Benny Shanon: The Antipodes of the Mind

Benny Shanon is an Israeli cognitive psychologist who has taken the psychoactive hallucinogen ayahuasca well over one hundred times. His book The Antipodes of the Mind: Charting the Phenomenology of the Ayahuasca Experience is a scholarly attempt to describe its effects both through a survey of participants and through descriptions of his own extensive experiences.

The book is a mine of information about how the mind processes information, sense data, and concepts under abnormal conditions. Shanon does not disguise his enthusiasm for ayahuasca, but he attempts to maintain a disinterested and naturalistic stance. (Psychiatrist Charles Grob talks more about the specific neurological effects of DMT, ayahuasca’s active ingredient, in this interview.)

I have not taken ayahuasca. It does not sound terribly appealing. The one extensive description of an ayahuasca experience I’d previously read was by Kira Salak, who claimed that it cured her lifelong suicidal depression overnight. Her description of the experience, however, is enough to scare you off the stuff for life.

Shanon, however, comes off as a remarkably equanimous guy of good humor and patience, so his accounts do not dwell so much on the dark side of ayahuasca. (He attributes much of his poise to ayahuasca, but I suspect he was fairly upbeat and fearless going in.) We are 60 pages in before we come to this blithe passage:

Usually, the harshest symptoms of the Ayahuasca inebriation occur during the first 90 minutes following the onset of the effect. During this time, visions can be very strong and the entire experience may be tough and even frightening. Often the feeling is that the drinker has little or no control over what is happening. Thus, the initial phase of the inebriation is likely to present drinkers with moments of intense struggle. At times, the person who partakes of Ayahuasca feels he or she is losing his or her senses and even going mad. Quite commonly, people feel that they are about to die. Furthermore, it often seems that what is happening is irreversible and that one will never return to one’s normal self. With this, thoughts like ‘Why, for heaven’s sake, did I make the mistake of partaking of this drink?’ often cross drinkers’ minds. Naturally, all this is likely to generate great trepidation. With experience, however, the fear can be better managed and the Ayahuasca drinker learns to gain more control over the intoxication.

Fortunately, Shanon’s enviable nonchalance allowed him to continue chronicling ayahuasca’s effects despite the occasional remarks that ayahuasca frequently produces experiences I would consider horrifying and unbearable. Most of the visions he describes are generally rather benevolent, possibly because people who have repeatedly horrific ones stop drinking ayahuasca rather quickly. Grob, who also seems rather enthusiastic about ayahuasca’s possibilities, still remarks, “It can be an eternity in a Hell-realm.”

I will quote and comment on passages that struck me as particularly interesting philosophically. A good chunk of the experiences fall in line with what’s expected from corrupted sensory modalities: distorted vision, time-dilation, dream-like visions, etc. The exceptions, however, are fascinating, and Shanon’s dutiful chronicling makes the material worthwhile.

Shanon divides the material by subject matter and thematic analysis. I’ve sorted the excerpts into my own set of broad categories.

 

Confusion of the Sensuous and the Conceptual

Many of the hallucinations involve confusions of the (supposed) duality of concept and sense data, and make more intuitive sense if thought of as conceptual manipulation rather than raw internal experience, whatever that may be, as in these two examples:

In still another Daime session the madrinha stepped aside and a man passed a vessel of incense back and forth in front of her. The smoke lifted up and it became perfectly clear to me: It was an act of cleansing, of protecting the woman from potential dangers that may be inflicted by evil spirits. There were no visual hallucinations as such, yet, I would not say that the act was merely symbolic. What I experienced was literally this—seeing the casting of a shield against evil powers. It all seemed to have a very serious and sombre allure, and manifestly, it was all invested with magic. If I were to define what made it all so mysterious I would say that it was the fact that on the one hand everything pertained to another reality, while yet at the very same time it was all real. Again, no hallucination as such was experienced—technically what I was seeing was real, and none the less it was all utterly non-ordinary, and enchanted.

Another pattern of interpreting-as is one I shall characterize as seeing the particular as generic, or rather, seeing the generic in the particular. I have experi­ enced this on a number of occasions. The first, which for me was very striking, occurred during the daytime. It was in a village and I, intoxicated, was sitting on a small verandah overlooking the meadows. A farmer (a real one) was passing by, and I saw The Farmer, the universal prototype of all farmers. Again, as in the previous example, the standard perception and the non-ordinary one are related. After all, I saw The Farmer, not The Fisherman or The King. Yet, while normally I would have seen just a farmer, this time I saw The Farmer. While semantically linked, experientially these two perceptions are totally different. I have heard accounts of the very same phenomenon from my informants.

