As I noted in my last post, I’ve been thinking about our psychedelic heritage, especially the bits of psychedelia that took up residence in mainstream culture. They’re everywhere and they seem innocent enough, but they can reveal much for those with eyes to see.
Take the phrase “what a trip.” People use this exclamation when they’ve done or seen something unusual that impressed them. Even Aunt Mabel, who got her opinions about psychedelics from Nancy Reagan, might say “what a trip!” after her first visit to the Mall of America.
Dig a bit deeper and you’ll find the term in its native context. Light shows are “trippy.” Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was advertised as “the ultimate trip.”
Go all the way down and you’ll discover the origins of the term in the intersection between psychedelic chemicals and the human nervous system. When you take one of the classic hallucinogens like LSD or psilocybin, the subjective experience can be like going on a journey. There’s a beginning and a middle and an end with sights and stages along the way, often unfolding in a narrative progression like a movie or a work of literature.
Compare the psychedelic trip with the experiences and slang terms of other drugs. When you take an intoxicant like alcohol or marijuana or cocaine, the resulting high is static. You take off into a state of euphoria or numbness and you stay there until it wears off. You get stoned, wasted, blitzed, blasted, bombed, fucked up, or otherwise rendered semi-conscious by words that imply violence and death.
With psychedelics, however, you travel, you go on a trip. Nobody talks about “tripping on Budweiser.”
We could stop here, but is there a deeper level of meaning? If so, we might have to forget about language and look to neuroscience. How do these substances act on the nervous system to produce the subjective experience of traveling?
That kind of question is way over my pay grade, but I’m going to take a shot anyway. I’m guessing that the “trip” experience is somehow related to the parts of the brain that produce the ego, the sense of self.
The ego connects and organizes our perceptions, thoughts, and memories. Normally, everything comes together in a single point of view. Under the influence of psychedelics, however, the ego can loosen its grip, resulting in the well-known phenomenon of the self dissolving into the universe.
Without the glue of ego, the perceptions and events that make up our experience may come apart, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle jumping out of the picture. We’re free to select and examine the pieces one at a time, to rearrange them in a creative pattern. The result could be a sequence or narrative.
What a trip!