All the unique characteristics and preoccupations of human beings can be summed up under the heading of cognitive activities: dance, philosophy, painting, poetry, sport, meditation, erotic fantasy, politics, and ecstatic self-intoxication. We are truly Homo sapiens, the thinking animal; our acts are all a product of the dimension that is uniquely ours, the dimension of cognitive activity. Of thought and emotion, memory and anticipation. Of Psyche.
From observing the ayahuasca-using people of the Upper Amazon, it became very clear to me that shamanism is often intuitively guided group decision making. The shamans decide when the group should move or hunt or make war. Human cognition is an adaptive response that is profoundly flexible in the way it allows us to manage what in other species are genetically programmed behaviors.
We alone live in an environment that is conditioned not only by the biological and physical constraints to which all species are subject but also by symbols and language. Our human environment is conditioned by meaning. And meaning lies in the collective mind of the group.
Symbols and language allow us to act in a dimension that is “supranatural”-outside the ordinary activities of other forms of organic life. We can actualize our cultural assumptions, alter and shape the natural world in the pursuit of ideological ends and according to the internal model of the world that our symbols have empowered us to create. We do this through the elaboration of ever more effective, and hence ever more destructive, artifacts and technologies, which we feel compelled to use.
Symbols allow us to store information outside of the physical brain. This creates for us a relationship to the past very different from that of our animal companions. Finally, we must add to any analysis of the human picture the notion of self-directed modification of activity. We are able to modify our behavior patterns based on a symbolic analysis of past events, in other words, through history. Through our ability to store and recover information as images and written records, we have created a human environment as much conditioned by symbols and languages as by biological and environmental factors.
TRANSFORMATIONS OF MONKEYS
The evolutionary breakouts that led to the appearance of language and, later, writing are examples of fundamental, almost ontological, transformations of the hominid line. Besides providing us with the ability to code data outside the confines of DNA, cognitive activities allow us to transmit information across space and time. At first this amounted merely to the ability to shout a warning or a command, really little more than a modification of the cry of alarm that is a familiar feature of the behavior of social animals. Over the course of human history this impulse to communicate has motivated the elaboration of ever more effective communication techniques. But by our century, this basic ability has turned into the all-pervasive communications media, which literally engulf the space surrounding our planet. The planet swims through a self-generated ocean of messages. Telephone calls, data exchanges, and electronically transmitted entertainment create an invisible world experienced as global informational simultaneity. We think nothing of this; as a culture we take it for granted.
Our unique and feverish love of word and symbol has given us a collective gnosis, a collective understanding of ourselves and our world that has survived throughout history until very recent times. This collective gnosis lies behind the faith of earlier centuries in “universal truths” and common human values. Ideologies can be thought of as meaning-defined environments. They are invisible, yet they surround us and determine for us, though we may never realize it, what we should think about ourselves and reality. Indeed they define for us what we can think.
The rise of globally simultaneous electronic culture has vastly accelerated the rate at which we each can obtain information necessary to our survival. This and the sheer size of the human population as a whole have brought to a halt our physical evolution as a species. The larger a population is, the less impact mutations will have on the evolution of that species. This fact, coupled with the development of shamanism and, later, scientific medicine, has removed us from the theater of natural selection. Meanwhile libraries and electronic data bases have replaced the individual human mind as the basic hardware providing storage for the cultural data base. Symbols and languages have gradually moved us away from the style of social organization that characterized the mute nomadism of our remote ancestors and has replaced that archaic model with the vastly more complicated social organization characteristic of an electronically unified planetary society. As a result of these changes, we ourselves have become largely epigenetic, meaning that much of what we are as human beings is no longer in our genes but in our culture.
THE PREHISTORIC EMERGENCE OF HUMAN IMAGINATION
Our capacity for cognitive and linguistic activity is related to the size and organization of the human brain. Neural structures concerned with conceptualization, visualization, signification, and association are highly developed in our species. Through the act of speaking vividly, we enter into a flirtation with the domain of the imagination. The ability to associate sounds, or the small mouth noises of language, with meaningful internal images is a synesthesic activity. The most recently evolved areas of the human brain, Broca’s area and the neocortex, are devoted to the control of symbol and language processing.
The conclusion universally drawn from these facts is that the highly organized neurolinguistic areas of our brain have made language and culture possible. Where the search for scenarios of human emergence and social organization is concerned, the problem is this: we know that our linguistic abilities must have evolved in response to enormous evolutionary pressures-but we do not know what these pressures were.