In both these cases, ordinary sense data is framed by conceptual interpretation that ordinarily kicks in only at a layer of remove from seemingly immanent experience, revealing that conceptual interpretation was there all along.

Similarly, invocation of Platonic forms occurs repeatedly:

The real figure (the trees) and the visualized one (the people) were related, but not by means of any overlapping of lines. In other words, the relationship was primarily semantic. Other instances of this kind I have experienced were seeing an (imaginary) jaguar resting on the branch of a (real) tree and an (imaginary) cow standing on a (real) truck.

Abstract entities may be seen as well. One informant told me he had a grand vision of perfect geometric bodies. Another reported a scene in which he spontan­eously came to the appreciation that the physical world is harmoniously governed by mathematical laws. Three informants reported grand visions in which the manifold of all forms was seen. Several informants, all with an academic education, explicitly commented that Ayahuasca brought them to the world of Platonic Ideas.

Finally, there are visions in which one feels one is encountering the Supreme Good. A major impression these visions had on me is the (Platonic) conclusion that ultimately, the ethical and the aesthetical as well as the true are the same. I have heard similar assessments made by many other people.

A better way to read these perceptions of universals is to interpret them as the conceptual being applied and/or interpreted at a different level than usual. Even in the perception of a particular instance of an abstract concept, we already have the abstract concept in mind. We just don’t believe ourselves to perceive it.

To put it another way: does Shanon have an experience of seeing The Farmer, or does he merely think that he has had an experience of seeing The Farmer? This is a nonsensical question: there is no difference between the two.

The meaninglessness of this question, I believe, points to the effect that ayahuasca is having on him. There is not some raw layer of true/veridical empirical perception that is then getting corrupted by a process of cognition. Classically Cartesian and empiricist accounts are misleading in this regard. The conceptual objects of perception (what I think of as Husserl’s noemata) are themselves corrupted.

Shanon pretty much agrees on this point:

Should we say that what is seen in Ayahuasca visions is to be divided into two: that which is ‘really’ seen, and that which is the product of interpretation? While there might be instances where interpretation may be relegated to a separate, secondary process, I am reluctant to regard this as the paradigmatic, general case. Because of my previous work in both psychology and semantics, I have difficulty accepting the two-stage analysis dividing perception and interpret­ation. My general theoretical stance in cognition is that there is no demarcation line between ‘raw’ perception, on the one hand, and semantic, meaningful interpret­ation, on the other hand. Following the philosopher Merleau-Ponty (1962) and the psychologist Gibson (1979), I believe that it is impossible to draw a clear-cut line dividing between naked, interpretation-free sensory inputs and interpretative processes that are subsequently applied to them so as to render these inputs into meaningful percepts. In the spirit of Heidegger (1962), I maintain that cognition is always ‘laden with meaning’. Applied to the example cited, this view implies that, from a cognitive-psychological point of view, if the figure seen was identified as being Jesus, then phenomenologically this is indeed who was seen.

Does this deflate the claims that Shanon is making of profound, sublime experience? As long as we maintain that any thought has some phenomenological content, it doesn’t have to. That said, prefacing every ayahuasca experience with “I thought [I saw Jesus, e.g.]” certainly makes things sound less impressive. If I were to take ayahuasca and have an experience in which I knew that 2 + 2 = 4 and 2 + 2 = 5, I can’t say that would seem very remarkable in retrospect.

Likewise, Shanon repeatedly has experiences in which he does not hallucinate per se so much as undergo experience that is perceptually impossible by ordinary standards, dealing with the cross-wiring of the “sensuous” with the “conceptual.” A “thought” is not as distinct from a “sensing” as it normally seems. This is not to say that there are no distinctions–there seem to be multiple levels involved–but that concepts play some part at all levels.

Shanon invokes Heidegger, not without reason, as the experience is more or less a fundamental corruption of one’s normal being-in-the-world.

At times, the experience vacillates between one that is primarily visual and one in which the visual is, as ordinary reality, just one facet of one’s being-in-the-world. A scene may begin as one of the former kind, gain strength and reach the characteristics of the latter, and then it may perhaps dissipate and turn into an experience that is again primarily visual. What characterizes very powerful experiences of virtual reality is that they involve no progressive process of immersion.

Except, pace Heidegger, what is produced is not alienation but a sense of integration. I think that this is not because we are being brought down to the level of the world, which normally seems free of conceptual manipulation. It is more because the normally “objective” world is being brought up to our level.

