“We cannot evolve any faster than we evolve our language because you cannot go to places that you cannot describe.”
This post is a placeholder, as I work through some thoughts. Maybe the most central link between much of it is Terence Mckenna’s stoned ape theory, as heightened self-awareness but not in the Jaynesian sense. That is about the evolution of ‘consciousness’, beyond mere biological reactivity and sensory perception, as it relates to psychedelics and language. Related to McKenna’s view, there have been many observations of non-human animals imbibing a wide variety of mind-altering plants, often psychedelics. Giorgio Samorini, in Animals and Psychedelics, that this behavior is evolutionarily advantageous in that it induces lateral thinking. It’s not hard to imagine how this could’ve been used to bootstrap the human psyche into greater neurocognitive development.
Also, as McKenna points out, many psychedelics intensify the senses, a useful effect for hunting (could this also have intensified other cognitive abilities?). Humans won’t only take drugs themselves for this purpose but also give them to their animals: “A classic case is indigenous people giving psychedelics to hunting dogs to enhance their abilities. A study published in the Journal of Ethnobiology, reports that at least 43 species of psychedelic plants have been used across the globe for boosting dog hunting practices. The Shuar, an indigenous people from Ecuador, include 19 different psychedelic plants in their repertoire for this purpose—including ayahuasca and four different types of brugmansia” (Alex K. Gearin, High Kingdom).
So, there are many practical reasons for using psychoactive drugs, and surely proto-language had some practical advantages. But language proper might have been an unintended side effect. There is another way to get to McKenna’s conclusion. David Lewis Williams asserts that cave paintings are shamanic. He discusses the entoptic imagery that is common in trance, whether from psychedelics or by other means. This interpretation isn’t specifically about language, but that is where another theory can help us. Genevieve von Petzinger takes a different tack by speculating that the geometric signs on cave walls were a set of symbols, possibly a system of graphic communication and so maybe the origin of writing.
In exploring the sites for herself, she ascertained there were 32 signs found over a 30,000 period in Europe. Some of the same signs were found outside of Europe as well. It’s the consistency and repetition that caught her attention. They weren’t random or idiosyncratic aesthetic flourishes. If we combine that with Williams’ theory, we might have the development of proto-concepts, still attached to the concrete world but in the process of developing into something else. It would indicate that something fundamental about the human mind itself was changing, and it may have had nothing to do with genetics at all. Rather, it could’ve been solely a cultural development, a repurposing of evolved processes and systems.
I have my own related theory about the competing influence of psychedelics and addictive substances, the initial influence of psychedelics in particular being not only on the mind but on society and so related to the emergence of civilization. I’m playing around with the observation that it might tell us much about civilization that, over time, addictive substances became more prevalent than psychedelics. I see the shift in this preference having become apparent sometime following the Neolithic Period, although becoming most noticeable in the Axial Age. Of course, language already existed at that point. Though maybe, as Julian Jaynes and others have argued, the use of language changed. I’ll speculate about all of that at a later time.
In the articles and passages and links below, there are numerous overlapping ideas and topics. Here are some of what stood out to me or else some of the thoughts on my mind while reading:
- Synaesthesia, gesture, ritual, dance, sound, melody, music, poeisis, repetition (mimesis, meter, rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, etc) vs repetition-compulsion;
- formulaic vs grammatical language, poetry vs prose, concrete vs abstract, metaphor, and metonymy;
- Aural and oral, listening and speaking, preliterate, epic storytelling, eloquence, verbosity, fluency, and graphomania;
- enthralled, entangled, enactivated, embodied, extended, hypnosis, voices, voice-hearing, bundle theory of self, ego theory of self, authorization, and Logos;
- Et cetera (one could place all of this in context of other theories: Julian Jaynes on the bicameral mind, Lynne Kelly on mnemonics, various anthropologists on animism, and similar stuff like linguistic relativity).
* * *
Animals on Psychedelics: Survival of the Trippiest
by Steven Kotler
According to Italian ethnobotanist Giorgio Samorini, in his 2001 Animals and Psychedelics, the risk is worth it because intoxication promotes what psychologist Edward de Bono once called lateral thinking-problem-solving through indirect and creative approaches. Lateral thinking is thinking outside the box, without which a species would be unable to come up with new solutions to old problems, without which a species would be unable to survive. De Bono thinks intoxication an important “liberating device,” freeing us from “rigidity of established ideas, schemes, divisions, categories and classifications.” Both Siegel and Samorini think animals use intoxicants for this reason, and they do so knowingly.
Don’t Be A Sea Squirt.
by Tom Morgan
It’s a feature of complex adaptive systems that a stable system is a precursor to a dead system. Something that runs the same routine day-after-day is typically a dying system. There’s evidence that people with depression are stuck in neurological loops that they can’t get out of. We all know what it’s like to be trapped in the same negative thought patterns. Life needs perpetual novelty to succeed. This is one of the reasons researchers think that psychedelics have proven effective at alleviating depression; they break our brains out of the same familiar neural pathways.
This isn’t a uniquely human trait, animals also engage in deliberate intoxication. In his book Animals and Psychedelics, Italian ethnobotanist Giorgio Samorini wrote ‘drug-seeking and drug-taking behavior, on the part of both humans and animals, enjoys an intimate connection with…..depatterning.’And thus dolphins get high on blowfish, elephants seek out alcohol and goats eat the beans of the mescal plant. They’re not just having fun, they’re expanding the possible range of their behaviours and breaking stale patterns. You’re not just getting wasted, you’re furthering the prospects of the species!*
The continuum of synesthesias is considered in the context of evolution, childhood development, adult creativity, and related states of imaginative absorption, as well as the anthropology and sociology of “collective consciousness”. In Part I synesthesias are considered as part of the mid-childhood development of metacognition, based on a Vygotskian model of the internalization of an earlier animism and physiognomic perception, and as the precursor for an adult capacity for imaginative absorption central to creativity, metaphor, and the synesthetically based “higher states of consciousness” in spontaneous mystical experience, meditation, and psychedelic states. Supporting research is presented on childhood precocities of a fundamental synesthetic imagination that expands the current neuroscience of classical synesthetes into a broader, more spontaneous, and open-ended continuum of introspective cross modal processes that constitute the human self referential consciousness of “felt meaning”. In Part II Levi-Strauss’ analysis of the cross modal and synesthetic lattices underlying the mythologies of native peoples and their traditional animation thereby of surrounding nature as a self reflective metaphoric mirror, is illustrated by its partial survival and simplification in the Chinese I-Ching. Jung’s psychological analysis of the I-Ching, as a device for metaphorically based creative insight and as a prototype for the felt “synchronicities” underlying paranormal experience, is further extended into a model for a synesthetically and metaphorically based “collective consciousness”. This metaphorically rooted and coordinated social field is explicit in mythologically centered, shamanic peoples but rendered largely unconscious in modern societies that fail to further educate and train the first spontaneous synesthetic imaginings of mid-childhood.
Like me, the full-fluency phenomenon has been experienced by many other people who stutter while using psilocybin and MDMA, and unlike me, while using LSD as well. […]
There’s also potential for immediate recovery from stuttering following a single high dose experience. One well told account of this comes from Paul Stamets, the renowned mycologist, whose stuttering stopped altogether following his first psilocybin mushroom experience. To sustain such a high increase in fluency after the effects of the drug wear off is rare, but Paul’s story gives testimony to the possibility for it to occur.
Can Psychedelics Help You Learn New Languages?
by The Third Wave Podcast
Idahosa Ness runs “The Mimic Method,” a website that promises to help you learn foreign languages quickly by immersing you in their sounds and pronunciations. We talk to Idahosa about his experiences with cannabis and other psychedelics, and how they have improved his freestyle rapping, increased his motivation to learn new languages, and helped the growth of his business.
Marijuana and Divergent Thinking
by Jonah Lehrer
A new paper published in Psychiatry Research sheds some light on this phenomenon, or why smoking weed seems to unleash a stream of loose associations. The study looked at a phenomenon called semantic priming, in which the activation of one word allows us to react more quickly to related words. For instance, the word “dog” might lead to decreased reaction times for “wolf,” “pet” and “Lassie,” but won’t alter how quickly we react to “chair”.
Interestingly, marijuana seems to induce a state of hyper-priming, in which the reach of semantic priming extends outwards to distantly related concepts. As a result, we hear “dog” and think of nouns that, in more sober circumstances, would seem to have nothing in common. […]
Last speculative point: marijuana also enhances brain activity (at least as measured indirectly by cerebral blood flow) in the right hemisphere. The drug, in other words, doesn’t just suppress our focus or obliterate our ability to pay attention. Instead, it seems to change the very nature of what we pay attention to, flattening out our hierarchy of associations.
How the Brain Processes Language on Acid Is a Trip
by Madison Margolin
“Results showed that while LSD does not affect reaction times, people under LSD made more mistakes that were similar in meaning to the pictures they saw,” said lead author Dr. Neiloufar Family, a post-doc from the University of Kaiserslautern.
For example, participants who were dosed with acid would more often say “bus” or “train” when asked to identify a picture of a car, compared to those who ingested the placebo. These lexical mixups shed some light on how LSD affects semantic networks and the way the brain draws connections between different words or concepts.
“The effects of LSD on language can result in a cascade of associations that allow quicker access to far way concepts stored in the mind,” said Family, discussing the study’s implications for psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. Moreover, she added, “inducing a hyper-associative state may have implications for the enhancement of creativity.”
New study shows LSD’s effects on language
by Technische Universität Kaiserslautern
This indicates that LSD seems to affect the mind’s semantic networks, or how words and concepts are stored in relation to each other. When LSD makes the network activation stronger, more words from the same family of meanings come to mind.
The results from this experiment can lead to a better understanding of the neurobiological basis of semantic network activation. Neiloufar Family explains further implication: “These findings are relevant for the renewed exploration of psychedelic psychotherapy, which are being developed for depression and other mental illnesses. The effects of LSD on language can result in a cascade of associations that allow quicker access to far away concepts stored in the mind.”
The many potential uses of this class of substances are under scientific debate. “Inducing a hyper-associative state may have implications for the enhancement of creativity,” Family adds. The increase in activation of semantic networks can lead distant or even subconscious thoughts and concepts to come to the surface.
A new harmonic language decodes the effects of LSD
by Oxford Neuroscience
Dr Selen Atasoy, the lead author of the study says: “The connectome harmonics we used to decode brain activity are universal harmonic waves, such as sound waves emerging within a musical instrument, but adapted to the anatomy of the brain. Translating fMRI data into this harmonic language is actually not different than decomposing a complex musical piece into its musical notes”. “What LSD does to your brain seems to be similar to jazz improvisation” says Atasoy, “your brain combines many more of these harmonic waves (connectome harmonics) spontaneously yet in a structured way, just like improvising jazz musicians play many more musical notes in a spontaneous, non-random fashion”.
“The presented method introduces a new paradigm to study brain function, one that links space and time in brain activity via the universal principle of harmonic waves. It also shows that this spatio-temporal relation in brain dynamics resides at the transition between order and chaos.” says Prof Gustavo Deco.
Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris adds: “Our findings reveal the first experimental evidence that LSD tunes brain dynamics closer to criticality, a state that is maximally diverse and flexible while retaining properties of order. This may explain the unusual richness of consciousness experienced under psychedelic drugs and the notion that they ‘expand consciousness’.”
Did Psilocybin Mushrooms Lead to Human Language?
by Chris Rhine
Numerous archaeological finds discovered depictions of psilocybin mushrooms in various places and times around the world. One such occasion found hallucinogenic mushrooms from works produced 7,000 to 9,000 years ago in the Sahara Desert, as stated in Giorgio Samorini’s article, “The Oldest Representations of Hallucinogenic Mushrooms in the World.” Samorini concluded, “This Saharan testimony would demonstrate that the use of hallucinogens originates in the Paleolithic period and is invariably included within mystico-religious contexts and rituals.”
