The Virus With No Vaccine

There’s an idea messing with my head. I don’t know what to make of it, so I’ll just cough it all over you so you have to deal with it too.

It started with a conversation I had on a plane on Sunday on my return from Stockholm. My neighbor was a psychologist on the frontier of psychedelic therapy. I like Toad as much as the next guy, let’s dance. I ask what aspect of psychedelics makes it useful for therapy.

The response was quick and far more specific than what I expected —

“Psychedelics inhibit language”

Well, why is that therapeutic?

My new friend explained: you don’t need language to think.

Again, “you don’t need language to think”

I know what all those words mean, but not quite in that order. He has my attention.

There are constructs that do not exist in the world, but come into being because of language’s abstraction. For example, the idea of “worthiness”. A person may deem themselves “unworthy” replete with all the baggage imbued by the word. They identify with a word hung on them when they are young and for arbitrary reasons — a message their parent announced or simply implied. Of course the child is not unworthy anymore that it is a dolphin. Yet the word “unworthy” can initiate a stubborn thought-loop without a ctrl-break option.

By inhibiting language, the loop can dissolve. You are freed to have another thought. A different thought. [An interesting aside to this was how the psychologist explained that it’s commonly understood that there are critical periods where you are more primed to learn certain things (ie the canonical examples of music or language in children), recent studies on psychedelics suggest the brain is more plastic than we previously thought — the critical periods may not be as strict or short.]

I was intrigued by this because I have long held 2 beliefs that coincide with what I’m being told here in seat 38G:

  1. Most learning is unlearning.Learning is tediously scraping off the “knowledge” you were given on flimsy epistemology when you were young. That passed-down knowledge that held the throne by simple virtue of having “been there first”. If your first contact with the origin of life is creationism, then your biology teacher will need to work extra hard to convince you that God didn’t make Eve for Adam.
  2. Language has a tyrannical influence on what you can think aboutIn Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman writes:

    We know enough about language to understand that variations in the structures of languages will result in variations in what may be called “worldview…Each medium, like language itself, makes possible a unique mode of discourse by providing a new orientation for thought, for expression, for sensibility. Which, of course, is what McLuhan meant in saying the medium is the message.

    To take a simple example of what this means, consider the primitive technology of smoke signals. While I do not know exactly what content was once carried in the smoke signals of American Indians, I can safely guess that it did not include philosophical arguments. Puffs of smoke are insufficiently complex to express ideas on the nature of existence, and even if they were, a Cherokee philosopher would run short of either wood or blankets long before he reached his second axiom. You cannot use smoke to do philosophy. Its form excludes the content.

So we land at JFK. I’m done mulling how psychedelics can help us break away from language patterns by accessing unconscious forms of thinking perception or sensing. I flip off airplane mode, and look for something to read while waiting. I’m in 38G remember. The next article in my queue is The Kekulé Problem (h/t Byrne Hobart) by Cormac McCarthy who died last week.

The article’s subheading: “Where did language come from?”

Timely. Spooky even.

Little did I know, I was about to feel like I just swallowed a handful of gold caps.

McCarthy makes the case that language is not quite the feature we believe it to be and in fact, our unconscious knows it’s a bug.

Um, what?

If the premise of psychedelic therapy is language can be a self-inflicted source of pain, then maybe I shouldn’t be so shocked. Right? Right??

When the psychologist says that language arms you with the power to reason about the future in a way that a monkey cannot, it invites a special dread because we all know at least one thing that’s going to happen in the crystal ball of our language-ridden minds. Sam Harris has argued that the key to happiness is being present. Getting out of our minds. Or at least the part of our minds that transport us to the future on wings of words.

I’m going to leave you to read the article which begins with McCarthy musing about why so many math breakthroughs have occurred as mental images first instead of revealing themselves through deliberate chains of logic. And if you don’t know who McCarthy is (RIP) here’s a reminder from Santa Fe Institute president David Krakauer:

Cormac McCarthy is best known to the world as a writer of novels. These include Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, and The Road. At the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) he is a research colleague and thought of in complementary terms. An aficionado on subjects ranging from the history of mathematics, philosophical arguments relating to the status of quantum mechanics as a causal theory, comparative evidence bearing on non-human intelligence, and the nature of the conscious and unconscious mind. At SFI we have been searching for the expression of these scientific interests in his novels and we maintain a furtive tally of their covert manifestations and demonstrations in his prose. [Kris: Really dig that]

Over the last two decades Cormac and I have been discussing the puzzles and paradoxes of the unconscious mind. Foremost among them, the fact that the very recent and “uniquely” human capability of near infinite expressive power arising through a combinatorial grammar is built on the foundations of a far more ancient animal brain. How have these two evolutionary systems become reconciled? Cormac expresses this tension as the deep suspicion, perhaps even contempt, that the primeval unconscious feels toward the upstart, conscious language. In this article Cormac explores this idea through processes of dream and infection. It is a discerning and wide-ranging exploration of ideas and challenges that our research community has only recently dared to start addressing through complexity science.

