Mental Health Personal Growth Philosophy Psychology

Our Fight For Validation

After 35,000 interviews in 37 years on TV,  Oprah Winfrey states the following in her speech at Harvard graduates : 

“The common denominator that I’ve found in every single interview is that we want to be validated. We want to be understood. […][A]s soon as that camera shuts off, everyone always turns to me and, inevitably, in their own way, asks this question: ‘Was that okay?’ I heard it from President Bush. I heard it from President Obama. I’ve heard it from heroes and from housewives.” 

This, I believe, is one of the most fundamental insights there is into our nature as human beings. Our striving for validation doesn’t only occur during and after an interview on TV but also in our everyday working environment, when building relationships, or even when meeting complete strangers. We all want to feel heard and understood. For itself, this isn’t a problem. At least not more than any other evolutionary entailed tendency such as our striving for pleasing endless desires. It does however become a major obstacle to our happiness if seeking validation arises from an uncontrolled need to fulfill other people’s expectations. Sadly enough, this is ever more the case with social media being omnipresent. Let us call this kind of validation default validation. It is contradictory to what Oprah describes as the reason we are here:

“Your real work is to figure out where your power base is and to work on that alignment of your personality, your gifts you have to give, with the real reason why you are here. Align your personality with your purpose, and no one can touch you.”

What she describes in essence is authenticity and our journey of becoming our true selves without caring much about what other people want us to be. And although this might sound like just another most likely true but sort of naive and hardly applicable life advice, it is worth taking this to heart. Life’s most profound realizations, stripped away from our own experience and personal reflection, remain often not much more than empty shells, whose importance is yet to be recognized. 

The process of understanding and accepting, the courage to fight against our approval-seeking nature, the daily practice, and regular reflection certainly are a long journey to undertake and require hard work. The reward, however, will be freedom and validation from carefully chosen peers. Let’s call this type of validation courageous validation. To make this very clear: Even while striving towards authenticity and overcoming our approval-seeking behaviour, we as human beings still need to be validated just as a fish needs water. What changes, however, is that this validation no longer stems from our attempt to fulfilling external expectations. Instead, it comes from being recognized for the person you are by people you care about. The journey, therefore, is not so much about overcoming your need for validation (which is impossible) but changing its source. 

The goal of this essay is to lay out a case for our validation-seeking nature, to discuss specific and applicable methods that make others feel recognized and understood as well as elaborating on the steps of our journey towards our authentic selves. 

A Universal Desire For Validation
In order to survive in their harsh natural environment, collaboration with their in-group members was essential for our prehistoric ancestors. Anything that facilitated this collaboration was therefore favoured by evolution. Being complex social animals that operate in social hierarchies, our ancestors for example used gossip to exchange information and determine which of their group members were reliable and trustworthy. Our approval-seeking nature ties in with this behaviour since attempting to please other group members was a reasonably safe way to become and remain an accepted part of the group while ensuring cooperation from an evolutionary perspective. 

Nowadays, however, our need for validation comes at a cost: our freedom and happiness. Because how can we be any less free than when constantly trying to please everybody else? Since this seems obvious, we should simply stop caring about what others think. Yet it takes courage to accept this (accepting is not the same as mere understanding) and even more courage to free yourself from this. In his book “The Courage To Be Disliked”, Ichiro Kishimi emphasizes exactly this point as part of the Adlerian psychology, writing:

“Unless one is unconcerned by other people’s judgments, has no fear of being disliked by other people, and pays the cost that one might never be recognized, one will never be able to follow through in one’s own way of living. That is to say, one will not be able to be free.”

Throughout our different stages of life, we can find examples to illustrate our often very unhealthy desire for validation. Assume a child that not long ago got a younger brother. From being the only child and the center of his parent’s attention it suddenly becomes what feels like an unrecognized side note to its parents. The child now develops all kinds of provocative, attention-seeking behaviour to foster the feeling of being recognized. Of course, attention might cause the feeling of being seen, but it doesn’t please its parents (on the contrary). It’s therefore just a weak, unsatisfying form of validation, but better than the feeling of being unnoticed.

For the sake of another example, let’s look at unhealthy perfectionism whose implications become apparent in the working environment. It refers to a tendency to set up excessively high standards for yourself while being preoccupied with past mistakes, afraid of any future mistakes, and concerned about the expectations of others, such as parents or employers. Being highly focused on tasks and others’ expectations, you use accomplishment as a way to feel validated. Yet, as the last accomplishment fades, new pressure assumes itself, and any success is discounted. 

