Don’t ignore your gut

I think and compare, see with a feeling eye, feel with a seeing hand.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Have you ever had a ‘feeling’ about something? Or felt a deep understanding or affinity for a piece of music or art that you couldn’t quite explain? A lot of our intuitive and emotional reactions to experiences are like weather patterns in our bodies and minds, unconscious, willful, with a significant impact on how we consciously pay attention to the world. So many of our phrases for emotions; ‘they rose within me’, ‘I lost control, ‘I was swept away’, speak to a sense of these processes having a will of their own and one that has more of an impact on our conscious thought than we realise. 

Over the last ten years there has been an exponential increase in the amount of research into something called ‘embodied cognition’. Embodied cognition is a way of conceptualising how we think and make decisions, a shift away from the predominant, and restrictive, way of viewing thought as only specific to the brain, expanding to incorporate a framework that includes the significance of the body. The dominant view of cognitive science, and therefore of psychology more broadly, is that cognitive processing only takes part in the brain and is devoid of the bodily processes of sensory input and control. The movement of embodied cognition is a way of viewing thinking, in a way that is grounded not only in the biology of the brain, but also in the feedback we receive from bodily sensations in relation to our actions, in our connection to nature and the influence of our social environment. 

The importance of serotonin in understanding ‘thinking’

When considering how thinking is shaped not only by our brain, but by our body, it is important to consider the role of serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, a chemical that transmits signals between neurons in the central nervous system, and is critical to the regulation of virtually all brain function. Dysregulation of serotonin function has been implicated in major depressive disorder along with other mental illnesses, with most antidepressant drugs working by increasing the amount of serotonin in the brain. It is difficult to find a human behaviour that is not modulated by serotonin, with it responsible for regulating mood and emotional responses, perception, attention and memory, along with our attitudes to rewards like food and sex.

The interesting thing about serotonin is that the vast majority of it is found outside of the brain. In fact up to 90% of all serotonin in the body is found in the gut, and this network is so extensive that scientists have referred to the gut as the “second-brain”. Often used phrases “I feel it in my gut” or “I have butterflies” in my stomach are not superstitious nonsense, but a critical factor in what drives our cognition. That intuitive feeling of ‘something’s not right’, a feeling that we can’t explain but which we ‘feel’, may have a significant amount to do with the distribution of serotonin in the digestive system. 

This hypothesis is supported by research conducted on mice in 2017, which discovered that serotonin played a key role in behavioural and cognitive flexibility, something the researchers called ‘reversal learning’. Reversal learning can be thought of as the ability to change a course of action, when something in the environment changes, i.e when something no longer feels right. An example of this process malfunctioning, would be someone with low serotonin levels who is unable to adjust their ways of thinking after being made redundant. This inflexibility leads them to ruminate over and over on the fact they were made redundant, leading to a spiral of negative thinking and self criticism. Someone with higher serotonin levels may have had more flexibility in their response and instead of ruminating, re-framed the way they view the situation, taking a new course of action like volunteering their time, or re-enrolling at university. 

Of course our analytical reasoning and conceptual development happens in the most highly evolved parts of the brain, but they are built on a foundation of non-verbal, intuitive processes that begin in the body. 

The Four E’s of Cognition

  1. Embodied – The body

Our bodies are the seat of our intuition, our understanding. Whilst the mind is the centre of our intellect, our knowing.

Historically the body has been viewed as unimportant to the understanding of the mind, even as an impediment to this understanding. Religious ideas of the body as something base, even sinister; with its many temptations being a barrier to salvation, have been common across many religions and philosophical thought for thousands of years. The French philosopher René Descartes was so suspect of any physical experiences, including that of his own body, he decided the only thing we could be sure of are our thoughts. For most of Western philosophical history the body has been something to be overcome, to be tamed by the mind, as though it were separate from the body.

Without the body we would be unable to think. The brain is our seat of conscious experience, however the vast majority of what the brain does and processes is occluded from our conscious awareness. The amount of information that our body takes in from our broader environment, is the input that the brain uses to conceptualise an understanding of the world and to ignite actions within it. Our appetites for food and sex, what draws our attention, our emotional responses, all of these take place from within the body via a complex network of sensory inputs, neurotransmitter chemicals and hormones, long before our rational mind interprets these experiences.

Our bodies then can be seen as the seat of intuition, of our understanding, whilst our mind is the centre of our intellect, of our knowing. A sense of understanding in this context is our visceral, non-verbal intuition of something that we have sensed, without applying a consciousness judgement of how this fits in with our existing knowledge.  An example of this is a mother responding to her child’s cries in a specific way as she understands what the needs of the child are, without necessarily knowing what these needs are. Our sense of knowing then grows out of an initial understanding of the problem. After tending to the child, over time the mother develops a knowledge of what a particular cry entails and so develops more of a conscious response.

The opposite of this is the practice of a physical skill, something like playing the piano. At first, there is a requirement to consciously attend to each specific element of this skill, a sustained focus on which key represents what note, on how these keys combine to create a chord and how these chords create a tune. Over time as this skill is continually practiced, these actions become more natural, and with increasing proficiency the action of playing the piano becomes more and more devoid of conscious attention, in fact conscious attention may even disrupt the ‘flow’ of playing. At this point the skill of playing the piano has essentially become embodied, and it is as though the body is almost channelling the music that has been learned through conscious practice.

