Geoff Mulgan on the politics of well-being and loneliness

Geoff Mulgan is the CEO of the charity NESTA, and former policy director of Number 10 Downing Street, co-founder of Demos, former CEO of the Young Foundation, and a pioneering figure in the ‘politics of well-being’ over the last 20 years.

We discuss what governments and organisations can do to promote well-being and mitigate loneliness. What can universities do to promote wellbeing in their local communties, particularly through evening education, and why are academics so suspicious of the politics of wellbeing? And why is he so embarrassed to discuss his training as a Buddhist monk?

Further links:

Here’s an upcoming anthology of academic essays on the politics of well-being.

Here’s Mulgan’s TEDX talks on measuring happiness.

Here’s Demos’ 1998 essay collection, The Good Life.

And here’s some of the Young Foundation’s work on belonging.

Insecurity Cameras: Nye Thompson, Surveillance Art and the Making of Modern Anxiety

Rhodri Hayward is Reader in the History of Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and a founder member of the Centre for the History of the Emotions. His current research into tidying up, time management, and emotional health is part of the Wellcome-funded Living With Feeling project. In this post for the History of Emotions blog, Rhodri writes about the work of one of his artistic collaborators on that project.


Over the last two years, the artist Nye Thompson, in concert with an array of internet bots, has begun to assemble an archive of our anxieties.  Working through unsecured networks, the bots harvest images from surveillance cameras and webcams, cataloging the domestic interiors and empty office spaces that have become the objects of our anxiety. The effect is curiously unsettling.

Unlike the fears of continuous surveillance that animated civil liberties campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s – and which generated a host of academic papers addressing the power of ‘panopticism’ – these images reveal something bleaker and more disturbing.  They demonstrate the persistence of our watchful gaze over spaces vacated or abandoned.  ‘Eerie’ is perhaps the right word.  As the critic, Mark Fisher, wrote “The eerie is constituted by a failure of absence or by a failure of presence. There is something where there should be nothing, or there is nothing where there should be something.”  Our worries over empty homes and property, which we seek to allay through surveillance,  generate, in turn, their own unsettling impressions.

There have of course been many attempts to create catalogues of emotion or archives of feeling.  Darwin’s Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) mixed photographs, home experiments and literary reports from far flung correspondents to create a survey of the forms of feeling grounded in evolutionary history.  Similarly, Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen, working through the 1960s and 1970s, curated portraits of emotional expressions from New Guinea, Borneo, Brazil, the US, Chile, Argentina and Japan. The collection was used to ground the claim that there are six basic emotions that can be recognised across all human cultures.  Ekman and Friesen’s argument was inspired, in part, by Darwin’s evolutionary theories and, in part, by the ideas of the neuropsychologist, Silvan Tomkins: Tomkins claimed that emotions should be seen as affect programmes – codes for facial, bodily and mental performances –  scripted in prehistory and hard-wired into our brains.

Although Nye Thompson’s archive of surveillance images seems quite distant from the work of Darwin and Ekman, it intersects with them in curious ways.  As Thompson’s most recent work with her software bot (‘The Seeker’) demonstrates, there is a symmetry between the ways that Ekman and Tomkins imagine our interior lives and the inner operations of the technologies we have invented to watch over them.  Although many security cameras simply operate through continuous open-ended recording, intelligent systems have a series of algorithms built into them in order to identify and capture instances of threat.

Thus a captured image, like the one shown below, of an Old English Shepherd dog heading down a garden path, triggers a series of ‘guesses’ in the machine:  ‘Airfield, Airship, Airport, Warplane, Battleship’.  The home security camera, like Tomkins and Ekman’s imagined human, reads the landscape through a specific script.  The camera’s script however, was written not in the prehistoric past but in the Cold War programmes of drone surveillance — and it carries within its circuitry the neurotic concerns of the military/industrial complex.

Perhaps then, the eeriness of Thompson’s images stems from the fact that they reveal the persistence of a kind of emotional life in a world emptied of people. This would be a challenge for any historian of emotions. Or perhaps, the eeriness arises from the way that this work shows just how closely our most intimate emotions are bound together with the fabric of material life.

The camera, like the charms once used in protective magic, works to reassure us when we worry about vulnerable homes or possessions.  And much like talismans such as the ‘evil eye’ drawn to protect buildings, the camera works by instilling anxiety in the minds of potential wrongdoers. It thus helps to set and sustain feelings that pass between people and objects, the present and the past. It is this intimacy between the material and the psychological, between things and feelings, that accounts for the eeriness of Thompson’s archive of emotion. The images remind us that whatever we might do to safeguard our possessions, our feelings aren’t entirely our own.

Is ayahuasca tourism ‘cultural appropriation’?

This essay is a personal opinion and may contain misunderstandings of my own. I’d be interested to hear from others with more knowledge and experience of ayahuasca, including indigenous healers or those who work closely with them. 

In the last 50 years, Western culture has imported many ecstatic practices. We lost our homegrown spirit as a consequence of a long process of disenchantment that began around the Reformation and continued through the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions. There were of course ecstatic revivals, like Romanticism, but they were counter-currents to the main tide. 

Then, in the 1960s, there was a mass explosion of ecstatic practices. Part of that was fuelled by the rapid popularisation of non-western practices, such as yoga, Zen, TM, Tai Chi, Hari Krishna, Native American medicine like peyote and magic mushrooms, and also the popularisation of African-American culture like jazz, rock & roll and Pentecostalism.

But this ‘spiritual tourism’ raises some questions. What’s the right way to engage with another culture’s spiritual treasures? Do Westerners have the right to pick and mix, or to appropriate a culture (creating mindfulness, for example)? Can this sort of spiritual tourism actually be a form of cultural appropriation?

‘Cultural appropriation’ has become one of the rallying cries of left-wing identity politics in the US.  It’s been defined as follows:

Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.

Campus activists have, in the last few years, criticized things like white students dressing up as stereotypical Mexicans for parties, or the use of ethnic stereotypes for sports mascots, such as the Washington Redskins or the San Diego State Incas.

And the charge of cultural appropriation has also been levelled against whities adopting non-Western spiritual practices like yoga. In 2015, for example, the University of Ottawa cancelled a yoga class when students protested against it as an instance of cultural theft. This month, a professor at Michigan State University delighted the right-wing press by describing Westerners doing yoga as an instance of white supremacy and systemic racism.

The question of cultural sensitivity (or lack of) was levelled at my last book in an excellent review by Oxford PhD Maya Krishnan. She took issue with my exploration of tantra, saying I had failed to explore its intellectual history and merely presented the ‘neo-tantra’ of Osho, which is a valid criticism. She writes:

The importation and adaptation of experiences of ego loss does not have to be a problem if it is done in the right way. But is troubling to treat other cultures as experiential storehouses which can be raided for ‘good feels’, yet whose conceptual frameworks and intellectual contributions are not worthy of consideration. Engaging with non-Western traditions requires dismantling the hierarchy which allows non-Westerners to be adept at having feelings but which reserves the authority of interpretation for Western scientists and intellectuals.

Which brings me to ayahuasca tourism. Is this, also, an example of cultural appropriation? I read two books this week, both by anthropologists of ayahuasca, which presented starkly different views.

The first is a 2008 book called A Hallucinogenic Tea Laced With Controversy: Ayahuasca in the Amazon and the United States, by medical anthropologists Marlene Dobkin de Rios and Roger Rumrill. De Rios has been researching ayahuasca use in the Amazon since the 1960s, and she is appalled by the rise of ‘drug tourism’, ie plane-loads of Western seekers descending on Peru to swig ayahuasca in an attempt to get high and fill their spiritual emptiness.

The authors are against ayahuasca tourism for two reasons. Firstly, they condemn the rise of ‘charlatan’ neo-shamans, both Amazonian and gringo, who cater to the influx of drug tourists. They charge extortionate amounts to run ceremonies, they often haven’t the proper shamanic training and don’t know what they’re doing, they mix brews with all kinds of potentially dangerous plants in the mix (such as datura or deadly nightshade), and they sometimes seduce or assault their female western clients. They are a commodified corruption of the authentic, pure, traditional village shaman that de Rios encountered in the 1960s, whose practices existed unchanged for several thousand years before the gringo tourists turned up and ruined everything.

Secondly, the authors blame the other side of the market – the Western tourists. They exhibit a deep contempt for these tourists, in passages which are so intemperate, bilious and frankly weird as to be unacademic:

A number of upscale, well to do, prominent Americans and Europeans are touring Amazonian cities. Interested neither in parrots nor piranhas [?] , they revel in special all-night religious ceremonies presided over by a powerful shaman…Unlike the jungle denizens who for the last several thousand years have drunk the potion to see the vine’s mother spirit in order to protect themselves from enemies, to divine the future, or to heal their emotional and physical disorders, the urban tourist is a on a never-ending search for self-actualization and growth…Who are these spiritual seekers? They’re ‘narcissistic, selfish, permissive men and women who put their own selves first and foremost…There is the issue of out-and-out theft of the long-standing spiritual teachings and practices of others. Men and women select what they want and ignore anything that does not fit their model…They either have no respect, and treat ayahuasca as a party drug, or they exoticize the shaman into some sort of ‘happy savage’.

The phenomenon, write the authors, ‘has become so flagrant since the mid-1980s that the culture of native peoples is in danger of extinction’. And the worst of it is, it’s partly the fault of anthropologists like de Rios. They came back to the West with tales of marvellous psychedelic ceremonies, and did their best not to sensationalize their accounts, but this opened the floodgate to the goddam tourists: ‘such ‘mass’ or pseudo-intellectual people demand access to the drugs as if it were their natural right to do so.’ They’re not just risking their sanity, their arrival also ‘effectively destroys’ the purity of indigenous culture ‘that has roots in the prehistoric past’.

The authors raise two concerns. Firstly, vulnerable Western tourists are being exploited by fake shamans. Secondly, rapacious Western tourists are ruining indigenous culture with their ravenous, disruptive and ignorant spiritual consumerism. You could say, well, both sides are exploiting the other in a free exchange, is that such a problem? Yes, says de Rios, because it’s destroying the authentic indigenous shamanism which she – the expert anthropologist – uniquely appreciates.

The second book I read is called Ayahuasca Shamanism in the Amazon and Beyond, and is a collection of essays by anthropologists, published in 2014. I think it’s a much better book than the first, because it maintains a critical distance all too often lacking from academic explorations of ayahuasca. Academics have tended to get lost in their own trip: ayahuasca is an encounter with the secret of DNA (Jeremy Narby), or with ‘Grandmother Ayahuasca’ (Rachel Harris). Such personal accounts make for compelling reading, but they lack critical distance. 

The book begins by suggesting the contemporary phenomenon of ayahuasca use by Amazonians and Westerners has been ‘poorly served’ by anthropologists in the past, because they’ve constructed naive and ideologically-loaded theories of a pure and authentic traditional culture which existed unchanged for millennia until it was suddenly destroyed by Western tourists.  Instead, the editors write:

Local shamanism, cosmopolitan biomedicine and psychology, alternative therapies, New Age spirituality, and the tourism service industry have blended in intricate and fascinating ways that challenge traditional ethnographic notions of authenticity, ethnicity, tradition and place.

Firstly, is ayahuasca use among Amazon Indians definitely pre-historic? Recent work by Peter Gow, Bernd Brabec de Mori and other anthropologists challenges this view, pointing out that there’s no evidence for ayahuasca use among Amazon tribes before the 19th century. There’s evidence for the ingestion of DMT going back to prehistoric times, but not for the use of the ayahuasca brew, which mixes the ayahuasca vine with the chacruna plant. We don’t know how or when this mixture was discovered, but these authors suggest knowledge of the mixture spread among Amazon tribes in the mid-19th century as a consequence of the disruption of the rubber boom and the rise of Jesuit missionary camps, or reducciones, established by Jesuit missionaries from the 17th century onwards.

