“Our world, and the worlds around and within it, is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom — and is far more vibrant, far more holy, than we could ever imagine.”
By Maria Popova
“To be a good human being,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum observed, “is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control” — to have, that is, a willingness to regard with an openhearted curiosity what is other than ourselves and therefore strange, discomfiting, difficult to fathom and relate to, difficult at first to love, for we cannot love what we do not understand. Out of such regard arises the awareness at the heart of Lucille Clifton’s lovely poem “cutting greens” — a recognition of “the bond of live things everywhere,” among which we are only a small part of a vast and miraculous world, and from which we can learn a great deal about being better versions of ourselves.
That is what naturalist and author Sy Montgomery, one of the most poetic science writers of our time, explores in How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals (public library), illustrated by artist Rebecca Green — an autobiographical adventure into the wilderness of our common humanity, where the world of science and the legacy of Aesop converge into an existential expedition to uncover the elemental truth that “knowing someone who belongs to another species can enlarge your soul in surprising ways.”
Looking back on her unusual and passionate life of swimming with electric eels, digging for mistletoe seeds in emu droppings, and communing with giant octopuses, Montgomery reflects on what she learned about leadership from an emu, about ferocity and forgiveness from an ermine, about living with a sense of wholeness despite imperfection from a one-eyed dog named Thurber (after the great New Yorker cartoonist and essayist James Thurber, who was blinded in one eye by an arrow as a child), and about what it takes for the heart to be “stretched wide with awe.”
Although Montgomery’s lifelong love of animals began with her childhood Scottish terrier, Molly, it took an uncommon turn in her mid-twenties, when she quit her job and moved halfway around the world to live in a tent in the Australian Outback. There, she had her first encounter with an animal so arresting as to be almost alien:
They were emus. Nearly six feet tall, typically seventy-five pounds, these flightless birds stand beside the kangaroo on Australia’s coat of arms as a symbol of this otherworldly continent at the bottom of the globe. Emus seem part bird and part mammal, with a little dinosaur thrown in. Shaggy, twin-shafted brown feathers hang from the rounded torso like hair. A long black neck periscopes up from the body, ending in a gooselike beak. The wings are mere stumps, and stick out from the body like comical afterthoughts. But on their strong, backwards-bending legs, emus can run forty miles an hour — and sever fencing wire, or break a neck, with a single kick.
At the sight of them, a shock leapt from the top of my head down my spine. I’d never been so close to this large a wild animal before — much less while alone, on a foreign continent. I was not so much afraid as I was dazzled. I froze, caught by their grace and power and strangeness, as they lifted their long, scaly legs and folded their huge dinosaurian toes, then set them down again. Balletically dipping their necks into an S-shape as they picked at the grass, they walked past me, and then over the ridge. Finally their haystack-like bodies blended into the brown, rounded forms of the wintering bushes, and were gone.
After they left, I felt a shift in my psyche. But I had no idea that I had just caught the first glimpse of a life farther off the beaten path than I had ever imagined. I could not have known it then, but these strange giant birds would grant me the destiny Molly had inspired, and they would repay me a millionfold for my first act of true bravery: leaving all that I loved behind.
This psychic shift effected a larger, deeper kind of bravery — that of looking at another creature, almost incomprehensibly different from us, and seeing it, without fear or bias or projection, for what it is: a glory of evolution, made singular and beautiful and lovable by the selfsame forces that made us.
This generous and largehearted way of seeing would come to mark Montgomery’s life, modeling for the rest of us how to regard otherness — even the starkest kind — in a way that elevates both us and it. She writes:
Only during my lifetime had scientists begun to acknowledge that chimpanzees, humankind’s closest relatives, are conscious beings. But what about creatures so different from us that you’d have to go to outer space, or into science fiction, to find anything so alien? What might I discover about the interior lives of these animals if I were to use, as a tool of inquiry, not only my intellect, but also my heart?
It’s true that it’s easy to project one’s own feelings onto another. We do this with our fellow humans all the time… A far worse mistake than misreading an animal’s emotions is to assume the animal hasn’t any emotions at all.
Montgomery brings these questions to New England Aquarium, where she gets to know one of Earth’s most alien creatures — the subject of her exquisite book The Soul of an Octopus. She writes:
Reading an octopus’s intentions is not like reading, for instance, a dog’s. I could read [my dog] Sally’s feelings in a glance, even if the only part of her I could see was her tail, or one ear. But Sally was family, and in more than one sense. Dogs, like all placental mammals, share 90 percent of our genetic material. Dogs evolved with humans. Octavia and I were separated by half a billion years of evolution. We were as different as land from sea. Was it even possible for a human to understand the emotions of a creature as different from us as an octopus?
As Octavia slowly allows this improbable and almost miraculous cross-species creaturely connection, Montgomery reflects on the insight attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus — “The universe is alive, and has fire in it, and is full of gods.” — and writes:
Being friends with an octopus — whatever that friendship meant to her — has shown me that our world, and the worlds around and within it, is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom — and is far more vibrant, far more holy, than we could ever imagine.
