Monday, October 29, 2018

Psychedelic Renewal

In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit at the outset that I ingested “psychedelics” in the form of LSD in the late 1960s and early 1970s, three or possibly four times (One effect that I remember well was the awe I felt from picking up from the dirt road we were walking on a common rock, and marveling at the deep, the cosmic significance of its striated structure.) But at that time, hardly anyone knew the full story of these drugs, how they were discovered (LSD-25 was first synthesized by a Swiss researcher named Albert Hofman in 1938), and how they have been used continually by researchers from then until now. This is the story that Michael Pollan tells us in his new book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, Penguin: 2018. It is a fascinating tale that includes not only the history of the trials and experiments we knew nothing about, but also about Pollan’s own mind-changing experience with the three formal ‘trips’ he took, using different drugs each time: LSD, a psilocybin mushroom, and a strange drug (5-MeO-DMT) extracted from a desert toad. His descriptions of his own experiences are among the most fascinating in the book, partly because he had never used these drugs before, and partly because he was agnostic about the spiritual effects that he found. 
But back to first things, the term ‘psychedelics.’ According to Pollan, the name came about because of a correspondence between the literary giant, Aldous Huxley (whose book, The Doors of Perception, encouraged legions of the curious to try LSD), and a Canadian researcher named Humphrey Osmond looking into the potential of mescaline to cure mental ailments like schizophrenia and alcoholism. Osmond visited Los Angeles in 1953 to administer mescaline to Huxley. In their subsequent 1956 correspondence, Huxley in a poetic couplet proposed the term “phanerothyme” (from the Greek words meaning “spirit manifesting”) for this class of drugs. Osmond’s responding couplet proposed the word “psychedelic,” also using Greek words meaning “mind manifesting.” Despite Huxley’s greater reputation, Osmond’s term stuck. 
            Of course, both Osmond and Huxley were overshadowed in the subsequent proselytizing for LSD by Timothy Leary, and its adoption en masse by the 1960s counterculture (especially after Allen Ginsberg took his trip in December 1960 at Leary’s home in Newton, MA, and hilariously announced that he would march naked through the streets to preach his new gospel: “We’re going to teach people to stop hating, start a peace and love movement” (p. 193). So were the many other researchers who worked in controlled settings to see if the new drugs (mainly LSD and psilocybin) had the potential to cure ailments like alcohol and heroin addiction, depression, and so on. It is this nearly hidden history that Pollan resurrects, and it alone is worth the price of the book. For what it shows is that the hysteria that eventually led to the jailing of Timothy Leary and the legislation that made all research with these drugs illegal was simply that: hysteria. And it was this hysteria that prevented, until very recently, the serious research with psychedelics that is now ongoing, and that, according to Pollan, shows such great promise in fixing, or at least ameliorating many of the mental ills of modern civilization. In this regard, the transfixing accounts that Pollan records via interviews with many of the people who have taken ‘trips’ under controlled conditions provide permanent evidence that psychedelic drugs—usually operating on the same receptors as the neurotransmitter serotonin—lead most participants into something like a mystical experience, or at minimum, a kind of re-programming of the brain. 
            This gets to what is, for me, the central conflict highlighted by Pollan’s account. As noted above, Pollan started out as a materialist, an atheist who believed exclusively in what can be scientifically demonstrated. But the interviews and accounts he records suggest that the LSD/psilocybin experience leads those who take these drugs into something very much like the experiences of history’s famous mystics. These mystical experiences include not just the apparent dissolution of the normal ego, or self. They also include some form of consciousness or awareness that exists outside the confines of the ego, something, indeed, that survives the dissolution of the ego, and therefore something that provides heretofore unavailable solace to those with fear and trembling before the imminence of death. The anxiety regarding death that most cancer patients suffer, that is, seems to be dissipated or minimized by this experiential knowledge that something, at least, survives the death of the ego, and therefore, death itself. The work of Roland Griffiths and Bill Richards of the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center summarizes this idea. Richards suggests three conclusions of their research:
1) the experience of the sacred reported by mystics and by people on high-dose psychedelic journeys is the same experience and is “real”—that is, not just a figment of the imagination. “You go deep enough or far out enough in consciousness and you will bump into the sacred. It’s not something we generate; it’s something out there waiting to be discovered.” 2) whether occasioned by drugs or other means, these experiences of mystical consciousness are in all likelihood the primal basis of religion. 3) consciousness is a property of the universe, not brains (pp. 55-56).

