Here’s a great-looking documentary about the legendary re-inventor of, among others, MDMA (xtc): the Berkeley resident Alexander Shulgin (1925). A psychiatrist, pharmacologist and chemist, Shulgin not only popularized MDMA by inventing a new synthesis method, thus jumpstarting the electronic music rave revolution, but an enormous host (about 230) of other psychoactive drugs. These include the 2C family, such as 2C-b and 2c-e. Together with his wife Ann Shulgin, he has collected and published his knowledge in the books PiHKALand TiHKAL.
Shulgin is, quite probably, one of the most influential chemists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. And responsible for countless enlightening and liberating experiences for millions of people. Thus, a true hero, out there in the ranks with Albert Hoffmann, Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, Aldous Huxley, Simon Vinkenoog and other great minds.
I haven’t yet seen the entire thing but the first minutes look promising. Interestingly (but perhaps not surprising), Shulgin and his wife Ann come across as very kind, patient people. Even though they’ve tested literally hundreds of drugs, they themselves are not really fond of the scene they’ve set off, but would rather try things out in the vicinity of their home.
- Edit: Also check out this last interview of Shulgin with VICE Magazine (he has been in retreat since then).
The question of the mind of animals is one of the most interesting there is, I think. It is by now clear that the primary school distinction between humans having ‘intelligence’ and animals having ‘instincts’ is highly outdated. Animals possess all kinds of intelligence and consciousness – from the simplest insects to the most complex vertebrates. The most evolved ones, like chimpanzees, apes, elephants and dolphins even seem to possess self-consciousness, distinct individual personalities and the ability to independently solve complex problems and interact with other creatures. One might say they even have a ‘culture’.
Indeed, if you play with a dog or cat, it is beyond doubt to me that this being has a will and mind of its own, and is much more than just a robot following its pre-programmed instincts. My hunch is that research will eventually show that the difference between humans and ‘animals’ is more gradual than qualitative: we have evolved further on the line of language skills and self-consciousness, but are not essentially different.
So here’s an interesting article investigating one of the weirdest smart animals around: the octopus. In fact, this is the most prominent example of an invertebrate creature that has been proven to possess a complex form of intelligence and ability to solve problems. Yet the peculiarity of the octopus makes it even more interesting: with its suckers, it can both taste, feel and ‘see’ at the same time; and each of its eight tentacles seems to possess a mind of its own. Still, octopuses seem to be able to recognize different people. It is thus an intelligent creature that is, at once, similar and radically different from us, in terms of consciousness.
So this raises the question: what is it like to be an octopus? How is the consciousness of an octopus constituted?
I have always loved octopuses. No sci-fi alien is so startlingly strange. Here is someone who, even if she grows to one hundred pounds and stretches more than eight feet long, could still squeeze her boneless body through an opening the size of an orange; an animal whose eight arms are covered with thousands of suckers that taste as well as feel; a mollusk with a beak like a parrot and venom like a snake and a tongue covered with teeth; a creature who can shape-shift, change color, and squirt ink. But most intriguing of all, recent research indicates that octopuses are remarkably intelligent.
Many times I have stood mesmerized by an aquarium tank, wondering, as I stared into the horizontal pupils of an octopus’s large, prominent eyes, if she was staring back at me—and if so, what was she thinking?
Not long ago, a question like this would have seemed foolish, if not crazy. How can an octopus know anything, much less form an opinion? Octopuses are, after all, “only” invertebrates—they don’t even belong with the insects, some of whom, like dragonflies and dung beetles, at least seem to show some smarts. Octopuses are classified within the invertebrates in the mollusk family, and many mollusks, like clams, have no brain.
Only recently have scientists accorded chimpanzees, so closely related to humans we can share blood transfusions, the dignity of having a mind. But now, increasingly, researchers who study octopuses are convinced that these boneless, alien animals—creatures whose ancestors diverged from the lineage that would lead to ours roughly 500 to 700 million years ago—have developed intelligence, emotions, and individual personalities. Their findings are challenging our understanding of consciousness itself.
As we gazed into each other’s eyes, Athena encircled my arms with hers, latching on with first dozens, then hundreds of her sensitive, dexterous suckers. Each arm has more than two hundred of them. The famous naturalist and explorer William Beebe found the touch of the octopus repulsive. “I have always a struggle before I can make my hands do their duty and seize a tentacle,” he confessed. But to me, Athena’s suckers felt like an alien’s kiss—at once a probe and a caress. Although an octopus can taste with all of its skin, in the suckers both taste and touch are exquisitely developed. Athena was tasting me and feeling me at once, knowing my skin, and possibly the blood and bone beneath, in a way I could never fathom.
Occasionally an octopus takes a dislike to someone. One of Athena’s predecessors at the aquarium, Truman, felt this way about a female volunteer. Using his funnel, the siphon near the side of the head used to jet through the sea, Truman would shoot a soaking stream of salt water at this young woman whenever he got a chance. Later, she quit her volunteer position for college. But when she returned to visit several months later, Truman, who hadn’t squirted anyone in the meanwhile, took one look at her and instantly soaked her again.
It seemed to Warburton that some of the octopuses were purposely uncooperative. To run the T-maze, the pre-veterinary student had to scoop an animal from its tank with a net and transfer it to a bucket. With bucket firmly covered, octopus and researcher would take the elevator down to the room with the maze. Some octopuses did not like being removed from their tanks. They would hide. They would squeeze into a corner where they couldn’t be pried out. They would hold on to some object with their arms and not let go.
Some would let themselves be captured, only to use the net as a trampoline. They’d leap off the mesh and onto the floor—and then run for it. Yes, run. “You’d chase them under the tank, back and forth, like you were chasing a cat,” Warburton said. “It’s so weird!”
Octopuses in captivity actually escape their watery enclosures with alarming frequency. While on the move, they have been discovered on carpets, along bookshelves, in a teapot, and inside the aquarium tanks of other fish—upon whom they have usually been dining.
Another measure of intelligence: you can count neurons. The common octopus has about 130 million of them in its brain. A human has 100 billion. But this is where things get weird. Three-fifths of an octopus’s neurons are not in the brain; they’re in its arms.
