Almost fifty years ago, ex-Harvard professor Timothy Leary and his colleagues penned an essay titled "On Programming Psychedelic Experiences."
Essentially, the article served as a field manual for navigating awareness during altered states of consciousness, a kind of map to help orient and manage subjectivity, a voyage chart to focus the attention of a tripping mind.
SET AND SETTING
The basic premise was that if you could carefully curate the environment, and then pattern, sequence, and control the set of stimuli that individuals would be exposed to while under the influence of a mind-altering chemical or plant, you could orient awareness towards useful spaces of mind. You could, for example, willingly induce positive and cathartic, transformational experiences.
Psychedelic plants have been ingested in all kinds of sacred rituals, by all kinds of cultures, for millennia, and yet remain largely misunderstood by the mainstream today.
While their effects can vary, there seems to be consensus that these substances evoke a period of increased reactivity or sensitivity to the flood of sense impressions coming in. Darwin’s Pharmacy author, Professor Richard Doyle, following psychologist Stanislav Grof, calls psychedelics non-specific amplifiers of consciousness whose effects are "extraordinarily sensitive to the initial rhetorical conditions" in which we take them.
What this means, as Leary explains, is that the subjective effects of psychedelics and marijuana are "user-constructed," in that the initial conditions of the experience, both environmental and psychological, feedback into the subjective experience of the trip itself. Leary condensed this feedback effect in the notion of “set and setting,” which has remained a widely accepted heuristic by psychedelic explorers for fifty years.
“There is no drug effect by itself,” says Techgnosis author, media theorist and psychonaut Erik Davis—psychedelics "simply reflect and amplify beliefs and patterns of meaning already woven into the user’s intentional ‘set’ and environmental ‘setting’...endlessly reverberating feedback loops of mind, cultural context, and compound."
Psychedelic researcher and professor Richard Doyle expands on this idea: "It gets curiouser and curiouser... for it is also the case that the language we use to describe an experience becomes part of the experience. So our description feeds back onto the experience itself." In other words, even the words we use to map and make sense of our experience, actually change our experience, in an infinite recursive feedback loop.
Doyle calls psychedelics "information technologies" that work through the capture and management of attention. By managing attention, you manage the overall field of awareness, and thus you can influence your perception of reality.
Erik Davis also says that drugs are like media technologies. Just as different media provide different ratios of sensation that can be designed to create different experiences, so can the internal mediation provided by these psychedelic “tools” be "programmed."
He writes: "In order to successfully boot up these new semiotic universes within a users’ consciousness, the media technology must directly engage the machinery of human perception...It is a matter of directly engaging...the underlying technical ‘material’ of subjectivity itself."
Again. When we speak about subjectivity we speak about attention. Attention is the hinge between conscious control and the patterns of reactivity that have already been set up by the psychological system or the environment (the now ubiquitous set and setting).
Attention is at the center of consciousness.
Author and psychedelic explorer Diana Slattery has written that the capture and control of attention is "a necessary condition for any interpersonal persuasion, education, or entertainment to occur."
“Attention,” wrote Darwin, “if sudden and close, graduates into surprise; and this into astonishment; and this into stupefied amazement.”
Control attention, control consciousness.
Again, the way that these psychedelic substances mediate awareness and attention means that the environment and context end up informing the nature of the experience: The increased suggestibility of the user makes the set and setting crucial and delicate— and thus should be choreographed beforehand and planned accordingly.
This focus is crucial not just to altered states of consciousness but also to ordinary consciousness, and by working on attention through techniques such as mindfulness and self-inquiry, we can alter not only psychedelic experience, but experience itself!
We can untangle ourselves from our maps, we can decouple our minds from reflexive patterns, and create new patterns.
FEEDBACK LOOPS, DESIGN, AND CYBERNETIC MINDS
So here's what we have so far:
A) Psychedelic experiences are extremely sensitive to the context (ie: set and setting) in which we experience them.
B) We can program these experiences by intentionally curating the “set” and “setting” in which we ingest them.
