On the University as a place to experiment with perception…?

I’ve been reflecting on the workshop we had on 14 March with Andrew Davis on brain-based learning. This was very much focused on what I like to call ‘neurodiversity’; specific cognitive differences that are often termed ‘difficulties’ or ‘disabilities’.

I am reminded of the Ian Munday piece on problems and mysteries. Brains and minds are incredibly mysterious, and I feel – as do many others – that is not helpful to see and treat neurodiversity as a ‘problem’. This is particularly relevant at the moment as I work individually with a number of my students who have particular needs.  This is not a problematic process so much as a reason and an opportunity to examine the accessibility of the course for all participants; also its purpose – and my own purpose too.

Andrew highlighted the difference between the physical brain, and the subjective experience of the world that arises from the interplay between our perceptions, social institutions and the physical world. As an alien on a spaceship would not be able to ‘decode’ the meaning of a £20 note through a physical analysis, so the mind cannot be deduced from the brain, which is merely a cognitive tool we use in entertaining thoughts and emotions.

Before I read Andrew’s paper I assumed that the physicalist/monist view was more widely held; the view that only physical entities exist, and that mental processes will eventually be explained in terms of these entities as physical theory continues to evolve. I guess I also assumed that neuroscience was more advanced than it actually is. See… it’s insidious, the mainstream media, you try to avoid it but it gets to you somehow.

It is perception itself that interests me; particularly in terms of enhanced perception (i.e. perceiving more than is ‘normal’). It was revealed in 2004 that Francis Crick and his fellow Cambridge academics “used LSD in tiny amounts as a thinking tool, to liberate them from preconceptions and let their genius wander freely to new ideas.” Crick apparently perceived the double-helical structure of DNA while under the influence of the drug.

The following quote from comedian-activist Bill Hicks is also pertinent:

“Wouldn’t you like to see a positive LSD story on the news? To base your decision on information rather than scare tactics and superstition? Perhaps? Wouldn’t that be interesting? Just for once?

“Today, a young man on acid realised that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration – that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There’s no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we’re the imagination of ourselves. Here’s Tom with the weather.”

Glasto 2013When I took LSD for the first time in June 2013, I too became aware of these vibrations, and of a collective consciousness. Have you ever caught a stranger’s eye and had a brief moment of unspoken connection? It was like that, only magnified a thousand times. Whether these were people whose subjective experience of the world was similar to mine, or just also on LSD – I couldn’t be sure. I think, possibly, both. The most obvious, palpable connection was with my boyfriend; our minds became so sharp and inextricably connected, we no longer had to finish our sentences as we knew what the other was thinking. Speaking was tricky anyway – partly for laughing… we’d become a comedy double act. You’ve heard of ‘callbacks’ – jokes that link back to those previously told? We were calling back to previous incarnations of ourselves. Everything was connected.

Last summer, I had a somewhat different LSD experience. The intensity of this trip was physically overwhelming, but I became acutely aware of an ability to register the physical sensations as neutral rather than unpleasant; a feeling that the brain was soft-wired rather than hard-wired. This ability stayed with me to an extent over the next few weeks; I felt more resilient and tolerant. It was enlightening. Notably, this trip also rendered me literally speechless. I was only able to spit out an occasional embarrassingly inane comment and became very conscious of my own awkwardness and its effect on others. This was the only negative aspect, but it was significant; there were a large number of Brendan’s friends at that festival who I had resolved to get to know better, and it was a bit of a backward step in that sense.

I share my own experience here because it enables me to link up Andrew’s session on March 14th with the one that followed. We were looking at a piece of writing about the teaching of phonetics in schools, and I was puzzled all the way through – something really didn’t make sense – and then I realised – I never knew it was normal to learn to read at school. My only memory of Reception class is being sent – alone – up to the junior school to get my reading books; I knew I was ahead, but I had no idea by how much.

I didn’t have any friends as such until the age of ten, by which time my precocity had faded and – importantly – I had a fresh start in a new junior school. I always suspected my reading ability had something to do with that. My parents have never enjoyed socialising and to be honest I thought they’d deliberately set out for us to be different in order to minimise social obligations from other children and their parents.

Then – earlier today – I came across hyperlexia; an autistic spectrum disorder. Everything added up; very early reading, late talking, social awkwardness. It wasn’t that I was shy – quite the opposite. It was the rules of appropriate behaviour that seemed arbitrary and/or opaque.

The rather mindblowing connection that I made today is that a good dose of LSD seems to amplify the hyperlexia characteristics I experienced as a child;

    • a powerful sense that speech is irrelevant or inadequate;
    • an overwhelming need to sit quietly and decode visual signs;
    • an awareness of my own lack of social graces, or a feeling of social exhaustion.

I also recognise this pattern from a few weeks ago when after taking a microdot at a party I suddenly needed to be alone, outdoors. I walked home slowly, delighted by and engrossed in ‘decoding’ the footprints left in the sleet on the pavement under the glow of the streetlamps.

I know from a lecture I attended last year that LSD has been found to activate neural pathways that are normally subdued. It’s thought that these pathways are normally faded out to save energy and prevent distraction, allowing us to focus on particular necessary tasks and actions we need to survive. Could it be the case that I’ve experienced the awakening of old, subdued hyperlexic pathways in addition to others? I think I am also alone among my friends in experiencing intense synaesthesia under the influence of LSD (e.g. a metallic taste in the mouth when I touch a metal object). Synaesthesia has been found to involve ‘similar neurocognitive components’ to hyperlexia, and I do recall having synaesthetic experiences as a child.

But what are ‘neurocognitive components’? I’ll need to access the neuroscience journals to find out. The term sounds very woolly, and it seems philosophy of mind is still a hotly contested arena; which suggests that very little is known about how the brain actually works.

So – my conclusions from linking all this lot together…

First, given that my broad aim for this unit is to consider the purpose of Higher Education, I might consider the role the university plays (and has played) in experiments with the adjustment of perception, as it did for Crick and his contemporaries. Personally, I see this kind of venturing as separate from the alcohol-fuelled ‘hazing’ of Freshers’ week, which I have written about before; to me they have entirely different intentions; the former activity seeking to make us more fully human, the latter less so.

Second, I think psychoactive substances have an important role to play in advancing knowledge in both neuroscience and philosophy of mind. I’d like to check the progress on the work being done at Imperial and Cardiff in this area, further to the lecture I attended last year. If they haven’t met their crowdfunding target yet for the analysis I’ll chip in some more (I already donate monthly to Drug Science).

Third, the analysis of my own experience with psychedelics suggests that I would probably be best not taking them in times of social demand, but perhaps in conjunction with writing, drawing, reading or other creative pursuits  (check out this fascinating experiment where a woman drew self-portraits of herself while under the influence of LSD).

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