Psychedelics Might Lead Humanity To New Intellectual And Artistic Heights

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The idea of a psychedelic renaissance — as captured in the title of Ben Sessa’s bookThe Psychedelic Renaissance — is growing amongst health professions, and as a Feb. 9, 2015, article in The New Yorker phrased it, current clinical research is “part of a renaissance of psychedelic research,” so we see the phrase is catching on in general culture too. To me, Psychedelic Renaissance is more than a guide for psychotherapeutic practices, more than the inauguration of an era of experience-based religion, more than an enrichment of academic and artistic fields; it can be an embarkation port to a realistic and expanded view of what our minds are and what they can become. Health dominates current policy discussions, but as psychedelics’ other domains become widely accepted, what new uses will emerge, and what policy discussions can we anticipate for future years?

A Four-Stage Model

When I think about the Psychedelic Renaissance, I find it handy to think about it as a four-stage process, in short: medical, religious, intellectual, mind. This is not a sequential theory, not one in which a new stage replaces it predecessor; each stage builds quite naturally into the next. While we are now at the medical stage, some precursors of its subsequent stages are appearing, but I am using “stage” to signify the time when the general culture adopts psychedelics’ various other uses — will feel at home with them — not when their first inklings appear.

When we ask, “What policies will have to be developed for each stage?” it’s important to recognize that “policy” has two arms, regulation by laws and regulation by social conventions. Because these arms constantly interact, any successful attempt to change one must include the other. By taking us beyond today’s discussion of regulatory changes of the medical-neuroscience stage, the 4-stage model alerts us to pay attention to broad policy areas elsewhere in society and to keep an eye out for ideas in one stage that will lead us to a following stage.

The Medical-Neuroscientific Stage

Currently, this two-part field is leading the way, and it probably should because our culture places a high priority on curing diseases. Also, scientific findings and medical results can be observed, measured, and/or shown to be cost-effective: like it or not, these results are all highly valued by our society at large, thus leading to social acceptance.

In addition to testing treatments, psychotherapy and clinical researchers are discovering the benefits of unitive consciousness (mystical experiences); they naturally raise religious-spiritual questions. Topics and experiences produced experimentally include spiritual significance, ego-loss, meaningfulness, sense of sacredness and values such as altruism, and open-mindedness. These are overturning psychiatry’s historical hostility toward mystical experiences. Because they are successful when they produce unitive consciousness; current research in death anxiety, PTSD, addiction, and other problems are inadvertently raising spiritual and religious topics.

In addition to standard discoveries in the neurosciences, the neuroscientific half of the stage 2 has contributed to neurotheology, as it’s being called. As a result, the historical, post-Enlightenment chasm between medicine and science on one hand and religion on the other is being bridged, and in the next stage may even lead to experiential theology.

Policy problems at this stage are largely those of meeting the established standards of the medical and scientific communities, reformulating Federal and state laws to fit the emerging clinical and scientific facts, determining professional standards and protocols, and encouraging still skittish private and governmental funders to do their civic duties.

Spiritual significance, ego-loss, meaningfulness, and sense of sacredness from clinical research combining with experimental neurotheology logically leads us to experimental religious studies and naturally leads us to the spiritual-religious stage of the Psychedelic Renaissance.

The Spiritual-Religious Stage

In their religious and spiritual uses, psychedelics are called “entheogens.” That is, they produce an experience that feels spiritual or is interpreted that way. There is a huge and complex discussion about this topic, and I expect that it will never be settled — like many other religious topics.

While the medical-neuroscientific stage is gaining public recognition, the spiritual-religious stage is generally below public view. From the way things look now, the spiritual-religious stage is starting: (1) more churches legally use psychedelics entheogenically, (2) psychedelic psychotherapy is carrying the idea of unitive consciousness into society, and (3) publications about psychedelics’ entheogenic uses are spreading in from society’s fringes toward its center. All three of these are increasing this century. We are far from a full flowering, but entheogenic seeds are being sown and are sprouting.

