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What This Book Is About
This book is an exposition of a theory that can help us. It is not a primer of pharmacology or a program for social reform. Rather, it is the germ of a new way of thinking about drugs and consciousness — a way that creates possibilities for solving a problem that divides us bitterly in our nation, in our schools, and in our homes.
I have been actively interested in drugs that affect the mind for the past ten years, and during that time I have had many opportunities to write this book. I have declined to do so until now for a number of reasons that are pertinent to the ideas I intend to develop in these pages. Before I discuss them, let me state briefly why I now wish to write.
The growing presence in our midst of chemicals that seem to alter consciousness raises questions of the utmost importance for us as individuals and as social beings. Examples of these questions are: What do these drugs tell us about the relationship between mind and body? Are they legitimate tools (in any sense) for changing the mind in a direction of greater awareness? How can a society come to terms with the individual urge to alter awareness? These questions are important because they bear directly on the nature of consciousness, which is, ultimately, the only problem worthy of total intellectual effort. It is the concern of all the world’s philosophies and religions, other problems being less precise statements of the same thing. All of us are working on the problem of consciousness on some level, and the conclusions we come to determine what we think about ourselves and the universe, how we live, and how we act. The complex phenomena associated with drugs in our country seem to me to be significant pieces of evidence to be taken into account in this process — clues to help us in our work whether we use drugs or not. It would be useful to have this evidence presented clearly and unemotionally.
In directing attention to matters of consciousness, I am not ignoring or minimizing the very real problems associated with drugs. Our news media are full of documented reports on the tragic consequences of the misuse of chemical agents in search of highs. But having acknowledged the reality of these problems, I propose to find solutions to them by looking to the positive aspects of the drug experience rather than to the negative ones (which are visible all around us). By positive I mean simply “tending in the direction of increase or progress” rather than the reverse, and I will attempt to justify this methodology in the course of the book.
During my years as a drug expert (a role I now cheerfully abandon) I have sat through a great many conferences about drugs attended by all sorts of people, but I have never heard the important questions given the attention they deserve. Instead, I have listened to pharmacologists arguing over changes (or possibly no changes) in the chromosomes of rats exposed to LSD, to users rambling on about the purely hedonistic aspects of drug experience, to physicians pretending to themselves that medical science can explain the subjective effects of drugs, to parents and educators begging for methods to make youngsters turn away from drugs, and so on and so on. These discussions have been emotionally charged, but the intellectual level has been uniformly low, whether the participants have been psychiatrists or addicts, students or policemen. I have waited for years for the talk to get around to the interesting questions, but it never has. Nor does it look as if it will. Consequently, I have resolved to stop going to drug conferences and to write instead.
In addition, I have collected an unusual body of information on this subject that I feel obligated to share with people who are interested in the meaningful questions. Through a series of coincidences I have had a chance to look at drugs from the point of view of a journalist, a user, an ethnobotanist, a physician, a laboratory pharmacologist, a “drug abuse expert,” and a federal government employee. No one of these viewpoints by itself enabled me to understand what I saw or to come to any useful conclusions. But gradually, from all the experiences I have had in these diverse positions, certain unifying themes have emerged. And to my great surprise, the principles that I have begun to discern leave me profoundly optimistic about the possibility of extricating ourselves from the desperate situation we now find ourselves in. In the following chapters I will describe how I have arrived at certain conclusions and will go into some detail about the reasons for my optimism.
Among the considerations that have kept me from writing until now, the emotionalism of the subject has bbeen uppermost in my mind. Drugs are not an emotionally neutral topic of discourse. There is no such thing as a disinterested drug expeeeeert, despite the stance of many scientists who claim to be presenting purely objective information. This is so precisely because the issues raised by drugs touch so closely upon our profoundest hopes and fears. Everyone who speaks or writes about drugs (and certainly all who “investigate” them) together with everyone who hears or reads what is said and written has an emotional involvement with the information. The exact nature of this involvement differs from person to person in both degree and quality, but it is always there. Consequently, it is extremely difficult to talk about drugs except in a direct interpersonal situation, where, at least, there is some possibility of monitoring emotional reactions.
