Archive for the ‘language’ Category

This could be strange.  The blog format makes the first into the last, as the posts layer in time, reversing the actual order.  But what the hell.  We’ll see how it goes.  Here’s the abstract.  The sign at the trailhead.  Where we’re going, but no notes on the roughness of the terrain, the length of the trail, the steepness of the climb–or descent.


Communicating the Unspeakable: Linguistic Phenomena in the Psychedelic Sphere

Psychedelics can enable a broad and paradoxical spectrum of linguistic phenomena from the unspeakability of mystical experience to the eloquence of the songs of the shaman or curandera. Interior dialogues with the Other, whether framed as the voice of the Logos, an alien download, or communion with ancestors and spirits, are relatively common.  Sentient visual languages are encountered, their forms unrelated to the representation of speech in natural language writing systems.  This thesis constructs a theoretical model of linguistic phenomena encountered in the psychedelic sphere for the field of altered states of consciousness research (ASCR).  The model is developed from a neurophenomenological perspective, especially Michael Winkelman’s work in shamanistic ASC, which in turn builds on the biogenetic structuralism of Charles Laughlin, John McManus, and Eugene d’Aquili.  Neurophenomenology relates the physical and functional organization of the brain to the subjective reports of lived experience in altered states as mutually informative, without reducing consciousness to one or the other.  Consciousness is seen as a dynamic process of the recursive interaction of biology and culture, thereby navigating the traditional dichotomies of objective/subjective, body/mind, and inner/outer realities that problematically characterize much of the discourse in consciousness studies.  The theoretical work of Renaissance scholar Steven Farmer on the evolution of syncretic and correlative systems and their relation to neurobiological structures provides a further framework for the exegesis of the first-person texts of long-term psychedelic self-exploration. Since the classification of most psychedelics as Schedule I drugs, legal research came to a halt; self-experimentation as research did not.  Scientists such as Timothy Leary and John Lilly became outlaw scientists, a social aspect of the “unspeakability” of these experiences. Academic ASCR has largely side-stepped examination of the extensive literature of psychedelic self-exploration. This thesis examines aspects of both form and content of a selection of these works, focusing on those that treat linguistic phenomena, and asking what these linguistic experiences can tell us about how the psychedelic landscape can be navigated, interpreted, and communicated within its own experiential field, and communicated about to make the data accessible to inter-subjective comparison and validation.  The methodological core of this practice-based research is a technoetic practice as defined by artist and theoretician Roy Ascott: the exploration of consciousness through interactive, artistic, and psychoactive technologies.  The iterative process of psychedelic self-exploration and creation of multi-vocal and multimodal texts, is framed as technoetic practice.


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In a scholarly article, I am permitted to quote another author. The visual cue of quotation marks, or, with a longer quote, an indented block of text, or the italics and right-justification of an epigram mark the change in identity. But what if the same author (could be me) makes an argument in several interwoven voices, distinguishing those voices with additional different visual cues (such as font, color, size, bold or italic, etc.). The conventional way to do this is with the footnote or endnote where a “marginal” comment may be made that is tangential, or supplementary to the main discourse.
Stephen Wolfram in A New Kind of Science elevates this principle to a fine art; a sizeable portion of the book are the endnotes of his comments.
When these comments in other voices are brought into the main text, the clarity, and appearance of certainty of a uni-linear argument may suffer. The author may even display a counterpoint of doubts to her assertions, contradictory viewpoints, ambivalences, or state-bound differences of perception and expression. Or she may choose to express the same idea in two different sensory modalities, or style of words. The author exercises noetic license to express herself in whatever discourse reflects her own multiplicity of thought, feeling, and means of expression at any given moment.
The politics of knowledge: the standards for production (granting of degrees and tenure, peer review); rules of ownership (IP and copyright issues); storage, retention, and retrieval, accessibility (security, power, all education); symbolic hygiene procedures (censorship, viral and theft protection; computer security) all militate against the granting of noetic licenses.
Fortunately, a noetic license can only be self-granted. The rules of evidence are preceded by the rules of self-evidence, the freedom of attention, and the right to remain silent. It is, in its political aspect, a matter of cognitive liberty. The rules of self-evidence apply and cannot be ignored in the study of consciousness, which must include the views from “inside” as well as “outside.” The 1st person and the 3rd person reports.

The term “atma vichara” is helpful here: “”Atma” means consciousness or awareness or the unfathomable intelligence. “Vichara” means inquiry into. So Atma Vichara means “inquiry into consciousness itself.”

Of course in the study of psychedelically transformed states of consciousness, the matter of “persons” (how does “1st person” apply in ego dissolution, for instance) goes up for grabs. These are methodological considerations, as well as matters of genre and style in scholarly writing. Working out how to include multiple voices and discourses in the dissertation is part of the challenge of the practice-based dissertation.
Noetic license in the province of the mind is the exercise of the freedom to know, and to explore one’s mind in whatever fashion works for the current pursuit. Epistemology becomes a personal matter.
John Lilly exercised his noetic license fully. His maxim:

“In the province of the mind what one believes to be true, either is true or becomes true within certain limits. These limits are to be found experimentally and experientially. When so found these limits turn out to be further beliefs to be transcended. In the province of the mind there are no limits. However, in the province of the body there are definite limits not to be transcended.”

This opens up the science of belief structures, which is the topic of his book Simulations of God.

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I’ll be performing with composer and sound designer Stephan Moore at Roulette in NYC at 8:30 PM, 20 Greene St. on the 21st of June, part of the MIXOLOGY series. Stephan on laptop audio; Diana on visual–LiveGlide performance video. They will be joined by dancer/choreographer Kimberly Young, who will being using a Wii remote to dance–and dance with–the LiveGlide forms on the screen. LiveGlide’s origins as a gestural language brings the technical development of this alien digital 3D writing instrument full circle to its gestural roots. Sensory enhancement suggested. More information on the Roulette website.

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Xenolinguistics: the scientific study of languages of non-human intelligences. Publications in this field tend to be speculative as few people have made the claim to have understood an alien language, at least not reliably.

Hallucinations as Alien Art


The key to this discussion is a conceit of the extraordinary vision-producing ability unleashed in consciousness by psychedelics, as alien art: aesthetic productions of an unknown, hence alien, source. Whether the alien is an unknown (normally unconscious) aspect of the Self, an Other, or a blended configuration of Self and Other, can be held in abeyance as part of the high strangeness of the experience. Alien art is construed as an epistemological strategy of the Other in the psychedelic sphere for knowledge acquisition and transmission. This view is in sharp contrast to the notion of hallucinations as mechanically generated “form constants,” abstract geometries with no semantic dimension per se. (1) It is closer to the narrative and highly significant (for the experiencing individual) 1st person reports in Shanon’s ayahuasca phenomenology. (2) These aspects of alien art describe features of the visual field that can simultaneously involve cognitive processes accompanied by vivid feeling states; bodily sensations (or lack thereof); and the synaesthetic involvement of other senses. Alien art begins with conditions of extended perception, an ascending scale of effects from the sensory amplifications of cannabis and hashish through the full-scale wraparound realities of high-dose sessions of DMT, psilocybin mushrooms, and LSD. These visionary states and content are frequently experienced as going beyond the pleasures of “great visuals” or “psychedelic eye-candy” to their rhetorical and noetic function, with aesthetics and visual languages employed to deliver a teaching, an insight, a revelation or prophecy, or the sought answer to a problem. It is this signifying and hence, in the most basic sense, linguistic aspect of the psychedelic experience that I am calling Xenolinguistics.

The Alien Dimension in Psychedelic Experience


The mythologem of the alien encounter—UFOs; abduction scenarios; prophetic channelings; generations of Star Trek; and cult religions such as Heaven’s Gate and the Raelian dispensation—have haunted the cultural fringe since the mid-20th century brought the first sightings of lights in the sky. These realtime ingressions of alien novelty were preceded by decades of science fiction speculations. Xenolinguistics—the search for, creation and study of alien languages—has strong connections to science fiction and fantasy, and to the activity of constructing languages, represented by a small but highly communicative sub-culture of “con-langers.” Xenolinguistics connects to the scientifically framed S.E.T.I. discourse on interstellar messaging, (3) and appears as a theme in the literature of psychedelic self-exploration, particularly in the work of Terence and Dennis McKenna. (4) John Lilly’s work in interspecies communication with dolphins led to his inclusion in the first S.E.T.I. meeting about interstellar messaging and the search for intelligent life in the cosmos. Lilly went further with his researches by combining his technology of sensory isolation tanks with the technology of psychedelic psychopharmacology. Both his methods and his findings placed him outside the pale of institutionally approved science, especially as he reported extensive communication with extraterrestrial intelligence via the Earth Coincidence Control Center (E.C.C.O.) and described new forms of linguistic activity in the psychedelic sphere. (5) The other major outlaw scientist of the psychedelic sphere, Timothy Leary, received his own extraterrestrial download, The Starseed Transmission, while in solitary confinement in Folsom Prison.

The psychedelic sphere is reported by practicing shamans, mainstream and outlaw scientists, and psychedelic self-explorers to be populated by communicating entities. Horace Beach’s 1996 dissertation, “Listening for the Logos: A Study of Reports of Audible Voices at High Doses of Psilocybin,” (6) finds that of a sample of 128 participants (with experience with psilocybin), better than a third experienced communications with a perceived voice. The DMT (dimethyltriptamine) archives at the Vaults of Erowid, (7) a database of psychedelic information, have many reports of encounters with entities while in the tryptamine trance, some of which include reports of alien language. (8) The literature of shamanism contains pantheons of helpful and malign spirits, guides, allies, gods and demons, angels, extraterrestrials, and ancestors. (9, 10) Within these persistent experiences of encounters with entities can be found reports of new forms of language deployed in these contacts with the Other, and a complex of related notions about language, consciousness, and reality. There is an aspect of each of these perspectives on alien language in my own work: a fictional, constructed language within a story world; the S.E.T.I. discourse; and contact and communication with the Other in psychedelic self-exploration. I will focus on the role of psychedelic self-exploration which resulted in the creation and explication of an alien language, Glide, through a novel The Maze Game, (11) academic research, (12) and the development of interactive software as writing instruments for this visual language. (13, 14)

Psychedelic Science

Psychedelic Science incorporates many disciplines in its search for understanding of human experience with these mind-altering substances, a history that appears to go back to the earliest signs of culture in cave paintings and remains in Europe and Africa. (15) Neuroscience, physiology, microbiology, biochemistry, paleo-anthropology, ethnobotany, philosophy, rhetoric, and consciousness studies all play a role. It may seem obvious that first person reports are necessary to communicate the experiences and provide matching data to whatever third person observations (physiological signs, neurological imaging of brain activity, chemical structure-activity analyses) are made. However, the treatment of subjectivity within consciousness studies is contested ground. (16)
Consciousness itself had been operationally disbarred from scientific discourse in the early 20th century as psychology turned to behaviorist models (17) and empirical methods, excluding all forms of subjective introspectionism. Psychophysics, with its experimental designs, accepted subjective reports about clearly defined bits of perception, memory, and cognition as reliable enough to produce repeatable experiments, verifiable and useful generalities and even laws. Characterizing the nature of the Self, the I that deems itself conscious and reflects on the content and operations of consciousness, is dependent on one’s epistemological biases. The concept of Self is inextricably connected to the concept of the Other; the dichotomy of subjective and objective; observer and observed; and, following James, the knower and the known. In consciousness studies, Self and Other are assumed as stable, if not universal, categories; (18) the discussion and use of first and third person methods in the study of consciousness assumes this structural stability. Within consciousness studies, the material reductionist position, held by Dennett, Churchland, and Hardcastle, treats mind (including Self-concept) as an epiphenomenon of matter. (19) Mind and subjectivity are defined, if not out of existence, certainly to a non-fundamental status. These issues become even more problematic in psychedelic mindbody states, as the experience of the differentiation between Self and Other is radically re-organized in ways ranging from a mystical merging into Oneness through a plethora of encounters and relations: teaching and guidance; erotic interchange; adversarial struggles; many forms of paradoxical both-and relations, and group mind experiences which have no parallel in ordinary reality.
Reality is a critical concept in psychedelic science. The ontological status of experiences in the psychedelic sphere is inevitably called into question, both from within firsthand experience, and when these reported experiences are interpreted by others who may or may not have had similar experiences. A high degree of novelty, and the bizarre (from a baseline perspective) qualities of what can be seen, heard, and felt, sometimes deeply and profoundly, can be experienced in altered states. It is this “high strangeness” that provides the opening for labeling the experiences themselves “unreal,” and therefore unworthy of serious study, or merely symptoms of mental disorder. I have written on this topic elsewhere, characterizing psychedelic science as “the discourse of the unmentionable by the disreputable about the unspeakable.” (20)
Reality and perception are tightly coupled, as Roland Fischer’s model of the perception—hallucination continuum depicts. (21)


