Interview: James L. Kent
James L. Kent is the author of ‘Psychedelic Information Theory – Shamanism in the Age of Reason’ and the editor of dosenation.com. He’s been kind enough to answer some questions on a range of topics including psychedelics and culture, shamanism, his influences and some of the ideas behind Psychedelic Information Theory. You can read a review of the book here.
How did you first become interested in psychedelics and what was it about them that made you wish to research and study them?
I have always been fascinated with strange features of the brain, and in college I began studying philosophy, religion and mysticism, and was very interested in Gnosis and methods of transcendence. I certainly knew what psychedelics were, but was not really interested in them until a friend mentioned that LSD was said to produce mystical states. I had not previously made the connection between psychedelics and mysticism, but a quick trip to the library, spending a few hours skimming through works by Huxley, Leary and Hofmann, made me realize there were aspects of the mind still beyond common explanation. My initial interest was ignited by the curiosity to have that ineffable mystical experience first-hand. I wanted to see if it was as strange and wonderful as advertised.
Which drug writers have been the biggest influences on you and why? And which works do you think have had the profoundest effect on your own work?
As a young man and an aspiring writer, Hunter S. Thompson appealed to me more than anyone. He had a fearlessness for exposing hypocrisy and naïve idealism in all forms, and I respected his hard cynical edge in response to drug propaganda coming from both sides. I also spent a few years going through the works of Leary, Lilly, and McKenna, just to get an idea for the roadmap to the psychedelic territory. Although I appreciated Leary and Lilly’s attempts to tie a more programmatic aspect of self-activation into the psychedelic experience, I was more drawn in by McKenna’s style and wit. I was fascinated by “The Invisible Landscape,” which is so densely compressed with esoteric material it took me two years to digest. I was particularly interested in the theory of hypercarbolation, or the proposition that hallucination is due to activation of holographic genetic memory projected onto the pineal gland by biophotons, released by spring-like torsion of neural DNA helices. I knew as I was reading “The Invisible Landscape” that many of the theories presented were incredible and preposterous, but at the same time I also felt like the McKenna brothers were setting a new standard and moving towards the more cellular and holographic model required for accurate psychedelic description.
After fully taking in “The Invisible Landscape” and other popular works, it became clear to me that popular authors did not have the appropriate tools to describe the boundaries of psychedelic phenomena. I found that many authors framed their theories on hidden, trendy, or mysterious physiological functions, and tended to romanticize or mythologize the content of their own psychedelic experiences to the point of incredulity. For a variety of reasons I seem to be deficient in forming any long-term emotional attachments to my psychedelic visions, and view things with a more skeptical or cynical edge. Some psychedelic states are undoubtedly spiritual, but I also find many psychedelic visions to be vile and grotesque and sinister, shining a very cold and harsh light on Darwinian evolution and the cruel nature of biological success and survival of the species. Because my personal immersion into psychedelic experience is at times extremely raw and explicit, I do not feel it is something that should be automatically hyped into spiritual or mystical frameworks. It is timeless and expansive, yes, but I have always felt there was a level of showmanship and phoniness in the nature of hyping personal psychedelic experience in the name of celebrity. I have felt this first-hand as a publisher in this field, it is something I always analyze. Mainstream-level gurus are more poets than scientists, and I would say most have a very limited concept of the product they are hyping. I wanted to get past the hype and cult of personality and dig into all the geeky little details about the brain to try and figure out some hard rules for myself. But the flip side to the popular drug literature was the academic research relating to how psychedelic molecules acted on a squiggly section of cellular membrane a few microns wide, a world of G-coupled receptors and secondary messengers and calcium activated proteins. Does that peer-reviewed cellular research mean anything to the people interested in shamanism and popular psychedelic theory? No. Should it? Yes. These are merely different orders of information coupled within the same operational framework.
I realized that modern psychedelic thought was split between these two totally different worlds, and though both were accurate in focused description neither one was fully connecting all the pieces of the larger psychedelic process. I found myself in that gap between the philosophers claiming to know the riddle of the universe and the lab scientists scratching their heads peering at slices of rat brains under microscopes, and neither one really had any answers. The popular perception of psychedelics is stuck in this position between the hard reductive rigors of science and the soft spiritualism of the entheogenic counterculture. While publishing Trip Magazine, and while editing DoseNation.com, I constantly found and find myself trying to mediate that line between differing domains of psychedelic exploration. Finding a style has been a struggle between harsh criticism and elegant synthesis of competing ideologies.