Where psychoactive plant use was present, hominid nervous systems over many millennia would have been flooded by hallucinogenic realms of strange and alien beauty. However, evolutionary necessity channels the organism’s awareness into a narrow cul-desac where ordinary reality is perceived through the reducing valve of the senses. Otherwise, we would be rather poorly adapted for the rough-and-tumble of immediate existence. As creatures with animal bodies, we are aware that we are subject to a range of immediate concerns that we can ignore only at great peril. As human beings we are also aware of an interior world, beyond the needs of the animal body, but evolutionary necessity has placed that world far from ordinary consciousness.
PATTERNS AND UNDERSTANDING
Consciousness has been called awareness of awareness’ and is characterized by novel associations and connections among the various data of experience. Consciousness is like a super nonspecific immune response. The key to the working of the immune system is the ability of one chemical to recognize, to have a key-in-lock relationship, with another. Thus both the immune system and consciousness represent systems that learn, recognize, and remember.’
As I write this I think of what Alfred North Whitehead said about understanding, that it is apperception of pattern as such. This is also a perfectly acceptable definition of consciousness. Awareness of pattern conveys the feeling that attends understanding. There presumably can be no limit to how much consciousness a species can acquire, since understanding is not a finite project with an imaginable conclusion, but rather a stance toward immediate experience. This appears self-evident from within a world view that sees consciousness as analogous to a source of light. The more powerful the light, the greater the surface area of darkness revealed. Consciousness is the moment-to-moment integration of the individual’s perception of the world. How well, one could almost say how gracefully, an individual accomplishes this integration determines that individual’s unique adaptive response to existence.
We are masters not only of individual cognitive activity, but, when acting together, of group cognitive activity as well. Cognitive activity within a group usually means the elaboration and manipulation of symbols and language. Although this occurs in many species, within the human species it is especially well developed. Our immense power to manipulate symbols and language gives us our unique position in the natural world. The power of our magic and our science arises out of our commitment to group mental activity, symbol sharing, meme replication (the spreading of ideas), and the telling of tall tales.
The idea, expressed above, that ordinary consciousness is the end product of a process of extensive compression and filtration, and that the psychedelic experience is the antithesis of this construction, was put forward by Aldous Huxley, who contrasted this with the psychedelic experience. In analyzing his experiences with mescaline, Huxley wrote:
I find myself agreeing with the eminent Cambridge philosopher, Dr. C. D. Broad, “that we should do well to consider the suggestion that the function of the brain and nervous system and sense organs is in the main eliminative and not productive.” The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful. According to such a theory, each one of us is potentially Mind at Large. But in so far as we are animals, our business is at all costs to survive. To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funnelled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet. To formulate and express the contents of this reduced awareness, man has invented and endlessly elaborated those symbol-systems and implicit philosophies which we call languages. Every individual is at once the beneficiary and the victim of the linguistic tradition into which he has been born. That which, in the language of religion, is called “this world” is the universe of reduced awareness, expressed, and, as it were, petrified by language. The various “other worlds” with which human beings erratically make contact are so many elements in the totality of the awareness belonging to Mind at Large …. Temporary by-passes may be acquired either spontaneously, or as the result of deliberate “spiritual exercises,”. . . or by means of drugs.’
What Huxley did not mention was that drugs, specifically the plant hallucinogens, can reliably and repeatedly open the floodgates of the reducing valve of consciousness and expose the individual to the full force of the howling Tao. The way in which we internalize the impact of this experience of the Unspeakable, whether encountered through psychedelics or other means, is to generalize and extrapolate our world view through acts of imagination. These acts of imagination represent our adaptive response to information concerning the outside world that is conveyed to us by our senses. In our species, culture-specific, situation-specific syntactic software in the form of language can compete with and sometimes replace the instinctual world of hard-wired animal behavior. This means that we can learn and communicate experience and thus put maladaptive behaviors behind us. We can collectively recognize the virtues of peace over war, or of cooperation over struggle. We can change.
As we have seen, human language may have arisen when primate organizational potential was synergized by plant hallucinogens. The psychedelic experience inspired us to true self-reflective thought in the first place and then further inspired us to communicate our thoughts about it.
