[at 12:40] Q: Is the content of our experience epistemological?
A: If you take the right combination of psychedelic substances* you can get yourself in a state which is a full free-wheeling hallucination, which looks every bit as real as this world, and yet you know it’s not real because of the crazy things that happen in that world. You can have direct conscious control of those objects. You can say “give me a table” and a table will appear right in front of you as real as a solid table. Now, the first time you have this experience you think “Oh My God! What is this? What’s going on?” And the most profoundly shocking thing about the experience is the complete and total absence of your own body at the center of the experience. So here you have a space, somewhat like this space you see in this room… but there’s nobody in it! And yet the space is crammed full of images that morph rapidly from one to another through all kinds of crazy contortions. And your sense of your own self is forced to migrate away from the body that’s no longer there and takes up residence in the space itself, and you become aware of the fact that there is this spherical theater of the mind in which images are generated by your mind, full three-dimensional solid-looking real images with color, and lightning, and shadow, and mirror image effects, and reflections, and refractions. Everything we see in the normal world, and yet obviously they are not images of the world, they are images that are generated inside the mind. And that there shows that the space of our experience is a representational space that’s capable of maintaining images, but that the images have no real external reality- unless they happened to be coupled to external events. And this is the distinction that many seers and thinkers have made between the imaging mechanism that’s capable of generating images, and the images that it generates.
* Which drug combinations produce free-wheeling hallucinations? We find a more in-depth description of the phenomenon in Lehar’s book The Grand Illusion. The type of drug combo reported to lead to free-wheeling hallucinations in this book involves mixing a dissociative (DXM, PCP, Ketamine) and a psychedelic or psychedelic-like substance (LSD, Mescaline, even THC). For example DXM + THC (marijuana) is the first combination reported to produce this effect. Later on Ketamine + LSD + THC is proposed as the most effective method to achieve this state.
Here is an excerpt from the book that discusses the phenomenon in detail (pgs. 63-70 and 109):
Around the time I was experimenting with ecstasy and LSD, I discovered a whole new class of drugs, the dissociative drugs. Unbeknownst to me at the time, my experiments with Nitrous Oxide had been my first foray into the dissociative realm. Perusing on the internet brought my attention to Dextromethorphan, or DXM, known in the drug world as “Robo”, because it is the active ingredient in Robitussin DM, the cough medicine. Following my education on the internet, I took my first Robo experience by slugging down a whole bottle of the sickly sweet Robitussin syrup, which I could only hold down for a while before it all came back up again. The result was a state of profound mental befuddlement. I really had no clue at all. I became very uncoordinated, and could only move slowly like a sloth, for fear of losing my balance and falling over. And my thoughts shrank down to a tiny trickle of one intense but simple thought at a time. It was only by accident that I discovered the unique power of Robo. I was lying on my bed, probably wondering why I was doing this to myself, when I noticed a peculiar phenomenon. When I closed my eyes, the world around me failed to disappear! There it was, bold as brass, right there before me in all its color and glory, while my eyelids were firmly closed! I blinked open, then closed again. No difference! My eyelids had become transparent! I could see right through them! What was actually happening was that my mind had made an image of the world before me, partly as a visual after-image, and partly by visual memory and perceptual filling-in, and it was presenting that image to me with eyes closed as if my eyes were still open! It was absolutely extraordinary! It was only on a later occasion, several years later, that I discovered that these hallucinations need not be boring copies of consensual reality, as had occurred in this case, but if you just ask for them to present something more interesting, they will happily oblige! In other words, Robo gives you the power to produce full free-wheeling hallucinations on demand! You can experience virtually anything you want, if you can just imagine it! Those of you who are familiar with the phenomenon of lucid dreaming, the ability to have startlingly real and vibrant dreams which can also be brought under voluntary control, already know of this wondrous capacity of the human mind, to build complete synthetic hallucinated worlds of visual experience every bit as vivid and apparently real as the waking world. If nothing else, this should clearly clinch the case for the World In Your Head.