In simplest terms, when perception changes, what we construe to be reality changes. Charles Tart built models of levels or states of consciousness, and called for the introduction of state-specific sciences, and the possibility of state-specific language to adequately deal with the different realities perceived in altered states. (22)

John Lilly’s protocols reflect the problem from a methodological standpoint:

In a scientific exploration of any of the inner realities, I follow the following metaprogrammatic steps:
1. Examine whatever one can of where the new spaces are, what the basic beliefs are to go there.
2. Take on the basic beliefs of that new area as if true.
3. Go into the area fully aware, in high energy, storing everything, no matter how neutral, how ecstatic, or how painful the experiences become.
4. Come back here, to our best of consensus realities, temporarily shedding those basic beliefs of the new area and taking on those of the investigator impartially dispassionately objectively examining the recorded experiences and data.
5. Test one’s current models of this consensus reality.
6. Construct a model that includes this reality and this new one in a more inclusive succinct way. No matter how painful such revisions of the models are be sure they include both realities.
7. Do not worship, revere, or be afraid of any person, group, space, or reality. An investigator, an explorer, has no room for such baggage. (23)

When one is engaging communication with the Other in the psychedelic sphere, it pays to have protocols. Lilly’s protocol privileges neither the ordinary nor the non-ordinary states of consciousness, but attempts to include both in the construction of a new model of reality of multiple mind-states and multiple realities. Terence McKenna and Lilly both recommend never giving up one’s skeptical stance. McKenna is also clear on the necessity of reporting the subjective content. When describing the structure-activity of a psychedelic substance, the language of biochemistry reveals none of the high strangeness of the experiences. Describing the content of a visionary state—the images, environments, novel space-time configurations, denizens, languages, and information acquired in the experience—is often much less palatable to the scientific world-view.

My approach is simply this: to take the phenomenological position of saying what was personally seen and experienced as accurately as possible, not editing out information just because it strains credulity, or demands continual repair to my worldview, or that of my readers. Part of the phenomenological epoche or bracketing in this effort consists in setting aside the drive to determine the ontological status of the experiences, especially since abstractions such as “reality” can themselves be radically re-configured in the psychedelic sphere. Further, I examine the reports of others, however unsettling, with the same good faith, engaging in a comparison of texts, essentially a literary and rhetorical activity, with no claims made as to the “reality”, in baseline terms, of the findings. The correlations among texts provide sufficient intrasubjective validation to indicate the possibility that the authors of the reports have spent time in realities sufficiently similar to establish, not a consensus—there are far too few in-depth reports gathered over multiple sessions—but perhaps a set of recognizable landmarks that can form the first sketches of maps of a “reality” that includes these experiences. This may seem an epistemologically primitive method, when compared to the scientific paradigm, yielding no proofs, no reliably repeatable experiments, and few samples to examine. Yet, as David Turnbull argues, “scientific knowledge can be seen as “the contingent assemblage of local knowledge.” I suggest it is a starting place toward subjective (personal, first person, individual) psychedelic knowledge, building a collection of what David Turnbull terms “local knowledges.” These localities can be as particular as a single individual’s three-paragraph trip report posted to Erowid; as extensive as a single individual’s lifework; or as comprehensive as the collective practices and knowledge of a culture, such as the Mazatec mushroom culture, the Peyote Way, or an ayahuasca culture, such as Santo Daime, União de Vegetal, or Barquinha. Each locality, from the individual to the group produces its own accounts of experience in the psychedelic sphere, its own descriptions of the landscapes, its own sense of the intentionality of the voyage from baseline outwards/inwards and return to ordinary reality. From these experiences descriptions are written, interpretations arise, songs, paintings, software, and dances emanate; rituals are enacted. A body of knowledge collects. Maps can be envisioned, landmark by negotiated landmark.


Xenolinguistics, in my usage, is the study of language and linguistic phenomena in the psychedelic sphere. Xenolinguistics gives a word to this effort to create a first assemblage of local knowledges, gathered from first person reports, as from the logbooks of early navigators, about these phenomena. The local knowledges I am interested in are those of the xenolinguists, where the focus, fascination, and subsequent interpretations circle around language—different capacities of language from what we call “natural” language. Xenolinguistics reveals forms of language and theories about language itself, and its functioning in the brain/mind, in culture, and in evolutionary processes, both genetic and cultural.


Krippner reports in 1970 on a variety of distortions of natural language use under the influence of psychedelics, with instances given of both increased and decreased functioning. (24) Roland Fisher studied the effects of psilocybin on handwriting; his experiments had the participants copying passages of writing while under the influence; the writing becomes larger, rounder, more fluid. (25) Henry Munn in his writings on curandera Maria Sabina speaks of heightened eloquence, and of the evolution of writing under the influence of psilocybin.

“Language is an ecstatic activity of signification. Intoxicated by the mushrooms, the fluency, the ease, the aptness of expression one becomes capable of are such that one is astounded by the words that issue forth from the contact of the intention of articulation with the matter of experience. At times it is as if one were being told what to say, for the words leap to mind, one after another, of themselves without having to be searched for: a phenomenon similar to the automatic dictation of the surrealists except that here the flow of consciousness, rather than being disconnected, tends to be coherent: a rational enunciation of meanings. Message fields of communication with the world, others, and one’s self are disclosed by the mushrooms. The spontaneity they liberate is not only perceptual, but linguistic, the spontaneity of speech, of fervent, lucid discourse, of the logos in activity. For the shaman, it is as if existence were uttering itself through him.” (26)

This vision of language as a universal ecstatic form of signification, of its source in the Other (“automatic” writing; the mythologies of language origin), and of eloquence that expresses itself visually in a bootstrapping move into new forms of language is a particular feature of the psilocybin trance. Munn describes this process as it is experienced in Mexican cultures:

“The ancient Mexicans were the only Indians of all the Americas to invent a highly developed system of writing: a pictographic one. Theirs were the only Amerindian civilizations in which books played an important role. One of the reasons may be because they were a people who used psilocybin, a medicine for the mind given them by their earth with the unique power of activating the configurative activity of human signification. On the mushrooms, one sees walls covered with a fine tracery of lines projected before the eyes. It is as if the night were imprinted with signs like glyphs. In these conditions, if one takes up a brush, dips it into paint, and begins to draw, it is as if the hand were animated by an extraordinary ideoplastic ability. Instead of saying that God speaks through the wise man, the ancient Mexicans said that life paints through him, in other words writes, since for them to write was to paint: the imagination in an act constitutive of images. “In you he lives/ in you he is painting/ invents/ the Giver of Life/ Chichimeca Prince, Nezahualcoyotl.” Where we would expect them to refer to the voice, they say write. “On the mat of flowers/ you paint your song, your word/ Prince Nezahualcoyotl/ In painting is your heart/ with flowers of all colors/ you paint your song, your word/ Prince Nezahualcoyotl.” (27)


Maria Sabina, curandera.

One of the major themes of Terence McKenna’s lifework is the explication of the linguistic phenomena released in the tryptamine trance, and his speculations on the relationship of this phenomena to the cultural evolution of the human species. For McKenna, language is fundamental to reality and its construction.

“Reality is truly made up of language and of linguistic structures that you carry, unbeknownst to yourself, in your mind, and which, under the influence of psilocybin, begin to dissolve and allow you to perceive beyond the speakable. The contours of the unspeakable begin to emerge into your perception and though you can’t say much about the unspeakable, it has the power to color everything you do. You live with it; it is the invoking of the Other. The Other can become the Self, and many forms of estrangement can be healed. This is why the term alien has these many connotations.” (28)

The specific connection of new language and psilocybin is made:

“What does extraterrestrial communication have to do with this family of hallucinogenic compounds I wish to discuss? Simply this: that the unique presentational phenomenology of this family of compounds has been overlooked. Psilocybin, though rare, is the best known of these neglected substances. Psilocybin, in the minds of the uninformed public and in the eyes of the law, is lumped together with LSD and mescaline, when in fact each of these compounds is a phenomenologically defined universe unto itself. Psilocybin and DMT invoke the Logos, although DMT is more intense and more brief in its action. This means that they work directly on the language centers, so that an important aspect of the experience is the interior dialogue. As soon as one discovers this about psilocybin and about tryptamines, one must decide whether or not to enter into the dialogue and to try and make sense of the incoming signal.” (29)

Observing the varied effects of tryptamines on language, McKenna developed a theory that it was the encounter of early humans with the mushroom that potentiated the development of language. Plant knowledge would be one of our earliest forms of expertise as hunter-gatherers, discovering not only foods from every part of plants (roots, stems, leaves, berries, nuts) but also their medicinal and mind-altering properties. The merit of this speculation is more easily accessed from within the experience itself. From this perspective, the development of computer graphics and animation raise the possibility that new forms of language, particularly visual language, are emerging in our culture.

A Few Aspects of Alien Art

The perceptual events which I am calling alien art forms occur, by definition, under conditions of extended perception, a sliding scale of alterations from the commonly observed enhancement of music heard or produced under cannabis intoxication (30) to the high-speed, multidimensional visual linguistic constructions morphing at warp-speed in the DMT flash, and the unfolding of epic historic tableau under ayahuasca. (32) They are characterized by a sense of high information content in a high-speed “download.” Simon Powell describes this high information content as a function of moving to “higher” forms of language, especially symbolic language.

“The symbol embodies a whole set of relations or, to be more specific, it is the point where a huge web of psychological relations converge. To fully understand the symbol is to sense at once all of its relations to other objects of perceptual experience. In other words, visual symbols play a role in a psychological language. (Here, I again invoke the concept of language since language is essentially an information system not restricted to words alone. Language, in the abstract way in which I refer to it, is a system of informational elements bearing definite relations with one another; hence a language of words, of molecules, of symbols, etc.)
Such universally powerful visionary symbols can be thought of as expressions in the dictionary of a ‘higher’ language connected with the human psyche. What I mean by ‘higher’ is that the visual elements in this language are far more rich in meaning and informational content than the words of our spoken language. Moreover, the direct perception of visionary symbols choreographed together in a movie-like fashion—as occurs in the entheogenic state—is to experience meaning in perhaps its purest, most informationally rich way. To partake of a visionary dialogue is to be overwhelmed by the direct apprehension of naked, unmuddled meaning, which arises as a consequence of the highly integrative informational processes liberated by shamanic compounds.” (33)

The “unspeakability” or “ineffability” of psychedelic experience appears to be not only an expression of the inadequacy of natural language to express certain experiences, but basic to the nature of the specific linguistic vehicle. Natural language is simply too slow a software to carry the complexity, the simultaneity of multiple meanings, and the speed and quantity of cognitive connections among ideas and images flooding into a psychedelic mindbody state. These perceptions of increased velocity–of thought and of sensory data–seem related to the experience of time dilation in the psychedelic sphere. Time dilation is a function of cognitive and sensory speed and the quantity of information per unit of time: hyperconnectivity, hyperconductivity, and processor speed. When novelty approaches infinity, realities fly apart. Hence: xenolinguistics.