“It is as if each arm has a mind of its own,” says Peter Godfrey-Smith, a diver, professor of philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and an admirer of octopuses. For example, researchers who cut off an octopus’s arm (which the octopus can regrow) discovered that not only does the arm crawl away on its own, but if the arm meets a food item, it seizes it—and tries to pass it to where the mouth would be if the arm were still connected to its body.
“Meeting an octopus,” writes Godfrey-Smith, “is like meeting an intelligent alien.” Their intelligence sometimes even involves changing colors and shapes. One video online shows a mimic octopus alternately morphing into a flatfish, several sea snakes, and a lionfish by changing color, altering the texture of its skin, and shifting the position of its body. Another video shows an octopus materializing from a clump of algae. Its skin exactly matches the algae from which it seems to bloom—until it swims away.
For its color palette, the octopus uses three layers of three different types of cells near the skin’s surface. The deepest layer passively reflects background light. The topmost may contain the colors yellow, red, brown, and black. The middle layer shows an array of glittering blues, greens, and golds. But how does an octopus decide what animal to mimic, what colors to turn? Scientists have no idea, especially given that octopuses are likely colorblind.
But new evidence suggests a breathtaking possibility. Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory and University of Washington researchers found that the skin of the cuttlefish Sepia officinalis, a color-changing cousin of octopuses, contains gene sequences usually expressed only in the light-sensing retina of the eye. In other words, cephalopods—octopuses, cuttlefish, and squid—may be able to see with their skin.
One octopus Mather was watching had just returned home and was cleaning the front of the den with its arms. Then, suddenly, it left the den, crawled a meter away, picked up one particular rock and placed the rock in front of the den. Two minutes later, the octopus ventured forth to select a second rock. Then it chose a third. Attaching suckers to all the rocks, the octopus carried the load home, slid through the den opening, and carefully arranged the three objects in front. Then it went to sleep. What the octopus was thinking seemed obvious: “Three rocks are enough. Good night!”
A nice essay by philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris about the mystery of consciousness. Harris seems to believe, and I do too, that the fact that consciousness exists is proof that not everything in this world is material. That is, my consciousness may arise from chemical processes, or even be identical to it, but the fact that I experience something (which cannot be denied) shows that I am more than matter. Subjective experience is a non-material fact of life. Religious people would call this a soul (I wouldn’t, but be my guest).
The eternal question is, of course, how consciousness can possibly arise from non-conscious material (if at all). Harris compares this to the question how the universe could have come into existence out of nothing. Both questions are, in the end, probably unanswerable, but at least engaging to think about. I particularly agree with the fourth paragraph below.
You are not aware of the electrochemical events occurring at each of the trillion synapses in your brain at this moment. But you are aware, however dimly, of sights, sounds, sensations, thoughts, and moods. At the level of your experience, you are not a body of cells, organelles, and atoms; you are consciousness and its ever-changing contents, passing through various stages of wakefulness and sleep, and from cradle to grave.
The term “consciousness” is notoriously difficult to define. Consequently, many a debate about its character has been waged without the participants’ finding even a common topic as common ground. By “consciousness,” I mean simply “sentience,” in the most unadorned sense. To use the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s construction: A creature is conscious if there is “something that it is like” to be this creature; an event is consciously perceived if there is “something that it is like” to perceive it. Whatever else consciousness may or may not be in physical terms, the difference between it and unconsciousness is first and foremost a matter of subjective experience. Either the lights are on, or they are not.
To say that a creature is conscious, therefore, is not to say anything about its behavior; no screams need be heard, or wincing seen, for a person to be in pain. Behavior and verbal report are fully separable from the fact of consciousness: We can find examples of both without consciousness (a primitive robot) and consciousness without either (a person suffering “locked-in syndrome”).
It is surely a sign of our intellectual progress that a discussion of consciousness no longer has to begin with a debate about its existence. To say that consciousness may only seem to exist is to admit its existence in full—for if things seem any way at all, that is consciousness. Even if I happen to be a brain in a vat at this moment—all my memories are false; all my perceptions are of a world that does not exist—the fact that I am having an experience is indisputable (to me, at least). This is all that is required for me (or any other conscious being) to fully establish the reality of consciousness. Consciousness is the one thing in this universe that cannot be an illusion.
The problem, however, is that no evidence for consciousness exists in the physical world. Physical events are simply mute as to whether it is “like something” to be what they are. The only thing in this universe that attests to the existence of consciousness is consciousness itself; the only clue to subjectivity, as such, is subjectivity. Absolutely nothing about a brain, when surveyed as a physical system, suggests that it is a locus of experience. Were we not already brimming with consciousness ourselves, we would find no evidence of it in the physical universe—nor would we have any notion of the many experiential states that it gives rise to. The painfulness of pain, for instance, puts in an appearance only in consciousness. And no description of C-fibers or pain-avoiding behavior will bring the subjective reality into view.
Most scientists are confident that consciousness emerges from unconscious complexity. We have compelling reasons for believing this, because the only signs of consciousness we see in the universe are found in evolved organisms like ourselves. Nevertheless, this notion of emergence strikes me as nothing more than a restatement of a miracle. To say that consciousness emerged at some point in the evolution of life doesn’t give us an inkling of how it could emerge from unconscious processes, even in principle.
I believe that this notion of emergence is incomprehensible—rather like a naive conception of the big bang. The idea that everything (matter, space-time, their antecedent causes, and the very laws that govern their emergence) simply sprang into being out of nothing seems worse than a paradox. “Nothing,” after all, is precisely that which cannot give rise to “anything,” let alone “everything.” Many physicists realize this, of course. Fred Hoyle, who coined “big bang” as a term of derogation, is famous for opposing this creation myth on philosophical grounds, because such an event seems to require a “preexisting space and time.” In a similar vein, Stephen Hawking has said that the notion that the universe had a beginning is incoherent, because something can begin only with reference to time, and here we are talking about the beginning of space-time itself. He pictures space-time as a four-dimensional closed manifold, without beginning or end—much like the surface of a sphere.
