Breaking Convention 2017: Part 1

Okay, so here’s something I learned in the last year or so: The best conferences happen at weekends. Obvious, really. If they’re worth giving up your weekend for, they’ve got to be good.

What *is* a hippy?

I just got back from Breaking Convention, and I can honestly say it was one of the most fabulous, educational and inspiring events I’ve ever been to. I arrived at tea time on Thursday and went for a quick run in Greenwich Park in the late afternoon sunshine before picking up my delegate pack from the university. While at the desk I was greeted by the incredible half man, half teddy bear Cameron Adams, who I felt a spontaneous urge to hug. This was surprising, and probably a little awkward, as we were shaking hands at the time.

The next morning, keen to avoid overthinking my own skit, I went along to the Philosophy and Mysticism sessions where I met Peter Sjostedt-H (who Richard and I recently interviewed for 3:am magazine), Chris Lethaby (who I’ve also sent questions to… watch this space), and Alessio Bucci. Alessio is a philosopher and cognitive scientist (or philosopher of cognitive science?) at the University of Turin, and his session sought to gain conceptual clarity around consciousness.

In The Conscious Mind, Dave Chalmers outlines some ‘common’ conceptions of consciousness that aren’t really consciousness at all (‘awareness’, etc), but this was next-level stuff (I’m sure Chalmers gets there eventually, I just didn’t get that far through the book yet). Alessio cited Jonkisz’s four-fold taxonomy of consciousness, explaining how the various conceptions of consciousness proposed by cognitive scientists and philosophers refer to four different sorts of criteria: epistemic (concerned with kinds of consciousness), semantic (dealing with orders of consciousness), physiological (reflecting states of consciousness), and pragmatic (seeking to capture sources of consciousness perhaps?).

An ‘altered state’ of consciousness therefore refers to a physiological model of consciousness. Alessio pointed out that – of course – when we talk of an ‘altered’ state we mean relative to a baseline. But what is that baseline? A notion of baseline consciousness may be useful, but it may also be too rigid. This – Alessio claimed – is why neuroimaging is useful for philosophers – they don’t have to just rely on phenomenological reports; they can triangulate.

I was very interested to hear him say this, because when I spoke at the Philosophy of Education conference I got the sense (and also a little explicit feedback) that philosophers of education have a deep distrust of brain scans. I learned a bit more about why this weekend, and I suspect I actually misrepresented the scans when talking to the PESGB. The ones I used were the ones from Robin Carhart-Harris’ 2014 study (another truly lovely person I met at BC) that showed the degree of integration – connectivity – between parts of the brain. There is a much higher level of disorder in the brain on LSD (Robin also talks about high ‘entropy’ and ‘criticality’) compared to the brain on placebo. Integration is obviously a more complex measure than blood flow – the meaning of which isn’t clearly theorised in any case – and is clearly of particular interest when examining altered or unusual states of consciousness. Apparently, low entropy brain states include deep sleep, coma, and psychologically fixated states like OCD and depression.

The implicit ‘baseline’ of consciousness would seemingly be that seen in normal, ‘healthy’, waking subjects. But Alessio claimed consciousness is ‘plastic’ and multifaceted. He cited Clark (2015), and Friston’s (2009) principle that brains are predictive machines. They are constantly in the business of predicting their own internal states.

I could see how this resonated with what I wanted to say in my own talk about the intertwining of education and therapy. Therapy is not simply one type of education. All deep learning involves thinking about how we think; i.e. metacognition. Psychedelics disrupt the hierarchy of prediction. The hypotheses that are subsequently deployed by the brain are less stable, and information is sought and received from unusual places.

I asked Alessio if he’d experienced much resistance from other philosophers about his use of neuroimaging data, and he said he hadn’t – not in the circles he moves in. He emphasised the importance of being aware of how the data is collected and the limitations of what it represents, before the data can be applied to the context. I think these are wise words whatever data you’re collecting really (even conversations with senior managers of universities… especially those).

I really enjoyed Chris Lethaby’s talk too. Having read almost his entire back catalogue of papers to prepare the questions for his 3:am interview, the contents were familiar to me, but he’s a great speaker and I found his talk really engaging. He addressed the question of whether the joyous cosmology of psychedelic consciousness was simply foisting a comforting delusion on the sick and the dying. He concluded that, while psychedelic therapy has epistemic flaws, it also has epistemic benefits. In experiencing phenomena that may not be ‘real’, one gains ‘real’ knowledge into one’s mind and its possibilities. So, Chris was also talking about metacognition. Psychedelic subjects gain experiential knowledge of their own psychological potential, and of the constructed nature of their sense of self.

I brought this idea into my own talk in the afternoon session. It was immensely enjoyable to tell the story of autoethnographic writing about psychedelic experience, and I got some heart-warming feedback from the audience over the weekend. Lots of people told me that writing openly in an academic context about how psychedelics had benefited me was a brave thing to do, and was valuable for the community in the way I had intended. They also appreciated the reflexivity I’d applied to the interactions I’d had with tutors and colleagues. I have the conference to thank for that, really, as it was in putting together the talk that I revisited the various email exchanges and discovered things my former self had written, done and felt that I’d completely forgotten about.

