Why we get high - Bruce Eisner article

By trptamene · Sep 15, 2007 · Updated Sep 16, 2007 · ·
  1. trptamene
    Why We Get High
    Bruce Eisner

    Almost all of you have gotten "high." You might call it "getting stoned" or "tripping" or "having a session" or "going on vision quest" or "partying" but the urge to switch channels and move to another and less usual state of consciousness is as old as our species itself. Actually the quest for intoxication is even older!

    Ronald Siegel, in his book, Intoxication, documents numerous animal species and most of the various human cultures that strive to get high or as he calls it, to intoxicate themselves. Siegel proposes that after food, drink and sex, "Intoxication is the fourth drive." He demonstrates through zoological and sociological evidence, that the urge to get high is among the most basic of motivations.

    Andrew Weil, M.D., and Wilfred Rosen, in their wonderful introductory book From Chocolate to Morphine, explaining psychoactive drugs for the young reaffirms this idea. They point out:

    Human beings it seems, are born with the need for periodic variations in consciousness. The behavior of young children supports this idea. Infants rock themselves into blissful states, many children discover that whirling or spinning is a powerful technique to change awareness, some also experiment with hyperventilation (rapid deep breathing) followed by mutual chest squeezing or choking, and tickling to produce paralyzing laughter. Even though these practices may produce some uncomfortable results such as dizziness or nausea, the whole experience is so reinforcing that children do it again and again, often despite parental objections. Since children all over the world engage in these activities, the desire to change consciousness does not seem to be a product of a particular culture but rather to arise from something basic. As children grow older they find that certain available substances put them in similar states. The attractiveness of drugs is that they provide an easy quick route to these experiences.

    Many drug users talk about getting high. Highs are states of consciousness marked by feeling of euphoria, lightness, self-transcendence, concentration and energy. People who never take drugs also seek out highs. In fact, having high experiences just as laughter and dreaming seem to be necessary to our physical and mental health. Perhaps that is why a desire to alter normal consciousness exists in everyone and why people pursue the experiences even though they are sometimes uncomfortable side effects.

    Most of us do it, but how many of you have asked what I believe is a fundamental question: "Why do I get high?" Certainly many of us would be better off if they asked this question each time they set about taking a mind-changing compound. Culturally and as a species, we must also ask this question in its collective sense, "Why do we get high?" I believe the urge to get high is essential in nature and that in the future -- it will shape the evolution of our species. While I don't propose to have the complete answer to this enormous question, here are some of my thoughts.

    Let's begin by looking at some of the most extreme or intense states or goals of a number of mind (and matter) changing technologies including lucid dreaming, psychedelic drugs, virtual reality, sensory deprivation, near-death experiences and nanotechnology. In each of these experiential phenomena, there is movement from the structured experience of the ego as it filters the world of consensual, well-boundaried reality into experience which is less structured and with less defined or even no boundaries at all.

    Stephen LeBerge's outstanding book, Lucid Dreams, first popularized perhaps the most incredible dream experience imaginable, lucid dreaming. Lucid dreams occur for some people rarely and other more frequently and others not at all. They are dreams in which the dreamer "wakes up" while still dreaming and can then begin to change the dream as he or she likes. There is a tremendous amount of freedom that accompanies this experience, in that it empowers the dreamer to create any experience they desire. Certainly this lies at the far edge of the domain of dreaming which also encompasses dream analysis and dream journals.

    In the realm of consciousness change catalyzed by the major psychedelic drugs, of which there are many, the most common being LSD, mescaline and the sacred mushroom of Mexico. Users debate which experience is the "highest" ranging from experiences of what Stanislov Grof calls the "metacosmic void" and "supracosmic mind" experiences of transcendent awareness to Terence McKenna's vision of machine elves babbling about the end of time in the year 2012. What is most psychedelic explorers report though as their most profound experiences are those in which the "tripper" can loosen the boundaries to the point of creating whatever experience he or she wishes. They may experience this as a fast moving collection of experiences or "realities." Tim Leary calls the measuring quotient of this psychedelic stream R.P.S. -- "realities per second."

