I saw an article on The New Yorker website (but I hesitate to include a link to it because they have a paywall and most of you probably won’t be able to access the page) about sentience written by Nicholas Humphrey. He is a theoretical neuropsychologist known for his work on the evolution of human intelligence and consciousness. One of his books is Sentience: The Invention of Consciousness.
Simply put, sentient means the ability to have feelings. It is the capacity for a creature to experience sensations and emotions. In recent history, discussions about whether animals and plants are sentient became a topic of research. Most recently, you hear the word used in discussions of artificial intelligence. In the latter case, it is a fear of AI (such as robots) becoming sentient.
There are three general criteria for deciding whether something is sentient. These involve considerations that are (1) behavioral, (2) evolutionary, and (3) physiological.
Humphrey studies consciousness which includes the levels of lucid dreaming, out-of-body, near-death and mystical experiences. These are sometimes regarded as the highest of all higher states of consciousness.
Sigmund Freud divided human consciousness into three levels of awareness: the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious.
Dog and cat owners will agree that their pets are sentient. Researchers have shown crayfish, grouper fish, sea otters, elephants, whales, dolphins, and other nonhumans to be sentient.
Artificial intelligence is not determined. For an AI to truly be sentient, it would need to be able to think, perceive, and feel, rather than simply use language in a highly natural way. Some scientists don’t even think it is feasible for an AI system to be able to achieve these characteristics.
Why is AI sentience feared? Because it might lead to situations where humans would lose control over their own machines. Humans may not be able to trust AI after gaining sentience.
Like a number of things, coffee, or rather caffeine, seems to be good for you and then bad for you depending on what year we are in.
Currently, caffeine “contributes much more to your health than it takes away.” Says who? Says food, drink and psychedelics writer Michael Pollan. Caffeine has been shown to improve focus and memory, and even your ability to learn. Did you pull some caffeine-fueled late-night study sessions in college? Did it work?
Caffeine doesn’t help most people sleep. I avoid it after 3 pm but my wife can have an espresso before bedtime and sleep the same.
I don’t know if I’m so much a caffeine fan as I am a coffee and tea fan. I even like herbal teas (no caffeine and technically not tea but tisanes) and decaf drinks. But considering that caffeine keeps me awake at night, I suppose that my morning coffee must do the opposite. I do know that when I tried going decaffeinated I experienced severe headaches for a week. Withdrawal from cold turkey.
Ah, the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, and the Industrial Revolution. Big things that owe something to the coffee house. These places appeared London around 1650.
Coffee houses quickly found their clientele which gathered around interests, like literature, and professions, like writers, poets, philosophers and scientists. There was even one dedicated to selling stocks. Eventually, that one became the London Stock Exchange.
Sober and civil drinking – pub – changed the way people thought and worked. Well, alcohol was safer than most drinking water. But boiling water had benefits then too.
Pollan has also written This Is Your Mind on Plants which is a broader look at how we rely on plants. They give us sustenance, beauty, medicine, fragrance, flavor, fiber. But the book’s focus is on how they change our consciousness. Plants can stimulate or calm. They can temporarily tweak our consciousness or completely alter it.
We don’t think of caffeine as a drug. We don’t consider daily users as addicts. Well, it is legal, socially acceptable and readily available. Pollan wants people to rethink that. Drug or medicine? You can make a drink from the leaves of a tea plant and that’s fine. Make a drink from the seed head of an opium poppy and you break a federal law. In This Is Your Mind on Plants, Michael Pollan goes deep into three plant drugs – opium, caffeine, and mescaline.
I’m writing this at 6 pm. No caffeine since 1 pm. I wonder what I would have written after several 16 once dark roasts at 11 am.
Listen to Michael Pollan talk about how he gave up caffeine entirely for three months while working on his audiobook, Caffeine, and he says “I recommend it. I had some great sleeps.” But he also had an unexpected loss of confidence and lack of focus as he went through withdrawal.
I think the authors actually see themselves as modern-day Prometheus bringing us a new secret knowledge. I think of the subtitle to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – The Modern Prometheus. The doctor also believed that The title and subtitles doesn’t really let you know where they are headed
The recurring theme or word in the book is ecstasis. This is an elevated mental state of flow and transcendence. In the book, they examine people who achieve it through various paths from taking controlled substances, to participating in extreme sports.
It is an elusive state of mind. You may have had moments of ecstasis. Have you ever been so engrossed in a task (not in a movie or book) that everything around you, including time, disappears? Performing artists, athletes, writers, scientists report a highly creative state that we might casually call being “in the zone” where their consciousness reaches another plane.
The philosophy of ecstasy is not new. Ecstasy, from the Ancient Greek ekstasis, meant “to be or stand outside oneself, a removal to elsewhere” coming from ek– “out,” and stasis “a stand, or a standoff of forces.” It is a word that occurs in Ancient Greek, Christian and Existential philosophy, though different traditions using the concept have radically different perspectives.
