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Cognitive Science with Tongue


I couldn’t exactly say this in my grad school essay, but the real reason I started studying psychology wasn’t a great teacher or a fascinating textbook. It was a little pill called “barrel of sunshine.” Popping 1000 mg of LSD at a Jefferson Airplane concert probably wasn’t the smartest thing I did when I was 15 but it turned my interest in science turned into an interest both in the psychology of consciousness, and in the search for God largely from the “mind-expanding” effects that Aldous Huxley referred to as opening the Doors of Perception. One time I was hallucinating a pattern in the clouds that I knew was not there, that I often would later see on sidewalks or other textured but undifferentiated landscapes. Maybe I was seeing some deeper reality beneath the surface, but I didn’t really think so. It was several years later, on a visit with an older friend to an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, when I first saw the image of the Mayan calendar, and then realized why it was so familiar. I’d seen it before, in the clouds above Happy Hollow Park, tripping on mescaline at age fifteen.

How much of the hallucinatory experience, sensory deprivation or drug induced, might really just be a projection of one’s own subconscious mind. Or even more simply, of the structure of one’s visual system. Think about the so-called “sensory he homunculus” of the primary sensory cortex, just behind the central sulcus in the parietal lobe of the brain. While this isn’t a visual area, bodily sensations can be somatotopically mapped by size according to the sensitivities of the body. As you might expect, the sensory mapping of genitalia, located at superior central end of the parietal cortex, well inside the cerebral commissure, is disproportionate (interestingly, right next to the somatotopic toes, which may help explain some sensory overlaps). On the complete other end of the sensory homunculus, the lips and tongue cover sizeable ratios in the lower lateral portion of the primary parietal lobe just before the lateral sulcus, which dips into the viscerosensory area just before the insula (which may be tied to a lot of interior sensations tied to emotion). The somatotopic mapping is almost like the Rolling Stones logo, except that there is also a separate mapping for the tongue itself.

So perhaps my hallucinatory visual pattern under the influence of mescaline was just the constellation of archetype with a visual complex. One of the reasons psychedelic drugs have the effects they do is because of the way they mimic certain neurotransmitters, not replacing them but blocking them, sort of like breaking off the wrong key in a lock. Your brain then fills in the details. You can get something of the same effect by floating in a salt-water sensory deprivation tank, which I’d recommend to anyone as a wonderful, timeless relaxation, especially when you realize that the native drumming you might be hearing is actually your own heartbeat, the rhythmic wind your breathing. Inspired by John C Lilly’s work with sensory deprivation, Paddy Chayevsky’s novel Altered States was turned into a Ken Russell film, starring Blair Brown as a young anthropologist, and William Hurt as a neurophysiologist seeking the origin of human consciousness, who combines sensory deprivation with psychedelic drugs. You can get some of the same effect of hallucinatory experience: Try imagining something, whether horrific (like the floor being swarming with cockroaches) or beatific (like a glowing landscape), and then imagine what it would be like to forget that you were imagining. In the days of broadcast television you could get this effect by turning your TV to the white noise between channels and just focusing on it; like meditation, when you attention wanders, just keep bringing it back. At first you just see glowing color around the edges, then moving and shifting geometric patterns (or a mandala). You have to relax, as you may feel yourself getting a little anxious. Finally you start to think you might be getting some weird reception from China, and you start to see very fuzzy dramatic events, until they start to turn strange and scary enough to realize these dreamlike sequences are probably not broadcast.

Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures used hallucinogenic compounds. The Olmec, Zapotec, Maya and Aztec used peyote, hallucinogenic mushrooms, and the seeds of ololiuhqui, that contain mescaline, psilocybin and lysergic acid amide, respectively. No doubt the appearance of a tongue at the center of a Mayan calendar could come to be interpreted in many ways, as the role of a tongue can, symbolically or otherwise, for contemporary Westerners, but there is something particularly powerful to find an extended tongue at the center of any mandala, hallucinated or otherwise.

So what about the tongue is so compelling? We lick our lips in anticipation, stick out our tongues to tease or insult, and bite our tongues to restrain our speech. One anthropological theory is that our very nakedness evolved as temperature regulation when, unlike the rest of the mammalian kingdom, we co-opted the use of our tongues for speech. We still use them to swallow food, to recover something stuck in the teeth, or to tongue a broken tooth. We lick ice cream. I’m just learning to play blues harmonica, where there’s certainly some tonguing involved. Perhaps this is why Mick Jagger is so good with a mouth harp, and what more memorable rock logo is there than the lips and tongue image for the Rolling Stones? Freud’s oral stage is about the first of our zones of pleasure, and osculation is often the first step in signaling or sharing social intimacy, swapping spit. What movement from a chaste kiss to more arousing forms of social intercourse doesn’t start with a little tongue, before more serious sharing of bodily fluids?

Whether or not infants are actually mimicking adult facial expressions, a commonplace research myth since Metzler’s initial studies several decades ago, babies do quite readily stick out their tongues. They will also do it more often under the influence of oxytocin, a hormone connected to mother-infant bonding, milk release, and adult empathy, generosity, and even orgasm. Very young infants can also follow adult gaze-direction, an ability absent in autism. I have apparently done the tongue mimicry test sufficiently often with my now two-year-old toddler, that he has been known to try it with his eye-closing, bottle-nursing baby doll. Don’t we have the facial recognition technology to make baby doll mimicry? I guess we’d need baby doll tongues. Maybe that’s pushing the weirdness boundary.