Science Isn’t The Only Way To Understand Psychedelics
Four ways that Phenomenology offers major insight into psychedelic experiences.
Psychedelic substances have become increasingly interesting to psychologists and neuroscientists, but what is lesser known (and perhaps unsurprising) is that altered states of consciousness have been considered by philosophers for over a century.
William James first reasoned about mystical experiences with the use of nitrous oxide, claiming:
“Our normal waking consciousness is but one special type of consciousness […] parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different”.
He suggested that our everyday ‘waking perception’ is not the only way to perceive reality, and altered states of consciousness grant so many undiscovered ways of understanding the world we inhabit.
A century later, we are scratching the surface into the real benefits of psychedelics. General attitudes towards psychedelics are changing, scientific interest is peaking, and research is finally beginning to understand drugs which still capture our mystery and curiosity.
Yet whilst we are at the very beginning of our foray into comprehending the psychedelic universe, we ought to consider every possible field of inquiry which might capture its ineffable qualities.
Our current research is almost exclusively lead by science, but we risk a partial understanding of its benefits and mechanisms if we herald it as the only way to tackle the subject.
Of course — there is much to be learned from the scientific findings of Imperial College London, which suggest how our brain “cross-talks” to other regions whilst under the influence of LSD.
But a lesser-known discipline within Philosophy called ‘Phenomenology’ provides a serious framework in capturing the psychedelic experience which science may be oblivious to.
In layman’s terms, Phenomenology and Science are two sides of the same coin.
Both capture objective facts about the world around us; but where science is concerned with measurable and quantifiable facts about the world (e.g. how many miles per hour a cheetah runs, or what temperature water becomes steam when boiled), phenomenology is concerned with first-person accounts of experience in the world.
That includes placing emphasis on a subject’s emotions, impressions, and judgements, over statistics, abstractions, and neutral facts. To truly understand experience, phenomenologists often concur we cannot explain or analyse it (like science does), but only describe our experience as given.
Due to its unique approach, phenomenology can help us gain insight into facts which science can’t.
Many phenomenologists argue consciousness cannot be completely understood through science, as it disregards certain facts about experiencing consciousness which only phenomenology takes into account.
Through science, we might be able to explain the mechanism of dopamine when I eat an orange, which brings about a positive and rewarding feeling, but it will be difficult to capture the raw childhood memories which arise when tasting the sweetness of a satsuma.
Unfortunately, phenomenology is extremely esoteric and poorly understood — a fact many phenomenologists have not helped by their verbose writing. Yet despite its niche complexities, it has shown recent pragmatic potential in some key areas.
One such way is by reviewing our approach to people living with dementia; considering their dementia not so much as a reduced way of experiencing the world, but as a real, true, and authentic way of living life. By rejecting the idea that dementia patients are ill as a result of cognitive malfunction, many theorists have argued that the consciousness of people living with Alzheimer’s can be ‘awakened’ by using music, cultural artefacts, and dancing, as a great way of reminding themselves of their bodily identity.
I believe phenomenology’s strict emphasis on recounting first-person experience as is also makes it a perfect framework for understanding the psychedelic experience.
French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty in particular, set out to investigate perception using phenomenology in his seminal work Phenomenology of Perception (1945).
Many of his theories seem to demonstrate an intuitive grasp of the psychedelic experience, and capture blind spots of scientific inquiry into psychedelics.
So without further ado, here are four key ways his concepts in the Phenomenology of Perception point towards a compatible understanding of psychedelic experiences.
Objective Thought, put simply, is a common way of perceiving the world around us which has a tendency to disregard our experience.
It is heavily influenced by a scientific attitude, which often reasons that we can understand the nature of things through measurable properties and abstractions. But seeing the world like this often disregards other details presented to us in our first-person experience.
Edmund Husserl, the widely-considered pioneer of phenomenology, intended phenomenology to be ‘rigorous like a science’ in describing experience, without regressing into further analysis which distorts an understanding of our experience.
If I am taking a walk through a sunny day at the park, to say:
“It’s been sunny all week, which is why it was hot walking through the park today.”
…is embedding an analysis of my experience into a description of what happened. By doing so, I have distorted it as I’m not talking about what I actually felt, saw, and experienced at the park.
A more ‘phenomenological take’ would look something like:
“As I was walking through the park, I could see children riding pink bikes, and butterflies with zebra stripes were flying over my shoulder.”
Here, I have said nothing other than the visceral details of my experience.
Husserl suggests it is impossible to perform a complete reduction to understand our experience because we are, by nature, too accustomed to what we perceive.
Our tendency to view the world via Objective Thought means we inevitably go further in embedding other details in our experience, rather than merely describing it.
So how does this so-called ‘Objective Thought’ relate to psychedelics?
