Serendipitous Lessons from Psychedelic Side-Effects

By Gradient · Jul 5, 2009 · ·
  1. Gradient
    When he first began gobbling down potent psychedelics, my pet chimp was immediately captivated by their potent capacity to subtly subvert his malleable social construction of reality with characteristic humor and elation. He'd been focused on sociology, cosmology (as an atheist and devout Dawkins disciple), and graphics design at the tail-end of high school - while maintaining a devoted relationship with getting himself blitzkrieg-ed drunk, white-knuckle cocaine high, or pin-point-pupil numb with oxycodone & heroin (not in that order ;)). He was always surprised, however, at how popular psychedelics were at parties; while he'd enjoy such environments on the drugs, he knew he was consciously suppressing many of the sensations & effects while focusing in on others. He quickly found that his favorite experiences were in solitude or with a sole companion - when his attention was forced to go beyond dazzling sensory activity, and actually think about the way he thinks. Amazed by his capacity to comfortably confront his unconsciously repressed emotions with these compounds, he began to value them beyond mere recreation; he identified some psychedelics as particularly useful tools for re-evaluating his aspirations, values, and urges. Astonished, he was approaching something similar to a lasting calm. His use of more addictive substances returned to recreational levels, rather than dependent. Whether it was simply maturation associated with growing in age, or his exposure to new ways of thinking & perceiving afforded by psychedelics, he's not certain. He is certain, however, that neither might easily be eliminated as crucial contributors to his ability to overcome significant emotional obstacles, and pursue the things he deemed important and interesting, not just those things that made him feel good at the time. It seemed that his emotions had begun to be guided by his thoughts, rather than his thoughts dominated by emotion.

    As the chimp continued to consume various psychedelics, he realized that he was still suppressing certain sensations - the ones he considered to be at all unpleasant in comparison those euphoric or viscerally pleasing in nature - with the intention of consistently avoiding 'bad trips'. He intentionally neglected side-effects, or anything that didn't feel positive, ignorantly ignoring the grotesque qualities of dis-ease or discomfort. The 'acid-tummies' or 'mushroom grumblies', muscular tension, strange sinus sensations, changes in facial expression, and over-sensetivity to inflection and tone during interaction with others that he'd experience all began to present a newfound intrigue. When watching movies, he'd be completely distracted by, and envious of, the actors' talents at conjuring emotional expressions at will - noticing the subtleties in mannerisms and gestures they recruited to communicate the nuanced differences between similar feelings like frustration and anger, tenacity and obsession, or love and dependence. He found how much we speak with each other through facial expression, and that language fortuitously presented the detail necessary for accurate & intended perception. Inevitably, these observations influenced his own expressions when interacting with people when sober; he began to feel that he expressed himself more honestly and according to his thought processes, rather than the state of his body or emotional status. The chimp also began to look for ways to effectively alleviate the strange digestive sensations he'd observe; various methods of torso-stretching and manual facilitation of digestion were sought and found, and now have a particularly special value due to transitory stomach ulcers acquired from his former alcohol fixation.

    An esteemed administrator once cited an individual whom many would consider to be the father of modern psychedelia, Sasha Shulgin, while discussing potential side-effects observed from research cannabinoids.
    This struck a chord, though likely not precisely the one intended. After spending far too much time navel-gazing, and deciding to leave the social sciences to individuals with considerably higher levels of patience than his own, the chimp decided to pursue a conspicuous and exceptionally intimidating elephant-in-his-room, neuroscience. It was borderline voyeuristic pornography to learn what the drugs he'd been consuming had been doing to his body; like an elegant and complicated labyrinth or garden of forking paths, he could endlessly explore profoundly intricate relationships that comprised his body - every component having a delicate impact on every other component. Each psychedelic adventure began to incorporate images of anatomy that he could both spatially imagine and intuitively feel with an unprecedented resolution. When stretching to attenuate muscle tension, he could almost see his tendons sliding, sarcomeres stretching and contracting, and blood flowing through his arteries and veins. He could visualize his lungs expanding, bronchioles exposed and ravenously absorbing the compounds present in his pleasantly smoked cannabis. One time he was lucky enough to actually observe himself become infected by a common cold-style virus, and watch his body's tissues reliably respond and fend themselves from the invading pathogen. He could picture his sinuses swelling, various immune-system proteins transferring chemical signals to one another like a stock-brokerage firm responding to a crash in the market, trying to execute the best strategy to adapt and overcome a novel obstacle to survival. In essence, the chimp was re-introduced to these compounds as study-aids of unparalleled efficacy, derived predominantly from the side-effects he'd long been ignoring. He was learning from probing his physiology with the side-effects of psychedelics, and this opened up a whole dimension of the experiences that he'd never anticipated.

    I hope this hasn't come across as self-agrandising or arrogant; quite the contrary, most individuals are able to implicitly learn these lessons without nearly the same degree of egocentrism as they mature, and my chimp is undoubtedly and enviously stunted, emotionally and intellectually, in many of his realizations. The invaluable lessons the chimp extracted from these experiences have been long lasting and character-defining. The information he's privileged to study falls into a beautiful biochemical ballet, each character playing a part as significant as the next; when it comes to psychedelics, there are no such things as side-effects for the chimp anymore. Each effect represents a biological system in an altered state, which is one of the most fundamental ways that we've learned about our universe; most frequently, the most foundational lessons in neuroscience have blossomed from disruptions of typical activity. At least in my chimp's experience, side-effects are some of the most physiologically relevant ways to understand the nature of the systems subserving our abilities to interact with, and perceive, the external universe.

