Psychedelics and the Unconscious
This is a more detailed version of the talk I gave at Beyond Psychedelics 2018 in Prague. I applied Freudian/Lacanian concepts to model the psychodynamics of DMT and LSD experiences. It is useful to have a structure to approach the unconscious processes in order to maybe use these tools for ourselves and for patients in psychotherapy. Lacanian psychoanalysis is political and I also point out a few difficulties around the current discourse of psychedelics.
I am not the first one to bring together psychedelics and psychoanalysis. Stanislaf Grof started out with classic psychoanalysis and developed his own theory leading to Holotropic Breathwork but he too said that the psychedelic experience could be explored with Freudian concepts. I am going back to Freud and go along with Lacan, a French psychoanalyst who reread Freud in a very fruitful manner. What I want to point at is the Unconscious- the Freudian Ucs.(its not the sub-conscious, nor do I mean subliminal perception)– that weird and slippery factor that seems to mess around with all of us and i feel very strongly that this needs to be taken into the topic of psychedelics.
I want to make you curious about psychoanalytic concepts. Freud always emphasized that his theory should be tested continuously and that concepts that prove to be wrong should be replaced in the theory of psychoanalysis, so he was a proper scientist in this theoretical aspect. He developed his concepts from empirical observations but the was not interested in objectifying, he focussed on singular narratives instead. Psychedelic experiences present us with weird phenomena of the mind and I want to share a few psychoanalytical concepts that can help to model these experiences and to investigate them further.
When take a trip we realise how reality is constructed and psychoanalysis explicitly deals with how the subject’s narrative shapes his/her perception and experience. So the common experience for both (psychedelic and psychoanalytic) is the relativity of reality.
The basis of construction of reality is language, this is something well recognised by post-modernism. Social realities and perception are formed by the words we use and they reflect our history as a society and as persons.
Another important point beside this more philosophical topic of epistemology is the social discourse around psychedelics. How do we speak about them? Who legitimises their use? Psychoanalysis also has a cultural theory that I will apply to address the politics. It will be just a glimpse I plan on developing further.
How can we implement these substances in psycho therapeutical practice without losing the Weirdness they confront us with? How can we support someone having a difficult experience without intrusive guidance? By Weirdness I am referring to Eric Davis but also the Unconscious. On a side note: he makes a distinction between these that I see less strict. Eric Davis criticizes the “mommy and daddy narrative” of Freudian psychoanalysis reducing it to the common prejudices. We will see in this talk that psychoanalysis goes far beyond that.
In psychedelic research we deal mainly with questions around consciousness. Brain scans, neurotransmitter dynamics publications, psychological effect studies and clinical trials produce important knowledge
These graphics are taken from publications from Robin Carhart-Harris who used Freudian theory to interpret his neuroscientific data (I was very excited to find this a couple of years ago). Although this produces important knowledge that pushes mainstream acceptance and understanding of psychedelic compounds, the natural sciences leave out an important factor of experience: the subjective. This known as the Hard Problem of consciousness. It cannot be solved by natural sciences because they do not have the tools to describe subjectiveness since they are based on statistics and objectifications (correlations). The point is: human consciousness cannot be captured by an outside gaze and even science is a human narrative. We need tools to address the subjectiveness of experience, the qualia.
Psychoanalysis has a useful theory of the subject at the centre of which is the Unconscious.
Let’s start with the „unholy trinity“: the Real, the Imaginary and the Symbolic, as Lacan called this. Lacan derived it from the Freudian topology of Id-Ego-Superego. It is a model for dimensions of our psyche and I will use the Mirror Stage to exemplify it.
The Real is not reality (whatever that is). You could think of the Kantian Thing here. It is defined as that which always returns in the same place but it can never be accessed directly, it will always be mediated through the other orders.
Think of a baby. Of course, the baby is not in the naked Real, this is impossible, alone due to the fact that our sensory organs are already filters that sample “reality” mediated through the brain (i.e. we experience objects differently if we listen to them rather than look at them). Freud already noticed the fact that the cortex and the skin are derived from the same embryonic germ layer. The fact that the Unconscious plays an important role in perception is illustrated by the concept of the drives. The drive (Trieb) is „a concept on the frontier between the mental and the somatic, as the psychical representative of the stimuli originating from within the organism and reaching the mind, as a measure of the demand made upon the mind for work in consequence of its connection with the body“ (Freud, 1915). We see that even the basic “instincts” are not natural (or real) for a human being, they are represented as something mentally (that is, we can never break out of Plato’s cave).
