Letheby (2017) attempts to reconcile psychedelic spirituality with naturalism. His motivation for doing so is that many philosophers are persuaded by naturalism, and are not convinced that there is a ‘transcendent foundation for meaning’; a potentially troublesome little phrase. Firstly, ‘transcendent’ means beyond the realm of ‘normal’ human experience – but what is ‘normal’? And then ‘meaning’… a very slippery concept indeed. What is meaning? Is it necessary? Is there meaning?
Last week, Jim Carrey showed up on the red carpet at New York fashion week, much to the surprise of TV presenter Catt Sadler, who asked him – on camera – what he was doing there. The conversation played out like this:
Carrey: ‘There’s no meaning to any of this. I wanted to find the most meaningless thing I could come to… here I am. You gotta admit this is meaningless… I don’t believe in icons… I don’t believe in personalities… I believe we are a field of energy dancing for itself.’
Sadler: ‘But Jim, you got really dressed up for this evening!’
Carrey: ‘I didn’t get dressed up.’
Sadler: ‘Who did?’
Carrey: ‘There is no me... There’s just things happening…. It’s not our world. We don’t matter. There’s the good news.’
[Carrey gives Sadler a reassuring squeeze on the shoulders and exits stage right]
The interview went viral. Many of those who understood what Carrey was saying were delighted. Not all – some thought that it would rub the right people up the wrong way. Indeed, those who hadn’t previously entertained the idea of selfhood as a delusion – and the world being devoid of meaning – were puzzled, even disturbed. Media reactions ranged from shock, to concern for Jim’s mental health, to derision. Other media outlets have been clamouring to talk with Jim about the interview, and he has been happy to oblige. Sadler herself has described the interview as ‘unexpected’, but ‘fun’.
In his paper on naturalising spirituality, Letheby (2017) asks whether psychedelics – in their capacity to induce mystical or spiritual experiences – can offer part of a solution for (sub-clinical) existential anxiety, what he also describes as a ‘disenchantment of [or with?] the world’. What Carrey highlighted through his Fashion Week stunt was an enchantment with the self that contributes to existential angst and, one would presume, a relative lack of enchantment with the ‘world outside’.
Neuroscientific work is currently being undertaken to study the neural correlates of the psychedelic experience. It has been found that psychedelics disrupt and reduce the activity of the Default Mode Network (DMN), a network of interacting brain regions whose activity is highly correlated with one another and distinct from other neural networks. The DMN is implicated in mind-wandering, replaying events, agonising over whether to leave your husband, cut your hair short, get your navel pierced, etc.. The dominant hypothesis is that the DMN is ‘also’ responsible for our sense of self, but it is surely the case that this category of mental activity is a significant part of our sense of self; the ‘transtemporal identity’ Metzinger (2016) refers to, and the phenomenon Galen Strawson (2004) describes as the diachronic self. It is the stories we tell ourselves and others about our ‘selves’, the things we obsess over when we are not engaged in the present moment. It is what we write on our online dating profiles. It is how Richard Marshall’s 3:am interviewees answer his opening question: What made you become a philosopher?
In his 2004 essay Against Narrative, Galen Strawson highlights that a ‘strong sense of self’ is often equated to – or at least considered essential for – good mental health. This is an important point: I suspect that when psychologists refer to a ‘strong sense of self’ they actually mean a sense of self that is only very rarely attended to. If one assumes that the ‘self’ exists, then the ‘strong’ metaphor holds firm; it means it is there, it is stable, it is not an object of concern. If, however, we propose that ‘self’ is a delusion, it is no longer obvious whether it is a good or a bad thing for it to be uppermost in our awareness or lying dormant in the background, and therefore which positioning should be labelled ‘strong’ or ‘weak’.
Metzinger (2016) sketches out the human cost of our sense of self, which is substantial. Not only does the activity of our DMN use a lot of energy (and support a great deal of time-wasting), it is also the basis for existential angst. Metzinger reasons that for us to maintain a sense of self despite these considerable detractors, there must be significant payoffs. For example, a sense of self is a prerequisite for assumptions of free will and personal responsibility, without which society would break down.
From his chapter in Pereboom’s anthology on Free Will, it is clear that Strawson (2009) has also come to the conclusion that the self, free will and personal responsibility are constructions. Necessary constructions, perhaps, but constructions nonetheless.