On the internet I later read about robo parties where people would assemble in one room, consume Robo simultaneously, then they lie back and close their eyes and share a collective hallucination. For example they might agree in advance to take a trip to the moons of Mars. Then they all lie down and close their eyes, and their collective trip would begin. One will say “fasten your seat belts”, another will hit the launch button, a third might remark on the rumble of the rocket and the view of the sky out the viewport, and everything that they describe is hallucinated by everyone else simultaneously, although each in their own personal way, so they are literally sharing a single consensual experience, except this time totally de-coupled from objective external reality. The very existence or possibility of this capacity is very instructive of the principles behind human perception.
In my own solitary explorations of the dissociated state I put this imaging power to the test, with a combination of Robo and Marijuana. This time I had read about a chemical procedure by which one can separate the Robo from the Robitussin DM with an acid / base reduction process. I carefully followed the directions in my kitchen, and what emerged after a couple of hours of mixing and boiling, was a glob of clear goo at the bottom of my beaker. I tasted it, and it tasted like hell fire! It was inconsumable! So I stirred it up with some orange juice and slugged it all down. I immediately felt very very sick, and after no more than about a minute, it all came back up again, to my great relief. But the chemical had done its thing, and I was plunged into a state of the deepest mental confusion. I retreated to my tripping room and reclined on my recliner, took a few notes in my notebook, and recorded the time. The image of the clock, and everything else in the room, was double. Even with an effort of will, I could not fuse my binocular vision, so it became more easy and comfortable to just close my eyes. What followed was some number of hours of the wildest mental confusion, with senseless whirling images tumbling through my mind, one following the next in completely senseless procession. I just let it go and went for the ride, having lost all sense of who or even what I was, or where I was located. All that existed for me was those chaotic tumbling patterns.
In any case, I “awoke” the next morning in a very gray and colorless foggy space with little in the way of mental images, just a gray sense of being trapped within the vast cavern of my mind. I opened my eyes to a double-image world, and found the pipe thoughtfully pre-loaded with marijuana that I had left for myself, along with the clock and notepad, before launching into the experience the day before. And sure enough, consistent with my new theory, after smoking the pipe, I closed my eyes and found that the internal world was now splashed with color and light and all kinds of interesting shapes and patterns. I had arrived in the state I had been targeting all along.
Once I realized that I was in the free-wheeling hallucination stage, I took a look at the experience. Where was my body? I was in a space somewhat like the last room I remembered being in, but I had no body! Or did I? When I looked down at my hands, (with eyes actually closed) there they were, floating in space, disconnected from anything else. And the rest of my body was just gone! Or was it? When I asked myself about it, there it was! Or I could make it disappear again at will! My choice! I was like God who can think any thought, and it becomes reality. So I thought to myself “let there be a table”, and there was a table! Right there in front of me! A rectangular top, four legs, aspect ratio about 1:2, just your typical canonical table. And I could rotate it in my mind’s eye to see it from any angle I chose, and I could translate, rotate, and zoom my viewpoint by just wishing it. I could even turn my viewpoint upside-down. I tried it! And when I zoomed in to examine the table closer I discovered a strange thing. If I did not bother to imagine a body for myself, then I had a disembodied experience, like the view from an eyeball floating in empty space. I could see a view from a point, but there was no body or self at that point. And in this disembodied state there was no longer an objective sense of scale. When I zoomed in to take a closer look at the table there was no distinction between my looking from closer, and the table simply zooming to larger size. Zooming in on the table was at the same time shrinking down to the size of an ant. This gave direct meaning to Empedocles’s dictum that man is the measure of all things.
