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THE UTILITY FUNCTION OF PSYCHEDELICS

November 16th, 2022

Someone sent me a lovely little message today containing a tweet which read:

My favorite LSD story is from this old Microsoft engineer who took a ridiculous amount of acid and found a way to open a windows xp control panel of his brain and turned off his fear of heights.

Talk about setting an intention. It’s an amusing image, but only because it sounds a bit like a joke. Imagine if you actually could open up a control panel for your mind and switch some settings around, just like that? It’s absurd, and a little funny, making it delightful. But the thing is it’s not a joke. This is (presumably) a reality that someone experienced and which had a lasting effect.

I sincerely believe this level of granular editing of the self’s systems is possible with psychedelics. Exactly how to create the necessary conditions and set the imaginative framework to reliably achieve this kind of result is, however, yet to be seen.

The unfortunate thing about psychedelics is that the people who would benefit the most don’t even entertain the idea. And those who engage with psychedelics regularly don’t seem particularly inclined to exploring the potential of systematic utility.

Thankfully Michael Pollan ripped off the stigma-band-aid a couple years ago with his book “How to Change Your Mind” and the scientific community is finally exploring the utility function of psychedelics once more. Albeit, very slowly.

Our human OS runs on stories woven from experience, and this is largely how psychedelics appears to affect a person post hoc. Juxtapose the out-of-this-world experience with the prescribed-medication experience. Which is bound to be the better story?

Prescribed medications mainly treat symptoms, or single underlying causes, and of course these have their place and utility. Psychedelics, on the other hand treat perspective.

Take for instance that story with the engineer and the fear of heights: how on earth would a pharmaceutical company try and tackle the concept of making a pill to treat “fear of heights” ? This is patently ridiculous. Being mainly psychological, which is still quite a mystery to the medical world, the task is practically absurd.

But psychedelics are a wholly different breed. It’s like taking a pill that temporarily blows apart the story you tell yourself about who you are and what life’s about. And in the absence of that usual story there’s a creative space and an experience from which a better story can be drawn and incorporated into the usual one, post hoc.

This is where “set and setting” are vitally under appreciated. Most psychedelic dabblers seem to expect an experience handed to them, and it’s perhaps due to this open-mindedness that trips can be either “good” or “bad.

But the utility function of psychedelics are likely contained in the pairing of such an experience with a creative and productive intention: ie. I want to explore the particular aspect of my psyche that is XYZ, or I want to work on resolving X feeling or Y concern, etc.

What then occurs is a wild experience, yes, but one with a theme. And given a theme, the human OS then starts to make powerful inferences about the experience in order to make sense of it in terms of a story, ie. The story we tell ourselves. This is how perspectives are edited.

It’s that old adage: walk a mile in someone else’s shoes to see what their life is like. Well, what psychedelics have on offer is just that, to temporarily become something that is not you. When that temporary exploration is over, you now incorporate the story of that experience into your perspective, and perspective can change drastically as a result.

That original story of the engineer with the fear of heights is excellent because we’ve all had the experience of trying to find a particular setting on some damn device in order to make something we use less annoying, or more enjoyable. So the logic of applying that same “story” to the human OS makes quite a lot of sense.

Sense, at least in terms of the logic of stories. This is the important thing to remember: we are NOT rational creatures, we are story-creatures. And if you want to change the future, we need to change the stories we tell. This doesn’t just apply in a larger cultural context, it also applies to a personal context: if you want to change who you are, you need to tell yourself a different story about who you are. The best way to change the story is to experience something radically different.

The experience is the fodder from which the story generates itself. This is why “routine” is such a drag. Without fresh and different experience-fodder, the story simplifies with repetition. And the neurological underpinnings of such a statement are also completely on point: There’s a collection of brain areas collectively referred to as the “Default Mode Network”, and to steamroll neurological nuance in the name of brevity, this network keeps the usual mental routine running. Psychedelics dial down the volume on this network. Way down.

In essence psychedelics enable a person to experience themselves without the usual repetitive thoughts and neurological habits. It’s a legit adventure, to its core, as it’s pretty much a foundational requirement that an adventure stars with a departure from the normal routine.

Circling back to intention, the question can be phrased more creatively: while the cement in my mind is temporarily turned to jelly, what changes do I want to make? What sort of thoughts, feelings, memories, fears and hopes need a little reorganization?

Given this framework, its obvious why those wedded to their routine are so uninterested in psychedelics (but would likely benefit the most), and why those dabbling “for fun” are perhaps wasting their time a bit:

It’s the difference between going to see a movie you know nothing about with a 50/50 chance you love it or hate it…. Or instead writing that movie and living through its events as you write them and as they rewrite you given a theme you wish to explore.

This is an example of something where a subtle tweak can have profound effects. At least in my experience and in my opinion. So, it may just be the story I tell myself about all this. But, I share it because that’s the thing about stories: you can use this story too.


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