Book Review: PiHKaL


PiHKAL (“Phenylethylamines I Have Known And Loved”), subtitled “A Chemical Love Story”, is the autobiography of Alexander and Ann Shulgin. Alexander Shulgin was a chemist who invented lots of new psychedelic drugs. Ann was his wife. Together they discuss their chemistry research and their relationship.

I was expecting a sort of popular science style book that cleverly ties the chemical story into the love story. You know the drill – the bonds between people are like the bonds between atoms, fragile in some ways yet incredibly strong in others. Or something like that. It would use the human interest story to hook you into the chemistry, then use the chemistry to give scientific respectability to the human interest story, so that both science nerds and hopeless romantics could enjoy it and gain more of an appreciation for the other side’s point of view.

Some parts of PiHKAL approached this kind of style. But a lot of them didn’t. Chapters and sections tended to be kind of either/or. You can be reading one moment about how MDMA is an n-methylated homolog of MDA, and the next moment about how Alexander Shulgin’s broad shoulders rippled as he was making love. It was a bit jarring.

The first quarter of the book was about Alexander Shulgin’s childhood and early life. He was born in 1930s Berkeley, went to school, became a chemist, and got a job with Dow Chemical. He invented a pesticide so successful that Dow gave him total freedom to work on whatever he wanted – which turned out to be psychedelics. He met, courted, and married his first wife Helen, a process which receives six sentences (compared to seven sentences a page later on the history of 3,4,5-trimethoxyamphetamine synthesis techniques). He has various scientific and professional successes, including a supporting role in the invention of MDMA/Ecstasy. His first wife dies of a brain haemorrhage.

The second quarter is a love story told from Ann’s perspective. It reminds me a little bit of very bad fanfiction, like “My Immortal”. Ann very briefly talks about her childhood, then gets to the part where she (after three previous marriages and divorces) meets Alexander. Cue lavish descriptions of his eyes, his hair, his muscles, his shoulders, how much better than her he is, how there’s no way someone as awesome as he is could possibly fall for someone boring like her, how many sparks get sent through her spine every time he gazes at her, et cetera. I am okay with people being in love, but this is a bit excessive. We get to hear about how amazing it is that he is a chemist, how amazing it is that he creates new drugs, how amazing it is that he is a brilliant yet dark and brooding loner, how there’s no way someone like that could ever love her (but spoiler: he totally does). Sometimes it seems to strain plausibility – there is a section where Shulgin tells Ann that he is interested in psychopharmacology, and she innocently goes into “Oh my, that’s such a big word for a girl like me, I wonder what it means”. But she has been married to a psychiatrist for ten years at this point, and also, she’s a hospital transcriptionist. I roll to disbelieve that she has never heard the word “psychopharmacology” before – let alone never heard the word “pharmacology” and the prefix “psycho-” from which the meaning is completely obvious.

The third quarter is an assortment of trip reports, social gatherings, and arguments against the War on Drugs. It is probably my favorite part, given that it’s neither as dry as the autobiography nor as overwrought as the love story. The trip reports about weird new psychedelics that nobody else has ever tried are really what I’m here for – they occur throughout, but especially here, and they do not disappoint.

The fourth quarter is a cookbook detailing the ingredients of, synthesis techniques for, and effects of 179 different psychedelic substances. It’s really fascinating, and I’m consumed by a desire to try some of it, except that they all begin by with instructions like “Obtain a professional-quality chemistry lab and several zillion different compounds with names like 2,5-dimethoxythiophenol”, and end with getting raided by the DEA. So I will have to stick to enjoying Alexander Shulgin’s psychedelic experiments vicariously.


There were a couple of levels on which I enjoyed this book, though none left me completely without questions.

The first level, of course, is Shulgin’s work on psychedelics. My opinion on psychedelics hasn’t changed since Universal Love, Said The Cactus Person. I think they’re really interesting and mysterious and show every sign of pointing at something profoundly important. I also think that nobody has ever been able to consistently extract anything useful or scalable out of them, and until someone does, they’ll remain a weird toy where you take them and feel transcendent joy for a few hours, and if all you want is to feel transcendent joy for a few hours then they’re definitely the way to go, but as of yet it’s unclear what relevance they can have to any other project.

Alexander Shulgin disagrees. At least I think he disagrees. He is dark and brooding and quiet, and he doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve even in his autobiography. But he mentions – once – that he believes his project is vitally important for the human race. This is Ann:

It seems to me that the magic plants – and the psychedelic drugs – are there to be used because the human race needs some way of finding out what it is, some way of remembering things we’ve usually forgotten by the time we’re grown up. I also think that the whole 1960s eruption- all that psychedelic experimenting and exploring – was due to some very strong instinct – maybe on the collective unconsciously level, if you want to use Jung’s term – an instinct that’s telling us if we don’t hurry up and find out why we are the way we are, and why we do the things we do, as a species, we could very soon wipe ourselves out completely

Alexander says this is what drives him also, then adds:

Of course, there are many ways to alter your consciousness and your perceptions; there always have been, and new ways will keep being developed. Drugs are only one way, but I feel they’re the way that brings about the changes most rapidly, and – in some ways – most dependably. Which makes them very valuable when the person using them knows what he’s doing. I thought for a while that I could use music to accomplish what I wanted to do, because music can be a very powerful consciousness changer. But when I discovered that I had a certain knack for chemistry, I made a decision to go that way, to concentrate on developing these tools. Mostly, I suppose, because these particular drugs, these materials, are a way to bring about new insights and perceptions quickly, and – well, I just don’t know if we have much time. Sometimes I suspect it may be too late already…I have no intention of getting lazy, and there’s nothing better than a suspicion that time’s running out, to keep you working hard.

Shulgin and his friends seem like good people. But not, crucially, like the best people. Shulgin himself – by his own admission, based on facts that he himself presents in his own autobiography – is consistently kind of a jerk to his wife (and his wife kind of agrees). He gets depressed and ornery a lot, sometimes to the point where it seriously interferes with his work and relationships. His circle of friends seems to have some problems with marital infidelity and random drama, and he tells one story about a distant friend-of-a-friend obsessed with LSD who seems to be an outright con man. I’m not saying they’re bad people; quite the opposite, the book makes them seem very human and if I lived in the same time and place as them I would be delighted to have the opportunity to know them. But they seem, well, about as good or bad as any other set of intelligent, creative people. It’s not clear that their psychedelic use – and man, do these people use psychedelics – has made them morally or spiritually exceptional. It’s hard to shake the thought that these people would be relatively nice and interesting artists and scientists with a little bit of marital infidelity and personal drama even if they’d never taken anything stronger than Tylenol.

Don’t get me wrong – during the trips they are constantly seeing God and understanding the oneness of everything in creation. But even Alexander Shulgin’s close friend group aren’t high more than like 20% of the time. I’m not sure exactly what about them makes them potential human-race-savers. Yes, I think they’re probably anti-nuclear-weapon. But this is the 1970s Berkeley counterculture; anti-nuclear-weapon people are not exactly hard to come by.

And so I was left with one question the book didn’t really answer – why is Shulgin doing this? What is his hope? Does he hope that the 200th new psychedelic he discovers will be the one that really teaches people universal love, to the point where they can’t ignore it? That just having twenty different slightly different permutations of the same psychoactive sulfur compound isn’t enough to create a world revolution in consciousness, but having thirty of them is? Why didn’t he become the scientist in this article, who has come up with a clever way to extend the DMT high in order to be able to enter complex negotiations with the machine elves, hopefully involving factoring large numbers? That’s the sort of project that can go somewhere.

I’m not saying that everyone needs to have a four-hundred-step plan for how exactly what they’re doing today is going to save the world, Leverage Research style. I can’t tell you how writing this blog post or doing psychiatry is going to save the world. And I’m not saying people can’t focus on their comparative advantage – if you’re a brilliant chemist, maybe you should invent new chemicals and let politicians and religious leaders figure out what to do with them. But Shulgin seems to think he’s doing something more important than coming up with new and better toys, and it’s not totally clear to me what this is.

Shulgin does have a great excuse – the War on Drugs is in full swing by the middle of his career, and this prevents a lot of his products from getting the trial they deserve. For example, he introduces a psychiatrist friend to MDMA, and the psychiatrist finds it to be an immense help to psychotherapy, helping patients realize and come to terms with their issues much faster than the non-chemically-assisted version. I’ve heard this from psychiatrists I know as well, and maybe we could have had a revolution in mental health if the DEA hadn’t banned this kind of thing (there is, in fact, a big literature on psychedelics in psychiatry, most of which shows impressive effects in the very small experiments that have been permitted thus far). So maybe Shulgin’s angle is that he’s developed very useful mental health treatments which unfortunately the medical establishment refuses to consider, but they’ll be there if anybody needs them. But then how come he keeps inventing more of them, seemingly with no interest in whether they help the mentally ill or not? How come he keeps talking about saving humanity instead of curing depressed people?

The only hint I get is during a trip report for a particularly powerful compound called 2C-T-4, where Shulgin writes:

There is a simultaneous union with everything around me, and thus with everything within me too. A complete identification with my environment. And a sense of being at total peace with it, as well. If this is me, then I thank the dear Lord for a wonderful awareness, at least for a short time, of the fact that we can be so rich and beautiful. The mind flows and with it the soul, and no matter what words I put down in an effort to catch the wondrous monolog, I can do it little justice…

I have been fooled, again and again, into thinking that the magic of the unified reality was in the drug, and not in the person. Of course it is in the person – and only in the person – but if a drug could be found that would consistently catalyze this, then it would be one of the most powerful and awesome drugs that could be conceived of by man. If it were this material, 2C-T-4, it would have to be held apart with a reverence that would be impossible to describe or explain on a patent application!!

But Shulgin later reports that the drug does not consistently have this effect; testing it on other people (and again on himself) he gets various interesting psychedelic trips but never a return to the same level of transcendence. So maybe Shulgin is looking for a drug that consistently works as well as 2C-T-4? But I’m not sure what he would do with it if he found it. Ann, for example, describes her first mescaline trip in language a lot like the language Shulgin uses for 2C-T-4, and many others (eg Huxley) do the same – but everyone already knows about mescaline. Would releasing a consistent version of 2C-T-4 to the world do something mescaline hasn’t already done? What has mescaline already done?

Oddly enough, it is Ann – who keeps on insisting that she is not intellectual, that she is hopelessly boring compared to Alexander, that we should be reading her parts only to gain a hero-worshipping outsider’s perspective on Alexander – whose speculations on this subject I really like. This is from her mescaline trip report. She says that on mescaline she understood for the first time that the world was perfectly good, and writes:

I nodded, remembering some of the phrases I’d read in books and articles about psychedelic experiences, phrases like “Everything’s all right just exactly the way it is,” and the equally infuriating “I’m okay, you’re okay,” which had always sounded unbearably fatuous and self-satisfied. I’d often thought angrily that the writers had conveniently forgotten about the babies in Calcutta garbage cans, sorrow and hurt and loneliness, and the rest of a planetful of miseries. I’d said to myself, here’s some whacked-out idiot rhapsodizing about life being all right just the way it is. It had never stopped me from reading about such experiences, but my liberal soul had always ground its teeth at that aspect of the reports.

Now – now I would have to take it all back, all that resentment, because I was beginning to understand. I stopped in the road and looked at Sam and looked past him, and around and up at the grey sky and I knew that everything in the world was doing exactly what it was supposed to be doing; that the universe was on course, and that there was a Mind somewhere that knew everything that happened because it was everything that happened, and that, whether I understood it with my intellect or not, all was well. I simply knew it and I knew that I would try to figure it out later, but that I had to absorb the truth of it now, standing on a wet road in Golden Gate Park.

At least here, she seems to be using the mescaline not to catapult humanity to a higher state of existence, but to make her peace with the current state. I’m not sure making peace with the current state is philosophically justifiable, but it seems to have helped her, and I can imagine it helping a lot of people, as long as they stick to viewing it as a psychological truth and not as an excuse for quietism – something Ann doesn’t seem to have done.


The second level on which I enjoyed this book was anthropology and ethnography.

The Shulgins met through a group that had branched off of Mensa. Their social circle consisted of a mishmash of scientists, underachieving geniuses, mental health professionals, hippies, and people convinced that their new projects were going to save the world – all in the context of Berkeley and the Bay Area. This is also my social circle, thirty years later, so it’s interesting to see how things have changed and how they’ve stayed the same.

Ann starts her narrative while she is dating a fellow Mensan named Kelly. So, ethnographical study number one:

He was an intense man with a striking, angular face who had met me at a Mensa gathering four months earlier. The next day, he came to my house and asked me to marry him. He explained, much later, that of course he knew I would refuse – had counted on it, in fact – but that he had often found proposing marriage to be an effective way of getting a woman’s attention. There was no denying that it had done just that.

Kelly’s passions in life were computers, good-looking older women and the creation of new IQ tests. I also discovered that he had a generalized contempt for humanity, referring to most people ask ‘turkeys’, and a tendency to uncontrolled explosions of rage, which often resulted in his having to apologize later for damage done to someone else’s furniture or a relationship – usually both.

He explained about his painful illnesses in childhood and his demanding, punitive father, and asked me to be understanding a patient. It worked for a while (I’ve always had a soft spot for intelligent neurotics), but after one memorable day when he smashed some of my records in front of the children, screaming at me for coming home ten minutes late from work and keeping him waiting, I told him if he didn’t go into therapy, I was through.

Kelly’s answer was, “I’ve never met a psychiatrist I couldn’t out-think and out-reason, I’m not about to waste my time or my money on one of those cretins!”

This Thursday gathering in Berkeley was an effort on Kelly’s part to bring together people he considered intelligent enough to, as he put it, appreciate what he could teach them about using their minds effectively.

Ethnographic study number two, slightly edited for length; this is Ann introducing Alexander to some of her friends:

[I] proceeded to give him rapid-fire descriptions of some of Mensa’s main attractions, as they stood talking or moved past us. In my best museum-guide manner, I told him, addressing his right ear closely because of the noise in the room, “You see that man there, the tall one with the red vest? He created the SIG – Special Interest Group – which is known as the Orgy SIG; I forget his official title for it, something like Sexual Freedom SIG, but everyone refers to it by the other name. I’ve never been to a meeting, but I hear they’re a lot of fun for those who go in for that sort of thing…”

“That woman over there in the purple dress, the one standing in a straight line between us and the candles – that’s Candice. She’s a very good-hearted, motherish person who gives the Mensa tests in this area, and for a while her little boy, Robin, was the youngest member of Mensa in the country. He’s around ten now, and no longer the youngest.”

I told him about the mathematical computer which inhabited the sometimes bewildered soul of the young man on the couch, and he said he was very interested in that kind of mind, and would go over and talk with him later on. I said I hoped he would want to do that, because few people paid any attention to the boy, and he was very sweet.

I asked Shura [Alexander Shulgin]’s ear, “Why haven’t you joined Mensa, by the way? It’s a good way to meet interesting people, especially when you’ve been divorced – or widowed.”

“Well,” shouted Shura, “To tell you the truth, I never thought of applying, probably because you have to take an IQ tests, and I will not take an IQ test.”

“Why, in heaven’s name?”

“I feel total, complete disgust for all tests of intelligence, and only limited patience with the people who give them. When I was in the third grade or thereabouts, I was given a so-called IQ test, a Binet-something-something, and I made an honest and diligent effort to complete it. There were angular objects, and number games, and if-this-then-what types of questions and the strategies needed for getting to most of the answers were pretty obvious.”

“You did well?”

“Of course I did, and that’s where I really tangled with the school principal. He accused me of having cheated, since no one could get the results I had gotten without cheating, and so I was in essence thrown out of the testing group, and was pretty much humiliated. They obviously wanted scores that fit on a kind of distribution curve about some sort of a norm. Mine was a bit too far to the right of the curve. My mother was furious with the principal; she pulled me into his office and confronted him and lectured him about my integrity, which made me want to run and hide even worse than before. I swore then that I’d never take another IQ test, and I never will!”

Ethnographic description number three is Shulgin’s colleague, a German professor named Dolph, and his wife Ursula. Shulgin’s first marriage, to the woman he spent six sentences on in Part I, was never very happy – never unhappy, neither of them was abusive or anything, just sort of boring and straightforward. When Shulgin met Ursula, he fell in love, maybe for the first time in his life, and they had a brief affair before Dolph and Ursula had to go back to Germany:

We met, Ursula and I, two or three times in some inn or private place sufficiently far away from the Bay Area to minimize the possibility of being seen by a friend or acquaintance, and I discovered what it was to feel unashamed, uncensored, joyous sexuality.

Being in love, like any other kind of consciousness alteration, makes small but real changes in the way you view things about you, and in the way you behave around others. Over the years, my friends had come to accept me as what they affectionately called a “difficult genius”, and were quite used to my habitually ironic humor, cutting commentary, and somewhat sour view of the world. One of the hardest things I had to do, in my unaccustomed role of secret lover and beloved, was to avoid giving expression – in the company of family or friends – to the feelings of optimism and even outright niceness which overtook me now and then, and which I knew would cause some degree of concern if they were detected.

I really like this passage. Here’s someone who has tried more psychedelic drugs than anyone else in the world, and what really changes his outlook is the power of love.

But then it gets complicated. Shulgin’s wife dies. He corresponds incessantly with Ursula back in Germany, urging her to leave Dolph and come to California and marry him. She says yes, but asks for some time to plan. Shulgin is overjoyed and says to take as much time as she wants. Weeks turn into months. Months to years. They keep writing each other. Ursula insists that she continues to be excited at the impending plan to move to California and marry Shulgin, but she keeps asking for more time. She needs to close up her affairs in Germany. She needs to figure out a way to break it gently to her husband. She needs to stay to comfort her husband during this difficult time. She needs to figure out how she’s going to send her stuff.

Meanwhile, all this time Shulgin is calling her in Germany to talk to her a lot, and a lot of the time her husband answers the phone, and he’s got to suspect something at this point, but he’s still perfectly cheerful and friendly, and finally Shulgin asks, “You know your wife is planning on moving to California to live with me,” and he’s like “Oh yeah, I know”, and Shulgin starts to get a tad suspicious. Meanwhile, this is around the time he starts meeting/falling in love with Ann, and he keeps telling Ann “I really like you, but this is just a fling until my True Love Ursula gets here from Germany”, and Ann is always okay with this, because Alexander Shulgin is Objectively The Best And Most Attractive Person In The World, and obviously having him for a short time is better than having anybody else forever. But it starts to get really annoying and everybody is super confused by what’s going on, and finally one of their psychiatrist friends tells Ann:

Ursula is – how best to put it – she’s a person who, when she’s attracted to a man, intuitively senses what’s lacking in his emotional life, and she has a compulsion to become whatever that man most needs in a woman. She probably convinces herself each time that she’s truly in love, but I doubt she’s capable of what most of us would call real loving. The Jungians have a term, ‘anima woman’. The anima woman lacks a solid identity; like many great actors, she borrows – she takes on – a sense of wholeness from playing a part. In this case, it’s the part of the muse, the inspiration, the adored dream-woman. She fulfills a fantasy, and you can imagine the tremendous emotional rewards there are for her in such a role, as long as the affair lasts. Each affair lasts, of course, only until the next needy attractive man comes along. It’s all unconscious, by the way; I don’t think Ursula has the slightest idea of what she’s doing or why she feels compelled to do it. Or, for that matter, why the men she’s drawn to always happen to be married. When it’s time to move on, she explains – and probably believes – that she’s ending the relationship because she couldn’t live with the responsibility of having broken up a marriage.

When she first joined [our] group, we had long talks with each other, under the influence of [Shulgin’s psychedelics], and she told me a lot about her involvements with married men; she told me more than she realized or intended to. It was a subtle form of preening, under the guise of telling problems to a wise, sympathetic psychologist, you understand? Gradually, I put enough of the pieces together to understand the pattern. By that time, she had stopped telling me personal things about herself and her life, and I sensed that she was feeling uncomfortable around me […]

The dynamics of this kind of psychological compulsion are more than I want to go into right now, but what worries me is I believe Ursula is simply not capable of true emotional commitment to anyone. She’ll play the role for a time, as I said, until somebody else comes along – someone she finds appealing, with an emotional hole that’s begging to be filled – and she’ll move on to the new challenge. That’s what’s going to happen to Shura [Alexander Shulgin], I’m sure of it. I know it! I love him very much – we all do, you know – and sooner or later, he’s going to be badly hurt. That’s why I’m more pleased than I can say, to see you here. I don’t know what your relationship is with Shura, but it’s clear that you care for him, and I hope that – umm – I hope you’ll stay around. To help cushion the blow, when it comes; to give him something real to hold onto, when the unreal thing begins to unravel. Which I’m sure will happen before long, now that Ursula finds herself involved with a man who has – quite unexpectedly – become free to make an open commitment to her and ask her to do the same. Her bluff is being called.

