Psychedelics and Mimesis

Ontological Shock, New Models, Transformed Desires

How do our hardened desires change or undergo a process of transformation, especially when those desires are harmless or limiting? I’ve never done a psychedelic drug, and I’m not advocating their recreational use—but I am interested in emerging research showing their benefits in a variety of cases, and I’m particularly interested in their effect on people’s desires. Are they a pathway to transcendent wanting, for instance?

Author Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) has written an entire book on the topic called How to Change Your Mind. And one of my readers, Connor Flanigan, recently gave this presentation called “The Embodied Model Hypothesis: Mimetic Theory Meets Psychedelics.” Is it possible to substitute mimetic models when a person is in a heightened state of suggestibility? This, of course, is what the field of hypnosis is all about. But we’re only now starting to see how deep the psychology goes.

In this newsletter, I’m sharing an excerpted transcript of my interview with Dr. Roland Griffiths, Professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Director of the relatively new Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. I conducted this interview back in early 2020 with the intention of including a much larger section about this connection in Wanting (especially the sections on ‘transcendent desires’), but I cut it down for space reasons. I always knew that this was one of the topics that I wanted to revisit in other spaces. This, as you know, is one of them.

So here’s a partial transcript from a conversation I had with Dr. Griffiths.

Interview with Dr. Roland Griffiths

Luke: [gives a brief explanation of mimetic theory and the importance of ‘models’ in the creation of desire...]

Dr. Griffiths: Laboratory animals turn out to be very good and reliable models for predicting what drugs are addicting in humans. And so, if you get too far into the weeds in terms of wants and desires, I mean, you could frame it that way but then you have to draw the same kind of hypotheses for lower-level animals who also show the tendency to show drug reinforcement, would be the descriptor of this. And there's a neurobiology worked out. I mean, we know that some of these drugs increase dopaminergic reward systems that underlie a lot of motivated behaviors. So, whether or not those are cognitively mediated is unclear because we don't know to what extent lower animals are conscious or have consciousness of the sort that we do. That said, thinking about human addiction, it seems perfectly okay to frame it in terms of, "Well, what do people really want?" But you can also shape up addictions like caffeine addictions without people even being aware that they're being controlled by the drug. I think now our culture's much more aware of the reinforcing effects of both nicotine and caffeine. But at a time where these were just freely available and socially acceptable, lots of people became chronic smokers or chronic caffeine users. And if asked they would say, "No, I'm not addicted. I just like the taste." But they wouldn't recognize the extent to which their behavior was being controlled, and being very strongly controlled by the drug. 

Luke: Do you think that because maybe they've maybe never either experienced or recognized withdrawal symptoms for what they were addicted to? I never realized how reliant I was on caffeine until I stopped drinking it for a week. I thought, "Whoa. This isn't good."

Dr. Griffiths: I think that's exactly it. Yeah. They don't. If they haven't been challenged to quit, they can live in this illusionary world that they just like the taste of coffee. We did all kinds of work with caffeine, in particular. We studied that pretty extensively. 

Luke: With lab rats or animals... if they were to have access to an unlimited supply of the drug, like we do with caffeine, would it ever be the case that they would stop on their own? Voluntarily withdrawing themselves?

Dr. Griffiths: No. Well, I mean it depends on the drug. It depends on the conditions. You can set it up to create all kinds of different things. If you're making the drug available like cocaine available under certain conditions without a lot of alternative reinforcers, animals will just continue to take it and they'll binge on it. But because it produces sleeplessness, they'll crash for a while, and then re-initiate. If it's an opiate, they'll just continue to use it and just increase their opiate use over time. Caffeine turns out in laboratory animals to be a pretty equivocal reinforcer. That's actually pretty much the case with humans. I mean the first time people drink a cup of coffee they don't just start ... Grab the whole gallon of it and drink it down. And so, some of these drugs are more subtle reinforcers than others. But cocaine and opiates, for instance, are really good reinforces and we have really good laboratory animals for them. So I think there is an underlying biology to addiction that stands apart from just a ... I don't know, a culturally created desire. But I also think you're absolutely right that there's probably an awful lot about culture that creates desires. Certainly if you think about, you have fads for clothing. You have fads for music, or anything like that, I mean that's clearly culturally driven.

Luke: Sure. Yeah. I had a conversation with one of my friends who had been on fairly heavy doses of adderall since he was just a child. I remember he told me that he felt somehow that it interfered with his freedom to make lifestyle changes or to grow in certain virtues or to do certain things that he wanted to do. He talked to his doctor about the effects, and asked his doc if he could somehow wean himself off of it. He was kind of alarmed because he noticed that he had enjoyed doing certain things before that he no longer enjoyed doing. He started to question what this stuff was doing to his neuro pathways and the effect that it had, especially on things that I’d call spiritual desires. I thought that was a fairly interesting look at it. I never heard that before.