What first sparked the idea to write Psychedelic Information Theory (PIT)?
It was a long process. I spent some time studying DMT and drawing some personal conclusions about the way it worked in my own brain. This was in the same period of time that McKenna was at the height of his popularity and Rick Strassman was publishing “The Spirit Molecule.” I had the opportunity to try DMT many dozens of times — both smoked and in ayahuasca — and did many sessions with custom admixtures containing mushrooms, 5-MeO-DMT, and a few tryptamine research chemicals. I was seriously investigating the popular spirit claims, seeing elves, summoning little mushroom people, mingling with the ghosts of my ancestors, and so on. But there were other aspects of these experiments that were not spiritual at all, such as the quickly morphing geometric hallucinations, which were more intimately personal and had no existing framework for accurate description. When I tried to find formal descriptors for hallucinogenic content outside of the popular shamanic or phenomenological pseudo-Buddhist paradigm, the literature in the field was sorely lacking. To me it seemed like everyone was jumping on the New Age entheogenic spirit model in the hopes of forcing a back-door cultural legitimacy onto psychedelic experimentation. I understand this urge; within the framework of the U.S. constitution there is popular power to be gained by fighting the propaganda of prohibition with the propaganda of religious freedom. But over the past twenty years, since McKenna started gaining popularity, the metaphysical descriptions of shamanic dimensions have became more caricatured and outlandish, and the underlying physiology of expanded consciousness has been considered beside the point. I wanted to find a framework that merged all descriptions of expanded consciousness, not just those with overtly mystical or religious overtones. When I began to think of psychedelic consciousness more in terms of informational capacity and computational complexity and less in terms of mystical or spiritual content, that’s where the idea for a unified “Psychedelic Information Theory” hit me. Information Theory is about how language and symbols of communication compress over time to become more efficient; Psychedelic Information Theory is about how language and symbols of communication unfold into visual and perceptual consciousness over time to become more complex. I wanted to find a way to accurately describe the dimensional complexity of the holographic spaces opened up by psychedelics. PIT is a first pass at that formal description.
What did you find were the biggest challenges and rewards in writing PIT?
The biggest challenge was finding a general framework for the overall theory that doesn’t descend into infinitely receding levels of detail. I struggled, and am still struggling, to find a unified model that meets my standards of elegance and simplicity. At first I thought I could put together a cognitive model through the brute force of describing the physiology of many types of altered states. I made it through this process quite far before I realized that all the phenomena I was describing relied on self-reinforcing feedback creating overlapping layers of saturated perception. This theory started as a pharmacological circuit model, then morphed into a sensory feedback model, then settled into a more complex model based on dynamical information processing, systems theory, and nonlinear dynamics. When I reached this level of description I began to feel that I was approaching some kind of elegant general framework, but I was also compressing everything towards a mathematical formula similar to very basic second-order polynomials of deterministic chaos. The challenge at that point became how to introduce the idea of nonlinear perception to readers who may have no background in pharmacology let alone nonlinear dynamics.
The metaphors of fractals and chaos have high familiarity in psychedelic circles, so framing nonlinear aspect of PIT in terms of “psychedelics expand consciousness like a fractal” seemed like a good place to start. To be honest I don’t like describing it that simply, that’s like drawing the theory at the crayon level. It’s sort of correct, but also misleading. Moving from that fractal metaphor into formal models of stability in sensory processing networks, coherence in thalamocortical feedback loops, resonant drivers, neural oscillator entrainment, and bifurcations in recurrent perceptual maps, those are formal descriptions of physical states for further consideration and scrutiny. Part of the challenge was accurately explaining the general nonlinear model of hallucination without losing the reader in too many digressions on systems theory or pharmacology or physiology. Attempting to produce a good scientific general theory that opens some tantalizing questions for the average reader is always a challenge.
The biggest reward of this process, I suppose, is that I feel like I have described a system of expanded consciousness that has application for all types of explorers. Also, as the hard research continues to be published it appears there is at least some level of accuracy in the models I’m presenting. Some of the pieces that came out of PIT, like the Control Interrupt model and the Frame Stacking model, surprised me. I did not expect these particular pieces to manifest out of the research, but I feel they are the most original and intriguing bits of the entire theory. Those pieces alone should provide some new insight for researchers and general explorers.