Letheby (2017) cites Flanagan’s work on naturalistic eudaimonics; that is, empirical inquiry into the conditions for human flourishing. It would seem that a more flourished state – both as individuals and collectively – is one where we spend less time thinking about ourselves (our ‘selves’). Despite its implied finality, I’ve opted for the past tense because the processes of flourishing – for example the psychotherapeutic process – may demand a fair amount of inward reflection. But I propose that the state of having flourished and continuing to do so (perhaps an appropriate metaphor would be blooming), is a state where the attention is focused outwards more than inwards.
On the topic of psychotherapy, it is worth noting the recent award of breakthrough therapy status to MDMA-assisted therapy (MAPS 2017). MDMA (3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine) is a very interesting substance that has been described as the ‘perfect drug for psychotherapy’ (Sessa 2011). The complex profile of effects on neurotransmitter release and neural receptors as tabulated by Sessa (2017) render MDMA a potent entactogen (or empathogen). MDMA reduces hypervigilance and the amygdala fear response, promotes novel thinking, and produces experiences of emotional communion, oneness, relatedness and openness. It is is a powerful adjunct to psychotherapy because it suppresses our self-protective mechanisms. In a sense, it allows the ‘self’ to be gently broken down.
So, I am proposing that the ‘strong sense of self’ touted by psychologists as the ideal mental state has been misconstrued. It has come to be conflated with the examination and presentation of personal narrative. Lilla (2017) highlights how the modes and attitudes of ‘identity politics’ have become embedded into university curricula and policy, and argues that they have made students less likely to engage with a world beyond themselves. Lilla claims this is ‘strangling liberalism’. O’Neill (2016) warns that it is separatism in disguise.
While my supervisor has warned me about paddling in the treacherous waters at the confluence of neuroscience and philosophy, I am seeing neuroscience coming on in leaps and bounds (in no small part thanks to psychedelic research), and the very existence of the journal Neuroscience and Consciousness (e.g. Letheby & Gerrans 2017) indicates that there is important and groundbreaking work being undertaken at this nexus. I am personally intrigued by the neural correlates of the identity crises of the liquid modernity described (and lamented) at length by Bauman (2003), Illeris (2013) and others. I’m sure there must be people looking into this, but for all the papers still being written about psychedelic ego-dissolution, I wonder whether today’s psychonauts are experiencing ego-dissolution as standard.
During several of my own lower-dose psychedelic experiences I have become hyper-aware of my annoying thought chatter, to the point where I have found it mildly disturbing. The experience is one of an augmented ego rather than a diminished one. Even with 25mg of psilocybin I would describe my experience as primarily mind-revealing and empathetic rather than ego-dissolving (although the recall of ego dissolution is unlikely to be accurate, calling as it does on the very thing that may or may not have been dissolved!).
Ego-dissolution versus apparent ego-augmentation may be an issue of dosage more than one of psychological set. It is highly likely that today’s amateur psychonauts are more moderate in their doses. The excessive 500-600mg hits of LSD that Christopher Bache routinely used (Biehl 2017) and were commonplace among researchers and amateur psychonauts of that era have fallen out of fashion relative to the lowest effective dose or ‘LED’.
A microdose could be hypothesised as sufficient to dampen the mind-wandering activity of the DMN and improve focus on the task at hand, but well below the level required to dissolve the ego and transform us into one of Sessa’s (2017) tie-dyed, ‘bare-torsoed hippes’ (I have to apologise to Ben for dragging this up again, but it’s just too funny not to). A criticism I have heard levelled at the practice of microdosing by some members of the psychedelic community is that it colludes with neoliberalism, promoting performative attitudes and an individualist mindset, rather than helping us to connect with and care for nature and one another.
Jim Fadiman’s large-scale volunteer study of microdosing found that anxious subjects without comorbid depression did not find microdosing beneficial, in many cases reporting increased anxiety. This is a very interesting finding that resonates with some – by no means all – of my own micro and meso-dose experiences, and I hope it is explored further. Speaking at Breaking Convention, Fadiman (2017) said that while he has enough positive reports to generate a reliable picture of the perceived benefits of microdosing, he is still keen to hear from more of those with less positive or mixed experiences.
