The New Science of Psychedelics by David Jay Brown
Originally published in 2013 ‘The New Science of Psychedelics: At the Nexus of Culture, Consciousness, and Spirituality’ is written by David Jay Brown. Brown is a writer who has previously penned the science-fiction novels ‘Brainchild’ and ‘Virus: The Alien Strain,’ but who is more widely known for his interview books, including ‘Mavericks of the Mind’ and ‘Conversations on the Edge of the Apocalypse.’ He has also edited a number of MAPS bulletins.
The fringes and frontiers of science and culture lay at the heart of David Jay Brown’s The New Science of Psychedelics: At the Nexus of Culture, Consciousness, and Spirituality. In the past, Brown has written a number of books based on a wide-ranging series of interviews he has conducted over the years. The interviews included many of the most cutting-edge thinkers of the last fifty years, such as Timothy Leary, Robert Anton Wilson, Terence McKenna, George Carlin, Allen Ginsberg, Ram Dass, Alex Grey, Ralph Abraham, Candace Pert and a multitude of others. And their insightful observations on the nature of mind, life and the universe are brought to bear on this book, along with Brown’s own philosophies, psychonautical experiences and multitudinous research paths—overall, it is indeed a nexus.
Brown is unashamedly Cali-centric: “When one travels eastward from California, one encounters societies that have increasingly older and older histories, less and less tolerance for individual differences, more and more suspicion about anything new or different, and greater and greater respect for and attachment to authority and tradition” (Brown 29). Many of the interviews he has conducted are with California residents and a certain sprightly, though slightly patronizing, optimism does abound. Though perhaps the recent socio-economic rise of China might indeed reflect this—as civilization goes full circle—it is indicative of the wider teleological and evolutionary thinking that pervades the text. Whether the discussion is about evolution, consciousness, or the rise of psychedelics, purpose and end are imbued within the discourse, albeit with a certain self-reflective pinch of salt:
“I personally suspect that this process is guided by ancient, superwise, genetic-biospheric intelligence that is itself further aligned with the greater purpose of the intelligence of the cosmos. But what do I know? No more than you. Whatever the case, it appears that evolution is an ever-accelerating process, and we can only guess what lies over the edge of the horizon” (Brown 102)
One of the great strengths of this book is down to the great range of obscure interests the author has had over his life. Among the most interesting is a discussion of the Boskops, Homo capensis, who lived up to ten thousand years ago on the southern tip of Africa. These hominoids had, compared to ourselves, greatly enlarged brains and smaller faces. Brown argues that they are an example of neoteny—wherein a species evolves from another by retaining juvenile characteristics into adulthood—and postulates that they had greater intellectual and imaginative powers. In a slightly skewed version of the romantic ideal of the noble savage he asks: “Did savage humans—our barbaric ancestors—slaughter their more peaceful, big-brained, doe-eyed cousins?” On the flip side, this may also say how violence and power are inescapably important mechanisms in evolution.
The discussion of psychedelics, and their role and purported teachings, is a central concern throughout the book. Not only does Brown discuss his own psychedelic experiences with a whole host of different plant and chemical substances, but many of his interviewees are/were leading psychedelic thinkers, such as the aforementioned people like McKenna (both brothers) and Leary. But it is also interesting how many of the topics about consciousness, evolution, science, and culture, appear to directly plug into the psychedelic experience. An interesting question arises: Have these individuals brought questions from these territories to the psychedelic experience? Or has the experience opened the questions upon the thinkers? The answer is seemingly both. The quote that most stuck out in my mind though was by the poet Allen Ginsberg who said the following in response to a question about Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis:
“No, no, no, absolutely not. None of that bullshit! No Gaia hypothesis. No theism need sneak in here. No monotheistic hallucinations needed in this. Not another fascist central authority . . . You’ve got this one big thing. Who says it’s got to be one? Why does everything have to be one? I think there’s no such thing as one—only many eyes looking out in all directions. The center is everywhere, not in any one spot” (Brown 17)
This quote seemingly furnishes the book with its theme in a nugget because for all the discussions of God, one consciousness, pantheism and such like, there are a thousand eyes and voices and minds in this book all looking out in different directions. What connects them all is that they recognize mysteries and their enquiring selves are turned towards them with the full force of their powers. This is no more true than in the final chapter that deals with people’s views on whether consciousness survives death—a question Brown asked nearly all his interviewees. Although it gives voice to the individuals, when perhaps Brown should have written up their thoughts more critically as a whole, it does pronounce the very forward facing nature of the text—forward through life to death and beyond, a frontier even the life-lengtheners seek to dance around.