Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Psychedelics ≠ Intoxicants: A cultural commentary

I said I wouldn't do this again, but a certain skeptical entertainer, which I have finally revealed as George Hrab, has inspired me to write about psychedelics once more -- here's the backstory, if you are interested/concerned for my mental health.
` The crux of it is, I feel an urge to speak up when people espouse false information or condescending attitudes about things I have an understanding and appreciation of -- especially when the point of their podcast is to help dispel myths and propaganda, and otherwise have a geeky good time.

After answering a listener question about the psychedelic brew ayahuasca in Episode 385, I was tempted to write Geo another email, but instead thought it would be better as a more generalized piece on my blog.
` Granted, if I had my own podcast up and running, I would already have a much more interesting public platform at which to direct people when they make dismissive or misinformed comments about topics that I think are important. That'll be the next step for me. For now, I'll do what I can here.

I also want to mention that I have not had much Internet access while writing this text file, so it isn't full of links to sources, which I would prefer it to be -- even moreso than my previous four articles on the subject.
` If you think I'm wrong about something, go ahead and check it for yourself -- it's the skeptical way, right? Besides, I loves me some comments, so fire away if you think I'm wrong, or have any other thoughts!
` Also, I would like to point out that my use of the pronoun 'you', as opposed to 'one' is meant to help connect what I'm writing with 'your imagination'. Although I've included descriptions of psychedelic states before, this is meant to be the most 'vivid', if that makes sense.

So, here's the text file from my laptop, cutted and pasteded for your enjoyment:

Why do some intelligent, critical thinking-type people still dismiss psychedelic drugs as not important to neuroscience, psychotherapy, history, art, religion, and/or even as an experience to be had?
` It's abundantly clear (as I hope I've shown already) that they are, but why is it that some skeptical types are keenly interested in this stuff, while others think very lowly of it?

It's not just because psychedelics are classified as a Schedule I drug, it's because of the myths about them that are meant to justify their illegality. What's the worst myth of them all? That they're somehow more damaging than the most damaging drug in the world -- alcohol. After all, alcohol is legal, so how could it be worse than LSD? Or marijuana, for that matter...
` Because everyone knows that alcohol is a powerful inebriant, they might assume that psychedelics will just make you lose awareness/control of yourself in a similar way. It is the familiarity, legality and social acceptance of alcohol which actually works against the public understanding of psychedelics.

This realization came sharply into focus while listening to Geo's podcast when he called ayahuasca and mushrooms "intoxicants", a word which implies toxicity and a loss of control of one's faculties or behavior. He has said in the past that he doesn't want to experience intoxication and has an "irrational sense" of almost-superiority because of this.
` Apparently, this attitude is very ingrained in his identity, as is his grouping of various "drugs" together in the category of "intoxicants". Some people, though they might use alcohol or marijuana, may say that they aren't the "type of person" to take "hard drugs" like "heroin or LSD", as though those are somehow equivalent.
` Laughably misguided as this is, some of these people are fairly rigid in this part of their identity, and I've seen a few react quite emotionally upon hearing facts to the contrary. It is then ironic that a good dose of LSD is known to reveal the core awareness that lies beneath such cognitive dissonance -- but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Although Geo has expressed some strong opinions about "drugs" based on his impressions of them, he has said that he knows very little about them, and that he's not the one to ask about this subject. I've met quite a few people who fit this description, so perhaps it shouldn't be surprising to them to learn that psychedelics are a bit more complicated than mere "intoxicants":

Their primary effect is quite different from alcohol, almost the opposite, in fact -- although still very different from the primary effects of the "intoxicants" known as caffeine and nicotine. No, it's not the hallucinations which make psychedelics unique:

It's important to note that there are three main classes of hallucinogens: Deliriants, dissociatives, and psychedelics. The first two tend to cause more confusion and delusions of unreality, but the third lends itself more to reflection and meditation:
` The word 'psychedelic' means 'mind expanding' or 'mind manifesting', and those who study and/or have experienced these effects do not use this term in an ironic fashion.

Psychedelics like ayahuasca, psilocybin mushrooms, LSD and mescaline are known to increase self-awareness to such a shocking degree that they can be used to hurl people out of their addictions and traumas.
` It is common for people to change their personalities based on what they learn about themselves in the space of a few hours' trip. (Especially when in the proper set and setting.)

So far, these drugs are not known to cause brain damage, despite their incredibly strong effects: Unlike stimulants, opiates, and the rest, which bring about familiar states of consciousness, psychedelics change the quality of consciousness itself.