Stephan Beyer writes:

Indigenous people sought the protection of these camps from epidemic disease, depopulation, slave raiders, and the military threats of their neighbours. Here they were forced to live in common compounds regardless of their tribal distinctions. The intention was that in this way the indios infieles could be more easily controlled and converted to indios cristianos; but the unintended consequence was to form a pressure cooker of cultural interchange.

Irineu Serra with the Costa brothers

Some tribes have only started using ayahuasca in the last few decades, and have embraced it with enthusiasm. A handful of white settlers seem to have drunk ayahuasca since at least the 1920s – the founder of the Santo Daime ayahuasca church, an Afro-Brazilian called Raimundo Irineu Serra, was introduced to ayahuasca by two Spanish-Brazilian brothers, Antonio and Andre Costa. I read on the Santo Daime website that: ‘At this time the sacrament was used to guide the Indians in hunting and fishing, and also to entertain the white man in the moonlight.’  Ah the white man, always seeking entertainment.

In other words, the history of ayahuasca may be quite recent, and from the start seems to be deeply intertwined with the history of globalization, empire, disruption, trade, research and tourism. There may not be an indigenous ayahuasca culture which existed pure and unchanged for millennia before it was ruined by foreigners. On the contrary, it may have arisen quite recently, out of the shock of change and the encounter with different tribes and western civilization, and then spread through new technologies and new exchanges of knowledge and trade, including the internet. I think ecstatic practices often arise in this way, out of the shock of economic and political change and the violent / creative encounter between tribes and cultures.

Secondly, what is the ‘authentic’ use of ayahuasca, who owns it, who is entitled to use it, and how?  Glenn Shepard notes that some tribes like the Yora have only started using ayahuasca since the 1980s, and asks:

Is there anything special, unique or particular about indigenous people’s relationship to ayahuasca when compared to adepts who use it in urban centres? Do the Matsigenka and Yora have an inherently superior moral right to consume ayahuasca within their spiritual tradition when compared with, say, a Belgian Santo Daime member risking incarceration to consume an illegal substance? Such questions raise troubling doubts about our sometimes facile resort to terms such as ‘tradition’, ‘modernity’ ‘indigeneity’, and ‘authenticity’.

There are genuine issues around the economics of ayahuasca tourism. On the one hand, why shouldn’t local ayahuasqueros make money from their work? Why shouldn’t tourism revenues go into the Uyacali, one of the most deprived regions of Peru? On the other hand, Bernd Brabec de Mori estimates that only a few dozen Shipibos ‘live well on ayahuasca tourism’ out of a population of 50,000. Centres owned by or employing Westerners have advantages of language and culture which enable them to attract more Western tourists than local healers. The inequality caused by tourist revenues leads to envy, social discord, and magical attacks against shamans who cater to gringos. And it can mean that locals are priced out of the market – why would shamans provide their services to locals for free when you can sell them to gringos for hundreds of dollars?

There are also serious issues with the ethics and competence of shamans – boom times always lead to a rise in shysters. But I’m sure there have always been shamans who caused harm and abused their power, as with priests, therapists, gurus, psychiatrists or any technicians of the soul. Western tourists should be aware of this and not romanticize or exoticize the shaman, which is forgivable and well-intentioned but still a subtle form of objectification. Daniela Peluso writes:

whereas Amazonian women tend to view shamans as humans who can potentially be abusive, uninfomred Western women do not…it is the coinciding of shamans who view women as easy prey with women who idealize shamans that exacerbates the trend of seduction within ritual contexts.

Has a ‘pure’ indigenous shamanism been corrupted by foreign influence? Yes, some ‘neo-shamans’ offer rituals which seem to throw everything into the mix – jaguars, condors, Mama Ayahuasca, Pachamama, Jesus, Mary, chakras, spiritualism, energy fields, past lives, UFOs. And you could see that as a corruption caused by the similarly ‘pick n’ mix’ Western tourists. But to me, Latin American folk religion has been that sort of syncretistic mash-up for several centuries.

It’s hard for a Western academic to decide which shamans are legitimate and which are bogus, because it depends on unquantifiable things like their dominion over the spirit world. It’s also arrogant and even imperialist – who is de Rios to decree who are genuine shamans and what is and isn’t the legitimate use of ayahuasca? Who made her the jungle pope?

Are Western tourists so very decadent in their motives? Evgenia Foutou met and interviewed many ayahuasca tourists in Peru, and discovered: ‘A majority of participants in ayahuasca ceremonies are motivated by a desire to be healed and have reported successful healing from both psychological and physical ailments.’ That’s not so different to Amazonian clients. Are they more disrespectful in their approach to rituals? No – if anything, they’re more pious. Shipibo ceremonies for tourists are, according to Brabec de Mori, far more formal than ceremonies for locals, in which the shaman will rarely dress up and people come and go as they please. Shipibo shamans joke among themselves, apparently, about the ridiculously elaborate shows their peers put on for the tourists.

Diverging models of illness and healing

There is, of course, a world of difference between Western and Amazonian theories of psychological illness and cure. As Anne-Marie Losonczy and Silvia Mesturini Cappo explore in their essay on ‘Ritualized Misunderstandings’, Amazonians see illnesses either as natural (and therefore treatable with biomedicine) or as caused by sorcery. Ayahuasca helps the shaman identify the instigators of the sorcery, battle the malevolent spirits they have sent, and sometimes get revenge. The cause and cure for illness are ‘out there’, in present social disputes.

Westerners by contrast see psychological problems as caused by emotions, often rooted in family relationships and childhood traumas, and think healing involves release, acceptance, love, forgiveness and sometimes an encounter with one’s higher self or a benevolent higher power, rather than some local and morally-ambiguous spirit ally. The cause and cure for illness are ‘in here’, often in the past.

In other words, the Amazon shaman and the Western tourist meet in the incredible intensity of the ayahuasca ceremony, and have completely different models of what takes place. There is a ‘fundamental misunderstanding’. But they both come away satisfied. They’re able to do this partly because the ceremony takes place in music and gesture, while verbal interaction is kept to a minimum. Western or local mediators help to translate what’s taking place into terms the Western clients can accept, like ‘facing your shadow’ or ‘discovering the real you’.

Do they really get each other?

I chose to do ayahuasca at the Temple of the Way of Light, a well-known centre near Iquitos set up by a British man, which employs Shipibo shamans, because it combined indigenous practitioners with Western facilitators. I wanted to be able to seek support from Western therapists if necessary. My understanding of what was taking place was guided by them, more than the shamans, who didn’t speak English. I did find the shamans’ singing extraordinary and important to my healing experience, but who is to say how much of that was cultural projection on my part? I simply don’t know, because I don’t know whether ayahuasca connects to a genuine spirit world, and what the nature of that world is. I don’t know the precise distribution of revenues within the Temple, but it does fund an institute to support local indigenous communities and culture, and also to support the sustainable growth of the ayahuasca vine.

To conclude, ayahuasca tourism involves all kinds of risks, myths, misunderstandings and unintended consequences. As tourists we should seek to protect ourselves from the risks, and be careful who we trust. It might also be respectful to research about indigenous ayahuasca culture, which is what I’ve done since coming back from Peru. But the more I do, the more I see the distance between Western understandings of ayahuasca healing, and Amazonian understanding of it. Most Western tourists are ignorant of the sorcery-model of illness and healing, and I think would be quite surprised and put off if they knew more about it. To me, it is not a good model for Westerners, not one I want to adopt or disseminate.

What we see in ayahuasca tourism, instead, is a Westernized, Christianized version of ayahuasca culture. Instead of the Amazonian idea of dominating spirits in order to expose your secret enemies and get revenge, Westerners use ayahuasca to identify the traumas or emotional blocks in their psyche, and to find healing through acceptance, love, perseverance, and surrender to a totally benevolent higher power. It’s close to the therapeutic Deism one finds in most contemporary churches, in which Jesus is basically your life coach, but with a nature Goddess rather than a cosmic God. Perhaps it’s rather boring and bland compared to Amazonian sorcery battles. But I think it’s much healthier for Western psyches.

If ayahuasca use continues to grow among Westerners, we’re likely to see more and more Westernized centres, owned and run by Westerners, probably increasingly based in Europe and the US (in Oregon, a new church which uses ayahuasca is currently defending its right to use the brew in the courts). Where will they source their ayahuasca? Do we have the right to grow our own ayahuasca and use it for our own rituals (as Santo Daime has done)? Will that leave indigenous healers out entirely? Is that a bad thing, or should each culture stick to its own culture?

One thing I’m certain of is that no one is really in charge, no one is in control, and a variety of different forms of ayahuasca culture will emerge, from religious cults to DIY secular libertarianism. Who knows which will flourish and spread. Maybe the medicine knows!

REVIEW. Pain: A Very Short Introduction, by Rob Boddice.

Rob Boddice, Pain: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2017.

Reviewed by Javier Moscoso, Research Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science at the Spanish National Research Council in Madrid. He is the author of Pain: A Cultural History (2012).


After the publication of pioneering works by Elaine Scarry and David B. Morris, it was only a matter of time before the history of pain – in the whole rich complexity of its cultural meanings – began to flourish as a field.

In the last ten years or so, the number of papers, conferences, and monographs dealing with different forms of physical suffering or psychological distress has expanded rapidly. Far from being limited to the history of medical remedies or physiological theories,  the cultural history of pain has become one of the most polyphonic areas of historiographical inquiry, with contributions that cover such disparate areas as the history of tears and sadness, pain in animals and infants, the emotional communities of medieval sufferers, rituals of sexual and cultural masochism, the experience of cancer patients, and the development of analgesic medicines.

The history of the body, but also the new history of the emotions, has begun to trace the cultural differences and historical varieties within what had often been considered a universal experience. Even from a purely medical point of view, we may wonder at the enormous variety of experiences that fall under the same word. After all, what we call “pain” involves a tremendous variety of different realities, from causalgia to fibromyalgia and from grief and mourning to physical and psychological trauma.

Given the proliferation of perspectives, we can only celebrate the publication of this small book that comes to shed some light and impose some order upon such a vast field of inquiry. Its author, Rob Boddice, a leading historian of emotions, has published extensively on the history of sympathy, animal suffering, pain and emotions. He is also the author of a new handbook on the history of the emotions published by Manchester University Press [which will be reviewed on this blog later in the year – Ed.]

Pain: A Very short introductionPain, A Very Short Introduction, explores the phenomenon of pain (the event of pain, as Joanna Bourke nicely called it in her The Story of Pain. From Prayers to Painkillers) from a triple point of view. First, it gives a critical account of contemporary theories and definitions of pain. Second, it covers what pain has been historically, how it has been conceptualized, experienced, expressed or ignored, not just from a clinical or medical point of view, but also from a more cultural perspective. Finally, Boddice also discusses the way in which all understanding of pain and suffering requires a political standpoint from which to explore and assess the pain of others.

This last point, fully developed by the work of Keith Wailoo in his Pain: A Political History, can of course also be applied to the author of the book under review.  After all, Boddice could have chosen other examples or referred to some other experiences. He could have put more emphasis on non-western sources or explored in more detail some other non-English cultural milieus. This is indeed one interesting feature in Rob Boddice’s book: his attempt to introduce some global variations and reflections on non-Western cultures of pain and suffering.