You develop many intertwining lines of argument in PIT; what do you hope will ultimately prove the greatest prospects for further research? And why?
I think different people will take away different pieces. For the average psychedelic explorer I think the Frame Stacking model is the most interesting piece of theory. Stacking and stretching the capacity of temporal frame buffering on hallucinogens is a real phenomenological thing, this is not something I made up as an abstract model. Stretching perceptual space through subverting temporal feedback becomes a totally different thing once you understand how quickly perception refreshes itself and how decaying frames of sensation can layer over and enhance incoming frames. There’s a telescopic quality to stacked perception that can be zoomed in and out on high doses of hallucinogenic drugs. If you figure out what you’re doing you can control how this telescopic perception shifts through slight changes in breathing patterns and eye movements and so on. It is extremely difficult to describe this process of focusing perception through micro and meta layers of reality. Psychedelic literature struggles to find words for this type of experience, like “flanging” or “dimensional tuning” and so on, and more often slips into useless words like “timeless” or “ineffable”. The Frame Stacking model is a way to subjectively track the telescopic depth of hallucinogenic immersion, but it is a difficult thing accurately study in laboratory research. The Frame Stacking model is solely for the benefit of high-dose explorers.
For scientists who do scanning research, I think the Control Interrupt model offers some prospects. This theory describes altered consciousness in terms of pharmacological wave packets interrupting or interfering with the temporal refresh rate of perception. These interference packets describe quantum aggregates of pharmacological interaction at the receptor site, erupting into perception as saturated pulses of phantom sensory activity along predictable frequencies and amplitudes. If the model is accurate, this interrupt action should produce a stable wave artifact on EEG scans preceding and throughout the duration of any hallucinogenic spiking activity. For instance, according to the Control Interrupt model, you should be able to take an EEG scan of a person as they smoke Salvia divinorum and “see” the sensory tingling and throbbing in the appropriate band range in the EEG readout as the drug effect comes on, grows to peak strength, and then fades away. My prediction is that if you go looking for artifacts of this high-frequency sensory interference in multiple wave bands in multiple scanning sessions, you should find distinct and predictable wave artifacts for each hallucinogenic drug as it sends pulses through the neural system. Capturing evidence of a control interrupt frequency may be harder than it sounds; the interference could be extremely subtle and difficult to detect. I think I may be the first person to suggest such a theory, so we’ll see in a few decades if anything ever comes of the speculation.
Finally, if a person is more inclined towards shamanism and therapy, then they’ll appreciate the concepts of neuroplasticity and Physical Shamanism. The foundation of this theory is that repetitive rhythmic drivers, like singing or drumming, can entrain specific expanded states of consciousness. These expanded states then drive neural growth and learning. This theory seems self-evident when you put it into practice, but I have never seen the harmonic foundation of this method explained anywhere, so I gave it very light formal pass as an adjunct to the overall theory. Simply stated, I applied the fundamentals of control theory to shamanism, and proposed that resonant feedback acts like an attractor to stabilize chaotic output in expanded states of consciousness. Again, this seems self-evident when you put it into practice with musical performance and hallucinogenic drugs. I would love to see more scanning research done looking specifically at states of group coherence in participatory shamanic ceremonies. I predict the underlying meme of psychedelic neuroplasticity is going to be confirmed through animal research in the coming years.
Do you think the shamanic model of psychedelic consumption is relevant in today’s society? And, if not, is their a suitable social model in existence that could incorporate the psychedelic experience?
I think the shamanic model is perfectly fine and frames many people’s experience just the way they’d like it. The shamanic model is simple and natural and built to travel. You don’t need a formal education to learn shamanism and take it on the road like a old-time revival, which is what the phenomenon of the Grateful Dead and jam band circuit was built on. That core Earth-loving and spirit-seeking shamanic vibe will always be central to psychedelic mythology, it is an inescapable part of who we are. But to be honest, I can spend all day communing with plant spirits and Gaia and ancestors and so on, and when I come back down and look out at the city I see new modern spirits of science and math and physics and chemistry and engineering and electricity and digital logic stretching further and further into the future. These are not dead material spirits, they are very strong spirits with just as much vibrancy and immediacy as the plant spirits, but in a totally different information domain. Conceptualizing the shamanic paradigm beyond the obvious biological and spiritual plant framework is a process that is ongoing in modern culture. Raves and trance festivals incorporate the psychedelic experience and memes of transcendence, but they also embrace synthetic research chemicals and computer generated grooves to maximize sensory enhancement. Cultural events have already emerged to incorporate the psychedelic experience into modern technological culture, and each new generation applies a slightly tweaked paradigm to their celebrations to fit their own unique needs and worldview.
