Tuesday, July 11, 2006

"Western civilisation"? Mushroom for improvement

As part of his project of eviscerating complacently held conventions, especially those in the popular news, the late, maverick stand-up comic Bill Hicks (01961-01994) used to do a routine fantasising about what a true drug story might be like, if the media ever cared -- or dared -- to report one: "Today, a young man on acid realized 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."

Seems improbable, doesn't it?

I was rather tickled, then, to read the following report today on so staid a newsmedia staple as the CNN website:

"Mystic mushrooms spawn magic event"
Tuesday, July 11, 2006, Posted: 12:57 a.m. EDT
CNN.com, Associated Press

A brief extract:

People who took an illegal drug made from mushrooms reported profound mystical experiences that led to behavior changes lasting for weeks -- all part of an experiment that recalls the psychedelic '60s.

Many of the 36 volunteers rated their reaction to a single dose of the drug, called psilocybin, as one of the most meaningful or spiritually significant experiences of their lives. Some compared it to the birth of a child or the death of a parent.

Such comments "just seemed unbelievable," said Roland Griffiths of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, the study's lead author.

Bill Hicks would surely have been as startled as I was to encounter an upbeat news report about psychedelic experience.

Now, there's an interesting tension in the fact that the highly subjective, personal, even spiritual, benefits of a substance like psilocybin have to pass muster in the scientific community in order to gain widespread recognition. No surprise, of course: the scientific method is the prevailing gold standard of intellectual credibility. But with or without science's imprimatur, those with first hand experience of the profound power of a mushroom trip are unlikely find these participants' responses at all difficult to believe. Indeed, since the "psychedelic '60s" a devoted subculture has persisted, or flowered if you will, for whom the potential learning, insight and pleasure offered by this and similar drugs has outweighed the possible legal penalties associated with them. The 90s rave scene, though probably more notorious for the mainstream advent of ecstasy, was also in part a locus of psychedelic revival, and though this has now gone off the boil, threads persist in culturally transformative projects such as the annual festival, Burning Man, about which I have heard much during my last two months in San Francisco. No, it will come as no shock at all to people who know something about this field that there may be positive, significant, sustainably life-enhancing possibilities inherent in the mushroom experience.

Of course, due to legal constraints, the type of research discussed in this article is very rare. A colleague of mine at the University of Hawaii, Dr Peter Miller, has undertaken a large project in this domain, without a laboratory element, but instead involving extensive surveys and interviews of people who use what he calls "psychoactive biotechnologies", which include magic mushrooms. I'm looking forward to the outcome of this research, and also my Hawaii futures colleague Jake Dunagan's thinking on the futures of the brain ("neurofutures"), which is likely to explore, among other things, the effects on political consciousness of psychedelic substances. In contemplating cultural change, there is much of interests for futurists to consider in the possibility of a significant revival or mainstreaming of hallucinogens.

It was the 01994 book Cyberia by cultural analyst Douglas Rushkoff that gave me an introduction to the intersection of psychedelic drugs and countercultural creativity. In it he documents the intertwining of psychedelia, electronic music, and the early Internet and hacker culture, focusing on the San Francisco Bay Area. While the new golden age that this work idealistically and tantalisingly seemed to portend has not quite materialised, the connections Rushkoff makes between the hallucinogen-facilitated exploration of inner space and the outward development of promising new avenues of creativity and cultural evolution remain valid, fascinating, and important. The recent book What the Dormouse Said (I acquired a copy a couple of months back, but haven't yet read it) explores the connection between San Francisco's infamous period as the epicentre of the 60s counterculture (viz. Tom Wolfe's essential account of the adventures of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test ) and the subsequent blossoming of the computing and software industries down the road in Silicon Valley. Hallucinogens such as mushrooms are -- among other things, to be sure -- catalysts for personal, and by extension cultural, change. On acid, Stewart Brand famously envisaged the power of the view of the "whole earth" from space, and thereby helped push the environmental movement into the spotlight. Dreams have long been associated with invention and discovery (Mendeleyev's design for the periodic table of chemical elements, for example); at some level the hallucinogenic properties appear tap into a similar reservoir of subconscious wisdom and creativity.

We need not invoke anything supernatural, religious, mystical or transcendental here, although those aspects of the discussion are certainly worth close attention too -- the import of this news article is simply that certain mind-altering substances long regarded with suspicion and fear, for reasons that are not particularly well articulated, are now being found by scientists to be useful.

In the meantime, (illegal) drug use is virtually synonymous with decadence, social decay, escapism and irresponsibility. This is an ill informed, completely unhelpful, cultural prejudice. People that use drugs (illegal or otherwise) creatively, responsibly and productively are somehow eclipsed in the popular -- perhaps I should say political -- imagination by those who use them exploitatively or carelessly. It is utterly inaccurate to equate the use of hallucinogens with social parasitism; not everyone who drinks alcohol beats their wife, either; but this is not an argument anyone needs to make to justify having a beer. Convention is on the beer drinker's side.