To say “Everything came out of nothing” is to assert a brute fact that defies our most basic intuitions of cause and effect—a miracle, in other words. Likewise, the idea that consciousness is identical to (or emerged from) unconscious physical events is, I would argue, impossible to properly conceive—which is to say that we can think we are thinking it, but we are mistaken. We can say the right words, of course—“consciousness emerges from unconscious information processing.” We can also say “Some squares are as round as circles” and “2 plus 2 equals 7.” But are we really thinking these things all the way through? I don’t think so.
Consciousness—the sheer fact that this universe is illuminated by sentience—is precisely what unconsciousness is not. And I believe that no description of unconscious complexity will fully account for it. It seems to me that just as “something” and “nothing,” however juxtaposed, can do no explanatory work, an analysis of purely physical processes will never yield a picture of consciousness. However, this is not to say that some other thesis about consciousness must be true. Consciousness may very well be the lawful product of unconscious information processing. But I don’t know what that sentence means—and I don’t think anyone else does either.
We’ve devoted attention to the subject on this blog ever since we started it, but here is once again an article from a high-profile online magazine about the renaissance in scientific research on the beneficial effects of psychedelic drugs on the state of mind of people diagnosed with illnesses such as terminal and recurrent cancer. Salon has a must-read story about the uptick on studies into this matter across top-notch universities.
If you still think subjects like psychedelic drugs are for hippies living in the 1960s, think again. As previously written about in, among many others, the New York Times, The Globe and Mail and TIME, and reported about on CNN and BBC, psychedelic research is currently in its second big phase, with medical scientists and psychotherapists from Harvard, NYU, John Hopkins, Berkeley and several European universities running research programs on it. Psychedelic drug conferences are also increasingly being convened.
This Salon article describes research projects at John Hopkins, NYU and UCLA attempting to pinpoint how psychedelics alleviate fear and anxiety in patients. In controlled settings, lsd and psilocybin are administered in order to provide consciousness-expanding experiences. Patients report very existential experiences, and come down from the trip feeling better equipped mentally to deal with sickness and death. This is, therefore, a subset of the field of palliative care.
For people interested in it, the article also provides some historical background featuring such drug luminaries, writers and philosophers as William James (The Variety of Religious Experiences), Aldous Huxley (The Doors of Perception, Brave New World, Island), and Timothy Leary. But the point to drive home is that unlike in the 1960s and 1970s, psychedelic research is currently conducted with a twenty-first century scientific focus, with a rather circumscribed goal. The goal no longer is to reform society, but to help people through appliance of medical science.
What for me was new in this piece was the info on how the current research programs on psychedelic drugs came about. Either way, I highly recommend this article if you want to know more about this highly interesting subject.
Kristof Kossut arrived at an unlikely address for his first psychedelic experience. The 60-year-old New Yorker and professional yachtsman opened the door not to an after-hours techno party, but to the bright reception room at the Bluestone Center for Clinical Research, a large spa-like space occupying the second floor of New York University’s College of Dentistry. Kossut was among the first subjects of an NYU investigation into the question: Can the mystical states of mind occasioned by psychedelic drugs help alleviate anxiety and depression in people with terminal and recurrent cancer?
Shortly before Kossut’s arrival on the morning of his session, two clinic employees entered a high-security storage room, which just happens to face a painting of a white rabbit. From a massive steel combination safe they removed a bottle containing one gram of synthesized psilocybin, the psychoactive agent animating the 200-member fungus family commonly known as “magic mushrooms.” The duo carefully measured the small container against the previous day’s weight, as if securing a store of weapons-grade plutonium. They then pill-pressed an amount of powder containing 20 milligrams of the molecule, first identified in 1958 by the Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman, most famous for his other psychedelic synthesis, LSD-25.
They delivered the pill to a converted exam room gutted of its dental chair and refitted for comfort with holistic panache: plush pillow-strewn sofa, Persian carpet, Buddha statuettes, books on spirituality and mysticism, a high-performance sound system. Only the ceiling lighting track betrays the former identity of New York City’s federally sanctioned psilocybin room.
Receiving the pill is Dr. Stephen Ross, a 40-year-old assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU Medical School and the cancer study’s principal investigator. Ross has a precise scientific manner softened by an upbringing in Southern California, where his mother (also a doctor) took him to hospice centers as a child, sparking an interest in end-of-life issues. Now director of the addiction division at Bellevue, Ross is among the youngest of a new generation of psychedelic researchers. With his cancer study still two years away from publishing results, he is already looking ahead to testing psychedelic treatments for drug addiction and alcoholism.
For now, Ross is fully focused on treating existential anxiety in people like Kossut, who lies on the couch, ready for his initiation into the psychedelic mysteries. In the research jargon, Kossut is “psychedelic naive.” After swallowing the pill Ross presents — in the cap of a ceremonial ceramic mushroom — all he can do is close his eyes, lose himself in the preselected tabla drum and sitar music, and try to remember the advice to not fight it, to move ever deeper into the light, to let go …
“It was absolutely incredible,” remembers Kossut. “The first rush was a little scary as I realized it wasn’t the placebo. That passed and next I was crossing boundaries of time and space and reality. I felt this weightlessness, this sense of being close to an unspeakable beauty that was unlike anything in my experience. For the first time since my diagnosis, I was not afraid of anything. The wall of depression that was building up day by day, the fear that I was going to die soon, that my daughter is only 8 — all those things disappeared. I wanted to stay there. I wanted it to last longer.”
It did. More than one year after his psilocybin session, Kossut reports greatly improved states of emotional and psychological well-being. “I walked out of the session happy, unafraid of death,” he says. “I don’t know why, but a transformation took place after being in that peaceful place. I relaxed. I started enjoying food again and was able to gain weight. The session taught me to be fully in the present. I’m optimistic. Mentally and physically, just better.”
This glowing report — based on a single dose of a naturally occurring, non-addictive, low-toxicity substance — sounds impossible. Surely one pill can’t succeed where months of traditional psychotherapy and antidepressants usually fail. According to science, that’s not how drugs work. It’s foreign to the model. But high success rates in ongoing concurrent studies at NYU and Johns Hopkins strongly suggest that Kossut’s psilocybin-assisted psychological rebound is no fluke. So do the findings of a pilot project conducted by Dr. Charles Grob at UCLA. Between 2004 and 2008, Grob administered psilocybin to 12 cancer patients suffering fear, anxiety and depression. His data, published last year in the Archives of General Psychiatry, showed long-term diminished anxiety and improved mood in every subject. The NYU and Johns Hopkins studies build on Grob’s pilot program with more subjects and higher doses. Midway through the research, their results are just as strong, signaling larger, multi-site trials to come.
