This article follows on from a previous one with a similar theme, that the results of psychedelic drug therapy strongly challenge the dominant materialist paradigm of modern science. In the following anecdote, what is challenged is that consciousness is produced by the brain.
I am basing this series on the work of Stanislav Grof. I’ll therefore repeat some background information from before. He began as a psychiatrist in Marxist (therefore atheistic) Czechoslovakia, where he became involved in an experimental programme, using LSD for therapeutic purposes. Because this often induced spiritual experiences, he felt compelled not to reveal his results to the authorities there, and worked secretly. He later moved to the USA, where he continued this research, until LSD was made illegal. He then devised a system of intensive breathing to obtain the same results without using the drug. His patients explore their own personal unconscious, often go on to relive their birth, experience ego-death and rebirth, have past life memories, encounter archetypal beings (gods and goddesses), and much more besides.
To understand what LSD does, we need to turn upside down the conventional scientific understanding of consciousness. The normal assumption is that consciousness is a by-product of the brain. Spiritual traditions believe rather that the brain limits consciousness, acts as a kind of reducing valve. This theory is called the Transmission Model, following the great American psychologist William James. (I have discussed this in an earlier article, Consciousness and the Brain – the Transmission Model.) It seems that LSD somehow deactivates or bypasses the reducing valve, thus enabling consciousness to free itself from its everyday limitations.
Now for the new anecdote¹. The patient was a woman with chronic depression; she couldn’t bring herself to do anything. She had two powerful sessions, including re-experiencing her birth. The next day she came back to the group for a further session, highly charged. She again went back to her birth, and began shaking. She was told to go with this. At some point the sounds she made had a different quality, as if words. She was told to let these words come through. To the onlookers it seemed to be clearly a language, an incantation of some kind, although no one understood what she was saying. She was sitting up, making broad movements with her arms, as if in adoration of something. It was some kind of chant, a repetitive sequence. Then she lay back in ecstasy.
In the room there was a Jewish psychoanalyst from Argentina. He approached the facilitators, and said that this was incredible, that the woman was singing in perfect Sephardic, an esoteric medieval language mixing Jewish and Spanish. He was a Jewish intellectual who had studied it. The woman had been singing: “I am suffering and I will always suffer. I am crying and I will always cry. I am praying and I will always pray”.
In the feedback session which followed, it emerged that she didn’t know modern Spanish, and didn’t even know what Sephardic was. These sessions, however, completely resolved her chronic depression.
What are we to make of this? I suggest that, assuming the account is correct, this is evidence that the brain does not produce consciousness. In the woman’s ordinary life, she had no knowledge of Spanish or Sephardic, so how did her altered-state consciousness have access to it? A possibility is that this was some kind of past-life experience, although that is not mentioned in the account.
A further extraordinary coincidence/synchronicity, which reveals the great mystery of how the world works, is the fact that in the room was an expert in this obscure esoteric language who was able to explain what was happening. What were the odds against that?
1. Grof tells this story on tape 3 of a series of audiocassettes The Transpersonal Vision, Sounds True (Publishers).