Some of early man’s first drawings include the ritualization of a plant as a sign—possibly a tribute to the substance that helped in the written sign’s development.
Are Psychedelic Hallucinations Actually Metaphorical Perceptions?
by Michael Fortier
The brain is constantly attempting to predict what is going on in the world. Because it happens in a dark environment with reduced sensory stimulation, the ayahuasca ritual dampens bottom-up signaling (sensory information becomes scarcer). If you are facing a tree in daylight and your brain wrongly guesses that there is an electric pole in front you, bottom-up prediction errors will quickly correct the wrong prediction—i.e., the lookout will quickly and successfully warn the helmsman. But if the same happens in the dark, bottom-up prediction errors will be sparser and vaguer, and possibly not sufficient enough to correct errors—as it were, the lookout’s warning will be too faint to reach the helmsman. As ayahuasca introduces noise in the brain processes,6 and because bottom-up corrections cannot be as effective as usual, hallucinations appear more easily. So, on the one hand, the relative sensory deprivation of the environment in which the ayahuasca ritual takes place, and the absence of bodily motion, both favor the occurrence of hallucinations.
Furthermore, the ayahuasca ritual does include some sensory richness. The songs, the perfume, and the tobacco stimulate the brain in multiple ways. Psychedelic hallucinogens are known to induce synesthesia7 and to increase communication between areas and networks of the brain that do not usually communicate with each other.8 It is hence no surprise that the shamans’ songs are able to shape people’s visions. If one sensory modality is noisier or fainter than others, its role in perception will be downplayed.9 This is what happens with ayahuasca: Given that not much information can be gathered by the visual modality, most of the prediction errors that contribute to the shaping of conscious perception are those coming from the auditory and olfactory modalities. The combination of synesthetic processing with the increased weight attributed to non-visual senses enables shamans to “drive” people’s visions.
The same mechanisms explain the shamans’ recommendation that perfume should be sprayed or tobacco blown when one is faced with a bad spirit. Conscious perception—e.g., vision of a spirit—is the result of a complex tradeoff between top-down predictions and bottom-up prediction errors. If you spray a huge amount of perfume or blow wreaths of smoke around you, your brain will receive new and reliable information from the olfactory modality. Under psychedelics, sensory modalities easily influence one another; as a result, a sudden olfactory change amounts to sending prediction errors to upper regions of the brain. Conscious perception is updated accordingly: as predicted by the shamans’ recommendation, the olfactory change dissolves the vision of bad spirits.
In its classical sense, hallucination refers to sensory content that is not caused by objects of the world. The above description of the ayahuasca ritual demonstrates that psychedelic visions are not, in the classical sense of the term, hallucinations. Indeed, the content of the visions is tightly tied to the environment: A change of melody in a song or an olfactory change can completely transform the content of the visions. Ayahuasca visions are not caused by hypothetical supernatural entities living in a parallel world, nor are they constructed independently of the mundane objects of the world. What are they, then? They are metaphorical perceptions.
In everyday life, melodic and olfactory changes cannot affect vision much. However, because ayahuasca experience is profoundly synesthetic and intermodal, ayahuasca visions are characteristically metaphorical: A change in one sensory modality easily affects another modality. Ayahuasca visions are not hallucinations, since they are caused by real objects and events; for example, a cloud of perfume. It is more accurate to define them as metaphorical perceptions: they are loose intermodal interpretations of things that are really there.
Michael Pollan on the science of how psychedelics can ‘shake your snow globe’
interview with Michael Pollan
We know that, for example, the so-called classic psychedelics like psilocybin, LSD, and DMT, mescaline, these activate a certain receptor a serotonin receptor. And so we know that are the key that fits that lock. But beyond that, there’s a cascade of effects that happens.
The observed effect, if you do brain imaging of people who are tripping, you find some very interesting patterns of activity in the brain – specifically something called the default mode network, which is a very kind of important hub in the brain, linking parts of the cerebral cortex to deeper, older areas having to do with memory and emotion. This network is kind of a regulator of all brain activities. One neuroscientist called it, ‘The conductor of the neural symphony,’ and it’s deactivated by psychedelics, which is very interesting because the assumption going in was that they would see lots of strange activity everywhere in the brain because there’s such fireworks in the experience, but in fact, this particular network almost goes off line.
Now what does this network responsible for? Well, in addition to being this transportation hub for signals in the brain, it is involved with self reflection. It’s where we go to ruminate or mind wander – thinking about the past or thinking about the future – therefore worrying takes place here. Our sense of self, if it can be said to have an address and real, resides in this particular brain network. So this is a very interesting clue to how psychedelics affect the brain and how they create the psychological experience, the experience in the mind, that is so transformative.
When it goes off line, parts of the brain that don’t ordinarily communicate to one another, strike up conversation. And those connections may represent what people feel during the psychedelic experience as things like synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is when one sense gets cross wired with another. And so you suddenly smell musical notes or taste things that you see.
It may produce insights. It may produce new metaphors – literally connecting the dots in new ways. Now that I’m being speculative – I’m going a little beyond what we’ve established – we know there are new connections, we don’t know what’s happening with them, or which of them endure. But the fact is, the brain is temporarily rewired. And that rewiring – whether the new connections actually produce the useful material or just shaking up the system – ‘shaking the snow globe,’ as one of the neuroscientists put it, is what’s therapeutic. It is a reboot of the brain.
If you think about, you know, mental illnesses such as depression, addiction, and anxiety, many of them involve these loops of thought that we can’t control and we get stuck on these stories we tell ourselves – that we can’t get through the next hour without a drink, or we’re worthless and unworthy of love. We get stuck in these stories. This temporarily dissolves those stories and gives us a chance to write new stories.
The mutation-inducing influence of diet on early humans and the effect of exotic metabolites on the evolution of their neurochemistry and culture is still unstudied territory. The early hominids’ adoption of an omnivorous diet and their discovery of the power of certain plants were decisive factors in moving early humans out of the stream of animal evolution and into the fast-rising tide of language and culture. Our remote ancestors discovered that certain plants, when self-administered, suppress appetite, diminish pain, supply bursts of sudden energy, confer immunity against pathogens, and synergize cognitive activities. These discoveries set us on the long journey to self-reflection. Once we became tool-using omnivores, evolution itself changed from a process of slow modification of our physical form to a rapid definition of cultural forms by the elaboration of rituals, languages, writing, mnemonic skills, and technology.
Food of the Gods
by Terence McKenna
Because scientists were unable to explain this tripling of the human brain size in so short a span of evolutionary time, some of the early primate paleontologists and evolutionary theorists predicted and searched for evidence of transitional skeletons. Today the idea of a “missing link” has largely been abandoned. Bipedalism, binocular vision, the opposable thumb, the throwing arm-all have been put forth as the key ingredient in the mix that caused self-reflecting humans to crystallize out of the caldron of competing hominid types and strategies. Yet all we really know is that the shift in brain size was accompanied by remarkable changes in the social organization of the hominids. They became users of tools, fire, and language. They began the process as higher animals and emerged from it 100,000 years ago as conscious, self-aware individuals.
THE REAL MISSING LINK
My contention is that mutation-causing, psychoactive chemical compounds in the early human diet directly influenced the rapid reorganization of the brain’s information-processing capacities. Alkaloids in plants, specifically the hallucinogenic compounds such as psilocybin, dimethyltryptamine (DMT), and harmaline, could be the chemical factors in the protohuman diet that catalyzed the emergence of human self-reflection. The action of hallucinogens present in many common plants enhanced our information processing activity, or environmental sensitivity, and thus contributed to the sudden expansion of the human brain size. At a later stage in this same process, hallucinogens acted as catalysts in the development of imagination, fueling the creation of internal stratagems and hopes that may well have synergized the emergence of language and religion.
In research done in the late 1960s, Roland Fischer gave small amounts of psilocybin to graduate students and then measured their ability to detect the moment when previously parallel lines became skewed. He found that performance ability on this particular task was actually improved after small doses of psilocybin.5
When I discussed these findings with Fischer, he smiled after explaining his conclusions, then summed up, “You see what is conclusively proven here is that under certain circumstances one is actually better informed concerning the real world if one has taken a drug than if one has not.” His facetious remark stuck with me, first as an academic anecdote, later as an effort on his part to communicate something profound. What would be the consequences for evolutionary theory of admitting that some chemical habits confer adaptive advantage and thereby become deeply scripted in the behavior and even genome of some individuals?
THREE BIG STEPS FOR THE HUMAN RACE
In trying to answer that question I have constructed a scenario, some may call it fantasy; it is the world as seen from the vantage point of a mind for which the millennia are but seasons, a vision that years of musing on these matters has moved me toward. Let us imagine for a moment that we stand outside the surging gene swarm that is biological history, and that we can see the interwoven consequences of changes in diet and climate, which must certainly have been too slow to be felt by our ancestors. The scenario that unfolds involves the interconnected and mutually reinforcing effects of psilocybin taken at three different levels. Unique in its properties, psilocybin is the only substance, I believe, that could yield this scenario.
At the first, low, level of usage is the effect that Fischer noted: small amounts of psilocybin, consumed with no awareness of its psychoactivity while in the general act of browsing for food, and perhaps later consumed consciously, impart a noticeable increase in visual acuity, especially edge detection. As visual acuity is at a premium among hunter-gatherers, the discovery of the equivalent of “chemical binoculars” could not fail to have an impact on the hunting and gathering success of those individuals who availed themselves of this advantage. Partnership groups containing individuals with improved eyesight will be more successful at feeding their offspring. Because of the increase in available food, the offspring within such groups will have a higher probability of themselves reaching reproductive age. In such a situation, the out breeding (or decline) of non-psilocybin-using groups would be a natural consequence.
Because psilocybin is a stimulant of the central nervous system, when taken in slightly larger doses, it tends to trigger restlessness and sexual arousal. Thus, at this second level of usage, by increasing instances of copulation, the mushrooms directly favored human reproduction. The tendency to regulate and schedule sexual activity within the group, by linking it to a lunar cycle of mushroom availability, may have been important as a first step toward ritual and religion. Certainly at the third and highest level of usage, religious concerns would be at the forefront of the tribe’s consciousness, simply because of the power and strangeness of the experience itself. This third level, then, is the level of the full-blown shamanic ecstasy. The psilocybin intoxication is a rapture whose breadth and depth is the despair of prose. It is wholly Other and no less mysterious to us than it was to our mushroom-munching ancestors. The boundary-dissolving qualities of shamanic ecstasy predispose hallucinogen-using tribal groups to community bonding and to group sexual activities, which promote gene mixing, higher birth rates, and a communal sense of responsibility for the group offspring.
At whatever dose the mushroom was used, it possessed the magical property of conferring adaptive advantages upon its archaic users and their group. Increased visual acuity, sexual arousal, and access to the transcendent Other led to success in obtaining food, sexual prowess and stamina, abundance of offspring, and access to realms of supernatural power. All of these advantages can be easily self-regulated through manipulation of dosage and frequency of ingestion. Chapter 4 will detail psilocybin’s remarkable property of stimulating the language-forming capacity of the brain. Its power is so extraordinary that psilocybin can be considered the catalyst to the human development of language.
STEERING CLEAR OF LAMARCK
An objection to these ideas inevitably arises and should be dealt with. This scenario of human emergence may seem to smack of Lamarckism, which theorizes that characteristics acquired by an organism during its lifetime can be passed on to its progeny. The classic example is the claim that giraffes have long necks because they stretch their necks to reach high branches.
This straightforward and rather common-sense idea is absolutely anathema among
neoDarwinians, who currently hold the high ground in evolutionary theory. Their position is that mutations are entirely random and that only after the mutations are expressed as the traits of organisms does natural selection mindlessly and dispassionately fulfill its function of preserving those individuals upon whom an adaptive advantage had been conferred.
