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Epistemic foraging in cow shit
Psychedelic delusions as a step towards awakening
When foundational beliefs are ‘rug pulled’ it can lead to a cascading waterfall of novel perspectives and insights that can reframe our reality in a way that detaches us from our ordinary version of ourselves. For better or worse.
Be it through psychedelics, breathwork, meditation, or religious or political conversion, the effect is the same. A period of acute plasticity throughout the many layers of the mind. Consciousness is permeated by potential as new doors of perception unlock themselves.
Which door we walk through, clumsily trotting into hell or heaven, can be the result of something as inconsequential as a badly timed comment from a therapist, or a sinister look from a shaman. While there are pleasant and unpleasant experiences that we can have on psychedelics, there are also, I think, helpful and unhelpful ideas.
Our most recent paper (special credit to Hugh McGovern) is about the risk of psychedelic-induced false insights and beliefs. These questions are why I chose to do a PhD on insight. So I’d like to informally express a few reflections on why I think this is deeply important given the so-called renaissance. Of which, by the way, I’m fully supportive, albeit with some sanity-bracing caveats.
I’ll start with the risk of psychedelic false insights, then describe how that can influence our search for truth, and finally how this can lead to delusions and mania and (hopefully) towards a light at the end of the tunnel, which I will simply call:
The sheer breadth and quantity of insights that can emerge on psychedelics should ring alarm bells. And if you’re like me, you’ll know that even within the same individual conflicting insights can arise in different circumstances and with different substances.
We also know very well that different cultural and spiritual contexts can lead to unique insights. The Catholic symbolism and faith within the Santo Daime ayahuasca church is likely to lead to visions of Jesus and Mary, whereas the traditional shamanic context in the Peruvian Amazonia, with the same brew, will trend toward visions of ‘Mother Aya’ and all her animistic accomplices (see this excellent paper).
There’s a meta-insight here that we’ve been pointing to in earlier work: Insights are an inference about what might be true within the space of our own minds given context and previous learning. It’s what we’ve called the ‘Eureka heuristic’. When it comes to decision-making, a cost-benefit analysis often isn’t possible or practical, so we judge our ideas or perspectives based on how they feel. The feeling is often all that we have. Those inferences—like all guesstimates—can go terribly wrong, a fact that schizophrenia and all manner of delusions inevitably reveal. A fact we have demonstrated time and time again in the lab.
For example, insights can imbue irrelevant beliefs with sincere feelings of truth (noetic sensations). Having a powerful insight can ripple outwards and affect surrounding beliefs as they try to reorganize themselves to align with this new energy/information. In the lab, we have even influenced worldviews empirically by eliciting temporally coincident insights in toy problems. Not to mention that we can directly elicit false insights.
But, I’m not being dismissive of psychedelic revelations. As it has been said:
“The one place gods inarguably exist is in the human mind.” - Alan Moore
That’s right—beliefs are part of every possible perception within consciousness and all that we know resides there, so we must conclude that all the gods have a reality to them imbued through belief. And belief is not to be taken lightly. Beliefs affect perception and motivate action. And perception and action shape the world. Thus, the gods of our minds shape our worlds and have just that much reality.
So we should be deeply curious about the fact that psychedelics are known to profoundly alter beliefs (see for example this paper and this paper). It’s no wonder at all that psychedelics were once exiled by political powers who needed, and continue to need, your belief.
Now, as to the role of insight: Interestingly, research reveals you can expect greater changes to the mind if the psychedelic catalyzes more insights (see our review paper). That is, there is good evidence that psychedelic induced insights are a key part—perhaps the key part—of the story for how they enact new beliefs.
Our lab(s) are doing a lot of research on insight and psychedelics now. In our recent review and theory, we use the now (in)famous active inference framework to suggest that the plasticity catalyzed by psychedelics via neural entropy (cf. Carhart-Harris & Friston) results in a liberal dynamical state where novel ideas are assigned higher precision (i.e., truth, confidence, and insightfulness).
