Many people follow this notion that psychedelics produce false insight. An idea that psychedelics chemically hijack the system responsible for giving the sensation of insight, making everything appear to be epiphanies even when they aren’t. I do not exactly believe this to be the case. It does seem to be true that psychedelics can make familiar information appear as shocking and sensational as unfamiliar content does. This is an effect I term proesthesia, as opposed to anesthesia, meaning to enhance sensation and perceptual value. Essentially, repeated exposure to our lives in entirety has left us numb on autopilot and psychedelics absolve the tolerance we’ve developed from this repeated exposure. This is separate from another effect that seems to occur, the actual facilitation of insight. That is a key topic of this post along with a nice load of mini side quests, including a general explanation of what I think psychedelics are doing based on the research I’ve read throughout my journeys.
This idea about psychedelics facilitating false insights seems dubious to me. This comes up often even among the psychedelic community. I do not think these drugs modulate the tendency of insights to be false. Let’s consider the nature of insights themselves. Insights must go through trial and error before getting confirmed. The general population tends to not have the scientific or philosophical background sufficient enough to make sound judgments in response to their epiphanies and sudden insights. In fact, because of this many people who initially may have a strong tendency to think and explore novel ideas, such as children, will be conditioned by the repetitious failure of their insights and the subsequent social punishment and shaming that comes with ‘stupid ideas’. The frequent occurrence of failed ideas and punishments will incline one towards avoidance of novel ideas or at the very least their expression unless they become trained and skilled at assessing the ideas much like scientists and philosophers are. In essence, the failure and shame we experience for all of our stupid ideas eventually leads us into an aversion to novelty, a defeated state. Many of us would be too embarrassed to bring up random insights we have or eventually the lack of reward for insights will cause one to simply stop having them or disregard them as noise to be filtered out and deprioritized. Repeated errors dis-incentivize insight seeking tendencies.
Before twirling our way down the rabbit hole, it’s best to explain the term prior that is used here. In this article, prior means conditioning that is based on one’s past experiences. In my own mind, prior is conceptualized as non-sensory, non-lingual memories that function to direct thoughts (including lingual and perceptual memories) down conditioned paths, essentially operant or Pavlovian conditioning, involving reward, aversion, and even seemingly valueless (everything is valuable in reality) repetitions that appear functionally significant, ie helps us solve problems, manipulate our environment, understand cause and effect, and form interpretations of the world. They are the shapes that construct the machines of behavioral and cognitive operations in our mind but not necessarily conscious information. Priors function to create useful abstractions and heuristics of each of commands of operation in the case of typical Pavlovian conditioning, perceptual meaning in the case of objects and optical illusions, and cognitive strategies for understanding out world in the case of logic and cognitive biases or exploratory strategies and really anything cognitive that becomes habitual. An example that reveals the disconnect between informational memories and priors would be where you may consciously understand a past trauma but not be guided by the compulsions it would usually have tied to it.
Essentially, priors could be defined as the past’s unconscious influence on the present. They cue the defining process of our experiences and the sculpting of our perception. They reduce the gestalt flexibility. The beautifulness of the concept of priors here is that it is more abstract than memory or previous stimuli. The thought that one is shameful can be a prior but also the color red can be as well. Priors encompass a kind of everythingness or generalization beyond experiences, senses, thoughts, ultimately serving as an umbrella term for any kind of previous event that influences the present. It seems that implicit memory and procedural memory could be priors, although I think these two forms of memory are insufficient to satisfy a complete understanding as these generally do not include optical illusions or cognitive illusions. Our thinking patterns are often dominated by a kind of cognitive procedural memory during adult life.
Priors are perceptions/cognitions that are maintained by the expectation that those perceptions/cognitions are accurate, that they will persist through time. They are reinforced by the recurring success of their perceived accuracy and usefulness in exploiting the external world.
Psychedelics serve to reduce the influence and value of priors but perhaps without diminishing access to explicit memory. One may not always recall the past because of how our recall is often dependent on context and associations but this may be distinct from the way that NMDAr antagonists essentially temporarily erase all or most forms of memory from our existence.
Psychedelics seem to facilitate novel thoughts by alleviating our clinginess towards priors, relieving our tendency towards constraint. The frequent rejection we face when we put our novel insights through trial and error or public scrutiny causes us to inhibit ourselves and psychedelics are alleviating the focus on priors, such as addictions and traumas. Although to be clear, the “traumas” of expressing absurd ideas are of course very mild. It seems rational to assume that the use of psychedelics to attenuate milder traumas or habits would be easier than attempting to resolve stronger ones. So we might expect even lower doses to work for the facilitation of novel ideas compared to trauma recovery. This elimination of priors is likely exactly why the world appears exceedingly novel while under the influence of psychedelics. The novel world cannot have priors, that comes through repeated exposure of experiences functioning to make them inherently un-novel. By eliminating priors, we are seeing the world without the influence that they have which is an identical scenario to the world we see when it is novel and lacks priors altogether. Our priors filter and abstract the incoming information so that we can avoid solving the same problems over and over after solutions have already been assumed. This is the way that psychedelics allow us to reinterpret or reprogram our world. This effect also allows one to find new and potentially better ways to solve an old problem. Rather than assuming the problem is solved, we see the problem as if it hasn’t been solved which re-engages the sort of flow states that we use when trying to solve problems. Psychedelics can allow us to update old priors with new information.
