How does one escape their believed reality?
Someone asked me how they might be able to change the fidelity of their subjective experience. I understand this as someone seeking to be able to experience reality differently, by noticing the things they wouldn’t normally notice, as if to have “expanded consciousness”. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the quantity of noticed experience increases, but it might actually come down to differences in attention. Let’s explore this.
Consider addiction. When we are addicted to media, games, love, food, drugs, and social interaction, our attention is constantly being taken towards these things. Let’s use social interactions as the example, since this is probably a common source of rumination and addiction. Even when we stop socializing, we often find ourselves daydreaming or in constant analysis of other people and our connections to them. Those of you who are gamers may notice you constantly ruminate on how to improve your skill or where the game will take you next. Our strongest interests blind our attention to the things we consider uninteresting, which will become more relevant in the coming passages.
The more empty you are of these chronic interests, the more you can decidedly draw attention to what you want to explore in reality. When one is strongly separated from chronic interests and ruminations, you can attend to reality in ways one may have not realized were possible. In such attentive states, the fidelity appears increased, although I think it is better described as a directing of attention towards stimuli you would normally neglect or not have the patience for. You could imagine fully attending to sensory stimuli, while paying less attention to your thoughts, as if all that exists in that moment is the sensory stimuli. I’ve had such experiences on psilocybin. In those moments you can often gain insights because you are exploring novel territory.
This sort of ties into this idea of “explore and exploit”. The idea is that when we start, we have no known accessible rewards so we must search to find them. This allows us to explore and acquire novel information about the world.
We eventually find rewards and then we enter the exploit phase. This is where we have known rewards that we can direct our attention to. At some point, we become tolerant and addicted to the rewards. Some level of reward stimulation becomes our comfortable baseline. To enter explore mode is to sacrifice these rewards in order to search for new ones, which means entering a phase in which you suddenly lack rewards. This seems to produce great discomfort in people, similar to drug withdrawals. So people will often not waste their time essentially gambling to explore for novel rewards. Those who have developed a comfortable reward baseline will persist in their usual habitual patterns.
This is similar to the idea of reaching a local maxima. Reaching a rewarding baseline is often like reaching the local maxima (see the image below). The only way out is to abandon your baseline, head down the peak of the mountain and start climbing a new and more rewarding mountain/baseline. Keep in mind, having a rewarding baseline does not imply happiness. Often times it may be depression, anxiety, PTSD, addiction, and any number of problematic mental realms. When reality sucks, coping is often more desirable than facing the problem head on. To climb down from the local maxima could often be very undesirable, as you are basically abandoning the things you desired, whether that is your drug of choice, laying in bed all day, playing video games, or social media addiction.
I think that psilocybin works by disrupting this kind of addiction. You can also willingly choose to abandon your addictions and wait it out via things like meditation. With meditation you can try to direct your attention away from the ruminations and constant thoughts about known rewards.
Let’s focus on psilocybin for a moment. I suspect that some of the strange ways of perceiving the world stem from entering this explore mode, usually at a very root level. As if one were to abandon the patterns of perceiving that one believes gives them the most accurate representation of the world. These abandoned patterns may often be ones that we developed as an infant or during early childhood, as we were training our body and our senses to create a reliable perception that helps us navigate the physical world. To abandon these patterns may open the doors to highly unique ways of perceiving reality that don’t comply with our usual perceptual assumptions.
Here’s a quick example of one of my experiences on psilocybin:
The more I gazed into the perceptual world of the present moment, the more lost I became. Everything enhanced and started to feel surreal and exotic. It was as if there was a buzzing sound that started increasing in intensity, building up into some climactic transcendence of the senses. There was no actual buzzing, but instead only the sounds and visions of the mountainous arena that I was tripping in. It was just the feeling that my senses buzzed louder and louder, until vividity.
Everything in my mind slowed to a stop. The mental chatter was being forgotten as I was too fully distracted by the world in front of my eyes. It was as if I was watching an immersive film. I noticed the direction of each sound, with each step I took. As I crouched, the leaves on the ground buffered some of the sounds around me, creating a quiet space near the ground. I could distinguish each echo vibrating from the walls of the mountains but as my distraction increased, I ceased to register those echoes as being explained by the mountain’s influence on acoustics. All of the explanatory elements of my experience dropped away as I continued to see clearer and clearer, in a kind of lifting up, straight into divine sensation, like a moth chasing a lamp. It’s as if, once one stops holding onto their word-world, one begins to slip into total sensory experience. The more one slips into this experience, one begins to forget what life is normally like, an ascension, leaving conceptualism behind in pursuit of the supreme euphoric sensory masterpiece that unfolds.
Even the strange ideas that emerge with the use of psychedelics may be a result of an exploration mode for ideas. We may no longer cling to our heuristics and rules that we set for ourselves, which could be both useful to escape problematic ways of thinking but could also lead naïve people into strange territory. A new study suggests that psychedelics may be associated with reduced confirmation bias, more specifically, the bias against disconfirmatory evidence (BADE). The researchers found that psychedelic users were better at integrating evidence when presented disconfirmatory evidence. On the other hand, stimulant users had increased bias. Perhaps our normal biases guide us to make the ordinary conclusions we hold
Exploring ideas can be dangerous, for this is the realm of experts. Experts train rigorously in order to be qualified in exploring ideas. Even then, most of them remain humble and stick to the body of literature guiding their expertise. Those who are naïve about the world may be most prone to developing absurd beliefs because there is more freedom of thought. Normally, the educated may be held back by many beliefs that were indoctrinated into them by the academic system. So it may be those who are less confined to knowledge that develop ideas that contradict such cultural knowledge systems. This is the path to memetic heresy and divergence from popular culture.
Most humans’ conception of reality is mystical and essentially religious. Even the beliefs that sound superficially grounded such as physics or the Big Bang. Most of the people who claim to believe in the Big Bang do not actually study it enough to have a valid conception. This applies to almost all popular scientific memes. We have a religious cult of people who submit to scientific experts. This just happens to be “better” than religiously submitting to non experts. Or so we have faith.
It may not be in our best interest to totally abandon our believed realities, but escaping our conditioned minds and seeing the world as if to have some sense of “agency” may be useful, especially for climbing down from our local maxima and find new ways of thinking and living.
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