Others have sensed the importance of hallucinations as catalysts of human psychic organization. Julian Jaynes’s theory, presented in his controversial book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,’ makes the point that major shifts in human self-definition may have occurred even in historical times. He proposes that through Homeric times people did not have the kind of interior psychic organization that we take for granted. Thus, what we call ego was for Homeric people a “god.” When danger threatened suddenly, the god’s voice was heard in the individual’s mind; an intrusive and alien psychic function was expressed as a kind of metaprogram for survival called forth under moments of great stress. This psychic function was perceived by those experiencing it as the direct voice of a god, of the king, or of the king in the afterlife. Merchants and traders moving from one society to another brought the unwelcome news that the gods were saying different things in different places, and so cast early seeds of doubt. At some point people integrated this previously autonomous function, and each person became the god and reinterpreted the inner voice as the “self” or, as it was later called, the “ego.”
Jaynes’s theory has been largely dismissed. Regrettably his book on the impact of hallucinations on culture, though 467 pages in length, manages to avoid discussion of hallucinogenic plants or drugs nearly entirely. By this omission Jaynes deprived himself of a mechanism that could reliably drive the kind of transformative changes he saw taking place in the evolution of human consciousness.
The impact of hallucinogens in the diet has been more than psychological; hallucinogenic plants may have been the catalysts for everything about us that distinguishes us from other higher primates, for all the mental functions that we associate with humanness. Our society more than others will find this theory difficult to accept, because we have made pharmacologically obtained ecstasy a taboo. Like sexuality, altered states of consciousness are taboo because they are consciously or unconsciously sensed to be entwined with the mysteries of our origin-with where we came from and how we got to be the way we are. Such experiences dissolve boundaries and threaten the order of the reigning patriarchy and the domination of society by the unreflecting expression of ego. Yet consider how plant hallucinogens may have catalyzed the use of language, the most unique of human activities.
One has, in a hallucinogenic state, the incontrovertible impression that language possesses an objectified and visible dimension, which is ordinarily hidden from our awareness. Language, under such conditions, is seen, is beheld, just as we would ordinarily see our homes and normal surroundings. In fact our ordinary cultural environment is correctly recognized, during the experience of the altered state, as the bass drone in the ongoing linguistic business of objectifying the imagination. In other words, the collectively designed cultural environment in which we all live is the objectification of our collective linguistic intent.
Our language-forming ability may have become active through the mutagenic influence of hallucinogens working directly on organelles that are concerned with the processing and generation of signals. These neural substructures are found in various portions of the brain, such as Broca’s area, that govern speech formation. In other words, opening the valve that limits consciousness forces utterance, almost as if the word is a concretion of meaning previously felt but left unarticulated. This active impulse to speak, the “going forth of the word,” is sensed and described in the cosmogonies of many peoples.
Psilocybin specifically activates the areas of the brain concerned with processing signals. A common occurrence with psilocybin intoxication is spontaneous outbursts of poetry and other vocal activity such as speaking in tongues, though in a manner distinct from ordinary glossolalia. In cultures with a tradition of mushroom use, these phenomena have given rise to the notion of discourse with spirit doctors and supernatural allies. Researchers familiar with the territory agree that psilocybin has a profoundly catalytic effect on the linguistic impulse.
Once activities involving syntactic self-expression were established habits among early human beings, the continued evolution of language in environments where mushrooms were scarce or unavailable permitted a tendency toward the expression and emergence of the ego. If the ego is not regularly and repeatedly dissolved in the unbounded hyperspace of the Transcendent Other, there will always be slow drift away from the sense of self as part of nature’s larger whole. The ultimate consequence of this drift is the fatal ennui that now permeates Western civilization.
The connection between mushrooms and language was brilliantly anticipated by Henry Munn in his essay “The Mushrooms of Language Language is an ecstatic activity of signification. Intoxicated by the mushrooms, the fluency, the ease, the aptness of expression one becomes capable of are such that one is astounded by the words that issue forth from the contact of the intention of articulation with the matter of experience. The spontaneity the mushrooms liberate is not only perceptual, but linguistic. For the shaman, it is as if existence were uttering itself through him.
THE FLESH MADE WORD
The evolutionary advantages of the use of speech are both obvious and subtle. Many unusual factors converged at the birth of human language. Obviously speech facilitates communication and cognitive activity, but it also may have had unanticipated effects on the whole human enterprise.