This is the subdued, clinical language of a psychedelic science renaissance quietly entering its third decade. If its practitioners and advocates avoid the utopian claims and liberationist rhetoric that defined the LSD gospel of the 1960s, this is no accident. A new generation of psychedelic researchers understands that public and official support depends on exorcising the ghost of Timothy Leary, whose democratic acid crusade grew out of and ultimately helped destroy the first wave of psychedelic science in the 1950s and ’60s. Their goal is not to promote the legalization of these drugs or tout their value for everyone, but to revive the once-great and now largely forgotten promise of psychedelic science. And that just might, among other things, change the way we confront and think about death.
In his new book Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness, Nicholas Humphrey, a distinguished evolutionary psychologist and philosopher, claims to have solved two fairly large intellectual conundrums. One is something of a technical matter, about which you may have thought little or not at all, unless you happen to be a philosopher. This is the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness. The problem is how an entity which is apparently immaterial like the human consciousness – it exists, but you can’t locate it, much less measure it – can have arisen from something purely physical, like the arrangement of cells that make up the human body. The second problem Humphrey claims he has solved is a rather more everyday one, about which you may well have puzzled yourself. This is the problem of the soul. Does it exist? What sort of a thing might it be? Does everyone have one, even atheists?
His solution to both these problems is the same, because for him the strange properties of consciousness, the fact that for those of us that have it the world of dull matter is suffused with meaning, beauty, relevance and awe – means that it makes sense to think that we are permanent inhabitants of a “soul-niche” or “soul-world”. As the jacket blurb of his book has it, “consciousness paves the way for spirituality”, by creating a “self-made show” that “lights up the world for us, making us feel special and transcendent.” Consciousness and the soul are one and the same.
If this all sounds a little bit metaphysical or New Agey, too much like one of those tiresome attempts to bring religion and science into cosy alignment, hold fast. For what, on the face of it, looks like an attempt to validate spirituality using the language of science turns out to be a way to expand the domain of science by accounting for spirituality, and the soul, alongside consciousness in a fully materialist account. Soul Dust is nothing less than Humphrey’s attempt to sketch out a materialist theory of consciousness, and write a “natural history” of the soul.
With this I highly agree though:
The second half – less technical, more poetic and, as Humphrey admits, pretty speculative – is devoted to the question of why? What is it about consciousness, this “magical” ability to perceive and exult in beauty, meaning and a sense of awe, that confers an evolutionary advantage? His answer is simply that this magical show in our own heads which enchants the world is what makes life worth living: “For a phenomenally conscious creature, simply being there is a cause for celebration.” Consciousness infuses us with the belief that we are more than mere flesh, that we matter, that we might have a life after death, that we have a “soul”. All of these are illusions – the magic of his title – but they have real effects, by making us want to live. As for religion? In his book he argues, “Long before religion could begin to get a foothold in human culture human beings must already have been living in soul land.” “Yes,” he tells me, “I suggest that organised religion is parasitic on spirituality, and in fact acts as a restraint on it.”
While the book received a lot of positive reviews, some negative ones have also appeared. Here’s one from The Guardian, for example.
In a neat little essay, Adam Frank writes something that resonates to some extent with some blatterings I wrote down almost a year ago. It is about the good old science versus religion debate, and about how both sides (in their simplistic form) get it wrong.
I think Frank gets it right. On both sides, to some extent, there is too great a stress on ‘knowing’ - that is, the idea that we can grasp something like ‘objective’ reality. For example, traditional, monotheistic, doctrinal religion revolves all around ‘knowing’ – with certainty – that God exists, and that all the religious and moral doctrines flowing from that fact are always and everywhere correct. There is no place for any spiritual, direct experience of the divine; it is essentially about following the literal ‘truth’ of a book. This can be seen at its worst in calvinism – which is why I think this is one of the most flawed versions of religion.
On the other hand, in positivist, materialist science a similar stress on objective ‘knowing’ can be discerned. Here, too, there is no place for something like experience, at it is reduced to whatever happens in atoms. Mankind is seen as nothing more than essentially a big machine. At its other end, there is a zeal for discovering what the universe is composed of; whether there are parallel universes, whether there is a Theory of Everything, etc. At some hypothetical endpoint of science, we are supposed to ’know’ everything and then be happy with it. This is a sort of ‘nihilism’ that, to me at least, is not only unsatisfying, but also a misrecognition of what it is like to ‘experience’ the world.
The fact that I can experience myself and my own consciousness for me at least is a sort of wonder for which science has no adequate explanation in terms of its meaning (that is, it can describe how it mechanically comes into being, but the experience in itself is idiosyncratic). Frank says something similar. Quoting Sartre, who said ”Even if God did exist, that would change nothing” (interpreted as meaning that even if we would have ‘knowledge’ of a God, that would still leave the mystery of existence untouched), he proposes that we should focus on the act of being rather than the act of knowing.
This is where ‘spirituality’ (screw that word) comes in. But rather than having to do with ridiculous New Agey stuff, this is a call for abandoning the bastions of certainty, found in monotheistic religion and science, which only lead to needless disputes, and focusing on the immediate experience of the self. And then maybe with its connection to other parts of being. I think this is in a nutshell what Heidegger is about. But you can also find it in the eradication of the Cartesian mind-body divide in tenets of Eastern thinking. And in mysticism. Or do drugs.
What exactly are we looking for? What fuels so much of the passion and intensity behind the debates over religion, the debates between religions and the debates surrounding science and religion? At the heart of these debates you will often find the issue of “knowing.”
Knowing if God exists, or not. Knowing how the Universe began and if a creator was necessary, or not. Knowing how human beings “became” and what constitutes appropriate moral codes in light of that becoming. Always and again, the emphasis is on knowledge, on the certainty of understanding something, of knowing some fact and its meaning. What a tragic mistake.
The great comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell once said, “People don’t want the meaning of life, they want the experience of life.” He could not have hit the nail more firmly on the head.
