What is the current arc of the psychedelic renaissance in Western society missing? How do psychedelic experiences affect politics? And what are the psychedelic humanities?
To guide us through these questions, I speak with Oliver Davis. He's a professor of French Studies and director of graduate studies at the University of Warwick in the UK, a co-editor of an ongoing series on the psychedelic humanities, is working on a book about the politics of psychedelics, and wrote of a recent paper on the French artist Henri Michaux’s writings on psychedelics, which serve as a guide for our conversation.
By tracing Michaux's writing on psychedelics, we explore how they impact everything from creativity to metaphysics. Using that lens, we get into:
~ Be warned, this is auto-generated, so expect some imperfections. ~
Oshan Jarow 0:05:01
So, Oliver Davis, welcome to the podcast, and thank you so much for being here.
One of your endeavors is co-editing this series of articles published in the journal Frontiers of Psychology that all kind of revolve this topic of the psychedelic humanities. And first, I'd actually like you to explain what that means, right? What are the psychedelic humanities? And then second, as my kind of underhanded way of weaving in some of your background and biography a little bit, I wonder if you could share how you came to be interested in this particular perspective — what was your road to the psychedelic humanities, and what speaks to you in that space?
Oliver Davis 0:05:54
Sure, yeah. Two very good questions to start with. Yeah, so people are beginning to talk about the psychedelic humanities. There have been some really interesting institutional initiatives in this regard. I'm thinking, in particular, of the founding of the laboratory for the psychedelic humanities by Nick Langlitz at the New School. That's a really, It’s a really exciting development. But I mean, the psychedelic humanities, even though we're just beginning to talk about them in those terms, I suppose one could say, ever since historians started working on the history of psychedelics and anthropologists, on the use of psychedelics in indigenous cultures, particularly, we've been doing the psychedelic humanities. We've just not been calling them the psychedelic humanities. So, but they are beginning to coalesce under that heading or label. And I think that's a really important moment, actually, because so much of the research, as you know, on psychedelics in the so-called psychedelic renaissance comes from neuroscience and neuropharmacology. And that's all great. But there is a real need, I think, for the humanities to begin to engage with the implications of this research. How I came to them. So, my interest initially was not in psychedelics. I had an interest, among many other research interests, in psychoactive drugs more broadly. So, some of my early research was on, particularly, on the use of psychoactive drugs by gay men in sexual subcultures and dance club cultures. So, I really came to be interested in psychedelics through other kinds of drug research.
Oshan Jarow 0:07:58
Out of curiosity, what were those psychoactive drugs?
Oliver Davis 0:08:02
Okay, well, so in, yeah, so in chemsex cultures or pharmacosexual cultures, as they're sometimes called, so these will be a combination of drugs, including G, GHB, GBL, methamphetamine, mephedrone, and others. Yeah, so different kinds of drugs. On the kind of clubbing dance culture side, of course, ketamine, which is now considered a psychedelic, although not a kind of classical psychedelic, ecstasy, MDMA. And the funny thing is, for me, actually, the interesting thing working as someone who's kind of been observing these cultures, partly within them, partly from the outside, for a couple of decades, is that people were using some of these drugs that are being discovered for medical therapeutic uses now in dance clubs in the 1990s. I think that's a kind of irony of history that intrigues me.
Oshan Jarow 0:09:12
Yeah. So you came through these kind of really interesting kind of issues of broader psychoactive drugs in the club scene. And then how did you step from there into the particularly the psychedelic humanities?
Oliver Davis 0:09:24
I'd started to hear about some of the research being done, particularly by David Nutt and Robin Carhart-Harris. And I'd started reading some of that work, and that intrigued me. And I think the particular properties of psychedelics lend themselves to investigation by scholars in the humanities, in perhaps a more intensive way than some of the other psychoactive drugs that I've already mentioned.
Oshan Jarow 0:10:02
Yeah, this is, I think, a common story. When that research started coming out, particularly from David Nutt and Carhart-Harris, that was extremely intriguing research.
I think it had a kind of gravitational pull that pulled a lot of folks into this realm. Okay, so the way that I came across your work was this paper you published a few months ago on the French mid-20th century poet and painter Henri Michaux. And that paper kind of weaves across a couple of topics that I want to touch on today, mainly what psychedelics can offer beyond their biomedical and therapeutic forms, and the political implications and even potentialities that they can stir up. I don't necessarily want to confine the conversation to Michaux. You know, you yourself are at work on a book on the politics of psychedelics that goes well beyond him. But I think he'll be a nice guide kind of as we make our way through the terrain. So let's start with Michaux. You know, one of the literary touchstones that people use as a signpost in making sense of the psychedelic experience, especially early on, was the British author and philosopher Aldous Huxley. He took mescaline, he wrote The Doors of Perception, and that's still referenced to this day. You've argued that Michaux, who wrote a series of books on his mescaline experiences right around the same time as Huxley, actually produced a far kind of richer, more textured and interesting engagement with psychedelics. But for reasons of translation lag times and his being in France, where there wasn't as much of a counterculture scene, Huxley became the kind of early literary emblem of psychedelic experiences. So let's turn to Michaux then. Who was he? And what about his writing on mescaline trips strikes you as so interesting, even as to kind of rival or surpass Huxley's?
Oliver Davis 0:11:45
Sure, yeah. So Michaux was born in Belgium, so he was originally Belgian. He hated Belgium. He moved to Paris in the 1920s. He frequented surrealist milieu. He then travelled very extensively before settling in Paris. Where he produced works of literary criticism, works of visual art, and works of literature and poetry. He's not so much studied now, actually, for his literary output, but he is a kind of touchstone of high modernism in France. My suggestion is, in the paper that you mentioned, is really that in a sense, his engagement with mescaline is far richer, far more extensive, actually, than Huxley's. Huxley did it first. That often means a lot, doesn't it? It often does. Michaux was familiar with Huxley's work, but he was also very much anchored in French biomedical research on psychedelics within psychiatry in Paris at the time. He was a close friend of Jean Delay, who you listeners might be familiar with. Delay is usually remembered as the person who discovered the antipsychotic properties of chlorpromazine. But Delay, as researchers such as Zoe Dubus, whose work is fantastic, have shown, Delay was also very interested in psychedelics too. Michaux was a social acquaintance of Delay's. They inhabited this shared cultural and intellectual milieu. They refer to each other in their papers and their books. I suppose one can see the doublet or couplet of Delay and Michaux a bit like the couplet of Humphrey Osmond and Aldous Huxley. For me, the interest in Michaux's work on masculine and the reasons why it's more significant than Huxley's is the variety of its engagement and its transmedial quality. The inclusion of works of visual art within the book, these kind of masculine drawings, these visual reconstructions of the masculine experience. It's not an easy read. Huxley is more digestible. Michaux's work is much more difficult, I would say. But I think it is a more substantial engagement with psychedelics. As you say, I think the reason it hasn't really been taken up is mainly contingent reasons of accident to do with translation or the lack of translation at the right time. The first book, Miserable Miracle, Miserable Miracle, was translated early enough, but it's his most pessimistic appreciation. The later books are much more enthusiastic and much deeper in their embrace of the masculine experience.