Perhaps holiness is nothing other than the capacity for finding loveliness in all things — something Montgomery learns in the heart of the South American jungle, in a surprising encounter with Earth’s largest tarantula.
Weighing half a pound, with a head the size of an apricot and legs that can cover your face, this “Goliath birdeater” named Clarabelle offers an unexpected lesson in tenderness — or, rather, in the openness of heart necessary for perceiving and receiving otherness. Montgomery recounts the revelatory experience:
She extended first one black hairy leg, then another, and another after another, until she was standing on my hand. The hooked tarsi at the tips of her feet felt vaguely prickly on my skin, like those of the Japanese beetles I have enjoyed holding since I was little. She stood for a moment while I admired her. She was a jet-haired beauty who looked like she had just had a fancy pedicure, the ends of her feet tipped in a bright, girly pink. For this reason, her species is known as the pinktoe tarantula. They’re exceptionally docile and seldom bite. Even their hairs are not usually irritating.
She began to walk. Slowly at first, stepping forward with her front legs, she crossed my right palm into my waiting left, just as my first dime-store turtle, Ms. Yellow Eyes, would do when I was a child. The tarantula probably weighed about as much as my turtle had.
And then something magical happened. Holding her in my hand, I could literally feel a connection with this creature. No longer did I see her as a really big spider; now I saw her as a small animal. Of course she was both. “Animals” include not only mammals but also birds and reptiles, amphibians and insects, fish and spiders, and many more. But perhaps because the tarantula was furry, like a chipmunk, and big enough to handle, now I saw her and her spider kin in a new light. She was a unique individual, and in my hand, she was in my care. A wave of tenderness swept over me as I watched her walk, softly, slowly, and deliberately, across my skin.
The world, I realized, brimmed even fuller with life than I had suspected, rich with the souls of tiny creatures who may love their lives as much as we love ours.
“The Beyond, whatever it consists of, might not be nearly as far away or inaccessible as we think.”
By Maria Popova
“Attention is an intentional, unapologetic discriminator. It asks what is relevant right now, and gears us up to notice only that,” cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz wrote in her inquiry into how our conditioned way of looking narrows the lens of our perception. Attention, after all, is the handmaiden of consciousness, and consciousness the central fact and the central mystery of our creaturely experience. From the days of Plato’s cave to the birth of neuroscience, we have endeavored to fathom its nature. But it is a mystery that only seems to deepen with each increment of approach. “Our normal waking consciousness,” William James wrote in his landmark 1902 treatise on spirituality, “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… No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.”
Half a century after James, two new molecules punctured the filmy screen to unlatch a portal to a wholly novel universe of consciousness, shaking up our most elemental assumptions about the nature of the mind, our orientation toward mortality, and the foundations of our social, political, and cultural constructs. One of these molecules — lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD — was a triumph of twentieth-century science, somewhat accidentally synthesized by the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann in the year physicist Lise Meitner discovered nuclear fission. The other — the compound psilocin, known among the Aztecs as “flesh of the gods” — was the rediscovery of a substance produced by a humble brown mushroom, which indigenous cultures across eras and civilizations had been incorporating into their spiritual rituals since ancient times, and which the Roman Catholic Church had violently suppressed and buried during the Spanish conquest of the Americas.
Together, these two molecules commenced the psychedelic revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, frothing the stream of consciousness — a term James coined — into a turbulent existential rapids. Their proselytes included artists, scientists, political leaders, and ordinary people of all stripes. Their most ardent champions were the psychiatrists and physicians who lauded them as miracle drugs for salving psychic maladies as wide-ranging as anxiety, addiction, and clinical depression. Their cultural consequence was likened to that of the era’s other cataclysmic disruptor: the atomic bomb.
And then — much thanks to Timothy Leary’s reckless handling of his Harvard psilocybin studies that landed him in prison, where Carl Sagan sent him cosmic poetry — a landslide of moral panic and political backlash outlawed psychedelics, shut down clinical studies of their medical and psychiatric uses, and drove them into the underground. For decades, academic research into their potential for human flourishing languished and nearly perished. But a small subset of scientists, psychiatrists, and amateur explorers refused to relinquish their curiosity about that potential.
The 1990s brought a quiet groundswell of second-wave interest in psychedelics — a resurgence that culminated with a 2006 paper reporting on studies at Johns Hopkins, which had found that psilocybin had occasioned “mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and significance” for terminally ill cancer patients — experiences from which they “return with a new perspective and profound acceptance.” In other words, the humble mushroom compound had helped people face the ultimate frontier of existence — their own mortality — with unparalleled equanimity. The basis of the experience, researchers found, was a sense of the dissolution of the personal ego, followed by a sense of becoming one with the universe — a notion strikingly similar to Bertrand Russell’s insistence that a fulfilling life and a rewarding old age are a matter of “[making] your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life.”