The book is divided into nine chapters that go from concepts to cultures or from pain mechanisms to masochism. Written with dexterity, concision and clarity, it also includes an updated bibliography. In brief, this is a very impressive short book about a polymorphous and highly elusive subject that combines first hand research, useful summaries of current debates, and explorations for future inquiries.

Javier Moscoso
Instituto de Historia CSIC Spain

The Transpersonal Revolution: meditation, psychedelics, psychosis

One of the main insights of last year, for me, was that meditation and psychedelics are two useful spiritual practices that work well together. Meditation sharpens certain cognitive and emotional tools (concentration, acceptance, compassion) which help one ride the waves of psychedelic consciousness. It also helps you to integrate the insights you get from your psychedelic experiences, in the weeks and months afterwards, so as to turn altered states into altered traits.

At the ayahuasca retreat I went on in October, at a place called the Temple of the Way of Light near Iquitos, in Peru, we were encouraged to develop our meditation practice in the months leading up to the retreat, and if possible to do a Vipassana retreat. I went on a 10-day Vipassana retreat in 2016, and then a week-long Zen retreat in 2017, and they both really helped me to navigate the stormy seas of ayahuasca.

Even when I was buen mareado (which can be loosely translated as ‘properly mullahd’), I found I could still remember and practice certain spiritual attitudes: sit up straight, focus on your breath, practice self-compassion and acceptance.

At one particularly intense moment, I forgot who I was or where I was, and felt myself adrift in another dimension totally beyond my comprehension (this is quite common on ayahuasca). I had a deep sense of dread, a sense that I was way out of my head and would never come back. But even there, I could still remember to practice my tools. I had two cards I could play: firstly, accept what’s arising, and secondly, remind myself that everything passes. And it did. I came back into my body, remembered my name, remembered where I was and why I was there. 

Psychedelics and meditation are two of the most exciting fields in psychology and psychiatry. Mindfulness, as you know, has become a huge field of research and has transformed western mental health in the last decade. Psychedelic therapy has been tipped as the most promising new development in psychiatry by Tom Insell, the former head of the US National Institute of Mental Health.

Both psychedelics and meditation are rapidly spreading in our culture. Around 15% of Westerners practice some form of meditation, like yoga, mindfulness, Vipassana or Transcendental Meditation. The use of psychedelics is also on the rise – LSD use among young people grew by 175% among young people in England and Wales between 2013 and 2015.

We’re in the middle of not just a ‘mindfulness revolution’ or a ‘psychedelic renaissance’, but rather a transpersonal revolution. The ideas of transpersonal psychology, once considered marginal and kooky, are becoming mainstream, and transforming our ideas of the self, society and reality.

Transpersonal psychology can be roughly defined as the study of human development beyond the everyday ego (hence ‘transpersonal’), including a positive understanding of spiritual experiences (also called peak experiences, transcendent experiences, altered states of consciousness, flow states, self-transcendent experiences and so on). The field is more open to the possibilities of what one encounters beyond the self – the collective mind, spirits, God – and more open to the possibility of life after death.

The field began with William James and Frederic Myers in the 1890s, developed with Carl Jung and Aldous Huxley in the 1930s-1950s, and flourished in the 1960s through figures like Abraham Maslow, Stanislaf Grof, Timothy Leary and Ram Dass.

It’s become much more mainstream in academic psychology today partly because neuroscience has given a new credibility to the study of consciousness and to fields like contemplative science and psychedelic science, and partly because baby-boomer hippies and 90s ex-ravers are now in positions of power in academia, and they’re much more open to a transpersonal perspective through their own spiritual practice. In academia, power defines what’s accepted as worthy of funding, and therefore true (or at least possibly true).

The transpersonal revolution is transforming our idea of the self. We’re discovering that the self is malleable, as Epictetus put it – we can rewire our habitual beliefs and behaviour through practices.   We’re discovering the importance of focus, attention and acceptance in dealing with thoughts and emotions moment to moment, and the possibility of training attention through meditation. We’re realizing William James was right – rational analytical consciousness is just one type of consciousness among many, and other types of consciousness also have their role and can be helpful in healing and bonding.

We’re recognizing the stable conscious ego is a construction, and that there is much bigger self – largely subconscious – which one discovers through dreams, contemplation and psychedelics. We’re realizing the importance of belief, faith and ritual in unlocking the placebo or ‘healing response’ in the subconscious. We’re realizing the importance of the body in processing, storing and releasing emotions and trauma – mainstream psychology ignored the body for a long time. Yes, the early psychoanalysts talked about hysterical symptoms in the body, but their cure was always talking, not yoga, healing touch, dancing or psychedelic puking. 

Beyond that, we’re moving towards the idea that beneath our transient ego-beliefs there is a luminous open awareness, which we can move into and stay within. And this awareness can be a space of acceptance, equanimity, and love. People seem to reach this space through contemplation, through psychedelics, through near-death experiences. And this space – call it the heart-mind – seems connected to other beings or energies, in ways we don’t yet understand and that don’t fit into materialist psychology.

We’re also realizing that Jung was right – there’s a big Jung revival happening as a consequence of the transpersonal revolution. Jung (and other early pioneers, like Myers and Flournoy) understood how the subconscious speaks through myths, symbols and fairy-tales, which are sometimes shared. He (and others) also understood that not everything in the subconscious is flowers and bunny rabbits. Our constructed egos have a shadow – all the things we think we must hide or repress, all the things we push away and run from in fear and aversion. That shadow comes up in spiritual practices.

In contemplative science, for example, Brown University’s Varieties of Contemplative Experience project has explored the difficult experiences people often encounter in meditation, particularly the return of repressed thoughts and emotions. Psychedelic therapists also routinely draw on Jung’s idea of the return of the shadow.

In both contemplative science and psychedelic science, researchers are finding that Jung was right – the best way to deal with the shadow is through patience, acceptance and compassionate investigation. Rather than running away in terror, we can say: ‘welcome, come in, sit down, let me get to know you’. We remind ourselves of an acronym like RAIN: Recognize, Accept, Investigate, Nourish. Then, after a few minutes, years or decades, the unwanted, frightening and daemonic part of us becomes transformed into an ally and helper, just as the Buddha transformed the terrifying snake nagas into his allies and protectors (as in the statue above from Sala Keoku in Thailand). 

But the journey from awakening to integration and realization is no picnic. It’s no walk in the park. Well…it is, but only if we’re talking Central Park at night, filled with zombies and anacondas. The spiritual journey is a journey beyond the ego, a journey through the ego’s death. The shadow is a very good fence holding the ego up – on it is a big sign saying ‘do NOT go beyond here’, and scary monsters jump out at you if you do. Go beyond that fence and your ego screams ‘I’m going to die!’ Which it is, eventually.

The transpersonal revolution is leading to a rise in ‘spiritual crises’

Now here is the key point I want to emphasise. As more and more people meditate and take psychedelics, more and more people are also reporting spiritual or mystical experiences (see the results from Gallup on the right). And some of those experiences will be quasi-psychotic spiritual crises.

We think ‘oh, peak experiences, flow experiences, sure, great, I’ll upgrade myself and become a super-person. Bring it on’. And sometimes they’re lovely. But sometimes they’re deeply disorientating, and mess with our normal ego-functioning. And they should!

This much was noted by Ram Dass (or Richard Alpert as he was known at Harvard), who has been so helpful to me and our culture in navigating these waters. He noted, back in the mid-70s, that while more and more Americans responded in a survey that they’d had a mystical experience, the majority added they never wanted another one! ‘They upset the apple-cart of our ordered reality’, he says, in this excellent talk.

The area of spiritual crises was brilliantly explored in a collection of essays edited by Stanslaf and Christina Grof, called Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis, which they published in 1989. The Grofs write in the introduction:

As various Oriental and Western spiritual disciplines are rapidly gaining popularity, more and more people seem to be having transpersonal crises – yet another reason that the correct understanding and treatment of spiritual emergencies is an issue of ever-increasing importance.

Spiritual awakenings can involve temporary psychotic phenomena like mania, ego-inflation, Messiah complexes, seeing patterns and significance in everything, intense energy and sleeplessness, physical anomalies like shaking or twitching, loss of critical thinking and a tendency to embrace one’s intuitions as the absolute truth, a flooding of dream-material from the subconscious, the return of repressed trauma, a merging of dream and reality, paranoia and persecutory complexes, and a general disordering of one’s usual reality and sense of the boundaries of the self.

The personal ego is a fiction, but it’s a fiction we’ve clung to all our lives, perhaps for thousands and thousands of lives. Waking up to the emptiness of the ego, the power of the Higher Self, and the interconnectedness of all things can be wildly euphoric, or utterly terrifying.

Contemplative science, which is about 20 years ahead of psychedelic science, is already grappling with this fact. Having gone through a decade of unremitting positivity and hype around meditation (it heals depression, it heals anxiety, it improves productivity etc etc etc), there is now more research pointing out that sometimes, people on retreats have very scary, difficult experiences, which can last weeks, months or years. Psychedelic research is still in the era of unremitting hype (psychedelics can cure depression, anxiety, addiction, improve productivity etc etc etc), and is still somewhat in denial about the dark side of psychedelics. But it’s there.

What I noticed in other participants and in myself, on the ayahuasca retreat, was a loss of the ability to critique or reflect on what the medicine / subconscious was telling us. People became much more prone to unusual beliefs and magical thinking. Our whole model of reality – based around the everyday ego – was dissolved. This was hugely healing, and opened up a joyful vision of interconnectedness, play and even immortality. But people could also believe some crazy stuff.

One of the shaman said to us at the beginning of the retreat: ‘The medicine is a poet, it speaks in metaphors’. But, like fundamentalists, we would sometimes seize on the metaphors presented to us as the actual literal truth. ‘I saw the future, I am the pilot of an interstellar spaceship’. ‘I realized my father isn’t actually my father’. ‘I need to build a giant pyramid in the jungle to communicate with aliens’ (this last one was a vision by an IT engineer called Julian Haynes – he built the pyramid, then it fell down. Classic Werner Herzog stuff. Still, quite a vision!)

These insights might be spiritual metaphors rather than the literal truth.

People often think they are about to die on ayahuasca. This is mistaking temporary ego dissolution for permanent actual death. Or we might even think the world is about to end – again, the psychic and spiritual death-and-rebirth is misinterpreted as a literal apocalypse.

As Chris Kilham, author of The Ayahuasa Test Pilot Handbook, puts it:

Ayahuasca and other psychedelics can deliver positive, transformative benefits. But they can also set the mind afire with lavish, nonsensical ideas. Most common is the notion of discovering that you, yes YOU! will save the planet. You wont. This is just the same old messy messianic thinking that has never worked and never will. For if there is to be a new, more free and conscious world, we will need not one, but several billon messiahs, each selflessly pulling together for the whole of humanity and planetary welfare.

In the meantime, we have only begun to see the Age Of The Kooks. As more people drink ayahuasca, there will be more visionary fallout. People will decide to undergo rapid and regrettable sex changes. They will ink themselves from head to toe, like Rod Steiger in The Illustrated Man. They will bellow revelations from building tops and get whisked away to secure cells. It is all going to happen. In the great and fabulous circus that is the explosion of ayahuasca into the public mind, every freaky, awkward, bizarre and outright nutso scenario that can play out, will.

In my own case, for three or four days after the retreat, when I was travelling on my own in Ecuador, I had the overwhelming sense that I was in a dream. I began to think the external world was being generated by my memory-imagination – the streets, the cars, the other people, the hotel, the sky, it was all my dream. My subconscious was constructing the people, the traffic, the planes, the sky. I didn’t know how to wake up, and how to return to the dimension where my loved ones were. So I travelled back from South America to the UK – a very strange few days in planes and airports. I was amazed at the ability of my subconscious to construct such a vivid reality – the 747 was so big, the KLM air-stewards were so Dutch!

