Psychedelic Information Theory: A Talk with James Kent
In his new book, Psychedelic Information Theory: Shamanism in the Age of Reason, James Kent has attempted to describe both the experience and underlying mechanisms of consciousness in the language of classical wave mechanics, with terms like neural oscillators, periodic drivers, wave entrainment, resonance and coherence. Of particular interest are his characterizations of psychedelic agents as nonlinear feedback amplifiers, and descriptions of shamanic technique as periodic drivers to entrain a psychonaut's chaotic interference patterns towards multi-stable strange attractors. His book offers the first steps in developing a more refined and quantifiable theory and terminology of psychedelic action. It suggests many rich opportunities for further research that are bound to reveal some pragmatic and novel applications. Not since The Invisible Landscape, by the McKenna brothers, have I found a book so original and propitious. Here I ask him a few questions to elucidate his work, and ponder the implications for traversing new landscapes of the mind.
Jedi Mind Traveler: I'd like to quote one of the basic conclusions from pg. 171: "Periods of chaotic transition between multi-stable states of consciousness are subjectively perceived as disorienting, confusing, and uncomfortable. Periods where chaotic transitions approach strange attractors and phase-lock into multi-stability are subjectively perceived as ecstatic, beautiful, spiritual, insightful, cleansing, healing and transcendent." It sounds like you're describing the Hero's Journey or mystical experience - the initiate is at first disoriented, but after confusion, shifting of realities, questioning the Self and overcoming challenges, the spirit of the hero is born and ecstatic joy is felt for the transcendent beauty of creation, in a profoundly healing ceremony of rebirth. It seems the hero opens a door away from predictable, controllable, linear society, and steps through towards confusing paradox and seeming madness, then into a dimension that is more genuine, real, whole, and sacred. Can you speak more about strange attractors, multi-stability, and the mystical revelation of wholeness and harmony?
James Kent: When I talk about multistability in consciousness, I am referring to the ability to nudge consciousness into two oppositional states at once, such as being awake and dreaming at the same time. The brain does not want to exist in multiple states at once, by nature it transitions from one state to another with little or no overlap. For instance, now I’m awake, now I'm reading, now I’m thinking, now I’m drowsy, now I’m sleeping, now I’m dreaming, and so on, and we are capable of determining which state we’re in at any one time. The ability to maintain one focused state at a time, and be able to recognize that state, is our natural attractor; that is our stable baseline. Even if we perturb consciousness through intoxication or trauma, the brain will always attempt to return to this baseline state. Forcing the brain out of linear stability requires some kind of radical intervention, like psychedelics, which allows the brain to find stability in overlapping states that would normally be transient or fleeting, like a prolonged lucid dream between waking and sleeping. Being able to maintain balance between two or more simultaneous states of mind is how I define multistability in consciousness, and being forced into these complex states by a pharmaceutical reaction can be described in terms of strange attractors distinct to each psychedelic drug.
Because the brain is not comfortable with ambiguity, confusion, and disorientation, moving from our natural state of stability into a more dynamic state of multistability can be challenging. The initial reaction to psychedelic intoxication is to try and fend off or fight that transition and retain some sense of linear focus. However, if you relax and accept the transition away from linearity, then the brain will naturally slide towards that multi-stable trance where complex states like hallucination can manifest. This state can be considered mystical or sacred or schizophrenic or psychotic, but I prefer the term “paradigm shattering” more than any other, because our linear framework for parsing rational analysis is shattered and we’re left with an intense overload of raw sensation; sometimes joyous and sometimes terrifying, but always challenging and amazing to behold. You can call this state more genuine or real than normal states of consciousness, but I don’t think those kind of value judgments are necessary. There is no guarantee that any realization you have in the psychedelic space is more or less genuine or accurate than any other, it’s just a new way of seeing the world. And, of course, returning from that chaotic state and coming back down to linear focus feels like a kind of victory or rebirth into the world we know and love. Facing the joy and terror of the chaos, vanquishing it, and returning with some strange memories can feel very much like a Hero’s Journey.
Do you think the psyche is naturally drawn toward mystical attractors, even if it means going through chaotic transitions and perhaps reliving and integrating uncomfortable unconscious material?
