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Monkey Mind II: Mysticism, Childhood, and Mental Health

"Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creation out of void, but out of chaos." -- Mary Shelley

We are all mystics before the age of five, before the development of ego, hence “a little child shall lead them.” Hence also the labile ecstasies and undefended agonies which fly through a child’s consciousness from one moment to the next. Those around us know exactly how a child feels, who hasn’t learned to inhibit those feelings, undisciplined and spontaneous. Look at the face of of laughing child, “more tickle,” or feel the pain of one sobbing, “I cry, I cry.” So those around us, particularly our close family, get to share the mimesis of those joys and sorrows, even as we lend the tactics and strategies of self-regulation to our young charges. This is, of course, how children learn the language of the emotional life that they will soon protect and defend largely by keeping private, too often even hidden from themselves, but still “mine, mine.”

Yes, it is the development of ego that makes it possible for us to bear “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” or even those moment by moment anxieties that can otherwise paralyze us. Yes, sadly, consciousness can make “cowards of us all,” “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,” making it difficult to sustain the “native hue of resolution,” and “lose the name of action.” This is how we bear those fardels, and “grunt and sweat under a weary life.” Ego integrity, one of our greatest developmental accomplishments, is also the bastion within which we bear “the whips and scorns of time,” and the greater threats of “the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, the pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, the insolence of office, and the spurn that patient merit of the unworthy takes” (Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1). The lessons by which we vouchsafe our egos integrity are not easy ones, hence the value of their accomplishment, part of many reasons for their defense. As Supreme Court Justice John Roberts said at his son’s graduation from middle school in June 2017:

"From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will fro time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you will be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend on your ability to see the message in your misfortunes. "(Quotation from Lukianoff and Haidt’s 2018 The Coddling of the American Mind.)

I have long thought that the closer I stay to the remembered pain of such lessons, the better of a person I can be. I know my arrogance for the defense it often is, so I am well aware that it can result in my turning into an asshole, oblivious to Dr. Jekyll tuirning into Mr. Hyde.

So, yes, despite its value in negotiating life’s vicissitude, the ego all to easily becomes the master, our fuller actual self its slave, and loosening the activity and the connectivity of even the brain’s “task free network,” our “default mode,” something which might valuably be sought. As with the creative genius of childhood, we all find some of this in sleep or in deep relaxation. In the interpretation of dreams, and the constructions of memory beneath the defenses of ego, we may have, as Freud put it, the “royal road” to what we hide from consciousness. Both long-practiced meditation, and a range of other techniques, including the ingestion of psychedelic drugs, may produce a sufficient reduction of default mode network activity to constitute what Robin Carhart-Harris calls a “superhighway” to the unconscious. He should know, as it was his early training in psychoanalysis, steeping him in Freud and Jung, frustrated by its lack of scientific rigor, and by the limitations of its tools for exploring the unconscious, that led him to Stanislav Grof’s 1975 book Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations from LSD Research. After completing a Master’s in psychoanalysis in 2005, Carhart-Harris got his doctoral training in Neuroscience under David Nutt, a professor at the University of Bristol, notorious for being fired from the British government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs for saying that LSD was safer than alcohol. Dr. Carhart-Harris is now Head of Psychedelic Research, Centre for Neuropsychopharmacology, Division of Brain Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, Imperial College London. It is Carhart-Harris’s research program, on the effects of psychedelic drugs, that not only may help understand the phenomenology of ego-dissolution and the collapse of the subject-object distinction found in mystical experience, but, perhaps more importantly, contribute to a unified understanding of the healthy functioning of human minds.

What Marcus Raichle called the “Default Mode Network,” that set of neural structures more active when we are at rest, not focusing attention on goal-directed tasks (see 11.5.2018 “Monkey Mind I” blog), plays an important role in mental constructs or mental projections, most importantly those of the ego or the self. This is what neuroscientists call “the me network,” activated, say ,when you are considering how a list of adjectives applies to you. Nodes in this network are correlated with autobiographical memory, from which we fabricate a story of who we are, linking our episodic memory of past experiences with our current life, and with our projections into the future. Clearly this is some of the most important neuroscience grounding the neuromythology which is the focus of this blog, our interest in the role played by stories and mythologies, whether our own or those of others, from the evolving corpus available to us in our particular cultural, historical, and biographical locus.

