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Psychedelics and Culture

  ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

    S. I. Hayakawa, editor

        December 1965, "Special Issue on the Psychedelic Experience"




    The objective level... remains fundamentally unspeakable.
[It] is not words, can not be reached by words alone,
and has nothing to do with 'good' and 'bad.'

    In this strident era of over-communication, we are more likely
to perish by the word than by the sword, and least of all to
perish by a loving silence.
           —IHAB HASSAN

    AS THE CONTENTS of this issue make clear, the consciousness-expanding drugs and the states they produce have direct relevance to a wide range of fields and disciplines as well as many aspects of modern culture. It is not surprising then that general semantics—with its broad applicability, its trans-disciplinary orientation, and its concern with social as well as scientific issues—provides a useful framework for comprehending psychedelic phenomena. Similarly, it seems less than a coincidence that five papers were submitted almost simultaneously to ETC., each examining some aspect of this class of experiences using the principles of general semantics. The decision to devote an entire issue to the psychedelics was prompted also by the concerted effort of these writers to transcend the emotionalism and pro-con zeal characterizing much of the literature to date. Since most of the papers were written by students of general semantics rather than primary investigators of these phenomena, each article has been commented upon by a recognized authority on some aspect of the psychedelics. In planning the issue, an attempt was made to maximize diversity among contributors so as to present a broad but comprehensive coverage and to include as many viewpoints as possible.

Modern Man Plagued by Overabstraction

    SINCE psychedelic substances have been known and ingested throughout man's history, the increasing interest and fascination generated recently seem particularly significant. The reasons behind this widespread attraction (or avoidance) are of course multiple and complex. Although presently unclear, one general reason can be identified: Either as a means of investigating higher thought processes or as a potentially valuable personal experience, the LSD-induced state is intriguing because it meshes with the zeitgeist in the social sciences and with major trends in the larger culture.
    There is considerable evidence and commentary from a variety of quarters which support this contention. As a case in point, Aldous Huxley's prolific writings give eloquent testimony to a dominant theme in contemporary thought; namely, the strangely ambivalent relationship between culture and the individual.

    We are at once the beneficiaries of our culture and its victims.... Culture and that pre-condition of all culture, language, have made possible all the achievements of talent and sanctity. They have also given us fanaticism, superstition... nationalistic idolatry, and mass-murder in the name of God.1

    Huxley showed a life-long preoccupation with the artificial polarities which have continually plagued Western man. Like Korzybski, Huxley anticipated by a quarter of a century William Barrett's pronouncement that the most formidable problem facing man in the twentieth century is the conciliation of opposites. Huxley wrestled persistently with the contrived antagonism erected between the scientific and the poetic, mind and body, reason and impulse. He was one of the few men of modern times deeply aware of the essential union and coexistence of opposites. It is perhaps significant that a man who felt equally at home with contemporary science and art, mystical states of awareness, and general semantics should write three books and many articles devoted to psychedelic phenomena.
    The ambivalence of man toward the culture he has inherited and continually creates, articulated so incisively by Huxley, has reached new heights in the present era. On the one hand, we have at our command a technology capable of making the lives of men healthy, safe, and reasonably secure for the first time in history. Until recently, the motive power of civilization, particularly in Western cultures, has necessarily focused on survival and environmental mastery. In Maslow's terms, the organismic equilibrium made possible by satiated bodily needs, physical safety, and some measure of psychological security is prerequisite to more uniquely human pursuits. This hierarchical conception of man's strivings depicts him as a self-directed creature with impulses toward growth and self-enhancement as well as homeostatic maintenance.2 To the degree that Maslow's humanistic image of man engages the modern temper, the realization of human potentialities should reach unprecedented heights in the foreseeable future.
    On the other hand, many writers, impressed with the progressive subordination of personal identity to what Erik Erikson calls the "technological superidentity," do not foresee any greater actualizing of man's vast personal resources. Particular attention has been called to our ultra-rational commitment to structured, controlled forms of experience; that is, the restricted range of experience sanctioned by public consensus. A corollary to this feature of modern culture is our inordinate investment in language and higher-order abstractions at the expense of nonverbal experience and nonverbal communication. In this connection, L. L. Whyte refers to the "western dissociation," a division of mind and body which scientific-industrial society has pushed almost to the limit of endurance.3 More recently, Burton and Kantor have noted:

    As a culture attains higher forms, it desiccates itself by abstractions and reduces the immediacy of personal experience. The prevalent cry of alienation and "loss of meaning" today is just that quality of culture which denies the body and ignores the integrative aspects of its impulses.4

