Saturday, August 11, 2018

Galen Strawson on Michael Pollan on Psychedelics

What should we call the experience?
There’s a terminally weary group of words used to characterize psychedelic experience. Among them we find (in descending order of association with the supernatural) “holy”, “sacred”, “mystical”, “spiritual”; “transcendence”, “bliss”, “selflessness”, “oneness”. Some are so loaded, and directly question-begging (in the original sense of the term), that it seems best to introduce a new neutral term – “X” – for the purposes of this review. X is whatever it is that is most powerfully positive in psychedelic experience. It is what psychologists try to measure when they administer the “Mystical Experience Questionnaire”, devised in the 1960s. There’s a wide consensus that there is no significant experiential difference between pharmacologically induced X and X that arises as a result of meditative or other spiritual practices.
There is an extra­ordinary degree of agreement, on the part of those who have successful “trips” under suitably controlled conditions, that the fundamental principle of reality is love.
As the Beatles' sang, "Say the word, the word is love". After this and that Strawson observes:
But love requires a lover and a loved (it is logically a two-place relation), and most of those who use the word in an attempt to convey their X experience seem to have something else – a kind of perfectly impersonal blessedness – in mind.

We shouldn’t, then, look for “authenticity” in X experience – if that is supposed to mean that there’s nothing (ultimately) bad in reality. We can leave room for primordial blessedness if it allows for unutterable tragedy. But we should probably look no further than the magnificence of the experience itself. Its significance consists in the fact that it exists.

We can go a little further. There seems to be a deeper psychological formation underneath the experience of love. The best name for it, perhaps, is Acceptance (awarded a capital “A” to match Huxley’s capital-L “Love”): profound, anxiety-dissolving acquiescence in how things are, acceptance of life, acceptance of death. Acceptance, when attained, involves experience of great joy – just as relief from intense pain is (some say) the greatest human pleasure. It is what Nietzsche is after when he speaks of amor fati, loving one’s fate. It’s precisely what he lacked when, in July 1885, he wrote to Franz Overbeck that “my life now consists in the wish that things might be other than I understand them to be, and that someone might make my ‘truths’ appear unbelievable to me”.

Capital-A Acceptance seems tightly linked with the dissolution of one’s sense of self, or at least the elimination of one’s sense of the importance of self, and neuroscientists have not been slow to speculate about this. Scans of the tripping brain show dramatic reduction in the activity in the so-called default mode network or DMN – known to some neuro­scientists as “the me network”. One may doubt all such specific neurological hypotheses, but those who believe that the DMN is a suspect theoretical construct can think simply of activity in, and interaction between, the medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, inferior parietal lobule, lateral temporal cortex, dorsal medial prefrontal cortex and hippocampus.

Pollan reproduces two diagrams recently published by the Imperial College lab using various scanning technologies. They represent the activity and interconnectivity of a brain under the influence of psilocybin, and a brain after the administering of an “active placebo” (a placebo that causes a strong tingling sensation, so that one feels one may have been given the drug under test). They’re spectacularly different. The psilocybin brain is thick with areas of activity and lines of interconnection; the placebo or everyday brain is almost bare by comparison. One doesn’t have to accept any of the specific neurological explanations to concede that the diagrams point up the richness of psychedelic experience.

Some think that psychedelics simply reactivate earlier capacities. “Babies and children are basically tripping all the time”, in Alison Gopnik’s words. Growing up fits a powerful “reducing valve” onto the great consciousness engine of the brain, as philosophers like Henri Bergson and C. D. Broad once proposed, and as Wordsworth intimated – and St Paul (“now we see through a glass, darkly; then, face to face”). According to this theory, maturation renders the brain fit for purpose in a difficult world; it imposes a mental filter that admits, in Huxley’s words, only the “measly trickle of the kind of consciousness” we need in order to survive. Psychedelic drugs remove the valve or filter. They dissolve the standard self-system, interrupting what Hazlitt called the “long narrowing of the mind to our own particular feelings and interests”. They return us, in Pollan’s words, to the wonder of “unencumbered first sight, or virginal noticing, to which the adult brain has closed itself. (It’s so inefficient!)”

In ordinary life, as Kant said, the “dear self is always turning up”. Psychedelics takes it offline. In X experience we lose what Iris Murdoch calls the “fat relentless ego”. We quit – again in Murdoch’s words – the “familiar rat-runs of selfish day-dream”. It seems, furthermore – and crucially – that a single dose can have lasting effects.
There's a bit more.

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