Archive for Reason and Magic

Neuropunked

In Neuropunked: 5 ways our brains are messing with our memories, author Victoria Stern describes how the brain alters our memories in ways that makes them unreliable.

“Psychologists at Northwestern University showed that each time you recall an event, your brain alters the memory by integrating new information—perhaps drawing on your current mood, activity or location, among other things.”

Our memories seem so real that we’re compelled to believe them even when they’re full of nonsense. Memories are like cheese in a mousetrap. If you’re not careful when you take the bait, you risk getting “neuropunked”–played for a sucker by your own nervous system.

In We’re all hard-wired for magic, I listed some other mental activities–mistaking correlation for causality, detecting patterns where there are none–that put us at risk of being neuropunked. It happens to all of us all the time. What could we do to stop it?

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Peychedelics are medicine for people who are trapped

By now, I suppose we’ve all got the memo: psychedelic drugs have great medical potential. The next step, for me at least, is a better understanding of how they work.

There seems to be a big gap in our knowledge. When we discuss psychedelics at the level of chemistry and neuroscience, we use very precise, technical language. We talk about molecular structure, receptor sites in the nervous system, neurotransmitters, and so forth in great detail.

Then we move over to the clinical side where, say, a psychologist administers psilocybin to an alcoholic. The technical language goes away and we talk about “integrative experiences” and “wholeness” and so on to explain why the drug works.

As I see it, the switch from precise, scientific terminology to the vague language of spirituality is one of the mysteries of psychedelics. You wouldn’t see a gap like that with an antibiotic or decongestant.

My guess is that we resort to fuzzy explanations for psychedelic therapy because they’re the best we have. That doesn’t mean that the spiritual terminology is wrong, it just means that there’s a lot more work to do. Since the current period of mystery may last awhile, I’d like to propose some vague language of my own which, I hope, will shed some light and narrow the gap.

We know that psychedelics are useful for treating a broad range of conditions—addiction, PTSD, depression, autism, and anxiety for starters. I’m curious to know what these conditions have in common. At first, I naïvely expected a simple answer—a shared gene or neurochemical or some other MacGuffin that might expose the inner workings of psychedelic therapy. I don’t think I’m going to get my simple answer any time soon.

As it happens, however, I know a number of people who live with the serious conditions that are treated with psychedelics—addicts, alcoholics, and trauma victims. When they tell their stories, they talk about a feeling of imprisonment. People with PTSD describe an overpowering fear that compels them to avoid others or stay indoors. Addicts are slaves condemned to repeating the same destructive behaviors over and over.

Psychedelics can produce a powerful experience of freedom, as I discovered first hand when I took ayahuasca at the Santo Daime church in Oregon. It was like walking into a vast, open space free of the inner noise and endless thought loops I’d carried around for years.

For an addict or trauma victim, this taste of freedom could be the blessing of a lifetime. It could be the beginning of hope. Maybe that’s a key to understanding the value of psychedelic therapy.

Peychedelics are medicine for people who are trapped.

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Slate article on quantum consciousness

There’s an excellent article on Slate about the abuse of quantum mechanics in pop culture. Author Matthew R. Francis does a great job exposing the flimsy arguments people use to connect quantum physics and consciousness. Along the way, he provides clear explanations of concepts like quantum entanglement, which are often hijacked by New Age proponents and twisted beyond recognition.

“Maybe there’s room for some small quantum effects in the brain, but I sincerely doubt those will be directly relevant for consciousness. That’s because almost anything involving individual quantum states requires isolation from environmental interference for the weirdness to show up. For example, most particles aren’t entangled in any meaningful way, because interactions with other particles change their quantum state.”

We’re used to quantum nonsense from pop culture gurus like Deepak Chopra. Francis points out that a few of the culprits are genuine physicists. He blames it on age, but every field has a handful of qualified PhDs who gleefully reject the consensus opinion. I’d guess that the number of physicists who believe in quantum consciousness is about the same as the number of biologists who reject evolution.

The cartoon accompanying the article is priceless. This is a must-read.

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Psychedelics and the greater good

Psychedelics aren’t like other drugs. They break the mold in many ways—their uniquely powerful psychoactive effects, their ability to inspire mystical experiences, their roots in tribal cultures.