Everything goes back and forth a lot, the whole social circle becomes hopelessly muddled, but in the end the psychiatrist is proven right. After much back-and-forth, Ursula agrees to fly to California that very day. When she doesn’t actually arrive, Ann sends her a nasty letter, informing her that she exists, that she’s on to her, and that now is the time to put up or shut up. Ursula then sends Shulgin a letter:

Dearest, dearest Shura,

A window has widely opened to you, a soul-window, a love-window, of graceful being – being together. A common space of breathing, of light touch, of inner smile. I could let those hours pass without telling you, and then you would never know what I am feeling – you would have only your own experience. Or I could share this with you. That is what I am doing […]

In a past life, about 2,000 years ago, you took a long knife and cut my throat, took my life, murdered me in the desert! You were the chief of our tribe, and I was a young girl, and you killed me! The whys are irrelevant. I have seen this over and over, and others who lived with us in that time have come to me in this life and warned me to be aware of this old karmic connection. We were, I think, of a nomad people in North Africa when this happened so long ago […]

In this moment of open love, you might be able to believe what I say to you, that I do not have any misgiving or second thoughts about emotional involvements with you because of this vision of what happened so long ago. No, my only concern is, and this is very real to me, to free myself and to give you the possibility of freeing yourself, from these old, old bonds of emotional slavery which must not be repeated in this life. In this life, through our deep love, we have the real chance of changing this by bringing it out into the open. We have broken a karmic consequence and do no longer have to blindly bear the burdens of the past life and tragedy.

I am leaving Dolph and I will go to a place to begin a new life with myself. I do not think I will marry again. I must seek alone my true path of the soul. I love you very deeply and I go to live my own life, of which you are a wonderful spiritual part. Maybe it will come that you will be a material part as well. But now you must live the present as completely as you can.

Shura, my dearest one, I want you to be free as a bird. Unfold your wings and leave all pain behind you, all possible accumulated guilt, all disquietness, all sorrows. Be free, and newly born, and walk into sunrise!!!

Fly and be!

So much for ethnographic study number three.


All of this seems somewhat more dramatic than normal reality. I don’t know how much liberty the Shulgins took when writing their autobiography – maybe this is another one of those things like Ann not knowing what “psychopharmacology” was. But one last thing I noticed about the book was how clear and coherent the psychology of everyone in PiHKAL was.

The Shulgins and everyone they know are Freudians – not explicitly, nobody ever says “I am a Freudian”, but just on a deep level they assume that it’s obviously true. Sometimes if it is an especially good day they’re Jungians as well, in the same implicit way. They’re always getting messages from their unconscious, they’re always rediscovering psychologically repressed material, and they’re always meeting people like Ursula who seem driven to behave in dramatic and unusual ways which are very predictable to any of the approximately one zillion psychoanalysts and psychiatrists whom the Shulgins know. Even their drugs are good analysts – the psychedelics are always helping them remember repressed childhood memories, after which they feel much better from whatever was bothering them at the time.

This is interesting, because I almost never see anyone behave in as dramatically Freudian a way as the Shulgins and their friends seem to behave all the time – even though I occasionally do psychodynamic therapy on people! I’m left a little baffled. Part of me wants to say that the primitive mind sees omens everywhere – I’m sure medievals were always seeing various signs of Christ in their daily life, and pattern-matching has never been a difficult sport (ask me how I feel about that brilliant and humane reflection on theodicy above being by someone named Ann). Another part wonders whether, if you’re Freudian enough, your subconscious starts acting in Freudian ways just to keep up – although that itself is a Freudian idea and I’m not sure whether you can get it without presupposing Freudianism anyway. A third possibility is just that the more crazy drugs you’re on, the more Freudian you act – wasn’t Freud a coke fiend anyway? A fourth possibility is that the problem is with me – I’m somehow so closed to all this kind of thing that when people around me tell me Freudian stuff, I completely miss it without Ann Shulgin’s narrative voice to tell me how Freudian it is – or even actively repress it.

Maybe the most interesting chapter of the book was where Ann had a spiritual crisis. She takes a psychedelic called DESOXY which Shulgin thinks is pretty weak, and she has a very strange reaction where the world starts seeming hostile, emotionless, and run by a perfectly rational demiurge that doesn’t care about humans the tiniest bit. The psychedelic leaves her bloodstream, she reaches the point where she should feel normal again, but she can’t shake her feeling of the demiurge’s obvious and palpable presence, to the point where she becomes barely able to function. She goes to one of the zillion or so Jungian psychologists in her friend group, who matter-of-fact tells her she’s having a spiritual crisis, and the only thing to do is wait for her soul to process it and gain the necessary enlightenment to go on (I wish I could get away with saying this kind of thing to my patients). Then she starts having extremely vivid visions of what is very obvious her mind doing Internal Family Systems therapy on herself, despite this being way before Internal Family Systems was invented, and despite the inventor being one of the three or so psychologists who was not a personal friend of the Shulgins. Finally she gets all the IFS steps right, accepts her parts, frees her repressed memories, and stops feeling like the Demiurge is harassing her at every moment. It’s pretty fascinating, but that’s just the thing – even though I’ve tried really hard to do Internal Family Systems on myself, armed with an official book and everything, I get nothing. I never have these sort of exciting spiritual crises that partake of exactly the right amount of symbolism from each of the world’s great mystical traditions. I’m sort of jealous of all the people who do, and sort of suspicious of them. Maybe I need to take more psychedelics.

(I will note, though, that the book is appropriately skeptical about some of this. Shulgin describes going to a psychedelic conference and meeting an academic who worked in ethnobotany. He was studying a certain psychedelic plant, and was especially interested in why everyone who took that plant had hallucinations of jaguars in particular. He theorized that the plant was from the Mexican jungle, and that in some deep way our collective unconscious knew this, and so came up with appropriate hallucinations. Another psychedelicist who happened to hear the conversation interjected “I synthesized that chemical a little while ago, and all I got was wiggly lines.” Shulgin left them as the first was getting increasingly agitated and demanding of the other whether he might have seen something that looked kind of like a jaguar.)

Speaking of weird things that Ann Shulgin sees, I’ll end this with something that might be interestingly testable. She writes that when she was young and going to sleep, every so often she would have a strange experience:

Lying down for naptime (as a child) or at night for sleep, I would have reached that point of relaxation where one is not very much aware of the body…when I sensed it beginning (I never knew when it was going to come), I would immediately snap into alertness, excited and pleased, then I would just lie quietly as it unfolded…every part of it was the same each time. It was always in black and white…and I could never extend it, by so much as a few seconds. When it was finished, it was finished.

First came the image-sensation after which I named the entire experience – the spiral. I felt my entire self drawn rapidly into a tiny point which kept shrinking, until it could shrink no further, at which time the microscopic point became a tunnel in which I continued traveling at great speed, inexpressibly small and implacably diminishing.

Simultaneously, I was expanding. I was expanding to the edges of the universe, at the same tremendous speed as that of the shrinking, and the combination, the contraction-expansion, was not only an image, it was also a sensation the whole of me recognized and welcomed. This experience of myself as microcosm-macrocosm lasted exactly four minutes.

The next stage came abruptly, as did all the changes. I was looking at standing figures which were vaguely human, dark thin figures being pulled into elongated shapes, like the sculptures of Giacometti. They stretched out, arms and legs like black string, until it seemed they could elongate no further, then the scene changed and I was watching obscenely rounded bodies, Tweedledums and Tweedledees without costumes, their small heads and legs disappearing into their puffed, bloated flesh. The sensation accompanying this stage was one of discomfort, unpleasantness, a feeling of something grating on my soul. I once timed this part and the one that followed; they lasted a total of six minutes. I disliked them intensely.

Abruptly again, the inner screen became white, a horrible dead-white, nasty and aggressive like the underbelly of a sting-ray. After presenting itself for a few seconds, the flat white began to curdle from the outer edges into black, until finally the screen was totally black. A thick, awful, dead black, a pool of tar in an unlit cave deep underground. After another brief pause, the black began to curdle at its edges into the white again. The process repeated itself once, and the sensation was similar in every way to the previous one: irritating, grating, a feeling of unpleasantness that approached repugnance. I always endured it with a mental gritting of teeth, knowing it had to be gone through because that’s the way it always went and it was not to be changed.

And then, finally, I broke out into the last stage, the final part for which I had always been and always would be willing to undergo the middle parts. Now I was at the edge of an unseen cliff, looking out into a very different blackness, the deep, cradling blackness of the infinite universe, of space which stretched without end. I was completely happy and comfortable in that place, and would have stayed there indefinitely, had I been allowed, breathing in the beautiful darkness and the exquisitely familiar sense of infinity as a living presence, surrounding me, intimate and warm.

After a moment of this pleasure, came the greeting. From the upper left-hand corner of the universe there came a greeting from Something which had known me, and which I had known, since before time and space began. There were no words, but the message was clear and smiling: Hello, dear friend, I salute you with respect-humor-love. It is a pleasure with laughter-joy to encounter you again…

Then it was over. It had taken exactly twelve minutes.

According to Ann, she had this experience every so often “since I was born”, maybe once a week or so when she was a child, but becoming gradually less and less common until it finally happened for the last time when she was twenty-five. She said it was what got her interested in psychology and spirituality in the first place, and that her later access to psychedelics seemed to be sort of a substitute for the connection she had lost.

She also said that she met two people at cocktail parties who had exactly the same experience with exactly the same sequence of steps (though cutting out earlier). I am sure more people read Slate Star Codex than Ann Shulgin talks to at cocktail parties. So come on, people. Any of you ever have a very specific black and white vision of infinity?

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287 Responses to Book Review: PiHKaL

  1. Laura says:

    Regarding your observation that the people in this book are dramatic and freudian in a way that you do not observe the people around you to be- There are people whose lives become like this at least for some period of time. I’d say my life about 7 years ago was similarly dramatic to events described in the book, even though my life is comparatively boring and even keeled now, and people meeting me now would have no idea. Would be willing to share (privately) if you’re interested.

  2. Agronomous says:

    I’m pretty sure I have dreams all the time, but I rarely remember them—maybe once or twice a month. I’ve had two recently:

    1) I go to get a plate from the stack in the cupboard. But I grab one too far down, and instead of a dinner plate, it’s a salad plate. This makes no sense, because we don’t stack bigger plates on top of smaller ones.

    2) I’m on a mission to Cuba to negotiate a trade deal with Fidel Castro, who looks like he did twenty years ago. This involves a breakfast meeting, or at least having breakfast together. I go from my room on the second floor of a building to the dining room, also on the second floor. There’s a late-middle-aged woman there I don’t recognize; as I make my way over to where she’s sitting, I mentally debate whether to greet her as “Ma’am” or “Señora.” The former wins, and I introduce myself. Castro is annoyed because I’m still in my sleeping bag (not just pajamas; I’m shuffling around in the sleeping bag, holding it up with one arm).

    Later, we talk in the hallway and he asks me what I want, and I say, “Obviously, to establish this trade deal,” as a prelude to stating my additional reason, which I forget. I’m also no longer completely certain it’s just a trade deal: it might have something to do with immigration as well. I’m kind of uncomfortable being so polite to him, and wonder when I can tell him what I really thing of him and his regime.

    During the dream (maybe at the very start of it) I walk into the dining/meeting room with a really big cigar (the size of a flashlight), the last inch-and-a-half of which is ash and ember; I’m unsure whether it’s mine or I’ve swiped it from Castro’s supply (the word “humidor” does not occur to me). At some point, I’m in my guest room, and think the building across from me and below is sliding to the left. This turns out to be an illusion: the building I’m in is actually sliding to the right, to cover or uncover a train station. It then immediately begins to slide back to its original position. There was also some stuff about finding clean clothes and ironing a shirt or getting it pressed.

    (I’m almost 100% certain this is the only dream I’ve ever had that had a cigar in it.)

    What can we conclude from my dreams?

  3. Outis says:

    When I was a child, I would sometimes have what I would describe as a sensation of infinity. An almost physical sense of vertigo, scary but exciting. I would get it often while lying in bed, thinking about the concept of infinity itself, or eternity, or the vastness of space, or all the things about the world I could never know, and other such things. This sensation always occurred while I was awake, and it was always initiated by conscious thoughts like the above. But once it started it extended beyond conscious thought; I could let my train of thought be carried by it, but it was also a pure sensation, an experience. I remember liking it, but it could get too overwhelming, and then I would try to get my mind off of it.

    It stopped many years ago.

  4. Shion Arita says:

    About the going-to-sleep experience thing:

    It’s not exactly the same but I do sometimes experience something similar:

    I see or percieve objects or body parts that oscillate between being really stringy and thin and really fat and rotund. The visual texture also oscillates between being really smooth, like cartoon cel shading, and really gritty. It’s like someone’s playing with sliders on some rendering rig.

    I don’t really ascribe much meaning to the experience: it just seems like some weird stuff the brain sometimes does when going to sleep.

  5. sov says:

    I’ve had almost that exact same hallucination before and indeed, its frequency has diminished as I’ve grown older! I wasn’t actually aware that it was “a thing” that other people felt. I recall having it a LOT when I was young–to the point where’d I’d think “oh, this again”. I don’t remember the last time I had the whole shebang naturally, however. I think I had a miniature version of it a few years ago but my memory is hazy.

    My version went as such: It starts with the same snap to alertness, though it’s more about non-hazy cognizance about how perceptive/alert I feel in that moment. I feel my breathing in, but the air feels empty, as though I am blanketed by a large void. It sounds bad but it isn’t. I feel myself grow smaller–almost as if it’s one of those shots from a movie where the camera zooms out and out until it’s really just a satellite monitoring earth or something, but not at all so technological and the only things are me and the black void around me. There’s a sense of unease but also a sort of weird peacefulness. It makes me feel restless but I don’t make any effort to move. This feels often very 2d–as though I’m kinda pixelated and the void expands above, below and to my left and right. Eventually, this kinda zooms in, and instead of myself as a small dot in a vast, black void, I take up the entire space. I am enormous to the point that I feel as though I am constrained entirely within the world. Sometimes this transition occurs as me feeling more/less “pixelated” (for lack of a better term). I don’t really experience this with a “body” in the sense that the mass I’m taking up has no feeling.It would make me uneasy and it felt kind of grating.

    I never felt the white that Ann purports. I recall almost kaleidoscopic colour and shapes though, almost as if I were part of a wacky time-travel clip from a TV show. The only feeling I remember from that was how breathtaking it was. I do recall the feeling she talks about at the end, however–being on the nascent edge of infinity. Instead of feeling the emptiness of the void around me like at the start, or the complete volume-filling fullness of the second–this part has nothing but the feeling of cool, fresh air and a sort of calmness/relaxation/happiness/comfort. There was no message, apart from a satisfying whole-body flash tingling–a sensation that might mirror a fast-forwarded timelapse video of a bunch of rhododendrons opening.

    It’s also probably worth it to note that I have never done any psychedelics. Also, I used to have a lot of dreams and trouble sleeping when I was young. I rarely have dreams nowadays and fall asleep quickly.

  6. HrToll says:

    It seems nobody’s mentioned this in the comments so far: to me Ann Shulgin’s recurring dream sounds a lot like Alice in Wonderland Syndrome

  7. wintermute92 says:

    Chalk up one more for a youthful spiral experience. Interesting, I still have this (now into my 20s), but it is probably less frequent.


    – No hallucinatory aspects

    – Only occurs while sitting or lying on soft surfaces (e.g bed, sofa), usually with eyes shut

    – Strong feeling of spinning around a single axis of rotation. The axis was almost always internal (spinning) but I think not exclusively (circling/spiraling).

    – The axis is horizontal, around 2-4 o’clock (8-10 o’clock on the other side, of course). I almost always move ‘forwards’, in the manner of a front flip.

    – No visual changes, but a strong sensation that my field of view was moving. The feeling was something like doing a flip underwater, with the inner ear insisting that my view was moving even if I wasn’t seeing anything shift.

  8. Jill says:

    The best book on dream analysis is 32 years old, and has never been surpassed:

    Dream Work: Techniques for Discovering the Creative Power in Dreams Paperback – January 1, 1983
    by Jeremy Taylor

    My 2nd favorite book came out 4 ago:

    Dream Tending: Awakening to the Healing Power of Dreams Paperback – June 23, 2011
    by Stephen Aizenstat Ph.D

    Many therapists conduct dream work groups and/or do dream analysis in therapy, though they may not always use what seem clearly to me to be the best methods available. And if you live in an extroverted city or town, you may be able to get a free voluntary group together to support each other in analyzing dreams, and the Taylor book gives a great format that can be followed to do that.

  9. mtraven says:

    It’s not clear that their psychedelic use – and man, do these people use psychedelics – has made them morally or spiritually exceptional…Don’t get me wrong – during the trips they are constantly seeing God and understanding the oneness of everything in creation. But even Alexander Shulgin’s close friend group aren’t high more than like 20% of the time. I’m not sure exactly what about them makes them potential human-race-savers. Yes, I think they’re probably anti-nuclear-weapon. But this is the 1970s Berkeley counterculture; anti-nuclear-weapon people are not exactly hard to come by….And so I was left with one question the book didn’t really answer – why is Shulgin doing this? What is his hope? Does he hope that the 200th new psychedelic he discovers will be the one that really teaches people universal love, to the point where they can’t ignore it?….Would releasing a consistent version of 2C-T-4 to the world do something mescaline hasn’t already done? What has mescaline already done?

    (1) Seems like curiosity is sufficient. Drugs are tantalizing clues for understanding the mind (from the inside – so they shouldn՚t be confused with science), and surely that is motive enough.

    (2) I think there՚s a fundamental confusion on display above, about the relationships between drugs and culture. Why do you think that anti-nuclear-weapons people were so easy to come by in Berkeley in the 70s? Many reasons, but one of the most important is that the 60s happened and involved massive levels of psychedelic use. This use didn՚t make people automatically peaceful and enlightened once the drugs wore off, but it certainly did shift the values and norms around and helped fuel antiwar activism. So, contrary to the last sentence, psychedelic use and other drug use has done a hell of a lot. But it՚s probably best understood as a cultural element rather than, say, a cure for something. Taking mescaline doesn՚t instantly convert you to a better person, but lot of people taking a lot of it moves the culture in a certain direction (which not everybody will view as positive).

    Drugs are an enormously influential but often ignored aspect of cultures and subcultures (here՚s Bill Hicks on the topic). So yeah, mescaline has done a lot

    • Jill says:

      Thanks for the Hicks video, MTRaven.

      Shulgin may have had overly high hopes for what he was doing– which was the preliminary informal research on psychedelics. But he was doing all that can be done, when psychedelics aren’t available yet for real scientific research. The rigorous scientific research is what will yield the most good– where perhaps Shulgin’s dreams will end up being fulfilled.

      But his was the necessary first step. It takes people experimenting with the drugs illegally, writing books about it, and a lot of people reading the books– before it starts dawning on the general population that they had better start pushing the government to make psychedelics available for research. And some researchers read the books too, and realize what benefits might be found by focusing their research in this area.

      Research into psychedelics, shut down for decades, is now yielding exciting results.

      Psychedelics may have a lot to offer for healing physical and mental illness, as well as for helping normal people to function and focus even better, for helping them to have peace of mind, to helping expand creativity.

  10. StAnthonysFire says:

    I love you Scott. Every week something new and fascinating. Thanks.

  11. PeeDee says:

    I used to have two recurring dreams when I was young; the last time I remember was in 8th grade, so about 13 years old.

    In the first I was filling up a bookcase with books piled on the floor. It had three shelves, it was about waist high so I could sit on the floor next to it and fill it up. Only thing was, as I got about half way through the second shelf (I always began on the bottom) the books started getting thinner. As I finished the second shelf they were really only a single page thick. I always woke up realising that it was going to be impossible to complete my task.

    The second dream was about looking through a telescope into space. I was supposed to be finding something, I’m not sure what. I would begin looking quite systematically, then gradually realise that looking through the scope – although each field of view was full of stars – was only showing me an infinitesimal portion of the night sky. Again woke up overwhelmed and a little panicked.

    That’s it for me.

    • Jill says:


      This dream was a while ago, so you may not have much interest in it now.

      But just as an example, if you or anyone wanted to work with a dream or two like this, this is a way you could do it.

      You would think and feel about what, in your day time life, was similar to sitting next to a book case, filling it up with books that get thinner and thinner, making it impossible to finish your task of filling up the book case. E.g. it could remind you of some task or activity you were doing or wanted to do– whether physical, vocational, academic, social or emotional.

      And you’d think about your own associations with books, book cases, waist high objects, thin things, filling up containers or book cases, things getting thinner or smaller over time, doing a task that is or seems impossible to complete etc.– experiences or any other associations with any object, room, activity, theme, or situation in the dream.

      For the second dream, you would ask what in your life at that time, was like looking through a telescope into space– looking at something far away physically, or possibly far away in time. What in your life was like being supposed to be finding something, but you’re not sure what?

