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What We Learn On Psychedelics

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At a festival recently I fell into the company of an exuberant character in his early twenties. After a while, this smiling extrovert revealed he was tripping on LSD. Between performing acro-aerobics, and welcoming lashes from a fly-swatter that generated a temporary tattoo, he declared he was going to take a further dose. I dutifully warned him to consider biding his time, but he laughed off my concerns and threw the tablet down the hatch. Last I saw he was leading a toaster around by its chord, proclaiming – wild-eyed – it was his cat.

Festival frolics.

I wonder has he since returned to a respectable job to draw a wage, that ‘one eyed shrew of the heterosexual dollar’, as Allen Ginsberg puts it in his ‘Howl’, with festive memories sustaining him through the tedium of spread sheets or digital marketing. I pray he has not fallen over the edge into insanity, and like Carl Solomon in Ginsberg’s epic poem of post-modernity, ended up in a mental asylum:

where you scream in a straightjacket that you’re losing the game of the actual pingpong of the abyss

or

where fifty more shocks will return your soul to its body again from its pilgrimage to a cross in the void

To be clear, LSD, or acid, can, in rare circumstances, trigger a first psychotic episode, and should be treated with extreme caution. It is also a controlled substance, with possession or intent to supply ordinarily prohibited in most countries.

But after decades of identification with an orgiastic counterculture – famously with Timothy Leary’s 1960s rallying cry ‘to turn on, tune in and drop out’ – research scientists are returning to examine its profound therapeutic capabilities, including for treatment of seemingly incurable depression.

The ritualistic abandonment that I encountered at that festival is giving way to ‘white coat Shamanism’, where guides reduce the chance of bad trips, and lasting insanity, as well as more measured ingestion, including ‘micro-dosing Fridays’ in Silicon Valley.

Could its use yet realise a paradigm shift in how humanity interacts with the world, such as was hoped for by many of the 1960s evangelists, including Allen Ginsberg himself?

I – LSD and Psilocybin

There are two main varieties of psychedelics, or hallucinogens, in use: lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD or ‘Acid’) , and psilocybin, commonly referred to as ‘magic mushrooms’.

Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman discovered the properties of LSD in 1943, after deriving it from a naturally occurring compound called ergot, a fungus that infects grains, especially rye, exposed to moisture. Indeed, the visions – beatific and diabolic – commonly reported by peasants and others in the Middle Ages, and generally associated with the effects of starvation, have been attributed to this fungal growth in staple foodstuffs (Ferrières, 2006, p.141).

Hoffman himself had little doubt as to the significance of his discovery for humanity, subsequently writing:

the feeling of co-creationism with all things alive should enter our consciousness more fully and materialist and nonsensical technological developments in order to enable us to return to the roses, to the flowers, to nature, where we belong (Pollan, 2018, p.26).

The difficulty, however, for Sandoz, the Swiss laboratory which manufactured it, was to find a practical application for the curious, mind-altering compound. Throughout the 1950s the company responded positively to most requests from bodies engaged in research; this included the CIA’s MK Ultra Programme, involving trials on thousands of participants, mostly without their consent, in order to advance techniques in mind control.

Its discovery also ushered in a new class of anti-depressants, through an understanding of serotonin; and, notably, successful trials on alcoholics, before its use became tied up – inextricably it would seem – with the counterculture of the 1960s, and was prohibited in the U.S.A. from 1966. Timothy Leary believed that if four million people experienced its effects it would bring about major changes to society, in the end only two million gained the experience.

Nonetheless Michael Pollan writes of the period:

LSD truly was an acid, dissolving almost everything with which it came into contact, beginning with the hierarchies of the mind (the superego, ego and unconscious) and going on from there to society’s various structures of authority and then to lines of every imaginable kind between patient and therapist, research and recreation, sickness and health, self and other, subject and object, the spiritual and the material (Pollan, 2018, p.214).

Psilocybin, the other psychedelic in common use, also known as ‘magic mushroom’, is of far more ancient vintage in human culture, especially in the New World. It played a role in Mayan religious ceremonies, to the disgust of the Catholic church, which in 1620 described the use of plants for divination as an act of superstition ‘opposed to the purity and integrity of our Holy Catholic Faith (Pollan, 2018, p.109)’.