Hence, the impossibility of describing this to people who can't imagine what a "different" quality of consciousness would be like. Different in what way?

Far from causing extreme incoherence or speediness, the overall effect (under proper conditions) is generally an increase in sobriety, lucidity, sensory awareness, self-awareness, and being 'present' in the moment.
` Whereas caffeine gives one a narrowness of focus and possibly the jitters, psychedelics are very 'clean'. They allow one's very consciousness to perceive much more than it normally can, literally broadening what is possible to experience.
` According to actual psychedelics researchers and experienced trippers alike, you start to notice things you never noticed before, and can feel the "space" in your mind expand as though it was a physical space:

At a "Level 2" or so, it expands to the point of opening up into a sort of 'virtual reality headspace' that you cannot normally access. It actually feels like a parallel physical space that surrounds you, yet is clearly separate from your perception of the actual world.
` Only when the fetters are lifted can you be made aware that they were even there, and you realize that you have lived your entire life up to that point being held firmly in place, with your face up against a tiny window of perception.

Now that you are free to turn your head (or, change perspectives in your head) for the first time in your life, you are astonished to find that surrounding you is an entire universe that has been there all along but that you have never even suspected was there. How does it all fit into your brain?
` Closing your eyes to "look around" in this space, you may blanch at ornate fractal landscapes filling your mind's eye to infinity in all directions at once. You can even have an 'inner body' which may be distorted with an indeterminate number of appendages that you can both feel and move independently of your actual body.

It's as though you can experience two different 'dimensions' existing in the same space, and can choose which one to give your attention: The world of sensory perception of what's around you (which may be distorted/augmented), or the one in which you appear to be some kind of alien, melding with surreal landscapes that you can see in multiple directions at once.
` As I mentioned in my last post, as you get higher, the more this inner reality takes hold, and in some cases it can actually obscure sensory data. Still, this does not necessarily mean that the person experiencing this suddenly believes that the inner world is "really happening".

Geo asked how much stranger this would be than "a dream or a thought where you can rid yourself of outer influence". I'm not sure what he meant by "outer influence", but this is not exactly an isolation tank trip, or a lucid dream.
` This is exploring another 'reality' in your head, and manipulating what you find therein, to your advantage. This is a tool kit:

In this unexplored vastness, you realize that you aren't 'you' anymore -- you can see your name, occupation, nationality, relationships, and other aspects that you've been conditioned to believe are part of your identity, separately from what 'you' are. They are abstractions that do not define 'you' and your actions.
` You can see that you are just an animal, whose thoughts transcend language, and is free of culture, government, and other "games" around which people organize their lives. You can see that these games are a delusion that drive people, the same as religious folk devoting their lives to deities.

Suddenly, your everyday life seems so small and far below you. Such drastic freedom can be described as "atheist heaven" -- an otherworldly "afterlife" that is actually possible to visit! -- although it can also be quite a rude awakening, without necessarily turning hellish:
` In this state, you are "unplugged" from "the Matrix", looking at your everyday existence and behavior without the cognitive dissonance that rationalizes your more questionable actions.

And what the hell have you been doing down there, anyway? With increased self-awareness you may be shocked to closely examine flaws in your own life strategies, and find yourself reconsidering what is most important to you.
` George Carlin, who credited LSD with catalyzing the rise in his creativity and career, called it a "value changing" drug. Actual research, some of which I have previously blogged about, shows this is an apt description.

As my blog audience, what do you think so far? This is as an accurate a description as I can manage, so to speak. If you're just learning this for the first time, it's probably not at all what you expected.

Now, for those of you who have the freedom to view the world expanded so far beyond one language, I'd bet you would have something to say to people who think they are somehow fortunate for having learned only one language, such as my brother:
` He told me that if you want to appreciate *anything* in another language, there is no qualitative difference between understanding it yourself versus having someone else translate it for you. He also said that children, who can learn languages most easily, shouldn't be "forced" to grow up with more than one language.

If he'd had actual experience to the contrary, he would know how incredibly ignorant that sounds.

It's kind of like deaf people who hope that their own children are born totally deaf and hate it when other people give hearing prosthetics to their children, partly because they don't want those kids to join the hearing culture. If they only knew what it was like to hear, their impairment wouldn't be a part of their identity and they would realize how f***ing crazy that is.

