Jul 17 2012

Altered Statesman: An Interview With Psychedelic Explorer David Jay Brown




‘I think DNA is ultimately trying to create a world where the imagination is externalized, where the mind and the external world become synchronized as one, so that basically whatever we can imagine can become a reality. Literally.”


Consciousness: What is it? Are your thoughts and emotions nothing more than neural static? Will your physical death extinguish your awareness? Is your individual consciousness just one of innumerable facets of a universal consciousness?

In search of answers to questions like these, local writer/neuroscience researcher David Jay Brown has mind-melded with many of the world’s most prominent philosophers, visionaries, culture-shapers and snorkelers of the psyche, including Timothy Leary, Terence McKenna, Robert Anton Wilson, Noam Chomsky, Ram Dass, Albert Hofmann, Jack Kevorkian, George Carlin, Sasha Shulgin, Deepak Chopra, Alex Grey, Jerry Garcia, Stanislav Grof and John Lilly. He’s chronicled these meetings in his bestselling interview compendiums Conversations on the Edge of the Apocalypse, Mavericks of the Mind, Mavericks of Medicine and Voices from the Edge. Dubbed “the most compelling interviewer on the planet” by author Clifford Pickover, Brown has recently completed work on the book “The New Science of Psychedelics: At the Nexus of Culture, Consciousness, and Spirituality,” to be published by Inner Traditions in the spring of 2013.  In approximately two months, the web magazine Reality Sandwich will publish his new e-book “The Complete Guide to Psychedelic Drug Research.”

Brown  is also the author of the sci-fi books Brainchild and Virus: The Alien Strain. He frequently serves as guest editor of the tri-annual newsletter from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a Santa Cruz-based psychedelic research organization that recently published the second edition of Mavericks of the Mind (available at Bookshop Santa Cruz). He has written for periodicals such as Mondo 2000, Scientific American Mind, Wired, High Times, The Sun, Magical Blend and the Journal of Psychical Research. The diversity of his output is telling of his leave-no-stone-unturned approach to consciousness exploration: It’s a good bet he’s the only writer in history who’s contributed to both the Buddhist wisdom publication Tricycle and the porn magazine Hustler.

Brown’s studies of learning and memory at the University of Southern California in the early ’80s earned him a B.A. in psychology. Between 1985 and 1986, he did research on electrical brain stimulation at New York University, obtaining a master’s degree in psychobiology. His inquiries eventually led him into the realm of parapsychology: He’s the man behind the California-based research for biologist Rupert Sheldrake’s books Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home and The Sense of Being Stared At, both of which presented scientific studies of unexplained phenomena. Brown’s knowledge of such mysteries, as well as of technology, smart drugs, health, psychedelic research and sex-drug interaction, have landed him guest spots on shows like HBO’s Real Sex, Fox’s A Current Affair, PBS’s Nature, ViaCom’s The Montel Williams Show and the BBC and Discovery Channel’s Animal X.

DAMON ORION: Tell me about the electrical brain stimulation research you’ve done. 

DAVID JAY BROWN: When I was at New York University, I did research for years where I surgically implanted electrical stimulating probes into the lateral hypothalamus of rats, which is a pleasure center. I would watch rats press a bar that delivered an electric current into their brain center over and over and over again until they fell asleep from exhaustion. Then they would wake up, and there was food sitting next to them, water sitting next to them and a mate sitting next to them. They ignored all three and would continue to press that bar over and over again to get the reward stimulation over survival instincts.

The other area of research I was involved in was at University of Southern California, and it was the exact opposite of the research I did at NYU, where I was surgically implanting electrodes into the brain centers of mammals and stimulating them: In this case I was inserting cold probes, which are devices that actually freeze or inhibit a certain part of the brain temporarily, so you can see how the animal operates with that one part of the brain missing, and how they operate when that part of the brain comes back.

The anesthetic that we gave to the rabbits prior to surgery was a drug called ketamine. I took some of this ketamine home and experimented on myself with it. After injecting 50 milligrams of ketamine chloride into my right thigh muscle and turning the lights out, I suddenly “realized” that my professors and my fellow researchers and colleagues at USC were in reality extraterrestrials—that they were scientists who were there not to study rabbits; they were there to study me. I was the test subject, and they’d left this bottle of ketamine out for me to take. They were watching me right at this moment with a video camera. And suddenly I found myself in a cage with cold probes implanted in my brain and giant rabbits all around me. They were measuring me, and I was naked and helpless. Suddenly, I snapped back into my body. I did not continue very much longer in that program after experiencing what I was experiencing from the rabbit’s point of view. That’s what ketamine taught me: what the rabbit was experiencing from what I was doing.