Their objection can be put like this: While the mushrooms may have given us better eyesight, sex, and language when eaten, how did these enhancements get into the human genome and become innately human? Nongenetic enhancements of an organism’s functioning made by outside agents retard the corresponding genetic reservoirs of those facilities by rendering them superfluous. In other words, if a necessary metabolite is common in available food, there will not be pressure to develop a trait for endogenous expression of the metabolite. Mushroom use would thus create individuals with less visual acuity, language facility, and consciousness. Nature would not provide those enhancements through organic evolution because the metabolic investment required to sustain them wouldn’t pay off, relative to the tiny metabolic investment required to eat mushrooms. And yet today we all have these enhancements, without taking mushrooms. So how did the mushroom modifications get into the genome?
The short answer to this objection, one that requires no defense of Lamarck’s ideas, is that the presence of psilocybin in the hominid diet changed the parameters of the process of natural selection by changing the behavioral patterns upon which that selection was operating. Experimentation with many types of foods was causing a general increase in the numbers of random mutations being offered up to the process of natural selection, while the augmentation of visual acuity, language use, and ritual activity through the use of psilocybin represented new behaviors. One of these new behaviors, language use, previously only a marginally important trait, was suddenly very useful in the context of new hunting and gathering lifestyles. Hence psilocybin inclusion in the diet shifted the parameters of human behavior in favor of patterns of activity that promoted increased language; acquisition of language led to more vocabulary and an expanded memory capacity. The psilocybin-using individuals evolved epigenetic rules or cultural forms that enabled them to survive and reproduce better than other individuals. Eventually the more successful epigenetically based styles of behavior spread through the populations along with the genes that reinforce them. In this fashion the population would evolve genetically and culturally.
As for visual acuity, perhaps the widespread need for corrective lenses among modem humans is a legacy of the long period o “artificial” enhancement of vision through psilocybin use. After all, atrophy of the olfactory abilities of human beings is thought by one school to be a result of a need for hungry omnivores to tolerate strong smells and tastes, perhaps even carrion. Trade-offs of this sort are common in evolution. The suppression of keenness of tasty and smell would allow inclusion of foods in the diet that might otherwise be passed over as “too strong.” Or it may indicate some thing more profound about our evolutionary relationship to diet My brother Dennis has written:
The apparent atrophy of the human olfactory system may actually represent a functional shift in a set of primitive, externally directed chemo-receptors to an interiorized regulatory function. This function may be related to the control of the human pheromonal system, which is largely under the control of the pineal gland, and which mediates, on a subliminal level, a host of psycho-sexual and psycho-social interactions between individuals. The pineal tends to suppress gonadal development and the onset of puberty, among other functions, and this mechanism may play a role in the persistence of neonatal characteristics in the human species. Delayed maturation and prolonged childhood and adolescence play a critical role in the neurological and psychological development of the individual, since they provide the circumstances which permit the post-natal development of the brain in the early, formative years of childhood. The symbolic, cognitive and linguistic stimuli that the brain experiences during this period are essential to its development and are the factors that make us the unique, conscious, symbol-manipulating, language-using beings that we are.
Neuroactive amines and alkaloids in the diet of early primates may have played a role in the biochemical activation of the pineal gland and the resulting adaptations.
All the unique characteristics and preoccupations of human beings can be summed up under the heading of cognitive activities: dance, philosophy, painting, poetry, sport, meditation, erotic fantasy, politics, and ecstatic self-intoxication. We are truly Homo sapiens, the thinking animal; our acts are all a product of the dimension that is uniquely ours, the dimension of cognitive activity. Of thought and emotion, memory and anticipation. Of Psyche.
From observing the ayahuasca-using people of the Upper Amazon, it became very clear to me that shamanism is often intuitively guided group decision making. The shamans decide when the group should move or hunt or make war. Human cognition is an adaptive response that is profoundly flexible in the way it allows us to manage what in other species are genetically programmed behaviors.
We alone live in an environment that is conditioned not only by the biological and physical constraints to which all species are subject but also by symbols and language. Our human environment is conditioned by meaning. And meaning lies in the collective mind of the group.
Symbols and language allow us to act in a dimension that is “supranatural”-outside the ordinary activities of other forms of organic life. We can actualize our cultural assumptions, alter and shape the natural world in the pursuit of ideological ends and according to the internal model of the world that our symbols have empowered us to create. We do this through the elaboration of ever more effective, and hence ever more destructive, artifacts and technologies, which we feel compelled to use.
Symbols allow us to store information outside of the physical brain. This creates for us a relationship to the past very different from that of our animal companions. Finally, we must add to any analysis of the human picture the notion of self-directed modification of activity. We are able to modify our behavior patterns based on a symbolic analysis of past events, in other words, through history. Through our ability to store and recover information as images and written records, we have created a human environment as much conditioned by symbols and languages as by biological and environmental factors.
TRANSFORMATIONS OF MONKEYS
The evolutionary breakouts that led to the appearance of language and, later, writing are examples of fundamental, almost ontological, transformations of the hominid line. Besides providing us with the ability to code data outside the confines of DNA, cognitive activities allow us to transmit information across space and time. At first this amounted merely to the ability to shout a warning or a command, really little more than a modification of the cry of alarm that is a familiar feature of the behavior of social animals. Over the course of human history this impulse to communicate has motivated the elaboration of ever more effective communication techniques. But by our century, this basic ability has turned into the all-pervasive communications media, which literally engulf the space surrounding our planet. The planet swims through a self-generated ocean of messages. Telephone calls, data exchanges, and electronically transmitted entertainment create an invisible world experienced as global informational simultaneity. We think nothing of this; as a culture we take it for granted.
Our unique and feverish love of word and symbol has given us a collective gnosis, a collective understanding of ourselves and our world that has survived throughout history until very recent times. This collective gnosis lies behind the faith of earlier centuries in “universal truths” and common human values. Ideologies can be thought of as meaning-defined environments. They are invisible, yet they surround us and determine for us, though we may never realize it, what we should think about ourselves and reality. Indeed they define for us what we can think.
The rise of globally simultaneous electronic culture has vastly accelerated the rate at which we each can obtain information necessary to our survival. This and the sheer size of the human population as a whole have brought to a halt our physical evolution as a species. The larger a population is, the less impact mutations will have on the evolution of that species. This fact, coupled with the development of shamanism and, later, scientific medicine, has removed us from the theater of natural selection. Meanwhile libraries and electronic data bases have replaced the individual human mind as the basic hardware providing storage for the cultural data base. Symbols and languages have gradually moved us away from the style of social organization that characterized the mute nomadism of our remote ancestors and has replaced that archaic model with the vastly more complicated social organization characteristic of an electronically unified planetary society. As a result of these changes, we ourselves have become largely epigenetic, meaning that much of what we are as human beings is no longer in our genes but in our culture.
THE PREHISTORIC EMERGENCE OF HUMAN IMAGINATION
Our capacity for cognitive and linguistic activity is related to the size and organization of the human brain. Neural structures concerned with conceptualization, visualization, signification, and association are highly developed in our species. Through the act of speaking vividly, we enter into a flirtation with the domain of the imagination. The ability to associate sounds, or the small mouth noises of language, with meaningful internal images is a synesthesic activity. The most recently evolved areas of the human brain, Broca’s area and the neocortex, are devoted to the control of symbol and language processing.
The conclusion universally drawn from these facts is that the highly organized neurolinguistic areas of our brain have made language and culture possible. Where the search for scenarios of human emergence and social organization is concerned, the problem is this: we know that our linguistic abilities must have evolved in response to enormous evolutionary pressures-but we do not know what these pressures were.
Where psychoactive plant use was present, hominid nervous systems over many millennia would have been flooded by hallucinogenic realms of strange and alien beauty. However, evolutionary necessity channels the organism’s awareness into a narrow cul-desac where ordinary reality is perceived through the reducing valve of the senses. Otherwise, we would be rather poorly adapted for the rough-and-tumble of immediate existence. As creatures with animal bodies, we are aware that we are subject to a range of immediate concerns that we can ignore only at great peril. As human beings we are also aware of an interior world, beyond the needs of the animal body, but evolutionary necessity has placed that world far from ordinary consciousness.
PATTERNS AND UNDERSTANDING
Consciousness has been called awareness of awareness’ and is characterized by novel associations and connections among the various data of experience. Consciousness is like a super nonspecific immune response. The key to the working of the immune system is the ability of one chemical to recognize, to have a key-in-lock relationship, with another. Thus both the immune system and consciousness represent systems that learn, recognize, and remember.’
As I write this I think of what Alfred North Whitehead said about understanding, that it is apperception of pattern as such. This is also a perfectly acceptable definition of consciousness. Awareness of pattern conveys the feeling that attends understanding. There presumably can be no limit to how much consciousness a species can acquire, since understanding is not a finite project with an imaginable conclusion, but rather a stance toward immediate experience. This appears self-evident from within a world view that sees consciousness as analogous to a source of light. The more powerful the light, the greater the surface area of darkness revealed. Consciousness is the moment-to-moment integration of the individual’s perception of the world. How well, one could almost say how gracefully, an individual accomplishes this integration determines that individual’s unique adaptive response to existence.
We are masters not only of individual cognitive activity, but, when acting together, of group cognitive activity as well. Cognitive activity within a group usually means the elaboration and manipulation of symbols and language. Although this occurs in many species, within the human species it is especially well developed. Our immense power to manipulate symbols and language gives us our unique position in the natural world. The power of our magic and our science arises out of our commitment to group mental activity, symbol sharing, meme replication (the spreading of ideas), and the telling of tall tales.
The idea, expressed above, that ordinary consciousness is the end product of a process of extensive compression and filtration, and that the psychedelic experience is the antithesis of this construction, was put forward by Aldous Huxley, who contrasted this with the psychedelic experience. In analyzing his experiences with mescaline, Huxley wrote:
I find myself agreeing with the eminent Cambridge philosopher, Dr. C. D. Broad, “that we should do well to consider the suggestion that the function of the brain and nervous system and sense organs is in the main eliminative and not productive.” The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful. According to such a theory, each one of us is potentially Mind at Large. But in so far as we are animals, our business is at all costs to survive. To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funnelled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet. To formulate and express the contents of this reduced awareness, man has invented and endlessly elaborated those symbol-systems and implicit philosophies which we call languages. Every individual is at once the beneficiary and the victim of the linguistic tradition into which he has been born. That which, in the language of religion, is called “this world” is the universe of reduced awareness, expressed, and, as it were, petrified by language. The various “other worlds” with which human beings erratically make contact are so many elements in the totality of the awareness belonging to Mind at Large …. Temporary by-passes may be acquired either spontaneously, or as the result of deliberate “spiritual exercises,”. . . or by means of drugs.’
What Huxley did not mention was that drugs, specifically the plant hallucinogens, can reliably and repeatedly open the floodgates of the reducing valve of consciousness and expose the individual to the full force of the howling Tao. The way in which we internalize the impact of this experience of the Unspeakable, whether encountered through psychedelics or other means, is to generalize and extrapolate our world view through acts of imagination. These acts of imagination represent our adaptive response to information concerning the outside world that is conveyed to us by our senses. In our species, culture-specific, situation-specific syntactic software in the form of language can compete with and sometimes replace the instinctual world of hard-wired animal behavior. This means that we can learn and communicate experience and thus put maladaptive behaviors behind us. We can collectively recognize the virtues of peace over war, or of cooperation over struggle. We can change.
As we have seen, human language may have arisen when primate organizational potential was synergized by plant hallucinogens. The psychedelic experience inspired us to true self-reflective thought in the first place and then further inspired us to communicate our thoughts about it.
Others have sensed the importance of hallucinations as catalysts of human psychic organization. Julian Jaynes’s theory, presented in his controversial book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,’ makes the point that major shifts in human self-definition may have occurred even in historical times. He proposes that through Homeric times people did not have the kind of interior psychic organization that we take for granted. Thus, what we call ego was for Homeric people a “god.” When danger threatened suddenly, the god’s voice was heard in the individual’s mind; an intrusive and alien psychic function was expressed as a kind of metaprogram for survival called forth under moments of great stress. This psychic function was perceived by those experiencing it as the direct voice of a god, of the king, or of the king in the afterlife. Merchants and traders moving from one society to another brought the unwelcome news that the gods were saying different things in different places, and so cast early seeds of doubt. At some point people integrated this previously autonomous function, and each person became the god and reinterpreted the inner voice as the “self” or, as it was later called, the “ego.”
