Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Ultimate Skeptic's Head Trip (Part 3)

I'm at the third psychedelic post of prose which has spewed forth from my fingers. If you haven't read the first two, you may want to:
` I've spent most of Part 1 focusing on common misconceptions about psychedelic (literally "mind-expanding") drugs, and some of their effects on one's senses and sense of self, etc. -- although I did let Jennifer Ouellette do most of the talking.
` Part 2 is my own lengthy overview about some of the reasons why skeptics would find psychedelics interesting (including their roles in religion, art, and science), along with some of my strange encounters with people who seem somewhat 'on the inside, looking out'.

Since time has been short for writing, I've been exploiting material I've written over the previous months and expanding it into blog post form.
` This third post has actually taken a little work because it is a complete bastardization of the other two bits of psychedelically-themed emailage that I sent to the same person. The first involved some commentary on two articles that two different people had sent me links to in early July, which I read before getting back to packing up my stuff into storage.

That's when I went to The Amazing Meeting 2014 for science and skepticism (with minimal fear and loathing) in Las Vegas -- this time sleep-deprived in advance! Good thing there were plenty of opportunities to rest from all the chaos!
` As usual, my rambling around was quite mind-altering, from chats with myriad skeptics at the South Point to backstage with Penn and Teller at the Rio. It left me feeling almost energized, in a excitingly drained sort of way.
` I even spent much of my time seeking out people who found all this mind-bendingness fascinating. Even Captain Disillusion (who as I understand is from some kind of continuum), seemed spellbound by how they affect individuals and culture.
` With my podcast recorder, I interviewed various people about mentalism (Jonny Zavant), hypnosis (Matt Baxter) and psychedelics (with a neuroscientist whose name you probably wouldn't recognize), amongst other topics and skeptic-type folk.

I had also interviewed my email recipient before I had turned more of my podcasting interests towards such mind-bending topics. As I was back to podcast editing again in my new chaotic environment, I found a reason to send him one last email.
` This, then, is my lovely bastardization, which, like the original, starts out with my commentary on an article sent to me from Mind Unleashed called, Scientists Studied What Psychedelics Do to the Brain, and it's Not What You've Been Told.
` It refers to this placebo-controlled study, which shows that long-lasting psychological growth and increased openness can indeed be achieved with proper psychedelic therapy, particularly after a relatively high ego-dissolving dose.
` I recommend reading both. In the article, my eye was caught by such paragraphs as:

"...[T]he researchers say that those changes in personality are highly atypical, because personalities tend to be pretty set in stone after the age of 25-30. According to postdoctoral researcher Katherine MacLean, who contributed to the study, “This is one of the first studies to show that you actually can change adult personality.” 
“Many years later, people are saying it was one of the most profound experiences of their life,” she continued. “If you think about it in that context, it’s not that surprising that it might be permanent.”
Indeed, psychedelic research subjects usually rate their experience as a major life event, akin to having a child or moving to another part of the world, where nothing can be the same again. Some people say it is the most meaningful event in their lives.

This study lends credence to many previous studies (which are linked to the published study) showing that psychedelics can permanently affect participants' personalities, including breaking them out of serious ruts, even the ones called OCD and PTSD.

In the M.U. article, there are videos of two participants from another study telling about their inner journeys. They describe how their values have changed, how they've overcome their emotional blocks, and have become more spontaneous and connected to others and the world around them.

Unsurprisingly, I've found a few people who associate subjective experiences with non-science to be happy to dismiss all this as just anecdote. Although research on these drugs has been mostly illegal in the past few decades, what research there has been shows these as typical results, not just hearsay.

I was also interested to notice that such people don't realize that they are operating under the deep cultural presupposition that the "unaltered" conscious state (whatever that means) is the optimal or most aware state in all contexts.

Of course, our everyday "alert" state is evolutionarily adapted for making babies, finding food, and not becoming food. But humans are more than just that -- we use highly abstract thoughts, make art, and describe our world through language.

Psychedelics are known to stimulate all of those capacities, and can be used to enhance meditation, which by itself is different from much of our everyday waking consciousness. Meditation probably won't help you detect a lion ambush, either, but "zen" states of drug-induced and non-drug induced varieties can be useful.

Adding confusion to all of this is the fact that most people are familiar with the effects of alcohol, and so may assume that all other drugs cause delirium. On the contrary, one of the marked characteristics of tryptamine-class psychedelics is that there is surprisingly little delirium in proportion to the effect.

As for Sam Harris, he was going hardcore when he took 400 micrograms of LSD on the lake in Nepal, which he mentioned in his essay Drugs and the Meaning of Life. If you haven't read it, doing so should further clarify what I'm talking about.