Plato described ecstasis as an altered state where our normal waking consciousness vanishes completely, replaced by an intense euphoria and a powerful connection to a greater intelligence. The final characteristic of ecstasis is “richness,” a reference to the vivid, detailed, and revealing nature of non-ordinary states. The Greeks called that sudden understanding anamnesis. Literally, “the forgetting of the forgetting.”
In our time, it has also become a buzzword philosophy. The authors mention that billionaires “in Silicon Valley take psychedelics to help themselves solve complex problems.”
It has even entered the business world, as one Forbes article points out, as the result of “finding your natural fit” in the world or in the world of work.
It is not surprising that ecstasis is associated with drugs because the state, even if not induced by chemical substances taken, sounds like a drug-induced state. There is even a drug called Ecstasy (MDMA). Certainly, there are naturally occurring neurochemicals in the brain released when people report ecstasis. And so, with a kind of logic, people believe they can gain a shortcut to this state by taking these or similar chemicals.
Though some turn to microdosing mind-altering drugs, others turn to meditation. The book, in its attempt to be comprehensive, looks at many methods and related approaches that have their own buzzwords, like grit, flow and tipping point:.
You have to accept a modern premise that human achievement, discovery, success and enlightenment have some algorithm that can be found and used.
One review of the book that I read suggests that it is a kind of self-help book, but rather than just offering self-improvement, ecstasis looks to improve the nature of humanity and transform the world.
The examples in the book of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, or Bill Gates or Navy SEALS seem to be outliers who have assets that almost none of us can access.
It is a bit frightening to me that this philosophy has had the most research into generating “flow” and getting “into the zone” has become the domain of elite organizations and individuals, including the military. The book was a bestseller and was CNBC and Strategy + Business Best Business Book of 2017.
Kotler’s earlier book The Rise of Superman, was more about the concept of flow, but there is definitely crossover. In Stealing Fire’s middle section, they examine four ways in which people are finding ecstasis: psychology, neurobiology, pharmacology, and technology.
The last section of the book that interested me the most, but was ultimately most disappointing. It considers how ecstasis can be sustainable, and bridge the extreme (and sometimes dangerous or illegal) examples, and the mainstream.
Another esoteric term I picked up in reading the book is umwelt. This is a technical term for the piece of the data stream that we normally apprehend. It’s the reality our senses can perceive. It’s just a sliver of the world around us.
The authors note that studies of people who did eight weeks of meditation training measurably sharpened their focus, cognition and flow. Not necessarily a state of ecstasis, but on that path.
Some believers say that in addition to our three basic drives (food, water, sex), we should consider this drive to “get out of our heads” as a fourth drive.
Because ecstasis seems to arise when attention is fully focused in the present moment, the immediate connection is to meditation of practices such as Buddhism that also contain that philosophy.
A kind of equation – Value = Time × Reward/Risk has been used as one way to explain the path, where “time” refers to the time needed to learn a particular technique until it can reliably produce ecstasis. They also point to those who do not use one technique but use many; the person who does extreme skiing and psychedelics, along with meditation and yoga, living in extremes. This contrast is thought to make it easier to spot patterns.
Is ecstasis making it into the mainstream? The authors would say yes, as evidenced by a trillion-dollar underground economy of exploration. Are you on the path?
Most of us think about consciousness and unconsciousness are the two states our mind can be in. But in religious and spiritual contexts, there is also a transcendent state of consciousness that is harder to define and achieve.
He believed that the transcendent state of consciousness had several features as experiences in order to qualify as such.
One feature he called “ineffability.” That is a tricky feature because it means that “it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words.” In other words, it would be an experience that must be directly experienced and could not be explained adequately to others.
He also believed this experience would have a “noetic quality.” He meant that these mystical states are also states of knowledge with insight into depths of truth, illuminations and revelations “full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time.” These parts can be explained to others and can be used for creating art and practical solutions.
Mystical states cannot be sustained for long. He found that they had “transiency.” His observation ws that they usually lasted half an hour, or at most an hour or two. Beyond that, they fade. He wrote that “Often, when faded, their quality can but imperfectly be reproduced in memory; but when they recur it is recognized; and from one recurrence to another it is susceptible of continuous development in what is felt as inner richness and importance.”
His final quality of the transcendent consciousness is “passivity.” Though he noted that the initiation of these altered states may be from voluntary operations, when the transcendent state occurs, the mystic feels as if his own will were “in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power.”
William James listed initiating practices such as fixing the attention, and going through certain bodily performances from the fasting and abuse found in some religious rituals, to deep meditative practices.
