Altered States

Sunday, March 3, 2019
First Aired: 
Sunday, May 22, 2016

What Is It

Aldous Huxley explains his conception of the brain as a "reducing valve" of consciousness in his provocative book, The Doors of Perception. His famous experiment with the psychedelic substance mescaline was an attempt to open this valve and expand his capacity for knowledge. However, many drugs and psychedelics today are seen as simply tools for pleasure or the source of bad habits. Do drugs possess the capability to expand our consciousness and provide meaningful insight? Or are they nothing more than a route to empty delirium? Ken and guest co-host Alison Gopnik take a trip with artist, scientist, and founder of the Beckley Foundation, Amanda Feilding.

Listening Notes

Mind expanding drugs that bring about states of consciousness unavailable to our usual modes of perception – can they offer spiritual or intellectual insight, or potentially help aid social ills? We already alter our minds in many ways throughout everyday life with a morning cup of coffee, evening cocktail, or intense session of yoga. Could the more intense alterations achieved through certain controlled substances like LSD or psilocybin offer a privileged view into the inner workings of consciousness itself? Our guests Ken Taylor and Allison Gopnik, standing in for John Perry, attempt to answer this question. While Allison is excited about recent research revealing the expanding effects of psychedelics on brain activity, Ken remains skeptical and concerned about the potential downsides of substance use.

Allison and Ken are joined by Amanda Feilding, founder and director of the Beckley Foundation, a think tank on drug policy and research into psychedelic substances. Amanda begins by explaining how she first became passionate about the study of psychedelics, and how the post-sixties ban on these substances hindered her progress for many years. The recent developments in brain-imaging technology have led to a new rise in research on these altered states. Ken questions how the distortion of our cognitive faculties could in any way give us insight to truths about ourselves or consciousness. Amanda explains how the effects of these substances on specific networks in the brain allow us to perceive more information than under usual circumstances.

Our hosts welcome onto the show several callers to hear their questions. Amanda replies to a caller from San Francisco who questions whether it is possible to reach these psychedelic states of mind without the use of substances. Meanwhile, another caller wonders whether the effects of psychedelic substances can shed light on the nature of the self, which segues into a long conversation amongst our guests. The episode finishes with a discussion on the future role of psychedelic substances in human society.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (seek to 6:06): Shuka Kalantari speaks to Ben Schechet of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies about the history of MDMA – commonly known as ecstasy.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 46:00): Ian Shoales recaps the effects of specific drugs on our culture throughout recent history. 


Comments (1)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, March 1, 2019 -- 11:36 AM

Mind-expanding drugs. Hm. I

Mind-expanding drugs. Hm. I have been hearing about such notions since the nineteen-sixties, so yes, I am pretty, uh, old. I did experiment, 'back in the day'. No harsh chemicals, though, and not excessively. Perceptions can be altered; personal experiences (so I have been told) may differ;---my one memorable experience was an apparent suspension of time and motion: I could hear the people around me talking, the conversation, completely intelligible. But no one, not even their lips, was MOVING. Hallucination? I suppose. No one else reported such an effect; they thought I must be crazy. Or something. The agent under experimentation was black African, opiated hashish. Pretty powerful stuff, for the time.

So, did I experience an altered state? Was MY mind "expanded"? I don't know, nor do I know how I would have known.
I dabble in my own notions of philosophy now, as I have said before.Would that futurity have emerged, had I not experimented with brain-blasting hashish? Again, I do not know. My life is what it is. And that's all right, too.