C) Appreciating just how profoundly this sensitivity to set and setting can shape the texture (and “reality”) of a psychedelic experience, can give us insight into the nature of how "design" affects the mind, even in a non-psychedelic state.
We are talking about feedback loops between mind and “world.”
Anne-Marie Willis calls the pervasive, mind-sculpting nature of these loops, (and of design in general), "Ontological Design." The concept is fairly simple but the feedback loops are all-encompassing: essentially all of the things that we design and that surround us, from our language, to our dwellings, our cities, tools, aircrafts, bedrooms, kitchens, and religions, design us back. It all feeds back.
Design is pervasive: what we design is designing us.
Author Steven Johnson echoed the same idea: "Our thoughts shape our spaces and our spaces return the favor." What we construct, what we architect, architects us in return.
Media theorist Marshall McLuhan: We build the tools and then they build us.
Here it is again: We are being designed by that which we have designed.
As McKenna said: WE BECOME WHAT WE BEHOLD.
The question is whether we are aware that this is happening. The truth is we are likely not paying attention. What psychedelics can do, then, says Rich Doyle, is they can make us aware of these "feedback loops between our creative choices—and our consciousness." And thus of "the tremendous freedom we have in creating our own experience."
Leary called this "internal freedom."
Again: Using psychedelics to aid in both perceiving and understanding the effects of language, music, architecture, and culture on our consciousness, can offer an awareness of the degree to which we have the “ability to affect our own consciousness through our linguistic and creative choices."
We learn how our choices determine our fate.
I design therefore I become.
Because Psychedelics heighten perception almost immediately, users quickly shake off the deadening effects of habit.
Users may also temporarily lose their inhibitions as well as their ability to filter out or ignore certain stimuli, finding themselves extremely open to novel perceptions that may lead to unexpected observations, connections, serendipities, insights, and epiphanies.
Properly setting the environment of the "tripper" therefore, can serve as a modulator for those insights.
Pay attention to this notion because understanding this point is crucial to the entire argument of programming these experiences: the extreme “suggestibility” and “openness” of the user during a psychedelic state means that one's measured choices of “set and setting” could be utterly transformational, and might include, for example, using the crescendo of a Hans Zimmer soundtrack to make the user understand the nature of being, or bringing the user's attention to a specific Dali painting might convey the entirety of the human condition, or reading lyrics from a Pablo Neruda poem could utterly shatter and reconstitute that person's entire worldview on love.
A walk down San Francisco's Land's End hiking trail, at sunset, listening to the Interstellar score might become the single most meaningful moment of that person's life—and end up leading to life-altering shifts. Try to imagine the insights from 10 years of deep psychotherapeutic practice compressed into a single moment of “naked unmuddled meaning.”
The idea is that one can literally “steer” awareness towards transformative encounters and ecstatic revelations. There have been accounts of how a single Ketamine trip will cure even the most extreme cases of depression.
This suggests that through the careful use of these substances, informed by scientific, medical, and shamanic knowledge, our stubborn defense-mechanisms, and our thick-skinned ego-identity, is dissolved, enabling a meta programming of the software of our being. Writer, physician, neuroscientist and philosopher John Lilly called it “Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer”. Mindware upgrades. The implications are unprecedented.
Administering psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) or high grade marijuana before watching an IMAX film of deep space could be experientially akin to writer Ross Andersen’s virtuosic description of the Hubble Space telescope’s deep field images: blasting open “new tunnels between the mind and The Other” by "mainlining space and time through the optic nerve," an encounter that Anderson describes as "nothing less than an ontological awakening...a forceful reckoning with what is.”
A psychedelically-tuned mind might see jaw dropping images of the universe and somehow “distill the difficult abstractions of astrophysics as singular expressions of color and light, vindicating Keats's famous couplet: beauty is truth, truth beauty."
We can imagine all sorts of novel coming-of-age rituals designed for transformation, psychedelic educational experiments, and even entertainment possibilities that push the envelope of experience.