James drew some of these conclusions from being not only a reader and philosopher but, empiricist that he was, from using his own body-mind as a laboratory. In his case, he used nitrous oxide, also known as “laughing gas,” which produces a euphoric effects. As a mild hallucinogen, the nitrous oxide gave him a new perspective on own consciousness. He did not claim that it gave him a mystical, or transcendent, experience, but it allowed him to understand those states.
He separated some of the reported transcendent experiences of his time such as prophetic speech, automatic writing, and the trances of mediums. Without saying they were faked, he noted that because there was no recollection of the phenomenon later and they seemed to have no significance for the subject’s inner life, they were not mystical states. True mystical states are retained at least somewhat in memory, and remain as a profoundly important event that modifies the inner life of the subject.
Michael Pollan has had several bestselling books including In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and The Botany of Desire. His seven books have been quite influential in the ways we view food from global and personal perspectives.
On his podcast, Tim Ferris talked with Pollan about his new book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. From the title alone, it would seem to be a departure from his other work.
I am just getting started with the book. The general topic is one I have read about in the past, but my firsthand knowledge is very limited.
“Psychedelics” is a term that still has 1960s baggage attached to it, though their use goes back centuries. Psilocybin, mescaline, and others have been in and out of the news. They have been legal and used for medical purposes, and also illegal, controlled and banned depending on the time period.
Pollan set out to research how LSD and psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) are being used to provide relief to people suffering from difficult-to-treat conditions such as depression, addiction and anxiety. But apparently the book got more personal than he expected.
He decided to explore himself altered states of consciousness as he was researching the brain science and psychedelic therapies being used today for depression, anxiety, alcohol/nicotine dependence, OCD, PTSD, and others.
From what I have heard and read about the book, he does address the risks of psychedelics too.
Studies into the “entropic brain” are getting serious attention in universities again, though on a limited basis.
Tim Ferris is very much aligned with Pollan’s newest project and is putting a million dollars into the scientific study of psychedelic compounds. This is by far the largest commitment to research and nonprofits I’ve ever made, and if you’d like to join me in supporting this research, please check out.
Pollan’s book has been described as a blend of science, memoir, travel writing, history, medicine and participatory journalism. Though the book is certainly a deep dive into psychedelic drugs, he also explores human consciousness and how we might use the drugs “to be fully present and find meaning in our lives.”
We finally got a true spring day today and I sat with my cup of tea outside and it felt great to have the Sun shining on me. Would you be surprised to learn that solar storms can affect your emotional health and consciousness?
Many people feel that the Moon affects them, but a lot of research has pretty much shown that madness during Full Moons, increased suicide rates and other effects are more myth than fact. Still, I have read some of the same claims and research into the Sun’s effect on us.
When I was working and teaching full-time at New Jersey Institute of Technology, I learned some things about solar flares because the university has the Center for Solar-Terrestrial Research for ground- and space-based solar and terrestrial physics. They particularly have an interest in understanding the effects of the Sun on the geospace environment. That Center operates the Big Bear Solar Observatory (BBSO) and Owens Valley Solar Array (OVSA) in California.
A solar storm or eruption is a massive explosion in the Sun’s atmosphere. It releases a tremendous amount of energy and affects all layers of the solar atmosphere. The numbers are incomprehensible to most of us. Plasma heating to tens of millions of Celsius degrees and accelerating electrons, protons shooting at close to the speed of light are not concepts we can really understand.
Animals and humans have a magnetic field that surrounds them. Earth’s magnetic field protects the planet. Geomagnetic activity seems to have three seasonal peaks and these periods are said to correspond to a higher incidence of anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and other emotional disorders.
The more obvious effects to point at are how electromagnetic activity of the sun affects our electronic devices. Their effects on the human electromagnetic field and the idea that our body can experience various emotions and changes is a newer theory and more controversial.
Here are some of the physiological effects of coronal mass ejections (CMEs)(which are quite brief) are said to have on us: headaches, palpitations, mood swings, fatigue and general malaise. The pineal gland in our brain is also influenced by the electromagnetic activity, which causes a production of excess melatonin, a hormone that can cause drowsiness.
Might CMEs cause physical sensations because of distortions of energy flow inside the body? Hot and cold sensations, sensations of “electricity” and extreme environmental sensitivity have all been “reported” by people.
But our bodies are said to also have an emotional response to these hidden waves of energy. Some of the claims I have read seem rather extreme, pointing to increases in addiction, health problems, depression, unhealthy relationships, repressed emotions and desires.
At this point, I would say these connections are somewhere between science and belief, but are interesting enough to continue researching. Will they cause a shift in our consciousness? The Sun has been shining on Earth for a long time and I haven’t seen it happen yet.
I haven’t found a good guide to when to expect these solar storms, but I did find lots of suggestions for how to cope with their effects on us, including salt baths, magnesium supplements, drink a lot of pure water, meditate more or do stillness, relaxation & breathing exercise, gentle exercise, and staying away from negative people. I would recommend all but the first two in that list anyway!