Psychedelic Information Theory: Shamanism in the Age of Reason Paperback – 5 Oct 2010
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What's more, the illegalization of acid in 1966 meant that book was left high and dry, washed up by the first wave of research, and so, by default, acquired a much more canonical status than it deserved. Another phase of investigation didn't emerge until the late 80s, when the MDMA craze catapulted psychedelics into the public domain again. Since then we've seen a cautious re-appearance of studies on psychedelic experiences; we seem, at least for the time being, to be in a modest renaissance of psychedelic research and evaluation.
James Kent's book is a timely and thorough attempt to describe and evaluate the psychedelic experience in non-religious, non-spiritist terms. He defines psychedelic information theory as: 'The study of nonlinear information creation in the human imagination, particularly in states of dreaming, psychosis and hallucination', and on its scope:
'It is the conjecture of PIT that all mystical states, including healing and regenerative states, have unique formal nonlinear qualities that can be described in physical terms close enough to make good approximations. This means that PIT is also a work of technical shamanism, neurotheology, or spiritual neuroscience, and can be referenced in the clinical application of psychedelic drugs in shamanic ceremony, mystical ritual, or psychedelic therapy.'
That's an early warning of unusual word-usage, with the peculiarly broad use of 'mystical states' telling us straightaway that Mr Kent does not hang out with mystics. He also positions PIT next to chaos magic, defined rather oddly but not inaccurately as:
'The practice of using ritual techniques of spiritual transcendence to manipulate belief systems ... an occult blend of neo-shamanism, cognitive theory, and social theory.'
More of which later...
Writing about how psychedelic information moves through societies, he has the insight to ask why we should care about PIT and answers with a whole chapter (2). Also, he is alert to the well-known dangers of psychedelically-triggered megalomania, and to the bad trip, which generates 'Psychedelic information with negative value ... delusional, paranoid, false, or subverts the health of the individual or culture.'
One of the most hopeful passages is a section on that mysterious sense that most ayahuasca users get that some transformation is happening at the level of gene expression. He notes that 'hallucinogens target 5-HT2A receptors, and ... 5-HT2A activation has also been demonstrated to produce powerful anti-inflammatory effects in cardiovascular and soft tissues; and 5-HT2A agonists like LSD may produce potent anti-inflammatory effects against TNF-a (tumor necrosis factor alpha), an autoimmune regulator which has been indicated in atherosclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, type II diabetes, depression, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer's disease.'
This is tremendously exciting, especially for people like the two guys from [...] I met at the Breaking Convention conference last weekend, who could only get relief from their crippling pain and fear from regular LSD use.
Dealing with spirits, he has the wisdom to assert that '... psychedelic spirits are tricksters', but recognizes that 'it does not matter if the spirits are real or delusion, the information they generate is real and can be analyzed from a formal perspective.'
Finally, he approaches the subtle and knotty problem of 'Gnosis, the All One, and Nonlinear Communion', and concludes that 'Without debating the metaphysical existence of God, the formal techniques for subjectively communing with the All One are reliable and repeatable, and can be readily achieved'.
There are some problems with this book. The minor one is that it very badly needs a proof-reader. Mis-spellings and solecisms abound; 'entoptic' is spelt 'entopic' in a chapter heading, and consistently thereafter, and there are some small but annoying problems with his biology, like reversing the night-day attributions of the retina's rod and cone cells (and 'amine crystals' do not pass thro the blood brain barrier - oww, that hurts! - amine molecules do).
The more major problem is that he has brought together many of the elements of a powerful theory, but it feels unfinished; the text continually swallows itself up, getting lost in a maze of details, as if it's waiting someone to come along and supply an overarching narrative.
In this book's sub-genre, there is probably nothing else since Jim DeKorne's 1994 book 'Psychedelic Shamanism'. De Korne navigates between science and magic, and never really makes a satisfactory link between them; Kent has gone much further and produced a much more useful discourse, but is confused about magic, his ideas contaminated by airy-fairy wishful thinking about shamanism.
For all those objections, this is a brave and useful work whose time has come. At its best, it reads like a manual that has dropped through a wormhole from the future, maybe 15 years on, from when we know how to run our brains.
***This is just two excerpts from a much longer review at my blog, at [...]