I had the pleasure of reading Timothy Leary’s book, The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. This book was written by prominent psychedelic advocate and researcher Timothy Leary as an instruction manual for psychedelic tripping. It was obviously written at a time where officially sanctioned research on psychedelic compounds was more common and when LSD was at a height of popularity with the counterculture of the 1960s. Yet the manual is largely focused on altering one’s consciousness based on the readings of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
Leary outlines four main goals, based on classic Hinduism, when one engages with psychedelic substances:
- Insight into oneself or others, personal growth, accelerated learning, professional growth and/or intellectual understanding
- Rehabilitation, helping others, duty
- Fun, aesthetic pleasure, interpersonal closeness and/or pure experience
- Liberation of ego and time-space limits, transcendence
In this manual Leary focuses on the fourth goal, but he says that the advice will be applicable for the others as well. Throughout the manual he continually refers to the loss of ego as the end goal because this is the place and time where all worldly concerns, personalities and roles will be gone. He describes these roles and concerns as ‘games’. “Games are behavioral sequences defined by roles, rules, rituals, goals, strategies, values, language, characteristic space-time locations and characteristic patterns of movement”. For example, a married couple may be concerned about their marriage game when tripping or a group of friends may be concerned with their customs and courtesies that usually occur in the ordinary world. It is Leary’s goal through this manual to transcend these ordinary games and achieve a complete loss of ego.
He first makes the distinction known that the psychedelic compounds themselves do not “produce the transcendent experience”. He claims that the substances are more like a chemical key that unlock the ability to free oneself from the typical methodology of thinking. The experience is mainly dependent on the set and setting Leary goes on to explain. Set refers to the state of mind one is in before the psychedelic experience and this could be short term or long term. The setting is also crucial as a trusted environment is much easier to achieve transcendence in. Leary recommends at least three days for the entire ordeal, one before the trip and one after in order to completely process the entire experience. He also has many other practical suggestions for a broad array of topics like group settings, psychedelic guide instructions and dosages.
I was very interested to read this material and see how Leary wanted to use psychedelic compounds to achieve altered perceptions in consciousness. It turns out this guide is incredibly scientific in nature and I’m sure has a plethora of personal experience to back up his work. It sounds like this state of being is achievable by a select few skilled meditators, but the psychedelic compounds create an easier way to attain complete mindfulness to the point of ego loss.
This week I watched a lecture by consciousness and sleep researcher Dr. Giulio Tononi. Tononi has made it his life work to understand the complex phenomenon of consciousness. In class we have explored certain aspects of consciousness or changes in consciousness (NDE etc.), but not much thought has been given to what consciousness is, how it is created and how it works. Dr. Tononi has pondered these questions and developed an all encompassing theory to explain consciousness. First he outlines how current thought has failed to produce results in the field of consciousness. Freud developed the thought that even when we completely understand the localization of the brain’s functions, this will still not explain consciousness or its origin. It may be interesting to see which parts of the brain control which functions, but we have yet to determine how those neurons in our brain produce the highly developed and intertwined experience of consciousness. Tononi also demonstrates that if we were to judge an individual’s consciousness strictly by their brain activity then we would be wrong. He showed a graph of EEG readings for an individual in a wakeful state transitioning into sleep, which did not show a drop off when the individual went into a non-dreaming sleep state. Tononi asserts that consciousness can be best thought of as all of the time spent outside of sleep, especially if one is not dreaming. Therefore, the EEG readings cannot explain how we do not experience consciousness because our brains our still active during this subdued state of consciousness where we experience nothing, not even dreams.
Dr. Tononi’s integrated information theory of consciousness rests upon two assumptions. The first being that every conscious state contains a huge amount of information to be processed. Tononi gives his standard example of a movie frame as seen through a human and a photodiode. A photodiode can differentiate whether something is light or dark so a photodiode may see a blank screen (during a dark part in the movie) and register as ‘dark’, whereas a human will register this as a break in a movie which he or she is watching at a specific location and time, among other things that someone may be thinking about during a film. The same could be said about a light part in the film. In a specific scene the human mind will differentiate between characters on the screen, their location and what is specifically occurring, unlike the photodiode which will simply say it is ‘light’. The second assumption to Tononi’s theory is that this massive amount of information is highly integrated. The human mind can integrate the information found on the movie screen seamlessly. For example, if there was a man wearing a blue t-shirt the human mind can instantaneously process this as a man wearing a blue t-shirt as opposed to strictly a man or blue or a t-shirt.
The integrated information theory takes these two assumptions and makes the following claim. A physical system with large amounts of information and integration will produce a measurable level of consciousness. He measures consciousness using a complex set of algorithms with an end result denoted by ‘phi’. For example, human consciousness is so low during sleep because there is a decreased amount of information. It also explains why epileptic seizure patients cannot remember their seizures; it is because the brain’s neurons are not well integrated. In theory this could mean that the internet, as an informative and integrated system is conscious. Some would disagree with this example, however, and remind us that the internet is not constantly connected like a human brain is so it could not develop a large level of consciousness.