It is a similar case with psychedelics: In research settings, most people consider their experience to be one of the most intense, significant, and meaningful events in their lives, commonly declaring it to be the most significant.
` So, how do you think they feel when they are explaining how big a deal this is to another person, and that person says something like, "That was just your experience" or "So? It's just a hallucination! Who cares?"
` This type of response comes from the desire to validate one's identity as "sane and sober", in which so many are wrapped up. Besides, if such people admitted that they were wrong, they would have to take back everything they had said in the past (including on their own podcast), and even thinking about that can be daunting.

On the other hand, if someone had an amazing psychedelic experience and tells someone else, who had the same kind of experience, they would simply agree, end of story. Unfortunately, just as it's impossible to describe sound to a deaf person, it is impossible to describe the effects of psychedelics to someone who has never sensed them.
` That is not to say that 'translating down' from the psychedelic sphere isn't helpful, and as I pore through my notes, it gets even more interesting:

With your conscious awareness having broken loose from your self-concept, it can travel around the enormous expanse as though it were space itself. Far from drifting aimlessly, it is possible to steer just by focusing on what you want.
` In psychedelic studies, most people find this freedom to be exhilarating, although in higher doses, first-timers can feel extremely intimidated by the sheer size of this "egoless" space, and can become overwhelmed by the prospect of navigating it. It's described as like being in the open ocean in a rowboat and worrying about losing track of the shore.

You may know intellectually that we are all "robots", mostly running on automatic programming, and in this space you can "see" those involuntary thoughts and actions: In other words, the unconscious becomes conscious.
` With a most vivid awareness, you can glimpse something of how your 'robot parts' work, and even change your habits based on this astounding awareness.

Gliding through those mental processes that are normally hidden from you, you can travel to unfamiliar sectors and witness, nay, become the "impossible". Thankfully, these don't occur all at once, but rather one or a few at a time, as your awareness moves from one region of mental workings to another.

As you are reading this, you can experience a certain amount of awareness of yourself interpreting these words on the screen. Now, try to imagine being aware of being aware of yourself being aware of yourself reading this. It's as though you have a more-than-usual amount of 'mirrors' to add layers of self-reflection.

At times, you can even be aware of the fact that you don't consciously decide to perform actions until after the impulse has started, or so it seems:
` You can feel the impulse boiling to the top before you felt as though you made a decision. You can't even imagine this happening, right? Yet, it is possible to experience -- a bit disconcerting, although not necessarily unpleasant.

From a different vantage point, you can watch your mind assign meaning to your life's experiences and create the narrative that you call your "self". You realize that your self is just a story, and that it's mostly bullsh** even though it's based on real events.
` Looking at your self while not "inside" of it, and with your cultural influences thrown off, you can see more of your own assumptions and motives with more honesty and objectivity. You can judge yourself as though you were another person entirely.

Although these drugs decrease the overall activity in your 'reality filters', such as your 'social matrix' constructs, they increase connectivity between brain regions that aren't normally synchronized, thus spurring creativity and insight that would otherwise be neurologically impossible.
` Yes, you are "using the stuff you have inside of you", as Geo has said, yet you are also using mental tools that you cannot otherwise access or even imagine, which is the entire point of using these drugs.

That is why so many people claim that even one such experience has changed them forever.

Indeed, psychedelics can apparently re-wire the brain permanently, often making the person more open to new experience and seeking novelty. Everything is different now that they have had a taste of what it's like outside the Matrix. They will never see things the same way again.

For the average person to say that these experiences are "for weirdos" or even just "for other people" is to miss the fact that it is only cultural attitudes and beliefs which push this view, not science, and not the reports of subjects in these studies (or outside of them for that matter).

As for Geo, he did not understand why anyone would drink ayahuasca if they knew they were going to vomit. Granted, most psychedelics don't have much of a nausea factor, but does it seem clear now that vomiting would be a trifle compared with many hours of such effects as I have been describing?

I could ask him: Why did you learn to play the guitar if you knew how much it would hurt your fingers? Do you think it was a worthwhile personal development? What do you get from it nowadays?

It is no mystery why so many people have not seen the value in psychedelics -- they have never been changed by them. In most cases, they have also not been changed by a so-called 'spiritual awakening', either.

Recently I have read Sam Harris' book "Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion", in which he notes that psychedelics are a surefire way of waking up profoundly, with a relatively clear head and an extremely expanded perception.
` In the first few pages he describes how he never suspected what was under the surface of the everyday mind, nor that there is such a thing as a "spiritual" awakening, until he took the semi-psychedelic entactogen, MDMA.