One thing I have never understood in the vitriol that people manage to dredge up in these science vs. religion battles is their lack clarity about goals. Is human spiritual endeavor really about “knowing” the existence of a superbeing? Does this academic “knowing”, as in “I can prove this to be true,” really what lies behind the spiritual genius of people like the ninth century Sufi poet Rumi, the 13th century Zen teacher Dogen, or more modem examples like Martin Luther King or Ghandi?
There are many reasons human beings institutionalized their spiritual longing into religions. Those reasons often devolved into considerations of power, control and real estate. Those institutions certainly have needed to enforce creed and doctrine, i.e. “knowledge.”
But the reasons individuals find their lives transformed by spiritual longing are intimate and deeply personal affairs having little to do with dusty “proofs for the existence of God.” As all those “spiritual but not religious” folks popping up in surveys on religion will tell you, the essence of the question is about experience, not facts.
Along a similar vein, in the pro-science/anti-religion camps one often hears the quest for understanding the universe put in equally ultimate, quasi-theological terms. Finding the final theory, the Theory of Everything, is held up as a kind of moment “when the truth shall be revealed once and for all.” While many practicing scientists might not see it this way, the scientific knowledge/enlightenment trope has been there in popular culture for a long time reaching all the back to Faust and up through movies like Pi.
As the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once said “Even if God did exist, that would change nothing.” One way to interpret his meaning was that a formulaic “knowledge” of a superbeing’s existence is beside the point when the real issue before us every day, all day is the verb “to be.”
It’s the act of being that gives rise to our suffering and our moments of enlightenment. Right there, right in the very experience of life, is the warm, embodied truth we long for so completely.
Spirituality, at its best, points us away from easy codifications when it shows us how to immerse ourselves in the simple, inescapable act of being. Science at its root is also an expression of reverence and awe for the endless varied, resonantly beautiful experience we can find ourselves immersed in. So knowing the meaning of life as encoded in a religious creed on a page or an equation on a blackboard is not the issue. A deeper, richer experience of this one life: that is the issue!
So, can we stop thinking that discussions about science and religion have to focus on who has the best set of facts?
When it comes to the natural world, it’s hard to see how science is not going win the “facts” war hands down. But if we broaden our view to see being as the central issue, then connections between science and spiritual longing might be seen in an entirely different light.
I’m kinda hesitant to post this, as I don’t like the idea of these girls being gaped at as natural wonders. Still, the repercussions of these twins existing in this way are huge. Imagine this: not only can these girls see through each other’s eyes, they can also experience each other’s thoughts, as well as emotions. This is because they share one thalamus, the part of the brain that sends physical sensations and motor functions to the cerebral cortex. Thus, to some extent, even though they’re two persons, they share one consciousness. How does this reflect on the idea or concept of the individual?
Conjoined twins Krista and Tatiana have stunned the world’s medical experts by seeing through each other’s eyes.
The pretty four-year-old twins have two separate bodies but share the same brain.
The girls have a conjoined thalamus, the part of the brain that sends physical sensations and motor functions to the cerebral cortex, allowing them to hear each other’s thoughts and see through each other’s eyes.
But it wasn’t until their proud mum Felicia Simms saw them playing that she discovered that they could see through each other’s eyes.
She said: ‘When they are playing, one of the girls will reach over and grab something from her sister’s side and know exactly where it is without possibly being able to see it.
‘It’s absolutely awesome to watch them sometimes because there’s no way she can see the toy she is reaching for and it’s just incredible.’ The girls also seem to experience each other’s emotions.
‘If one of the girls is hurt, the other can feel it and if you discipline one the other will also cry.’
The girls, from Vernon, British Columbia, Canada, have been receiving constant medical care since they were born.
Paediatric neurosurgeon Doug Cochrane, who has looked after them from birth, confirmed they can see through each other’s eyes.
He said: ‘The twins are sharing signals from the other twin’s visual field.
‘One twin may see what the other twin does, as the brain of one of the girls receives electronic impulses from the retina of the opposite twin.’
An absolutely stunning article about the biological response of fear humans can have, when confronted with extremely threatening situations. In this case, a 25-year old woman gets attacked by a mountain lion in Colorado. The article works in detail through the experience, both the narrative of being attacked by the predator, as well as the instinctive reactions and emotions of the woman, and the biological impulses behind that.
Basically, in situations like these, you turn into a robot. Freezing, fleeing, surrendering, fighting, these are all reactions determined by the workings of your brain, which in situations of danger goes in overdrive, taking you over. It turns out, moreover, that instead of “fight or flight”, people experience four stages: freeze, fright, flight and fight.
Well, just read it, as its a very intense story as well. I’ve excerpted a number of highlights.
In the throes of intense fear, we suddenly find ourselves operating in a different and unexpected way. The psychological tools that we normally use to navigate the world—reasoning and planning before we act—get progressively shut down. In the grip of the brain’s subconscious fear centers, we behave in ways that to our rational mind seem nonsensical or worse. We might respond automatically, with preprogrammed motor routines, or simply melt down. We lose control.
When the danger is far away, or at least not immediately imminent, the instinct is to freeze. When danger is approaching, the impulse is to run away. When escape is impossible, the response is to fight back. And when struggling is futile, the animal will become immobilized in the grip of fright. Although it doesn’t slide quite as smoothly off the tongue, a more accurate description than “fight or flight” would be “fight, freeze, flight, or fright”—or, for short, “the four fs.”
On a winter morning a few years back, a young woman named Sue Yellowtail went through them all in about 10 minutes.
At the top of the bank, not 30 feet away, stood a mountain lion. Tawny against the brown leaves of the riverbank brush, the animal was almost perfectly camouflaged. It stared down at her, motionless.She stood stock-still.