That sounds complex but it’s not. Make a bit of clay soft by adding water and it’s more likely to turn into new shapes when your hands play with it. It’s the same with the mind. psychedelics add the water to the clay of consciousness. The hands, i.e., the input from the world, then reshape the mind via the force of insight. Really, insight is just the word that captures that moment of transition; the non-linearities in the knowledge space and their associated phenomenology.
The boost in insightfulness is the logical result of down-weighting your existing beliefs (or priors). And the logical result of that is a greater average proportion and quantity of false insights as past learning is ignored in favour of new perspectives. Metaphorically, you’re throwing a handful (or a bucket) of darts at the dartboard. Some will hit the target but more are going to miss compared to if you were throwing them carefully, mindfully, one-by-one.
The increased incidence of false insights emerging out of this liberal state is likely worth it if your belief structures are really holding you back. Like in the case of depression or addiction, it makes sense to add a lot of water to the clay and hope for the best. But, throwing away what you know isn’t a permanent solution and comes with very real risks. And at some point we want to make something beautiful and useful out of the clay, right?
Throwing away what you’ve come to learn might be good for all of us, on occasion. We sometimes need to be reminded that our beliefs’ are just beliefs, and giving them a good shake up is helpful to that end. And many of the beliefs handed down to us by society and our limited lifespan are deeply delusional, there’s no doubt about it. Not to mention that having unusual, beautiful, and even transcendent phenomenology might just be inherently good.
But, if you ever have the misfortune of meeting a state where your foundational beliefs have totally crumbled and you don’t land on some level of higher-order coherence, or you’re not yet enlightened enough to surrender to the terror of psychosis, well… may God help you.
Epistemic foraging in cow shit
One cash-value suggestion in our paper is that we might begin to empirically investigate which kinds of beliefs and insights are the ones that serve people and guide these powerful moments of plasticity in productive (adaptive and true) directions.
There is already so much uncertainty in the world—we also need healthy structure, and we need to know what those healthy structures are. That is, what set of new beliefs are we actually aiming towards? What kind of clay object do you want to build? Entropy for the sake of entropy is not tenable in the long-term (though, long-term rigidity is just as terrifying). It’s a sign of our times that we seem to desire change but not really know what that ought to be.
I suspect that many therapists and shamans have intuitions about favorable insights and are doing excellent work as guides. But to go mainstream, we need it to become explicit and grounded in evidence. I suspect that the old traditions are a good place to draw some hypotheses, but that shouldn’t stop us thinking critically about them. I have my own ideas, which I’ll share when I get around it.
Insights also present challenges to organisms far outside the psychedelic session. Organisms are always making decisions about where and how to forage for new information. We’re always trying to figure out how to fulfil our epistemic needs through our actions and the niches we choose to inhabit. I worry that a sudden influx of insights can mess with this part of us.
It's the part of us that has a healthy model of where truth may lay and where our gaps are. But psychedelics can make it seem like the truth is there, in the molecule, or in that particular context or tradition, and not, well, in other very useful places. The flurry of novel data proves that to the mind. Maybe you’ve also met someone who’s caught up in chasing mystical insights and epistemic highs or is overconfident in the beliefs now driving all their decisions following a big trip.
Again, that doesn't invalidate the experience. But the worry is that these insights overshadow the information in the world, our bodies, and the people and places around us. Or, worse, send us off on an insatiable search in wholly unhelpful places, or entrench an obsession with altered states of consciousness. It’s like direct access to too much flexibility and spontaneous insights can mess with our capacity to sniff out useful information scents in the world. Perhaps similar to the way that too much easy dopamine can mess with our motivation.
Think about it: You have a brain that needs to learn how to learn and where to learn. The brain thus needs to make models of how to attain insights because they reflect that new and important information for survival has been found. Then, innocently, you go ahead and eat some shrooms blossoming in cow shit. Suddenly, following a bit of molecular entropy, you appear to be downloading insights as if straight from the source—the Akashic field itself. Meta-cognitive tracking of these epistemic gains thus indicates that the trip overshadows anything you’ve learned in the ordinary world.