It may be valuable to keep in mind that the contemporary presumption of particular boundaries between subject and object, self and other, internal and external has a very contingent history. In the 1980s, Morris Berman in The Reenchantment of the World and in Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West catalogued many of the changes produced by the shift from a religious to a scientific episteme in the early modern period. Science advanced via the altered conception of these boundaries. However, much in the way of human self-understanding may have been lost, purchased at the price of participative consciousness, and ignoring the sociohistorically constructed nature of ego-consciousness and interiority, emotional and subjective experience, and that of our embodied nature. Scientific thinking has tended to, but need not necessarily produce the reification of particular boundaries between self and object, self and other, or interior and exterior. A worldview inclusive of science need not be one of alienation, disenchantment, or desecration. Part of the contemporary dialogue between religion and science, particularly in the neuroscience of religious, mystical, or other non-normal states of consciousness, may be in reasserting the problematic character of these boundaries, suggesting that science itself might benefit from a more holistic and constructivist metaphysic. Much of what was lost with the emergence of a scientific episteme was a sense of participative consciousness, of a knowing of or a believing in rather than knowing or believing that, of attention to the mereological, logical, semantic, ethical ad praxiological relations within which the causal relationships investigated by science are embedded, and by which they are justified.

There is a real problem, nevertheless, in speculation on the metaphysical relevance of mystical experiences. Despite the noetic character of such experiences, that the experience itself is sufficiently compelling as to seem to provide insight into deeply real truths about existence, it is not clear whether, how, or for who such experiences might legitimately ground such speculation. Almost twenty years ago, several researchers used the neuroscience of religious experience in what came to be called neurotheology, to ground metaphysical speculation on the realities of the brain function underlying the experiences. While the initial use of the term “neurotheology” can be happily attributed to Aldous Huxley in his utopian Island, my invention of neuromythology was in no small part in opposition to the suggestion that the neuroscience of religious experience had any relevance to metaphysical or religious truths.

Eugene D’Aquili’s lifelong program of research, synthesized in The Mystical Mind (1999), was written with Andrew Newberg, and popularized in Newberg’s Why God Won’t Go Away (2001), the first in a series of books appropriating neurotheology as a rubric. D’Aquili and Newberg used PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scans to document the cortical function correlated with the experience of “absolute unitary being” shared by meditating Buddhists and Franciscan nuns at prayer. This research is subject to the same critique of a lot of scientific research on “meditation” which may operationally define “meditation” in a way that fails to do much justice to how the practice is actually defined across varying traditions. D’Aquili and Newberg found a reduction of sensory input to an area of the cortex normally responsible for the experience of boundedness from others and the world, which makes a great deal of sense in accounting for the experience, attenuating the normal capacities for discriminating between one’s body and the world around it. They speculate that since the brain seems to be built in ways that produce a range of such mystical experiences, one could come to noetic conclusions about spirit. One is, unfortunately, reminded of Carl Jung’s remark that one cannot believe in the possibility of mystic union with God without renouncing any chance of distinguishing between reality and hallucination. One cannot infer the existence of pink elephants from the the existence of pink elephant experiences. Knowing something about the brain state, regardless of the reported experience, entails no conclusion about the existence of its referent, despite the existential importance of such “noetic” experiences, even in grounding foundational beliefs.

I have no doubt that there are a whole range of religious and spiritual experiences, including the mystical, that can be understood more fully in terms of the nervous circuitry and bodily physiology by which they are mediated. These include prayer, recitation, study of scripture, as well as everyday ritual and expression. We are no more “hardwired” to experience God than we are to experience anything we do, real or imagined. The mystical experiences studies by D’Aquili and Newberg are products of long shaping and training of the nervous system with techniques developed over centuries of human trial and error. Might the development of myths be understood as stories invented to mollify anticipations of dangers experienced in our prehistory, as in Elizabeth and Paul Barber’s 2004 When They Severed Earth from Sky? Might rituals be connected to the motivational circuitry of repetitive and rhythmic stimuli, limbic arousal, and emotional discharge, as in Robert McCauley and Thomas Lawson’s 2002 Bringing Ritual to Mind? Certainly, and it is possible that as we unpack the causal substrates of these experiences, we may be more readily able to produce them by more direct means than by the belief structures and institutional practices that currently support them. Much of this research is still in its infancy, still yet to be subjected to the kind of controlled studies which might distinguish experiences with specifically religious or spiritual content from otherwise similar ones. How different are the cortical processes in experiences of “absolute unitary being” to those of losing oneself in a symphony, a long walk on a wooded trail, or even a powerful erotic experience? Scientists in training learn to always ask “in comparison to what?” which might be a useful tool in anyone’s critical thinking about these issues.

