Book review, mind review

My book group chose to read Michael Pollan’s latest: How To Change Your Mind. The subtitle says a lot: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. That’s a bundle of complicated concepts Pollan takes on, but he recognizes his task looms large and that he can only make forays into the many overlapping arenas the book explores.

His approach–he uses this in his other books and articles, too–is a mix of serious research and journalism (interviews, mostly) and personal inquiry and experiences. If you have read Second Nature or The Omnivore’s Dilemma, you might find this one to be a more “difficult book.” It is heavily documented and features neuroscience (brain pathways and structure, mostly), psychology, pharmacology, and chemistry (tryptamine-related molecules). Not to mention mushroom biology and mushroom hunting, and serum produced by plants, toads, and ergot.

What attracted my book group members to this text is its chapters on dying; as a hospice volunteer myself, and having read articles on the potential value of psychedelics among people with terminal illnesses, this part certainly interested me.

Pollan writes: “The uncanny authority of the psychedelic experience might help explain why so many cancer patients in the trials reported that their fear of death had lifted or at least abated: they had stared directly at death and come to know something about it, in a kind of dress rehearsal.”

These outcomes seem significant enough that we ought to find ways to employ them in our palliative care work. In my own, somewhat limited, experience with dying people, those who are less fearful of death–for whatever reason that may be–stay alert longer, respond better to palliative efforts (pain medicine, massage, positioning, and so on), and are more likely to comfort their loved ones. They die more “easily,” if dying can ever be called “easy.”

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Yet I found the parts of Pollan’s book which deal with the huge question of what consciousness is and where it resides most relevant to my own interests. Yes–that difficult neurobiology stuff. Pollan suggests, with the healthy pragmatism of the skeptic, that empirical approaches to consciousness based on the idea that “the brain is meat” (viz, medical science) are unlikely ever to explain consciousness fully or to anyone’s satisfaction. In other words, consciousness may possess a component one might name “spiritual.” Here is how he frames this concept:

“…it seems to me very likely that losing or shrinking the self would make anyone feel more ‘spiritual,’ however you choose to define the word, and that this is apt to make one feel better. The usual antonym for the word ‘spiritual’ is ‘material.’ That … is what I believed when I began this inquiry—that the whole issue with spirituality turned on a question of metaphysics. Now I’m inclined to think a much better and certainly more useful antonym for spiritual might be ‘egotistical.’ Self and Spirit define the opposite ends of a spectrum, but that spectrum needn’t reach clear to the heavens to have meaning for us. It can stay right here on earth. When the ego dissolves, so does a bounded conception not only of our self but of our self-interest. What emerges in its place is invariably a broader, more openhearted and altruistic—that is, more spiritual—idea of what matters in life. One in which a new sense of connection, or love…seems to figure prominently.”

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When I was much younger, I considered myself “spiritual.” I stopped using the term once I began a more serious exploration of my life and began to study philosophy, psychology, aesthetics, phenomenology, and consciousness more intentionally. But the crucial components–connection, relation to and with others (sentient and not), and love–those I have always understood as necessary. Even though my ego has never “dissolved” quite the way Pollan describes.

So maybe I can go back to considering myself somewhat spiritual. At this moment in life, Nature and Others matter more than accomplishments and outcomes.

Welcome Spring, welcome Spirit. Namaste, Amen.

iris reticulata

iris reticulata

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Psychobiology & art

Greg Dunn’s gold-leaf neuroscience art: “Gold Cortex”

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Howard Gardner once said aesthetics is considered the “dismal branch of philosophy” and that psychobiology, the scientific examination of art, might therefore be called the “dismal psychology.” This view derives from the difficulty of pinning down what qualifies as art, the artistic process, the artistic personality, and the like–especially the challenge of trying to categorize, measure, and in any genuine way evaluate art. Psychobiology as a discipline is new to me; is it merely an earlier form of behavioral neuroscience? How does aesthetics play a role? I went looking.

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Here is an excerpt from D.E. Berlyne’s abstract of his exploration into stimulus behavior and art (including humor), Conflict, Arousal, and Curiosity, written in 1960:

The highly variegated human activities that are classed as art form a unique testing ground for hypotheses about stimulus selection. They consist of operations through which certain stimulus patterns are made available, and so they must unhesitatingly be placed in the category of exploratory behavior. The creative artist originates these patterns, the performing artist reproduces them, and the spectator, listener, or reader secures access to them and performs the perceptual and intellectual activities that will enable him to experience their full impact.

It’s intriguing to note the different ways a social scientist (Berlyne was a psychobiologist) uses language to write about a generally-considered subjective subject: art. Different in tone and terminology than the language a philosopher or artist would employ, the description characterizes yet another inquiry into the ontology and the exercise of art and the artistic process:

The content of art can range over virtually the whole scope of human communication. It may be used as a source of information about the appearances of objects, the course of historical events, the workings of human nature, as a means of effecting moral improvement, as a vehicle for propagating religious, political, or philosophical ideologies. Art is, however, distinguished from other forms of communication by …the communication of evaluation. While human beings may produce art and expose themselves to it for an endless variety of reasons, collative variables must play their part, as they do in all forms of exploratory behavior. They underlie, in fact, what is commonly called the “formal” or “structural” aspect of art.

The author is interested in whether psychosocial behaviors, culture-building, and communication all derive from exploratory behavior and stimulus-response and what role evaluation plays in the assessment of art, its social or moral value, artistic merit, “timeless” art, and to some extent the very making of art.

The psychology of aesthetics offers intriguing insights–if one can get past the jargon. From the little I have read about it so far, the science seems to share a few points with phenomenology: its task, according to Dr. William Blizer, is to “describe observable phenomena and to note associations and correlations among them which enable such phenomena to be predicted, controlled, and explained.” In psychobiology, the “observable phenomena” are “the behavior of the creative…artist and the appreciator.” Philosophy and psychology are strange bedfellows, though; throw aesthetics into the mix and the entire project begins to seem suspect. I am not at all sure that these inquiries end up explaining–certainly not predicting or controlling–anything about art.

I admit I prefer to read such musings when the makers themselves are doing the exploring. Nonetheless, this little intellectual excursion led to my discovery of Greg Dunn‘s amazing neuroscience designs, one of which appears above. Who knew the brain was so gorgeous?