Timothy Leary Was Right. Maybe.

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This is your brain on drugs
This is your brain on drugs. Or rather, the right-hand image is your brain on psilocybin. The other side is your brain on a non-psychedelic drug. Researchers recently discovered some amazing facts about how our brains work on some chemicals. And some psychedelic drugs prove to have pretty amazing effects. But don’t try this at home… stick to building toy rockets and drones for your science experiments…

Apparently Timothy Leary was right: psychedelic drugs change the way users think. For a long time, possibly forever. In his pioneering work, The Psychedelic Experience (1964), Leary wrote

A psychedelic experience is a journey to new realms of consciousness. The scope and content of the experience is limitless, but its characteristic features are the transcendence of verbal concepts, of space-time dimensions, and of the ego or identity. Such experiences of enlarged consciousness can occur in a variety of ways: sensory deprivation, yoga exercises, disciplined meditation, religious or aesthetic ecstasies, or spontaneously. Most recently they have become available to anyone through the ingestion of psychedelic drugs such as LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, DMT, etc. Of course, the drug does not produce the transcendent experience. It merely acts as a chemical key — it opens the mind, frees the nervous system of its ordinary patterns and structures.

He also said in a 1966 CBS documentary about his work,

We always have urged people: Don’t take LSD unless you are very well prepared, unless you are specifically prepared to go out of your mind. Don’t take it unless you have someone that’s very experienced with you to guide you through it. And don’t take it unless you are ready to have your perspective on yourself and your life radically changed, because you’re gonna be a different person, and you should be ready to face this possibility.

A story in Wired Magazine about this new research described the image above:

A representation of that is seen in the image above. Each circle depicts relationships between networks—the dots and colors correspond not to brain regions, but to especially connection-rich networks—with normal-state brains at left, and psilocybin-influenced brains at right…
In mathematical terms, said Petri (study co-author Giovanni Petri, a mathematician at Italy’s Institute for Scientific Interchange), normal brains have a well-ordered correlation state. There’s not much cross-linking between networks. That changes after the psilocybin dose. Suddenly the networks are cross-linking like crazy, but not in random ways. New types of order emerge…
Petri notes that the network depiction above is still a simplified abstraction, with the analysis mapped onto a circular, two-dimensional scaffold. A truer way of visualizing it, he said, would be in three dimensions, with connections between networks forming a sponge-like topography.

You won’t end up with mental superpowers like the movie character, Lucy, however, no matter how many drugs you take:

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MVt32qoyhi0]

It seems, according to another piece in Live Science, that the effect is more subtle than that (damn! I wanted those powers…).

People given psilocybin, the compound in “magic mushrooms” that causes hallucinations and feelings of transcendence, demonstrated a more “open” personality after their experience, an effect that persisted for at least 14 months. Openness is a psychological term referring to an appreciation for new experiences. People who are more open tend to have broad imaginations and value emotion, art and curiosity.
This personality warp is unusual, said study researcher Katherine MacLean, because personality rarely changes much after the age of 25 or 30. (In fact, one recent study found that by first grade our personalities are set pretty much for life.)
The effect was especially persistent for those who reported a “mystical” experience with their dose. These mystical experiences were marked by a sense of profound connectedness, along with feelings of joy, reverence and peace, MacLean said….
“It’s probably not just psilocybin that causes changes like this, but more these kinds of profound life-changing experiences, whatever flavor they take,” she said. “For a lot of people, psilocybin allows them to transcend their ways of thinking about the world.”

In other words, it may improve your meditation experience, your awareness, your perception of time and space, and make you more “open” for a time – all of which are positive – but how much and how long it changes your personality is still open for discussion. Science Alert adds:

This new understanding of what exactly psilocybin does to the brain provides evidence for studies that have found magic mushrooms to have striking psychological effects. Previous studies have shown that the drug can increase optimism, improve psychological health, and even help a person to quit smoking.

It’s pleasing to see that there are still some inquiring minds willing to look beyond the political agendas that simplify all drugs into good and bad (and generally anything not sold by Big Pharma is labelled bad…). I hope these researchers continue to explore, without suffering the fate of Leary and his cohorts when they went down that road.

Don’t tune in, turn on and drop out, quite yet. Especially if you’re an old codger like me, Some researchers are cautious about promising any long-lasting effects. Our personalities may be already carved in stone from a young age, and tripping out may not change them all that much. No, that cyberbully blogger won’t suddenly become a caring, empathetic human being overnight if you slip some magic mushroom into his morning coffee.

Perhaps the better solution for self-awareness is still the path through meditation and introspection, pursuing philosophy from Buddhism to Montaigne. It matters that you make the effort to explore the self, to look within. There are many vehicles you can choose for the journey.

Timothy Leary himself said,

The aim of human life is to know thyself. Think for yourself. Question authority. Think with your friends. Create, create new realities. Philosophy is a team sport. Philosophy is the ultimate, the ultimate aphrodisiac pleasure. Learning how to operate your brain, learning how to operate your mind, learning how to redesign chaos.

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6jmGSS955g]

In his book, Change Your Brain, he wrote about demystifying the “software of human existence.”

We cannot study the brain, the instrument for fabricating the realities we inhabit, using the mental constructs of the past.

Leary also said, “The Brain is the key. The Brain is the source. The Brain is God.” One blogger, Phoeron, has put it,

Interestingly enough, however, both Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson maintained the very same point I’ve been making with Neuro-Occultism—you don’t actually need a psychedelic substance to achieve these ends. Not LSD. Not Psilocybin. Not Mescaline. Hindus, Buddhists, and Sufis have been achieving advanced states of consciousness for thousands of years, through such well-known mystical techniques as fasting, prayer, meditation, chanting, dance, abstinence, lucid dreaming, asceticism, and in some cases, ritual self-mutilation. But like all forms of technology, the use of psychedelics as entheogens gives properly trained psychonauts a definitive edge over seekers who resist technological advances, just as a PC hooked up to the internet is a technological advantage over a typewriter and a library card.*

~~~~~

* While I agree with the first part of his statement, I would argue against the statement that, “…a PC hooked up to the internet is a technological advantage over a typewriter and a library card.” I still go back to the belief that self-awareness comes from introspection but also from study. No path without a guide, no student without a teacher.
Sure you might learn a lot from the internet, but you’re as likely to tumble across homeopathy, creationism, racism, chemtrail conspiracies, pornography, wingnuts and cyberbullies and all sorts of codswallop in random, unconnected order and no easy way to distinguish between fantasy and reality. With a book from your library you have focus, direction.
And yes a PC can do a lot – like let you play solitaire, get spam email, play World of Tanks and photoshop your cat pictures. But a typewriter is like an artists’ brush: a powerful tool when used well. It can’t play games, can’t check email, won’t correct your spelling, can’t distract you with pop-up ads. You can type on it: maybe write a letter, a short story, or a novel. There’s a lot to be said for such simplicity.

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