      Did you have thoughts or feelings about the vastness of the night sky, or the universe, or nature etc.? Did you ever try to do something quite systematically, and you were thinking of it as finite, and then you gradually realize, looking at it, that it is very large or even infinite. Did you ever feel that same kind of fear about that situation, or about some other situation that might be similar to it in some way? If there were any other feelings in the dream, were they like feelings you were having in real life also?

      How was your life at the time like some theme in the dream– either like the themes I mentioned above, or like other themes you see as characterizing the dream?

      And you would look for what telescopes mean to you, both what they mean as symbols and what experiences you have had with them. The same with other objects, places, situations etc. in the dream. The night sky. The vastness of space. Telescope fields full of stars. The infinite.

      These are both dreams about the infinite in a way. About more than you could do or take in. The literature and other books of the world are almost infinite, or at least far more than one person can take in, as is the night sky and the universe.

      You would say “What if these dreams were trying to tell me something, not something literal, but something in symbols, themes, and/or feelings. What would it be?”

  12. Jill says:

    A couple of mind expanding experiences without drugs here:

    Transformational breathing. This has similarities to “rebirthing” exercises used to bring awareness of one’s birth memories– although that is only one of many purposes it can possibly be used for.

    Meditation with movement:

    I personally find breathing and movement exercises to be at least as important in mind expansion, as sitting meditation is.

    American culture has us thinking that the body is just an unimportant platform that our brain rides around on– except if we are athletes. And even then, we are narrowly focused on performance by our bodies, to the exclusion of all else.

    We are not simply mental rational beings. We are physical animals. Awareness of what our bodies are doing and the many ways that they affect our lives is crucial to self-understanding, fulfillment, creativity and full mental and rational functioning itself.

  13. Jill says:

    “Then she starts having extremely vivid visions of what is very obvious her mind doing Internal Family Systems therapy on herself, despite this being way before Internal Family Systems was invented, and despite the inventor being one of the three or so psychologists who was not a personal friend of the Shulgins. Finally she gets all the IFS steps right, accepts her parts, frees her repressed memories, and stops feeling like the Demiurge is harassing her at every moment. It’s pretty fascinating, but that’s just the thing – even though I’ve tried really hard to do Internal Family Systems on myself, armed with an official book and everything, I get nothing. I never have these sort of exciting spiritual crises that partake of exactly the right amount of symbolism from each of the world’s great mystical traditions. I’m sort of jealous of all the people who do, and sort of suspicious of them. Maybe I need to take more psychedelics.”

    Yes, you need to take more psychedelics. They give you instant openness.

    Even after psychedelics, some schools of psychotherapy are going to have nothing to offer you personally. When you try those out, nothing will emerge. Jungian is like that to me, even those Jungian therapy “is in the water supply” in the area I live in. Nothing there for me. Ann did IFS, not traditional Freudian therapy, to get through her crisis, even though she was surrounded by Freudians, and even though IFS wasn’t known to her. Because IFS is what emerged.

    If you pretend– act as if– stuff is true and see what happens, sometimes something happens. And sometimes nothing does. But nothing ever happens if you are highly resistant to experiencing it. Thus psychedelics help– at least for people who are stable enough to tolerate them. Or else years of doing particular meditation practices– but almost no one in the U.S. has the patience to do that.

  14. beoShaffer says:

    It appears than neither the post nor any of the +200 comments has made any My Chemical Romance puns about the book’s title. I am disapoint.

  15. Hugh says:

    Scott, when you ask “Why is Shulgin doing this? What is his hope?” I think you are viewing him as a medical practitioner rather than what he really is, a creative. I’d guess (not having read Shulgin’s book myself) that he wants to live in the Norman Spinrad short story No Direction Home.

    We assume doctors and psychiatrists etc want to save the world, or alleviate human suffering. I’d guess Shulgin is more like a winemaker, or whoever comes up with new flavours for Ben & Jerry. He’s creating new and interesting mental states for people to experience, that’s all. Book authors don’t (generally) expect they’re going to write the Ultimate Book that solves everything and makes all other books unnecessary, being creative is enough. Why expect more from Shulgin?

    • Marvy says:

      > Shulgin seems to think he’s doing something more important than coming up with new and better toys, and it’s not totally clear to me what this is.

      (See also the previous sentence or two)

    • Jill says:

      We have to look in the unexpected place to find what could alleviate human suffering– as Scott began to do himself in one way. Shulgin himself is supposed to be the Big Cheese, who is finding the important thing to pay attention to. But it was Ann who got closer to a big thing that might relieve human suffering, in her newfound ability to accept the world as it is through a drug experience.

      Dreams in American culture are like Ann. She’s not supposed to be important. She doesn’t think she’s an intellectual. She thinks she’s only describing the Great One from afar, and has not much to contribute on her own. It seems as if there’s no need to pay attention to her. But there is. Just like our dreams seem to be the unimportant background of our lives, to be ignored entirely in favor of what seems to be the foreground of our lives. It may be a lot more helpful to pay attention to our dreams, than we originally imagine.

      • You’re reminding me of an interesting method of dream interpretation. Everything in your dreams is made out of you. Try taking on the point of view of various things in your dream, and see what emerges.

        • Jill says:

          Yes, that is a way of doing it that very often brings insights. It’s one of the interpretation methods that I use.

          Our dreams have to be us. Who else is there, in our sleep?

          This helps people to have greater insight e.g. when they dream about their husband, wife, cousin, boss e.g. , then it may not be at all about their husband, wife, cousin, boss. It may be about a part of themselves that they associate in some way with that person or role. E.g. the boss part of you may be the part that “takes charge” by actively going out into the world and accomplishes, as opposed to other parts that observe, analyze etc. Even the starry skies can represent a starry skies or infinite part of yourself.

    • Jill says:

      We are like the guy looking for his watch under the lamp post.

      Where did you lose your watch?

      “Oh, way back there, during my childhood.”

      Then why are you looking under this cognitive behavioral therapy lamp post?

      “Because the light is better over here.”

      Our U.S. cultural light does not shine on our dreams. But the subconscious, there in the dark with our dreams, holds the key to many aspects of our lives.


    1) Psychedelics boost quantum coherence in consciousness.
    2) Hedonic tone (the pleasure-pain axis) is quantum harmony and disharmony (the various vibrational modes of the quantum coherent manifolds that implement our mind).
    3) By virtue of (1), taking psychedelics allow you to experience a stronger state of superposition between neighboring Everett branches of the multiverse, and in turn, interact with multiple “realities” at once (not really… there really is only one universal wavefunction, but decoherence sure makes it seem like there are many).
    4) The future is mostly made of hedonium: Perfect quanum harmony engineered to out-live for as long as possible the heat-death of the universe.

    I’m happy to make bets with anyone (for up to $5,000 total) that your consciousness is a macroscopic quantum coherent object. I expect experiments will show this to be the case within a few decades. Bets are redeemable by 2050.

    • Thales says:

      You’re on, but let’s be a little bit more crisp about these cashflows.

      The $5000 is to be paid in 2016 dollars. This means, if there is an experiment demonstrating that “consciousness is a macroscopic quantum coherent object,” we’ll adjust for inflation using the US CPI, and I’ll pay you the resulting amount within two business days of the publication. Conversely, if there is an experiment that disproves the claim “consciousness is a macroscopic quantum coherent object” you will pay me using the same calculation within two business days of the publication. Finally, if by January 1st 2050 no such results have been published, you will pay me the $5000 in 2016 dollars, calculated as described above, on the first business day of the new year.

      The results must be published to a reputable, peer-reviewed physics, biophysics, or neuroscience journal.

      Any theoretical results, that is, any publication that uses only the formal machinery of quantum mechanics to describe the phenomenon called “consciousness” and provides no experimental data that quantum phenomena are at play will not trigger a payment.


      • That is about right. Send me an email so that we work out the details.

        I would like to elaborate about the standards of proof concerning the claim that consciousness is a macroscopic quantum coherent object. There will be, I think, many papers that both claim to have shown this and papers that claim to have shown that is not the case. Both kinds of papers will be published in reputable physics, biophysics and neuroscience journals (and in other adjacent disciplines such as computer science, phenomenology and applied mathematics).

        Some would argue that there already is definitive evidence that the brain cannot use quantum mechanical effects for computational tasks due to the insanely short decoherence timescales at the temperature range the brain operates on. If you think that this is already forbidding quantum consciousness then we cannot actually make the bet right now. Rather than taking this fact as a reductio ad absurdum, I think it gives us the temporal constraints for the timescales our consciousness operates on (roughly, macroscopic coherence can only be sustained for periods of up to 10^-13 seconds . See:

        Likewise, in the future there will be many papers that will show that the brain has various properties that would seem to completely forbid the use of quantum coherence. I’m afraid you would take some of those papers as definitive evidence, and we might end in a dispute concerning the applicability of those papers to the bet.

        In other words, I think there is an epistemic asymmetry: Papers that show a real quantum effect are more likely to be definitive than papers that point out features of the brain that would seem to forbid macroscopic quantum coherence. For this reason, I suggest instead we formulate the bet as follows:

        If there is strong evidence in favor of quantum effects underlying consciousness by 2050 I win the bet. If no such papers arise by 2050 I lose the bet. If there are papers that claim that the brain cannot sustain such effects, those do not affect our bet.

        Would you agree with that formulation?

        To clarify: Given the very large ideological bias against taking seriously quantum consciousness, the standards for publication of papers that provide (seemingly conclusive) arguments against quantum consciousness is relatively low. Likewise, general scientific consensus of the impossibility of the connection between the two is not serious evidence. It just means that’s the current paradigm and we are doing normal science within it.

  17. Jake says:

    First came the image-sensation after which I named the entire experience – the spiral. I felt my entire self drawn rapidly into a tiny point which kept shrinking, until it could shrink no further, at which time the microscopic point became a tunnel in which I continued traveling at great speed, inexpressibly small and implacably diminishing.

    This paragraph described very well an experience I had once at the beginning of anesthesia for surgery, but then I just woke up in recovery. I had 12 operations between age 2 and 12 (1975-1985), and at least the last 4 that used the mask (but not the IV) started with a completely different hallucination with a similar character, of which this was one.

  18. Jill says:

    Imagine if Americans weren’t afraid of our sensations and images and dream symbols and “nonsense thoughts”, whether asleep or awake. Maybe we wouldn’t even need psychedelics.

    Psychedelics do have the virtue of being instant, for those who can not delay gratification long enough to learn and practice meditation or do dream analysis.

  19. FullMeta_Rationalist says:

    I’m browsing imgur atm. The top-post is My Dream Girl, a story one might expect from Inception.

  20. Patrick Merchant says:

    I’ve never done psychedelics. The closest I’ve ever come to a state of altered consciousness was when I passed out on a bus (low blood sugar, apparently). I remember trying to scrape together a coherent thought, but not being able to. It felt the way I imagine dying feels; it was as though my internal monologue had been scrambled past the point of mere sleep-nonsense (the elves are stealing my shoes!). My thoughts were more like “bfhjsdfghjsbfewfhnjskhnfjek bus? vdjsfbgdskbfdshfesw floor taste HRK.” The most coherent part of the experience was the sense of panic I felt, but even the panic only really set in after the worst of the incoherence was already over.

    All in all it was a pretty bad trip. Would not recommend.

  21. Levi Aul says:

    All your selected passages about what Shulgin was “working toward” with his drug development seem to form a consistent narrative to me—though that might just be your curation doing that.

    It is, I think, the same thing the descendant group of people in the Bay Area care about today: not letting Moloch destroy the world, not creating unfriendly AI, not becoming entrapped by our own (signalling) words forcing us into acts like wars, etc.

    Basically, Shulgin wanted to create drugs that would make people fully aware of their preferences (as minds, and as human adaptation-executers), and of how our world is a pretty close match—in a Fun-Theoretic sense—to an ideal world for serving as an environment to pursue satisfaction of those preferences within. He wanted us to be able to experience the absolute utility of our present context, rather than only paying attention (as we do) to the pursuit of marginal utility gains or losses.

    Because, you see, being fully aware of your preferences lets you accurately optimize the world for those preferences. Most people, most of the time, are “heads down” optimizing the world for preferences they think they have (because that’s what their in-group’s explicitly-signalled collective preferences are, Abilene paradox be damned), or preferences they got the impression are good from some abstract intellectual reflection after reading a book, or even just preferences others (parents, society) seem to want them to have. People don’t take much time to give mindfulness toward exactly how much utility (not just disutility) they have in the world we’ve got right now; and they certainly don’t stop to imagine their own daily life in the world they’re pursuing the creation of, to compare-and-contrast the absolute utilities of those experiences.

    I imagine that, if Shulgin were around today in the Bay Area, and immersed in current Discourse, he’d be making an argument to the effect of “of course you can create friendly AI! You just need a drug to allow your consciousness to expand enough to encompass your entire extrapolated volition! Then you can write it down, and everyone else can write theirs down, and we can (with our still-inflated minds) figure out the best-feeling merger of all those preferences… and there, done. One explicitly-programmed friendly AI preference-function, good as baked.”

    Or, assuming he doesn’t care about that, he’d at least be saying something about how—if we could get all our politicians to politic while on The Best Drug—they would obviously immediately outlaw all carbon emissions and deforestation to “make nature happy”, fix public-schooling to “make children happy”, reduce the size of the military to “make people in other countries happy” (but not too much, because ally countries might get attacked and be sad!), create a huge public-works program paying poor people to take care of other poor people “to make the downtrodden happy”, and so forth. Policy by omni-empathetic global human-estimated-CEV-utility calculation, rather than by self-interested tribal game-theory negotiation.

    Or, if he was cynical enough to see that politicians as a group had enough power to prevent this change from coming to their class… maybe he would just picture Effective Altruism—a grassroots movement of actively-charitable utilitarians—and figure that it requires drugs, not something as cold and heartless as economic statistics, to see what truly was the most Effective and Altruistic thing to do. (After all, we don’t know our preferences well-enough to pay for things that actually satisfy them, most of the time. We know our pains enough to pay to get rid of them, but we don’t know our pleasures well enough to—once we’ve exhausted marginal pain-removals—pick gains in those pleasures over e.g. zero-sum competitions for Veblen goods. The Market can’t be trusted to keep track of our private pleasures; it won’t notice if we optimize them away! It certainly didn’t notice when e.g. fruit and vegetables stopped tasting good. Trusting GDP as a measure of utility will get us Hansonian ems in a race to the bottom, not humans having awesome fun.)

    • onyomi says:

      A very interesting post. And not having read the book, your interpretation of the author’s intent and likely desires if alive today feel plausible.

    • Aido says:

      I lament that quality comments like these are lost to time. Thanks for writing

      • It occurs to me that commenters could put together a “best of ssc comments” as individuals or as a group. I don’t have ideas yet about how to structure it (a reddit?), but I’ll mention this on an open thread.

  22. Amnon says:

    Today when I woke up, hearing the alarm clock I was convinced that it was Wikipedia calling me because they needed an article on “Boll Weevil Animations Studio” (it made sense in the context of the dream) and I was the only one who could write it.

    That is to say, I’m not convinced that something seeming meaningful proves it actually is.

  23. James Babcock says:

    If you ever have a breakthrough in understanding of how psychedelics work, then think three times before you bring clarity to anyone else. People who use psychedelics starting from a high sanity baseline tend to become more powerful; people who use psychedelics starting from a low sanity baseline tend to become more broken. Any technique that binds a gain in power to a risk of sanity damage is one to be careful with.

    As for experiments, the minimum for psychedelics is the second level of precaution, which requires:
    * That you know the identity and dosage of anything you are taking;
    * That you have read the Wikipedia page in full, with particular attention to the contraindications list, and to what is a typical dosage;
    * That you not mix things that you have not used separately;
    * That you have a trusted, sober and emotionally aware friend who will stay with you for the duration of your trip;
    * That you have ready access to a change of context, from social to solitary or vise versa;
    * That it will not be bad if you’re incapacitated for a little while, even if you don’t expect that to happen; and
    * That you will not need to drive

    • Sarah says:

      Good points on the sanity cautions, and a solid start on that list! But — Wikipedia!? I’d *strongly* recommend looking up any given substance on psychedelic-specific resources like Erowid and PsychonautWiki.

      And for the heck of it I’m going to link to my presentation on trip-sitting again, in case it might be useful for folks.

      • James Babcock says:

        I mention Wikipedia mainly because I use the same list for dietary supplements and prescription medications taken for the first time, and Wikipedia coverage is better in those domains. The main point is that internet research is required, as opposed to a spur-of-the-moment decision.

  24. Any theories about how the Shulgins got away with trying so many drugs without seriously hurting themselves?

  25. Zack says:

    If it hasn’t been linked to here already and you haven’t seen it, I *highly* recommend this documentary:

    It inspired me to purchase PiHKAL recently and it’s a fascinating firsthand glimpse into not just the Shulgins but their contemporaries from the 70s – early 00s. One takeway I had and maybe this was emphasized by the documentary on purpose, maybe not: what all these researchers (and “seekers”?) actually had in common was not psychedelics. It was music.

  26. Jill says:

    I do not have “a very specific black and white vision of infinity.” But what Ann had, sounds like part of it could be a birth experience. And I have some sensations and images sometimes that could be related to birth memories. Everyone probably does, or could. have numerous memories related to birth. But in our society, we rarely even talk about everyday dreams any more, much less deeper experiences. It’s not cognitive behavioral enough for us, I guess.

    We’re so verbally oriented. All nonverbal memories and experiences tend to be lost, in U.S. culture, from lack of focus on them. A few of the groups of people who are not 100% verbally oriented are the Vipassana Buddhist meditation people, and the nonverbal therapy people–Focusing, Gestalt Therapy, Thought Field Therapy, Eye Movement Therapy etc. But even these groups of people rarely stay for very long with the actual experiences of sensations and images, before jumping into describing them or talking about them.

    Our subconscious listens to us closely when we tell it to shut up. And the U.S. currently is a very active, not very reflective, society, which constantly tells its subconscious to shut up. E.g. you tell your subconscious to shut up when you ignore your dreams, when you forget about them immediately, don’t try to recall them or write them down upon awakening. And we constantly tell each other’s subconsciouses to shut up, when e.g. our eyes glaze over at the mention of someone’s dreams, and we change the subject.

    I used to conduct dream groups but I stopped, because people in my geographic area in particular (but also the U.S. in general) are so incredibly superficial, that I just couldn’t see how anyone would benefit from them. I like to help people. And I don’t like to try to pull people along to places where they end up being unwilling to go, and watch them getting nothing significant that I can see out of the experience.

    As Scott has mentioned before, we have cognitive behavioral therapy in the water supply currently. The Shulgins and their immediate circle seem to have had Freudian and Jungian therapy in their local water supply.

    But you can’t know what it’s like to have Freudian or Jungian therapy in your local water supply unless you do. Just like you can’t understand why the early patients of cognitive behavioral therapists were surprised by cognitive behavioral ideas that were not common ideas during their day and age, but are common now. It’s a different world. Books like Prometheus Rising talk about how incredibly different different worlds are.

    The way you make sense out of your experiences cognitively, emotionally and/or in terms of images or sensations, is a whole world– like a religion, like a political tribe, like a culture. It’s something you are so immersed in that you don’t know it’s there.

    You can’t just read a book or 2 about Freudian or psychodynamic or Jungian therapy or Internal Family Systems therapy or even to do those therapies with your patients and expect to “get” them. You “get them if you are immersed in them like a fish in water– if everyone in your huge social circle believes in them fervently and is always trying to have the insights and making the connections– about themselves, about others and about you– that are characteristic of those types of therapies. It sounds like the book is sort of about an informal group project of that kind.

    One thing about those or other therapies that is important– but is not emphasized by CBT at all– is that one gets a different perspective on oneself from other people. We each see part of the picture of life, and we have to put different parts together, in order to get anywhere near to a whole, or to get something interesting at all. Even CBT is probably better done with a therapist, or with groups of friends who share that interest– than done alone. You just can not objectively see a picture that you are standing inside of.

    Now Ann and others here may have done some of their inner work, and had some of their experiences, alone and within themselves. But it sounds like they were constantly talking about even those experiences with other people, and bouncing ideas and experiences and insights off of each other. You can’t get that kind of rich learning environment out of reading a book.

    Psychedelics help you to get outside of yourself also. So, yes, Scott, you should try out some mushrooms or something, some day.

    It would be fun to have a group of psychotherapists who were willing to immerse themselves in the viewpoint of one type of psychotherapy for a few months or more at a time– to try to live it, and see what happens. I’ve never had that and don’t expect to though. Most people are just not that curious about these ideas and practices and openings into insight, as I am.

  27. Bugmaster says:

    Is there any reason to believe that all of these transcendent experiences from drugs are due to something more than the drugs stimulating the “transcendent experience” part of the user’s brain ?

    I’m not saying that drugs are bad (mmmkay); I am totally on board with having cool experiences. I also understand how such experiences can be useful for therapy. To use the crudest possible example, if your life really sucks, and then you go and have a really cool experience; then maybe you’d internalize the idea that life is not all bad, there are good things in it too.

    But still, I am wary of the notion that drugs somehow allow you to enter a state of consciousness that is actually applicable to anything in practice (other than making yourself feel good).

