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|Photo: Psychedelic Press UK|
|James L. Kent, author of "Psychedelic Information Theory" and editor of dosenation.com|
When most of us take psychedelics like LSD, sure, it's one of the strangest -- and most meaningful -- experiences we've ever had, and as we move on with our lives, we tend to just classify what happened under the general category of "that was weird."
Some folks, though -- those of a more analytical and scientific bent -- aren't content to do only that. James L. Kent, author of Psychedelic Information Theory: Shamanism in the Age of Reason definitely belongs to this more analytical category of trippers. These folks want to analyze the psychedelic trip right down to which neurons were activated, how, and why.
By deconstructing systems of perception and memory, Psychedelic Information Theory quantifies the limits of expanded consciousness and describes the methods by which psychedelics alter consciousness, create new information, and affect human culture.
|Photo: Psychedelic Information Theory|
Since Kent has a foot in both worlds -- alternative psychedelic culture and mainstream science -- he's just the guy to write a book like PIT. The book is a serious and scholarly attempt to describe and recalibrate our knowledge bases and frames of reference when it comes to psychedelic drugs.
"I realized that modern psychedelic thought was split between these two totally different worlds, and though both were accurate in focused description, neither one was fully connecting all the pieces of the larger psychedelic process," Kent told Psychedelic Press UK.
"I found myself in that gap between the philosophers claiming to know the riddle of the universe and the lab scientists scratching their heads peering at slices of rat brains under microscopes, and neither one really had any answers," Kent said. "The popular perception of psychedelics is stuck in this position between the hard reductive rigors of science and the soft spiritualism of the entheogenic counterculture.
"While publishing Trip Magazine, and while editing DoseNation.com, I constantly found and find myself trying to mediate that line between differing domains of psychedelic exploration," Kent said. "Finding a style has been a struggle between harsh criticism and elegant synthesis of competing ideologies."
Hallucinations and the Mechanisms Which Trigger Them
In any event, after reading PIT, I understand more clearly than ever before how the rod and cone nature of the human eye, phosphenes, the visual information processing rate, and the brain's pattern-recognition function all play a role in producing the patterns and colors of entoptic (overlay) hallucinations as well as eidetic (internal) visualizations.
Kent carefully deconstructs these types of hallucination and the mechanisms which trigger them. His book attempts to unravel the inner psychedelic landscape and to draw a map of entheogenic consciousness, with both modern, scientific outlooks and shamanistic paradigms represented.
|Graphic: Brain droppings|
|Dr. Albert Hofmann, inventor of LSD|
The text was researched for more than 20 years and includes more than 200 references to the latest scientific findings on psychedelic pharmacology, shamanism, and the frontiers of human perception, and it does a better job of connecting shamanic ritual to the real, physically-based phenomena which lie behind it than any other tome I've read.
PIT is presented as an introductory textbook for people who are interested in consciousness, perception, psychedelics, hallucination, shamanism, dreaming, pharmacology, neuroplasticity, chaos theory, and related fields -- and far from being dry, this is a fascinating book, chock full of jumping off points to deep thought and unexplored vistas.
Kent attempts nothing less than to describe a model of psychedelic activation that can be adapted to all possible permutations of human consciousness, including group mind states, mystical states, and transpersonal awareness.
"The ritual of using psychedelics to generate new information, bond with peer groups, and program human belief is traditionally called shamanism, so PIT is a study of the practice of shamanism, which can also be called applied psychedelic science," Kent writes.
Of course, the powerful and visceral experiences offered by psychedelic drugs, especially since the 1960s, have exerted enormous effects on both popular culture and on the study of the human mind.
As Kent points out, "the human adaptation to translate subjective experience into meaningful narrative is uniquely exploited by psychedelics." This is at least partially due to the fact of how "important" psychedelic insights feel: "Psychedelic information is generated within the domain of the personal; yet many people who take psychedelics perceive the information as having species-level importance."
"Psychedelics excel at producing salient information which can have a profound impact on the beliefs and identity of the subject," Kent writes. This is exactly why so many people from all walks of life will tell you they were "never the same" after a particularly powerful LSD trip.
And the human component -- how we process these exceedingly strange experiences -- is a key to the entire process.
"The content of the hallucination is not as important as the process by which the subject takes that content and shapes it into lasting memories, beliefs and behaviors; this is the process of encoding psychedelic information into synaptic networks," Kent explains.
"It is clear from 20th century history that psychedelics can fuel artistic expression, social experimentation, religious movements, and political activism," Kent writes. "There is no other class of drugs which can claim to have such powerful cultural sway."
"Psychedelic subcultures (urban tribes) are active in every city on the planet," the author asserts. "[P]sychedelics are unique in their ability to quickly catalyze tribal subcultures bent on spontaneous altruism, populist activism, and free radicalism." Hence the hippies!