DO: You often ask your interviewees what they think happens to consciousness after death. If you had to put money on what happens after death, what would you bet on?

DJB: I guess wherever you go after death, the money’s not going to matter anymore! [Laughs.] You know, I think about that question every day, as an exercise of the imagination, and I change my mind about it all the time. I used to debate with my friend Nina Graboi — whom I interviewed for my book Mavericks of the Mind, and who passed away about 10 years ago —a ll the time about what happens to consciousness after death. It was one of our favorite topics of conversation. In general, I took the position that after you die, your individuality leaves, and your sense of awareness merges with the higher consciousness, the oneness, the source that everything came from originally. And her position was, “Well, there is that, but then there are all these levels in between where individuality remains besides the body, and you go through [multiple] incarnations with that. For years we went back and forth with this. Nina referred to her body as a spacesuit, and she always said she was going to get a new spacesuit when she died; she would go from one spacesuit to another. Well, after Nina died, I was writing in my journal, and the TV was on in the background. I was thinking about what was going on in Nina’s mind when she was dying: “I’ll bet she was thinking, ‘Now I see: David Jay Brown was right! You do just merge with the one consciousness.’” As I’m sitting there in this kind of self-congratulatory way, I look at the television screen, and there on the TV screen is one word: SPACESUIT. There was this tingle up my spine. I stopped in my tracks; my jaw dropped open. It was the most profound sense of communication with somebody after they died that I’d ever experienced. That is the most compelling evidence I’ve experienced that consciousness not only continues [after death], but that some sense of individuality continues as well.

DO: What are your memories of your friend Timothy Leary?

DJB: Well, my fondest and most important memories of Tim, I think, are [of] while he was dying. The last year [of his life], he announced to the media that he was thrilled and ecstatic that he was dying. And for the last year, while he was dying from prostate cancer, there was continuous celebration, continuous parties, continuously people coming around his house to tell him how important his work was to them. There was such a feeling of festivity and celebration and Tim deliberately trying to be playful and have fun with this process. This really made a very deep impression on me, because I ask so many questions about death—it’s an important philosophical topic for me. And there have been so many people throughout history trying to die bravely or courageously or nobly, but before Tim, I don’t think anybody ever tried to say, “Let’s make dying fun!” [Laughs.] Tim really tried to party through the dying process, and I thought it was just a stroke of brilliance. I cried when he died; as much fun as it was, it was terribly sad the moment that he really left. But he just left us all with such a great message, I think.

DO: Tell me about your connection to Robert Anton Wilson.

DJB: Bob was not only one of my closest friends, but he was the person who actually inspired me to become a writer. It was at the age of 16 that I read Cosmic Trigger, and that was how I encountered Timothy Leary, John Lilly and a number of the other people I went on to interview. I went to a lecture that Bob gave here in Santa Cruz back in the late ’80s. At the end of the lecture, I went over to talk to him. I told him I was working on a book, and I asked him if he would possibly consider writing a blurb for the back cover. He kind of hemmed and hawed and looked not terribly enthusiastic, like I was the 15th person that day who asked him that, you know? [Laughs.] But he did tell me to have my publisher send him a copy of my book, and he would take a look at it. So you could only imagine my absolute delight when I discovered from my publisher that he ended up writing an 11-page introduction to my first book, Brainchild. It was through that that I became friends with him. He was a tremendous friend and mentor. When I had difficulty paying my rent early in my writing career, he actually sent me money to pay my rent! He was always there when I called him, giving me great advice. When an editor made some kind of change to one of my articles that I wasn’t happy with, [he said,] “Editors don’t like the way the soup tastes until they pee in it themselves.” [Laughs.]

DO: What was your experience as a guest on The Montel Williams Show?

DJB:  I was on Montel Williams’ show back in the early ’90s, during his first season. There was all this anti-drug hysteria, and I was on the show to talk about smart drugs: cognitive enhancers like hydergine, piracetam and deprenyl — different drugs that are commonly prescribed for senile dementia, but have been used by people to enhance their memory or improve their concentration. He didn’t seem to be very open to even discussing the research or hearing anything about it. He kept cutting us off, and he’d talk about how dangerous methamphetamine was, how this was sending the wrong message to people and how the whole idea of putting “smart” before “drugs” was wrong, and there was no smart way too use drugs. He would not even carefully consider what we were saying. He had his mind made up. And what I think was so interesting is that since he’s developed multiple sclerosis and has had to use medical marijuana to treat the symptoms of this disorder, he’s now become one of the leading spokespeople for the legalization of medical marijuana. What is it about illness that turns people around? People think that medical marijuana is a joke until they’re faced with an illness, or until a loved one is, and then they really understand the medical value that it has and what a horrible, horrible atrocity it is that it’s against the law.