  1. Embedded – The environment

Inanimate objects in the world can serve as symbols that jog our memory

The materialist view of the brain is that it must be explainable by the principles of nature. This view is extended by those proponents of embodied cognition, stating that cognition is embedded and shaped by the environment in which we grew up and live. In connection to the above point, our cognition is shaped by the natural environment we are faced with, and what the sensory input of our bodies gleans from this environment. An example of this is how the cognition of two people, one in Iceland and one in Thailand, are likely to be very different based on their experiences of navigating their environments. The skills required to be learnt, and therefore the ways of thinking that need to be utilised in order to develop these skills. 

We are often able to remember more effectively by using our bodies and parts of our surrounding environment to ‘offload’ storage and simplify the processing required. Essentially we map our memories onto elements in the environment, with those elements serving to remind us of what we need to remember when we see them again. Simple examples of this relate to something that psychologists call context effects, which involved experiments relating to test performance of college students. These experiments showed that those who took the test in their regular, weekly lecture hall performed better than those who took the test in a new venue. It is believed that visual cues in the regular lecture hall provided memory cues for specific information that had been learned throughout the semester, aiding recall.

Essentially this is an example of the representation of knowledge in symbolic form. We imbue meaning onto parts of our environment, almost unconsciously, and this allows us to build sophisticated structures of references and understanding. Out of its context a clock in a lecture hall is just an object, however within the context of a lecture hall, during class, the clock may serve as a reminder to a student of a particular piece of information, jogging their memory. 

  1. Extended – The Social World

It is as if the other person’s intentions inhabited my body and mine his.

Our cognition does not develop in a vacuum, or a ‘black box’ as the arch priest of behavioural psychology, B.F.Skinner referred to the brain. Our cognition is shaped by the social environments we inhabit, in fact it is almost dependent on the social environment we exist within. The social environment and our cognition are reciprocal exchanges between us and the groups we are a part of. Our ways of thinking are shaped by family members, educational institutions, work, friends, sexual partners; sculpted by the millions of gestures, actions, words and emotions of the individuals we spend our time with. 

The discovery of mirror neurons by Giacomo Rizzolatti and Laila Craighero in 2004 was a major breakthrough in neuroscience. This finding represented a paradigm shift for our understanding of cognition and in particular the understanding of the mechanisms for empathy, imitation and language. The paper showed that mirror neurons in the brain ‘fire’ in the same way for an observer of an action, as though the observer had performed the action themselves. This finding was empirical evidence for a statement by the French phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty who stated, whilst talking about the reciprocal nature of communication, that “it is as if the other person’s intentions inhabited my body and mine his”.

The implication of this finding was that it showed how fundamental empathy is to our ability to learn and think via the imitation of others in our social environment. Something that is also critical for language development and production. Without empathy, we are unable to understand another person’s emotional state, meaning that we are unable to develop lasting social relationships. Without the ability to imitate than we would never have been able to learn from one another. A child learns to walk and talk not by thinking abstractly about the concept of language or movement, but by attempting to be like those they hear and see around them.

  1. Enacted – Our actions

So often when we are stuck for a word, we gesticulate wildly with a hand, almost as though we were physically grasping for the word that escapes us.

An interesting way of thinking about how our thinking is enacted and how action supports thinking is by understanding gestures when we talk. In multiple studies, gestures have been shown to aid in the recall of information, particularly detailed visual memory, or memory about particular locations. The way that gesture can aid in the recall of working memory then helps in the production of speech itself. 

We think as much with our hands as we do with our minds. So often when we are stuck for a word, we gesticulate wildly with a hand, almost as though we were physically grasping for the word that escapes us. This notion of grasping is critical to understanding how action and thinking are symbiotically linked. The German’s have a word for all meaningful, goal-directed activity called Handeln, which relates to an individual acting in the world, but also refers to more abstract notions of mental thought. This word of course is derived from where we get the word hand from and relates to our ability to manipulate our environment, to acquire things, including acquiring concepts, which is why we say we have “grasped” something once we understand it. 

Much of the purpose of our thinking is to put thoughts into action. One of the key benefits of cognitive behavioural therapy, still the dominant form of psychotherapy sanctioned by most Western health systems and governments, focuses on how your actions can shape your patterns of thought. Clinical depression is often preceded by a life event that leads to a period of withdrawal, isolation and inactivity, and the premise of behavioural therapy is that new ways of thinking can be ‘enacted’ by changing patterns of behaviour. These patterns of behaviour, remove the individual from their isolation, exposing them to activities that bring enjoyment and connection with other people. This activity removes the self-directed gaze of rumination, bringing us back into embodied movement and an extension beyond ourselves back into the social and outside world. The feedback from these actions are what allows us to update our mental representations of what we understand to be the world and how the world works, whilst also enabling us to develop patterns of thinking that emanate from these new frames of reference. 

Bringing it all together

The brain is not a black box pulling the levers on the rest of the body. The brain is the conductor of an orchestra, a body of instruments whose reverberations are influenced by the actions within the environment around them. The brain is our seat of conscious experience and where all our high level reasoning and abstraction takes place, however these mental parts of us that we rightly celebrate do not take place in a vacuum. Our ability to reason is critically dependent on the intuitive, unconscious and non-verbal understanding that comes from the body and its entanglement with the wider world. We appear to often have an intuitive understanding of something long before we develop conscious knowledge and it is critical to remember that this knowledge is built on this foundation of unconscious processes. A hyper-rational way of thinking that ignores intuition is a half-blind way of looking at the world, one that only values abstractions over the importance of context. The embodied cognition movement has major implications for how we view the world and is a promising avenue for developing a more holistic understanding of the mind, an understanding that is built from the body.