Finally I got home, where my friends gave me a lot of hugs, and within a few days I decided this reality was real. I would still get moments of panic and ontological uncertainty, but I could practice my tools – slow breathing, acceptance, reminding myself that everything passes – and I would calm down and ride the waves. I realized the same spiritual tools worked – focus, acceptance, compassion – no matter how altered my mind or the reality I was in.

What I think happened was I took a spiritual insight – this reality is a dream constructed by our egos – and interpreted it literally – this is all my dream, and no one else is real. I managed to walk through that experience and keep calm. But if I’d panicked, and not had any spiritual training or a community of loving friends to take care of me for a few days, there’s a chance I’d have been sectioned, and even diagnosed as suffering from a life-long biological condition requiring a life-time of medication.

This sort of weird experience provokes so much fear in ourselves and other people. We’ve managed to overcome some of the stigma around depression and anxiety. But psychosis? We still find it terrifying. It is the nightmare Other of our rationalist society. In other cultures, there is still a sense that psychosis can have a meaning and a message for mainstream society, and that it’s a temporary place one may sometimes go to beyond the ordinary ego, rather than a lifetime exile to the rubbish heap of society. In our culture, psychiatry usually denies it any meaning or message, beyond a permanent brain disorder.

We need to have compassion for ourselves and each other, and compassion for those having transpersonal experiences where the boundaries of their ego are temporarily disordered. Such people are unlikely to fit into civilized conventions for a while, and we may need to be patient with them – in my case, for a few days, I literally needed help crossing the road, because I wasn’t sure if the cars were real. Experienced guides can help to steer people through their experiences so that they’re positive. And the rest of us can see these experiences as potentially pointing to something incredibly valuable and true – the ego is a fiction, reality is a hallucination, we are God…or something different to what we think, anyway.

Dougie / Agent Cooper from Twin Peaks – people in transpersonal moments may have difficulty navigating ordinary reality

One of the most interesting people I met this year was someone called Anthony Fidler, who helped to run the Zen retreat I went on in India. I watched him occasionally during the silent retreat, and thought, ‘wow, what a calm, collected person, that’s exactly what I want to be like when I practice more diligently’.

After the retreat, I got talking to him, and heard his story. He’d gone to Cambridge, trained to be an accountant, then had a breakdown, leading to psychotic episodes in his early 30s. Over the last decade, he has taught himself to manage his occasional moments of psychosis / unusual states of consciousness through spiritual practices, particularly breath-work, touch practices, and self-compassion. He’s also been helped by leaving the UK and travelling to cultures like India and China, where this sort of spiritual awakening is more accepted and less pathologized by the culture at large. 

Part of the transpersonal revolution needs to be an upgrading of our psychiatric healthcare system and our cultural attitudes so that we have better understanding and compassion for those going through temporary quasi-psychotic / spiritual awakenings, so we don’t immediately section them, pump them full of drugs, and label them as sufferers of life-long biological disorders called things like ‘bipolar’, ‘schizophrenia’ and so on.

Clearly there are some people who have mental disorders that require medication, and some people need to be institutionalized for a few weeks, months or even years for their safety and the safety of others. But psychiatrists have been far too quick to impose their own version of reality onto the most vulnerable people in our society, even though that version of reality is spiritually bereft.

Luckily we are already seeing changes in mental healthcare, driven by the transpersonal revolution. I wrote about some of these changes in The Art of Losing Control, in which I applauded the work of David Lukoff to get a new disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual called ‘religious or spiritual problem’ – ie a temporary spiritual stage rather than a lifelong biological condition. I applauded the work of the Hearing Voices Network, which supports people who might hear voices or see visions, including many people who are not hospitalized or on medication. I applauded the Spiritual Crisis Network, and the Spiritual Emergence Network, and I urge you all to read Spiritual Emergency by the Grofs.

Meditation, psychedelics, psychosis – the three are linked, all involving journeys beyond the fiction of the everyday ego. You see worried articles in the Daily Mail: can mindfulness lead to psychosis? Yes it can. Psychedelics can also lead to temporary psychosis, and in some sad cases it seems to trigger life-long psychosis in teenagers. However, with care and compassion and wisdom, the majority of these sorts of psychotic experiences can be temporary, and lead to positive outcomes.

The spiritual journey is not entirely safe. It’s not a linear journey into greater and greater serenity and happiness – this is one of the mistakes the West has made by reinterpreting spiritual practices like meditation in terms of this-world happiness. They weren’t designed to make the ego happy. They were designed to transcend the ego. And the ego does not want to be transcended. There’s an enormous amount of fear, clinging, pride and suffering that arises on the spiritual journey. That doesn’t mean we should be put off. If we don’t go on the journey, we’ll still suffer, but we”ll suffer in a circle, pointlessly, rather than suffering while advancing towards liberation. Go forward with boldness and hope, with kindness and humble curiosity. 

Tiffany Watt Smith’s TED Talk

Dr Tiffany Watt Smith of the QMUL Centre for the History of the Emotions and the Living With Feeling project recently gave a TED talk, asking how the history of emotions can help us think differently about emotional intelligence. The talk pays particular attention to the connection between words and feelings and is a brilliant 14-minute introduction to our field! You can read more of Tiffany’s work in her Book of Human Emotions.

Fetishizing memories: emotional objects in literature

Paolo Gervasi is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellow at Queen Mary University of London, working on a project that analyses as emotional symptoms the presence of caricatures and deformations in literary texts. This is the text of the talk he gave on November 20th at the Royal College of Nursing in London for the event Emotional Objects: From Lost Amulets to Found Photos, organised by the Centre for the History of Emotions of Queen Mary University as part of the Being Human Festival 2017. The post is reposted with his permission from Paolo’s own blog


With this talk, I hope I can suggest a standpoint on the literary work of the Italian contemporary writer Michele Mari by showing how his writing is consistently focused on the relation between memories and objects. In his last book, Leggenda privata, an autobiography disguised as a horror story (but also the other way round: a horror story disguised as an autobiography), published a few months ago, he writes: ‘All my books are about the soul entrusted to things’.

Before going into Mari’s emotional fetishism, though, I want to introduce another outstanding fetishist, Marcel Proust.

I assume few people in the world, even among literary scholars, have read the thousands of pages of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (1913-1927) entirely. But I’m pretty sure a fairly larger number of people know the most famous scene of the novel, whose main character is a traditional shell-shaped French cake, the madeleine.

Tasting the madeleine soaked in a cup of tea Marcel, the first person narrator, feels an unaccountable and deeply physical sensation of joy, which is associated with a stream of memories from his childhood. Places, objects, and feelings emanate from the cup of tea to be vividly projected before Marcel as in a theatre. Marcel realises he used to have the same cake when he was a child and comments:

The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect. 

Hence, the madeleine has become one of the most popular emotional objects in literary history. The Museum of Illiers-Combray, the village where Proust spent his boyhood and which inspired part of the novel, reconstructed the rooms of Proust’s family house, and there for a long time displayed the actual cake.

Eventually, to prevent the deterioration of the cake, the Museum decided to create madeleine made of plastic. Far beyond Proust’s intention, the plastic madeleine strengthens the reification of emotions; it solidifies what for Proust was a fleeting sensation spreading not from the objects in itself, but from the relation with it.

Mari tells the story of the plastic madeleine in the foreword of his book Tutto il ferro della torre Eiffel (2002), a fanta-historical novel whose characters are among the most important intellectuals of the first half of the twentieth century (philosophers, writers, artists, publishers, entrepreneurs), all of them obsessed by objects, and connected to each other through the exchange of objects. In the age of the triumph of commodities, for the fictional avatars of these thinkers, things become magic talismans that enable the vision of an alternative reality.

The magical power of “stuff” embodies the paradox of emotional objects: the human mind projects emotions into things; things absorb an emotional energy which increasingly detaches from human control. Objects seemingly assume an independent emotional life that we don’t fully recognise as ours. As for the plastic madeleine: did we really create such a thing? Or, in Mari’s terms: is this cheap and kitsch solidification the destiny of our imaginations?

On this mechanism of reification is grounded the creation of fetishes, which is anthropologically related to the origin of cults and religions. The Oxford Dictionary defines the fetish as ‘an inanimate object worshipped for its supposed magical powers or because it is considered to be inhabited by a spirit’. Fetishes are objects whose emotional value is overcharged to the point of disrupting hierarchies between what is animate and what is inanimate, of reversing the relation of ownership. The fetish owns its owner.

Across time, several interpretations gathered around the concept of fetish. Famously, Sigmund Freud stated that we (and by “we” Freud generally means “men”) create fetishes insofar as we look for objects that can substitute our penis in case of castration. Or, we create fetishes as substitutions of the absent female penis. Karl Marx explained that capitalism forces us to attribute an emotional value to commodities because affection toward objects makes us more efficient and compulsive consumers. Walter Benjamin, not by chance the main character of Mari’s Tutto il ferro della torre Eiffel, overturned this idea and conceived fetishism as a liberation of the object from its functions, as a freely creative use of things.

Literature recursively explored the idea that when we interact with objects, we transfer to them some of our living substance. After its involvement in human activities, something alive inhabits the object, a portion of human vitality pulsates within it. In his collection Shorts, the poet W.H. Auden wrote:

Our tables and chairs and sofas

know things about us

our lovers can’t.

Sharing this belief, in 2015 Michele Mari conceived together with the photographer Francesco Pernigo what he called an autobiography by fetishes, titled Asterusher. A book composed of photographs of his most meaningful objects, conserved in his houses. Each image is commented by captions the author wrote specifically or passages from his previous books. Comments connect objects to key life experiences, according to the idea that, as he wrote, ‘our memories are themselves fetishes’.

The title of the book merges two tales: The House of Asterion by Jorge Luis Borges and The Fall of the House of Usher, by Edgar Allan Poe. In both tales, the house is conceived as a living organism and a sort of material extension of the owner’s body and mind. Inspired by these tales, Mari places side by side his experience of the house and the experience of the ghost he imagined in his book Fantasmagonia (2012). For both of them, inhabiting a house means ‘breathing the molecules of which the house is made’, and thus ‘becoming part of the house itself’. For the ghost, as for the writer, contemplating a particular spot or object of the house is ‘to gaze from within a precise point of his own mind’.

The mind of the author is displaced in the spaces he inhabits. Hence the tight entanglement he establishes between his familiar things and emotional and psychological conditions.

In another of the tales published in Fantasmagonia, titled Ballata triste di una tromba, Mari imagines a character who collects things as material equivalents of his memories, objects embodying feelings connected to specific life experiences:

This oak branch is our father; every time I miss him, or when I can’t remember his smile, I hold tight the branch and I’m again together with him. This violet quartz is the revolution: when I can’t figure out anymore what we wanted, I brush its crystals and remember. This crown cap it’s my childhood: to handle it is really dangerous. […] This marble is someone who once betrayed me. This ring is a dog. This spoon, a house.

Objects create, as Mari writes, ‘a perfect correspondence of images and emotions’. In objects, he embodies his fears, traumas, and psychic distresses. With the idea that once emotions are reified, are made solid, they can be handled. Once emotions are outside us, can be observed, questioned, and even understood.

Dangerous presumption. In fact, objects turned into fetishes have supernatural powers. They can’t bear to be dominated. They are dominant. They have their own agency; they impose their agenda, which is slightly different from the owner’s.