More clinical experiments followed at UCLA, NYU, and other leading universities, demonstrating that this psilocybin-induced dissolution of the ego, extremely difficult if not impossible to achieve in our ordinary consciousness, has profound benefits in rewiring the faulty mental mechanisms responsible for disorders like alcoholism, anxiety, and depression.
One good way to understand a complex system is to disturb it and then see what happens. By smashing atoms, a particle accelerator forces them to yield their secrets. By administering psychedelics in carefully calibrated doses, neuroscientists can profoundly disturb the normal waking consciousness of volunteers, dissolving the structures of the self and occasioning what can be described as a mystical experience. While this is happening, imaging tools can observe the changes in the brain’s activity and patterns of connection. Already this work is yielding surprising insights into the “neural correlates” of the sense of self and spiritual experience.
Pollan reflects on the psilocybin studies of cancer patients, which reignited scientific interest in psychedelics, and the profound results of subsequent studies exploring the use of psychedelics in treating mental illness, including addiction, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder:
What was most remarkable about the results… is that participants ranked their psilocybin experience as one of the most meaningful in their lives, comparable “to the birth of a first child or death of a parent.” Two-thirds of the participants rated the session among the top five “most spiritually significant experiences” of their lives; one-third ranked it the most significant such experience in their lives. Fourteen months later, these ratings had slipped only slightly. The volunteers reported significant improvements in their “personal well-being, life satisfaction and positive behavior change,” changes that were confirmed by their family members and friends.
What is striking about this whole line of clinical research is the premise that it is not the pharmacological effect of the drug itself but the kind of mental experience it occasions — involving the temporary dissolution of one’s ego — that may be the key to changing one’s mind.
My default perspective is that of the philosophical materialist, who believes that matter is the fundamental substance of the world and the physical laws it obeys should be able to explain everything that happens. I start from the assumption that nature is all that there is and gravitate toward scientific explanations of phenomena. That said, I’m also sensitive to the limitations of the scientific-materialist perspective and believe that nature (including the human mind) still holds deep mysteries toward which science can sometimes seem arrogant and unjustifiably dismissive.
Was it possible that a single psychedelic experience — something that turned on nothing more than the ingestion of a pill or square of blotter paper — could put a big dent in such a worldview? Shift how one thought about mortality? Actually change one’s mind in enduring ways?
The idea took hold of me. It was a little like being shown a door in a familiar room — the room of your own mind — that you had somehow never noticed before and being told by people you trusted (scientists!) that a whole other way of thinking — of being! — lay waiting on the other side. All you had to do was turn the knob and enter. Who wouldn’t be curious? I might not have been looking to change my life, but the idea of learning something new about it, and of shining a fresh light on this old world, began to occupy my thoughts. Maybe there was something missing from my life, something I just hadn’t named.
The root of this unnamed dimension of existence, Pollan suggests, is the inevitable narrowing of perspective that takes place as we grow up and learn to navigate the world by cataloguing its elements into mental categories that often fail to hold the complexity and richness of the experiences they name — an impulse born out of our longing for absolutes in a relative world. Psychedelics break down these artificial categories and swing open the doors of perception — to borrow William Blake’s famous phrase later famously appropriated by Aldous Huxley as the slogan of the first-wave psychedelic revolution — so that life can enter our consciousness in its unfiltered, unfragmented completeness. In consequence, we view the world — the inner world and the outer world — with a child’s eyes.
Over time, we tend to optimize and conventionalize our responses to whatever life brings. Each of us develops our shorthand ways of slotting and processing everyday experiences and solving problems, and while this is no doubt adaptive — it helps us get the job done with a minimum of fuss — eventually it becomes rote. It dulls us. The muscles of attention atrophy.
Habits are undeniably useful tools, relieving us of the need to run a complex mental operation every time we’re confronted with a new task or situation. Yet they also relieve us of the need to stay awake to the world: to attend, feel, think, and then act in a deliberate manner. (That is, from freedom rather than compulsion.)
The efficiencies of the adult mind, useful as they are, blind us to the present moment. We’re constantly jumping ahead to the next thing. We approach experience much as an artificial intelligence (AI) program does, with our brains continually translating the data of the present into the terms of the past, reaching back in time for the relevant experience, and then using that to make its best guess as to how to predict and navigate the future.
One of the things that commends travel, art, nature, work, and certain drugs to us is the way these experiences, at their best, block every mental path forward and back, immersing us in the flow of a present that is literally wonderful — wonder being the by-product of precisely the kind of unencumbered first sight, or virginal noticing, to which the adult brain has closed itself. (It’s so inefficient!) Alas, most of the time I inhabit a near-future tense, my psychic thermostat set to a low simmer of anticipation and, too often, worry. The good thing is I’m seldom surprised. The bad thing is I’m seldom surprised.