I think this theory is compelling, yet I cannot help but think that this takes the animalistic perspective out of consciousness, if it is true. It would have major implications for non-living systems of information that I am not sure would be possible. Although, I am not the only skeptic out there, as many researchers have expressed their doubts. Many, including Tononi, have stated that this theory is in its infancy and needs further development.
In his book Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, Christof Koch asserts many scientific and philosophical notions of consciousness. It is difficult to summarize the entirety of his work since he covers so much ground from Descartes to The Matrix. Yet the core of Koch’s view of consciousness roots itself in an empirically sound version separate of religion. One of his main arguments is that humans are not special in their ability to perceive consciousness. He insists that animals experience consciousness too, but to a lesser degree than humans. Obviously there is not another known animal which possesses the higher level reasoning or cognitive abilities that we do, but this does not stop Koch from reminding readers several times that the traditional Judeo-Christian framework for human exceptionalism is misguided. In his view, it depends on what physical capabilities the animal has. Fundamentally, the animal’s ability to perceive consciousness still roots itself, at least in a correlative sense, with the brain and its electrical impulses. This might be Koch’s strongest viewpoint.
Koch believes that there is a high correlation between the connectivity of the brain and consciousness. He also thinks that electrical impulses are an excellent indicator of the level of consciousness that an individual is experiencing. In a study he describes, researchers built a metal contraption to fit over the head of humans in order to create a magnetic field using a technique called trans-cranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). The machine would briefly create the magnetic effect with only a slight discomfort to the patient’s head. Researchers would collect data on the brain’s electrical activity using an EEG while the subject was being stimulated by the magnetic field. The researchers’ theory was that there would not be as much electrical connectivity between neurons when in decreased states of consciousness. To test this they first examined subjects while they were in non-REM sleep. This phase of the sleep cycle is particularly dull for the mind as there are no dreams and therefore consciousness is incredibly limited. As expected, the connectivity of the brain was significantly decreased during this phase of sleep. There was a large local response to the magnetic stimulation, but spreading that signal proved difficult for the human brain during non-REM sleep cycles.
The researchers took their experiment one step further and decided to test their machine on hospital patients in a vegetative state, much like Terry Schiavo. For patients in a completely vegetative state, there was no such reaction to any stimulation indicating a complete lack of consciousness. Researchers also tested those in a minimal conscious state (MCS) where these people could move their eyes or do small things indicating a slight elevation in consciousness from those in a vegetative state. The MCS patients actually responded to the TMS in many of the same ways fully conscious individuals do and in some cases later returned to full consciousness. This experiment displays a large correlation between the connectivity of the brain and consciousness. Yet, as Koch notes, this hardly begins to explain how we get from localized clumps of cells sending electrical impulses to the consciousness we experience every day. Unfortunately, he does little to provide an explanation for the massive leap, but he outlines several philosophical and scientific views which attempt to unpack the idea more carefully to help the reader sort through their own understanding of consciousness. I was particularly drawn to the idea of animal consciousness and how it makes sense that animals, as a result of a lack of prefrontal cortex, always experience the present. This book inspired new thought as to when consciousness begins and where the line is drawn.
Charles Eisenstein delivers his readers a fundamental blow to their conception of the world in his book The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible. He begins by outlaying the framework for which modern humankind abides by in a series of questions that are considered “life’s most basic”. Eisenstein explains how current worldview thinking is oriented about an individualistic, materialistic and evolutionary mindset. He argues how humans relate to the world currently by thinking we are all separate beings created to serve a self interested mass of neuropsychology also known as the brain which dictates our thoughts and behavior. Following true scientific form, this worldview breaks life down into the simplest of explanations. Unfortunately for readers, this view may be incredibly pessimistic as it highlights the destruction of nature, widespread poverty and other major problems which seem to be increasing in scope as time passes.
He suggests a new order of civilization which places a heavy emphasis on the interconnectedness of the universe. Much like the theory of collective consciousness, Eisenstein asserts that your being takes part in everyone else’s being and that this idea goes way farther than mere interdependence. He also claims that for a successful remodeling of old civilization to occur we must consider that everyone has a unique gift and that the purpose of life is to use these gifts to help others. He believes every act is very important to the cosmos as a whole and that we are “fundamentally unseperate from each other”. Obviously these ideas transcend current understanding and are quite counterintuitive ways of thinking.
He acknowledges several times that there is an element of idealism in this theory which can only be anchored by faith in other humans. Faith that others will act for the common good of the collective as opposed to the individual; the individual which Eisenstein claims does not technically exist. When humans can overcome this natural desire to serve the self, Eisenstein argues, we will begin to live life in a more pleasurable, fulfilling and less destructive life.
When I read the first chapter I was immediately captivated by his accuracy of the “separate world”. I thought he articulated precisely what mainstream society has been preaching for years and how it will eventually ruin the planet and ourselves. It may not be a cheery reality, but it is still the reality of how this world will collapse eventually if we continue to operate under the same set of assumptions and beliefs which govern societal priorities presently. His major suggestions for a new society also resonated with me as I hold the belief that everyone has a unique ability or gift to share with the world for its benefit. In fact, I thought that most of his characteristics were valid and if put into practice would increase the happiness and cleanliness of the world exponentially.
