Tripping is Believing

When I’m under the influence of one psychoactive substance or another, I often experiment with how thinking certain thoughts affects my experience. If I’m struggling to enter into the experience, on a low dose for example, I find that reciting a mantra or using some other form of meditation or prayer helps. But the most powerful way in is simply to “believe”.

(The easiest way to gauge how immersed you are in a psychedelic experience is through music. Sometimes you can listen to a favourite piece and it’s little more than background music, whereas at other times it transports you to the celestial spheres. This is of course more likely to happen if you’re tripping. But even while tripping it varies.)

I was listening to Enya. It wasn’t really doing it for me, so I started experimenting with my thoughts. What would happen if I tried believing in Jesus? I said to myself, “Credo” (I believe). Miraculously, in that very instant, the music came alive and I was “in”, floating on a wave of E.B. (Enya-Bliss). Continuing the experiment, I said to myself, “I believe in Enya”, and lo and behold, my musical enjoyment became even more immersive and beautiful!

I wondered, “Does it matter what the actual object of my belief is?” What would happen if I just aroused the thought, “I believe” in my mind without attaching it to any particular person or thing? Well, it still worked: my sensual experience of the music and of everything else around me was fuller, deeper and richer. I was absorbed in my experiences instead of being detached from them.

Recent neuroscientific research into the effects of psychedelics points to the phenomenon of “default mode network” inhibition. It seems that these psychoactive compounds somehow deactivate the usual round of continuous rumination we usually engage in, thus aiding direct sensory experience of our surroundings. We “lose our minds and come to our senses”.

Another possible neurological explanation concerns the brain hemispheres. It may be that psychedelics help to shift the locus of our awareness away from the analytical left hemisphere towards the more receptive right hemisphere. Perhaps they are useful tools that can begin to redress the balance between “the Master and his Emissary” as Iain McGilchrist puts it. (McGilchrist’s thesis is that the right hemisphere is the rightful “Master” but that our culture has become left hemisphere dominant, creating a whole host of mental and social problems).

There is an illuminating discussion in McGilchrist’s book where he looks at what “belief” looks like from the vantage point of the two hemispheres. Left hemisphere belief is about believing a factual or logical proposition in the absence of sufficient evidence. From this perspective, you only “believe” something that you don’t “know” is true. Right hemisphere belief, on the other hand, is more like trust. You believe in someone, or you believe in yourself, not in the sense of deficient knowledge about that person or yourself, but in the sense of a kind of willed commitment.

This second type of belief is about attitude. Take Enya. Many people snort derisively at the mention of her name. She’s “naff” or “corny”. She’s certainly not “cool”. When they listen to her music, they do so skeptically, with a certain critical aloofness. In other words, they listen with the left side of their brain. The same goes for Jesus. A non-believer is by definition skeptical about certain historical claims about Jesus, but even more so about the possibility that he is actually a living spiritual presence you can relate to in the present.

Someone who doesn’t believe in Enya’s music could, with some encouragement, conceivably change their minds and hear it with fresh, right-hemisphere ears. There are also, of course, cases of atheists who convert, who suddenly “believe”, not on the basis of rational arguments, but because they somehow discover the transformative power of right hemisphere belief. (It is extremely rare for someone to come to religion through rational left hemisphere deliberation, as if they were to say, “I have impartially considered the arguments on both sides and have come to the conclusion that the weight of evidence favours belief in the supernatural, therefore henceforth please consider me a believer”).

If you believe in Gustav Mahler (another personal experiment), you trust him enough to surrender to his music and allow it to take you where it will. If you don’t “believe”, you will only hear a musical composition laid out before you, as if it were nothing more than the musical notations made concrete. You will take the attitude of a detached, critical observer.

The distinction between “belief” and “non-belief” in relation to music actually applies to all experiences. Why? Because “believing” in the right hemisphere sense is really just shorthand for empathic right hemisphere engagement, unmediated by left hemisphere analysis. Temperamentally, we could identify people as being predominantly “believing” (or “trusting”) people and skeptical (or “distrustful” people).

The interesting thing, in relation to McGilchrist’s historical thesis, is that philosophers since the eighteenth century (the successors of David Hume you might say) have been predominantly skeptical. And not just about the specific claims of religion, but about the fundamental features of reality itself, which have therefore been subjected to sustained radical doubt. How can we even know that the world perceived by our senses is the real world? How do we know that morality isn’t just an arbitrary social construct? Etc. etc.

Modernity itself can be characterised as an experiment in unbelief. We tried belief for hundreds of years, so why not see what happens if we try unbelief? Why don’t we actually try believing only those things that warrant our logical assent? In other words: let’s throw out right hemisphere belief and live by the left-hemisphere variety alone. Reason and science in. Religion and art out.

A philosophical realist (a moral or epistemological realist for example) in this skeptical climate is dismissed as a “naive realist”. Instead, sophisticated moderns are relativists, which is really just another way of saying, skeptics. You can’t believe anything that isn’t provable beyond reasonable doubt, and since nothing other than the most basic scientific facts pass the test, you can’t really believe in anything.

This is why psychedelics are enjoying such a resurgence of popularity. In an age of right hemisphere alienation, they help people believe again.

Health warning: If you’re not careful, tripping can make your incipient “ontological skepticism” worse, resulting in temporary psycho-mimetic paranoid schizophrenia (commonly known as a “bad trip”).