Change your lakes for ocean

“The Lake Over The Ocean, Faroe Islands”

There is a narrowness in such a notion,

Which makes me wish you’d change your lakes

for Ocean

Lord Byron, Don Juan

The quote above from Lord Byron was actually in reference to a collection of poets based in the Lake District of England and talks to both a desire for these individuals to push out into the world, to test their beliefs, as well as challenging them to break out of a fixed or narrow view of the world.

A lake is an enclosed space, a place of calm, where the water is predictable and the exploration bounded by the encircling shore. An ocean is an open space, boundless, where it is easy to become lost, where the waves and weather are unpredictable. A lake represents comfort, ease, leisure. An ocean represents discomfort, difficulty and adventure. 

You might say, well, the lake seems pretty good to me, what’s wrong with leisure? Why push yourself into discomfort unnecessarily? And, most people would probably agree with you and do just that. It is easier to sit within your preconceived notions, the lake of immediate experience and thoughts, especially if this way of thinking has been beneficial for you. There is good reason to prefer this to the chaos of the ocean outside. However, like the black dot in the white hemisphere of the yin yang symbol, the lake contains a small part of its opposite, a whisper of the chaos outside, the distant rumblings of the ocean. 

The problems of the lake are contained within what makes it great. The ease and protection of living in this encircled space can lead to a kind of complacency, a withering of skills and strength, an increase of anxiety, or even fear of what lies “out there”. The lake is no guarantee either. It is subject to the outside forces of drought, contamination, conflict and without having the skills to face the open ocean, this puts you at a severe disadvantage when the world shifts, which it will. If that time comes when you need to test yourself against the ocean then it will be better to have been prepared by previously testing your sailing skills on the ocean rather than letting them lay idle, untested, in the lake. A willingness to “change your lakes for ocean” relates to a willingness to be open to what the ocean represents; new people and ideas, uncertainty and discomfort, wonder and awe. Essentially this is a maxim that promotes an open system of thinking in comparison to a closed one. 

Now, it is true that virtually no one says that they are a ‘closed-minded’ person, everyone would likely rate themselves as pretty ‘open-minded’. But as Paul Graham says in his essay, What You Can’t Say, how much of that ‘open-mindedness’ is simply taught? To what degree is it an inherited, rote learnt fixity of what a good person or citizen is? An idea that you have of yourself, as opposed to an actual behaviour? Both the arch-woke-liberal and the alt-right-troll, likely see themselves as ‘open minded’, however in their conflict, they simply reflect each other’s ignorance, a reflection that obscures the awareness of a more nuanced point of view. Both of these people are convinced of their “truth”, and as such, have picked a side, grasping onto the ideological viewpoint of their churches of thought. 

A sense of certainty, is ultimately a fixed way of thinking, solidified by a perceived grasping of some unwavering “truth”.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions” is a truism that is emblematic of what happens when we believe that we are certain. The gap between your own certainty and someone else’s is often filled with disdain for the other point of view and an incredulity of how someone else could think that way. So many of the tragedies and problems that befall the world are the result of a group, acting in a way that they are convinced is right, with those disagreeing often being labelled as dangerous, inferior or inhuman. A sense of certainty, is ultimately a fixed way of thinking, solidified by a perceived grasping of some unwavering “truth”. The grasping of this truth then leads to, in the words of the philosopher Gotthold Lessig, ‘passivity, indolence and vanity’. This represents a return to the lake, with the belief that the lake is all there is, that there is no point stretching yourself to understand any further because the truth has been grasped, paradise found, utopia ensured. A fixed system of thinking is therefore like a piece of domino art, the starting point and the final destination are set, and the sequence from beginning to end is fixed, unchangeable, unless the entire set up is interrupted or destroyed. The advantage of this system is that it allows us to achieve what we wish to achieve, the disadvantage of this system is that the sequence can’t be updated and nor can the objective of what this sequence is marching toward, regardless of what happens in the outside world. 

This is not to say that ‘anything goes’ and that there is no truth at all, but to say that the “truth”, in the paraphrased words of Heraclitus and Nietzsche, is always in a ‘process of becoming’. More a question of embodied searching, rather than of intellectual possessing. The problem arises when the narrowing of our attention, continuously blocks the outside world, muffling our intuitive understanding of the broader context. This silencing of our ability to focus on what we find interesting or valuable can often lead to that feeling of ‘being lost’, or feeling like there is no escape from your rut of thinking and behaviour. When actions become dislocated from the wider context of the person’s values, this is when the grip of depression and despair can take hold.

The often quoted maxim of “an open mind is one that is willing to change” has some challenging, overlooked implications, denoting an element of inherent discomfort and anxiety. If we are to live authentically, then there must be a willingness to be in a process of perpetual change that maintains a kind of psychological homeostasis. In order to dissolve no longer useful ways of thinking, we have to continually update our conceptions, maintaining an openness to our intuitive and implicit understanding. We always have to be willing, and prepared, to change our lakes for ocean.

