The author of the popular book ‘How to Change Your Mind’ has made a great scientific case for psychedelic substances, but his underlying assumptions may be misguided and become a new impediment to consciousness exploration.
Michael Pollan knows the current ideological climate and is well-suited to it. As a journalist who writes at the edge of science he understands that to sell any idea these days it has to have the appearance of being scientifically approved to the general public. His books all contain some semblance of empirically derived facts, and have been both praised and derided by the scientific community. He has also, on a few occasions, been accused of peddling junk science by his greatest critics. But so long as science sells and the people are buying, journalists will continue to ride its cultural coattails.
Perhaps one of the hardest sells of all is a case for normalizing the usage of psychedelic drugs. Enter Pollan and the scientific/medical angle he uses to spin this difficult subject to the general public in his most recent book and in numerous articles and interviews since.
To be fair, Pollan is not the first to use this angle and he won’t be the last. The appeal to science as approval for the use of psychedelic drugs goes back to Timothy Leary, who also blended it with just enough mysticism and wild-eyed anarchy to scare the bejeezus out of normal folk. And while I disagree with this method for reasons I will shortly explain, I must admit that adopting scientific language is likely to have a greater effect on swaying more of the public than the arguments I would choose. Nor do I think Pollan is being opportunistic or insincere, and I truly appreciate his efforts, even if I find them misguided.
The first part of my argument is one that I have made before in an articled titled: Psychedelics & the Irrational Assumptions of Neurocentrism
“…we do not know with any certainty whatsoever that our minds (consciousness/awareness) are dependent on brains or what appears to happen in them. It would be unscientific and dishonest to suggest you knew that for sure. And yet almost all science starts from that very assumption. This problem is uniquely problematic with psychedelic studies for a couple of reasons.
The first and foremost reason is that one of the greatest benefits of the psychedelic experience is that it can help look outside of the dogmatic notion that mind is merely a state of matter. Studies of the psychedelic experience which begin with the unverified assumption that mind is merely a state of matter are like going to an art museum with a negative attitude about art. All you will see are the assumptions you walked in with, and nothing more.
The second problem is that, if scientific approval of psychedelics will advance their responsible usage, science based on unverified assumptions compromises that position. It is hard to imagine, but if tomorrow the Hard Problem of Consciousness were resolved scientifically on the side of mind over matter, all of those studies would essentially become pseudoscience overnight. Dishonesty often backfires, even when the dishonesty comes from pure naivete.”
The alternative to the scientific materialism of psychedelic neurocentrism is the idea that mind, and not matter, is primary to our existence. And despite the fact that most scientists and the public alike both work from that faulty set of assumptions in almost every aspect of modern thinking, quantum physics has provided more than sufficient evidence that existence is a mental affair in which an experience of matter occurs.
“According to QM, the world exists only as a cloud of simultaneous, overlapping possibilities—technically called a “superposition”—until an observation brings one of these possibilities into focus in the form of definite objects and events. This transition is technically called a “measurement.” One of the keys to our argument for a mental world is the contention that only conscious observers can perform measurements.”
This does not nullify science. Even though our experiences are not bound to an external reality that is independent of consciousness, there are some basic laws that usually apply to all conscious agents. They are not absolute or eternal, but arise from the collective beliefs and expectations of all mental entities, and are therefore subject to change as the minds experiencing them do.
That is to say that scientific investigations of psychedelics are relevant and informative, but should be approached as a type of experience, rather than as objects that interact with brains. The latter is reductionist, which reinforces bad cultural habits already endangering our intellectual environment, while at the same time selling the experience of psychedelics completely short.
One of the greatest misnomers of the psychedelic experience is that they ‘turn on’ something. That they provide hallucinations or sensations or feelings. This is completely backwards. The psychedelic experience actually turns off all of the ideas, expectations and beliefs you usually filter the world through and gives you a more primal and raw experience of your own consciousness. Through disassociation you are able to see things about yourself usually clouded by your ego and id. And in the emptiness of expected experience, novel sensations occur that would often be called visuals or hallucinations. When you are unanchored from your normal ways of perceiving reality you are able to experience a random stream of consciousness firsthand.
That right there is the magic. To experience that letting go and to accept whatever is happening in that very moment. It is a beauty that comes once your ability and desire to control your mental landscape is surrendered. That is why it is so therapeutic, because it is a great unclenching of the mind. A rest and respite from the constant clutching to our desires, fears and identity.
To frame that experience in the highly controlled language of materialist science is to subject it to those limitations. Those entering into psychedelic states under such a deterministic ideology may find it harder to let go, and would therefore forego many of the most potent benefits of that experience.
This is a very important point. Your mindset going into a psychedelic ‘trip’ is going to profoundly affect that experience. What you believe about doing these substances is going to produce their specific effects. This is something any experienced psychonaut will readily attest to.
So even if scientific appeals are able to convince the public of the usefulness and general good of psychedelics, it might also color their experience of them in a way that renders them less effective at producing the transcendent experiences which make them such a powerful force for mitigating the trauma of existence. It is for that reason that I feel the work of Pollan and others like him have a tremendous capacity to backfire in the long run. Just as the Leary’s misguided presentations created an unexpected backlash, so might the scientific materialist view do once again.
The best way to get things done is not always the right way. Selling psychedelics with science may be the best way to accelerate a wave of acceptance, but in the long run it may not be the right way to create a sustainable attitude towards them. As an alternative I suggest presenting the public with a barrage of testimonials that place positive human experiences, not objects, as the primary focus of psychedelic evangelism.
Pollan actually also does this in his book, and I can only hope that in his next one he focuses more on that than on appealing to archaic metaphysical worldviews like materialism. The time for reconsidering psychedelics has come, and this time we need to get it right if the correction is going to last.