 

Dubious Reactions and Causal Breakage

While the experiential nature of the content still stands, we nonetheless have good reason to question the exact constitution of the experiences. As an example, consider this grand vision Shanon gives:

I had the vision, recounted in Chs. 8 and 9, of an exhibition presenting what appeared to be an entire, unknown culture. I was thinking to myself: ‘If this is not real, if my mind is creating all this, then the human mind must be much more amazing, much more mysterious than standardly assumed by psychologists. Indeed, if my mind is creating all this,’ my thinking went on, ‘then cognitive psychologists just know nothing about the mind.’ Thus, to the suggestion that the effect of psychoactive substances is, as Merkur (1998) claims, just ‘intense fantasying’ I retort: Perhaps, indeed, this is all that is happening, but this should not be taken in a dismissive, half-derogatory fashion. It may very well be that it is the creative ability of the mind but, if so, the mind’s ability to create surpasses anything we cognitive scientists ever think of.

Here I think Shanon slips. It is the old Wittgenstein beetle in the box problem. The mind, while amazing, is also amazingly good at tricking itself. Shanon had some kind of vision, but he also was in a state in which he was clearly disposed to think of his vision experience as amazing. His brain was probably (we don’t know for sure) putting together all sorts of concepts and sense data in bizarre and creative ways, creating the “all this,” but we have no way of establishing how awesome that assemblage was beyond the descriptions he gives. Here is a representative excerpt:

On many occasions I saw corridors, one hall opening into another, marvellous wall-paintings, sculptures, and reliefs. Architectural details that espe­cially impressed me included sculpted marble colonnades in the form of white elephants, staircases adorned with golden lions, and finely carved gilded wooden ceilings. Several times, I saw most beautiful painted tiles. In the reports of my informants mosaics appear frequently; an example was described in Ch. 6 when serial images were discussed.

No doubt these are remarkable things to imagine, but we fall into a fallacy if we think that he “saw” these things in full detail to the extent we would have to imagine them in ordinary life to feel such an expanse of detail. More likely, the details were all that existed as isolated conceptual objects, and his brain drew a vivid but incomplete implication of an entire landscape of awesomeness, generating individual awesome details on demand, not all at once.

In order to have a reaction to an imagined stimulus X, what was required of that imagined stimulus X? I could have a vision in which I had just read a profound book containing the secrets of life and am left awestruck.  The book need not have existed as a conceptual entity in my mind beyond having loose book-like qualities. Since we already know that ayahuasca throws logic out the window, there is no need to think that there was some causal chain in which an actual, fully-fleshed-out conceptual object caused the reactions he was having, or that the reactions were rationally justified.

I am sure that in Shanon’s vision, many details were generated, far more than in the normal course of imagination, and that these details were experienced more vividly, but that there were still nowhere near enough details to qualify as a fleshed-out “world” by everyday standards.

Consider a more prosaic example. I have a decent auditory memory and can “replay” music that I know well in my head and “hear” with the right timbre, sound density, etc. On the other hand, I do not hear it in any sort of complete way (though I can “replay” it and pay attention to one instrument over another, for example), nor do I have any knowledge about the innards of the music. All I have is some pieces of the audio that are what were salient to me. They are fairly vivid, but they are drastically incomplete, and the same would apply to any vision or hallucination I might have. (My visual sense, however, is in fact much poorer and I have a much harder time summoning up vivid images; this seems to be the reverse of the norm.)

Ultimately, one’s reactions in ayahuasca cannot be trusted any more than they can be externally verified through verbal (or other) reports. One case of such verification is described in the Idealistic Holism section below, but obviously, verification is the exception, not the rule, at least until we invent brain-reading machines that depict what we’re thinking…which, given the overlapping of the conceptual and the sensuous, is seemingly impossible.

When Shanon says:

The philosopher of language Austin (1962) claimed that we do not just say things with words— rather we do things with them (saying being one of these things). My work on ordinary consciousness has led me to posit that with the silent mentations in our minds (i.e. thought sequences) we do not entertain thoughts but rather do things and act in the theatre of our minds (see Shanon, 1998*). I have further argued that what consciousness affords is a kind of virtual reality whereby human beings can act even when actual action in the external world is not possible. My claim has been made on the basis of ordinary consciousness. In the case of nonordinary consciousness the case is even more extreme. I would like to propose that with Ayahuasca the human propensity of world creation is increased manifoldly.

I think he is right to a point, but the other side of the coin is that the criteria for world creation may be drastically lowered. As Wittgenstein repeatedly stressed, we have no way of knowing. By invoking the “theatre of our minds,” Shanon has fallen back into a false specator-spectacle dualism, assuming that what he is experiencing has some kind of existence outside of the experience itself. Ironically, it’s quite similar to the cognition/perception dualism he’s trying to break down.

 

Specific Neurological Manipulations

Notably, the manipulations involved seem to map onto forms of cognition that are associated with isolated aspects of cognition. For example, face-related experiences seem to relate rather clearly to the neurological disorder prosopagnosia, which is the failure to be able to remember and recognize people’s faces. (It affects Oliver Sacks, Hubert Dreyfus, and, either aptly or ironically, Chuck Close.)