Opening the door to the hall of mirrors

The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing

Blaise Pascal

Anyone watching The Last Dance on Netflix over the last couple of weeks has seen what it is like to be in an embodied state of flow. Seeing Michael Jordan playing basketball is to be reminded of how much the exertion of expert physical skill is devoid of our self-conscious awareness. When watching MJ drive to the hoop, or sink an impossible layup in traffic, it is like watching poetry in motion. A kind of magic connecting body, mind and soul in a symphony of coordinated movement. This state of flow is an immersed engagement in your environment, a oneness between doing and being, a sequence of time, where time itself seems to have disappeared.

This ‘flow’ state has been investigated using neuroimaging and has been shown to represent a decrease of activity in a structure of the brain called the default mode network. This network is responsible for much of our mental processes when we are not focused on the external environment, in other words our internal chatter and mind wandering. These processes include self-reflection, mental time travel, mental constructions (ideas), moral reasoning and it is widely thought to be the network of the brain that contributes to our sense of self, what it’s like to be you, or what Freud called the ego.

In a study investigating flow states, tasks that were rated by participants as ‘boring’, corresponded with neuroimaging data that showed higher activity in the default mode network, whilst ‘flow state’ activities corresponded with decreased activity. That subjective feeling of being engrossed in a task, a feeling of ‘losing yourself’ in the activity, is exactly what is happening in your brain when you are in a state of flow. The network of structures in the brain responsible for creating that sense of what it is like to be you, are essentially switched off in these states of immersion. The default mode network is of particular interest to neuroscientists, psychologists and psychiatrists as there is a belief that a hyperactivity in this network of the brain could be the neurological basis for the development of mental disorders. This hypothesis has been one of the factors that has led to the renaissance of psychiatry and neuroscience research into psychedelic experiences.

In other words the default mode network acts like the conductor of an orchestra, repressing the chaos of everyone playing their own tune, keeping the different parts in harmony

Michael Pollan in his book How to Change Your Mind tells the story of psychedelic research and how it was a promising and legitimate field of inquiry in the 1950s and 1960s. Unfortunately, due to concerns relating to the growing counterculture and anti-war movement, the Nixon Government banned these compounds, effectively shutting down a promising line of research. Robin Carhartt-Harris, David Nutt and their team at Imperial College London, are two researchers at the vanguard of this renaissance and some of their theories related to the default mode network have significant implications for our understanding of psychedelic experience, the brain and mental disorder. Carhartt-Harris and his team found that the brain and in particular, those parts of the brain involved in executive function, such as the default mode network, actually exhibited decreased levels of activity, similar to that exhibited in states of flow, which was the opposite of what they had initially expected.

The brain is a hierarchical system, with the more recent, more evolved parts, including key parts of the default mode network, exhibiting an inhibitory or repressive effect on the lower parts of the brain. In other words the default mode network acts like the conductor of an orchestra, repressing the chaos of everyone playing their own tune, keeping the different parts in harmony. The neuroimaging research conducted showed that during psychedelic experiences, this conducting part of the brain essentially switches off, allowing for increased connectivity between different areas which are usually not in communication. 

This research by Carhartt-Harris and his team led to the publishing of a theory called The Entropic Brain Hypothesis, a theory which suggests that our ‘normal’ waking consciousness is the result of a slightly skewed balance between flexible and rigid states. Entropy is defined as the level of uncertainty in a system, and, as can be seen below, high entropy states are associated with flexible thought, like creative or magical thinking, whilst low entropy states are associated with rigid thought, characterised by obsessiveness and addiction. 

The entropic brain hypothesis: spectrum of cognitive states
https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00020/full

A sustained period of time in a high entropy, flexible state of divergent thinking can lead to behaviours that demonstrate psychosis, whilst a sustained period of time in a low entropy, rigid state of thinking can lead to behaviours that demonstrate major depressive disorder or OCD. The term entropy is often associated with physics and relates to expansion and uncertainty, often used in the context of describing the universe, as a system whose entropy is always expanding.

In the subjective experiences of the psychedelic state, a feeling of expansion, or oneness, what is often called ‘oceanic’ or ‘unitive consciousness’ is often described by those under its influence. The most salient of these experiences, with the biggest impact on patient outcomes in the Imperial College research, involves what is called a complete ‘ego death’ or the expansion of your consciousness to such a point that there is no longer any boundary between what it feels like to be you and the outside world. This ‘dissolution of self’ in turn became rated by the patients who experienced it as one of the most important experiences of their lives and resulted in significant shifts of personality.

In a 2018 paper researching the effects of psychedelics, researchers using neuroimaging, found that LSD induces increased connectivity in the sensory and somatic motor areas of the brain. This network of neurons is mapped to the sensory experiences of our body, indicating that LSD increases these signals, whilst decreasing connectivity in the areas of ‘associative thinking’, which include the prefrontal cortex, responsible for most of our executive function. This increased connectivity also extended to the amygdala, which is heavily involved in the emotional processing of stimulus. So a psychedelic state is exhibited by high sensitivity to sensory information, increased emotional response and the reduced executive functions of mental time travel, mental constructions (the self or ego) and moral reasoning. 

What is interesting about this research is that the psychedelic state is not associated with a higher form of consciousness, but in fact a more primal, or primitive form of consciousness. The quieting of the default mode network essentially opens the door to our subconscious experience, returning us to a state that likely had more in common with our prehistoric ancestors, where instinct ruled. The question then is, why would this state have such positive outcomes for patients? One possibility is that it allows for a ‘circuit-breaker’ in the positive feedback loops involved in the rigid thought patterns of addiction and depression, allowing patients to see the bigger picture. Another possibility is that these experiences, when accompanied with psychotherapy, allow patients to access memories and emotions that are otherwise unavailable, facilitating catharsis and acceptance.

