Monday, June 16, 2008

Interview: James Kent sheds new light on music and psychedelics

Hi folks, this interview blog is a bit different. It's on the topic of music, but from a completely different angle that may take you by surprise. As such, you'll find my introduction a bit longer than normal.

I have a confession to make. I've been looking for an excuse to interview James Kent for some time now. Most people have never heard of Mr. Kent, which is a shame since he is one of the most intelligent, articulate, and daring individuals I've come across in a very long time. I would describe James as cross between Leonardo Da Vinci, James Randi, and Gordon Wasson.

James started his career as journalist. During the early days he set out to get to the bottom of the mysteries surrounding psychedelic experiences (which is a bit like starting off your mathematical career by trying to prove Fermat's Last Theorem). After some research and spending time with key members of the psychedelic community, the answers James was getting were more mystical than scientific. People like Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna - while insightful and articulate - were beginning to seem more like modern-day Shaman, rather than critical thinkers.

On the flipside, the scientific community hadn't produced much insight either. The reasons for this are mainly twofold: Firstly, publicly funded research into psychedelics has been all but completely suspended in most Western countries since the late 1960s, mainly due to the legal restrictions of substances like LSD and psylociban/mushrooms. However Britain has recently re-legalized psylociban, and research has now resumed in earnest there. There are also pockets of privately funded research like at the Hefter Institute which has shown evidence of psychiatric benefits. However, most research comes short of explaining HOW psychedelics actually produce the effects and experiences they do. This is mainly because the scientific method is predicated on publicly observable data. In order to observe the various phenomena produced by psychedelics, one must be on psychedelics. So any results obtained under the influence would be considered suspect. Furthermore, the experiences tend to push the limits of what we can describe in words, images, or even video.

All that notwithstanding, psychedelics are not for the faint of heart. Embarking on subjective psychedelic research can quickly lead the curious astray. When you're experiencing things like ecstatic trances, delusions of grandeur, spiritual awe, altered states of consciousness, and oneness with the universe, it's pretty hard to keep your eye on the ball and record your observations with a critical eye. But somehow James Kent has kept his hat on and done this and a lot more. This is a guy that has ramped himself up to a graduate level understanding of optics theory, and a post-graduate level understanding of neuroscience. As a result, James has for the first time connected the psychedelic experience to the brain's systems level, down to the synaptic level.

Most recently, James published a sure-to-be seminal paper entitled "Multi-State Theory of Psychedelic Action". The paper accurately describes the effects of tryptamine psychedelics on perception and consciousness. However, what caught my eye while reading the paper (and hence the reason for this interview), concerns the relationship between music and psychedelics. Something, which I hope to learn more about here.

Q1 Neil: First off, thanks for giving me your time for this interview. I want to talk a bit about your current involvement in the psychedelic community. You started Trip Magazine, then went on to found Can you explain the history and mission of Dosenation?

A1 James: After I stopped publishing Trip Magazine there was always the intention that there would be some kind of extension of that project online. I began publishing back-content on, some of which morphed into the structure for "Psychedelic Information Theory". At that time I was also coding a multi-user blogging engine and headline filter for tracking drug-related news. This idea floundered for a while until Trip's former Editor, Scotto, approached me about the idea of doing a collaborative drug blog, and then the pieces for DoseNation just fell into place a few months later. We've been going for about a year and half now. It's blogging. It's mostly for fun. Anyone can join in.

Q2 Neil: I found out about you through your yet-to-be published book "Psychedelic Information Theory [PIT]: Shamanism in the Age of Reason". Can you describe to readers what this book covers, and why it's so unique.

A2 James: The impetus for PIT was creating a comprehensive resource for people who want to know "how" psychedelics work, mostly because I was so frustrated with the lack of good information available. With PIT I wanted to stay away from mythology, spirituality, and psychology and go right to hard brain process; neuroanatomy, network structure and function, mechanics of perception and cognition, pharmacology, hallucinogen and visual rendering theory, all of that inside-the-machine stuff. It gives people who want to study psychedelics a more reality-based direction to go than alternate dimensions and spirit allies. Not that there's anything wrong with the shamanic model, but there's plenty of information on the spirit model of psychedelics out there already.