Jaynes’s theory has been largely dismissed. Regrettably his book on the impact of hallucinations on culture, though 467 pages in length, manages to avoid discussion of hallucinogenic plants or drugs nearly entirely. By this omission Jaynes deprived himself of a mechanism that could reliably drive the kind of transformative changes he saw taking place in the evolution of human consciousness.
The impact of hallucinogens in the diet has been more than psychological; hallucinogenic plants may have been the catalysts for everything about us that distinguishes us from other higher primates, for all the mental functions that we associate with humanness. Our society more than others will find this theory difficult to accept, because we have made pharmacologically obtained ecstasy a taboo. Like sexuality, altered states of consciousness are taboo because they are consciously or unconsciously sensed to be entwined with the mysteries of our origin-with where we came from and how we got to be the way we are. Such experiences dissolve boundaries and threaten the order of the reigning patriarchy and the domination of society by the unreflecting expression of ego. Yet consider how plant hallucinogens may have catalyzed the use of language, the most unique of human activities.
One has, in a hallucinogenic state, the incontrovertible impression that language possesses an objectified and visible dimension, which is ordinarily hidden from our awareness. Language, under such conditions, is seen, is beheld, just as we would ordinarily see our homes and normal surroundings. In fact our ordinary cultural environment is correctly recognized, during the experience of the altered state, as the bass drone in the ongoing linguistic business of objectifying the imagination. In other words, the collectively designed cultural environment in which we all live is the objectification of our collective linguistic intent.
Our language-forming ability may have become active through the mutagenic influence of hallucinogens working directly on organelles that are concerned with the processing and generation of signals. These neural substructures are found in various portions of the brain, such as Broca’s area, that govern speech formation. In other words, opening the valve that limits consciousness forces utterance, almost as if the word is a concretion of meaning previously felt but left unarticulated. This active impulse to speak, the “going forth of the word,” is sensed and described in the cosmogonies of many peoples.
Psilocybin specifically activates the areas of the brain concerned with processing signals. A common occurrence with psilocybin intoxication is spontaneous outbursts of poetry and other vocal activity such as speaking in tongues, though in a manner distinct from ordinary glossolalia. In cultures with a tradition of mushroom use, these phenomena have given rise to the notion of discourse with spirit doctors and supernatural allies. Researchers familiar with the territory agree that psilocybin has a profoundly catalytic effect on the linguistic impulse.
Once activities involving syntactic self-expression were established habits among early human beings, the continued evolution of language in environments where mushrooms were scarce or unavailable permitted a tendency toward the expression and emergence of the ego. If the ego is not regularly and repeatedly dissolved in the unbounded hyperspace of the Transcendent Other, there will always be slow drift away from the sense of self as part of nature’s larger whole. The ultimate consequence of this drift is the fatal ennui that now permeates Western civilization.
The connection between mushrooms and language was brilliantly anticipated by Henry Munn in his essay “The Mushrooms of Language.” Language is an ecstatic activity of signification. Intoxicated by the mushrooms, the fluency, the ease, the aptness of expression one becomes capable of are such that one is astounded by the words that issue forth from the contact of the intention of articulation with the matter of experience. The spontaneity the mushrooms liberate is not only perceptual, but linguistic. For the shaman, it is as if existence were uttering itself through him.
THE FLESH MADE WORD
The evolutionary advantages of the use of speech are both obvious and subtle. Many unusual factors converged at the birth of human language. Obviously speech facilitates communication and cognitive activity, but it also may have had unanticipated effects on the whole human enterprise.
Some neurophysiologists have hypothesized that the vocal vibration associated with human use of language caused a kind of cleansing of the cerebrospinal fluid. It has been observed that vibrations can precipitate and concentrate small molecules in the spinal fluid, which bathes and continuously purifies the brain. Our ancestors may have, consciously or unconsciously, discovered that vocal sound cleared the chemical cobwebs out of their heads. This practice may have affected the evolution of our present-day thin skull structure and proclivity for language. A self-regulated process as simple as singing might well have positive adaptive advantages if it also made the removal of chemical waste from the brain more efficient. The following excerpt supports this provocative idea:
Vibrations of human skull, as produced by loud vocalization, exert a massaging effect on the brain and facilitate elution of metabolic products from the brain into the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) . . . . The Neanderthals had a brain 15% larger than we have, yet they did not survive in competition with modern humans. Their brains were more polluted, because their massive skulls did not vibrate and therefore the brains were not sufficiently cleaned. In the evolution of the modern humans the thinning of cranial bones was important.’
As already discussed, hominids and hallucinogenic plants must have been in close association for a long span of time, especially if we want to suggest that actual physical changes in the human genome resulted from the association. The structure of the soft palate in the human infant and timing of its descent is a recent adaptation that facilitates the acquisition of language. No other primate exhibits this characteristic. This change may have been a result of selective pressure on mutations originally caused by the new omnivorous diet.
WOMEN AND LANGUAGE
Women, the gatherers in the Archaic hunter-gatherer equation, were under much greater pressure to develop language than were their male counterparts. Hunting, the prerogative of the larger male, placed a premium on strength, stealth, and stoic waiting. The hunter was able to function quite well on a very limited number of linguistic signals, as is still the case among hunting peoples such as the !Kung or the Maku.
For gatherers, the situation was different. Those women with the largest repertoire of communicable images of foods and their sources and secrets of preparation were unquestionably placed in a position of advantage. Language may well have arisen as a mysterious power possessed largely by women-women who spent much more of their waking time together-and, usually, talking-than did men, women who in all societies are seen as group-minded, in contrast to the lone male image, which is the romanticized version of the alpha male of the primate troop.
The linguistic accomplishments of women were driven by a need to remember and describe to each other a variety of locations and landmarks as well as numerous taxonomic and structural details about plants to be sought or avoided. The complex morphology of the natural world propelled the evolution of language toward modeling of the world beheld. To this day a taxonomic description of a plant is a Joycean thrill to read: “Shrub 2 to 6 feet in height, glabrous throughout. Leaves mostly opposite, some in threes or uppermost alternate, sessile, linear-lanceolate or lanceolate, acute or acuminate. Flowers solitary in axils, yellow, with aroma, pedicellate. Calyx campanulate, petals soon caducous, obovate” and so on for many lines.
The linguistic depth women attained as gatherers eventually led to a momentous discovery: the discovery of agriculture. I call it momentous because of its consequences. Women realized that they could simply grow a restricted number of plants. As a result, they learned the needs of only those few plants, embraced a sedentary lifestyle, and began to forget the rest of nature they had once known so well.
At that point the retreat from the natural world began, and the dualism of humanity versus nature was born. As we will soon see, one of the places where the old goddess culture died, fatal Huyuk, in present-day Anatolian Turkey, is the very place where agriculture may have first arisen. At places like fatal Huyuk and Jericho, humans and their domesticated plants and animals became for the first time physically and psychologically separate from the life of untamed nature and the howling unknown. Use of hallucinogens can only be sanctioned in hunting and gathering societies. When agriculturists use these plants, they are unable to get up at dawn the morning after and go hoe the fields. At that point, corn and grain become gods-gods that symbolize domesticity and hard labor. These replace the old goddesses of plant-induced ecstasy.
Agriculture brings with it the potential for overproduction, which leads to excess wealth, hoarding, and trade. Trade leads to cities; cities isolate their inhabitants from the natural world. Paradoxically, more efficient utilization of plant resources through agriculture led to a breaking away from the symbiotic relationship that had bound human beings to nature. I do not mean this metaphorically. The ennui of modernity is the consequence of a disrupted quasisymbiotic relationship between ourselves and Galan nature. Only a restoration of this relationship in some form is capable of carrying us into a full appreciation of our birthright and sense of ourselves as complete human beings.
HABIT AS CULTURE AND RELIGION
At regular intervals that were probably lunar, the ordinary activities of the small nomadic group of herders were put aside. Rains usually followed the new moon in the tropics, making mushrooms plentiful. Gatherings took place at night; night is the time of magical projection and hallucinations, and visions are more easily obtained in darkness. The whole clan was present from oldest to youngest. Elders, especially shamans, usually women but often men, doled out each person’s dose. Each clan member stood before the group and reflectively chewed and swallowed the body of the Goddess before returning to his or her place in the circle. Bone flutes and drums wove within the chanting. Line dances with heavy foot stamping channeled the energy of the first wave of visions. Suddenly the elders signal silence.
In the motionless darkness each mind follows its own trail of sparks into the bush while some people keen softly. They feel fear, and they triumph over fear through the strength of the group. They feel relief mingled with wonder at the beauty of the visionary expanse; some spontaneously reach out to those nearby in simple affection and an impulse for closeness or in erotic desire. An individual feels no distance between himself or herself and the rest of the clan or between the clan and the world. Identity is dissolved in the higher wordless truth of ecstasy. In that world, all divisions are overcome. There is only the One Great Life; it sees itself at play, and it is glad.
The impact of plants on the evolution of culture and consciousness has not been widely explored, though a conservative form of this notion appears in R. Gordon Wasson’s The Road to Eleusis. Wasson does not comment on the emergence of self-reflection in hominids, but does suggest hallucinogenic mushrooms as the causal agent in the appearance of spiritually aware human beings and the genesis of religion. Wasson feels that omnivorous foraging humans would have sooner or later encountered hallucinogenic mushrooms or other psychoactive plants in their environment:
As man emerged from his brutish past, thousands of years ago, there was a stage in the evolution of his awareness when the discovery of the mushroom (or was it a higher plant?) with miraculous properties was a revelation to him, a veritable detonator to his soul, arousing in him sentiments of awe and reverence, and gentleness and love, to the highest pitch of which mankind is capable, all those sentiments and virtues that mankind has ever since regarded as the highest attribute of his kind. It made him see what this perishing mortal eye cannot see. How right the Greeks were to hedge about this Mystery, this imbibing of the potion with secrecy and surveillance! . . . Perhaps with all our modem knowledge we do not need the divine mushroom anymore. Or do we need them more than ever? Some are shocked that the key even to religion might be reduced to a mere chug. On the other hand, the chug is as mysterious as it ever was: “like the wind that comes we know not whence nor why.” Out of a mere chug comes the ineffable, comes ecstasy. It is not the only instance in the history of humankind where the lowly has given birth to the divine.’
Scattered across the African grasslands, the mushrooms would be especially noticeable to hungry eyes because of their inviting smell and unusual form and color. Once having experienced the state of consciousness induced by the mushrooms, foraging humans would return to them repeatedly, in order to reexperience their bewitching novelty. This process would create what C. H. Waddington called a “creode, “z a pathway of developmental activity, what we call a habit.
We have already mentioned the importance of ecstasy for shamanism. Among early humans a preference for the intoxication experience was ensured simply because the experience was ecstatic. “Ecstatic” is a word central to my argument and preeminently worthy of further attention. It is a notion that is forced on us whenever we wish to indicate an experience or a state of mind that is cosmic in scale. An ecstatic experience transcends duality; it is simultaneously terrifying, hilarious, awe-inspiring, familiar, and bizarre. It is an experience that one wishes to have over and over again.
