The self unlocked

Psychedelic experience is the key to the self

For generations philosophers have wrestled with the concept of Self. Time, memory and agency all seem to play a vital role in understanding who we are. Psychedelic experiences subvert and distort each of those features of our existence, and give us the chance to examine our selves in a whole new light.  

"[W]hat we experience in our dreams ... is as much a part of the overall economy of our soul as anything we 'really' experience."

 – Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Such is it with dreams; even more so with psychedelics. But psychedelic experience not only enriches the self, it can contribute to our understanding of what the self is or can be. Psychedelic intake can violently alter aspects of the prosaic, or ordinary self; moreover it can add multiple further facets. In fact, it can in extremis destroy or multiply the "self" – with a range from individuality through unity to infinity, as we shall see.

First let us look at what can be meant by this ambiguous term, "the self", in its ordinary sense. The self can be understood in its relation to matter, and in its relation to mind. In relation to matter, the self can be understood as, i. reducible to part of the body (materialism), ii. a soul distinct from the material body (dualism), iii. a mind that creates what appears as matter (idealism), and iv. the self can be understood as being at one with an extended body (processism). The common view is undoubtedly i. and ii., the biological and the predominantly religious – though both are fundamentally faith positions. As anthropologist, cyberneticist Gregory Bateson lamented:

"These two species of superstition ... the supernatural and the mechanical, feed each other. In our day, the premise of external mind seems to invite charlatanism, promoting in turn a retreat back into a materialism which then becomes intolerably narrow."

Whatever the mind-matter view, all will still understand by "self" its phenomenal aspects as well – the self in relation to mind. Certain thinkers, following Hume's suggestion, consider the "self" to be an illusion of the mind in the sense that the word does not refer to any particular thing underlying the bundle of types of experience listed below. Such a belief claims that we cannot directly perceive the "self" as such, but only phenomena such as colour, sound, emotion, etc. Kant in response argues that though we cannot directly perceive the pure, underlying self, we must nonetheless assume it to exist (as "pure apperception") as that which holds all such experiences together as one – a bundle is a unity that, as such, must be tied.

The morally inculcated self with its judgements upon itself and upon others, is effaced through psychedelics. One transcends the ideology and customs of one's time and culture.

But such an assumed pure apperceptive self is not what is ordinarily meant by "the self". As Galen Strawson states, the self "is thought of as specifically mental", as well, he says, as something singular and distinct. The "mental" is itself a very broad term, but let us make some distinctions so to see how psychedelics may rip them apart. Initially one can separate the conscious, the subconscious, and the self-conscious. When "self-conscious", there is, in the first loop, consciousness (awareness) of consciousness. A deeper form of self-consciousness is when there is also consciousness of the subconsciousness (the unaware yet there): this is the wisdom as to why the conscious phenomena occurred, being aware of underlying motives and character. But then, the "self" must include too these underlying motives and character.

Nietzsche sees the self as a multiplicity of such motives, or wills to power, that ideally form an autocracy where one will rules the others. This, he says, gives style – a single reigning aesthetic. "To give style to one's character", he says, is "a great and rare art". The self, for Nietzsche, can be both creator and creation. Being creative, active and reactive – having agency – is thus another aspect of the self. One can seek to actively create the concept of oneself, and many will customarily use the words and concepts of their culture to forge this self-conception, this inculcated self. One may see oneself as the immortal centre of the universe, in Leibnizian fashion, or as a provisional, insignificant speck in the wider cosmos, à la Schopenhauer: "We can regard our life as a uselessly disturbing episode in the blissful repose of nothingness."

A further, important aspect of the self is memory, firstly in terms of a condition for maintaining a self-identity over time. This need not mean a self-narrative, a story depicting who one is, but merely the ability to link present experience to past experiences. If one were to awaken with no recall as to what one is called and what one has done, one might worry that one has "lost oneself".

(Make a note here in passing that the word "one" deviously suggests a Kantian self underlying all these experiences. "One" must become conscious of the conspiracies of subject-predicate syntax.)

Yet more than such diachronic self-identity, memory is essentially consciousness itself, as Bergson argues. There can be no perceived "present" unless it has a duration, regardless of brevity, and this duration is the immediate past pressing into the future. The present is the presented immediate past. Thus memory practically makes perception. As Bergson writes,

"Your perception, however instantaneous, consists then in an incalculable multitude of remembered elements; in truth every perception is already memory. Practically, we perceive only the past, the pure present being the invisible progress of the past gnawing into the future."