Despite the appalling repression by Spanish authorities of this and other aspects of the indigenous culture including foodstuffs like amaranth, the use of these substances survived in popular Mexican religious rituals. These were first brought to the attention of the English-speaking world in a seminal article for Life Magazine written by New York banker R. Gordon Wasson in 1956, entitled ‘Seeking the Magic Mushroom’, which contained the first known use of that term.

Wasson and his wife inveigled there way into one of the secret ceremonies; ultimately to the cost of the healer who was shunned by her village community after the revelations encouraged a steady stream of drug tourists to descend on them.

Terence McKenna has since popularized an hypothesis – ‘the Stoned Ape Theory’ –  proposing that consumption of these mushrooms brought an expansion in human brain capacity. The idea is no longer so far-fetched when one learns that several tribes still feed psychoactive plants to their dogs to improve their hunting ability (Pollan, 2018, p.123), although it remains speculative.

Psychedelic mushrooms were also probably used by the Ancient Greeks in the Eleusinian Mysteries, initiations held every year for the cult of Demeter and Persephone. Elsewhere in Europe, the Viking berserkers may also have been under its influence, explaining a disregard for personal safety in battle.

We may safely assume that such a powerful compound was well known across Europe, and probably used in various ceremonies, before the adoption of Christianity appears to have brought an end to its use. Monotheism does not appear compatible with the ambiguity fostered by hallucinogens.

II – The Ego is Stranded

Neuroscientists have isolated a hub of brain activity in the cerebral cortex known as the Default Network Mode (DMN). This performs metacognitive processes such as self-reflection, mental time travel, mental constructions, moral reasoning and ‘theory of mind’, all commonly associated with expression of ego, leading it to be referred to as the ‘me’ network (Pollan, 2018, p.302-4).

Revealingly, the DMN is only operational late in a child’s development, by which time a strong sense of self has been asserted, and a roaming imagination has given way to more ‘sensible’ considerations.

The DMN exerts an inhibitory influence on lower parts of the brain, like emotion and memory, which may help someone maintain a singular focus. According to Marcus Raichle it ‘acts as an uber-conductor to ensure that the cacophonies of competing signals from one system do not interfere with those from another (Pollan, 2018, p.303)’.

In experiments carried out under Robin Carhart-Harris volunteers were given psilocybin in a controlled environment. This revealed that the steepest drops in DMN activity correlated with the subjective experience of ‘ego dissolution’. This disinhibition may explain why thoughts, and even visions, not normally present during waking consciousness float to the surface of our awareness. In this Ted Talk he explains the benefits of the experiments:

As the influence of the DMN is unseated a feelings of connection with other ‘beings’ around us tends to manifest, making us ‘at one’ with Nature, a common experience among those under the influence of psychedelics.

This occurs alongside the disintegration of the visual processing system, allowing thoughts and even music to conjure images. The brain as a whole becomes more integrated as new connections spring up among regions that ordinarily keep to themselves, or were linked only via the central hub of the DMN. As Michael Pollan puts it: ‘The brain appears to become less specialized, and more globally interconnected, with considerably more intercourse, or cross-talk, among its various neighbourhoods (Pollan, 2018, p.316)’.

Franz Vollenweider also refers to ‘neuroplasticity’, whereby a window is opened in which destructive patterns of thought and behaviour are easier to change (Pollan, 2018, p.320).

III – Invention or Creation?

When Michael Pollan consumed magic mushrooms while researching his recent book on psychedelics he finds himself believing the trees in his gardens were the equivalent of his parents. As an atheist, he dismisses the idea there was anything supernatural about this ‘heightened perception’ requiring belief in a divinity, or magic, to explain it (Pollan, 2018, p.136), but his connectedness is nonetheless a fiction without scientific basis.

No great distance would appear to lie between Pollan’s belief in the truth of his mind’s subjective, and unprovable, conjecture, and a religious outlook, which George Steiner defines as ‘an endeavour to grasp, to offer thanks for, the gratuitous miracle of creation (Steiner, 2001, p.128).’

Steiner distinguishes between creation, which he connects to a religious belief in the truth of a fiction, and invention which arrives in science and technology.

