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the imagination on psychedelics

What is happening when we imagine? What processes are taking place? And what, if anything, do these processes reveal about the origin of imaginal content? Could it be that when we imagine, objects that had never before existed are ‘brought into being’ by the mind, assembled from the raw materials of ordinary sense perception?

Dozens of psychedelic states of consciousness have precluded me from taking this possibility seriously. Some of the places and ideas presented under the influence of DMT, for instance, have been so extraordinarily rich and complex as to make such an account of their origin laughable. I realize that this does not constitute a refutation; one does not refute a possibility by laughing at it. But the ultimate origin of imaginal content- indeed the ultimate origin of anything- is for a priori consideration, not for empirical investigation, and as such will remain speculative. I hope that my chemically induced dissatisfaction with the above hypotheses gives me adequate license to explore a more likely story.

Here is a possibility that, as Terence Mckenna quipped, ‘is worth entertaining- not necessarily because it’s the truth, but because it is entertaining’: that of the imagination as an organ of perception. The suggestion is that the imagination is a passive faculty with unmediated access to a platonic superspace- an actual world that is fully populated with existent objects. The imagination is the capacity to “peer into” this superspace; it is thus an organ of perception. Rather than generate its content, the imagination discovers it, in the same way that our sense organs discover the phenomena described by physics.

For the loose-headed like me, this is candy. And as an added bonus, there is some fascinating evidence from fMRI studies with psilocybin that, despite the common assumption that hallucinations are produced by stimulating brain activity, the most intense subjective experiences are associated with decreased brain activity. Whatever this amounts to, these findings should be especially interesting to those who are seduced by Aldous Huxley’s metaphor for the mind as a receiver or limiter of consciousness; for a better understanding of Huxley’s hypothesis, I quote from pages 10 and 11 of his book The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell (2004 edition):

“The suggestion is that the function of the brain and nervous system and sense organs is in the main eliminative and not productive. Each person is at each moment capable of … perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe. The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed … by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful.”

The data presented in altered states of consciousness, or in any state of consciousness for that matter, cannot reveal anything definite about matters of ontology. They can, however, lend more or less plausibility to competing hypotheses. To my mind, the ‘imagination as organ of perception’ hypothesis is made more plausible than the ‘imagination as consciousness-generating’ hypothesis due to the overwhelmingly rich and complex nature of the data presented in the psychedelic experience. I realize that this conviction is driven by feeling rather than by logical probability, and as such is not very different in kind from religious conviction. But I suspect that at bottom, all strong convictions are this way; they originate as revelation, and are only later found to be sound or unsound in the light of empirical evidence or reasoning. When I am confronted by some of the data in the psychedelic experience, I haven’t much more to say than that if anything is real, this is it.

Our mostly unsystematic experimentation with psychedelics can give rise to unexpected and, at times, profoundly disturbing phenomena. While the extraordinary character of these phenomena itself doesn’t reveal anything novel about the ultimate nature of things, I think it ‘raises the stakes’ by adding a certain urgency to the contemplation of ancient questions.

What are your thoughts on this? Could the psychedelic experience shed any light on the origin of imaginal content?


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