This "now" is called by other thinkers the specious present and this has no absolute duration; it could theoretically last a million years. Not only does the specious present include the mnemonic retention of that which has just passed, but also, for some such as Husserl, the protention, or anticipation, of that which is to come. The present here combines the past and potential future. There is thus an ingredient of expectation mixed into our sense of self.

This is but a brief overview of the idea of the ordinary "self". Yet there is no need to limit the self to such mundane states. If one can be both artist and artwork of oneself, as Nietzsche claims, then just as the painter employs paint, paintbrush, paraffin, and other tools of the trade, so too should the self-creator (or self-annihilator) employ its tools: the psychedelic panoply.

Psychedelics can contract and dilate the specious present, allowing for conscious nows otherwise alien to the human species.

So let us take a deep breath to inhale our re-creation. The variety of psychedelic experiences is wide-ranging; there is no single type that is the psychedelic experience. However, there are some generalities and many types never experienced in prosaic life. Along with the wide-pupiled indication of effect comes a diminution of an aspect of self that many thinkers consider to be the very essence of what the self is. I am speaking of what Spinoza called conatus; Schopenhauer, the will to live; and Nietzsche, the will to power. It is the aforementioned motives that impel a person to do x or y, short- and long-term drives, satiety to status, ambition – and with it facets of character. This is lost. One often does not want to do anything. One often cannot do anything as one is unable to move in any significant way. Yet one is still one, as mentality, one's self persists, albeit – oddly. There is consciousness of an altered consciousness, i.e. an altered self-consciousness. That will to recreate oneself is suddenly gone. Conatus and character is not essential to self, so it appears. This dissolution of drive and ambition is sometimes considered a moral accomplishment, a step on the path to the platitudinous notion of "ego-loss". But from a wider perspective, also bequeathed through psychedelics, a moral judgment against nature with its nexus of conatûs is the rejection of reality as it is. Drives dominate the activity and the evolution of all creatures, from micro-organism to mankind, and are thus therefore a condition for existence. Moralities are cultural inculcations, "anti-nature", Nietzsche declares; whereas, in the words of Octavio Paz,

"[psychedelic] drugs are nihilistic: they undermine all values and radically overturn all our ideas about good and evil … . Their action is a mockery of our morality…"

To certain psychonauts, the morally inculcated self with its judgements upon itself and upon others, is effaced through psychedelics. One transcends the ideology and customs of one's time and culture so to view them through a higher perspective. In this way, psychedelics help fulfil what some such as Nietzsche consider to be the prime directive of philosophy:

"What is the first and last thing that a philosopher demands of himself? To overcome his age in himself, to become 'timeless.'"

What was once unquestioned now seems arbitrary, and one can become emancipated from lingering morally-induced feelings of guilt, remorse, anxiety, and suchlike. One can lose certain values, but this is not to say that one loses the power of valuation. In fact, one tends to heighten the valuation of many aspects of nature, to such an extent that one may weep for the beauty of a leaf – but one is prone to lose moral haughtiness and umbrage. As such psychedelics can be seen as hazardous to certain social orders that strongly depend on unquestioned dogma.

With the loss of one's will, or wills, comes the loss of one's agency too. One lacks both the will and the ability to be proactive. To the contrary, passivity encroaches and transforms the self. Passivity was one of William James' four criteria for recognising the (often drug-induced) mystical state. He writes that:

"when the characteristic sort of consciousness has set in, the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped by a superior power."

Agency, that supposed essential attribute of the self, is gone. One is at the mercy of … another aspect of oneself, so it seems. Yet that other aspect is not itself passive but excessively active. Aldous Huxley, in his mescaline and LSD-inspired text Heaven and Hell, warns that:

"if you go to the antipodes of the self-conscious mind, you will encounter all sorts of creatures ... . You do not invent these creatures ... . They live their own lives in complete independence. A man cannot control them."

Unless one believes that these creatures have an objective existence beyond one's mind (which is not an impossibility) the self has now split in two: the passive perceiver and the active actor playing out the drama. "One" is at once both auditorium and stage. "One" is now "two", ad infinitum. Self-identification seems to side with the passive watcher, though this may be a mere result of report: it is possible that both sides have a concurrent experience though only the passive side enters the memory for later recall. The elf may also be the self. Here we both see the importance of memory for the sense of self, and the problems with mapping neural correlates of psychedelic consciousness: experiences that are not memorized cannot be reported as phenomenological correlates. Unlike dreams, which are generally narrative in nature, and unlike lucid dreams which emphasize the sudden conscious agency of the dreamer, psychedelic experiences are for the most passive and without narrative. "One" watches – or better, things are watched. Things are not actively imagined, there is no control. Often these phenomena have nothing to do with one's life. Huxley quotes his friend, the neurophilosopher John R. Smythies – who provided mescaline to philosophers H. H. Price, C. D. Broad, and to Eastern mystic scholar R. C. Zaehner – who considers such fractured phenomena to be:

"the work of a highly differentiated mental compartment, without any apparent connection emotional or volitional, with the aims, interests, or feelings of the person concerned."