Together with his wife, Judith, he ingests a psilocybin mushroom he himself has picked from the woods of the Pacific Northwest with the mycologist Paul Stamets, author of the foundational guide to psilocybin mushrooms. Pollan reflects on the perplexity of the experience:
In a certain light at certain moments, I feel as though I had had some kind of spiritual experience. I had felt the personhood of other beings in a way I hadn’t before; whatever it is that keeps us from feeling our full implication in nature had been temporarily in abeyance. There had also been, I felt, an opening of the heart, toward my parents, yes, and toward Judith, but also, weirdly, toward some of the plants and trees and birds and even the damn bugs on our property. Some of this openness has persisted. I think back on it now as an experience of wonder and immanence.
The fact that this transformation of my familiar world into something I can only describe as numinous was occasioned by the eating of a little brown mushroom that Stamets and I had found growing on the edge of a parking lot in a state park on the Pacific coast — well, that fact can be viewed in one of two ways: either as an additional wonder or as support for a more prosaic and materialist interpretation of what happened to me that August afternoon. According to one interpretation, I had had “a drug experience,” plain and simple. It was a kind of waking dream, interesting and pleasurable but signifying nothing. The psilocin in that mushroom unlocked the 5-hydroxytryptamine 2-A receptors in my brain, causing them to fire wildly and set off a cascade of disordered mental events that, among other things, permitted some thoughts and feelings, presumably from my subconscious (and, perhaps, my reading too), to get cross-wired with my visual cortex as it was processing images of the trees and plants and insects in my field of vision.
Not quite a hallucination, “projection” is probably the psychological term for this phenomenon: when we mix our emotions with certain objects that then reflect those feelings back to us so that they appear to glisten with meaning. T. S. Eliot called these things and situations the “objective correlatives” of human emotion.
Pollan finds in the experience an affirmation of James’s notion that we possess different modes of consciousness separated from our standard waking consciousness by a thin and permeable membrane. The psychedelic puncturing of that membrane, he suggests, is what people across the ages have considered “mystical experiences.” But they are purely biochemical, devoid of the divine visitations ascribed to them:
I’m struck by the fact there was nothing supernatural about my heightened perceptions that afternoon, nothing that I needed an idea of magic or a divinity to explain. No, all it took was another perceptual slant on the same old reality, a lens or mode of consciousness that invented nothing but merely (merely!) italicized the prose of ordinary experience, disclosing the wonder that is always there in a garden or wood, hidden in plain sight… Nature does in fact teem with subjectivities — call them spirits if you like — other than our own; it is only the human ego, with its imagined monopoly on subjectivity, that keeps us from recognizing them all, our kith and kin.
Before this afternoon, I had always assumed access to a spiritual dimension hinged on one’s acceptance of the supernatural — of God, of a Beyond — but now I’m not so sure. The Beyond, whatever it consists of, might not be nearly as far away or inaccessible as we think.
After another psychedelic journey on the drug LSD, which left him with “a cascading dam break of love” for everyone from his wife to his grandmother to his awkward childhood music teacher, Pollan reflects on some of the things he had said during the experience, recorded by his guide, and the limitations of language in conveying the depth and dimension of the feelings stirred in him. A century after William James listed ineffability as the first of the four features of transcendent experiences, Pollan writes:
It embarrasses me to write these words; they sound so thin, so banal. This is a failure of my language, no doubt, but perhaps it is not only that. Psychedelic experiences are notoriously hard to render in words; to try is necessarily to do violence to what has been seen and felt, which is in some fundamental way pre- or post-linguistic or, as students of mysticism say, ineffable. Emotions arrive in all their newborn nakedness, unprotected from the harsh light of scrutiny and, especially, the pitiless glare of irony. Platitudes that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Hallmark card glow with the force of revealed truth.
Psychedelics can make even the most cynical of us into fervent evangelists of the obvious… For what after all is the sense of banality, or the ironic perspective, if not two of the sturdier defenses the adult ego deploys to keep from being overwhelmed — by our emotions, certainly, but perhaps also by our senses, which are liable at any time to astonish us with news of the sheer wonder of the world. If we are ever to get through the day, we need to put most of what we perceive into boxes neatly labeled “Known,” to be quickly shelved with little thought to the marvels therein, and “Novel,” to which, understandably, we pay more attention, at least until it isn’t that anymore. A psychedelic is liable to take all the boxes off the shelf, open and remove even the most familiar items, turning them over and imaginatively scrubbing them until they shine once again with the light of first sight. Is this reclassification of the familiar a waste of time? If it is, then so is a lot of art. It seems to me there is great value in such renovation, the more so as we grow older and come to think we’ve seen and felt it all before.
