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Doubleblind: An abstract image of pink and blue. In this article, Doubleblind explores the danger of the "neuromeme."
Doubleblind: An abstract image of pink and blue. In this article, Doubleblind explores the danger of the "neuromeme."

Why Psychedelic Trips are So Much More Than a Series of Neurological Mechanisms

The mind is greater than the sum of its neurological parts.

Patrick Smith // April 22, 2020

DoubleBlind is devoted to fair, rigorous reporting by leading experts and journalists in the field of psychedelics. Read more about our editorial process and fact-checking here. Editorially reviewed by Madison Margolin.

“…it cannot be said too often that what is being experienced in the use of a psychedelic drug or visionary plant does not come from the ingested chemical components, but from the mind and psyche of the person using the compound.” — Sasha Shulgin

“Potent psychedelic drug DMT makes the brain think it is dying,” proclaims a recent headline in a mainstream news outlet. Good thing the brain is taking all the heat—I’d much rather it than me!

The conflation of the brain with the mind is indicative of a deep cultural confusion. This headline is just one example of a phenomenon that on the surface seems harmless; but in reality threatens to strip us of our personhood, responsibility, and morality.

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It is the neuromeme—and it is dominating the psychedelic renaissance.
The neuromeme is, loosely speaking, the propensity to explain our conscious inner worlds by solely using neurological concepts. The term was first coined by addiction expert and psychologist Stanton Peele, as a response to the trend in addiction treatment to rely on neurology to explain addictive behaviors. In his book Recover!, Peele states: “As a culture, we increasingly seek explanations for our behavior in neurochemicals and brain activation, as though that were the total answer.” The most insidious side effect of the neuromeme, according to Peele, is “the idea that we have no control over whether and how the addictive process starts and, once it’s occurred, whether or not we quit.”

The most insidious side effect of the neuromeme…is “the idea that we have no control over whether and how the addictive process starts and, once it’s occurred, whether or not we quit.”

When we adopt the neuromeme in psychedelia, a similar effect takes place. The psychedelic experience is diminished into abstractions. What was once a journey into our own minds through confrontation with trauma and shadow, is transformed by the neuromeme into a clockwork mechanism; churning away in some mysterious recess of our skulls, somehow resulting in an emotional change at the end of it. “The potential beauty of psychedelics in therapy is that they intensify the human experience,” Peele tells DoubleBlind. “The neuromeme instead disembodies that experience.”

The neuromeme in psychedelia removes our volition, agency, and even responsibility. For after all, if we are simply clockwork mechanisms, then we are not in control of our psychedelic journeys or introspections—so why strive to make ourselves or the world a better place? 

Changing our behaviors and patterns requires conscious effort. Psychedelic integration is a process of learning and deep, sober introspection in the months or years following a psychedelic experience. Psychedelics do not simply flip a switch in our brains—they show us that we can change, and how we can change. 

It is, of course, very hard to face this inconvenient truth. It’s likely that people perpetuate the neuromeme in psychedelia for this very reason: to avoid taking personal responsibility for their betterment, or to bypass that most difficult work of confronting their shadow.

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Read: The Meaning of Life—According to Neuroscience

Overcoming the fear of self-confrontation is difficult. We sometimes grasp at any opportunity to reject self-awareness. And one philosophical system, which goes hand-in-hand with the neuromeme, provides us this chance to deny our own consciousness…

Physicalism (also known as materialism) is a philosophy that argues that the external physical world is the most primary aspect of reality, and our conscious experience of the world is merely a by-product of this purely soulless physical realm. According to physicalism, we can never directly perceive this base reality; our senses merely produce internal ghostly holograms that represent the atoms and forces that make up the external universe. Our thoughts are epiphenomena; pre-determined and ultimately irrelevant.

Believing in physicalism gives us the perfect opportunity to deny a need for morality, integrity, or conscious effort in our lives. There is no need to confront our own personal shadows or to want to make the world a better place, if we are no different from a collection of billiard balls rolling around on a pool table.