If there is a causal relation, in which way might it run? Are we, the citizens of Bauman’s liquid modernity, more identity-focused and individualist because we lack profound spiritual experience, or do we shy away from profound experience to protect and sustain our selfhood and our individualist way of life?
My own neophyte thoughts about psychedelics, the sense of self and mental health broadly correspond with Letheby’s (2017) conclusions. A standard definition of ‘spirituality’ is an experience of something bigger than ourselves. While we can transcend the self through broadening our perspective, engaging with nature and our ‘affective responses of wonder and reverence’ (p14), Letheby also cites Harris’ (2014) claim that spirituality is simply ‘insight into the non-existence of the self’ (p15).*
Dismantling the illusion of the self – at least in part – would appear to alleviate psychological suffering of many forms. An important question is how far we should go with it. Metzinger (2016) makes excellent points about society’s reliance on assumptions of free will and personal responsibility, and while it is true that ‘nice people take drugs’ (Release, 2017), it does not necessarily follow that all people who take drugs are nice.
* Harris recently interviewed Thomas Metzinger; a link to the podcast is included below with the other references.
Bauman, Z. 2003. Liquid Love. Polity Press.
Biehl, Z. 2017. Meet the professor who self-administered 73 high-dose LSD sessions. Psymposia, 5 September 2017. Available at: https://www.psymposia.com/magazine/meet-professor-self-administered-73-high-dose-lsd-sessions/
Fadiman, J. 2017. Creative Problem-Solving: High Doses Then, Microdoses Now. Breaking Convention, 1 July, Greenwich, UK. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XuBd2NRO2Ck
Forsdyke, D. (2015). Wittgenstein’s Certainty is Uncertain: Brain Scans of Cured Hydrocephalics Challenge Cherished Assumptions. Biological Theory. DOI: 10.1007/s13752-015-0219-x
Harris, S. 2014. Waking Up: a Guide to Spirituality without Religion. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Harris, S. 2017. The Nature of Consciousness: A Conversation with Thomas Metzinger. 10 September. Available at: https://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/the-nature-of-consciousness
Illeris, K. 2013. Transformative Learning and Identity. Routledge.
Letheby, C. 2017. Naturalising Psychedelic Spirituality. In Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science. 52 (3), p623-642
Letheby, C., & Gerrans, P. 2017. Self unbound: ego dissolution in psychedelic experience. Neuroscience of Consciousness, p1-11.
Lilla, M. 2017. How Colleges are Strangling Liberalism. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 20 August. Available at: http://www.chronicle.com/article/How-Colleges-Are-Strangling/240909
MAPS 2017. FDA Grants Breakthrough Therapy Designation for MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy for PTSD, Agrees on Special Protocol Assessment for Phase 3 Trials [Press Release] 26 August. Available at: https://www.maps.org/news/media/6786-press-release-fda-grants-breakthrough-therapy-designation-for-mdma-assisted-psychotherapy-for-ptsd,-agrees-on-special-protocol-assessment-for-phase-3-trials
Metzinger, T. 2016. All about the ego-tunnel. Interview by Richard Marshall. 3:am Magazine. 25 February. Available at: http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/all-about-the-ego-tunnel/
O’Neill, B. 2016. Orlando has exposed the poison of identity politics. Spiked. 15 June. Available at: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/orlando-has-exposed-the-poison-of-identity-politics/18457#.Wb6WO0qGP1I
Release 2017. Nice People Take Drugs. Campaign merchandise. Available at: https://www.release.org.uk/products/nice-people-take-drugs-tshirts-unisex
Sessa, B. 2011. Can MDMA enhance trauma-focused psychotherapy? Progress in Neurology and Psychiatry. 15 (6), p4-7
Sessa, B. 2017. The 21st century psychedelic renaissance: heroic steps forward on the back of an elephant. Psychopharmacology. 23 August. DOI: 10.1007/s00213-017-4713-7
Strawson, G. 2004. Against Narrativity. Ratio XVII, p428-452. Available at: http://lchc.ucsd.edu/mca/Paper/against_narrativity.pdf
Strawson, G. 2009. The Impossibility of Ultimate Moral Responsibility. In Pereboom, D. (Ed). Free Will. 2nd Edition. US: Hackett.