In a passage that calls to mind Nathaniel Hawthorne’s stunning description of the transcendent state between wakefulness and sleep, Pollan writes:
Because the acid had not completely dissolved my ego, I never completely lost the ability to redirect the stream of my consciousness or the awareness it was in fact mine. But the stream itself felt distinctly different, less subject to will or outside interference. It reminded me of the pleasantly bizarre mental space that sometimes opens up at night in bed when we’re poised between the states of being awake and falling asleep—so-called hypnagogic consciousness. The ego seems to sign off a few moments before the rest of the mind does, leaving the field of consciousness unsupervised and vulnerable to gentle eruptions of imagery and hallucinatory snatches of narrative. Imagine that state extended indefinitely, yet with some ability to direct your attention to this or that, as if in an especially vivid and absorbing daydream. Unlike a daydream, however, you are fully present to the contents of whatever narrative is unfolding, completely inside it and beyond the reach of distraction. I had little choice but to obey the daydream’s logic, its ontological and epistemological rules, until, either by force of will or by the fresh notes of a new song, the mental channel would change and I would find myself somewhere else entirely.
For me it felt less like a drug experience… than a novel mode of cognition, falling somewhere between intellection and feeling.
Temporarily freed from the tyranny of the ego, with its maddeningly reflexive reactions and its pinched conception of one’s self-interest, we get to experience an extreme version of Keats’s “negative capability” — the ability to exist amid doubts and mysteries without reflexively reaching for certainty. To cultivate this mode of consciousness, with its exceptional degree of selflessness (literally!), requires us to transcend our subjectivity or — it comes to the same thing — widen its circle so far that it takes in, besides ourselves, other people and, beyond that, all of nature. Now I understood how a psychedelic could help us to make precisely that move, from the first-person singular to the plural and beyond. Under its influence, a sense of our interconnectedness — that platitude — is felt, becomes flesh. Though this perspective is not something a chemical can sustain for more than a few hours, those hours can give us an opportunity to see how it might go. And perhaps to practice being there.
Looking back on his theoretical and empirical investigation — his research on the ancient history and modern science of psychedelics; his interviews with neuroscientists, psychologists, mycologists, hospice patients, and ordinary psychonauts; his own experience with a variety of these substances and his sometimes meticulous, sometimes messy field notes on the interiority of his mind under their influence — Pollan writes:
The journeys have shown me what the Buddhists try to tell us but I have never really understood: that there is much more to consciousness than the ego, as we would see if it would just shut up. And that its dissolution (or transcendence) is nothing to fear; in fact, it is a prerequisite for making any spiritual progress. But the ego, that inner neurotic who insists on running the mental show, is wily and doesn’t relinquish its power without a struggle. Deeming itself indispensable, it will battle against its diminishment, whether in advance or in the middle of the journey. I suspect that’s exactly what mine was up to all through the sleepless nights that preceded each of my trips, striving to convince me that I was risking everything, when really all I was putting at risk was its sovereignty… That stingy, vigilant security guard admits only the narrowest bandwidth of reality… It’s really good at performing all those activities that natural selection values: getting ahead, getting liked and loved, getting fed, getting laid. Keeping us on task, it is a ferocious editor of anything that might distract us from the work at hand, whether that means regulating our access to memories and strong emotions from within or news of the world without.
What of the world it does admit it tends to objectify, for the ego wants to reserve the gifts of subjectivity to itself. That’s why it fails to see that there is a whole world of souls and spirits out there, by which I simply mean subjectivities other than our own. It was only when the voice of my ego was quieted by psilocybin that I was able to sense that the plants in my garden had a spirit too.
It is a notion evocative of Ursula K. Le Guin’s conception of poetry as a means to “subjectifying the universe” — a counterpoint to the way science objectifies it. “Science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside. Science explicates, poetry implicates,” Le Guin wrote. Perhaps psychedelics, then, are a portal to the poetic truth that resides beyond scientific fact — the kind of transcendence Rachel Carson found in beholding the marvels of bioluminescence, “one of those experiences that gives an odd and hard-to-describe feeling, with so many overtones beyond the facts themselves.” Such a feeling radiates beyond the walls of the ego-bound self and into a deep sense of belonging to the whole of nature, part and particle of the universe.
The usual antonym for the word “spiritual” is “material.” That at least is what I believed when I began this inquiry — that the whole issue with spirituality turned on a question of metaphysics. Now I’m inclined to think a much better and certainly more useful antonym for “spiritual” might be “egotistical.” Self and Spirit define the opposite ends of a spectrum, but that spectrum needn’t reach clear to the heavens to have meaning for us. It can stay right here on earth. When the ego dissolves, so does a bounded conception not only of our self but of our self-interest. What emerges in its place is invariably a broader, more openhearted and altruistic — that is, more spiritual — idea of what matters in life. One in which a new sense of connection, or love, however defined, seems to figure prominently.
One of the gifts of psychedelics is the way they reanimate the world, as if they were distributing the blessings of consciousness more widely and evenly over the landscape, in the process breaking the human monopoly on subjectivity that we moderns take as a given. To us, we are the world’s only conscious subjects, with the rest of creation made up of objects; to the more egotistical among us, even other people count as objects. Psychedelic consciousness overturns that view, by granting us a wider, more generous lens through which we can glimpse the subject-hood — the spirit! — of everything, animal, vegetable, even mineral, all of it now somehow returning our gaze. Spirits, it seems, are everywhere. New rays of relation appear between us and all the world’s Others.