There may be many experiences that have to do to opening ourselves more fully to aspects of our bodily presence in the world than we have been otherwise able to accomodate in the post-Cartesian materialism of science, which takes for granted an historically contingent set of boundaries between self and other. We too readily take our own unconscious minds, and even our own bodies as other, and externalize them with any number of defensive operations, when our deepest spiritual yearnings may well only be actualized in stepping beyond our ego-consciousness, to the “horizons of subjectivity” (Rahner 1969), where we may both experience transcendence, as well as the “god in us” (Freeman 1993).

At Yale, using fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imagery) Judson Brewer found precipitous drop offs in the blood flow and oxygen consumption in the default mode network of experienced meditators when they report a transcendence of self, “merging into a larger totality, losing a sense of individuality and separateness.” The Buddhist view, that the self is a mental construct, its boundedness a kind of illusion, is also consistent with the subjective experience of Robin Carhart-Harris’s psilocybin-ingesting volunteers, who report a similar “ego-dissolution.” They experience themselves a kind of mental construct, no longer bounded from their surroundings. The more precipitous the drop off in the default mode network, the more likely are reports of “the loss of a sense of self.” So, something like a mystical experience can be produced either by meditation or by direct chemical alteration of the brain, but such experiences can also be produced by some forms of disciplined prayer, fasting, overwhelming awe, near-death experiences, extreme sports, or even by Stanislav Grof’s “holotropic breathwork.”

Click here for a short Youtube on the LSD Brain

Taking the default mode network “offline” also increases the sense of dissonance and mental disorder, as its normal inhibitory influences on other parts of the brain, like the limbic regions involved in emotion and memory. David Nutt even suggests that the default network is the “neural correlate for repression,” the release from which might account for the sudden awareness of all sorts of things normally beneath awareness, including emotions, memories, or even long-buried traumas. The default network is what normally reduces the blooming and buzzing confusion of stimulation to the trickle by which most of us efficiently navigate our waking hours. Our brains are normally “anticipation machines,” as Daniel Dennett once put it, our predictive coding, which may serve us as the controlled hallucination each of us uniquely constructs as our most useful reality. I have a t-shirt which quotes Edgar Allen Poe’s “All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”

I recently experienced something analogous to the psychedelic “shaking the snow globe,” when my three-year-old son completely trashed the dozen or so carefully categorized but always evolving piles of books and papers in my study. I realized just how contingent and fragile that system of organization was, its usefulness as much an arbitrary sense of control as anything really essential. Carhart-Harris says that there are moments in the psychedelic experience when our usual top-down impositions on the world (and ourselves in it) break down, and a lot more of the bottom-up sensorium bubbles through, When that becomes too overwhelming, we generate new concepts, however crazy or brilliant they may be, to make sense of it, whether it is a discernable pattern in the clouds, or a voice in your head. What the brain normally does it to tell ourselves the stories that reduce our anxious uncertainty and may enable more accessible and voluntary encoding and access to memory. Charles Hayes’ wonderful book Tripping: Anthology of True-Life Psychedelic Adventures provides a set of such stories (those who know me can easily guess which composite story is mine from the biographical details).

Robin Carhart-Harris’s theory of conscious states suggests that our normal suppression of the “entropic brain” is what produces the normal realism, foresight, and reflection that allows us to recognize and limit wishful or paranoid fantasies, Freud’s “primary process” thinking. But the cost for this construction of order and selfhood in the normal adult mind involves carefully constrained cognition, and a limiting window of consciousness, In his “Entropic Brain” article, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in 2014, Carhart-Harris suggests that the less meticulous sampling of the world in primary consciousness is easily biased by our wishes and anxieties, and the evolution of the default mode network, the regulating system absent in lower animals and young children, serves to prioritize the maintenance of order.