I mentioned that Kent covers psychedelic experience right down to the level of which areas of the brain are activated. We learn from this book, for instance, that "hallucinogens inhibit sensory gating in the thalamus, allowing more raw sensation to flood the cortex," and suddenly the overwhelming sensory experiences we've had start to make intellectual sense.
Of course, any substance that reliably results in such powerful experiences inevitably also taps into deep emotions; even this phenomenon, however, can be scientifically described.
"The efficacy of psychedelics in both shamanic transformation and clinical therapy relies on their unique ability to decouple the cortex, disassociate ego structures, and stimulate archetypal identity regression and personal transformation," Kent writes. "No other class of drugs can claim to have such a radical effect on personality; radical personality change in response to brief psychedelic exposure implies neuroplasticity."
Kent points out that "In programmatic terms, a psychedelic drug can be thought of as a back-door or reboot mechanism that allows the subject to enter a visually driven ego programming and debugging matrix; this state would be similar to hypnosis mixed with an element of lucid dreaming or creative visualization."
|Terence McKenna: "Shamans have always known this trick: That culture is an operating system, and that the operating system can be wiped and replaced with something else"|
No less a psychedelic explorer than Terence McKenna concurs on this point: "Shamans have always known this trick: That culture is an operating system, and that the operating system can be wiped and and replaced with something else," he wrote years ago.
When people's lives are changed by their LSD experiences, it's a mistake to dismiss this as some drug-deranged hippie-dippie facade, when in fact there is an actual physical basis for such transformations, according to Kent.
"LSD may promote neuroplasticity, cell proliferation, cell repair, and synaptic generation in neurons responsible for identity," he writes. In other words, LSD really can change who you are.
There is, indeed, a scientific reason why Harvard psychologist Dr. Richard Alpert became mystic teacher Baba Ram Dass: the profound long-term effect of psychedelics on identity-based neuroplasticity.
Psychedelics can do this because, according to Kent, they interrupt the repetitive feedback patterns around which our day-to-day lives are normally based and upon which they are anchored.
"Biology is repetitive feedback patterns; consciousness is repetitive feedback patterns; shamanism is the interruption and re-modulation of those repetitive feedback patterns to produce spectacular experiential results," Kent explains.
Shamanism Meets Trance Music
Kent is at his best and most engaging as he builds bridges between time-honored shamanic techniques and modern aspects of entheogenic culture such as psychedelic trance music.
"The shamanic technique of lulling and evoking mystical hallucination can be compared to the frenetic qualities of modern trance music, where the goal is to entrain and sustain a high-energy visual state that unfolds and recourses for extended periods of time," Kent writes. "Trance songs are built around arpeggiated looping melodies which grow in complexity over time, culminating in phase transitions, or breakdowns, where stable looping states are shattered into chaos.
"While trance dancing, these breakdowns are felt as euphoric, like shattering a barrier into a higher state of freedom and bliss, and when the chaos of the breakdown converges back toward a rhythm, it is an even more frenetic level of organized syncopated beats driven and held together by deep resonant bass pulses," he continues. "The wave analysis of both modern trance music and traditional icaros indicates that these are not merely forms of artistic expression, but are also formal technologies for mediating and navigating various levels of stability in chaotic psychedelic hallucination."
Synchonicity Magic and Probability Collapse
Psychedelic tripsters (as well as schizophrenics) often report enhanced sensations of non-random coincidence, or synchronicity, that appear to defy all rationality. What happens at such times appears exactly as if hidden forces are acting in concert to send messages through the very non-randomness of "coincidence."
"On psychedelics this state is dose dependent and increases in complexity with larger doses, until it appears the entire fabric of reality, down to the subatomic level, is speaking directly to the subject with a singular narrative message," Kent writes.
"While in this 'synchronicity hole,' nothing in the universe seems random and all coincidence is laden with profound subtext that makes sense only to the subject," he explains. "From a clinical standpoint, the synchronicity hole represents a state of delusional megalomania, yet this is exactly the kind of logic we should expect from a nonlinear analysis of reality."
The ability to apply synchronistic magic and to select non-random pathways into the future is one of the keys to shamanism, according to Kent. By doing so, "the shaman expands and collapses probability and subtly alters the fabric of reality by choosing a new destiny."
"This process can be described in terms of deterministic chaos driving a superposition in subjective identity, leading to radical identity potentiation, behavioral change, and self-actualization through deterministic neuroplasticity," Kent writes.
That definitely sounds a little more eloquent -- and a lot more informative -- than "That was so weird, man!"
Kent, James L., Psychedelic Information Theory: Shamanism in the Age of Reason, PIT Press, Seattle, 2010.