In the remainder of the immensely fascinating How to Change Your Mind, Pollan goes on to explore the neuroscience of what actually happens in the brain during a psychedelic experience, how such a temporary rewiring of the cognitive apparatus can translate into enduring psychological change and precipitate profound personal growth, and why this breaking down of “the usually firm handshake between brain and world” may be particularly palliative to those perched on the precipice of mortality. Complement it with Albert Camus on consciousness and the lacuna between truth and meaning, then revisit William James’s trailblazing treatise on the limits of materialism.
“Without consciousness there is nothing… Consciousness is the central fact of your life.”
By Maria Popova
“I wish you could know what it means to be me,” Nina Simone sang in her 1967 civil rights anthem “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” — an invitation to empathy at the heart of which is the animating question of consciousness: What does the experience of being feel like from the inside and can that subjective experience ever be fully understood from the outside?
“Everything begins with consciousness and nothing is worth anything except through it,” 28-year-old Albert Camus proclaimed in his meditation on the nature of consciousness just as modern science was beginning to wrest the question from the reposable thumbs of philosophers. Well before Santiago Ramón y Cajal fathered modern neuroscience and set it loose on addressing these questions over the course of the following century, the poet Emily Dickinson captured this elemental paradox of existence in a verse that remains the ultimate ode to — or is it a lamentation of? — consciousness:
How have I peace
Except by subjugating
And since We’re mutual Monarch
How this be
Except by Abdication —
Me — of Me?
Koch describes himself as a “romantic reductionist” — a reductionist because he seeks “quantitative explanations for consciousness in the ceaseless and ever-varied activity of billions of tiny nerve cells, each with their tens of thousands of synapses,” and romantic on account of his conviction that “the universe has contrails of meaning that can be deciphered in the sky above us and deep within us” — meaning illuminated not within the blink of an individual existence but across the vast cosmic scales of space and time. (Physicist Sean Carroll would later call such an orientation to the quest for meaning “poetic naturalism.”)
Two millennia after Plato’s famous allegory of the cave, Koch writes with an eye to the central inquiry of his life’s work:
Without consciousness there is nothing. The only way you experience your body and the world of mountains and people, trees and dogs, stars and music is through your subjective experiences, thoughts, and memories. You act and move, see and hear, love and hate, remember the past and imagine the future. But ultimately, you only encounter the world in all of its manifestations via consciousness. And when consciousness ceases, this world ceases as well.
Consciousness is the central fact of your life.
In addition to the paradox consciousness presents to the experiencing self, Koch points out that it presents a second paradox to science — on the one hand, it challenges the scientific model of the world by raising the same questions that mystics have been asking for millennia; on the other, it lends itself to being investigated empirically with the very tools of the scientific method and, as Koch puts it, “with both feet firmly planted on the ground.”
Having devoted much of his life to uncovering “how a highly organized piece of matter can possess an interior perspective,” Koch considers one of the most interesting questions of consciousness — that of qualia, the subjective interiority of experiences. (Nina Simone’s moving lyric line brings into sharp relief the grandest quale of all — that of selfhood.) Koch writes:
What it feels like to have a particular experience is the quale of that experience: The quale of the color red is what is common to such disparate percepts as seeing a red sunset, the red flag of China, arterial blood, a ruby gemstone, and Homer’s wine-dark sea. The common denominator of all these subjective states is “redness.” Qualia are the raw feelings, the elements that make up any one conscious experience.
Some qualia are elemental — the color yellow, the abrupt and overpowering pain of a muscle spam in the lower back, or the feeling of familiarity in déjà vu. Others are composites — the smell and feel of my dogs snuggling up against me, the “Aha!” of sudden understanding, or the distinct memory of being utterly transfixed when I first heard the immortal lines: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.” To have an experience means to have qualia, and the qualia of an experience are what specifies that experience and makes it different from other experiences.
Qualia, this romantic reductionist asserts, are inherent properties of the natural world rather than manifestations of divinity or the supernatural — they arise from laws yet to be discovered, but decidedly discoverable, belonging to the ultimate frontiers of science which mathematician Marcus du Sautoy has termed “the great unknown.” But they also raise enormous attendant questions about whether elementary particles have qualia or qualia exist only in complex systems like brains, that is, whether consciousness is a binary faculty or it exists on a continuum; questions that echo Alan Turing’s famous puzzlement about whether a computer could ever enjoy strawberries and cream and even Goethe’s attempt to decipher the psychology of color perception and emotion.