For a minded and language-using species like ourselves, the experience of ecstasy is not perceived as simple pleasure but, rather, is incredibly intense and complex. It is tied up with the very nature of ourselves and our reality, our languages, and our imagings of ourselves. It is fitting, then, that it is enshrined at the center of shamanic approaches to existence. As Mircea Eliade pointed out, shamanism and ecstasy are atroot one concern:
This shamanic complex is very old; it is found, in whole or in part, among the Australians, the archaic peoples of North and South America, in the polar regions, etc. The essential and defining element of shamanism is ecstasy the shaman is a specialist in the sacred, able to abandon his body and undertake cosmic journeys “in the spirit” (in trance). “Possession” by spirits, although documented in a great many shamanisms, does not seem to have been a primary and essential element. Rather, it suggests a phenomenon of degeneration; for the supreme goal of the shaman is to abandon his body and rise to heaven or descend into hell-not to let himself be “possessed” by his assisting spirits, by demons or the souls of the dead; the shaman’s ideal is to master these spirits, not to let himself be “occupied” by them.’
Gordon Wasson added these observations on ecstasy:
In his trance the shaman goes on a far joumey-the place of the departed ancestors, or the nether world, or there where the gods dwell-and this wonderland is, I submit, precisely where the hallucinogens take us. They are a gateway to ecstasy. Ecstasy in itself is neither pleasant nor unpleasant. The bliss or panic into which it plunges you is incidental to ecstasy. When you are in a state of ecstasy, your very soul seems scooped out from your body and away it goes. Who controls its flight: Is it you, or your “subconscious,” or a “higher power”? Perhaps it is pitch dark, yet you see and hear more clearly than you have ever seen or heard before. You are at last face to face with Ultimate Truth: this is the overwhelming impression (or illusion) that grips you. You may visit Hell, or the Elysian fields of Asphodel, or the Gobi desert, or Arctic wastes. You know awe, you know bliss, and fear, even terror. Everyone experiences ecstasy in his own way, and never twice in the same way. Ecstasy is the very essence of shamanism. The neophyte from the great world associates the mushrooms primarily with visions, but for those who know the Indian language of the shaman the mushrooms “speak” through the shaman. The mushroom is the Word: es habla, as Aurelio told me. The mushroom bestows on the curandero what the Greeks called Logos, the Aryan Vac, Vedic Kavya, “poetic potency,” as Louis Renous put it. The divine afflatus of poetry is the gift of the entheogen. The textual exegete skilled only in dissecting the cruces of the verses lying before him is of course indispensable and his shrewd observations should have our full attention, but unless gifted with Kavya, he does well to be cautious in discussing the higher reaches of Poetry. He dissects the verses but knows not ecstasy, which is the soul of the verses.’
The Magic Language of the Fourth Way
by Pierre Bonnasse
Speech, just like sacred medicine, forms the basis of the shamanic path in that it permits us not only to see but also to do. Ethnobotany, the science that studies man as a function of his relationship to the plants around him, offers us new paths of reflection, explaining our relationship to language from a new angle that reconsiders all human evolution in a single movement. It now appears clear that the greatest power of the shaman, that master of ecstasy, resides in his mastery of the magic word stimulated by the ingestion of modifiers of consciousness.
For the shaman, language produces reality, our world being made of language. Terence McKenna, in his revolutionary endeavor to rethink human evolution, shows how plants have been able to influence the development of humans and animals. 41 He explains why farming and the domestication of animals as livestock were a great step forward in our cultural evolution: It was at this moment, according to him, that we were able to come into contact with the Psilocybe mushroom, which grows on and around dung. He supports the idea that “mutation-causing, psychoactive chemical compounds in the early human diet directly influenced the rapid reorganization of the brain’s information-processing capacities.” 42 Further, because “thinking about human evolution ultimately means thinking about the evolution of human consciousness,” he supports the thesis that psychedelic plants “may well have synergized the emergence of language and religion.” 43
Studies undertaken by Fischer have shown that weak doses of psilocybin can improve certain types of mental performance while making the investigator more aware of the real world. McKenna distinguishes three degrees of effects of psilocybin: improvement of visual acuity, increase of sexual excitation, and, at higher doses, “certainly . . . religious concerns would be at the forefront of the tribe’s consciousness, simply because of the power and strangeness of the experience itself.” 44 Because “the psilocybin intoxication is a rapture whose breadth and depth is the despair of prose,” it is entirely clear to McKenna that shamanic ecstasy, characterized by its “boundary-dissolving qualities,” played a crucial role in the evolution of human consciousness, which, according to him, can be attributed to “psilocybin’s remarkable property of stimulating the language-forming capacity of the brain.” Indeed, “[i]ts power is so extraordinary that psilocybin can be considered the catalyst to the human development of language.” 45 In response to the neo-Darwinist objection, McKenna states that “the presence of psilocybin in the hominid diet changed the parameters of the process of natural selection by changing the behavioral patterns upon which that selection was operating,” and that “the augmentation of visual acuity, language use, and ritual activity through the use of psilocybin represented new behaviors.” 46
Be that as it may, it is undeniable that the unlimiters of consciousness, as Charles Duits calls them, have a real impact upon linguistic activity in that they strongly stimulate the emergence of speech. If, according to McKenna’s theories, “psilocybin inclusion in the diet shifted the parameters of human behavior in favor of patterns of activity that promoted increased language,” resulting in “more vocabulary and an expanded memory capacity,” 47 then it seems obvious that the birth of poetry, literature, and all the arts came about ultimately through the fantastic encounter between humans and the magic mushroom—a primordial plant, the “umbilical cord linking us to the feminine spirit of the planet,” and thence, inevitably, to poetry. Rich in behavioral and evolutionary consequences, the mushroom, in its dynamic relationship to the human being, propelled us toward higher cultural levels developing parallel to self-reflection. 48
This in no way means that this level of consciousness is inherent in all people, but it must be observed that the experience in itself leads to a gaining of consciousness which, in order to be preserved and maintained, requires rigorous and well-directed work on ourselves. This being said, the experience allows us to observe this action in ourselves in order to endeavor to understand its subtle mechanisms. Terence McKenna writes,
Of course, imagining these higher states of self-reflection is not easy. For when we seek to do this we are acting as if we expect language to somehow encompass that which is, at present, beyond language, or translinguistic. Psilocybin, the hallucinogen unique to mushrooms, is an effective tool in this situation. Psilocybin’s main synergistic effect seems ultimately to be in the domain of language. It excites vocalization; it empowers articulation; it transmutes language into something that is visibly beheld. It could have had an impact on the sudden emergence of consciousness and language use in early humans. We literally may have eaten our way to higher consciousness. 49
If we espouse this hypothesis, then speaking means evoking and repeating the primordial act of eating the sacred medicine. Ethnobotanists insist upon the role of the human brain in the accomplishment of this process, pinpointing precisely the relevant area of activity, which, in Gurdjieffian terms, is located in the center of gravity of the intellectual center: “Our capacity for cognitive and linguistic activity is related to the size and organization of the human brain. . . . The most recently evolved areas of the human brain, Broca’s area and the neocortex, are devoted to the control of symbol and language processing.” 50 It thus appears that these are the areas of the brain that have allowed for the emergence of language and culture. Yet McKenna adds, “our linguistic abilities must have evolved in response to enormous evolutionary pressures,” though we do not know the nature of these pressures. According to him, it is this “immense power to manipulate symbols and language” that “gives us our unique position in the natural world.” 51 This is obvious, in that speech and consciousness, inextricably linked, are solely the property of humans. Thus it seems logical that the plants known as psychoactive must have been the catalysts “for everything about us that distinguishes us from other higher primates, for all the mental functions that we associate with humanness,” 52 with the primary position being held by language, “the most unique of human activities,” and the catalyst for poetic and literary activity.
Under the influence of an unlimiter, we have the incontrovertible impression that language possesses an objectified and visible dimension that is ordinarily hidden from our awareness. Under such conditions, language is seen and beheld just as we would ordinarily see our homes and normal surroundings. In fact, during the experience of the altered state, our ordinary cultural environment is recognized correctly as the bass drone in the ongoing linguistic business of objectifying the imagination. In other words, the collectively designed cultural environment in which we all live is the objectification of our collective linguistic intent.
Our language-forming ability may have become active through the mutagenic influence of hallucinogens working directly on organelles that are concerned with the processing and generation of signals. These neural substructures are found in various portions of the brain, such as Broca’s area, that govern speech formation. In other words, opening the valve that limits consciousness forces utterance, almost as if the word is a concretion of meaning previously felt but left unarticulated. This active impulse to speak, the “going forth of the word,” is sensed and described in the cosmogonies of many peoples.
Psilocybin specifically activates the areas of the brain concerned with processing signals. A common occurrence with psilocybin intoxication is spontaneous outbursts of poetry and other vocal activity such as speaking in tongues, though in a manner distinct from ordinary glossolalia. In cultures with a tradition of mushroom use, these phenomenons have given rise to the notion of discourse with spirit doctors and supernatural allies. Researchers familiar with the territory agree that psilocybin has a profoundly catalytic effect on the linguistic impulse. 53
Here we are touching upon the higher powers of speech—spontaneous creations, outbursts of poetry and suprahuman communications—which are part of the knowledge of the shamans and “sorcerers” who, through years of rigorous education, have become highly perceptive of these phenomena, which elude the subjective consciousness. In his essay “The Mushrooms of Language,” Henry Munn points to the direct links existing between the states of ecstasy and language: “Language is an ecstatic activity of signification. Intoxicated by the mushrooms, the fluency, the ease, the aptness of expression one becomes capable of are such that one is astounded by the words that issue forth from the contact of the intention of articulation with the matter of experience. . . . The spontaneity they liberate is not only perceptual, but linguistic . . . For the shaman, it is as if existence were uttering itself through him.” 54
In the 1920s, the Polish writer S. I. Witkiewicz, who attributed crucial importance to verbal creation, showed how peyote (he was one of the first people in Europe to experiment with it, or, at least, one of the first to give an account of doing so) acts upon the actual creation of words and also intervenes in the structure of sentences themselves: “. . . [I]t must also be remarked that peyote, perhaps by reason of the desire one has to capture with words that which cannot be captured, creates conceptual neologisms that belong to it alone and twists sentences in order to adapt their constructions to the frightening dimensions of its bizarrification . . .” 55 Peyote also gives those who ingest it a desire to create “new combinations of meanings.” Witkiewicz distinguishes three categories of objects in his visions: dead objects, moving objects, and living creatures. Regarding this last category, he distinguishes the “real” living creatures from the “fantastical” living creatures, which “discourage any attempt at description.” This is the moment when peyote intervenes: when those who wish to describe find themselves facing the limits of language. Peyote does not break through these limits; it simply shows that they do not exist, that they are hallucinations of the ordinary consciousness, that they are illusory, a mirage of tradition and the history of language.
The lucidogen—as it is called by Charles Duits, who created other neologisms for describing his experience with the sacred cactus—shows that life is present in everything, including speech, and he proves it. Sometimes, peyote leads us to the signifiers that escape us, always in order better to embrace the signified. Witkiewicz, pushing the phenomenon to the extreme limits of the senses and the sensible, insists:
I must draw attention to the fact that under the influence of peyote, one wants to make up neologisms. One of my friends, the most normal man in the world where language is concerned, in a state of trance and powerless to come to grips with the strangeness of these visions which defied all combinations of normal words, described them thus: “Pajtrakaly symforove i kondjioul v trykrentnykh pordeliansach.” I devised many formulas of this type on the night when I went to bed besieged by visions. I remember only this one. There is therefore nothing surprising in the fact that I, who have such inclinations even under normal conditions, should sometimes be driven to create some fancy word in order to attempt to disentangle and sort out the infernal vortex of creatures that unfurled upon me all night long from the depths of the ancient world of peyote. 56
Here, we cannot help but remember René Daumal’s experience, reported in “Le souvenir déterminant”: Under the influence of carbon tetrachloride, he pronounced with difficulty: “approximately: temgouf temgouf drr . . .” Henry Munn makes a similar remark after having taken part in shamanic rituals: “The mushroom session of language creates the words for phenomena without name.” 57 Sacred plants (and some other substances) are neologens, meaning they produce or generate neologisms from the attempts made at description by the subjects who consume them. This new word, this neologism created by circumstance, appears to be suited for this linguistic reality. We now have a word to designate this particular phenomenon pushing us against the limits of language, which in fact are revealed to be illusory.