DO:  Is there a primary goal of your work or a primary message you’re trying to get out?

DJB: It seemed to me since I was a child that our species is in ecological danger… destroying ourselves. Since I was a teenager, since my very first psychedelic experiences, I felt a very strong commitment to help elevate and expand consciousness on this planet through my work. I made a personal pact with what I felt was DNA or higher intelligence. I felt that if I aligned my personal mission with life’s overall mission, then I would always be supported throughout my life in what I was doing, and I would be working for a noble cause.

DO: And what is DNA trying to do?

DJB: I think DNA is ultimately trying to create a world where the imagination is externalized, where the mind and the external world become synchronized as one, so that basically whatever we can imagine can become a reality. Literally. And I think that everything throughout our entire evolution has been moving slowly toward that goal. In the past couple thousand years, it’s been very steady. And through nanotechnology, through artificial intelligence, through advanced robotics, I think we’re entering into an age where we’ll be able to control matter with our thoughts and actually be able to create anything that our minds can conceive of. We’re very quickly heading into a time where machines are going to be more intelligent than we are, and we’re going to most likely merge, I think, with these intelligent machines and develop capacities and abilities that we can barely imagine right now, such as the ability to self-transform. What we can do with computers—digital technology, the way we can morph things on a computer screen—is the beginning of understanding that that’s how reality itself is organized, that we can do that with physical reality through nanotechnology and artificial intelligence, that the digital nature of reality itself will allow us to externalize whatever we think. So I think that eventually reality will become like a computer graphic screen, and we’ll be able to create whatever we want. That sound right? [Laughs.]


Apr 10 2012

An Infinite Jest Done In Bad Taste: Mark Leyner Nails America’s Discombobulated Zeitgeist


Upon reading the first three pages of Mark Leyner’s new novel, The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, in which Leyner lays out a sort of creation myth for our times, albeit starting with the declaration There was never nothing followed by a typically leyneresque, dense, electrifyingly poetic description of the universe gaining some sort of context or “relative meaning” from 3 teenage girls “mouthing a lot of high-pitched gibberish… [with] their wasted pallors, acne, big tits, and T-shirts that read ‘I Don’t Do White Guys'” and as the next three pages continued to ping pong virtually from one word to another between descriptions of cosmic creation that might have been written by Carl Sagan if he’d inhaled a little bit of Wordsworth and ketamine and contemporary grotesquery like “obese jogger’s nylon track suit” and oh yes, I’m back in Leynerland…  and for those of you who missed the cracked delights he spewed forth in the 1990s, I encourage you to catch up…  and as I was saying, upon reading those first three pages or so, I gamboled over to Amazon and posted my comment:

It took exactly 3 pages of this book to make me realize that I’ve been ever so slightly bored with every other book I’ve read… since Leyner’s last book. This is the divine comedy.

Little did I know that this opening creation myth would repeat and iterate and accumulate funny funny funny all american pop cultural banal references and occasional desperate lunges at cosmic transcendence partly in the person of an unemployed butcher in Jersey wearing a wifebeater t-shirt who is the chosen one among the gods along with other similarly fast furious riffs that repeat and iterate and how dare he write this conceptual novel.

So I’m a little embarrassed now because Leyner actually intends… sort of… to bore us… to torture us, to give us the feeling of all that is and ever was including all that’s fine about humanness and culture collapsing and infolding upon itself into one dense and crushed and barely coherent pileup (or mashup) of banalities… much of it spoken in the language of vacant Facebook youths watched over by Gods high on Ketamine, Ecstasy and “The Gravy.”  But even then, Leyner can’t help but display his facility with hilarity and wordy fusillades filled with random bits of obscure knowledge, tv, pop music and porno references, and again, also, those glimmers of transcendence.