Koch follows this train of inquiry further:
Understanding how qualia come about is just the first step toward eliminating the “problem” from the mind-body problem. Next in line is comprehending the particular way that a specific quale feels. Why does red feel the way it does, which is very different from blue? Colors are not abstract, arbitrary symbols: they represent something meaningful. If you ask people whether the color orange is situated between red and yellow or between blue and purple, those with normal eyesight will chose the former. There is an inborn organization to color qualia. Indeed, colors can be arranged in a circle, the color wheel. This arrangement is different from that of other sensations, such as the sense of depth or of pitch, which are arranged in a linear sequence. Why? As a group, color percepts share certain commonalities that make them different from other percepts, such as seeing motion or smelling a rose. Why?
This lovely short film for Janna Levin’s Scientific Controversies salon with Koch and philosopher David Chalmers — whose ideas Koch challenges throughout the book — captures these most fundamental unanswered questions of consciousness, the limitations of our present modes of asking them, and the most fertile frontiers of promise in answering them:
Koch offers four definitions of consciousness — a commonsense one, which equates consciousness with our interior mental life and renders it our constant companion from the moment we wake to the moment we sink into dreamless sleep; a behavioral one, comprising a checklist of actions and reactions that attest an organism is conscious; a neuronal one, identifying the minimum physiological mechanisms necessary for experiencing a conscious sensation; and, finally, a philosophical one, under which “consciousness is what it is like to feel something.”
And yet despite the effort to define what consciousness is, a larger underpinning perplexity is the question of why it must exist at all — after all, Koch points out, there is nothing about the absence of consciousness that would violate the known laws of physics, which means that the laws of physics alone aren’t enough to provide a complete explanation of what consciousness is. A parallel puzzlement is that of locating consciousness, which Koch captures succinctly:
Consciousness does not arise from regions but from highly networked neurons within and across regions.
This interconnectedness, he points out, is embedded in the very nature of qualia:
Informationally speaking, the experience of being sad is a crystal, a fantastically complex shape in a space of a trillion dimensions that is qualitatively different from the brain state that gives rise to sadness. The conscious sensation arises from integrated information; the causality flows from the underlying physics of the brain, but not in any easy-to-understand manner. That is because consciousness depends on the system being more than the sum of its parts.
And yet the system itself, far from some metaphysical mechanism, is very much a physical, material entity. Koch writes:
Without some carrier, some mechanism, integrated information can’t exist. Put succinctly: no matter, never mind.
He considers what decades of studying the neural coordinates of consciousness have taught him about this mesh of interconnected complexity:
I believe that consciousness is a fundamental, an elementary, property of living matter. It can’t be derived from anything else; it is a simple substance, in Leibniz’s words.
My reasoning is analogous to the arguments made by savants studying electrical charge. Charge is not an emergent property of living things, as originally thought when electricity was discovered in the twitching muscles of frogs. There are no uncharged particles that in the aggregate produce an electrical charge. An electron has one negative charge, and a proton — a hydrogen ion — has one positive charge. The total charge associated with a molecule or ion is simply the sum of all the charges of the individual electrons and protons, no matter what their relationship to each other. As far as chemistry and biology are concerned, charge is an intrinsic property of these particles. Electrical charge does not emerge from matter.
And so it is with consciousness. Consciousness comes with organized chunks of matter. It is immanent in the organization of the system. It is a property of complex entities and cannot be further reduced to the action of more elementary properties. We’ve arrived at the ground floor of reductionism.
Ultimately, Koch counters the intellectual defeatism of the popular stance that certain elemental questions of existence — of which consciousness is a crowning curio — are bound to remain unanswerable. Despite its limitations, he reminds us, science is still our mightiest reel for lifting the curtain obscuring reality. With an eye to the founding fathers of science — for he is writing before Neil Gaiman penned his lovely ode to its founding mothers — Koch reflects:
Because science is so good at figuring out the world around us, it should also help us to explain the world within us.
Francis Bacon, together with Descartes, is the father of the scientific method. Bacon lived and died two decades before Descartes, and he was in many ways his English counterpart. Whereas Descartes is the prototype of the deductive theoretician, driven by an overarching principle to search for general laws, Bacon is the consummate empiricist, examining natural phenomena and going where the data take him in an inductive fashion. Science has done extremely well in the interplay between bottom-up Baconian and top-down Cartesian analysis. Despite the naysayers, science will ultimately understand consciousness by combining empirical and clinical studies with mathematical theories and, increasingly, the engineering of conscious artifacts.
“Against this cosmic background the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change.”
By Maria Popova
Pioneering biologist and writer Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) catalyzed the modern environmental movement with the groundbreaking publication of Silent Spring in 1962, but the spark for this slow-burning revolution was kindled a quarter century earlier, while 28-year-old Carson was working for what would later become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. When she was tasked with writing a brochure for the Fisheries Bureau, summarizing their annual research findings, Carson transmuted the science into poetry and turned in something so exquisitely lyrical that her supervisor told her they simply couldn’t publish it as their standard government report. But he encouraged her to submit it to The Atlantic Monthly as an essay. She did. It was enthusiastically accepted and published in the September 1937 issue as the trailblazing masterpiece “Undersea” under the byline R.L. Carson — a choice reflective of Carson’s era-calibrated fear that her writing wouldn’t be taken as seriously if her gender was known. Ironically, of the twenty-one contributors in that issue of the magazine, Carson’s name is the only one widely recognized today.