What is the logical inference for the brain to make? It is rational for it to conclude that this molecule and the context that surrounds it is the best place to learn. Just like the wide-eyed college student might think their university professor an immense source of knowledge, or the spiritual seeker their guru, the psychonaut may naturally infer that the molecule and the culture around it is the place to find truth.
So you can see how a very strange and transformative epistemic cycle of behaviour might be surreptitiously born out of a powerful trip. It could give birth to an unfalsifiable habit of restructuring one’s beliefs to attain new perspectives on reality, where the value may (eventually) be simply the novelty. The altered states seemed to reveal way more information than anything else ever did, so that becomes your favored projection. Like many things in life, the precise promise of the thing is also the potential problem. One of the keys, I suspect, is intellectual and spiritual humility.
My own bias here is that I believe in the cliché that we ultimately need to look within; sober, clear, and peaceful, to find what we already are. We need to discover a basic sanity, basic already-wholeness, that we’ve forgotten and thus overcome our culturally and evolutionarily ingrained habit of seeking satisfaction outside of this moment; of projecting realities and then chasing them. Because that’s a habit that is doomed to fail. Actually, it’s set up to fail, because you’re the one predicting the states that don’t exist in order to suffer their absence. All that’s needed is to stop; and see that process for what it is. Then get on with enjoying it.
The matrix is real and it’s simply over-confidence in our own beliefs about how reality is. Psychedelics can jolt us in the direction of recognising this, maybe even reveal this, but that’s far from guaranteed and it can also go in the opposite direction. It can trigger the construction of a new matrix (e.g., an anti-matrix, matrix) that feels even more true, but nevertheless traps us further into delusion. And with some rare exceptions, whatever new model one arrives at is highly unstable against the forces of the moment.
A natural step on the path
I’m pretty open about my belief that there is a real thing called awakening, but also many, many, experiences that misleadingly look like it. I recognise the absurdity of having any confidence about what it actually is, but that is my sincere perspective and there’s not much I can do about that but be honest. And well… figure it out scientifically, which we’re very much doing (see here and here). This next part is a somewhat mythic description of where I think psychedelic delusions sit on the “path” (which is no-path).
A recent viral blogpost titled: ‘Hot take: Psilocybin was the biggest mistake of my life’, illustrates a pattern of unfolding that is more common than I think the renaissance wishes to admit. I suggest reading the article, but the gist is as follows:
A seemingly well-adjusted gentleman takes some shrooms and what starts out as transformative and positive insights escalates to full-blown mania in the days and weeks that follow. Ultimately, his experience descends into a seemingly unrecoverable mental and spiritual crisis. Notice that it’s not your run-of-the-mill ‘bad’ trip, the experience itself was actually extremely positive and energizing. The problems came later.
Now, I admit I have some personal experience with this particular pattern. And the article captures much of it well. I can also confidently say there is a real interindividual pattern here. The particular contents of the experiences are going to be unique but the unfolding is basically the same. I’d put money on it. Here’s basically how it goes.
The psychedelic (or altered state of consciousness) induces acute plasticity. This malleability results in powerful insights and a reframing of your perspective on yourself and reality. This induces a huge amount of energy because the discoveries, from the brain’s perspective, are the most tremendous realizations you’ve ever had. Confidence pervades your new set of beliefs because everything you see resonates with a loud ‘omfg yes!’ to this new way of looking at everything.
This ‘omfg yes!’ quality provides a nice contrast to what awakening is like… which is quite the opposite. First of all, there’s no one there to celebrate and if you’re going to blurt out anything at that moment, it’s more like, “oh shit, what the hell, that was all a bunch of nothing!” along with an exhale and a good, deep, belly laugh.
“Enlightenment is the ego’s ultimate disappointment” – Chögyam Trungpa.
So, after the big ‘omfg yes!’ the mind will seem to have finally landed on a perspective, a set of beliefs, and a course of action where everything aligns and makes sense. The plasticity permits for new insights, but crucially, it also allows for delusional confidence in those insights because old beliefs are too relaxed to screen them. You have put away your filters for unabashed novelty and fervor. It feels like enlightenment, which is ironically, why it’s not it.