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Read: The Function of Awe

Physicalism is currently the most prevalent philosophy in the Western world. You may believe in it without even realizing. And it’s partly why the neuromeme is so gladly adopted: We’ve been taught, by physicalism, that consciousness is nothing but an offshoot of the physical brain. We sometimes even consider the brain more real than our own minds; more real than our own moment-to-moment experience.

This is why neuroscientists are so often the leaders of the psychedelic renaissance. The most popular and press-friendly researchers are a new breed of establishment-friendly Timothy Learys; priests espousing a dogma of physicalism that has the potential to absolve us of effort, integrity, and self-awareness.

Neuroscience, in this context, can serve as physicalist exegesis, intended to reduce every part of consciousness to physical properties—including even the most intangible quality of the psychedelic journey: mysticism. The mystical experience, one of the most powerful and hard-to-define aspects of the psychedelic trip, is deeply connected to the healing power of psychedelics. People describe coming to vast realizations about the nature of reality, encountering deities, and transcending time and space. Yet some—those who have been taken in by the neuromeme—attempt to explain even these ineffable spiritual experiences using neurology alone.

Neuroscience, in this context, serves as physicalist exegesis intended to reduce every part of consciousness to physical properties—including even the most intangible quality of the psychedelic journey: mysticism.

“The physicalist narrative can exonerate its proponents from responsibility,” Dutch philosopher Bernardo Kastrup tells DoubleBlind. He believes that physicalism is an attempt to protect the ego from acknowledging the complexities of its own inner workings. The biggest flaw in the thinking behind the neuromeme and physicalism is the idea that a detailed image of the brain can entirely explain conscious experience. Kastrup frequently argues that this is a grave ontological error: “There is nothing about the mass, charge, position or momentum of the molecules making up our brain in terms of which we could deduce—at least in principle—what it feels like to taste strawberries, fall in love or achieve an insight.”

More parsimonious philosophies of consciousness, including Kastrup’s own metaphysical idealism, do not consider your brain to be the same thing as your mind. Instead, the brain and all its machinations are simply what our conscious inner lives look like from an external perspective. “It would appear that the brain is rather the extrinsic appearance of our conscious inner life, as viewed from the outside, instead of its cause,” says Kastrup. 

In other words, your brain is a sign pointing to something beyond itself: to your rich inner experiences of the world. Brain scans may well contribute to an outside understanding of your internal life, but the neuroscience cannot preclude the primacy of your own thoughts and perceptions.

Your brain is a sign pointing to something beyond itself: to your rich inner experiences of the world.

This article is not intended to diminish the importance of neuroscience. The study of the brain can teach us a lot about pathology, and it can be very useful to have an additional external correlation of what’s happening within individual minds. Neurology can be a helpful tool when used as part of wider holistic healing practices, convincing us that the experts know what’s wrong with us on different levels, and making us feel truly cared for.

But there are severe limitations to what physicalist science can tell us about the nature of consciousness, and the inner workings of a psychedelic experience. When scientists infer that their brain imaging studies provide a direct and complete explanation for the psychedelic experience, they are falling victim to physicalist dogma.

By perpetuating the neuromeme, and failing to look beyond the neuroscience, we risk diminishing the transformative power of psychedelics. 

The deepest and most divine reflection that psychedelics offer us is an awareness of our own awareness. Accepting ourselves fully—including our agency, power, and responsibility—is the first step towards finding wholeness and understanding.

Patrick Smith (PhD) is a former neuroscience researcher who currently writes about psychedelic science and culture. You can find his writing at thepsychedelicscientist.com.

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Patrick Smith is a cell biologist and science writer, with a Ph.D. in Regenerative Medicine. He trained as a neuroscientist, driven by an interest in consciousness. He has written for a number of psychedelic publications on both science and culture, including Psychedelics Today, EntheoNation, and Psymposia. He also writes about psychedelics on his website and blog thepsychedelicscientist.com. In 2019, he presented at psychedelic conference Breaking Convention on Salvia. You can follow him on Twitter @rjpatricksmith

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