Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Musings of a Philosophical Bear: On Drugs and Consciousness


I have an intense interest in the mind, the way substances can change consciousness, the dualist view of body and soul, and in the way addiction and free will interact. One view that most of us believe is that we are spiritual beings with a temporary physical experience, yet on a daily basis we can easily alter our personalities with physical substances. We often claim to have a nonphysical immortal soul, but in the next breath will readily admit that a physical injury, especially one to the brain, can change the very essence of who we are. We experience life as the intentional authors of our thoughts and actions, yet on a daily basis we think and do things against our own self interests. Drug use and addiction lie at the intersection of many philosophical questions of what it means to be human. Stories that include compelling and realistic depictions of drug abuse always seem to fascinate me. It's painful to watch a person methodically destroy himself yet we ask why, shake our heads, and continue to struggle with our own vices. It's a phenomenon that has touched the majority of our lives, yet we rarely stop to ask ourselves the question “why”? It's a contradiction of our lived experience; challenging our most valued beliefs and opening up a discussion about the confounding nature of consciousness itself.

Everything we do is for the sake of altering consciousness. We eat to satisfy hunger, experience fullness and to enjoy the fleeting sensation of flavor on our tongues and the aromas in our nostrils. We form relationships to experience love and companionship, avoid loneliness, experience sexual ecstasy, and to see the world from another's perspective. We read for pleasure, learning from generation's past and present, experiencing anothers thoughts, and exploring the world through our imagination. Every waking moment of our lives, and sometimes even at night in lucid dreams, we attempt to control the nature of our conscious experience. Through the flow of our daily sensations, emotions, and cognition, we strive to make a life for ourselves that affirms our values and has meaning for us. So why then do we disparage people who take drugs for the same reasons?

Drugs are just another means to control our consciousness. Some are prescribed by doctors, others we can buy at the grocery store, some are illegal, and others are highly stigmatized or considered dangerous. Through some perverse irony, these classes of substances partially overlap. Some drugs (such as marijuana) have the extraordinary potential to treat a myriad of illnesses, pose no apparent risk of chemical addiction, have the immense psychological utility to expand consciousness and are physically well-tolerated by most users yet we still imprison people for their sale and use. Then there are drugs, such as tobacco and alcohol that have ruined countless lives yet are enjoyed as legal intoxicants in almost every society on earth. Why do we give legal status to substances providing few if any health benefits and can potentially destroy the lives of millions through cancer and alcoholism while beneficial non-addictive substances remain criminalized? Theories abound, but the root of this conundrum lies with our fundamental denial of drugs as an ethical means of controlling our consciousness.

One of the great responsibilities we have as a society is to educate ourselves and the next generation about substance use and abuse. Which substances are safe to ingest? Which are worth ingesting and for what purpose? Which are not useful and which are harmful and have no medicinal effects? The problem, however, is that we refer to all biologically active compounds by a single term, “drugs”, making it nearly impossible to have an intelligent discussion about the psychological, medical, ethical, and legal issues surrounding their use. Drug abuse and addiction are real problems whose solutions lie within education, research, and medical treatment, not incarceration. In fact, the most abused drugs in the United States today are oxycodone and other forms of prescription painkillers. Should these medicines be made illegal as well? I would imagine the majority of society would think not, but people need to be informed about their hazards. Individuals facing addiction need treatment and all drugs (including alcohol, tobacco, and even Tylenol) must be kept out of the hands of children.

I believe that the “war on drugs” is lost. The problems it caused; gang violence, hollowed inner cities, drug cartels, and the New Jim Crow are but a few of a results of a willfully ignorant stance on drugs. It's a war we should never have waged in the first place. Can there be a right more fundamental than the peaceful stewardship of one’s own consciousness? The fact that we pointlessly ruin the lives of nonviolent drug users by incarcerating them, at an enormous expense I might add, constitutes one of the greatest moral failures of our time. And the fact that we make room for them in our prisons by paroling murderers, rapists, and child molesters makes one wonder whether civilization itself isn’t put at risk by such a policy.

A life entirely without drugs is undesirable. I hope everyone who wants to enjoy a morning cup of tea or coffee has the opportunity to do so. I think alcohol can be consumed responsibly by adults and aids in contemplation and social interaction. I urge people to smoke marijuana in moderation, at least for a short time, to open up their minds to new possibilities and explore the various forms their consciousness can take. Even though I admit the destructive effects of smoking tobacco, I've enjoyed its use on many occasions, even while denying my addiction to it. Tobacco should be shunned, and I will do everything within my power to move away from its use…. eventually. Needless to say, the use of methamphetamine, heroin, or crack cocaine has almost no positive social of physical benefits, but making them illegal hasn't stopped millions from partaking in their use. And while I would disparage their use by anyone I care about, I still affirm their right to do with their body as they see fit. A human society without the use of drugs to alter our moods almost seems impossible when we consider the lengths to which users have gone to obtain the substance of their choice in the face of governmental or social prohibition.

This is not to say that everyone should take drugs. Undoubtedly, some people cannot afford to give this anchor of sanity even the slightest tug. However, they can be indispensable tools to helping us discover the inner landscape of our minds and the subjective nature of reality. There is no getting around the role of luck in successful drug use. Some of us are congenitally predisposed to addiction while still others may experience horrible side effects. If you are lucky, however, and you take the right drug, you will know what it is like to be enlightened (or at least close enough to persuade yourself that enlightenment is possible). If you are unlucky, you will know what it is like to be clinically insane or hopelessly addicted to a substance that does little or nothing to improve your life. While I do not recommend the latter experience, it does increase one’s respect for the tenuous condition of sanity, as well as one’s compassion for people who suffer from persistent mental illness.