Psychedelic drugs appear to play a role in permitting advances in the latter, but, surprisingly, not the former. Among those who tried LSD in the 1960s were technological visionaries in Silicon Valley, who began to revolutionize computers. These engineers relied on LSD in designing circuit chips, finding it helpful for visualising staggering complexities in these dimensions, and holding it all in their heads.

Scientists are not generally associated with mind-altering drugs, but the confounding influence on otherwise highly-rational, even rigid, minds may increase the possibility of technological innovation.

The German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who who was fascinated by science throughout his life, once mused on the counter-intuitive nature of scientific understanding:

When we try to recognise the idea inherent in a phenomena we are confused by the fact that it frequently – even normally – contradicts our senses. The Copernican system is based on an idea which was hard to grasp; even now it contradicts our senses every day … The metamorphosis of plants contradicts our senses in the same way (Holmes, 2009, p.247).

Quantum Uncertainty is similarly counter-intuitive (how is something simultaneously a wave and a particle?). A fixed appreciation of ‘reality’ often must be set aside in order for a breakthrough to occur, permitting the vision that God plays dice.

What holds for scientific invention does not seem to apply to artistic creativity. The prevalence of LSD in the avant-garde of the 1960s Counterculture dissolved much of our cultural inheritance – not least the literary canon in the eyes of Post Modernists – but since the 1960s it is hard to identify an artistic genre that has advanced in any way comparable to previous movements, such as the Romantics, or even Surrealists, both of whom we continually hark back to in common speech.

In his account of the music of the Beatles Revolution in the Head, Ian MacDonald points to the effect of the LSD on the wider culture:

Though framed into terms of sexual liberation and scaffolded by religious ideas imported from the Orient, the central shift of the counterculture was drugs, and one drug above all: d-lysergic acid diethylamide 25, or LSD.

With the removal of what he describes as ‘the brain’s neural concierge’:

The LSD view of life took the form of a smiling non-judgmentalism which saw ‘straight’ thinking, including political opinion across the board from extreme Left to Right, as basically insane. To those enlightened by the drug, all human problems and divisions were issues, not of substance, but of perception. With LSD, humanity could transcend its ‘primitive state of neurotic irresponsibility’ and, realising the oneness of all creation, proceed directly to utopia.

He continues:

Using it, normal people were able to move directly to the state of ‘oceanic consciousness’ achieved by a mystic only after years of preparation and many intervening stages of growing self-awareness – as a result of which most of them not unnaturally concluded that reality was a chaos of dancing energies without meaning or purpose. There being no way to evaluate such a phenomenon, all one could do was ‘dig it’. Hence at the heart of the counterculture was a moral vacuum: not God, but The Void.

While pop music and television flourished, initially at least, McDonald identified a clear degeneration in older artistic forms. Thus:

Classical music, once an art of expression, became a pseudo-scientific, quasi-architectural craft of technique whose principles of design, opaque to the ear, were appreciable only by examining the ‘blueprint’ of the score. Similarly the rapid succession of conceptual coups in the world of painting and sculpture, so novel at the time, turned out to be merely the end of modernism and, as such, the dying fall of Western art. Overtaken by the ‘artistic discourse’ of post-modernism, art became as literary as post-Wagnerian classical music was visual, producing the arid paradox of paintings to listen to and music to look at. Shorn of their content, art, music, and literature degenerated by increasingly inconsequential stages from art about art, to jokes about art about art, and finally to jokes about art about art (McDonald, Ian, 2005, pp. 15-23).

Artistic creativity has been described as a form of divine madness, in which an immediate reality is dismissed in favour of the constructs of the imagination. Thus the nineteenth century John Ruskin asserted a belief in ‘spiritual powers … genii, fairies, or spirits’, claiming, ‘No true happiness exists, nor is any good work done … but in the sense or imagination of such presences.’ Who in their ‘right mind’ could conceive such an idea, yet such conceit is often a necessary tool for an artist. Whatever brain activity that is going on with the artist it does not appear that her ego needs to be dissolved.

