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4 philosophers who dropped acid

There are many people who preach the supposed benefits of psychedelics, but none do it as well, nor as reliably, as these philosophers and scientists.

Aldous Huxley.
  • The world is enjoying a bit of a psychedelic renaissance.
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  • Medical research into psychedelics of all kinds is also expanding and finding new beneficial uses for these drugs in the treatment of psychological disorders.

Scientific evidence for the benefit of drugs

With decades of prohibitions on research, the scientific evidence of the benefits of such drugs is limited. There are many people who preach the supposed benefits of the drugs, but few of them can be said to be philosophers or respected scientists. Here, we offer the experiences of a few real philosophers and scientists on the possible benefits of psychedelics.

Gerald Heard, a British author who wrote many books on science, history, and human consciousness, tried LSD earlier than most people, in the middle of the 1950s. His use and private praise of the possible application of the drug as a catalyst to create moments of near-religious insight caused many other intellectuals to give it a try, including his friend and our final entry on the list Aldous Huxley, and psychedelic research pioneer Timothy Leary. He described the drug like this: "There are the colors and the beauties, the designs, the beautiful way things appear... But that's only the beginning. Suddenly you notice that there aren't these separations. That we're not on a separate island shouting across to somebody else trying to hear what they are saying and misunderstanding. You know. You used the word yourself: empathy." This interview has also been sampled into the song 'Waking Bliss'.

Alan Watts, one pro-LSD philosopher

Alan Watts, the British philosopher best known for popularizing the ideas of Eastern philosophy to his Western audience, also experimented with LSD and other drugs. He saw them as being of use in offering "glimpses" to a greater spirituality, and in helping individuals understand their connection to the universe. He later concluded that, "If you get the message, hang up the phone. For psychedelic drugs are simply instruments, like microscopes, telescopes, and telephones. The biologist does not sit with eye permanently glued to the microscope, he goes away and works on what he has seen."

Sam Harris: Can psychedelics help you expand your mind?

Sam Harris, an American neuroscientist and so-called horseman of new atheism, experimented with MDMA for the mental effects rather than the physical ones. His MDMA trip resulted in a profound understanding that he was connected to every sentient being in existence. The trip was so powerful for him that it took him years to fully be able to integrate the ideas into his intellectual life.

He also mentions, despite being an advocate of secular meditation, that while meditation is useful it might not work for everybody. This is as opposed to psychoactive drugs, which will cause some effect if taken in a large enough dose. He does temper this notion, however, and states that anything you can do with psychedelics can be done without them. He does accept that he would never have supposed such an experience would be possible without the drugs, if he had not taken them initially.

Jason Silva: We're going through a psychedelic renaissance

British philosopher Aldous Huxley, best known as the author of Brave New World, experimented with psychedelic drugs in the late 1950s. His ideas on the subject are recorded in his books The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell. Huxley believed that drugs such as mescaline and LSD allowed us to view the world "as is" rather than as we normally experience it—in a way more fitting for survival. He called this manner of viewing the world the "mind at large", and argued that it was a wonderful perspective that many people would benefit from.

He also argued that every culture across time has sought some kind of chemical escape from daily life. In his opinion, psychedelics were a healthier alternative to tobacco and alcohol, achieving the goals of escape alongside psychological and mystical realizations.

However, Huxley also believed that LSD should not be popularly available, but used only by "the best and brightest". He mentions at the end of his book that drugs are not enlightenment, but merely helpful for the intellectual who might be attached to words and symbols. His occasional enjoyment of drugs lasted the rest of his life; his last words were a request to his wife to be injected with LSD before dying. She obliged him.

There are, of course, other philosophers and thinkers who tried the stuff and had things to say about it. George Carlin, Richard Feynman, and Steve Jobs for example. The less philosophically inclined who still got a great deal out of their trips and were open about it include Jimi Hendrix, Ken Kesey, Cary Grant, and George Harrison.

While all these icons of art and science disagree on the benefits of those drugs being generally available to the public, or even what those benefits are, they did converge on one thing: that the mind-bending effects are good for some people.

That's not to be interpreted as blind endorsement—Sam Harris is perhaps clearest on that when he says: "This is not to say that everyone should take psychedelics... these drugs pose certain dangers. Undoubtedly, some people cannot afford to give the anchor of sanity even the slightest tug." As the West continues to consider the pros and cons of differing chemical substances, the testimony of some intelligent and successful people must be included in any discussion.

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A neural crêpe

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So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

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