What might help when evaluating your own attitude towards this is a differentiation between a goal-oriented focus and a process-oriented one. The former is only about collecting one’s achievement and is thereby symptomatic of unhealthy perfectionism driven by the urge to please. The latter considers the work as a means in itself, is open to learning from mistakes and failure, and is therefore a healthier, more sustainable way of approaching things. I hope that you can bear another generic yet true cliché, but in the grander scheme of things, the purpose of life is a process-oriented focus. You don’t live to accomplish certain goals but to savour every moment of your journey towards them. Like a dance, where we don’t dance to get anywhere but simply for the sake of dancing. 

With regards to romantic relationships, the psychologist and author Dr. Sue Johnson breaks it down to three universal questions that every partner consciously or unconsciously keeps asking: “Are you there for me? Do I matter to you? Will you come when I need you, when I call?”. According to her, all problems in distressed couples arise because one partner feels neglected, unrecognized, and misunderstood. Assuming this is true, the question then is what kind of methods can we use to make others feel validated? 

The Secret of Empathy-Driven Communication
Probably, none of the following concepts are entirely new to you. Nevertheless, they are of astonishing potency and can be applied in almost any situation. And frankly, knowing them almost doesn’t matter at all. Instead, conscious application is what counts and this requires just one thing: practice.

Creating validation, no matter if it’s a parent with her child, a boss with an employee, or you with your partner, starts with Active Listening. This is much more difficult than it might sound but there are a few things that can help. Lean back and take a relaxed body position. When your counterpart is talking, don’t make any assumptions and listen until he is finished. Since we all have the tendency to start pre-configuring our answer while the other person is still talking, we need to work on actively suppressing this. Also, if the context is right, take notes (you probably wouldn’t want to do this when in a loaded conversation with your partner about whose turn it is to wash the dishes). This forces you to pay closer attention and makes the other person feel listened to. 

When reacting to your counterpart, use Paraphrasing to repeat what she said in your own words focusing on the essence of what she feels (emotions) and what is important to her (content). While this too is difficult to do since it requires extremely careful listening, few tools are as suitable as this one to make the other person feel truly recognized. It’s also one of the most effective ways for debates since it forces you to actually understand your counterpart’s argument. 

Further, use Labeling, that is verbalizing your counterpart’s emotions, to create a feeling of connection and understanding. Several studies underline the effectiveness of this tool on a neurological basis. In a brain imaging study, psychology professor Matthew Lieberman of the University of California found that people react with fear to photos of faces expressing strong emotions. If this emotion is, however, labeled, the brain activity moves from the amygdala (the part that generates fear) to other areas that govern rational thinking. In other words, labeling emotions decreases their intensity. These labels usually start with expressions such as It seems, It sounds like or It looks like. Try to avoid the word “I” because it creates the impression that you are more interested in yourself than in the other person.

Finally, asking the right questions matters a lot as well. Instead of formulating close-ended, verb-led questions (such as Can you do XYZ?), use open-ended questions that don’t allow for a static, yes or no answer (such as How can we solve this?). Asking these kinds of questions lets the other person talk and creates the feeling of being safe and in control which is a primary need we all have. 

Striving for Authenticity 
Until now, we discussed several examples concerning our validation-seeking behaviour and looked at tools and methods to make our counterpart feel understood. In the beginning, we differentiated between default validation as part of our attempt to please everybody’s expectations and courageous validation which we defined as bringing up the courage to let go of other people’s expectations, striving to become the person you really are, and being validated for exactly this. According to Adlerian psychology, we argued that only by being disliked (i.e. ignoring other people’s expectations) we can be truly free. And only once we are free will we be able to, as Oprah puts it, “align our personality with our purpose” and gain lasting happiness. 

Even if that was something that we would all agree on, the question remains how to get there. Of course “getting there” is incredibly difficult. We are social animals and wired to care about other people’s opinions. Our journey, therefore, becomes a fight against our own nature and most likely one where we never fully succeed (who really is completely free of other people’s expectations?). 

It starts with understanding the journey’s profundity and becoming conscious of our uncontrolled need to please others as a means of validation. This is not to say, however, that we should be judgemental of this behaviour. The key is accepting it and, more importantly, accepting that we are good enough just the way we are. 