    • herbert herbertson says:

      Speaking as someone who has has done his fair share of them, I don’t have any doubt that drugs are effectively triggering a transcendent experience part* of the brain. But, it’s nonetheless very interesting to me that there is a transcendent experience part* of the brain to be triggered in the first place.

      * caveats–obviously not really talking about a specific part of the brain, and the possibility/probability that that “part” is not specifically adapted to create those experiences doesn’t really diminish my curiosity.

    • Orphan Wilde says:

      I have never experienced elves or gods, and my sole experience with anything like “transcendent joy” was a religious-revelation sensation inspired by psilocybins (which I noticed occuring and subsequently discarded), but I have obtained useful information about myself from these experiences.

      I tend to think of it as having a conversation with aspects of my self which are normally silent. The big advantage is that it removes me from familiar frames of reference.

      • Jill says:

        “I tend to think of it as having a conversation with aspects of my self which are normally silent. The big advantage is that it removes me from familiar frames of reference.”

        Yes, it may be the primary entrance to the subconscious for most Americans– who generally don’t seek it in other ways.

  28. Jill says:

    Fascinating stuff. I have a number of reactions to it. Here is one:

    During times when psychedelics or even cannabis are considered “controlled substances”, it’s good that there are people who are willing to experiment with them in their own lives some. So at least we have a little bit of knowledge, even though it’s not the rigorous research that ought to be done. Some knowledge, or some reported experiences, are better than none.

    Cannabis is in this position right now. It’s being made unduly hard for researchers to get access to it, to test it for the many healing purposes that numerous people are reporting it has, and that it very well may have, for cancer and other serious physical illnesses, as well as depression.

    DEA’s missed opportunity on medical marijuana

  29. Dentistry. Mid-twencen children have a shared early experience of being hauled off to a strange scary place where they were drugged to floating confusion and unsettlingly picked at with incomprehensible instruments by tall figures under a bright light with big strange eyes and no visible mouths. Something of that winds up fed into constructed memories of UFO abductions and spiritual visions.

  30. Carl Feynman says:

    I also got “the spiral” as a child falling asleep. A set of concentric blue and black rings would appear in a corner of the room, and I would fall toward and into them, weightlessly. The sensation of falling would sometimes cause a myoclonic jerk and I would return to normal consciousness. At first I was frightened, but I got used to it and was able to prevent the jerk, which let me enjoy it. I’m not sure what age I was, but definitely less than seven. It still happens every few months fifty years later.

    When my little daughter reported this experience, my wife was alarmed by what seemed to be a sign of mental illness, but I was able to reassure her by saying it happened to me too.

    The whole sequence reported by Ann Shulgin bears a strong resemblance to the “standard near-death experience”, which was prominent in 1970s fringe psychology. You can see a Hollywood version of it near the end of the movie “Brainstorm”.

  31. Nate says:

    The description of ‘anima woman’ is basically how Taylor Swift describes herself in “Blank Space”:

    Find out what you want
    Be that girl for a month

    So much makes sense now.

    • Nornagest says:

      If that really is a well-defined personality type, it’s probably adaptive for actors and other entertainers.

      • Orphan Wilde says:

        That’s pretty much my personality type, as far as I can tell. I’ve encountered other terms for it, though; “adaptive sociopath” was the one that stuck in my brain, although I don’t remember where I encountered that particular one.

      • Jill says:

        We all adapt to other people’s expectations. It’s a matter of degree, and what our goal in doing it is.

    • Sarah says:

      “Anima woman” is also a great description of the main character in the Star Trek: TNG episode “The Perfect Mate“. They call her an “empathic metamorph”, though. I can relate… I kinda have to watch out for those tendencies in myself.

  32. Decius says:

    I have to register my objection to describing “depressed” as a character flaw.
    The rest of the discussion can be retrieved from cache rather than repeated.

  33. onyomi says:

    As a child I had a very distinctive memory–now more a memory of a memory–which one could interpret as a memory of life inside the womb/prior to reincarnation, or just as a weird dream a kid might have, depending on your inclination.

    The memory was of being a kind of tiny, almost formless speck, yet also of being one of innumerable other such specks, like grains of sand filling a firmament beach. Soon after the memory begins, I know, by wordless command from God or some such, that it is time for me to leave my spot among the innumerable other little specks and descend, presumably to Earth or into my body/out of the womb, or some such. I do so, seeming to pass through some kind of ethereal membrane which holds all the other specks in place. That is all there is to it, but it was a very distinct memory.

  34. We seem to have a consensus that spontaneous unusual states fade out with adulthood– maybe earlier. Any thoughts about why?

    • onyomi says:

      My thought would be that the child’s brain is more focused on input: taking in the environment and learning to navigate it, whereas adults are more focused on getting through daily life by dint of the heuristics about navigating the world they developed as children. I think this is part of why time seems to pass faster the older you get–yes, each day becomes a smaller part of your life, percentage-wise, but I think it also just becomes easier to not notice much the more familiar your daily routine. Visiting a very unfamiliar place, however, can seem to slow time down a bit, though.

      As for why the former would result in unusual states: trance-type states seem often to be states of high receptivity–the opposite of carrying out daily tasks. They happen when you are say, floating in a sensory deprivation tank, or sitting quietly for an extended period–or on LSD. Being more receptive to begin with, children may be more prone to spontaneously entering such states?

      • Rob K says:

        I’ve compared my experience of being on medium/low doses of LSD to what I imagine being a dog is like. Lots of sensory inputs become very, very interesting and exciting. I’d guess that might also be what kids experience; all sorts of inputs don’t run through well-grooved channels, but instead call out for immediate processing as novel experiences.

    • Fazathra says:

      Could be neurological. Synaptic pruning is still ongoing throughout adolescence and possibly into early adulthood. Bits of the brain also keep developing into your early 20s – especially the prefrontal cortex. A child’s brain might be less able to regulate itself and keep fixed on external inputs and more likely to fall into feedback loops started by its own internal noise which could result in a greater susceptibility to hallucinations or other internal experiences.

      I’m not a neuroscientist though so treat it with a lot of salt.

    • Levi Aul says:

      Hypothesis I’ve always favored: the “ecosystem” of chemical messengers and receptors in the brain develop at different, mostly random rates, mostly based on sensory input, oxygenation and nutrition. Effectively, kids’ brains will naturally develop—and then correct—various chemical imbalances as they grow, in the same way that kids will have a growth spurt that makes one leg longer than the other for a while.

    • Jill says:

      Could be for many reasons, some listed already. Another possibility is that kids often have the freedom to space out and experience interesting meditative type states. But as they grow up, they’re told to pay attention to the teacher, put their nose to the grindstone etc.

    • Alliteration says:

      Yet mental illnesses often show around the young adult or teenage years. And mental illnesses are a sort of unusual mental experience.

  35. maznak says:

    I had a different sort of childhood strange experience, much less interesting, but this might be the place where to share it. From ages 6 to 14, approximately, I was having occasional moments of total detachment from time and space, for lack of better description. I was say watching a flower at our little front garden, lazy sunny autumn afternoon, and suddenly I felt there was now something different about the world, time sort of lost meaning, space likewise, some strange kind of immersion into the surroundings, the flower was “all there was and mattered (well maybe going a bit far here, my memories may be fading as this was long time ago, now I am 53)”. Or more like “the present moment was all that ever was in the Universe”. Strange feeling, mildly pleasant but in the same time slightly worrying because I knew that it was not normal to feel that way. Sometimes I had to force myself back to reality by mentally telling myself that I am “here and now”. I have even named this mental state “here and now” for myself – and never shared this experience with anybody until now. I know that my parents might have noticed though – I remember them saying, after I failed to answer some question (while being in “here and now”), them saying “he does not answer, looks like he is in trance again” (!). I sort of miss it, tried to somehow summon it couple times but it never worked. I suspect that it was some kind of meditation state that I have entered without even trying.

  36. Michael Vassar says:

    Intuitively, the big payoff potential from psychedelic research is from treating people, not for clinical conditions like depression, but for non-clinical conditions like Asch Conformity.

    Alternatively, even greatly strengthening states like Asch conformity or mob mentality should enable people less experienced with such states to know what’s out there.

    If you think that the default situation is one of all but universal effective truncation of consciousness blocking the awareness of critical considerations, you might reasonably conclude that we can’t currently do individual or collective epistemology at all, and psychedelics might offer a path out.

  37. stargirlprincesss says:

    PLUS FOUR (++++)
    A rare and precious transcendental state, which has been called a ‘peak experience’, a ‘religious experience,’ ‘divine transformation,’ a ‘state of Samadhi’ and many other names in other cultures. It is not connected to the +1, +2, and +3 of the measuring of a drug’s intensity. It is a state of bliss, a participation mystique, a connectedness with both the interior and exterior universes, which has come about after the ingestion of a psychedelic drug, but which is not necessarily repeatable with a subsequent ingestion of that same drug. If a drug (or technique or process) were ever to be discovered which would consistently produce a plus four experience in all human beings, it is conceivable that it would signal the ultimate evolution, and perhaps the end of, the human experiment.

  38. Anonymous Bathroom Cleanser King says:

    > exactly the same experience with exactly the same sequence of steps
    > (though cutting out earlier). I am sure more people read Slate Star
    > Codex than Ann Shulgin talks to at cocktail parties. So come on,
    > people. Any of you ever have a very specific black and white vision
    > of infinity?

    I cynically suspect that there exists some subset of cocktail parties such that, if a pretty young woman goes to such parties, she has a significant likelihood of encountering a man who will respond to her interesting personal revelations by telling lies and exaggerations calculated to produce an exaggerated perception of ‘personal connection’ and ‘stuff in common’ because the man wants to get into her pants.

    Also, given fuzzy ambiguous descriptions and experiences, sometimes people perceive more accurate patter-fitting than a fully objective person might.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      She says her conversation partners were able to describe details before she mentioned them.

  39. SamChevre says:

    So far as I know completely fictional, but repeated mutual lucid dreams are central to Kipling’s The Brushwood Boy

  40. herbert herbertson says:

    I generally agree with the “seems profound while it happens, but never seem to pull anything out of it” summation of psychedelics, except I’d make one important exception: when MDMA is mixed in, extraction becomes much more feasible. MDMA (working hand in hand with some other psychedelics) made me much more feminist through back-to-back experiences of profound empathy towards a pretty girl and an overweight one; it permanently removed my inhibitions against dancing through finally groking that no one worth worrying about actually judges anyone for goofy and exuberant dancing, and generally helped to make me a more confident person. A++ would candyflip again.

  41. Reese says:

    Some years ago I read a book called “Acid Dreams” that discussed the history of psychedelic use in the United States. It talked about how many people in the 60’s thought that if everyone would just take acid, their eyes would be opened to the brotherhood of humanity and the need for love and peace ah blah blah. And yet, the original group of acid-users (CIA members searching for “truth-drugs” and preparing for psycho-chemical warfare) did not seem to be steered in that direction. The author suggests that psychedelics simply amplify existing personality traits – people with hippie-like tendencies might become bigger hippies after taking acid, but the drug couldn’t make hippies out of everyone.

    I’ve tried acid a couple of times, but never got much more out of it than what felt like an intense marijuana high. I’m sure that’s due to the handful of antidepressent medications I’ve been taking for the last decade or so, but anyhow I mostly became very contemplative while under the influence. This was already how I’d describe myself, but while on the drug, it was simply more so. The first time I thought about how my preconceptions shape my perceived experience, and about how the sensation of time is largely subjective. The second time I decided that colors were a wonderful quality of light and made a few colored-pencil drawings in my previously graphite-grey sketchbook, then went for a very long walk outside. Nothing far beyond what was already “me.”

  42. Hope this isn't too much of a shitpost says:

    The Jungians have a term, ‘anime woman’. The anime woman lacks a solid identity; like many great actors, she borrows – she takes on – a sense of wholeness from playing a part.

    Ursula too moe

    (Also that story is like the greatest deconstruction of the MPDG ever pretentious indie film festival darling adaptation when)

  43. Jacobian says:

    To Scott, or any other practicing psychiatrists: what would actually happen if I walked into a psychotherapist’s office for my appointment and told them I had just taken a dose of DMT and we have a 20 minute opportunity to do psychedelic therapy?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      First, don’t do it with DMT unless you want therapy from machine elves.

      Second, I think the psychiatrist would have a long talk with you about your drug use and the inappropriate and unprofessional nature of showing up at the office high and use the word “framework” a lot.

      Unless you have an amazing psychiatrist, chance of it working is about zero.

      Also, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I don’t know how to do psychedelic-assisted therapy or what it would entail. I would probably just guess, which wouldn’t be much better than you guessing on your own or with a friend. If the friend had read anything about it beforehand, that would be even better.

      • Sarah says:

        I agree with Scott — terrible idea. (And I’ve worked as an ayahuasca facilitator, here in Peru!) DMT is ill-suited for the kind of psychedelic-assisted therapy that people are developing for use with MDMA, due to the short duration and high intensity.

        If you’ve had psychedelic experiences that you want to process with a professional, there are therapists and counselors who hold integration sessions in person and over Skype (etc). Check the MAPS Psychedelic Integration List — and please DO NOT walk into any of their offices tripping! I’d consider it rude and unlikely to be productive.

        I really, really hope that psychedelic-assisted therapy will become legal soon. MAPS is a research and advocacy organization working to make MDMA legally available for therapeutic use — they’re starting Phase III clinical trials and are on track to have it available (by prescription) by 2021. They’ve written “A Manual for MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy in the Treatment of PTSD“, which is one of the many resources available for describing psychedelic-assisted therapy.

        Not to encourage illegal activity, but in the support of harm reduction and to elaborate on Scott’s statement about “If the friend had read anything about it beforehand, that would be even better” — I’ve done workshops on peer-supported trip-sitting, and here’s the presentation I made. There are a lot of links to further resources and reading at the end.

        • Jill says:

          Thanks for contributing here. Wonderful to hear from someone who has experience as an ayahuasca facilitator in Peru.

          I appreciate the links also. Your presentation looks good.

          • Sarah says:

            Thanks! Glad to talk more about this, and I’m especially interested in integration, issues around broader purpose and leverage in psychedelic research, and the rational use of psychedelics. Not sure how to get notified of comments here, so y’all feel free to email me if you want a more in-depth conversation — my email address is on the first slide of the presentation linked above.

            I actually got fired from my job as a facilitator and research director at an ayahuasca center because I was “too rational” — I think their exact words were, “too full of science.” It was mainly because I wasn’t willing to describe plant spirits as capital-R “Real”. (And I’ve had several interesting experiences of talking with “beings” while on ayahuasca, including Data from Star Trek and, yes, a cactus person. I’m searching for a coherent way to frame that in terms of tulpas, or some other explanation that’s consistent with physics and all our other observations about how the world works.)

            It’s abundantly clear to me that psychedelic experiences aren’t, in themselves, some magic pill to enhance people’s compassion, self-awareness, or self-actualization. There are ayahuasca shamans who’ve taken psychedelic plants thousands of times, and who molest women during ceremonies. There are people who take psychedelics and go off half-cocked into paranoid fantasies around conspiracy theories. (No comment on the potential risks for increased susceptibility to misusing the word “quantum.”)

            And yet, with a mindful and responsible approach to preparation, setting, support, and integration — people often report transcendent, transformative, and deeply meaningful and profoundly healing experiences with psychedelics. Participants in research studies of psychedelic-assisted therapy have said they accomplished more in a few sessions than they had in years of conventional therapy.

            I’m so motivated to figure out how to use these tools better, that I’m about to go back into a miserably hot area filled with mosquito-borne illnesses in order to vomit regularly and profusely in hopes of finding another opportunity to help people through psychedelic experiences. (It’s… sort of a job interview for another ayahuasca facilitator position.)

            And if that doesn’t work out, I’m contemplating an even more frightening prospect… going back to grad school in the US! (That’d be the high-paperwork route toward getting involved with what MAPS and other research groups are doing in psychedelic therapy.)

  44. Muncle Uscles says:

    Not sure about the whole specific spiral thing, but I did use to get a feeling of every part of my body rapidly expanding-contracting, kind of pulsating at about once per second, back when I was a kid when going falling asleep sometimes.

    Nowadays I only get that on ketamine, along with some spiraling/floating/infinity that does sound quite similar in quality to what Ann describes. Anything non-black is usually Matrix-green rather than white though

    • Jill says:

      I wonder if this might be related to one’s heartbeat or pulse or blood circulation. Or to breathing, which is an expansion and contraction itself. Perhaps some people can sense this when lying still, more readily than others do.

  45. abner says:

    Uh, I think I’ve been having the dry equivalent of that DESOXY experience for the last 36 years.

    • LPSP says:

      Oh man, I can’t imagine what philosophy can possibly be done under the influence of Nozzer. It just makes me boom with laughter and feel very fuzzy and tingly.

    • Cory says:

      This link is priceless. I had completely forgot that William James, author of The Varieties of Religious Experience had transcendent feelings when he tried nitrous oxide. I blame my faulty memory on listening to it over reading it.

      The book itself is great. Whatever happened to “Healthy Minded Living”(tm)? It seemed like quite the fad at the time of his writing.

  46. Viliam says:

    Scott, you seem to be concerned about Freudism, but let’s unpack what that means, i.e. what is the “motte” and “bailey” of Freudism:
    * there are parts of the human brain which not accessible (at least under usual circumstances) to introspection, and yet they contribute to our thinking and decision-making;
    * those parts are mostly obsessed with sex: planning patricide and incest.

    I guess we can accept the former part without the latter. I even think it is quite uncontroversial, as long as you carefully express it with non-Freudian terms: multiple “agents” in the brain.

    People behaving dramatically: well, there is a set of diagnoses called “Cluster B personality disorders (dramatic, emotional or erratic disorders)”, and either taking too many drugs moves you to the cluster, or people who are already in the cluster are more attracted to drugs… and perhaps also to Freudism and spirituality. Alternatively, the author of the book was in the cluster, and it’s just him interacting and paying more attention to other birds of a feather.

    if you’re Freudian enough, your subconscious starts acting in Freudian ways just to keep up – although that itself is a Freudian idea and I’m not sure whether you can get it without presupposing Freudianism anyway

    Again, the motte and bailey of Freudism. As long as we assume different agents in the brain, is it unlikely to assume that they respond positively to being rewarded by attention? So when you start paying attention to outcomes of seemingly Freudian processes, you will start getting more of them simply because there always were hundreds of Freud-compatible events (along with thousands of Freud-incompatible events), but you now keep reinforcing the part of your brain that brings them into your attention. Just like when you spend too much time thinking about puns, you probably will start noticing more pun opportunities even in situations where you don’t consciously try.

    • Jill says:

      The proof of the pudding is: Do your Freudian insights change your life in some useful way? Many people report that they do. Although if these folks were CBT people then perhaps CBT insights would have helped them just as much– though I doubt it, since CBT doesn’t really concern itself with the subconscious mind and its messages. So cognitive behavior therapists have no key to that door, generally speaking.

      I agree that ignoring Freud’s obsessions with patricide and incest is a good idea, unless these are particularly relevant to your.

      • Jill says:

        Also Freud’s sex and death thing, if broadened, applies to all of us a lot. Eros, or sex, in the broadest sense, includes also creativity and creations. And it includes also the urge to connect to other human beings in friendship or other fun associations or cooperative activities. And such urges, in addition to our sexuality itself, influence us a great deal.

        Thanatos, or the death instinct, thought of broadly, includes not just patricide thoughts, but competitive thoughts and actions toward either parent, siblings, teachers, peers, co-workers, bosses, and everyone else.

        Thanatos is very active on the Internet, with all the insults and sarcasm. It’s very active in tribalism, with people seeming to desire to destroy, at least verbally, members of the Other political tribe. And it’s active in self-destructiveness, in addictions, compulsions, and any other behaviors that end up being in some way self-sabotaging, self-destructive. And in low self-esteem that has a self-hatred component.

        • Competitiveness is filed under thanatos rather than being contextual?

          I’d have thought that thanatos would only cover competitiveness when the person has reason to think it’s self-destructive.

          Now that I think about, “self” is vague. To some extent, one’s reputation is part of one’s self. Is going for glory thanatos if it’s reasonable to think one will succeed in getting glory?

          Should we be talking about thanatos on a social level if people are being pushed into self-destructiveness?

          • Jill says:

            Thanatos is about destruction, not just self-destruction. Competitiveness would barely, or not even, qualify if you held little animosity toward your competitor and were mostly trying to succeed and do your best at your sport or other activity. But if you want to literally or metaphorically “destroy” your competitor, that’s Thanatos.

            Eros is to create, connect, love etc. Thanatos is to hurt, destroy etc. self or others.

            Yes, we could very well talking about Thanatos on a social level when people are being pushed into destructiveness toward self or others. War mongering, for example. Constant role modeling of bashing and metaphorically destroying the other party, on the Internet. We’ve got more Thanatos than we know what to do with in our culture currently. Although it’s certainly nowhere near as bad as e.g. the Middle East.