Yellowtail had entered the first instinctual fear-response state, the condition of freezing known as attentive immobility. Even before she was aware of danger, subconscious regions of her brain were assessing the threat. Cued to the presence of a novel stimulus, the brain deployed the orienting reflex, a cousin of the startle reflex. Within milliseconds Yellowtail’s heart rate and breathing slowed. A brain region called the superior colliculus turned her head and slewed her eyes so that the densest part of the retina, the fovea, formed a detailed image of the cat. The visual information then flowed via the thalamus to the visual cortex and the amygdala, the key brain center for evaluating threat. Her pattern-recognition system found a match in the flow of sensory information. It recognized a pair of eyes, then the outline of a feline head. In less than half a second, before her cortex even had time to complete the match and recognize what she was seeing, her emotional circuitry had already assessed the situation: It was bad. Subconsciously, her brain also determined that the threat was not immediately pressing, and so a region called the ventral column of the periaqueductal gray (PAG) triggered attentive immobility. This is generally considered the first stage of the fear response, because it tends to occur when the threat is far away or not yet aware of the subject’s presence. The goal is to keep it that way.
The mountain lion was close now, near enough to pounce. As she splashed once more across the stream, the need to run surged over her like a shiver. She bolted, splashing madly through the shallow water, her legs churning over the rough, slippery cobbles of the streambed.
She ran with everything she had.
Yellowtail was now in the grip of the second phase of the fear response, flight. The sudden movement of the mountain lion had broken the spell of her attentive immobility and gotten her moving, but while the animal was still a fair distance off she had managed to keep her wits and suppress her fear centers’ automatic panic reaction. But as the cat drew closer, reason and willpower wavered as the fear grew stronger. At last they gave way altogether.
She remembers feeling the warmth of the animal’s mouth on her head. She remembers looking up toward the surface through her sunglasses and thinking, with a perplexing degree of calm: “When your time’s up, your time’s up.”
Yellowtail had entered a third phase of the fear response, a state known as tonic immobility, or quiescence—in lay terms, playing possum. When an animal is seized by an attacker, the caudal ventrolateral region of the PAG generates a response that from the outside looks like total collapse. In the teeth of a full-blown sympathetic response, the parasympathetic system now swings into overdrive. The body, insensitive to pain, goes completely limp, often falling to the ground as awkwardly as rag doll, limbs splayed, head thrown back. Eyes closed, it trembles, defecates, and lies still. It looks, in a word, dead.
Her next thought was to stab it in the eye with the hemostat. “It just dawned on me: ‘I’ve got to get to the brain,’ so the eye was the best bet.” Without thinking twice, she clutched the hemostat and stabbed it over and over again into the cat’s left eye. The beast screamed a horrifying yowl. She kept stabbing.
Yellowtail had worked her way through to the last of the four fs, the fight, or aggressive defense, response. Like quiescence, aggressive defense is a tactic of last resort. People in the throes of full sympathetic overdrive are capable of totally uninhibited, blind violence. They will use any weapon and inflict any injury they can. On the battlefield this impulse may be useful in the heat of fighting, but it can also lead to reckless, even mindless, behavior.
Wow, this is some information I’ve been looking for for a long time. According to psychological research from Canada, there is a connection between playing video games, and having really aware, colorful, vivid dreams. Also some people experience lucid dreaming, in which you control your actions and the events in a dream.
When I dream, it is often very vivid and “cinematic” – with huge landscapes, cityscapes, sci fi or fantasy themes, storylines, and that sort of thing. Like not always, but it occurs regularly, and it is quite enjoyable. It’s never lucid, though. Also, I play video games – not a lot, but once in a while, once every couple of weeks, and these are most often imaginative, storytelling, sci fi or fantasy themed games. So I’ve often wondered about some possible connection, and Googled it, but I never could find anything.
So this is revealing. Hope this line of research will be pursued.
Playing video games before bedtime may give people an unusual level of awareness and control in their dreams, LiveScience has learned.
That ability to shape the alternate reality of dream worlds might not match mind-bending Hollywood films such as “The Matrix,” but it could provide an edge when fighting nightmares or even mental trauma.
Dreams and video games both represent alternate realities, according to Jayne Gackenbach, a psychologist at Grant MacEwan University in Canada. But she pointed out that dreams arise biologically from the human mind, while video games are technologically driven by computers and gaming consoles.
“If you’re spending hours a day in a virtual reality, if nothing else it’s practice,” said Jayne Gackenbach, a psychologist at Grant MacEwan University in Canada. “Gamers are used to controlling their game environments, so that can translate into dreams.”
The first study suggested that people who frequently played video games were more likely to report lucid dreams, observer dreams where they viewed themselves from outside their bodies, and dream control that allowed people to actively influence or change their dream worlds – qualities suggestive of watching or controlling the action of a video-game character.
A second study tried to narrow down the uncertainties by examining dreams that participants experienced from the night before, and focused more on gamers. It found that lucid dreams were common, but that the gamers never had dream control over anything beyond their dream selves.
The gamers also frequently flipped between a first person view from within the body and a third person view of themselves from outside, except never with the calm detachment of a distant witness.
A few weeks ago, we reported about a great New York Times piece about the growing scientific study of psychedelics like lsd, xtc and psilocybin for medical use, such as treating depressions.
Participants in those studies described their use of psychedelics as a “profound spiritual experience”, ranking it among ”the most meaningful events” of their life.
Now CNN is covering these medical studies as well. And, lo and behold, not even in a biased, narrow-minded manner, like mainstream media usually do!
In this clip, reporters visit the conference on psychedelic science held recently in San Jose, and talk with Harvard and University of California experts. Also there’s a good discussion between two researchers at the end. Very worthwhile watching!
Again, I’m really amazed at the openness of CNN. Will there finally be some common sense regarding this subject?
Wow, I didn’t know this. According to a front page article in The New York Times, hallucinogens are apparently being researched again by medical scientists for their use in treating depressions and other psychological illnesses. This goes voor psilocybin (the active ingredient in mushrooms and lsd), as well as other psychedelics. Unlike in Ken Kesey’s 1960s, however, this time there are strict rules and regulations.
Note how the 65-year old clinical psychologist cited in the article (picture above) calls his psilocybin use one of “the most meaningful events of his life”.
And note how scientists working on this seem especially intrigued by the similarities between hallucinogenic experiences, and religious-mystic or meditative experiences. According to one study, experimental participants described a “profound spiritual experience” with lasting positive effects for most of them.
Interviewees report having felt themselves part of one large consciousness, as well as reviewing past relationships with lovers and relatives with a new sense of empathy.