Powell continues:

“Such types of symbol can therefore be considered elements of a high language, a language not of the individual ego-driven mind but of the communicating Other. The symbols are amalgamated concentrations of information coming to life in a mind illuminated by visionary alkaloids. Or, to us Huxley’s terminology, the informational forms are transmitted via the psilocybinetic brain. In either case, a Great Spirit, a sacred presence, or Gaian Other reveals itself as being no less than a tremendously vast system of confluential information flowing through the psychedelically enhanced neuronal hardware of the human cortex. As information ‘struggles’ to integrate, ever more coalescent forms emerge, and these are experienced as the felt presence of the Other actively communicating in a language of potent visual imagery. Information appears as if alive and intent upon self-organization.” (34)

This passage points to the experience where psychedelically potentiated language and communicating Other appear to merge into a living language. McKenna’s many descriptions of “self-transforming machine-elves” and my own perception in altered states of Glide as a living language that teaches about itself as well as many other things seem to belong to similar narratives of experience. This perception of living language in motion and constant transformation takes the self-reflexive activity of using language to describe itself to a meta-level of function, where the language gains the self-reflective quality of consciousness, in communicating about itself—and just about anything else in the universe one may be wondering about.


This alien art of hallucinatory presentation of information is often accompanied by a set of qualities that extend baseline perception. These qualities can include deeper, richer, more varied, more subtle, and in some cases new colors that make up the visual palette. The complexity and density of the informational field is in part accompanied by an increased amount of very fine cognitive detail and a concomitant shift in the amount of detail from the sensory systems. Attention, a primary function of consciousness, presents a panoply of aesthetic choices, shifting its qualities, in some cases toward an increased slipperiness (a hyper-conductivity), sliding frictionlessly from one point of focus to another. At other times, attention becomes the ability to focus in stillness, to hold an awareness not only of the object(s) of contemplation but of the awareness itself, a kind of ‘witness consciousness’ or mindfulness that allows direct perception of the goings-on in one’s mind. One becomes aware that attention can partake of qualities like touch—rough, focused, gentle, smooth, and/or erotic and applied with various admixtures of emotion.

Layering, Transparency, Iridescence


Another visual/cognitive quality that emerges is the layering of visual imagery. This can appear accompanied by subtle and shifting degrees of transparency and iridescence, of soft flows combined with extremely precise fine filamental structures and a sense of having X-ray vision and microscopic vision as controllable aspects of the visual field. Macroscopic visions of the structure of the cosmos at astronomical scales can also be presented to consciousness. Transparency becomes a metaphor for all manner of seeing-through, revealing in the combined sense of seductive veils and of revelation of a truth, a hide-and seek God game of gnosis—now you see Me now you don’t—of quest and question, a noetic dance in realms wholly outside our natural language’s labels and cognitive ordering schemes.

The high-information content aspect of alien art is not a matter merely of quantity of information but can be imbued with qualities such as fecundity, a sense of an abundance of creativity in the flood of images and ideas, and often a prevailing mood, of playfulness, or numinosity, or strange juxtapositions of mood, such as sacred silliness or a combined cathedral and carnivalesque architecture, each mood generating a seemingly endless fount of aesthetic styles.



Patchworking describes a complex collage-like cognitive-visual process by which different, sometimes drastically diverse, bits of vision-knowledge begin to collect and arrange themselves into larger patterns that incorporate, recombine, and transform the meanings of the individual pieces. Quilt-making is such a process. The illustrated quilt brings together hundreds of diamond and triangular patches from discarded clothing, carefully re-cycled into a design that incorporates two and three-dimensional visual aspects. The design shifts depending on whether you view the material within the hexagons as flat six-pointed stars, or as baby blocks (Necker cubes). In the baby-blocks view, one can see two different perspectives. Each perspective in turn recombines the order of the available patches. The surface, playing with these illusions, shifts and moves dynamically among dimensions, as the different views pop in and out of the visual field. A kaleidoscope, containing a handful of irregular bits and pieces of colored glass and other materials, constructs a complex, shifting, symmetrical, non-repeating stained glass window of colored light. In my own session reports I describe patchworking as making “harmonious compositions out of impossibly disparate items without breaking the narrative dream but rather expanding its inclusiveness.” (36) Patchworking in altered states assists in “layering realities,” and is “a practice to acclimate you to staying in multiple spaces that are incongruous, non-contiguous, seemingly dissonant.” McKenna describes this patchworking aspect in True Hallucinations, which is the detailed account of the “experiment at La Chorrera,” and the mutual inhabitation by Dennis and Terence McKenna of an interpenetrating altered state of consciousness that lasted several weeks brought on by the ingestion of psilocybin mushrooms.

“Occasionally I would seem to catch the mechanics of what was happening to us in action. Lines from half-forgotten movies and snippets of old science fiction, once consumed like popcorn, reappeared in collages of half-understood associations. Punch lines from old jokes and vaguely remembered dreams spiraled in a slow galaxy of interleaved memories and anticipations. From such experiences I concluded that whatever was happening, part of it involved all the information that we had ever accumulated, down to the most trivial details. The overwhelming impression was that something possibly from outer space or from another dimension was contacting us. It was doing so through the peculiar means of using every thought in our heads to lead us into telepathically induced scenarios of extravagant imagining, or deep theoretical understandings, or in-depth scanning of strange times, places, and worlds. The source of this unearthly contact was the Stropharia cubensis and our experiment.” [emphasis mine] (37)

Patchworking appears to be an aesthetic strategy whereby the Other, using the stored personal information, emotions, and memories of the individual, constructs new forms and configurations of knowledge about our existing reality, its past and future, and about other worlds and other realities with profoundly alien—different from baseline reality—content. This alien content: vast machineries, strange energies, different time-space schemata, whole worlds operating on different physical principles, or our own world viewed from a profoundly different consciousness, reveals other rules of organization of worlds, such as underlying structures of reality based on games. Patchworking ecstatically rejoins that which has been dismembered, fragmented, or never connected in the first place in meaningful patterns. As such it shares a functional pattern with the shamanic initiatory experience of dismemberment and rebirth in a new recombinatory body which can travel between worlds and hold consciousness of multiple worlds at once.

Glide and LiveGlide

My own work, the core of which was developed before the encounter with the McKennas’ work, has the shape of an adjacent mythology: a narrative of language origin in psychedelic experience. Glide is an experiment in modeling a visual language whose signs move and morph. It originated in a work of speculative fiction, The Maze Game, (Deep Listening Press, 2003) as an evolutionary form of writing from 4000 years in the future. Its myth of origin speaks of a transmission of the language to the Glides from the hallucinogenic pollen of giant blue water lilies which they tended. I followed the traditional Glide path for learning the language: study and practice both at baseline mind-body states and cognitively and sensorially enhanced psychedelic states. Part of the learning involved building electronic writing instruments. (38) The colors and patterns applied to the transforming glyphs come from drawings, photos, and video by myself and others. LiveGlide is most at home in live performance in a domed environment, such as planetarium, but can be shown as recordings on a flat-screen format as well.

Interacting with this visual language—designing the software, then reading and writing with it, especially in altered states, as a noetic practice, has led to a constellation of ideas about the relationship between language, consciousness, and our perception and conception of reality. One cluster of ideas begins with the notion of the hallucination as alien art. It is in part a rhetorical notion, that aesthetics is part of the impact of these novel states of consciousness and their contents. The communication with the Other, the entire noetic enterprise, is baited with beauty as part of its persuasive force. This led to the observation and delineation of techniques deployed by the Other in the communicative process in altered states, often hallucinatory.

As to the shifting faces and perceived identity of the Other, many notions have been forwarded. SF writer Philip K. Dick called the Other V.A.L.I.S.—Vast Active Living Intelligent System. John Lilly called it E.C.C.O.—Earth Coincidence Control Center. Terence McKenna called them self-transforming machine elves, and has also experienced the alien Other as insect-like. I call them the Glides, and they are shape-shifters as well. But within these experiences, these definitions shift as explanations are sought. Are these others actually another aspect of the Self, buried in the unconscious? This may be more comforting than scenarios of actual alien contact, and is an assumption upon which arguments for mental disorder can be built, but has little explanatory power, other than to reveal the grab-bag nature of the way the term “unconscious” is used to contain any number of mysteries of human nature. An open mind and a sense of humor may be the best provisional approach to such questions. As the Sundance Kid repeats the plaintive question, “Who are those guys anyway?” and Walt Kelly offers through Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us,” we can contain the cosmic giggle bubbling up through such speculations at baseline. Yet in the experience itself, it can seem as Simon Powell puts it:

“Such chemically inspired neuronal patterning is experienced as being so rich in symbology and meaning that for all intents and purposes it can be considered the result of a living, intelligent, and communicating agency made of information, an agency whose intent can become focused should the chemical conditions of the human cortex be so conducive. Information must indeed be in some sense alive.” (39)

(1) Kluver, Heinrich. Mescal and Mechanisms of Hallucinations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.
(2) Shanon, Benny. The Antipodes of the Mind: Charting the Phenomenology of the Ayahuasca Experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
(3) S.E.T.I.
(4) McKenna, Terence and Dennis McKenna. The Invisible Landscape: Mind, Hallucinogens, and the I Ching. San Francisco: HarperCollinsSanFrancisco, 1993.
(5) Lilly, John. The Center of the Cyclone: An Autobiography of Inner Space. New York: Bantam Books, 1979.
(6) Beach, Horace. “Listening for the Logos: A Study of Reports of Audible Voices at High Doses of Psilocybin.” Ph.D. dissertation, California School of Professional Psychology, Alameda, California, 1996.
(7) Erowid
(8) http://www.erowid.org/experiences/exp.php?ID=1859
(9) Shanon, 2002.
(10) Polari de Alverga, Alex. Forest of Visions: Ayahuasca, Amazonian Spirituality, and the Santo Daime Tradition. Rochester, Vermont: Park Street Press, 1999.
(11) Slattery, Diana Reed. The Maze Game. Kingston: Deep Listening Publications, 2003.
(12) https://mazerunner.wordpress.com
(13) http://www.academy.rpi.edu/glide
(14) http://web.mac.com/dianaslattery/iWeb/Eye/work-I.html
(15) Nichols, David E. “Hallucinogens,” Pharmacology & Therapeutics 101 (2004) 131—181.
(16) Wallace, Alan B. The Taboo of Subjectivity: Toward a New Science of Consciousness. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
(17) Baars, Bernard J. In the Theater of Consciousness: The Workspace of the Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
(18) Baars, 1997.
(19) Shear, Jonathan, ed. Explaining Consciousness—the Hard Problem. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1998.
(20) These observations can be accessed by the following method, outlined by Terence McKenna. Ingest 4—5 grams dried psilocybe mushrooms alone in silent darkness, in a setting that is safe and free from interruption. Note: This protocol is not an invitation to perform illegal acts. There are places on the planet where such an experiment can be carried out legally. For up-to-date information, go to Erowid.
(21) Fischer, Roland. “A Cartography of the Ecstatic and Meditative States.” Science, Vol. 174, Num. 4012, 26 November 1971.
(22) Tart, Charles T. “States of Consciousness and State-Specific Sciences.” Science, Vol. 176, 1203—1210, 1972.

(23) Lilly, John. The Deep Self. New York: Warner Books, 1977.

