Home > consciousness, Perception, philosophy > What can we learn from psychedelics?

What can we learn from psychedelics?

“For example, hallucinogens such as mushrooms/shrooms, DMT, acid/LSD, peyote, etc. Do they have serious philosophical or psychological implications, and if so, what are they?

For example, Alan Watts and Terrance McKenna are people who seem to think we can learn a lot from psychedelic “realities”. Are they right about anything, and if so, what?”

Quora question

It depends on what Timothy Leary called Set and setting: who is taking it and under what circumstances. It also depends on how interested you are in consciousness and the effects of drugs. Leary hypothesized that psychedelics put you into a metaprogramming state in which you could use your intelligence to examine itself. I think that there is some pharmacological justification for that.

One hypothesis holds that these substances inhibit some of the inhibitors which regulate perception and awareness throughout the brain.

“The major hallucinogens appear to activate the right hemisphere, influence thalamic functioning, and in- crease metabolism in paralimbic structures and in the frontal cortex…

The predominant hypothesis on how indole hallucinogens affect serotonin (5-HT) is summarized as follows: LSD acts to preferentially inhibit serotonergic cell firing while sparing postsynaptic serotonergic receptors from upregulation/downregulation…

One major target of these is the locus coeruleus (LC), which controls the release of norepinephrine, which regulates the sympathetic nervous system.

… In general, 5-HT may be seen as a mainly inhibitory transmitter; thus, when its activity is decreased, the next neuron in the chain is freed from inhibition and becomes more active. …

Since serotonergic systems appear to be intimately involved in the control of sensation, sleep, attention, and mood, it may be possible to explain the actions of LSD and other hallucinogens by their disinhibition of these critical systems

A recent study on psilocybin in the brain concluded:

“As predicted, profound changes in consciousness were observed after psilocybin, but surprisingly, only decreases in cerebral blood flow and BOLD signal were seen, and these were maximal in hub regions, such as the thalamus and anterior and posterior cingulate cortex”

This research can be construed to corroborate Leary’s suggestion to some degree. The combination of disinhibiting signal dampening and cutting off blood flow to the hub regions could, in my opinion, correspond to putting the psyche into an ad-hoc mode. As we grow up and learn about ourselves and the world, I think that we are constantly absorbing conscious experience into sub-conscious availability. As you read these words, your years of learning how to read English are not consciously present, yet these words are presented to you on a personal level as if no learning had been necessary.

The same is true of our entire lives. Everything that we do, what we wear, eat, where we go, what we say, etc, are experiential texts which, once we have learned to read, are no longer presented as personal texts, but are pushed out to the periphery into sub-personal and super-personal ranges. As we get older, our personal tunnel reality tends to become more rigid and contracted, although perhaps gaining greater depth of field. This reminds me of the relation between aperture and depth of field, and I think that this may be more than a figurative association.

depthoffield
This idea of a metaprogramming state and the neuroscientific research indicate a tremendously vunerable psychological state. Like a newborn baby, the subject on a trip has their aperture wide open. Whatever they are focused on is saturated with intensity – be it a thought, a feeling, a perception or hallucination, any moment can stretch into a super-signifying eternity. The heavens and hells of experience are thus brought to the surface as they are not diluted or dampened. As in a dream, emotions can snowball into ecstasy or nightmare, although unlike in a dream, you cannot wake up and must rely on something to change or distract you from your echo chamber.

If you were a middle aged Harvard psychology professor like Leary, it is easy to see why accessing this kind of a state in which psychological foundations are disabled for hours at a time would be seen as a powerful psychotherapeutic tool. Most of the early psychedelic pioneers had a similar ‘set’, as earnest seekers of understanding the relation of consciousness to nature. Others of course have much different reasons for taking drugs, and much different experiences.

I read an interview with one of the Beatles once where they said that everything that they learned with drugs they probably would have learned anyways with age. Others, like Ram Dass were quoted as saying that he felt that the drugs were important at first but later became an obstacle in spiritual practice. I think of it as comparable to plane travel. Taking a psychedelic is like being given a ticket on an international flight, but you don’t know where. It’s not a comfortable flight at first, nausea and anxiety are normal. You may learn a lot, and you may wind up spending what seems like a long time in an exotic location which you may find both magical and terrifying, and finding your way back home can be either a welcome relief or a depressing return from vacation. I have also read one person’s account of his trip as a realization of the profound emptiness of existence which haunted him. It’s completely unpredictable. People should really be very careful about the setting in which they experiment with psychedelics, and that they are with people whom they trust.

I think that in the long run, the best thing about these kind of substances is that they do wear off. That little detail can be very important, if you find that you seemed to have misplaced your identity and at a total loss to find your way back home…it doesn’t matter if you panic, or if you lose all hope that you’ll ever be normal again, the body takes care of itself. If you learn anything of value, it is usually after it wears off that you can begin to integrate it, although the memories of the experience can still teach you things over a lifetime. Some people manage to take these kinds of drugs frequently and often though, but I can’t relate to that personally. I think even Jim Morrison, when asked about the future of drug use in the 70s said something like “People will still be smoking grass forever, but I don’t see how people will sustain this level of tripping indefinitely.”

So what can you really learn from psychedelics?

“All matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration – that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There’s no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we’re the imagination of ourselves” – Bill Hicks

“There’s no place like home.” – Dorothy

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  1. July 2, 2013 at 5:00 am

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