But there were limits to what I was able to image. For example I tried to fulfill one of my long time fantasies, and fly a Spitfire in aerial combat in the Battle of Britain. “Let there be a spitfire cockpit around me”, I commanded, and there it was, with a view of the English countryside from 20,000 feet. But the picture was not very good. I could only see one instrument at a time on the panel, and even that only with an effort, and the view of the world around me was very sketchy and simplistic, so I gave it up after a while. I guess there are limits to the power of imagination in the dissociated state. It is extraordinarily difficult to keep one’s head in such a dissociated state. The free-wheeling hallucination stage follows only after a period of such profound confusion and dissociation that no coherent pictures can form, there is just a wild roller-coaster ride of one fantastical vision after another in such a nonsensical sequence as to make your head spin. When things settle down a bit, and your experience settles into a more stable, coherent state, it is hard to remember that this journey was taken for a purpose, and that the scientific psychonaut should remember to observe and remember as much as he can. The experience is generally a chaotic blur, with little flashes of imagery that are later recalled piecemeal. For example I remember seeing a head, in 3-D right before me, but it was flickering and flashing at a truly blinding rate between millions of variations, a black face, a white face, a man, a woman, an ape, an android, but flashing so fast between these countless alternatives like fanning rapidly through a picture book with your thumb. I found it extraordinary that my mind was capable of such rapid switching of imagery, especially considering the fact that the mind is slowed considerably by the effects of dissociative drugs, and that was probably the only reason that I could distinguish the fleeting individual heads at all. Under more normal consciousness the many heads blur into one general head of indefinite features, the general concept of head that applies to all heads, and thus to none individually. In retrospect, after much contemplation of this and other similar experiences, I came to hypothesize that I was seeing the method by which the brain expresses the general concept, which it does apparently in a very literal way, as a kind of probabilistic superposition of mutually inconsistent alternatives through which it cycles at a blinding speed. This is what your visual system does in a flash when a new face appears, before settling on the one face recreated from memory that best fits the sensory evidence before us. This was a profoundly moving discovery.
The dissociative state does more than just dissociate your experience from the external world, creating a solipsistic inner experience, but it also dissociates one brain area from another, causing a mental fragmentation in which one no longer feels like a single individual, but as a kind of fragmented collective consciousness almost like a multiple-personality syndrome, or a cacophony of asynchronous “group thought”. The most direct and obvious manifestation of this strong dissociation was seen in vision turning double, as also happens when one is profoundly drunk. It just becomes too great an effort to keep the two eyes fused, so one tends to relax and just let the world turn double, each eye ignoring the experience of the other, and thus, it is normally more relaxing and less disturbing to simply close your eyes, and in the dissociated state this does nothing to reduce the vividness or clarity of the experience. Thoughts also dissociate from each other, allowing one part of your mind to think one thing, while another part thinks something completely different. Your mind becomes a cacophony of discordant voices, you lose your sense of being a single self. This also was a fascinating experience with profound philosophical implications.
There is a strange sense of space that takes over as your world of experience becomes dissociated, as your perceived body fragments into a million pieces and dissolves seamlessly into the surrounding world of non-self, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the self expands outward to encompass the whole world of your experience. Your self is transformed from a central body-shaped object, to a larger spatial void that is just crammed full of images madly morphing from one pattern to the next. This world is your all, it is the screen that defines the maximum extent of your possible experience, just as a television screen, with its glowing colored dots, defines the full range of all possible images that can be expressed in that gamut of colors. And during the free-wheeling hallucination stage, I would experience a succession from one moving experience to the next, from Egyptian pyramids in a desert, to the mountains of Mars, to people, faces, creatures, concepts, and wild pattens in an endless state of flux. It is one thing to read about these experiences as happening to someone else, but it is quite another to “be” those endless visions, and to have them be as real to you as any experience in the real world!
I came to call this phenomenon the “egg world”, a roughly ellipsoidal volume of space stretching to often dark shadowy and indistinct limits, like the dome of the sky matched by the bowl of an inverted sky, but with a curious missing hemifield back behind what would have been behind my head, a volumetric space in which the images appear, morphing from one interpretation to the next, like a surrealistic painting by Dali. In fact, the radical transformation of one object to something completely different, was typical of the visual transformations, they tended to shift abruptly like one of those Gestalt illusions where a young lady is transformed into an old hag, and back again. In this profound state of intoxication I lost all sense of the distinction between the world itself and the experience of it in my mind. I got the sense that I was directly experiencing the cataclysmic transformation of the universe, or at least the only universe of which I was aware, and that whole universe was exploding into senseless fragments. I felt I was witnessing the cataclysmic birth or death of the entire universe, witnessed not by viewing from the outside, but by being the universe undergoing those cataclysmic events. There was nothing else beyond myself that entered into my awareness, I was isolated in a kind of “brain in a vat” solipsistic experience disconnected from external reality.