            All humans and cultures have some Eros and some Thanatos. It’s a matter of degree and how it is expressed.

          • In that case, I’m seeing a lot of verbal thanatos on the left– all these facebook shares about something that crushes Trump or destroys racism or whatever.

          • Jill says:

            I see a lot of verbal Thanatos on both sides and in the middle. The whole Internet is constantly full of it.

            The association between self destructiveness and destructiveness toward others is an interesting one. It makes me think of that old Chinese proverb about how hatred corrodes the vessel in which it is stored.

          • Jill says:

            I don’t know that destroying racism would qualify as Thanatos though. If it’s about a principle of treating all people fairly, rather than unfairly on the basis of race, there is not much about that that would be hurtful to humans.

            Crushing Trump might qualify, as it sounds more about hurting him. Defeating Trump definitely would not, as it’s just what happens when your candidate wins, that the other is defeated.

            But it really depends less on the language or terms used, than on the emotion behind it. If there’s hatred or rage behind it– an emotional urge to destroy– it would qualify.

          • Jill says:

            Of course, a certain amount of aggression is normal, especially when channeled in useful ways that don’t harm oneself or others.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      This deserves a separate post, but I think of a minimal version of Freudianism, stripped of the weird incest stuff, as something like “There is an unconscious which has a surprising amount of intelligence and independent thinking. It has major effects on your life – including creating psychological and physical problems, but also a lot of things about your normal personality – as part of a strategy to maintain a psychic equilibrium. Often this involves its counteradaptive struggles to ‘deal with’ unpleasant childhood memories and events.”

      So if somebody wakes up and finds their leg is paralyzed for no good reason, and something that happened the day before reminded them of how their mother used to yell at them for not walking fast enough, and after therapy they realize that their unconscious paralyzed their leg as part of its coping strategy for dealing with the childhood memory, that would be a big point in favor of “Freudianism”.

      If somebody woke up and their leg was paralyzed, and after therapy they realized they’ve been really stressed about a recent breakup, and apparently the stress screwed up their nervous system somehow and caused random body parts to shut down, that would be a point in favor of “non-Freudianism”

      The non-Freudian explanation is very here-and-now and mechanical; the Freudian is very past-focused and agent-y.

  47. I’ve had something like sleep paralysis a few times. It wasn’t the classic version because I couldn’t imagine moving so I wasn’t worried about not being able to move. As I recall (it’s been a while), I had no bodily sensations.

    Does anyone who’s had sleep paralysis remember whether they have details from their body? For example, did you know what position you were sleeping in?

    I could hear myself snoring. While I had no reason to think people who told me I snored were lying, it was good to get the confirmation.

    It was sort of an awake while asleep experience, but not the interesting enlightenment kind of thing.

    Ken Wilbur wrote about having continuous consciouness (including while asleep), but I don’t remember what if anything he said about what he was conscious of.

    • i need a nap says:

      I’ve experienced sleep paralysis dozens of times. It always occurs when I’m on my back. It’s always terrifying but sometimes also very interesting. Most of the time I don’t have hallucinations with it, but when I do, they’re absolutely spectacular and incredibly realistic. Ann’s story reminded me of my sleep paralysis, but only vaguely so.

      I don’t know anything about “continuous consciousness,” but I’ve gone from being awake directly into lucid dreams a number of times. Maybe that’s the same thing?

    • herbert herbertson says:

      I had two major experiences of sleep paralysis. The first, I was aware of everything–where I was, what was happening, etc–to the point where I was actually able to whisper out a “help me” just barely loud enough to wake my friend one bed over so he could then wake me up (an experience he described as “totally terrifying”),

      With the other one, I was also fairly aware of my surroundings and the situation, but it coincided with the amplifier on my chronic tinnitus getting turned up to 11 if not 111, and that sort of overwhelmed everything else.

    • Julian says:

      I have had Sleep Paralysis many times in my life. In my late teens and early 20s it would happen 3 to 4 times per week. Its much less frequent now maybe 10 times per year, but often results in out of body experiences or lucid dreams.

      I do remember a few times when the paralysis was like you describe but not often. The hearing your self snoring part I have had a few times. I was usually very relaxed and/or napping. I always assumed the snoring had woken me up. I usually then would just go back to sleep counter to sleep paralysis where I often fight my self awake.

    • Cory says:

      I have had sleep paralysis once in my early 20’s. The first sensation was one of terror at not being able to move. I will my eyes to open but everything remains black. Nothing bad seems to be happening so I begin to calm down.

      The room begins to come into focus but the perspective is wrong. I am looking down on my bed from the corner of the room. I can see myself, under the covers and there is a figure crouched, birdlike, on the foot of the bed. I begin to make out the details of the dark figure, its flesh is alive and crawling, its eyes are black pits.

      At this point my terror spikes I leap out of bed.

      I am awake, moving around the room in circles, turning on lights and there is no terrifying creature perched on the bed. I pace around the room until my heart rate reaches normal and eventually I get back to sleep.

      All and all one of the better bits of flotsam / jetsam my subconscious has entertained me with while sleeping.

      As to your question on whether I knew the details of my body, I tend to think the second part was more dream details then actual positioning, kind of a minds best approximation.

    • Maware says:

      I’ve had it, and it’s pretty mundane. Every time I am on my back, and a squiggly thing is above me. Not a fearsome squiggly thing, just like an pen scribble. It floats over me, and disappears, usually into the wall. My eyes can track it, but that’s it. I think at the start I also confused it with a spider over me, but actually it was pretty consistent over time.

  48. LPSP says:

    I almost paused reading the article to comment that I had extremely similar visions to Ann in my teenage years. I’m glad I read more and saw Scott’s call, because well, here’s at least one genuine article.

    My visions occured over a period of 3 years, during which I lived in my father’s house. Prior to that I lived with my mother (my parents divorced when I was 7) and after that I moved to university. I generally didn’t sleep well on account of disliking the prevailing social manner of that household, because of the weird furnishings of my room (animal pelts? really dad?) and a mild allergy to dog hair, coupled with 2-3 labradors and a spaniel downstairs. I never really thought about the visions, putting them out of my mind as much as possible.

    It began with a descent into a spiral, and it always began inchingly, crawlingly slow. As literally slow as possible, one planck length at a time, agonisingly drawn out. The pattern was black lines, jagged and crooked, leading into the centre. Then suddenly I’d feel a descent into the spiral, fast and hard, thundering suddenly deep into the fractal at the very opposite of slow, the speed of light. I’d hear the words “around around” and “faster and faster” in my head, in my own voice, like a puzzled observation. Suddenly it would slow again, but then (and this is the detail that made me realise I had the same experience as Ann) the black lines would inflame like a bee-sting, swelling into puffy, sore structures that crammed against each other, ripe to bursting. And I’d be filled with a great trepidation, knowing and wondering and fearing the moment when the boil would burst, when the inflammation would turn to sepsis. The planck-crawl would extend on until suddenly the lightspeed would roar in again, and everything would shatter and rupture and wither into something worse than the original black lines, something brown and tattered and withered and flaking. The process would sometimes continue like this for many iterations – I couldn’t tell you any exact figures, but six or more and as little as one alike were both common. I would eventually drift into subconsciousness, with no other dreams later that night.

    When I awoke afterwards, I found my father’s posturing more tolerable. I’ve only thought about those dreams sparingly since. Nothing else I’ve dreamt about has ever been trippy or unusual – when I was younger I had a lot of “weird social situations flowing nonsensically into each other” dreams, and then come-puberty a lot of sex dreams. Now I barely dream at all. I’ve never had a flight dream, unlike my mother who still has them to this day. This post is the first time I’ve ever heard anything resembling my experience, and I’m quite curious as to what it signifies.

    (notable differences between my and ann’s experiences: no feeling of going outwards, only inwards; no sense of transcendence or experiencing all the universe, or talking to god; only a limited sort of black/white thing; no human figures; only occurred for a narrow period during my mid to late teens, stopped before I left to go to uni)

    • Jill says:

      To understand this better, you might ask what in your life was– thematically and generally, not literally– like the situations in the dream. It sounds like you had a lot of stress going on with “the prevailing social manner of that household”, the weird furnishings of your room with animal pelts, and your mild allergy to dog hair, coupled with 2-3 labradors and a spaniel downstairs.

      Allergies do a lot of strange things to the body, and some of the dream may have paralleled things happening inside your body due to the allergies.

      Maybe none of what I say here will apply to you personally. I am just giving some examples of how the subconscious mind can take situations in your daily life and turn them into metaphors, and show them to you in a different way. And maybe that way can give you a different perspective on things.

      In fact the dream did give you a different perspective, one that was helpful to you, as you said “When I awoke afterwards, I found my father’s posturing more tolerable. ”

      And such a situation as your home life then might possibly be described as descent into a spiral, agonizingly drawn out. That e.g. could possibly be how a child might see a divorce between their parents where they were always waiting for them to get back together again, or for some other things to be resolved that never get resolved between them. A child living with a parent who is has a lot of issues is sort of a prisoner descending into that parent’s world. And there might be fast parts of life, that feel like sudden shattering and rupturing, when someone explodes or something else acutely traumatic happens.

  49. Kaminiwa says:

    Uh, huh, that last quoteblock is actually strikingly similar to the descriptions my brother gave of his night terrors when he was young. Except, being night terrors, there was no final part – just the first two.

    • Walter says:

      I have night terrors, from time to time. My recurring delusion is that a sniper is watching me from the window. I have to hide from its gaze, but moving would draw it. I work my way to the window and block it, but then he watches from the webcam.

      I once lost a good bit of work when I pulled the cord for my surge protector out of the wall to make all the electronic blinky lights (power indicators on various things) go away so that I could hide in the blackness.

  50. Fooicus Baricus says:

    Psychedelics for someone with existential anxiety: good idea or terrible idea? Roll of the dice?

    • J Milne says:

      Great idea

    • Jill says:

      A lot has been written about various “trip treatments” for various ailments. E.g.

    • barquentinian says:

      Really a roll of the dice, in my experience. If I could go back and live my psychedelic-using years over again, I would first become intellectually convinced of the truth of some religion involving a generally benevolent God who liked me and wanted to have a really long-term relationship with me, and also become culturally involved in that religion to the point that its habits of thought and prayer were second nature, and only then drink large quantities of mushroom tea. Failing that, I would not recommend it. I had some amazing, transcendental experiences that, if I’d grown up in another time, I’m sure I would have been fully convinced were communion with the divine. Sometimes I could almost believe that they were, and for all I know that’s what they were after all. But other times I had other experiences.

    • Mammon says:

      I’m curious, what would you call existential anxiety?

      I ask because this is very close to an expression I use to describe the LSD experience – “existential awkwardness”. (Try to carry a conversation when the wall is melting…)

  51. switchnode says:

    I have never had hypnogogic hallucinations of any kind. However, “a very specific black and white vision of infinity” immediately made me think of Poul Anderson’s “Night Piece”, which I read some years ago and found extremely striking. Now I wonder whether it was drawn from experience.

    That said, it’s an entirely different very specific black and white vision of infinity. Judging by the experiences people have posted here, apparently this is just A Thing.

    • Jill says:

      Black infinity could possibly be related to memories of the womb experience, and white infinity to the delivery room with its glaring white lights.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        I am very skeptical that birth memories exist or are interesting, based on number one, apparent inability to form memories during that period, and number two, no observed psychological differences between C-section babies and natural birth babies.

        • Jill says:

          Regarding C-section babies, I will have to look for research on those. Do you have any links to any offhand? As usual, with social science research, I want to know if they are asking the right questions. Of all the possible differences between natural birth babies and C-section ones, I wonder which differences they looked at.

          As to apparent inability to form memories during that period, if you have a link for that, I’d like it too. Although any study on that would have the problem of trying to prove the null hypothesis. Hard to prove that a certain thing doesn’t ever happen to anyone. It surely probably doesn’t happen to most Americans. But remembering one’s dreams doesn’t even happen to most Americans. Yet some few pay attention and do remember them. Far far fewer pay attention to the kinds of images and body sensations that womb and birth memories are likely to be associated with.

          What we normally think of as memory has a strong verbal component. Memories of birth, being in the womb etc. might be so different from what we usually think of as a memory that we might think it isn’t a memory. But maybe it is one anyway.

        • Jill says:

          In rebirthing workshops, people claim to have such memories of birth and the womb. And some people claim that focusing on these memories and living through them changes their lives very much for the better. Of course, people claim the same thing with all kinds of experiences that supposedly changed their lives. And maybe it’s so. And maybe it isn’t.

          Also, people using all kinds of natural childbirth methods, where they give birth in water, for example, claim that their kids are different when born differently. I will have to look and see if there are formal studies.

          Someone on this site recommended an interesting book on propaganda, called Psychological Warfare. In one part of the book, it was pointed out that propaganda aimed at the Japanese in WWII was uniquely successful because social scientists studied the early childhood experiences of Japanese people.

          A lot of early nonverbal experiences do seem to have very great effects on people.

          The book made me aware that Americans have thought of propaganda mostly as something associated with war. Being an active and not reflective society, this is the way the U.S. is. Everything has to be focused on the most active parts of life. The quieter more subtle inner parts of life are generally ignored, except by a small number of advanced meditation practitioners– until a drug throws these inner parts of our lives, up into our faces in a way we can’t ignore or turn away from.

        • Chalid says:

          apparent inability to form memories during that period

          One claim I have seen often is that a woman’s diet affects the flavor of her amniotic fluid, which then can affect the baby’s tastes much later. The first non-terrible hit on google is an NPR piece: “Pregnant women were divided into three groups. One group was asked to drink carrot juice every day during their pregnancy, another during breastfeeding and a third to avoid carrots completely. Then when the children began to eat solid food, researchers fed them cereal made either with water, or carrot juice and videotaped their responses… the babies who had experienced carrot in amniotic fluid or mother’s milk ate more of the carrot-flavored cereal.”

          And there are studies suggesting that one-year-old babies remember music that was played to them while they were still in the womb, and I’ve seen anecdotes of such music being remembered into adulthood.

  52. PDV says:

    The state sounds vaguely familiar, but many of the details were off. And I don’t think mine ever had such precise timing.

    Wikipedia on the sequel (TIHKAL) says that the autobiographical parts are fictionalized, and picks up from where PIHKAL left off, so if it feels on the nose that’s probably why.

  53. jaimeastorga2000 says:

    I think “referring to most people ask ‘turkeys'” is supposed to be “referring to most people as ‘turkeys'”.

    • Sniffnoy says:

      Also, more proofreading: “what is very obvious her mind doing” -> “what is very obviously her mind doing”

  54. I’ve never had Ann’s spiral experience, but I have several times experienced sleep paralysis with visions of demonic beings next to me. If you’ve never experienced this, it is intensely terrifying.

    You are totally unable to move. There is a very dim light all around you. Something is moving in your peripheral vision. You hear the rustle of winds or soft footsteps and malevolent whispering. You cannot move. You need to get up and escape. The thing is getting closer. You can hear it whispering but cannot understand what it says. Its limbs pass through the dim light source in the corner of your vision. You cannot move.

    Wake up.

    • Publius Varinius says:

      I had some really “good” sleep paralysis episodes. Fortunately, they never involved visual or auditory hallucinations.

      – What usually happens is that I wake up, and realize that I am paralyzed. An unshakable irrational feeling of surely this time it is permanent takes over, and I struggle to try and move my limbs, with intense false sensations of movement, and a few seconds later the stressful realization that no movement has actually taken place.

      – One time, years ago, my computer was playing an audiobook while I was falling asleep. Unfortunately, Winamp (yeah, the good old days) was left on loop, so the voice of the narrator kept waking me up into a state of sleep paralysis during the night. As I realized this, I tried to go to my computer to turn it off. Again, I had a very convincing feeling of getting up and walking to my computer, and a subsequent realization that I was still lying in my bed.

    • FullMeta_Rationalist says:
    • Rival Voices says:

      Sleep paralysis isn’t a real thing. It is an almost-lucid dream. You are dreaming, and lucid, but not aware of the fact that you are dreaming.

      Go read lucid dreaming literature and the next time you have “sleep paralysis” remember to keep calm and try to make things happen as you would in a lucid dream. Pretty soon you will realise you *are* in a lucid dream and from then on you can just have fun.

      • Publius Varinius says:

        I am not sure about this. The reason: I’ve been a lucid dreamer for a very long time, but I have never had any control over my sleep paralysis.

        • Jill says:

          Yes, the wikipedia I cited above says:

          “One hypothesis is that it results from disrupted REM sleep, which normally induces complete muscle atonia to prevent sleepers from acting out their dreams. Genetics and sleep deprivation are a major cause of sleep paralysis,[1] and it has also been linked to disorders such as narcolepsy, migraines, anxiety disorders, and obstructive sleep apnea.[2][3] Sleeping in a fixed supine position increases the chance of sleep paralysis.”

          It sounds likely that, at least in some cases, this is something physiologically caused and so not likely to be changed by lucid dreaming, which is a psychological sort of shift and unlikely to change physiology much.

        • Rival Voices says:

          Interesting. Care to try in the next instance of sleep paralysis and report back? I had many incidents of sleep paralysis. Then I learned how to lucid dream. Then I stopped for the most part having sleep paralysis but the 3 times I had it I could just smoothly transition into a lucid dream.

          • Jill says:

            Yes, I would like to hear back from Publius too.

            Sleep paralysis apparently has many causes, some of which may be helped by lucid dreaming and others of which may not.

      • tgb says:

        I don’t understand your claim. I’ve had sleep paralysis many times where I knew exactly what was, exactly how asleep I was and was completely incapable of breaking out of it. In any normal dream, realizing I’m dreaming is enough to ‘shake things up’, but not for this. I will realize that my perceived motions aren’t actually happen and try to exploit that to wake myself up, for example by putting my hands into my field of vision but not being able to see them and, more discomfortingly but equally futile, thrust my perception of where my hands is into my own skull achieving a contradictory sensation I never could achieve in real life. Unfortunately that doesn’t wake me up. I’ll try to exploit minor muscle movements that are less likely to be paralysed, like eyelids or eyeballs or toes. How much more lucid do you think I can get?

        • Jill says:

          What Rival Voices has can apparently be affected by lucid dreaming. But it may or may not be sleep paralysis.

          Sounds like you want to keep trying, and I wish you success. But people may have different things going on with their bodies, even when their descriptions of them sound similar. Many different illnesses and conditions, which require different treatments, have similar symptoms. Your doctor may be able to tell you more about how your own condition might be treated.

          What you have may be a lot different from what Rival Voices has. So there’s no reason to expect that it will necessarily be changed by lucid dreaming.

        • ChroM says:

          I think you and I are in the same boat tgb. I feel like I remember my dreams pretty frequently, bu I seldom have lucid dreams (maybe once or twice a year). Sleep paralysis though is a whole ‘nother beast. I would say I average it at least a three times a month.

          It happens in many positions, both from real sleep and naps (I would say naps account for 60-70% of the cases) and from different positions as well (maybe the majority on my back). My eyes are open, I see the room, I have no visions, no feelings of dread or that I’m being watched. But what I do feel is an extremely strong desire to no longerbe paralysed. So I do what you do: wiggle my toes, my fingers, keep my eyes open (does anyone else’s eyelids feel weighted during sleep paralysis?), and keep at it till it breaks.

          The unfortunate part is I’m very often still exhausted (might be the middle of the night) so after breaking the sleep paralysis I lay back down, fall asleep, and the second my body is paralyzed again I realize it and its round 2: Me vs My Stupid Effing Body. Sometimes I slip back into sleep paralysis near instantaneously. Maybe about 30-40% of my sleep paralysis instances are followed immediately by another one.

          Maybe what Jill is saying is right, that I just can’t stand not being in control. I know people who turn these experiences into lucid dreams. But at the time of the paralysis it feels so pressing to move.

          Does anyone else have any successful strategies for breaking sleep paralysis or maybe breaking that need to move?

          • ChroM says:

            Ahhh one other thing: if I’m laying on my side so that one of my eyes is forced closed by being pressed into the pillow, very often I still have ‘dreams’ going on in that eye, while my other eye sees my room. This is always very disconcerting for me, and also makes it harder for me to break the paralysis because when I blink (temporarily close my eye), my ‘free’ eye joins the dream visions, and is hard to open up again.

        • Rival Voices says:

          I’ve had the same exploitation of moving eyelids and eyeballs and tolls. But this was done in a semi automatic mode in which there was significantly less lucidity than in a lucid dream or waking state. In a lucid dream I have as much lucidity as in the waking state, and in the sleep paralysis I had before significantly less. *I* was acting, in a way that I attributed to my volition, but which in retrospect was very much automatic. I always did exactly the same things, I couldn’t pause to ponder what to do next. Can you, whilst in sleep paralysis?
          (You can get waking consciousness lucid 🙂 )

  55. Michael says:

    I’ve had a similar experience to Ann’s ‘bad trip’. It’s extremely unpleasant. It feels like everything is terrible, and you know for a fact that it always will be, and there’s nothing you can do about it, and you’ll be stuck in this terrible hell forever.

