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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Radio Literature interview

If you missed my interview on WORT’s Radio Literature program last night, you can stream the audio using the player below. The first part of the show is about the Wisconsin Writers Awards and the 50th anniversary of the Council for Wisconsin Writers. The discussion of psychedelic science begins around the twenty minute mark. This program originally aired on WORT 89.9 FM and streamed at wort-fm.org.

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“Transcendental Meditation in America” gets the story straight

Fairfield, Iowa, should be on everyone’s bucket list of unique destinations. Is there another American town that contains so many worlds?

In Fairfield, where 22% of the population lives below the poverty line, sprawling mansions loom over scruffy trailer homes. If you visit the Fairfield Arts and Convention Center, you might see an exhibit titled “Healthy Pollinators are Essential for Super Foods and Medicinal Plants” or, on another visit, a mixed martial arts cage match.  In the checkout line at the Hy-Vee Grocery, the person in front of you might be a portly farmer in overalls buying a pack of Slim Jims and the person behind you a woman in a pastel sari with organic clarified butter from the store’s extensive vegetarian section.

The biggest contrast in Fairfield is between the “townies,” the 8,000 or so residents whose parents and grandparents lived there, and the 2,000 people they disparagingly call “roos” or “gurus,” a reference to their leader, the Indian religious icon Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The first of Maharishi’s followers arrived in Fairfield in the 1970s and transformed the town top to bottom. In the process, they changed the American spiritual landscape forever.

TM in America cover

Every step on the long, strange trip is on display in Transcendental Meditation in America: How a New Age Movement Remade a Small Town in Iowa (University of Iowa Press, 2014) by Joseph Weber. A professor of Journalism at the University of Nebraska, Weber devoted three years of research and writing to the project. The result is the deepest and broadest portrait so far of an important movement that gets little attention and less understanding.

When Maharishi met the Beatles and intr­oduced them to Transcendental Meditation (TM), yoga and Eastern spirituality were mostly unknown in America. His marketing genius brought TM into the mainstream. By 1974, he was successful enough to purchase the Fairfield campus of the bankrupt Parsons College and transform it into Maharishi International University. Fairfield quickly became the center of the American TM movement and a microcosmic laboratory of spiritual upheaval.

Relations between the two factions of Fairfield residents were shaky from the start. Weber provides revealing portraits of conservative townies and their idealistic counterparts in the TM movement.

He profiles Mayor Ed Malloy, a “roo” who tries to serve the whole town while remaining true to Maharishi’s teachings. He also describes the impact of young entrepreneurs who moved to Fairfield for the blissful atmosphere. They often credit meditation for their success, if not their failures, which are sometimes spectacular.

Weber also talks with people who claim the movement isn’t the peaceful, enlightened community it claims to be. A local farmer describes the trouble he encountered when he tried to start a hog feeding operation close to Maharishi Vedic City, a nearby community of the guru’s followers. The farmer became a national celebrity when Vedic City officials forced him into an expensive legal battle to save his land.

The saddest stories come from people who gave their young lives to Maharishi but were forced to leave the fold. Some disagreed with TM movement policy and dared to speak out in public. Others were excommunicated for showing interest in other forms of spirituality. Is this really how enlightenment works?

In many ways, Fairfield is a model for the changes happening throughout American society as the old ways yield to the new. The drama of changing generations, of red states versus blue states, occurred in miniature in Fairfield before it reached the rest of us. This unusual community is worth watching to see where we all might be headed.

Maharishi died in 2008 and his movement passed out of the public eye a long time ago. Until now, the subject never got the serious scholarly or journalistic attention it deserved. Joseph Weber’s Transcendental Meditation in America will be the standard work on the subject for a long time to come.

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You are the first line of defense against your own experience

On the surface, evolutionary psych looks pretty grim. We pride ourselves on individuality and free will, but many of our choices and behaviors are determined genetically with mathematical precision and little wiggle room. For all our technological progress, human nature hasn’t changed much since it developed hundreds of thousands of years ago in Africa. Our minds pump out beliefs and emotions that were great for coping with saber-tooth cats but now cause us no end of trouble.

Given the fix we’re in, it’s not surprising that some people who study the subject speak of evolution as a kind of evil force. It bears a resemblance to the Christian devil—a deceiver who plants lies in our minds and self-destruction in our hearts. You can also look at it from an Eastern perspective:

maya,  (Sanskrit: “wizardry,” or “illusion”), a fundamental concept in Hindu philosophy… Maya originally denoted the power of wizardry with which a god can make human beings believe in what turns out to be an illusion; by extension it later came to mean the powerful force that creates the cosmic illusion that the phenomenal world is real.  …

— Encyclopedia Britannica

Buddha and the ancient sages weren’t talking about genetics when they described the world as an illusion. The concept of maya fits the modern evolutionary view, though.

What else would you need to create an all-consuming illusion? A million years of natural selection programmed our minds to see cause and effect in random chaos. We detect patterns where there are none. We detect conscious agents where none exist. Our experience seems totally real, of course, but that solid sense of reality is also generated by the mind.

We escaped the predators in Africa and wound up trapped in a state of enchantment, permanent tourists wandering bug-eyed through a Disney World of cognitive errors.

It looks bad. However, if evolutionary science can show us the problem, perhaps it can also help us find a solution.

Once I understood that we’re all stuck with the same lousy programming, I found it liberating. For example, I used to get really angry about the widespread acceptance of unscientific beliefs. You’ve probably seen the data—46% of Americans believe that God created humans less than 10,000 years ago. 41% believe in ESP. 20% believe that vaccines cause autism.

I used to think that people who believe those things must be clueless or duped. Now I think they believe those things because they’re human beings. As I said in a previous essay, we’re all hard-wired for magic.

What’s more, since belief in magic is tied to our survival instincts, it’s almost impossible to resist. Over the years, I’ve tried to offer alternative explanations to people who believe they have psychic powers or miraculous healing abilities. The response is often something like “I know what happened because I saw it myself and you can’t tell me that what I saw is wrong.”

There’s not much you can say to make a person question his or her bedrock experience. It’s screwed in as tight as can be. That doesn’t mean that we should give a pass to foolish ideas, however, especially in dangerous cases like vaccine denial.

Perhaps, when this situation comes up again, I’ll emphasize that I don’t doubt the experience in question. It’s as real as anything to the person who had it. Instead, we should doubt experience itself. It just isn’t reliable. Mine isn’t. Yours isn’t. Evolution is always out to trip us up and we must be vigilant.

You are the first line of defense against your own experience.

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