It’s All In Your Head

In Tuesday’s post about the puzzle of consciousness (I was off duty last night, celebrating my 54th at an Argentine steakhouse on the Lower East Side), I mentioned having seen an item in the paper that day that I thought seemed timely. It was a piece in the Times about growing interest in the use of psychedelic drugs for the treatment of various psychological afflictions.

Of particular relevance were these passages, which describe the experience of a dissolving of the “self” that hallucinogens can produce:

“All of a sudden, everything familiar started evaporating,” [a subject] 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.” …

In interviews … 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.

These experiences are very much like those achieved by various meditative disciplines, and esoteric adepts have long used hallucinogenic drugs to give beginners a glimpse of the road ahead. The correspondence, it turns out, is not just subjective:

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.

That these substances can induce mental states that are both subjectively and objectively similar to, or perhaps indistinguishable from, “genuine” religious or mystical experiences, has led to the coinage of an excellent word for them: entheogens. And that these ineffable subjective experiences can be brought about by such “material” causes as the use of drugs, or even brain trauma (watch this extraordinary video, if you haven’t seen it before) is, it seems to me, more grist for the materialist’s mill.

Read the article here.


  1. JK says

    Posted April 15, 2010 at 2:43 am | Permalink
  2. Happy Birthday, Malcolm, and may you enjoy all the blessings that can be showered upon you by a loving and benevolent hallucinogen.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted April 15, 2010 at 2:28 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Thanks Jeffery!

    You know, that’s not such a bad idea. It’s been way too long.

    Posted April 15, 2010 at 2:30 pm | Permalink
  4. bob koepp says

    My head? Faaaaar out!

    Posted April 15, 2010 at 6:48 pm | Permalink
  5. Kevin Kim says

    A very belated Happy Birthday, Malcolm. Many happy returns. Or if I were Mircea Eliade, I’d say: “Many happy eternal returns.”

    Posted April 16, 2010 at 2:59 am | Permalink
  6. Happy birthday, old chap.

    Posted April 16, 2010 at 4:15 am | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Thanks, D. Very glad to see you’re still dropping in after our little dust-up.

    Posted April 16, 2010 at 10:10 am | Permalink
  8. A mere tiff.

    Posted April 16, 2010 at 12:04 pm | Permalink
  9. Chris G says

    I’m going to the LES in May to celebrate the wife’s birthday. Do you recommend the Argentinian steak house? What’s the name?

    Posted April 16, 2010 at 12:33 pm | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    Or, Kevin, if I were the Phoenician king Phineas, you might have said “many harpy returns”…


    Posted April 16, 2010 at 1:03 pm | Permalink
  11. Malcolm says

    It’s called Azul, Chris. The porterhouse for two was magnificent.

    NB: not a full bar; just beer and wine.

    Posted April 16, 2010 at 1:05 pm | Permalink
  12. jeanie desiree oliver says

    Happy Late Birthday! Okay, on to the more important issue(just kidding)-her stroke-why did she choose the word, Nirvana, I wonder? I am debating whether to read her book. I read the comments down below the video, and I do to wonder about her experience. She had incredible info in that left side of the brain on the brain.
    It is a question that riddles my days. Does the fact that I have had training in the science of the brain as it relates to learning-a specialist in gifted education, and a dsylexia specialist make me too hyper aware of the tiniest changes in the actions of my brain? The neuro people say yes.
    Only twice after hours and hours of “practice” in biofeedback have I reached a place that I felt altered. That I felt what is supposed, allegedly, to be happening; my brain separate from “me” working to change my blood flow. Both times, it was as if that other self stepped in to protect me, to wake me from the meditation. As if I needed to be conscious, it is a shuddering all along the nerve endings.
    Now, the explanation given was that my brain will protect itself. I was astounded. I immediately said you mean that I am separate from my brain?
    They feel that I impede my own progress because I ask too many questions. I ask you, if scientists were walking around you talking about what is you, your brain, your will, your conscious, etc, you wouldn’t rather discuss and debate as sit for hours quietly trying to redirect neuron pathways?
    Well, Malcolm, you had better get back on the political train before I hijack the blog!

    Posted April 16, 2010 at 1:44 pm | Permalink
  13. Malcolm says

    “…you mean that I am separate from my brain?”

    Jeanie, this is a very pointed question.

    Ultimately, I think the answer is no, that any given ‘I’ is entirely the product of my brain’s physical configuration and dynamic processes.

    But what am ‘I’? Indeed, one brain can make, and by some accounts, usually does, make many ‘I’s. To establish a truly coherent ‘I’ out of the jumble of selves within us is a very tough assignment indeed.

    Yet always it seems: here am ‘I’. What is it that binds them into the illusion of unity?

    Posted April 16, 2010 at 9:24 pm | Permalink
  14. Kevin Kim says

    My problem with psychoactive substances is that I don’t think they’re a legitimate substitute for something like meditation: when you take work and discipline out of the equation, what is a “realization” worth?

    Posted April 18, 2010 at 10:20 am | Permalink
  15. bob koepp says

    But Kevin, if you can find ultimate reality in the sound of one hand clapping, or in a fart, why not in a psychoactive substance?

    Posted April 18, 2010 at 6:12 pm | Permalink
  16. All those are just penultimate reality, Bob. The ultimate reality is death, but it can’t be found.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted April 19, 2010 at 2:23 pm | Permalink
  17. Kevin Kim says


    Good question. The best answer I have comes from Robert Buswell, a scholar of Korean Buddhism, who notes (in The Zen Monastic Experience) that actual Zen discipline and practice aren’t really the way they’re stereotyped in the West, where people take a term like “sudden enlightenment” too literally. The serious Zen practitioner actually spends years studying, practicing, and otherwise honing himself so that he’s receptive to whatever teaching can be found in the unitary hand or the loud, stinky fart. The religious rhetoric notwithstanding, this is how Zen normally plays itself out: intellectually, scholastically, discursively, and arduously.

    Having said all that, I still find it paradoxical that we have to put so much effort into achieving the Mahayana realization that “we’re already there,” but maybe I’m just overthinking the human condition. Maybe this is just how humans have to go about “getting” enlightenment.

    In any event, I think psychoactive substances are, at best, a cheat, and because the “realization” they provide isn’t accompanied by any real effort, the meaningfulness of whatever insights arise from the chemical experience are thereby cheapened. If the Answer to All Life’s Questions could be mass-produced and distributed to everyone, would everyone be wise enough to make good use of the Answer? Or to put it more practically: if a guy is 50 pounds overweight, is there more moral value in his getting liposuction, or in his internalizing a discipline that will help him shed the pounds and protect him for the rest of his life? My own feeling is that Lipo Dude is more likely to be a recidivist than Self-discipline Dude.

    My take, for what it’s worth.

    Posted April 24, 2010 at 2:43 am | Permalink

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