While the policy issues in the medical-neuroscientific stage are far from straightforward, spiritual-religious policies are relatively more complex; they are tangled with religious liberty, personal conscience, and establishment-of-religion problems. How does the standard of “least restrictive means” in The Religious Freedom Restoration Act apply to entheogens? On what grounds can the courts decide what is and what isn’t a religious use?

Does a religion have to include an organized group, clergy, and/or theology?  If members, how many? Abraham and Sarah were enough to start Judaism, and 13 guys did it for Christianity. Do drug laws written and enforced for medical and scientific research apply to organized religion and to personal conscience?  Can courts determine when a person’s use is truly religious/spiritual and not just a shield to do illegal drugs? Who knows enough to make informed decisions?

Does the increasingly common perspective, “I’m not religious. I’m spiritual” fit in? Among the people I know, psychedelics contribute to the reason some people take this position. When the entheogenic uses of psychedelics are offhandedly dismissed as “recreational,” people who take their entheogenic religion seriously rightly feel insulted. When a religious order, seminary, or other recognized religious organization wants to try entheogenic experiments, is governmental permission needed? Who gets to say “yes” to one group and “no” to another? Would this be de facto establishment? I like to imagine what might happen if university courses that study emerging new religions, religious studies, and related topics had experimental lab experiences with entheogens. Whose domain is this?

Although it isn’t their purpose, current psychedelic laws in effect regulate religious practices and theological research; they restrict the emergence of new religions. There’s enough in stage two to keep several generations of policy experts and ethicists busy.

The ideas being raised for theology, religious philosophy, the psychology of religion, and other forms of religious studies hint at their congruent parallels in other academic fields. As the specific topics of the spiritual-religious stage generalize to wider intellectual realms, they uncover a continent of ideas and we move quite naturally into the intellectual-artistic stage.

The Intellectual-Artistic Stage

First, the artistic and intellectual communities already are using their fields to describe and understand psychedelic experiences. In the arts world, this takes the form of works that describe the artists’ own experiences in their media, attempts to stimulate similar experiences in their audiences, intensified sensations, and perceptual discoveries. In academic fields, scholars are accumulating information about how their disciplines have, or haven’t, addressed psychedelics by asking questions such as “How does (name of discipline) contribute to our understanding of psychedelics?” These fit within traditional academic activities.

Second, new ideas from psychedelic experiences can enrich current disciplines. For example, Grof’s model of the human mind provides a theory of psychocriticism.

Third, the least developed line of exploration is using psychedelics as a research method to generate new insights and ideas. As ways to think out-of-the-box, they generate ideas, theories, algorithms, and paradigms. In this use, I like to think of them as ideagens. That makes them a conceptual research methodology. I hope someday the growth in academic policy at universities and research institutes will make laboratory courses in psychedelic research methods part of their advanced professional education. Below, we’ll see this third use as a transition to the mind design stage.

Just as the spiritual-religious stage has policy issues of religious freedom, the intellectual-artistic stage has policy issues of academic freedom; although, academic freedom is supported by social convention not law. Although it isn’t their purpose, current drug laws restrict academic and artistic freedom. If anyone would dare to do the research, for many, perhaps even most, of the 30+million Americans who have taken psychedelics, I predict the researchers would find that these experiences are commonly rated not only as among the most spiritually significant, but also as among the most educationally stimulating, intellectually enriching, artistically creative, scientifically puzzling, philosophically meaningful, ethically altruistic, powerfully transformative, and psychologically healthful events of their lives.

I certainly have experienced them that way for several decades, but academics who follow this intellectual curiosity face mandatory minimum sentences. Others who follow their scientific interests, aesthetic development, and ethical judgments face similar fates, so society as a whole is impoverished. Policy makers, can you write policies that encourage these beneficial effects and at the same time reduce undesirable ones?