One of our favorite nicknames for our three-year old is “agent of chaos,” but the truth is probably more accurately that he is just developing a sense of his own agency, of what the predictable and therefore manageable events of his own body and the world might enable him to do. What is gradually emerging is a sense of a coherent self or ego, a more reality-based secondary-process functioning by which he can minimize the surprise and uncertainty that he finds upsetting. Carhart-Harris depicts a spectrum of cognitive states, from a high-entropy end of infant consciousness, early psychosis, magical thinking, and creativity, to a low-entropy end of the narrow and rigid thinking found in addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorders, depression, anesthesia and finally coma. Many debilitating states of mind are produced by a hyperactive default mode, producing excessively rigid states of mind. In John Bentley Mays’ memoir of depression In the Jaws of the Black Dogs, he describes “the cauldron of worries I was becoming, to the exclusion of all other emotions, and even sustained thought,” leading to the point that “I could no longer read, study, even listen, whereupon I lost my mind.” Carhart-Harris and others believe that the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics may come from their ability to disrupt such stereotypic patterns of thought.. By disorganizing brain activity, psychedelics increase entropy, and the system can revert to cognition which is substantially less constrained.

Robin Carhart-Harris is no romantic of the transpersonal, but sees the psychedelics as producing a potential regression in service of the ego, to an older and more primitive system. The pinnacle of human development is still the achievement of a separate and bounded individual, differentiated from infantile dependencies, able to conduct a symphony of otherwise primitive fears and wishful or magical thinking. Not everything that comes through the “doors of perception” is necessarily real. Too much entropy in the brain can lead to atavistic thinking and, in a “descent into lost time,” madness, just as too little may be crippling. There may also be wider political and social effects of substances (or practices) which quiet the “monkey mind” of the default mode network. Might the unconventional thinking of the political upheaval of the 1960s be connected with the widespread (and initially perfectly legal) use of psychedelics? Some research published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs in 2017 showed that the “ego-dissolution” of the most intense psychedelic experiences was correlated with liberal political views, openness to experience, and relatedness to nature, and negatively correlated with authoritarian political views. Attending a 2015 conference on the “transhuman” possibilities of technological advances, dinner conversations uncovered some interesting commonalities among most of the participants: Not only were we all likely to score high on the personality dimension of “openness to experience,” but most of us shared a history of psychedelic use.

So what happens when the default mode network goes “off-line” under the influence of psychedelics? Using magnetoencephalography (MEG), the Imperial College research team showed a radical re-organization of brain activity under the rise of the “entropic” tide. While the normally specialized networks of the brain become disintegrated, the brain as a whole may be more integrated by new connections between areas that normally talk within themselves or via the default network “hub.” In this illustration (taken from Pollan’s book), the “Placebo” state shows each colored network mainly connected internally, with few pathways between them, the “Psilocybin” side shows thousands of new connections formed as the traffic is re-routed from and small number of larger pathways (think interstate highways) to a myriad of smaller roads, with many more destinations.

This is going to mean a much greater likelihood of wishes and fears influencing our experience, a hallmark of primary process thinking. It means not only a lot more magical thinking, synesthesia, and hallucination. Perhaps, counterintuitively, the aging brain becomes less entropic, as most of us, by middle age, fall into more and more in the way of habitual thinking, easier to cut to the chase and leap to conclusions, the world having become overly predictable, I can only think of a 40-something friend who rode his motorcycle to a lake-house weekend. He took much longer than the rest of us to get there. He’d taken a delightful route through a network of back roads, and we probably the most relaxed and open of all of us that weekend. Perhaps we all regularly move from the contraction of obsessing about things, or feeling anxious, defensive, rushed, and regretful, to that expansive state where we feel especially generous or open to feelings, other people and the natural world, with the decrease in ego, and less attention paid to past or future. I remember a cartoon i once saw, where one person says to the other “you know, I wasn’t feeling like myself today,” to which the apt response was “yes, I noticed the improvement.”

As Neil Young sang, “you can’t be 20, on sugar mountain, though you feel you’re leaving there too soon.” Perhaps there are some important lessons about that lost mental country of childhood, to which the psychedelic journey is the closest we come. Alison Gopnik, a Berkeley psychologist who wrote my favorite guides to parenting The Philosophical Baby, and The Gardener and the Carpenter has pursued an interesting collaboration with Robin Carhart-Harris, even appearing on the same stage at the famous annual Tucson conference on consciousness. Gopnik points out that most of the theories of consciousness represent the “phenomenology of your average middle-aged professor,” and heavily includes the focused attention and self-reflection absent in children.

