Psychedelic drugs hold a strange position within the enhancement community. Many swear by it — finding the alterations in perception induced by these drugs and plants valuable to their creative or scientific work or their explorations of philosophy or their enjoyment of life. Others see scrambled perceptions, irrationality, extreme suggestibility, and lack of focus among psychedelicists and steer clear.
One thing is for certain. If the psychedelics are going to be useful (or more useful) in the enhancement context, we’re going to need to know more about what they’re doing in the brain.
In Psychedelic Information Theory: Shamanism in the Age of Reason, James Kent incorporates the most up-to-date scientific explorations into what’s going on in psychoactivity with his own clearheaded thinking and comes up with a novel theory that — in the words of his book promo — “quantifies the limits of expanded consciousness and describes the methods by which psychedelics alter consciousness, create new information, and affect human culture.”
Kent, a regular H+ contributor, offered us the opportunity to reprint segments from his own “Informal Discussion of Topics” page [ ] or to interview him… so I did a little bit of both. I took a few of the q&a’s from that page and added my own. Kent expanded on his pre-existing answers and then answered my questions as well.
Here are the results.
What is Psychedelic Information Theory?
JAMES KENT: The general theory underlying all of PIT is that psychedelics create information when introduced to human neural and social networks. The spontaneous creation of new information is the essential function of psychedelic activation, and this new information is imprinted into memory and reproduced as music, art, or stories shared with other people through culture. More specifically, PIT presents physical models which describe this generative process, and the dynamics of various psychedelic phenomena like complex hallucination, shamanism, and group mind.
How does PIT describe psychedelic action?
JK: I’ve tried to break everything down to a wave model. One way to visualize what I’m describing in PIT is through what I call the “Pond and the Pump House” metaphor. Imagine a round pond with perfectly still water, with a small pump house sitting on an island in the center. When the pump house is turned on it sends out perfectly circular ripples through the water that, over time, create a neatly ordered standing wave of activity. In this metaphor the pond is the surface of the neocortex; the pump house is the body, heartbeat, and respiration; the ripples are waves of sensory perception seen in an EEG reading of cortical activity. When the pump is on and moving at different speeds, the ripples on the surface are active and take on different coherent patterns; when the pump is turned off the ripples fade and the pond becomes still and quiet. These are metaphors for consciousness moving from waking to sleeping states.
Now imagine we add a psychedelic to this model. PIT proposes that psychedelics alter wave patterns of consciousness by creating a tiny tremor in the pump house that vibrates the entire structure. Adding the psychedelic to the system creates a competing ripple that can be seen immediately on the surface of the pond. The pump keeps pumping, creating its usual standing waves, but because of the tremor there is a new layer of complexity to the ripple patterns. The tremor adds energy to the system, and as it does, the standing waves in the pond become more amplified and chaotic. Instead of simple coherent ripple patterns, you begin to see overlapping patterns and fast transitions between multiple standing wave states. The complex interference patterns then feed back on themselves and exhibit the formal qualities of a nonlinear system, such as fractals or cellular automata.
The interference pattern in the ripples I’ve just described is how PIT models a competing tryptamine agonist (a hallucinogen) in the finely timed aminergic system of perception, modulated by serotonin and dopamine. This is what I am describing with the Control Interrupt model of psychedelic action. According to PIT, each hallucinogen creates a slightly different tremor or vibration in the signaling pathways of multisensory awareness, which in turn creates a unique and distinct interference pattern in the standing waves of perception. Some hallucinogenic tremors may be big and rolling; others may be quiet and subtle; others may be sharp and disruptive. The difference in tremor speed and feeling created by each psychedelic molecule would be accounted for by the differing receptor affinities and metabolic pathways for each hallucinogen.
You mention that much of your theory comes from modeling the brain in terms of an analog resonator. Can you describe what you mean when you say the brain is a resonant oscillator? How does harmonic resonance apply to the brain?
JK: An oscillator is just another term for a wave or vibration, so any system that has a cycling frequency, which is just about everything, is an oscillator. When two oscillators near each other are vibrating near the same frequency they begin to have overlapping wave patterns, or interference patterns, that can be modeled in terms of complimentary synchrony, harmony, phase differentials, and so on. If two oscillators have complimentary interference patterns they are said to be harmonic, meaning they overlap neatly and do not dampen each other’s power or amplitude. If the two oscillators interfere in a way that drives both of their amplitudes, maximizing the potential energy of the circuit, then they are said to be in resonant coherence. When an oscillating system phase-locks into resonant coherence with another oscillator, energy is amplified and the phase-locked system becomes self-stabilizing and difficult to dampen or perturb even with a competing interference wave.