The first small detail I would like to mention is disembodied eyes. These are eyes seen floating in the visual space without there being either a face or a body of which they are part. The eyes may be those of human beings, of felines, or without any particular identity. Often, a great multitude of such eyes is seen. These are reported very commonly. Notably, they are also encountered in the most spectacu­ lar vision reported in the Bible—the prophet Ezekiel’s encounter with the Divine (see, in particular, Ezekiel 1: 18; for a discussion of the motif of disembodied eyes in the context of pre-Columbian Mexican culture, the reader is referred to Ott, 1986). Also commonly reported are detached faces, that is, faces without bodies; bodies without faces are also reported.

If, as prosopagnosia suggests, facial perception is handled by a specific mechanism in the brain (the fusiform gyrus, also possibly associated with synaesthesia), then the commonality of face-related hallucinations would suggest that ayahuasca is hitting that part quite reliably.

Another mechanism Shanon identifies as being crucially affected is iconic (“flash”) memory:

A specific manifestation of the salience of the medium as it pertains to the temporal dimension is the increase in the time span of iconic memory, which consists of the retaining in memory of information in a quasi-perceptual manner, as if a copy of the external perceptual stimulus is maintained. Normally, the span of iconic memory is very brief—it is estimated to be between 350 and 500 milliseconds (see Coltheart, 1983; Baddeley, 1990). With Ayahuasca, the time-span of iconic memory is sign­ificantly lengthened. One closes one’s eyes and an image of what one has just actually seen is retained. The time of retention is much longer than normal. A related phenomenon is that of afterimages (see Ch. 17). These, too, are very pronounced when, during the inebriation, one closes one’s eyes. Both phenomena result in a lengthening of the time that perceptual stimuli (or their derivatives, such as afterimages) are amenable to mental inspection. As a consequence, the scope of the mental transformations that these stimuli can generate is increased.

This indeed seems to fit with the nature of the mental chaos that ayahuasca generates.

 

Metaphoricity

Since we have eliminated the “rawness” of perception, it follows that we would see metaphors impact the most basic level of perception, and that indeed is what happens. One example of this outside of ayahuasca is synaesthesia, which clearly involves some layer of semantic data.

In a discussion of Thomas Hardy’s synaesthesia four years ago, a synaesthete described an experience of “the concept Wednesday with the experience blue…it’s like my color-seeing bits are being activated but not quite seeing.” Ayahuasca experiences suggest the extension (or derailing) of this kind of process on many levels:

In Shanon (1992) and (1993a) I argue against this common view and suggest that for a metaphor to obtain it is not at all necessary that the semantic features or distinctions encountered in the metaphorical expression be given and fully defined prior to the articulation of that expression. Furthermore, on the basis of both empirical data and conceptual analysis, I claim that rather than being secondary, metaphorical processing is primary and non-derivative. This claim is supported by considerations of speed of processing in normal adults, ontogenetic patterns (it appears that metaphors are very common in the speech of young children), and the so-called primary (sic) processes encountered in dreams (these, note, are highly metaphorical; see Freud, 1900/1953). As I see it, the very essence of metaphoricity is the creation of new features. In other words, when producing or receiving a metaphor, cognitive agents draw new distinctions and induce new ways of looking at things. In this process, features are not selected out of prior, given semantic sets; rather, new semantic differentiations are made and new semantic features are generated. It is precisely this that makes metaphor cognitively so important—it is one of the most important mechanisms for novelty in cognition.

The foregoing observations highlight the intrinsic affinity between synaesthesia and metaphoricity. As indicated above, in cognitive-psychological discourse, the latter is generally linked primarily with language, whereas the former is regarded as sensory. I propose, rather, that they are to be regarded as the two manifestations of what is essentially the same basic cognitive phenomenon, namely, functioning in a mode that does not differentiate between domains that, from the perspective of normal mature adult cognition, are totally distinct. In metaphor these domains are semantic fields, while in synaesthesia they are sensory modalities, but otherwise these two cognitive phenomena are the same. Together, both may be regarded as manifestations of an enhanced degree of latitude with respect to priorly given, standardly established distinctions; this effect may be referred to as ‘nonfixedness’.

This perhaps is the most important point of Shanon’s book, underscoring the integration of the conceptual and the sensuous while emphasizing the collective nature of those metaphors. What Shanon has in mind here does bear some resemblance to Hans Blumenberg‘s idea of absolute metaphors. To underscore this, Shanon invokes one of Blumenberg’s core metaphors–hell, one of society’s core metaphors–light.

