You may never have tried psychedelic substances. You may never have had an interest in trying psychedelic substances. But if you’re reading this, you do have a mind, and you’ve almost certainly felt some curiosity about how that mind works. As any engineer knows, one of the shortest routes to understanding how a machine works is to disrupt its normal operations. Psychedelics do just that for your brain, shifting your consciousness into a new perspective that can offer insights into your very perceptions of reality. Or at least they do it in the view of Michael Pollan, Sam Harris, Jacob Silva, Ben Goertzel, and Matthew Johnson.
The more familiar you are with current psychedelics research, the more of those names you’ll know. Pollan, who made his name writing about food, stars in the Big Think video above about the scientific renaissance of mind-altering drugs. “The brain is a hierarchical system, and the default mode network appears to be at the top,” he explains. That network is “the orchestra conductor or corporate executive. You take that out of the picture, and suddenly you have this uprising from other parts of the brain and you have networks that don’t ordinarily communicate with one another suddenly striking up conversations.”
Psychedelic substances do this, meaning that when they’re in use, “you might have the visual cortex talking to the auditory system, and suddenly you’re seeing music.” Any music-lover would feel at least some desire for the same experience. And even those without any interest in music would surely like to enjoy for themselves what Sam Harris describes feeling during one of his own psychedelic experiences: “There was a whole veneer of fear, frankly, that I didn’t know was there that got stripped away,” leaving a “naked awareness of the present moment.”
This may sound similar to the kind of state commonly ascribed to intensive meditation, and indeed, Harris — himself a practitioner and advocate of meditative practice — acknowledges it as another path to the same destination. But for some people, Harris says, “taking a drug is the only way they’re going to notice that it’s possible to have a very different experience of the world.” Even if we’re not so “lumpen and un-inquisitive,” we still may not have seriously considered the range of benefits psychedelics could offer humanity. “Many of the disorders that psychedelics appear to treat well are manifestations of a stuck brain,” Pollan says, “a mind that’s telling itself destructive stories like, ‘I can’t get through the day without a cigarette,’ ‘I’m unworthy of love,’ ‘My work is shit.'”
The United States was actually conducting research into psychedelic drugs up until the early 1970s, when Richard Nixon’s administration made them illegal due to their potential to sap the will of the men who were supposed to fight the Vietnam War. (“He may well have been right,” Pollan acknowledges.) But now our society has found itself in a “mental health crisis,” as Johnson, a psychedelic-substance researcher at Johns Hopkins, puts it in the brief explainer just above, we’ll have to explore all possible avenues — even previously closed ones — in order to change our minds.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.