    While recalling Timothy Leary, we should remember that it was the venerable philosopher of the psychedelic world that introduced many of us to virtual reality (VR). Virtual reality is the experience of a simulation of reality induced through sensory apparatus driven by a computer. VR had it's birth with the military but has found its way into commercial applications including amusement parks in Silicon Valley, where youth flock to play computer games that use helmets and gloves instead of video screen and joystick.

    The cyberpunk genre of science fiction, including authors William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and Greg Bear have collectively created a future in which virtual reality travel into vast computer networks become a way of life. Non-fiction books as well, including those by authors Howard Reingold, Myron Kruger and Brenda Laurel all point to a future VR technology in which humans interact in a "cyberspace" environment completely created by computer simulation. G. Harry Stein in his non-fiction book, The Silicon Gods, even speculates that we will be able to put on non-evasive helmets with links between the brain and computer directly with the brain, skipping body suits and gloves entirely. Brett Leonard's film Lawnmower Man tells the story of an evolving VR technology that synergizes with biofeedback and nootropic drugs that permit its pioneer explorer access a reality that allows him access the electronic nervous system of earth, freeing him from the constraints of his body -- and his humanity.

    As in lucid dreaming and psychedelic exploration, the goal in VR is the freedom to create and to explore realities without bounds. Its goal may be achieved sometime in the early decades of the new Millennium.

    In the mid-Sixties, scientist John Lilly, M.D., built the first sensory deprivation tank while working on a National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) sponsored project in the Virgin Islands. Sensory deprivation is, as the name implies, a state in which all of our normal senses are virtually restricted. Earlier studies had shown that experimental subjects would report hallucinations when confined in rooms with no stimulus for several days.

    Lilly build a coffin-like tank that circulated salt water at body temperature and which included a lid that shut out light and sound. In salt water, humans float and so taking having a sensory deprivation session is often times called "floating."

    Lilly's excursions into the tank confirmed earlier reports of hallucinatory mental journeys while in sensory deprivation. Perhaps it is no coincidence that NIMH has also handed John Lilly some LSD --with instructions never to take it alone. He told me, in an interview in 1971, that the reason for this was that another researcher had taken it alone, and had to be rescued when he thought that his heart had turned into a coo-coo clock and was striking the hour.

    Lilly ignored the warnings and his experiences and resultant mapping of consciousness as revealed by sensory deprivation and psychedelic compounds became the subject of a number of his books including Programming and Metaprogramming the Human Biocomputer, The Deep Self, Center of the Cyclone and his recent second autobiography, John Lilly...So Far published in 1991 by J.P. Tarcher and Company. In each, sensory deprivation experiences, with or without powerful augmentation by large does of Ketamine or LSD, became a way in Lilly was able to "Fix a hole where the rain gets in and stops his mind from wandering," as the Beatles once sang.

    Another fascinating area in which the consciousness is freed to take new direction has been reported by people having Near Death Experiences (NDE). These are people who have had a close brush with death, but survived. The reports from these individuals traverses a wide range of experiences and are reported on in books by Raymond Moody and Kenneth Ring. Like the other experiences we have considered, these NDE experiences free one up from normal worldly constraints and provide for a much wider range of experience than we enjoy here on Planet Earth.

    One last "consciousness-changing" technology that I will mention is purely theoretical -- nanotechnology. Nanotechnology as a popular notion was first popularized by Engines of Creation by Eric Drexler. It suggests that as robot machines become smaller and smaller, eventually we will get to the point where they can reconstruct the world according to instructions given by humans. By manipulating subatomic particles, these robots can do the work that chemists do but without the usual barriers that chemistry presents us with. The result is that material reality itself can be reconstructed.