Dr. Griffiths: Yeah. I totally can imagine that to be true. I mean having long-term medication practice and having played a lot with caffeine, my own experience would be that it can enhance focus, but it also can narrow focus. One can lose a larger picture on things, right? I think that can certainly be likely be true with amphetamine or a stimulant like adderall.

Luke: Are you aware of any connections between psychedelics and imitation? There's been some speculation done for instance, that people on the autism spectrum, for instance—Asperger's—because they don't pick up on social cues as much, they are less imitative. I wonder if there's something related to this idea of social cues and social imitation that an experience on [cyclosiathin] or LSD might provide. I'm not sure if that leads you anywhere.

Dr. Griffiths: Well, let's see. I mean there is a study of MDMA on people on autistic spectrum, suggesting that it's beneficial there because it increases sense of empathy. I don't know whether that ... if the mechanism is through mimicking. I can imagine it not being. But there is this kind of pro-social empathetic element to that. I don't know of any data of that sort. I mean when I think of psychedelics as producing a real neuroplastic state where there's just an opening to the possibility of reconfiguring neural circuitry in ways that may be importantly modulated by intention and goal setting. I think almost surely is. But whether that comes through mimicking ... Are you thinking of mimicking in a visual sense? Or across any sense domains? I mean is it someone observing someone else? And therefore, and then mimicking that? Where does it fit into the theory of mind?

Luke: I guess in terms of theory of mind, we’re dealing with the ability of people to ascribe mental states to other people; with mimetic theory, we’re really talking about the ability of people to ascribe desires to other people, consciously or unconsciously. There’s a whole other set of questions related to philosophy of mind like the mind-body problem, and I think the whole interest in mirror neurons can get a little Skinnerian, but that’s probably...maybe beyond scope of our conversation. Girard’s idea is that desires are shaped through a particular form of imitation called mimesis. 

Dr. Griffiths: But I wonder if talking about imitation and desires just is actually too narrowing. I mean it makes sense, and it's an important point. But it could be that you're really talking about an ability of the species to learn from others. It goes way, way beyond desires. I mean, how did neanderthals learn to start fires? By watching other people do it and then mimicking that behavior. I think, I mean, maybe the whole process of learning is through that's the nature of good mentorship, is modeling behavior. And then, I guess, with theory of mind, desire. But maybe the initial thing is just being able to mimic behavior, and then that would get to your infant. They're being programmed to mimic smiles or mouth movements or eye contact or whatever. Then later it goes to theory of mind, where you see someone, see a guy rivet his attention on a woman and then that becomes mimetic, if you will, through theory of mind and wanting the same thing. Does that make sense?

Luke: Yes, it does. With the neanderthals learning to start fires, we’re now talking about what I’d call generative imitation—how did the first one ‘learn’? It had to start somewhere. Girard talks about this in his book “Things Hidden.” So does Eric Gans, who founded the field of generative anthropology. Related to Girard, but different. Anyway, I’m really interested in your use of the word ‘model’ and how models change. You asked me at one point to describe my spiritual conversion experience. I think one of the ways that I would describe that is that I had certain models that I built my life around that were immanent.. Confined to the limited social structures that I lived in, my place, my time, my friends, the limits of what I believed was wantable. In a certain sense, my models were shattered. I realized that there's, however you want to say it, there's another model. A transcendent model. So it involved this shifting or transformation of models. Okay, I don't know if I'm going anywhere with that, but I think that the concept of the model is really an important one.

Dr. Griffiths: Yeah. Let's see. I mean that resonates strongly in the way I think of psychedelics. There's something I'm writing up a paper right now on a variation of psychedelic experience. An unusual one, and that's DMT occasioned entity encounter experiences. Are you familiar with smoke DMT?

Luke: No, not familiar.

Dr. Griffiths: DMT's the active ingredient in Ayahuasca, which is a brew. But it's a very short acting, very intense hallucinogen. Some people smoke it. There's a whole subculture of people that have gotten into DMT and then they have these experiences of encountering an autonomous entity, an autonomous other that's conscious and intelligent. Much in the same way that the God encounter has worked through psychedelics and through some types of religious conversion experiences. This initially seemed to me to be something entirely other than that. It was just if you read some of these descriptions, they're just bizarre, some types of insectoid or alien creatures. I was just intrigued with it. It turns out that they're much more similar to God encounter experiences than I would've ever, ever expected. But they're so discontinuous with normal reality and they take on this other form of encountering this weird alien intelligence that they have salience and riveting quality to them. The term that I've come up with to describe this is ontological shock. Because it actually makes people end up with a shifting world view. I mean it has these deep metaphysical implications about dis-construction of or acceptance of ontological materialism. People come out of these experiences believing that their understanding of the nature of reality has been shifted. They believe that the entity was real and existed in part in some other dimension of reality that is just as real as this reality. It continues to exist afterwards. People who identified as atheist before are less likely to afterwards. I think, because of this ontological shock, they're no longer confident in a reductionistic materialistic anthological frame. I think psychedelics, generally, do the same thing. What I would say is that conversion experiences...I've waded into the literature of near death experiences, and actually even these alien encounter experiences...have struck me as kind of marginal, inexplicably weird phenomenon that I tended to be dismissive of. But I actually think it's all part and parcel to the same underlying quality. It amounts to the breaking down or a changing of world view, which is what you're pointing to. I think that's ... It's true. I think it's something that's built into our genetics. It's plastically the conversion experience or the mystical type experience. It's one variation, but it can take other kinds of forms. In breaking down one's sense of what's real, one then has the opportunity to totally reconfigure their priorities and value systems, which would then change desires. Right?

