December 1, 2013
Psychedelic phenomenology, some notes
Now Playing: East Of The River Ganges psybient

I've finally found time to go through the material produced during the past Summer's psychedelic gathering in England, 'Breaking Convention'. I was unable to attend (I really wish these conferences would upgrade their tech strategy to include Skype and video conferencing) but clearly it was an impressive round-up of hallucinogenists of all ages. Videos of many presentations are now uploaded, and I intend to go through a number of them and comment as time permits.

First off was "Seeing and Believing; The Cognitive Phenomenology of Mind Manifestation" by Joseph Bicknell. Ostensibly about psychedelic phenomenology, it does not deal with the classic Husserlian phenomenology to any real extent, but still covers some useful ground. A few minutes are spent on the semantics of the word 'psychedelic' which is both common knowledge and not terribly important. Bicknell then introduces a few familiar metaphors (such as Plato's cave analogy) to give an idea of what the psychedelic experience is like, and while these are agreeable enough, the use of metaphors would seem to pull in the opposite direction from phenomenology, which is the objective observation of mental events. I feel we need fewer metaphors within Psychedelia, not more.

Bicknell mentions the prevalence of empirical data such as trip reports on the net and in the psychedelic literature, but does not offer any concrete conclusions from having studied these. Moving on to a famous 1955 passage concerning Aldous Huxley's trousers, Bicknell observes that Huxley assigns the living, organic quality of the folded fabric not to his own psychedelicized mind, but to the actual trousers themselves, which is an interesting point. Without expanding on this, it is suggested that the hallucinogen undermines the solidity and stability that we find in the baseline reality, a statement hard to disagree with.

The most interesting passage deals with a reference to the psychedelic researcher Michael Hoffman (, Salvia magazine, etc). According to Bicknell and Hoffman, one main effect of the psychedelic state is a new level of self-awareness in the mind, by which the subject gains insight into his or her own representational machinery. In the baseline mind, we are offered streamlined representations which we take as ‘reality’, but when tripping we can see what goes on behind the facade; the process and mechanisms that create these representations. The Platonic-Kantian realization that what we see is not the elusive, underlying source object brings a sense of artificiality to the whole cognitive enterprise. Our consciousness shows us that what we thought was actual was in fact manipulated, but it does not, at least not immediately, show us what is truly original and actual.

As far as I can tell, Bicknell and Hoffman offer no analytical proof or empirical sources for this model of cognitive processing. The reader can instead gauge its usefulness by mapping it onto his or her own repository of psychedelic experiences and knowledge. The suggestion that the baseline world takes on a slightly cartoonish or unreal quality after the cognitive skin-shedding has taken place is a relevant point, but other aspects I find harder to swallow. The revelation of artificiality seems to me just one possible psychedelic effect among several others; not the only one, and hardly a truly fundamental one. Understanding the dualistic split between platonic forms and objects is not a very profound revelation, it may in fact have been one of the main purposes of the Eleusinian Mysteries.

On the General Trip Model scale a normal ‘2’ is a sufficient degree of psychedelization to enter the level of abstract thought where the mind is able to look back upon its own mechanisms. Some may find this discovery fascinating or disturbing, and for psychological reasons attach significant value to it, but it should be obvious that the reality-obliterating experiences in store as one reaches deeper into Innerspace are of a more radical order than the notion of Kant’s “ding-an-sich”. To understand how close Hoffman’s model is to classic epistemology, this quote may suffice: “The representation layer is present to awareness like a tangible painting, while the referent layer is a remote, speculative realm that is pointed to but is perceptually absent, like a foreign country one has never directly seen”.

The further discussion of this psychedelic revelation has a certain undertone of negativity to it, as though the dualistic self-insight might anger or depress the subject. The situation may take on an existential sheen: “A person lives their entire subjectively experienced life inside a simulation that their own mind produces by presenting mental constructs to awareness. In metaperception, personal control-power and personal movement through space and time appear as synthetic mental constructs” (M Hoffman, 1996). The scope of the “metaperception” is here broadened to its maximum range, offering a potential crisis when the phoniness in its totality is understood, not just as a conventional epistemological dilemma, but artificiality that cuts across the whole human situation. Again, this is credible as the description of an occasional acid trip one might have, but as a generalized model for psychedelic cognition and enlightenment, it appears overstated and in great need of an intellectual foundation.

Joseph Bicknell’s 15-minute presentation does not extend beyond this, and in view of its contents would have been better served by a heading related to “epistemology” rather than phenomenology, the latter of which there is very little in the material. That said, I appreciate any discourse on subjects like these, of which there are far too few in the psychedelic field in relation to their relevance. The natural link to Michael Hoffman’s intriguing research was another positive I gathered.

Hopefully I will be able to post more comments on the Breaking Convention material shortly.  

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 21:00 CET
Updated: December 14, 2013 23:26 CET

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