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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy

Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index

Event Horizons of the Psyche:

Synchronicity, Psychedelics, and the Metaphysics of Consciousness.

Albert, David Bruce, Jr., (1993).
Riverside, CA: University of California.

ISBN: none

Description: Hardcover, unpublished doctoral dissertation, vii +372 pages.

Contents: Abstract, introduction, 5 chapters, conclusion, bibliography.

Note: Available from UMI, Ann Arbor, MI, in large and small size, hardcover and paperback for each size.

Excerpt(s): This study presents a metaphysical theory of consciousness. Metaphysical theories of consciousness generally fall into one of two groups: scientific theories, founded upon what is known about the anatomy and physiology of the brain, and spiritual theories, founded upon the insights gained from mystical and religious experiences. The two approaches usually present themselves as antagonistic and mutually exclusive. The focus of the scientific approach is upon information about the physical nature of the brain, often concluding that whatever consciousness is, it must be a neurological phenomenon, while the spiritual approach focuses upon introspective and imaginative data, often concluding that whatever consciousness is, the body is something that gets in its way.

The scientific approach, theoretically founded upon empirical observation and testing, fails because it refuses to account for scientific data pertaining to non-physical phenomena. By refusing to incorporate the data of parapsychology, scientific theories exhibit a metaphysical bias that undermines their persuasiveness as empirical systems. Similarly, spiritual theories overlook the rather obvious fact that consciousness, or what they describe as consciousness, exists in association with a biological human being. The methods used to induce spiritual experiences -- breathing exercises, fasting, drugs, and others -- have physical effects upon the body that trigger the spiritual experience. In failing to account for those physical effects, the spiritual theories also fail as comprehensive explanations for the nature of human consciousness.

The theory developed in this study is unique because it is founded upon both the biology of the human nervous system, and the experiences of transcendent reality that form the core of mystical and religious thought. It takes as its foundations the existence of alternative realities, or "worlds", found in spiritual theories, and the pharmacology of neurotransmitters in the brain. Specifically, this theory is offered as an explanation for those cases in which an individual is exposed to some psychoactive substance, and subsequently reports having had a mystical experience; or there occurs some other kind of conscious state in which either a reality different from that of ordinary consciousness is experienced, or the experience of ordinary reality takes on new meaning or significance. (pages 1-2)

Being interested primarily in psychopharmacology, the study of chemicals that effect the mind, I wanted to know what role mind-affecting substances might have played in the evolution of the mind. ... The sensitivity of the brain to chemicals outside the body must have provided some adaptive advantage, else it would have disappeared during the course of evolution.

To discover the nature of this advantage, I began to study the use of mind-affecting substances among the ancients, and the kinds of phenomena connected with that use. One cannot help being struck by the connection between mind-affecting substances, sometimes called psychedelics or, as Gordon Wasson called them, entheogens, and religious beliefs and practices. Of particular interest to me were the beliefs and practices of ancient Europe and the Celts. Their religions were oriented primarily toward what we, today, would call nature worship. And psychedelics, obtained from the nature they worshiped, figured prominently in their rituals. Beyond these early primitive tribal religions, psychedelics figure in such religious and para-religious practices as witchcraft, occult magic, astral projection, clairvoyance and others that continue today.

This obvious relationship might be alleged to explain the reasons for the nature-orientation of the religion, but it does not explain the evolutionary advantage of that relationship. The kinds of experiences precipitated by the use of psychedelic substances provide the clue as to the nature of that advantage. Mystical experiences, visions of other worlds and dimensions, voices, feelings of numinosity and union with nature -- what I shall call "portal" experiences, as they are pathways between different realities -- were sought after and brought about by the use of psychedelics. If these kinds of experiences are regarded as advantageous, which they surely must be else they would have disappeared during evolution, then they must be making some kind of positive contribution to the life of the individual who has them.

While these experiences have many features in common, of concern here is that they all point to a reality beyond what is physically experienced. (pages 4-5)

To return to the question of adaptive value: let us suppose that, at some time in the distant past, while the fundamental structure of the human brain was in its evolutionary infancy, a genetic mutation occurred (more likely a series of them) such that some brains appeared with receptors for certain kinds of naturally occurring plant substances. The ingestion of those substances resulted in fundamentally new kinds of perceptual awareness, and perhaps also fundamentally new ways of processing information.

I suggest that these "fundamentally new awarenesses and processes" are what we today call "consciousness". The capacity for consciousness in the brain is the result of the appearance of new kinds of physiological processes, different in kind from the mechanisms of biological regulation and control. This is to say that what made the difference between a brain concerned merely with homeostatic mechanisms and basic biological survival, and a brain concerned with an awareness of the intricacies of its own existence and the world around it, was the evolution of receptors that, when acted upon by naturally occurring psychoactive compounds, produced new and different ways of processing information.