Significantly, language reflects (sic) the special status of light. It is no accident that in English—as in many other languages—words such as those ending the previous paragraph but one are derived from the term ‘light’ (cf. ‘enlightened’, ‘illumination’). In Hebrew, a language not at all related to English, the noun V is light, the noun ora is one of the terms for joy, the adjective mu’ar is illuminated, na’or is enlightened, me’or panim denotes happy welcomingness, and so on and so forth.

Since metaphors are shared and most are collectively generated (some may be native, I believe), it does render the social a core aspect of neuropsychology. I heartily endorse Shanon’s statement to this effect, drawing from Vygotsky:

Against dominant views in contem­porary cognitive science, my own is that the basic capability of the human cognitive system is not to process information but rather, to be and act in the world. Even our most private, most subjective experiences attest to this fundamental state of affairs (see Shanon, 1998*). This being the case, the internal and the external are inter­twined and there cannot be a sharp divide between the two. Specifically, the mental is embodied in the corporeal and individual cognition is embedded in the matrix of social interrelationships. As the Soviet psychologist Vygotsky and his disciples argued, mind is in society (see Vygotsky, 1978). Hence, in a very fundamental fashion, even the most individualistic psychologist cannot ignore the societal.

I don’t have much to add here. This seems to be an obvious point but I don’t feel it’s one often considered in lay presentations (or even technical presentations) in cognitive science and psychology. (It seems that Francisco Varela‘s “embodied mind” approach is one well-known, recent move in this direction.) There is a very long tradition here, probably best exemplified by Merleau-Ponty. But I think Shanon’s specific focus on metaphoricity is accurate and merits application in even the most quotidian studies of “being-in-the-world.” This would then constitute a rejection of Heidegger’s ontological approach, which makes these structures of “being-in-the-world” more fundamental than socially-conditioned metaphors.

There remains the issue of shared content across cultures. I don’t think Shanon provides a huge amount of evidence here to suggest too many universal concepts and metaphors genuinely innate to the mind. Light could well be one of them, but when it comes to snakes and cats, both extremely common in ayahuasca visions, I’m more wary. Snakes I think can be explained fairly easily: snakes are a very simple shape (that is, a line), and so if you’re going to see an animal (which may indeed be something more innate to the mind), a snake is a likely one, just like clouds are likely to look like marshmallows. Cats are trickier, but I’m not quite ready to assign them some innate presence in the brain just yet.

 

Idealistic Holism

In some ways it makes sense that the breakdown of our reality-processing software would result in a general feeling of holism:

Overall, Ayahuasca induces a comprehensive metaphysical view of things. I would characterize it as idealistic monism with pantheistic overtones. By this view, reality is conceived as constituted by one, non-material substance which is identified as Cosmic Consciousness, the Godhead, the ground of all Being, or the Fountain of Life. Coupled with this is the assessment that all things are interconnected and that in their totality they constitute one harmonious whole. This, in turn, entails an experienced realization that there is sense and reason to all things and that reality is invested with deep, heretofore unappreciated, meaningfulness. By and large, it seems that the metaphysical perspective induced by Ayahuasca is most similar to views entertained in classical Hindu philosophy (see, for instance, Phillips, 1995) 2 as well as by Plato, Plotinus, and Hegel. Remarkably, this view is essentially the same as that characterized by Huxley as the ‘perennial philosophy’ (Huxley, 1944; see also James, 1882); similar observations were also made in the context of LSD (see Grof, 1972, 1998).

Shanon doesn’t make any metaphysical claims for this experience, though he implies them rather strongly.

Thus, many informants have reported to me that the brew made them appreciate that ‘everything is interconnected’, ‘all is one’, ‘every­thing is spirit’, and ‘all is consciousness’. Other recurring expressions are ‘this world is an illusion’, ‘everything has meaning’, ‘the different levels and aspects of reality exhibit the same essential structure’, and ‘I and the world are united’.

It is difficult to know how to interpret these reports. Semantically, these are not impressive statements, but they reflect what must be a very powerful inner experience.

My question is: what other sort of conceptual experience would one expect to have in such a state other than holistic monism? I do not mean this rhetorically, but I want to ask if there may be a causal implication here in which ayahuasca does only part of the work and traditional cognitive functions do the rest.

To explain: What’s happening in such ayahuasca moments is a shutdown of traditional constraints (or categories) the brain imposes on our experience, accompanied by what is presumably cognitive attempts to produce something resembling coherent experience out of what remains. Broadly speaking, I would expect this to produce a sense of non-differentiation and lack of identity. The specifics of the experience may or may not be baked into the brain. At this point third-person accounts seem less helpful than they did with reports of more sensuous experiences.

Accompanied by such experiences is the collapse of time itself, which seems (a) phenomenologically remarkable, but (b) actually not too unlikely, given the other corruptions that are going on.