As a retired clinical psychologist, Clark Martin was well acquainted with traditional treatments for depression, but his own case seemed untreatable as he struggled through chemotherapy and other grueling regimens for kidney cancer. Counseling seemed futile to him. So did the antidepressant pills he tried.
Nothing had any lasting effect until, at the age of 65, he had his first psychedelic experience. He left his home in Vancouver, Wash., to take part in an experiment at Johns Hopkins medical school involving psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient found in certain mushrooms.
Scientists are taking a new look at hallucinogens, which became taboo among regulators after enthusiasts like Timothy Leary promoted them in the 1960s with the slogan “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Now, using rigorous protocols and safeguards, scientists have won permission to study once again the drugs’ potential for treating mental problems and illuminating the nature of consciousness.
After taking the hallucinogen, Dr. Martin put on an eye mask and headphones, and lay on a couch listening to classical music as he contemplated the universe.
“All of a sudden, everything familiar started evaporating,” he recalled. “Imagine you fall off a boat out in the open ocean, and you turn around, and the boat is gone. And then the water’s gone. And then you’re gone.”
Today, more than a year later, Dr. Martin credits that six-hour experience with helping him overcome his depression and profoundly transforming his relationships with his daughter and friends. He ranks it among the most meaningful events of his life, which makes him a fairly typical member of a growing club of experimental subjects.
Researchers from around the world are gathering this week in San Jose, Calif., forthe largestconference on psychedelic science held in the United States in four decades. They plan to discuss studies of psilocybin and other psychedelics for treating depression in cancer patients, obsessive-compulsive disorder, end-of-life anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction to drugs or alcohol.
The results so far are encouraging but also preliminary, and researchers caution against reading too much into these small-scale studies. They do not want to repeat the mistakes of the 1960s, when some scientists-turned-evangelists exaggerated their understanding of the drugs’ risks and benefits.
Because reactions to hallucinogens can vary so much depending on the setting, experimenters and review boards have developed guidelines to set up a comfortable environment with expert monitors in the room to deal with adverse reactions. They have established standard protocols so that the drugs’ effects can be gauged more accurately, and they have also directly observed the drugs’ effects by scanning the brains of people under the influence of hallucinogens.
Scientists are especially intrigued by the similarities between hallucinogenic experiences and the life-changing revelations reported throughout history by religious mystics and those who meditate. These similarities have been identified in neural imaging studies conducted by Swiss researchers and in experiments led by Roland Griffiths, a professor of behavioral biology at Johns Hopkins.
In one of Dr. Griffiths’s first studies, involving 36 people with no serious physical or emotional problems, he and colleagues found that psilocybin could induce what the experimental subjects described as a profound spiritual experience with lasting positive effects for most of them. None had had any previous experience with hallucinogens, and none were even sure what drug was being administered.
To make the experiment double-blind, neither the subjects nor the two experts monitoring them knew whether the subjects were receiving a placebo, psilocybin or another drug like Ritalin, nicotine, caffeine or an amphetamine. Although veterans of the ’60s psychedelic culture may have a hard time believing it, Dr. Griffiths said that even the monitors sometimes could not tell from the reactions whether the person had taken psilocybin or Ritalin.
The monitors sometimes had to console people through periods of anxiety, Dr. Griffiths said, but these were generally short-lived, and none of the people reported any serious negative effects. In a survey conducted two months later, the people who received psilocybin reported significantly more improvements in their general feelings and behavior than did the members of the control group.
The findings were repeated in another follow-up survey, taken 14 months after the experiment. At that point most of the psilocybin subjects once again expressed more satisfaction with their lives and rated the experience as one of the five most meaningful events of their lives.
Since that study, which was published in 2008, Dr. Griffiths and his colleagues have gone on to give psilocybin to people dealing with cancer and depression, like Dr. Martin, the retired psychologist from Vancouver. Dr. Martin’s experience is fairly typical, Dr. Griffiths said: an improved outlook on life after an experience in which the boundaries between the self and others disappear.
In interviews, Dr. Martin and other subjects described their egos and bodies vanishing as they felt part of some larger state of consciousness in which their personal worries and insecurities vanished. They found themselves reviewing past relationships with lovers and relatives with a new sense of empathy.
“It was a whole personality shift for me,” Dr. Martin said. “I wasn’t any longer attached to my performance and trying to control things. I could see that the really good things in life will happen if you just show up and share your natural enthusiasms with people. You have a feeling of attunement with other people.”
The subjects’ reports mirrored so closely the accounts of religious mystical experiences, Dr. Griffiths said, that it seems likely the human brain is wired to undergo these “unitive” experiences, perhaps because of some evolutionary advantage.
“This feeling that we’re all in it together may have benefited communities by encouraging reciprocal generosity,” Dr. Griffiths said. “On the other hand, universal love isn’t always adaptive, either.”
The work has been supported by nonprofit groups like the Heffter Research Institute and MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.
“There’s this coming together of science and spirituality,” said Rick Doblin, the executive director of MAPS. “We’re hoping that the mainstream and the psychedelic community can meet in the middle and avoid another culture war. Thanks to changes over the last 40 years in the social acceptance of the hospice movement and yoga and meditation, our culture is much more receptive now, and we’re showing that these drugs can provide benefits that current treatments can’t.”
Researchers are reporting preliminary success in using psilocybin to ease the anxiety of patients with terminal illnesses. Dr. Charles S. Grob, a psychiatrist who is involved in an experiment at U.C.L.A., describes it as “existential medicine” that helps dying people overcome fear, panic and depression.
“Under the influences of hallucinogens,” Dr. Grob writes, “individuals transcend their primary identification with their bodies and experience ego-free states before the time of their actual physical demise, and return with a new perspective and profound acceptance of the life constant: change.”
Can we grasp objective reality with our subjective faculties? Natural science says yes, as does institutionalized religion, and atheism. Postmodernists, humanist scholars, hippies and agnostics are likely to be more skeptical. Personally, I can say that pretty much my whole current world view is based on the idea that it is impossible to grasp reality through our subjective means. This goes for my view on doing science, the organization of the political sphere, as well as spirituality.