In his book on shamanism, the historian of religion Mircea Eliade described various “techniques of ecstasy” that essentially helped mediate our encounters with the sacred. Though Eliade was critical of and misinformed about psychedelics, numerous scholars make the case that the origins of many of the world's religions are richly embedded in the ritualized use of these sacraments, along with other techniques of ecstasy such as chanting, fasting, drumming, dance and meditation, all of which can act as passports to the numinous.
Today we are seeing a renaissance in the study of these plants and chemicals.
Organizations like MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) are working with researchers and governments to investigate the therapeutic potential of medicines such as MDMA, or Ecstasy, which is being used to alleviate such psychological problems as PTSD, Depression, and many other ailments. The results have been staggering.
Johns Hopkins University recently administered psilocybin, the active chemical in magic mushrooms, to patients dealing with terminal illness. The effects seemed to reconfigure their entire perception of death, giving them peace.
Much like riding a rocket ship into orbit will shift an astronaut's perspective so dramatically that he or she may experience the often reported "Overview Effect," a sort of techno-scientific spiritual awakening—the effect of which can utterly transfigure their psychological point of view—so too do psychedelics seem to trigger an analogous change in perspective, a kind of “orbital position,” that changes our sense of the big picture, and that can be as significant and profound as an orbital flight.
THE GRASS IS GREENER
Although not usually included in the same category as LSD and psilocybin, Marijuana “fuses cognition and dream” and idealizes or “archetypilizes” perception, wrote author David Lenson, and is perhaps the most popular of what Doyle calls “ecodelics,” mild enough that most users seem to be able to manage the experience without much difficulty.
“You know how it goes, this italicization of experience,” wrote Michael Pollan in The Botany of Desire; “…familiar music becomes sublime, food tastes better, sexual touch revelatory. There is a seemingly virginal noticing of the sensate world.” [...] “the cannabinoids are molecules with the power to make romantics and transcendentalists of us all.”
David Lenson: "Every object stands more clearly for all of its class: a cup “looks like” the Platonic Idea of a cup, a landscape looks like a landscape painting, a hamburger stands for all the trillions of hamburgers ever served, and so forth,” he writes.
"This dialectical pattern of reconcilable estrangement—experiencing first a new distance and then a new relationship that closes that distance—is central to cannabis. This applies perfectly to the aesthete who smokes pot before going to the Guggenheim.”
Today, America has hit a tipping point in its mainstream acceptance of marijuana as both a medicine as well as a recreational pastime.
Here too, we are seeing focus being placed on what we might call the curation of experience, with a particular premium placed on set and setting. Because marijuana consciousness is (like all ecodelics) so sensitive to the context in which we ingest it, it is no surprise that states like Colorado are seeing the emergence of a high-end pot culture: curated dinner parties, specialty concerts, and other discerning cultural events carefully designed with cannabis intoxication in mind are opening up a blank canvas for "experience design" that works in concert with the sensibilities of marijuana intoxication.
Cannabis, like other mind-altering plants and chemicals, creates what Doyle calls "infinite resonance with set and setting" so that both the expectation of the user, and his associations, will respond to the context in which he or she partake in the drug.
By changing the cultural context in which marijuana is used, you change the very nature of the marijuana high itself.
Flow Kana is a new medicinal cannabis delivery startup in the San Francisco Bay Area that wants to change the relationship between the patient and her cannabis medicine. Everything from the design of the web app, to the user-experience, to the aesthetic framing in which the patient interfaces with the transaction itself, has been designed for a particular experience, that is, to elicit a particular flavor of consciousness.
Flow Kana also serves as the first farm-to-table model in the industry, according to its founder Michael Steinmetz. By connecting patients directly to farmers, Steinmetz aims to re-contextualize the entire relationship between the patient and his medicine, and in doing so, perhaps impact even the nature of the medicine's effects.
EXPERIENCE DESIGN AND THE ART OF IMMERSION
But what about recreational users who don't suffer from a particular affliction? As legalization momentum continues to spread, what new cognitive thrills await the inner-space community?
David Lenson: “A positive drug experience can confirm the collaborative model of consciousness, since the user relates to objects not as if they were dialectically opposed to his or her own subjectivity, but as if they were co-contributors to the creation of the world.”