Wisdom therefore consists in accepting what we are rather than in struggling fruitlessly to be something else, as if it were possible to run away from one’s own feet.” (Alan Watts)

Much of our default validation-seeking behaviour stems from our own feeling of inadequacy and our fear that the real us won’t be liked. Our approval-seeking behaviour is the easy way out, one without many risks. Therefore, beyond consciousness and acceptance, it takes courage and hard work to arrive at a state of courageous validation. What might help the most on a daily basis is building up habits of contemplation where you question your acting and reflect on it. Write down your thoughts, commit to goals, and recognize and celebrate successes. In the process of authenticity, things will change. Friends will leave, new ones will come, old jobs will be quit and new ones will be found, and couples will change to make room for something new. Eventually, you will end up with peers that appreciate you for the person you really are. 

Mental Health Personal Growth Psychology

Will & Ariel Durant – The Lessons of History

My Opinion

Lessons of history is a beautifully written book, originally published in 1968. I once heard somebody say it might be the “highest wisdom-per-word-book” and I certainly understand why. On just hundred pages the authors try to extract what history has to teach us.

It feels like every word in this book has been extremely carefully thought through. Therefore, instead of doing a lot of editing on the notes like I usually do, I decided to leave many quotes as they were.

Reading Recommendation: 8/10

My Notes

What is the benefit of history? Does history have something to teach? Is it possible that it has no sense and that “the immense past was only the weary rehearsal of the mistakes that the future is destined to make on a larger stage and scale?” Is it more than just a “fable not quite agreed upon”?

The selection and confirmation bias in history: “The historian always oversimplifies and hastily selects a manageable minority of facts and faces out of a crowd of souls and events whose multitudinous complexity he can never quite embrace or comprehend.”

The first biological lesson of history is that life is competition.

  • “Animals eat one another without qualm; civilised men consume one another by due process of law. Co-operation is real, and form of competition; we co-operate in our group – our family, community, club, church, party, “race”, or nation – in order to strengthen our group in its competition with other groups.”
  • Our states being ourselves multiplied; are what we are; they write our natures in bolder type, and greedy […]. War is a nation’s way of eating. It promotes co-operation because it is the ultimate form of competition. […] Until our states become members of a large and effective protective group they will continue to act like individuals and families in the hunting stage.”

The second biological lesson is that life is selection. We compete for power, food and mates. We are all born unfree, limited by our physical and psychological heredity and our culture, and differentiate in health, strength, mental capacity and character.

  • “Inequality is not only natural and inborn, it grows with the complexity of civilisation. Hereditary inequalities breed social and artificial inequalities; every invention or discovery is made or seized by the exceptional individual, and makes the strong stronger, the weak relatively weaker, than before.”
  • “Nature smiles at the union of freedom and equality in our utopias. For freedom and equality are sworn and ever lasting enemies and when one prevails the other dies.” The more freedom the higher the inequality.
  • “Utopias of equality are biologically doomed […]. A society in which all potential abilities are allowed to develop and function will have a survival advantage in the competition of groups.” Equality of chances is good, equality of outcome is not.

The third biological lessons is that life must breed. “If the human brood is too numerous for the food supply, Nature has three agents for restoring the balance: famine, pestilence and war.”

Evolution during recorded time has been social rather than biological based on economical and political factors. New situations require experimentation and innovation – the “social correlates of variation and mutation.

The wisdom of traditions. As Nassim Taleb describes with the Lindey effect (the longer some non-perishable thing like a technology or idea exists, the longer it will continue to exists i.e. the lower its mortality rate), the Durant’s argue that “out of every hundred new ideas ninety-nine or more will probably be inferior the the traditional responses which they propose to replace. No one man, however brilliant or well-informed, can come in one lifetime to such fullness of understanding as to safely judge and dismiss the customs or institutions of his society, for these are the wisdom of generations after centuries of experiment in the laboratory of history.”

Virtues change. “Pugnacity, brutality, greed and sexual readiness were advantages in the struggle for existence. Probably every vice was once a virtue – i.e. a quality making for the survival of the individual, the family, or the group. “

Three stages of economic history: hunting, agriculture and industry. Transitioning from one stage (hunting) to another (agriculture) changed some virtues into vices (and vice versa).