    Certainly, psychotherapy as is it currently constituted is an art more than a science. One thing that became clear to me. Psychotherapy seems to change its language and theoretical framework every few years. New buzzwords and truisms quickly become adopted by the members of the psychological profession. For one cohort of psychologists, early childhood development is the "cause" of all their patients’ problems, A few years later, a new generation of psychologists proclaims that only the present moment should be talked about. Then later, the pendulum swings the other way. Therapy and its parent psychology are in their early infancy in understanding and controlling the human mind and nervous system.

    transpersonal experience and other altered states of consciousness induced by hypnosis, mediation, guided imagery, psychoactive compounds and a variety of other means of inducing are certainly part of a the repertoire of a small minority of current psychotherapists. These psychotherapists and psychiatrists feel more akin to the shaman of tribal cultures. Some nanotechnologists speculate that eventually, we can reconstruct ourselves through nanotechnology aided genetic engineering and the material world according to our specifications. We may learn to shape the world as a sculpture shapes a statue.

    Why do we do it? What is the purpose of human experience, whether intentional or accidental, which thrusts us into new and unfamiliar realities? Certainly these other modes of conscious experience are not all pleasant, which is perhaps why Huxley named the sequel to Doors of Perception, Heaven and Hell. Yet like the microscope or telescope do, they allow us glimpses into parts of the universe and ourselves that we previously did not know existed. It is only through this relativistic way of viewing reality that we can get an inkling of what it the fabric of life is really all about, because we gain views and perspectives.

    Getting high also challenges the very fabric of mind. The classic psychological theorist Freud called these kinds of experiences "regression" in service of the ego. According to Freud, these mind adventures are excursions into the realm of the id or infantile awareness for the benefit of the adult personality. Jung disputed this view, stating that these experiences were spiritual in nature and helped us to get in touch with our collective unconscious in the same way that psychotherapy helped us get in touch with our personal unconscious. It was left for contemporary psychological theorist Ken Wilier, to explain the relationship and finally reconciles these two polar vies. Eye to Eye: the Quest for a New Paradigm, Wilber points out that Freud and Jung have staked out territories on both sides of what he calls the pre-trans fallacy. This fallacy, to capsulate Wilber, is that there is a great deal of confusion when looking at altered states of consciousness and individual growth. This confusion is between experiences which transcend the ego and those that are regression from it into more primitive or less evolutionary modes of functioning.

    Transcendental experience is experiences that go beyond the ego but also continue of maintain and encompass the ego. Transcendental experiences are based upon the solid foundation of life in the world or "chopping wood and carrying water" as the Zen Buddhists put it. For those with no strong foundations, altered states might lead downward into more primitive and barbaric states of mind-- "the pre" portion of the "pre-trans" split. Thus the warning should be given, make sure that when you reach for the sky, your feet be planted firmly on the ground.

    The key point that is made, and affirmed by both Freud and Jung also, is that the development of the ego is an absolutely necessary requirement for healthy human functioning. In the transcendence of the ego it is important that the experience be given time and space to be re-invigorated in ordinary life, or the person becomes "spaced-out" not capable of functioning in the world. And if we weren't supposed to function in the world, what are we doing here anyway?

    If you still find all of this hard to understand, then the key to the confusion is in the term ego, which has as many meanings as love or God or any of those other confusing words people are always trying to define. In the '60's, we talked about "ego-death" as the ultimate act of mind. John Lenin once commented that after reading the Psychedelic Experience and taking acid a few hundred times, he didn't even realize who he was or that he had written all of those great songs for awhile.

    But "ego-death" no matter how intensively experienced, always leads to "ego rebirth." And why shouldn't it because the ego is not some bad ducky thing that has to be disposed off. It is the vehicle which allows us to travel through life.

    We also link ego with egotistical, as the person who is always patting themselves on the back verbally in front of others or putting on airs. But having a strong ego in the psychological sense doesn't have anything to do with that either.

    Father of self-actualization theory Carl Jung believed that in as a person becomes self-actualized, that first there needs to be a healthy ego developed. But then, after its development takes place, then there is a turning away from "ego-centeredness" toward the development of the self, of which the ego is only a part. He called this process "self-actualization."

    The question of why do we get high translates into why do we want to transcend our ordinary awareness and what is it good for anyway?