Beyond this specific case, what is it that prevents us from creating new words whenever it appears necessary? Witkiewicz, speaking of language and life, defends the writer’s right to take liberties with the rules and invent new words. “Although certain professors insist on clinging to their own tripe,” he writes, “language is a living thing, even if it has always been considered a mummy, even if it has been thought impermissible to change anything in it. We can only imagine what literature, poetry, and even this accursed and beloved life would look like otherwise.” 58 Peyote not only incites us to this, but also, more forcefully, exercising a mysterious magnetic attraction toward a sort of supreme meaning beyond language and shaking up conventional signifiers and beings alike, peyote acts directly upon the heart of speech within the body of language. In this sense, it takes part actively and favorably in the creation of the being, the new and infinitely renewed human who, after a death that is more than symbolic, is reborn to new life. It is also very clear, in light of this example, that psilocybin alone does not explain everything, and that all lucidogenic substances work toward this same opening, this same outpouring of speech. McKenna writes:
Languages appear invisible to the people who speak them, yet they create the fabric of reality for their users. The problem of mistaking language for reality in the everyday world is only too well known. Plant use is an example of a complex language of chemical and social interactions. Yet most of us are unaware of the effects of plants on ourselves and our reality, partly because we have forgotten that plants have always mediated the human cultural relationship to the world at large. 59
It is interesting to note this dimension of speech specific to shamans, this inspired, active, healing speech. “It is not I who speak,” Heraclitus said, “it is the word.” The receptiveness brought about by an increased level of consciousness allows us not only to understand other voices, but also, above all, to express them in their entire magical substance. “Language is an ecstatic activity of signification. Intoxicated by the mushrooms, the fluency, the ease, the aptness of expression one becomes capable of are such that one is astounded by the words that issue forth from the contact of the intention of articulation with the matter of experience. . . . The spontaneity they liberate is not only perceptual, but linguistic, the spontaneity of speech, of fervent, lucid discourse, of the logos in activity.” 72
The shamanic paroxysm is therefore the mastery of the word, the mastery of the sacred songs very often inspired by the powers that live in plants—which instruct us, making us receptive to phenomena that escape the ordinary consciousness. The shaman becomes a channel through which subtle energies can pass. Because of the mystic intoxication, he becomes the instrument for spirits that express themselves through him. Hence the word tzo —“says”—which punctuates the phrases of the Mazatec shaman in her communication with the “little growing things”: “Says, says, says. It is said. I say. Who says! We say, man says, language says, being and existence say.” 73 “The inspired man,” writes the Mexican poet Octavio Paz in an essay on Breton, “the man who speaks the truth, says nothing that is his own: Through his mouth, it is the language that speaks.” 74
The language thus regains its primordial power, its creative force and Orphic value, which determine all true poetry, for, as Duits writes, poetry—which is born in the visionary experience—is nothing other than “the language of the gods.” There is nothing phantasmagoric, hallucinated, or illusory about this speech. “[W]ords are materializations of consciousness; language is a privileged vehicle of our relation to reality,” writes Munn. Because poetry carries the world, it is the language of power, a tool in the service of knowledge and action. The incantatory repetition of names, for example, an idea we have already touched upon in our discussion of prayer, acts upon the heart of the being. “The shaman has a conception of poesis in its original sense as an action: words themselves are medicine.” 75 The words—used in their sacred dimension —work toward the transmutation of being, the healing of the spirit, our development, but in order for it be effective, the magic word must be born from a direct confrontation with the experience, because experience alone is a safe reserve for truth. Knowledge is not enough; only those who have eaten are in a position to understand, only those who have heard and seen are in a position to say. If speech goes farther than the eye, it is because it has the power of doing. “Though the psychedelic experience produced by the mushrooms is of heightened perceptivity,” Munn writes, “the I say is of privileged importance to the I see .” 76 Psychedelic speech is speech of power, revealing the spirit.
by Richard M. Doyle
Rhetoric is the practice of learning and teaching eloquence, persuasion, and information architecture by revealing the choices of expression or interpretation open to any given rhetor, viewer, listener, or reader. Robert Anton Wilson offers a definition of rhetoric by example when he focuses on the word “reality” in his book Cosmic Trigger:
“Reality” is a word in the English language which happens to be (a) a noun and (b) singular. Thinking in the English language (and in cognate Indo-European languages) therefore subliminally programs us to conceptualize “reality” as one block-like entity, sort of like a huge New York skyscraper, in which every part is just another “room” within the same building. This linguistic program is so pervasive that most people cannot “think” outside it at all, and when one tries to offer a different perspective they imagine one is talking gibberish. (iii) […]
Mitchell’s vision offers perhaps an equally startling irony: it was only by taking on a literally extraterrestrial perspective that the moon walker overcame alienated perception.5 […]
Thus, perception is not an object but rather the label for a nonlinear process involving an object, a percipient and information.” (Mitchell n.d.; emphasis mine) […]
Like the mind apprehending it, information “wants to be free” if only because it is essentially “not an object,” but rather “the label for a nonlinear process involving an object, a percipient and information.”6 It is worth noting that Mitchell’s experience induces a desire to comprehend, an impulse that is not only the desire to tell the story of his ecodelic imbrication but a veritable symptom of it.7 […]
What are psychedelics such that they seem to persuade humans of their interconnection with an ecosystem?
Terence McKenna’s 1992 book recursively answered this query with a title: Food of the Gods. Psychedelics, McKenna argued, were important vectors in the evolution of consciousness and spiritual practice. In his “shaggy primate story,” McKenna argued that psilocybin mushrooms were a “genome-shaping power” integral to the evolution of human consciousness. On this account, human consciousness—the only instance we know of where one part of the ecosystem is capable of reflecting on itself as a self and acting on the result—was “bootstrapped” by its encounter with the astonishing visions of high-dose psilocybin, an encounter with the Transcendental Other McKenna dubbed “a glimpse of the peacock angel.” Hence for McKenna, psychedelics are both a food fit for the gods and a food that, in scrambling the very distinction between food and drug, man and god, engenders less transcendence than immanence—each is recursively implicated, nested, in the other. […]
Evolutionarily speaking the emergence of widespread animal life on earth is not separable from a “mutualistic” economy of plants, pollinators, and seed dispersers.
The basis for the spectacular radiations of animals on earth today is clearly the resources provided by plants. They are the major primary producers, autotrophically energizing planet Earth…the new ecological relationships of flowering plants resulted in colonizing species with population structures conducive to rapid evolutionary change. (Price, 4)
And if mammalian and primate evolution is enmeshed in a systemic way with angiosperms (flowering plants), so too have humans and other primates been constantly constituted by interaction with plants. […]
Navigating our implication with both plants and their precipitates might begin, then, with the startling recognition of plants as an imbricated power, a nontrivial vector in the evolution of Homo sapiens, a power against which we have waged war. “Life is a rhizome,” wrote Carl Jung, our encrypted ecological “shadow” upon which we manifest as Homo sapiens, whose individuation is an interior folding or “involution” that increases, rather than decreases, our entanglement with any given ecosystem. […]
In other words, psychedelics are (a suppressed) part of evolution. As Italian ethnobotanist Giorgio Samorini put it “the drug phenomenon is a natural phenomenon, while the drug problem is a cultural problem“ (87). […]
Indeed, even DMT, an endogenous and very real product of the human brain, has been “scheduled” by the federal government. DMT would be precisely, by most first person accounts, “the most potent hallucinogen on sale in Haight or Ashbury or Telegraph Avenue” and is a very real attribute of our brains as well as plant ecology. We are all “holding” a Schedule One psychedelic—our own brains, wired for ecodelia, are quite literally against the law. […]
The first principle of harm reduction with psychedelics is therefore this: one must pay attention to set and setting, the organisms for whom and context in which the psychedelic experience unfolds.For even as the (rediscovery of psychedelics by twentieth-century technoscience suggested to many that consciousness was finally understandable via a molecular biology of the brain, this apex of reductionism also fostered the recognition that the effects of psychedelics depend on much more than neurochemistry.23 If ecodelics can undoubtedly provoke the onset of an extra-ordinary state of mind, they do so only on the condition of an excessive response-ability, a responsiveness to rhetorical conditions—the sensory and symbolic framework in which they are assayed. Psychologists Ralph Metzner and Timothy Leary made this point most explicitly in their discussion of session “programming,” the sequencing of text, sound, and sensation that seemed to guide, but not determine the content of psychedelic experiences:
It is by now a well-known fact that psychedelic drugs may produce religious, aesthetic, therapeutic or other kinds of experiences depending on the set and setting…. Using programming we try to control the content of a psychedelic experience in specific desired directions. (5; reversed order)
Leary, Metzner, and many others have provided much shared code for such programming, but all of these recipes are bundled with an unavoidable but difficult to remember premise: an extraordinary sensitivity to initial rhetorical conditions characterizes psychedelic “drug action.” […]
Note that the nature of the psychedelic experience is contingent upon its rhetorical framing—what Leary, Metzner, and Richard Alpert characterized in The Psychedelic Experience as “the all-determining character of thought” in psychedelic experience. The force of rhetorical conditions here is immense— for Huxley it is the force linking premise to conclusion:
“No I couldn’t control it. If one began with fear and hate as the major premise, one would have to go on the conclusion.” (Ibid.)
Rhetorical technologies structure and enable fundamentally different kinds of ecodelic experiences. If the psychonaut “began” with different premises, different experiences would ensue.
Has this coevolution of rhetorical practices and humans ceased? This book will argue that psychedelic compounds have already been vectors of tech-noscientific change, and that they have been effective precisely because they are deeply implicated in the history of human problem solving. Our brains, against the law with their endogenous production of DMT, regularly go ecodelic and perceive dense interconnectivity. The human experience of radical interconnection with an ecosystem becomes a most useful snapshot of the systemic breakdowns between “autonomous” organisms necessary to sexual reproduction, and, not incidentally, they render heuristic information about the ecosystem as an ecosystem, amplifying human perception of the connections in their environment and allowing those connections to be mimed and investigated. This increased interconnection can be spurred simply by providing a different vision of the environment. Psychologist Roland Fischer noted that some aspects of visual acuity were heightened under the influence of psilocybin, and his more general theory of perception suggests that this acuity emerges out of a shift in sensory-motor ratios.
For Fischer the very distinction between “hallucination” and “perception” resides in the ratio between sensory data and motor control. Hallucination, for Fischer, is that which cannot be verified in three-dimensional Euclidean space. Hence Fischer differentiates hallucination from perception based not on truth or falsehood, but on a capacity to interact: if a subject can interact with a sensation, and at least work toward verifying it in their lived experience, navigating the shift in sensory-motor ratios, then the subject has experienced something on the order of perception. Such perception is easily fooled and is often false, but it appears to be sufficiently connective to our ecosystems to allow for human survival and sufficiently excitable for sexually selected fitness. If a human subject cannot interact with a sensation, Fischer applies the label “hallucination” for the purpose of creating a “cartography of ecstatic states.”
Given the testimony of psychonauts about their sense of interconnection, Fischer’s model suggests that ecodelic experience tunes perception through a shift of sensory-motor ratios toward an apprehension of, and facility for, interconnection: the econaut becomes a continuum between inside and outside. […] speech itself might plausibly emerge as nothing other than a symptom and practice of early hominid use of ecodelics.
It may seem that the visions—as opposed to the description of set and setting or even affect and body load—described in the psychonautic tradition elude this pragmatic dynamic of the trip report. Heinrich Klüver, writing in the 1940s and Benny Shannon, writing in the early twenty-first century, both suggest that the forms of psychedelic vision (for mescaline and ayahuasca respectively) are orderly and consistent even while they are indescribable. Visions, then, would seem to be messages without a code (Barthes) whose very consistency suggested content.
