All human knowledge is derived from human experience…and there can be no essential difference between the raw materials of physics and the raw materials of psychology.
-E. B. Titchener (1867-1927)
How does one see the unseeable?
By altering the state of observation. In other words: change the rules of the game, change how we “see.”
Altered states of observation are intrinsic to scientific discovery; not just thinking outside the box, but looking outside the box and looking with different eyes. Physicists have long been able to pierce the veil of uncertainty through altered perspectives. Yet when it comes to altering one’s inner state of observation—one’s state of consciousness—to delineate the self, man’s greatest unknown, proponents have suffered defenestration and in many cases incarceration.
Limits are intrinsic to nature and learning to work around them is endemic to scientific research. When astronomers and physicists look to the stars they must confront the impossible challenges to observation. Invisible forces are at work, mysterious and as-yet-unaccounted-for matter and energy—so-called “Dark Matter” and “Dark Energy”—reign over nearly 95% of all the known universe. Another challenge to man’s power of observation is uncovering the nature of black holes, super-massive concentrations of gravity so strong no light can ever escape. Black holes pervade the Universe, drastically altering and reforming the environment and yet we have no means of directly observing them.
Limits also confront physicists in the study of the imperceptibly small. Written directly into the fundamental laws of quantum mechanics is the condition that any particle directly observed is simultaneously changed—a wave of probability suddenly converges to a single point. To observe is to alter, therefore objective observations are a paradoxical impossibility.
So how did scientists crack the code to this picture puzzle? Through sheer human creativity and tenacity. Limitations may be innate to observation but they are only a product of a set of rules; if the rules are changed, so too are the limits. Through altered states of observation science can, and has, inferred a great deal about the unknowable.
Perhaps the single greatest adaptation to observation has been the ability to expand the scope of vision beyond the narrow spectrum of visible light to other wave lengths. Entirely new schools of study have emerged based solely on the exploration of radio waves, gamma waves, and ultraviolet waves. These altered perspectives have given us an entirely new picture of our place in the Universe and have shown us a whole new world beyond our wildest dreams.
Alternative ways of looking at a problem have triumphed throughout the study of physics. Physicists have discovered that while observers may not be able to directly observe a particle without altering it, one can observe a copy of a particle if they are quantumly entangled. In much the same way, while unable to directly observe black holes, science can observe the effects they have on the immediate environment and by making use of spectroscopic techniques can infer a great deal about their constitution.
By studying the ripples from many angles one learns much of the epicenter.
These very same challenges to observation confront psychologists and philosophers probing the depths of the human mind. The mind-body problem—a measure of precisely where the boundary (if any) lies between the physical and the mental—has been around nearly as long as Western thought. The very concept of the self and what it is capable of is still a mystery. In truth we have only come so far since Descartes’s “I think, therefore I am”; the self is still for all intents and purposes a black hole to psychologists.
The mind itself is riddled with contradictions and unknown variables that grow exponentially complicated with each year a person is alive. The vast majority of activity in the brain is not conscious, it occurs under the radar of our awareness. Neurological estimates claim 95-98% of our brain activity is unconscious. An interesting parallel to the Universe at large as we are largely in the dark when it comes to understanding precisely how this part of the mind works. For us the subconscious and unconscious minds are the unobservable ghosts in the machine, our very own “dark matter” and “dark energy.”
Moreover, how is one to look inward without changing one’s self? That is, how is one to see themselves objectively, absent the very biases and perspectives they are trying to observe? Who is not changed by looking in the mirror?
The parallels between the problems of mind and of the cosmos are evident. A corresponding approach is in order and altered states of consciousness provide the individual with the unique ability to observe the mind through a diverse spectrum of perspectives.