And so — despite Leyner’s clear attempt at driving us crazy — this still may be the least boring novel I’ve read since Leyner’s last novel. And I’m thinking that just maybe this is the novel of the zeitgeist, the avant novel of the 2010s that doesn’t tell us but shows us where we are today as Americans (and we’re all Americans) by its very nature… a near-infinite google-sized pile of just barely connectable and relatable shit that’s infinitely clever and stupid and amusing and very much like one of Beckett’s desolate landscapes but rather than being empty it’s full of crap and pointless activity… and at the same time, emptier even still.

I don’t think this is gonna be a big seller.

Jan 04 2012

Commandeering the Inner Space Shuttle: Silence and Ecstasy in the Sensory Deprivation Tank


I recently began a series of experiments with the sensory deprivation tank as developed by John C. Lilly, M.D., a device that most have heard of but few have tried. (Yes, that’s the one from the 1980 movie Altered States.) It took me a decade and a half of self-directed experimentation on consciousness to finally get around to using one. Luckily, when I was ready, I found that there was a facility five minutes from my workplace. I booked the time. I got in.

The sensory deprivation tank is exactly that — a large, soundproof, lightproof tank filled with shallow, warm, buoyant water, all designed to completely shut off all sensory input.

The tank itself is heated to exactly 93.0º, a temperature that feels warm without being intrusive, so that your body quickly tunes it out. The water — just shallow enough to lie in — is saturated with Epsom salt, which means that you float effortlessly on the surface. It also means any cuts or scratches that you may have gotten before going in will start viciously burning; for this Vaseline is recommended to cover over them and keep out the salt.

The inside of the tank is remarkably spacious — big enough to sit up in, even stand up while crouching. (The model I used was the Samadhi, the original developed by Lilly. There are other versions; tanks in Europe, apparently, are often much smaller and pod-like, offering very little room to move about in, limiting the size and weight of the occupant.) The inside of the tank is about three and a half feet wide; consequently, I spent a lot of time sliding from one side to the next until I figured out how to stabilize myself. (Hint: Stick your arms out and hold the sides until the water calms down, then hold yourself completely still and breathe slow and deep enough that you don’t disturb the water. Breathing slow, of course, will also help stabilize your body and mind faster.)

One’s experience in the tank, as I was told, is highly susceptible to suggestion. For this reason, the owners of the venue I visited told me they’re very careful about not telling people anything but the basics when they get in, in order not to pre-load their trip.

I found I had some of my own pre-loading to get rid of after getting into the comforting darkness of the tank. Foremost in my mind were the experiences of the tank’s founder himself, Dr. John Lilly: born in 1915, Lilly was raised on a rigid scientific track, developing the tank in the early 1950s while studying neurophysiology for the US Public Health Service Commissioned Officers Corps—work allegedly connected with the CIA MK-ULTRA program, though he broke with the US government almost immediately thereafter. His own experiences were nothing short of revelatory. He later went on to do research trying to communicate with dolphins while on LSD, became involved in SETI, and continued using the tank until his death a few weeks after 9/11.

Lilly reported some mind-stretching tank visions in his books. At one point he believed he had come into contact with extraterrestrials, or “Earth Coincidence Control Organization (ECCO),” as he called them. He also spoke forebodingly of a potential period in the future where “Solid State Intelligence (SSI),” an entity that he believed was composed of the entirety of electronics on earth, would take over and dispense with human life. (Facebook anyone?) But then again, Lilly wasn’t just going in cold: he extensively experimented first with using LSD in the tank, then with Ketamine, both substances he had easy access to as a member of the medical establishment.

These are the images I had swirling in my mind as I climbed into the tank; not surprisingly, nothing happened as long as I continued expecting fireworks on-demand. It wasn’t until I consciously let go and decided to see what the tank had to offer on its own terms that I started to get something. And at least for me, what I experienced wasn’t “psychedelic” at all—far from a mental experience, what I discovered was a drop into a deeply physical, embodied state; once this had happened, the boundaries of the body, tank and space itself just seemed to fall away. Thereafter I seemed to enter into a primal infinity, from which perspective I could comfortably see not just my rational mind but the entire mental bandwidth of Western culture as a tiny, almost inconsequential pinprick in a vast field of mystery. Not “the light,” not “the void” or other shorthands for the unthinkable… simply an endless mystery.

I’ve tried innumerable meditation techniques over the last decade and a half: I’ve learned to sit inhumanly still for hours, slow my breath down to one inhale/exhale per minute, learned the original kundalini yoga of the Himalayan adepts up at 13,000 feet in India, studied a bit of Zen and Tibetan forms of meditation like Samatha or “calm abiding.” But no matter how you twist, prime or calm yourself, the same problem always remains: the body just won’t go away. Even if you’ve “mastered” your awareness of the physical and can sit like a rock with little to no breath, you’re still going to have awareness of the body, and it will continually remind you it exists. Which gives you two options: suppress it as much as you can, or work with it.