Hence this general consensus on the “indescribableness” (Ellis) of psychedelic experience still yields its share of taxonomies as well as the often remarkable textual treatments of the “retinal circus” that has become emblematic of psychedelic experience. The geometric, fractal, and arabesque visuals of trip reports would seem to be little more than pale snapshots of the much sought after “eye candy” of visual psychedelics such as LSD, DMT, 2C-I, and mescaline. Yet as deeply participatory media technologies, psychedelics involve a learning curve capable of “going with” and accepting a diverse array of phantasms that challenge the beholder and her epistemology, ontology, and identity. Viewed with the requisite detachment, such visions can effect transformation in the observing self, as it finds itself nested within an imbricated hierarchy: egoic self observed by ecstatic Atman which apprehends itself as Brahman reverberating and recoiling back onto ego. Many contemporary investigators of DMT, for example, expect and often encounter what Terence McKenna described as the “machine elves,” elfin entities seemingly tinkering with the ontological mechanics of an interdimension, so much so that the absence of such entities is itself now a frequent aspect of trip reportage and skeptics assemble to debunk elfin actuality (Kent 2004).
While synesthesia is classically treated as a transfer or confusion of distinct perceptions, as in the tactile and gustatory conjunction of “sharp cheese,” more recent work in neurobiology by V. S. Ramachandran and others suggests that this mixture is fundamental to language itself—the move from the perceptual to the signifying, in this view, is itself essentially synesthetic. Rather than an odd symptom of a sub-population, then, synesthesia becomes fundamental to any act of perception or communication, an attribute of realistic perception rather than a pathological deviation from it.
Rhetorical practices are practically unavoidable on the occasion of death, and scholars in the history of rhetoric and linguistics have both opined that it was as a practice of mourning that rhetoric emerged as a recognizable and repeatable practice in the “West.” […] It is perhaps this capacity of some rhetorical practices to induce and manage the breakdown of borders—such as those between male and female, life and death, silence and talk—that deserves the name “eloquence.” Indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary reminds us that it is the very difference between silence and speech that eloquence manages: a. Fr. éloquent, ad. L. loquent-em, pr. pple., f. loqui to speak out.2 […]
And despite Huxley’s concern that such an opening of the doors of (rhetorical) perception would be biologically “useless,” properly Darwinian treatments of such ordeals of signification would place them squarely within the purview of sexual selection—the competition for mates. If psychedelics such as the west African plant Iboga are revered for “breaking open the head,” it may be because we are rather more like stags butting heads than we are ordinarily comfortable putting into language (Pinchbeck 2004, cover). And our discomfort and fascination ensues, because sexual selection is precisely where sexual difference is at stake rather than determined. A gradient, sexuality is, of course, not a binary form but is instead an enmeshed involutionary zone of recombination: human reproduction takes place in a “bardo” or between space that is neither male nor female nor even, especially, human. Indeed, sex probably emerged as a technique for exploring the space of all possible genotypes, breaking the symmetry of an asexual reproduction and introducing the generative “noise” of sexuality with which Aldous Huxley’s flowers resonated. In this context, psychedelics become a way of altering the context of discursive signaling within which human reproduction likely evolved, a sensory rather than “extra-sensory” sharing of information about fitness.
Doctors of the Word
In an ecstatic treatment of Mazatec mushroom intoxication, Henry Munn casts the curandera as veritable Sophists whose inebriation is marked by an incessant speaking:
The shamans who eat them, their function is to speak, they are the speakers who chant and sing the truth, they are the oral poets of their people, the doctors of the word, they who tell what is wrong and how to remedy it, the seers and oracles, the ones possessed by the voice. (Munn, 88)
Given the contingency of psychedelic states on the rhetorical conditions under which they are used, it is perhaps not surprising that the Mazatec, who have used the “little children” of psilocybin for millennia, have figured out how to modulate and even program psilocybin experience with rhetorical practices. But the central role enjoyed by rhetoricians here—those doctors of the word—should not obscure the difficulty of the shaman/ rhetorician’s task: “possessed by the voice,” such curanderas less control psychedelic experience than consistently give themselves over to it. They do not wield ecstasy, but are taught by it. Munn’s mushroom Sophists are athletes of “negative capability,” nineteenth-century poet John Keats’s term for the capacity to endure uncertainty. Hence the programming of ecodelic experience enables not control but a practiced flexibility within ritual, a “jungle gym” for traversing the transhuman interpolation. […]
Fundamental to shamanic rhetoric is the uncertainty clustering around the possibility of being an “I,” an uncertainty that becomes the very medium in which shamanic medicine emerges. While nothing could appear more straightforward than the relationship between the one who speaks and the subject of the sentence “I speak,” Munn writes, sampling Heraclitus, “It is not I who speak…it is the logos.” This sense of being less in dialogue with a voice than a conduit for language itself leads Munn toward the concept of “ecstatic signification.”
Language is an ecstatic activity of signification…. Intoxicated by the mushrooms, the fluency, the ease, the aptness of expression one becomes capable of are such that one is astounded by the words that issue forth from the contact of the intention of articulation with the matter of experience. At times it is as if one were being told what to say, for the words leap to mind, one after another, of themselves without having to be searched for: a phenomenon similar to the automatic dictation of the surrealists except that here the flow of consciousness, rather than being disconnected, tends to be coherent: a rational enunciation of meanings. Message fields of communication with the world, others, and one’s self are disclosed by the mushrooms. (Ibid., 88-89)
If these practices are “ecstatic,” they are so in the strictest of fashions. While recent usage tends to conjoin the “ecstatic” with enjoyment, its etymology suggests an ontological bifurcation—a “being beside oneself” in which the very location, if not existence, of a self is put into disarray and language takes on an unpredictable and lively agency: “words leap to mind, one after another.”3 This displacement suggests that the shaman hardly governs the speech and song she seemingly produces, but is instead astonished by its fluent arrival. Yet this surprise does not give way to panic, and the intoxication increases rather than retards fluency—if anything, Munn’s description suggests that for the Mazatec (and, perhaps, for Munn) psilocybin is a rhetorical adjunct that gives the speaker, singer, listener, eater access to “message fields of communication.” How might we make sense of this remarkable claim? What mechanisms would allow a speaker to deploy intoxication for eloquence?
Classically speaking, rhetoric has treated human discourse as a tripartite affair, a threefold mixture of ethos, an appeal based on character; logos, an appeal based on the word; and pathos, an appeal to or from the body.4 Numerous philosophers and literary critics since Jacques Derrida have decried the Western fascination with the logos, and many scholars have looked to the rich traditions of rhetoric for modalities associated with other offices of persuasion, deliberation, and transformation. But Munn’s account asks us to recall yet another forgotten rhetorical practice—a pharmacopeia of rhetorical adjuncts drawn from plant, fungus, and geological sources. In the context of the Mazatec, the deliberate and highly practiced ingestion of mushrooms serves to give the rhetor access not to individually created statements or acts of persuasion, but to “fields” of communication where rhetorical practice calls less for a “subject position” than it does a capacity to abide multiplicity—the combination and interaction, at the very least, of human and plant.
Writer, philosopher, and pioneering psychonaut Walter Benjamin noted that his experiments with hashish seemed to induce a “speaking out,” a lengthening of his sentences: “One is very much struck by how long one’s sentences are” (20). Longer sentences, of course, are not necessarily more eloquent in any ordinary sense than short ones, since scholars, readers, and listeners find that eloquence inheres in a response to any given rhetorical context. Indeed, Benjamin’s own telegraphic style in his hashish protocols becomes extraordinary, rare, and paradoxical given his own claim for long sentences in a short note. Yet Benjamin’s account does remind us that ecodelics often work on and with the etymological sense of “eloquence,” a “speaking out,” an outburst of language, a provocation to language. Benjamin reported that it was through language that material forms could be momentarily transformed: “The word ‘ginger’ is uttered and suddenly in place of the desk there is a fruit stand” (ibid., 21).
And yet if language and, indeed, the writing table, is the space where hashish begins to resonate for Benjamin, it does so only by making itself available to continual lacunae, openings and closings where, among other things, laughter occurs. For precisely as they are telegraphic, the hashish protocols of Benjamin create a series of non sequiturs: […]
Hashish, then, is an assassin of referentiality, inducing a butterfly effect in thought. In Benjamin, cannabis induces a parataxis wherein sentences less connect to each other through an explicit semantics than resonate together and summon coherence in the bardos between one statement and another. It is the silent murmur between sentences that is consistent while the sentences continually differentiate until, through repetition, an order appears: “You follow the same paths of thought as before. Only, they appear strewn with roses.”
For a comparable practice in classical rhetoric linking “intoxication” with eloquence, we return to Delphi, where the oracles made predictions persuasive even to the always skeptical Socrates, predictions whose oracular ecodelic speech was rendered through the invisible but inebriating “atmosphere” of ethylene gases—a geological rhetoric. Chemist Albert Hofmann, classicist Carl Ruck, ethnobotanist Jonathan Ott, and others have made a compelling case that at Eleusis, where Socrates, well before Bartleby, “preferred not” to go, the Greek Mysteries were delivered in the context of an ecodelic beverage, perhaps one derived from fermented grain or the ergotladen sacrament kykeon, chemically analogous to LSD.5 These Mystery rites occasioned a very specific rhetorical practice—silence—since participants were forbidden from describing the kykeon or its effects. But silence, too, is a rhetorical practice, and one can notice that such a prohibition functions rhetorically not only to repress but also to intensify a desire to “speak out” of the silence that must come before and after Eleusis.
And Mazatec curandera Maria Sabina is explicit that indeed it is not language or even its putative absence, silence, that is an adjunct or “set and setting” for the mushrooms. Rather, the mushrooms themselves are a languaging, eloquence itself, a book that presents itself and speaks out:
At other times, God is not like a man: He is the Book. A Book that is born from the earth, a sacred Book whose birth makes the world shake. It is the Book of God that speaks to me in order for me to speak. It counsels me, it teaches me, it tells me what I have to say to men, to the sick, to life. The Book appears and I learn new words.6
Crucial to this “speaking” is the way in which Maria Sabina puts it. Densely interactive and composed of repetition, the rhetorical encounter with the mushroom is more than informative it is pedagogical and transformative: “The Book appears and I learn new words.” The earth shakes with vitality, manifesting the mushroom orator.7 Like any good teacher, the mushrooms work with rhythms, repetitions that not only reinforce prior knowledge but induce one to take leave of it. “It counsels me, it teaches me.” The repetition of which and through which Maria Sabina speaks communicates more than knowledge, but allows for its gradual arrival, a rhythm of coming into being consonant and perhaps even resonant with the vibrations of the Earth, that scene of continual evolutionary transformation.
More than a supplement or adjunct to the rhetor, the mushroom is a transformer. Mary Barnard maps out a puppetry of flesh that entails becoming a transducer of the mushroom itself: “The mushroom-deity takes possession of the shaman’s body and speaks with the shaman’s lips. The shaman does not say whether the sick child will live or die; the mushroom says” (248).
Nor are reports of psilocybin’s effects as a rhetorical adjunct peculiar to Munn or even the Mazatec tradition. Over a span of ten years, psychologist Roland Fischer and his colleagues at Ohio State University tested the effects of psilocybin on linguistic function. Fischer articulated “the hallucination-perception continuum,” wherein hallucinations would be understood less as failed images of the real than virtual aspects of reality not verifiable in the “Euclidean” space projected by the human sensorium. Fischer, working with the literary critic Colin Martindale, located in the human metabolism of psilocybin (and its consequent rendering into psilocin) linguistic symptoms isomorphic to the epics of world literature. Psilocybin, Fischer and Martindale argued, provoked an increase in the “primary process content” of writing composed under the influence of psilocybin. Repetitious and yet corresponding to the very rhetorical structure of epics, psilocybin can thus be seen to be prima facie adjuncts to an epic eloquence, a “speaking out” that leaves rhetorical patterns consistent with the epic journey (Martindale and Fisher).