  56. ArbyFlask says:

    Never “Black and White” for me, but I did have an infinite visual pattern myself which would come up when I was almost asleep. Like Ann’s, it got weaker with age. Even in my early 30s I would sometimes see it superimpose onto my vision when I was very tired. Currently I might catch a partial flash of it before sleep, on rare occasions. It is a field of dots which are almost but not quite red, packed in what appears a regular tiling but is indescribable, doing something which is almost but not quite moving around while slowly scaling in/out. I assume it’s some sort of visual cortex noise.

    When I was young it was bright and would go on for several minutes, sometimes jerking around with a strong sense of vertigo, seeming like an infinite landscape.

    I was prototyping an idea for a video game/app which probably nobody would want but me: kind of like a “Psycho Missile Command” based on Conway’s LIFE rules, drop green cells to prevent red cells from growing to the outer border. It looks really nothing like my old field of red dots, but when I got it running it was shockingly familiar all the same. You can see it if you want to, click:

    • Hey, I liked your game! Except for the fact that there doesn’t seem to be a win condition, just a challenge to see how long you can go without losing.

      • ArbyFlask says:

        Definitely it needs to have ‘stages’. There are a few difficulty variables: size of inner spawning square, rate of spawning, rate of dropping green cells.

        Furthermore it shouldn’t always spawn random red noise, it could throw down an array of gliders or spaceships as well.

        Haven’t worked on it nearly as much as I should. It doesn’t QUITE behave identically with touchscreen interface – needs a ‘reticle’ to replace the mouse cursor – I think that most people don’t play games on computers anymore.

        Definitely it’s something I’ve got to do more with. Thanks!

      • Viliam says:

        An idea: Allow the player to gradually “conquer” the inside of the red square.

        The player is not allowed to spawn green cells inside the square, but the green cells can get there by growing from outside. Make it so that when the random red noise is spawned, it is not spawned on the green fields (with either living or dead green cells). So there is a way for the player to win by successfully invading the whole square from the outside (so that the red cells have nowhere to spawn anymore). Of course the red cells can conquer their territory back later.

        I am not sure how playable would this be, but seems like a very small change in the code.

        Alternatively: Any place inside the square where a green cell was at any moment in the game (even if it was later taken by the red cell) is permanently excluded from spawning the new red cells. This should be much easier. (It would be good to make it visible, e.g. if those cells are reconquered by red, they should be painted black after the red dies again.)

        • ArbyFlask says:

          Thinking about it. Then a ‘win’ condition would be covering the entire inner square? I’m not sure that would be possible in general.

    • Walter says:

      Cool game dude. Thanks for sharing.

    • Jill says:

      That’s great to see that you allowed your dream to lead you to this kind of creativity. Dreams hold that power to do that for each of us.

    • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

      Reminds me of Creeper World, a flash game. IIRC there’s 3 canonical versions. Plus a 4th “Evermore” version (which offers a fresh map on a daily basis).

      images (duck duck go)

      Evermore (armor games)

  57. Grasspunk says:

    You want to hear our dreams? That Ann Shulgin dream paragraph reminded me of my equivalent dreams. This was a while ago and I hadn’t thought of them for decades. Thanks for bringing them up.

    My recurring dream had a sort of racetrack in the air. I don’t remember too many details but there was a lot of tension to get to the track and to start going around it. My first feelings were that something was serious and scary.

    The track was made of lots of fuzzy white lines in a black space. Sometimes they just looked like a single fat fuzzy white line. There was a lot of white noise. I was flying in among the lines, I guess, but I didn’t have any awareness of body so it was just a point of view that was moving. After all the lead-in tension I would go around the track, through all its corners. I don’t remember laps and there wasn’t a specific route but I was just travelling along (maybe more like in) the white track. As I started moving along it, the feelings all converged and I felt calm and euphoric. The white noise lowered into silence. I could have flown around it forever, but it only lasted a bit.

    I was excited leading in the lead up to the track despite the tension and fear since I knew what was coming, a bit like Ann putting up with the bad to get to the good. It was at least weekly when I was in single digits then slowly dropped in frequency to leave by somewhere in my mid teens.

    Well that gives me something to think about. I think there were other things in the lead-up but the “racetrack” was the most memorable.

    • Jill says:

      Interesting. If you ever wanted to work with the dream, to understand it better, you might ask what in your life is/was similar in theme to a situation of being excited but somewhat scared about being about to run around a track with fuzzy white lines, and then running and feeling calm and euphoric.

      The answer may be totally different for different people. Examples might include going away to college, preparing for some important event, recovering from an illness that keep one from moving around much, starting a pursuit of some goal and then realizing you are returning back to where you came from in some sense over and over, being a black person and feeling like you have to pay attention to the “white lines” which are rules made by white people.

      It all depends on what in the general themes of the dream is metaphorically similar to events in your life.

  58. Zluria says:

    Nitpick: factoring prime numbers is trivial, what you mean is factoring numbers into primes.

    • Manya says:

      Not if you don’t already know the number is prime when you start.

      (also, the post says ” factoring large numbers” – did you misread it or is that a correction?)

  59. Isaac Purton says:

    Now I was at the edge of an unseen cliff, looking out into a very different blackness, the deep, cradling blackness of the infinite universe, of space which stretched without end. I was completely happy and comfortable in that place, and would have stayed there indefinitely, had I been allowed, breathing in the beautiful darkness and the exquisitely familiar sense of infinity as a living presence, surrounding me, intimate and warm.

    I’ve had similar experiences several times across my life, but I never got the preamble Ms. Shulgin got. While falling asleep, I get the impression of standing on a diver’s platform (or trapeze stand) in the midst of infinite space. I don’t have a strong sense of color (I think it tends to be black) but there’s an intense sense of size; I feel utterly minuscule. The sensation has always terrified me; it’s like 3-dimensional vertigo.

    Recently (past few years) I tend to be able to recognize the sensation before it fully unfolds. I get a feeling like reality is zooming out around me, as if I’m at the center of an image and the frame is being swiftly expanded. When this happens, I force myself awake. I don’t find infinity to be very pleasant, I guess.

    The “zoom-out” is roughly similar to the few times that I’ve been put into trance, though trance is more relaxing, for whatever reason. The one time I did psychedelics (mushrooms) I didn’t experience anything of the kind.

    Interesting to hear that other people have experienced something similar. Interesting enough to get me to actually comment for once!

    • Jill says:

      Infinity of space may be what it feels like when one exits from the womb and experiences air around one instead of flesh in the womb.

  60. Timothy says:

    The jaguars remind me of the salvia woman. First time I smoked salvia I had the sense there was a specifically female presence in the room with me, though no full on hallucination of a woman. More like I knew a woman was behind me.

    Of course, I had read all the trip reports of people encountering a woman when smoking salvia…

    The only piece of transcendent wisdom she spoke to me was something like “When it gets to five, it will end.” This turned out to correctly refer to the process of counting five prominent shapes I saw, which I then realized were the outstretched fingers of my hand in front of my face. My visual system had given up on the automatic identification and abstraction processes, so I had to consciously figure out what the shapes and colors in my visual field were.

    I then grew concerned (but not distressed) that while I perceived myself to be sitting on the bed where I started the trip, I had actually gotten up and sat down on the floor, lost that short term memory, and somehow my perceptual viewpoint was erroneously stuck back on the bed. I decided to make no substantial movements until the drug wore off and I could be sure of where I was, lest I hurt myself in my confusion, though it turned out I was indeed on the bed the whole time. Salvia’s a weird one.

  61. Søren E says:

    I have experienced “The spiral”, mostly as a child, but still from time to time as an adult – I mentally refer to it as falling into a maelstrom. It feels quite unpleasant, and I have always woken up before finding out what happens when you reach the center.

    • Montfort says:

      Can you explain why she calls it a spiral, then? It’s not obvious to me from reading the description, so maybe there’s something missing from it (or that I’m missing).

      • Søren E says:

        As I am falling asleep, there is rather suddenly a distinct feeling of weightlessness, like I am floating in the sea. My inner ear gives me a sense that I am moving in a spiral pattern, rotating horizontally around a fixed point. The feeling of rotation speeds up as I get closer to the center.

        Very roughly, I feel like I start 2 meters from the center of the spiral, moving 1 meter/second counterclockwise with more than 10 degrees pitch. I accelerate, and I suspect that I would reach the center within 10-15 seconds. In addition to the horizontal component, I also feel like I am falling vertically.

        • Neanderthal From Mordor says:

          I had the same experience as a child, but I knew that I would be asleep when I hit the ground.

        • Fazathra says:

          I used to get this too, but I always thought of it as a ‘whirlpool’ because it feels like you are being sucked downwards and spinning around and around some center, occasionally being buffeted by invisible currents. It’s never particularly unpleasant, and you are always asleep before you hit the ‘ground’.

        • Jill says:

          Interesting. Possibly memories of being in the womb here.

    • DAR says:

      I’ve had the experience of angular momentum (particularly as a child)—usually to my right, but never actually spiraling in toward anything.

  62. Seth says:

    … studying a certain psychedelic plant, and was especially interested in why everyone who took that plant had hallucinations of jaguars in particular. … wiggly lines … getting increasingly agitated and demanding of the other whether he might have seen something that looked kind of like a jaguar.

    That sounds like a sad missed opportunity to get a clue about the puzzle. I wish people were more analytical about this stuff. Does “everyone” having hallucinations of jaguars encompass city-dwellers who haven’t ever seen a jaguar in their lives except maybe pictures, TV, or in a zoo? Or is it only people who actually see real jaguars frequently? How do you determine it’s a jaguar and not a cheetah or a leopard? (I’d have a very hard time identifying the exact feline species of a hallucination!). Maybe the chemical triggers something to do with a kind of motion which links to “jaguars” in people who see them often, but only “wiggly lines” in urban people who never deal with wildlife.

    How hard is it to have a database of chemicals and hallucinations, and if there are supposed commonalities, to replicate it? (If many people trying chemical X seem to see some sort of big cat, that’s interesting even if everyone doesn’t – what’s different in the population of the cat-hallucinators and others?)

    • TPC says:

      The effects for nitrous are really similar if you look at, say trip reports, or even listen to trip reports from people who’ve done it (hearing Big Gods laughing/talking, but never quite able to understand their speech, and that’s just one of the common pool of experiences, there are others, but that is one I’ve heard of from both casual and heavy users).

      There are chemicals that consistently produce a narrow band of experiences, but selection bias is of course a factor. The striking thing about what I mentioned re: nitrous is that you can find these experiences among early trip reports when the drug was first in use, hundreds of years ago.

      • herbert herbertson says:

        I had one of those Nitrous (+LSD) experiences, but I could hear them loud and clear: they were repeating “Do you get it? Do you GET it?” first normally, but with an increasingly malicious and sarcastic tone.

        It was… unnerving.

    • Neanderthal From Mordor says:

      Nobody sees wild jaguars often. They are very elusive animals.
      But there are people who think of jaguars often, either because they are a scary presence in that area or because they have great cultural significance.
      It would not be surprising if people who live in the jungles of Central America dream and hallucinate about jaguars more than they dream of being mauled by a brown bear.

  63. Guy says:

    That bad trip of Ann’s (on a drug that Shura thought was weak) looks to me like it might have knocked her into a mind-state very like Shura’s, and done the same to him (hence the drug’s failure to impress him). Is it possible that most psychadelics have effects like this? (that is, they kick you into a particular other mindset, likely dosage dependent in some way; a plausible semi-metaphor would be that they move you through mindspace on a particular vector with magnitude dependent on dosage)

  64. Squirrel of Doom says:

    maybe we could have had a revolution in mental health if the DEA hadn’t banned this kind of thing

    Is no research like this done in countries outside the jurisdiction of DEA/FDA?

  65. The Prince of Magnets says:

    >First came the image-sensation after which I named the entire experience – the spiral. I felt my entire self drawn rapidly into a tiny point which kept shrinking, until it could shrink no further, at which time the microscopic point became a tunnel in which I continued traveling at great speed, inexpressibly small and implacably diminishing.

    Simultaneously, I was expanding. I was expanding to the edges of the universe, at the same tremendous speed as that of the shrinking, and the combination, the contraction-expansion, was not only an image, it was also a sensation the whole of me recognized and welcomed. This experience of myself as microcosm-macrocosm lasted exactly four minutes.

    Sounds remarkably similar to something I experienced regularly when I was younger. I enjoyed it and became rather good at inducing it because it helped me get to sleep. I’ll try again tonight and report back on if it feels similarly to how I remember it.

    • Jon-Biz says:

      Me too. My earliest memories are of that dream, and of having it often. But it only happened maybe two or three times after around the time I learned to walk.

    • Neanderthal From Mordor says:

      I’m just realizing that the experiences of Alice when she fell Down the Rabbit Hole sound a lot like “the spiral”
      For me “the spiral” was a feeling of falling while spinning sideways like a propeller. I was aware that I would fall asleep at the end of it. In my teen years it become rarer and eventually stopped happening.

    • Kenziegirl says:

      Yes me too, although not with that much detail. Mainly it was the spiral like you said, like this sense of vertigo where you’re falling and spinning endlessly downward. But not unpleasant at all. It wasn’t black and white, I would see patches of color and flashes of light. It was sometimes followed, usually when I was sick, with distorted visions of people. No particular person, but like their hand or their ear would be swelling up like a balloon, but somehow it felt like my own head was swelling up. I didn’t like that part, it more bordered on nightmare at that point. But it was that same quality of vertigo, the same sense of infinite and perpetual motion.

    • Jill says:

      Possibly memories of birth experiences here. Interesting stuff.

    • Levi Aul says:

      I wouldn’t describe it in such poetic language, but I experienced it too. The first, visual component looked a lot like this, but with sort of green/blue waves or ripple overlaying my vision accompanying the sensation or knowledge that those ripples were both expanding and contracting to infinity. The ripples themselves were faint enough to only be seen if I was in the dark (but, if in the dark, they were able to be seen whether or not my eyes were closed.) I had to be laying down to see them; in fact, they only appeared near the time I laid down, and then progressively diminished.

      On the same timeline: I frequently had carsickness or spontaneous bouts of nausea as a child. Later in life, at around age 10, I developed idiopathic labyrinthitis that lasted a good three years, striking whenever I laid down or got up, causing me to feel horrible whenever I reoriented my head, such that I had to keep it perfectly level while I moved.

      I would also frequently get sinus-pressure headaches. As a child, unaware of what these were, I seemed to be self-harming, often slapping myself hard in the forehead or temples or banging my head on walls in an attempt to diminish the symptoms.

      As an teenager, I noticed that blood would frequently “rush out of” my head whenever I stood up, causing my vision to diminish to nothing then return after a few seconds. Also, my fingers would go white in the cold.

      At the age of 22, I was diagnosed with ADHD, and began taking stimulants for it. Half of the above symptoms immediately went away. A combination of caffeine pills, diosmin, and aspirin got rid of the rest.

      Can you name the disease? 🙂

      One more hint: varicose veins run in my family.

      • Anonymous says:

        Reynaud’s, but I think that’s just to do with the fingers.

        Chronic venous insufficiency?

      • tgb says:

        Your description of the visuals sounds much like what I see sometimes when I close my eyes tightly. There’s a nearly fractal level of detail at the center of my vision with less outwards, rather like that movie. But it’s pretty static and I assume is an artefact of the physical structure of the eye. Happens sometimes when I press on my eyelids but isn’t easily replicated. I’ve never associated it with sleep, but perhaps there’s a link to what you experienced.

  66. Fnord says:

    The first paragraph of Ann Shulgin’s “vision of infinity”, where she describes what induces the vision, sounds a lot like some advice for inducing lucid dreams (particularly the bit about becoming aware just as you fall asleep)*. She’s obviously not having a lucid dream (because she’s not aware she’s dreaming), but something similar may be going on.

    *Not advice that has ever worked for me.

  67. Cerby says:

    Just like gardenofaleph, I know I’m about to go asleep when my thought processes get completely nonsensical. Used to be that the realization snapped me out of it, but I’ve learned to go with the flow. I’d wager this is a pretty common experience.

    Another thing that happens sometimes as I’m waiting to sleep is that my self-perception suddenly starts flickering between feeling really thick and really thin, with the sensation being centered on my tongue. It’s not painful, just distracting and mildly unpleasant.

    Then there’s what I call the “brain reboots”, but they’re not linked with sleep, so bleh.

    • Guy says:

      Huh. That’s how I can sometimes tell that I’m coming out of a dream (that is, I abruptly become aware that the situation I’m “in” is nonsensical, similar to your awareness of your thoughts’ incoherence ).

      • Jill says:

        Dreams are actually not nonsensical. They are metaphorical. That’s why they don’t happen like real life and you don’t do what you would do in real life. Because they mean something quite different from what they show on the surface. The overall theme, the emotional content, the vaguest thematic description of the dream situation– these are far more important– in terms of a message to you from your subconscious– than what is literally happening in the dream. E.g. if you dream about being frustrated in a repetitive or disorienting situation, that theme may be more important than what literally occurs in the dream, and whether or not that thing could ever occur in real life.

        • Manya says:

          That’s certainly the Freudian point of view. Is there any concrete proof, though, that dreams necessarily mean something? Can there be?

          My hunch says that dreams sometimes mean something, and sometimes are just random noise, and when they do mean something, it may easily be literal, or only slightly symbolic. (When I dream about forgetting about a flight I need to take, I’m pretty sure it does actually mean that I’m anxious about forgetting important things.)

          I’ve forgotten the little psychology I once knew, though, so does anyone else have more information?

          • Jill says:

            I don’t see how you would prove that dreams mean “something.” That’s not a very clear thing to go looking for in research.

            Most Americans never try to explore their dreams and find out if they mean anything.

            Like psychedelic drugs, some people do say they have gotten insights from dreams that changed their lives.

            Almost all Americans agree with you that, when dreams do mean something, it’s not much, or not very important. It’s a firmly closed door for most people here.

    • Acedia says:

      I know I’m about to go asleep when my thought processes get completely nonsensical. Used to be that the realization snapped me out of it, but I’ve learned to go with the flow. I’d wager this is a pretty common experience.

      Same, but I’m still at the stage you mentioned where realizing my thoughts are getting crazy snaps me out of it. How did you learn to stop that?

      (I’m not interested in lucid dreaming, it would just make falling asleep easier if realizing “hey I’m about to fall asleep” didn’t wake me up)

      • Sol says:

        Huh. I have nonsensical thought patterns when very tired, but for me it’s a sign that I really need to sleep, rather than something that keeps me from sleeping. The usual pattern is 1) thoughts go nonsensical 2) I wake up a bit and recognize that’s what happened 3) I give up doing whatever I was doing instead of trying to sleep and 4) promptly fall asleep.

      • Cerby says:

        Gonna answer Walter down there too while we’re at it: what I mean by “get nonsensical” is that I lose control of them. Like, one second I’m having a perfectly normal fantasy of which all aspects are controlled by my conscious mind, when suddenly bits of it get replaced by completely different, unrelated concepts. The key point is that this is gradual; some thoughts remained grounded in my conscious mind and recognize that the others are behaving strangely. The first reflex one would have would be to wrest control again, but that just wakes you up; I’ve learned to accept the loss of control and let the randomness overcome everything as I go to sleep.

        • Jill says:

          Yes, that’s key. American culture is fairly controllaholic. But it surely helps to let go of control if one wants to relax and/or fall asleep.

          • Not Particularly Anonymous says:

            You keep talking about American culture in multiple threads about dream experience. I was assuming these experiences were fairly human-universal, with the interpretation and reporting necessarily being mediated by cultural factors.

            It seems like you’re hinting at a larger assumption that the entire subjective waking/sleeping interface experience being discussed is cultural. I hadn’t really thought about it but my gut feeling came down on the opposite side of what you’re implying. Does your assumption come from an external source you can link or are we just defaulting to different interpretations?

          • Jill says:

            Willingness to focus on, discuss, and interpret the entire subjective waking/sleeping interface experience is cultural.

            Americans don’t have different experiences from other cultures. We just shut down and ignore the same experiences that some other cultures focus on intensely.

            With few exceptions, most Americans are sure that their dreams mean nothing and can be of no use to them. There are more people here who believe in psychedelics being useful than believe in dreams being useful– despite the occasional person who does use dreams to inspire their creativity or their scientific or technological work in various ways.

          • Jill says:

            Well, actually to some degree, Americans do have different sleep/wake experiences. When you focus on something and pay attention to that, you get more of it. Or at least you become aware of it more often when it occurs, and you are open to having more of it happen, rather than shutting it down quickly, nipping it in the bud.

            It’s not so easy to shut down a psychedelic experience or nip it in the bud. But if Americans paid more attention to their dreams, and let them flow, maybe they would receive more insights similar to the ones that occur in psychedelic experiences– and with no side effects to boot.

          • Hyzenthlay says:

            With few exceptions, most Americans are sure that their dreams mean nothing and can be of no use to them.

