Archive for Reason and Magic

“Machine elves” identified at last?

The other day I was listening to a Shpongle album with a song that included an audio clip of Terence McKenna. They sped up his voice and distorted it to make him sound like an insectoid alien or, perhaps, one of the “self-replicating fractal machine elves” he encountered under the influence of DMT.

Anyway, while the music was playing, my wife walked into the living room. The following conversation ensued:

My wife: “What’s that?”

Me: “Shpongle.”

My wife: “Oh, I thought you were watching the Teletubbies.”

Teletubbies_tinky_winky

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Psychedelics and autism

The most recent Psychedelic Salon podcast features new research on the use of psychedelics (specifically MDMA/”Ecstasy”) for treating social anxiety due to autism.

Psychologist Alicia Danforth surveyed autistic adults with MDMA experience. Many reported sudden, dramatic, and long-lasting improvements in social anxiety due to the use of MDMA. These reports are anecdotal and Danforth emphasized the need for further, quantitative research.

To that end, Danforth and UCLA Psychologist Charles Grob are currently recruiting adult volunteers with autism for a clinical trial of MDMA therapy. More information is available on ClinicalTrials.gov.

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Psychedelics and dreaming

Lots of people have commented on the similarities between dreaming and the psychedelic experience. We may be closer to a neurological explanation, according to this article by Robin Carhart-Harris and David Nutt of Imperial College, London. (Via the Psychedelic Frontier community on Goggle Plus.)

French researchers produced “transient dreamlike states” by electrical stimulation of the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), a central part of the brain’s default mode network (DMN). Carhart-Harris and Nutt compared these results with their own studies of the brain during the psychedelic experience.

They report that changes in the PCC were “the most conspicuous and reliable finding of our psilocybin imaging studies.” They also note the role of the PCC in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the phase of sleep associated with dreams. Psilocybin and other psychedelics bring on rapid eye movement during sleep.

Another similarity suggests that psychedelics may have long-term therapeutic benefits. The patient in the French study reported a sustained period of “absolute happiness” after the experiment. Likewise, some subjects in psychedelic studies report a long-lasting sense of well-being after a few sessions.

Carhart-Harris and Nutt speculate that “psilocybin produces a sustained alteration in PCC and/or DMN activity that could account for its putative therapeutic potential.” They intend to follow up by testing the use of psilocybin for treating major depression.

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Welcome!

I’m delighted that news of this blog is spreading via Facebook and other channels. Welcome, one and all! I hope you’ll enjoy your visit. If you have any questions, suggestions, useful links, or anything else you’d like to see here, please let me know.

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Your inner guru ran off with his secretary

When I was in the Transcendental Meditation (TM) movement back in the Seventies, I heard Maharishi describe what it’s like to start meditating. He compared it to looking at a mountain range through a zoom lens.

Before you learn to meditate, your lens is zoomed in all the way and you see the peak of a single mountain. Then you start meditating and the effect is like zooming out to see all the mountains at once. When you get the wide-angle view, you realize how much you were missing.

That’s exactly what it felt like for me. On the day I learned to meditate, I began to notice clouds, textures, bird songs, decorations—all the things that used to be invisible.

I’ve had similar experiences with psychedelics. That’s just how it works—once the inner noise shuts off, you start to notice things. That can be a great opportunity, but it can also be a set-up.

For example, one night in my wayward youth, I dropped a tab of acid and went for a walk in the park. I became mesmerized by a streetlamp that buzzed and flickered whenever I walked by. For one evening, I believed I had the power to short-circuit streetlamps.

Our minds are programmed to detect patterns of cause and effect. We crank out patterns and connections nonstop and sometimes we get it right and sometimes we’re dead wrong. Right and wrong are secondary, however, as long as we keep making connections.

We’re also programmed for certainty. Our brains can generate a sense of hard, cold reality and attach that certainty to the plainest truth or the flimsiest delusion.

Most of the time, we get by. So what if Aunt Doris blames her kidney stones on the full moon? We can mistake correlation for causality a good chunk of the time and still do okay.

Of course, there’s a big risk once you add charismatic leaders. They’ll happily tell you that the world hangs on your own personal sins or virtues. Maharishi got a lot of mileage from that sort of thing. To this day, there are still people in his movement who believe that their meditation is the only thing preventing World War III.

If you’re wary of charisma, you can run when you see a white robe, but you can’t hide. Your own mind will come after you. It’s fueled by hundreds of thousands of years of evolution and it’s eager to lead you down the garden path of total bullshit.

Would you even pause to question your own experiences? You’re way more charismatic and authoritative than any guru, at least to yourself.

I can’t say for sure whether people who practice meditation or use psychedelics are any more prone to magical thinking than others. However, I’ve spent a lot of time in both communities, and I have to tell you that the ground is pretty soggy with peculiar ideas.

Here’s my pet theory. I think that the heightened awareness produced by meditation and psychedelics can make us vulnerable to cognitive errors. When the noise in your head shuts down, you become more and more aware of the world around you. The objects and events you notice become fodder for the brain’s pattern matching machine. Your mind starts cranking out coincidences, synchronicities, and grand theories that explain everything. In your heightened state, your new discoveries seem charged with meaning, perhaps to the point of revelation.

In effect, you put on a white robe, adopt yourself as a disciple, and lead yourself off on a merry chase to nowhere.

Fortunately, this result isn’t inevitable. We can be aware of the traps built into the human mind and do our best to avoid them. That’s true for all human minds, not just those under the influence of meditation or psychedelics.

Evolution makes fools out of all of us.

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Follow your inner guru?

At their best, meditation and psychedelics help you discover the universe by washing out the guff from your mind and senses. Once the barriers come down, you can see and appreciate what’s been there all along.

Forty years ago, I assumed that this experience was an end in itself. Now I understand that everything depends on what you do with it.

For example, when I was a student at Maharishi University, I spent years meditating my buns off. So did hundreds of others, many of whom had vivid experiences of enlightenment. But what did they do with it? Mainly what Maharishi told them to do, which boiled down to fundraising and real estate speculation.

That’s one of the hazards of the path. Gurus like Maharishi and L. Ron Hubbard know that their followers are in a delicate stage of transition. They’re happy to step in and fill the void with their own agendas.

I recently had a conversation on this subject with a friend who is familiar with the worlds of meditation, gurus, and psychedelics. It went like this:

Me: “The advantage of psychedelics is that there isn’t any guru.”

My friend: “No, the advantage of psychedelics is that you are your own guru.”

At the end of this conversation, I felt like we’d scored a decisive victory for psychedelics. Follow your inner guru!

Now I’m not so sure if that’s a good idea. I think we missed the elephant in the room:

Your inner guru may not be any more trustworthy than L. Ron Hubbard.

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Meditation and psychedelics

A lot of people who practice meditation have also taken psychedelics. The overlap is striking because the two are so different.

You’re always in control with meditation—you sit down and close your eyes and open them whenever you wish. With psychedelics, you get on the bus and take the ride and hope for the best.

In spite of the differences, both methods offer a door to the inner life. Here’s where the similarities emerge.

We know that both reduce activity in the brain’s “default mode network.” This may account for the experience of inner peace that occurs when the background noise in your head shuts off. Whatever is happening in the nervous system, the effect is huge. It’s like stepping out of chaos into a clean, quiet, and empty space.

The space that appears is like a commons, a park or nature sanctuary in the middle of a busy city, set aside for use by one and all. People who meditate or take psychedelics discover this commons and hang out there together.

It’s not just for us, though. It’s always there, always available to every human. It’s our neurological birthright.

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