Although I disbelieve the idea that psychedelics facilitate false insights, there seems to be some potential issues that could arise during intoxication. One way that psychedelics could enhance error is by causing one to mistakenly forget or bypass their normal level of critical thinking or conditioned thought processes that normally take place in the occurrence of a sudden insight. These critical thinking processes are, for many of us, consciously trained priors that function as a way of regulating our critical thinking in everyday life. It could be that psychedelics eliminate these priors as well, but it doesn’t seem that our conscious thinking ability and memory are necessarily impaired by these drugs, so many scientists or philosophers wouldn’t necessarily be destroyed by their effects. It seems that this effect is more about elimination of pavlovian conditioning rather than a revoking of access to informational memory. So we may forget to lock our door at night but not because we forgot how to, but rather we simply failed to respond to our normal conditioned contextual cues that trigger habitual and constrained reactions. Rational and critical thought may not be blocked by psychedelics, but we may become curious and free to explore beyond these realms.
Psychedelics free us from our Pavlovian Prisons.
Novel insights can occur when we feel every acute detail of the doorknob as we twist the lock in combination with every other experience that occurs with every passing moment. When we live a life that lacks information there isn’t information to be connected to form new epiphanies. Most of the time people form epiphanies in the face of novel information which may cue a sober psychedelic effect in the very short term as to assimilate the new information with the ‘known’. By inducing this state we gain access to all of the ‘irrelevant’ information that is typically removed from our experience as waste data because we can repetitiously solve the same problems through very reduced Pavlovian reactions. Locking our door, riding our bike, even playing video games becomes dominated by conditioned responses and these do not require acute awareness of the information. This is efficient and probably even saves energy for the brain and body. After gaining access to our acute awareness life becomes ultra lucid, like when it was new, before it become automated. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may remember the arguments I’ve made that optical illusions are automated Pavlovian perception. Gestalt shifts in perception are a kind of reorganization of priors to create new structural information using the same set of data, or in the case of psychedelics sometimes an increased set of data.
When we develop our cognitive patterns and worldview, we initially start with very little information and start forming judgments with insufficient information. If the judgment leads to rewarding outcomes then we stick with it. Our worldviews are based on priors upon priors that were developed with exceedingly little information the further back in time we go. Much of these judgments may be the most inflexible if they have survived a life of 20 years. They may go unnoticed, unconscious, and unaltered for a lifetime while simultaneously shaping one’s behavior in ways that protect the priors from elimination. Self-limiting thought patterns and behaviors that sculpt one’s identity and control destiny. In these cases, psychedelics may help to update the erroneous worldview by re-awakening conscious thinking and enhancing the ‘irrelevant’ information access and in a sense uniting a person’s entire mind. Interestingly, I’ve heard anecdotal reports from multiple people that psychedelics eliminated their dissociative identity disorder and merged their alternates into one.
Novel insights are merely a product of observation.
We stop looking at the world after we think their is no reason to. When we have a problem to solve then we begin to observe the world again because we have a motivation to. Scarcity and abundance would modulate our motivation and control the gain on consciousness where scarcity leads us into predominantly procedural prisons for efficiency’s sake and abundance grants increasing access to information deemed as less important. Serotonin correlates with resource abundance in many species, which may be how these motivations and information access are mediated.
Neurogenesis induced by psychedelics may be due to stimulating a learning mode. Most adults may be stuck in an already learned mode that prioritizes priors over a mode that prioritizes finding ways of maximizing the value of the present moment in order to increase exploitation of the incoming information in order to transform the present into priors for future benefit. Most people live their lives trapped in secure exploitation of known paths in life. Addictions and traumas in various intensities are the primary way this manifests. In this case it must be made clear that the terms addiction and traumas are meant to encompass the whole spectrum from extremely mild to very severe. We usually define these terms to mean the most intense forms of operant conditioning but here in this article the use is more general.
Notice that a child may first have the realization of distinct senses. Then you distinguish colors or pitches along some kind of spectrum. Later you distinguish and learn objects. Then you learn theories and narratives for objects. Each higher layer becomes more flexible because the flexibility is exactly what makes them higher layer because they are more dynamic, abstract, less well defined, less predictable. So these layers become increasingly flexible and I think psychedelics would most strongly alter those layers first and then go down the spectrum and to a point that sounds and colors can’t be distinguished and the self can’t be defined. The associations that structure our perception seem to be dependent on the repeating of our environment, the constant familiarity of our world. This includes objects and their function, identity, and our understanding of the shape of our world.