    Ron Siegel never actually tried to account for the reasons for his "forth drive" Andrew Weil and Winfried Rosen listed a variety of reasons for the high, these included:

    to aid religious practices,
    to explore the self,
    to alter moods,
    to treat disease,
    to escape boredom and despair,
    to promote and enhance social interaction,
    to enhance sensory experience and pleasure,
    to stimulate artistic creativity and performance,
    to improve physical performance,
    to rebel,
    to go along with peer pressure,
    and to establish a unique identity.
    In writing my book, Ecstasy: The MDMA Story, I was forced to face the question of why people get high head on, with respect to one drug in particular, MDMA or Ecstasy as it is popularly referred to these days. I came up with four primary reasons I found that people use this enormously pleasant (for most) psychoactive compound. These were: therapeutic, creativity-enhancement, self-actualization and recreation. We examine each of these in terms of the more general question: why do we want to get high?

    Perhaps we should look to the gurus or teachers of India (although I doubt many psychotherapists would accept the term willingly) as models for these new kind of healer --then to their more straight-laced colleagues. They view their role as helping client get in tune with their own unconscious by serving as guides on their life's journey.

    In tribes, the shaman or medicine man would usually take a plant drug, often a psychedelic, and go on a vision quest where they would enter into alternative realities in which they could heal members of their tribes or perform other kinds of magic.

    In the modern version of shamanism practiced by transpersonal therapists, the individual in search of healing is usually given the psychoactive medicine, whether it is plant derived or one of the new and powerful synthetic compounds and is guided on their own vision quest. The modern shaman does not usually take the psychoactive medicine with their clients (however a small percentage do). But every one of these new breed of healers has to have experience with mind-changing medicines themselves before they can lead others on their journeys...

    Here, the goal is to have the medicine enter into alternative states of consciousness where they can gain insights and visions to help them in their ordinary lives. Certainly there is no agreement on the exact mechanism by which they achieve this purpose but many U.S. Government sanctioned studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of psychedelic therapy. Psychedelic therapy which uses a one or a few high dose psychedelic sessions aimed at producing the transpersonal experience, has been demonstrated to be useful in the treatment of alcoholism, severe neurosis ,heroin addiction and the trauma of terminal cancer, in a series of studies conducted mostly in the 'Sixties and 'Seventies.

    In the mid-Seventies to mid-Eighties, therapists took advantage of the lack of illegality of a gentler psychoactive compound, MDMA therapeutic sessions aimed at less severe disorders. The experiences produced by MDMA or Ecstasy as it is popularly called these days involve much less sensory distortion than those produced by the major psychedelics such as LSD.

    MDMA helps individuals to access a state of consciousness in which they their existence in the world as different. People report that the external world seems brighter, more perfect, and lighter than usual. They also find it easier to open up with other and express their real feelings. Inwardly, they feel more relaxed, their self-esteem increases and they feel a lifting of the pressures of time.

    In therapy, MDMA has been used successfully in marriage and couples therapy, post traumatic stress disorder and in trauma produced by terminal disease. Again, the new breed of shamans uses their client’s experiences in an alternative state of consciousness as a means of healing.

    Both the major psychedelics, MDMA and marijuana, which some consider a minor psychedelic, and even stimulants and narcotics have been used in the quest to enhance creativity both in the arts and in problem solving.

    The Beats, with their excesses and excursions into the realm of drug induced creativity, were not the first but certainly now the best known and respected of those who experimented with the written word while "high." In fact, it was the Beats who invented the word. Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, now three of the most respected literary figures of the Twentieth Century smoke marijuana almost as a religion as well as dabbling in writing while on peyote, LSD, the opiates and amphetamine.

    Peter Stafford, in his first book, LSD-The Problem Solving Psychedelic documents the last study done before LSD was made illegal. Conducted by Willis Harman, the current head of the Institute of Noetic Sciences and then at the Standard Research institute, small doses of mescaline were given to engineers who were then given assignments to develop an alternative to the record player for reproducing sound. The CD wasn't born that day but certainly the unique solutions proposed by this engineers illustrates the way that mind-changers shift your view, allowing for the emergence of natural creativity.