Smythies, who wrote an essay on the virtues of mescaline before Huxley did, put forward a very unusual theory of the mind-matter relation that involved n-dimensional space. Though this sounds like a typical psychedelic-inspired theory, he denied any such influence, in personal correspondence. At any rate, the compartmental differentiation he proffers is hard to deny. I have witnessed, eyes-closed under DMT, a colossal, sublime organic space station operating logistics in complex alien manner. I open my eyes for a while, but as I close them again the station is still there, as if it had been playing out regardless of whether or not "I" was there to watch it play out. Such strange continuity gives the prima facie impression of objectivity, of external reality. Why should we assume that intricate mental phenomena have for their existence the necessary condition of being part of conscious awareness (of "access consciousness", as analytic philosophers like to call it). It appears contradictory to say that visions can occur without being seen, but it is not. If we deny objectivity to these visions, we thereby attribute to the mind vastly powerful creative faculties that mostly lie dormant, awaiting an audience. It must be emphasized that such psychedelic visions are of a different, higher, order to dreams, lucid dreams, and hypnagogic hallucinations.

The question of what the self is often presumes that there exists some definite boundary that we must decipher. But is it justifiable to assume that there exists such a natural kind of individuation of the self.

Certain psychedelic substances – such as mescaline and psilocybin – allow to a small extent, on even large doses, a mnemonic bridge to one's past: one can be aware that one is the person named such and such who lives someplace at some year, who happens to be intoxicated. Other substances, however – such as Salvia divinorum and 5-MeO-DMT – often destroy this bridge. One is conscious yet one has no idea of "who one is". But this question of self-identity for the most does not even arise. One becomes, as it were, unbridged consciousness – without known attachment to the past self. Is the self here eroded, or is the self constrained to the surreal present moment? This is predominantly a linguistic issue: if we say the self is essentially mental then the self persists. However, later, when the experience is recalled, it is then linked to the chronology of one's life and thereby becomes part of that narrated self. It should be noted that even where the self splits into multiple selves, or an unbridged self, or a not-self (elf), when all of these streams of experience are recalled, they all flow, as tributaries, into a single mnemonic river. And it is this mnemonic river to which one normally identifies the self. But as mentioned, there may flow parallel streams which never hit this main river of the self – there may be many instances of extreme sentience that are not memorized.

This would be another example of a multiplied self. Even those experiences that do enter the river may be of such surreality, involving feelings, modes of thought, and states of sentience never had before, that they become ineffable and thus near impossible to recollect using one's common conceptual, linguistic nets – let alone would they be reportable. We can add the qualifier that reportability is somewhat relative: a topologist may be capable of registering and reporting the perception of dynamic, six-dimensional spatial structures which for most explorers would be designated as an "ineffable" perception. Regardless, memory is a retainer of the  self as mentality, but the self thus transcends that memory, just as the body is more than the memory of its history. It should be noted here that psychedelics can also induce the occurrence of long lost memories. Thomas de Quincey noted such instances on opium, to the extent that it convinced him that no memory is ever lost, only access to it is. Thus psychedelics can swell the mnemonic river. Furthermore, psychedelics can contract and dilate the specious present, allowing for conscious nows otherwise alien to the human species. This is not hallucination as there can exist no objective, absolute duration of the now. A motion, for instance, can be gathered into the presentation of a static object, or a trail. Nietzsche, the disciple of the god of intoxication Dionysus, reflects upon such extended presents, imagining that:

"a mushroom would suddenly sprout up like a fountain. … [The] solar ecliptic would appear as a luminous bow across the sky, as a glowing coal, when swung in a circle, appears to form a circle of fire."

What appears alien is really rather a new gaze upon the familiar. Psychedelics can bring to the forefront of consciousness the fact that the speed of time is a child of the mind.