In front of me I saw the space of all possibilities, that is, all states of affairs that can possibly happen. They were lying in front of me there like objects in physical space. Choosing, I realized, is tantamount to the taking of a particular path in this space. It does not, however, consist in the generation of intrinsically new states of affairs. All possibilities are already there, I saw, but one has the option of choosing different paths amongst them, just as when travelling through a terrain in real space. Further, while travelling in the space of possibil­ities takes time, the possibilities themselves are there, given in an ever-present atemporal space. Thus, I concluded, there is no contradiction between determinism and free will. With this, for the first time I felt I understood the Jewish sages in the Mishna—’Everything is laid out in advance yet freedom of choice is given.’

Shanon reflects on the afterthoughts many drinkers have:

Ayahuasca causes many drinkers to reflect upon conscious­ness and its nature. This is true also of individuals without any prior intellectual interest in this topic. Moreover, in general, the specific ideas that different drinkers entertain with regard to consciousness fall into one consistent picture. As indicated earlier, consciousness is conceived of as the basic constituent of reality and the ground of all Being. Many further say they experience, and consequently conceive of, consciousness as a supra-human and non-individuated phenomenon of which human consciousness is a derivative. Obviously, that different people have and share these ideas proves nothing. Yet, perhaps this has some bearing on the topic being entertained? In other words, perhaps the similarity of these insights does indicate something with regard to the nature of consciousness? I leave this as an open question.

I think that, indeed, there is a shared set of concepts and experiential data that is cross-cultural, but that it falls under the broadly naturalistic rubric of “being human.” The supra-human, non-individuated state is one that could well naturally emerge from the brain when its moorings are loosened, just like in dreaming or schizophrenia. (Louis Sass describes somewhat analogous experiences in The Paradoxes of Delusion: Wittgenstein, Schreber, and the Schizophrenic Mind.)

Again, this isn’t to deflate Shanon’s claim, as consciousness is one damn weird creature, and the fact that our normal state of mind allows us to process reality in a more functional way does not mean that our normal state of mind is somehow more essentially reflective of the nature of consciousness.

Given these changes to the nature of experience, one would expect ayahuasca to generate certain questions about consciousness and experience with some uniformity. There is much room for cultural variation, but I think it’s unavoidable that there are certain basic conceptual areas of human experience that really are universal. (Maybe it’s time to revise Kant’s Categories once more.)

Things get trickier but also a bit more verifiable when Shanon describes experiences that overlap with reality that seem to extend consciousness extra-locally outside of his body:

The non-individuation of consciousness may also be manifested in the blurring of the distinction between the individual and his or her fellow human beings. As a consequence, one may feel that one’s identity is defined not individually but rather in group terms. Thus, strong identification with the other persons who participate in the Ayahuasca session is common. One clear manifestation of this is the communal singing in the rituals of the Santo Daime Church. Many times I have observed how sessions begin—the leading persons start to sing and the others in the hall readily join in, as if tied to them by hidden strings. Furthermore, the singing may be extremely co-ordinated, both with respect to tempo and rhythm and as far as immediate adjustments in tune are concerned. On such occasions, the group becomes a kind of a single organism that acts in a precise and highly concentrated fashion. Once I gave a cassette recording I had made of such singing for inspection to a musical laboratory equipped with high-tech measurement instruments. The experts were astonished at the perfect degree of synchrony between the people singing. In a direct, non-technical manner I have felt this many times as well. As recounted earlier, once I also had a vision that made the notion of group-consciousness even more apparent to me. In the vision I found myself in the midst of an ant colony. I felt the relationship between each ant, as a biological organism, and the colony as a whole. Consciousness was the property of the latter, not the former.

The cassette recording is the key piece of evidence here. The explanation, I gather, is a sub-conscious (a term I mean in a general, generic sense, not a specific one) ability of the body to process and act without the general level of conscious awareness that one lends to such activities, an abandonment of “thought” for “instinct,” but an “instinct” laden with much more cognition than is generally thought possible. (Perhaps this is akin to blindsight, in which there is clear conceptual processing going on despite a seeming lack of cognitive awareness.)

This sort of coordination is possible in everyday life between people as well, though it is often not noticed. One example would be the conjoined twins Abigail and Brittany Hensel, who are able to coordinate activities such as typing and driving, clearly without time for conscious reflection, despite each side of the body being controlled by an absolutely discrete brain. It’s not ESP, but it’s still rather remarkable. Presumably there are plenty of other studies of such sub-aware coordination going on.