This research appears to show that our mental constructions of ‘self’ can essentially be switched off for a time, allowing for a kind of reset. Mental disorders including depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress, all include mental constructions that can become rigid and debilitating. In all of these cases the mind has engaged in a kind of positive feedback loop of rumination, leading to the downward spiral of depression, or the cyclical nature of addiction or OCD.

But why, should an overactive sense of self lead us to become more susceptible to mental disorder? Why wouldn’t this “higher-level” of consciousness, lead us to an improved sense of wellbeing? Dan Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard and a prominent researcher into happiness, may have part of the answer. Gilbert refers to the Prefrontal Cortex, a key hub in the default mode network, as an ‘experience simulator’. This simulator re-presents a mentally constructed reality based on our narrative of self and maps this onto the external world. His research details how much of the mental constructions we develop relating to what we think will make us happy, is often overestimated.

Gilbert refers to this as impact bias and shows that major life events often don’t have the lasting impact on our happiness that we think they would. In other words, our states of unhappiness are often caused by a poor ability to forecast what we think will make us happy, whilst the subsequent stress generated by our actions trying to attain those desires can keep us in a state of dissatisfaction. In a sense we are always in a state of wanting, jumping from one imagined pleasure to the next, allowing the goal directed part of the mind to continue calling the shots. In something like depression the experience simulator has essentially gone into overdrive, developing negative mental re-presentations that become overbearing, throwing us out of balance with the broader context.

A sense of balance between competing ways of viewing the world is exactly what is proposed in Iain McGilchrist’s magnum opus The Master and his Emissary. This book, twenty years in the making, detailed the neurological research into the different “views” of the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Detailing, in a breathtaking sweep of 2,500 years of western culture, how imbalances and equilibrium between the hemispheres’ ‘views’ have contributed to various pendulum swings of culture and history. McGilchrist makes clear that, despite the burgeoning amount of pop psychology stating otherwise, both hemispheres are involved in what the brain does. Where things differ however, is in how the brain does what it does and how the different hemispheres ‘view’ the world. The left hemisphere’s view is more sequential and fixed, processing information linearly toward some objective that it has picked out of the broader context. In contrast, the right hemisphere takes a broader, big picture view of the world, developing implicit understanding (as opposed to knowledge). This includes the understanding of metaphor, imagery, an ability to see patterns and read facial expressions and to appreciate art and the harmony and melodies of music. 

McGilchrist argues that the hemispheres, when operating properly, work together in a kind of Hegelian Dialectic, with a synthesis of the two different world views leading to something that is more than the sum of its parts. The coda of McGilchrist’s thesis focuses on his hypothesis that in the last 150 years there has been an increasing tendency to see our world through the more fixed and machine-like left hemisphere. Much of this he puts down to the increasing levels of machine-like ways of working inherent in modern life. Developments such as bureaucratisation, mechanisation and the view of workers as interchangeable parts are all typical of a left-hemisphere view of the world.

One of McGilchrist’s central concerns and one which echoes Dan Gilbert’s research, is that the left’s fixed, sequential, linear view of the world leads to a re-presentation of reality, one devoid of the broader context. The left hemisphere’s view is a reproduction, essentially a virtual reality, which is mostly interested in objects and ‘things’ as opposed to people and the environment. When our representation of reality becomes detached from the broader context for long periods, our experience can become what he terms, a ‘hall of mirrors’, an oppressive sense of being trapped within the mental constructs of our own thoughts leading to excessive levels of self-consciousness that can result in mental illness.

Psychedelic experiences appear to open a door to this hall of mirrors, allowing a window to the outside world; a reset and rescue from the matrix of the associating minds representation of reality

This sense of being trapped in the hall of mirrors maps onto the type of rigid thinking typified by a low-entropy state in The Entropic Brain Hypothesis. Psychedelic experiences appear to open a door to this hall of mirrors, allowing a window to the outside world, a reset and rescue from the matrix of the associating minds representation of reality. There is a clear overlap between flexible or rigid thinking and the left and right hemisphere’s view of the world, between the grasping and sequential processing of the more rigid, left hemisphere and the contextually rich, intuitive understanding of the more flexible view of the right. Thousands of years of ancient spiritual traditions have spoken of the need for balance in the way we view the world and current psychological and neuroscientific research appears to have now caught up.


Whilst our sense of self and our ability to plan and reason are critical to our daily lives, it appears that these elements of our thinking can become counterproductive if they do not take into account a broader context. With the increasing digitisation of our leisure, work and social interactions there seems to be a creeping tendency to allow a more fixed, re-presented view of the world to dominate, potentially contributing to the significant increases in depression globally. Psychedelic experiences have been shown to be an effective treatment for many individuals suffering from intractable mental disorders. Organisations like MIND Foundation in Europe and Mind Medicine in Australia, along with many others, are working to educate mental health professionals, governments and the wider community as to their benefits and risks. By building awareness about these experiences, along with an understanding of who might benefit, we can remove some of the ‘war on drugs’ dogma that has shut down any debate regarding these treatments and begin to build a new paradigm of understanding for mental health treatments.