(24) Krippner, Stanley. “The Effects of Psychedelic Experience on Language Functioning,” in Aaronson and Osmond, eds., Psychedelics: the Uses and Implication of Hallucinogenic Drugs. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1970.
(25) R. Fischer, T. Kappeler, P. Wisecup, K. Thatcher, Dis. Nerv. Syst. 31,91 (1970).
(26) Munn, Henry. “The Mushrooms of Language,” in Hallucinogens and Shamanism, Michael J. Harner, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973.
(27) Munn, Henry. “Writing in the Imagination of an Oral Poet.”
(28) Noffke, Will (1989): A conversation over saucers. ReVision: A Journal of Consciousness and Transformation 11 (3, Winter, Angels, aliens, and archetypes: Part one), 23-30.
(29) McKenna, Terence. The Archaic Revival: Speculations on Psychedelic Mushrooms, the Amazon, Virtual Reality, UFOs, Evolution, Shamanism, the Rebirth of the Goddess, and the End of History. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992.
(30) Tart, Charles T. On Being Stoned: A Psychological Study of Marijuana Intoxication. Palo Alto: Science and Behavior Books, 1971.
(31) McKenna, Archaic Revival, 1992.
(32) Shanon, 2002.
(33) Powell, Simon. The Psilocybin Solution. Draft of an unpublished manuscript. (34) ibid, Powell.
(35) AD_05.03.27. (this is the filenaming convention I established for the research sessions. The AD stands for—playfully of course—Alien Downloads.)
(36) AD_05.04.01
(37) McKenna, Terence. True Hallucinations: Being an Account of the Author’s Extraordinary Adventures in the Devil’s Paradise. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993.
(38) An early description of the Glide project including animations of the Glide glyphs. (39) Powell, The Psilocybin Solution.

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Wikiuniversity offers a wry definition of Xenolinguistics: “the scientific study of languages of non-human intelligences. Publications in this field tend to be speculative as few people have made the claim to have understood an alien language, at least not reliably.”
The grand convergence of psychedelics and technology came in the summer of 1998. I was a grad student at RPI in communication and rhetoric, fully indoctrinated in (mostly French) critical theory, semiotics, new media theory, and the history of communication technology. My task was to clarify my topic—the idea of a visual language—for a Ph.D. proposal. Instead of starting my bibliography, or some other sensible activity that would contribute to my academic progress, I began writing a novel,

The fictional world had established itself well enough that I could enter it, look around, and ask questions of the characters. I asked for the details of how the game that is central to the novel was played. The answer arrived as a high-speed “download”—a blast of information concerning a visual language, Glide. I got the whole thing in a timeless instant: game, rules, architecture of the playing field, the 27 glyphs, how they behave as a visual language, and the myth of origin of the language. The game was played in mazes made of the visual language, Glide, taught to the characters by the hallucinogenic blue waterlily.

2d Glide glyphs

Glide presented itself in the story-world as an alien language. The glyphs of the language formed the patterns and physical structures on which the game was played. As the plot unfolded, it became evident that

When summer of 1998 was over, I did not have a visual language topic framed in terms of a semiotic or new media theory. I had instead a model of a gesturing, transforming linguistic system, suggesting, in its grammar and syntax, that new forms of writing, of psychedelic origin, enabled by the capability of the computer to animate signs and symbols, could offer novel ways of expressing meaning. The glyphs, laid out statically, on a two-dimensional surface (like all our natural language written forms) formed webby mazes. Animated, the glyphs transform, linking and unlinking with each other. A Glide maze seemed like a new kind of circuit operating with many points of change and connection, an abstraction of the organic, constantly shifting circuitry of the brain through which electrical and chemical signals pulse, where myriads of connections are formed and broken in complex patterns, constructing and projecting a world around and inside us.
lily padsglide maze 2

Lily Pads Glide Maze

In the The Maze Game, the characters undergo an initiation, where they find their focus, their unique purpose in life, by ingesting the sacrament of the psychedelic Lily, invoking its guidance, and making their way through a Glide maze.

lily glyph

Lily Glyph

Taking a cue from the Glides, who, in the narrative, were taught the Glide language while under the influence of the Lily, I made a consequential decision—to explore the language more deeply, I would follow the Glide’s path into the maze, ingesting a psychedelic sacrament in search of knowledge about the maze itself. At this point, I became a character in my own story, while in a reciprocal (or self-reflexive) move, Glide lifted itself out of the story world to be considered and developed in “real life.” I had written a story, and the story was now writing me. I became a scribe and a xenolinguist, deciphering a language from the a ancient future.

blue lily

Blue Lily


A series of software applications emerged from this process of psychedelic self-exploration. First, the glyphs were animated.

The Collabyrinth, an interactive glyph editor, was programmed for combining, animating, and translating glyph formations. Next was the Glide Oracle, which involved the translation of approximately 1100 glyph pairs, and 729 glyph transformations. These translations were useful in exposing the archetypal and poetic dimensions of the language. It also taught me that future efforts to understanding Glide needed to move away from natural language which provided too constricted a reducing valve on “language at large,” to re-tool Huxley’s metaphor. The language asked to be confronted on its own terms. What needed to be translated was not the language, but the brain/mind, to adapt to language constructed on different sensory ratios. Whether such rewiring of our plastic neurons is possible by exposure to new forms of language, is purely speculative, but would make an interesting scientific investigation.

The next application, LiveGlide, involved the ability to write in three dimensions interactively with continuously moving forms.


LiveGlide interface

States of extended perception were used in the conception, design, and implementation of LiveGlide software, in practice and performance, and in learning how to read what I was writing. Primarily, psychedelics provided the means to emerge from the cocoon of natural language into what could be understood as both a pre-linguistic state of direct apperception of the world around and inside us, and as a post-linguistic (post-natural language) realm of evolutionary forms of language, concomitant with the sense of consciousness expanded into a novel, if temporary, evolutionary state. Glide language became, with practice, a direct readout of the process of the communication with the Other. The fluidly shifting state of the relationship, the moods, the qualities of perception and attention, the steadiness of awareness is palpable when I read the writing. As a deliberate experiment in neural plasticity, trying to re-wire the brain-mind from the inside out, across multiple states of reality, I launched into ontological engineering.

Psychedelics can transport one beyond the veil of natural language, into the unspeakable. This unspeakability is often described as a communication deficit, where natural language is viewed as insufficient to convey the realities of the psychedelic sphere. I view this “bug” as a “feature,” an opportunity to become aware of the other channels of communication, both those available at baseline, such as body language, and those opened or enhanced in the psychedelic experience. When I have folded the maps of natural language, the mindbogglingly novel territory of the psychedelic sphere shines forth, nameless, but not unknowable. LiveGlide becomes for me a kind of biomechanical living language, algorithmic in its means, but moved and changed entirely by my own human gestures on the interface, playing over 100 parameters of expressive possibilities, a vast combinatorial phase space to play in. And in turn, I’m played by…. This sense of the vastness of possibility, when experienced under conditions of extended perception and cognition, parallels the vastness and complexity of receptor space, the chemical architecture of consciousness, as studied by Tom Ray.

In the psychedelic sphere, epistemology’s an extreme sport. I use LiveGlide as a noetic practice. I am learning about knowing, but the categories of Knower and Known, Self and Other, taken for granted in our baseline (natural language) grammar of first and third persons, can radically reconfigure themselves in extended, merged, or blended states of being. Knowing can be re-formed to include not only linguistic knowledge, and gut-level feelings of certainty, but knowing by doing, and knowing by being where I know you and you know me because we have in an experiential sense become each other. At all mind-states, the questions arise: Who writes? Who reads? Who understands? What, for that matter, is a who? Then come the magical moments when communication shades into communion, when Self and Other, and reading and writing become one, in a fluid dance of transformation. The question of the Other’s ontological status—is this truly an Other, outside of my self, or is the Other an unrecognized portion of myself, so strange, so much more than what I think of as my Self at baseline, so wholly unexpected and so endowed with novelty that I perceive it as alien—is moot. Either interpretation leads to conclusions that require considerable re-drawing of the maps of human nature and experience. With these combined technologies—LiveGlide, a language whose writing is made possible by the CPU, and psychopharmacology that brings both the Other and new linguistic phenomena into view—a call is placed, across the chasm between realities; a response comes with considerable joy that contact has been made. I dance toward an unspeakable edge, willing to be transformed by the unknowable into the unknown.

As to my own research agenda with LiveGlide, I would like to collaborate with a neuroscientist in building a device that would take a subset of my own brain signals, and map them to various parameters of LiveGlide. I believe this could provide an more aesthetic visualization with which to monitor and record the changes occurring in brain states, link them to internal states, and, in a biofeedback loop, potentially develop the ability to move in and out of different brain states. This would be particularly interesting in studying changes throughout the trajectory of a psychedelic experience, from onset, through peak, and back to baseline. The LiveGlide software is built to take generic MIDI signals from any source. The display technology and control mapping interface is already built; what is needed is a partnership with neuroscientific expertise.

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Been working on this one for the last month–it’s the final paper for the Electronic Imaging conference upcoming in San Jose, 27–31 January, 2008. This is a giant conference made of of many smaller conferences–the one I’m presenting in is #6804: The Engineering Reality of Virtual Reality 2008.

Virtual Reality and Hallucination: A Technoetic Perspective


virtusphere Virtual Reality (VR), especially in a technologically focused discourse, is defined by a class of hardware and software, among them head-mounted displays (HMDs), navigation and pointing devices; and stereoscopic imaging. This presentation examines the experiential aspect of VR. Putting “virtual” in front of “reality” modifies the ontological status of a class of experience—that of “reality.” Reality has also been modified [by artists, new media theorists, technologists and philosophers] as augmented, mixed, simulated, artificial, layered, and enhanced. Modifications of reality are closely tied to modifications of perception. Media theorist Roy Ascott creates a model of three “VR’s”: Verifiable Reality, Virtual Reality, and Vegetal (entheogenically induced) Reality. The ways in which we shift our perceptual assumptions, create and verify illusions, and enter “the willing suspension of disbelief” that allows us entry into imaginal worlds is central to the experience of VR worlds, whether those worlds are explicitly representational (robotic manipulations by VR) or explicitly imaginal (VR artistic creations). The early rhetoric surrounding VR was interwoven with psychedelics, a perception amplified by Timothy Leary’s presence on the historic SIGGRAPH panel, and the Wall Street Journal’s tag of VR as “electronic LSD.” This paper discusses the connections—philosophical, social-historical, and psychological-perceptual between these two domains.