    Later, Oscar Janiger, founder of the Albert Hofmann foundation, had his LSD subjects paint an Indian doll before and while under the compound. The experiments yielded some fascinating paintings, some of which are worth many thousands of dollars because the subjects have become famous artists.

    Ecstasy too had has its artistic adherents. A study of creative writing was done during MDMA's grace period before criminalization with at least promising anecdotal evidence of success in increasing creative output.

    In creativity, as in the previously discussed use in therapy, the mechanism is the entrance of the individual into another state of consciousness where they might have an insight, have a feeling, see a vision, hear a voice or get a unique perspective which they then bring back to the world to express in pictures, words or music.

    Psychologist Abraham Maslow, who we introduced earlier, coined the world "self-actualization" to describe the next import use of intoxication. Maslow gave birth to new schools of psychology, which he called "humanistic" and "transpersonal." A major theme in humanistic psychology was that psychologists should study healthy and exceptional people rather than only those with mental problems. Up until then, abnormal psychology was THE psychology Instead, he saw a continuum starting with those who were mentally ill through the range of more normal individuals and ending with the "self-actualized" individual at the other end.

    These self-actualized individuals were those exceptional people in our society who came up with the great theories, produced exceptional novels or art works, and were the leaders and successful business men and so forth. These were the people whose lives Maslow thought we should examine. Along with Jung's notion of self-realization, this idea of self-actualization marked a new direction in human consciousness, one that had roots in the myths and religions of cultures around the world but which until then had been mostly ignored by western science.

    During the past half century, there has been a sure of interest in the spiritual search as many call this new direction. Ram Dass, whose life's work and teaching on the spiritual journey has made him one of the most popular lecturers in America, notes that on his trips though the U.S.. When he talks about spiritual experience, he finds that the crowds have changed. In the 'Sixties and though much of the 'Seventies, it was the young Boomers, the Children of the 'Sixties who came to see him.

    But more recently, the audience has become more diverse. Not only do the Boomers come but people from many generations and all walks of life. When talking about a very profound experience, Ram Dass noticed an old woman nodding knowingly in one of his Mid-Western lectures as he described his Himalayan mind adventure. Later, the woman came backstage and Ram Dass asked her how she knows about experiences such as he was describing. She smiled back at Ram Dass after the question and said, "I crochet."

    Experiences called "spiritual" of course did not start with Ram Dass or Maslow or LSD. They go back to the earliest of recorded history through which certain individuals have reported mystical experiences including saints, artists and many happy individuals. These have been documented in works like Huxley's Perennial Philosophy and Bucke's Cosmic Consciousness. What is remarkable is that was once referred to by Western mystics he "beatific vision" has been translated by moderns into "getting high." But the experience remains largely the same.

    The vision quest like our earlier discussions of excursions from the mundane for therapy or creativity is a process. The individual seeks to experience states of consciousness beyond the ordinary and to bring back that vision to help guide their own life and inspire the lives of others.

    The last category of uses which I discussed in my book is currently the least socially sanctioned but perhaps the most important. That is the recreational uses of getting high. Again, one can go in two directions and certainly it must be acknowledged that there are those who should never try a mind altering substance and many who abuse them with destructive consequences.

    Peter Stafford, in his article in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs special issue, "LSD in Retrospect" notes, "Adoption of the term recreational by the government has about it the connotation that such experiences are rather trivial, frivolous and/or or a rather vulgar and lower order nature. In fact however, the impressions conveyed by most individuals engaged in such activities with LSD seem to have been to the effect that the consequences have been of a higher order. The bulk of those responding have repeatedly indicated that they thought that their use of LSD has been among the most important experience of their lives and that the drug's effects have been re-creational." {Author’s italics}.

    Stafford's transformation of recreation to re-creation is not elaborated on but I believe that it is essential to the understanding of what I consider the primary significance of drove to get high. This basic urge has as its underpinnings, the desire to recreate ourselves as we wish to be rather than how the seemingly random events of life molded us. Certainly many developmental theories recognize that although endowed at birth with certain potentials, we are in a way "programmed" by our experiences. Whether you follow the eastern schools and call it liberation or the western and call it personal growth, psychoactive drugs, most specifically those considered mind-expanding have been part of the repertoire developed.