For me, I would merely put it this way: that we do not encounter the physical universe unmediated but through a consciousness mechanism and sensory inputs that seem to be the products of evolution. And the belief (however you want to define a belief) in evolution makes the idea of those consciousness and sensory mechanism being capable, no matter how long the time scale, of perfectly or non-contingently ordering the universe around us seem quite low. Evolution does not produce perfectly fit systems, it only eliminates those systems so unfit that they prevent survival and the propagation of genetic material. A chimpanzee’s intellect is a near-miracle, capable of incredible things, but it will never understand calculus. I could never and would never say this with deductive certainty, but it seems likely to me that our consciousness has similar limitations.
They tell me that the Copernican revolution and the rise of evolution have permanently altered the place of humanity in the human mind. They say that the collapse of the Ptolemaic worldview towards a vision of our planet and our sun as existing amidst a sea of stars of incomprehensible vastness has destroyed our arrogant notion that our planet is special. They tell me that evolution has destroyed any belief in divine creation and with it the notion that humanity is anything other than an animal species. And they say all of this from the position of didacticism and superiority, weaving it into a self-aggrandizing narrative about how these skeptics are the ones who are capable of looking at the uncomfortable truths of the world and not flinching.
To these specific changes in fundamental worldview, I say, fair enough; I can’t argue with either turn, I suppose. For my part I would only remind them that we live here, in the relentless narrative of our human subjectivity, and such things are of little interest when the rent must be paid. But fair enough, all the same. What I ask of them– what Nietzsche asks of them; what so many in the field of the humanities, that beleaguered but proud area of human inquiry, have come to ask of them– is to take it one step further: that if we are indeed a cosmic accident, the result of the directionless and random process of evolution, then it makes little sense to imagine that we are capable of ordering the world around us, beyond the limited perspective of our individual, subjective selves. This has always been to me the simplest step in the world, from the first two beliefs the the third, from the collapse of geocentrism and creationism to the collapse of objective knowing. Yet I find that it is one many people not only refuse to make, but one that they react against violently. This is the skepticism that is refused, and this refusal is the last dogma.
Now this is of course the Nietzschean take on the matter, extrapolated further by the existentialists: we simply have to acknowledge that we are very much incapable of grasping any truth, that we live in a meaningless universe; we have to tear everything down, embrace a radical skepticism and submit to our inherent subjectivity, and then live with it. Even take some pride in it.
I don’t know whether I agree with that; I feel like the fact of my own existence, my own self-consciousness, is at least one truth that can not be denied. But that is really everything. What is not possible at all is to say anything about the world around us, apart from the way we experience it. Take one magic mushroom and you’ll understand: your experience of “reality” changes so fundamentally that it’ll forever make you wonder whether your ‘normal’ perception of the world says anything at all. Normality is merely one state of consciousness among others, and consciousness is all you have.
But this raises the question what ‘objective’ reality then is; what’s on the ‘sending end’ of the experience. In this discussion, it has been assumed that even though we experience subjectively, there is an objective reality that is being ‘filtered’. And here Julian Sanchez makes a point in his reply to L’Hôte. For if you accept that you only have your subjectivity, then the term “objectivity” in itself becomes meaningless. Something is only objective within criteria defined by subjectivity.
My bigger problem is that I don’t think Freddie’s picture fully appreciates how incoherent and useless the idea of a transcendent objectivity really is. The implicit account here seems to be that, after all, we might hope we had these divine immaterial minds capable of directly apprehending truth, and then we might have a firm foundation for objective knowledge, but alas we’re stuck with these electrified meatsacks whose chief virtue was to make our grandparents relatively good at staying fed and shagging.
The thing it, this turns out to make no difference at all for the underlying epistemic problem. God or whatever other transcendent sources of certainty we might posit just serve as baffles to conceal the ineradicable circularity that’s going to sit at the bottom of any system of knowledge. You’re always ultimately going to have a process of belief formation whose reliability can only be vouchsafed in terms of the internal criteria of that very process. Calling it a divinely endowed rational faculty rather than an adaptive complex of truth-tracking modules doesn’t actually change the structure of it any.
[If] you have a view that recognizes that the transcendent anchor wouldn’t actually do you any good, or make any epistemic difference, even if it were available, then you’re in a different boat. You’re not falling short of “objectivity” or “certainty,” because these terms have no coherent meaning except within the frame of reference provided by the brains and deductive practices we’re stuck with. If you wound the idea of transcendent objective knowing, you conclude that all we’ve got is our plural subjectivities. But if you kill it and really burn the corpse, you realize that picture of “objective knowledge” is a meaningless phantom.
If this seems a little abstract, consider specifically the argument that “we do not encounter the physical universe unmediated but through a consciousness mechanism and sensory inputs.” This sounds like a limitation—like there’s an ideally clear picture of how things are, and all we’ve got is this filtered version. Except, what could it possibly mean to “encounter the physical universe unmediated”?Nothing. Well, maybe a brain hitting a rock—but if by “encounter” we mean “form representations of and beliefs about,” that has to be “mediated” in the minimum sense that some process or other correlates mind states and world states somehow. But if there really is no timeless frame of reference, then the only sense in which it’s at all coherent to talk about knowledge and certainty is internal to an epistemic system. There is nothing transcendent to lose—all we could ever have meant by “truth” or “knowledge” all along, if we were succeeding at meaning anything, was the domesticated local version.
The question I have is whether L’Hôte and Sanchez aren’t really saying the same thing. Sanchez holds that he does believe that it is possible to make ‘objective’ judgments; only these judgments are objective only relative to our sensory perceptions. But, says Sanchez, since this is all that objectivity ever meant, that’s objective.
Anyone can object that this is talking semantics. Now it depends on one’s definition of subjectivity and objectivity whether one likes to hold that making judgments about the latter is possible. But, I would like to hold that the average take on objectivity (like in positivist science) does imply some sort of transcendent, universal reality independent of sensory perception. Renaming subjectivity into objectivity, like Sanchez seems to do (although he has a point), doesn’t clarify the discussion. Maybe we should get rid of the dichotomy entirely, and embrace something in the middle…
A PBS series which features conversations with many top thinkers on religion, science, and philosophy. On the site you’ll find a vast number of tv episodes and webisodes on such subjects as God, the cosmos and consciousness.