He also notes that most scientists and philosophers have no inkling of what a 'spiritual' or 'transcendent' experience is, and so may dismiss it as something they are familiar with, such as a profound feeling of love or awe.
` It is not -- yet there is no way to express the truth of this in any language: You cannot tell anyone what the color "red" looks like if they have never seen it.
` Much like hearing or vision, there is no reference outside of personal experience to clue anyone in on this extraordinary reality. Yet, it is not wishful thinking, even if supernatural interpretations of it may be.

Though with much practice you can learn to have 'spiritual' experiences without psychedelics, you cannot really have psychedelic experiences without psychedelics.

On his podcast, Geo joked/implied that the natives of South America must take ayahuasca because they don't have television to watch out in the jungle. As I hope it has become clear, this is not some form of idle amusement.

Powerful psychedelic journeys are considered, by those who have had them (including Sam Harris), to be an essential part of the human experience and not to be dismissed or taken lightly. They can even be so overwhelmingly intense as to be described as like an orgasm that lasts for hours, although not necessarily of a sexual nature.
` This is important to remember -- the only people who are capable of disagreeing with this opinion are people who have not had these experiences. Once you have, you exit your "normal" confined and filtered reality and understand that it really is the "red pill".

On the other end of the spectrum, there are people who say they feel fortunate for not knowing what it's like to take psychedelics, because to them it's only a matter of drinking the electric Kool Aid and becoming a "believer".

Of people who had done mushrooms, Geo mocked their trying to tell him that this experience is beyond what is normally possible. Yet, from a position of complete ignorance, he assured his audience that this experience can't really be anywhere as bizarre as what they say it is.

So, these people who have done psychedelics, well, they don't know what psychedelics are really like. But, the guy who postures about how he's above taking them just happens to magically know what they're like better than everyone who has.
` Which is a perfect illustration of the principle that if you've made up your mind that this is so, you will never know that you are wrong, unless someone slips some LSD into your Diet Coke...

By and large, I'd say these people are motivated by fear and stigma, and maybe because so many 'interesting' characters tend to gravitate toward these drugs. It is popular to look down upon those who value taking psychedelics, but why?

To be sure, many researchers are drawn to these drugs, and not only for their therapeutic qualities. Their unique effects are also prized for helping to shed light on how consciousness itself works, as well as perception and creativity.

Although psychedelics are greatly valued by many of those who study the mind and brain, they have been downplayed and denounced in a lot of popular culture. So, you may ask, why is that? I have already cobbled together an entire blog post concerning this, but in short:
` It is mainly because Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, and others worked so hard to spread the influence of psychedelics -- particularly LSD and psilocybin -- as "deconditioning agents" against authority figures.

One thing that psychedelics teach you, if you pay attention to their effects, is that authority is just an illusion, and that you're capable of questioning it. Indeed, those government folks learned that from their own psychedelic experiments.
` Once the games of life are visible, it is easy to "turn on" the mind to understanding the corruption, manipulation and overall nonexistence of the power structure: The president and the pope have the same amount of authority -- none.
` Indeed, all those 1960's hippie protests and social revolutions were fueled and catalyzed by psychedelics. Though these people were called "unpatriotic" for being against the Viet Nam war, they had learned that countries are just an illusion -- that isn't hard to see when your mind has "moved outside of" the concept of countries.

Nixon and company had a problem with their authority and intentions being in question, and so banned the drugs -- thus keeping them away from researchers -- and spread all kinds of propaganda in order to justify doing so.

In a short amount of time, psychedelics went from being the drugs of intellectuals, scientists, engineers, artists, psychologists, etc, to drugs that cause chromosomal damage, make people go crazy, and other non-science-based claims.
` Popular depictions of their effects were akin to the nonsense found in "Reefer Madness" -- or "Expelled", for that matter. For example, the infamous "Blue Boy" episode of Dragnet was part of the smear campaign, thanks to FBI "consultants".

I have long noticed a similar mass-cultural attitude in the U.S. about the sizeable and most innervated section of male genital skin. (And so I wrote a really cool article about it, making my blog go viral!) Many times I have heard the unscientific notions that it impairs sexual sensation, is difficult to retract, smells horrible, etc. and so, like a tumor, it must be removed upon sight.
` The American circumcision practice developed out of the religious/ "medical" sexual suppression/ genital mutilation craze of the late 1800s. The myths have changed since then, but this tradition continues to cause senseless harm, even in a few places outside of the U.S. where it has also been "medicalized".
` (Now it's mostly an American and Muslim tradition, thus giving the Europeans yet another reason to think that Americans are crazy. I agree.)

