Psychedelics (mescaline, LSD, psilocybin, DMT…) act on the serotonin receptors in the nervous system and shape sensory perceptions and thinking. They resemble serotonin which is the brain’s neurotransmitter in chemical structure. As a result, they produce a so-called altered state of consciousness. An altered state of consciousness (ASC) is a state of mind different from the waking state. ASC can be created artificially (chemically) or it can also occur naturally without human intervention.
The enigmatic mind
Mystical experiences are one type of altered states of consciousness. Their research is conducted mainly at the practical level in medicine, psychology and neurobiology, usually as nursing support, but humanists typically avoid them. However, psychedelics and mystical experiences also have explanatory value in the humanities. Their research has met with resistance, mainly because of the massive recreational use and the subsequent international ban. They also seem to be beyond the reach of rational research.
Psychedelics tell a story of a human growth disorder. Human growth disorder explains human evolution, mystical experiences, and human interest in psychedelic and similar experiences. Here, I try to offer mystical experiences and psychedelics a vital role in studying modern humans’ evolution and the psyche. I understand this may sound like I’d encourage people to use dangerous weapons. That is not my purpose. It’s worth recalling why these things are so frowned upon, taboo, or defined as illegal. Most know that the reason for such is to keep the truth unseen.
Attempts to explain human evolution, one of the most controversial research fields, have been made for centuries. Yet, one of the amazing facts about human development is its history. In short, it is rude: extinction has befallen almost the entire family; only humans are alive. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate to ask why we are alive and why evolution favours us more than other homo species? Is it because of psychedelics?
Terence McKenna and the Stone ape theory
The starting point of one of the most influential people conducting personal research on psychedelics, the American ethnologist and author Terence McKenna was the human brain. He saw a lot of unusual features in brain development. McKenna told science had no explanation for people’s leap-like mental development. But he had one: hominids had found mushrooms containing psilocybin in the manure of the wandering cattle they followed 40-50,000 years ago. That was the start of the rapid development of modern humans, he said. In addition, fungal psilocybin had improved their visual alertness, sexual activity, and hallucinatory conditions. And finally, fungi improved their brain. He called this the stoned ape theory. But, unfortunately, the scientific community did not take the idea of psychedelics as a trigger for human evolution seriously, and the theory probably did not contribute much to the study of psychedelics either.
Terence McKenna (1946 – 2000) was an American ethnobotanist, lecturer, author, and advocate for the responsible use of naturally occurring psychedelic plants.
Evolution and psychedelics
I think Terence McKenna’s attempt is good; at least it questioned the prevailing perceptions. However, there is still something wrong with it. First, it is difficult to explain how psychoactive substances would have permanently altered the human genome — at least in McKenna’s proposed timeframe. Researchers estimate permanent changes in species to take up to a million years. Homo sapiens did not have that much time at their disposal. The timescale was also a challenge for other theories of human development: there was not enough time for evolutionary change. The human emergence must have another reason. Species as such are artificial abstractions of adapted populations, yet they genuinely reflect their habitats. The human species is a chameleon-like population seeming to adapt anywhere. That is strange. The longer people live somewhere, the more clearly habitats have begun to reflect them and not the other way around. The definition of a human species is also a bit poor. Second, according to McKenna, mushrooms somehow disappeared about 12,000 years ago, which led to a decline. If the change was not permanent, the theory does not hold water.
I also drew my attention to the fact that McKenna thought psychedelics were evolutionarily developing human consciousness. I have to disagree. The reason for using psychedelics is likely not that they develop human consciousness or elevate us apart from the animal kingdom. On the contrary, I believe they are used because they can bring us back down. I agree with McKenna about the effects of psychedelics, only not with their interpretation. I also believe it is just a coincidence that certain plants and fungi contain serotonin-like compounds. It is a mere chance that humans have come to find them. I think plants have no message or plan for us, and we are not any mystical messengers of the mushroom. That is too far fetched. I do not underestimate these feelings at all; I respect them. But in terms of understanding our evolution, it is good to know where these feelings come from and whether they have an inherent function. Psychedelics alone do not help to understand the strange world of the mind. It also requires current scientific knowledge, a lot of questioning, and good luck. Despite this, Terence McKenna is my hero. I enjoy listening to his talks.