Cultural theorist Chris Chesser states, “VR originated within marginal subcultures: from science fiction, cyberpunk, and computer hacker culture, and from institutions including NASA, computer companies, and the military. Perceiving much wider applications than flight simulation and remote control, researchers coined the term “virtual reality,” and promoted it as a paradigm shift for computers, and even for the whole society. The shift, though, was not into empty terrain: it was into such existing fields as entertainment, art, architecture, design and medicine. . . .Moving from marginal cultural tributaries into the cultural mainstream, though, VR itself had to change; it needed to remove its uncomfortable associations with social criticism, drugs and insanity.” [1] New Media artist, theorist and educator Roy Ascott has been concerned with the connections between technology and consciousness since his early papers on cybernetics and computers. He speaks of “a technoetic aesthetic, so named because I believe we need to recognize that technology plus mind not only enables us to explore consciousness more thoroughly but may lead to distinctly new forms of art, new qualities of mind, new forms of cognition and perception.” [2] It is at this interface of mind and technology that the variety of VR experiences—changing and expanding as new technologies—hardware, software, bandwidth—are applied, and the varieties of psychedelic experience connected to the ancient technology of psychopharmacology can be compared. This inquiry is clearly transdisciplinary. My approach has more to do with discourse analysis than science or engineering, identifying and elaborating a few themes that have parallels in both VR and psychedelic studies. On the machinery side of the equation, I am using VR in a broad sense, as the whole class of technologies (not limited to HMDs) by which we can interact with “a computer-simulated environment, be it real or imagined.” [3] From the perspective of mind or mind-states, a degree of immersion in an alternate reality (or world) is also seen as a defining characteristic of both the VR and the psychedelic experience.
This intertwined social history of the technological move to virtualize reality, and the varied uses of psychedelics by technologists is difficult to write for reasons RU Sirius sums up nicely in a 2006 article reviewing two books on the topic: John Markoff’s What the Dormouse Said: How the 60’s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer, and Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. “The connection between the creators of the driving engine of the contemporary global economy, and the countercultural attitudes that were popular among young people during the 1960s and 70s was sort of a given within the cultural milieu we (“High Frontiers/Mondo 2000”) found ourselves immersed in as the 1980s spilled into the 90s. Everybody was “experienced.”…. But these upcoming designers of the future were not prone towards lots of public hand waving about their “sex, drugs and question authority” roots. After all, most of them were seeking venture capital and they were selling their toys and tools to ordinary Reagan-Bush era consumers. There was little or no percentage in trying to tell the public, “Oh, by the way. All this stuff? This is how the counterculture now plans to change the world.” [4]


“High” is a major trope by which we refer to psychedelic states of a wide range of intensity from slight perceptual variations to full-blown replacement universes, far from ordinary reality. “High” is also a ubiquitous trope of the electronic world, with its literal meanings attached to the parameters of signals (high frequency) shading into the intimations of increased pleasures of enhanced perception (high fidelity).
Human beings have been getting high from prehistory, according to one interpretation of cave paintings from 35,000 to 40,000 years ago as shamanic trance states in which human-animal transformations are depicted. [5] The anthropology of worldwide shamanism connects these pre-religious practices with psychedelic use from ayahuasca brews in South and Central America; mushroom use in the ancient Mayan and Toltec civilization; and the amanita muscaria teas of Siberian shamanism. [6]. Samorini’s research with animals and psychedelics finds that “Drugging oneself is an activity that reaches across the entire process of human evolution, from insects to mammals to women and men.” [7] Psychedelics are implicated in the origin of religions, from the soma of the Vedas, to the kykeon of the Eleusinian Mysteries. [8] Psychopharmacologist Ronald K. Siegel argues that the drive to intoxicate ourselves is a natural part of our biology, the “fourth drive” after food, sleep, and sex. [9, 10]
Cannabis is famous for sensory re-organization and enhancement. Tart’s exhaustive study identifies increased sharpness of edges; increased perceptual organization or “meaningfulness;” new and more subtle shades of color; increased perception of dimension of depth; increased perception of detail; and a sensual quality to vision, as if one were touching the things in sight. Music gains great clarity, resonance, and meaning. These effects can be noted across the sensory palette, and could be described as greater fidelity, higher resolution. [11] glyph-vr-paper.jpgMescaline, magic mushrooms, and 2-CB have been noted for their exquisite color experiences: an extended range of colors, more subtlety, vividness, depth and texture. [12] For a computer graphics practitioner, videographer, software designer and hardware junkie, this translates easily to the language of higher resolution, more pixels, and 16 million color palettes. Tart points out, “It is common to assume that we passively “see” what is out there, that the qualities of the visual world are inherent in the physical properties of objects and space. Modern psychological investigations have made it clear that seeing is a very active and complex process in which we construct the visual world from the flux of visual sensations reaching us. That is, patterns, forms, objects, recognizable people, etc. exist in our minds as a construction from visual data. We are so used to doing this automatically that it seems as if the visual world were given. This active nature of visual perception is true of all sensory modalities.” [11] In short, cannabis resets the resolution of our perceptions to a higher state, and the resultant aesthetic pleasures are part of the “high.”

2.1 Street-level anecdotes

In my lifetime, I’ve been a consumer in the steady march from monophonic to stereophonic sound, and recall the ubiquitous term “high fidelity” attached to every media system. My first VR gadget was a fully immersive Aiwa portable cassette player in the mid-seventies. The headphones welded to my ears delivered a heady stream of stereophonic Mozart operas. My senses, my emotions, and especially, the majority of my attention were immersed in the Queen of the Night’s aria and Don Giovanni’s demise while the rest of my senses dimly registered a humid dull Florida summer. Fast forward to high definition TV, digital cameras with higher megapixels every few months, HD camcorders, huge screens, home theaters, iMax, fulldome theatres, and surround sound. GPS systems pinpoint us to a higher and higher degree of resolution. Why do we want these things? The better to bomb you with? My roommate, studying to be a physician’s assistant, howls in delight at the increase in graphics quality of his latest X-box first-person shooter, played on a standard sized TV screen, while laughing with his girlfriend on the hands-free telephone device looped around one ear. There’s some seriously immersive pleasure being generated here. Technology is driven at least in part by desire for highs—not only the desire for the orgasmic sublimities of Mozart (or Pink Floyd), but including the adrenalin highs associated with danger, self-defense, and the violent fragmentation of other humans and destruction of property we find in computer games. On another spectrum, we experience the highs of connecting with friends and lovers on the cell phone—one after another—or Twittering [13] to one’s social network, a sensed surround of live attention-generating and capturing points of sentience like a quantum superpositional state out of which any one could manifest with the announcement of an individualized ringtone. Let’s not forget sex, about which cases have been made as our most powerful desire-to-get-high. John Perry Barlow again, 1990: “Then there is the…uhhhm…sexual thing. I have been through eight or ten Q. & A. sessions on Virtual Reality and I don’t remember one where sex didn’t come up. As though the best thing about all this will be the infinite abundance of shaded polygonal party dolls. As though we are devising here some fabulously expensive form of Accu-jac.” [14] It’s 2007: welcome to the Sinulator (advertising slogan—Do More Than Just Watch!) recently ported to Second Life where everyone’s a party doll and fat flabby wrinkled avatars are in short supply. [15] Sex sells—because it’s a high.


Technology discovers and delivers more and higher highs. And there is arguably a direct relationship between degree of immersion and degree of high delivered. And highs are nuanced—how can we describe “the cool factor” that sent the addictive iPhone (aka Crackberry) flying out of Apple’s warehouses last summer? What is more pleasurable and desirable about more pixels, finer colors, higher resolution, (and a touch interface that has to be, well, caressed, to find a phone number) on bigger and smaller screens? I don’t think it’s a matter of mere verisimilitude to “reality.” I don’t think it’s rational at all, though there are no doubt correlates we can objectively describe in the neurochemistry of pleasure which has been left a black box in this discussion.
This snapshot circa December, 2007, of current technological delivery-devices for highs will be staledated before it is printed—and that is part of my point. The strength of the desire for these highs is one of the factors driving change at an accelerated pace. We are following our bliss into technologically mediated hyper-realities.

2.2 Hyper-connectivity, hyper-conductivity, processor speed

Three features of these technologies are associated with highs: hyper-connectivity, hyper-conductivity, and processor speed. Hyper-connectivity can be seen in the myceliation of the nodes and links of high-density interconnected networks such as the WWW. Within the world of the web, the phenomenal spread of social networking takes the original migration of individuals, institutions, governments, and corporations to create a “web presence” to a new format of both presence and interconnection. Now it’s not only a matter of “are you there?” but “who (and how many) are you connected to?” And the multimediation of presence—youTube videos, Flickr photos, Mediafire music—are standard enhancements. Hyper-conductivity supports this drive to connect: higher bandwidth and mps/sec enable the faster up and download of higher resolution (larger file size) media. More bits and bit-torrents, music, entire movies, are moving faster and faster amongst us. Processor speed supports hyper-connectivity and hyper-conductivity. The replacement of silicon chips (still improving under Moore’s Law) by quantum computers (or the next new architecture capable of speed orders of magnitude greater) will change the potential for connectivity and conductivity to a degree we can hardly imagine.
Psychedelic technologies produce the experience of hyper-connectivity with regularity. Rhetorician Rich Doyle’s forthcoming book Ecodelic, examines the fundamental experience of interconnectedness—with ourselves, our fellow human, and other species, feeling integrated with the biosphere, as a hallmark of psychedelic experience and a founding awareness of the ecological movement. Interconnectedness of thoughts and visions between persons is commonly reported in the literature of ayahuasca experience. As science fiction author Phillip K. Dick observed, “We have to get over the idea that hallucination is a private matter.”


VR cyborg Richard Lanham suggests that if we “define rhetoric using a strictly contemporary terminology, we might call it the ‘science of human attention-structures.’ From this perspective, rhetoric has a “scientific” subject matter which includes large parts of, for example, sociology, social anthropology, and behavioral biology.” [16] Neuroscientist Karl Pribram places attention at the center of consciousness, reminding us, following Ryle, that “There is no mind without minding.” [17] I would argue that immersion—a key descriptor of VR—is primarily a quality of consciousness that has to do, like every rhetorical device, with the capture and control of attention, a necessary condition for any interpersonal persuasion, education, or entertainment to occur. Absorption, defined as “a state in which the whole attention is occupied” which Roy Ascott tells us is succeeding immersion, is a deeper degree of the same phenomenon, shading into trance and hypnotic states. “Mind control” may be a more ubiquitous phenomenon than secret government projects (some of which involved LSD) as any parent standing between a TV and a child to re-capture attention can attest. In literature and narratology, a phenomenon known as the “deictic shift” signals the immersion of the reader in the story world at the point where he/she assumes a viewpoint (the deictic center) within the story, from which their generation of the world as world is generated, and from which the unfolding of the story, guided by the storyteller takes place. Author and critic Doris Grumbach speaks of the “narrative dream”—the goal of the author being to immerse the reader in such, not waking her/him by jarring inconsistencies in the world that “break” the narrative dream. The actual dream worlds of REM sleep which we visit nightly provide our most intimate experience of full immersion in worlds apart from waking reality. To know one is dreaming while it is going on (lucid dreaming) is a psychological skill that takes some training, so completely does the dream world capture us and carry us along in its narratives, replete with, in some cases, full sensory and emotional experience of imaginary activities, such as the classic dreams of flying, falling, or transformation into different animal, human, or spirit forms. The film trilogy The Matrix is a prolonged exploration of the theme of VR—a fully realized world-simulation—and dreaming. These themes are explored by several philosophers including philosopher of mind, David Chalmers, who presents the Matrix as a rendition of the philosophical thought experiment of the ‘brain in a vat.’ He defines a matrix as “an artificially-designed computer simulation of a world.” [18] Can we define dreaming as an organically-designed simulation of a world that persuades us as thoroughly as the waking world, as to its reality? Inquiry into the ontological status of an experience is a feature of both the VR and the psychedelic discourses, and the reality of dreams is invoked in both cases.


John Perry Barlow again: “I think the effort to create convincing artificial realities will teach us the same humbling lesson about reality which artificial intelligence has taught us about intelligence…namely, that we don’t know a damned thing about it. I’ve never been of the cut-and-dried school on your Reality Question. I have a feeling VR will further expose the conceit that “reality” is a fact. It will provide another reminder of the seamless continuity between the world outside and the world within delivering another major hit to the old fraud of objectivity. “‘Real,’ as Kevin Kelly put it, ‘is going to be one of the most relative words we’ll have.’” [14]

4.1 Reality

Both VR and psychedelics raise ontological and epistemological issues; their practitioners can be framed as ontological engineers (not the database kind), hacking reality and constructing worlds. What is real, what is reality, jumps to the foreground as a practical issue, as well as a matter of nomenclature, with the question how do we know that what we experience as real, really is real hovering over the discourse. Psychedelics, with their ability to immerse the voyager in a distinctly different state, routinely raise these questions. Every decision by a game designer about the physics of a game world—including the decision to mimic “RL” physics at all points, reveals virtual reality as a production of editable code, a set of rules about how a world works which the programmer controls, not an unchanging, eternal, universal, and singular condition. Solidity, opacity, gravity are all decisions. Second Life is already a hybrid reality, allowing teleportation, bodily flight.
I’m with Barlow in that I have no ambition to determine what reality is. To question the ontological status of a VR or psychedelic session is a common aspect of both experiences. What begins as an effort to determine “what is real?” becomes an exercise in keeping the question open and an exploration of the notion of multiple mindstates with concomitant multiple realities.