I think some people are drawn towards mystical states, and would risk their lives to have a mystical experience, just as some would risk their lives to jump out of a plane for an adrenaline rush. But I don’t believe there is one single mystical attractor pulling all people towards transcendence, just like there is no universal attractor pulling all people towards jumping out of planes. For the most part it is self-selecting, only certain people are drawn towards mysticism and transcendence. You can take psychedelics and become paranoid and disoriented and pulled towards the wrong sort of attractor, like an anxiety spiral or a manic self-important jag, and miss the transcendent aspect altogether. So no, I don’t think the psyche is naturally drawn towards mystical attractors. Most often the mystical component of psychedelics is due to drivers in set and setting providing a mystical framework for parsing the experience. Anyone can get there, some people are naturally drawn there, but in my experience it really depends on the individual to seek it out and find it.
Also, digging through uncomfortable personal material on the road to transcendence is not what I mean when I say transitions between chaotic states can be uncomfortable. There is a certain amount of physical discomfort with psychedelics, like a twisting feeling inside; a spring is being wound up to the breaking point. It is almost like being pushed slowly up a bumpy hill, but once you get to the top the ride drops into free-fall and the exhilaration begins. There is a cellular component to this, corresponding to changes in metabolism and smooth muscle contraction in response to the psychedelic chemical. These transitions correspond with sensations in the body, like feeling itchy or twitchy or anxious, and then suddenly shifting gears and feeling intensely light, sensual, groovy, and unburdened by discomfort. Sometimes music or the temperature in the room can bring about transitions, sometimes changing body position or taking deeper breaths can bring about transitions. Sliding between rapidly shifting states of discomfort and exhilaration can be like a roller coaster ride on psychedelics. To me, navigating those twists and turns with rhythm, breathing exercises, and melodic cues appear to be the origins of all shamanic technique and ritual.
Your description of "periods of chaotic transition between multi-stable states of consciousness" and "periods where transitions approach strange attractors," sounds like the birthing pains and chaotic transition to higher awareness that collective humanity appears to be experiencing, while glimpsing the beautiful, spiritual, luminous world on the other side of the birth canal. If I may quote Stan Grof from his essay "2012 and Human Destiny," describing our collective psychedelic hero's journey: "Some of the insights of people experiencing holotropic states of consciousness are directly related to the current global crisis and its relationship with consciousness evolution. They show that we have exteriorized in the modern world many of the essential themes of the death rebirth process that a person involved in deep personal transformation has to face and come to terms with internally. The same elements that we would encounter in the process of psychological death and rebirth in our visionary experiences make today our evening news." If humanity is indeed subconsciously putting itself in the very crisis and chaos that will allow it to transition, what lessons can we learn from Psychedelic Information Theory and especially the Control Interrupt Model, to facilitate such "multi-stable convergence"? Perhaps shamanic techniques of using periodic drivers such as drumming or chanting to entrain system stability and stabilize attractors within the individual, could be applied to the collective turmoil, chaos, and downright hallucinogenic interference patterns these days?
I think that human systems are inherently chaotic, and we create things like rituals and traditions and calendars to provide some recurring periodic stability to our culture. Over time these recurring periodic rituals grow into religions where the central dogma revolves around imposing peace and order in an otherwise chaotic or misguided world. And then you get civilization, which is moral order imposed through laws and brute force. And then you get commercialization, which is order imposed through repetitive marketing of products and belief systems with the promise of beauty, love, acceptance, wealth, and salvation. And then you get where we are now, the age of irony, which is post-commercial and based on tragicomic critique of the banality of our repetitive ordered systems. However, nobody "planned" the age of irony, it grew out of being constantly bombarded with empty religious, political, and commercial propaganda, and our growing awareness that society is little more than an ongoing mind game of manipulation and deceit. This can be described as something like a chaotic transition to higher awareness, but it is not something I see as a spiritual awakening or an evolution of consciousness, it is a transition in critical thinking about the nature of media and control. The age of irony is like a control-interrupt that allows us to step out of preconceived notions and expose the top-down rules of society for what they are – a group hallucination that we all buy into – and use that perspective to laugh about how we’re all stuck in it, make critiques about it, and formulate new paradigms. The age of irony is a stable convergence zone between ideological order and intellectual anarchy that grew out the chaos of runaway commercialization and propaganda. What comes next is more intense drumbeating seeking to overthrow critical irony with more elaborate promises and deceptions until one sticks and takes hold of the popular consciousness until the next transition.
