Shaking the Snow Globe

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015

In The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley concludes that the conscious mind is less a window on reality than a reducing valve:

The mind is a “reducing valve,” he wrote, eliminating far more reality than it admits to our conscious awareness, lest we be overwhelmed. “What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive.” Psychedelics open the valve wide, removing the filter that hides much of reality, as well as dimensions of our own minds, from ordinary consciousness. Carhart-Harris has cited Huxley’s metaphor in some of his papers, likening the default-mode network to the reducing valve, but he does not agree that everything that comes through the opened doors of perception is necessarily real. The psychedelic experience, he suggests, can yield a lot of “fool’s gold.”

Nevertheless, Carhart-Harris believes that the psychedelic experience can help people by relaxing the grip of an overbearing ego and the rigid, habitual thinking it enforces. The human brain is perhaps the most complex system there is, and the emergence of a conscious self is its highest achievement. By adulthood, the mind has become very good at observing and testing reality and developing confident predictions about it that optimize our investments of energy (mental and otherwise) and therefore our survival. Much of what we think of as perceptions of the world are really educated guesses based on past experience (“That fractal pattern of little green bits in my visual field must be a tree”), and this kind of conventional thinking serves us well.

But only up to a point. In Carhart-Harris’s view, a steep price is paid for the achievement of order and ego in the adult mind. “We give up our emotional lability,” he told me, “our ability to be open to surprises, our ability to think flexibly, and our ability to value nature.” The sovereign ego can become a despot. This is perhaps most evident in depression, when the self turns on itself and uncontrollable introspection gradually shades out reality. In “The Entropic Brain,” a paper published last year in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Carhart-Harris cites research indicating that this debilitating state, sometimes called “heavy self-consciousness,” may be the result of a “hyperactive” default-mode network. The lab recently received government funding to conduct a clinical study using psychedelics to treat depression.

Carhart-Harris believes that people suffering from other mental disorders characterized by excessively rigid patterns of thinking, such as addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder, could benefit from psychedelics, which “disrupt stereotyped patterns of thought and behavior.” In his view, all these disorders are, in a sense, ailments of the ego. He also thinks that this disruption could promote more creative thinking. It may be that some brains could benefit from a little less order.

Existential distress at the end of life bears many of the psychological hallmarks of a hyperactive default-mode network, including excessive self-reflection and an inability to jump the deepening grooves of negative thought. The ego, faced with the prospect of its own dissolution, becomes hypervigilant, withdrawing its investment in the world and other people. It is striking that a single psychedelic experience — an intervention that Carhart-Harris calls “shaking the snow globe” — should have the power to alter these patterns in a lasting way.


  1. Kevin M. says:

    Interesting thread you’ve had about hallucinogens.

    I have some personal experience here. About 70 of them.

    These drugs are very safe… usually. I’m talking about LSD, mescaline and mushrooms – not about peyote, MDMA (ecstasy, molly), PCP, or ketamine.
    Mushrooms are hit or miss.

    All 3 of the drugs are very powerful levers on the mind unsuited to therapeutic use. From a clinical perspective their effects are profound, but random. And if you slip me into a usual doctors office, that would be a big no thank you right off the bat.

    The good thing about these drugs is their nonexistent abuse potential. You can only take them once a month, although my experience was more like 6 to 8 weeks. And like steroids, you have a lifetime dosage limit. Somewhere between 50 and 100 doses it stops working.

    Medically, I could see very small doses useful for narcolepsy and related disorders. Say 5 micrograms, where a typical street dose is 70 to 100, and most take 2 or 3 doses. Smoking cessation… Ha!

    As palliative care in a hospice setting – no way. My bullshit klaxon just rang a 10 on that one. Wrong in so many ways.

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