”We should do well to consider much more seriously… the type of theory Bergson put forward in connection with memory and sense perception. The suggestion is that the function of the brain and nervous system and sense organs is in the main eliminative and not productive.”
Aldous Huxley’s insightful suggestion of the brain as a filter, or a reducing valve of reality, is a rare but still quite well-known hypothesis in the scientific community. Its central idea is that we do not truly experience the world because the brain, nervous system and sense organs limit our experiences. This is still just a hypothesis for which it has been difficult to find direct evidence. It may, however, prove successful if the idea of human sophistication and specificity is turned upside down and thought of as a mechanism of growth that works poorly or not at all. I will let Huxley himself describe what this idea is all about.
Huxley’s basic idea is that the human mind filters reality under normal circumstances, but he also can be exposed to “Mind at Large”. He came up with this idea after taking mescaline in an experiment conducted by the British psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond. He thought that psychedelics could partly remove this filter, which leaves the psychedelic user exposed to ”Mind at Large”. The idea was not entirely new. He had been influenced by at least C.D. Broad and Henri Bergson and their thoughts on the brain and nervous system. Mind at Large is Huxley’s hypothesis of a state of mind that can also be called mystical experience or (religious) enlightenment. I have addressed these phenomena elsewhere in the blog.
Bergson’s conception of the brain is as follows, to quote J. Alexander Gunn’s idea in Bergson and his Philosophy. Bergson thinks that ”the brain is no more than a kind of central telephone exchange, its office is to allow communication or to delay it. It adds nothing to what it receives, it is simply a centre where perceptions get into touch with motor mechanisms. Sometimes the function of the brain is to conduct the movement received to a chosen organ of reaction, while at other times it opens to the movement the totality of the motor tracks.”
In addition to Mind at Large, Huxley raises three points of interest in his quotation:
1) the reality-eliminating nature of the brain and nervous system
2) the reducing valve system
3) the reflection of reduced consciousness on the language
In these observations, Huxley has well understood the nature of the phenomenon. The first idea in this Bergson – Broad – Huxley reducing valve hypothesis is the realization that the role of the brain is not so much to produce but to eliminate. To my understanding, it was important for Bergson to defend the separation of consciousness and the brain, that consciousness could not be reduced to mere brain impulses. For him, the function of the brain was merely to direct action in the form of movements and reactions, and consciousness was something higher and possibly even immortal. In any case, Huxley adopts from Broad the idea that the human mind is fundamentally wild and free to experience infinitely everything that exists, even though the brain is forced to serve mere survival. For Huxley, psychedelics reveal the true potential of the mind, the ability to see beyond survival and everyday life.
The explanation for the eliminating function of the mechanisms of the psyche (brain and nervous system) is actually extremely natural and logical. However, the explanation is not what Huxley suggests when he says that “in so far as we are animals, our business is at all costs to Survive.” What really matters is not that they work for animals, but that they work for children. In my opinion, humans have not evolved above other animals but rather undeveloped, at least in the sense that our growth mechanisms do not work as they should. And they are likely to work on animals without problems. Mechanisms guide a child’s growth by restricting and modifying sensory information and equipping the child with a mechanism of cognition that compares alternatives only to select the least bad one. This is one eliminating feature. I think that’s exactly what Huxley means by the fact that the mind is not productive. Another way to eliminate is found in the control of sensory information. When these traits disappear in a mystical experience — or when it previously disappeared from all adult individuals — the world appears to man amazingly different.
The reducing valve can thus be seen as a mechanism that does not protect people in general but only children. The growing individual must be protected from the flood of information, and therefore the reality must also be shown to him “wrongly”. This is because it will help the child grow up and learn their environment safely. An adult no longer needs such a mechanism. This mechanism nevertheless dominates every adult individual due to an error that is likely to be genetic in nature.
The fact that Huxley did not take note of this fact is in itself no wonder, as he grew up and lived in the Western cultural environment that had long tried to deny or hide the possibility of such errors. The idea of a genetic defect of the human psyche is undeniably anarchist, but it is so far the only good and workable explanation I have found for the phenomenon. On top of all that, it’s straightforward. But there is also another critical point to note. Huxley himself had not a mystical experience but only a similar experience that arose with the help of psychedelics. Even if there are no actual differences in the experience itself, a psychedelic experience alone does not help understand why such a phenomenon may appear spontaneously. Spontaneous experience seems to be the only way to realize that there may be a malfunction and that it may be related to an individual’s mental growth. That, in turn, is the only way to understand the experience itself.
The reason why mystics, as a rule, have not realized this fact is a bit more difficult to explain. However, there are exceptions. Yrjö Kallinen, a lesser-known Finnish original thinker and persuasive pacifist, thought that there could be genetic causes behind the problematic nature of humankind. However, he did not propose any theory based on this.
Huxley sees consciousness as reflected in what he calls “symbol-systems and implicit philosophies which we call languages”. This is, of course, the case, but only a small part of it is likely to be reflected in language, mainly because language is not one of the phenomena most prone to the specialities of consciousness. In addition to language, reduced consciousness emerges in religions, mysticism, fairy tales, and other stories that use metaphors and symbols. Of course, it is also reflected in art and activities that require creativity in general. But it was perhaps most directly manifested among indigenous peoples. I mean specifically rites of passage. They directly expressed that a person is not growing properly and needs to be helped in it. The rites of passage seek to shape the human mind to accept a different, more mature, adult reality. However, Huxley did not address such aspects in his work.
After this brief comparison, I must emphasize that I do not have the capacity to present facts about the brain and its function, but only some general observations about the functioning of the mind. I can’t even say how my view of consciousness is consistent (or inconsistent) with Bergson’s views. It is still good to note that it is neither essential to know where the control of observations comes from nor the relationship between the brain and consciousness in my hypothesis. My hypothesis deals with observations and their unusual transformation at the level of mind, consciousness, and “reduced consciousness”, although suggesting their possible connection to a genetic defect. My perspective is phenomenological.
Pictured in the top image from left are Henri Bergson, C. D. Broad, Aldous Huxley (1894–1963)