Luke: Interesting. Right. A sense of ... It's curious to me why disillusionment is a negative word. Because in a sense, becoming disillusioned or having that ontological shock is necessary in some way. There has to be a breaking down before one can breakthrough into seeing things a different way. If I had illusions about reality, then becoming disillusioned would be about the best thing that could happen to me.

Dr. Griffiths: Yeah. There'd be some people who are committed to materialism. They would find that to be an appalling outcome. Right?

Luke: I would imagine so! That phrase, “ontological shock”, I really love. That's a phrase that you came up with to describe this phenomenon?

Dr. Griffiths: We had just written that into this draft manuscript that we're putting together.

Luke: Okay. That's fascinating. [Luke describes he once had that altered his understanding of reality after he woke up. He was looking at someone’s face in the dream, but the substance of the person seemed to change without their outward appearance changing at all. He explains the word ‘transubstantiation.’]

Dr. Griffiths: Yeah. I think that's the core of the good psychedelic experience. I mean it's a curated experience. A pretty high probability that, that's what people come to, is a different way of seeing that feels more real, more true, more clear than every day waking consciousness. It seems self-evidently true. It's like, "What? How had I ..." Very often it's like homecoming. Right? There's a sense that you've known this all along. And somehow, it's just a question, "How did I ... How did this escape me? How did I not understand this?" It could be that, that's one of the reasons there's such a disconnect between people who have and have not had psychedelic experiences. But I don't think you need a psychedelic to understand that. I mean those transformative experiences occur with mystics, with near death experiences, with prayer practices and deep meditation.

Luke: Right.

Dr. Griffiths: I mean those are all part of it. I just see them as the same thing. But for the small ... I mean it's only a small portion of the population that comes upon those experiences naturally. For those who don't, the exposure to a psychedelic just seems spooky and scary, frankly, because of these world view shifts that sometimes get enmeshed in spiritual language that is just incomprehensible to someone with an atheist and materialistic world frame.

Luke: Right. Yeah. One of the shocking things to me in reading about these experiences in Polan’s book and in other places is this: I've never had a psychedelic experience in my life. But I'm reading about things that I can relate deeply to because in some way, I've experienced that in my own path. Sort of weird.

Dr. Griffiths: Yeah. Well, I mean, so me too. I mean I got interested in this through meditation and through experiences that I had in meditation. Frankly, I went into this as a skeptic about what psychedelics could do. I was suspicious about psychedelic proponents. It just seemed over the top. It also seemed limiting in a sense, like this was some experience that only could be had with a drug. I've now come to believe that psychedelics, as meditation, are both ways to investigate the very nature of mind. They're very powerful and convergent methodologies for doing so.

Luke: Hmm.

Dr. Griffiths: So what we think we have is psychedelics is a model system for occasioning at high probability precisely those kinds of experiences.But it's more complex than that because psychedelics also can produce psychological insights and other kinds of phenomena, and there can be really toxic effects too. They're potentially harmful.

Luke: Sure. What about the idea of embodiment and out-of-body experiences? One example would be Teresa of Avila, who was a 16th century mystic in Spain, who described the mystical experience. An embodied experience where she felt like she'd been lifted up in the air. 

Dr. Griffiths: One of my colleagues here, Bill Richards, has written a book called Sacred Knowledge. He describes these stages of mystical types of experience. He seems to imply that the total non-dual experience is really the best experience. I'm kind of suspicious of that.

Luke: Yeah, having spent a good deal of time thinking about and exploring the “Mystics”, as I’d call them, I think labeling any kind of mystical experience ‘best’ is a little strange, but I don’t know. 

Dr. Griffiths: Personally, I see these things all blending together. Just it's kind of different descriptive frames and different ways of understanding, essentially, the same thing. It's this large mystery that we're in. The very mystery of what it is to be conscious, being aware that we're aware. The absolute wonder of that and the recognition that it goes so far beyond anything that anyone can understand. We have the hard problem of consciousness, which suggests that there's no easy solution to that question. That fills me, at least, with this incredible gratitude for this just incredible privilege for being aware, being alive, having this opportunity. And then recognizing that we're all in this together. That everyone is in the same boat, if you will. I mean we're all sentient creatures that have awareness of our own awareness....There's something incredibly humbling about that and incredibly pro-social about that, because then we want other people to wake up to that very sense.


Thank you, as always, for reading. We had our first Premium subscriber Zoom hangout this week which resulted in an extremely thoughtful conversation about a range of topics. We’ll do another one again soon.