Monday, December 12, 2016

Riffing On The Nature Of The Universe

British researcher David Nutt studies the effects of LSD on the human brain and has recently published a study in which he used advanced brain imaging techniques to show how the drug functions. Under normal conditions our senses take in information about the world which is then transmitted to the higher level part of our brain that controls abstract thought. On LSD, however, that connection is weakened and instead the various specialized parts of our brain more freely communicate amongst themselves, which leads people to experience the characteristic effects of the drug: hallucinations, a loss of the sense of self, and feelings of oneness with the universe. In Nutt's research this state was triggered by turning on music.

You have overcome, for I am here. ~Parliament, Mothership Connection

I spent a lot of evenings in my bedroom listening to record albums during the 70's, each one becoming a world in which to dwell for an hour or so. Parliament was an act in whose world I spent a good chunk of time. Being a white suburban boy who had moved around a lot, it was an alien world for sure, full of strange and wonderful sounds, hallucinatory even. I found ideas there that I knew to be true without evidence, moments when I felt there really was a "mothership connection" with a part of humanity that I had only previously encountered through intermediaries, like the media.

Tear the roof off, we're gonna tear the roof off the mother, sucka'. Tear the roof off the sucka'. ~Parliament, Give Up the Funk 

It's one of the ways all art functions, circumventing the need for abstract thought, replacing it with connectedness. Maybe LSD will turn out to provide a shortcut or something. Researchers like Nutt believe that the drug's ability to disrupt the normal functioning of our brains may lead to treatments for all kinds of mental illnesses, including breaking the cycles of depression, anxiety, and addiction.

That god looks cute. ~Bongwater, Obscene & Pornographic Art

On Friday's snow day, I spent my morning compiling a song list, heavy on Parliament, and headed outdoors for a long urban hike, with the music filling my consciousness. I intentionally attempted to experience more than think: the cold, damp air; the shape of buildings; the things that used to be there; the faces of my fellow humans; the movement of my body; the images the music painted like hallucinations. There were moments, brief though they might have been, when I was fully connected, selfless, one with the universe, but I couldn't stay there for long because it's simply an unnatural state, one that is only accessible via meditation, music, or what we label hallucinogenic drugs.

Put a glide in your stride and a dip in your hip and come on to the Mothership. ~Parliament, Mothership Connection

If this reads like airy-fairy mumbo-jumbo it's probably because I've been musing on a paper that was recently published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology (brought to my attention by an article about one of it's authors in The Atlantic), and everything that touches upon the quantum reality of our universe sounds like mumbo-jumbo. The paper is mind blowing in the best possible sense of that word. On the relationship between perception and reality:

One theory is naive realism. According to one version of naive realism, perception faithfully and exhaustively resembles reality. We see the truth, the whole truth and, most often, nothing but the truth. Critical realism, also known as scientific realism, weakens this claim; perception faithfully resembles a part of reality, but not all of reality. We see the truth, but not the whole truth, and sometimes other than the truth. For instance, we see visible light but not ultraviolet or X-rays, and we can have misperceptions, such as optical illusions. Most students of perception today are critical realists.

And then they drop this one:

The interface theory (or desktop theory) weakens the claim even further: perception need not, and in general does not, resemble any aspect of reality . . . Whereas naive and critical realism assert that perception is useful because, exhaustively or in part, it is true, the desktop theory asserts that perception can be useful because it is not true. Just as a Windows desktop hides the complexity of computer hardware, perception hides the complexity of the reality it represents, and instead provides a species-specific guide to action.

I laughed out loud when I read: "perception need not, and in general does not, resemble any aspect of reality." I laughed, I think, because I saw in a flash it is true.

I stepped up to you with a fresh pack of gum 'cause somehow I knew you were looking for some. ~Beck, Debra

Normally, when our fingers touch a surface, information about that surface is relayed through nerves and synapsis and whatnot to a specific interpretive part of the brain, but sometimes, under the right conditions, like deep meditation or LSD, our brains are briefly connected to what is behind the desktop icon. Nutt's LSD studies show that brains listening to music on the drug are less likely to filter perceptions through abstract reasoning and instead communicate directly with the specialized parts of our brain: we lose our selves, we are "at one."

Uhh! Awww, sookie sookie, now! ~King Floyd, Groove Me

On a day-to-day basis we are only capable of perceiving what humans have evolved to perceive and since the driving force behind evolution is procreation, there is really no need to perceive the greater truth, only what is useful for our continued survival, which may or may not have anything to do with the reality behind the desktop icon.