In the course of my writings and lectures I have learned that people hear what they want to hear and tune out what they do not want to hear. I have also observed that the distortions of communication caused by emotional investments in preconceived notions are most damaging in groups that regard themselves to be free of such notions, such as physicians and pharmacologists.
Where a topic provokes emotional reactions, one may expect to see a closely related process of polarization in which divergent interpretations of data develop. The controversies that divide us over drugs illustrate this process well, for they are not so much battles over observations as battles over the significance to be attached to observations. No careful observer doubts that heavy marijuana smoking correlates with an “amotivational syndrome” characterized by lassitude, indifference, and a neurotic inability to accomplish things society considers important. But as soon as we try to interpret that correlation we run into trouble. Is heavy marijuana smoking a cause of amotivation, as many psychiatrists tell us, or is it simply another manifestation of an underlying (and unknown) psychological process? At every turn in our examination of observations concerned with drugs, we are forced to choose between rival interpretations. What are the real facts?
The answer, very simply, is that there are no facts. Or, more precisely, there are no facts uncontaminated by some degree of value judgment. Of course, the greater the emotional investments (or biases) of the participants in this muddle, the greater will be the degree of contamination. I cannot emphasize too strongly that everything we hear and read today about drugs is affected in this way; all facts put forth about drugs are merely masquerading as such. Nor can I repeat too often that the problem is likely to be most serious in just those cases where it appears to be absent. As I shall show in a later chapter, the pharmacologist who “just gives the facts” about ecstasy, heroin, and marijuana is often interpreting data through the distortions of biases so sweeping and so internally consistent that they remain invisible and unconscious.
These considerations place serious obstacles in the way of anyone who wants to understand what drugs mean. To get by them, we must be carefully discriminating about the information we choose to build theories on. A useful first step is an attempt to estimate the degree and kind of bias present, a practice that should become habitual. To check on the extent of conscious bias, one might ask oneself, Does the person giving me this information have any special case to make for or against drugs? In most instances today the answer will be yes. Law enforcement officers have a personal stake in making drugs look bad; regular users have a personal stake in making them look good. This is garden-variety bias and requires no special aptitude to spot; you just have to remember to ask the question. An affirmative answer does not mean that one should ignore the information, only that one should be alert to the possibility that observations have been interpreted one way rather than another on the basis of relatively meaningless criteria.
Unconscious bias is harder to detect and much more important to try to identify. The question to ask is, Does the person giving this information view the subject from a special perspective that might limit the validity of his or her generalizations? Unconscious bias is as common among proponents of drugs as among opponents. Here are two glaring examples, one from each pole. When I was conducting human experiments with marijuana in Boston in 1968, a Federal Narcotics Bureau agent told me that no matter how my experiments came out, he would remain convinced that “marijuana makes people aggressive and violent.” My research had nothing to do with that possibility, but I asked him what his evidence was for his belief. He had one piece of evidence dating from the early 1950s, when he had been seized by a curiosity to watch people smoke the drug. (His official duties were exclusively concerned with large-scale underworld heroin traffic and he had never come into contact with actual users of marijuana.) Accordingly, he had disguised himself as a beatnik and made his way to a Greenwich Village pot party. When he revealed himself as a Narcotics Bureau agent, “everyone there became aggressive and violent.” Most people laugh when I tell this story because the logical fallacy is obvious. But when I tried to point it out to this well-meaning man in Boston, he said, “That’s what I saw with my own eyes.” In February 1970 I attended a conference in California at which a young, radical sociologist presented data on drug use in American communes. He stated his belief that “marijuana often facilitates the development of communal life.” Asked to give evidence on this point, he explained that the question of who was going to wash the dishes was representative of problems encountered in making communes work. He said he had visited communes where this problem had been solved “by having everyone get stoned on marijuana and make a game of dish washing,” and he added that “marijuana is known to aid the performance of repetitive tasks.” When I objected to this last statement, he replied, “Well, that’s what I saw with my own eyes.” Now, suppose we take the trouble to set up formal double-blind experiments on the relationship between being stoned and the ability to tolerate dish washing. We might study two groups of subjects: one would smoke marijuana, the other a placebo, and neither we nor the subjects would know who was smoking what.