I think promoting notions of global crisis, psychological death and rebirth, and consciousness evolution all fall into the category of attempts to assert ideological control over the naturally chaotic systems of human life. Death and rebirth can be a metaphor for the cultural cycles of instability followed by order, but I don’t think its necessary or even helpful to get mired in obsessing over global catastrophe or ego death and birth trauma as part of the psychedelic spiritual journey. I view that paradigm as a Freudian attractor popularized by Leary and Grof focused mainly on digging through salacious repressed anxiety as a means to identify and correct neurosis. That is a fabricated paradigm; nobody needs multiple hours of hellish introspection about global crisis or personal failures to have a transcendent experience on psychedelics. Recovering distant memories can be fun and rewarding, but they do not need to be a traumatic indictment of the human condition towards some redemptive end. We don't need to be corrected through self-flagellation and spiritual death-rebirth; these are narratives we get hung up on because they are the drumbeat of our religious culture. We get too much of that burden of being told how we are broken and wrong and who we "should be" in our daily lives, that death-rebirth redemption trip is what keeps us trapped in the small mind. You don't need to take any of that with you while you are seeking transcendence, you can leave the small mind behind.
Don't get me wrong, I don't want to seem overly down on Grof because that paradigm can be helpful for some people and others really seem to enjoy it. If wallowing in crisis and pain is your thing then fine, eat mushrooms and wallow in doom and death and rebirth all you want. I’ve been there, and I find it borderline creepy and sadistic that people recommend digging through repressed guilt, shame, and anxiety as a kind of psychedelic therapy. You can dig through the slime of your existential mess forever, but why? So you can have a clearer picture of how hopelessly wretched and messed-up we all are? Human beings are not meant to be saints and we are not meant to be clean and perfect; we are messy and impulsive and do selfish things and hurt other people and make mistakes. It is a common denominator. You can avoid the guilt and shame of being stuck in an imperfect human body by learning to fight your demons with the all-negating power of the Cosmic Joke; realizing that self-importance is an illusion, and everything we do is just noise in the grand universal decay. Getting wrapped up in repressed personal and global anxiety is a huge blind alley in my book; an existential trap and a bummer. Not that those things aren't important, we need to listen to the message of compassionate awareness and take care of the earth, but tripping on everything that's wrong with the world seems like the masochistic yoke already hung on us by organized religion and the shouting on the evening news. I say if you're going to drop mushrooms and trip out for a few hours, don't get hung up everything that's wrong, celebrate your vehicle and have a good time exploring your local galaxy. That's the best social control-interrupt I can recommend 100% of the time for everybody.
Are the neoshamanic technologies available today such as audiovisual synthesizers and neurofeedback devices up to the task of being the resonant drivers that lead us to transcendent states? Imagine putting on a pair of glasses with pulsing LED strobes and headphones driving the brainwaves with isochronic tones and binaural beats, sounding like an alien spacecraft is landing. One will quickly start hallucinating spiral patterns and geometric shapes. So far this is a crude virtual reality, a place where the imagination of the mind manifests form and space, and perhaps loses a sense of time, but if you add to this the feedback amplification of a psychedelic, as Zoe7 did in his book "Into the Void," it seems you have at least the keys to a transdimensional, nonlocal, and atemporal vehicle for actualizing the possibilities you speak of for the "delta 8" state in our "distant future." You write, "Though it is impossible to imagine what a delta 8 information space might be like, subjective control over the very fabric of space and time may become possible, allowing something like personal access to space travel, time travel, alternate time streams, and/or an infinite number of parallel universes." It seems that if one has the determination, training, and appropriate technology, the gates to these imaginal realms and possibilities are flung wide open, as many travelers of hyperspace can attest. Will refinements in technology allow more repeatable access to such states, by more and more people? What kinds of changes would we see if millions or even billions of people started training their minds with neurofeedback, and consistently accessing states that were traditionally only glimpsed after 30 years of meditation for example?