Some neurophysiologists have hypothesized that the vocal vibration associated with human use of language caused a kind of cleansing of the cerebrospinal fluid. It has been observed that vibrations can precipitate and concentrate small molecules in the spinal fluid, which bathes and continuously purifies the brain. Our ancestors may have, consciously or unconsciously, discovered that vocal sound cleared the chemical cobwebs out of their heads. This practice may have affected the evolution of our present-day thin skull structure and proclivity for language. A self-regulated process as simple as singing might well have positive adaptive advantages if it also made the removal of chemical waste from the brain more efficient. The following excerpt supports this provocative idea:
Vibrations of human skull, as produced by loud vocalization, exert a massaging effect on the brain and facilitate elution of metabolic products from the brain into the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) . . . . The Neanderthals had a brain 15% larger than we have, yet they did not survive in competition with modern humans. Their brains were more polluted, because their massive skulls did not vibrate and therefore the brains were not sufficiently cleaned. In the evolution of the modern humans the thinning of cranial bones was important.’
As already discussed, hominids and hallucinogenic plants must have been in close association for a long span of time, especially if we want to suggest that actual physical changes in the human genome resulted from the association. The structure of the soft palate in the human infant and timing of its descent is a recent adaptation that facilitates the acquisition of language. No other primate exhibits this characteristic. This change may have been a result of selective pressure on mutations originally caused by the new omnivorous diet.
WOMEN AND LANGUAGE
Women, the gatherers in the Archaic hunter-gatherer equation, were under much greater pressure to develop language than were their male counterparts. Hunting, the prerogative of the larger male, placed a premium on strength, stealth, and stoic waiting. The hunter was able to function quite well on a very limited number of linguistic signals, as is still the case among hunting peoples such as the !Kung or the Maku.
For gatherers, the situation was different. Those women with the largest repertoire of communicable images of foods and their sources and secrets of preparation were unquestionably placed in a position of advantage. Language may well have arisen as a mysterious power possessed largely by women-women who spent much more of their waking time together-and, usually, talking-than did men, women who in all societies are seen as group-minded, in contrast to the lone male image, which is the romanticized version of the alpha male of the primate troop.
The linguistic accomplishments of women were driven by a need to remember and describe to each other a variety of locations and landmarks as well as numerous taxonomic and structural details about plants to be sought or avoided. The complex morphology of the natural world propelled the evolution of language toward modeling of the world beheld. To this day a taxonomic description of a plant is a Joycean thrill to read: “Shrub 2 to 6 feet in height, glabrous throughout. Leaves mostly opposite, some in threes or uppermost alternate, sessile, linear-lanceolate or lanceolate, acute or acuminate. Flowers solitary in axils, yellow, with aroma, pedicellate. Calyx campanulate, petals soon caducous, obovate” and so on for many lines.
The linguistic depth women attained as gatherers eventually led to a momentous discovery: the discovery of agriculture. I call it momentous because of its consequences. Women realized that they could simply grow a restricted number of plants. As a result, they learned the needs of only those few plants, embraced a sedentary lifestyle, and began to forget the rest of nature they had once known so well.
At that point the retreat from the natural world began, and the dualism of humanity versus nature was born. As we will soon see, one of the places where the old goddess culture died, fatal Huyuk, in present-day Anatolian Turkey, is the very place where agriculture may have first arisen. At places like fatal Huyuk and Jericho, humans and their domesticated plants and animals became for the first time physically and psychologically separate from the life of untamed nature and the howling unknown. Use of hallucinogens can only be sanctioned in hunting and gathering societies. When agriculturists use these plants, they are unable to get up at dawn the morning after and go hoe the fields. At that point, corn and grain become gods-gods that symbolize domesticity and hard labor. These replace the old goddesses of plant-induced ecstasy.
Agriculture brings with it the potential for overproduction, which leads to excess wealth, hoarding, and trade. Trade leads to cities; cities isolate their inhabitants from the natural world. Paradoxically, more efficient utilization of plant resources through agriculture led to a breaking away from the symbiotic relationship that had bound human beings to nature. I do not mean this metaphorically. The ennui of modernity is the consequence of a disrupted quasisymbiotic relationship between ourselves and Galan nature. Only a restoration of this relationship in some form is capable of carrying us into a full appreciation of our birthright and sense of ourselves as complete human beings.
Terrence McKenna, Food of the Gods
Read the whole thing here.