    The paradoxical relationship between language and experience has been well stated by Robert Cohen:

    It is most impelling to observe how verbal language, which evolved as an instrument to describe, to define, to sing, to acquaint man with the thoughts of another, which binds time and makes each man heir to the efforts of his brother (and a potential slave to the past) can destroy its maker.... This possibility arises from a lessened ability to recognize and hence respond to important fundamental sense impressions.5


LSD and the Corrective Measures of Korzybski

    AS STUDENTS of general semantics are well aware, the problems alluded to by these representative writers were explicitly recognized by Korzybski. Science and Sanity depicts in graphic detail the "unsane" consequences of "identifying or confusing words with objects and feelings, or memories and ideas with experiences which belong to the un-speakable objective level."6 It is through lack of consciousness of abstracting that objectification, identification, and allness occur—habits of thought which narrow and restrict human consciousness rather than heighten it. Korzybski considered consciousness of the abstraction process the most effective safeguard against these semantic restraints and the key to further human evolution. Consciousness of abstraction was defined as "awareness that in our process of abstracting we have left out characteristics."7 Stated differently, an individual apprehends himself and his world fully and accurately to the degree that he continually translates higher-order abstractions back to the naive sensory level, becoming experientially aware of the discrepancy between conceptualization and sense impression.
    Today there is a growing recognition of the semantic dangers described by Korzybski and a greater appreciation of the corrective measures he recommended. For example, in order to counteract the destructive consequences of "surplus-repression" (intensional thought?), Herbert Marcuse suggested the cultivation of "libidinal rationality" (consciousness of abstraction?)—a process which would abolish elementalism and reintegrate human experience.8 Similarly, the literary critic, Ihab Hassan, has noted:

    For the neo-Freudians {viz., Norman 0. Brown}, the problem is repression, abstraction, and the solution is the construction of a Dionysian ego. In their view, language ultimately becomes "the natural speech of the body," a phrase adopted from Rilke.9

    These semantic problems and prescriptions account in part for the current interest in the drug-induced psychedelic experience and its potential value as a therapeutic or educative device. As the contributors to this volume make clear, the LSD-state increases one's ability "to recognize and hence respond to fundamental sense impressions" without semantic barriers. The freshness of perception and feeling of unity which characterize the experience suggest that the "is" of identity is temporarily eliminated. Like the structural differential method devised by Korzybski, the LSD experience may be viewed as nonverbal training in nonidentity. At its best the psychedelic state permits the subject to evaluate with some detachment (1) the structure of his semantic framework (its similarity to reality), and (2) his semantic reactions (so that they take place more on the silent objective level). These two kinds of learning experience were recommended by Korzybski as the most effective means of increasing consciousness of abstracting.10
    In the present era, the press of cultural demands on the individual, symbolized by an undue emphasis on language and conventional modes of perception, are perhaps greater and felt more keenly than a generation ago. While recognizing that "it takes a good 'mind' to be 'insane,'11 Korzybski noted that "the average person 1933 must be considered pathological."12 From a similar perspective, Nettler has succinctly stated our current dilemma:

    We may have to choose between the "health" of the man who behaves badly because he sees accurately, and the "health" of the man who behaves nicely because he has learned the popular (i.e., socially self-delusional) way of seeing falsely.13