Across the ages man has naturally approached consciousness as a looking-glass through which he can infer a great deal of information about himself (and the world around him). Near the dawn of civilization the ancients of Mesopotamian placed great emphasis on divination, the mind, and dreams. This practice continued across vast reaches of cultures from Africa and Australia to North America on into the present. Psychedelic plants are well-known tools of shamans in Latin and South American tribes today and strong archaeological evidence suggests their use by the Inca and the Mayan empires. The altered states of consciousness produced by these plants were often considered conduits for divine counsel. In the East, ancient Indian Yogis and Chinese Taoists explored altered states of consciousness through meditation and physical discipline. Through such practices it was felt one could unearth understandings buried beneath the subconscious. Early monastic Christians practiced fasting, solitude, self-mortification, and sleep deprivation in order to invoke visions of the divine, as have many native tribes across North America.
Tribal and spiritual dancing, trances, meditation, isolation, fasting, self-mutilation and sweat ceremonies are all traditional modes of self-exploration. Only in the last century has the use of psychedelics become the poster child for the phrase “altered states” and in the wake of the counter-culture movement of the 60s that poster has been used as a proverbial dart board by complacent academics and government regulators alike.
Consequentially, exploring and experimenting with the many methods for indirect observation and experimentation of consciousness and the unconscious did not follow the same trajectory as physics. By the turn of the century psychology had begun to distance itself from questions of consciousness, choosing to focus on more tangible and measurable issues that would better fit into the confines of the scientific method.
John B. Watson, who introduced behaviorism as the chief aim of psychology in 1912, sums up the pervading attitude of the next half century:
“Consciousness” is neither a definable nor a usable concept; it is merely another word for the “soul” of more ancient times.
And yet pioneers pressed on despite the taboo. By the 1950’s, John C. Lilly had begun to experiment with sensory deprivation techniques, the “Good Friday” experiment conducted in 1962 measured psilocybin’s effect on the religious experience at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel, controlled LSD experiments had begun at Harvard and Berkeley, and aboriginal and Eastern methods of meditation were brought into vogue through the work of authors like Alan Watts and Aldous Huxley. These sparks were snuffed out by the academic community and to an even more detrimental degree by the Federal government. The very idea that consciousness might be anything other than an epiphenomenon and that there might be any number of methods for indirectly studying and inferring into the nature of the unknowable mind was pushed to the fringe of pop science and largely discredited.
It seems society’s comfort zone can have dangerous fortifications.
The pioneers of physics struggled to push against these fortifications in much the same way psychonautic pioneers do today. The lesson to be culled from the tragic ends that befell revered scientists like Galileo Galilei and Giordano Bruno is to realize that suppressing discovery and belying methods of experimentation based on subjective—and in many cases proselytized—social mores is a cataclysm for human thought and an embarrassment to future generations.
Today a resurgence of experimentation is occurring. Results from the first controlled experiments with LSD and Psilocybin in over 40 years have now been published. In many cases, cross-disciplines like philosophy and anthropology have renewed interest by universities in pursuing states of consciousness. More needs to be done, the conversation is still being had in hushed tones, but it is a start.
We must prepare ourselves. The study of the unknown and the indirect observation of the unobservable often bring about earth shattering and counter-intuitive understandings of how things work. The general relativity of space and time may be easy to accept as abstract concepts of esoteric science but the human mind is not far beyond the solar system; it is within us and whatever discoveries are made, whatever inferences come to pass, we will not be able to put them out of our mind.
Are we prepared for this?
The innate desire of human beings to experiment with their own states of consciousness suggests we are. For millennia human beings have danced themselves into trances, taken substances to infer medical and spiritual information, and sought isolation and delirium as tools for personal guidance, while today we look to caffeine to stimulate our mornings, alcohol to inflate our social lives, music to guide our mood, and even religion to settle our nerves. These altered states provide a much needed perspective on what is otherwise obscured from consciousness. They provide a mirror for the inquiring mind to reflect upon one’s self.
The only real limits are the ones we place on ourselves.
Posted by Zimmerman
This is the first in a series of articles on altered states.
The Adaptable Mind is an issue of Next Culture focused on the mind’s ability to adapt to what’s new.