Acclaimed Neuroscientist And Author Sam Harris Explores “Drugs And The Meaning Of Life”

by • July 6, 2011 • Books, Inspiration, Me, Neuroscience, Philosophy, Sam Harris, Science, Space, Spirituality, UnexplainedComments (0)4215

Sam Harris is the author of The New York Times bestsellers, Letter to a Christian Nation, The Moral Landscape, and The End of Faith which won the 2005 PEN Award for Nonfiction.  He and his work have been discussed in Newsweek, TIME, The New York Times, Scientific American, Nature, The Economist, The Atlantic, The Annals of Neurology, and several other publications.  Sam is also a Co-Founder and CEO of Project Reason, a nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. He received a degree in philosophy from Stanford University and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA. This morning on his blog, Sam posted this revealing essay on the power, misunderstanding, benefits, dangers, and importance of psychedelic experiences and their role in mankind’s quest for enlightenment and consciousness, and it is such a thoughtful piece of writing I recommend reading it in its entirety (there is a link to the full essay at the bottom of this post).  The following are some excerpts from his essay “Drugs And The Meaning Of Life”:

Everything we do is for the purpose of altering consciousness. We form friendships so that we can feel certain emotions, like love, and avoid others, like loneliness. We eat specific foods to enjoy their fleeting presence on our tongues. We read for the pleasure of thinking another person’s thoughts. Every waking moment—and even in our dreams—we struggle to direct the flow of sensation, emotion, and cognition toward states of consciousness that we value. Drugs are another means toward this end. Some are illegal; some are stigmatized; some are dangerous—though, perversely, these sets only partially intersect. There are drugs of extraordinary power and utility, like psilocybin (the active compound in “magic mushrooms”) and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), which pose no apparent risk of addiction and are physically well-tolerated, and yet one can still be sent to prison for their use—while drugs like tobacco and alcohol, which have ruined countless lives, are enjoyed ad libitum in almost every society on earth. There are other points on this continuum—3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA or “Ecstasy”) has remarkable therapeutic potential, but it is also susceptible to abuse, and it appears to be neurotoxic.

One of the great responsibilities we have as a society is to educate ourselves, along with the next generation, about which substances are worth ingesting, and for what purpose, and which are not. The problem, however, is that we refer to all biologically active compounds by a single term—“drugs”—and this makes it nearly impossible to have an intelligent discussion about the psychological, medical, ethical, and legal issues surrounding their use. The poverty of our language has been only slightly eased by the introduction of terms like “psychedelics” to differentiate certain visionary compounds, which can produce extraordinary states of ecstasy and insight, from “narcotics” and other classic agents of stupefaction and abuse. Drug abuse and addiction are real problems, of course—the remedy for which is education and medical treatment, not incarceration. In fact, the worst drugs of abuse in the United States now appear to be prescription painkillers, like oxycodone. Should these medicines be made illegal? Of course not. People need to be informed about them, and addicts need treatment. And all drugs—including alcohol, cigarettes, and aspirin—must be kept out of the hands of children.

… I have a daughter who will one day take drugs. Of course, I will do everything in my power to see that she chooses her drugs wisely, but a life without drugs is neither foreseeable, nor, I think, desirable. Someday, I hope she enjoys a morning cup of tea or coffee as much as I do. If my daughter drinks alcohol as an adult, as she probably will, I will encourage her to do it safely. If she chooses to smoke marijuana, I will urge moderation.[] Tobacco should be shunned, of course, and I will do everything within the bounds of decent parenting to steer her away from it. Needless to say, if I knew my daughter would eventually develop a fondness for methamphetamine or crack cocaine, I might never sleep again. But if she does not try a psychedelic like psilocybin or LSD at least once in her adult life, I will worry that she may have missed one of the most important rites of passage a human being can experience. This is not to say that everyone should take psychedelics. As I will make clear below, these drugs pose certain dangers. Undoubtedly, there are people who cannot afford to give the anchor of sanity even the slightest tug. It has been many years since I have taken psychedelics, in fact, and my abstinence is borne of a healthy respect for the risks involved. However, there was a period in my early 20’s when I found drugs like psilocybin and LSD to be indispensable tools of insight, and some of the most important hours of my life were spent under their influence. I think it quite possible that I might never have discovered that there was an inner landscape of mind worth exploring without having first pressed this pharmacological advantage.