Oshan Jarow 0:15:36
Am I correct in remembering that the first book, Miserable Miracle, was published first, but it took a while then for the second one to be published? Or was there a big lag between them?
Oliver Davis 0:15:46
Miserable Miracle was published by City Lights, by the San Franciscan Countercultural Publishing House, in English translation in 1963. The original was published in 1956. It was published in translation in 1963. And then the second, L'Infinite Turbulance, the Turbulent Infinity, which came out the year after in French, in the original in 1957, it didn't appear in English until the mid-1970s, after the counterculture, essentially, after the American counterculture.
Oshan Jarow 0:16:30
Well, that makes sense. If the first book that came out that was around for the brunt of the American counterculture was not so hot on psychedelics, you can imagine that the energy was high, folks were excited, and it could be read as a downer until you get to the rest of it.
Oliver Davis 0:16:47
Absolutely. And the funny thing as well is that there is a second edition of the first book, of Miserable Miracle, that comes out in 1972 with a post-fas, which is entitled Addenda. And it basically, Michaux, kind of recants the most pessimistic dimensions of that book. So, yeah, the history of the publication of this series of works, I think, has meant that he wasn't taken up in the way that more vocal enthusiasts like Huxley were. Which is a shame. In a way, the article is trying to say, well, look, hang on, there is also this work too.
Oshan Jarow 0:17:37
Yeah, I mean, I think this is a theme throughout Michaux’s work, and we'll get into this when we talk about his view on creativity. It's a longer process where there's kind of a gate, or you have to go uphill at the beginning, but if you hang with the adversity and stay through it, on the other side of that, you get a lot of this richness. But it's kind of like if you come to his work wanting the immediate, interesting payoff, and you want the big, rapturous take on the psychedelic, because it doesn't hit you right off the bat. You have to work through the adversity, through the disruptions. And we'll track that in his book on creativity, because I think it works perfect.
Oshan Jarow 0:18:14
But I do wonder, so for example, when I think of Huxley's Doors of Perception, one of the images or the ideas that has lingered with me through that was this idea, he writes about the brain as a reducing valve that filters the huge stream of information, the brain registers what Huxley called mind at large, into the measly trickle of what he calls the kind of consciousness that's useful for our survival on the surface of this particular planet. And so this idea, which was then compressed into the reducing valve, which got caught on in a lot of popular media, a lot of books, things like this, I think it's difficult with Michaux, because as you say, it was richer, it was more varied, it was more textured. I don't think you can collapse it onto kind of singular ideas. And also it was transmedial, it was writing, it was painting, it was a lot of different kind of forms at play. But are there kind of themes that you've taken with you, kind of ideas of his that stick out as kind of graspable handles that point to the wider range of the terrain that he charted?
Oliver Davis 0:19:14
I mean, one of the things to say about, yeah, Huxley's idea of the reducing valve comes from Ory Bergson, doesn't it? Which is an interesting kind of transatlantic borrowing. Yeah, and I'd agree. I mean, there is the kind of coefficient of adversity with Michaux's work is much higher than with the really more accessible writing of Huxley. I mean, I think it is that kind of sense of the extended process through which Michaux, as a self-experimenting subject goes, that is one of the most interesting features of the series. So the fact that he starts off with this kind of visceral reaction against the masculine experience, which as he continues to experiment, it's a strange kind of, it's actually a very interesting, I think, personality type that has a kind of bad experience, then decides instead of avoiding the experience to repeat it, to practice in a way against that coefficient of adversity. And then, so I think there are kind of characterological personality features of Michaux's that make him a far more engaging experience over the volume.
I think it's that sense of the way in which he moves from a visceral opposition to a kind of quasi-mystical, but still, it's not kind of fully-fledged mysticism. It's still, in a way, kind of physicalist mysticism. For me, one of the other things also that's interesting about Michaux's work is, of course, he wasn't the first writer in 20th century France to look at masculine. So there is the precedent of Alexandre Rouillier in the 1920s, who wasn't a literary writer at all. He was a pharmacist and a kind of entrepreneur who was producing this concoction, pan-peyotil, this concoction made from peyote cacti that he was cultivating in France. But that's a very kind of mystical text, actually, that relates the use of peyote to Central and Southern American indigenous cultural usage. And then there's, of course, Antoinette Artaud, his book Les Tarahumara, which is all about his trip to Mexico and his experience of peyote ritual with the Tarahumara tribes. So Michaux was writing after those two figures. And so he takes this resolutely different approach, which is to say he's not interested in peyote. He's only interested in synthetic masculine. And that's the kind of point of departure. And for me, that's a very interesting kind of, I think it sort of expresses something of his sort of oppositional character, to want to relate to the tradition in so far as it existed in France in that way. But yeah, so I think you're starting out from that kind of focus on laboratory synthesized masculine rather than peyote, but then actually moving into a kind of mysticism.
Oshan Jarow 0:22:52
Yeah. And that's a theme that we'll pick up on. I think he has a really interesting kind of path that he charged through that. But I think maybe the first road to go down with Michaux is his lens on psychedelics and creativity, as well as your interpretation of it, because he does actually differ a little bit. Michaux's own experience, as we've kind of touched on, it's not exactly what you might expect from a French poet taking psychedelics at first. His initial reaction is to say, quote, Mescaline diminishes the imagination. It castrates the image. It is the enemy of poetry, of meditation, and above all, of mystery. He dismisses psychedelic imagery as, again, quote, a tacky retinal circus, which is a wonderful phrase. So I want to get to how you interpret this and his larger body of work. But let's start with Michaux. How did he view psychedelics and creativity? Did that evolve over time? Was it always a tacky retinal circus? Or did he kind of hang with that coefficient of adversity to see an evolution in his views? What did he make of it?
Oliver Davis 0:23:51
I think that he always regarded, so obviously, when some people get visuals, when they take psychedelics, and other people don't, or they don't get as many as others, he obviously did. And I think throughout, he considered the visual dimensions or hallucinations, as they're sometimes called, to be a kind of yeah, a sort of tacky retinal circus. So I don't think he, at any point, disavowed that view of the visuals. I think he started out imagining that psychedelics, Mescaline would allow him to be more creative. So they would somehow furnish him with ready made images that he could then reproduce visually or in poetry. So in other words, it would be like a sort of psychedelic experience would be a bit like a sort of production line. And he would then kind of receive these images and represent them. But in fact, he found those images to be extremely disappointing. But what the value of the experience, though, was then that the production line got sort of disassembled.