LSD and the Search for Meaning

    IN THIS CONNECTION, it is important to note that interest in the psychedelic experience is heavily concentrated among the upper-middle class, intellectual-professional strata of society; among healthy, well-adjusted people according to standard criteria of normality. The type of self-dissatisfaction expressed by this segment of our population seems consistent with the cultural climate mentioned earlier. More specifically, the nature of human discontent in a modern technological (and affluent) society has been undergoing rapid and profound change. In recent years, artists and scholars representing every field of endeavor have flooded the various media of communication with discussions of the quest for identity and meaning, the decline of traditional values and religion, modern man's deep sense of alienation, and the advent of science as a way of life. The current interest in humanistic psychology, oriental philosophy, existential psychiatry, self-actualization, and psychedelic drugs represents reactions to these trends and offers solace to the "encapsulated man" living in an age of "strident over-communication" Similarly, the conventional neuroses and character disorders are in decline, being replaced by what one writer termed the philosophical neurosis.14 It may well be as some critics suggest that orthodox psychotherapy with its emphasis on early childhood conflicts and social adjustment is already obsolete. Many individuals who understand all too well the antecedents of their behavior still feel unfulfilled and find their lives lacking in significance and purpose.
    In the light of what seems to be an incompatibility between psychotherapy as traditionally conceived, on the one hand, and the nature of modern discontent, on the other, it is not surprising that many people who fit this description express an interest in the psychedelic experience and find their way to LSD. A case in point is the almost four hundred voluntary subjects who have undergone a large-dose LSD session at the International Foundation for Advanced Study in Menlo Park, California. Approximately one-third of the total sample did not present complaints of a psychiatric nature and revealed minimal neurotic symptomology according to both diagnostic evaluation and psychological test data. Consistent with the independent assessment, the interest expressed by these subjects in the psychedelic experience seemed to be "growth-motivated" rather than "deficiency-motivated."15 Some were dimly aware of potentialities or personal aptitudes which they hoped to activate and develop more fully. Others expressed a feeling of emptiness and lack of meaningful purpose while adequately meeting the exigencies of life. Still others sought a deeper understanding or more satisfying resolutions to problems of an existential nature.
    Being relatively free of emotional disturbance, these subjects were more likely to grapple with fundamental problems during the LSD experience. In addition to examining self-identity and the relationship between self and non-self, questions of love, death, creation, and the conciliation of opposites received frequent attention. Follow-up interviews, clinical ratings, and subjective reports indicated that these subjects benefited considerably from the psychedelic experience along the lines of self-actualization, richer creative experience, and enhancement of specific abilities and talents. Although extremely tentative at this point, these preliminary findings are at least suggestive of the ways in which these powerful agents might be employed to explore and enhance human consciousness.

Research: Current Status and Future Trends

    SINCE more than three hundred studies on the use of LSD-25 as a therapeutic agent have been reported, only the most salient and consistent findings will be summarized.16 Despite great diversity in the conduct of these studies, impressive improvement rates have been almost uniformly reported, with both adults and children, and in group as well as individual psychotherapy. Used in conjunction with traditional psychotherapy, or as a primary vehicle for inducing rapid personality change, LSD has been found to facilitate improvement in patients representing the complete spectrum of neurotic, psychosomatic, and character disorders. Particularly noteworthy are the positive results obtained with cases highly resistant to conventional forms of therapy. High remission rates among alcoholics, for example, have frequently been reported following a single, large-dose LSD session. Based on their findings with more than one thousand alcoholics, Hoffer and his coworkers concluded that LSD was twice as effective as any other treatment program.17 Other chronic conditions carrying a poor prognosis which have responded favorably to psychedelic therapy include sexual deviations, criminal psychopathy, autism in children, and adolescent behavior disorders.
    When employed as an adjunct to psychotherapy, most investigators have associated the beneficial effects of LSD with reduced defensiveness, the reliving of early childhood experiences, increased access to unconscious material, and greater emotional expression. In contrast, when used as a primary vehicle for rapid personality change, emphasis is usually placed on the transcendental quality of the experience, the re-synthesis of basic values and beliefs, and major changes in the relationship between self and environment.
    Since most reports on the therapeutic effectiveness of LSD have been based on clinical judgments of questionable reliability, it is worth noting that comparable results have been obtained by investigators in many other countries. The likelihood of a significant positive bias is further lessened by the widely divergent theoretical persuasions represented in this research. These include Freudian, Jungian, behavioristic, existentialist, and a variety of eclectic orientations. It seems safe to conclude from the breadth and consistency of the clinical evidence that LSD can produce far-reaching beneficial effects in some people, under some conditions. However, controlled studies of the process variables involved have yet to be conducted. Specifically, in what ways do various kinds of people respond to LSD, both during the experience and afterward? What are the optimal conditions of administration for given objectives? How can we account for the various kinds and extent of change which follow an LSD experience? In short, despite the mass of accumulated data on the outcome of psychedelic therapy, relationships among process variables remain obscure.
    Primarily because of the controversy surrounding these chemical agents (which interestingly is confined to the United States), controlled research aimed at maximizing safety, effectiveness, and applicability has barely begun. In addition to questions concerning the potential uses of LSD as a therapeutic or educative device, its possible value as a basic research tool for investigating higher mental processes and their relationship to behavior has also been minimally explored. Although the clinical evidence and testimonial reports indicate that LSD promises to be a valuable tool for both the study and enhancement of cognitive and perceptual functioning, such claims have been neither supported nor refuted by means of controlled studies. Other hypotheses readily testable include the often noted similarity of the psychedelic experience to certain phases of the creative process and its possible relationship to other altered states of consciousness such as hypnosis, transcendental experiences, identity crises, and dream states.