The efficacy of drugs seems to establish the material basis of the mind and soul. The introduction of these substances into the brain is the obvious cause of any experience that follows. It is possible if not actually plausible, however, to seize this evidence from the other end and argue as Aldous Huxley did in his classic “The Doors of Perception” that the primary function of the brain may be reductive. Its purpose may be to prevent a transpersonal dimension of the mind that permeates the universe from flooding our consciousness, thereby allowing us to make our way in the world without being dazzled at every step by phenomena that are irrelevant to our survival. Huxley thought of the brain as a kind of “reducing valve” for the “Mind at Large.” In fact, the idea that the brain as a filter rather than the origin of mind goes back at least as far as the 1840s within the scientific community. In Huxley’s view, this would explain the efficacy of psychedelics; they may simply act as a material means of opening the valve and letting more mind in.

Huxley was operating under the assumption that psychedelics decrease brain activity. Some recent data have lent support to this view; for instance, a neuroimaging study of psilocybin suggests that the drug primarily reduces activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region involved in a wide variety of tasks related to self-monitoring. However, other studies have found that psychedelics increase activity throughout the brain. Whatever the case, the action of these drugs does not rule out dualism or the existence of realms of mind beyond the brain. But then, nothing does… or can. That is one of the problems with views of this kind, they appear to be unfalsifiable and therefore outside the realm of science. We have many reasons to be skeptical of the “brain as barrier” thesis. If the brain were merely a filter on the mind, damaging it would increase cognition. In that, strategically damaging the brain would be the most reliable method of spiritual practice available to anyone and the loss of brain function would yield more consciousness. However, that is not how the mind works.

The converse train of thought used to circumvent this theory is that the brain may function more like a radio or a receiver of conscious states rather than a barrier to them. At first glance, this would appear to account for the deleterious effects of neurological injury and disease whereas if one smashes a radio with a hammer, it no longer functions properly. The major problem with this metaphor, however, is that we are the music, not the radio. If the brain were nothing more than a receiver of conscious states, it would be possible to diminish a person’s soul essence by damaging their brain. A person might seem unconscious from the outside and, subjectively speaking, the music of the mind would play on. This is clearly not what happens.

Specific reductions in brain activity might benefit people in certain ways. In theory it could unmask memories or abilities that are actively inhibited by the regions in question. However, there is no reason to think that the pervasive destruction of the central nervous system would leave the mind unaffected (much less improved). Medications that reduce anxiety generally work by increasing the effect of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA, thereby diminishing neuronal activity in various parts of the brain. Similarly psilocybin, a naturally occurring psychedelic compound produced by more than 200 species of psychoactive mushrooms, generally works by reducing brain activity in areas responsible for self-monitoring and can account for a number of experiences often associated with the drug. However, dampening the inhibitory effects of the brain in these manners to achieve euphoria absolutely does not suggest people would experience nirvana if drugged into a coma. There is no reason to believe that turning off the brain entirely would yield an increased awareness of spiritual realities.

Nevertheless, the brain does exclude an extraordinary amount of information from consciousness. And like many who have taken psychedelics, I can personally attest that these compounds throw open the flood gates. Hypothesizing the existence of a “Mind at Large” is much more tempting after coming down from a trip, but these drugs can also produce mental states that are best viewed as forms of psychosis. As a general matter, I believe we should be very slow to draw any conclusions about the nature of the mind and reality solely on the basis of any inner experience, no matter how profound they may seem. Of one thing we can be certain, the mind is more vast and fluid than our ordinary, waking consciousness would suggest and it is simply impossible to communicate the profundity (or seeming profundity) of transcendental states to those who have never experienced them. Indeed, it is even difficult to remind myself of the power of these states once they have passed.

Many people wonder about the difference between meditation (and other contemplative practices) and psychedelics. Can these drugs be a form of “cheating” or are they the only means of authentic awakening? They are neither. All psychoactive drugs modulate the existing neurochemistry of the brain, either by mimicking specific neurotransmitters or by causing the neurotransmitters themselves to be more or less active. Everything that we can experience on a drug is, at some level, an expression of the brain’s potential. Therefore, whatever we have seen or felt after smoking weed is likely to have been something that we have seen or felt somewhere without it. However, it cannot be denied that psychedelics are a uniquely potent means of altering consciousness. Teach a person to meditate, pray, chant, or do yoga, and there is no guarantee that anything will happen. Depending upon his aptitude or interest, the only reward for his efforts may be boredom and a sore back.

I view most psychedelic experiences as potentially misleading. Psychedelics do not guarantee wisdom or a clear recognition of the selfless nature of consciousness. They merely guarantee that the contents of consciousness will change. Considered in their totality, such visionary experiences appear to me to be ethically neutral. Therefore, it seems that psychedelic experiences must be steered toward our personal and collective well-being by some other principle. As Daniel Pinchbeck pointed out in his highly entertaining book “Breaking Open the Head”, the fact that both the Mayans and the Aztecs used psychedelics while being enthusiastic practitioners of human sacrifice makes any idealistic connection between plant-based shamanism and an enlightened society seem terribly naive.

Transcendence appears to link directly to ethical behavior and the general welfare of humanity that occurs in the midst of ordinary waking life. It is by ceasing to cling to the contents of consciousness and to our thoughts, moods, and desires, that we make progress. This progress does not, in principle, require that we experience more content. Though it is a concept that can admittedly be difficult to realize, I believe that normal perception and cognition is attuned with a “spiritual” life whose goal and foundation is a freedom from self. I also believe that psychedelics may be indispensable for some people like me who initially need convincing that profound changes in consciousness are possible. Subsequently, it seems wise to find ways of practicing a spirituality that welcomes this freedom. Happily, such methods are widely available.

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