This Is the Trip, the Best Part


And now for something completely different, the Wall Street Journal published an essay by Michael Pollan about recent research into the clinical uses of psychedelic drugs.  Given my unorthodox beliefs about the application of quantum physics, this part jumped out at me:

When scientists at Imperial College began imaging the brains of people on psilocybin, they were surprised to find that the chemical, which they assumed would boost brain activity, actually reduced it, but in a specific area: the default mode network. This is a brain network involved in a range of “metacognitive” processes, including self-reflection, mental time travel, theory of mind (the ability to imagine mental states in others) and the generation of narratives about ourselves that help to create the sense of having a stable self over time.

The default mode network is most active when our minds are least engaged in a task—hence “default mode.” It is where our minds go when they wander or ruminate. The Imperial scientists found that when volunteers reported an experience of ego dissolution, the fMRI scans of their brains showed a precipitous drop in activity in the default mode network, suggesting that this network may be the seat of the ego.

One way to think about the ego is as a mental construct that performs certain functions on our behalf. Chief among these are maintaining the boundary between the conscious and unconscious realms of the mind as well as the boundary between self and other.

My expectation is that we’ll find that people store a great deal of their memories and understanding of the world in the outside world, as they understand it to be.  X happened, so we live in a world in which X can be expected to happen… or rather, we live in a world in which X can be expected to happen, so X did indeed happen.  The default mode network may be the mechanism that makes this connection.  It’s pulling together the threads of reality, and when it takes a break from that labor, the person can skip from one actual reality to another for a time.

Relativism is a destructive force in our society, but the reason is often misunderstood.  The problem with relativism is not its holding that people can experience different realities as real, but its lazy conclusion that all realities must therefore equally valid.  Put aside the self-serving value judgment, and this principle appears in the article, as well:

But as important as it is to keep order in such complex system, a brain can suffer from an excess of order too. Depression, anxiety, obsession and the cravings of addiction could be how it feels to have a brain that has become excessively rigid or fixed in its pathways and linkages—a brain with more order than is good for it.

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What the hallucinogens do, therefore, may not so much be to give the individual a sense of cosmic perspective to diminish the significance of their hangups as to jog loose a rigid sense that one’s personal reality can change.  You can, indeed, live in a different universe.  It may take drugs for that universe to be one in which you can take a ride on a hummingbird, but a world in which you’re not a smoker is certainly within the realm of possibility.