Archive for Reason and Magic

Buddhism and Evolutionary Psychology

I wrote the previous post as an assignment for Buddhism and Modern Psychology, an online class taught by Robert Wright of Princeton University. Although Wright currently has an appointment at Princeton as a professor of religion, I first encountered him decades ago when I read his book The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology. This is one of a handful of books that changed the way I look at the world.

Wright was struck by the similarities between evolutionary psychology–the idea that natural selection formed our minds as well as our bodies–and some elements of Eastern religion. Although Buddha wasn’t aware of genetics or evolution, his analysis of the human mind matches nicely with a modern Darwinian view. Wright developed these ideas into the course I took and into his latest book Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment.

As the title implies, Wright focuses on meditation as way to break free of the illusions that natural selection implanted in our minds. He doesn’t mention psychedelics, but the parallels seem pretty obvious to me. I immediately thought of evolutionary psych when I read The entropic brain: a theory of conscious states informed by neuroimaging research with psychedelic drugs.

This paper by the British neuroscientist Robin Carhart-Harris suggests that the human brain fluctuates between orderly (“low entropy”) and disorderly (“high entropy”) states. When the brain veers too far into low entropy, the result may be obsessive introspection and repetitive thought patterns. This condition can lead to depression, PTSD, and many other ills.

The Buddha’s diagnosis of human suffering sounds a lot like our understanding of the entropic brain. The mind craves the stability and control of a persistent ego, which doesn’t exist, with the result of constant frustration. The stronger the craving, the deeper we dig ourselves into a hole of illusions, repetitive thoughts, and destructive behaviors.

Psychedelics disrupt repetitive mental patterns and push the brain into a chaotic, high entropy state. When the drugs wear off, the brain resets into a fresh state ready for new programming. Meditation can do the same thing.

This line of inquiry seems very productive to me. I’d welcome your comments.

Posted in: Reason and Magic

Leave a Comment (0) →

Scientific Buddhism?

The Buddha’s unique and brilliant innovation was a model of the human mind that anticipated modern evolutionary psychology by 2,500 years. Although evolutionary psych is new enough to make us leery of drawing conclusions, I’d say it offers strong scientific evidence to support Buddha’s theory of the mind.

Buddhist psychology goes back to his second lecture, delivered shortly after he became enlightened, on “non-self.” Buddha challenged his followers to look within and find anything resembling a self. He didn’t say “examine your minds” because he understood that the mind isn’t one thing but a collection of “aggregates” including thought, emotion, and perception.

One modern theory is that the mind, like the brain, evolved in pieces “designed” to solve specific tasks. These functional “modules” might focus on jobs like attracting a mate or avoiding rotten food. Although the modules aren’t identical to Buddha’s aggregates, they share his diagnosis of insubstantiality.

The modules operate largely in the subconscious. They come and go as needed. The rotten food module might bob up to the surface and get me to refuse a plate of week-old leftovers, and I may assume it’s my choice, but the heavy lifting was done by then. As Buddha correctly noted, the sense of personal control is an illusion.

Along with control, Buddha called out our sense of continuity as the other hallmark of self. I assume I’m the same person that I was in grade school. But where does this sense come from and is it reliable?

Experimental psychology suggests that our memories are not a firm foundation for a sense of self. We naively assume that recalling a memory is like pulling a photograph out of a filing cabinet. In fact, memories are constructed anew by the brain each time they’re recalled, and they get fuzzier and less accurate every time.

Perception isn’t any more reliable. We stubbornly claim that “I know what I saw with my own eyes,” but sensory experience is biased and inconsistent. The brain doesn’t register visual or audio experience until it matches sensory data with pre-existing associations. The results are highly variable—an object may appear as a garden hose one day and a snake the next. Our belief in ourselves as consistent, objective witnesses is another illusion.

We live inside these illusions of persistence and control and take them for granted. If we’re to be honest, we should take the next step and admit that we’re addicted to them—we crave a self that isn’t there.

The Buddha identified craving as the root of human suffering. As with the doctrine of non-self, I’d say that modern psychology confirms a Buddhist interpretation of the human predicament.

All the machinery of the self—the mental modules and blurry memories and unreliable senses—evolved in our early human ancestors for purposes of survival and reproduction. They served us well back on the plains of ancient Africa and we can’t complain too much because we’re still here.

However, evolution moves very slowly while culture and technology can move very quickly. Long out of primal Africa, we have the minds of Stone Age hunter/gatherers even though we live in a high-tech, urban civilization. We spend our days staring into computer screens with nervous systems on constant alert for the next attack by a sabretooth tiger.