So we think of the baby as having no clear distinction of inner and outer, this is also called primary narcissism because everything is experienced as related. Cold may feel similar to hunger or the absence of the mother before the mirror stage. We could say there is a continuous consciousness without symbolisation of the objects – there is no object since there is no self. The baby lacks the important structure of the ego, of the self which gets introduced when it becomes able to recognise itself in the mirror (usually between the age of 6-18 months). It can be a literal mirror or a metaphorical- other reflections, including people, work the same.
What do we see in the mirror? An image we identify with. The Imaginary. The body is imaginary as are all our identifications. It is an image, a representation of the self- it is perfectly whole and has boundaries and it is an object of this world next to other objects.
An image comes with a sound or a word that represents it. „That’s you!“ they say for example or „Anna Freudenthaler“. This is the Symbolic dimension. My name places me in the symbolic order, my first name has a history, my last name already puts me in relation to psychoanalysis. There is no meaning in this dimension (what I make of my name is up to me), it is an interrelation of sounds that relate to each other according to a set of grammatical rules). The Symbolic order is language, but also any other kind of law- taboos, norms, etc all those things that were there before I was born and before my parents were born. This is where the society comes into the psyche. Due to this „third person perspective“ Lacan introduces the Other, this is the “outside point of view”.
So now we have these dimensions and different representations of ourselves and what it results in is alienation. The subject comes to being through otherness, as Hegel already noticed. Human beings always lack something because we speak and the lack constitutes our desire to find something – we will go into this a little bit later.
One more example: I say, „This is beautiful“ but I cannot convey beautiful as I am feeling it. This is why the Symbolic is designated with „absence“. Yet we will understand each other, especially because of the Imaginary that kicks in and gives me images of beautiful things, which of course can be fraudulent because I can never know if we have the same images.
These orders are tied together in different forms this Borromean Knot is one version. The special feature of this structure is that if you loosen one of the rings all fall apart, you cannot really separate these perspectives, you can not only be in the Imaginary or only in the Symbolic nor in the Real. There are many different versions to knot the registers together. Lacan spent his last seminars demonstrating this by literally making knots in front of his students. Actually, his reason for developing Freud’s topology is that we live in times where there is no Other of the Other who guarantees for the law. This is evident in the tolerance or racist society we live in (depending on the point of view). No social taboo and no cultural norm is as fixed as it was say, in Freud’s times. You just need to surf the internet and you see that you can transgress all laws. Not even science obeys its rules if you think of subatomic physics. While triping, our perceptions do not obey the usual rules. So, for the late Lacan psychoanalysis in our times was not so much about the Name oft he Father/the Oedipus Complex, but about finding something that holds these three orders in place and there are many singular solutions to this.
We will now go into an example.
We can get easily lost in the phantasmatic phenomenology of the DMT world, which is all in the Imaginary order. The images, the wholeness and perfectness of it all are typical features of the imaginary dimension. And we have to keep in mind that as soon as we come back and speak of it, it gets symbolized, otherwise we would not remember. So when I say that by losing our body representation when we break through with DMT there is a shift to an imaginary encounter with the Real I do not mean that the Symbolic disappears completely. It is like an early stage of mentalisation, where the Other gives you everything – a body, language and time. We do not experience alienation as much as we encounter Aliens. Other beings that communicate mysteriously and omnipotent. The first Other for a baby is the mother, she interprets the baby’s cries, gives it some meaning and imprints its body by symbolisation.
I have to think of Terrence McKenna’s narration of a DMT trip ( link to one version of this ) where he encounters entities that speak in geometrical bodies and they invite him to form those by making sounds himself. There is a pleasure in babbling that has nothing to do with language. Babbling, as it happens to some people (including me) on DMT, disregards the rules of language and thus the symbolic order. The symbolic order prohibits jouissance and protects us from it. Jouissance is an enjoyment that always has a deadly reference, a paradoxical pleasure, reaching an almost intolerable level of excitation (the word in French is related to Orgasm which is also litteraly called “little death”… like a DMT trip?). So, this jouissance is basically the death drive- the excess enjoyment is paid for with the body- interestingly DMT is related to death maybe because we get so close to the jouissance of the Other, you enjoying it and it enjoying you.