The question as to what the "self" is, is also a question as to individualization: does consciousness identify itself with more or less. Huxley argues that a heavenly experience involves less individuation; a hellish one more. He gives the following example of the latter type:

"When the visionary experience is terrible … individualization is intensified and the negative visionary finds himself associated with a body that seems to grow progressively more dense, more tightly packed, until he finds himself at last reduced to being the agonized consciousness of an inspissated lump of matter…"

The question of what the self is often presumes that there exists some definite boundary that we must decipher. But is it justifiable to assume that there exists such a natural kind of individuation of the self, such a singular distinctness, separating it from that which it is not? Bergson argues that "individuality admits of any number of degrees, and ... is not fully realized anywhere, even in man." With the more heavenly psychedelic experiences, we directly perceive the wider range of this spectrum, the opening of individualization. With eyes open, we can feel a sense of unity with that which we perceive, not by mere inference but by absorbed feeling. The subject-object dichotomy evaporates: the subject begins to unite with the object. Such subject-object infusion is central to Alfred North Whitehead's process metaphysics, where fundamentally the subject's perception of an object is concretely part of that object, rather than a separated representation thereof. This, he maintains, is often obscured by customary modes of human mentality as we have developed our presentational perception to such a high degree that it mostly masks the fundamental interfusion of all entities. Psychedelics seem to de-mask this human prosaic mode of sentience and thus allow for a more direct, primal perception of nature – thus amplifying that which Whitehead calls organic realism. The psychedelic catalysis of such realism (direct perception/prehension of nature) may help explain the relatively common long-lasting after-effect of the psychonaut's heightened valuation of the natural world. The celebrated psychonaut Terence McKenna suggested one interpret psychedelic experience through Whitehead's philosophy – this is no easy task due to the complexity of the philosophy and the alien intricacy of the experience. It is the prerogative of the brave, of the inner seafarers seeking the undiscovered continents.

Psychedelics give empirical support to processism, through which one can critique the standard "self".

Thus individuation can be lost, or expanded. One's "self" need no longer be limited to one's "body". In process philosophy, such material bodies are all conceptual abstractions (extracts of concrete reality) that in fuller truth are interwoven processes. Thus psychedelics give empirical support to the aforementioned process philosophy, or processism, through which one can critique the standard "self" – a self as abstraction, a falsely-limited concept cut out of the dynamic interweaving processes that comprise reality.

But as F. H. Bradley noted, "everything less than the Universe is an abstraction". If one can immerse one's sense of "self" in an object, can one further immerse one's sense of self in all objects, or rather all processes? Can psychedelics dissolve all individuation, all abstractions and human forms of perception, so to become one with the cosmos in its entirety? Furthermore, can the dilation of the specious present extend infinitely to essentially become eternal, immersing all past and future into a unitive present? The psychiatrist R. M. Bucke called such types of experience "cosmic consciousness" in his 1901 book of the same name (borrowing the term from his friend, the philosopher Edward Carpenter). There are certainly many psychonautical reports of such self-transcending, or self-expanding, experiences. Further, there are reports of such eternal experiences in the philosophical canon through figures ranging from Plotinus to Spinoza. William James claimed that such experiences held a noetic element, a concurrent feeling for their truth. But one could only determine whether these experiences were veridical or hallucinatory if one knew the full, true nature of the universe. As no one does, we must withhold judgement, and pursue further research.

The self under psychedelics is thus broken up, recreated, contracted, dilated, forgotten, reclaimed, de-culcated, sublimated, alienated, isolated, interfused, multiplied, unified, and eternalized. Psychedelics reap destruction upon the human condition, or from another angle, they heighten the human condition. Either way, the self is never the same again.



Beyond Good and Evil (1886), §193.

Angels Fear: Toward an Epistemology of the Sacred (1987), ch. V.

A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), Bk. 1, Pt. IV, §VI.

Critique of Pure Reason (1781/7), Transcendental Analytic, Ch. II, Second Section [A & B eds.], esp. B130–169.

'The Sense of Self' (1996), in: Things that Bother Me: Death, Freedom, the Self, Etc. (2018), ch. 1, §2. Strawson therein has his own extended list of meanings of the self which he analyses so to find which are essential.

The Joyous Science (1882/7), §290.

Parerga and Paralipomena, vol. II, §156.

Matter and Memory (1896) ch. III.

Twilight of the Idols (1889), ch. V.

'Grace, Asceticism, Merits', in: Alternating Current (1967/1990).

The Case of Wagner: A Musician's Problem (1888), Preface.

The Varieties of Religious Experience, lec. XVI.

Heaven and Hell (1956).

Analysis of Perception (1956).

Confessions of an Opium-Eater (1821).

In 'Heraclitus' (1872-6), ch. X in The Pre-Platonic Philosophers (Nietzsche's lecturing notes from the University of Basel).

Heaven and Hell (1956).

Creative Evolution (1907/1911).

See for instance Process and Reality (1929).

< Appearance and Reality (1893).


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