If the question is weather or not our current technology is up to the task of delivering mystical states without much personal discipline or effort, I would have to answer with a cautious “yes”. Humans have been mapping expanded states of consciousness for thousands of years, and the technologies for finding these states are becoming more refined and formalized. I never like to say there is nothing left to explore, but with psychedelics and meditation and brain training and mind machines, I think we are reaching the functional limit of what can be achieved with our current biological consciousness. There is only so much information the human brain can handle at any one time, and pushing these limits is the definition of exploring expanded consciousness. Psychedelic Information Theory is my first pass at defining the limits of expanded human consciousness in terms of nonlinear systems. Using resonant or self-reinforcing feedback to drive exponentially complex chaotic output is the definition of a nonlinear system. So, according to PIT, any technology that amplifies signal in sensory or memory feedback loops will necessarily drive expanded states of consciousness, which in turn will necessarily promote long-term synaptic changes via stress-based neuroplasticity. Many different technologies exist for facilitating these states, but the best known technologies, psychedelic drugs, are still illegal.
As for whether or not these technologies will drive the transition into a new information domain, I think to some extent that is already happening, and it is the ongoing story of human civilization. More people are experimenting with multiple types of technologies for exploring new states of consciousness. Look at the modern popularization of yoga and meditation as an example. A hundred years ago these practices were considered esoteric and the realm of monks and orientalists, but now they are commonplace fitness routines for suburban housewives. I would wager that fringe practices of psychedelic drug use and neurofeedback stimulators will be as commonplace a hundred years from now as yoga and meditation are today. Whether or not these practices will directly drive a dramatic shift into what I call a post-technological or delta 8 information state is unknowable. The so-called “singularity” could take thousands of years to shape up, from Newton's mechanics to whatever fully fabricated reality awaits us in the future. I would think robotics and space travel would be the next logical level of expansion, creating intelligent machines and organisms capable of functioning in a vacuum. For instance, if humans could build a wormhole or an infinite energy device, we would not want to build it in a bunker in Nevada, we would want robots to build it in space where it wouldn't accidentally consume the entire earth and kill everyone. The limits of human consciousness pale in comparison to the kinds of technology I'm describing in the delta 8 state, which would be either self-aware machine intelligence or something like the ability to fold spacetime. Human brains are played out in that scenario; delta 8 represents a whole new order of energy complexity and computational organization.
There is the idea floating around of the metaverse - the convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality, and physically persistent virtual space. Technologies like augmented reality applications for the iPhone, for example, are starting to blur the lines between the real and the virtual, the physical and the imaginal. Are we ultimately moving towards a world without boundaries between thought and form? It seems that whether you smoke DMT and see your thoughts blazing across the sky, or strap on the latest neural headset, you're seeing the contents of the mind manifest and come alive. My question is this: will these virtual reality technologies simply prepare us and pave the way for the realization that we already live in a creation of mind? Perhaps such technology will be the training wheels that teach us to realize the transdimensional vehicles and latent psychic powers already within us?
The strange truth about reality is that it is both objective and subjective. In one sense we are totally at the mercy of the forces of reality, and in another sense we create our own image of reality and impose our own will on reality. One paradox revealed by psychedelics is that reality creates the mind which creates the illusion of reality so that reality can organize, observe, and modify itself from a variety of novel subjective perspectives. I think that psychedelic paradigms of god, unity, latent psychic powers, and cosmic consciousness are all attempts to grapple with the cosmic scope of this mind-bending paradox where object and subject dissolve into the same thing looking back at itself across the expanding sea of infinity. Human brains are not meant to cope with this inverted universal perspective of reality; we have no good words for encompassing the experience; the common name we use is God.
While I think it is rational to want to reproduce that nondualistic enlightened state for everyone all the time, upon closer examination I'm not convinced it is an outcome that is likely to last or be sustained for any period of time. I think maybe certain individuals get to glimpse that unified state temporarily, but then they must quickly return to their bodies and subjective egos so they can tend to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. What you are talking about with the metaverse is something like the Matrix, or Gibson's cyberspace, where we all become avatars in the same shared dream. I agree that this vision is enticing, but I also agree that objective reality is already like a shared dream space. The only benefit I see to VR is that we can easily change our physical identity and act out without doing any real-world damage. You are right that virtual space seems like a testing ground for mastering better control over real space, but the metaverse can also be a trap that keeps us from exploring real space.