“Lacan defines jouissance as a disturbing dimension in the experience of the body, which renders the subject unable to experience itself as a self-sufficient enjoying entity (Lacan, 1971–1972, p. 217). Jouissance is immensely disruptive. It is a dimension of otherness that we all have to deal with. Indeed, the very idea of “dealing with it” bears witness to discourse; that is, to the fact that we treat jouissance by making an appeal to an agent or semblance, which is expected to manage it: jouissance provokes the mobilization of semblance. The root of jouissance is in the structurally dysfunctional status that the body has for the human being.”
This kind of jouissance is also related to psychosis and the Real (there are also other forms of jouissance as we will see in the next example) but we all relate differently to our jouissance.
I would approach a DMT trip not as if it was unveiling the reality but in terms of what you make of the Other. Of course you would still go in and interact with the entities, if that’s what you encounter. Trying to make sense of the Real in it will not help because there is no meaning in the Real. How to deal with the Real is one of our big questions in contemporary psychoanalysis and society (Slayoj Zizek talks about this) and it might be no coincidence that the interest for this compound is growing in our society.
Now the LSD experience is of a different order if we consider lower doses (you can definitely get to where you lose your body representation and enter into the same imaginary encounter with the Real as on DMT on higher doses).
The Symbolic seems to be more in place here,
We get alienated from our bodies because the image appears differently, but we don’t lose the body representation as in the DMT breakthrough place. We still move in the realm of the Imaginary but the meaning seems to be more flexible, we ask ourselves questions like: Who am I? What do I do? Why do I do it? You may say that you experience the fraudulent nature of the Imaginary and the alienation caused by the Symbolic/the Other first hand. There is a different kind of jouissance, its a jouis-sens French for „the enjoyment of meaning“ which interrelates the Symbolic and the Imaginary. As we come down from a trip, we project and identify and encounter (small) others. It is a mirror world, such as the mirror stage where you come together again, and the agreed upon set of rules (the Symbolic) starts making sense. These trips have the capacity to imprint us in a way the mirror stage did, we may be able to reform the image, the me/ ego/self in its symbolic and imaginary anchorage.
Since LSD may enable us play around with the symbolic set of rules, we can to follow them like free association since double meanings and puns often pop up. Sometimes this causes distress because the Symbolic also protects us from jouissance and losing a supporting structure can be difficult. Paranoia-like states where you think the other knows what you think or being concerned with breaking laws can be indicators of this. Sure, the ego defences where there for some reason!
We talk about ego dissolution on high doses of psychedelics and in fact psychoanalysts have postulated that LSD diminishes ego defenses (like repression) since the first experiments with it in psychiatry in the 1950’s. The agent of construction of reality in psychoanalysis is the Ego because it mediates between perceptions that come from outside and inside. These point to the therapeutic use of LSD. On a historical level you could say (simplified) that the many revolutionary ideas of the 60’s where well accompanied by LSD because it makes you question the rules of the establishment.
What I find very important in the LSD experience it the emotional quality to the trip which I understand as increased libido mobility. The concept of libido is that it is a psychical force that will attach to the ego and the objects. Before the mirror stage we suppose a primary narcissism where all libido is in one place and everything is linked to me because there is not distinction between the object and the self yet. Gradually, objects become libidinally loaded as does the self. There are many conditions that have to do with libido mobility. For example, during normal mourning processes libido of objects is retrieved back from the lost object to the self or the inner object representation. In depression the ego is identified with the lost object that is being delibidinised and this causes big distress because the ego is devalued libidinally. In a psychotic break all the libido is drawn on the ego and since the ego is the agent of consciousness and perception we see how this can cause the hallucinatory experiences. On a side note, I think that marijuhana enhances libido mobility. The relaxing effect could be due to a withdrawal of libidnal energy of objects in the world towards the ego representations. This results in a narcissistic state which is experienced as relaxing because other objects are not needed, not as important, and you learn that you are self-sufficient to some extent. Its a little like a mourning process perhaps. In some subjects of course this is known to cause psychosis which happens when the ego attracts all libido and when the subject has a psychotic structure, but this is another topic. Narcissism is necessary for every one to some extent and all drugs including psychedelics push narcissism. I will explore this further in some other talk or post.
Resume: So what about the Unconscious?
This is Lacan, the guy we are talking about. In the picture you see him with Dali, he was friends with many surrealists at the time.
The graph is called the Graph of Desire and it is very complex – I will just use it to show you what I am putting emphasis on. So when we talk about the ego we move mainly in the lower part of the graph. What falls out of this is the Unconscious, shown in the lines above.
The question here is: What do I want? What do I really want when I want pizza?