Psychological Interpretations of the Psychedelic Experience

    AN ALMOST INVARIANT effect of the psychedelics, cutting across the wide range of individual reactions, is an extraordinary alteration in perception. This usually takes the form of intensified sensory acuity in all modalities and a blurring of self-nonself boundaries. Whether expanded awareness or increased insight accompany these unhabitual perceptions and altered frames of reference is not a function of the chemical agent. In contrast to the earlier search for "drug-specific" effects of LSD, it is now generally recognized that the nature, intensity, and content of the experience are the resultant of complex transactions between the subject's past history and personality, the set and expectancies of both subject and administrator, and the physical and psychological environment in which the experience takes place. Importantly, most of these determinants can be intentionally arranged and manipulated so as to foster either a propitious or a stressful experience. Based on data obtained from a large sample of cases, Harman noted that when the context of the experience is optimized, the subject "is able to re-examine his relationships with others, his attitudes and values, his beliefs about his own nature and that of the world he lives in—all with unusual nonattachment and freedom from threat."18 Similarly, in a careful study of 690 administrations of LSD, Chandler and Hartman concluded that:

    ... the drug does not appear to produce any serious or marked impairment in the major ego functions. The patient remains oriented for person, place, and time. He does not appear to lose contact with everyday reality... he can withdraw his awareness from the physical reality of the moment and allow his attention to become completely absorbed by the phenomena at the deeper psychic levels, but he retains the ability to focus his awareness back on to external objective reality whenever he chooses...19

    The striking similarity between this state and certain phases of the creative process has been described by Frank Barron20 and demonstrated in a study of thirty artists given LSD. In psychoanalytic terms, the psychedelic experience resembles a "regression in the service of the ego" or a merging of impulse and realistic thinking. In the light of the cultural trends noted earlier, it is noteworthy that this capacity to blend primary and secondary processes has been recognized recently as a condition of superior functioning or positive mental health. Irnportantly, there is some evidence indicating that individuals tend to display more of this ability following an LSD session as well as during the psychedelic experience itself. If conditions are favorable, the experience and its aftermath have much in common with a self-actualizing "peak experience." 21 The process of transformation operative in such cases seems highly similar to Erik Erikson's penetrating analysis of the "identity crisis" as a catalyst for rapid personal growth.22
    A number of studies have demonstrated that relatively stable individual characteristics (for example, personality) are as important as set and setting in determining response to LSD. In a study of changes in values and beliefs, personality, and behavioral patterns in major life areas, Mogar and Savage found that the nature, magnitude, and stability of post-LSD changes were related to personality variables and modal defense patterns.23 As might be expected, subjects with a well-defined but flexible self-structure responded most favorably to the drug, while those with either underdeveloped or overly rigid ego defenses responded least favorably. This differential finding parallels the distinction often made between the creative process and psychotic states. An analysis of imaginal responses to the Rorschach led Holt and Havel to conclude:

    We find primary process thinking in conscious subjects either out of strength or out of weakness. In the former case, it is more likely to appear in a playful or esthetic frame of reference, accompanied by pleasant affect. If, on the other hand, primary thinking breaks through the usual defenses uninvited and unwanted, the subject may feel anxious or threatened and is likely to act defensively.24

    Like the psychedelic experience, both creative and psychotic states are characterized by greater access to unconscious material. However, in contrast to the regressive quality of psychosis, creativity involves a temporary and voluntary breaking up of perceptual constancies which permits the individual "to shake free from dead literalism, to recombine the old familiar elements into new, imaginative, amusing, or beautiful patterns."25 Despite these important differences, it should be emphasized that altered states of consciousness, whether willfully induced, stress-induced, or drug-induced, all favor sensation and image over word-concept. This type of deviation from conventional perception will be welcomed and valuable rather than feared and harmful to the degree that the psychological and social context of the experience are congenial to the needs of a particular individual. As it was stressed earlier, systematic research into the relationship among relevant factors must be conducted before "optimum" conditions can be reliably specified for given objectives and subjects.

LSD As Training in Visualization

    IN THE LIGHT of the cardinal features of the psychedelic experience and its apparent similarity to the creative process, it is worth noting that each contributor to this issue makes some reference to the rupture which often exists between experience and language. As indicated previously, awareness of the causes, correlates, and consequences of this basic human problem is no longer a unique concern of general semantics. On the contrary, it is now widely recognized as a dominant theme in contemporary thought. As a phenomenon of modern culture, the psychedelic experience highlights this central problem and suggests one means of alleviating it.
    There is some indication that LSD will prove effective as a method of nonaristotelian training producing greater semantic flexibility. As an aid to sane, creative living, Korzybski emphasized the need to "visualize our theories." The soundness of this recommendation has been dramatically confirmed by Albert Einstein:

    The words of the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities in my case are... visual and some of muscular type. Conventional words and other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a secondary stage.26

    It has been suggested that psychedelic drugs facilitate the conversion of semantic reactions into sensations and images. In this respect, there is a striking similarity between the LSD experience and "training in visualization which automatically abolishes objectification, identification, and allness."27 Korzybski's description of this visualization process reads like countless reports of psychedelic experiences.