One conclusion of evolutionary psych is that the human mind evolved largely for deception, both of others and ourselves. We’re more likely to run if we believe that a noise in the dark is a predator. We’re more likely to get a mate if we believe that we are attractive.

Our condition is not just endless dissatisfaction and unease, but entrapment in a cage of mental errors. Desperate for meaning, we interpret random events as conspiracies perpetrated by villains in the shadows. It seems so real because our minds are programmed to perceive it that way.

Religious Buddhism contains a cosmic deceiver in the form of Mara, the demon who tempted Buddha under the Bo tree. The Christian tradition has one in the person of Satan. In our sophisticated age, the devil may seem like a quaint superstition, but doesn’t natural selection play the same role? Since our minds deceive us at every turn, aren’t we doing everything that a real Satan would do?

When Buddha asked his followers to search within for a self, he challenged their common sense along with deep-rooted Indian religious doctrine. From our perspective thousands of years later, we see that he was rebelling against more than doctrine and common sense. He was rebelling against evolution by natural selection; that is, rebelling against nature itself.

That is still our task. Our desperate need for the control and persistence of an imaginary self can never be satisfied until the fires of illusion are extinguished in nirvana.

Posted in: Reason and Magic

Leave a Comment (0) →

Hopkins recruiting for study on psilocybin therapy for anorexia

Did you know that, of all the psychological disorders, anorexia is the one that’s most often fatal? It’s also the next frontier in psychedelic research. From the website of the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research:

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University are seeking individuals ages 18 – 65 with anorexia nervosa to participate in a research study looking at the effects of psilocybin, a naturally occurring psychoactive substance found in certain species of mushrooms. The study will investigate psychological effects of psilocybin, including whether or not it can help with anorexia.

Phone: 410–550–2253 or

Posted in: Reason and Magic

Leave a Comment (1) →

International Forum on Consciousness

The theme of this year’s International Forum on Consciousness is “Psychedelic Therapy in Society: Exploring the Mechanisms of Action and Delivery of Care.”

“The latest research in psychedelic therapy suggests the potential for a transformation in how we approach treatment of depression, anxiety and certain forms of mental anguish. Early results show that a single dose in combination with preparation and follow-up could have an impact long after the substance has left the body. As research is taken into broader clinical trials, questions remain around what exactly happens that facilitates such a transformation. And, if it’s really this impactful, how will a treatment of this nature scale to meet the dramatic need in our world?”

The list of speakers includes Robin Carhart-Harris, the psychedelic researcher who pioneered the use of neuroimaging technology to study the brains of people tripping on psilocybin and LSD. His work significantly deepens our understanding of the psychedelic experience and human consciousness.

This conference will be one of the main events of the year for the psychedelic community. Tickets are available on the conference website.

Posted in: Reason and Magic

Leave a Comment (0) →

How to Change Your Mind

If you’re at all interested in psychedelics, you need to read Michael Pollan’s new book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.  This is a landmark book that will enlighten a lot of people and hasten the acceptance of psychedelic therapy in our culture.

It’s all here: the history, politics, science, and Pollan’s own psychedelic journeys. He’s an excellent writer with a gift for explaining difficult topics and finding the connections between hard science and everyday life.

There are tons of reviews out there. The New York Times has a good one. I also highly recommend Pollan’s interview on Fresh Air.

Posted in: Reason and Magic

Leave a Comment (0) →

Open letter

An open letter to people starting psychedelic therapy after legalization

by Geoff Gilpin

Hello and welcome. You made a difficult decision to embark on psychedelic therapy and I admire your courage. Most of the people who go through psychedelic therapy say that it’s one of the most important experiences in their lives. I’ve done it myself and I think you’ll be as happy as I was to discover the positive changes in your life.

You’re about to leave on an amazing journey. It’s so exciting to imagine the discoveries you’ll make. The best advice I can give you is to expect the unexpected. Every psychedelic trip has its own surprises, insights, and challenges. Be open to the experiences, let everything happen, and you’ll come through just fine.

It’s possible that you may have some difficulties on your way. Your guides will be there with you the whole time to make sure that you’re safe. Many people find that the difficult challenges are valuable because they help us become strong and flexible and resilient.

If you’re nervous about facing the unknown, you’re definitely not the first. Even veterans can feel the same way. For myself, I discovered that the things I feared most aren’t anywhere near as big as I thought they were. As a result, I feel more at home in the world and less afraid. If I did it, you can do it too.

I wish you a peaceful and loving journey. I’m looking forward to seeing you on the other side and hearing about your adventures. Thank you so much for joining us.