That last conclusion gets to the heart of the conflict, and it accords with the conclusion of numerous experiences that Pollan records. People who take high-dose ‘trips’ on LSD or psilocybin typically experience ego dissolution along with something like the survival of some observer awareness; and that convinces them of the existence and persistence of some form of consciousness outside of or beyond what the brain mediates. 
On the other hand, the most cogent neuroscientific theory that Pollan describes in his book comes from the work of Robin Carhart-Harris, working in the University of Bristol (England) lab of David Nutt, to investigate the effect of psilocybin on the brain by using fMRI images. To his surprise, Carhart-Harris saw, in people on psilocybin, not an increase but a decreasein blood flow to key brain centers, especially those that had earlier been categorized as the “default mode network,” or DMN. The DMN includes several brain areas that link key parts of the cerebral cortex to deeper and older brain structures involved in memory and emotion. Briefly, this DMN is thought to act as the brain’s “orchestra conductor” responsible for managing and “holding the whole system together” (p. 303). Of greatest importance here, the DMN is key in creating the self, or ego, and is thought to be responsible for autobiographical memory, among other things. Therefore, in a 2012 paper, Carhart-Harris wrote that the steepest drops in DMN activity “correlated with his volunteers’ subjective experience of ‘ego dissolution.’” That is, the more the drop in blood flow and oxygen in the DMN, the more a psilocybin volunteer reported the loss of a sense of self (304-5). Judson Brewer, a researcher at Yale studying the brains of experienced meditators, then concluded from his scans that “the transcendence of self reported by expert meditators showed up on fMRIs as a quieting of the DMN” (305). In other words, meditation and psychedelics seem to have a similar effect on a brain, on the DMN. The conclusion, to put it over-simply, is that a brain can have too much order, and this can lead to rigidity, repression, and sometimes diseases such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. About the effect of psychedelics, Carhart-Harris is quoted as saying, “Psychedelics alter consciousness by disorganizingbrain activity…It’s not that one system drops away, but that an older system emerges” (314). This older system is a more primary consciousness, one released when the normal ego looses its grip. 
Here, then, is the other pole of the conflict mentioned above. Pollan writes that Carhart-Harris is strictly opposed to the romantic view noted above—that consciousness is “transpersonal,” a property of the universe rather than the human brain. Rather, everything that happens, whether under drugs like psilocybin or via meditative or other ‘spiritual’ experiences, is simply due to brain activity. As Carhart-Harris explains, “The brain operates with greater flexibility and interconnectedness under hallucinogens” (316). But the awareness experienced is not outside the brain, he insists, but simply the activity of parts of the brain that are normally kept in check by the DMN. 
There is a great deal more to learn from this extraordinary piece of reporting, especially regarding statements like this from Katherine MacLean, a former Johns-Hopkins psychologist:

“A high-dose psychedelic experience is death practice. You’re losing everything you know to be real, letting go of your ego and your body, and that process feels like dying.” And yet the experience brings the comforting news that there is somethingon the other side of that death…(346). 

Often, in what Pollan reports, this “something on the other side” consists of some sort of universal love. As one of the volunteers in an NYU Cancer Center study using psychedelics to ease cancer anxiety, Patrick Mettes, put it, “From here on, love was the only consideration…It was and is the only purpose” (342). Several other accounts that Pollan provides us come to a very similar conclusion. 
            Yet, in the end, Pollan seems both convinced of the truth of these reports, and agnostic on whether we should take them literally. He is also agnostic about whether or not the objective awareness that manifests on psychedelics takes place inside or outside the brain. So, I would guess, are most of us, even those of us who have had earlier experience with psychedelics or meditative practices. But one thing seems incontrovertible: the controlled experiments with psychedelics that now appear to be ongoing and apparently increasing are bound to provide us all with new and critical information about who we are, how our brains operate, what mystical experiences really consist of, and, ultimately, how we fit into a universe that keeps revealing new and more spectacular aspects of its still-unplumbed mysteries. 

