Thoughts on
Human enjoyment of
Altering Consciousness

by Roger Bourke White Jr. copyright April 2009


One of the curiosities of human thinking is that humans often don’t like how they are thinking.  Because they don’t like how they are thinking, they indulge in deliberate mind-altering experiences.

Mind altering can be done in hundreds, if not thousands, of ways.  Examples of deliberate mind-altering experiences include:

Chemical – ingesting intoxicating substances of many varieties until a person’s thinking changes. Example: drinking to “warm up” at a party.

Ritual – engaging in a fairly monotonous ritual so exuberantly and for such a long time that it changes how a person thinks.  Example: meditation in a monastery.

Exertion – engaging in an intense physical activity until it changes a person’s thinking. Example:  running hard enough to get a “runner’s high”.

Social – going to a social event to change how a person is thinking. Example: “getting into” a music concert.

These are a few examples; they show that there are many ways humans like  to change how they think.

One thing mind altering experiences have in common is that the practitioners tend to speak very enthusiastically about them.

An interesting related phenomenon is that humans are quite interested in how their fellow humans go about changing their thinking, and quite judgmental about it.   A person can watch another person going through a mind-altering experience and be: quite favorably impressed by it, quite curious about it, or quite worried about it. Some people witness mind-altering and say, “ah… so what?”, but many do not, and those who do not tend to be enthusiastic about their choice of whether the mind altering is a good or bad idea.

Finally, and this is what makes this an interesting topic for me, much of the thinking about what is appropriate or inappropriate activity in altering one’s consciousness springs from instinctive/emotional level thinking.   Human communities seem to label conscious-altering activities “good” or “bad” without giving much thought to the real-world consequences of those labels. The current spectacular example of this “act without insight” mentality is the War on Drugs.

Judging mind altering is the topic of this essay.


Why do people like to change how they think?

Why do people like to change how they think?

For hundreds of thousands of generations (millions of years) natural selection has been favoring larger, more versatile thinking, brains in humans.  The human brain is an evolutionary wonder, and it got to be a wonder by being pushed hard by natural selection to change into something bigger and better.

Because of this, it should not be surprising then to find that human brains have “kinks” of various sorts.  The human brain works well enough on the whole, but there are undoubtedly parts that could be (and will be) designed better.

The part of the brain that has been pushed the most is the part we call consciousness – the part that does advanced tool use, language and abstract thinking.

It is my speculation that this part of peoples’ brains “aches” a bit, especially after a long day’s use, and people find relief when it “turns off” for a while.

Most, if not all, mind altering involves turning down the intensity of higher-level brain functions.  When we mind alter, we “let down our hair” in one way, or another, which is another way of saying, we let the lower level functions – the instincts – run the show for a while.

One reason to do mind altering is because it’s comfortable.  This is what we are doing at parties and other celebratory social functions.

Another reason to change consciousness is to experience sensations that the high level processes rarely encounter.  This involves dredging up what is normally instinctive thinking to the conscious level, or letting the conscious level come up with what are essentially brand new thoughts.

Examples of these are:

o the great fear that comes with an “adrenaline rush” activity such as bungee jumping

o hallucinations and visions which come with intense ritual and chemical ingesting consciousness altering.  What is produced at these times are essentially thoughts that come out of nowhere, but often that means that deeper instinctive thinking is guiding the process.

o Update: It's not just humans. This 31 Dec 13 Business Insider article, Documentary Discovers Flipper Likes To Get Stoned On Puffer Fish, is about a documentary showing dolphins getting high on puffer fish toxin. An interesting similarity, it is young adult dolphins that get into this.

Humans do a lot of consciousness altering.  And, they are also very interested in the consciousness altering that other humans are doing.



Judging how your neighbor messes with his mind

Consciousness altering seems to be universal, and just as universal is watching your neighbor’s consciousness altering, and then making judgments on its appropriateness.

Humans around the world, and of all cultures, form strong opinions on what is appropriate consciousness altering and what is inappropriate.  And, they back up those strong opinions with a lot of community resource.