Q3 Neil: Your most recent paper, "Multi-State Theory...", ties together much of what you've written in PIT, but it is also the culmination of most of your research. What is the paper's thesis?

A3 James: The Multi-State Theory provides a pharmacological model for how psychedelic tryptamines act at specific neural routing sites to increase network feedback and tip the brain into excited multi-stable states. This feedback-induced excitation produces what we would typically call altered states, or states of "expanded consciousness" that begin with heightened perception, grow into hallucination, and eventually lead to complete sensory overload and out-of-body experiences at high enough doses. What I am attempting to do with the Multi-State Model is demonstrate the precise mechanics by which network excitation and feedback destabilizes normal perception, knocks the brain offline for a bit, and then re-tunes the brain at a high-focus, high-energy state that is subjectively mystical, hyper-cognitive, and transpersonal in nature. In a sense it is a neurological deconstruction of the method behind the psychedelic madness of insanity and enlightenment that seem to go hand-in-hand.

Q4 Neil: You argue that the reason traditional shamanic rituals use tribal music is to mediate or smooth the transitions between the changing phases of a trip. How does music improve the trip?

A4 James: Music doesn't improve the trip so much as guide the trip. In the shamanic model rhythm is used to bind tribal energy to a common ground; everyone grooves on the same vibe, everyone shares the same vision. One of the shaman's most important jobs is to store the tribal songs and reproduce them spontaneously when needed. These songs carry the weight of cultural memory and identity, and reproducing them sets the tone for the ritual experience. This is as true today as it was two thousand years ago, which is why the DJ or the rock band is elevated to such mystical god-like status. In the context of guiding a psychedelic trip, there is no more powerful vehicle for locking minds together than music. The shaman instinctively knows this and can use his or her own voice to soothe or excite people, bending them to his or her will and vision. Producing shamanic songs and linking group minds in a psychedelic context is one of the purest true magics that exist in this world. In a very Christ-like way, the shaman literally opens his or her heart and soul to the universe, channels the will of the world, and through their "pure vibe" alone can unite an entire tribe under one vision. I could be talking about Maria Sabina or Metallica here, the metaphor applies universally.

Q5 Neil: Are there still tribes which perform these rituals, and is it possible to find real samples of this Shamanistic tribal music?

A5 James: You can find CDs of the icaros of the Amazonian ayahuasceros or the throat signing of the Tuvan monks, and though these two cultures are displaced by vast spans of space they produce similar tones and themes in their music that are easily confused. Both of these styles at times sound like aboriginal didgeridoo, Mid-Eastern reed-pipes, and Tibetan Om chanters all combined. Some of it is much less complex, simple chanting and repetition of tones and themes that are not musically interesting but have tribal meaning. There's traditional shamanic medicine drumming, and most of it is quite monotonous because it's literally a form of hypnotic trance music. Generally there is a great deal of authenticity and preciousness ascribed to traditional shamanic music, but traditional authenticity is not really that important for good shamanism. All passionate music is shamanic in that it transports you immediately into the world of that song while your listening to it. Pearl Jam's "Evenflow" is just as shamanic as anything you can pull out of the Amazonian rainforest, it just speaks to a slightly different tribal archetype. But the key to maximizing this shamanic principal is being able to share these songs spontaneously for any occasion in a live environment, which is where music has its truest power to unite people. The ability to master the basic ritual skills and use them to channel group synchronicity in the psychedelic space is a core aspect of the shamanic archetype.

Q6 Neil: In your recent paper, you go on to say that different types of music can produce different types of trips. Can you give some examples of the different types of music you have in mind, and what kinds of trips this produces?