We would let each group wash dishes. I can predict with confidence that some persons who smoked marijuana would find that dish washing was never so easy. Others would find it harder than ever. Most would find it no different from usual. This pattern of data is very familiar; it comes up again and again in drug research today, and it is one reason why laboratory experimentation on drugs like marijuana has been so unhelpful.
When you ask a question in research and the data come back in this unhelpful way — that is: sometimes yes, sometimes no, most of the time it makes no difference — there is meaning in that result. The meaning is: you have asked the wrong question. In particular, you have tried to make something a causal variable that is not a causal variable. In the case above, the wrongness of the question lies in the hypothesis that the drug has anything causal to do with dishwashing ability. Marijuana smoking and happy dishwashing may travel together in some communes, but there is no reason to believe they are more than coincidentally related. It is the attempt to impose a causal relationship on their coincidental association that leads to the framing of a wrongly stated hypothesis. Experiments based on wrongly stated hypotheses uniformly produce useless information.
Most of the research now being conducted on psychoactive drugs is producing useless information at great expense; there is no end of wrongly stated hypotheses. The reason for this state of affairs is logical: precisely because drugs are an emotional subject, drug taking stands out in glowing colors from any complex of behavior of which it is a part. Consequently, observers (even highly trained observers) tend to fall into the trap of trying to explain the entire complex in terms of the drug taking — that is, to make the drug a causal variable when it is not. The tendency to make drugs causes of things we see associated with them is strong in proportion to our emotional involvement, to our unconscious biases. Often it is so strong that it blinds us to obvious factors that are much more directly causative of the phenomena we observe (as in the case of the narcotics agent who was sure that marijuana makes people aggressive and violent). In other cases the attribution of causal roles to drugs is an easy way to cover up ignorance of true causes, which are often more complicated. I suspect, for example, that the ability of some people to wash dishes happily in a commune has to do with a great many factors of personal and social motivation and that the presence or absence of marijuana makes little difference. But we have no ready explanations for variations in motivation from person to person and from setting to setting.
Unconscious biases act like filters between our perceptions and our intellects. They enable us to screen out observations that do not fit in with our preconceived notions and to see causal relationships where none exist. Worst of all, they blind us to their own presence so that we are quick to defend our erroneous hypotheses with shouts of “I saw it with my own eyes!” I have written at some length about the nature of biases toward drugs in amplification of my contention that it is difficult to communicate accurate information on the subject. Having said all this, I now owe the reader some commentary on my own biases, for, as I have said, there is no such thing as a disinterested drug expert.
I do not have any special case to make for or against the use of drugs. In addition, it will become obvious in the course of the book that my real interest is not drugs at all but consciousness. As for unconscious biases, I am, by definition, unable to identify any I hold at present, but I think I have identified and discarded the commoner ones as I have progressed from one way of looking at drugs to another. For instance, when I was a journalist I thought as a journalist and unconsciously selected from among my observations those that I knew would whet the emotional appetites of my readers. I can give a specific example from an account I wrote for Look magazine of the controversy leading to the dismissal of Richard Alpert and Timothy Leary from Harvard University in 1963. In describing the increasing popularity of LSD and mescaline in the Harvard community in the early 1960s, I wrote, “There were stories of students and others using hallucinogens for seductions, both heterosexual and homosexual.” Now, there were stories of students and others doing many other less titillating things with hallucinogens, but I picked that one for its journalistic value, and Look printed it for the same reason. When I gave up the point of view of a journalist, I came to see that it was one of the most distorted ways of interpreting observations about drugs, and I resolved not to make use of it again. In my experience the incidence of serious bias in journalistic accounts of drugs approaches 100 percent; I do not rate scientific journalism any better.
