Hallucinogens and the Biochemistry of Consciousness

The entire subject of chemical substances in nature and their relationship, actual or potential, to alternate* states of consciousness is vast and complex. It extends toward the origin of what Jung called "archetypes," mythmaking and common worldwide themes in oral tradition (especially the strikingly similar content the world over of funerary, heroic, and shamanistic mythology), art and iconography, traditional cultural systems of perceiving and ordering reality that differ drastically from the so-called "scientific" western model, conceptions of Otherworlds, death and afterlife, mysticism, and, indeed, what we call religion itself. And, much as we think we already know, in truth we have made barely a beginning in these cultural areas, just as we are only just coming to grips with the fact that even in our waking hours our minds are constantly flipping back and forth between discrete, or alternate (but nonetheless complementary), inward- and outward-directed states, and that this phenomenon bears directly on the use and effects of psychedelics. There are, of course, degrees of intensity in the experience of the inward-directed state of consciousness: obviously a peyote "high" is not of the same order as daydreaming, even if similar neurochemical processes are at work in the brain. If one were to reduce to its essentials the complex chemical process that occurs when an external psychoactive drug such as psilocybine reaches the brain, it would then be said that the drug, being structurally closely related to the naturally occurring indoles in the brain, appears to interact with the latter in such a way as to lock a nonordinary or inward-directed state of consciousness temporarily into place, presumably by blocking out certain areas or chemicals involved in "ordinary" modes of awareness/ In any event, whatever the biochemical processes involved—while we should beware of overestimating as of undervaluing the impact that the discovery of psychoactive plants and other life forms by early human populations may have had on the evolution of world views or ideology—there are obviously wide implications, biological-evolutionary as well as philosophical, in the discovery that precisely in the chemistry of our consciousness we are kin to the plant kingdom.

* The substitution of "alternate" for the customary "altered" was suggested by Dr. Norman Zinberg (1974) "in order," he writes, "to avoid the idea that the change alters consciousness from the way it should be." Nevertheless, most authorities on "high states" agree with C. T. Tart (1972) that these constitute "a qualitative alteration in the overall pattern of mental functioning, such that the experiencer feels his consciousness is radically different from the way it functions normally."

+ This is an area of research in which Dr. Joel Elkes, formerly Psychiatrist-in-Chief, The Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, Maryland, has done considerable pioneering work. It might be noted that even in drug "highs" of great intensity, such as with Psilocybe mushrooms or peyote, it is nevertheless sometimes possible to alternate between inward- and outward-directed states by the simple device of opening and closing one's eyes. At least I have found this to be so, and I have seen Indians make the same transitions during rituals.

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