I was reminded throughout the conference that my own approach to disclosure is at one end of the spectrum. A lot of the really big names in psychedelic research have had the privilege of experiencing a range of psychedelic substances within clinical trials (not necessarily as a research subject; many trials require the therapists to experience the substance for themselves), but it’s not really about legality as there are many situations where we can and do take these substances legally (on psychedelic experience weekends, ayahuasca retreats, etc). It’s more the case that many researchers – especially those working in the hard science fields – feel that admitting to having personal experience of psychedelics would undermine the objectivity of their research.

One researcher whose work I particularly admire told me he doesn’t talk about what drugs he’s taken, like he doesn’t talk about his sex life. Personally, I’ll talk about my sex life to anyone who asks, but that didn’t seem like a wise point to make at the time, so I slunk off to talk to someone else (about sex, as it turned out. Funny that… or not).

Having had a gloriously long sleep (again, unusual and surprising), I literally ran to the university to catch Ken Tupper’s talk on entheogenic education. It was so good; he took us through a potted history of knowledge – about how natural philosophers became scientists, astrology gave rise to astronomy, alchemy to chemistry and so on. He also – echoing that first ever blog post I wrote almost a decade ago – cited Vygotsky in illustrating how our minds change with the development and application of cognitive tools. Such tools include mnemonic symbols, behavioural techniques; codes, reading/writing, schemes, arithmetic, psychedelic drugs, works of art; anything we use – or that can be put to use – to direct the workings of the mind. Even learning to use an abacus changes our neural architecture. I was reminded here of Ian Munday’s lecture at the IoE last Wednesday about film, and the discussion we had about film techniques influencing our mental narratives.

Ken explained that certain forms of knowledge are promoted by certain cognitive tools, and that some tools are particularly powerful; they have a ‘ratchet’ effect. He gave the examples of notches on sticks used to keep track of debts, and the Arabic/Hindu system of the numbers 1-9 that made arithmetic so much simpler. He cited a rather interesting-sounding book on how the merchants of Venice created modern accounting, and the societal impact of double-entry bookkeeping with credits and debits.

And then – resonating with the tone of other talks I saw, notably Nadia Erlam’s paper on cognitive dispossession and ‘neuroqueering’, and Adam Aronovich’s Sunday morning session – Ken spoke of statistics, the bell-shaped curve and the introduction of the concept of statistical normality which developed into a common sense of normality – ‘how things ought to be’ – and also its inverse; deviance and how it has become pathologised.

While psychotropic substances had a history of description as telescopes or microscopes of the mind, it was as early as the late 19th century that self-experimentation began to be thought of as unprofessional in the sense that it compromises one’s objectivity. Ken posed the question of the desirability of first hand knowledge:

  1. To establish empathy with research subjects
  2. To validate the interpretation of data
  3. To participate in emerging of discourses of intersubjectivity

He asked – what can we really know from not having the experience of psychedelics? What is the status of Traditional Indigenous Knowledge (TIK)? Why is modern Western quantitative science the touchstone for epistemological validity? Are we inappropriately imposing our Western scientific framework?

I asked Ken to elaborate on this in the discussion as I was curious to know how he felt Western science and TIK could be mediated; whether we can we find a common language. He gave me a couple of gems to follow up; one was Jeremy Nardy, who is currently working in this area in Canadian universities, and the other was Joseph Bastien – an anthropologist who worked in the Andes in the late 1980s.

The afternoon session continued the theme of cognitive tools with Tom Roberts, an educationalist from the US who’s been teaching a module on psychedelics for several years. I’d met Tom the day before after my talk as he’d very kindly scribbled the name of a couple of his books on a postcard for me (I have since ordered them both). Tom was asking a question that interests me greatly – what is the fullest development of the human mind, and how do we reach it? He proposed an alternative direction for the field of ‘artificial intelligence’ that focuses on the possibilities of neuroscience rather than those of digital technologies. He suggested that the cognitive tools of today – yoga, mindfulness, meditation, psychedelics, etc. – could be combined in myriad ways to powerful effect. An obvious point, perhaps, but not a common topic at the conference, unless you count the drug part and the therapy part of psychedelic therapy as separate tools (most people wouldn’t, I think). At the moment the community is very focused on demonstrating the potential of particular, specific substances and therapies, and the scientific method demands controlled testing. But anecdotally, people are certainly using a range of tools in their own exploratory practice and finding complementary groupings.

I’m only halfway through the conference and halfway through my notes at this point, so I’ll have to make this a two-parter! Part 2 will cover psychiatry, MDMA, DMT, the pineal gland and near-death experience, the relationship between plants and humans, value memes, hippies, war veterans and an overwhelming sense of optimism. BRB.

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