    ... the higher abstractions are translated back into new lower abstractions, which are closer to life. Such an individual "sees," "visualizes," has "intuitions," in his symbolic interplays. He then has a new structural vision through a new survey of his own experiences and all the experiences of others when translated in terms of lower centres. He gains a deeper insight, which he ultimately makes useful to all of us.28

    In commenting on the growing distrust of language as a medium of expression among contemporary artists, Ihab Hassan sums up the fascination and promise symbolized (if not actualized) by the psychedelics: "The story is really a very old one. To hear again, to see again, to feel again, and perhaps sometimes to love what is seen or heard or felt...."29
    IN THE FOLLOWNG pages, each contributor describes some aspect of the class of experiences associated with the ingestion of a psychedelic agent. Yet the emphasis is clearly on a broad array of experiences or states of consciousness which have been induced by a variety of means, throughout man's history, and in every culture of the world. If nothing else, the current advent of perception-altering chemical agents calls attention to our traditional neglect of novel thoughts and impulses. These papers also demonstrate an important application of general semantics to yet another facet of man's behavior and experience.

    1 Aldous Huxley, "Culture and the Individual," in LSD: The Consciousness-Expanding Drug, ed. David Solomon (New York: Putnam, 1964), p. 316.
    2 Abraham H. Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being (Princeton: Van Nostrand, 1962).
    3 Lancelot L. Whyte, The Next Development in Man (New York: Mentor, 1950).
    4 Arthur Burton and Robert Kantor, 'The Touching of the Body," Psychoanalytic Review, 51 (1964), p. 122.
    5 Robert Cohen, "Language and Behavior," American Scientist, 49 (1961), p. 507.
    6 Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity, 3d ed. (Lakeville, Connecticut: Institute of General Semantics, 1948), p. 417.
    7 Ibid., p. 416.
    8 Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization (Boston: Beacon, 1955).
    9 Ihab Hassan, "The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Reflections on Modern Culture, Language, and Literature." American Scholar, 32(1963), p. 466.
    10 Korzybski, op. cit., p. 37
    11 Ibid., p. 309.
    12 Ibid., p. 336.
    13 George Nettler, "Good Men, Bad Men, and the Perception of Reality," Sociometry, 24 (1961), p. 271.
    14 William Schofield, Psychotherapy: The Purchase of Friendship (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1964).
    15 Maslow, op. cit., p. 19.
    16 For a more detailed and referenced critique of the extensive applications of LSD as a psychotherapeutic agent, consult Robert Mogar and Charles Savage, "Personality Changes Associated With LSD Therapy," Psychotherapy, 1 (1964), pp. 154-162; and David Solomon (ed.), LSD: The Consciousness-Expanding Drug (New York: Putnam, 1964). An excellent account of the psychopharmacological and behavioral effects of LSD in animal and man may be found in Sidney Cohen, The Beyond Within: The LSD Story (Atheneurn, 1964).
    17 Sanford Unger, "Mescaline, LSD, Psilocybin, and Personality Change," in Solomon, op. cit., pp. 121-122.
    18 Willis W. Harman, "Some Aspects of the Psychedelic-Drug Controversy," Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 3 (l963), p. 95.
    19 Arthur Chandler and Mortimer Hartman, "LSD-25 As a Facilitating Agent in Psychotherapy," Archives of General Psychiatry, 2 (1960), p. 290
    20 Frank Barron. Creativity and Psychological Health (Princeton: Van Nostrand 1963), pp. 256-257.
    21 Maslow, op. cit., pp.67-108.
    22 Erik Erikson, "Identity and the Life Cycle," Psychological Issues, 1, (1959) pp. 1-171.
    23 Mogar and Savage, op. cit.
    24 Robert R. Holt and Joan Havel, "A Method of Assessing Primary and Secondary Process in the Rorschach," in Rorschach Psychology, ed. Maria Rickers-Ovsiankina (New York: Wiley, 1960), p. 311.
    25 Ibid., p. 304.
    26 Jacques Hadamard, Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949), p. 118.
    27 Korzybski, op. cit., p. 454
    28 Ibid., p. 306.
    29 Hassan, op. cit., p. 484.

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