This article was written by Dimka Drewczynski and originally appeared in the PsypressUK 2013 Anthology of Drug Writing.
“There is no way you can use the word “reality” without quotation marks around it.”– Joseph Campbell
Appreciating how the world exists depends on how well you can see and interpret it. Life is basically just trying to understand the state of how things actually are and attempting to respond in the best way suited. This requires recognizing various environmental stimuli, analyzing them, and initiating some response sequence. There are countless factors involved in making any decision, in humans the most variable is how each individual thinks they should respond. But we take for granted the basic, and seemingly autonomous, nature of our sensory system, and leave it to do its own thing. For the most part, people have the appropriate amount of eyes and comparable amounts of rods and cones within them. But what if you could see more, or hear more?
Traditionally, people that claim to hear or see more are classified as deluded or schizophrenic, but it may be possible to increase your input bandwidth to provide you with a more representative worldview. Psychedelics show us our world in a different light, but are they showing us something that we are missing, something that is real?
The sensory system and the brain have evolved into a fine-tuned machine. This machine is unlike any other machine in that it changes, bends and skews all the data that comes in based on previous experience, biases, attention, current state of sobriety, mood, etc. and imbues it with all the rich textures that create our reality. However, in terms of objective bookkeeping, the brain is the most unreliable machine that could have ever evolved. Our perception of the world around us is merely an abstraction, far from the objective replication we consider it to be. Our world has been filtered through a system with some bits truncated, others stretched and some excised completely. The agents of this prejudice are the memories created by our experience and the subsequent tailoring of our sensory systems to optimize behavioural output. Learning is a dynamic process that relies on memory to encode, store and retrieve previous experiences in order to optimize this output. And, focused attention pushes irrelevant stimuli to the margins further still. You don’t need an update of the osmolarity of your lymphatic fluids when reading a novel, nor would you want to know how many leaves are on a tree while hunted by some godless killing machine. Yet although, at some level, your brain is privy to this information, evolution has deemed your consciousness too easily distracted to deal with it.
Although we are not aware of it, the pruned information looms in our subconscious (or unconscious). It can seemingly rise from the dead in the form of dreams when we lie down to sleep at night. Many studies show that our brain is more aware of this unconscious information than we think, and altered states allow slivers of this otherwise inaccessible information to shine through.