The Psychedelic Future of the Mind
March 12, 2013
Can our society make a place for psychedelics intended not only to return people to normality (the medical model) but also to go beyond ordinary reality? If so, what might we find there? In his new book, The Psychedelic Future of the Mind: How Entheogens Are Enhancing Cognition, Boosting Intelligence, and Raising Values, Thomas B. Roberts has one answer.
So far, we have put a toe in the water by permitting limited experiments with the use of psychoactives for such curative tasks as ending alcohol abuse or assisting therapy for post-traumatic stress; by allowing marijuana to be ingested (in Colorado and Washington states) alongside some of our society's traditional drugs of choice (such as beer, wine and hard liquor); and by legalizing the traditional use of mescaline in rituals of the Native American church and the importation of ayahausca "tea" by two churches that, after being founded in Brazil, are now represented in the U.S. Meanwhile, for a generation, according to surveys on use, a massive underground activity has continued in spite of the war on drugs.
The constraints on progress for drug reform are so many that the medical model offers a path of least resistance, forcing a wide-ranging reform organization like MAPS to focus much of its energy on validating psychedlics through medical research.
Arguably, or so I heard from participants at a conference sponsored by MAPS, one of the dangers posed by psychedelics is, by lifting the curtain around ordinary reality, to occasion doubt about authority structures built on a narrow assumption of what's possible. Whatever dangers exist for certain people (those who are "pre-psychotic," for example), these substances pose a challenge to the assumption that the ordinary work-a-day world is all there is, and that other worlds are distortions, distractions, or as Oliver Sacks may be taken as implying in his new book, "hallucinations."
One of the very few above-ground exceptions to the medical model is the work by Roland Griffiths and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins, which revealed, at least in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, that psilocybin can occasion "mystical-type experiences." For decades unofficial explorers with mescaline and psilocybin had reported MTEs outside scientific literature, as in Aldous Huxley's Doors of Perception (1954), in Terence McKenna's books, and in the famous Good Friday experiment in Boston University's Marsh Chapel (1962). Another exception, although the setting was quasi-medical, is recent research on using a psychedelic to ease fears of the dying.
In 1999, while staying on the Big Island of Hawaii for a vacation, I stopped by a conference being held in Kona, on the subject of the effect of psychedelics on the arts and sciences and more generally on creativity. Among the speakers were a novelist, a composer, a screenwriter, a film producer, and a couple of painters who described what they owed to psychedelics, along with discussion of the role of these molecules in advertising and in the computer industry. There was talk of Kary Mullis' recent crediting of LSD's role in his Nobel Prize discovery of polymerase chain reaction, as well as unsubstantiated rumors of other scientific discoveries made while high. These people were talking about the stimulation not of healing, but of creativity.
Obviously, revelation of illegal activities will remain limited as long as use of the molecules may lead to harsh sanctions. Meanwhile, observers often confuse psychedelics with "hard" drugs such as amphetamines and morphine. In this connection, Oliver Sacks offers a set-up for this confusion in casual readers by an account of his own youthful psychoactive drug use in one chapter of his new book, Hallucinations. While he did take LSD as a young man, the chapter does not focus on any sacramental experience purely on a psychedelic. Instead, we are immersed in experiences launched from amphetamine (combined with marijuana and LSD), or occasioned by a prescription anti-spasmotic sold as Artane, or by intravenous morphine from his absent father's medicine cabinet.
Each of these "trips" produced hallucinations, defined as something that isn't really there. The descriptions are absorbing, such as his watching a vivid but miniature Battle of Agincourt on his bathrobe, or seeing on a white wall a pear-shaped blob of true indigo (a color that, according to Sacks, Giotto tried in vain to paint).
Sacks is a neurologist, not a shaman or a "psychonaut." As a neurologist, Sacks has done service within the medical model, getting patients back to normal or at least helping them to manage and tolerate their conditions. In his work, being outside the ordinary is normally a problem, not a privilege. He deals with unusual states (for example, "the man who mistook his wife for a hat") that are hurting patients and tries to rescue them. He is not in the business of inducing unusual states, as, for example, James Fadiman or Stanislav Grof have been.
Sacks expresses discomfort with the drug-taking that he faithfully reports with his usual flair. He describes the drugs available during his California residency as "seductive." He was "shocked" by the way he spent a night staring at Agincourt. Amphetamine produced a "vapid mania." What he values in his work, apart from the writer's delight in describing syndromes, is accurate diagnoses, plus medicines and techniques that allow a return to normal.
For the life of a generation, the "psychonaut" community has been operating outside the law. For a generation, members of this community have largely been unable to get grants, do scientific research, or publish what they have seen and felt. Meanwhile, they have risked jail. They have had trouble getting pure drugs. In some cases, they have made claims that require scrutiny. Threatened by the government, they have tended automatically to support one another, when a healthier life would have included a stream of friendly, open challenge.
Much of the pro-psychedelic argument is summarized by Thomas B. Roberts in The Psychedelic Future of the Mind. Neither a report of groundbreaking research nor lovely naturalistic observation as in Sacks, the book begins methodically with what could be a useful annotated bibliography of some books and ideas. One of his most provocative and playful contributions in the book is consigned to the appendix and a late chapter, in which Roberts envisions a network of "community psychedelic centers" which, after legalization, would not only boost the immune system and in general heal (the medical model again) but also facilitate "professional development" in such areas as "spiritual development and religious studies," "creativity and problem solving," "self-development and self-knowledge." The network would sell stock, and like eye clinics and grocery stores, be part of the normal community.
As his title suggests, Roberts wants to help produce a better brain, a "neuro-singularity" that would amplify intelligence and induce creativity. After chapters by Roger Walsh on religious experience and by Charles Grob and Alicia Danforth on their research about using psychedelics at the end of life, the book offers chapters on "enhancing cognition, boosting intelligence" and explicitly on "bigger heads and better brains." While giving a deft summary of Grof's thesis about experiences surrounding birth, Roberts wants to go beyond psychotherapeutic understanding, and into a new world in which humans are advanced beyond what is now considered normal, just as Ray Kurzweil foresees a technological singularity, Roberts particularly praises Benny Shannon's study of ayahuasca: "his focus is not on the particular topics of cognitive psychology, but on its unstated assumptions."
In short, Roberts' book offers a well-informed introduction to the broad spectrum use of psychedelics, a prospectus for community growth centers, and a vision of intelligence and creativity higher than what we now enjoy, plus news from one of the best thinkers and a pair of the most imaginative researchers in the field. And he is careful not to allow readers to confuse, under the loose rubric of "drugs," very different kinds of molecules. Calling methamphetamine and psilocybin both "drugs" makes about as much sense as attaching the label of "store" to both a big-box retailer and a boutique. The label in both cases is accurate but misleading.