    A Dutch professor, JohanHuizinga, in the 'Thirties commented that humans might better have been called Homo Ludens than Homo Sapien. Homo Sapien means thinking man. While Homo Lundens names our species playful man. He argued for the later term because while every one of the more developed animal species plays, humans play for a much longer proportion of their life span than any other creature with the exception perhaps of the wales and dolphins, which some may argue play their entire life.

    Most of us don't realize it but play is essential for learning and growth. Play is a highly creative behavior in which we act out our fantasies. By doing so, we learn many of the behaviors which grow more complex and evolve into our "grown up" culture and civilization.

    In fact, the philosopher Alan Watts when discussing the heights of Vaspasana Hindu insight he has experienced through psychedelics and meditation in his work, The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are described the entire evolution of the universe as the Hindu term Lilla or play. What is all of this play for, what is it good for? The answer that he gave was that it is all art, like a good piece of music or an admired painting. Consciousness evolves as way of the universe appreciating its uniqueness and wonder of playful creation.

    We can get high for therapy, spiritual growth, pleasure, creativity but the key element that makes getting high so useful is that it allows us as adults to play. Externally, our relationship with others and the environment changes and becomes more novel and experimental, internally, we see consider our thoughts and emotions in a new light, or from a new and higher level.

    My allowing us entry into this alternative state of consciousness which is essentially more playful, it allows us to "deprogram" ourselves, rid ourselves of habitual acts and stultified ways of seeing things. We try on new behaviors and modes of thought the same way an actor dons a costume and mask. This breaks us free of our earlier programming and allows us to consciously choose to become who we want to be and to think what we will.

    Often times, the mystical or spiritual experience is talked about in terms of the individual experiencing himself or herself as "god." Instead of god out there, god becomes located in us as well as in everything else. And as we become gods, we can recreate ourselves in our own image.

    Those who write about mind-changing compounds have always recognized this core purpose of drug taking. Bouldiare called it entering an "artificial paradise." Peter Stafford refers to MDMA experiences as"mini-vacations." And of course the hippies in the 'Sixties when on LSD "trips." Their destination a place of magic and mystery, where they could imagine a better, more peaceful world. A place where we can play!.


    Originally published in Island Views Vol. 1.No.3 and Vol. 1. No. 4, Copyright 1997, Island Foundation. You can send comments to the author.

    from: http://www.bruceeisner.com/writings/2004/08/why_we_get_high.html

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  1. enquirewithin
    Bruce Eisner/ Erlich has been around for a while. His "Island Foundation" is a scam. Whatever you don't send him any money.
  2. trptamene
    I didn't know this. I wasn't planning on sending him any money but thanks for the heads up.
  3. enquirewithin
    He has written a few reasonable things, even a book half-decent book on MDMA, Ecstasy: The MDMA Story. He has also been involved in flame wars on the Usenet and threatened to sue the Lyceum.
  4. Ruler
    Getting high is behind sex? I disagree. I'd prefer to get really high THEN have sex ;) hehe.
  5. kumar420
    The basic impulse for a rush is behind sex, its extremely similar to the rituals associated with getting high
    foreplay= packing a bowl/pouring a drink/cooking a shot/chopping up a line
    sex= doing said drug

    the neurological responses are similar, sex triggers dopamines, endorphins, serotonin, noradrenaline and norepinephrine, whereas most drugs only mimic a limited amount of neurotransmitters at the time
    alcohol- GABA and endorphins
    meth- dopamine and noradrenaline
    heroin- dopamine and stimulate the kappa, mu and delta opioid receptors (the body produces opioids to deal with pain, opiates bind to these receptor sites)

    so basically sex is the ultimate high, and when combined with drugs it leads to unparalleled ecstasy
  6. opiateme
    Great post kumar.

    Cools facts about pharmacology to add: both the opiates and the benzodiazapines also have GABA activity similarly to alcohol.
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