4.2 Hallucination

The Free Dictionary defines hallucination as “1a. Perception of visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, or gustatory experiences without an external stimulus and with a compelling sense of their reality, usually resulting from a mental disorder or as a response to a drug. 1b. The objects or events so perceived. 2. A false or mistaken idea; a delusion.” [19] The Medical Encyclopedia offers, “Hallucinations are false or distorted sensory experiences that appear to be real perceptions. These sensory impressions are generated by the mind rather than by any external stimuli, and may be seen, heard, felt, and even smelled or tasted.” [20] To call an experience a hallucination is an ontological assertion disguised as a psychological term. Every perceptual event with the label “hallucination” presents a statement about the nature of reality, and a value-position about the perceiver’s status vis a vis consensus, socially-approved standards of reality or its kissing cousin, truth.
John Lilly gave the following definition of hallucination in an interview with David Jay Brown and Rebecca McClen:
“DJB: How would you define what a hallucination is?
JOHN: That’s a word I never use because it’s very disconcerting, part of the explanatory principle and hence not useful. Richard Feynman, the physicist, went into the tank here twelve times. He did three hours each time and when he finished he sent me one of his physics books in which he had inscribed, “Thanks for the hallucinations.” So I called him up and I said, “Look, Dick, you’re not being a scientist. What you experience you must describe and not throw into the wastebasket called ‘hallucination.’ That’s a psychiatric misnomer; none of that is unreal that you experienced.” For instance he talks about his nose when he was in the tank. His nose migrated down to his buttonhole, and finally he decided that he didn’t need a buttonhole or a nose so he took off into outer space.
DJB: And he called that a hallucination because he couldn’t develop a model to explain it?
JOHN: But you don’t have to explain it, you see. You just describe it. Explanations are worthless in this area.” [26]
I prefer to substitute the more value-neutral term ‘extended perception’ for ‘hallucination’ to name the shifts in perception and reality brought about by psychoactive substances. Alan Watts, makes the case, “There is no difference in principle between sharpening perception with an external instrument, such as a microscope, and sharpening it with an internal instrument, such as one of these…drugs. If they are an affront to the dignity of the mind, the microscope is an affront to the dignity of the eye and the telephone to the dignity of the ear. Strictly speaking, these drugs do not impart wisdom at all, any more than the microscope alone gives knowledge. They provide the raw materials of wisdom, and are useful to the extent that the individual can integrate what they reveal into the whole pattern of his behavior and the whole system of his knowledge.” [27]
The association of “hallucination” with pathological, or otherwise negatively valued states was framed in the medical model of mindstates and limits its usefulness as a term in the discussion of either VR or psychedelic states.

4.3 Perception

Roland Fischer, professor of experimental psychiatry and pharmacology in the 1970’s, early psychedelic researcher, and editor of the Journal of Altered States of Consciousness, proposed a cartography of states of consciousness that “depicts increasing levels of ergotropic, central or hyperarousal on the perception-hallucination continuum, while the right side depicts an increase in levels of trophotropic or hypoarousal on a perception-meditation continuum (including zazen and various forms of yoga).” [21] Fischer defines hallucination as follows: “The hallucinatory or waking-dream states along the perception-hallucination continuum can best be described as experiences of intense sensations that cannot be verified through voluntary motor activity. Note that such a definition does not differentiate between dreams and hallucinations…” [21] The standard for reality (which is implied as opposite to hallucination) is defined in terms of baseline perception that can be verified by the senses, particularly the sense of touch. However, “sensation” is used as a term for experiences all along the continuum. Placing the variety of experiences along a single continuum (later diagrams revising the model bring the hemisphere into a full circle) with both quantitative measures (EEG) and subjectively reported experience (ecstasy, Samadhi) condenses a wide variety of experience into a linear scale.
Normal, baseline perception presents its own complex relations to illusion, as the psychology of perception reveals. Alan Watts states, “Most of us are brought up to feel that what we see out in front of us is something that lies beyond our eyes—out here. That the colors and the shapes that you see in this room are out there. In fact, that is not so. In fact, all that you see is a state of affairs inside your head. All these colors, all these lights, are conditions of the optical nervous system. There are, outside the eyes, quanta, electronic phenomena, vibrations, but these are not light, they are not colors until they are translated into states of the human nervous system. So if you want to know how the inside of your head feels, open your eyes and look. That is how the inside of your head feels. So we are normally unaware of that—projected out.” [23]
The fact that we believe that we are seeing something “out there” that we experiencing “looking” as an act projecting out from the eyes into the environment, rather than a passive reception of vibratory signals is a belief in an illusion—our own projection of an internal state onto the environment—upon which we craft our ongoing experience of reality. VR engineered experiences and psychoactive materials each can change the conditions of these perceptual systems, and hence open new experiences of reality. If one changes the settings of a camera—aperture, shutter speed, film type, and especially sensor type, from infrared to ultraviolet—one sees variations on a perceptual landscape. The human perceptual systems are far more complex. Psychopharmacology studies the ways in which these settings can be manipulated by shifting the actions and inactions of various nervous system components by changing the circuitry of the nervous system via action by neurotransmitters on receptor sites. These receptors can be activated, deactivated, opened, or blocked, thereby opening and closing potential pathways for signals to pass, making and breaking connections, amplifying or dampening signals. Psychiatry utilizes these changes to modulate feeling-states, and modify behavior.
Watts relies on neuroscientist Karl Pribram’s research into the mystery of what consciousness studies calls “the binding problem,” identifying the epistemological conundrum relating knowing with perception: “I sat in on an intimate seminar with Pribram in which he explained in most careful detail how the brain is no mere reflector of the external world, but how its structure almost creates the forms and patterns that we see, selecting them from an immeasurable spectrum of vibrations as the hands of a harpist pluck chords and melodies from a spectrum of strings. . . For Karl Pribram is working on the most delicate epistemological puzzle: how the brain evokes a world which is simultaneously the world which it is in, and to wonder, therefore, whether the brain evokes the brain. Put it in metaphysical terms, psychological terms, physical terms, or neurological terms: it is always the same. How can we know what we know without knowing knowing?” [24]

4.4 The multistate paradigm

Tom Roberts’ multistate paradigm introduces a far more complex model of the variety of conscious or (his preferred term) mindbody states. Roberts builds a set of parameters or subsystems of conscious (mindbody) states, using 10 from Tart’s 1976 classic Altered States of Consciousness—exteroception, interoception, input-processing, memory, cognition, emotions, motor output, identity, time sense, interaction—and adding two of his own, intuition and moral sense. He refers to other taxonomies of conscious states, especially Shanon’s parameters from his study of ayahuasca mindbody states. [22] Roberts points out the vast combinatorial possibilities in these ‘compositions.’ He also identifies two further components in addition to mindbody states of the multistate paradigm. Mindbody psychotechnologies designate methods for producing varying mindbody states: yoga, biofeedback, meditation, psychoactive drugs, spiritual practices including prayer, martial arts, and others. Residency is “the idea that all human behavior and experience occur in mindbody states. That is, a mindbody state provides a psychophysiological context (program) from which all behavior and experience grow.” Roberts deals with reality with the assumption that there is a ‘real life’ at baseline whose physical presence and experience we share, or assume we share, in daily life, and a ‘land of make-believe’ which encompasses narrative or fictional reality, dreams, and psychedelic states, when we leave ‘real life’ and enter a ‘mythopoetic reality’ which he associates with psychological or spiritual realities of varying depth and impact. He avoids the term ‘hallucination,’ describing these varied experiences in terms of multiple and shifting realities.

4.5 Complexity

Tom Ray, a biologist known for his research in complexity and artificial life, is following a new research path: understanding the chemistry of consciousness. He is mapping the “receptor space” of hundreds, and potentially thousands of psychoactive substances using the National Institute of Mental Health’s “supercomputer” program, the Psychoactive Drug Screening Program “to screen drugs against the entire human “receptome” (all receptors in the human body; over 300 in the brain). [25] He sees the receptome as a vast and complex combinatorial space marked by certain attractors, representing “major emotional states and moods, and whatever other mental phenomena the chemical systems are mediating.” From the viewpoint of neurochemistry, a similar picture of a vast and complex dynamical system of chemical states producing and being produced by mental phenomena emerges.


Many of our common images of VR technologies call to mind the cyborg, from the variety of HMD’s to the virtualization and transformations of the body in online game and social environments such as Second Life.
The psychedelic technologies call forth strangely cyborgian images as well. The Mayan civilization, used the psilocybin mushroom sacramentally, as a substance that released the vision serpent. Some of the depictions of figures in trance are distinctly technological in look and feel.Pacal Votan

Andy Clark, in Natural Born Cyborgs, reviews our intimate relations with tools and technology as primary means of extending mental capacities, (perceptual, memory storage, calculation ability) and intelligence. This capacity, underwritten by our unique neural plasticity, is a defining characteristic of humanness. “It is our special character, as human beings, to be forever driven to create, co-opt, annex, and exploit nonbiological props and scaffoldings. We have been designed, by Mother Nature, to exploit deep neural plasticity in order to become one with our best and most reliable tools. Minds like ours were made for mergers.” [28]
Clark examines our cyborg nature not just as a recent phenomena involving bioelectronic interpenetration of the meat body as the gold standard, but in the far more pervasive relationship we have with non-biological technologies, such as language, so intimately, though not physically, in a hardware sense, coupled with the body-mind. Our encompassing symbiosis with language is at once taken completely for granted in its functions and uses, and stands mysterious as to its actual nature, since even the manner in which our words and sentences are formed from thought is something that takes place behind the scenes of ordinary consciousness. Applying the label “unconscious” has no real explanatory power except to point to a realm of mental functioning that only becomes known when it is no longer itself (unconscious) because some aspect or chunk of content (a dream, an insight, a long-forgotten memory) comes into consciousness.
Both VR and a host of psycho-spiritual technologies, including psychoactive drugs, have been used technoetically to launch raids on these inarticulate realms, normally hidden from the focused beam of conscious attention. Margaret Dolinsky’s CAVE environments take us into these imaginal worlds with a shamanic sense of double consciousness; we are both fully immersed in the sights and sounds of other worlds, while fully aware of our bodily presence. Stan Grof’s extensive research in LSD psychotherapy with hundreds of patients used the powerful psychoactive to penetrate deeply buried unconscious content, a method dramatically more effective than Freud’s dream analysis, which he called ‘the royal road to the unconscious.’ Lilly’s early tank work involved his own observations of his mind at work under conditions of sensory deprivation and psychoactive excitation, during which he pushed the Freudian psychoanalytic model to self-understanding to limits Freud may not have envisioned, even with the aid of cocaine. For Lilly, the tank plus LSD (and later, ketamine) provided enough momentum to overcome what Freud termed the resistance of the individual ego to encounters with unconscious materials. With both VR and psychedelics, our perception, in Lilly’s case into mental or imaginal realms normally hidden from view, is extended by technology.
Clark’s normalizing view of our intimate relations with technology, of which VR is one aspect, is countered by Ascott’s more radical view of VR. “…our current fascination with the theatre of the virtual has obscured the true destiny of virtual reality (VR). Its importance lies in its role not as a stage for the re-enactment of renaissance perspectives, but as a cultural phase space, the test-bed for all those ideas, structures, and behaviors that are emerging from our new relationship to the processes of evolution and growth, the challenge of artificial life.” [2]