Emotional objects can eerily start to question us back. They can become scary, as children know very well. The child lives in an enchanted world where objects hide presences, where spirits and monsters do exist and disguise themselves underneath the appearances of everyday life. As in this passage from Asterusher:

Who lifts the cloth and the piano’s lid, by night? Who brushes the keys with pale fingers? Since I was a child I knew that was the dark woman of the painting, who would follow me with her gaze while I moved; and at whose eyes it was better – it is better – not to look too much.

Most of Mari’s emotional objects are vestiges of childhood. In one of the tales of the book Tu, sanguinosa infanzia (1997), he writes that the comic books he used to read as a kid are ‘documents, fossils […] little corpses that refuse to die […] monstrous clots, superhuman concentrate of melancholy, monuments to my solitude, sacred things!’.

The early and consuming passion of the young writer for reading triggers fetishization. Mari doesn’t simply read books; he physically merges with books. In Leggenda privata he writes:

When I was a child, I started to transfer particles of my soul in the books I read, until the full displacement. This way I could circulate the world as an insensitive golem without suffering too many damages, and when I wanted to recover a bit of my soul, I would have gone and look for it where I concealed it, in books.

Similarly, in one of the tales of Euridice aveva un cane (1993) Mari imagines an autobiographical young boy who in the library can hide from the threats of the outside world, and escape the precariousness and uncertainty of life, contrasted by the stability of objects:

It was precisely to look at the world around me as little as possible that in the last years I almost didn’t exit the library, where at least everything was as it used to be, the time-yellowed books and the damp stains on the wall.

But once again, what is supposed to be a shelter undergoes an eerie twist. The shelter becomes a prison: Mari finds himself literally trapped in books. And the evil wizard who provokes the entrapment is his father.

Enzo Mari, Michele’s father, is a renowned designer. He is also a pretty tough, unemotional, dogmatic man. The father-son relationship has always been troubled by Enzo’s rages, silences, and strict educational beliefs. In Leggenda privata Mari writes that the temper of his father ‘is situated at the junction of Moses with John Huston’, a popular actor in gangster movies. And he adds: ‘the specific quality of my attitude toward him is ADMIRED TERROR’, with capital letters.

In 1966 Enzo Mari was asked to design the cover of the Italian edition of a book by the child psychologist Jean Piaget, The Child’s Conception of the World. To realise the cover, Enzo uses the multiplied image of his son Michele, the future writer. Whose comment in Asterusher is: ‘prisoner of one book, prisoner of the books’.

Forever imprisoned, and forever a child. The father established the material, physical bond between Michele and books as objects. But also, the father has stuck the son within the child’s conception of the world, as for the title of the book.

In the tale Il giro del mondo, Mari imagines a dialogue in which his mother tells him: you’re not anymore the baby you used to be, that baby died. His answer is:

No! This is the point; I still have the same fears, I’m still there, as the baby of the talcum powder’s jar, laying in the nurse’s lap surrounded by those liberty flourishes.

The never-ending childhood has his major witness in the teddy-bear, which appears in the tale L’uomo che uccise Liberty Valance:

… the love of all loves, the teddy-bear, which I called with the tender name orsino, my bear made of grey ripped yellowed cloth, stained, blinded, peed-on, crushed.

In this tale, the father is the “guardian” of the teddy-bear, the one who returns it to the adult son to remind him that, despite being ruined by time, the toy is stubbornly alive and present, as much as the memories it conveys. The father is the master of toys because he is the master of emotions and also, as a designer, the master of objects. He doesn’t play with his son, but he designs worldwide popular toys, as mentioned in Asterusher:

My father’s Sixteen Animals, now exhibited in museums all over the world, had a prototype: this. In the first years of my life, I continuously played with them, lodging and dislodging pieces, moving and combining them in always new stories, throwing them, colouring them, carving them.

While being a substantially undemonstrative, uncaring parent, Enzo puts all his creative energy and passion in designing meaningful objects, in shaping useful things. As a consequence, his son, the writer, is obsessed with objects and entrusts things with an overwhelming emotional energy. Objects are literally alive for him because they are inhabited by substitute feelings, the feelings he can’t exchange with his father. Fetishes are simultaneously the embodiment of his psychological traumas, and the antidote to them, particularly when elaborated in writing.

Indeed, the emotional intercourse with objects also influences Mari’s mind as a writer. In these two heads his father showed him when he was a kid, Mari could foresee the recurring themes of his writing, his literary obsessions:

The first is the head of the man I used to call “the sir”: the second, which I always felt not just as opposed and antithetical but also as complementary, is the head of the “monster”. This sneering monster, before anyone told me the story of Jekyll and Hide, has always been to me the deformation of the “sir”, his tension and his destiny: if not his permanent truth. Hence the conclusion: the reassuring face was the face of deception, and the monstrous face was the face of sincerity.

The duplicity of human nature, the cohabitation of bestial and sublime drives, monstrosity and beauty, heavenly and earthly aspirations, is consistently represented in Mari’s major literary works, and particularly in his most complex novel, Di bestia in bestia (1989 and, in a deeply revised version, 2013).

Reflecting on his literary rendering of objects, in Leggenda privata Mari also states: ‘We are exactly this: our writing and our things’. But for him, the writing and the things end up coinciding. He fetishizes the material tools of writing, preserving the pens and pencils he actually used, as the materialization of his commitment, as the testimony of his strict self-discipline and loyalty to the past.

Judging from his attitude toward manic preservation, can Mari be described as a hoarder? Is his collecting comparable to what is referred to as hoarding disorder, that is, the pathological compulsive accumulation of things and a suggestive “metaphor” of our age on the verge of post-humanism?

I think the answer is no and this is important to understand what a fetish is. Despite his inclination to obsessive collecting, Mari’s emotional bond with objects is substantially different from indistinctive accumulation. Indeed, Mari conceives fetishism as opposed to hoarding: the fetish is about quality, it is the surrender to the unique and unrepeatable emotional energy of a single object; hoarding is about quantity, it is the surrender to the anxiety provoked by the overwhelming siege of things. Or, as proposed by Jane Bennett in her claim for a “new materialism”, hoarding is a way to listen to the ‘voice of things’, and the attempt to establish a new alliance between human vitality and the living energy of matter.

Though, the power of the hoard diverges from the vitality of fetishism. This becomes more evident when Mari’s rendering of emotional objects is compared to other examples of object-oriented narratives in post-modern literature. In Safran Foer’s celebrated novel Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close, for instance, characters accumulate objects while engaged in life-repairing researches. But their accumulation is a clearly misleading way to fight insignificance. The object’s supposed meanings are deceitful. Safran Foer’s characters are close to the hoarding disorder; they look for quantity because they can’t find quality. As the hoarder, they can’t find meaning in a single object; oneness is untrustworthy, no object is special.

For Mari, instead, the meanings embodied in objects are truthful. Objects are conserved, described, worshipped because of their absolute and unmistakable emotional quality. And they are trustworthy to the point that they are expected to overcome time and death. Such as these creepy embalmed pieces of food:

Arbitrarily abstracted by my father from time (and more matter-of-factly from our ingestion), these pasta and legumes became immortal, as insects in amber, as dead languages, far more alive after their death.

The disturbing suspect that objects can outlive us is also expressed by Franz Kafka in his tale The Cares of a Family Man, whose fundamental character is the Odradek, a mysterious creature, as the narrating voice calls it, a living thing which inscrutably intersects human life and unclearly interact with it.

Odradek is a star-shaped spool for thread, with broken-off bits of thread wound upon-it. Thanks to two wooden crossbars, he (Kafka refers to Odradek as he) can stand upright as if on two legs. He appears in several places of the house, garrets, stairways, lobbies, entrance halls. Then disappears for months, but he always comes faithfully back. Sometimes he speaks and utters his strange name, sometimes ‘he stays mute for a long time, as wooden as his appearance’.

Odradek embodies the paradox of emotional objects I mentioned earlier, which implies their eeriness and ambiguity. Objects seem to absorb humanity and almost learn human-like agencies, just to acquire a stubborn independence from humans. As confirmed by the final question of the tale:

Am I to suppose, then, that he will always be rolling down the stairs, with ends of thread trailing after him, right before the feet of my children, and my children’s children? He does no harm to anyone that one can see; but the idea that he is likely to survive me I find almost painful.

In this contradiction lies the mystery of emotional objects: we simultaneously fear and hope that the living spark we put in them is going to survive us.


Emotional Objects was the Centre for the History of the Emotions’ contribution to the 2017 Being Human festival. This drop-in festival-style event explored emotions and how they are shaped by the objects around them.

Can psychedelics make you a better person?

Back in the 1960s, many people thought psychedelics would save the world. Professors Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (now called Ram Dass) of Harvard University had a graph on their office wall, showing how long they thought it would take the entire human race to take LSD and become enlightened.

Psychedelics, it was believed, would save humanity – particularly Western civilization – from its spiritual emptiness, its ignorance of the inner life, its ego-grasping, and its relentless consumerism, conflict and environmental devastation.  Terrence McKenna declared, in the 1990s: ‘suppression of shamanic gnosis, with its reliance and insistence on ecstatic dissolution of the ego, has robbed us of life’s meaning and made us enemies of the planet, of ourselves, and of our grandchildren. We are killing the planet in order to keep intact the wrong-headed assumptions of the ego-dominator cultural style’.

There is a strong claim here that has never been tested: can psychedelics make you a better person? Can they raise humanity’s consciousness and improve society?

There have been studies suggesting psychedelics make people more open-minded, which is ‘good’ in some circumstances, less so in others. Several studies have shown psychedelics can help people overcome addiction. Other studies suggest psychedelics help people heal from depression, by releasing them from rumination and opening their attention up to the world and relationships with others. Some studies suggest psychedelics give us a deeper sense of connection to one another and to nature. And psychedelics seem to reliably trigger mystical-type experiences in Westerners, where they feel connected to God, Universal Consciousness or something, and this makes them less anxious and more open. 

All of these could arguably be presented as moral improvements – depending on your moral philosophy. You could argue that if a change in one’s personality is caused by a chemical interacting with your subconscious, that’s not really a moral improvement, because it’s beyond your conscious will or choice (one could say the same of God’s grace). But with both types of mystical experience, they are usually not enough on their own. As Ram Dass says, we probably have to put in some hard work after the vision to turn the altered state into altered traits.

Still, no study, as far as I’m aware, has tried to ascertain if psychedelics can help make someone a better person. It’s difficult to define and measure such a broad, holistic concept. Research into mindfulness faces the same problem. As philosopher Owen Flanagan explored in his book, The Bodhisattva’s Brain, there’s a lot of confusion about what exactly contemplative science has ‘proved’. Research suggests that certain meditative practices may improve mood and alter the brain in some ways. But that’s a long way from proving what the Buddha claimed – that following the dharma would make you a better person and ultimately liberate you from the illusion of the self.

How could one scientifically test whether someone has morally improved?  The Dalai Lama said: ‘To know what’s in a person’s heart you need clairvoyance. Or you need to spy on them closely for, say, a year, to see how they behave.’ That’s doable in a monastery, harder in an academic research lab. You can at least ask participants whether they feel meditation (or psychedelics) has improved their moral behaviour, and then ask their friends if they agree. But of course, they and their friends might have a different definition of ‘moral’ to you.

What I’m going to do in this brief essay is examine this question from the perspective of cultural history, and look at whether cultures which used psychedelic rituals believed they improved moral character. I will look at the Eleusinian Mysteries in ancient Greece, and at contemporary Amazon shamanic cultures.

The Eleusinian Mysteries

The most sacred festival in ancient Greece was the Eleusinian Mysteries, which took place at Eleusis outside Athens every September. They were celebrated for around 2000 years, until 392 AD, when the Christian emperor Theodosius closed them down, thereby depriving the west of psychedelic therapy for 1600 years. As Carl Jung lamented: ‘what a lack of psychic hygiene characterizes our culture, which no longer knows the kind of wholesome experience afforded by the Eleusinian Mysteries’.