  • “Industriousness became more vital than bravery, regularity and thrift more profitable than violence, peace more victorious than war. Children were economic assets; birth control was made immoral.”
  • Farming life was simple. Each son followed his father. “At fifteen he understood the physical tasks of life as well as he would understand them at forty; all that he needed was land, a plow, and a willing arm. So he married early, almost as soon as nature wished.”
  • “Monogamy was demanded. For fifteen hundred years this agricultural moral code of contingency, early marriage, divorceless monogamy and multiple maternity maintained itself.”

The Industrial Revolution changed the economic and moral structure of European and American life.

  • “Men, women, and children left home and family, authority and unity, to work as individuals, individually paid, in factories built to house not men but machines.”
  • “Children no longer were economic assets; marriage was delayed; premarital continence became more difficult to maintain. The city offered every discouragement to marriage, but it provided every stimulus and facility for sex.”
  • “The rebellious youth was no longer constrained by the surveillance of the village; he could hide his sins in the protective anonymity of the city crowd.”

As Nassim Taleb states, it’s the outliers – the unseen black swans – that form history. This is also true when it comes to the way history is recorded. The Durant’s write that “we must remind ourselves again that history as usually written is quite different from history as usually lived: the historian records the exceptional because it is interesting – because it is exceptional.”

The importance of religion. “Even the skeptical historian develops a humble respect for religion, since he sees it functioning, and seemingly indispensable, in every land and age. To the unhappy, the suffering, the bereaved, the old it has brought supernatural comforts valued by millions of souls as more precious than any natural aid. […] It has kept the poor (said Napoleon) from murdering the rich.”

Religion at first has nothing to do with morals but stems from fear (“It was fear that first made the gods”) – fear of unknown, seemingly random forces in the earth, water and sky.

“History do not agree with our conception of good and bad; they define good as that which survives, and bad as that which goes under.”

“One lesson of history is that religion has many lives, and a habit of resurrection. How often in the past have God and religion died and been reborn!” For example the India of the young Buddha, who then founded a religion without a god. After his death, Buddhism developed a complex theology including gods, saints, and hell. Many other examples in ancient Greek and through the European history.

Is religion necessary to morality? Is “a natural ethic too weak to withstand the savagery that lurks under civilization and emerges in our dreams, crimes and wars?”

“As long as there is poverty there will be gods.”

According to Marx, history is “economics in action” – Individuals, groups, classes and states compete for food, fuel, materials and economic power.

Industrial Revolution as fundamental change to human life. “The Industrial Revolution brought with it democracy, feminism, birth control, socialism, the decline of religion, the loosening of morals, the liberation of literature from dependence upon aristocratic patronage, the replacement of romanticism by realism in fiction and the economic interpretation of history. “

The interpretation of history based on economic decision-making explains many events. For examples “the Crusades, like the wars of Rome with Persia, were attempts of the West to capture trade routes to the East; the discovery of America was a result of the failure of the Crusades.” The French Revolution was not caused by some idealistic movements but by the middle class that required legislative freedom to fully utilise their economic leadership.

It seems clear, that every economic system needs to incorporate a profit incentive to stir individuals and groups to productivity. “Substitutes like slavery, police supervision, or ideological enthusiasm prove too unproductive, too expensive, or too transient.”

“The concentration of wealth is a natural result of this concentration of ability, and regularly recurs in history. The rate of concentration varies (other factors being equal) with the economic freedom permitted by morals and the laws.”

When inequality reaches a critical point, wealth redistribution or revolution follows. “In progressive societies the concentration may reach a point where the strength of number in the many poor rivals the strength of ability in the few rich; then the unstable equilibrium generates a critical situation, which history has diversely met by legislation redistributing wealth or by revolution distributing poverty.”

History shows that wealth concentration is unavoidable. “We conclude that the concentration of wealth is natural and inevitable, and is periodically alleviated by violent or peaceable partial redistribution. In this view all economic history is the slow heartbeat of the social organism, a vast systole and diastole of concentration wealth and compulsive recirculation.”

The story of socialism and capitalism is part of concentration and dispersion of wealth. Socialism is much older than one would expect. In Sumeria, about 2100 B.C. that economy was organised by the state. In Babylonia (1750 B.C.) the law code of Hammurabi fixed wages for certain professions. Many more examples: Rome (A.D. 301), several attempts China (145 B.C.) and – the longest-lasting regime yet known to history – by the Incas in what we now call Peru at some time in the 13th century.