For children it may be that a sense of risk or cost for exploring novelty hasn’t developed partly due to the fact that there is no system of priors to depend on yet and partly due to the lack of massive costs, punishments, traumatic outcomes in such early phases of life. Those who are more psychedelic may remain fearless and child-like in precisely this way. In the way that Psychedelics can help resolve trauma, addiction, and other “prior” mediated disorders, those with a naturally increased psychedelic tone (bipolar disorder) may recover quickly and engage in more risk taking that is so typical of the manic state.
Adultification explores the psychological effects of adult culture and how psychedelics can help.
There are potential serious consequences of the elimination of priors. Aversion conditioning obviously exists to protect us from harming ourselves. What if I’m not afraid of death anymore after using psychedelics? Psychedelics have been shown to help with death anxiety in the terminally ill. What if this newfound bravery/mania causes me to get my friend killed because I’m acting excessively carefree like a naive child. Then I may lose all my friends and family support and then go homeless. People will claim that my initial low fear behavior was a sign of insanity then later I might hallucinate from the stress of life crashing and people will argue that this was a prodrome which I would like to remind you explains absolutely nothing and merely posits an observation of a person’s behaviors from a very low understanding position, like how we often observe wild animals, we forget to anthropomorphize the mentally ill person.
It’s worth noting that Einstein wasn’t on psychedelics when he had his false insight that quantum physics is incorrect. There is this false insight that psychedelics facilitate falseness of insights but really they just restore our freedom to explore novel trains of thoughts. Lastly, there is this idea of people having trivial insights usually about common social or living experiences that we associate with psychedelic use. I would argue that most humans are going with the flow of behavioral memes and living in constant mimicry so much that most of us do not question why such behaviors or experiences are as they are. Psychedelics seem to make us explore these trivialities without dismissing their relevance or importance. We must acknowledge the possibility that many people around us were not aware of everything that we are aware of. Many times people on psychedelics rationalize the ordinary in philosophical ways, whereas it seems probable that prior to this the rationality of such ordinary occurrences were not considered worth the time. People who have insights that are seen as common sense would have to face a level of insult by admitting they were so naive about these trivialities throughout life and so it seems likely that people who experience laughter or remarks on the obviousness of their insights would have incentive to simply agree that their insight was obvious and then proceed to rationalize that they already knew this beforehand by noticing that they were at least aware of the observations heuristically but not necessarily with rational understanding. The alternative would seem to be that the individual with trivial insights could vehemently and inappropriately argue against the rest of the tribe which would come off as crazy or stupid and result in reputation loss.
The idea that psychedelics facilitate false insights with a level of falseness that exceeds typical levels is a false insight that many hold even dogmatically, without further thought.
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2 thoughts on “Thought Scripts”
Man, I am thoroughly enjoying reading your ideas. Our areas of interest and thinking approach seem to really coincide. Regarding how psychedelics affect our thinking, do you have any thoughts on how they would undo the priors on the cellular level? Given their chemical nature I think the cellular level is the level they ultimately act on, even if with differing effects in different brain areas. I think that there should be some fairly simple action method, regardless of the complex results. From my experience on psychedelics and vision distortions, simple ‘random’ and unwarranted neuron firing due to over-stimulation by a compound would explain a lot of visuals. Can there be something similar reasoned in different brain regions other than occipital lobe?
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Thanks, I am glad you enjoy!
As for the cellular mechanisms involved in psychedelic undoing of priors, I have recently finished a post that explores exactly this topic. The post is titled Cognitive Atomization, which is a concept meaning to atomize priors into the their sub-priors, to dis-integrate integrated cognitive structures. As an example, we could atomize the word ‘atom’ into its’ letters ‘a-t-o-m’. This would put a lot of pressure on working memory as it is basically a reversal of the mnemonic tool known as chunking of information. It is dissociation. Psychedelics are not exactly like dissociative drugs though, but instead have a mixed effect on NMDAr, producing a partial reversal of integrated cognitive structures but not a complete one. The state of the psychedelics seems to accelerate the formation of new priors, of novel cognitive structures in the wake of the semi-collapsing system of thought and perception. Dissociatives may instead vastly limit cognition and perception and result in much more distorted perspectives, essentially resembling schizophrenia.
The full project goes into great depth to explain the evolutionary purpose of cognitive atomization as well as the mechanisms and subjective effects that it would have. You can check that out in the link below.
Feel free to note the ways this atomization concept relates to your life or experiences, or add any theory you’ve got in the comments as I am curious!