Posted in: Reason and Magic

Leave a Comment (0) →

The Great Unknown: A Psychedelic Journey to the End of Life and Beyond

In the fall and winter of 2014 I participated in a research study at the University of Wisconsin School of Pharmacy on the effects of the psychedelic drug psilocybin. I was one of 12 volunteers who took psilocybin on three occasions under the supervision of the research staff. The dosage increased each time. In the last session we got 40mg of psilocybin per 70kg of body weight, the largest dose in the history of psychedelic research.

There were visions.

A few hours into my first session I saw my mother Martha sitting alone in her living room. She was sitting in her chair facing her stereo which was silent because her dementia had progressed to the point where she could no longer insert a CD in the player.

The music in my headphones—selected by the researchers—gave the vision a soundtrack of Bach and Vivaldi, the same music my mom played for me when I was a child, the same music her parents played for her. Now she sat in silence, disconnected from the art that gave her joy. I understood the purpose of the vision: I must bring my mother and her music back together.

The next day I drove to Martha’s care facility and put a CD of Brahms in her stereo and pressed play and watched her eyes widen with love. We sat together holding hands as we had when we shared music in my childhood.

A couple hours of Brahms and Mozart every few days brought my mom out of her fog and made her joyful, but it also changed our relationship. She was no longer the competent, independent person who traveled the world and played the stock market and raised a son as a single parent and put on whatever CD she damn well pleased. Now the roles of a lifetime turned upside down. I would learn to be a caregiver or there would be no more music.

* * *

In my third session in the UW study, the one with the big dose, I traveled down the birth canal and entered the world. I gave birth myself, which was very messy. I died.

The dimly lit room in the School of Pharmacy became an underground grotto and the guides sitting by my couch—gentle and helpful as always—prepared the last rites. Wrapped in headphones and blankets with my arms folded over my chest, I was a corpse.

I saw light in the distance as the borders of my individuality began to dissolve.

No! I pulled back. My ego hung on like a dog gripping a bone in its jaws. Then I felt the light tugging at my edges and seeping through my barriers and I knew it was time to go so I leaned forward and I fell in. The light came up to engulf me and then there was nothing.

Death was very hard, but the vision of rebirth was harder. I came back into primordial chaos with no sense of self, just fragments of objects and sounds and memories flying around in a whirlwind. My job was to put the universe back together one piece at a time. After much hard labor, I built a foundation solid enough to stand on and go forward. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

The next day as I drove home from the hospital I marveled at the beauty of streets and neighborhoods I’d seen countless times before. The world was fresh and new.

In the days after my final session I felt buoyant as if I’d lost a ton of weight. It was lovely but I figured it would end soon and life would be heavy and gray again. That didn’t happen. I had, in fact, lost a huge weight that I’d carried all my life. I was no longer afraid.

Sixty-plus years of social anxiety and stress and grinding discomfort in my own skin were lifted from me in one day. What’s more, I was no longer afraid of death. Been there, done that.

* * *

As my mom’s dementia progressed, parts of her disappeared like the limbs of a melting snowman.  Over the course of a year and a half she lost the ability to write checks, operate appliances, tell time, read, bathe herself, and remember the names of her parents. Her weight plummeted. Then she stopped eating.

Her doctor recommended hospice. The hospice nurse examined my mom, who was barely responsive by then, and told me that she probably wouldn’t live another week. The nurse and I sat by the bed in a silent vigil.

As I held my mom’s frail hand and examined the transparent skin of her wrist and the colored veins underneath, I realized I’d been there before. Not long ago I was the skeleton wrapped in blankets preparing for the final sendoff as the UW research staff sat nearby in a silent vigil. The familiarity of the situation comforted me.

I understand now why cancer patients who receive psilocybin lose their fear of death. The psychedelic experience—loss of ego boundaries, transcendence of space and time, direct knowledge of universal love—is so huge that everything else, even a fatal disease or the death of a beloved parent, falls into place.

* * *

After each session in the UW study I filled out a form called the Mystical Experiences Questionnaire. The form has a list of things that may turn up during a psychedelic trip. For example: “Awareness of the life or living presence in all things” and “Feeling that you experienced eternity or infinity.” You rate the significance of these experiences in your trip on a scale of 0 (not at all) to 5 (extreme).

Everyone who participates in a psychedelic research study fills out the same form. The data show that psychedelics often produce dramatic mystical states like the ones reported by monks or yogis. Many participants rate the psychedelic journey as one of the most important and transformative events in their lives.

What’s more, the questionnaire shows that mystical experiences can play a big role in psychedelic therapy. Recent studies at Johns Hopkins and New York University showed a positive correlation between ratings on the Mystical Experience Questionnaire and the effectiveness of psilocybin as a treatment for depression and anxiety in late-stage cancer patients. People who scored higher on the scales of mystical experience had fewer negative emotional symptoms from their disease.

