Hacking the Tripping Mind Part 1

Pay attention. What if you could focus and control your consciousness when under the influence of psychedelics? Cognitive roller-coasters may be upon us.

Almost fifty years ago, ex-Harvard professor Timothy Leary and his colleagues penned an essay titled “On Programming Psychedelic Experiences.”

Essentially, the article served as a field manual for navigating awareness during altered states of consciousness, a kind of map to help orient and manage subjectivity, a voyage chart to focus the attention of a tripping mind.

Set & Setting:

The basic premise was that if you could carefully curate the environment, and then pattern, sequence, and control the set of stimuli that individuals would be exposed to while under the influence of a mind-altering chemical or plant, you could orient awareness towards useful spaces of mind. You could, for example, willingly induce positive and cathartic, transformational experiences. Psychedelic plants have been ingested in all kinds of sacred rituals, by all kinds of cultures, for millennia, and yet remain largely misunderstood by the mainstream today.

While their effects can vary, there seems to be consensus that these substances evoke a period of increased reactivity or sensitivity to the flood of sense impressions coming in. Darwin’s Pharmacy author, Professor Richard Doyle, following psychologist Stanislav Grof, calls psychedelics non-specific amplifiers of consciousness whose effects are “extraordinarily sensitive to the initial rhetorical conditions” in which we take them.

What this means, as Leary explains, is that the subjective effects of psychedelics and marijuana are “user-constructed,” in that the initial conditions of the experience, both environmental and psychological, feedback into the subjective experience of the trip itself. Leary condensed this feedback effect in the notion of “set and setting,” which has remained a widely accepted heuristic by psychedelic explorers for fifty years.

“There is no drug effect by itself,” says Techgnosis author, media theorist and psychonaut Erik Davis—psychedelics “simply reflect and amplify beliefs and patterns of meaning already woven into the user’s intentional ‘set’ and environmental ‘setting’…endlessly reverberating feedback loops of mind, cultural context, and compound.”

Psychedelic researcher and professor Richard Doyle expands on this idea: “It gets curiouser and curiouser… for it is also the case that the language we use to describe an experience becomes part of the experience. So our description feeds back onto the experience itself.” In other words, even the words we use to map and make sense of our experience, actually change our experience, in an infinite recursive feedback loop.

Attention:

Doyle calls psychedelics “information technologies” that work through the capture and management of attention. By managing attention, you manage the overall field of awareness, and thus you can influence your perception of reality.

Erik Davis also says that drugs are like media technologies. Just as different media provide different ratios of sensation that can be designed to create different experiences, so can the internal mediation provided by these psychedelic “tools” be “programmed.”

He writes: “In order to successfully boot up these new semiotic universes within a users’ consciousness, the media technology must directly engage the machinery of human perception…It is a matter of directly engaging…the underlying technical ‘material’ of subjectivity itself.”

Again. When we speak about subjectivity we speak about attention. Attention is the hinge between conscious control and the patterns of reactivity that have already been set up by the psychological system or the environment (the now ubiquitous set and setting).

Attention is at the center of consciousness.

Author and psychedelic explorer Diana Slattery has written that the capture and control of attention is “a necessary condition for any interpersonal persuasion, education, or entertainment to occur.”

“Attention,” wrote Darwin, “if sudden and close, graduates into surprise; and this into astonishment; and this into stupefied amazement.”

Control attention, control consciousness.

Again, the way that these psychedelic substances mediate awareness and attention means that the environment and context end up informing the nature of the experience: The increased suggestibility of the user makes the set and setting crucial and delicate— and thus should be choreographed beforehand and planned accordingly.

This focus is crucial not just to altered states of consciousness but also to ordinary consciousness, and by working on attention through techniques such as mindfulness and self-inquiry, we can alter not only psychedelic experience, but experience itself!

We can untangle ourselves from our maps, we can decouple our minds from reflexive patterns, and create new patterns.

Feedback Loops, Design and the Cybernetic Mind:

So here’s what we have so far:

A) Psychedelic experiences are extremely sensitive to the context (ie: set and setting) in which we experience them.

B) We can program these experiences by intentionally curating the “set” and “setting” in which we ingest them.

C) Appreciating just how profoundly this sensitivity to set and setting can shape the texture (and “reality”) of a psychedelic experience, can give us insight into the nature of how “design” affects the mind, even in a non-psychedelic state.

We are talking about feedback loops between mind and “world.”

Anne-Marie Willis calls the pervasive, mind-sculpting nature of these loops, (and of design in general), “Ontological Design.” The concept is fairly simple but the feedback loops are all-encompassing: essentially all of the things that we design and that surround us, from our language, to our dwellings, our cities, tools, aircrafts, bedrooms, kitchens, and religions, design us back. It all feeds back.

Design is pervasive: what we design is designing us.

Author Steven Johnson echoed the same idea: “Our thoughts shape our spaces and our spaces return the favor.” What we construct, what we architect, architects us in return.

Media theorist Marshall McLuhan: We build the tools and then they build us.

Here it is again: We are being designed by that which we have designed.

As McKenna said: WE BECOME WHAT WE BEHOLD.

The question is whether we are aware that this is happening. The truth is we are likely not paying attention. What psychedelics can do, then, says Rich Doyle, is they can make us aware of these “feedback loops between our creative choices—and our consciousness.” And thus of “the tremendous freedom we have in creating our own experience.”

Leary called this “internal freedom.”

Again: Using psychedelics to aid in both perceiving and understanding the effects of language, music, architecture, and culture on our consciousness, can offer an awareness of the degree to which we have the “ability to affect our own consciousness through our linguistic and creative choices.”

We learn how our choices determine our fate.

I design therefore I become.

 

A Journey Into Deeper Understanding

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