DMT and Terence McKenna

Discussion of Julian Jaynes's second hypothesis - the bicameral mind, specifically the subtopic of hypnosis, trance states, and possession as vestiges of the bicameral mind.
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DMT and Terence McKenna

Post by minnespectrum »

I had a coworker once who regularly used DMT (,N-Dimethyltryptamine) and loved telling me stories of his trips. He was quite a character.

DMT is produced naturally in the human nervous system (albeit in smaller quantities than those which cause a trip). It’s also a key ingredient in ayahuasca.

Apparently, Terence McKenna (the guy who helped popularize DMT in Western countries) was aware of Julian Jaynes and cited his theory as an influence. McKenna also subscribed to the idea that psychedelic drugs catalyzed the development of language in humans (and thus made consciousness possible as well). This has been nicknamed the “Stoned Ape Theory”. Some of McKenna’s other ideas were pretty far out there (such as his belief that psychedelic mushrooms were sentient in themselves, and arrived on Earth from outer space). But then again, what do you expect from a drug trip?

McKenna coined the term “machine elves”, referring to a type of being that DMT users frequently report making contact with. One wonders if these experiences are also, in some way, vestiges of the bicameral mind. What’s striking is how different people often report very similar experiences from this drug (which is also the case for other psychedelics as well).
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Re: DMT and Terence McKenna

Post by Moderator »

Yes, McKenna's work in relation to Jaynes has come up every so often. While psychedelic use is complex, and undoubtedly stems from many motivations -- including the modern treatment of PTSD, depression, and other mental health issues -- I think some aspects of both ancient and modern psychedelic use can be seen as a partial longing for lost bicameral guidance.
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Re: DMT and Terence McKenna

Post by benjamindavidsteele »

I'm an old fan of Terence McKenna. I first came across him, back in the mid-to-late 1990s, when he was a regular guest on Art Bell's late night radio show, Coast to Coast AM. He was a great example of an entertaining raconteur with a distinct voice and an idiosyncratic worldview, certainly fun to listen to, if maybe an acquired taste for some people. But I learned of Jaynes separately and wasn't familiar with McKenna's take on Jaynes' theory until recent years; or else I forgot having come across it in his work before. I read some of McKenna's book back in the day, also mainly in the 1990s, although maybe some during the Aughts. Though it's been a while, I still have a warm place in my heart for him, and I can still hear his voice in my head.

My own interests, both in Jaynes and McKenna, are not academic, as I'm not an academic. I'm a hands on kind of guy and, besides a love of reading and learning, I also have a love of experimentation. That includes psychedelic experimentation. In my case, it really was a lifesaver during a period of chronic depression; although it was ultimately improved diet (low-carb, high-fat, animal-based) that finally made my depression go away. I see it all, including Jaynesian scholarship, as a way of exploring the bundled mind (i.e., bundle theory of mind) that is our evolutionary-based human inheritance. So much of mental health problems originate from the divergence from optimal human conditions and hence our natural resting state of mentality. Egoic consciousness came at a steep price, of which Jaynes noted with the energy cost (e.g., schizophrenics with weaker ego boundaries have seemingly endless stamina).

Similar to McKenna, I have my own theories about how psychoactive substances and diet changed as food systems changed, specifically the major agricultural developments during the Axial Age and following, what could be considered an extension of McKenna's theory. Over time, there was a decrease of psychedelic usage, combined with an increase of stimulants and other addictive substances. In that renaissance period following the Bronze Age collapse, agricultural improvements included weed control on farmland, whereas previously farm fields had been semi-wild. Control of weeds coincided with control of ergot that infected grain, and of course ergot is psychedelic, upon which was based the invention of LSD. So, people were eating less grain filled with ergot. At the same time, there were new cultivars like sugar cane, opium, etc. That is to say the agricultural society as we now know it was just starting to take shape.

Combined with increased grain yields and growing populations (concentrated, expansive, and ever more urbanized), this meant a diet that was inevitably higher in carbs and lower in wild-caught animal foods, and for the poor subjects and slaves of empires (the majority of the population) their diet was lower in fatty animal foods in general. This likely could've increasingly and more regularly kicked humanity out of ketosis, particularly in recent centuries when grain surpluses became dependable. Like psychedelics, ketones appear to have an anti-addictive effect. So, as both of these declined, while the stimulants and addictive substances increased, there would be a take over of an addictive mentality. I argue that what we call Jaynesian consciousness, particularly the extreme variant of what Joseph Henrich and others call W.E.I.R.D. mentality (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic), is at least partly and maybe largely the result of this shift.

Although Johann Hari's focus is limited to drug usage in our present society, he came to the brilliant conclusion that the addict is the ultimate individual, as addiction replaces relationship. But maybe this isn't only a loss of actual relationships between humans but a loss of a relational mentality, specifically as the bundled mind (i.e., bundle theory of mind). The earliest expression of the bundled mind is likely the animistic mind, which is where all the world is alive with voices that are dynamically and viscerally in relationship to each other. Bicameral mentality appears to simply be the animistic mind of tribalism being adapted to agricultural city-states, in many ways still tribalistic as relatively small communities, although they were growing a bit larger and so required a more systematic social order to anchor them in place within a human-constructed world, as distinct from the tribal mnemonic systems where voice-hearing and hence authorization is anchored in the larger vast landscape.

The imperialism of the late Bronze Age might be a factor of collapse, as the voice-hearing social order presumably could not be maintained at that scale. This could be why a bicameral-like mentality reappeared after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Western feudalism, at least in the early centuries, was a return to small-scale local power where the aristocracy lived close to the people ruled. There was also a forgetting of agricultural practices such that ergot returned as a 'problem', the probable cause of the dancing manias. Literacy also declined again with most elites having become illiterate. Interestingly, dancing in churches was a common worship practice into the Middle Ages, an apparent continuation or revival of the ecstatic dancing that the Pauline Epistles describe of the early charismatic Christians. By the way, a number of scholars argue that Christianity, like other mystery schools and godmen salvific religions, may have started out as a psychedelic cult. Psilocybin mushrooms were still being portrayed in Christian churches at least as late as the Middle Ages, and still showing up Christian iconography (e.g., Christmas cards in more recent centuries).

I have a suspicion that there is a strong link between the bundled mind, psychedelic use, dancing, and oral culture (often with musical, humming, and drumming languages or ways of speaking). I'd add that, though modernity technically began in the 1500s, the fuller modernization process in many ways didn't get into full gear until the 1800s. An example of this is an anecdote published in the mid 19th century, although the incident described was likely earlier than that. In northern England, a minister asked an older man why the fairies had disappeared. The guy was quick to give an answer. The fairies had disappeared because the English, probably like most other Europeans, had started drinking caffeinated tea that replaced the earlier popular beverage of gruit or groot ales, a traditional beverage that goes back to the ancient world. These gruit ales often contained mildly psychedelic herbs. So, for millennia, Europeans had been regularly imbibing psychedelics in their alcohol, until quite recently.
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