A management consultant friend of mine, one of the most fastidious and relentlessly logical people I know, regularly uses psilocybin mushrooms to "rewire", generating and assimilating new insights, both intellectual and emotional. His is a deliberate and rigorous use of the drug's self-improvement potential, the antithesis of the starry-eyed hippie stereotype. For him, the trips are like a Pollock painting; not to be "read" too literally, but a densely packed message nonetheless. He won't accept every part of the mushroom experience for what it first appears to be, but carefully teases out signal from noise during later reflection.

Other hallucinogens, too, have much to offer, as recognised by various premodern cultures in a traditional and ritual context. There are tribes in Brazil which use a dimethyltryptamine-containing vine called ayahuasca as a sacrament in shamanic rituals. Peyote has long been used by native Americans as part of a spiritually intense rite of passage. Likewise for mushrooms in parts of Mexico. An episode of the riveting BBC TV documentary series called Tribe featured the intrepid Bruce Parry spending six weeks with the Babongo tribe in Gabon, West Africa, which culminated in a gruelling three-day induction ritual in which he ingested Iboga, a powerful naturally-occurring hallucinogen that prompts its user to experience the consequences for other people of their own past decisions. (I thought of this when I saw the film adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which features the "point of view gun", which blasts people with insights into the thoughts and feelings of the person pulling the trigger. It might take a little while before the neuroscience gets there, but won't it be interesting when that particular gadget hits the shelves...) Interestingly, iboga is used as the basis for Ibogaine, which helps recovering heroin addicts and alcoholics.

I would argue that the judicious use of substances in this way is symbolic of cultures that may be, in some important respects, wiser and more mature than our own; cultures that value fearless introspection; intimate connection to both community and place; cultivation of awareness and pursuit of non-material progress, and the improvement in relationships that results from this. The ritual context represents a culturally evolved setting that renders them psychologically safer and helps interpret the inner journey. Our own four decades of reticence regarding hallucinogens, in contrast, might be seen as a collective fear of the transformation that can result. Not to downplay the potential medical harm that can arise from psychedelic experience, but clearly, this alone is not sufficient to explain their suppression. Cars, alcohol, electricity, tall buildings, cigarettes, hamburgers -- every commonplace of technological civilisation can be deadly; we accept the risks because we have bought into the advantages. The possible advantages of wider usage of mushrooms are almost too delightful to imagine; the risks are, like any risks, simply the price of admission, and with care, can be mitigated.

So, where might this lead? It is commonly recognised, by those who pay attention to such things, that Western culture's hostility to using certain drugs -- if only for pleasure, let alone more constructive, therapeutic purposes -- has a use-by date. English comedian Ben Elton wrote a novel a few years ago called High Society which roundly criticised the British policy on illegal drugs, when so many people, including those who maintain a public stance of censure and disapproval, privately use them. Traffic, Steven Soderbergh's superb film released in 02000, highlighted the contradictions and tragic consequences of the United States' "war on drugs", the effects of which inevitably span not just across social strata within a country, but across borders to the places which serve as centres of production and distribution. Tagline: "No One Gets Away Clean".

There is a sense here that something's got to give; and it seems to me that to the extent the contemporary passion for self-improvement and the mania against hallucinogenic experience are profoundly at odds with one another, it is the latter rather than the former which must eventually give way. My own position on the "drug issue" is simple, and in no way original: decriminalise it all. Educate rather than prohibit; regulate production so people know what they're getting; tax it to pay for the regulatory apparatus, and hold people accountable for any irresponsible behaviour indulged under the influence, exactly the same way we do for alcohol. Now, I realise that to lump vastly differing chemical compounds together in discussion, and frame the debate around a broad freedom to engage in recreational drug usage, both of which sins I've committed in the last couple of paragraphs, begins to take us away from the point at hand. Heroin and crack cocaine, for instance, have nothing whatsoever to do with psilocybin mushrooms, and the fact that they are casually drafted into the same regulatory universe implies not only ignorance but also laziness on the part of legislators. I have no personal experience with LSD, but on the few occasions I've taken mushrooms, they have been entirely beneficial, and have given rise to insights and understandings of incalculable personal value. We certainly ought to be able to differentiate between different kinds of "drugs", which is rendered rather tricky when they're prohibited, so that following the rules virtually ensures having no idea what you're talking about.

There is much more that could be said, but others have said it earlier and better than I. Further reading for the uninitiated might begin with Daniel Pinchbeck's investigative memoir Breaking Open the Head, and the late hallucinevangelist Terence McKenna's The Archaic Revival. Meanwhile, however, insofar as this unassuming CNN article may be read as an early signal of growing public recognition of the value of psychedelic exploration, it is a precious example of very, very good news.


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Anonymous said...

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