I want you to understand what I'm saying' ~Otis Redding, Mr. Pitiful

Other species have evolved their own set of perceptions, again not necessarily attached to truth, but to utility. I think of those nerve endings in my fingers, detecting sensations, providing information about a small part of the universe. I perceive something as hot or cold or smooth or rough, then use that information to better my chances for survival. Those nerve endings need not know anything, or at least very little, because they have evolved to simply convey information. But then it might also be true that our entire universe is a mere nerve ending and we a minuscule part of even that, perceiving an even more minuscule part of that, the rest of the "truth" about reality being entirely unnecessary to us, even threatening because in a state of perfect selflessness there can be no urge to self-preservation, and thus placed behind that icon by the evolution of our perceptions . . . or God as the case may be.

I'm a low brow, but I rock a little know how. ~Red Hot Chili Peppers, Give It Away

As I walked to my funky music in downtown Seattle, I found myself at the intersection on 1st Avenue at the entry to the Pike Place Public Market. A woman dressed in bright colors was silently gesturing on a corner, waving her arms dramatically in the air. At first I thought she was there to attract customers to a particular stall or perhaps a performance of some sort, but then she wandered out into the brick-paved street. I was immediately shocked into survival mode, her survival. I looked both ways on her behalf, prepared to shout a warning at her, but then the light changed and the rest of us poured into the intersection as well. Had she been tuned into some other perception that allowed her to know when the crosswalk light was going to change? Had she been counting down, keeping an internal count? Had she judged the timing according to the yellow lights or simply intuited the proper moment to wander? Was she connected to a truth I'm not capable of perceiving, at one with the universe, or was it just pure dumb luck?

Superstition ain't the way. ~Stevie Wonder, Superstition 

I see these folks a lot on the streets in Seattle, people who seem in another world, who are talking to people I cannot see or hear. The other day I passed a woman, learning forward on a stone bench, an elbow on one knee, the other hand gesturing, saying, "Well honey, let me tell you what we did when we were young women," as if passing along advice to a relative. She sounded so reasonable and self-assured, like someone from whom I'd be inclined to accept advice, that I had to look twice to make sure she wasn't a "normal" person talking to someone on the phone. But no, she was indeed talking to a person that she could see and hear, maybe touch and smell, but I could not.

Take out our brains and shake 'em all around.  ~Jim White, Crash Into the Sun

I followed the colorfully clad woman across the intersection because she was going my way. She stopped on the curb, turned and dizzily faced back across from where she'd come, her eyes tracking across me without taking me in, then in the sort of exaggerated pantomime she had displayed when she first caught my eye she rose up on her toes and silently, but angrily mouthed, "F--- Y--!" to someone or something that existed in a way that I could not perceive.

I just wanna watch you dance.  ~Beck, Mixed Bizness

We call these people crazy, but you know, maybe they've just evolved the ability to perceive things we can't, things that are not included in our "normal" desktop interface; a mutant perception that would reduce our chances of survival were it to become widespread, even if it would show us, or perhaps even because it would show us, a truth we simply couldn't handle. I suspect that's what LSD does, and to a lesser extent meditation and music. As these altered mental states cause the specialized parts of our brain to interact without the mediation of abstract thought, we perceive the abject falsity of our existence, connecting us instead to the great cosmic life of which we are but relative atoms in its nerve endings. Cool, but potentially dangerous stuff.

Dance, Sucka!  ~Parliament, Flash Light

I might say to you, "I'm depressed," and you'll know what I mean: it's not that my depression is your depression, but rather than you know what I'm talking about. According to the interface theory that's how everything works. That moon I see? You know what I'm talking about because you've had a moon of your own. Each one of us has our own moon.

Say what?  ~Ohio Players, Love Rollercoaster

What we "teach" children is utilitarian stuff: how to use tools, ideas, and one another. Good stuff, the stuff of our perceptions: this is how to work life, but damn it! We know even without knowing that there is a mind blowing complexity behind what even humanity's greatest brains will ever imagine. We don't teach about it because how could we? We're incapable of understanding it, except in flashes, inspired most often by meditation, music, poetry and drugs. And besides, I reckon that young children, especially very young children, are already more hip to it all than we are, and losing more of it with each passing day as their perceptions begin to create their own moons.

You will not be able to stay home, brother.  ~Gil Scott-Heron, The Revolution Will Not be Televised

No, education must be based upon the Newtonian world, the useful world, the world defined by our hidebound perceptions. Naturally we want children to trust their instincts because whatever the greater truth, they live on this side of the icon. But still, as useless as it might be, it's fun to think about this stuff even if wecan never know it. But at least for brief moments, under the right conditions, we can try to connect to it and take a ride on the Mothership. We'll come back to earth soon enough.

Let me put my sunglasses on. That's the law around here. You gotta wear your sunglasses . . . So you can feel cool.  ~Parliament, P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)

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1 comment:

Nancy Schimmel said...

J. B. S. Haldane, geneticist, 1892-1964:
My own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we *can* suppose.