Similarly, I have worked through the unconscious biases of the pharmacologist and the clinician and have come to see them as equally limiting viewpoints that prevented me from formulating useful hypotheses about the effects of drugs. I want to stress the criterion of “usefulness” in evaluating concepts. The aim of scientific inquiry is not to reveal absolute truth but to discover more and more useful ways of thinking about phenomena. As philosophers love to remind us, we do not know anything absolutely. For example, we don’t know that the earth travels around the sun; that is simply the most useful way we now know of interpreting what we observe — useful because it simplifies things maximally and thereby gives us greater accuracy of description and prediction than any other concept yet proposed. If a more useful one came along, most of us would probably have as much trouble accepting it as the Ptolemaists had with the heliocentric theory. But more useful concepts do catch on, however much they are opposed, because they confer a greater degree of success in prediction and control of the phenomenal world on those who accept them. Their adherents thus become more fit in the Darwinian sense and have a distinct survival advantage in the intellectual evolution of the race.
Our present ways of thinking about drugs are as useless to us as a geocentric theory of the solar system. They leave us unable to describe, predict, or control the phenomena associated with drugs except in the crudest ways, as the insoluble drug problem demonstrates. Insoluble problems of this sort are always manifestations in the physical world of erroneous (that is, useless) conceptual models. I believe we can literally think our way out of the drug problem by changing the concepts from which it arises — the outmoded ways of thinking about consciousness in its ordinary and nonordinary forms. In essence, then, this book argues that our present ways of thinking about drugs and their effects on the mind have ceased being helpful to us and must be abandoned. I write it as a theorist of consciousness, not as a drug expert, and I will present theories that not only simplify thinking about drug-induced states but also open up possibilities for eliminating the negative phenomena now associated with drugs in our nation.
These theories are original, based entirely on my own observations, and, especially, on my own experience. I cannot see the value of trying to understand consciousness through methods that exclude the most immediately relevant source of information: direct experience of one’s own inner states. I am thus firmly on the side of the younger generation in its estimation of direct knowledge above all other kinds of knowledge. Nothing is ever really known by indirect means, least of all the nature of one’s own mind. My authority for presenting these theories is my own experience, not the medical degree I received from Harvard. In fact, my medical education included not one word on the subjects I shall discuss, and in 1966 my classmates had to petition the chairman of the Harvard Pharmacology Department for a single extracurricular lecture on opiate addiction.
The highly personal nature of some of the experiences from which my ideas have developed has been another source of reluctance to publish this material until it coalesced into a solid theoretical structure. In the following pages I have taken pains to be as frank as possible and to present no hypothesis whose validity I have not checked rigorously against both external and internal observations. My methods place me within a tradition once honored but now disowned by most experimental scientists: that of meticulous self-observation. If the reader will look up a work like Sir Humphry Davy’s researches on nitrous oxide (“laughing gas”) from 1799, he will find a superb representation of this tradition. Davy uncovered a wealth of useful information about an unknown substance, and he did it with careful intelligence and a spirit of wonder that seems to have vanished from our modern laboratories. Much research today — especially in the areas covered by this book — has become mechanical and dull, more concerned with getting and spending and publishing for the sake of publishing. Real science presses forward on the frontiers of knowledge with a sense of excitement and personal involvement. Like investigators of previous centuries, I have no desire to make my speculations inaccessible to nonscientists. Consciousness is everybody’s business because we all carry it about in our heads. I hope that what I am going to say about it will be of as much interest to musicians as to psychopharmacologists; consequently, I have tried to avoid technical language to present these theories in the form of readable chapters built around personal recollections.