So as it were, the kind of machinery broke down. And in fact, he was, you know, he's the machinery, really, his mind is the machinery. And it was the observation, his observation of the way in which his mind became kind of deranged. He uses the word in French, les déreglements, which is very reminiscent of the poet Arturo Rambo, the idea of the déreglement, the senses. So this, I think, I think, I think it was the kind of disturbance in his creative process that the psychedelic experience produced. It was by repeatedly practicing with that disturbance, and in a sense, kind of incrementally, coming to know it, and in a sense, overcome it, and in a sense, be energized by it. That's where he found the kind of creative value, not as a sort of source of ready made images. I mean, literary critics, they tend not to think of literature in the way that Michaux did implicitly, you know, as a kind of collection of sort of pretty images that you just, you know, you admire and you extract. But no, so I think that's, I think that's, he didn't find in the psychedelic experience what he expected to find at all. But through practicing with it, he found something else that I think was, in the end, more valuable to him.
Oshan Jarow 0:26:55
Yeah, I mean, I really like the way that you write about this in that it wasn't precisely that, you know, the content of his writing or the images that he described, it was kind of the site of the creativity at play. It was kind of in grappling with the disruption of the ordinary habits, what came through that, you know, you wrote about this, you mentioned a bit as a de-automization of his practices, you know, it's kind of at first unwelcome disruption. And a lot of prior research, you touch on this in your piece on psychedelics and creativity, which was a big theme in the 50s of the research that was ongoing, you looked at, as you mentioned, the production of outputs, creative outputs within existing frameworks. And in contrast to that, you wrote that Michaux's work suggests that psychedelics do not always enhance creativity simply by increasing output within existing forms and frameworks. They sometimes first dismantle those forms and frameworks.
They clear a space in which the subject can reconfigure the terms of representation, remaking the forms, tools and techniques of representing. And, you know, this has so many fascinating kind of tangents out into how the therapy works, how just pure recreational kind of exploration works. And one of my kind of favorite stories that Michaux recounts is when he accidentally took a huge dose of mescaline bigger than he had intended. And he tells us that he became letters and lines, right? He became the very medium that he usually works with. He's usually the writer who creates the letters from above, from his little vantage point. And he has this experience of the lines going not only through him, but his entire being confined within them. And reflecting on it afterwards, he writes that to have become a line was a catastrophe. But even more, it was a surprise, a prodigy, right? So you almost see this progression in that very line from catastrophe through the surprise to the kind of prodigal outputs. And I think that encapsulates so much, right? That journey. And it reads to me again, like this staying with the adversity rather than getting turned off at first blush gate keeps these really interesting outcomes.
Oliver Davis 0:28:56
And I think that's a great line to highlight, Oshan, because he was a stubborn person, Michaux. He was a person of very fixed habits. But he was also capable of responding to new information in a flexible way. And I think that's a great example of where he does that.
Oshan Jarow 0:29:19
Yeah. Okay, so let's take the basis of creativity and let's move towards the question of politics. One of the first things you do on this subject is you define politics maybe a little differently than folks are used to, right? Instead of the macro political categories like liberal and conservative, which is a topic of research today, people trying to figure out if there's an intrinsic kind of leaning towards psychedelic experience on any of these dimensions. But you invoke this idea of a molecular or micropolitics as more fitting to talk about psychedelics. So what do you mean by micropolitics? And how does that fit in with psychedelics?
Oliver Davis 0:29:54
Yeah, that's a great question. So the understanding of the micropolitical, it comes out of a tradition of thinking about politics that's quite well established in certain parts of French continental philosophy in particular. One of the philosophers I've done a lot of work on, Jacques Ranciere, is a kind of significant figure in this and has been caught up in what's sometimes called the aesthetic turn in political theory. And that doesn't mean that the politics becomes sort of dissolved into looking at just art and prettiness and so on, nor does it actually mean looking at the aesthetic dimensions of political ritual, I don't know, Nazi insignia or whatever. What it means is it goes back to the idea in ancient Greek philosophy of aestheticis, of a single faculty of sense and perception and judgment. So the idea then is that the way that we see the world, the way that we perceive the world is kind of prior to whatever kind of developed macro political position we might have.
So ways of looking and seeing subjects as political or not, and that could be topics as political or not, or people as political or not, they kind of, as it were, precede and inform and to a certain extent determine the constituted political positions we might then go on to hold. So in other words, there's a kind of layer, a micro political layer underneath the macro political choices and positions that we hold to. And so I think this is particularly well adapted to thinking about the politics of psychedelics, because what psychedelics do, whatever else they may do, but one thing they definitely do is they alter modes of perception, forms of perception. And, okay, they do it temporarily, generally speaking, they do it for the duration of the trip. But the very fact of going into that altered state of perception and then coming out of it encourages a kind of reflection on the ways in which we see the world. And so that reflection on what ways of seeing that psychedelics tend to produce, for me, that's the kind of micro political import and significance.
Oshan Jarow 0:32:50
One thing that I find really interesting about the idea of micro politics is that, at least for me, it was something of a kind of hidden or concealed possibility for a long time, right, for the first, I don't know, about 17 years of my life. And, you know, by this point, I'd read some contemplative literature, I'd been around the spiritual circuit, I'd done some meditation. But if you told me that my modes of perception could be radically different, that they could be altered at a really basic level, I might have agreed intellectually, but I had no idea what that actually meant at a visceral level. And then I took a bunch of mushrooms, and, you know, had the experience of that being so, of what we might call that kind of micro political rupture in my mode of perception. And it made sense in a way that it never could have before, at least I don't think. So I think that micro politics in this sense, they aren't obvious, because it requires a kind of experiential shift that you can reference. And those shifts aren't programmed into the routines of, say, you know, American life.
In other cultures, there have been things like rites of passage rituals that perform some of that function, you know, that tear down those culturally osmosed sensemaking machineries that we acquire and give you this radically different vantage point on your own experience. And you come back with that knowledge. But in Western culture, that seems to be something that we're left to find on our own. And I think that this has an interesting link to the more kind of familiar macro political categories, right, macro politics, Republican, Democrat, and so on. They tend to give the sense of politics as working in a top down fashion, right? There are those big political parties and organizations and for most ordinary people, they feel entirely out of touch, right, out of reach of our own lives. And yet the decisions that are made at those levels kind of come down to act on us, nevertheless. And this idea of micro politics, to me, it tries to describe the way that those top down political influences actually rely on bottom up influence, and not just through the channel of voting, even though that is one. But they also rely on a mass of people who share certain sensibilities, right, certain arrangements of consciousness, certain modes of perception, certain ways of showing up and being in the world, right, that all those kind of individual qualities sustain macro political categories, but also provide channels by which they can be changed. Right, I think the 60s show this pretty well that you get enough disruption in the ways that people choose to live their lives, the values that they hold dear, and that'll ripple up and cause all sorts of disturbances at the macro political layer, you know, but then kind of marshaling that disruption towards enduringly beneficial ends or new political institutions that can embed those different values into the kind of enduring crust of society. That's a whole other challenge.
