Michael Pollan’s just published a book about psychedelic experiences, How to Change Your Mind, and Joe Rogan just had him on his podcast. It’s an interesting and far-ranging conversation. I want to look at two little bits of what Pollan said.
Psychedelics, dreams, and metaphysics
Michael Pollan at about 27:09:
Where do you get the idea of a beyond? Where do you get the idea of a heaven or a hell, if not from some altered state of consciousness? You know, people talk about visiting the underworld in Homer’s time, so how did they do that? Was it dreams? Dreams don’t have the authority that psychedelic experience has. There’s something about psychedelic experience that has this, it’s not just an opinion, it’s not a fantasy. It’s something real, it’s objective truth. William James called this the noetic quality of the mystical experience. And that certitude comes from psychedelics. It seems totally plausible to me that at the earliest stages of humanity if people were indeed taking psychedelics, this might explain how they came up with these ideas.
I want to push back just a little. While Pollan’s right about the noetic quality of (at least some) psychedelic experience, I think he short-changes dreams.
I take my cue from an observation that Weston La Barre made in The Ghost Dance: The Origins of Religion (p. 60):
... the Australian Bushman themselves equate dream-time with the myth-time that is mysteriously brought back in ritual; myth is as timeless as the unconscious mind. It is the delectability of dreams that makes them desirable, and it is their desirability that (along with lowered critical threshold) that gives them their intense “reality” and conviction. The fact that he dreams first force on man the need to epistemologize.
Our own view of dreams is so thoroughly psychologized that we can easily think of them as just something the mind/brain does. How do dreams appear to people who, lacking the explanatory and theoretical machinery of modern psychology and neuroscience, cannot psychologize them? Why think about dreams at all; why not simply forget about them? What structures and processes must a brain have if it is to remember both dream events and real events, to compare them, note the differences, and wonder about those differences? It seems to me that people lacking the interpretive buffering of this psychologized view of the world might well see dreams as genuine journeys to another realm. When were our ancestors able to do this?
And if they also had the benefit of psychedelics, those experiences would reinforce the metaphysical imperatives of dream experience. The two experiential realms would supplement one another.
The social construction of reality
At about 34:24 ff. Pollan observes:
One of the really striking things, I’ve been on the road now, this is my second week out talking about this book, and I have been struck by how many people have had powerful psychedelic experiences they don’t talk to anybody about. And I come along as a kind of, I don’t know, kind of a credible person who’s interested. And, this is journalists too. They turn of the tape recorder and the say ‘can I tell you a story?’Something happened to them. It might have been in their twenties, or earlier, that changed the course of their life; and, either because there was a stigma attached to it, or it was kind of had this 60’s woo woo thing about it, or there were kids around, they didn’t feel comfortable. So they kept it in a box labeled ‘weird drug experience’.But it’s not just a drug experience. This is your mind. The drug may have started the process, but everything you see in this experience – those are real psychological facts, from your unconscious or your interpretation of your environment. It’s not the molecule that fore-ordained this experience....So you have this big experience and you put it in this box, saying ‘weird drug experience’. But when you take it out sometimes you find that there’s real gold there. There’s fool’s gold too...
It’s become a cliché that reality is a social construction. Crudely put, if we can’t talk about it or otherwise share it with others (thought art, for example), then it doesn’t exist. It’s not real.
Now, once again, we may be talking about these things. We had the counter-cultural 60s, which got quick down pretty quickly. And back in the 19th century we had the fascination that opium held for the British romantics – e.g. Coleridge and “Kubla Khan”. It’s not obvious where this conversation will go.