Thus it is a question of terminology whether one then says that consciousness extends outside of the brain, or that human unconscious behavior is far more sophisticated and capable of coordination with others than we usually think. Shanon’s interpetation seems to go toward the former, as he ultimately denies the existence of the unconscious in any sense. Instead, he thinks of consciousness as having multiple states:

It could be suggested that human beings have the ability to operate, and exist, in two different states. Metaphorically, these may be conceived in terms of the shifting of gears. The first state is the ordinary one, and it is fully grounded in time. The other, non-ordinary state consists in the freeing of the mind from the ordinary temporal constraints. That such freeing is possible is a major feat of the human psyche. The study of the dynamics of the shift between the two states is, I think, a cognitive-psychological topic of utmost significance. A theoretical frame­work that accounts for it will encompass both ordinary consciousness and nonordinary consciousness and view them as specific cases obtained by means of variations in a common, general structure. Thus, the enterprise in question is, in essence, the development of what may be regarded as a general theory of con­sciousness.

Shanon seems to identify temporality as the distinguishing criterion between regular and non-regular consciousness. I’m not sure why this should necessarily be, or why there would only be two states as opposed to many, or a continuum. Most of us have experienced “bullet time,” the slowing down of perceived time when in some sort of crisis situation (I’ve experienced it in auto accident close-calls), and that seems to fall somewhere in between the two poles. But he’s the one who has taken ayahuasca a hundred times, so if his personal experience strongly suggests that there are just two modes, that’s a point to consider.

 

Spiritual Experience

People hypothesize some sort of “God module” in the brain that produces mystical experiences. This seems plausible to a point, but isolating a native spiritual aspect to the ayahuasca proceedings is very difficult. These experiences are obviously heavily culturally conditioned and conditioned by empirical experience, both culturally-dependent and universal. Regardless, the spiritual/mystical aspect of ayahuasca is obviously very strong.

As for the general euphoria, well-being, and sense of peace, it seems to be in some ways a coping mechanism. The spiritual side of the experience may indeed constitute a cognitive aspect of this coping mechanism:

I learn to use dissociation as an advantage[,] as a way of escaping from the horror. I am not the person got at; rather I am the disembodied face-presence calmly peering in and watching this other and unimportant me. I watch my other self, safely now. But then this second me, this objective and detached observer, succumbs too, and I have to dissociate into a third and then a fourth as the relation between my-selves breaks, creating an almost infinite series of fluttering mirrors of watching selves and feeling others.

But at this level of complexity and abstraction, comfort is far from the only thing produced. I don’t have a lot of clear thoughts about these aspects of the visions, as they seem the hardest to pin down and describe. I quote these two experiences of Shanon’s more for their vivid portrayals rather than for any philosophical insight I was able to derive from them.

First, a vision that is perhaps an allegory of ayahuasca itself:

I found myself engulfed in infinite blue. [Later I referred to it as 'the blue place'.] There were beings there. I did not see them but I had communication with them. They offered to reveal the mysteries of the universe to me. There was no question about it, they were benevolent and their offer was genuine and sincere. However, there was a condition involved with it—a payment on my part was to be made. I had to relinquish any further contact with this world. In other words, I would never return. I opened my eyes and I looked around. I saw my living room, my piano, my friend who was supposed to watch over me but who was tucked up in the large armchair sound asleep. I thought of my family and friends, my teaching and writing. I looked through the large window and saw the trees outside. I thought of my sanity. No, I did not want to lose all these! Nor, I reflected, did I wish to lose my regular self, the way I am, the way I think and feel. I sat up straight and spontaneously got my hands moving and energetically slapped my lap. Again and again I slapped so as to break myself free from the spell. Thus, I had forsaken the opportunity to learn the mysteries of the universe.

Afterwards I regretted my decision. Later, I reflected a lot on this episode and have drawn many lessons from it. I shall not dwell further on them here.

Second, a vision about the last king of Judaea, Zedekiah, which Shanon cites as being one of the most significant he ever had:

King Zedekiah was chained and unable to move. He was positioned in front of a large furnace. The fire was ablaze and one by one his sons were consigned to the flames. Then his eyes were plucked out. I was standing on the side, witnessing the scene. What could poor Zedekiah do? He could not help his children and could do nothing to change their awful lot. He could neither resist nor fight. He could, of course, curse and blaspheme but that would have done him no good. The only thing that he could do, really, was praise the Lord. This, I saw, is what he did. The blind man who had just lost both his kingdom and his sons was singing a great Hallelujah. With this, he was both gaining strength to go on living and maintaining his dignity. And as he was singing he also understood. Powerful as the Babylonian tyrant was, he was just a player in a play that was of a still much larger scope. For Nebuchadnezzar was not at the top of the pyramid—still above was the creator of the universe and the ruler of the world. Nebuchadnezzar was playing a role allotted to him and one day his fate too was sure to come.