As a roundabout aside to this question, there is this weird convergence I call "distributed stacking," where in high-density situations people are literally stacked into small living quarters. Expensive New York studio apartments are just the beginning. On navel ships and in military quarters the crews are stacked close in bunks with one locker each. In Tokyo they have locker motels where people sleep in coffin-like drawers. Each night humans are stacked in their arrays and they plug into their grids, networks, TVs, computers, cell phones, social networks, and the neural networks of their dreams. But while they are stacked the humans are not interacting with the other humans stacked right next to them. Instead they are all fully engaged in the virtual distributed network where they are easily distracted by flashing lights and can't do any physical harm. What the hell is going on here? The more the modern world moves towards people crammed together in dense living arrays, the more the scenario starts to look like the Matrix. In the distant future there are two distinct scenarios; overpopulation and interplanetary offloading. Both of these situations require stacking in close quarters, and cell technology is becoming so cheap everyone will have wireless access to the cloud. I think some kind of distributed metaverse that people jack into is an unavoidable solution to keeping humans docile while they are stacked. Welcome to dystopia, where they charge you for the luxury of being stacked and jacked into a shiny facsimile of reality.
Whether it's through VR technology, psychedelics, mind machines, or holotropic breathing, many people are experiencing the dissolution of the boundaries between self and other, inside and outside, mind and matter, real and virtual. Stan Grof puts this revelation of nonduality and the experience of its archetypal pattern into context: "[The archetype of the Apocalypse] emerges into the consciousness of the seeker at a time when he or she recognizes the illusory nature of the material world. As the universe reveals its true essence as virtual reality, as a cosmic play of consciousness, the world of matter is destroyed in the psyche of the individual... An individual who experiences death and rebirth – usually in the context of reliving and integrating the trauma of biological birth – discovers his or her own divinity, sacredness of all creation and oneness with other people, nature, and the cosmos. Deeper exploration of the transpersonal realms and particularly the experience of the archetype of the Apocalypse then radically changes the perception of the world we live in. We begin to understand that what we experience as material reality might be what the Hindu teachings refer to as lila – divine play created by cosmic consciousness." Our world today seems rather chaotic and apocalyptic, yet also has many novel breakthroughs occurring across broad disciplines in art, science, and philosophy. What kinds of radical new developments do you see happening as a result of more and more people experiencing the dissolution of linear boundaries?
The Hindu concept of lila is at least a few thousand years old, and concepts of special relativity are almost a hundred years old, and both of these are descriptions of an interconnected cosmic dance within the fabric of reality. The difference is that concept of lila can be interpreted in many ways and does not herald an apocalypse, but special relativity has only one interpretation and it paved the way for the atomic age. When I think of the archetype of apocalypse I do not think of enlightened nondualism destroying the subjective illusion of self, I think of a blast of energy destroying actual cities. The use of atom bombs was a radical new development made possible by a single person thinking about mass-energy and cosmic unity in a nondualistic way, but it was not the kind of radical new development you are talking about, like a global enlightenment. I don’t think humans have learned anything from the apocalyptic terror of the atomic age, other than how to kill and scare people into submission with greater efficiency. Few people take the effort to fully understand special relativity, but everyone is scared of atom bombs. Fear will always trump mind expansion because everyone feels fear by design, but only a few make the effort to seek true mind-expansion. I don’t think this basic fear dynamic will change drastically anytime in the near future.
Keep in mind that any powerful transition in science and technology can be weaponized, and if it can be used as a weapon people will want to use it as a weapon. Until that essential truth is changed for all people for all time, any kind of radical new technology or evolution in culture is potentially dangerous. The linear boundaries that are dissolved may be the walls of your home in a blast of fire, or the tables in your bank’s database as hackers drain your account. No matter how much you embrace archetypes of death, birth trauma, or the apocalypse, being on the receiving end of crisis and apocalypse is not cool, nor does it guarantee any kind of transcendent rebirth. Some people wish for an apocalypse so the remnants of the human race can come together for a do-over at attaining utopia or the Garden of Eden. That is insane. The world doesn’t need or want apocalypse or utopia or a singularity or radical new developments, it just wants to get through the day without messing things up too badly. And, every once in a while, on nice days, we like to kick back and have a good time. Humans want simple things. It’s easy to forget enlightenment or the apocalypse when the sun is shining and we’re in good company. Leave the doom and gloom and radical futures to the talking heads trying to exert ideological control over your mind. Have a good laugh, rattle your bones, enjoy the ride.
"The road to nowhere" by Michael Wassmer on Flickr courtesy of Creative Commons Licensing.Tweet