Lawrence DiStasi

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Corporate Hacking

Dr. Robert Lustig is probably best known for his books and activities warning about sugar and the damage it does to the human body, notably in his bestseller, Fat Chance. In his new book, The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains (2017), he continues that warning, pointing out that refined sugar (refining sugar turns it from a food into a drug) is “the most expensive burden on society,” worse than either tobacco or alcohol. Refined sugar wastes some $1.8 trillion in health care spending in the United States alone by contributing to the diseases known as “metabolic syndrome”: heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, chronic liver disease, and cancer to name only the most prominent ones. But Lustig is not content with warring on sugar here; he adds several other addiction problems that are promoted by corporate America in its lust for profit, mainly alcohol, sex, processed food, shopping, and the technology that has given us the internet, computers, and the smartphone. What is really compelling about his book, though, is that Lustig makes use of his background in neuroscience to explain for us just how these “pleasurable activities” work in the brain to motivate us, reward us and often get us hooked. The major theme he propounds is that the corporate promotion of such activities intentionally confuses us about the difference between the reward system which gives us pleasure, and the happiness system which gives us contentment. That is, we are constantly shown via advertising that Coke, for instance, will make us happy, when what it really does is gives us a momentary pleasurable hit (and no food value) from sugar and caffeine. This is because the two systems at issue here— reward on the one hand and happiness on the other—are mediated by different brain systems. The reward/pleasure system is governed by the neurochemical dopamine, which provides motivation or drive, and the opioid peptides like endorphin, which provide us with the reward. Contrarily, the happiness/contentment system is the product of serotonin, which operates via two receptors, one of which provides contentment, the other of which often provides mystical experiences. What’s interesting is that “the same factors that increasedopamine (technology, lack of sleep, drugs, and bad diet) also decreaseserotonin” (p. 147 note). 
            What Lustig does is show us, first, how the dopamine system works, and the negative effects that happen when cells get overloaded, down-regulate (meaning we need more drug to get the same effect) and we get addicted. This is not necessarily due to weakness or moral failing. It is due largely to the fact that modern life (driven by the “corporate consumption complex”, i.e. the six industries that sell us tobacco, alcohol, processed food, guns, cars, and energy) loads us up with chronic stresses via easy access to addictive substances and activities. You might think it is exaggeration to include processed food in this list, but Lustig gives us a statistic that simply stuns us: where the annual profit margin for Big Pharma is 18% (pretty hefty), it is paltry compared to the processed food industry which grosses “$1.46 trillion per year, $657 billion of it gross profit, for a gross profit margin of 45%”(p. 87). So these hucksters have a very big incentive to get us hooked. 
But, you may ask, why are we so driven by dopamine in the first place? Because, Lustig points out, dopamine is the neurotransmitter that ensures the survival of the species. We need to be motivated so that we act to preserve ourselves and pass our genes on to the next generation (hence we are powerfully driven to eat and to reproduce.) To demonstrate this, Lustig tells us about an anti-obesity drug called rimonabant. It was approved in Europe as a drug to suppress obesity by blocking the CB1 receptor from access by our own brain compound, anandamide, which keeps us eating. Rimonabant actually worked quite well; people who used it stopped eating junk food and lost weight. But the problem was, they lost all pleasure in food and became anxious, depressed and even suicidal. In other words, to lose your motivation for reward (via dopamine) means you lose your motivation for life. 
            The problem comes in with our modern civilization (as Lustig puts it: “reward and stress are the hallmarks of modern civilization” p. 146). We are stressed by daily life, not just short term, which is what the cortisol system is for—to prepare us to fight or flee—but chronically, constantly, as in many modern occupations. In the face of chronic stress, we are encouraged, brain-washed really, to seek relief and happiness in the substances and procedures that seem to offer happiness, or at least distraction: sex (instead of love), smartphones, sugar, processed foods (loaded with sugar) and so on. And we are encouraged daily, hourly, every minute on platforms like Facebook, to buy our way out of stress; to see buying as happiness itself. As Lustig puts it, “Conflating pleasure and happiness is inherently biased and misleading” (p. 190). More simply put, it is propaganda. And the corporate purveyors of this propaganda have succeeded in finding ever-more accurate ways to target those most likely to seek happiness by buying their useless products. As part of this propaganda, we are told that having all these choices in products makes us “free.” Lustig begs to differ: “Our environment has been engineered to make sure our choices are anything but free. It chronically nudges us toward reward and drives us away from happiness and contentment” (p. 147). 
            Having cell phones, especially smartphones, is only the latest invention of such environmental engineering intended to work on our dopamine system. It takes very little to understand how addictive these devices can be. As Lustig points out, “for most people, the cell phone is like a slot machine. With every ding, a variable reward, either good or bad, in store for the user—the ultimate dopamine rush” (192). Why is this? Because we have a need for surprise; it’s visceral, says Lustig: as humans we are always looking for something new. This, according to Lustig, “stokes our dopamine and our nucleus accumbens” (the brain area where dopamine registers), and “the frequent checking of cell phones, waiting for something to change, is linked to anxiety and depression” (193). This is key to understand. Sold as a way to keep us instantly gratified and thus make us happy, cell phones in many users seem to have the opposite effect: they make many of the most ardent users depressed. Lustig cites a study of 4,000 teenagers, where “total media use correlated with the prevalence of eventual depression, especially in boys” (197). He also cites a horrifying 2010 case from South Korea to demonstrate how addictive such technologies can be: a couple became so obsessed with raising their two “virtual children” online that they let their actual three-month old daughter starve to death (p. 194). He also cites studies by Sherry Turkle demonstrating that “there is a forty percent loss of empathy in college students as a result of possessing a smartphone” (p. 235). 
            Enough said. Lustig has recommendations for his readers, and they are astonishingly simple (though probably not simple to accomplish in our society). He calls them the Four C’s of Contentment: Connect, Contribute, Cope, and Cook. Connectsimply means develop face-to-face communication with a network of friends, as humans are meant to do. Contributepoints out that self-worth is enhanced by volunteering or otherwise working to enhance the well-being of others. This has been proven over and over. Coperefers to several things: getting enough sleep, which is vastly underrated in our culture, getting exercise (also underrated), and mindfulness, for instance, through some form of meditation. Simply slowing down, turning off one’s devices, can be vastly effective. Finally, Cook: do your own cooking with real ingredients. This should be the simplest one of all, but not for the “one-third of Americans who currently don’t know how to cook” (p. 279). This is simply mind-boggling to this writer, but apparently it’s true. And the fallback for all those non-cookers is one of the chief contributors to our health crisis, processed food. Loaded with sugar and fat and chemicals and made to survive almost forever, it is the chief culprit contributing to sicknesses that should never happen in the first place. 
            Lustig has some fascinating things to say about the serotonin side of things as well, not least the reminder that psychedelics, once criminalized, have been making a comeback among therapists and brain researchers. This is because their chemical structure is very similar to the structure of serotonin. So, compounds like LSD and psilocybin bind to both serotonin-1a and -2a receptors, meaning that they provide both contentment, and mystical experiences. Anti-depressants also work in these brain areas, blocking the reuptake of serotonin so that more is left to contribute to happiness rather than depression. But I will have more to say about these when I write about Michael Pollan’s recent book, How to Change Your Mind, which investigates the new therapies and his own late-in-life psychedelics trips in depth. 
To sum things up for Lustig’s book, we could do worse than use his own coda: “the corporate consumption complex—technology, sleep deprivation, substance abuse, processed food—these are the killers of contentment and the drivers of desire, dependence, and depression” (p. 280). Find ways to rid your life of those, or at least keep them in check, and you can go a long way toward moving in the direction of that happiness whose pursuit is promised as an inalienable right in the Declaration of Independence. 

