“I’m Totally Tripping Balls”: The Value of Psychedelic and other Mythopoetic States

This is a guest post by Stephen Asma. Read his article in ESIC 5.2: “Adaptive Imagination: Toward a Mythopoetic Cognitive Science.”

Cover image artwork by Stephen Asma.

In what ways can the psychedelic imagination be “transformative”? The science of psychedelics is having a renaissance currently and the research is helping us understand the mind better and provide us with fresh therapeutic options. Psychotropic substances engender psychological and philosophical states that reveal important features of the self and consciousness. They can reduce the vigilant executive functions in the frontal areas of the brain and release the mind into the involuntary sphere of free-association and mind-wandering (what neuroscientists call the Default Mode Network, DMN). These altered states loosen the tyranny of task-based consciousness, and they also suspend the ego’s usual dominance –letting us feel connected to everything (possibly activating improved empathy). 

Research at the Mind Foundation in Berlin Germany and the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, among others, is revealing that psychedelics are better than many antidepressants for treating certain kinds of depression. But even healthy people can benefit from psychedelic experiences.  

Absinthe drinker and French Symbolist Alfred Jarry (1873-1907) created a (serious) parody of science called pataphysics, defining it differently over a hundred times. He inspired the creation of a cognoscenti Pataphysical Society which included over the last century Marcel Duchamp, Picasso, Miro, Beaudrillard, The Marx Brothers, Andre Breton, and others. One of Jarry’s definitions of pataphysics describes it as “the virtual or imaginary nature of things as glimpsed by the heightened vision of poetry or science or love which can be seized and lived as real.”

How can we choose to live in a poetic cosmos, and why would we do it? Some people use astrology, paranormal beliefs, Akashic records, or positive-thinking as ways of structuring personal meaning (with various levels of commitment to the metaphysics of those beliefs). Others do the same with religion and ritual generally, seeing themselves in dialogue with God or spirits, or enacting ritualistically significant behaviors. Still others immerse in art, or they cosplay their way into imaginative living. Others “trip balls” as psychonauts, looking for transcendental experiences that can reintegrate into normal waking life.

Artwork by Stephen Asma.

The skeptical dismissal of these forms of imaginative living sees them as fun (at best), but not “knowledge.” The rejection of imagination as knowledge goes back to Descartes and Hume, chief architects of Modernism. Descartes, in his Meditations, famously looked for logical certainty and threw out anything that couldn’t satisfy that ridiculously high bar of knowledge. Hume then added the Empiricist’s view that if a book lacks experimental claims for testing matters of fact, then “commit it to the flames.” From the Enlightenment on, the imagination has not been allowed into the citadel we call knowledge. 

In most recent psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science, an active imagination is treated as disordered mind, a kind of over-activity or dysregulation of normally adaptive perceptual and conceptual “predictive processing.” Wait for the disturbance of imagination to pass, they assume, and you’ll return to the real you. But this is wide of the mark. Instead, the imagination shows us a different aspect of ourselves, that we had not seen or had not appreciated, or acted upon. Altered states (like ecstatic states) are surprisingly common ground for artists and religious people. As piano great Bill Evans once said, art “should teach spirituality by showing a person a portion of himself that he would not discover otherwise. It’s easy to rediscover part of yourself, but through art you can be shown part of yourself you never knew existed.” 

In my view, the imagination is the core engine in human cognition (Asma 2017), and it has an involuntary mode (e.g., dreams, psychedelic experiences, other altered states) and a voluntary mode (e.g., artistic and scientific creativity). The voluntary mode is oftentimes an executively-controlled cognitive manipulation of those elements furnished by the shadowy involuntary mode. Salvador Dali, Hayao Miyazaki, and even Albert Einstein used involuntary dream imagery as ingredients in their voluntary creative work. Recent neuroscience suggests that the voluntary imagination kicks in when the lateral prefrontal cortex (LPFC) acts in tandem with more associational brain systems (Vyshedskiy, 2020). Phenomenologically speaking LSD, psylocibin, and DMT users report hyper-associative unconstrained thoughts, images, and stories --in other words, magical and poetic experience. 

While not as extreme as a psychedelic experience, our daily lives are still phenomenologically poetic and dramatic, even though our scientific literacy often prevents us from acknowledging it. The imagination feeds our universal instinct to find (or project) a plot in nature and a plot in our own lives. A mythopoetic or imaginative perspective sees the world primarily as a dramatic story of competing (and cooperating) personal intentions, rather than a system of objective impersonal laws. It’s a prescientific worldview but it also thrives in our contemporary mind. 

Artwork by Stephen Asma.

Altered states (and imagination generally) were probably selected for in evolution because they present us with novel perspectives and virtual rehearsals of possible futures. The imagination is adaptive in a changing and challenging environment. Routinized behaviors (e.g., hunting, tool-making, mating strategies, etc.) are great for taking useful behaviors off the demanding cognitive load, placing them instead in the realm of embodied habit. But sometimes (given changing environments) we need access to alternative thoughts, behaviors, and strategies –we need “outside the box” thinking/behaving. The imagination gives access to otherwise hidden resources within us (e.g., novel ideation, information synthesis, affective states, etc.). And it does the same for the external world too, revealing new uses (affordances) for objects in the natural and built environment.

It is not just religious people, artists, and psychonauts that still think mythopoetically. Secular humanists and other cool-headed skeptics are living in a melodrama too. Americans for example faced a presidential election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden in 2020. Mainstream Liberals (not fringe groups) unironically characterized Trump as evil and Hitleresque, while mainstream conservatives characterized Biden as evil and Stalinesque. Both groups believed that the future of the U.S. (and the planet) hung in the balance. The mythopoetic cognition of politics was clearly on display. 

Additionally, we are all dealing with a Covid-19 pandemic, but we do so from a dramatic perspective –a perspective of personified protagonists. In 2020 President Trump described Covid-19 for example as our great enemy in an “all-out war,” saying, “The virus will not have a chance against us” and “We will win this war!” But strictly speaking, wars are fought against malicious agents –people who intend you harm. Covid-19 is like every other virus or pathogen, it does not mean us harm. It only wants to reproduce. The Left is just as mythopoetic as the Right. At the beginning of the pandemic many commentators moralized Covid-19 on the grounds that our encroachment on pristine nature and our environmental sins brought the zoonotic spillover as “Nature’s retribution.” The Left, proposing a mythopoetic tragedy of hubris, suggested that we brought this upon ourselves. 

I describe our mythopoetic tendencies not to smugly criticize the irrationality of humans, but to celebrate our poetic inclinations, which can be very adaptive. Empirical work in healthcare confirms that storytelling and creative visualization helps us reshape and give a name to our fears and traumas, but also give the sense of meaning to tragic and unexplainable events. And a mythopoetic approach to nature does not replace biological science in our fight with diseases like Covid, but it does point the direction for the sciences to go. Mythopoetic thinking is value-laden and helps tell us what is worth fighting for.

The main purpose or function of the mind is not to “mirror nature” (or describe nature with scientific models), but rather it’s to cope with nature (i.e., physical and social reality). This means that increasing positive emotion (affect) and establishing meaning are more fundamental functions of mind. And imagination is very adept at those functions.  

Stephen Asma is professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago. He is the author of The Evolution of Imagination (Univ. of Chicago), On Monsters (Oxford), and Why We Need Religion (Oxford), among other titles.