But you're doing a lot of work on this idea that psychedelics can feed some democratic energy into the bottom up channels that sustain those larger kind of macro levels. And I don't want to jump too far ahead yet. We'll get more specifically into that question. I just wanted to point that out because I love the way that you that you make that connection. But I think to start, I want to look at this idea that you came up with of the redundancy thesis, right? This idea, it's so relevant to the ongoing efforts to devise legal modes of access to psychedelics, you know, that kind of go beyond clinical trials, especially now as Oregon's adult use model, it's already underway, Colorado's close behind, California has a bill that looks like it might pass. And this idea that you have of the redundancy thesis is a really good way, I think, into that discussion of what we lose if these models remain too tightly controlled, you know, too regulated and constrained in the absence of other modes of access as well. So walk us through this. What is the idea of the redundancy thesis?
Oliver Davis 0:36:49
Right, yeah. So the redundancy thesis, there's a lot of there's a lot of anxiety now about what, well, actually, what Nick Lang that's called rightist psychedelia. And he's not the only person who's concerned about it. There's a lot of there's a lot of anxiety about the way in which groups like QAnon, some members of those groups are kind of interested in psychedelics, this kind of idea that psychedelics might somehow be be leading to a kind of authoritarian fascist right wing future. So in other words, you know, that kind of the long standing historical association with the left with the counterculture is just a kind of accident contingency. I am also kind of concerned by by by rightist psychedelia, I'm not dismissing the concern. But what I what I what I mean by the redundancy thesis is that I think that in a in cultures that are already plural, or pluralist, as as the US today or other other other developed nations in particular, so not indigenous cultures, let's say, in cultures that are already plural. If you add psychedelics into the mix, you produce all sorts of unpredictable effects. So in an indigenous cultural cultural setting, psychedelics are are often used to kind of reinforce cultural norms. There's a there's a great line about in Peter first, the anthropologist Peter first work on the on the reach of ways says he reports an experience of POT and the the user says, Oh, it is as my father's taught me.
So you have you have what is essentially kind of a already a culture that is it's not especially kind of plural is already quite homogenous, using psychedelics to in a sense reproduce its its norms and values in a culture that is a pluralist culture. If you introduce psychedelics, you could expect to see all sorts of different wild and uncontrollable effects. So the redundancy thesis is is the idea that you would need to control all of the aspects of the setting in which the psychedelics were were being taken so minutely for them to do the work of reproducing the culture. So because because psychedelics amplify features of the in the setting in a quite remarkable way, that that actually they'd be redundant. So if you already had complete control over the setting, you wouldn't need psychedelics to reproduce your your culture. So in that sense, they would be redundant, they would be redundant.
Oshan Jarow 0:39:52
I see. So in many ways, this kind of gives us a little it might unwind the anxiety a little bit about the kind of use of psychedelics among different groups. But I think it's really interesting if we hang with the example of psychedelic therapy, for example, on one hand, you know, I don't want to undersell even in a world where the only way I'll take the US because that's what I know the best if in the US, the only way anyone could legally do psychedelics was in the kind of environment. That are currently being sculpted by the kind of biomedical therapeutic perspective. There could still be a lot of good, right? There's a lot of kind of treatment available here for very prevalent mental illnesses. On the other hand, there is a lot of effort and care going into creating these environments in a way that can stabilize the psychedelic experience into as you've written a predictable, reliable process, right? We want to quantify and optimize and package these experiences in ways that are replicable. And that can generalize across people in contexts.
That just fits better with how we do risk assessment and across various institutions is how the NIH wants to fund research. And, you know, of course, psychedelics, on one hand, they seem almost constitutionally opposed to herring them into predictable tracks. But if you could, if you control the setting to such a degree that you achieve that level of predictability, the way I read this thesis is that something is lost, right? That it almost formalizes kind of the paradox of trying to create regulated environments for predictable trips, right? You wrote that for psychedelics to function reliably, that would require their set and setting to already be controlled so comprehensively as to make the political use of psychedelics redundant. If a regime already had control of its subjects, mindsets and environment to such an extent, there would simply be no need to call on the amplifier effects of psychedelics.
And so the question through all this I want to kind of pose to you is how you think about maybe not in the context of QAnon and right of psychedelia, but in the context of, let's say, the environments that are being reproduced through the therapeutic paradigm where we go, you're indoors. Generally, no windows, you have a blindfold on, you listen to music, there's a therapist or two in the room with you. This serves a function that is very important for many people, right? You kind of mitigate a lot of harms, you mitigate a lot of anxiety people have, you're with folks who know the terrain, you're in a kind of medical environment that if anything goes wrong, they can tend to you. I think it's easy to cling on to the safety that provides and kind of latch on to that model. But I'm curious what you think we might lose if the only game in town is that mode of access?
Oliver Davis 0:42:30
I think we would be experiencing a very narrow portion of the possible spectrum, political spectrum of psychedelic experience. Yeah, I mean, you're quite right. So the whole issue of how to kind of stabilize psychedelics goes right back to Al Hubbard, you know, creating the Hubbard room with a coat of cozy cushions to, you know, to kind of get away from the sort of the clinical environment that seemed to cause so many, so many bad trips early on. But it's fascinating to think about what kinds of political subjects are being crafted through this particular way of deploying psychedelics in this context, this medical therapeutic context. I mean, it is. So I approach this party from through the work of Michel Foucault, when he was thinking about the way in which the sort of spiritual exercises of the Jesuits and other forms of kind of earlier Christian experience, the way in which they shaped modern Western subjects.
And I'm just thinking that, in a way, you know, this experience where we're going to say, well, okay, we're going to cure ourselves by by sitting in this this room, putting on probably putting on eyeshades, maybe listening to some music, have someone sit alongside us, but we're, we're going to, we're going to regulate it to a, to a high degree. And I mean, you're quite right, there's a there's a whole secondary market in the kind of regulation and accreditation of psychedelic therapists, that's that's really booming at the moment. Absolutely, certification, credential ization, yeah, all of this, all of this is really, is really booming. I think it's really interesting to think about the type of subjectivity that is being forged in these in these medical therapeutic contexts. And in a way, what we're what we're doing politically, when we are exposing people to this kind of psychedelic therapy in this in this type of context, is reproducing and consolidating some of the some of the kind of dominant norms of our society. So individualization, appropriate distance, the encounter cannot be sexual, even if even if the person experiencing it would like it to be, which, you know, strikes me as odd, actually. So in a way, what what we're doing in that particular way of deploying psychedelics is is consolidating norms that already exist in in our society.
So norms of individual identity, detachment from others, a kind of, if you like, a kind of semi or kind of semi autistic subjectivity in which people are juxtaposed one with the other, but kind of don't interact or engage in in some of the more intense ways that actually psychedelics can allow one to engage. So, yes, I would say so I would say it's a very narrow kind of sample of the possible wider spectrum of of political psychedelic experience that we are calling on in the in that particular type of medical therapeutic use.
Oshan Jarow 0:46:08
I really like the way that you critique or at least raise questions around the imperative of having a guide in any legal model of using psychedelics. Right? There are obvious reasons that having a guide provides a lot of value, it helps to manage a lot of the anxiety people might have, especially if it's their first time, or if they just want someone who is trained to help them through anything difficult that that may arise, that's incredibly important to offer. But again, if that's the only game in town, I think you do a nice job of pointing out some of the risks. You write, And I want to be clear, I don't think we should ditch the guided therapeutic model. I think it has tremendous value. I think there are real concerns around what we might lose or even the social ramifications of that being the singular focus, the only way that psychedelics are legitimized. And one of the examples that I've been thinking a lot about around, if not in a therapeutically guided individual session, how else might psychedelics be used in a way that doesn't have the same pitfalls?