In his essay ‘The Philosophy of Shelley’s Poetry’ (1900) W. B. Yeats refers to the ‘ministering spirits’ evident in his subject matter’s poem ‘Intellectual Beauty’: ‘who correspond to the Devas of the East, and the Elemental Spirits of medieval Europe, and the Sidhe [sic] of ancient Ireland’. In quoting that poem he evokes the mythical síde, nourishing his own Art:

These are ‘gleams of a remoter world which visit us in sleep,’ spiritual essences whose shadows are the delights of the senses, sounds ‘folded in cells of crystal silence,’ ‘visions swift, and sweet, and quaint,’ which lie waiting their moment ‘each in its thin sheath, like a chrysalis,’ ‘odours’ among ‘ever-blooming Eden trees,’ ‘liquors’ that can give ‘happy sleep,’ or can make tears ‘all wonder and delight’; ‘the golden genii who spoke to the poets of Greece in dreams’; ‘the phantoms’ which become the forms of the arts when ‘the mind, arising bright from the embrace of beauty,’ ‘casts on them the gathered rays which are reality’; ‘the guardians’ who move in ‘the atmosphere of human thought,’ as ‘birds within the wind, or the fish within the wave,’

Louis le Brocquy’s Portrait Head of W.B. Yeats.

The vivid fantasy of the creative artist may generate eidetic images, which are a type of mental picture, a vision, not necessarily derived from an actual external event or memory. This sounds much like the experience of someone on LSD, but the chemical manipulation of the brain does not appear to yield the same creative fruits, probably because, as MacDonald opines, it bypasses years of preparation.

IV – Paradigmatic shifts

Michael Pollan suggests that ‘Homo sapiens might have arrived at one of those periods of crisis that calls for some mental and behavioural depatterning’ (Pollan, 2018, p.124), resulting in a greater environmental awareness. Here he rather appears to be reprising Timothy Leary’s suggestion that widespread LSD use would dissolve the stolid social structures of post-War America, But in artistic terms this may prove to be fool’s gold, only leading to further dissolution and isolation.

Unfortunately, a common feature of the perceived wisdom derived from drug visions is its sheer banality: love is all we need, etc. Psychedelics may shake up rigid thinking among scientists, and have important therapeutic capabilities that should be better understood, and utilised, but there seems little prospect of profound artistic departures occurring under their influence.

Art at its best is invariably a hard-won product of intense labour, and drugs are generally a distraction. Thus Yeats opined in ‘Speaking to the Psalter’ (1903): ‘All art is, indeed, a monotony in external things for the sake of an interior variety, a sacrifice of gross effects to subtle effects, an asceticism of the imagination (italics added)’. The best works of art, capable of changing the way we think and act, seem to emerge when a narrow imaginative journey occurs, and LSD would in all likelihood just interfere.

Ginsberg’ ‘Howl’, like Eliot’s ‘Wasteland’, is instructive in this regard. I am guessing he wrote while he was sober, before he had ever sampled LSD, and it is a singular journey and experience that nonetheless is part of a conversation within a canon: ‘Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war’. He knew intimately the sacred cows of meter and rhyme he appears to be dispensing with, which may not be said for many of those that have followed in his wake.

The paradigmatic shifts we require in order to generate a genuinely “oceanic compassion” will not involve, alas, seeing one’s cat in a toaster at a festival, but will surely demand intense labour, in many artistic forms, in order to overthrow the toxic assumptions of our time.

That is not, however, to say that any state should criminalize these drugs, and drive their use underground. What we need is education. Anyone who embarks on a trip should be aware of what it entails, and certain personality types should be seriously discouraged from making use of them.

Perhaps the greatest irony of LSD is that many of the flighty characters who seek out LSD are precisely those who should avoid it, whereas the rigid personality types, who are unlikely to use it, might actually benefit from its unseating of the ego, and the eureka moments of scientific inspiration it appears to impart.

But unfortunately, as Timothy Leary put it: ‘Psychedelic drugs cause panic and temporary insanity in people who have not taken them’.

References

Madeleine Ferrières’s Sacred Cow, Mad Cow: A History of Food Fears, Columbia University Press, New York, 2006.
Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, Harper Press, Croydon, 2009.
Ian McDonald, Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the 1960s, Pimlico, New York, 2005.
Michael Pollan, How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics, Penguin, New York, 2018.
George Steiner, Grammars of Creation, New Haven CT, Yale University Press, 2001.

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