A mural showing a scene from the Mysteries

The Mysteries were extremely secret, so we don’t know precisely what occurred. But we do know the Mysteries worshipped Demeter, goddess of corn, and told the story of the abduction of her daughter Prosperpine by Hades. This abduction made Demeter withdraw in grief and anger, and the world withered into a wasteland. The Mysteries were thought of as a way of placating Demeter and reconnecting humans to nature, and to each other. They also gave initiates the ‘hope of a blessed afterlife’, long before Jesus freed us from death. 

What do we know of the initiation process? First, there was a moral preparation – initiates underwent a fast (no beans or birds), and a pilgrimage to Eleusis. They washed themselves and put on white robes. In contemporary terms, they set their intention. This moral preparation was absolutely key, according to the Stoic philosopher Epictetus:

The benefit of the Mysteries depends on proper place and time: one must approach with sacrifice and prayer, with body purified and mind ready and disposed to approach holy rites and ancient sanctities. Only so do the Mysteries bring benefit, only so do we arrive at the belief that all these things were established by those of old for our education and the amendment of our life.

When they arrived at Eleusis, the initiates drank a potion called a kykeon. Some academics (Albert Hoffman and Gordon Wasson) have speculated this potion contained ergot, a fungus that grows on corn and which contains a form of LSD. Then the initiates embarked on a terrifying descent to the underworld, where they suffered various ordeals, and finally emerged into light. They witnessed some sort of sacred marriage, and the birth of a divine child. And they came away with faith that they would return to this divine realm when they died.

This is the account of Plutarch, who besides being a philosopher and historian was also a priest at Eleusis:

At first there are wanderings, and toilsome running about in circles and journeys through the dark over uncertain roads and culs de sac; then, just before the end, there are all kinds of terrors, with shivering, trembling, sweating, and utter amazement. After this, a strange and wonderful light meets the wanderer; he is admitted into clean and verdant meadows, where he discerns gentle voices, and dances, and the majesty of holy sounds and sacred visions. Here the now fully initiated is free, and walks at liberty…he is the companion of pure and holy men, and looks down upon the uninitiated and unpurified crowd below in the mud and fog, trampling itself down and crowded together, still sunk in the evils of death, unable to believe in the blessings that lie beyond. 

It’s worth briefly comparing this to the account of a participant in a 2014 trial that gave LSD to people with life-threatening cancer:

It was just really black…I was afraid, shaking…It was total exhaustion…like an endless marathon…Suddenly a phase of relaxation came…It became bright. Everything was light…It was really gorgeous…The key experience is when you get from dark to light.

The initiates’ near-death experience may have influenced Greek philosophy, particularly Plato’s description of the soul’s journey through multiple lives in order to learn moral lessons. But their psychedelic faith in the afterlife could just be delusion. And does this faith actually make one a better person here on Earth, or just a smug git?

There are some classical accounts that suggest the Mysteries were thought to improve moral behaviour. Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian of the first century BC, wrote:

The claim is also made that men who have taken part in the Mysteries become both more pious and more just and better in every respect than they were before. And this is the reason, we are told, why the most famous of the ancient heroes and the demi-gods were eagerly desirous of taking part in the initiatory rite; and in fact Jason and the Dioscuri, and Heracles and Orpheus as well, after their initiation attained success in all the campaigns they undertook, because these gods appeared to them.

So the Mysteries supposedly made one more pious and better fighters – you believe the Gods are on your side and immortality awaits. Well, you could say the same of Jihadis or Viking Berserkers.

We should point out that many of the great moral philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome were initiates at Eleusis – including Socrates, Plato, Plutarch, Cicero and the emperor Marcus Aurelius – and seemed to think highly of the experience. Cicero wrote:

Among the many excellent and indeed divine institutions which your Athens has brought forth…none is better than the Mysteries. For by their means we have been brought out of our barbarous and savage mode of life and educated and refined to a state of civilization; and as the rites are called ‘initiations’, so in very truth we have learned from them the beginnings of life, and have gained the power not only to live happily, but also to die with a better hope.

Praise indeed – the Mysteries helped civilize humanity and give us the power to live happily and die with a better hope. Do psychedelics make us better people? Cicero clearly thought the Mysteries did.

Aristotle writes rather little about the Mysteries, but he does say that he thought ecstatic cults have an important role to play in a healthy society because, like theatre, they offer people a form of catharsis, which can be translated as ‘purgation’. Ecstatic cults help people in civilized societies purge themselves of their inner angst, restlessness, fear and grief. In Jungian terms, you could say that ecstatic cults like the Mysteries help civilized people take off their masks and confront their shadow – all the wild and painful emotions they repress in the name of civility.  Aristotle seems to see the Mysteries as a form of emotional therapy – a fragment suggests he said that initiates did not so much learn as suffer. The Mysteries were not a rational lecture, but a full-bodied immersive emotional experience. Others emphasize the emotional journey of the initiation – Aristeides writes: ‘the mystics were made to experience the most blood-curdling sensations of horror and the most enthusiastic ecstasy of joy’.

So you could say that the Mysteries, like some contemporary psychedelic experiences, guided people on an emotional journey, which taught them certain moral-emotional attitudes: courage, steadfastness, acceptance and surrender, and above all, humility, wonder and piety. The individual ego is dissolved and one’s awareness stands in awe before the divine. This is Plutarch again:

persons who are being initiated into the Mysteries throng together at the outset amid tumult and shouting, and jostle one another, but when the holy rites are being performed and disclosed the people are immediately attentive in awe and silence.

Initiates then emerge feeling joyfully re-connected to nature, to the gods, and to one another. They call each other brother and sister, and are filled with eunoia, good will, the opposite of paranoia. I think this joyful and direct experience of interconnectedness may have informed Greek philosophy, particularly the Stoic idea of the Logos, the divine intelligence which connects all things in the universe together.  Certain passages of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations seem to me psychedelic insights – some academics suggest they may have been opium dreams, but they sound a lot more psychedelic to me. He writes:

Frequently consider the connection of all things in the Universe. … all things that come to pass, exist simultaneously in the one and entire unity, which we call the Universe. … We should not say ‘I am an Athenian’ or ‘I am a Roman’ but ‘I am a Citizen of the Universe’.

Or again:

The world is a living being – one nature, one soul. Keep that in mind. How everything is absorbed into this one consciousness, how a single impulse governs all its actions, and how everything helps produce everything else – spun and woven together .

Or again:

Everything is interwoven in a sacred bond. None of its parts are disconnected. They are arranged in their proper place. There is one orderly, graceful disposition of the whole. There is one God in the whole. There is one substance, one law, and one reason common to all intelligent beings. And one truth. There is a sort of perfection to all beings, who are of the same nature, who share the same logos 

Such passages will strike a chord with anyone who has undergone a mystical experience on magic mushrooms, LSD or ayahuasca. Is it so far-fetched to suggest this transcendent vision of cosmic interconnectedness was the result of Marcus’ own psychedelic initiations?

And these visions weren’t just a ‘trip’ – they deeply informed Stoic ethics, and the idea of accepting the will of the Logos (he writes: ‘Nature gives and nature takes away. Anyone with sense and humility will tell her, ‘Give and take as you please’) , serving the spark of the Logos within one with right thought and action, and honouring the Logos in everyone else by treating them with dignity. A psychedelic vision of interconnectedness is joined to a practical ethics. Indeed, in Plutarch and Pythagoras’ case, the ethics of interconnectedness extends as far as being vegetarian and treating animals with care, which was very unusual in the classical world.

We can conclude, then, that several Greek and Roman moral philosophers had a high opinion of the Mysteries, which I believe centred around a psychedelic experience. They seemed to think the Mysteries helped people become more moral, by guiding them on an immersive emotional journey which taught them piety, steadfastness, courage, wonder, reverence, eunoia or friendliness, and a sense of the interconnectedness of all things. What we don’t know is, firstly, if the Mysteries really did reliably do this, and secondly, whether this was the result of the psychedelic drug by itself, or the cultural conditions around the drug.

Ayahuasca cults in the Upper Amazon

I’m now going to discuss the taking of ayahuasca among mestizo tribes in the Upper Amazon, and whether ayahuasca is thought to make one a better person. I will keep it brief, as I don’t yet know much about this. 

The first thing I want to say is there is a big difference in the cultural and moral expectations that Westerners bring to ayahuasca, and the cultural and moral expectations that mestizo Indians apparently bring (according to my reading). We really live in completely different moral and cosmological worlds, and its naive to think that ayahuasca somehow takes us to their world, teaches us their moral wisdom, or connects us to some transcendent realm beyond our culture. Rather, ayahuasca reflects your own expectations, intentions and values back to you.

The centres where westerners go to take ayahuasca tend to sell them a western-friendly version of what ayahuasca does. Anthropologist Jeremy Narby writes that Amazonian shamans ‘are psychologically perceptive and many have adapted intelligently to their new customers. Mimicry is second nature to them. Just as Amazonian hunters learn to sing the melodies of the birds they hunt, Amazonian shamans learn to speak the language that their Western clients understand and want to hear’.

In October, I went to The Temple of the Way of Light in Peru, which is owned by Westerners and employs Shipibo Indian shamans. It sells ayahuasca in very Western terms. In a preparation document which all participants were sent before the ceremony, one reads:

Ayahuasca is a powerful cleansing and purifying medicine that can rid the body of physical impurities, the mind and body of emotional blockages and self-limiting fear-filled patterns that have accumulated over a lifetime, as well as retrieve fragmented aspects of one’s soul due to past traumatic events. The medicine is also a teacher who initiates or accelerates us into a lifelong journey of continual self-discovery, deep personal transformation and remembrance of the divine within us all.

This is clearly presented as a moral journey – we will learn the values of Western New Age spirituality:

The Temple’s ayahuasca retreats are an opportunity to rebalance, cleanse and learn about your true self. You will need personal integrity and courage as you will face the whole of your self, including ‘shadow aspects’…We are deeply committed to providing a safe and caring environment to support you in anything that might arise. During and after the process, perseverance, courage, a strong will, and patience all significantly facilitate the healing journey. The results are highly beneficial with the end goal to come back into alignment with our true nature, find balance between our heart and mind, balance between our sub-conscious, conscious and super-conscious selves, and to reawaken self-respect, self-worth and ultimately, self-love.

Like the initiates of Eleusis, we were told to prepare our moral intention by fasting for at least two weeks before the retreat – no pork, booze, sex, drugs, TV and so on. We were encouraged to meditate as much as possible, to practice the mindfulness, steadfastness, self-acceptance and compassion we’d need on the psychedelic journey. And we were told to prepare ourselves to purge out our emotional problems through vomiting and so forth – it’s very similar to Aristotelian catharsis, in that respect.

Now, even though the Temple employs Shipibo shamans, even though they are revered as the main guides and sources of wisdom, we were told very little about how they understand ayahuasca. We had one talk from a Shibipo shaman on the first day, who kept it very vague, telling us the medicine is a poet, who speaks in metaphors, and who works on our head and our heart. That was it. Everything else they communicated to us was through the beautiful songs they sang during the ceremonies.

The Western participants made sense of our experiences ourselves, somewhat guided by the Western facilitators (although they never imposed their own dogma). We had discussions about what exactly we were encountering – plant spirits, aliens, ancestors, God, our higher self? The general vibe was this was a journey of love, light and healing.