Harmonic and resonant feedback are at the center of all self-stabilizing oscillating systems, or self-oscillators. Harmonic wave interference conserves energy and is perceived as beautiful to humans in both the arts and the sciences. Loss of harmonic feedback in coupled oscillators drives chaos and chaotic output; resonant drivers and entrainment creates stable attractors and convergence in chaotic systems. These are the fundamentals of all physical systems that oscillate and trade energy over time. If you examine EEG readings it is obvious that the brain is an oscillator with distinct wave patterns for each state of consciousness, and each neuron is a tiny oscillator passing waves of information back and forth in an intricately coupled network. So applying the dynamics of resonant oscillators and harmonic interference to human perception and expanded states of consciousness is not a radical or fringe idea, it is a natural extension of existing physical theory.
H+: Do you have a theory regarding why this small perturbation and its resulting rush of a particular sort of information creates feelings of ecstasy, agape, rapture — a sense of illumination? It’s easy to see how an intervention in ordinary informational intake sometimes results in terror, but this other — and more frequent — response seems like a bit of a mystery.
JK: The easiest way to answer to this question is to point to the role of adrenaline and adrenal receptors in psychedelic activation. There is a very close affinity between psychedelics and adrenal receptors that is not often discussed, but adrenaline is a powerful driving force in the sensual intensity of psychedelic experience. Almost all of the hallucinogens produce a strong adrenal reaction, and the ones that have weak adrenal action — like psilocybin and 5-MeO-DMT — are considered to be more sleepy, dreamy, or hypnotic. All of the non-visual psychedelics are considered to be entactogenic or empathogenic because they’re associated with rushes of adrenaline and dopamine, creating a cocktail for intense sensual euphoria. A rush of adrenaline and dopamine literally feels like your head is opening up with an illuminated halo. Add oxytocin into the mix, the love chemical released mainly by MDMA, and the sensuality of the experience softens into something unimaginably warm and cozy. If you get the dose wrong, or find yourself in the wrong sort of situation, adrenaline-fueled sensual euphoria can easily turn to adrenaline-fueled sensual terror. That’s the double-edged sword of exploring experiences with such a high level of intensity… they can be intense in any direction.
H+: What recent developments in neurological research have influenced your theory, and why?
JK: The research informing my theory has come from a variety of directions. I would say the first sense I had that I was onto a good working model started after reading Joseph Ledoux’s Synaptic Self and Emotional Brain. I spent some time studying Ledoux and connective neuroanatomy, so I had a fairly strong idea of how sensation propagates through the brain to inform perception. That gave me a physical system to work with. Then I read J. Allan Hobson’s work on acetylcholine, psychosis, and dreaming in The Dream Drugstore, [ ] and that gave me a pretty good understanding of memory and visual memory gating between the hippocampus and the frontal cortex. After that I went through Paul Bressloff and Jack Cowan’s work on spatial visual networks, which demonstrates how destabilization in neural oscillations between the retina and visual cortex leads to various types of overlaid geometric hallucinations. There were plenty of others, but these three areas of research helped me solidify my working theory that all psychedelic phenomena are related to loss of feedback control in recurrent perceptual systems.
The theory I was formulating suggested that psychedelics promote feedback excitation in perceptual circuits to create sustained over-saturated states of sensual intensity. I did not know that Franz Vollenweider had already published a similar theory, but his model of under-constrained perception in sensory feedback loops is very similar to the model I had already settled on. This continuous feedback model was then refined into the Frame Stacking model on the suggestion of an anonymous Canadian researcher who had read my work. The Frame Stacking model helped describe the potential depth of nonlinear feedback hallucination in a very formal way: it was my first move towards a more quantum description of expanded states of consciousness. The Control Interrupt model of psychedelic action was the second piece of the quantum description, defining hallucinogenic action in terms of wave packets interrupting multisensory perception. This was my own conception based primarily on first-hand research, but was also informed by research coming out of Dave Nichols’ lab, the survey of psychedelic receptor targets by Thomas Ray, an article on psychosis and Bayesian information processing in the brain by Phil Corlett, and other underground research. Most of the work I cite was published within the last three to five years, and most of it focuses only on one piece of the overall puzzle. With PIT I’ve tried to take all this current research and tie it together in a formal meta-analysis that makes some sense. The Control Interrupt and Frame Stacking models are what came out of this process.
H+: There have been a number of scientists and technologists (and obviously artists) who have reported breakthroughs in understanding brought on by psychedelics — the most obvious ones being Sir Francis Crick and Kary Mullis. Why might psychedelic drugs act as intelligence or insight enhancers, and do you have any thoughts regarding exploring or experimenting with them for those sorts of purposes?