            I think you’re straw-manning American culture here. What’s led you to believe Americans are so thoroughly disinterested in dreams?

            I also think there are a whole lot of other perspectives to be explored beyond “they’re totally arbitrary and meaningless” and “they’re symbolic representations of things in our subconscious.”

            I find dreams fascinating because of what they reveal about how our minds work and how active and creative they are even when we’re not in control of them (or not fully in control, at least). And naturally stuff we think about a lot, or strong emotional experiences, are probably going to show up in our dreams. But I tend to think it’s all pretty individualized and subjective and I’m not a big fan of reading specific Jungian symbolism into them. If anything, dream analysis seems like the conscious mind trying to impose conventional order and logic on something that doesn’t follow conventional order and logic.

            Ultimately, I think dreams mean what you want them to mean (though that’s different from saying they’re meaningless). I remember hearing somewhere that therapists will often ask patients to talk about their dreams…not to analyze the actual content of them, but because the way they talk about them and the symbolism the patients themselves read into them is often revealing.

    • Walter says:

      Not trying to be snide, honest question.

      If your thoughts are nonsense, how do you know that they are? Shouldn’t the “Hey my thoughts are nonsense” thought be something like “applesauce blargh tefallGN 7”?

      • Sol says:

        For me, the nonsense thoughts are more along the lines of (made up example, as real examples are quickly forgotten) “My wife and I should really go dance on that Elvish game show soon.” What it feels like happens is my thoughts go like that for a bit, then I wake up a little bit and realize my thoughts have been nonsensical.

        • Jill says:

          Dancing on the Elvish game show sounds fun. I don’t turn down creative fun thoughts or experiences. But in American culture, most people seem to think they must be rational, logical, and literal even in their sleep.

          Yet, giving that a rest usually helps people. Some scientists have used “nonsensical” ideas from their sleep to successfully solve problems e.g. in chemistry, e.g. the shapes of molecules.

      • Gardenofaleph says:

        Well the way it works for me is that the part that becomes nonsensical is the part of me that is the continual brainstormer/commenter. So I (my internal dialogue) start thinking weird things, and a small quiet part of me realizes it’s weird.

        It’s hard to explain without seeming like my mind is divided into two, but it’s a bit like a fast paced conversation where I say something funny that I realize shortly after makes little sense. Which occasionally happens when I’m socializing very sleep deprived.

    • Doctor Mist says:

      Then there’s what I call the “brain reboots”, but they’re not linked with sleep, so bleh.

      Intriguing. You say this like everyone would know what you mean, but I have no clue. Can you describe it further? Does “bleh” mean it is unpleasant, or just irrelevant to the discussion?

      • Cerby says:

        “bleh” as in “this concept is superficially similar to what is being discussed, but it isn’t directly related to the conversation and my shift starts in ten seconds so bleh”

        Now then, “brain reboots”. I recall these happening twice in my life, once in the shower (aka Ye Olde Source of Profounde Thoughts) and once in class after having had my name called. There were other points in time where I almost had them happen again; but since i already knew the experience, while enlightening, was just uncomfortable enough, I suppressed them.

        Warning: this is gonna get lyrical, because it’s a pretty intense experience.

        [It starts with a thought. “Why is this my name?” Vertigo takes hold as the simple question brings up another question “What if I had another name?”, then another “How would that have changed my life?” and another “What if I were born to other people?” and another “What would be happening right now in another life?” and another “Why am I this person and not someone else?” and so on and so forth with a plethora of whys, hows and whats: a single pebble launching an avalanche of meta-questions with no real answer that drown out everything else until

        I am a white core in a white void
        I am I
        I am nothing but I
        There is nothing else but I
        There has never been anything else but I
        I hear noise, softly, from the distance
        I see something, across the void, faint and blurred
        I touch – I have a body? a body, hands, arms, a head, feet, legs… – I touch something with my fingers
        The noise is getting clearer; it is a pitter-patter; it is rain; yes, I remember, it’s raining today
        The vision becomes more defined; I see backs, a blackboard, chairs and desks; a classroom? there are white lines on the blackboard, symbols written in order, equations to solve; of course, this is math class
        My hands are on the paper and pen I had put on my desk – I recall taking them out of my backpack just minutes ago; I lower my eyes; the paper is blank
        That happened.
        I should be working right now.]

        The best way I can explain it is that my conscious brain, facing an utter onslaught of thoughts with no end in sight, did a near-total system shutdown, keeping only the bare minimum of self-awareness before slowly restarting and networking the other functions; the senses, memory, logic, the works. The entire “booting” process somehow felt like sensations and memories trickling through the void and solidifying into cogs, slowly interlocking to make a fully-working machine.

        I say this was enlightening because it really helped me understand and internalize the idea that details about a person are, in the end, just that: details. At the core of every human – perhaps every living being – is a self, defined by nothing but its own existence, something called I. Everything else is decoration, the expression of that I in the material world, and I see no reason to believe that there are any differences between an I and another I. All that differentiates me, you, that guy over there, the dog next door, the tree outside the window, is simply circumstances, from those of our conceptions to those of our deaths.

        • Jill says:

          Great insight. Am glad for you that you allowed a couple of those experiences to go on, so that you had the insight. Many people stop all of them, and so stop themselves from getting the insight you did.

          • Cerby says:

            I didn’t allow them to happen; they happened regardless of whether I wanted to or not. It actually takes a small amount of effort to force it back when I feel it coming.
            Also, I get the feeling that part of the reason this happens in the first place is because of a combination of traits I have that lead to this overload: high curiosity combined with a propensity for tunnel vision. Not everyone is like this, so not everyone will experience it, and that’s fine. Everyone is as different as they are the same. There is no “people should realize X” or “people should think like Y”. People think like they do, and that’s all there is to it.

        • Anonymous says:

          The author Donna Tartt had similar brain reboots as a child (damned if I can find the link now). In her case, there was no onslaught of existential questions but she was able to bring it on deliberately. The reboots eventually stopped, the last one being in her teens.

          As for me, I would have the same kind of “Why am I this person and not another person” questions, but they never managed to reboot my brain.

        • Doctor Mist says:

          Wow. Thank you for that. I have never experienced anything remotely like that, and I’m glad I asked. It’s a stark reminder to beware of the “typical mind” fallacy.

          I wonder what mental experiences I have that I just incorrectly assume everybody has.

    • Dan says:

      Fwiw I Want to second the thick/thin and back of tongue/uvula region feeling, almost as if I am falling infinitely into this region. the conscious realization of what I’m feeling jerks me out of free fall if it isn’t accepting of the state. I get this more often when trying to sleep off an illness.

  68. electrace says:

    hulgin describes going to a psychedelic conference and meeting an academic who worked in ethnobotany. He was studying a certain psychedelic plant, and was especially interested in why everyone who took that plant had hallucinations of jaguars in particular. He theorized that the plant was from the Mexican jungle, and that in some deep way our collective unconscious knew this, and so came up with appropriate hallucinations.

    Sounds like Narby, author of the Cosmic Serpent. Fun book to read. He’s an…. interesting guy.

  69. Vladimir says:

    I was just going to say that having your-pet-psychological-theory style symptoms is exactly what a Freudian would predict (and then you mentioned it). It really is a rabbit hole theory that I’m so glad I got out of. God damn Slavoj Zizek and his seductive fun speaking style influencing my younger self.

  70. Amelia Kelly says:

    Scott, can you say any more about what kind of “profoundly important” thing you think psychedelics research might be pointing at? I assume that you don’t seriously believe that it will enable polynomial-time integer factorization or anything remotely along those lines.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      When people are on psychedelics, they feel incredibly happy, incredibly compassionate, like the world is meaningful, like they want to help people, and like all of this is completely obvious and even logically necessary. They understand the problems of life but they feel able to deal with them in stride and believe that there’s a higher purpose behind them.

      It seems really sad that there’s no way to promote this state that lasts more than a few hours and doesn’t have the same level of complications and side effects.

      The worst part is that on the psychedelics, it all seems totally logical. If I logically argued you into this state by giving convincing reasons why you should love everybody, then in theory you’d keep feeling it after the argument was over. People on psychedelics feel like they understand the logic, but they’re never quite able to retrace it afterwards.

      I’m also not completely convinced that it’s all just random firing of neurons and there’s nothing to it. The psychedelic state seems intelligent, in that it’s able to deploy coherent narratives and speech and ideas that the subject doesn’t consciously come up with. For example, someone may talk to a god-figure who answers their questions in ways that surprise them and seems to have more insight than they do themselves. Without speculating that it’s a real god-figure, it still suggests some pretty weird things about the conscious vs. the unconscious mind.

      There are also things that I don’t think are possible to describe coherently (they would just sound like all the usual mystical cliches) and you might want to try something yourself if you want to know more.

      • Albino Gorilla says:

        I’ve had dreams before that resemble that sensation of logic, of things making sense, of grand mysteries being solved. A few times I tried to write down what those ideas were upon waking, only to find they were basically nonsense.

        At some point I opted for the strict materialist answer, which is that the feeling of wholeness, rightness, and clarity that came from these dreams were really just the part of my brain that is responsible for that feeling firing off random signals while my brain defragmented itself during sleep.

        In other words, just like you can have hallucinations that fool your brain into seeing and hearing things that are not real, the part(s) of your brain responsible for the feeling of “eureka!” can fire without good cause. I suspect mind-altering drugs have similar triggers. Of course, from inside your brain it’s all but impossible to distinguish between real insight vs the sensation of insight…

        • Guy says:

          Overall smell of onions and that.

        • I have a theory that there are mental tags, so it’s possible to have believed one has read a wonderful story in a dream without remembering anything about it. I think this means the “wonderful story” tag got activated, though I grant memory of dreams can be spotty.

          I’ve heard that sometimes people get a feeling of being on the edge of great insight when drunk, and I’ve assumed that the “great insight” tag got activated, but who knows? Maybe sometimes people who are drunk are almost to that optimal psychedelic state Scott describes, but never get there.

          • Jugemu Chousuke says:

            I’ve had a dream where I remembered reading some super-great book. I even had a vague visual of the cover and some scattered scenes. It was convincing enough that I looked for it on my bookshelves when I woke up, but I think it was all imagined.

          • Jill says:

            It could be that there is something wonderful in one’s life that one is dreaming about– something like a wonderful story or wonderful book that isn’t literally reading a story or a book. Maybe it is contained in life events unfolding, in the moon and stars in the sky, if you will look, or in some other aspect of one’s life that one doesn’t pay any more attention to than one does to one’s dreams.

          • I’m quite willing to believe that what happens in one’s dreams has an emotional link to what’s going on in one’s life, but that’s orthogonal to whether tags are in play.

            Have you read any of Patricia Garfield‘s work? As I recall, she concluded that dreams were interpretation of body sensations.

          • Jill says:

            No, I haven’t read her work. Many people think that. And dreams are that, to some degree. But I see them as being more than that– at least some of the time.

            When I and others look to see if there are any messages in at least some of our more vivid or emotional dreams that could help us, we sometimes find them. And what we do with those messages sometimes changes our lives for the better.

            Each to their own.

          • Rebecca Friedman says:

            When I was a child*, I had a repeating nightmare – I was being chased around the house by a monster. (There are more details, but they aren’t relevant.) The second time I had the exact same nightmare, I said “Oh come on – okay, what does this mean,” thought about it some, noticed the monster was using lines I had used to my brother (which was pretty incongruous, when you thought about it), and started making an active effort not to push my brother around.

            The dream never came back.

            *This would probably be 6-7ish? So at this point I am mostly remembering remembering it, rather than straight remembering it – so no promises on the details. But I do think it makes me agree with Jill here.

          • Jill says:

            Fascinating dream and insight. Thanks for sharing it. People usually don’t realize when they have nightmares, that the “monster” in the nightmare can possibly represent a part of ourselves– a part that may be calling to us, to get us to face it and understand it and deal with it, in order to become more emotionally healthy.

        • Doctor Mist says:

          Ah. My best dream ever:

          I saw a plush teddy bear stretch out and wiggle in a patch of sun. This led to a major epiphany: we’ve all seen teddy bears stretch out in the sun, of course, but no one ever asked why, which led me to invent something like neoteny in natural selection: teddy bears that are cute are more successful than those that aren’t, and stretching out in the sun is like the cutest thing ever. In the dream I went on the lecture circuit sharing my insight.

          Possibly my only dream that involved fame.

          • Jill says:

            What a fun dream.

          • Jill says:

            There may be some aspect of your life that is like a Teddy Bear stretching out in the sun. Whatever your associations with Teddy Bears would come into play here– warmth, comfort, soothing, animal instincts– or none of those. They would be your own associations with Teddy Bears, not mine.

            And your own associations with cuteness and success. I don’t know if you live in the U.S., but to many of us in the U.S., success is just about everything. And there will be tons of emotions, ideas, people, and objects associated with it. Cuteness or the lack of it can be pretty important too.

            The sun and stretching are also things where you could look for your associations. The sun is a very central symbol– the source of all life and energy, earth’s own huge star, and a sort of magic force in nature and the universe. But your own particular associations would come into play here.

            And your associations with stretching– unwinding, relaxing, extending– whatever your own experiences or associations with it.

            Also associations and experiences with lecture circuits and fame or recognition.

      • MichaelM says:

        A lot of psychedelics just do a good job at submerging a powerful sense of self. It makes sense to want to help people and to be happy and to do great things because the selfishness and anxiety of being yourself goes away. You worry less about the little things that only matter to you and you stop looking at the limitations that you have bound up into you and the strong drive to be satisfied yourself breaks through onto everyone else.

        My experimentation with psychedelics of any kind is years behind me and I never got TOO deeply into it, but that really does seem to be where a lot of it comes from. You can accept ‘surprising’ truths because Haidtian motivated reasoning makes a lot less sense when your sense of self and personality are a lot more distant than they usually are. It’s hard to try to defend deeply held beliefs to yourself when the part of you that holds them so deeply goes on vacation for a while.

        EDIT: And I’ve noticed you can get something like that in certain states of mind during depression, too.

        • Jill says:

          People in different cultures have stronger or weaker senses of self and/or community. In the U.S. we have almost a delusion of extreme separateness. I wonder if, for that reason, psychedelics might affect Americans in a different way than e.g. Australian aborigines. The strong, and rigid, sense of self usually never goes on vacations for Americans. And if you can take a drug that will send it on vacation, it can be quite a relief.

      • drethelin says:

        Let’s not forget that bad trips are also a thing. If you COULD find a logical argument that mimicked its effects, you’ve probably also discovered the first serious infohazard.

        • Autolykos says:

          Let’s not forget that bad trips are also a thing. If you COULD find a logical argument that mimicked its effects, you’ve probably also discovered the first serious infohazard.

          Roko’s Basilisk seems to do that for some people.
          But most people trust their common sense more than logic and disregard the argument. I, personally, use the meta-argument that you should strongly discount infinite (or absurdly large) payoffs, lest you become vulnerable to all versions of Pascal’s mugging. I can’t spot the error within the argument, but showing that it leads to absurd and possibly contradictory conclusions is enough for my purposes.

          • youzicha says:

            I kind of doubt that Roko’s basilisk work through any logical argument, because it doesn’t really give one. It handwaves that an AI could “acausally” “precommit” to punishing you, but it doesn’t say how to set this up (and it seems pretty difficult to get anything like that to work–Yudkowsky says that the argument doesn’t work). So it sortof presents the conclusion, “if you are not good you’ll get punished”, but it doesn’t give a logical argument for why, just a science-fictional handwave.

            I suspect that for the small percentage that found the basilisk unsettling, the causation went the other way: that there is a tendency to neurotically think “I’m bad; someone will punish me” (these concept seem to come built-in to the brain), and then latch on to any story that predicts that will happen (the Christian hell, say). The story seems plausible because you already emotionally believe in the conclusion.

          • Not Particularly Anonymous says:

            Something that occurred to me (last night at 3:00 AM, having inexplicably woken up terrified for presumably unrelated reasons) is that the sort of thing the LessWrong/rationalist community/diaspora tends to pursue – friendly AI, cryonics, life extension – are things the people involved would have liked anyway, even before they encountered LW. They stick around and fully buy into the philosophical framework of the community in part because it fully justifies the things they want to do anyway.

            Roko’s Basilisk takes that framework and self-consistently uses it to justify something that, at the object level, offends pretty much everyone. The reason it’s horrifying (to some) is not so much on its own merits, as that it shines a spotlight on their motivation and eagerness to accept all this pop-rationality, and makes them confront the possibility that they’re wrong about either the way reality works, or that they’ve drawn the wrong conclusions about the proper actions that would imply.

            Of course I haven’t finished Reading the Sequences and, having typed this out, it seems like the sort of half-assed non-idea you get from waking up at 3:00 AM for unknown reasons.

          • 27chaos says:

            I agree Roko’s Basilisk is handwavy, but don’t agree that it’s obviously illogical. Sometimes vague arguments are true ones. For something like Roko’s scenario to occur, it is required that AGI is willing to make commitments with enforcement costs, which seems extremely plausible, and that AGI cares about taking actions that cause itself to come into existence, which is at least possible at a glance. I think many rational human beings believe things like “I am obligated to behave well for my parents because they gave birth to me with the expectation I would do so”, which operate on lines of thought. The reasoning is flawed, almost definitely, but it’s not nonexistent, nor solely emotional.

        • suntzuanime says:

          The description of Ann’s bad trip with the demiurge reminds me a lot of Meditations on Moloch.

      • Derived Absurdity says:

        It seems really sad that there’s no way to promote this state that lasts more than a few hours and doesn’t have the same level of complications and side effects.

        Are you aware of David Pearce’s the abolitionist project? It’s a specific branch of transhumanism which aims to basically do this; to use psychedelics, emphathogens, and euphoriants as a possible roadmap to engineer the human mind so that it’s able to lock into these types of states indefinitely. And in the long-term improve on them so that our natural state of consciousness is superior to anything that can be unlocked by current means.

        I’m assuming you know of it, it’s not exactly an obscure idea within transhumanism. I’m wondering what you think of it.

        • Garrett says:

          Is this a good idea? My experience of people who are remotely like this naturally is that they have a hard time doing important things in life like holding down a job with which to feed themselves. I don’t know if this is generalizable, or if such modifications after one has become a self-sufficient adult would override this trait.

          • Derived Absurdity says:

            My experience is the opposite. Overly-happy, fulfilled, compassionate people are usually far more successful, independent, and able to deal with challenges and problems than neurotypicals. And Scott acknowledged this somewhat in his next sentence (“They understand the problems of life but they feel able to deal with them in stride and believe that there’s a higher purpose behind them.”)

            There’s a difference between being euphoric and being hypomanic, which might be what you’re thinking of. There’s no necessary trade-off between being consistently happy and fulfilled and doing mundane things like holding down a job.

          • suntzuanime says:

            Are you sure that you have the direction of causation correct? Being successful, independent, and able to deal with challenges and problems seems like the sort of thing that would make me at least happy and fulfilled, if not compassionate.

      • LPSP says:

        When people are on psychedelics, they feel incredibly happy, incredibly compassionate, like the world is meaningful, like they want to help people, and like all of this is completely obvious and even logically necessary. They understand the problems of life but they feel able to deal with them in stride and believe that there’s a higher purpose behind them.

        They become motivated in other words. Life itself becomes the incentive, which is of course true in the macro sense anyway but not in the near-mode micro sense.

      • Rash92 says:

        Ive had what seem close to these experiences a few times, with two extrwmely clear occasions, in my life using only weed. I assume if I haf them with psychadelics they would be even stronger. But I do feel like ive retained some of the stuff that I ‘logically’ convinced myself of while I was high and having those experiences.

        (One was to do with oneness with the universe / we are all one being/ one mind etc., and one was about my own mind working and the different parta of my mind seeming to be independently arguing with each other before reaching a high level consensus which is what I normally would think, whereas at the time I was able to ‘listen’ to the individual parts (e.g. my ‘bit in charge of hunger’ telling the rest of my brain to STFU about all this introspection shit and get some food, which I ended up doing)

        I remain skeptical about how true it is system 2 wise but it does FEEL true on a system 1 level and ive had glimpses of the ‘brain parliament’ thing other times ive been high but not as clearly.

        • Albino Gorilla says:

          Funny, I had the exact same experience with weed. I felt my brain splitting into it’s constituent parts, all vying for control of my attention/body. It was novel for a while, although when i couldn’t make it go away it became pretty unpleasant overall – I could hear the paranoid part of my brain yelling with extra volume that something was wrong, this was a problem, abort, abort.

          In the end I ate half a jar of peanut butter with a spoon and laid in the dark for a couple hours until it went away. That kind of turned me off of further pursuit of mind-altering drugs.

          • Jill says:

            Well, perhaps weed is not your drug. Or who knows whether what you had is weed. Until it became legal in some states, what you got on the street was often cut with other drugs.

            Sometimes nothing is your drug. Certain meditation practices, if one is patient and persists, can give all of the benefits of drugs with none of the side effects.