I had very much the sort of experience one would expect a Western, educated, spiritual seeker to have. I encountered my shadow, faced my fears, gained insights into my identity and interpersonal relationships. The medicine fitted well with my existing spiritual practice – the trips taught me the value of Buddhist spiritual tools like staying in the moment, staying conscious of one’s body, practicing compassion, and reminding oneself that all things pass. The medicine reflected back to me the intention and values I brought, and helped me to embody them. It’s only been two months, but I hope it’s helped change me in the way I wanted to change. 

When I returned to the UK, I was naturally curious to know how the tribes of the Upper Amazon themselves understood ayahuasca. I read, for example, The Ayahuasca Experience: A Sourcebook on the Sacred Vine of Spiritsedited by Ralph Metzner. But this book focuses almost entirely on Westerners’ experience of ayahuasca. And again, it’s obvious that the medicine brings people what they expect – a Buddhist has a very Buddhist trip, a Jewish man feels re-connected to his Jewish heritage. I wanted to know how mestizo tribes understood ayahuasca. They’ve been taking it for centuries, after all. Do they think it makes us better people? If so, how?

I finally came across a book which I’ve been reading this week, called Singing to Plants: A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon, by Stephan Beyer, a scholar who lived among mestizo Indian tribes and was initiated by two shamans. Religious studies scholar Erik Davis calls it ‘the best book on ayahuasca’, and it’s certainly the best I’ve read on how mestizo Amazons make sense of it.

The main thing I learned is this: the mestizos of the Upper Amazon think almost all illnesses, accidents and deaths are caused by sorcery. Ayahuasca is a medicine to cure people from magical attacks, and a weapon to assist attacks (including love-spells). These are the two main things ayahuasca is used for, according to mestizo Indians.

This is so different to the Western understanding of ‘Mama Ayahuasca’ as this cosmic universal healer showing us our ‘true self’, guiding us like a loving Jungian therapist to the blockages in our subconscious, helping us realize we’re actually a super-talented artist or botanist or what-have-you. No. For mestizo Indians, ayahuasca helps you realize which of your neighbours has cursed you, and it helps you get revenge.

The culture of Upper Amazon mestizos, Beyer tells us, is riddled with envidia, or envy. People don’t have much money or resources, they live very closely to one another, they gossip a lot, and they are quick to envy those who have more or do better than them. The principle motive for magical attacks is envidia. When something bad happens to you, you go to a shaman to find out who is behind the attack, to cure yourself, and perhaps to get revenge. Shamans are also constantly attacking each other, out of envy. Sorcery is a form of redress for the powerless, in a culture which prefers to avoid direct confrontation.

Does ayahuasca make you a better person? It can do, according to mestizo Indians. Shamans call it a teacher, a guide, which can show them where someone is hurt, where they have been attacked, what they need to get better. But the spirit of ayahuasca is not necessarily and essentially ‘good’. It depends what intention you bring to it. There are curanderas (healers) who study with the plant to help cure people. But there are also brujos (sorcerers), who study to learn how to seduce, get rich, dominate, harm and kill. The path to becoming a sorcerer is apparently quicker and easier than the path to become a healer.

Jeremy Narby notes:

Westerners often approach drinking ayahuasca in the Amazon knowing little about its cultural context. If we take seriously what indigenous Amazonians say, it has a dark side, which they call sorcery or witchcraft. Much of the work that shamans do in their communities involves countering bewitchment. It is striking that when ayahuasca is imported into Western countries, there is no mention of witchcraft and everything seems to be about light and healing.

Indeed, the Temple of the Way of Light mentions nothing about ayahuasca sorcery in its preparatory literature (the tourists would run a mile!) Beyer’s book is noticeably absent from its list of recommended reading. In a discussion before our first ceremony, I asked the western facilitators about the possibility of attack by bad spirits – after all, 50% of ayahuasca-takers in the global ayahuasca survey said that at some point they felt under spiritual attack. I was told, don’t worry, that’s all taken care of by the shamans, they will protect you.

One facilitator did say to me at lunch one day: ‘The medicine can feed your ego. It gives you what you want. You can see which maestros are full of ego. Some shamans want power, sex, status, control, glory. You can get into black magic that way.’ I felt that one of the members in our group was there to acquire power, and was in danger of going down that black road. Should there be a health warning for ayahuasca – beware the dark path?

The shamanic path in Beyer’s description sounds rather like the path of the ring-bearer in Lord of the Rings – the bearer of power is beset by an ever-stronger temptation to use that power to dominate and harm others. Beyer writes:

There is a theme woven through the shamanisms of the Upper Amazon – that human beings in general, and shamans in particular, have powerful urges to harm other humans. The difference between a healer and a sorcerer is that the former is able to bring these urges under control, while the latter either cannot or does not want to…The spirits of the plants may offer the apprentice great powers and gifts that can cause harm. If the apprentice is weak and accepts them, he will become a sorcerer.

Apparently the ‘magic darts’ a shaman acquires can possess a will of their own, a desire to harm and kill.

Do mestizo Indians of the Upper Amazon think ayahuasca makes you more moral? No. They think it makes you more powerful. The shaman is not considered a more moral figure  – they’re a morally ambiguous, suspicious, dangerous figure, who can heal from magical attacks, but who can also kill. They play a role in a culture that, judging by Beyer’s book, sounds quite unhealthy to me, at least in so far as almost all illnesses and deaths are interpreted as magical attacks by secret envious enemies. This interpretation leads to an endless cycle of attacks and reprisals, and constant paranoia. No wonder Pablo Amaringo, the famous ayahuasca artist-shaman, got sick of this culture (after being attacked by an envious shaman) and abandoned shamanism. No wonder some tribes say ‘we have no trouble here, so we don’t need a shaman’.

An advert for a Peruvian brujo, offering spells for love, revenge and ‘caprice’

 

Now I’m not saying ayahuasca can’t be a powerful healer, or a powerful moral guide. It seems particularly good at what Beyar calls ‘emplotment‘ – helping people construct a story or myth of their illness and return to health: ‘I was depressed, then I went to the jungle and took ayahuasca, now I’m re-born’.  ‘The medicine is a poet’, as one of our shaman said, helping us find symbols, metaphors and a narrative arc. 

What I am saying is that ayahuasca reflects back to you the intentions, values and culture that you bring to it. If you bring New Age Jungian spirituality to it, that’s what you’ll find. If you bring a culture of envy and magical attacks, that’s what you’ll find. Ayahuasca is a consciousness-amplifier.

To conclude, I don’t think we can say that psychedelics make you a better person. Better according to what philosophy? But they can be a tool that helps you reach your cultural goals. If your goal is to become a powerful sorcerer, they can help you. If you want to become a cult leader and serial killer, like Charles Manson, they can help you. If your goal is to unlock toxic emotional patterns to discover the ‘real you’, they can help you. If your goal is to become a better Buddhist meditator or a kinder person, they can help you.

That’s why it’s very important to think about the intention we bring and the cultural context in which we take psychedelics. As they become more widely used, there is a danger of individuals or groups getting lost in dark power trips, and causing harm to themselves and other people. I actually think there is something to be said for taking ayahuasca in contexts that fuse shamanic practices with Buddhist or Christian beliefs, and with the firm intention to practice for the good of all beings, to focus on love, forgiveness and healing, not power, status, money, and revenge.

The occasional use of psychedelics can, I think, help us on the path of light and love, by teaching us concentration, self-acceptance, compassion, courage, self-awareness, humility, surrender, awe and love. But there is nothing essential in psychedelics that necessarily leads to these things. And for God’s sake, research your shaman before you place your soul in their hands. 

For more on this topic, check out Brian Earp’s article on psychedelics as moral enhancement; as well as the anthology of essays on psychedelics and meditation, Zig Zag Zen. Also follow the work of Lindsay Jordan, a philosopher at UAL researching this topic in her upcoming PhD. 

From Self-Help to CBT: Regulating Emotion in a (Neo)Liberal World

Åsa Jansson is a Junior Research Fellow at Durham University’s Centre for Medical Humanities. Her current research explores the history of hallucinations and delusions in modern medicine, and is carried out in conjunction with Durham’s interdisciplinary project Hearing the Voice.

 


 

As Nikolas Rose[1] and others have shown, our unprecedented ability to map, codify, record, and modify human biology – what Rose calls ‘life itself’ – is both directed by, and contested within, the political sphere. And if we dig a little deeper we can also start to see how we as subjects, consumers, patients, and citizens internalise the ethos of the prevailing economic system – free market capitalism – and the neoliberal ideology that underpins it.

In other words, neoliberalism operates not only at the level of government, business, or finance, but permeates our everyday lives and shapes our selfhood. Its value system informs our perception of health and illness: what it means to be healthy, who and what is constituted as pathological, and how we should prevent and address pathology. This is particularly evident in regard to current models of mental illness.

At present, mood disorders such as depression and anxiety disorders are primarily seen as internal and individual problems to be solved at the individual level. Morbid emotionality is a maladaptive response by the individual to their environment, meaning that the management of distress becomes an individual responsibility, rather than a social one. Thus, an individualised, neurobiological model of psychological distress sits comfortably within a political framework that emphasises individual responsibility and choice over social support.

In this context, the favoured treatment for affective disorders is antidepressants (SSRIs) or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), or a combination of the two – treatments which are comparatively cost-effective and which focus on the individual brain and mind as the site of pathology.

A key strategy of CBT and its sister-treatment Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) is ‘emotion regulation’. The idea is that through persistent practice, we can learn to intervene in and successfully regulate disproportionate, distressing, and irrational emotions.[2] The concept of emotion regulation is premised on a model of emotion as automated and involuntary, but nevertheless an event, or process, that can be regulated.

There is a subtle tension that arises from this model, one between the biologised mind as morally neutral, and social conduct as an extension of the biological mind, conduct that possesses an unequivocal moral quality – in short, between the internal (biological) production of emotion and its external (social) manifestation. In order to understand this tension and the work it does in relation to the neoliberal ethos, we must trace our current modern models of affect and conduct to their roots in nineteenth-century science and medicine.

For the Victorians, the biological mind co-existed quite comfortably with a Christian doctrine of morality centred upon respectability, responsibility, and self-help, values that were infused with the logic of industrial capitalism and liberal rationality. The idea that emotion is an automated physiological process that can nevertheless be regulated and (more or less) permanently modified over time, arose as Victorian medical scientists attempted to restore a notion of free will, which they were unwilling to dispense with for moral and political reasons, within an epistemological system that held all mental activity to be physiological and potentially reflexive, or automated.

In the early nineteenth century, increasingly advanced technology equipped medical scientist with new ways of seeing the brain. Psychiatric autopsies appeared to hold the promise of postmortem diagnoses applied with far more accuracy than medical judgment based only on observation of and communication with living patients.[3] But some types of mental disease consistently failed to turn up lesions visible even under a new generation of microscopes – these were primarily different types of ‘affective (or emotional) insanity’ where the intellect was largely unaffected.

This did not sit well with an emerging medical speciality that was intent on demonstrating its scientific credentials. Thus, in order to explain the unseen operations of the mind, including these elusive forms of insanity, in scientific language, Victorian alienists (psychiatrists) borrowed concepts from experimental physiology.

At the time, physiologists were carrying out pathbreaking (and, for the living animals on whom they experimented, brutal) research into reflex action – the physiological process whereby stimuli applied to nerves triggers automated muscle activity. Most scientists argued that this type of reaction didn’t involve the ‘higher’ realm of the brain, which was responsible for conscious thoughts and exercising of the will.