Socialism rose again when “the Industrial Revolution revealed the greed and brutality of early capitalism – child labor, woman labor, long hours, low wages, and disease-breeding factories and slums.” Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto (1847) and Das Kapital (1867 – 95).

“The fear of capitalism has compelled socialism to widen freedom, and the fear of socialism has compelled capitalism to increase equality.”

No freedom without limitations. “Since men love freedom, and the freedom of individuals in society requires some regulation of conduct, the first condition of freedom is its limitation; make it absolute and it dies in chaos.”

Most governments have been oligarchies. They have been “ruled by a minority, chose either by birth, as in aristocracies, or by a religious organisation, as in theocracies, or by wealth, as in democracies.”

Aristocracy is based on the belief that it requires specific training and preparation to rule. “The aristocrat holds that political selection by birth is the sanest alternative to selection by money or theology or violence. Aristocracy withdraws a few men from the exhausting and coarsening strife of economic competition and trains them from birth […] for the tasks of government.”

Does history justify revolutions? Sometimes a violent overthrow might be necessary as in Russia in 1917. “But in most instances the effects achieved by the revolution would apparently have come without it through the gradual compulsion of economic developments.”

Since revolutions violate trust, cause uncertainty and destabilize the economy, revolutions do not so much redistribute wealth as they destroy it. “There may be a redistribution of the land, but the natural inequality of men soon re-creates an inequality of possessions and privileges, and raises to power a new minority with essentially the same instincts as in the old. The only real revolution is the enlightenment of the mind and the improvement of character, the only real emancipation is individual and the only real revolutionists are philosophers and saints.

“Every advance in the complexity of the economy puts an added premium upon superior ability, and intensifies the concentration of wealth, responsibility, and political power.”

The power of democracy. “Democracy has now dedicated itself resolutely to the spread and lengthening of education, and to the maintenance of public health. If equality of educational opportunity can be established, democracy will be real and justified. For this is the vital truth beneath its catchwords: that though men cannot be equal, their access to education and opportunity can be made more nearly equal.”

“If our economy of freedom fails to distribute wealth as able as it has created it, the road to dictatorship will be open to any man who can persuasively promise security to all.”

In the 3,421 years of recorded history, only 268 have seen no war. “We have acknowledged war as at present the ultimate form competition and natural selection in the human species. […] Peace is an unstable equilibrium, which can be preserved only be achieved by acknowledged supremacy or equal power.” This statement (as Harari describes in Homo Sapiens and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century”) might no longer be true in the 21st century due to a globally interconnected economy where each participant has more to loose than to win.

How are civilizations (defined as “social order promoting cultural creation”) formed? The Durant’s dismiss the Hobbesian notion of a “social contract” among individuals and a ruler and argue it much more likely happens through the conquest of one group by another and the subsequent development.

How do civilizations progress? By overcoming challenges, that is, by “presence or absence of initiative and of creative individuals with clarity of mind and energy of will (which is almost a definition of genius), capable of effective responses to new situations (which is almost a definition of intelligence)”

Civilizations don’t exactly die. “Life has no inherent claim to eternity, wether in individuals or in states. Death is natural and if it comes in due time it is forgivable and useful, and the mature mind will take no offense from its coming. But do civilizations die? Not quite. Greek civilization is not really dead; only its frame is gone and its habitat has changed and spread; it survives.”

We didn’t change. “Since we have admitted no substantial change in man’s nature during historic times, all technological advances will have to be written off as merely new means of achieving old ends – the acquisition of goods, the pursuit of one sex by the other (or by the same), the overcoming of competition, the fighting of wars.”

“Sometimes we feel that the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, which stressed mythology and art rather than science and power, may have been wiser than we, who repeatedly enlarge our instrumentalities without improving our purposes.”

The price we pay for a global world. “We have multiplied a hundred times our ability to learn and report the events of the day and the planet, but at times we envy our ancestors, whose was only gently disturbed by the news of their village.”

It’s all just a narrative. “History is so indifferently rich that a case for almost any conclusion from it can be made by a selection of instances.”

Lessons learned instead of an infusion of facts. “Consider education not as the painful accumulation of facts and dates and reigns, nor merely the necessary preparation of the individual to earn his keep in the world, but as the transmission of our mental, moral, technical, and aesthetic heritage as fully as possible to as many as possible, for the enlargement of man’s understand, control, embellishment, and enjoyment of life.