What Dostoevsky can teach you about a growth mindset

Portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov
Portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov

“This was the point, that I blindly believed then that through some miracle, some external circumstance, all this would suddenly extend, expand; suddenly a horizon of appropriate activity would present itself, beneficent, beautiful, and, above all, quite ready made, and thus I would suddenly step forth under God’s heaven all but on a white horse and wreathed in laurels. A secondary role was incomprehensible to me… Either hero or mud, there was no in between. And that is what ruined me, because in the mud I comforted myself with being a hero.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground

The Russian Novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) is widely viewed as one of the greatest writers of all time and one of the greatest psychologists in world literature. His novels, including Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov and Notes from Underground deeply explore themes of psychology, philosophy, religion, literature and family, shining a light into the darkest depths of the human heart, whilst also gazing up in awe at our capability, despite everything, for transcendence through our love for each other. For Dostoevsky the good life was a kind of embodied, reciprocal exchange, with this reciprocity between self and other, being the foundation for grasping any kind of truth or understanding.

The passage above refers to a sense of superiority. A retreat into grandiose and delusional fantasy, a fantasy whose carriage is a warped kind of rationalism. A vision in a vacuum, dissolving on contact with reality and experience. The anti-hero of the novel holds a preference for the perfect conception of himself, over a potentially stained one in reality. A fixed conception that results in a fear of life and so a retreat from it. A burrowing into a solitary invention, one in which he is the hero, or will soon be. The abyss between his flawed self-conception and the inconvenience of reality, is filled with a despairing envy and hatred of those he encounters, as they represent a hammer to the mirror of his intellectual invention. Unwilling to let go and accept the contradictions and hypocrisies that are involved in living, this individual festers like a bad seed, his potential growth cut off by an unwillingness to expose himself to the fertiliser of experience.

The narrator of Notes from Underground is a disheveled, shambolic, and completely isolated individual, who views himself as a kind of messiah, someone who, if only the right moment would present itself, would be able to demonstrate his genius. Of course there is no such moment, and the narrator’s fixed, warped notion of himself, leads to a belief that the world should present itself to him “beneficent, beautiful, and, above all, quite ready made”, rather than presenting himself to the world in all the messy reality that entails.

For Dostoevsky, so much of his writing dealt with the dangers of pride and the limits of rationalism. Whether it is Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, calculating the personal and moral necessity of the murder of his landlord, the cold and calculating Ivan in The Brother’s Karamazov, or his unnamed anti-hero in Notes From Underground, a detached, cold and prideful way of thinking that carved the world up into fragments and calculated each step out of context with the reality, was persistently shown by Dostoevsky as being a pernicious and ultimately disastrous way to live. Richard Pevear in the foreword to his translation of Notes From Underground reflects on Dostoevsky’s writing as a whole that;

 “The one quality his negative characters share…is inner fixity, a sort of death-in-life…. Inner movement, on the other hand, is always a condition of spiritual good, though it may also be a source of suffering, division, disharmony in this life. What moves may also rise.” 

Pevear refers to ‘inner fixity’ like a kind of narrow mindedness, or blindness, resulting in a spiritual ‘death-in-life’ or the death of potential. In these books we live in the minds of his characters and are shown, through their examples, the catastrophe’s that await us when we let narcissistic pride prevent us from connecting with others. Dostoevsky was very sceptical that we would be able to think our way to a better world and was vehemently against the utopian ideals of the day, including both capitalism and socialism. In The Brothers Karamazov, he captured the utopian thinking of socialism at that time, saying that the socialists wished, “…not to go from earth to heaven, but to bring heaven down to earth”, prophesying that this would lead to disaster. Referring to capitalism, consumerism and the increasing isolation he believed this was causing he said;

“For he is accustomed to relying only on himself, he has separated his unit from the whole, he has accustomed his soul to not believing in peoples help, in people or in mankind, and now only trembles, lest his money and his acquired privileges perish.”

These warnings relate to how the development and over reliance on a kind of wobbly rationalism, stripped from history and context, with a blank slate, a year zero, the projection of a new kind of reality ‘free’ from the constraints of the past would ultimately lead to further division and death. This solitary focus on our own idea of the world, or of our blinkered, solo pursuit of material possessions ultimately would isolate us, disconnecting us from each other and life. Redemption for Dostoevsky’s characters came through an authentic, even vulnerable embrace of life, a dialectical exchange where a kind of embodied (not just intellectual) truth is mutually constituted by the interaction between self and other. 

What does Dostoevsky have to do with a growth mindset? Well, Carol Dweck, a Stanford Psychologist, renowned for her work into “mindset”, motivation and how people succeed defined a growth mindset as a belief that our capacity is not fixed and that we can develop our abilities and skills over time. Dweck showed in her research that our fixed conceptions of ourselves had to be constantly updated and transformed by the growth that comes from experience and the insights it yields.

Some of her most impactful research, which investigated praise and its impact on motivation amongst fifth-grade students, showed that those praised for effort started to value learning opportunities, whilst those praised for intelligence were more interested in demonstrating their existing ability rather than stretching to improve. Dweck showed that the reinforcement of an existing way of thinking or viewing your own abilities as fixed can have a detrimental effect over time, leading to stagnation, frustration and a loss of potential.