Psychedelics can be said to suspend Objective Thought, as it allows the subject to report their experience without further analytical bias.
As Monika Langer puts it:
“The drugs prompts its user to suspend that analytic attitude which atomises the world”.
If we are able to temporarily suspend our everyday Objective Thought lens of perceiving the world, it becomes far easier to recall our experience as it appears to us.
It is common on psychedelics for people to perceive objects with cultural significances in a new way, recounting our experiences as it appears to us with ease without distorting it with further analysis.
One may perceive a spoon as shiny when it reflects the sunlight, rather than paying attention to its function as cutlery. Or one could appreciate the sensual details during a pleasant walk to a friend’s house, rather than ruminating how long it will take to get there.
This seems to be a common fact that many people on psychedelics report; the unique and often bizarre way of perceiving a world around them which is no different before they took the drug.
Scientific research is yet to gain insight into the mechanism that makes this possible. But applying phenomenology to psychedelics already reflects a greater understanding of these substances which considers the experience itself.
One of Merleau-Ponty’s fundamental arguments in Phenomenology of Perception is that “sensations are homogenous”.
In other words, he believes our senses do not function in isolation from each other, but rather form an ‘integrated perceptual field’.
The view that sensations are divisible to ‘our five senses’ (seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting, touching) originates from our Objective Thought attitude on the world, hence why Merleau-Ponty argues that:
“[Though] the notion of sensation, which seems immediate and obvious […] could [not] in fact be more confused”.
For example, if I am observing a canal, I am not experiencing independent sensations of ‘greenness’ and sensations of ‘wetness’, which combine to present this to my perception — these are just individual properties of the water.
Rather, I experience the canal with these properties together as one sensation, hence why I can see the water as having a wet texture without necessarily touching it. Our perception is more unified than our Objective Thought leads us to believe.
Synaesthesia, a common phenomena on psychedelics in which the standard way we perceive sensations alters, allowing subjects to ‘see sounds’ and ‘hear colours’, reinforces Merleau-Ponty’s argument that our senses are integrated.
Merleau-Ponty provides a good description of Synaesthesia in Phenomenology of Perception, where he writes:
“The subject does not merely [have] a sound and colour at the same time: it is the sound itself that he sees, at the same time where colours form”.
The fact that so many people claim to experience synaesthesia puts pressure on our Objective Thought way of seeing the world. It questions the common-sense notion that we experience sensations with our individual sense organs if it’s possible for our sensations to overlap this way.
This is a stunning prescience considering his Phenomenology of Perception was published two years prior to the accidental manufacturing of LSD by Albert Hoffman.
The very fact that Merleau-Ponty alluded to synaesthesia in this light, at a time preceding the creation of one of the world’s most popular psychedelics, only contributes to considering phenomenology as a suitable candidate for understanding psychedelic experiences.
Merleau-Ponty believed the way we perceive the world has the potential to be shaped by ‘motor skills’ (like driving a car), and habits (like smoking after dinner).
Eventually, we stop consciously thinking about what we are doing, and let our body automatically respond to our environments.
If I have learned how to type, then every time I use a keyboard, I won’t have to stop and think about each letter I’m pressing. I would think of something I want to write, and my fingers seems to push the buttons autonomously without thinking every single action it consists of.
In this sense, think of his concept of ‘motor skills’ as very similar to muscle memory.
But because I keep learning these motor skills through repeated exposure to environments and constantly performing actions, Merleau-Ponty believes our waking perception can dull experience from its “potential sensual richness”.
We are beings accustomed to routine, repetitively performing the same actions again and again, situated in the same environments, such that our waking perception becomes narrowed.
We can easily become ignorant of sensual details, like the particular lilac-blue sky when riding a bike, because I am preoccupied with getting home to my destination. Or we can become unappreciative of the unique ways we perform certain habits and motor skills, like the way I curve my ‘e’s when writing a letter to my sister, telling her about my holiday to Berlin.
This is a double-edged sword.
The more motor skills we learn grants us more possibilities to interact with the world around us, and recognise possibilities we wouldn’t have before.
If I did not know how to play the piano at age six, but I do at sixteen, this affords me the possibility to perform Beethoven’s ninth symphony whenever I am in a room with a grand piano.
But simultaneously, our perception becomes narrower as we become less attentive to the sensual richness of our environments.
I may not have been able to play the piano when I was a child, but I was more concerned with exploring environments in all their sensual details. Like playing with a spade and bucket on a sunny day by the beach, paying close attention to the way the sand falls between my fingers, hearing the crashing of the waves along the coast.
It is reminiscent of the sentiment that children have a particular type of ‘pure wisdom’ that adults lose over time, where their minds are open to the world around them as their waking perception has not yet been dulled with monotonous routine, and perceiving objects in the world as necessarily having a functional purpose.