The final role of history. “If progress is real despite our whining, it is not because we are born any healthier, better, or wiser than infants were in the past, but because we are born to a richer heritage, born on a higher level of that pedestal which the accumulation of knowledge and art raises as the ground and support of our being. The heritage rises and man rises in proportion as he receives it. History is above all else the creation and recording of that heritage; progress is its increasing abundance, preservation, transmission and use.

Mental Health Personal Growth Psychology

Michael Pollan – How To Change Your Mind

My Opinion

Great introduction into the field of psychedelics covering their history, the underlying neuroscience as well as Michael Pollan’s own experience with psychedelics while writing this book. 

I absolutely loved the author’s style of writing, so it really was a pleasure reading this book.

Reading Recommendation: 9/10

My Notes


Mushrooms, called Flesh of the Gods by the Aztecs for a reason. 

Diverse applications: Medicine (treat addictions, depressions, disorders, anxiety, …), research (understand the brain & consciousness better) and self-improvement (improve relationships, increase gratitude, overcome obstacles, …).

The recent research is impressive. Roland Griffith’s paper “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance” (2006) as a milestone for further research.

  • “Individuals transcend their primary identifications with their bodies and experience ego-free states.” They “return with a new perspective and profound acceptance”
  • 30 Volunteers, never tried Psilocybin before. 2/3 ranked the experience Top 5 of “most spiritually significant experiences” along with the birth of their first child, their marriages, … 14 months later, ranking only slightly slipped. Volunteers reported significant improvements in their “personal well-being, life satisfaction and positive behavior change”, changes confirmed by family members and friends.
  • Crunched survey data of 52 volunteers confirms results. Long-lasting effects in well-being and a long-term increase in the personality trait Openness to New Experiences (about one standard deviation).
  • Roland Griffiths: “As a scientific phenomenon, if you can create a condition in which 70 percent of people will say they have had one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives… well, as a scientist that’s just incredible.”

Several use cases for therapeutic application: 

  • Help people quit smoking. A pilot study in smoking cessation achieved an 80% success rate, which is unprecedented (especially considering that smoking is one of the hardest addictions to break, some say ever harder than heroin). 6 months after psychedelic therapy, 80% of the volunteers were confirmed as abstinent, a figure that only had fallen to 67% at the one-year-mark.
  • Support with further addictions (e.g. alcoholism). 
  • Lower the fear of people who are dying. In both trails with terminal cancer patients from John Hopkins and NYU “80% of cancer patients showed clinically significant reductions in standard measures of anxiety and depression” – “Few if any psychiatric interventions of any kind have demonstrated such dramatic and sustained results.” (3+ times the initial treatment effect of SSRI antidepressants).
  • Treat Depressions. Currently, larger trials are conducted in both the U.S. and Europe after initial promising results. Conflict between biologically based treatments and psychodynamic treatments (i.e. is mental illness a chemical disorder or a loss of meaning in life?). Psychedelic therapy is the wedding of these two approaches.
    Rosalind Watts (Clinical Psychologist at John Hopkins): “I believe this could revolutionize mental health care.” Her conviction is shared by every psychedelic researches that was interviewed by Michael Pollan.

Curiosity as an intellectual driver. Some of the most skeptical, critical and rigorous people (scientists) fall into amazement with psychedelics. It’s like being shown a door in your own mind to explore the unconsciousness. How couldn’t one be curious?

How adults perceive the world. Useful heuristics shape our sense of reality. All experiences are categorized and put into pre-defined buckets. Few surprises, energy efficient from an evolutionary perspective. As opposed to the mind of children. Psychedelics erase existing connections (“shaking the snow globe”), decreasing the activity in the Default Mode Network (DMN) that works as mediator connecting different parts of the brain and is associated with our sense of self (leading to what the scientist call “ego dissolution”).

Our consciousness is just one of many forms. There lie types of consciousness entirely different to what we know. This “forbids a premature closing of our accounts of reality.” (James William)

The nature of consciousness. The Dalai Lama said, the idea that brains create consciousness – an idea accepted without questions by most scientist – “is a metaphysical assumption, not a scientific fact.”

The potential for deeper understanding. Stanislav Graf, psychiatrist and LSD therapy pioneer, once predicted that psychedelics “would be for psychiatry what the microscope is for biology or the telescope for astronomy. These tools make it possible to study processes that wouldn’t be visible under normal circumstances.”