In reading PIT I was especially interested in learning about the entrainment techniques and, specifically, how they apply to electronic dance DJs. To what extent do you think these techniques are utilised in today’s psychedelic music culture?
The power of music to entrain coherent behaviors in groups of people is one of those things that everyone understands. Singing and dancing and beating drums in unison are the most common rituals of group transcendence. The techniques of trance and hypnosis rely on entraining the brain to specific frequency ranges. Drum circles and trance music use techniques of hypnosis applied to large groups of people. Becoming entrained to a beat or a melody is purely intuitive. People don’t say, “I’m going into a trance now,” when they distractedly dance or sing along with a song, but that’s what you do when you set aside ego behavior and let the music pass through you like a transistor in a circuit. This is also metaphor for mystical forms of trance where the self is detached and sensation flows through the body like a river of Gnostic awareness. The connections between music, hypnosis, harmonic theory, entrainment, and transcendence are explicit; they are all part and parcel of human sacred ritual.
I think some DJs and producers are very aware of what they are doing when they lay down beats and tweak resonant acid grooves to drive people into coherent trance, and other times it happens spontaneously. There is a science to it, but it is also completely mysterious when a crowd suddenly reacts to a specific groove and this energetic undulating mass erupts on the dance floor. This is not a modern phenomena, I’m sure tribes at the dawn of civilization had their favorite beats and drummers that lit up the dances around the bonfire. But in the modern arena with electronic strobe lights and sound systems and filter knobs and reverb, it’s just unbelievable how a good DJ can work a room into a frenzy. The best performers are the ones that can pull you in and hypnotize you, and that’s not just metaphor. Demanding attention, holding attention, and keeping the audience all locked to the same groove is the oldest and most powerful form of performance magic known to humans. It is alive and well today, now with bigger speakers, better mixing boards, and better guest rappers.
Do we, as individuals, essentially play a passive role in the increasing complexity of novel information? Or, is it a goal we can actively align ourselves with? And, if so, to what final purpose?
Our passive role in information complexity is evolution. Just by wandering around the planet and trading germs and having sex we create new complexity within the biological domain. Our active role in information complexity is technological, which is the domain of mammals with brains big enough to conceptualize efficient tools. This desire to increase efficiency of tasking is an inherent part of human behavior, and this instinctive craving for efficiency drives technological innovation. There are Luddites that oppose this view, but they are swimming against a much larger tide. Imagine that we, as a species, decide to banish technology and never allow a new idea to enter the culture for the remainder of our history. What would be more crushing to our lives and our spirit? Conversely, what if we were told there was nothing left to learn or invent, and that there’s no hope of future mystery or innovation. What kind of a world would that be? Humans would create artificial drama just for something to do. In times of order we seek disorder; in times of disorder we seek order. Cycling through chaos and convergence is the way complexity emerges within a deterministic system. Humans conform to those rules of complexity in their systems just like everything else.
Once evolution produces a species capable of manipulating matter and energy, evolution has basically done it’s job and can take a back-seat to technology. At this very point in history, humans have the technology to create a self-replicating species that could outlive our own genetic line. For better or worse humans are the transient link between the biological evolution of intelligent organisms and the technological evolution of intelligent mechanisms. You can view this position as tragic, but it is not a bad place to be considering the fate of every other species on earth. Our planet will eventually be consumed by our sun, and no matter how far we shoot ourselves into space our species will eventually die out and become extinct. I don’t think anyone wants life on earth to amount to nothing. If our technology allows us to send living artifacts of our planet into space, either intelligent machines or spores or human astronauts to carry our history and DNA to distant planets, I think that’s really the best we can hope for. If all we accomplished was one sincere panspermia project to roll the dice on giving terrestrial life immortality among the stars, that would be pretty great. Populating the local galaxy with fragments of our DNA will give us at least a couple billion more years of potential evolution before we collide with Andromeda and all bets are off. I’m sure we can accomplish amazing feats in that time, but I’m all for modest goals in the short term.