“Conscious experience is at once the most familiar thing in the world and the most mysterious. There is nothing we know about more directly than consciousness, but it is far from clear how to reconcile it with everything else we know.”
– David J. Chalmers
WE ARE ALL intimately familiar with that voice in our heads, nagging as we reach for a second helping of chocolate eggs in the wake of Easter, and judging as we have to settle for a looser belt hole a week later. We are all also accustomed to the different masks we wear in various social situations. I would be ruthlessly mocked could my close friends see the way I behave around my girlfriend, snuggled on the couch on a Sunday night, and my parents would be hard pressed to recognize me. But this apparent discontinuity is a perfectly normal aspect of human existence – psychologists have long known that situation exerts a significant influence on personality – and I have never experienced anything which would seem to indicate that there was more than one self calling the inside of my skull home. As a matter of conscious experience, I am just as much me whilst goofing around with my girlfriend as I am typing this essay and sipping green tea. But am I really? As a result of a fascinating avenue of inquiry involving patients who have had the hemispheres of their brain surgically separated, psychologists, cognitive scientists, and philosophers have begun to argue that there is every reason to believe in the divisibility of consciousness – the existence of a separate centre of consciousness in each of the divided hemispheres – and you and I might not be as different to these patients as we think.
“If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.” – René Descartes
“It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong.” – Voltaire
THE UNIQUE THING about psychedelics is that they provide the user with direct access to subjective realms so inconceivable to “normal” waking consciousness. These altered states, emphatically, seem to catalyse a transition towards “abnormal” or “alternative” lifestyles and belief structures. Turns out that turning on, tuning in, and dropping out is decidedly incompatible with modern Western neo-libertarianism, but psychedelics might be just the tool we need to counter the ever growing threat of consumerism in Western society.
So I ask you to suspend your disbelief, at least for the duration of this article, as you imagine that everything you thought you knew about drugs was wrong. Studies in behavioural economics and cognitive science have taught us that our realities are shaped to fit our belief systems and cognitive biases, whilst the mass social experiments conducted by Edward Bernays in the wake of the First World War taught us that “public relations” (the politically correct term for propaganda) could subtly but powerfully mould the collective mind of the population to fit with the ideals of a select few individuals. Do you see the problem? Individuals are slowly but surely losing control over the one thing that can be truly be called theirs – their minds – and this process is so immersive that we need an incredibly powerful tool to undo the processes. Psychedelics are just that tool.
Daniel Pinchbeck’s Breaking Open the Head examines how certain substances, held in such high esteem throughout the world’s indigenous cultures, are not only repressed but ridiculed in contemporary Western culture.The use of psychedelics is documented to date back 75,000 years throughout indigenous shamanic cultures, where they are revered as sacred technology, awakening the mind to new levels of awareness. Shamanic use continues today in secluded pockets of the world where visionary plants are worshiped like gods; their use and the knowledge they convey constantly challenged by the encroachment of Western ideals.
Breaking Open the Head is part seeker’s memoir, part psychonaut’s field guide, and part anthropological investigation into the world’s shamanic cultures, and it makes a compelling argument for the role of psychedelic awakening in global change.
Continue reading Altered States: The Psychedelic Antidote to Modern Culture, A Review of Daniel Pinchbeck’s Breaking Open the Head