Creatively, “Undersea” was unlike anything ever published before — Carson brought a strong literary aesthetic to science, which over the next two decades would establish her as the most celebrated science writer of her time. Conceptually, it accomplished something even Darwin hadn’t — it invited the reader to step beyond our reflexive human hubris and empathically explore this Pale Blue Dot from the vantage point of the innumerable other creatures with which we share it. Decades before philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote his iconic essay “What Is it Like to Be a Bat?” and nearly a century before Sy Montgomery’s beautiful inquiry into the soul of an octopus, Carson considered the experience of other consciousnesses. What the nature writer Henry Beston, one of Carson’s great heroes, brought to the land, she brought first to the sea, then to all of Earth — intensely lyrical prose undergirded by a lively reverence for nature and a sympathetic curiosity about the reality of other living beings.
Long before scientists like pioneering oceanographer Sylvia “Her Deepness” Earle plunged into the depths of the ocean, Carson shepherds the human imagination to the mysterious wonderland thriving below the surface of the seas that envelop Earth:
Who has known the ocean? Neither you nor I, with our earth-bound senses, know the foam and surge of the tide that beats over the crab hiding under the seaweed of his tide-pool home; or the lilt of the long, slow swells of mid-ocean, where shoals of wandering fish prey and are preyed upon, and the dolphin breaks the waves to breathe the upper atmosphere. Nor can we know the vicissitudes of life on the ocean floor, where sunlight, filtering through a hundred feet of water, makes but a fleeting, bluish twilight, in which dwell sponge and mollusk and starfish and coral, where swarms of diminutive fish twinkle through the dusk like a silver rain of meteors, and eels lie in wait among the rocks. Even less is it given to man to descend those six incomprehensible miles into the recesses of the abyss, where reign utter silence and unvarying cold and eternal night.
To sense this world of waters known to the creatures of the sea we must shed our human perceptions of length and breadth and time and place, and enter vicariously into a universe of all-pervading water.
After a tour of some of the ocean’s most unusual and dazzling creatures, Carson considers the glorious and inevitable interconnectedness of the natural world, no different from the “inescapable network of mutuality” which Martin Luther King so passionately championed in the human world. She writes:
The ocean is a place of paradoxes. It is the home of the great white shark, two thousand pound killer of the seas. And of the hundred foot blue whale, the largest animal that ever lived. It is also the home of living things so small that your two hands may scoop up as many of them as there are stars in the Milky Way. And it is becoming of the flowering of astronomical numbers of these diminutive plants known as diatoms, that the surface waters of the ocean are in reality boundless pastures.
Every marine animal, from the smallest to the sharks and whales is ultimately dependent for its food upon these microscopic entities of the vegetable life of the ocean. Within their fragile walls, the sea performs a vital alchemy that utilizes the sterile chemical elements dissolved in the water and welds them with the torch of sunlight into the stuff of life. Only through the little-understood synthesis of proteins, fats and carbohydrates by myriad plant “producers” is the mineral wealth of the sea made available to the animal “consumers” that browse as they float with the currents. Drifting endlessly, midway between the sea of air above and the depths of the abyss below, these strange creatures and the marine inflorescence that sustains them are called “plankton” — the wanderers.
Carson continues her marine expedition farther and deeper into the ocean, to return in the final paragraphs to this central interconnectedness of life — perhaps, she poetically suggests, our only real taste of immortality:
While bottoms near the shore are covered with detritus from the land, the remains of the floating and swimming creatures of the sea prevail in the deep waters of the open ocean. Beneath the tropical seas, in depths of 1000 to 1500 fathoms, calcareous oozes cover nearly a third of the ocean floor; while the colder waters of the temperate and polar regions release to the underlying bottom the silicious remains of diatoms and Radiolaria. In the red clay that carpets the great deeps at 5000 fathoms or more, such delicate skeletons are extremely rare. Among the few organic remains not dissolved before they reach these cold and silent depths are the ear bones of whales and the teeth of sharks.
Thus we see parts of the plan fall into place: the water receiving from earth and air the simple materials, storing them up into the gathering energy of the spring wakens the sleeping plants to a burst of dynamic energy, hungry swarms of planktonic animals growing and multiplying upon the abundant plants, and themselves falling prey to the shoals of fish; all, in the end; to be redissolved into their component substances when the inexorable laws of the sea demand it. Individual elements are lost to view, only to repair again and again in different incarnations in a kind material immortality. Kindred forces to those which, in some period inconceivably remote, gave birth to that primeval bit of protoplasm tossing on the ancient seas continue their mighty and incomprehensible work. Against this cosmic background the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change.
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