An example: in the right bottom corner is the subject, a baby. It cries and the cries get picked up by the mother who is O, the first big Other. She gives meaning to the baby’s cries using the code (language, O)- “You are hungy!”, this is s(O) (signified by the Other). This results in I(A), the image the baby gets from the Other – “I am being cared for”, “I am loved”, etc. The unconscious lines above leading to s(Ø) (signified by the Other without Other/the lack in the Other) is what the baby does not get as an answer to the demand and this is the cause for constant seeking. The unconscious desire drives and takes the form of a question i.e. “what am I?” “what do I want?”.
As soon as there is a symbolic representation of oneself, something gets repressed into the Unconscious. It is the desire beyond the demand that drives us and the desire is unconscious. The object cause of desire (a) is placed in the middle of the Borromean knot.
For Lacan, there are only signifiers are in the Unconscious, no signified. (transferability!). So it is not about the meaning of the sound, of the word, of the action (all of these can be signifiers) but about its connection to other words and sounds. Signifiers are in the symbolic order because they refer to each other, a signifier represents something for another signifier.
In psychoanalysis repressed signifiers are retrieved from the Unconscious by means of speaking, of letting speech take form of free association and this is one way to access the Other. It is quite different from the scientific discourse where we move in the imaginary and symbolic dimensions (symbolic representations of images with meaning) represented in the lower part of the graph. That is, we do not move beyond the Other of the Other.
So this is a provocative statement I put there because theoretically, there are a few problems when you bring psychedelics into psychoanalytical clinic. The point is this:
You go to the psychoanalyst and suppose he/she has a knowledge that will help you. The psychoanalyst assumes this place but does not really take it. He/she will not tell you what to do because you have to talk to get to your unconscious desire.
If we look at the psychedelic substance it takes a similar place as the psychoanalyst: you suppose there is some knowledge that will help you. The difference is that it goes without speaking to the Other (who the psychoanalyst represents) and thus you will not get out of your Imaginary.
It is interesting to note that the shaman also refuses to fully take the place of knowledge and tell you what to do, he refers to the Other which is the substance for the shaman. The problem here really lies in power relations. If you have a substance legitimizing your psychoanalyst, the therapy may never end because of this structure you cannot transgress but which is at the heart of psychoanalysis. This is certainly a point to develop further since I do think that psychedelic substances have a psychodynamic impact that can be used in therapy.
Thomas Metzinger, a German philosopher, talks about Technologies of Consciousness and envisions different scenarios of dealing with these. I think it is very important to give this a lot of space in the psychedelic discourse we find ourselves in.
If we think of the social discourse we also have the problem of legitimation. Who will regulate the psychedelic experience and thus give it a function? What does it mean if psychedelics are prescribed for traumatised people by medical doctors? What legitimises recreational use and other uses determined by subjects? Is the illegal status a factor that constitutes for the subversiveness? Another provocative statement: Why give MDMA to veterans instead of stopping the war? (surely there are many points here that are being discussed but I feel that this questions still exemplifies the structural importance of the matter).
I am not too familiar yet with Lacan’s discourses, but I find them very useful to approach these questions. He formulates the scientific and the capitalist discourse among others which shows us that these two are linked to produce knowledge and deal with excess jouissance and as a consequence, the subject ($) disappears. I will come back to this at some later point when I have elaborated more.
I cannot talk about psychedelic experiences without reflecting the society I live in. Foucault: science is a tool of knowledge and power because it is closely linked to economy and capitalism (for example in the form of research funds) in our world at the moment. Since natural science remains a way we describe reality in our society this perspective is important in our discussion.
We try to find a narrative with natural sciences but it is not surprising that many turn to the spiritual side, since there is something missing from these explanations. In the scientific research we categorise this substance chemically and strip it of subjectivity, in spirituality we try to revive God or nature or some other principle that can be the Other of the Other. The question is: how to come to terms with this overwhelming experience that happens inside myself? Structurally, the answer is that we need to find ways to knot the registers together. Of course, you may find that the “old school” way of doing this is by relying on the Other of the Other, like engaging with a shaman, is the way for you. But there are many others and this is what I’d like to explore theoretically and in practice.
I like this picture because it shows an Other that’s not defined. You run the risk of solipsistic/narcissistic individualisation here – every one has their own realities, we all live next to each other without social bond.
We need to come to terms with the structural fact that we as subjects always lack something (because we speak).
Freud came up with the Unconscious because he wanted to explore dreams and found that we are not in full control of our conscious acting and decisions. A way to get to the Unconscious is by keeping our curiosity and by talking. So, let’s keep it up and talk to me, talk to each other….