Unlike other medications, the positive benefits of psilocybin seem to persist long after the drug passes out of the system. Long as in months or years. In the Hopkins/NYU studies, the cancer patients got a single dose of psilocybin. At a six-month follow-up, many of them reported continuing psychological and emotional benefits.

I can testify that it works like that. My study was for healthy adults; I don’t have cancer or PTSD or any of the other conditions treated with psychedelics. Even so, the long-lasting benefits of psilocybin came in very handy when I needed them.

* * *

I sat a vigil for the week it was supposed to take my mom to die. Then she woke up and asked for something to eat.

In the months that my mother lingered in this world, I learned to feed her and clothe her and take care of the basic needs that she performed for me when I was a helpless child. I learned to make conversation with a person who speaks nonsense.

The stress and sorrow grew with the demands. I put on a good face for my mom and the nursing staff, but the tears came the moment I left the building.

Oddly, as my own burden grew, my mom’s diminished. She wasn’t depressed or bitter like so many of her fellow residents in the memory care facility. She even developed a sense of humor. I held her stuffed dog on her knee and flopped its ears and she made growling noises and laughed and laughed.

One day I was sitting in the dining room at my mom’s table helping her with a glass of juice when an aide wheeled in another resident and parked her next to us and left her slumped over in her wheelchair. I didn’t pay much attention, but my mom, who was pretty vacant herself that morning, perked up and said hello. The only reply was a slack jaw and far-off stare.

Martha made another attempt. She feebly grasped her spoon and held it out to her dining companion who, of course, had a full table service of her own.

“Would you like this?” she asked.

I lost it. I started crying and made a lame attempt to cover up using my mom’s paper napkin. For an instant I saw her as she truly is, without the layers of her career and her daily routines and her endless responsibilities. She was always a loving caregiver, even to strangers, but I never saw it until her dementia took away everything else.

* * *

They call LSD “acid” both for its chemical name and for the subjective effect of bathing in a corrosive pool that dissolves all illusions. Psilocybin can have the same effect.

In one of my sessions I developed x-ray vision that let me see through my transparent skin to my skeleton and nervous system. That all dissolved followed by the ego junk—sixty years of habits, assumptions, and prejudices, all down the drain. There wasn’t much left besides a core of basic needs and spirit.

When the same thing happened to my mom I got a sense of déjà vu. As I see it, we are on the same journey, hers facilitated by age and illness and mine by chemicals. Both trips take us to the deep center of human nature. That’s why a psychedelic trip can feel so familiar.

Perhaps that’s also one reason why psychedelics are so practical. Long after the last dose of psilocybin washed out of my system, I still recognize the core human spirit in others, even those I used to avoid or dislike. People tell me I’m more patient and tolerant.

I also have a new attitude toward elderly people. For most of my life I didn’t have much time for them but now I seek them out. They’re past the stage of scurrying around preoccupied by things that don’t matter. It took me 40mg of psilocybin to learn that lesson, but I think I finally got it. Maybe I’m ready to follow my mom’s example and be a caregiver.

* * *

Martha is still with us. On a good day she still gets some pleasure from Brahms or Mozart, but just as often they pass by unnoticed.

Someday I’ll get a phone call from the hospice nurse. It could be tomorrow or it could be a year from now. I think I’m ready. I’ve done the work of letting go.

The final vision of my last session was a dance. I don’t think my mom and I ever did the waltz in the real world, but we did under the influence of psychedelics. She was a little girl, the most precious thing in the world, and I held her in my arms as we twirled around. I saw the crack forming on the horizon and I knew she would have to go soon. But we held each other and danced.

The crack widened and bright light poured in from the next world. My mother was very small, tiny enough to hold in my hands. I told her I loved her and I held her up and let her go. I cried but love remained.

* * *

I am, still, a rational materialist who doubts life after death. With all the visions and ordeals of the last two years, however, doubts and beliefs don’t seem very important. I got what I needed from my teachers, one a human and one a chemical. The rest is superfluous.

Who cares that the mystical experience I had in the UW study came out of a chemistry lab? Call it psychological, purely subjective, a fiction conjured by a brain under the influence. All true. It was also as real and beautiful and practical as anything in my life.

When it is my own time to die, I think I’ll be as well prepared as the cancer patients in the psilocybin studies. I’ll get the final diagnosis but I’ll remember the big galactic dance.

When it’s time for the final transition I suspect that it will feel familiar, like a place I’ve visited before. I don’t think it could be any more difficult or more cosmic than what I experienced in the session room. I know that my own death, and the death of my mother, are tiny compared to the love that will endure.

Posted in: Reason and Magic

Leave a Comment (2) →
Page 1 of 11 12345...»