JK: I talk about this very briefly in the book. Psychedelics are indeed valuable for helping people have profound insights. But what you have to remember is that Crick and Mullis were already at the peak of their fields and were deliberately trying to come up with new answers when LSD helped them organize their thoughts in a new way. If the vision of the DNA spiral or the recombinant PCR process had come to a rainforest shaman or even a college undergrad it would not have meant anything, but to experts in biochemistry those visions meant something. One way to look at it is to propose that LSD gave them a higher-dimensional perspective which helped remove some of the clutter from their minds so they could see the simple elegance in the answers they were seeking. Another way to look at it is to propose that LSD stimulated so many new avenues of thought that among the hundreds of new thoughts pouring through their heads one emerged that was world-changing and stuck. We don’t celebrate all the bad ideas Crick and Mullis had while tripping, nor do we celebrate all the specious theory coming out of psychedelic culture that ultimately leads nowhere. Only a small percentage of psychedelic insights can claim the level of genius, and these insights usually come from people who are already geniuses. The same goes for art and music. There is an ocean of mediocre art and music influenced by psychedelics, and the very small percentage of it that is truly transcendent comes from master artisans who spend their entire lives trying to produce transcendent artwork. Psychedelics cannot take the credit for these inspirations, they just stimulate people’s passions and help them reorganize their thoughts in new ways.
H+: Timothy Leary had a theory regarding different drugs accessing — and opening — various neural circuits. Psychedelics were presumed to open up circuits that largely went otherwise untapped because they weren’t useful for survival on Darwinian earth. He theorized that these circuits will be opened up by new stages in technological evolution (labeled post-terrestrial in the 1970s and edited to post-cyber and post-biological for the ‘90s version). What do you think of the 8 circuit idea?
JK: Leary’s 8-circuit model is a good metaphor and roadmap to psychedelic territory, but appears to have some basic flaws as a physical theory. The main problem is conceiving of specific states of mind as being mediated by specific circuits, and this idea becomes more problematic when you say certain drugs only affect certain circuits, and use terms like dormant, hidden, or evolutionary to describe them. Drugs affect all circuits. The reason most psychoactive drugs produce results is because they are promiscuous and do not discriminate between circuits. All of the brain’s circuits are implicated in complex behaviors; none are hidden or little used or only activated by higher technology. States of mind are affected more by global shifts in brainwave activity than they are by the circuits being activated, and rarely do single circuits activate in isolation. It is inaccurate to say that drugs can activate new circuits, but it is accurate to say that drugs can create new patterns of functional cooperation between existing circuits, producing novel patterns of brainwave activity and novel states of consciousness.
Instead of thinking of states of consciousness in terms of switching between specific hardwired circuits, the model proposed in PIT describes altered consciousness in terms of higher or lower harmonic modes of feedback coherence between everyday brain circuits. In other words, instead of saying that specific drugs activate 8 distinct circuits in the brain, it is more accurate to say that drugs affect the timing and cooperation of all the brain’s circuits. Also, the range of consciousness we experience does not have 8 distinct levels, but is complex along a wide range of potential output. Consciousness may stabilize at 8 or more coherent levels similar to those mapped by Leary, but is clearly capable of movement outside and in between these zones. When Leary proposed this model he was informed by the technology of his time, which was Freud and chakras and early limbic theories of emotion. I am coming from a model informed by resonant oscillations in coupled networks. In my model any single circuit of the brain can be entrained to behave either at its normal mode, at higher and lower harmonic modes (resonant modes), as well as within chaotic and asynchronous phase shifts outside of its harmonic modes. Each modal shift in circuit coherence can correspond to a subtle change in perception and consciousness. This may be what Leary was referring to when he used the word “circuit” to describe these states, though “coherent wave interference pattern” is probably a more accurate description for our time.
H+: Do you think psychedelic drugs may open up territories in the brain that will be more useful in the future?
JK: I find it presumptuous to assume that higher levels of consciousness might be more accessible or more useful in the future. Expanded consciousness has been part of human culture and literature for at least ten thousand years. Hoping that an evolution in consciousness will spoon-deliver us enlightened or higher states of mind sounds like wishful New Age thinking. Every generation has its geniuses and inventors and shamen just like every generation has its leaders and soldiers and fools. People who seriously seek to expand the functioning of their brain through education or meditation or drugs are similar to athletes who train to achieve more with the same old muscles. Seeking higher brain function is a very particular technological skill. Evolution does not drive higher states of consciousness, individual discipline and mental practice drive higher states of consciousness. Higher states of consciousness are not necessary to evolution, in fact they may run counter to evolution. Evolution has built in many fail-safes and redundancies to keep the brain from accidentally going higher dimensional, and when we subvert these mechanisms to make consciousness higher dimensional we simultaneously become disoriented and behaviorally inept. Imagining a future where we are all born into being hyper-focused enlightened masters because our evolved culture or high technology demands it is a dodgy proposition. It’s like saying we’ll all run faster in the future and never get tired because people keep setting new world records in the 100 yard dash and the marathon. No, a few people will run faster in the future because they train harder, but the rest of humanity will remain unchanged because they have no use for running. The same is true for intelligence and expanded consciousness. Most people have no use for expanded consciousness, and I doubt it will be a major evolutionary motivator. But the people who love expanded consciousness will keep finding new ways to explore the functional limits of the brain, trying to push consciousness into novel territories. That’s one prediction I think will always be true.