… The mere existence of psychedelics would seem to establish the material basis of mental and spiritual life beyond any doubt—for the introduction of these substances into the brain is the obvious cause of any numinous apocalypse that follows. It is possible, however, if not actually plausible, to seize this datum from the other end and argue, and Aldous Huxley did in his classic essay, The Doors of Perception, that the primary function of the brain could beeliminative: its purpose could be to prevent some vast, transpersonal dimension of mind from flooding consciousness, thereby allowing apes like ourselves to make their way in the world without being dazzled at every step by visionary phenomena irrelevant to their survival. Huxley thought that if the brain were a kind of “reducing valve” for “Mind at Large,” this would explain the efficacy of psychedelics: They could simply be a material means of opening the tap. Unfortunately, Huxley was operating under the erroneous assumption that psychedelics decrease brain activity. However, modern techniques of neuroimaging have shown that these drugs tend to increase activity in many regions of the cortex (and in subcortical structures as well). Still, the action of these drugs does not rule out dualism, or the existence of realms of mind beyond the brain—but then nothing does. This is one of the problems with views of this kind: They appear to be unfalsifiable.

Of course, the brain does filter an extraordinary amount of information from consciousness. And, like many who have taken these drugs, I can attest that psychedelics certainly throw open the gates. Needless to say, positing the existence of a “Mind at Large” is more tempting in some states of consciousness than in others. And the question of which view of reality we should privilege is, at times, worth considering. But these drugs can also produce mental states that are best viewed in clinical terms as forms of psychosis. As a general matter, I believe we should be very slow to make conclusions about the nature of the cosmos based upon inner experience — no matter how profound these experiences seem. However, there is no question that the mind is vaster and more fluid than our ordinary, waking consciousness suggests. Consequently, it is impossible to communicate the profundity (or seeming profundity) of psychedelic states to those who have never had such experiences themselves. It is, in fact, difficult to remind oneself of the power of these states once they have passed.

Many people wonder about the difference between meditation (and other contemplative practices) and psychedelics. Are these drugs a form of cheating, or are they the one, indispensable vehicle for authentic awakening? They are neither. Many people don’t realize that all psychoactive drugs modulate the existing neurochemistry of the brain—either by mimicking specific neurotransmitters or by causing the neurotransmitters themselves to be more active. There is nothing that one can experience on a drug that is not, at some level, an expression of the brain’s potential. Hence, whatever one has experienced after ingesting a drug like LSD is likely to have been experienced, by someone, somewhere, without it.

… Ingesting a powerful dose of a psychedelic drug is like strapping oneself to a rocket without a guidance system. One might wind up somewhere worth going—and, depending on the compound and one’s “set and setting,” certain trajectories are more likely than others. But however methodically one prepares for the voyage, one can still be hurled into states of mind so painful and confusing as to be indistinguishable from psychosis. Hence, the terms “psychotomimetic” and “psychotogenic” that are occasionally applied to these drugs. I have visited both extremes on the psychedelic continuum. The positive experiences were more sublime than I could have ever imagined or than I can now faithfully recall. These chemicals disclose layers of beauty that art is powerless to capture and for which the beauty of Nature herself is a mere simulacrum. It is one thing to be awestruck by the sight of a giant redwood and to be amazed at the details of its history and underlying biology. It is quite another to spend an apparent eternity in egoless communion with it. Positive psychedelic experiences often reveal how wondrously at ease in the universe a human being can be—and for most of us, normal waking consciousness does not offer so much as a glimmer of these deeper possibilities.

People generally come away from such experiences with a sense that our conventional states of consciousness obscure and truncate insights and emotions that are sacred. If the patriarchs and matriarchs of the world’s religions experienced such states of mind, many of their claims about the nature of reality can make subjective sense. The beautific vision does not tell you anything about the birth of the cosmos—but it does reveal how utterly transfigured a mind can be by a full collision with the present moment.

… As I will discuss in future essays, the form of transcendence that appears to link directly to ethical behavior and human well-being is the transcendence of egoity in the midst of ordinary waking consciousness. It is by ceasing to cling to the contents of consciousness—to our thoughts, moods, desires, etc.—that we make progress. Such a project does not, in principle, require that we experience more contents.[] The freedom from self that is both the goal and foundation of “spiritual” life is coincident with normal perception and cognition—though, admittedly, this can be difficult to realize. The power of psychedelics, however, is that they often reveal, in the span of a few hours, depths of awe and understanding that can otherwise elude us for a lifetime. As is often the case, William James said it about as well as words permit:

“One conclusion was forced upon my mind at that time, and my impression of its truth has ever since remained unshaken. It is that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question,—for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. Yet they may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.” (The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 388)

Sam Harris is one of the most relevant voices I have ever discovered with regards to spirituality, reason, science, and the search for moral truths outside of the world of religious dogmatism.  His writings have become a major source inspiration for me, and very few are able to match his eloquence and intellect, and I wholeheartedly recommend his writings to you.  I strongly encourage you to read not only this essay (you can read “Drugs And The Meaning Of Life” in full at SamHarris.org) but all of Sam’s work.  And if his books don’t fit into your schedule at the moment, below are two of my favorite clips of Sam at his best.

SEE ALSO: “The Financial Times” Looks At The Role Of Drugs In The History Of The Arts

Source: Sam Harris

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