Not a typical drug: Psychedelics are non-addictive (taken in a short period of time multiple times, their effect decreases). There are no reported cases of death through overdose. Animals, given the choice, will not self-administer the drug more than once. Psychedelics don’t fit in the classical profile of drugs.

Guidelines as part of the preparation. Sitters of psychedelic sessions work from a set of “flight instructions” prepared by Bill Richards. TLO – Trust, Let Go, Be Open. Volunteers are quizzed – if you see a door, what do you do? Open it and enter, is of course the correct answer. Face the fear. If you feel like dying, exploding – go ahead. “Think of yourself as an astronaut being blasted into outer space.”

Mystical experiences. William James: Mystical experiences are characterized by a) their ineffability – it defies expression b) they seem to be states of knowledge i.e. bring revelations full of significance and carry a sense of authority


The first wave of psychedelics  (1950s and ‘60s)

  • LSD discovery in 1943 by Albert Hoffman (by accident). Sandoz, the pharmaceutical company he worked at, offered free supply of LSD to any researcher as part of their crowd-sourced research strategy until 1966 when they withdrew LSD from circulation due to the nation-wide controversy.
  • Scientific challenges arise – a) irrational exuberance of researchers that might influence the results and b) fitting psychedelic research into the existing structures of science (How to do a controlled study? How do you effectively blind patients and clinicians? How to control for the powerful expectancy effect? How to treat the fact that the majority of the treatment effect is based on the experience the patients had and not the drug per se?) 
  • Increasing popularity among the (intellectual) elite. From understanding insanity to treating alcohol addiction in the context of research. Wider application and increasing popularity in therapeutic sessions, mainly in LA across many celebrities (many claimed to have transformative experiences). Stanford and other universities start teaching classes about psychedelics. Personal use in research and in business, especially in Silicon Valley (Pollan mentions one Bay Area company that even today uses psychedelics in their management training and apparently some even institutionalised a “microdosing Friday”. 
  • Scientific results look more than promising. In half a dozen papers published in the 60s, researchers report that 78% of the clients stated, the experiences increased their ability to love, 71% recognised an increase in self-esteem and 83% said that they glimpsed a higher or ultimate reality.
    James Fadiman et al. conduct an experiment to increase creativity and overcome frustrating intellectual problems among artist, engineers, scientists and architects and find promising results.
  • The importance of Set and Setting. “Psychedelics are non-specific amplifiers.” Researchers pair with brilliant amateurs that provide funding, amongst them Aldous Huxley. The internal mindset and the external setting significantly impact the journey.
  • Psychedelics are being distributed among the youth (which marks the beginning of its decline).  Harvard professor Timothy Leary transforms from being a professor to becoming a “guru” and promotes the population-wide usage of psychedelics. Psychedelics turn out to be “disruptive” in reference to the existing social order.

Timothy Leary (1963): “ Make no mistake: the effect of [psychedelics] will be to transform our concepts of human nature, of human potentialities, of existence. The game is about to be changed. Man is about to make use of that fabulous electrical network he carries around in his skull.” 

  • The (politically caused) decline: “In 1971, Nixon declared the Harvard psychology professor Timothy Leary “the most dangerous man in America.” Psychedelics were nourishing the counterculture and the counterculture was sapping the willingness of America’s young to fight. The Nixon administration sought to blunt the counterculture by attacking its neurochemical infrastructure.“ 
  • Further controversies. Additionally, LSD trials by the CIA lead to a national scandal. Pressure increases, reports of bad trips and potential side effects are published, funding is prohibited or at least severely slowed down. Research freezes. 
  • A concluding quote. The fact is whether by their very nature or the way the first generation of researches happened to construct the experience, psychedelics introduced something deeply subversive to the West that the various establishments had little choice but to repulse. LSD truly was an acid, dissolving almost everything with which it came into contact, beginning with the hierarchies of the mind (the superego, ego, and unconsciousness) and going on from there to society’s various structures of authority and then to lines of every imaginable kind: between patient and therapist, research and recreation, sickness and health, self and other, subject and object, the spiritual and the material. If all such lines are manifestations of the Apollonian strain in Western civilizations, the impulse that erects distinctions, dualities, and hierarchies and defends them, then psychedelics represented the ungovernable Dionysian force that blithely washes all those lines away.”
The Neuroscience 

Psilocybin is a tryptamine. It resembles the most famous tryptamine Serotonin and has a strong affinity with the serotonin receptor 5-HT(2A). Curiously, psychedelics are even “stickier” than Serotonin itself, which led some scientist to assume that our body most produce some endogenous psychedelic that is released under certain circumstances.