Adults have a narrowly focused “spotlight of attention,” consciousness with a particular point. Children’s “lantern attention” is more diffuse, and more responsive to information from anywhere in their field of awareness, to the frustration of any parent trying to get a child ready for the expedition required by travel outside the home. With little predictive coding, a child has few preconceptions, and may behave more like an adult on psychedelics. Four-year olds can more readily solve problems that require “thinking outside the box,” like in the experiment where a toy box that normally lights up when a certain kind of block is placed on it is reprogrammed to respond only to multiple blocks I can’t help but think of one of my three-year old son’s favorite television programs, “The Stinky and Dirty Show,” in which two friends, a garbage truck and a backhoe loader, regularly solve problems by playing “what if,” in which several totally unrealistic possibilities are finally rejected for something that might actually work. But they clearly have a search pattern ranging much further out on the branches of the tree. Gopnik suggests that children are the R&D department of the species, focused on learning and exploring, while we adults work on production and marketing. Children are the “agents of chaos” (one of our nicknames for our son) who inject the variation from which cultural evolution selects, better for exploring than exploiting. So when my three-year old son’s unfocused agenda is most frustrating to my adult consciousness, my limited patience can be expanded by remembering “he’s just tripping.”

It also turns out that there is a fair amount of research on the therapeutic use of psychedelics for the dying, the addicted, and the depressed, whose suffering may be about mental rigidity. Quieting the default mode network may introduce the level of entropy necessary to “reset” the system. A pharmacological intervention that can produce profound experiences of awe, including mystical experience, self-transcendence, and the enrichment of myriad new connections under psychedelics might be just what the doctor should be ordering. The experience of egolessness may be an important aid for any number of mental health difficulties tied to overconcern with the self, the experienced loss of which can be liberating as well as mind-expanding. Robert Kennedy, whose wife Ethel was treated for depression with psychedelics in the 1960s, was one of those who argued most strongly against the imposition of the generation long restrictions on the use of psychedelics. Psychedelics were once the drug of choice for treating alcoholism in Saskatchewan, and researchers have shown lasting effects to be produced by a single experience. In a clinical study, ⅔ of those suffering from depression were symptom free, sometimes for the first time in years. They describe themselves as being freed from a kind of “mental prison” of being stuck in endless circles of rumination, which we have likened to a hyperactive default network.

Andrew Solomon, in his The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression traces links between addiction and depression, and an intimate relationships between depression and anxiety, both reflecting minds lost in rumination,about the fraternal twins of past and future loss. David Kessler, former head of the FDA, in a book called Capture: Unraveling the Mystery of Mental Suffering, argues that there is a common mechanism underlying addiction, depression, anxiety, mania, and obsession, where learned habits of negative thinking have “captured” our attention and trap us in a nightmare funhouse of self-reflection. I remember my father, a campus minister at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and then at Purdue University, getting a dozen ECT sessions (“electroconvulsive therapy”), which eventually did “reset” his mind sufficiently to ameliorate his depression. But the memory loss, and the sense of devastation left me feeling that what made him interesting and passionate about life had been taken, that he had been “de-cored.” That was in 1972-1973, one of my most intensive periods of psychedelic experimentation. Had the ban on LSD not been so severe as to produce a cultural lacuna in the memory of several decades of psychedelic research, perhaps I might have been moved, not to do an undergraduate thesis on cognitive models of depression, but to share with my father some of my own psychedelic experience, and my own search for God.

A treatment that enhances neuroplasticity may shake up the well-travelled trails of rumination. Unfettering the default mode network, in a brain that has become excessively fixed in its pathways, with too little entropy, might be one of the keys to a unified theory of mental illness. I once read an allegory of lost souls, living in their own personal hells, driven each day to heaven on a bus, who cannot bring themselves to step out of the open door. Psychedelic pharmacology, and guided treatment could provide a key to such “prisons of the self,” and research is again finally moving in this direction. Even the FDA was impressed by the exploratory data of Roland Griffiths and Stephen Ross on using psilocybin with cancer patients. Undeterred by the challenges of blinding in psychedelic research (Timothy Leary once said doing double blind experimentation with psychedelics was a joke), to say nothing of the illegality of the drug in question, the FDA asked the researchers to expand their research to find out whether psilocybin might be used to address the larger problem of depression in the population. So there is certainly hope, and I must apologize to several of the brighter “psychonauts” amongst my former students for trying to steer them away from a branch of research that I had long treated as deadly to a young career. This despite my own graduate application to the University of California campus where Charles Tart worked, and had already written an edited volume on Altered States of Consciousness. But yes, that might well have seriously stalled a career that, through all its fits and starts, led me to 37 years of college teaching, and a rich scholarly life that even now fuels Neuromyth.com, and has freed me for the kind of attention found here.