A6 James: Well, Tool will obviously give you a different trip than Enya, both of them will probably be bad. All music evokes a particular mood or living energy, and the mood and energy of the music will infect you at vastly deeper levels when you're tripping. You need to be careful what you ingest when you're taking psychedelics, and that applies to music too. Gangster rap will make you paranoid and fear for your life, Pink Floyd will make you have suicidal out-of-body experiences, Chemical Brothers and Daft Punk will light up your brain with a never-ending loop of cartoony sci-fi electronic fart noises and mechanical drum-fills. Electric genres of beat-timed groove music like trip-hop, downtempo, breakbeat, house, trance, jungle, and ambient were all mapped out along the BPM spectrum because they're all the different cognitive territories you can evoke with same basic 808 drum-machine and 303 bass machine setup. The BPM genres top out at super-hardcore where the beats are so fast they literally become tones, thus deconstructing the semantic illusion separating rhythm and tone. The mind can bend all the way around the spectrum. Rhythm sets the foundation for the trip, the melody sets the mood. Set the BPM and punch in your pattern, instant shamanic space. It all depends on what you're shooting for.

Q7 Neil: I've heard stories of people "seeing music" and "hearing visuals". Can this really happen, and if so, has anyone painted a song, or composed a picture, or anything like that? What's going on there?

A7 James: Seeing music is the classic description of synesthesia, the mixing of senses for absurd or concrete outcomes; absurd would be "tasting seven" and concrete would be "seeing a bell chime". Some people are naturally synesthetic in very particular ways, and will always see the color five as red, for instance, even when they look it on a piece of paper, simply because the concepts are somehow fused in their mind. Psychedelic synesthesia is usually direct audio-to-visual transforms, in which the rhythmic and melodic elements of music and environment are reproduced in your imaginary visual field, typically with eyes closed. A drum beat may appear as a simple strobe of light, or perhaps the literal vision of a drum, but it can also be a warped interference pattern that represents the drum tone, which can give way to all sorts of tangential subjectivity. This is basically caused by a network echo effect that allows audio signal to become excited and bleed-over into the visual processing circuits. At higher doses this synesthesia can become all consuming, so you need to be careful what kind of music you listen to. Metal music can make you feel like you're on a roller coaster being pulled through the depths of hell and destruction, and then after your soul has been whipped bare by a blistering guitar solo the song just ends because it was only three minutes to begin with, and your mind shatters because nothing's holding the roller-coaster together anymore; it all just vanishes into free fall. That whole angry world of noise and metal riffs collapses into a CD or some other piece of mechanical trickery that shatters the music's authenticity and reduces it to some form of electro-plastic mind control transmission. This is why DJ culture and live jam sets that last a few hours or longer are preferred for most psychedelic sessions. There's plenty of time to go up, have a little journey, and come back down again all in one go. Live DJs or musicians programming the show makes for better musical continuity, and smoother transitions makes for an easier ride.

Q8 Neil: In the PIT table of contents, you refer to an archetypal trip known as "The Heroes Journey". Can you briefly describe what The Heroes Journey is, and is there any music which can be used to help facilitate it?

A8 James: The classic Hero's Journey (typically singular) is a quest to defy the gods, travel across the bridge of life and death, find some hidden power or lost wisdom, and then return to the world of the living with your new found power to better the condition of your tribe. This story plays out in mythology and lore and stories of human struggle all the time. In the personal context it is a journey to transcend the self, see the world from a removed perspective, and return to the self with a greater appreciation for one's own part to play in the bigger picture. Of course the Hero's Journey goes bad all the time, there's many wrong turns and hard lessons to be learned. It is a three act saga to be sure, not something you do in a single evening with a list of track names on your iPod. But if I had to pick a single soundtrack for the Hero's journey, I'll go with... um... Mr. Lif's "I Phantom"? Word up Lif. Have Edan's "Beauty and the Beat" in the pocket for coming down. I know I could pick some epic trance here, but the Hero's Journey is all about aiming high while keeping your feet on the ground. The Hero's Journey tends to go messianic if you don't keep it grounded in the real, that's why I choose Lif.