Diagrammatic representation of reflex action, from Charles-Edouard Brown-Sequard’s Course of Lectures on the Physiology and Pathology of the Central Nervous System (1860). Credit: Wellcome Library, London

However, in the 1840s, British physician Thomas Laycock and German psychiatrist Wilhelm Griesinger both argued that the kind of reflexive action applied to sensory-motor activity also applied to the realm of thoughts, emotions, and volition (the will).[4] They both suggested that there was a form of psychological reflex action which was analogous to the physical (muscle) reflex, and which could be triggered not just by external stimuli, but also by thoughts and abstract sensations. This argument had vast repercussions for the sciences of mind and brain, and formed the basis for the modern concept ‘disordered emotion’.

Many British alienists drew on these ideas in order to explain how mental disease emerged and progressed. However, the new physiological model of mental activity called into question the power of agency, particularly for medical scientists who perceived all mental activity as reflexive physiological reactions.

For instance, prominent alienist Henry Maudsley argued that involuntary psychological reflex action could take place both with or without conscious awareness, and that insanity could compromise a person’s ability to exercise their will, even in cases of emotional insanity where sufferers were still capable of rational thought.

While he rejected the possibility of free will on physiological grounds, Maudsley was unwilling to let go of it entirely, as this would suggest that ‘Man’ was incapable of self-control, for Maudsley a morally untenable position. In order to revive a notion of independent will linked to moral conduct, he turned to the idea of habit. Drawing on the work of psychologist Herbert Spencer and others, he argued that not only actions, but also ideas, emotions, and general character could be habitually developed. For instance

A passionate person who has by patient watchfulness over himself and by a course of steady perseverance and practice accustomed himself to wear an outward air of calmness and to speak in quiet, measured language when he is inwardly in a towering passion, making thus a clever art of his natural defect – as it is the part of wisdom to do with all natural defects – succeeds in making that regulated discharge of energy the habit of his life, and in the end does it quite easily.[5]

Importantly, the development of mental habits was, for Maudsley, a physiological process, whereby habit became a psychological reflex – in other words, when emotional regulation, or control, was practiced to perfection, it would become automated, reflexive.

Henry Maudsley. Credit: Wellcome Library, London

In this way, a physiological conception of mental activity didn’t erase moral responsibility and conduct, it reinforced them. This was also true in terms of mental disease. While Maudsley believed that people who became insane generally had a hereditary predisposition, he argued that each individual could act to prevent themselves from deteriorating in this way. Similarly, the ability to exercise the will played a key role in recovery from mental disease, which was in the first instance marked by ‘a revival of the power of will’. This was particularly true in the case of affective insanity, where only the emotions were disordered.[6]

These ideas became increasingly popular toward the end of the century, as scientific writers tried to navigate and mediate between the deterministic view of human nature espoused by degeneration narratives, and a belief in human betterment and individual responsibility.

Maudsley’s work reflected contemporary cultural views on character, respectability, and moral agency, illustrated by the popular doctrine of ‘self-help’ most famously espoused in Samuel Smiles’ book of the same name. Self-Help was a Victorian bestseller and a libertarian manifesto that rallied against ‘over-guidance and over-government’ and argued that the way to generate positive social reform was ‘by better habits, rather than by greater rights’.[7]

The way to improve one’s character was, Smiles argued, through the development of ‘good habits’, which required constant ‘watchfulness’ and ‘regulation’ of thoughts and actions, but once fully formed, ‘habit acts involuntarily and without effort.’ According to Smiles, there was no virtue or state of mind that could not be deliberately formed through significant and persistent effort. Thus, in a turn of phrase that resonates with twenty-first century lifestyle philosophies, he concluded that ‘even happiness itself may become habitual.’[8]

Smiles also argued that ‘self-regulation’ played an important role in strengthening the nation state and the economy, as it promoted industriousness. The language around self-regulation exemplifies how the new sciences interacted with contemporary language around industrial capitalism. Roger Cooter has explored the close relationship between physiology and capitalist economics in the early nineteenth century, arguing that despite its inability to offer prescriptive health advice, physiology appealed to a popular audience, and that its value lay in providing a set of ‘laws of life’ which explained liberal-capitalist society and its consequences as natural and self-regulating.[9]

That is, it presented an image of society in which individual prosperity and a better life came about through habitual self-regulation, in the same way as an economy that was allowed to self-regulate would prosper and grow. In other words, it promoted an agenda fundamentally opposed to radical social intervention, in people’s lives as well as the economy.

Self-regulation – of both the market and of the mind – has made a forceful comeback in contemporary Western society. But, much like in the nineteenth century, a process conceptualised as ‘natural’ nevertheless warrants intervention at times of malfunction, in order to restore its natural flow and functions. Within a twenty-first century model of the biologised mind as an internal, self-regulating system, the behavioural therapies can be conceived of as the intervention that is sometimes necessary in order to restore healthy function. An important consequence of this is that the psychological distress that behavioural therapies are perceived to treat through cognitive and emotional regulation are detached from the social and economic events that, according to a different narrative, could be plausibly posited as the cause of mental distress.

Joanna Moncrieff has noted how the biochemical model that underpins the rationale for antidepressants chimes with ‘the neoliberal values of competitiveness and consumerism’.[10] In a similar way, ‘emotion regulation’ is tied to ideas about individual responsibility and self-help, and offer an equally – if not more – powerful justification for neoliberal ideology, reflecting as it does nineteenth-century ideas of psycho-physiological ‘habit’ and restoring agency – or, if you like, self-help – as the main bulwark against and treatment for psychiatric illness.

My critique is not, however, aimed at the behavioural theories themselves. What I have tried to do in this post is to bring into focus their present relationship to a specific political and moral framework, a relationship that is not inevitable but the consequence of the fusion of certain ideologies and value systems with a particular model of mental activity in the nineteenth century, a situation that results from Victorian scientists’ attempt to reconcile their scientific materialism with society’s prevailing moral codes.  It follows that in a different kind of society, we might imagine that these – incredibly useful – therapeutic strategies could be underpinned by a recognition of the socio-economic roots of much psychological distress and work in conjunction with interventions that seek to reduce stress related to work or unemployment and poverty, as well as distress resulting from racism, sexism and so on.

However, by locating psychological distress solely within the individual, and focusing on teaching individuals to regulate their emotions and thus learn to adapt to a triggering environment, without sufficient attention to that environment as a site of pathology, our current framework for explaining and treating mental distress obscures its socio-economic context. This ensures that questions about collective responsibility for psychological well-being that link the latter to socio-economic factors and social justice are foreclosed, marginalising alternative treatment models as well as arguments for radical economic and social reform as the best way to prevent or redress human suffering.


This blog post is based on a paper presented at the Northern Network for Medical Humanities Research Inaugural Congress, held at Durham University on September 14-15, 2017. I explore the relationship between neoliberalism and Dialectical Behaviour Therapy in an article on DBT in Swedish psychiatry, which is a forthcoming in a special issue of the History of the Human Sciences on the history of psychotherapy in Europe.


[1] Rose N (2007) The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power and Subjectivity in the Twenty-first century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[2] Gross JJ (1998) ‘The Emerging Field of Emotion Regulation: An Integrative Review’, Review of General Psychology, 3(2) 271-299; Papa A, M Boland , and MT Sewell (2012) ‘Emotion regulation and CBT’, in Fisher JE and O’Donohue WT (eds) Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Core Principles for Practice. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

[3] For a comprehensive discussion of psychiatric autopsies in nineteenth-century British asylums, see Andrews J (2012), ‘Death and the Dead-House in the Victorian Asylum: Necroscopy versus Mourning at the Royal Edinburgh Asylum, c. 1832-1901’, History of Psychiatry, 23: 6-26.

[4] Griesinger, W (1843) ‘Ueber psychische Reflexactionen: Mit einem Blick auf das Wesen der psychischen Krankheiten’, reprinted in Gesammelte Abhandlungen, Ersters Band: Psychiatrische Abhandlungen. Amsterdam & Berlin: E.J. Bonset, 1968; Laycock, T (1845) ‘On the Reflex Function of the Brain’, British and Foreign Medical Review, 19: 298-311.

[5] Maudsley H (1884) Body and Will. New York: D. Appleton & Co, p, 93.

[6] Maudsley H (1874) Responsibility in Mental Disease. London: Henry S. King, pp. 270-271.

[7] Smiles S (1876) Self-Help, with Illustrations of Conduct and Perseverance (2nd ed). London: John Murray, p. 2.

[8] Smiles S (1859) Self-Help, with Illustrations of Character and Conduct. London: John Murray, p. 2., pp. 319-322.

[9] Cooter R (1979) ‘The Power of the Body’, in B Barnes and S Shapin, eds., Natural Order: Historical Studies of Scientific Culture. London: Sage Publications.

[10] Moncrieff J (2006) ‘Psychiatric drug promotion and the politics of neoliberalism’, British Journal of Psychiatry, 188: 301-302.

Am I Normal?: A series of three podcasts exploring the ideas and history of “normal’.

This is a guest post by Natalie Steed who is a freelance audio producer. You can follow her on Twitter and read more about her work on her website. Natalie has produced three podcasts for the Centre inspired by the Being Human event ‘The Museum of the Normal’. The Centre’s 2017 free-at-attend contribution to Being Human is called ‘Emotional Objects: From Lost Amulets to Found Photos’ and you can register online.


How do you measure up?

Where are you on the scale?

And what about your children?

One late Autumn night, on the third floor of Barts Pathology Museum, amongst the specimens pickled in their glass jars – the tight-lacer’s liver and the bound Chinese foot – researchers from the Living With Feeling project gathered together an exhibition of living exhibits

If you’d ascended the staircase, you’d have found yourself screened for anomalies, your scalp considered by phrenologists and your lapel sporting a badge proclaiming your abnormality, before you’d even set foot through the door of the of the Museum of the Normal.

Once inside, you might have taken part in a life drawing class where the models had modified their bodies, had your measurements mapped against Francis Galton’s databanks and refreshed your sense of disgust with mealworms washed down with a cocktail based on the four humours.

These three podcasts arise out of that evening, which was a kind of carnival of stalls and talks and experiences, curated by Sarah Chaney, Helen Stark and Emma Sutton, designed to challenge and change ideas of what “normal” might be.

I recorded interviews at the event with visitors who were keen to talk about their own perspectives and abnormalities, and followed up with more in depth interviews with some of the Living With Feeling researchers presenting their work at the event. You can read more about the visitor’s responses here.

In the podcast The Museum of the Normal, these encounters and interviews interlaced with conversations with parents of young children, a group least likely, perhaps, to attend such an event but who are encouraged to consider, week by week, month by month, milestone by milestone, what is “normal” for their children.

“Stop Thinking about Death… and Stop Shouting at People”

David Saunders  invited people to take part in a restaging of a “revolutionary” therapeutic exercise called Psychic Driving. In the 1950’s the increasingly alarming experiments of Dr Donald Ewan Cameron attracted both interest and finance from the CIA.

That evening, more than seventy people stepped into David’s booth to tell their hopes, fears and the things they wanted to change about themselves to a tape recorder. He used these recordings to create a kind of group self-help tape and in the first podcast you can hear the results and an interview with David about Psychic Driving and its continuing tantalising offer.

“Death to all daft and emotional neurotypicals who love soap operas!”

One of the things that visitors wanted to speak to me about most was Bonnie Evan’s talk about the history of the idea of autism and the emerging terms “neurotypical” and “neurodivergent” used within the autistic community to challenge the idea of their own “abnormality”.

Paul and Elizabeth Wady both have an autism diagnosis.

In his book, Guerilla Aspies, and show of the same name, Paul Wady offers a conversion course for neurotypicals, inviting them to join the “new normal”.

In this podcast, they talked to me about autism and emotion, neurotypicals and neurodivergents, Blade Runner, religion and the tyranny of the normal.


Register for this year’s event online and read more about the Museum of the Normal.