Those who are “doing it wrong” are strongly censured.  They can be jailed, exiled or even killed. 

Those who are “doing it right” are deeply admired.

An example of doing it wrong is consuming alcohol in a mosque.   An example of doing is right is “speaking in tongues” at an Christian evangelist religious revival.

Making judgments seems to be instinctive thinking.  As a result, few community members pay much attention to the cost of enforcing judgments.

The high cost of enforcing judgments is the disenfranchisement of those doing it wrong.

The biggest and most persistent cost of enforcing a judgment on consciousness altering is that it disenfranchises those whom the community powers-that-be have decided are doing it wrong.

This happens because those that are doing it wrong are instinctively happy to be doing mind altering their way.  They are not going to give up their way just because other community members have decided against their way – even if giving that technique up is a very logical thing to do.  Doing something for logical reasons is adaptive thinking, not instinctive thinking -- it's hard to do and it's not comfortable.  Consciousness altering is all about instinctive thinking -- doing something comfortable. Those who want to do it wrong, will, instead, become secretive about doing it, and they will become disenfranchised.


Disenfranchisement: the cancer of a community

Disenfranchisement means that a person cares less about their community.  It means that a person feels the community doesn’t care about them, that they don’t have a say in community affairs, and, as a result, they don’t care about community welfare.

Disenfranchisement is not an on-off thing, it’s a shades of gray thing.  A person can back their community whole-heartedly, a lot, a little, or not much.

The less a person is enfranchised, the less they will do for their community, and the more they will do against it.  Disenfranchisement is aggravated when large numbers of the community feel that they are disenfranchised.

The spectacular worst case scenarios in 2009 for community disenfranchisement are Palestinians living in Gaza and Somali pirates operating off the Somalia coast.  The Gaza and Somali communities are supporting horribly anti-social activities conducted by their radical elements… because they just don’t care.  They are seriously disenfranchised communities.


Disenfranchisement in the USA

Disenfranchisement in the USA is not as severe as in Somalia or Gaza, but we have it, and it’s expensive.

A major source of disenfranchisement is disputing right ways and wrong ways of consciousness altering. 

Temperance movements starting in the 1800’s in various places around the world, Prohibition in the US in the 1920’s, and the War of Drugs started in the US in the 1960’s and still running today, have all demonstrated that prohibiting popular forms of consciousness altering do not extinguish their practice.  What prohibition does do is make the practice expensive for the community by disenfranchising the practitioners.

What I am going to recommend goes against instinctive thinking, which means it’s hard to do, but that said, the American community must recognize how expensive it is to be judgmental about consciousness altering activities, in all their forms.

We should recognize this, and become much more tolerant.  Doing so will make America more American, tolerance is an important Industrial Age virtue, and enfranchisement has always been a the heart of the American Dream. People around the world dream of coming to America because it's the Land of the Free.

And... doing so will save us a whole lot of money, to boot.


-- The End --

Update: This 3 Mar 12 The Economist article, Cleaning up the 'hood, is a good description of a community using enfranchisement to solve their drug problem.

The opening of the article, "POLICE watched seven people sell drugs in Marshall Courts and Seven Oaks, two districts in south-eastern Newport News, in Virginia. They built strong cases against them. They shared that information with prosecutors. But then the police did something unusual: they sent the seven letters inviting them to police headquarters for a talk, promising that if they came they would not be arrested. Three came, and when they did they met not only police and prosecutors, but also family members, people from their communities, pastors from local churches and representatives from social-service agencies. Their neighbours and relatives told them that dealing drugs was hurting their families and communities. The police showed them the information they had gathered, and they offered the seven a choice: deal again, and we will prosecute you. Stop, and these people will help you turn your lives around."

Update: A 17 Aug 13 Economist article, The Other Religion, which talks about recreational drug use in Iran. This is an example of how ubiquitous the attraction for using chemicals for mind altering is, and how hard it is to eliminate as a society gets prosperous.