The obvious answer is to look at indigenous cultures where you have often communities of practice and social and ceremonial use. But even in our own history, there's a fun example with Tim Leary back from the 50s in Harvard. And for listeners, Tim Leary being the Harvard psychiatrist who eventually became the high priest of LSD for the counterculture. But before he got too wild, he had this idea for a graduate seminar at Harvard where at the beginning of every week on Monday, they would choose a social issue. Maybe it was the war, poverty, inequality, civil rights. And then they would all take psychedelics together. They would trip with the intention of considering the issue that they'd selected. And then for the rest of the week, Tuesday through Friday, they would just debrief.
They would unpack any insights they had. They'd compare and contrast with the existing literature and discourse on the issue. And they'd see if they hit upon any novel approaches or solutions that seem worthwhile to expand on. And on its face today, we might struggle to imagine universities being able to allow the administration of psychedelics to students or professors and students tripping together. There's a whole bunch of hurdles here, but it's not inconceivable. And I do think that it hints at a really interesting way of harnessing that creative value of psychedelics that we talked about. Of rupturing the settled habits of mind and thought that naturally concretize over time and opening up the production of knowledge to novel and unusual possibilities. You can imagine psychedelics as these agents of making sure that whatever the common sense around a topic is, that it doesn't get too overpowering. That psychedelics can help people explore ideas outside the boundaries of common sense. And if we have mechanisms that then help us critically reflect on those ideas, because psychedelics can produce spectacularly bad ideas and false insights. There's a whole bunch of research on false insights and psychedelics. It's really interesting nowadays. But if you have something like four days of a grad seminar, considering them soberly and placing them in comparison to the existing literature, you might find some really good ones. It's kind of like sifting through all that sediment in a river looking for those little spots of gold.
Oliver Davis 0:50:15
I couldn't agree more. I regret greatly that institutionally speaking that kind of experiment is not possible at the moment. I wonder what it will be, because I think actually, we started off by talking about the psychedelic humanities. Of course, we can reflect together about psychedelics in an academic institutional context. But actually, that kind of experiment that Tim Leary was doing, that in a way is the future of psychedelic humanities. We just need the kind of institutional regulatory frameworks to allow it. Or it's not going to happen in institutions. It'll happen in autonomous collectives and it'll happen in other spaces. But I think it would be a shame if institutions couldn't embrace psychedelics in that kind of way. Because that is actually where some of their most exciting political potential lies.
Oshan Jarow 0:51:21
I'm also really happy that you brought up the example with the Huichol in Mexico, where they would take peyote, come back and say, Ah, it is exactly as my father's told me. Just kind of contrasting that with how psychedelic experience in the West has been coded. Trying to imagine a young person in the US or the UK going on a big psychedelic trip and afterwards saying, Ah, yes, things are exactly as I was told. This all makes sense. The image of psychedelics we have is usually antagonistic to the existing structures of society, to the present cultural ecosystem that we're all enmeshed in. And sometimes I think that makes it tempting to think that psychedelics are inherently or intrinsically antagonistic to existing institutions. But when you do this kind of cross-cultural comparison, you see that isn't the case. That whether psychedelic experience affirms or grates against the constructs of their world can vary depending on the set and setting of the trip, or in this case of the cultural setting. So one question that I get from this is to wonder, what would it take? How would the US or the UK or any similar Western society, how would things have to change such that when young people go on big trips and come back, they would feel that sense of affirmation with the culture and society that they return to?
That they wouldn't get a sense of discord but of communion, right? What are the necessary shifts so that psychedelic experience harmonizes with American institutions rather than struggles against them? But on the other hand, and this is something that you write about, I don't know if it'll ever be that easy, right? Especially within a society as large and theoretically pluralistic as the US, or the shared set of norms and sensibilities that cut across Western society on the whole compared to the Huichol for example, we don't have as much homogeneity. So this leads us into your ideas on radical democracy at the micropolitical level. Should we think about one good path for psychedelics being where the experience can be brought into harmony with existing structures? Or is their value really as a kind of disruptive democratic ferment where in societies as pluralistic and diverse as ours, the real value is in energizing people to not just go along with however their parents told them things are, right? Do we want the harmony or do we want the discord?
Oliver Davis 0:53:50
I think as a radical democrat, we want the discord. We want the discord and we want the intensity of the feeling as well. And if we really believe in radical democracy, we have to want that across the political spectrum, which is difficult. I mean, for me, one of the things that I've been trying to use in the book that I'm sort of in the middle of at the moment on the politics of psychedelics is Thoreau actually, and Thoreau's Walden in particular. But thinking about where he is writing about the mass of humanity who lead lives of quiet desperation. So for all of those who are clinically depressed or who have that kind of documented medical need for the use of psychedelics, there are many more people who lead lives which lack a feeling of significance, which lack some of the kind of basic constituents of the exercise of political agency and autonomy. Fundamental self-belief and self-trust, for example. And I really do think that psychedelics can help enhance those kind of proto-political dimensions. Where that then takes you the macro level, socially speaking, is much more problematic to kind of envisage. But I do sincerely believe that we have to accept that the whole political spectrum will become more enlivened in that way.
Oshan Jarow 0:55:37
Yeah, I mean, the idea of enlivened politics is, I think, in many ways antithetical to a lot of people's experience of it today. I was listening to the philosopher Danielle Allen talk about this recently, where one of the problems with today's politics is that a ton of people are too busy, just keeping afloat in their own lives, or too exhausted from the sustained stress of insecure economic positions to ever consider doing something like showing up to a town hall meeting and participating in their political institutions where they have a voice. So you wind up with a situation like today where, in theory, anyone and everyone can participate. But in practice, what you get, for example, like at that town hall meeting, is it's dominated by one particular band of interests, right? Property owners generally who are already wealthy, who support and voice their support for policies that protect their interests.
And you don't have the renters showing up who would benefit from more housing and development that would lower rents, for example. And that problem reaches across the board, right? The people with the most resources have the most capacity to engage and shape politics today. So there's that problem. But what I hear you talking about is something almost like an energy parameter, which has a direct correlate in psychedelics, right? Where one thing they do is dial up the entropy of brain activity. Even in today's political landscape, do you see integrating legal psychedelic access for all as something that might dial up the energy people have to participate in politics?