Q9 Neil: In your opinion, what music best captures the essence of a psychedelics? A theme song for the psychedelics if you will.

A9 James: There's so many good "psychedelic" bands and producers making insane music, I suppose everyone has a different idea of what that psychedelic sound should be. I mean, I always preferred the Dead's "Shakedown Street" style funk strutting to their spacey jams, but which is more psychedelic? I prefer psychedelic hip-hop like Edan and Mr. Lif to jam band music, I prefer filtered house, turntablism, and frenetic breakbeat to Goa trance; I like classic rock like Sabbath and heavy riff music more than spacey dub music. I think about this question a lot actually, what is the most psychedelic song? I suppose it's different for everyone, for me it is probably something like the remix of Bomb the Bass "Bug Powder Dust" grafting into Aphrodelics "Rollin' on Chrome" wild motherfucker dub version on the K&D Sessions. It's not the trippiest in terms of production effects, but it has a nice mix of hip-hop, dub, underground references, good natured boasting, and illed-out vibe that always makes me smile, and that's key for any good psychedelic set. If that's too obscure for some people then how about "Little Fluffy Clouds" from the Orb?

Q10 Neil: Many people who have done psychedelics come away with the feeling that they have been exposed to an ancient secret. What is behind this secret, and why can't anybody seem to remember it?

A10 James: The ancient secret is that it's a miracle we're even alive, we take this for granted. When we're reminded of how fleeting and how fragile life is in the larger picture, the whole thing seems like a joke that we even made it this far, and that we spend so much energy making such a big fuss about ourselves. The ancient secret is constantly unfolding in real time, and the answer is you. Live it up, it's your turn now.

Q11 Neil: What does the future of your research look like? Are there any unresolved mysteries for you when it comes to psychedelics?

A11 James: When it comes to psychedelic action there's not too much mystery left, it's all about nailing down detail, which may be years in coming since research is so slow in getting funded and approved. The real mystery is what do we do with these things? How do we adapt their use to modern culture in a way that allows people to explore without going insane or winding up in trouble with the law. In a world where you can casually pick and eat a mushroom and have visions that make you question the very fabric of reality, there will always be backlash and the desire to control that power. My hope is that people on both sides of pro/con psychedelic argument trend away from granting these substances the power of gods and demons. Psychedelics are tools. We are the gods. We are the demons.


CCLE said...

Great interview. Kent takes the issue and moves it fast forward. Most "analysis" of psychedelics still remains in repetitive retrograde, so anytime we move beyond history we have taken a step - a mighty step. to read the paper mentioned. When is the book "PIT" due out? -=rgb

Anonymous said...

Interesting interview Neil; thanks for posting it. Too bad it couldn't have been longer :)

Two comments about James' responses:

"You can find CDs of the icaros of the Amazonian ayahuasceros or the throat signing of the Tuvan monks, and though these two cultures are displaced by vast spans of space they produce similar tones and themes in their music that are easily confused. Both of these styles at times sound like aboriginal didgeridoo, Mid-Eastern reed-pipes, and Tibetan Om chanters all combined. "

The similarities in timbre in sacred musics (specifically, the intentional amplification of overtones) is a fascinating subject. It seems to crop up everywhere, and it's worthy of study. I've seen it done in diverse cultures, ranging from the chanting of Vajrayahan Buddhists to the mouth-bows of Napo Runa curanderos. Didgeridoo... Vietnamese Dan Mois... vocalization techniques... in the sacred context cosmopolitan, and this raises very interesting questions. Its relative lack in Western cultures is also an interesting question. Much is said about the role of rhythm in shamanic music, but little attention has been paid to the tonal qualities of the music. Even James' comments -- about rhythm and melody -- gloss over the other sonic dimension of tonal quality or timbre.

