The Psilocybin Solution by Simon G. Powell
Originally published in 2011 ‘The Psilocybin Solution – The role of sacred mushrooms in the quest for meaning’ by Simon G. Powell is, broadly speaking, an examination of the role that psilocybin has played in its relationship with humans. This includes entheological history, psilocybin’s behaviour within the neurochemical processes of the brain, the nature of consciousness and a speculative information theory that underpins the author’s metaphysical position; all areas that take a prominent place in today’s popular psychedelic literature.
In his prologue Powell poses the question: Who killed Einstein? The answer, he writes, is the reality process, which he describes as being an “on-going process consisting not only of the evolution of life on Earth but of the evolution of the universe as a whole” (Powell 1). He also refers to this process as “Nature”, capitalised in order to emphasise its ontologically unique position. In other words then, it was Nature that birthed and killed Einstein. Powell, therefore, ascribes Nature with a simultaneously creative and fatalistic function. The question that arises out of this is: Is there a purpose to Nature’s ontological state, or is it devoid of any meaning other than the process itself? Predominantly mainstream science believes ‘Nature’ (not-capitalised for them of course) to be mechanistic and the human being to be an incidental product of evolution. Powell, however, argues that in fact “Nature can be viewed as a single system of self-organizing intelligence” (Powell 222) and is thus based in information. He reaches this conclusion through a discussion on the psychoactive chemical that is found in magic mushrooms: psilocybin.
The grand entheogenic project – the re-reading of the early history of humanity and the history of religion in light of the psychedelic experience – serves as the backdrop to Powell’s book and, indeed, provides the context for his own theory. Within this tradition, Powell cites R. Gordon Wasson and Aldous Huxley as the early pioneers of this new paradigm. Commenting on Wasson’s article in Life magazine Seeking the Magic Mushroom (1957): “It is here, in the personal impact of the psilocybin experience upon one’s perceptions of reality, that the importance of Wasson’s work resides, for he was able to verbalize his entheogenic experiences in a way that captured their remarkable character” (Powell 27). As has been noted by several other researchers, Wasson shifted the emphasis of the indigenous understanding of the mushroom experience, which is to say animistic, into a more monotheistic, Western religious concept and it was with this framing that the West first came to understand magic mushrooms. How far have we come though, from God as creator to a “single system of self-organizing intelligence”?
To begin with, two important research areas have developed in the intervening period between Wasson’s article and Powell’s book; namely, consciousness studies and information theory. What lies at the heart of Powell’s approach is that consciousness is an object of study and that “until we understand the nature of the “mind-stuff” carried by our brains, we will not be able to fully comprehend the nature of the reality process” (Powell 7). Consciousness is mediated by chemistry and, therefore, drugs manipulating chemicals in the brain can mediate consciousness; psilocybin then, is a key to manipulating consciousness. In conjunction with this is Powell’s epistemological approach, which takes knowledge/information to be the ontological basis of the ”self-organizing intelligence”. Therefore psilocybin (and other psychedelics) are, for the psychonaut, epistemological tools for exploring the nature of reality as information and intelligence. Knowledge outside the field of ordinary consciousness is called “transcendental knowledge” by Powell and this is the object of exploration in using psilocybin.
Powell outlines a theoretical framework that explains “normal consciousness and entheogenic consciousness” (Powell 91). He writes that it is derived from Aldous Huxley’s model, (which in turn was derived from Henri Bergson,) so far as it sees the psychedelic experience as being an influx of information not normally available to us: “consciousness is actually a form of information” (Powell 91). Where is this information formulated though? In line with the Huxley-Bergson reading, it is in the brain. For a scientific layman like myself, some of the most interesting passages are on the neural activity in the human brain. He explains that the neuron is broken down into four constituent parts; the dendrites, soma or cell body, the axon and the terminal fibres. These sections pass ‘impulses’ through them: “The information they carry is embodied in the electrochemical activity of the neuron – its state of either firing or not firing…” (Powell 96). How the firing of neurons manifest is central to locating the “Other” intelligence.
He calls the signals both electrochemical and informational impulses, the two terms become interchangeable and become something of a Janus-faced holon. However, the informational aspect is based in the patterns produced by multiple neurons – thus the entheogenic consciousness is a pattern in the brain, which brings to mind the work of Dr. Oscar Janiger and his belief in the neurotheological circuit of the brain. The activation of this circuit, by ‘entheogenic’ drugs, is the place in which Powell locates the transpersonal experience and outlines it as a confrontation with an ‘Other’: “The resulting overwhelming confrontation with a spiritual intelligence is the result of information integration to the point where the integrative process appears to be alive, purposeful, and distinct from the self or ego. This is the transcendental Other, a sentient informative entity that is not us but something very closely related to us” (Powell 132). This ‘Other’ is a “dynamic information integration process” and is then related to the universe as a whole. This is not a question of scientific evidence though, but rather a question about the personal experience itself in order to make this ontological leap.
Powell’s book is highly speculative and, at times, appears to be slightly lost in its own language – too many capitals (Other, Nature, Universe) for example – however it does go to show the continuing development of psychedelic theory in regard to information theory and neurology. Overall, another adequate introduction to entheogenic thought but one that, interestingly, broaches questions about neurology more explicitly than others, in attempting to locate entheogenic thought in a wider metaphysics.