Growth often involves stretching beyond your existing potential, which often means discomfort and effort. But as Dweck mentions in a revisiting of her initial publication, effort without actual learning is pointless. It is not simply about encouraging effort or resilience but also the encouragement of developing a personal insight into what works, a repertoire of techniques and strategies to learn and grow. In other words, a willingness to fail, which gives you the opportunity to update your understanding of what works by testing your concepts against reality and using this insight to transform skills and understanding. A fear of failure can often lead to the restriction of experience and develop into a kind of perfectionism that over time, if coupled with a fixed-mindset can become restrictive. Dweck, herself a recovering perfectionist, stated in a talk at The School of Life a number of years ago that, “I had to start shrinking my world in order to maintain [perfection].” 

The shrinking of the world to match the conception you hold of yourself, as opposed to transforming your conceptions to match the world, would have been a thread of thought that Dostoevsky would have admonished. What is interesting about Dweck’s personal insight along with her extensive research is how it shows that in order to even maintain our abilities we need to keep challenging ourselves and pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone. A fear of looking foolish or ridiculous, leads to a retreat from experience and a constriction of action. A true growth mindset appears to involve a willingness of being the fool before becoming the master.

Burnout: The long shadow of idealism?

“Almost Once” – Brett Whiteley

In order to burn out, a person needs to have been on fire at one time

Ayala Pines

COVID-19 has shone an overdue light on the indispensability of workers that we often take for granted. Nurses, doctors, social workers, taxi drivers, cashiers, cleaners and many others. Whilst many of us have had to adjust to the comparatively mild inconveniences of working from home, these workers are often putting their health at risk to deliver essential services and care. As this emergency and lockdown continues, these workers will need access to comprehensive support to stave off and manage the effects from burnout. The term burnout is most commonly used with reference to those who exert significant “emotional labour” in their work, which refers to the requirement of managing emotions and feelings whilst dealing with people (i.e patients or customers) with the term becoming ubiquitous across not just healthcare but also professional services occupations.

Burnout, more than just exhaustion

A recent definition by Christina Maslach of the University of California, who originally coined the term and Michael Leiter, currently at Deakin University, provided a concept of burnout as: 

“…the index of dislocation between what people are and what they do. It represents an erosion of value, dignity, spirit and will – an erosion of the human soul. It is a malady that spreads gradually and continuously over time, pulling people into a downward spiral from which it is hard to recover.” 

For Maslach and Leiter there is a dislocation of what people are and what they do, causing a split where actions no longer reflect values. This split leads to a chasm of meaningless that in turn can become a downward spiral of rumination, self-doubt and eventually depression. The dislocation means that the underlying values that supported an initial devotion or idealism have shifted or dissolved, usually as the result of some perceived or actual failure or a head-on collision with a difficult occupational reality. 

What is interesting about the above is the inclusion of words such as values, spirit and soul. This definition by Maslach and Leiter alludes to the fact that burnout syndrome, cannot be viewed simply as exhaustion but as something related to existential loss of meaning and purpose. Viktor Frankl, the late psychiatrist, holocaust survivor and founder of Logotherapy could have the key to understanding why burnout is becoming more common. Frankl’s overarching philosophy of the “will to meaning” suggested that to avoid depression and existential despair, one had to authentically live out one’s underlying values by paying attention to what is meaningful. These values are not necessarily moral, but are related to a deeper sense of what attracts your attention, focus and sustained, conscious action; an integrated embodiment of an individual’s orientation toward and action within their framework of meaning.  

For Frankl, he believed that the decline in spiritual and religious life, what he referred to as the noetic dimension, had led to a vacuum of meaning which had been filled by a new kind of devotion to work and it is this devotion, which can sew the seed for burnout. In research published last year by Norbert Riethof and Petr Bob, in Frontiers of Psychiatry, the initial stage of burnout actually involves very intense experiences of meaningful life and work, a kind of idealism or devotion that by the end of the burnout process has been lost following a perceived failure to live up to impossibly high expectations. 

A bright burning candle casts a long shadow and the shadow of idealism appears to be burnout.

There is a counterintuitive element here, which is that burnout appears more likely to affect those that demonstrate a higher level of idealism in their work. Idealism can be a valuable trait for an individual and the organisation they work for as it motivates people to make a difference and go beyond what is asked of them. However, the resulting excitement elicited by this acute sense of meaning, can lead to excessive dedication (perfectionism), a lack of clinical or personal detachment and an obscuring of insight into the knowledge of one’s own limitations. A bright burning candle casts a long shadow and the shadow of idealism appears to be burnout.

Excitement and stress are two sides of the same coin with both of these emotions releasing the stress hormone cortisol, which the body uses to prepare for action. The secretions of these hormones build up over time and if behaviours and work practices aren’t changed, they can have a serious effect on physical and mental health leading to a potential breakdown and in the most extreme cases, suicide. In the United Kingdom a 2018 study found that the probability of doctor’s committing suicide was five times higher than the general population, with a significant factor being the pressure that doctor’s are under due to a lack of resources. 

The difficulty with the term “Burnout”

The trouble with managing burnout partly comes from the difficulty in its definition and diagnosis. In a recent survey of intensive care health professionals the overall number of those categorised as suffering from burnout ranged from 3% to 40% depending on how the syndrome was defined. Part of the difficulty of “diagnosing” burnout is due to its interaction with other mental health issues like depression, begging the question, how much is the term ‘burnout’ simply a socially acceptable label for someone actually suffering from depression? Some of the key descriptions of burnout; loss of enjoyment in things you used to find enjoyable (such as work), persistent fatigue, apathy and cynicism are actually key diagnostic criteria of the American Psychological Association for major depressive disorder. In addition to this, 2017 research in the Journal of Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, found that there was no distinction between the biological markers in the brain of those diagnosed with burnout compared to those diagnosed with major depressive disorder.