"When it comes to psychedelic action there's not too much mystery left, it's all about nailing down detail, which may be years in coming since research is so slow in getting funded and approved. The real mystery is what do we do with these things?"

James is correct that the larger, "why do we do it" and "what does it mean" questions are real mysteries and will take a long time to explore (and we may never have a closed answer to these open-ended questions). But I think he's overly optimistic in believing that there is not much mystery left in the nuts and bolts of the objective action (let alone the subjective correlates). When people predict the end to things like this, it is more often hubris than insight. In reminds me (for example) in the famous statement that Stephen Hawkins make when he took his chair of Oxford, saying that "physics is basically over, we're just tying down loose ends. In 20 years there will be nothing left" (a paraphrase). This was in 1971. After 20 years passed he was asked about it again, saying "the prediction still stands, but the 20 years starts now."

We are complex creatures, and we shouldn't over-state our knowledge. Who knows, maybe we do know almost everything about it. But new findings seem to continue coming out. (Didn't our understanding of LSD's action at the 5HT receptors expand dramatically just a few years ago?)

james kent said...

In fairness, I said there's "not much" mystery left. If we have receptor affinity, predictive outcomes, and well-defined benchmarks for subjective effects then the mystery is not so much about action but the *details* of how receptor affinity translates into subjective perception. There are a number of models that satisfy these needs, but they are much slower coming because studies have been stifled for so long.

I would be wrong to say "There is no mystery left", but it is much less of a mystery to us now than it was even ten years ago. We will learn new things that make us go, "So that's how so and so does that," but it will more likely be an esoteric detail than an earth-shattering discovery.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough.

It would be interesting to have this conversation again in, say, 10 years, to see if we really were as close in understanding as it may appear now.

I think bridging the gap between "how it works" and "what is means "(to us) will be hard work, if it's even possible. It you compare it to the field of consciousness studies, for all we know about the functioning of the brain, we still don't understand what consciousness is on a deep level. Current scientific and philosophical fashion is to define the problem away, sometimes going so far as to deny the very existence of the subjective components of experience.

The questions raised by psychedelic experience is the same, but more so! It's hard to figure out what consciousness is; doubly so for psychedelic states.

Neil Hepburn said...

I don't think conciousness will ever be "solved". Yes, we may distill it to some simple set of properties and actions, but how can that ever live up to the feeling of being alive?

I see conciousness as an emergent property resulting out of an somewhat arbitrary combination of simple building blocks. Take water for example. You can study hydrogen and oxygen, but when you combine the two, the liquid properties of water just sort of emerge. Sure, we can study it, and maybe predict things like levels of viscosity, but if we'd never seen water before, I don't think there is any way to predict that this stuff (and everything associated with it) would have emerged from hydrogen and oxygen.

This all leads to the "big question", and for me, it comes back to the anthropic principle, which is philosophically interesting, but useless at the same time. So, I often wonder if we're searching for answers to known questions, or are we in fact searching for questions?

But getting back to planet earth, I do contend with one thing that has been stated here. Namely, I don't quite agree that solving the psychedelic puzzle is more challenging than the puzzle of conciousness. One of the key takeaways from James' work IMO, is that he's shown there are in fact certain boundaries to the psychedelic experience, and can explain why we experience some things and not others. For example, if psychedelics can take you in any direction and are as limitless as our conciousness, then why are we more likely to meet Bert from Sesame Street and have an intense "discussion" about the meta-universe. Than say, meet some ordinary looking person, play a game of chess, and then lose after the 14th move, after checking your oppenent on the 10th move? I've read hundreds of trip reports, and have never encountered any experience that can rival the sober world we live in and experience. Turning into a book or shoe is mindblowing when you're that book or shoe, but after a while you realize it's not that different from turning into a banana - the experience of turning into anything different is what's mindblowing. From what I've gathered from reading James' materials, is that eventually it all becomes "been there, done that", and distinct patterns begin to emerge. This is not to say that the entire spectrum of psychedelic experience can be put in a bottle. Rather, I think it's more contained than the average person realizes. As for human conciosness in general? I have no idea what we are capable of experiencing, but I'm sure it goes beyond what psychedelics can produce on their own.