Psychedelic experiences provide evidence for and against various ideas. Neglecting them wounds the open marketplace of ideas. In courts of law, prohibiting them undermines justice.

In addition to their insightful intellectual uses, artists of all kinds find them inspirational, mothers of ideas, sensory enhancers, and perspective shifters; art schools, conservatories and similar institutions may do so too. If insights and the arts count for something, should using psychedelics to generate them be prohibited?

Beyond topics to study, a major intellectual evolution occurs when thinkers transfer from thinking about psychedelics to thinking with them — as a conceptual research method. Thus, the topics of the intellectual-artistic stage move us quite naturally to the fourth stage — the mind design stage.

The Mind Design Stage

So far we have predominately been looking at how to enhance our default mind-body state (a.k.a. state of consciousness). But the Psychedelic Renaissance is capable of taking us much further afield into inventing new mind-body states as the Psychedelic Renaissance becomes subsumed into a larger Multistate Renaissance. A useful analogy: just as we can write and install a practically unlimited number of apps for our electronic devices, we can write and install many apps for our minds. I feel the wordmindapp works nicely here. Psychedelics are one family of mindapps. Others include the wide variety of other psychoactive drugs and plants, meditation, contemplative prayer, yoga, breathing techniques, chanting, martial arts and exercise routines, hypnosis, imagery, suggestion, sleep deprivation, dreamwork, sensory overload and restriction, transcranial magnetic stimulation, electrical brain stimulation, and others.

It seems to me that some psychedelic intellectuals and artists are catching on: they realize that the psychedelic mind state and its apps are just one of many states and mindapps. In stage four, one goes beyond enriching our ordinary, default mind state and its abilities to seeing psychedelics as one of many current mindapps. Beyond that, the mind-design stage challenges people to invent new mindapps, to install them, to explore and develop previously unknown states and their new, previously unknown resident abilities.

New mindapps are being invented and imported regularly, but they are usually used one-at-a-time. When we sequence them in new ways and combine them into new recipes, we will open the future of mind design.

Who, if anyone, will control this stage? Medical schools? Organized religions? Intellectual and scholarly organizations? Governments?  Will there be a place for the iconic “young inventors in a garage”? At each stage, the policy issues get wider and more complex, and we have fewer precedents to call on. One issue is that current laws are written by people whose minds are in our default state and are about our default state; we have no idea what laws might be written in other mindstates and for other mindstates. Even for psychedelic states, current laws prohibit us finding out.  This policy jungle remains to be explored.

Augmenting The Human Mind

I have little doubt that this is the springtime in the Psychedelic Renaissance. The Medical-Neurosciences Stage is leafing out. The Spiritual-Religious Stage is sprouting. The Intellectual-Artistic Sage is germinating.  But what about the Mind Design Stage? It is hard to know what its seeds are, and even more difficult to say which ones will be fruitful and which will be weeds. For stage one, the criteria for medical healing and scientific discovery are relatively straightforward. The goals of stages two, three, and four, however, are, as Bob Jesse says, “the betterment of well people.” Jesse’s goal absorbs Douglas Engelbart’s narrower view from Augmenting Human Intellect, “a new and systematic approach to improving the intellectual effectiveness of the individual human being.”

Who gets to judge betterment? Governments? Churches? Academic Organizations? Art critics? Individuals? What criteria should they use? Social acceptability? Ethical actions? Economic growth? To make matters even more complex, we think about these things in our ordinary, default waking state (and even this single-state situation produces its fair share of disagreements).  But when we add a perspective that includes our human ability to produce and use a plethora of mind-body states, we’ll complicate these questions. When we actually install those mind states in our minds and use their respective multistate cognitive processes and values, we’ll find ourselves in an even murkier quagmire. We are there now.


This piece first appeared on AlterNet.

Thomas B. Roberts is an emeritus professor at Northern Illinois University, where he teaches Foundations of Psychedelic Studies as an Honors Program Seminar. Started in 1981, it is the world’s first university-cataloged psychedelic course.

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