It reinforces the claim that waking perception could itself be the illusion, because we are so used to perceiving the world in a certain way that we become ignorant to other phenomena around us; concurring with Ullman’s sentiment that:
“A vast part of our waking life is basically a volatile fantasy which works together with our perception and memory”.
Exposing this dulling of our waking perception illuminates how psychedelics are effective in treatments of depression and addiction, where one’s way of perceiving the world has been tainted by negative thought patterns, and bad habits.
By suspending one’s Objective Thought attitude on the world, it also suspends this way of perceiving the world around us in the normal way; meaning habits like drinking two cups of coffees in the morning can be temporarily halted, and negative thought patterns in daily life can be examined in a novel way.
The fact that psychedelics can present an alternate way of experiencing the world opens the possibility to the subject to explore what could be reducing their quality of life, by creating new thought patterns and habits to curb the harmful effects of addiction and mental illnesses.
Szummer et al. recently published a paper claiming that psychedelic experiences like LSD might reveal a ‘primary’ state of perception which precedes evolution — without any filter, routine, or habits distorting our everyday experience.
They go so far as to say that psychedelics offer some of the most favourable conditions for phenomenologists to study perception in general; due to the suspension of Objective Thought, the fact that psychedelic experiences are easier to recall than dreams as a potential window into the subconscious, and that it fundamentally emphasises the subject as perceiving from a first-person perspective.
Not only is phenomenology a new framework to study psychedelic experiences, given “science’s historical misunderstanding of it”, but psychedelics also offer a new understanding of Phenomenology of Perception that perhaps Merleau-Ponty never even anticipated.
Nine years after Merleau-Ponty published Phenomenology of Perception, Aldous Huxley had famously written The Doors of Perception — a philosophical essay detailing his mescaline trip, and reflections after the experience.
Huxley was convinced that mescaline induced a greater sense of awareness than his waking perception allowed, parallel with William James’ thinking, and claimed that the brain had evolved to restrict higher levels of consciousness for evolutionary purposes.
Following this idea, experiences of higher levels of consciousness involve an influx of sensory information and thoughts, like a visual rippling of the floor and synaesthesia. Huxley held that if this were part and parcel of our waking perception, we would not only be constantly overwhelmed, but unable to survive.
His essay describes how he spent “several minutes — or was it several centuries?” staring at a chair’s legs and becoming attentive to the visual details emphasised by mescaline.
It does not make evolutionary sense for this mode of perception to be our waking perception throughout the course of human evolution; we could not have been fending ourselves away from wild tigers if we were getting lost in the visual details of its stripes.
So Huxley’s idea that the mind restricts a higher level of consciousness appears plausible, as well as his claim that mescaline does not artificially induce an intoxicated state as much as it temporarily prohibits the restricting valve of the brain, allowing access to this alternate state of perception.
This concept influenced the title of Huxley’s book, based of a passage in Blake’s poem ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, where he writes:
“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern”.
The idea here being that the use of mescaline can free us from “narrow chinks of [our] cavern” (waking perception) to perceive the ‘Infinite’, by accessing a higher level of consciousness.
Ultimately, it may appear confused to integrate Merleau-Ponty and Huxley in this way, considering Huxley’s essay arguably lacks the phenomenological focus that constitutes Merleau-Ponty’s work.
But a brief insight into Merleau-Ponty’s later unfinished work concerning brute and wild perception can further reinforce Huxley’s claim of there being such a thing as a primordial state of perception; a fundamental, primitive state of perception that has potential for higher states of consciousness.
It might seem surprising to gain a brief insight into phenomenology, and how it seems immediately pertinent in studying psychedelia. But the link is not as new as you might think.
Even during a time where these substances remain highly regulated, barring scientific research, the fact that many have gone online to submit their anecdotes, ‘Trip Reports’ and stories, exemplify that the psychedelic sub-culture has unwittingly been using phenomenology all along.
Capturing the ways in which LSD provides the user fractal-like visuals, or how DMT takes someone to a land of ‘clockwork elves’ is certainly an unscientific proposition. But that doesn’t necessarily make it false.
These communities have already attempted to capture the necessary facts about something as subjective as psychedelics— and they have done a remarkable job. Psychedelic research would be ignorant to dismiss the large amount of subjects who have tripped, and reported back with visceral details of their experience.
Without a shadow of a doubt, scientific research will answer many anticipated questions about the nature and mechanism of psychedelics, and why it brings about such an ineffable experience in its users.
But to gain a stronger understanding of any drug, which necessarily affects our subjective perspective, we ought to also consider phenomenology as the powerful framework it has already proven to be.