies the importance of discussing these matters (McKenna, 2021: p. 291).
Wittgenstein was certainly right that we are bewitched by our language, and his insight applies especially in describing the psychedelic experience. Our language, after all, has evolved to function optimally within the field of reduced cognition that Huxley describes. It aids survival, communication, and, to some degree, conceptualization. But it fails utterly to grasp the essence of what McKenna described as the “howling Tao”: the experience of glancing directly into the processual essence of the cosmos, and indeed the (implicate) order behind the physical world. Concepts do scant justice to what can be found in the psychic realm, and the essentially non-conceptual takes center stage.
Taking psychedelic experience seriously, as real-philosophical evidence, implies both theoretical and practical re-orientations in the full Kantian senses of those terms. Real philosophy cannot merely sit behind a desk or in an armchair and play around with words. Studying imagery, processualism, and the essential embodiment of our minds, and resolutely taking a cognitive-somatic approach to our thinking as a whole, are all absolutely necessary if we are to familiarize ourselves with the psychic realm in all its richness, formative existential power, and life-shaping impact.
[i] I have some hypotheses as to why this is so, but those would lead us too far from the main themes of this essay. But in any case, it has to do with the idea of taking medication: they do not involve the brain, but subdue and mute it, blocking bodily signals that are of vital importance.
(Baars, 1996). Baars, B. “Understanding Subjectivity: Global Workspace Theory and the Resurrection of the Observing Self.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 3.3: 211–216.
(Baars, 1997). Baars, B. “In the Theatre of Consciousness: Global Workspace Theory, A Rigorous Scientific Theory of Consciousness.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 4.4: 292–309.
(Dehaene, 2014). Dehaene, S. Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes our Thoughts. New York: Penguin.
(Dennett, 1993). Dennett, D. Consciousness Explained. London: Penguin.
(Huxley, 2004). Huxley, A. The Doors of Perception. London: Penguin Vintage.
(Jarral, 2023). Jarral, H. “The Big Idea: Should Doctors be Allowed to Prescribe Psychedelics?” The Guardian. 10 April 2023. Available at URL = <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2023/apr/10/the-big-idea-should-doctors-be-able-to-prescribe-psychedelics>.
(Kant, 2001). Kant, I. “What Does It Mean To Orient Oneself In Thinking?” Trans. A, Wood. In I. Kant, Religion and Rational Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
(McKenna, 2021). McKenna, T. Food of the Gods: A Radical History of Plants, Psychedelics, abnd Human Evolution. London: Penguin Random House).
(Petri et al.,2014). Petri, G., Expert, P., Turkheimer, F., Carhart-Harris, R., Nutt, D., Hellyer, P. J., & Vaccarino, F. “Homological Scaffolds of Brain Functional Networks.” Journal of The Royal Society Interface. 6 December. Available online at URL = <https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsif.2014.0873>.
(Sheldrake, 2021). Sheldrake, M. Entangled Life. How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures. London: Penguin Random House.
(Steiner, 2023). Steiner, R. Rudolf Steiner Archive. Available online at URL = <www.rsarchive.org>.
(Vervaeke, 2022). Vervaeke, J. “Transcending the Self and Finding Reality.” iai News. 2 November. Available online at URL = <https://iai.tv/articles/transcending-the-self-and-finding-reality-auid-2288>.
(Wittgenstein, 1953/2009). Wittgenstein, L., Philosophical Investigations. Trans. P.M.S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte. 4th edn., London: Wiley-Blackwell.
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