The high energy, overzealous, synchronistic, impressive but abstract and dissociated state that emerges is ‘manic’ because the new vision seems so damn true and inspiring. One’s priors are way overweighed so everything is folded (or ignored) in order to confirm the new model. Any potential errors the world would normally induce are dealt with through spiritual bypassing. Or, within the free energy framework, avoidance through active inference. New Age gurus often exemplify this part of the drama.
Such a mood is a sure sign that a fall from grace is imminent. Errors and contradictions inevitably accumulate. The new energizing set of assumptions will eventually collapse under the pressure and confusion of life itself. And the fall is a big one, from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. The way out is not up but down. To resurface requires an abandonment of the whole system of beliefs that was just a moment ago keeping you in heavenly, but ignorant, bliss. And the model of ‘you’ is at the very centre of it, which takes the most dramatic hit of all.
But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. The fall, if you’re fortunate enough to get there and survive with sufficient sanity, presents some profound opportunities. The opportunity is to have an expanded empathy for the sheer breadth of conscious experience. This results in an expanded sense of compassion for the variety of minds that inhabit this world, the seemingly sane and insane, all equally vivid in their being conscious and alive.
Indeed, any big fall presents us with tremendous opportunity.
The opportunity is also greater self-awareness—a better meta-model of the mind itself. The opportunity is to finally, sincerely, get real about your practice, whatever that might be. Ultimately, the real gift is the end of spiritual materialism, which is the core realization that all beliefs and ego-structures are doomed to fail. You shall never be perfect. What a blessed understanding. The earnestness that you inherit is more valuable than any state or set of meditation instructions could ever be.
So, the potential epistemic harms of psychedelics and all spiritual practices will be ignored at our peril. But, if we learn to recognise and respond to this critical period preceding almost inevitable despair, we may be able to safely flow through to the real work… which begins with humility.
It is a strange humility that is born of our inherent madness. A humility born of the knowledge of impermanence. A humility born of the knowledge of deep, profound vulnerability; and thus the preciousness of a healthy mind and yet the absolute priority of liberation from it. The madness nudges us towards real sanity; towards a new software for living well.
It is a wisdom born of the knowledge that this very consciousness and all its possible shapes to which we grasp for dear life are destructible. Knowing our flimsiness intimately allows us to look at it all honestly, perhaps for the first time. It allows us to get real. This is the first true step on the path because as with stream entry, there is no going back.
Thanks for reading. Below is a relevant back-and-forth on Twitter that may help clear up a few things.
Question from Dr Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes on Twitter:
How do you determine "accurate beliefs"?
Answer from Dr Ruben Laukkonen in Twitter:
Hi Peter. The point is a probabilistic one. If you make a system more liberal to change, and you believe that there is a continuum from false to true, then that flexibility in no way guarantees accurate new beliefs. Indeed, assuming that the organism makes reasonable inferences in its baseline state, then undue flexibility in beliefs (especially chronic) is likely to ignore previous learning in a detrimental way. Unless of course one’s previous conditioning is the problem, which is often the case in those who are suffering and looking for psychedelic therapy, particularly the treatment resistant kind. It’s easy to imagine that in such cases, acute flexibility is highly valuable. As I also believe it is for the average person on occasion.
As to the specific question about how can you determine accurate beliefs, this is possible only in constrained circumstances. If you provide a problem to a participant to solve and they solve it incorrectly, then there are presumably inaccurate representations at play (at least with creative problems that don’t e.g., rely on intelligence or working memory capacity). This is a pragmatic criterion so it’s certainly not perfect but it works empirically. It’s perhaps only useful for telling what might be the case for more complex beliefs, which we might also like to ground on some pragmatic criterion but that’s a philosophical question you might be able to help me with. In the paper, our criterion is something like “an optimal Bayesian agent” but that’s not the only game in town.