There is one other, more abstract spiritual experience that Shanon describes many people as having had under ayahuasca, involving visual webs:

Many times, invariably towards the end of sessions and when I was stepping outside into the natural surroundings, there were lines and webs of light that interlaced everything. In time I came to learn that this experience is very common. Indeed, of the many people I have interviewed, only very few have not seen these patterns.

Even more common are visions that reveal what is felt to be the anima mundi—the cosmic energy that permeates all Existence and sustains everything that is. As noted in earlier chapters, this is often associated with the seeing of webs of translucent fibres that embrace the whole of Existence.

Personally, I have come to ideas of the kind just noted in conjunction with seeing the ‘web’ I described in Chs. 5 and 8, that is, a matrix of translucent strings that seem to tie everything together. I have experienced this many times and have heard of the same experience from many of my informants. The description of the visual effect was invariably the same and many persons used the identical phrase—’a web’—to describe it. For instance, one of the independent drinkers told me that the most important teaching she has received from Ayahuasca was the appreciation that the Divine does indeed exist. Asking her how she had arrived at this conclusion she answered by presenting a description of the tran­slucent web that interlinks everything and sustains all existence.

These three passages were striking to me because I’ve had something like this experience twice, years apart, both times fully sober. I was asleep on both occasions, but the force of the experience woke me up. I immediately associated the webs with the Heraclitan logos, but obviously that’s pretty close to the other descriptions Shanon gives.

Upon waking, the “vision” was nothing more than a very strong visual conception of webs in my head; there was no hallucination. But it was also accompanied by an ongoing, immense, unique feeling of ebullience and well-being that I have only experienced on those occasions. I was possessed by the overwhelming, reassuring, and no doubt irrational conviction that the universe as a whole made sense. It was a very visceral experience, unlike any other dream I have ever had or any other state I have ever been in, and bereft of concrete content.

I think of these experiences as having invoked a particular piece of neurological machinery different from those in normal use. I wouldn’t mind invoking it again, but I’m not about to drink ayahuasca to get there.

 

Conclusions

Shanon’s ultimate methodological conclusion in The Antipodes of the Mind seems to be a plea for a psychological functionalism:

But then, if explanation in psychology consists not in the modelling of mind by means of underlying computational operations, what else can it be? The answer I have come up with is that what is left for the psychologist to do is the systematic study of the surface, so to speak, and the establishment of lawful regularities in it. This is tantamount to saying that for me, the domain of the psychological coincides with that of conscious experience. In this domain, the unconscious does not exist. Like William James (1890/1950), I maintain that mental activities and processes are conscious, and they cannot be achieved outside of consciousness. It is in the light of this fundamental theoretical conclusion that I try to understand the Ayahuasca experience.

I agree with this recommendation wholeheartedly, yet it may come as a bit of a disappointment after his explorations of the inner. Alas, reality can be disappointing. Since whatever internal percepts we have must always be translated into the public language and tested against the collective rationality which we share, we are indeed stuck with the world as most of us perceive it. Any possible uplift will have to be collective. At that point, it won’t even seem that special since by definition it will have become ordinary.

Shanon postulates that the states ayahuasca creates are related to fundamental aspects of consciousness not normally in use:

Thus, significantly, the new types of consciousness discovered with Ayahuasca are not just two new types. Rather, they integrate coherently into the system of consciousness that I have constructed independently on the basis of the phenom­enological inspection of ordinary consciousness. The Ayahuasca experience also introduces one new distinction into the system, namely, mental contents of which the cognitive agent is directly aware but which are experienced as being independ­ent of his or her own mental processes. However, the extension pertaining to nonordinary consciousness does not alter the system of consciousness as such.

Any such construction seems highly speculative to me and requires actual neurological explanation in order to see if the model is tenable. What is notable is the ability to bring on an “egoless” or “agentless” state, one in which the division between self and world is greatly corrupted. Evolutionarily speaking, this function seems maladaptive  on the surface.

Yet I could also believe that conviction of purposefulness, at-home-ness, universal empathy, and integration with the world could be a great booster to a sentient organism. If so, it’s rather ironic that such a condition requires entering a mental and physical state in which one is rendered nearly nonfunctional and completely vulnerable. But in that it’s not so different from many of the best moments in life.

One thought on “Benny Shanon: The Antipodes of the Mind

  1. David, I’m glad you gave Shanon’s remarkable book the thoughtful, serious treatment it deserves. I discovered Antipodes right after I finished my book Rational Mysticism, in which I tried to make sense of mystical experiences. Antipodes is one of the best books on mysticism since Varieties of Religious Experience, in part because Shanon, like James, resists either reductionist or supernatural interpretations.

Leave a Reply