Although more Americans are realizing how damaging (and traumatic) this ritual is, I have met men who have told me how glad they are not to know the horrors of what they imagine having a foreskin would be like. (Again, my brother comes to mind.)
` Some of them have even said that men who value their unabridged anatomy are "sick" and in denial of the harm it causes them. This is indeed the damage that mass cultural prejudice can have against a powerful erogenous zone, which people not so indoctrinated generally find quite desirable.

Like most people in the world, if those people had been free to have personal experience and were not raised to believe that this normal piece of anatomy is such an ungodly horrible mistake of nature, such a prejudice would never occur to them.
` It's far from a perfect analogy, although there are some parallels with attitudes about psychedelics.

Just as it can be argued that having all your own body parts is a 'birthright', the psychedelics community consider our ability to access these parts of our own minds to be the same thing. It can be argued that taking away the drugs that allow us to access our own minds in this way is destructive to individuals and communities at large.

These folks understand the universal significance of these drugs, and why various cultures have been influenced by them for tens of thousands of years, as evidenced by psychedelic mushrooms and plants carved in temples, caves, and even churches.
` The expanded 'interactive imagination space', super-human insight and feeling of connection to all things seems to have just as much impact on a nonbeliever as it does someone from a South American jungle tribe, or from ancient Egypt. It doesn't matter who you are or what you know about the world -- these effects are astonishing in their own right.
` This stands in stark contrast to a culture in which mind-numbing alcohol is the only legal and generally-accepted "mind altering" substance. Indeed, I used to be one of those people who thought that psychedelics were way worse than alcohol.

It was not until shortly after TAM 2012, when I began reading about the science of psychedelics, that I realized this is just another cultural myth of our time. I decided that the various misconceptions about them must be investigated and dispelled, along with bigfoot and the Shroud of Turin.

What was most surprising to me is that psychedelics can be used to stop drug addiction: With mind-expanding drugs, your troubles will not drown, but rather chase you across paisley geometric landscapes until you deal with them.
` In fact, there is a psychedelic called ibogaine which outright prevents opiate withdrawal symptoms from occurring. In places where it is legal, it is used in stopping heroin addiction, with very high success rates.
` Although alcohol abuse is overwhelmingly common among some Native American groups, the ones that do mescaline cactus ceremonies do not generally drink or do any other drugs. They don't bother with the "hiding from your problems" game, as addicts do.

The same is true of the ayahuasca churches in Peru and Brazil, in which new church members either quit other drugs or do not start taking them in the first place. In meditative or musical rituals, they are free to see visions, experience synesthesia, and to frankly examine their own behavior from the outside, which can be as painful as it is instructive.
` The psychedelic researcher Charles Grob found that these people are more mentally healthy than those who don't do ayahuasca. They are more open to experience and tend to be more calm, empathetic and focused. He has even found a possible chemical mechanism for ayahuasca's action against feelings of depression.

Another thing Geo said was that the safety of ayahuasca is "questionable because it really screws with your brain." Which... isn't an argument. Interestingly, the active ingredient is DMT, which is a neurotransmitter already found in your brain, and does not seem to be harmful even in such massive doses.
` Granted, there is an MAO-inhibitor in ayahuasca to make the DMT orally active, which can actually be dangerous in high enough doses. However, LSD, psilocybin and smoked/injected DMT are bizarrely non-toxic, and don't generally cause vomiting.
` The biggest danger is, of course, having a bad trip, which can generally be avoided or at least mitigated. Among the large amounts of research and anecdotes I am familiar with, it's an unlikely occurrence under controlled conditions.

Geo advised the person who wrote in to stay sober and witness his friend's ayahuasca experience before making up his mind if he wants to try it himself. Right, because you will understand having sex much better just by watching other people do it.

And that is the end of my rambling rant, which, I agree, could use further editing. Before I go, I shall say that psychedelics aren't all fun and game-changing -- it depends on how they are used. And even though you can see through the game, that doesn't mean that you can necessarily escape it.

As Hunter S Thompson wrote in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas":
“We are all wired into a survival trip now. No more of the speed that fueled that 60's. That was the fatal flaw in Tim Leary's trip. He crashed around America selling "consciousness expansion" without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him seriously... All those pathetically eager acid freaks who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit. But their loss and failure is ours too. What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped create... a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody... or at least some force - is tending the light at the end of the tunnel.”
It seems that, now that psychedelics are making a comeback in this culture, and scientists are even allowed to study them under very limited conditions, we may have a repeat of the 1960's. How will it be different this time around? Will we find a place for them in our culture? Only time will tell.

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