But with the tank, the body is just so free of external sensation, and so contented with its literally womb-like surroundings, that it just kind of blips out.

Well, let me rephrase that. First, it fidgets insufferably. Adjusting to the tank can be so initially frustrating that the center I visited gives the first hour for free. Once you “get it,” though, your body remembers the right position and will enter that state rapidly every time you get into the tank from then on.

After the initial learning curve I ended up in place more relaxed, more contented, more free, more expanded than I have after years of meditation — in a few minutes. So much of the discipline of yoga and classic meditation manuals like the Hatha Yoga Pradpika is concerned with “turning the body off” with proper physical postures; a sensory deprivation tank does it almost immediately. The classic instructions for yoga all seem to continue to apply to the tank experience — stilling the body and breath, offering the in-breath into the out-breath, and so on — but one is immediately put into an ideal state physical state, the kind it presumably takes years of yoga practice to get to, if it is even reachable at all without the tank.  

For that alone, I’m a new convert. Take away all the spiritual woo, the promises of inner experiences, and at the very base level you have a tool for relaxing more deeply than perhaps previously thought possible, identifying and then releasing muscle tension you weren’t even aware was there. You feel it. And then you let it go, bit by bit. And then you float. The applications for health alone, when so many physical problems are caused by chronically holding tension, are obvious. Of course, as the physical tension goes, so does the mental tension. I found myself getting insights into, and letting go, of long-standing mental cramps, deep unsolved indecisions or confusions, that I’d forgotten were even there, as they had been embedded into the background noise of the mind for so long.

Of course, that was just the beginning. Beyond the relaxation of the body, I observed a secondary effect: the body enters what I can describe only as an orgasmic field. Here we enter into the domain of Wilhelm Reich’s orgonomy or even of mysticism but, put simply, the message was that nearly all mental and physical tension is the individual attempting to suppress its natural orgasmic state. By orgasmic I don’t specifically mean orgasmic release through sexual contact — I mean that when the body’s energy becomes unlocked it, itself, becomes all-over orgasmic. One releases into infinite “bliss,” the body-as-orgasm melting into the universe-as-orgasm.

Lilly experienced something similar, writing in his autobiography The Scientist (in third person) that “The tank experiences gave him new access to bodily pleasure which he found difficult to integrate with his rather… Calvinistic conscience. His conflicts with sexual expression, sexual transactions, took up a good deal of his time. The resting body accumulated positive energies that were expressible sexually to an almost intolerable level. He began to recognize the intrinsic nature of sexual drives. His parallel studies in neurophysiology revealed the sources of the sexual energy within the central nervous system. He began to see that these sources existed in himself, in his own brain.”

The next level was the seeming heightening of “psychic” phenomena such as telepathic communication (with people who could be dozens of miles away) and the intrusion of “energies” or imagery from the collective unconscious, or simply the individual unconscious depending on how much one gives credence to the idea of transpersonal mind. As these phenomena are entirely subjective, unverifiable and largely deeply individualized to those who experience them, I here pass over details of any specific content, leaving this to individual experience.

The usual tank session is an hour. One returns to “normal” consciousness immediately and seamlessly after exiting the tank. There is no hangover or disorientation. I found rush hour traffic while leaving the facility slightly more aggravating after the peaceful tank experience, but beyond that there were no noticeable side effects. More importantly, one feels as if one has just awoken from a deeply satisfying and relaxing sleep, even if one didn’t sleep in the tank, and even, as I experienced, if floating after a long and hectic working day.

It seems that, when separated from outside stimulus and given free reign, the bodymind knows exactly what it needs to do to restore health and equilibrium to itself, and goes about doing it, quickly and precisely.

For these reasons — and more I’m sure I’ve yet to discover — I recommend the tank to all.

It’s a technology that has largely fallen by the wayside, though it’s recently been making a comeback thanks in part to the highly enthusiastic publicity the comedian Joe Rogan has given it. I suspect that it probably has more to offer us now than it did when Lilly invented it. Silence is a rare commodity in our overstimulated world.

We owe it to ourselves to give ourselves back to ourselves.

Find a place near you to float here:

Jason Louv is the author of Queen Valentine and editor of Generation Hex, Ultraculture and Thee Psychick Bible.