Oliver Davis 0:57:11
I think that's a great way of putting it and of seeing it. I mean, because one can understand non-participation in lots of ways. One can say, okay, well, if someone's working three jobs and has children to look after, then of course, they have no time to take part in town hall meetings and so on. But I think in a way, those kinds of sociological explanations are not as persuasive as thinking about, okay, but why is there a lack of energy or self-belief or a sense of the possibility of making one's voice heard or making a difference in a conversation? How can we address that? And I think energy is a very interesting way of understanding that. Yeah, and I think, yes, absolutely. So psychedelics used in a way that sort of exceeds the medical therapeutic paradigm that quite kind of narrow, that narrow kind of segment of the wide spectrum can indeed address this sort of lack of energy or lack of self-belief. Or can it address that kind of quiet desperation that Thoreau talks about?
Oshan Jarow 0:58:30
Well, so it's interesting then, yeah, I actually think entropy is a really nice metaphor. This is something I've been reporting a lot on recently. Entropy being effectively a measure of the disorder or the randomness of neural activity, which kind of goes way up in psychedelic states. And so this is thought to unsettle habits. There's a whole kind of predictive processing thing where the brain kind of grows less confident in its own assumptions and predictions, which kind of allows a wider space to entertain things within the realm of conscious experience that usually you wouldn't because they were ruled out by all these assumptions you've had. But it's interesting to kind of stretch that same kind of explanation to the social level and to think about psychedelics tuning up the lever of entropy in terms of our, I like how you write this about our self-belief, our own kind of participation in society, the energy levels ratcheting up just a little bit, maybe tuning up a little more disorder, a little more kind of democratic ferment, which I think you're right, we could draw this line then to kind of more enlivened participation in our lives, whatever that means. Maybe that's political participation. Maybe it's just how I move through my life every day. But still, I think just as important, if not more important, I think that we're thinking about it.
Oliver Davis 0:59:41
Absolutely. And I think it might take the form, for example, of saying, well, okay, actually, this town hall meeting is actually not political at all. Actually, I'm not going to go to the town hall meeting because actually this meeting is just a kind of way of distributing small amounts of finance or making kind of small decisions. I'm going to do some kind of more radical protest or intervention. So it might involve a kind of disaffection, a disengagement from some of those kinds of structures that we think of as political that actually might in fact not be political in a more radical sense.
Oshan Jarow 1:00:25
Well, this is a lot of, I guess, what we saw in the 50s and 60s, right? The kind of psychedelic experience, I think it was very engaged with the political questions, but it wasn't like all the hippies were going to town hall meetings, turn on, tune in, drop out. The modes of life, the ways in which they were living, the kind of things they did with their time were kind of the manifestations of this kind of reinvigorated sense of politics, I would say.
Oliver Davis 1:00:49
Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, yeah. Obviously, opposition to the Vietnam War was a kind of big macro political cause. But in a sense, that was just part of a kind of opposition to a society in which people, as kind of Marcuse theorized, people were being kind of prepared to be used for their economic value. So it was a rejection of that whole kind of way of living through a form of kind of radical inactivity, in a way, a kind of aesthetic detachment from all of those forms of purposive activity.
Oshan Jarow 1:01:32
Yeah. Do you think it's really interesting that you're thinking with Thoreau here, do you think Thoreau would have approved of the use of psychedelics? Did he? I don't know if I've ever read any of this on him.
Oliver Davis 1:01:44
That's a really fascinating question. I think he does allude, actually, at one point in Walden to indigenous to Native American cultures, to the practice of every spring of kind of sweeping out the huts and kind of burning everything and taking what he calls medicine. So medicine there would be peyote. So there was a kind of allusion to that practice. And he seems very approving of that kind of periodic kind of communal cleansing. So yes, I think on the basis of that very small kind of textual moment, I'd say, yes, he'd be an enthusiast. I mean, where the book that I'm halfway through is kind of tending is towards a kind of account which will look at the idea of rebirth or Renaissance, as Thoreau imagines it in Walden as something that we might use psychedelics to to produce or inform or enable.
Oshan Jarow 1:02:52
Well, this is something we see a lot. This notion of rebirth is a very common kind of thematic pair with psychedelic experience, given what I think is kind of the blunt language of ego death. But more broadly, this notion of kind of a progressive or kind of variable dissolution of what we experience as our own selves, kind of the more you change this phenomenon, this experience, whatever you want to call it, this kind of integrated experience of I. The notion of rebirth becomes a very kind of visceral thing that folks can play with in these contexts. It seems pretty clearly a very fitting way to think about it, doesn't it?
Oliver Davis 1:03:25
I think so. The idea of the brain being returned to a much more plastic learning state, a kind of rebirth of the brain or the brain's capacity for freer play. Yeah, these are all absolutely kind of important dimensions, as you're suggesting in the kind of neuroscientific literature. I mean, I think what's interesting is to think then about what follows from that socially and politically.
Oshan Jarow 1:03:59
Yeah, I mean, this is the question I keep thinking about is so much of what I think defined the kind of American first go around with psychedelics or the Western world at large was the ways in which it really began to bleed out into social and political life. And I think during the psychedelic renaissance here in the Western biomedical world, we haven't seen that yet because whatever renaissance there has been, it has all occurred within clinically controlled trials, environments that are very heavily regulated. And there's still the underground and there's still some decriminalization efforts, but by and large. And so the question I'm really interested in is over the next decade or two, and I think this is what you're charting out of it, is as psychedelics kind of go beyond only being accessible in these clinical models, what is that kind of new kind of collision with social and political life going to look like? Because I don't imagine it's going to be inconsequential, but I don't know what direction that'll take. How do you think about kind of the next decade or two to come as psychedelics begin? I guess this is the whole notion of the psychedelic humanities, right? But how do you see this collision taking place?
Oliver Davis 1:05:04
It's very difficult to know actually what's going to happen when, if you like, psychedelics become mainstream. So at the moment, because of the war on drugs, because of prohibition, we have only the examples really of people taking psychedelics at kind of extremes of society, if you like, because the vast majority of people, if they're told by the majority of people, if they're told by the medical establishment, if they're told by the police, if they're told by politicians, you know, that these substances are dangerous, they'll make you jump out of windows, and all of this stuff that was pumped into the society by Nixon and his acolytes, when they sort of set up the war on drugs. Most people, you know, they're not going to then say, Oh, yeah, well, maybe I'll try them anyway. So what we have at the moment is we have a situation where, you know, you've got small numbers of people who've been involved in clinical trials, you've got then you've got people who use them outside of legal frameworks, or, you know, who are privileged enough to exist to live in one of the very few places in which one can use them legally. We don't really have a kind of we don't have a kind of evidence base, a current evidence base anyway, of what will happen when, when the mainstream really, really embraces psychedelics, as I think, as I think they will, over the next 10 or 10 or 20 years. So in a way, it's a it's a very exciting moment to be thinking about, about those sorts of implications.
Oshan Jarow 1:06:47
I absolutely agree. And one of the potential implications that I'm really excited and curious about is how more widespread psychedelic experience could reinvigorate conversations around, you know, metaphysics and ontology and our shared understanding of just what sort of universe it is that we're floating in here. Because already, you know, without psychedelics, there's been this move in some corners of philosophy to devise a scientifically informed understanding of the cosmos, but that revives a sense of enchantment or mystery or even, you know, unknown and potentially unknowable aspects of the world. And you write about how Michaux is kind of one guide through this ongoing effort.