Lawrence DiStasi

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Soft Shell Crabs

Last night’s (Oct. 9, 2018) PBS Newshourfeatured several segments that were enough to drive a sane person mad. I’m not sure I can get to them all, but the one that sticks most vividly in mind is the one about the tiny island of Tangiers in Chesapeake Bay. It consists of mostly fishermen who for generations have plied their trade in the rich waters of the Bay, earning most of their income from the abundance of blue crabs to be found there. I believe this is the same crab that is used, at specific times of year when the crabs are molting, for the soft-shell-crab sandwiches that I loved when I lived in Connecticut. It’s far and away my favorite shellfish, if not my favorite seafood overall. It was not the food, however, but the crab fishermen of Tangier Island who were the subject on the Newshour. 
            John Yang interviewed several people for the piece, mainly Earl Swift, who has written a book, Chesapeake Requiem, about the disappearing island, and James “Ooker” Eskridge, a fisherman who’s the mayor of Tangier Island. Swift explained the main problem: the island is literally disappearing because of the rising ocean to which Tangier is exposed. Using several different methods to show this, Swift demonstrated how huge portions of the island have already been flooded, with the remaining parts increasingly invaded by the encroaching sea. Since 1850, according to the Army Corps of Engineers, Tangier Island has lost fully two-thirds of its land mass. Swift describes the devastation clearly:

The uninhabited marsh island that forms the northern third of Tangier was a pretty solid expansive marsh. Today, it’s a loose macrame of strands of marsh just pocked all throughout with water.

In other words, there can be no doubt that Tangier Island is losing usable land rapidly, with the loss clearly documented by aerial photographs, graphs and simple visual evidence as cited by Swift. The cause is hardly in doubt either: the sea rise that has long been predicted as a result of climate change, especially for low-lying coastal areas such as Tangier Island. Like large portions of Miami Beach, these areas are the ‘canaries in the coal mine’ when it comes to the dangers posed by the rising oceans. 
            And yet. The residents of Tangier Island refuse to believe the evidence. They know something is happening—which is why they want the Army Corps of Engineers to spend $30 million to build a seawall to surround their island (the Engineers have refused, saying it would be cheaper to move everyone to the mainland). But they won’t credit rising seas as the cause. As Mayor Eskridge says, 

…we can see the effects of erosion daily, weekly for sure. But the sea level rise, things just look the same to me as they did when I was a boy. I have been working the bay for 50 years, and pretty much day in, day out. And I just don’t see any difference in the sea level. 