      • moridinamael says:

        I suspect I’m being pedantic, but

        It seems really sad that there’s no way to promote this state that lasts more than a few hours and doesn’t have the same level of complications and side effects.

        Meditation literature is just lousy with claims that you can put yourself into states that very much resemble this in a semi-permanent way.

        Feeling connected and a part of everything, pervaded by a sense that everything is alright, and feeling boundless compassion for all sentient beings are all precisely targets of various meditative traditions.

        Now, my issue is that you’ll catch wind of people who have achieved certain meditation objectives and don’t seem to proceed to live the kind of life that you would expect.

        Like, why don’t Buddhist monks spontaneously leave their monasteries in droves and become EAs? It kind of seems like their boundless compassion for all living beings is precisely counterbalanced by their sense that everything is fine exactly the way it is, so they feel little compulsion to act to help anybody.

        I also often think about a specific YouTube video where an enlightened monk (nun?) says something quite cutting and rude to a woman who asks a question, the woman seems visibly taken aback and upset, and monk justifies herself along the lines of, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly have offended you because everything I say is from a place of pure infinite love and compassion, you just took it the wrong way.” This seems like a very special kind of dick move specifically enabled by a nominally positive mental state.

        • Buddha, man... what a tool says:

          Like, why don’t Buddhist monks spontaneously leave their monasteries in droves and become EAs?

          …because they don’t think that is a useful way to alleivate suffering?

          Getting even one person out of the cycle of reincarnation is, by their logic, going to do way way more than any arbitrary number of bednets in terms of reducing suffering. Monks seeking enlightenment are working their asses off to reduce suffering, just not in the way you’d personally do it.

          Besides, haven’t we already covered “this person disagrees with me on the best way to do good” =/= “this person doesn’t care about doing good” here?

          [A]n enlightened monk (nun?) says something quite cutting and rude to a woman who asks a question […]

          If you buy the whole idea of enlightenment then wouldn’t you expect the statements of enlightened beings to sound cutting and hurtful to the unenlightened?

          Plato’s allegory of the cave does a good job of showing what an enlightened person would sound like to the unenlightened. Telling a man that all of his pursuits have been worthless, and demanding that he go through a long painful climb with light burning his eyes isn’t “nice.” But it is Good.

          • moridinamael says:

            I suppose I was being mildly tongue in cheek by implying that Buddhist monks should become EAs. If you find yourself in a ______ Monastery, it is probable that you have not and never will attain certain Basic Rationalist Skills re: weighing evidence and questioning received wisdom.

            But let me circle around, here. I’m actually directly questioning the basic value of these states — meditative or psychedelic — in the first place.

            Let’s say a neuroscientist wires up buttons to my “everything in the universe is of a single piece run by an all-wise demiurge” center and my “deeply feel identification with and compassion for all living things” center.

            If she pushes both of these buttons at once, I am likely to act the way people who take a lot of psychedelics act; I care about everyone but everything is fundamentally perfect already so I don’t really need to do anything.

            If she pushes only the “compassion” button, I am likely to implode under the weight of the massive suffering of the world and my inability to meaningfully impact it.

            If she pushes only the “everything is fine” button, again, I am likely to lose any and all motivation to do much of anything.

            Put another way, if you’ve got both buttons jammed down hard, then you can say whatever the hell you want and even do whatever the hell you want because there’s no psychological feedback to tell you “hey, that was un-good.” Everything is perfectly good already. This is not “enlightenment” in any desirable sense. This is just giving yourself a mental illness.

          • Buddha, man... what a tool says:

            Well maybe the value isn’t for other people, it’s for the enlightened themselves.

            Having people who are perfectly content around will raise the average contentedness even if they aren’t running around helping others.

            If she pushes only the “compassion” button, I am likely to implode under the weight of the massive suffering of the world and my inability to meaningfully impact it.

            Sort of a sidenote but I see people saying this a lot and I’m very doubtful that it’s actually true.

            I don’t have much firsthand experience with compassion / non-cognitive empathy but always figured you got the joy coming through just as strongly as the suffering.

            Most people report doing ok most of the time, even those in extreme poverty or who are severely disabled. Sure, you have some miserable folks out there but by that same token there are plenty who are having a blast. The world hardly seems so bleak that getting a good cross-section of it would drive you mad.

          • Wilj says:

            Well, from a non-mystical standpoint, Buddhism is right that any material intervention only changes what suffering someone experiences. Teaching someone to instead free themselves from ALL suffering, if possible, would surely be more valuable.

            That’s not to say there’s no value in alleviating immediate suffering, or that it’s a sure bet that Buddhism can teach anyone to be totally fine all the time. I’m just offering a Buddhist defense.

            Second, regarding your idea that enlightenment hits the “everything is fine” button — not exactly. Buddhism recognizes that the world is not fine at all, so that even buddhas and bodhisattvas are strongly motivated by compassion. They’re just not controlled by thoughts, impulses, and emotions arising from ??? and blowing the self (“self”) hither and thither.

          • Jill says:

            “Put another way, if you’ve got both buttons jammed down hard, then you can say whatever the hell you want and even do whatever the hell you want because there’s no psychological feedback to tell you “hey, that was un-good.” Everything is perfectly good already. This is not “enlightenment” in any desirable sense. This is just giving yourself a mental illness.”

            Buddhist type meditation is very useful. I do it. However, I don’t get involved in Buddhist belief systems, even those about what results one can expect from meditation, or in Buddhist organizations.

            Westerners often feel like they’ve found some more perfect religion in Buddhism. But no, many of the gurus and organizations have numerous flaws. Some of the leaders get snotty or authoritarian or abuse their power. Some of the believers are quite judgmental in quite unfair ways etc.

            With all of these kinds of things, to me, it makes most sense to try the practices and then see what happens, and go from there. Kind of like psychedelics. You take them and see what happens and what good it is or not to you.

          • 27chaos says:

            The flaws in Buddhism as practiced go way beyond bad personalities in some individual leaders. Let me just drop this link here:

          • 27chaos, thank you for the link.

          • Hyzenthlay says:

            “If she pushes only the “compassion” button, I am likely to implode under the weight of the massive suffering of the world and my inability to meaningfully impact it.”

            Sort of a sidenote but I see people saying this a lot and I’m very doubtful that it’s actually true.

            I’ve encountered no shortage of people who are depressed because of the general state of misery (real or perceived) in the world around them. And I think at least sometimes it’s a result of some type of empathy dysfunction where they are unable to turn it off or dial it back when it would be useful to do so.

            I’m not sure the average human brain is really designed to cope with a world of 24/7 cable news which broadcasts constantly suffering from all parts of the globe.

          • Jill says:

            “I’m not sure the average human brain is really designed to cope with a world of 24/7 cable news which broadcasts constantly suffering from all parts of the globe.”

            I’m sure it isn’t. Most people should probably limit the amount of news they expose themselves to. We’re not built to handle all this. Cave men and women didn’t see and hear about all the suffering all over the globe.

            Not that we shouldn’t be aware of it and find solutions to it when we can. But we need to spend enough time unwinding, playing, resting, enjoying life etc.

            A lot of people do watch too much news for their own good, resulting in depression and/or anxiety. It’s as if they don’t know that they have the right to turn that off, or stop reading about it, when they feel overwhelmed. Lately, I’ve had some friends tell me that they don’t want to discuss politics, specifically a certain candidate, which they consider to be evidence that “democracy has failed” and I am respecting their request.

            They aren’t Molduggians, so they don’t like the idea of democracy failing.

          • Jill says:

            “If you buy the whole idea of enlightenment then wouldn’t you expect the statements of enlightened beings to sound cutting and hurtful to the unenlightened?”

            Not usually. I think that can sometimes be almost the case, when the student doesn’t like what they hear but can learn from it. But it might not be that extreme, even then.

            I think most of the time when such statements are made, it’s just an excuse for a guru abusing their power.

        • Also (from memory), I remember something about a Buddhist monk (possibly an abbot) being shaken by being emphatically told that women felt excluded by not being having a monastic path in Buddhism. (I don’t know whether this is true generally, but it could easily be true locally.)

          Realizing that some of half the people around you might want the path you’ve devoted yourself to seems like a smaller jump than EA.

          herbert herbertson becoming more feminist might have only been possible because feminism already existed.

          • Wilj says:

            It’s definitely not true generally but unfortunately very widely true locally. Although Buddhist texts often say things like “better to be a man than a woman!”, the Buddha did specifically teach women and say that their capacity for enlightenment is equal.

          • Nornagest says:

            Buddhist nuns are a thing, but I don’t know if they appear in all branches of the religion.

        • Wilj says:

          @moridinamael: From a) the traditional perspective, this is because Buddhism says it’s extremely imperative that you focus on enlightenment, because you have an incredibly valuable and rare opportunity — as a human aware of, interested in, and able to seriously practice Buddhism — and because things like donating money are just Band-Aids anyway (it’s big on pointing out that everyone is going to suffer and die and see their loved ones suffer and die, with or without e.g. mosquito nets); from b) my own Buddhist perspective, this is also because a lot of Buddhism is practiced “dry” — with the practices that lead to jhanas and absorption cut out and replaced by long rituals, philosophy, prayer, or “pure insight” meditation — i.e., normal cognition — without single-pointed concentration. These will not lead to transcendental experiences, so the behavior of practitioners doesn’t really change.

          I can rant a lot about the misunderstandings of meditation on modern Buddhism, but I’ll leave it there, stressing that this is a minority position (with substantial scholarship! but still minority), and that despite my defense of non-EA attitudes amongst Buddhist monks and nuns, I don’t entirely agree — certainly think Band-Aids are better than nothing.

          • Jill says:

            Yes, just because some Buddhist organization has certain practices that they think highly of and have everyone do, doesn’t mean that those are the practices that are most useful.

            It’s really most useful to try out different forms of meditation and see what they actually do or don’t do.

      • Mammon says:

        My own two cents – psychedelic drugs are the intellectual equivalent of a bug zapper. There’s nothing particularly profound about the psychedelic experience, and psychedelic mysticism appears to be one particularly powerful strand of pseudoscience.

        That being said, I have yet to do ayahuasca or to otherwise consume a psychedelic drug in a ritual setting. For me, it’s always been a “get naked in the forest” kind of thing. YMMV.

      • leoboiko says:

        I often feel like I’m missing something profoundly fundamental about the nature of identity, and the hard problem of consciousness. Current atheist answers (“the self is an illusion” “free will is an illusion”) are even MORE unsatisfying than saying “it’s a soul” (calling some psychological experience an “illusion” has no explanatory power)

        Mystics and psychedelists alike often claim they can, not understand, but see those things from some refreshing new angle (“its an illusion”—oh shut up). Given that the entire universe can only be experienced in the first person, subjective investigations of the “subject” itself seem very important to me.

        • Jill says:

          Yes, experiencing in different ways, whether through nature, art, music, meditation techniques, and/or psychedelics if one feels stable enough, and is prepared enough to handle it, can yield a lot personally important insights more than hearing someone else’s concepts or experiences.

      • Sarah says:

        data point: I have never, ever experienced *this* particular thing on psychedelics. Valuable insights due to lateral thinking, sure. Happiness and inner peace? Nyet.

        What gives me a magical sense of meaning and compassion and self-acceptance is a *good night’s sleep.*

    • addict says:

      Nobody ever fucking puts psychedelia in the proper context.

      Most psys are, and LSD especially is, the cure for defection. People on most ‘good’ psys are literally incapable of defecting in prisoner’s dilemma type situations.

      At the time when people were talking about LSD “saving the world”, the world was facing the existential threat of nuclear mutual defection.

      This is not hard, people.

      • platzapS says:

        Those are bold and really interesting claims. Do you have more on LSD and being incapable of defection?

  71. Sniffnoy says:

    When she doesn’t actually arrive, Ann sends her a nasty letter, informing her that she exists, that she’s on to her, and that now is the time to put up or shut up. She then sends Shulgin a letter:

    Confusion: Does Ursula send this letter, or does Ann send this letter pretending to be Ursula? I would assume the former since no explicit mention of the latter is made, but the preceding bit is ambiguous and makes it sound like Ann sent it.

  72. hipmanbro says:

    wants to say that the primitive mind seems omens everywhere

  73. gardenofaleph says:

    Well I can’t say I’ve had that specific hallucination before falling asleep, but I’ve had some weird hypnagogic states.

    Some nights I’ll start to notice I’m falling asleep by noticing that my internal dialogue is becoming hilariously irrational and erratic, which sometimes wakes me back up (especially the days I’ve had caffeine or other stimulants), but most of the times I can push through and fall asleep.

    Sometime I do get weird, almost night terror experiences, though they’re more exhilarating than terrifying. I’ve woken up a couple times with an ominous feeling of dread, and it takes a couple minutes to go away so I can fall back asleep, even when I know I’m being irrational.

    And rarely I get these weird near Jhana states where I kind of stop thinking, I zoom in on the breath with little effort and feel abuzz with warmth…and then gradually fall asleep.

    One time in high school, during the time when I was continually sleep deprived (I need 7.5 hours/night, I was getting ~4-5 hours a night for months on the weekdays, and 8 hours on weekends), I had a weird experience: I took a 20 minute power nap after coming back from cross country practice exhausted and I woke up nearly manic. I was smiling super widely, filled with energy, music sounded great, etc.

    Lasted for a couple hours and then I was back to normal the next day.

    • moridinamael says:

      I like the description “near Jhana” states even though I’ve never experienced an actual Jhana. It does seem like consciousness is predisposed toward these sensations of vastness, vibration, joy, peace and oneness via resting states. You can attain pretty weird states after a pretty modest amount of meditation.

      Twice in my life I’ve woken up with the sense that everything was perfect exactly the way it was and absolutely nothing could bother me. These periods of crystalline calm and equanimity would start for no reason and persist for at least a few days, gradually drooping back toward baseline awareness. This didn’t involve any tunnels of light or ethereal presences, it would just randomly happen.

      • Perpetually Inquisitive says:

        > I like the description “near Jhana” states even though I’ve never experienced an actual Jhana.
        > It does seem like consciousness is predisposed toward these sensations of vastness, vibration, joy, peace and oneness via resting states. You can attain pretty weird states after a pretty modest amount of meditation.

        Guessing based on the distinction between the two quoted paragraphs that you’ve read about these, but haven’t experienced it yourself? Just curious because the second part (based on my limited reading and understanding) does indeed sound very much like some jhanas?

        • moridinamael says:

          My understanding, based largely on what I’ve read, is that getting into “real” Jhanas really does require at least months and months of intensive meditation and is qualitatively completely different from the transitional states you might encounter on the way there.

          Like, one time, about half an hour into meditating, I felt my body disappear and was replaced by an infinite vibrating energy field accompanied with a sense of lightness and equanimity, but I was still able to do things like think normally, and I didn’t recognize the overwhelming “pure joy” that’s supposed to accompany true Jhana.

          Then again maybe it’s more of a continuum and what I experienced was the edge of that continuum. I don’t know.

          • Perpetually Inquisitive says:

            I guess that depends on which maps (if any) you follow. I’ve recently finished reading this book (, which refers to multiple traditions with their own maps. I don’t remember the exact sections, but I think some of your descriptions vaguely fit some of the jhana stages mentioned in it.

            Incidentally, the book talks about these things in a largely no-bullshit, modern, “nuts and bolts” way, and helped me understand what some of the distinct claims about “enlightenment”, etc. are.

            While not adding much evidence to any of the specific claims, I felt like it did resolve a lot of the seeming paradoxes and contradictions of meditation claims. For example, why it is possible to be enlightened and yet be a shitty person. You might find it interesting reading!

          • Jill says:

            Thanks for the book. I’ll give it a look. There certainly seem to be a jillion gurus and meditation systems, all with their own varying rules.

          • Perpetually Inquisitive says:

            Jill, no worries. Another book I can’t recommend enough is Sam Harris’ Waking Up.

            I would say Sam’s book is an excellent introduction to rational mysticism/spirituality, a “why should I meditate? what’s in it for me? what the fuck is enlightenment?” book, and Daniel’s book is a “ok, I’m willing to entertain all this enlightenment/awakening stuff for now, how do I go about doing it?” kind of book, if that makes sense.

          • Jill says:

            Thanks for the Harris book. Harris is mentioned with regard to meditation in a book I particularly liked: 10% Happier, by a TV news anchor. It’s about getting what Buddhist meditation has to offer without taking in all the Buddhist dogma part of it, which most people don’t really want or need. Meditation really made him more than 10% happier but he was being careful not to oversell it, after hearing all these gurus promise that it will give you some kind of other worldly perfect state, make you able to levitate etc.


            I also like Tara Brach’s books Radical Acceptance, and True Refuge, very much.


          • Perpetually Inquisitive says:

            Jill, I loved 10% happier! I actually read it after reading Waking up after seeing it on Sam’s blog (

            I completely agree that Buddhist meditation has a lot to offer once you separate the religious dogma from it. I could write paragraphs about it, but I’ll avoid the urge to do so.

            For the record though, it’s always gratifying and comforting to see smart, rational people advocating for it, as it’s still very much a “weird” idea. I would consider it one of the most significant parts of my spiritual life (a term that didn’t exist until a few years ago!) along with psychedelics and MDMA.

            Thanks for the book suggestion, I’ve added it to my reading list!

    • 75th says:

      Some nights I’ll start to notice I’m falling asleep by noticing that my internal dialogue is becoming hilariously irrational and erratic, which sometimes wakes me back up

      My wife does this, with the added bonus that she will sometimes voice her monologue, allowing me to partake of the hilarity.

      My own weird falling-asleep thingy is that I am sometimes aware of my sense of hearing shutting off. The white noise from my fan will entirely disappear from my sensory awareness, I’ll realize it, and then it will return as I wake back up. I’ll have a continuous memory of the whole time, including the sound-free gap. The gap is always very brief; I wish I could make it last longer to really remember what it feels like to hear nothing.

    • Loquat says:

      I used to get into a state before falling asleep where I felt like my bed was levitating, and often slowly rotating. Never any hallucinations, though.

      • Neurno says:

        I had a very similar experience very often while falling asleep as a child. Neither pleasantly nor unpleasantly I would intensely experience the sense that my body was moving through space, and also changing dramatically in proportion. I would feel blown up like a balloon, then flat and wide like a pancake, then tiny, then impossibly skinny and stretched like I was a lanky stick figure. This experience became less common through my teen years, and now happens only a few times a year. Out of curiosity I tried to figure out what caused this while studying neuroscience, but have no clear explanation. I am tempted to say something handwavy about the brain shutting down in a funny order, and reference the transient nature of self-perception as shown by the rubber hand experiments, but I have no clear answer.

        • Jill says:

          I wonder if anyone has had memories of something that they know to be the experience of moving through the birth canal, and can describe the sensations. This sounds like it could possibly be that.

        • Don't Drone Me, Bro! says:

          I had very similar experiences in childhood as well, when falling asleep. The sense of being alternately very large and very small, oscillating between the two very quickly, or even somehow being both at the same time. It would start out as being pleasant or even exhilarating, but would always end up as a feeling of vertigo and dislocation, at which point I’d scream, my parents would come to my bed, at which point I would open my eyes, and there was a visual aspect to it, too, and their faces would become alternately huge and close and tiny and far away, and I’d say I had a nightmare. Now the really weird part is that my awareness of the experience was centered in some way in the fleshy pad of my pinkie finger, and, by squeezing and deforming the pad between my fingers, I was able to recall that feeling in a safe and attenuated way. This probably stopped around age 8, but the finger thing persisted longer, and even now I will absently pinch the pad of my pinkie finger and remember “oh yeah, that weird feeling…”

          I wonder if it was some kind of mild complex partial seizure, or something along those lines. I’ve literally never mentioned this to anyone.

          • Jill says:

            Interesting. The body can do strange things, a lot of which is not well understood by research.

            People whose bodies do very common things get to talk about it to lots of people if they ever care to. But if your body does unusual things, that even biologists may not yet understand, then it’s harder to speak of, because people are likely to think you’re really weird in ways you are not really. But I suppose everyone’s mind or body is unusual in some way.

          • Ethan C says:

            I experienced the same. Absolutely terrifying vertigo, feeling like my body was the wrong size, etc. Almost entirely confined to childhood, a few occurrence in my teenage years.

            So it turns out I have narcolepsy, and for those not intimately acquainted (hopefully you), two of the major defining symptoms are hypnagogic hallucinations and sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis started for real in my teenage years, and peaked around 16/17 (I’m now 28 and only get paralysis when falling asleep once or twice per month), but hypnagogic hallucinations are a strange enough experience that it’s hard to pin down when exactly they’re occurring…I only tend to remember they happened in flashes.

      • wintermute92 says:

        I’ve never stopped having this. It’s sporadic, and only happens when I’m sitting or lying still – usually on a soft surface with my eyes closed. I feel like I’m spinning slowly around some axis. It’s always a horizontal axis, and I’m usually spinning broadly ‘forwards’ but not necessarily straight ahead.