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Chance's Take on Books

I'm a novelist who loves to read and discuss all things word-bound.

Currently reading

Swann's Way
Marcel Proust, Lydia Davis
Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style
Virginia Tufte
The Chicago Manual of Style
John Grossman, Margaret D. Mahan
I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive
Steve Earle
The Doors of Perception - Aldous Huxley
Increasingly, I'm learning that perception is far more complicated than I ever imagined. Sight, as an example, isn't simply eyes acting like cameras, sending image data to the brain for interpretation. An article in the online journal, Nature, described the mechanism by which the brain "sees" what our eyes are going to see before our eyes see it. This is why we don't view the world through what would otherwise look like a hand-held camera. Research at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine has shown that "the human retina can transmit data at roughly 10 million bits per second."

What the brain does with this data is amazing. For one thing, it compensates for anything that prevents us from seeing things as normal. In 1896, George Stratton experimented with eyeglasses that inverted his vision. After a few days, his brain adapted and Stratton saw everything the right way up.

The brain, needing to process data rapidly, is predisposed to see a perceptual set, which means we see what we expect to see, based largely on prior experience. No wonder children look at the world with such wide eyes--they are truly looking, whereas adults are watching re-runs. All this is necessary from an evolutionary point-of-view, since survival depends on quick data interpretation and reaction--useful for escaping lions, for example.

In The Doors of Perception, (published in 1956), Huxley recounts his personal experience with mescalin and its effect on his senses and thought processes. An interesting springboard into the discussion was Huxley's admission of being quite ordinary in artistic skills, yet wanting to see the world as an artist sees it. Likewise, he wanted to see and feel about the world as would a mystic. Most of the essay described exactly that.

An interesting section, which I expect has been more thoroughly researched by now, discusses adrenochrome, a product of the decomposition of adrenalin. Huxley wrote that adrenochrome "can produce many of the symptoms observed in mescalin intoxication. But adrenochrome probably occurs spontaneously in the human body. In other words, each one of us may be capable of manufacturing a chemical, minute doses of which are known to cause profound changes in consciousness. Certain of these changes are similar to those which occur in that most characteristic plague of the twentieth century, schizophrenia."

Mescalin, it seems, along with chemicals found naturally in the body, can shake up the way the brain normally filters and manipulates data input. Huxley thought it prevented the brain from filtering input from our senses, thereby making everything intense and amazing. The end result was to make other things less important, such as the idea of the individual and our self-importance. If we have a finite capability for 'input', then it stands to reason that turning the valve on the senses will change other aspects of our world view. Huxley coined a term, Mind at Large, which I rather liked--

“Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe. The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful. According to such a theory, each one of us is potentially Mind at Large."

In any case, I enjoyed this slim volume as it connects scientific inquiry with what seems to me to be a higher pursuit of our consciousness. The other edge of the sword is that one cannot operate or navigate in this world, outside a lock down mental facility, with other than a brain that functions within certain margins of filtration. While under the influence of mescalin, Huxley lost interest in relationships and all sorts of trivial pursuits necessary to sustain life in society. Seems we are as we need to be, and if one wants to pursue other avenues of consciousness, they'll have to do so within certain limitations.

Sidenote from internet search: "On his deathbed, unable to speak, Huxley made a written request to his wife for "LSD, 100 µg, intramuscular". According to her account of his death, in This Timeless Moment, she obliged with an injection at 11:45 am and another a couple of hours later. He died at 5:21 pm on 22 November 1963, aged 69."

One can't help but wonder what that trip was like.