Psychedelics as a tool to understand the contents of consciousness. Due to their effects (dissolution of ego, expansion of consciousness, sense of unity) a number of scientists believe that psychedelics can be the key to understanding the nature of our consciousness. 

Psychedelics allow access to the unconscious. Robert Carhart-Harris (Imperial College London): “Freud said dreams were the royal road to the unconscious. Psychedelics could turn out to be the super highway.”

Psychedelics decrease the brain activity in the Default Mode Network (DMN).

  • The DMN links parts of the cerebral cortex to deeper (and older) structures involved in memory and emotions. The DMN stands in a kind of seesaw relationship with the attention networks that wake up whenever the outside world demands our attention. It is most active when we engage in “metacognitive” brain functions such as self-reflection, mental time travel, moral reasoning and “theory of mind” – the ability to attribute mental states to others. 
  • The DMN isn’t operational until late in a child’s development. 
  • As a whole, it operates as a top-down “brain orchestrator conductor”. It’s activity is associated with our sense of self (or the ego) which is why some scientists call it the “me network”. When you are given a list of adjectives and asked to refer these to yourself, the activity in the DMN lights up. 
  •  In studies with long-time meditators, one can recognise a significant decrease in the DMN activity, especially when meditating. 
  • “Self-reflection can lead to great intellectual and artistic achievement but also to destructive forms of self-regard and many types of unhappiness.” In an often cited paper called “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind” researchers identified a strong correlation between unhappiness and time spent in mind wandering, a principal activity of the DMN.
  • The decrease of activity in the DMN (and its subsequent effects) can be achieved in a number of ways, meditations and psychedelics being two of them. Further possibilities include fasting, sensory deprivation, extreme sports, near-death-experience, overwhelming feelings of awe and so on.

The DMN not only works as a top-down control system, but additionally regulates what is let into consciousness. Most neuroscientists work under the paradigm of the brain as a prediction-making machine. Our brain takes as little as possible sensory data to make an educated guess (categorized buckets of experience relying on previous experiences. 

The philosophical implications are deep and difficult to grasp. Our perception of reality is much less reflecting reality than it is a product of our imagination based on prior experiences and our models of memory. How is normal consciousness then much different from other, seemingly less faithful productions of our imagination such as dreams? 

Theory: The brain is an entropy-reducing machine. 

  • The Entropic Brain: A Theory of Conscious States Informed by Neuroimaging Research with Psychedelic Drugs” (2014). Robin Carhart-harris et al.
  • Suppressing entropy (i.e. uncertainty) serves to increase “realism, foresight, careful reflection and an ability to recognize and overcome wishful and paranoid fantasies” but at the same time “constraints cognition” and exert “a limiting or narrowing influence on consciousness.” 
  • Entropy spectrum to explain psychological “disorders” such as depression, addiction, obsession and eating disorders at the low-end entropy spectrum.
    Carhart-Harris suggests that in the case of depression, the ego “turns on itself and uncontrollable introspection gradually shades our reality.” He cites research that indicates that this state of mind (sometimes called depressive realism or heavy self-consciousness) may be the result of a hyperactive DMN “which can trap us in repetitive and destructive loops”. 
  • For people that suffer from excessively rigid patterns of thought stand to benefit from “the ability of psychedelics to disrupt stereotypical patterns of thought and behaviour by disintegrating the patterns of [neural] activity upon which they rest
  • Psychedelics alter consciousness by disorganizing brain activity and increasing the level of entropy to allow for a more open mode of cognition.

We all have the experience of an entropic brain – as a young child. 

  • Alison Gopnik (Development psychologist at Berkeley) draws the distinction between a spotlight consciousness (adult) and a lantern consciousness (young child). 
  • Comparison to AI research: Low temperature searches (local optimum – nearest or most probable solution) vs. high temperature searches (global optimum). Adult minds most often conduct low temperature searches due to energy efficiency. 
  • “[Children’s] thinking is less constrained by experience so they will try even the most unlikely possibilities.” They “are better learners than adults in many cases where the solution is nonobvious.”