You say that rather than the sobering prospect of a merely natural philosophy of psychedelics, Michaux's work suggests that a more promising paradigm, which better captures the force of psychedelic experience might be mystical naturalism. And I like that phrase a lot. It reminds me of one from the philosopher and something of a mystic Simone Weil who spoke of enchanted materialism, which I think has a similar flavor, right, that scientific methodology can and should help us come to know the world in a really empirical testable way. But that doing so doesn't collapse or dispel this sense of mystery and unknowability and all that remains hidden from us, even, you know, for example, in something like the structure of matter itself. So I'm curious how you read Michaux here. How does he guide us through this idea of mystical naturalism? And how does that differ from a kind of plain and simple, reductive, you know, scientific understanding of psychedelics?
Oliver Davis 1:08:35
I see it as a kind of intermediate position between a kind of sort of a kind of hard, scientistic naturalism, if you like, on the one hand, and on the other, the other extreme position, which says, okay, well, psychedelics, they, they, they prove that panpsychism is correct, and that, you know, that the universe is inhabited by only by kind of minded, minded entities of various kinds. Now, with all due respect to those who believe that second position, I think it's quite outlandish, actually. But I think we, and I think it's quite a distraction from thinking about the political and social ramifications of psychedelics. So I think, I think Michaux's middle course is that is a very attractive kind of compromise between those, those, those two extremes, which enables us to then move on and think about what I think are the more interesting questions around, around politics and society. So not not to get, you know, not to get caught up in these, you know, these, for me, I think these absurd discussions, you know, are DMT entities real? Or, you know, how are we going to map psychedelic in a space, you know, these, I think these discussions are just distractions from, from thinking about thinking about what happens politically and socially, when, when we see more and more people taking taking psychedelics.
Oshan Jarow 1:10:07
So what do you see, putting a pin on the moment, because I think I have the same sensibility as you, that my interest leans in the political and social ramifications, but I'm curious. So then for Michaux, I guess my question would be, what is the mystical aspect of his, like, what separates his view from a very scientific reading of, because he was, as you mentioned, he would, he would only take kind of lab grade, synthetically, synthetically produced mescaline. He was not interested in indigenous cultures and these kinds of things. So it seems to me possible to read him pretty scientifically. So what, what kind of elevates him? Or what were the kind of ideas maybe that move beyond that for him?
Oliver Davis 1:10:44
Well, there's this, you know, there's this phrase which occurs in the second book in the series, La Finiter Bulon, where he says, and it's in block capitals, you know, to, to, to indicate the emphasis he places on it, I have seen the thousands of gods. Oh, I love that line. Yeah. And this is not, you know, this is, this is, this is a report of mystical experience of a kind of religious, religious mystical revelation. To me, the one of the most interesting commentaries on that is by the literary critic Maurice Blanchot, who says, it's, it's interesting, this comment, you know, of Michaux, he says he's seen the thousands of gods, but, you know, even if we like Michaux, and we're, you know, we're admiring readers of the book, admiring readers of his work, we don't stop what we're doing and, you know, gather around and say, wow, you know, he's seen the thousands of gods, you know, what's what follows from this, we just take it, we take it as a kind of personal experience of other kind of revelation, but we don't, we don't cash it out into metaphysical or ontological consequences.
Oshan Jarow 1:11:56
Yeah, I mean, the kind of classic line is that talking about your psychedelic experiences is very much like talking about your dreams. They carry this energy and this fascination to you and to generally nobody else. And but it's interesting, right? Because on one hand, that can, how do we respond to that fact, right? Do we then simply discard these experiences as we learn that other folks are not interested in them? And especially when these experiences have to do with this kind of revelatory aspect? Do we hold out kind of space that that this is, this is nevertheless important and worthwhile. And kind of how do we balance that with, for example, as we move to political implications, this is something that I think Michaux does well. And I think a lot of my favorite writers on psychedelics today do is navigating this line between, as you say, not getting too caught up in the experiences themselves. And while I think it's a, it's an extremely fun thing to do, it's a nice hobby. And I also, I also think it's an important line of research to ask all the questions we can like, all right, there are entities, what's going on? What's going on here? But, but the, the way that you can balance the fascination that arise with this kind of revelatory aspect with the kind of, all right, we have work to do. We have politics that needs some work. We still have all kinds of poverty. We have all these mental illness, so on and so forth. Navigating that balance, I think is really tricky. And I'm also very excited to see how we continue to do that as these kinds of experiences potentially reach wider scales or ratios of the population. We'll see, it's a tough balance.
Oliver Davis 1:13:26
I mean, I think, I mean, for me, it's the question, the questions around, you know, the reality or otherwise of, you know, the empty entities or whatever, they're not, I think they are a bit of a distraction. But I don't think they're, they're futile. But what I do think is that, you know, the way through this is not to say to people, you know, after they've had their trip, or their kind of supervised medical experience of psychedelics is not to say, Oh, yes, well, you know, there's precedent in the history of philosophy, but what you've experienced, so it's okay. I think that's quite a pattern. Actually, it's quite a patternizing response. I think actually, actually, a bit rather as for Freud, you know, who've obviously found other people's dreams endlessly fascinating is to say, this is, you know, this is the mind, this is the, these are the uncharted, you know, antipodes, the territories of the mind that we just don't experience, we don't know about, we, we have to start thinking about them and encountering them. But we mustn't allow ourselves to kind of spin off into some kind of, you know, regressive kind of neo indigenous kind of folklore, which I think there's a real there's a kind of real danger of that in a lot of the discussions in the psychedelic community.
Oshan Jarow 1:14:56
So far, what I want to return to an idea kind of, from a higher level, looking at this kind of space beyond the therapeutic role of psychedelics, you know, the question being, if they are not best understood, you know, merely as new therapeutic drugs, what are they and how do we think about them? And to kind of approach this question you drew on the on the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, who I love, and you know, he describes psychedelics as anthropotectics, which I found a really handy concept. So I wanted to ask you if you could unpack that, you know, what that means and how that maybe departs or expands on the therapeutic vision?
Oliver Davis 1:15:33
Yeah, absolutely. I think I think I think so the idea of anthropotectics in in sort of like so an anthropotectics is simply a technique of human self enhancement. And so for us, for Sloterdijk, meditation would be would be an example of anthropotectics going to the gym, to be an example of anthropotectics, actually, for Sloterdijk, or the, you know, the beauty salon as well, he's quite kind of, he's quite kind of liberal or Catholic, if you like, in his, in his understanding of what self enhancing anthropotectics are, but, but for me, the usefulness of the concept or that that way of seeing psychedelics is that you can then say, okay, well, the drug the substance is okay, that is one element in the anthropotechnical ensemble, which you then associate with or you combine with other elements. So those other elements would include your your set your mindset, the setting you're in, but they might also include a set of political problems of the type that you were, you were referring to in in Tim Leary's classes. So that way, so that way of seeing psychedelics as as anthropotechnics ways of improving, improving on the human actually enhancing what it means to be to be human, but also as necessarily combined with other practices, other cultural objects, including books and works of works of literature, as well, you know, because, you know, for Sloterdijk in the history, as you I'm sure you know, in the humanities, as a kind of discipline, going back to the 19th century has to do with kind of the civilization, the education, the civilizing education of, of the human species through books and books are the anthropotechnical objects par excellence of the humanities in their kind of classical form. And so then thinking about the psychedelic humanities, obviously, psychedelics are going to be involved as anthropotechnics, but you know, they're not only going to be psychedelics, it's going to be psychedelics with with other anthropotechnical elements. So
Oshan Jarow 1:17:50
there was there was someone you pointed to who thought that psychedelics were just full on replace books, right? It might have been Leary.