Integrating the technologies of Virtual Reality and Vegetal Reality brings the association that was hyped in the late 80’s when VR became a mainstream media fascination into practical applications. I consider John Lilly—psychonaut, dolphin researcher, and founding member of S.E.T.I.—an early VR researcher as the inventor, in 1953, of the isolation (flotation, immersion, sensory deprivation) tank. The tank is a literally immersive environment, a one-person VR installation (limiting, as does any theater or VR setup, visual and sonic input as well as minimizing motor activity and sensation through floating the body) where the sensory projections are provided entirely by one’s internal brain/mind processes. Lilly went on to add the additional technology of psychoactive substances to the mindbody-technology system. The combined technologies became the protocol for much of his research in non-ordinary mindbody states. Terence McKenna followed a similar protocol, sans tank, of minimizing sensory input when he recommended “5 grams dried psilocybin mushrooms consumed in silent darkness.” VR technologies routinely screen out and/or replace everyday sensory input with technologically mediated sound, sight, and other sensory input as the means of engineering different realities.
Reality, it seems, is multiple, and tightly coupled to perception. The conditions of perception can be varied within a broad range by a variety of technologies. Char Davies’ full body and headmount installation Osmose provides an experience of physically floating through visual spaces that merge technological images with images from nature.
Lilly’s flotation tank can send one into outer and inner spaces where the outer-inner differentiation is highly malleable. An immersive fulldome hemispheric projection of the universe with software such as Uniview (Rose Planetarium) can provide an interactive experience of scalar magnitudes and outer space exploration with no on- or in-body hardware. Any of these, and many other technologies, can be combined with psychospiritual technologies of altering mindbody states, including psychedelics, to create, again, a vast combinatorial space of possible experiences across Ascott’s three VR’s: Verifiable Reality, Virtual Reality, and Vegetal Reality.
The hardware and software of Virtual Reality technologies combined with the instrumentation of neuroscience and the neurochemistry of consciousness alteration provide a toolset for the understanding of consciousness. My Ph.D. research into linguistic phenomena in the psychedelic sphere follows this path. Based on my own phenomenological explorations of psychedelic spaces, and informed by the descriptive reports of long-term psychedelic explorers, I have developed a linguistic model of a dynamic, multidimensional symbolic system, Glide, and developed a 3D software, LiveGlide, as real-time, interactive writing system which is most effectively performed in immersive domed environments. LiveGlide-lily glyphWhile the output of the system can be “performed” in an arts context, I primarily use it for the exploration of the interactions of language, perception, and reality when reading and writing (itself a complex feedback loop) Glide in variously altered mindbody states. One of the intentions of my research is specifically aimed at perturbing and re-wiring the language functions of the brain, to find, explore, and describe new forms of cognition dissociated from natural language.


Reality is a personal matter. It is intimately dependent on perception. Perception is a complex internal process of multiple interacting systems (visual, auditory, linguistic) that takes wave information from the sensory systems and, through reference to sensory, emotional and linguistic memory in a dynamically mutable and complex chemical and neurotransmission space, constructs ‘reality’ on the fly in the experiencing individual. Not only what reality is being described but whose reality and under what perceptual conditions, cognitive preferences, and epistemological biases needs to be considered. Intersubjective sharing through a variety of linguistic means (including body language, sounds, as well as more abstract symbolic systems such as natural language, music, gesture, dance, and mathematics) creates the scaffolding for a shared or consensus reality. Both VR technology and psychedelic technologies extend perception and reorganize sensory ratios to create new experiences of reality, new epistemological platforms, and the conditions for new knowledge acquisition in the fields to which they are applied.
How much and in what direction we are able to re-wire our plastic neural circuitry? How drastically can we edit our genome, not only to prevent hereditary disease and defects but with a view to improvements, about which there is far greater moral hesitation? To what extent can we revise body-mind functions with implanted or replacement prosthetics, add-ons, or plug-ins are matters spawning the newer disciplines of bioethics and neuroethics and raising issues of cognitive liberty. In what manner our technoetic experiments in VR and psychedelic technology contribute to the process of reflection on the nature and functioning of the human mind, and more directly to actual changes wrought (in the development of biofeedback applications in immersive environments, for instance) is subject for speculation. Technology is evolving at ever accelerating rates, and with it, massive cultural evolution. I relate to the drive toward “higher” states to the drive that pushes us at breakneck speed into creating and using technologies with the potential of radically revising the state of human beingness. This drive is producing, among other things, the technologies of altering, extending, and reorganizing perception and the new realities thereby opened to view.


1. C. Chesher, “Colonizing Virtual Reality: Construction of the Discourse of Virtual Reality, 1984-1992,” Cultronix, Vol. 1:1, 1994.
2. R. Ascott, Telematic Embrace: Visionary Theories of Art, Technology, and Consciousness, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2003.
3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtual_reality.
4. http://osdir.com/ml/culture.internet.nettime/2006-12/msg00008.html.
5. G. Hancock, Supernatural: Meetings with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind. Doubleday, Canada, 2005.
6. T. Roberts, ed., Psychoactive Sacramentals: Essays on Entheogens and Religion, Council on Spiritual Practices, San Francisco, 2001.
7. G. Samorini, Animals and Psychedelics, Park Street Press, Rochester, Vermont, 2002.
8. R. Wasson, S. Kramrisch, J. Ott, C. Ruck, Persephone’s Quest: Entheogens and the Origins of Religion, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1986.
9. R. K. Siegel, Fire in the Brain: Clinical Tales of Hallucination, Penguin Books, New York, 1993.
10. R. K. Siegel, Intoxication, Pocket Books, New York, 1989.
11. C. Tart, On Being Stoned: A Psychological Study of Marijuana Intoxication, Science and Behavior Books, Palo Alto, 1971.
12. A. Shulgin and A. Shulgin, Pihkal: A Chemical Love Story, Transform Press, Berkeley, 2000.
13. http://twitter.com.
14. J. P. Barlow, “Being in Nothingness: Virtual Reality and the Pioneers of Cyberspace,” http://w2.eff.org/Misc/Publications/John_Perry_Barlow/HTML/being_in_nothingness.html.
15. http://www.sinulate.com/.
16. R. A. Lanham, A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1991.
17. J. M. Davidson and R. J. Davidson, eds., The Psychobiology of Consciousness, Plenum Press, New York, 1982.
18. C. Grau, ed. Philosophers Explore the Matrix, Oxford University Press, New York, 2005.
19. http://www.thefreedictionary.com/hallucination.
20. http://www.answers.com/topic/hallucination?cat=biz-fin
21. R. Fischer, “A Cartography of the Ecstatic and Meditative States,” SCIENCE Vol. 174, Num. 4012, 26 November 1971.
22. T. Roberts, Psychedelic Horizons, Imprint Academic, Exeter, 2006.
23. quoted from D. McConville, “Optical Nervous System,” fulldome video production, 2004.
24. A. Watts, In My Own Way: An Autobiography, 1915—1965, Pantheon Books, New York, 1972.
25. http://www.corante.com/brainwaves/20030901.shtml.
26. http://www.levity.com/mavericks/lily-int.htm.
27. A. Watts, The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness. Vintage Books, New York, 1962.
28. A. Clark, Natural Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003.


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Everything is deeply intertwingled.
—Ted Nelson

synestheaterThe literatures that touch on synesthesias—scientific, art-historical, literary, phenomenological, ethnographic, psychedelic—vary widely in their definitions, interpretations, and in their degree of comfort with the first-person, subjective nature of experiential reports. The significances given to synesthetic experiences are similarly wide-ranging. This article explores the relationships among synesthesias, psychedelic experience, and language, highlighting Terence McKenna’s synesthetic language experiences on DMT and magic mushrooms. The complexities of creating and performing with the Intertwingulator, a system that provides the means to weave together, in multiple mappings, two or more complex visual, aural, and linguistic systems in live performance, are briefly described.

Contemporary neuroscience (Cytowic, Marks, Harrison) views synesthesia as a rare, (perhaps abnormal, perhaps pathological) ‘condition.’ Visionary artists, (Blake, Scriabin, Kandinsky, the French symbolists) link synesthetic perception to a spiritual dimension. Phenomenologists (Abram, based in Merleau-Ponty, the phenomenologist of perception) locates synesthesia as fundamental to perception and language, both spoken and written. Ethnographic reports of ayahuasca shamanism in the Amazonian rain forest (Luna, Amaringo) describe the centrality of the icaros, the shaman’s songs, that guide and create the content of the visionary experience on many levels, calling visual forms and presences into being with sound. Reports of psychedelic synesthesias (James, Pankhe, McKenna, Munn, Narby) link the states of multisensory perception to noetic experience of deep insights into the nature of reality and consciousness, and their profound intertwinglement.. A range of contemporary artistic practices, especially in immersive, interactive, electronic media environments seek to create, or invoke, synesthesias. The psychedelic connections to the creation and participation in many of these experiences (rave culture, Burning Man), and their enabling technologies—such as computer graphics, are common knowledge.

This paper touches on one example of such artistic experimentation. The Intertwingulator is a Max software implementation that can link the sensory qualities of two or more intricate systems, each producing complex, aesthetic forms in differing sensory modalities through an intermediate zone (the intertwingulator) where mappings can be constructed and tested in performance. The Glide system of dynamic, multidimensional visual language is mapped to keyboard input from a midi synthesizer and/or from another software system, such as composer Pauline Olivero’s EIS (Expanded Instrumentation System) to create a variety of synesthetic performances. The collaborators acknowledge the dual difficulties: technological and aesthetic. Making the technology work on the one hand and designing and performing a meaningful aesthetic experience with these highly complex instruments are interdependent challenges.

A Synesthetic Sampler

“Sounds seem to affect what I see. I see music; the textures of rhythms and the colors of melodies float before my eyes.. My visual images alter or change whenever I hear a sound or noise…Sight, feeling, motion, texture, thinking, sound—all are one….The interaction between sight, music, and physical feeling is most remarkable.” (Dobkin de Rios, p. 48.)

“When I get there I lie down with my eyes closed and sunglasses on, there is some interesting synesthesia going on, corresponding patterns in regards to distance and volume and other characteristics of the sounds I hear. The most interesting ‘looking’ sound comes from a moped that passes by on the bike road below the hill.” (DOM, Vaults of Erowid)

“I experienced powerful synesthesia between hearing and touch. I ran my
hands over the sharp edges of the springs underneath my girlfriend’s bed and simultaneously heard, felt, and saw an intense static/sharp/bright sensation.” (5-MeO-DMT,Vaults of Erowid)

“Your name, Richard, tastes like a chocolate bar,” she writes, “warm and melting on my tongue.” (Cytowic, p. 14)

“The spirits one sees in hallucinations are three-dimensional, sound-emitting images. In other words, they are made of their own language, like DNA.” (Narby, p. 71)

“Through his icaro, he also calls the rainbow with the whole range of colors that the boa yakumama has. He sings the icaro of the diamond, the gold, the silver, and of all the precious stones in order to put them on the woman to protect her…” (Luna, p. 112.)

“The first thing I saw was the ‘visible language’! … The ‘elves’ appeared. They sang/I saw/read/felt/heard. They are ‘made out’ of the visible language. The message is conveyed by the medium itself in several simultaneous sensory modalities.” (DMT, Vaults of Erowid)

“The ancient wise men, to describe the kaleidoscopic illuminations of their shamanistic nights, drew an analogy between the inside and the outside and formed a word that related the spectrum colors created by the sunshine in the spray of waterfalls and the mists of the morning to their conscious experiences of ecstatic enlightenment: these are the whirlwinds he speaks of, gyrating configurations of iridescent lights that appear to him as he speaks, turned round and round and round himself by the turbulent winds of the spirit.” (Henry Munn)

Neologisms in Ancient Geek

Xanadu never shipped, but Ted Nelson’s word still bears fruit, now in the context of synesthesia. Intertwingle: itself a blended word, (to say it is to do it: noeto-poetic?) a braid of intertwining, mingling, perhaps twisting together, the deepness of which suggests the mycelial networks of brain and WWW; the immersive, multisensory bombardment of a rave; googling around the fractal depths of contemporary dataspaces; navigating by synchronicities, “hints and allegations;” dense heterarchies of meaning emerging and dissolving; connecting paths and patterns, linkings, unlinkings. And this theme of intertwingularity is the common ground underlying the discourses of synesthesia, whatever the variances among epistemological theme parks, or the bewildering richness person to person in experiential reports, whether those reports are quoted in neuroscientific works, the Vaults of Erowid, William Blake’s visions, or the heavenly or hellish trip reports of Aldous Huxley.