They are also, like the experiences they produce, difficult to understand. Is LSD a tool for neuroscientists studying the brain? Is it for psychologists treating their patients? For spiritual seekers looking for enlightenment?

Unlike drugs with a clear-cut purpose (Tylenol for headaches, say), psychedelics have a dual identity. They’re both medical and spiritual. Patients with serious conditions like addiction and depression can use them for relief. Healthy people can use them for personal growth and development.

Most people who write about psychedelics—me included—come from the more-or-less healthy camp. We pump out books and articles on a subject that’s purely optional for us. That’s fine as long as we don’t distract anyone from the deeper need. As my friend Jackie Vanden Heuvel puts it:

“Enlightenment is a bonus for those who are already on a healthy path, but is a godsend for someone who suffers.”

It’s easy to get carried away by mystical or utopian visions and forget the practical effects of psychedelic drugs. Obviously, whenever a person loses the handicap of depression or PTSD, the world becomes a better place. The consequences could go way beyond individual lives.

Moving psychedelics out of Schedule 1 would be a major blow to the War on Drugs. The effects might include a reduction in the prison population and changes to unjust laws and police practices that incarcerate one in six African American males.

We could also see a transformation of our health care system. Conventional drug therapy for serious illness may mean years of daily meds with debilitating side effects. By contrast, the research on psychedelics shows that a few sessions can lead to profound and long-lasting benefits. This new model of therapy could require major changes in the pharmaceutical and insurance industries. The resulting economic and social consequences could be as big as the health benefits.

These goals are all possible. That doesn’t mean they’re inevitable, however. Psychedelic therapy was quite promising 50 years ago until the research was derailed by politics and fear. This time, it makes sense to focus on the science and the pressing needs of medical patients who could benefit from legalization.

That path may not be as sexy as our mystical visions. It is, however, the greater good. The rest will follow.

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The guru script

Recently, a friend invited me to join her meditation group. The four people in her group meet every week to practice Tai Chi. They start each session with a guided meditation.

She described me to her friends in the group as a person with a lot of experience with meditation who might be interested in joining and leading the sessions. The other people in the group responded enthusiastically.

When I read the email with the invitation, I had one of those “fork in the road” moments.

You know how, in the movies, a character has to make a crucial decision with huge consequences? For example, a person arrives at a Greyhound station and sees two coaches, one marked “Oshkosh” and the other “New York City.” The movie shows the chain of events that occurs when the character gets on one bus, then the other, resulting in triumph or disaster.

I read that email invitation and I flashed back to my years in a fringe religious sect. I recalled how it started—so many young and idealistic people ready to change the world. Maharishi was upbeat and accessible. It was like a big party.

Years passed and fewer and fewer people saw Maharishi in person. He withdrew to a secluded compound and surrounded himself with a small band of true believers. His teachings grew more and more bizarre. In his final years, he occasionally appeared on video, surrounded by vast floral displays and a computer-generated golden nimbus, to rail against democracy and threaten doom.

In the end, Maharishi didn’t turn out well, but how many of us would do a better job? Imagine the pressure he was under—decades of fawning adulation by crowds projecting their hopes on him. The constant drone of sycophants telling him what they thought he wanted to hear. The total lack of normal human relationships. How many of us could survive all that without cracking up?

So, I got that email invitation and I imagined myself sitting cross-legged looking out at eager faces waiting for spiritual insight. I hit Reply and firmly declined the offer.

If I’d taken the other bus, I doubt that I would turn out like Maharishi. I doubt I’d ever have the opportunity. I might have even done some good.

That’s all beside the point. I turned down the invitation to lead a group meditation for the same reason that some people say they don’t want to try heroin.

I might like it.

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“Aya Awakenings:” Buckle up and hold on!

Given the current popularity of Ayahuasca—the psychedelic beverage brewed by Amazonian shamans—it’s not surprising that documentary filmmakers have discovered the subject. Pretty soon we’ll have enough movies for an Ayahuasca film festival. First up is Aya Awakenings, an account of one man’s inner and outer journey through the worlds of Ayahuasca.