Oliver Davis 1:17:56
Yeah, no, Leary did. There's a huge corpus of writings and one can one can pick and choose within Leary. They said, No, you students will come home from university and their parents instead of asking them, what books have you read? They'll ask you, which asked the children, which drugs have you take? I think it was a you know, it was a kind of quip actually. But yeah, yeah, yeah, no, he did. He did say that.
Oshan Jarow 1:18:21
Wow. Well, I think that's, for me, that's a really nice place to kind of draw things down. But I do wonder, before we do that, you know, for you was anything else on this terrain lingering on your mind? Anything you wanted to throw into the mix?
Oliver Davis 1:18:36
I am trying to think about mysticism. Oh, boy, this is I'm trying to think about mysticism at the moment. And so this is, I'm sort of halfway through this book. And I'm thinking at the moment about the type of mysticism, particularly of Christian mysticism that Huxley takes up in the doors of perception. And then in a way, then kind of informs the psychedelic humanities. And it seems to me is a very kind of cerebral type of mysticism. And I'm trying to think of other ways of thinking about the Christian mystical tradition and other mystical traditions as well. So I'm using a lot of the work of Julia Christeva. She has a wonderful book on St. Teresa, Teresa of Avila, entitled Terez Mon Amour. So at the moment, I'm trying to kind of, I'm trying to use that. So Teresa of Avila's form of mysticism is much more kind of embodied and sensual. And I think actually, that can help to offset some of the kind of mentalistic, neurological, cerebral skew that that psychedelics have at the moment in the way that we're thinking about the Christian spiritual tradition. So that's, I'll just throw that in. I don't really have any conclusions, but that's what I'm trying to think about at the moment.
Oshan Jarow 1:20:05
Well, that's really interesting. Let me ask you this then, this will be fun. There's a perspective emerging that a lot of folks around me are increasingly kind of excited by, and I think for good reason, but I also think it's early enough that there hasn't been a great critique yet, and I think we need one. So let me try to articulate this perspective on, it's a very kind of scientifically grounded explanation of what, maybe not exactly what mysticism is, but what spiritual experiences and what's going on in these like really, maybe not always high dose, but these really kind of expansive experiences folks are having. And the explanation goes something like this. It is, you kind of begin with the context of predictive processing. So the human mind is a prediction machine that has an internally generated model of the world, which aids its kind of survival efforts. We have two streams of information top down from the brain, which are the generated predictions and bottom up, which is raw sense data. And generally, what we're experiencing is the brain's model unless there's a prediction error, so on and so forth. So the general idea is that this predictive mind is built on a hierarchy of priors of assumptions, and these assumptions, as I mentioned before, kind of give shape to what can even enter into the realm of conscious experience. And so one of the leading explanations of kind of what's going on in the psychology, but off the work of like Robin Carhart Harris, the rebus model, the notion that the brain downweights its precision. It grows less confident in those predictions, widens the space of experience, it admits experiences that are usually excluded. And this kind of, you know, this has a bit of explanatory power.
Now, in terms of what spiritual experiences or what mystical experiences, the story goes something like, you know, as you unravel the kind of predictive underpinnings of the mind, so thoroughly that the mind is no longer engaging in predictions at all, you reach something, you can call it the ground of awareness, you can call it pure consciousness, you know, this is a lot of literature in the meditation space on this. And that effectively, what spiritual experience is, is just what consciousness is like, when you have switched off the kind of predictive processes. Right. So this is a very mechanistic description of what's going on, what I'm curious, and then you know, then there's the kind of inverse process of from the ground of awareness from pure experience, you then have the predictive mind slowly reconstitute itself. And as you bear witness to that process, you have this agency to kind of fiddle with those priors and change them around a little bit. So maybe you had this kind of maladaptive habit, because someone made fun of you when you were young, and that's prevented you from sharing your opinion. And now you can realize that and, you know, unravel its hold on your ordinary psychology a little bit, things like this. The question I want to ask is, is there a wider reading of mysticism as it pertains to psychedelic experience that you can draw on that kind of goes beyond just saying, you know, the mind has deconstructed itself and that kind of admits unusual experience, if that makes any sense?
Oliver Davis 1:23:09
It does, absolutely. But you know, the mind is all very well, but what about the body? What about the body? What about embodied mysticism? And so I'm thinking of, you know, Saint Teresa having her mystical visions, these convulsions, these kind of these sort of very corporeal, orgasmic, ecstatic experiences. And that is a very different kind of, you know, that's a very different kind of experience from that, that sort of cerebral brain focus account. But I think it's a very, I think that I think that model is a very compelling account for, you know, what goes on in psychedelic experiences in the brain.
But it is interesting, isn't it that in, you know, in the medical therapeutic context, you know, we are having people are static, pretty much static, and reclining, generally, the body is not in contemporary in contemporary psychos, psychotherapeutic use of psychedelics, we're not engaging the whole body in the experience. Quite, quite, quite the contrary. So I think, I mean, obviously, there was, you know, pre prohibition, therapeutic use, there was there was there was that kind of experimentation, some of it really quite, quite radical, and again, it's quite disturbing by some, by space by some lights, but I, so I'm thinking, yeah, I'm, yeah, so what happens when when the kind of the body, the sensing, and sexual bodies is involved in, in that kind of mystical experience, but it's not just a cerebral, aesthetic thing.
Oshan Jarow 1:24:54
Yeah, I think that's, I think that's a wonderful place to kind of direct how to, how to respond and how to think about building on this idea, because I, you know, I feel the same way. I think, at its core, it's a very compelling account, it makes a lot of sense. But this notion of kind of encountering, you know, embodied cognition embodied experience could help expand it. Well, wow, Oliver, thank you so much. This was wonderful. And if if folks, myself included, I'm asking this for me, if you're interested in this, I think it's a great way to get involved in this.
Oliver Davis 1:25:55
That's wonderful, because it's very close to me. That's convenient.
Oshan Jarow 1:25:59
Great. Well, hey, listen, thank you so much. This has been really wonderful. It was a pleasure to have the opportunity to engage with your work. And I think it was a really great basis to begin thinking about and watch what happens next. I think it's going to be exciting, an exciting decade or two.
Oliver Davis 1:26:15
Thank you so much, Oshan, for your for your for your great questions and for our conversation today.