Anonymous said...

"I see conciousness as an emergent property resulting out..."

I couldn't agree with you more. My thought, speculation, cogitation, and -- to speak frankly -- experiences of they type that are being discussed here and now all point in this direction. In fact, I think the entire trend in late 20th-early 21st century science is a moving from the determinism, organization, and structure of Cartesian/Newtonian perspectives into that of emergence and self organization. (I happen to think that this points to a teleology of emergence, a view that I doubt we share (based on previous conversations that we've had), but hey, reasonable people can disagree.) As an aside, I don't think that awareness is an emergent property, but that's more of a philosophical position than one that is formally supportable.

"This all leads to the "big question", and for me, it comes back to the anthropic principle, which is philosophically interesting, but useless at the same time. So, I often wonder if we're searching for answers to known questions, or are we in fact searching for questions?"

Questions :) The quality of the analysis flows from the quality of the question, at least as much as the quality of the answers... at least in these open-ended domains.

"But getting back to planet earth, I do contend with one thing that has been stated here. Namely, I don't quite agree that solving the psychedelic puzzle is more challenging than the puzzle of conciousness."

You can argue it either way, and being that holding conflicting thoughts is good for you, I'll do so!

On one hand, a problem is defined by its boundary conditions. As a metaphor, take a simple ordinary differential equation (ODE). The full solution to such a mathematical equation is an admixture of the general solution and a solution at one of the boundaries. Likewise, a treatment of consciousness in general is no different than a treatment of consciousness at the boundary, and what better boundary condition that the "perturbed" state brought about through the use of psychedelics. In the same way that the study of abnormal psychology can shed light on "normal" psychology, the study of consciousness at the far reaches is really just part of the study of consciousness in the whole.

On the other hand, there is without doubt "stateism" in our culture's appreciation of the varieties of consciousness. "Normal, waking consciousness" is the "real" consciousness, and all other states are considered second-class phenomena. Such value bias is clear even in the language that we've adopted. The term hallucinogen is more of a value judgment than a statement of observation (a point that was clear even many years ago, and one that was the impetus in trying to find new ways of speaking ("psychedelic," "entheogen," etc.)). Take dreams for example. Dreams are often found to be subjectively meaningful, and historically many (most) cultures have adopted perspectives that doesn't downplay that meaning. In modern times, though, dreams are seen at best as a meaningless epiphenomena of as-of-yet poorly understood neurological housekeeping. I'm not saying that they aren't the epiphenomena of some unrelated process, but to relegate them to merely that is to perhaps say something interesting about brain chemistry, but at the expense of our human perception of meaning. You can ask the question as to why we find them meaningful and perhaps come up with interesting things about us. Again, it's the quality of the questions we ask, and some perspectives keep us from asking them.

So on one hand you're right; it isn't more difficult because it really is the same question. On the other hand we downplay these states and ignore some hard questions in attempting to answer the question at all.

I can't really address the question about Bert and chess in a meaningful way (I fear that I've taken the discussion on enough tangents as is!), but I will make one point: in reading trip reports, remember that there is a certain self-selection and self-editing that goes on. In relaying my own experiences to other people (something that I don't often do, actually), I know that I've focused on the interesting ones and ignored the mundane. We're story telling animals, and we know what makes a good story. We even do that internally; I remember the big ones, not the little ones.

"I have no idea what we are capable of experiencing, but I'm sure it goes beyond what psychedelics can produce on their own."

Perhaps. I have no idea. I really don't know how to make a meaningful comparison between too inconceivably vast sets...