And yet at the same time I had a sense that my universe was finite and bounded, delimited by the outer shell of the egg-like space, a surface whose distance was indefinite or fuzzy, or changeable, not unlike the space you see before you with eyes closed, or in pitch darkness, and the dimensions of that space seemed to depend on what was being imaged in that space. I had a claustrophobic sensation of being trapped within the confines of this egg-shaped world, and in that thought was embodied the notion of the possible existence of something else beyond, of the great infinite blackness of non-experience beyond the limits of my experienced world.
And with that thought, there came another, which I found even more moving still. With that thought came a thought, why do I have to be trapped within my own self? Why can’t this beautiful energetic spirit that is me, escape the confines of my brain, and go out into the external world? Not as a supernatural spirit, I don’t believe in those. But as a resonance in some kind of resonator built for that purpose, that operates on the same essential principles as the resonance in our brain. Why don’t we build machines that have the same power of dynamic image generation as our brain, and thus, create consciousness beyond the biological mind? And if we can create resonators that replicate the principle of the human brain, we can then interconnect them in a global network, where the images in the various resonators would be coupled with each other so as to produce a single emergent global mind, distributed across all the resonators in the network. It is hard to express the profoundly moving nature of that thought. This was the philosophy of experience seen in a completely different light.
There was another aspect of the dissociated psychedelic experience that impressed itself on me, and that was the sound that I heard. Although I tended not to notice unless I attended to it deliberately, there was a strange and constant sound in the background during all these experiences, and that sound could be described as the thrumming of some great machine, or the drone of enormous deep organ pipes that vibrated to the core of my soul. There was a kind of “chugga chugga chugga” or “thumpa thumpa thumpa” sound, but that was only one component. On top of that were higher pitched and faster cycling sounds all the way to the highest audible tone, and these sounds were rich and deep and periodic and chaotic, all at the same time, impossible to describe. I came to believe that this was the sound that my brain makes when it is thinking. This is the sound of thought.
Ketamine marked for me the final shattering of the last vestiges of the naïve illusion that what we are seeing in experience is the world itself. After you have lived through as many free-wheeling hallucinations as I have, you realize that your mind is first and foremost, a magnificent three-dimensional holographic image projection mechanism, capable of rendering some truly awesome experienced scenes, with incredible capacities for generating texture, patterns, shapes, transparency, color, light and shadow, multiple illumination, radiance or self-illuminance, mirror reflections, and refraction as through water or glass. Our visual mind works like a modern ray-tracing algorithm that creates synthetic scenes using fractal algorithms complete with illumination and shadow, except it is capable of generating the most complex scenes in a fraction of a second, and hundreds of these images per second! Once you have seen how vivid and clear and complex a world your mind is capable of fabricating in an instant of time, you must acknowledge both a deep appreciation for the outstanding capacity of the brain to pull off that stunt, and at the same time, a deep awe at the thought of the real world itself, beyond our experience, of which the world of experience is no more than a cartoon caricature over-simplification.
It is worth complementing Lehar’s report with the findings of another lucid psychonaut, James L. Kent of Psychedelic Information Theory. He also identifies the “psychedelic + dissociative” combination as an area of special interest for studying hallucinations. That said, he also points out that if one takes this combo in conjunction with an acetylcholine promoter of some sort the experience can easily become overwhelming and uncontrollable (crossing the boundary between fun and free-wheeling to unpleasantly chaotic and out of control; cf. criticality):
The ACh promotion of dreaming and REM has been demonstrated in animal research, but only subjectively reported and presumed in humans. Subjective reports of combining both the dissociative ketamine and the psychedelic LSD with pre-doses of galantamine and choline (both acetylcholine promoters) indicates that ACh promoters facilitate emotionally intense eidetic hallucinations, sometimes uncomfortable or unpleasant in nature, emerging beyond the subject’s capacity to control. This demonstrates that the production of eidetic imagery in response to ACh modulation is a spontaneous and automatic function of memory consolidation that cannot be easily controlled by the will or intent of the subject. The spontaneous production of salient eidetic memory makes psychedelics a useful tool in psychotherapy, but the uncontrollable flood of eidetic imagery may not always be pleasant for the subject. States of intense eidetic hallucination may be associated with memory regression, imprinting, reconsolidation, and neuroplasticity.
As they say in my hometown: It’s all fun and games until someone becomes a globular cluster of arborized realities. Don’t overdo the acetylcholine.