The Noetic Disconnection
From this small sampling of quotes, it seems clear that under the broad rubric of “synesthesia” almost any sensory—and/or emotional—and/or cognitive experience can be cross-linked. Neuroscientist Richard Cytowic narrows the definition of synesthesia to

“the involuntary physical experience of a cross-modal association. That is, the stimulation of one sensory modality reliably causes a perception in one or more different senses. Its phenomenology clearly distinguishes it from metaphor, literary tropes, sound symbolism, and deliberate artistic contrivances that sometimes employ the term “synesthesia” to describe their multisensory joinings.”

Cytowic estimates the occurrence of the synesthetic experience to be statistically rare, one in 25,000. When psychedelics are the testbed of synesthesias, the occurrence of synesthesias increases dramatically:

“It is reasonably common for individuals who take hallucinogens to report that their senses become mixed. Given the illicit nature of the topic it is hard to find reliable data on this issue, but a recent web-based questionnaire conducted by Don DeGracia, suggested that, of a total of 62 respondents who admitted to using hallucinogenic compounds, 45.9% reported synesthetic symptoms. Clearly the most common manifestation (over 90%) was to see sounds. Now, just as with the patients described in the last section, it would be prudent to treat such accounts with an element of caution, as it can be hard to dissociate ‘true’ synesthesia from possibly imagined forms of the condition.” (Harrison)

Questioning the reality or validity of these experiences in the scientific discourses is common, and interesting ambivalences arise in the handling and evaluation of first person reports. On the one hand, Cytowic invokes The Varieties of Religious Experience, in which “William James’ spoke of ecstasy’s four qualities of ineffability, passivity, noesis, and transience,” claiming that “These same qualities are shared by synesthesia.” Further, in the section titled “The Rejection of Direct Experience,” Cytowic states that “Questioning its reality [synesthesia] without first having some technological confirmation shows how ready we are to reject any first-hand experience. We are addicted to the external and the rational. Our insistence on a third-person, “objective” understanding of the world has just about swept aside all other forms of knowledge.” At the same time, this very ineffability, is, for Cytowic, a bug not a feature. He sympathizes with Heinrich Kluver, who, in trying to get his subjects to report on their mescaline hallucinations, “was frustrated by the vagueness with which subjects described their experience, their eagerness to yield uncritically to cosmic or religious explanations, to “interpret” or poetically embroider the experience in lieu of straightforward but concrete description, and their tendency to be overwhelmed and awed by the “indescribableness” of their visions…Similarly, once Kluver got his subjects past elaborating or, even worse, explaining what they saw…” [emphasis added]. Clearly the noetic aspect of the experience is to be edited out by the “phenomenological” psychologist. Cytowic’s own example of pruning direct experience:

“In explicating MW’s description of mint, I distinguished between his factual description of curved, smooth, and cool tactile attributes, and his analogical explanation of the taste as “cool glass columns.”

For Kluver, Cytowic, and Harrison, the experiencing subjects’ data is inherently untrustworthy in some way, needing to be refined in such a way as to (conveniently) fit the categories established by the scientist for that experience. Further, when did adjectives such as cool and smooth attain such universal status? Is your smooth and my smooth the same? Are there degrees and admixtures of smooth? How does one fix as fact a word that can be used to describe wine, dance movements, and the way a pickup line is delivered? More significantly, perhaps, interpretation is assumed to be the privilege of the scientist; profound noesis, often a part of synesthetic experience, psychedelic or otherwise, is stripped from the ‘primary experience,’ denied epistemological potency, and tamed by the scientific reduction of ‘only the facts.’

The descriptive potency of natural language is put to the test in the discourses of synesthesia and psychedelics.

Hallucinogenic discourse, both of scientific and “recreational” nature, faces a similar rhetorical dilemma as the rest of the ecstatic traditions it responds to: It must report on an event which is in principle impossible to communicate. Writers of mystic experience from St Teresa to William James have treated the unrepresentable character of mystic events to be the very hallmark of ecstasies. Hallucinogenic discourse faced a similar struggle in the effort to report on the knowledge beyond what Aldous Huxley (and Jim Morrison…) described as the “doors of perception.” (Doyle)

The Noetic Connection

Jose Arguelles in his analysis of William Blake quotes the famous lines of Blake’s adopted by Huxley to describe the psychedelic visionary state:

“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. / For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro narrow chinks of his cavern.”

Arguelles gets to the heart of the synesthetic matter in his interpretation of this passage:

“History is the result of an overelaboration and separation of the senses. . .Blake’s vision of man’s natural condition and the condition man shall return to following the apocalyptic disclosure of the present era—is that of a psychosensory unity in which each sense is not a “narrow chink walled off from the other senses but in a state of communication with them. This state of sensory interfusion, often referred to as synesthesia, is presupposed by a consciousness in which body and soul are realized to be one, and in turn presupposes a social order so totally different from the present one that its closest approximation is to be found in the remnant of so-called primitive societies.” (Arguelles)

David Abram, following Merleau-Ponty, finds this synesthetic unity in the very nature of perception itself.

“Although contemporary neuroscientists study “synaesthesia”—the overlap and blending of the senses—as though it were a rare or pathological experience to which only certain persons are prone (those who report “seeing sounds,” “hearing colors,” and the like), our primordial, preconceptual experience, as Merleau-Ponty makes evident, is inherently synaesthetic. The intertwining of sensory modalities seems unusual to us only to the extent that we have become estranged from our direct experience (and hence from our primordial contact with the entities and elements that surround us.):

…Synaesthetic perception is the rule, and we are unaware of it only because scientific knowledge shifts the center of gravity of experience, so that we have unlearned how to see, hear, and generally speaking, feel, in order to deduce, from our bodily organization and the world as the physicist conceives it, what we are to see, hear, and feel.” (Merleau-Ponty)

Walter Pahnke, of the famous “Good Friday” experiment in the heyday of Harvard psychedelic research, describes the noetic aspect of the psychedelic experience as one of it main features, along with synesthesia:

“The Noetic Quality, as named by William James, is a feeling of insight or illumination that, on an intuitive, nonrational level and with a tremendous force of certainty, subjectively has the status of Ultimate Reality. This knowledge is not an increase of facts but is a gain in psychological, philosophical, or theological insight.”

Psychedelic Language

All language is psychedelic by definition, functioning to make manifest the mind, to bring thoughts, feelings, information, from the interior of one mind and make them available to be interiorized in another. David Porush calls this “Technologically Mediated Telepathy.” And Porush, Abram, and Erik Davis all relate the story of how this psychedelic, originally synesthetic, oral language-making connected us deeply and reciprocally to our natural environment, a mutual be-speaking that was progressively lost when writing, and most particularly alphabetic writing, froze knowledge-making into eternal signs in rows on flat surfaces, signs you could come back to—and they hadn’t changed. These signs deployed progressively deeper disconnections—among the senses, between time and space, between reason and emotion. The alphabet: the cybernetic technology that changed everything. Synesthesia, in this light, comes to stand for the promise of reconnection, of noesis, of recovery of some long lost unity, within ourselves, among ourselves, within the world. Psychedelics can deliver synesthesias with a noetic quality, at intense, supersaturated, high-bandwidth delivery rates, as well as bringing tales of new forms of language that both create and express these altered states of consciousness. Psychedelics may appeal to some deep longing for knowledge not delivered as information arranged in hierarchical tree structures, taxonomized and bowdlerized, the promiscuous metaphor and the unseemly miscegenation amongst disciplines that it encourages, excised from the “phenomenological” reports. The psychonaut’s noesis can arrive live and lively, paradoxically gesturing, zany, even alien. Terence McKenna’s accounts of the DMT self-transforming machine elves made of language dispensing unbearably high-speed, condensed blasts of pure, and extraordinarily alien gnosis, and the mushroom experiences reverberating with the logos, seen and heard in synesthetic unity, weird as they are, have been reported, in varying forms, by many others. Do the reports of synesthesias in the scientific literature of psychedelic-like weirdnesses (Richard, your name is like chocolate melting in my mouth) leaking into baseline consciousness, (strangeness usually kept in bounds by the state-bound nature of other forms of consciousness—dreaming, meditating, drugs—according to Roland Fischer’s model of mind-states) fascinate us in the same way? There are entire classes of synesthesias attached to letters and numbers, flavored and colored linguistic objects. McKenna himself comes back to these language experiences time and again in his books and lectures: new forms of language perceived, theories of the evolution of language and consciousness catalyzed by psychedelics are proposed:

“Perhaps a human language is possible in which the intent of meaning is actually beheld in three-dimensional space. If this can happen on DMT, it means it is at least, under some circumstances, accessible to human beings. Given ten thousand years and high cultural involvement in such a talent, does anyone doubt that it could become a cultural convenience in the same way that mathematics or language has become a cultural convenience?” (McKenna, p. 39.)

The LiveGlide Synestheater

My own testbed for synesthesias has been in the seven year development project of LiveGlide, a visual performance instrument based on the psychedelically informed visual language, Glide. The Synestheater, an interface within LiveGlide, allows the software coupling of the parameters of two complex artistic systems, each organized around a different sensory modality (the aural, the visual, for instance). Parameters from the visual system, LiveGlide, can be flexibly mapped to aural parameters in a composer’s MAX patch. But the mapping of aspects of the aural experience to properties of the visual experience in such a way that in performance an aesthetically satisfying experience is created is largely unexplored territory, beyond the obvious mapping of beat or amplitude in dance music to synchronized changes in the visual. Often the visual is slaved to the aural, delivering an amplified entrainment, but not necessarily exploring other inter-relations possible between sight and sound.

We have, with the advent of sophisticated technologies emerging from the Protean sorcery of the CPU, come to a point where we are building new instruments—and instruments with which to build instruments (such as MAX-MSP, Jitter, Audio Mulch, etc.)—at a much faster rate than we are learning to play them in an artistically mature manner. How many years does it take to master a musical instrument? An abstract animation technique? How can they meaningfully link? How can our perceptions be re-educated to encompass multiple sensory modalities and make magic in these unexplored, complex, subtle, infinitely variable synesthetic zones? And yet, we keep doing it, always on the verge of overwhelm, drowning or going with the flow. As Terence McKenna put it,

“Information is loose on planet three….Earth is a place where language has literally become alive.”

The cyberspirits are out of the bottle. Chiasmatics 101 is a recommended course for psychedelic journeying. And if all knowledge ultimately comes down to what we sense, what new things will we know in what new ways when we get just a little more in control, not of the waves, but of our ability to stay on our feet on the surfboard as we ride the rainbow serpent down the wave-ways into the great unknown, reached by connecting new pathways in the mind?


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2. Arguelles, Jose A. The Transformative Vision: Reflections on the Nature and History of Human Expression. Berkeley and London: Shambala, 1975.
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15. Porush, David. “Telepathy: Alphabetic Consciousness, VR, and Postmodern Presence.” University of Warwick Conference on Virtual Futures.
16. Ternaux, Jean-Pierre. “Synesthesia: A Multimodal Combination of Senses.” Leonardo, Vol. 36, Number 4, 2003.
17. Vaults of Erowid.

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