Favorite excerpts

  • Did language meet some need? No. The other five thousand plus mammals among us do fine without it. Problems in general are often well posed in terms of language and language remains a handy tool for explaining them. But the actual process of thinking—in any discipline—is largely an unconscious affair. Language can be used to sum up some point at which one has arrived—a sort of milepost—so as to gain a fresh starting point. But if you believe that you actually use language in the solving of problems I wish that you would write to me and tell me how you go about it.
  • That it does solve problems in mathematics is indisputable. How does it go about it? When I’ve suggested to my friends that it may well do it without using numbers, most of them thought—after a while—that this was a possibility. How, we don’t know. Just as we don’t know how it is that we manage to talk. If I am talking to you then I can hardly be crafting at the same time the sentences that are to follow what I am now saying. I am totally occupied in talking to you.
  • There are influential persons among us—of whom a bit more a bit later—who claim to believe that language is a totally evolutionary process. That it has somehow appeared in the brain in a primitive form and then grown to usefulness. Somewhat like vision, perhaps…But all indications are that language has appeared only once and in one species only. Among whom it then spread with considerable speed.
  • McCarthy gives examples of proto-language via animal signaling but distinguishes this from true symbolic representation
  • The difference between the history of a virus and that of language is that the virus has arrived by way of Darwinian selection and language has not.
  • Of the known characteristics of the unconscious, its persistence is among the most notable. Everyone is familiar with repetitive dreams. Here the unconscious may well be imagined to have more than one voice: “He’s not getting it, is he? No. He’s pretty thick. What do you want to do? I dont know. Do you want to try using his mother? His mother is dead. What difference does that make?” What is at work here? And how does the unconscious know we’re not getting it? What doesn’t it know? It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the unconscious is laboring under a moral compulsion to educate us. (Moral compulsion? Is he serious?)
  • We don’t know what the unconscious is or where it is or how it got there—wherever there might be. Recent animal brain studies showing outsized cerebellums in some pretty smart species are suggestive. That facts about the world are in themselves capable of shaping the brain is slowly becoming accepted. Does the unconscious only get these facts from us, or does it have the same access to our sensorium that we have? You can do whatever you like with the us and the our and the we. I did. At some point, the mind must grammaticize facts and convert them to narratives. The facts of the world do not for the most part come in narrative form. We have to do that. [Kris: note the similarity between what McCarthy is saying and how the psychologist explained that the abstractions of language do not map to actual objects in the world. The abstractions are constructed.]
  • So what are we saying here? That some unknown thinker sat up one night in his cave and said: Wow. One thing can be another thing. Yes. Of course that’s what we are saying. Except that he didn’t say it because there was no language for him to say it in. For the time being he had to settle for just thinking it…What we do know—pretty much without question—is that once you have language everything else follows pretty quickly. The simple understanding that one thing can be another thing is at the root of all things of our doing. From using colored pebbles for the trading of goats to art and language and on to using symbolic marks to represent pieces of the world too small to see.
  • One hundred thousand years is pretty much an eyeblink (the time since ancient cave art was discovered and likely preceded language.) But two million years is not. This is, rather loosely, the length of time in which our unconscious has been organizing and directing our lives. And without language you will note. At least for all but that recent blink. How does it tell us where and when to scratch? We don’t know. We just know that it’s good at it. But the fact that the unconscious prefers avoiding verbal instructions pretty much altogether—even where they would appear to be quite useful—suggests rather strongly that it doesn’t much like language and even that it doesn’t trust it. And why is that? How about for the good and sufficient reason that it has been getting along quite well without it for a couple of million years?
    • the picture-story mode of presentation favored by the unconscious has the appeal of its simple utility. A picture can be recalled in its entirety whereas an essay cannot
    • The log of knowledge or information contained in the brain of the average citizen is enormous. But the form in which it resides is largely unknown. You may have read a thousand books and be able to discuss any one of them without remembering a word of the text.
    • The picture-story lends itself to parable. To the tale whose meaning gives one pause…We can see this in dreams. Those disturbing dreams which wake us from sleep are purely graphic. No one speaks. These are very old dreams and often troubling. Sometimes a friend can see their meaning where we cannot. The unconscious intends that they be difficult to unravel because it wants us to think about them. To remember them. It doesn’t say that you can’t ask for help. Parables of course often want to resolve themselves into the pictorial.
    • The unconscious is a biological operative and language is not. Or not yet. You have to be careful about inviting Descartes to the table. Aside from inheritability probably the best guide as to whether a category is of our own devising is to ask if we see it in other creatures. The case for language is pretty clear. In the facility with which young children learn its complex and difficult rules we see the slow incorporation of the acquired…The answer of course is simple once you know it. The unconscious is just not used to giving verbal instructions and is not happy doing so. Habits of two million years duration are hard to break.
    • The unconscious seems to know a great deal. What does it know about itself? Does it know that it’s going to die? What does it think about that? It appears to represent a gathering of talents rather than just one. It seems unlikely that the itch department is also in charge of math. Can it work on a number of problems at once? Does it only know what we tell it? Or—more plausibly—has it direct access to the outer world? Some of the dreams which it is at pains to assemble for us are no doubt deeply reflective and yet some are quite frivolous. And the fact that it appears to be less than insistent upon our remembering every dream suggests that sometimes it may be working on itself. And is it really so good at solving problems or is it just that it keeps its own counsel about the failures? How does it have this understanding which we might well envy? How might we make inquiries of it? Are you sure?

And to really close the loop on this…this song and video inspired by William S. Burroughs begs for psychedelics.

In the 1960s, Burroughs posited the idea that language is a virus “from outer space”. Guessing Cormac was a fan.

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