For example, in the next chapter I will explore the question of why people take drugs and will introduce the notion of an innate human drive to experience periodic episodes of nonordinary consciousness — a postulate that underlies much of what follows. I have included in this chapter memories of Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1961, when Alpert and Leary started giving and taking psilocybin. The excitement these experiments generated in the university community and the following that gathered about the two psychologists were clear signs of what was to happen in the nation as a whole within ten years, although few interpreted those signs correctly in 1961. I am not writing history or autobiography. These recollections are merely a starting point for talking about altered states of consciousness — what they are, what their importance may be to us as a species, and what role drugs play in making them available to us. The conclusion I come to in the chapter is that altered states of consciousness have a clear potential for positive psychic development. The drug question can then be restated as a question about methods rather than goals: are drugs the right or wrong means to a desirable end? Accordingly, the chapter that follows is a discussion of arguments that can be made against the choice of drugs as a means to alter consciousness. Certainly, a number of such arguments have already been made. Many of them first came to public attention in 1963 following the dismissal of Alpert and Leary from Harvard, an event that generated considerable national publicity. But we shall see that most of the arguments that have been marshaled against drugs have little basis in logic. It is easy to see why authorities like college administrators get upset at the thought of young people turning on with chemicals; it is more interesting and much more important to try to understand why exponents of systems that value alteration of consciousness (like yoga and Buddhism) take similar positions.
The fourth chapter in this book, “What No One Wants to Know About Marijuana,” is a specific illustration of the ideas developed in chapter 3. It focuses on the inability of current models of pharmacology and psychology to make sense of the effects of the drug that is becoming the younger generation’s intoxicant of choice. As a jumping-off point I have used a short account of my attempts in 1967–68 to set up in Boston the first well- controlled human experiments with marijuana.
In the fifth chapter I will take the reader on an excursion to the Amazon basin for a brief look at societies that use drugs but do not appear to have problems with them. I offer this cross-cultural comparison as evidence for my contention that the problems we have with drugs are not inherent in the drugs but rather in our ways of thinking about them and about the states of consciousness people seek in them. I believe these South American “primitives” have hit upon basic principles of drug use that are eminently rational and therefore universally applicable, and I will suggest ways in which they might be translated into terms relevant to our own situation.
“The Solar Mind: Straight Thinking” summarizes conclusions I have drawn about the nature of ordinary thinking during my years as a physician and drug specialist, including a year with the National Institute of Mental Health. In these positions I have had a chance to observe firsthand the shortcomings of a way of thinking that I believe to be the true source of the problems that seem to be caused by the use of drugs.
“A Trip to the Moon: Deep Thinking” is a companion chapter about a very different kind of thinking that all of us have available to us all the time. If we learn to use it, many problems, including the drug problem, will begin to disappear. In this chapter I shall discuss more fully the positive aspects of altered states of consciousness to which I allude in chapter 2, as well as the implications of these theories for other fields of inquiry, particularly medicine and psychiatry.
The eighth chapter is an attempt to use the conceptions developed in earlier chapters and the method of nonordinary thinking to come up with general suggestions as to how we might proceed as a society to come to terms with the drugs that are here to stay.
The final chapter is a brief conclusion that considers the present revolution in consciousness and where it might lead.
I hope this format will allow the reader to trace the evolution of my ideas from the experiences that are their basis. The conclusions I have arrived at did not require any special mental equipment, and I believe their logic will be apparent to anyone who considers the same evidence I have had a chance to go over. I do not regard these ideas as my property in any sense; in fact, I publish them now to make them available to all who care to try them out. Conceptual models are designed for use; after all, that is the only way we will find out how well they work.
I would conclude this introduction with a friendly word of caution. The ideas in this book are revolutionary in the fullest sense of the word. In their underlying optimism and their insistent assignment of a higher priority to consciousness than to the material correlates of consciousness, they diverge 180 degrees from current scientific orthodoxy. Readers who accept my invitation to step through the looking glass may find themselves unwilling to go back, for the paths that open up are many, and they lead to wonders all of us can discover for ourselves.
Copyright © 1972, 1986, 1998, 2004 by Andrew Weil. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.