James Kent’s long awaited ‘Psychedelic Information Theory: Shamanism in the Age of Reason’ is due to be published in August 2010. Happily straddling the ground of alternative and mainstream culture, the text is an attempt to add new scholarly rigour to psychedelia, by examining the creation of novel information in non-linear states of consciousness.
James Kent grounds Psychedelic Information Theory scientifically, which is to say, physiologically. He explicitly notes: “All states of consciousness are created by the act of neurons firing in a network.” Building on this point of departure, he employs studies in neurology, consciousness and psychology and draws upon a number of sources like chaos theory and control theory in order to demonstrate the production of psychedelic information. It is not the intention of this review to critically engage the scientific theory, other than when expressly needed, but rather to evaluate the role of “psychedelic information” in James’ model and position it within general psychedelic theory.
Psychedelic Information Theory defines consciousness as a “dynamical information processing system,” which is described by five functions; perception, recognition, memory, recall and behaviour. Furthermore, it posits that states of consciousness are experienced as being independent of one another (sleep/awake for example) and that this demonstrates that consciousness functions in a linear fashion. Psychedelic drugs work by transforming linear consciousness into a non-linear, or fractal, matrix. During this non-linear state of consciousness “psychedelic information is generated spontaneously in reaction to the psychedelic catalyst.” Thus, Psychedelic Information Theory (PIT) is defined as “the study of non-linear information creation in the human imagination, particularly in states of dreaming, psychosis, and hallucination. PIT seeks to model the functional output of human perception in order to extrapolate the limits and complexity of information arising in human altered states of consciousness.”
Grounding the information as arising from a physiological source, rather than from a experiential or esoteric one, is a method by which all the various ideological psychedelic schools (e.g. entheogenic or animist) can be examined as unified field of information. As James notes, the only constant between the schools “is the physical process that stimulates the flow of novel information through neural networks.” Therefore PIT is a meta-information theory, which examines the universal traits of all information arising from non-linear consciousness and, in utilising the term “physical shamanism”, explores how this information is disseminated into society.
Psychedelic information is perceived as having value that is pertinent on four levels; biological, species, cultural or personal. According to James, these values are approximated across a spectrum but that “probability dictates that most psychedelic information will have little or moderate value,” whilst a lower percentage will be of extreme positive/negative value. Various interpretations of these values are employed by the ideological schools and are distinct and central features in their discourse. For PIT, however, it is not a question of ‘truth’ as such, of whether God exists, or whether hyper-dimensional beings are attempting to communicate with us, but rather that all these various experiences generate measurable data. Phenomenologically speaking, God and autonomous spirit beings are acting as interfaces for the generation and transmission of psychedelic information.
PIT describes the process of the generation and dissemination of psychedelic information in 5 steps. Firstly, ingestion i.e. of a psychedelic. Secondly, internal transmission, the trip itself where “in physical terms psychedelics create new information via spontaneous activation and organization of sensory and perceptual networks.” Thirdly, internal integration, the new information being integrated into normal, linear consciousness. Fourthly, cultural transmission, via word of mouth, literature, media, internet etc. And lastly, cultural integration wherein the new information is incorporated into the workings of a culture or society. Thus far, we’ve looked at the first two steps, which James explores through fields like neurology and chaos theory. However, the second focus of PIT is on the exterior transmission of this information and James utilises psychology and wave theory; he calls these practices physical shamanism.
In PIT, physical shamanism is how certain areas of knowledge are accessed by shamans and how their entrainment techniques service the dissemination of information into a small group, or tribe. “It is the goal of this text to explore rational limits and applications of shamanic power beyond the paradigms of mythology and faith healing.” James applies what he terms as a Control Interrupt Model of Psychedelic Action, which takes into account a “bottom-up perception, top-down control” function and describes how it can be utilised by shamans to manipulate consciousness via neuroplasticity. James writes: “Neuroplasticity is the physical mechanism which makes shamanism and psychedelic therapy viable.” This is because it facilitates learning and development by changing neural pathways.
One entrainment method PIT explores is that shamans, like trance DJs, manipulate oscillating frequencies and the resonance of waves in our neural networks; through song, drumming etc.. In fact, sound waves present themselves as a key feature in shamanic manipulation in that they’re a mechanism that has a direct impact on neural networks, which, according to PIT, produce the quantifiable data of psychedelic information. In identifying entrainment methods, the “mythology and faith healing” of shamanism are reduced to being tools, rather than truths, through which the shaman exercises transformative power over individuals or groups. Culturally active groups therefore promote “plasticity, imprinting, and transformation.” James also explores psychic bonding within groups and talks about the group mind developing through synchronic frequencies and other bonding facilitators like smells.
What isn’t explored in PIT but which is, necessarily, a part of the system of dissemination of new information, is the role of psychedelic literature and wider media. For example as PIT, a work of psychedelic meta-information, enters the marketplace it too is a transmission to the wider culture of an ever more complex psychedelic meme. Therefore, one should be able to trace, through the historical record, some of the theory contained in PIT. For example, making use of Novelty theory, which was first made popular in psychedelic circles by Terence McKenna.
As James notes, he and McKenna come at the theory differently, their complexion is different, but the space, or field, i.e. the increasing complexity of novel information over time, is the same. Furthermore, James includes an information chart that divides types and qualities of information across 15 billion years. He argues that shamans might be able to access these different levels of information. In doing so he appears to replicate the methodology described by Timothy Leary in his 8-circuit model of consciousness, in that Leary argued different drugs and practices are attuned to energetic systems like the cellular or molecular. Both models place varying epistemological values on materialistic levels. The inclusion of contemporary non-psychedelic theories and a more thorough investigative technique in PIT, demonstrates an increased complexity in the information, having been newly informed by novelty.
Psychedelic Information Theory will prove, no doubt, to be an important work primarily because it provides researchers, in both the sciences and humanities, with numerous new avenues down which to investigate. For example; the Frame Stacking Model the text employs in describing the change from linear to non-linear consciousness; or which methods, or media, have most successfully transmitted the psychedelic meme and whether they can demonstrate increased complexity. Underlying the theory, PIT provides us with a serious, and in many respects successful, recalibration of the different psychedelic knowledge bases. In great respect to the author, I believe PIT will attract both plaudits and criticism with equal fervour and, in doing so, help proliferate serious psychedelic research for some time to come.