In other words, for the mayor of Tangier Island, and presumably for most of his constituents, climate change and the predicted sea level rise is a chicken-little hoax cooked up by government bureaucrats. As Yang points out, “no less than 87 percent of the island’s voters went for President Trump, a climate change skeptic.” Indeed. Earl Swift adds that among islanders, as among their hero, President Trump, “there’s a great distrust of expertise, of scientific expertise.” 
            This just boggles the mind. Here is an island which informed sources with empirical data say is clearly in danger from encroaching seas. The evidence seems to confirm that the main livelihood of the island’s people stands to collapse. And yet, they would rather believe their anecdotal impressions of the water (things just look the same), confirmed by a fraud like Donald Trump (Eskridge says: “I love Trump as much as any family member I got”), than those who base their predictions on cold, hard science. 
            This really summarizes the problem of the United States as a whole. Entire segments of our population have decided that they cannot trust the data of experts, especially if they work in government. Whether this is because the ‘experts’ are believed to be ‘eggheads’ with no practical experience, or because these ‘experts’ have an interest in faking evidence to protect their cushy government jobs, or because what the ‘experts’ are saying is inconvenient to those who don’t want to believe that their lives must change to avoid catastrophe, the opinions of scientists seem to carry no weight with these people. They would rather believe the ravings of an idiot, a proven fraud and con-man, who has convinced them with his comforting message that he has their best interests at heart. So when Donald Trump said during his campaign that Tangier Island would survive fine, they believed him and voted for him en masse. 
            This is our problem, folks. People are too stubborn or too stupid to see the danger bearing down upon them, even when it is the ocean which is gobbling up the very ground upon which they stand. They refuse to believe what is difficult for them to comprehend. And since most of the dangers in our modern world are almost impossible for the average person to comprehend, a huge percentage would rather ignore them; ignore the evidence coming from their godless science. Or better still, be diverted to problems with apparently simpler solutions, like immigration, or abortion, or crime in the streets. Build a wall. Simple. Put a sexual predator on the Supreme Court to get rid of Roe. Simple. Give the police more power to shoot the bad guys. Wonderful. Kill ‘em all. 
            So when, on this same program, we learn that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (those damn scientists again) has just issued a report warning that if governments around the globe don’t cut carbon emissions drastically, millions of people in low-lying coastal areas will suffer dire consequences, we can predict the skeptical reactions from Trumpworld. Just more blather from self-interested, UN-sponsored eggheads. And when, on this same program, we learn from journalist Michael Lewis, as noted in his new book The Fifth Risk, that Trump has been literally gutting the civil service so that U.S. government agencies are and will be for the future too crippled to take the action that is needed to avoid catastrophe, we cringe even more. Because what Lewis demonstrates is that in critical agencies like the Department of Agriculture, the chief scientist who has just left (Cathie Woteki, a distinguished agricultural researcher) has been replaced by a right-wing talk show host from Iowa with no background in science at all, nor any idea what his Department’s mission is. His qualifications for the job? He was a loyalist who backed Trump in the election. Lewis points out that this same pattern has been repeated throughout the government: people with expertise are being replaced by know-nothings. And what makes this worse is that the dedicated bureaucrats who run many of these agencies have become so discouraged that fully twenty percentof them have simply resigned or been fired. This leaves the most important agencies of the United States government—the agencies that do the critical work of government without which a nation cannot function—crippled at their core. Agency websites like FEMA and the EPA and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and many others have been ‘cleansed’ of controversial data—FEMA removing data about electricity and water in Puerto Rico after the hurricane, for example; climate change data removed from the Department of Energy. In short, in the face of some of the greatest challenges the world has ever faced, the Trump Administration and its minions have responded by burying their heads in the sand. If we don’t know about it, if we ignore it, then it doesn’t exist. 
            I don’t know about you, but this is the kind of thing that makes me question how long the whole corrupt mess will even last. Because corruption is one thing. This kind of willful ignorance is a mess of a deeper, more pervasive kind. It suggests that people simply don’t have the stomach to face the deep-seated problems that human greed and hatred and ignorance have created. It suggests that even if some courageous souls are willing to confront such problems, most of humanity would prefer to dig a deeper hole in which to bury its collective head. If that is truly the case, then we may find our true kinship with those blue crabs whose soft shells during molting season make them delicious to us, but very, very vulnerable indeed when it comes to species survival.   

Lawrence DiStasi