    An affectionate and appreciative cheers to those who took the time to play along.

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  1. MiMoMo
    Thank you for a most delightful disruption. A pleasure to behold the comprehension conveyed and perspective displayed. Made me giggle, pause, perplex and ponder. A joy to bathe in the conjured context of awareness processed with an impish grin and such precise stare. Congrats and kudos for side-affecting my today!
  2. Gradient
    Thanks for reading! It's an honor to be included in another individual's thoughts, even if only for a few moments.
  3. rokman nash
    Wonderful writing my friend, had to read it twice to get it, but thats just me.

  4. Gradient
    That's my fault, Roc - not yours. Thanks for reading; I'll be more clear and less verbose in the future, I promise.
  5. RaverHippie
    My raver friend agrees wholeheartedly, a great understanding of the body makes so many tasks more interesting if one imagines the processes at work. Granted the neuroscience level takes this understanding to an an entire level beyond where my raver friend has yet to explore, he does enjoy what knowledge the courses in anatomy and physiology have taught him about the body.
  6. podge
    Very well written and well explained .... swim can relate to much of what swiy has written.
  7. Gradient
    Thanks for the kind words! It's nice to know that some might actually recognize where I'm coming from.
  8. sweetsweetmary
    Excellent verbage explaining life and its many twists. Thanks for grinding the gears and reeling SWIM thru an awakening and recognition of desired processes. The body SWIM knew (but couldn't explain), the ending is new. Side effects are interesting!
  9. Synchronium
    Should have known you were a Dawkins disciple too! My misses got me a signed copy of The Selfish Gene and The Greatest Show On Earth for this Christmas.

    Please tell me you've read The Extended Phenotype?
  10. Gradient
    The Selfish Gene is truly fantastic - a really strong argument, and characteristically eloquent. I've not read The Extended Phenotype, yet! From the looks of it, seems like he really expands and clarifies many of the analogies he used in The Selfish Gene, as well as discusses some of his favorite contributions. It sounds like you'd highly recommend it?
  11. Synchronium
    It's probably my favourite book of his, although I've not read The Greatest Show On Earth or The Ancestor's Tale yet.

    The gist is that, just like blue eyes might be the phenotype for a particular genotype, things like beaver dam height are the extended phenotype of those genes that are "responsible" for "building" a beaver's brain and so dictating its behaviour.

    Of course, there are tonnes of excellently convoluted examples, as you'd expect from any Dawkins book. I think you'll love it.
  12. NeuroChi
    An absolutely fascinating adventure that was, it seems your pet chimp underwent quite the shift in paradigm brought upon by his experiences with psychedelics.

    My crazy pot head can relate; it was his experience with marijuana that first triggered a passion for neuroscience that had been waiting to erupt. He then cared for and fostered the enigma he had discovered which was so closely bound to his sense of self and his appreciation for what makes us who we are. Since then it has gradually fused with a love for chemistry to form a new progeny: psychopharmacology.

    Once upon a time in a hypothetical land not far away, a crazy pot head lay quiet and still under the guidance of a magic mushroom. He was ready to sleep and bring to an end what had been a fairy uneventful day. He tucked his outer leaves under his body as the night grew cold, and began to concentrate on the patterns of sliding light before his eyes. A few moments passed as he appreciated the silence that encompassed him - when in an instant the silence was broken.

    The beat of his heart had broken it.

    He listened with pleasure to the sedating rhythmic tempo as it beat on, and on, and on. The sliding beams of light began to pulse in synchronicity, and stretched out into distinct arteries projecting through space. They curved as they flowed outwards and away from his body, out into a dark abyss.

    He then realized the significance of the beat of his own heat, and immediately became attached to the importance of it. A feeling of despair settled upon him when he realized, that without cause, it was possible that his heart might just... stop. He was absolutely and completely dependent on his heart, as it pumped the light out and around out through space. It was the driving force of the life he was living, and if it ceased to flow on, he would cease to exist.

    He attempted to escape this most dreadful of thoughts, and conjure up a defense mechanism to ease his sorrow; logic. He reminded himself that he was being guided by a magic mushroom, and that this mushroom was pointing his attention to that which was not entirely real. He conjured up semantic memories to reassure himself that he knew better than this little, obscure, albeit mysterious magical mushroom.

    But wait, he thought, maybe that was the point - maybe he was being given a glimpse of some truth. Maybe, just maybe, his attention had been shifted to bring him to a realization that he hadn't stumbled upon before. Maybe, just maybe, this little magic mushroom was trying to teach him something, show him something, and develop and appreciation for something... something new.
  13. Gradient
    Oh wow, I just saw your comment, Richi! It's comforting to know that the described experiences are shared by others in similar circumstances. The specific realization regarding the central dependence of continued survival on cardiac activity that you refer to is quite familiar - especially in the manner you describe; such couplings of emotional and intellectual realizations are always so powerful, and quite characteristic of these interesting compounds.

    Thanks for the thoughts, Richi!
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