A window on the mind

New Scientist, 13 November 2004 p 36
(box within cover story “The Intoxication Instinct” by Helen Phillips and Graham Lawton)

Note: This is the original version, and was slightly edited for publication.

Psychedelic drugs provide some of the best evidence we have that the mind is the brain; that our thoughts, beliefs, and perceptions are created by chemistry. Take a drug, particularly a hallucinogen, and any of these can change, and even our innermost selves can be quite transformed. This means these drugs can be scary, and need to be taken with great care and respect, for they can potentially reveal some of the deepest secrets about our minds and consciousness.

A century ago, long before prohibition, the groundwork of a science of intoxication was already being laid down, and the American psychologist, William James, experimented with the anaesthetic, nitrous oxide or “laughing gas”. Our normal rational consciousness, he said, is just one special type of consciousness, while all around it, “parted from it by the filmiest of screens” are other entirely different forms of consciousness, always available if only the requisite stimulus is applied.

Other experimenters meticulously described the effects of inhaling ether, chloroform or cannabis, and the strange distortions of time, perception, and sense of humour this induced. More curiously, they also described changes in belief, and even in philosophy. For example, nitrous oxide has the curious capacity to change materialist scientists into idealists. Its discoverer, Sir Humphrey Davy, bravely took the drug himself as an experiment in 1799 and ended up exclaiming that “Nothing exists but thoughts”. Others made similar observations and found their views profoundly shifted by even brief encounters with the other side of that filmy screen.

This raises the peculiar question of whether what James’s called “our normal rational consciousness” is necessarily the best for understanding the world. After all, if one’s view of the world can change so dramatically with the aid of a simple molecule like nitrous oxide, how can we be sure that our normal brain chemistry is the one most suited to doing science and philosophy? What if evolution had taken a slightly different turn and we had ended up with brain chemistry less inclined to make us believe in God or the afterlife. Or what if our actual brain chemistry evolved to help us survive and reproduce at the cost of giving us false beliefs about the world? If so, it is possible that mind-altering drugs might in fact give us a better, not worse, insight than we have in our so-called normal state.

Take the common experience of losing our separate self, or becoming one with the universe. This may seem, to some, like mystical nonsense, but in fact it fits far better with a scientific understanding of the world than our normal dualist view. Most of us feel, most of the time, that we are some kind of separate self who inhabits our body like a driver in a car or a pilot in a plane. We speak about “my body” and even “my brain” as though “I” were something separate from them both. Throughout history many people have believed in a soul or spirit that can leave the body and even survive after death. Yet science has long known that this cannot be so. There is no observer inside the brain who has our experiences, and no space in the brain from where an inner self can control it. There is just a brain that is made of exactly the same kind of stuff as the world around it. In other words, we really are one with the universe.

This means that the psychedelic sense of self may actually be truer than the common dualist view. So although our normal state is better for surviving and reproducing, it may not always be best for understanding who and what we are. Perhaps we could even have sciences carried out in some of these intoxicated states. This was just what psychologist, Charles Tart, suggested in 1972, in the prestigious journal Science. He likened different states of consciousness to different paradigms in science and proposed the creation of “state specific sciences”; new sciences which would be done by scientists working in altered states and communicating their findings to others in those states. These new sciences might only have limited application but this makes the point that our normal state, constrained as it is by the particular chemistry evolution has given us, may not be the only way to try to understand the universe.

Since Tart’s pioneering work on mapping altered states, most of the psychedelic drugs have become prohibited and research has largely been stifled. While the cultures that have used these drugs for millennia treat them with great respect, and control them with elaborate rituals and traditions, our culture gives over their control to criminals and tries to deny their amazing mind-revealing capacities. Perhaps one day, when prohibition is finally abandoned, scientists may once again take up the promise offered by those tiny little chemicals that can tell us who and what we are.