The adaptive value of the evolution of receptors for extra-corporeal substances, then, was the development of consciousness. It is interesting to think that what we see in primitive societies, in their religions and shamanistic rites using psychoactive plants, is the mind reaching beyond the biological limitations of the brain into new ways of understanding the world, and perhaps into new worlds. The observations of Schultes and Hofmann do indeed suggest that psychoactive substances are somehow able to alter the way in which the world is perceived, and the ways in which that information is analyzed. The universality of their use among ancient humankind inextricably links the pharmacology of hallucinogenic plants, and the effects they produce, with the evolution of the human mind and human culture. Such perceptual and cognitive "alterations" may very well be the progenitors of awareness and reflection; the processes that differentiate perception from sensation may be the same ones that distinguish thought from reflex. Consciousness could be considered an adaptive advantage if it provides better ways of exploiting the environment, and it does seem, from Edelman's discussions, that the ability to reflect upon one's actions might help plan for the next meal, build shelters, and so forth.

That psychoactive plants have played a role in the evolution of human consciousness is an inescapable conclusion, if we are to take evolution theory seriously. (pages 230-232)

... there is a certain amount of resting activity [in the brain] in the absence of stimuli. This self-organizing behavior is characteristic of chaotic systems -- they are always active, even when not doing any specific task; there is an excess of energy to be dissipated, and the system dissipates that energy like a thermodynamic safety-valve, even if it does nothing else. The second observation is that, in response to a stimulus burst, the entire system becomes rapidly involved in the process. This rapid change of system state in response to a small stimulus is also a characteristic of chaotic systems. ...

How does chaos originate in the brain? It is hypothesized that the release of neurochemicals controls the gain [responsiveness], or ability of neuron systems to amplify (in terms of numbers of neurons involved, and numbers of action potentials involved). The gain level is set by the brain, depending upon how interested an animal is in receiving sensory input, and whether it recognizes the input it receives. When the gain is set high enough, a small stimulus is capable of exciting large numbers of neurons into instantaneous activity. The high gain of the system liberates an excess of energy -- in the form of sensitivity to stimuli and readiness to release action potentials -- such that the slightest sensation in any individual neuron can trigger activity throughout the system. (pages 239-240)

It is suggested that "(chaos) may be the chief property that makes the brain different from an artificial intelligence machine." Because they are self-organizing and self-regulating, chaotic systems may be indicative of the process by which new ideas are generated in the brain. In any event, the brain is able to process information by recruiting increasing numbers of neurons into perceptual circuits; "attentiveness" to a particular stimulus is, at the physiological level, reflected in the numbers of, and chaotic behavior of, neurons brought into the information network. (pages 240-241)

The antiserotonergic drugs such as LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, and their natural and laboratory analogs, block the central inhibitory mechanisms in the brain, which results in resetting the gain [responsiveness] in various neural pathways to a higher level. This compares to the increasing of the gain in perceptual circuits noted in Freeman's experiments. There is, in Freeman's data, the observation of a difference in processing mechanisms between sensation and perception -- the sensory ones are regular and predictable, while the perceptual ones are chaotic. Freeman suggests that this is due to the brain resetting the gain as a function of interest. I suggest that this difference, from an evolutionary point of view, originated with chemicals outside the brain doing the resetting; because of its adaptive value, through natural selection, the consciousness process became self-sustaining and autonomous, and because it is adaptively advantageous, the brain retains the ability to be influenced by these substances.

It is hypothesized that some such process may have been the initiator of consciousness in the previously vegetative human brain. A prehistoric man or woman, which searching for food, comes upon an ergot-infected wheat field, an LBM ("Little Brown Mushroom"), or a pretty Baby Woodrose. He or she eats; the active principle in the plant blocks the inhibitory chemical pathway that has kept the brain operating within well-ordered limits, and suddenly, the limits of physical sensation are transcended and the doors of perception are opened. Once initiated from the outside, the process becomes self- organizing and self-sustaining. Those in whom this process has appeared, because of their ability to think beyond the world of sensation, recall the past and plan for the future, have an adaptive advantage over those who have not advanced beyond the simple biological control. Selection pressures favored the development of spontaneous chaotic processes -- the more receptive the brain to chaotic processes, the better the survival of the individual. Evolution arrives as the development of brains that are -- to a limited extent -- capable of self-initiating the chaotic process themselves.

This is the psychedelic bootstrapping theory -- that consciousness, as a property of a dynamical system, was initiated by chemicals with specific receptor sites in the brain, whose effects were to disable the biological control mechanisms in the brain that prevent the initiation of chaotic processes. ... receptors for externally occurring substances were actually selected for during evolution. The brain, as a selective recognition system, evolved in such a way as to favor the appearance of sensitivity to these naturally occurring substances. (pages 249-251)

Compilation copyright © 1995 – 2001 CSP

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