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Can Psychedelics Expand Our Consciousness?

Andrew Ostrovsky

"One of the great responsibilities we have as a society is to educate ourselves, along with the next generation, about which substances are worth ingesting and for what purpose and which are not. ... If I knew that either of my daughters would eventually develop a fondness for methamphetamine or heroin, I might never sleep again. But if they don't try a psychedelic like psilocybin or LSD at least once in their adult lives, I will wonder whether they had missed one of the most important rites of passage a human being can experience."

Coming late in a new book by Sam Harris called Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, this passage snapped me to attention. It's not that Harris' book had lulled me up to that point: It's a provocative, informative and, at times, infuriating look at consciousness and the self. Its main argument is that techniques exist, meditation prime among them, to reduce human suffering by helping us to understand that the self — as conventionally understood — is an illusion. Our feeling of "I" is a product of thought, and thoughts merely come and go in our consciousness; there's no self behind our eyes or in our head, and when we grasp this, it's easier to unmoor ourselves from the sources of suffering in our lives.

The ways in which Harris supports this thesis are worth reading. Yet as a parent of a college-age daughter, I found that it was his move beyond meditation — Harris' expressed hope that his kids, once they become adults, will ingest psychedelics — that made me stop and think hard. Is Harris' wish an ethical one? What can my field of anthropology bring to bear in thinking about this matter?

On this topic of psychedelics, Harris has an advantage that I lack. Not only has he spent considerable time in serious meditative practice, he also has experienced moments of immense beauty and love — and other moments of total terror — on MDMA (ecstasy), psilocybin (mushrooms) and LSD. I grew up in the '60s in a family whose lives centered closely on law enforcement — my father was a captain in the New Jersey State Police — and I wasn't exactly the drug-experimenting type. In high school and college, I watched a few friends go through trips good and bad, but that's as close as I got.

Harris is candid about the risks of ingesting psychedelics:

"There is no getting around the role of luck here. If you are lucky, and you take the right drug, you will know what it is to be enlightened (or to be close enough to persuade you that enlightenment is possible). If you are unlucky, you will know what it is to be clinically insane."

Harris describes one LSD trip as plunging him into "a continuous shattering and terror for which I have no words."

Some readers, Harris notes at the outset, may want to consult their mental-health professionals before carrying out any of the ideas he endorses (including meditation), and he concludes that after expanding one's consciousness through drugs, "it seems wise" to find other practices that "do not present the same risks."

So how should we think about the psychedelic-ingestion experience in connection with a search for enlightenment? Research in neuroscience certainly shows real change in the brain from the action of psychedelic drugs. But I don't think it's enough to say that the outcome of any given trip is a matter of which drug one ingests — and of individual luck.

Like everything else humans do, ingesting psychedelics — even if we are totally alone while doing so — is a cultural matter, and the outcomes are culturally contingent. Anthropologists Greg Downey and Daniel Lende, who co-blog at Neuroanthropology, each made the same point to me in separate emails this week when I invited them to respond to Harris' passages about enlightenment through psychedelic drug use: "One could say that Harris goes a bit far," were Lende's words. He continued:

"Certainly taking 100[micrograms] of LSD will produce a big pharmacological effect on the person; whether that relates to some understanding of personal significance is a more open book. Many anthropologists would say that he's over-emphasizing the individual view of things, in line with Western approaches to the mind. Put differently, the link between psychoactive effect and meaning is mediated by the immediate context, personal history, the framing given to the use, and larger cultural patterns.

"I'm sure there are people who have rather muted responses to psychedelics, or exaggerated responses, and part of that will lie in the person's biology, from genetics to states of arousal to how they've learned to interpret psychedelic experiences.

"And as I might put it as an anthropologist, experiences of spirituality can also be had through engaging with others, for example, talking to someone who has had psychosis (rather than Harris's exaggerated view of it, likely not grounded in personal experience but cultural ideas) or talking about transformative and spiritual experiences with others."

Downey made the point to me that no intoxicant has a predictable response:

"Across cultures, intoxicants of all sorts have quite different effects: even alcohol has no uniform effect. In some places, it leads groups of people to fight, in others to cry to themselves, in others still, to raucous singing or dancing. Although the chemical may have a specific effect — such as emotional disinhibition or visions — the effect in the brain does not necessarily produce the same emotional or perceptual effect. Hallucinogens may make us prone to have visions, but they do not determine entirely what sort of visions they will be, or whether they will be a profound and life changing event, or a temporary intoxication.

"To really have the sorts of effects that Sam Harris hopes for, you would need the symbolic resources and social support to leverage the hours of intoxication into serious insight. In a society hostile to visions, convinced that there is no higher form of consciousness than everyday awareness, I think it's unlikely that most users would have the sorts of experiences that Harris describes. Some will, and they show us what's possible; but they do not point the way to anything inevitable."

It's hard to escape our own cultural lens: It's a constant struggle, for anthropologists as much as anyone. Still, Harris' perspective would, I think, be strengthened by his explicitly considering the variable cultural contexts for what he's espousing.

"It is your mind, rather than circumstances themselves, that determines the quality of your life," he writes, then repeats this sentiment in similar words throughout the book.

Does Harris really think that mushrooms and meditation are enough to overcome, to take but one example, a life of hunger or poor health emerging from poverty? Of course not. Harris is smarter than that — but he's writing for a certain audience, and what comes to the fore is not a global perspective on human suffering or on what society should do about it.

Circling back to the passage from Waking Up that I used to open this post, I'll wager that we can collectively create a lengthy list of responsibilities that our society has — to each other, to our environment, to other animals — that take priority over eating mushrooms or dropping acid and urging our adult children to do so.

Barbara's most recent book on animals was released in paperback in April. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.

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