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The Psychedelic Mirror

There’s something it’s hard not to notice when you speak with people about psychedelics.

Most pop culture portrayals of psychedelics have discussions that begin (and all too often, end) with the word “Duuuuuuuude.”  This may originate with the character “Shaggy” from Scooby Doo, the cultural progenitor of cartoon druggies.  Something about Shaggy clearly struck a chord; he’s been spliced and cloned into dozens of equivalent, well-meaning imbeciles across all media ever since.

But with all due respect to mystery-solving dogs and their human sidekicks, when you talk with real users of psychedelics, the topic expands well beyond “Duuuuude.”  People are eager to talk about their experiences.  And it’s very rarely just “I was so fucked up” or “I partied like it was 1999.” 

Well, sometimes it is that, but those things are the jumping-off point, not the follow-through.

People who become psychedelics aficionados — those who maintain an interest after their last rave or beyond their first bad trip — don’t want to talk about shiny colors or how their house cat suddenly turned telepathic.  They want to talk about what their psychedelic experiences have taught them about themselves.

It’s a weaker punchline than “Duuuuude.”

And often a lot more confusing, long-winded, and deeply personal.

But as these are what real (i.e. non-cartoon) psychedelics users find comment-worthy about their experiences, it seems worth paying attention to.

Half-Way Between You and Them

What follows is my pet theory on why psychedelic experiences can be so transformative for people.  But first, a question:

Why do people go to psychologists — or even to friends, family members, and others who know them well — to get advice on their own lives?

With all due respect to mystery-solving dogs and their human sidekicks, the topic of psychedelics goes well beyond “Duuuuude.”

First, because — whether we’re narcissists or self-haters — we’re all deeply interested in ourselves.  And it’s always fun to get other people to discuss this best-loved of topics with us.

And second, because we’re extremely biased when it comes to ourselves.  We are not good judges of our own behavior, or recognizers our own idiosyncrasies.  We are the water we swim in — and we are thus both omnipresent and invisible in our lives.  With less freedom than Peter Pan’s shadow, we follow ourselves around 24 hours a day.

Self-Blind: All Our Mirrors Are Wacky

At some point, you’ve done the optical illusion where you stare at a high-contrast image for 30 seconds, then look at a white wall, and you can see the “burned-in” negative image of whatever you’d been previously looking at.  (If you haven’t done this, were you never a kid?)

Your brain’s optical system — even in that short time span — had constructed a sort of overlay to “balance out” the strong contrasts in your visual field.  This is similar to how a camera automatically controls for exposure, so overly-bright parts of an image don’t “white out” and lose detail.  In your own optical system, this contrast-reduction helps sensitize you to variations in your visual field.  “Variations,” in this case, meaning movement.  (Maximizing awareness of nearby moving objects probably needs no justification.  Think: predators, prey, pies-in-face, etc.)

So here’s the analogy: The nuances of our own behavior are the constant, unchanging elements in our own experiential world.  From our point of view, that is.

That’s why someone else’s opinion — the friend, the psychologist, even the stranger who tells you that your fly is open — can be so incredibly valuable.  We are a moving, high-contrast object in the perceptual experience of that person’s life… so we show up to them with greater clarity.  We “pop off the background” in a way we can’t do for ourselves.

Just like they do for us.  And just like they can’t do for themselves.

The Things Only We Know

However, for all the upsides of getting an outside perspective, there is undeniably value in self-reflection as well.  Although it’s seldom without effort, we can identify things about ourselves that others can never tell us, because we’ve got a huge advantage over them…

We have access to a far greater data-set about our own world, our own behavior, and our own experiences than any outside observer has.  (At least, this was true in the era before smart phones.  Nowadays, my iPhone may know more about me than I do — in a facts-and-figures sort of way.)

The conjunction of these two tool-sets — the memory library we store about ourselves, and the perspective offered by someone else, watching from the outside — is ripe with possibilities for new revelations about our behavior.  What’s effective, what’s ineffective, what as-yet-untested strategies may prove to be effective, and why.

Psychedelics — in my theory — cuts out the middle-man.

During a psychedelic experience, the user’s view of reality is profoundly affected, like looking through a prism, or a kaleidoscope, or (to keep with the idea of an outside perspective) someone else’s eyeglasses.

And yet — here’s where the magic happens… Looking from that outside perspective, the psychedelics user gets to page through his or her whole catalog of self-knowledge.  The smorgasbord of memories and details even close friends don’t know — whether because these things are too private to admit, or too mundane to ever come up in conversation.

This fertile blend of outside perspective plus inner knowledge is the essential recipe for the insights that psychedelics can sometimes provide.  Of course, a psychedelically-skewed perspective could also be so confusing as to be useless.  Your pet goldfish will see you with a perspective that’s even more alien than your psychologist’s — but your goldfish’s perspective is less likely to be instructive when optimizing your behavior.

Know Thyself.  One Way or Another.

“Know thyself” is a quote attributed to Socrates — and to nine or ten other long-dead thinkers.  Self-interested as humans are, there’s no reason to think that just one person, or one culture, came up with this idea.  That’s probably what makes it such good advice.

The psychedelics user gets to page through his or her whole catalog of self-knowledge…

Psychedelics are one means for people to know themselves better.  Maybe not the best means, certainly not the only means, and for some people, not even a safe means.  My comparison of psychedelic insight to psychological counseling is no more or less serious than my comparison of psychedelic insight to talking with a goldfish.

To put that another way: some psychedelic “insights” might not make it past the Duuuuuude threshold.  But the same will be true of talking with a psychologist, or of any other path to self-knowledge.

If knowing one’s self were easy, everyone would be doing it.

Psychedelics aren’t easy. 

And neither are they a direct path to meaningful insight, any more than the discovery of fire was a direct path to the steam engine.  My point isn’t to evangelize, or even to recommend – it’s just to propose a mechanism behind the age-old, cross-cultural claims of the value of psychedelic “visionary” experiences.

Of course, there are also probably epochs-old, cross-cultural versions of people saying Duuuuuuude and their friends laughing at them.

But ultimately, the punchline is the process. 

It’s the mental discombobulation of psychedelic states that gives them their utility.

Somewhere on the biochemical middle-ground between sobriety and being “completely fucked up,” a psychedelics user may just find himself on an optimal cognitive plateau, offering an unexpected view toward self-discovery.

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