He explains some of the science of psychedelics, and the legal B.S. surrounding them, as well as his own experiences. I'd like to point out some quotes that seem typical of the more thoughtful psychedelics users:
"...there was a period in my early twenties when I found psilocybin and LSD to be indispensable tools, and some of the most important hours of my life were spent under their influence. Without them, I might never have discovered that there was an inner landscape of mind worth exploring."
"Needless to say, if I knew that either of my daughters would eventually develop a fondness for methamphetamine or crack cocaine, I might never sleep again. But if they don’t try a psychedelic like psilocybin or LSD at least once in their adult lives, I will wonder whether they had missed one of the most important rites of passage a human being can experience."
It is often stated in the psychedelics community that everyone should have a right to one of the true wonders of the world, natural or otherwise. Harris speaks for them a few times in this article, including here:
"One thing is certain: The mind is vaster and more fluid than our ordinary, waking consciousness suggests. And it is simply impossible to communicate the profundity (or seeming profundity) of psychedelic states to those who have never experienced them. Indeed, it is even difficult to remind oneself of the power of these states once they have passed." ...
"The positive experiences were more sublime than I could ever have imagined or than I can now faithfully recall. These chemicals disclose layers of beauty that art is powerless to capture and for which the beauty of nature itself is a mere simulacrum. 
It is one thing to be awestruck by the sight of a giant redwood and amazed at the details of its history and underlying biology. It is quite another to spend an apparent eternity in egoless communion with it. Positive psychedelic experiences often reveal how wondrously at ease in the universe a human being can be—and for most of us, normal waking consciousness does not offer so much as a glimmer of those deeper possibilities."
Being immersed in a Venn diagram-like overlapping mix of Skeptical and psychedelic culture, I do not have any argument with this. Which is why I've been curious to know what someone with a squarely-outsider perspective as yourself actually thinks of all this stuff.

It's also why I'm feeling so puzzled over what you said last week about feeling 'upset' when you find that musicians you admire have done drugs such as marijuana. So, I'm curious, would you also count the considerably more dangerous alcohol as a 'drug'?

I want to hear your case for this, because all I could think of was, "Why on earth would anyone react in that way?" The same goes for ____, who said, "I've personally smoked pot with Alan White. Would he be upset by that?"

Carl Sagan advocated marijuana and loved the soaring, "spiritual" headspace he could achieve with it (being slightly psychedelic and all). Also, Ann Druyan is still on the advisory board of NORML. Does this have the same sort of effect on your emotions?

Many artists use drugs (responsibly or irresponsibly) as inspiration, and it's no mystery why the psychedelics that inspired much of your favorite music are widely considered to be unique and powerful tools among them:

As you may have gathered, the whole warping synesthesia of one's inner perceptions go so far beyond language and everyday experience that there is no way to prepare the uninitiated for what to expect. Hence, psychedelics have a certain artistic utility that nothing else can fulfill.

This is why I was also a bit confused that time when you opined that most likely, musicians' work can only be good despite their drug use. All drugs? In all contexts?

According to Wikipedia, psychedelic music stylings are "inspired or influenced by psychedelic culture and attempts to replicate and enhance the mind-altering experiences of psychedelic drugs."

As far as I know, psychedelic music (especially if directly inspired) is in a way like visual art representing psychedelic experiences. How could one's work be made inferior by directly sensing the very process they are supposed to be representing?

You realize, then, that psychedelic rock, etc. by definition cannot be fully understood or appreciated without actual psychedelic use. Really.

I'm curious to know, if I played you two songs, one influenced by marijuana, and one with no chemical influence, how could you tell which was which? What would you expect with LSD?

Of course, ____ is back here saying, "Better not use a computer! Jobs and Gates did LSD! Better not study genetics, Francis Crick modeled the double helix on LSD! Also, I hope you don't like Yes, or The Beatles, or Led Zeppelin, or Queen!"

I think he's trying to say that some drugs can be used as a creative force, not just a destructive one.

Also, in the past you have talked about your disappointment in "drug abuse" among musicians, but didn't make any distinctions as for what you mean by either 'drugs' or 'abuse'. Do you think of people like Carl Sagan, Sam Harris, Francis Crick or Aldous Huxley as serious drug abusers?

As you know, I have had a lot of experience with unsavory drug-related behavior and have lived with people who were addicted to alcohol, nicotine, opiates and meth, from crazy dad to crazy roommates.

So, I am well aware of what various substances can do to one's mind and one's life, for better or worse.

This is why I honestly feel some confoundment enough to ask; why would anyone become upset in some way at the fact that a musician they liked did "drugs" and/or found inspiration in them? And what exactly does that mean, to you?"

I was a bit amused when my emailee made the point at the top of his next show that doing something nice for someone is not only beneficial, but more importantly, it's an amazing way to feel really good and get "high in a governmentally-mandated legal way, chemically free".
` This I do agree with. However, he then added "I'm assuming it's better than chemical enhancement."

I'm not even going to ask. And if you don't know who I am referring to, take a guess, and then go to my next life update, here, to find out if you were right!

The fourth and final part to this series will take a somewhat unconventional look at why these drugs are not a governmentally-mandated legal way of getting high. There will be no more emails to anyone, at least in the final part of The Ultimate Skeptic's Head Trip -- which you can read here.

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