This week’s book was very fascinating for me because I have wanted to explore the idea of collective consciousness for some time now. Already having a predisposition for the idea, it was not until I read Dossey’s book that I realized just how far reaching this concept can be. For example, dreaming was a topic that did not cross my mind when thinking of collective consciousness. Apparently there are collective dreams in which multiple people experience the same storyline in a dream independently of one another. There was a case in which twins from Japan both had a dream that one sister was killing the other in a hotel with marble pillars. I am unsure if I want to make the leap to a collective consciousness explanation for this phenomenon, but collective dreaming would certainly fit inside this paradigm.
Perhaps more compelling evidence is the idea of knowing when others are looking at you. This has always been something I have noticed both ways. I usually get a feeling when someone is looking at me and it so happens that I look in their direction immediately as if I subconsciously know where to look. The same is true when I observe other people and they look at me like they instinctively know when and where to look. Even more interesting is the study in which participants were being watched from a closed circuit television. The participants could feel the presence of the observers’ eyes even when being watched over a camera. The participants could subjectively feel the presence which was corroborated with their vitals that were being monitored during the study.
I was especially interested in the idea presented in chapter 24 which suggested that the “one mind” was God. This immediately reminded me of a philosophy class I am taking which presented the idea that you can become God. In his book Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius makes the argument that by pursuing happiness in a divine manner will eventually create a divine stake in you. This is not to say that you can become God himself, but rather you can have a stake in his goodness. This idea seemed quite radical to me at the time, but it could possibly connect to the idea of collective consciousness. When I read the chapter about healing in nursing homes and hospitals I made the connection that the love healers are pouring out into their patients could be akin to the love believers express to God when praying for someone. I vaguely remember a study from Psych 401 which affirmed the use of prayer, or at least thoughtful meditation, as a significant healing method. At this point you could go both ways and state that God could or could not be real since all that is required is access to the collective conscious. Yet, what if praying was a deliberately two sided technique used to access the collective consciousness along with connecting believers to their deity? I believe that religion could have a place in collective consciousness which would certainly rock the fundamental assumptions many religions profess today.
The first medium I stumbled upon was George Anderson. He briefly describes his life story which seems similar to other mediums and also the guests in class. He started noticing his abilities when he was six years old. This happened after he contracted chicken pox which developed into encephalomyelitis. The disease left great damage to his brain which prevented him from walking for a period of time and the doctors did not think he was going to live. It was during this time of recovery where he first saw his first spirit in the form of Joan of Arc. The doctors thought he was developing a severe mental disease, most likely schizophrenia, but one of his doctors gave him the benefit of the doubt which prevented him being locked away in a mental institution. Since then Anderson has written many books and appeared on television shows along with his full-time work as a medium.
I read a skeptical view of his work from the website tampabayskeptics.org which analyzed the transcript of a private reading he performed for a client. Obviously the article was slanted against him, but the first two minutes of dialogue did not make him look any bit genuine. I understand that sometimes mediums are not in tune with the spirits, but it appeared as Anderson was doing a lot of guess work for the answers. One of the most obvious instances of perceived trickery was when he incorrectly guessed that the male figure was a “sweetheart” so he went back and said that the spirit was joking about it. He kept trying to guess the name of the spirit throughout the transcript which was successful eventually, but not without many fishing attempts such as guessing the first letter or how many letters.
I then turned to John Edward who is one of the most well known mediums in the business. He also started experiencing his abilities at a very young age when his family realized that he knew facts about their family history which would have been unknowable to a child of that age. He was significantly influenced by the psychic Lydia Clar who told him that his life work would be to teach others his ability. He has been written several books and even created his own television show which are some of the reasons he has achieved so much fame. I watched several of his interviews since he seems to be the flagship for mediumship which yielded some interesting results. First, he was asked if he was ever contacted by spirits at an inconvenient time to which he replied yes. Actually, he was interrupted during sex one time when he was younger, but he would not go into further detail. I thought it was interesting how he talked about the spirits not caring about interrupting human activities which we might think are “embarrassing”.
I noticed that he did readings for multiple audiences which I thought was brave considering the possibility of error. First I watched one from George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight in which he was making a return visit. Apparently, Edward had broken the microphone during his first visit in one of his readings. He started by sensing energy from a particular area in the audience where he thought a younger male presence existed, perhaps a son or younger brother. A middle aged woman stood up and he continued by saying that he passed in an unexpected event. He said that “they” kept showing him June because a big number six was appearing to him. The woman could not readily identify the significance even though he kept pressing. He asked who died from a brain related disease and the woman could identify a relative.
When he did a reading of The View’s audience he started by sensing energy from a particular area in the audience where he thought a younger male presence existed, perhaps a son or younger brother. A middle aged woman stood up and he continued by saying that he passed in an unexpected event. He said that “they” kept showing him July because a big number seven was appearing to him. The woman could not readily identify the significance even though he kept pressing. He asked who died from a brain related disease and the woman could identify a relative. Obviously, this is the exact same thing save for a different number. Now I have not done enough research to see if this is the only way in which Edward sees spirits, but the dialogue was so similar to one another that I could not help but let that damage his credibility severely.