Rak Razam is an Australian freelance writer and filmmaker who traveled to Peru to work with indigenous shamans and discover what their psychoactive brew could teach him. In addition to writing and producing the film, Razam also narrates, which makes Aya Awakenings a highly personal statement. With the exception of a few brief interviews and some bits of historical and cultural context, it’s Razam’s story and viewpoint all the way. That focus gives the film a powerful sense of honesty and authenticity, but it also raises some questions. Fortunately, since we’re spending 90 minutes in his company, Razam is a likeable guide on a journey that would be, for a lot of us, a pretty harrowing trip.

The voyage begins as Razam arrives in Iquitos, Peru, ground zero of Ayahuasca culture. He attends a conference on shamanism and tours the city, where Ayahuasca appears to be for sale on every street corner.

Once he heads into the jungle, the inner odyssey begins. Razam meets a series of shamans, some Peruvian and some American. His cameras record a number of Ayahuasca ceremonies, most of which occur at night in open air pavilions to the sound of droning jungle insects. We see ritual participants flickering like ghosts in the candlelight, but the real star of the trip sequences comes out of a computer. If you’re a connoisseur of psychedelic graphics, you’ll want to see this movie.

Razam’s narration makes it clear that his encounters with Ayahuasca weren’t always easy. He experiences extreme nausea along with disturbing visions. If there was an Oscar for Extreme Spirituality, Razam would win for his vision of a jaguar spirit emerging from a puddle of his own vomit. Undaunted, he proceeds deeper into the jungle and the depths of his own psyche.

The spiritual journey reaches a climax at the secluded retreat of an American shaman and his houseguest, a bare-chested scientist who studies the effects of psychedelics on the human brain. The scientist wires Razam’s head for EEG readings and the shaman offers him a pipe. Razam smokes powdered DMT—the pure form of the psychoactive ingredient in Ayahuasca—and blasts off into another dimension. His narration hints at the ineffable nature of the experience, but from the outside it looks like he’s babbling and having a seizure.

In the end, Razam finds some enlightenment in shamanic prophecies of immanent global transformation. Prophecies are easy to come by, however. Viewers may wonder if he found something of greater personal worth, and, if so, whether it required so much risk and adversity.

That’s the paradox of Aya Awakenings—it’s thrilling, colorful, and mind-expanding, but it’s also the limited viewpoint of one person who has a thing for extreme experiences. Your mileage may vary. It’s quite possible to have a powerful, transformative experience with psychedelics in a comfortable and familiar setting. Likewise, the contents of Razam’s inner journey are his own. Enlightenment can happen without visions of jaguars or the astral plane or the stately pleasure dome of Kubla Khan.

Ayahuasca is challenging enough by itself. We don’t need Ayahuasca envy.

With those caveats in mind, it’s easy to recommend Aya Awakenings. It’s entertaining, informative, and honest. Just keep in mind that it’s one person’s trip.

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Prescribing Mushrooms for Anxiety

There’s an excellent article in The Atlantic magazine about the use of psilocybin to treat anxiety in cancer patients. “Prescribing Mushrooms for Anxiety” describes the work of Dr. Stephen Ross and his colleagues at New York University.

The data from the study is still being analyzed, but anecdotally Dr. Ross and his team report that the vast majority of their patients have exhibited an immediate and sustained reduction in anxiety. Consistent with similar studies involving psilocybin, approximately three-fourths of the participants rate their experience with the drug as being one of the top five most significant events of their lives.

One of the most dramatic features of psychedelic therapy is that a single dose can have dramatic and long lasting effects. Dr. Ross offered an interesting, non-technical explanation. Perhaps the results last so long because the power of the psychedelic experience makes such a big impression. After all, a single bad experience can produce a lifetime of post-traumatic stress disorder. It makes sense that a positive experience could be as profound and long lasting.

The article has a good summary of the history of psychedelic research and interesting details on the methodology of the NYU study.

Crucially, each participant is shown the two medications they will have access to on demand throughout their trip. One is Valium, used to reduce anxiety, and the other is Zyprexa, an almost instantaneous antidote to the psychedelic. In a testament to the thorough mental preparation the study provides, the medications have never been requested by any of the patients. The psilocybin itself is presented in pill-form inside a ceramic chalice.

The process resembles a ritual as much as a scientific experiment. Perhaps the NYU study gives us a preview of how psychedelic therapy will occur in a decade or so after it becomes legal.

 

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