This change in perception creates all kinds of creative, theatrical possibilities and subjectivities. Entire new ways to program and design experience emerge.
Immersive experiences designed for turned-on brains, such as guided hikes with carefully curated soundtracks and soundscapes, could offer “cognitive ecstasy” on- demand: A Joseph Campbell-esque, artfully constructed Hero's Journey of self- discovery and illumination could become a premium commodity, like a Spa for the mind, and could be designed to deliver cognitive effects that would do for our spirit what five-star spas do for our bodies.
We could see the rise of boutique movie theaters with vaporizing rooms for filmgoers to prime their brains with cannabis for enhanced cinematic immersion.
Interactive theater experiments, like Punchdrunk's Sleep No More, could encourage participants to smoke some marijuana before the show, rather than have a cocktail. The overwhelming sense of presence and subjective intensity that would ensue will surely jolt jaded theater goers from feeling like "they've seen everything before," into feeling a bit like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole.
The possibilities for new “cognitive roller-coasters” are limitless.
And this raises the issue of what legal theorist Richard Glen Boire calls “cognitive liberty.”
Beyond the therapeutic and medicinal potential of these cognitive tools for those suffering from a host of maladies, shouldn't we all have the freedom to probe the perimeters of our minds, to mediate our own ecstasies, in safe, controlled settings?
Haven't our greatest innovations, our greatest adventures as a species come about thanks to individuals who dared to think differently?
It has been written that "reality is tightly coupled to perception"—change perception, and change reality.
David Lenson wrote: "Drugs may encourage the idealist notion that by changing the way perception is received and processed, an individual can actually change the world...in the ‘60s Jerry Rubin said “every time I smoke a joint, it is a revolutionary act”
I believe we need to reframe the way we think of drugs. We need a new story. A new conversation.
BEYOND PSYCHEDELICS: FLOW STATES, SUPERFOCUS AND LIVING YOUR BLISS
Moving beyond the psychedelic experience there is the question of integration, the takeaway so to speak. We've gotten the message, processed the insights, and now what? Many artists, musicians and elite athletes who have found their way, (with our without psychedelics), talk about "the flow state," a kind of super-focused "zone" associated with extreme virtuosity, creativity, and "no-mind"; a state of ultimate performance where passion and skill meets the opportunity to express itself. This highly-sought after modality is as elusive as you might expect, yet recent advances in our understanding of the chemistry of lived experience are allowing us to peek beneath the lid, so to speak.
Rise of Superman author Steven Kotler and his partner Jamie Wheal co-founded the Flow Genome Project which is working with Fortune 500 companies to teach employees to get into Theta-wave brain states, typical of meditating monks, achieving nondual states and supercharging their focus and subjectivity. They say that flow states silence "our inner critic," allowing us to get out of our own way and transcend our self-imposed limitations, dubbed by author Gary Weber the “happiness beyond thought.”
In his recent TEDx talk “Altered States to Altered Traits: Hacking Your Flow State," Jamie Wheal says that our self-systems are like colanders, constantly emptying, and we can't seem to sustain these flow states. He says, "It's easier than ever to get high and it's as hard as it's always been to stay that way...we get hooked on the state instead of raising the stage."
Practices of mindfulness such as meditation, curating our environment, and self-inquiry are the next step for many to “raise their stage,” but the Flow Genome Project brings a technological focus to states of flow. By leveraging the latest brain-mapping technologies and insights into neurochemistry and behavior, Kotler and Wheal have a developed a program to supercharge flow states and decipher the science of human performance.
Transhumanist Philosopher David Pearce says we shouldn't stop there. He advocates for the development of a cocktail of psycho-pharmaceutical technologies, brain drugs, that build and improve upon psychedelics and performance enhancing drugs. Cannabis breeders such as DJ Short might add that they have been working on this cocktail for some time. Pearce's online treatise, The Hedonistic Imperative, calls for the use of such bio and nano-technologies to upgrade our Darwinian brains and usher in a new kind of consciousness: "gradients of bliss" inconceivable to us except in the briefest of mystical epiphanies.
Bring it on.