And in this journey, it is often language itself that is exhausted—there is a rhythm in the epic structure between the prolix production of primary process content and its interruption. Sage Ramana Maharshi described mouna, a “state which transcends speech and thought,” as the state that emerges only when “silence prevails.” […]
A more recent study conducted of high-dose psilocybin experience among international psychonauts suggested that over 35 percent of subjects heard what they called “the logos” after consuming psilocybin mushrooms.
Based on the responses to the question of the number of times psilocybin was taken, the study examined approximately 3,427 reported psilocybin experiences (n = 118). Of the total questionnaire responses (n = 128), 35.9% (n = 46) of the participants reported having heard a voice(s) with psilocybin use, while 64.0% (n = 82) of the participants stated that they had not. (Beach) […]
Inevitably, this flow fluctuates between silence and discourse. Michaux’s experiments with psychedelics rendered the now recognizable symptoms of graphomania, silence, and rhetorical amplification. In Miserable Miracle, one of the three books Michaux wrote “with mescaline,” Michaux testifies to a strange transformation into a Sophist:
For the first time I understood from within that animal, till now so strange and false, that is called an orator. I seemed to feel how irresistible must be the propensity for eloquence in certain people. Mesc. acted in such a way that it gave me the desire to make proclamations. On what? On anything at all. (81)11
Hence, while their spectrum of effects is wide ranging and extraordinarily sensitive to initial rhetorical conditions, psychedelics are involved in an intense inclination to speak unto silence, to write and sing in a time not limited to the physical duration of the sacramental effect, and this involvement with rhetorical practice—the management of the plume, the voice, and the breath—appears to be essential to the nature of psychedelics; they are compounds whose most persistent symptoms are rhetorical. […]
Crucial to Krippner’s analysis, though, is the efficacy of psychedelics in peeling away these strata of rhetorical practice. By withering some layers of perception, others are amplified:
In one experiment (Jarvik et al. 1955), subjects ingested one hundred micrograms of LSD and demonstrated an increase in their ability to quickly cancel out words on a page of standardized material, but a decreased ability to cancel out individual letters. The drug seemed to facilitate the perceptions of meaningful language units while it interfered with the visual perception of non-meaningful ones. (Krippner, 220)
Krippner notes that the LSD functioned here as a perceptual adjunct, somehow tuning the visual perception toward increased semantic and hence rhetorical efficacy. This intensified visual perception of language no doubt yielded the familiar swelling of font most associated with psychedelic art and pioneered by the psychedelic underground press (such as the San Francisco Oracle.) By amplifying the visual aspect of font—whose medium is the psychedelic message—this psychedelic innovation remixes the alphabet itself, as more information (the visual, often highly sensory swelling of font) is embedded in a given sequence of (otherwise syntactic and semantic) symbols. More information is compressed into font precisely by working with the larger-scale context of any given message rather than its content. This apprehension of larger-scale contexts for any given data may be the very signature of ecodelic experience. Krippner reports that this sensory amplification even reached dimensional thresholds, transforming texts:
Earlier, I had tasted an orange and found it the most intense, delightful taste sensation I had ever experienced. I tried reading a magazine as I was “coming down,” and felt the same sensual delight in moving my eye over the printed page as I had experienced when eating the orange. The words stood out in three dimensions. Reading had never been such a sheer delight and such a complete joy. My comprehension was excellent. I quickly grasped the intent of the author and felt that I knew exactly what meaning he had tried to convey. (221)
Rather than a cognitive modulation, then, psychedelics in Krippner’s analysis seem to affect language function through an intensification of sensory attention on and through language, “a complete joy.” One of Krippner’s reports concerned a student attempting to learn German. The student reported becoming fascinated with the language in a most sensory fashion, noting that it was the “delicacy” of the language that allowed him to, well, “make sense” of it and indulge his desire to “string” together language:
The thing that impressed me at first was the delicacy of the language.…Before long, I was catching on even to the umlauts. Things were speeding up like mad, and there were floods of associations.…Memory, of course, is a matter of association and boy was I ever linking up to things! I had no difficulty recalling words he had given me—in fact, I was eager to string them together. In a couple of hours after that, I was even reading some simple German, and it all made sense. (Ibid.)
Krippner reports that by the end of his LSD session, the student “had fallen in love with German” (222). Krippner rightly notes that this “falling” is anything but purely verbal, and hypothesizes that psychedelics are adjuncts to “non-verbal training”: “The psychedelic session as non-verbal training represents a method by which an individual can attain a higher level of linguistic maturity and sophistication” (225).
What could be the mechanism of such a “non-verbal” training? The motor-control theory of language suggests that language is bootstrapped and developed out of the nonlinguistic rhythms of the ventral premotor system, whose orderly patterns provided the substrate of differential repetition necessary to the arbitrary configuration and reconfiguration of linguistic units. Neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran describes the discovery of “mirror neurons” by Giaccamo Rizzolati. Rizzolati
recorded from the ventral premotor area of the frontal lobes of monkeys and found that certain cells will fire when a monkey performs a single, highly specific action with its hand: pulling, pushing, tugging, grasping, picking up and putting a peanut in the mouth etc. different neurons fire in response to different actions. One might be tempted to think that these are motor “command” neurons, making muscles do certain things; however, the astonishing truth is that any given mirror neuron will also fire when the monkey in question observes another monkey (or even the experimenter) performing the same action, e.g. tasting a peanut! (Ramachandran)
Here the distinction between observing and performing an action are confused, as watching a primate pick up a peanut becomes indistinguishable from picking up the peanut, at least from the perspective of an EEG. Such neurological patterns are not arbitrary, linked as they are to the isomorphic patterns that are the developmentally articulated motor control system of the body. This may explain how psychedelics can, according to Krippner, allow for the perceptual discernment of meaningful units. By releasing the attention from the cognitive self or ego, human subjects can focus their attention on the orderly structures “below” conscious awareness and distributed across their embodiment and environments. Robin Allot has been arguing for the motor theory of language evolution since the 1980s:
In the evolution of language, shapes or objects seen, sounds heard, and actions perceived or performed, generated neural motor programs which, on transfer to the vocal apparatus, produced words structurally correlated with the perceived shapes, objects, sounds and actions. (1989)
These perceived shapes, objects, sounds, and actions, of course, include the sounds, smells, visions, and actions continually transmitted by ecosystems and the human body itself, and by focusing the attention on them, we browse for patterns not yet articulated by our embodiment. Significantly, as neuroscientist Ramachandran points out, this “mirror neuron” effect seems to occur only when other living systems are involved:
When people move their hands a brain wave called the MU wave gets blocked and disappears completely. Eric Altschuller, Jamie Pineda, and I suggested at the Society for Neurosciences in 1998 that this suppression was caused by Rizzolati’s mirror neuron system. Consistent with this theory we found that such a suppression also occurs when a person watches someone else moving his hand but not if he watches a similar movement by an inanimate object.
Hence, in this view, language evolves and develops precisely by nonverbal means in interaction with other living systems, as the repetitions proper to language iterate on the basis of a prior repetition—the coordinated movements necessary to survival that are coupled to neurological patterns and linked to an animate environment. By blocking the “throttling embrace of the self,” ecodelics perhaps enable a resonance between the mind and nature not usually available to the attention. This resonance creates a continuum between words and things even as it appears to enable the differentiation between meaningful and nonmeaningful units: […]
This continuum between the abstract character of language and its motor control system is consistent with Krippner’s observation that “at the sensory level, words are encoded and decoded in highly unusual ways” (238). This differential interaction with the sensory attributes of language includes an interaction with rhythms and puns common to psychedelic experience, a capacity to become aware of a previously unobserved difference and connection. Puns are often denounced as, er, punishing a reader’s sense of taste, but in fact they set up a field of resonance and association between previously distinct terms, a nonverbal connection of words. In a highly compressed fashion, puns transmit novel information in the form of a meshed relation between terms that would otherwise remain, often for cultural or taboo reasons, radically distinct.12 This punning involves a tuning of a word toward another meaning, a “troping” or bending of language toward increased information through nonsemantic means such as rhyming. This induction of eloquence and its sensory perception becomes synesthetic as an oral utterance becomes visual: […]
Hence, if it is fair to characterize some psychedelic experiences as episodes of rhetorical augmentation, it is nonetheless necessary to understand rhetoric as an ecological practice, one which truly works with all available means of persuasion (Aristotle), human or otherwise, to increase the overall dissipation of energy in any given ecology. One “goes for broke,” attempting the hopeless task of articulating psychedelics in language until exhausting language of any possible referential meaning and becoming silent. By locating “new” information only implicit in a given segment of language and not semantically available to awareness, a pun increases the informational output of an ecosystem featuring humans. This seems to feedback, […]
Paired with an apprehension of the logos, this tuning in to ecodelia suggests that in “ego death,” many psychonauts experience a perceived awareness of what Vernadsky called the noösphere, the effects of their own consciousness on their ecosystem, about which they incessantly cry out: “Will we listen in time?”
In the introduction, I noted that the ecodelic adoption of this non-local and hence distributed perspective of the biosphere was associated with the apprehension of the cosmos as an interconnected whole, and with the language of “interpellation” I want to suggest that this sense of interconnection often appears in psychonautic testimony as a “calling out” by our evolutionary context. […]
The philosopher Louis Althusser used the language of “interpellation” to describe the function of ideology and its purchase on an individual subject to it, and he treats interpellation as precisely such a “calling out.” Rather than a vague overall system involving the repression of content or the production of illusion, ideology for Althusser functions through its ability to become an “interior” rhetorical force that is the very stuff of identity, at least any identity subject to being “hailed” by any authority it finds itself response-able to. I turn to that code commons Wikipedia for Althusser’s most memorable treatment of this concept:
Memorably, Althusser illustrates this with the concept of “hailing” or “interpellation.” He uses the example of an individual walking in a street: upon hearing a policeman shout “Hey you there!”, the individual responds by turning round and in this simple movement of his body she is transformed into a subject. The person being hailed recognizes himself as the subject of the hail, and knows to respond.14
This sense of “hailing” and unconscious “turning” is appropriate to the experience of ecodelic interconnection I am calling “the transhuman interpellation.” Shifting back and forth between the nonhuman perspectives of the macro and the micro, one is hailed by the tiniest of details or largest of overarching structures as reminders of the way we are always already linked to the “evolutionary heritage that bonds all living things genetically and behaviorally to the biosphere” (Roszak et al., 14). And when we find, again and again, that such an interpellation by a “teacher” or other plant entity (à la the logos) is associated not only with eloquence but also with healing,15 we perhaps aren’t surprised by a close-up view of the etymology of “healing.” The Oxford English Dictionary traces it from the Teutonic “heilen,” which links it to “helig” or “holy.” And the alluvial flow of etymology connects “hailing” and “healing” in something more than a pun:
A Com. Teut. vb.: OE. hlan = OFris. hêla, OS. hêlian (MDu. hêlen, heilen, Du. heelen, LG. helen), OHG. heilan (Ger. heilen), ON. heil (Sw. hela, Da. hele), Goth. hailjan, deriv. of hail-s, OTeut. *hailo-z, OS. Hál <HALE><WHOLE>16
Hailed by the whole, one can become healed through ecodelic practice precisely because the subject turns back on who they thought they were, becoming aware of the existence of a whole, a system in which everything “really is” connected—the noösphere. Such a vision can be discouraging and even frightening to the phantasmically self-birthed ego, who feels not guilt but a horror of exocentricity. It appears impossible to many of us that anything hierarchically distinct, and larger and more complex than Homo sapiens—such as Gaia—could exist, and so we often cry out as one in the wilderness, in amazement and repetition.
Synesthesia, and Psychedelics, and Civilization! Oh My!
Were cave paintings an early language?
Choral Singing and Self-Identity
Music and Dance on the Mind
Development of Language and Music
Spoken Language: Formulaic, Musical, & Bicameral
“Beyond that, there is only awe.”
“First came the temple, then the city.”
The Spell of Inner Speech
Language and Knowledge, Parable and Gesture