The ubiquity of the term ‘burnout’ leads to a number of issues. Overdiagnosis of the syndrome leads to a perceived normalisation of this as a necessary occupational hazard, resulting in acceptance and no urgency in developing the appropriate support frameworks. This resulting lack of support can lead to declining levels of work productivity, job satisfaction, employee engagement and increasing levels of stress and depression. Finally, it appears as though using the term is becoming a euphemistic veil for what is actually depression, something which could prevent someone seeking help due to a normalisation of this as a facet of professional life.

Beyond burnout

Mindfulness training has recently received a lot of attention from researchers and organisations as a technique for reducing physical and mental stress. Mindfulness meditation, leveraging present moment awareness, can help to create space between thoughts, emotions and actions. This “space” can help to improve cognitive empathy, otherwise known as detached concern, whilst learning to manage and not get caught up in emotional empathy, or taking on the emotional states of other people (patients, customers). This awareness can also provide an insight into an individual’s limits, informing them of when to take a step back and some time out, whilst also providing a positive perspective on purpose and achievements. The practice can act as a kind of ‘reset’ of the mind, a process that un-conceals values and brings awareness of actions, allowing a restoration of meaning through integration of both.

Beyond personal practices, a broader shift in how workplace mental health is dealt with, including the communication and support for those with occupationally specific depression could also have a significant impact. A comprehensive review of burnout treatments in 2010 found that a combination of personal and group interventions provided by organisations had the largest effect on managing burnout in individuals. This was partially due to a greater level of acknowledgement about burnout and its potential as an occupational hazard, in turn providing people with support and also an implied understanding that those suffering weren’t alone in how they were feeling.

Bringing it all together

The after-effects from the strain of this crisis are likely to be felt most acutely when the lives of most of us go back to normal. The present moment is a critical opportunity for us to re-evaluate the importance of these individuals, putting in place the proper resources and support to ensure that we protect those that are under so much strain at this time. By developing the adequate support structures for those in critical care industries, organisations can reduce the number of workers lost to burnout and workplace depression, in turn maintaining continuity of standards, care and service for those that rely on them.

Moving away from the fatal shore

Artist: Kurun Warun

To deprive the Aborigines of their territory, therefore, was to condemn them to spiritual death – a destruction of their past, their future and their opportunities of transcendence.

Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding

We cling anxiously to the edge of this continent, terrified of what lurks within. A land of incomprehensible vastness and mystery, of lethal creatures, wilting heat and awe-inspiring weather. The ocean that we have collectively grasped toward since 1788, presents a symbol of potential salvation, promise of connection to the outside world, a respite from scorching sun and desolate dry, however even the ocean brings with it the threat of inundation along with apprehension of the other.

We are precariously placed on this rock, an experimental utopia with no anchor point either to the original people’s of this land, or to the people’s from which we are descended. It has been up to us to determine the values, dreams and myths that can unify us together and provide a guiding light, however these are still fledgling. By destroying the culture of the people that first called this place home, we have not only committed a spiritual murder of the indigenous population, we have also cut ourselves off from any sort of spiritual connection and knowledge of this place. By cutting ourselves off from the original people of this land we will never be free. We will always feel apprehensive, adrift and fearful, trembling in the face of imagined threats, of a foreign land that we do not really comprehend and often seems to us hostile and foreboding.

This anxious grip permeates our lives, driving us to seek control over whatever we can in order to reduce these existential feelings of isolation, loss and alienation. Without integrating the wisdom of the people who understand this land, without finally unifying around an inclusive, collective vision of Australia, we will always be a prisoner of our ignorance and resulting fear. To be a truly great nation we need to reconcile with our original sin, rehabilitating the spiritual essence and wisdom of one of the world’s oldest cultures into a collective and unifying vision of Australia, building a bridge to the past so that we can confidently navigate the future.

Straddling Order and Chaos: Psychedelics and The Entropic Brain

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of the earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree

T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding

The exploration of the mind is the final frontier. We seem to have exhausted our horizontal expansion and so, we must look further inward and upward, to the deepest depths and the highest heights of our psychological experiences and wrestle with one of sciences greatest mysteries, the brain and our conscious experience.

Michael Pollan, in his bestselling book How To Change Your Mind looked to do just that. This book was a sweeping review of the history of psychedelics, charting their surprising history that began with their early embrace by the psychiatric community, their eventual demonisation in response to the counter culture of the 1960’s and their eventual rehabilitation by researchers at the end of the 20th Century. The book, whilst focusing on the history of the drugs and the authors own experiences also delves into the neuroscience behind these molecules, heavily referencing researchers at Imperial College London by the name of Robin Carhart-Harris and David Nutt, both of whom have been studying the effect of Psychedelics on the human brain.

Dr Carhart-Harris, is Head of the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London and in 2014 he laid out a theory called The Entropic Brain. Entropy is the level of uncertainty or surprise in a system, a high entropic system having a large degree of uncertainty/surprise, a low entropic system a smaller degree. There is a point of criticality in any entropic system where it is balanced between order and chaos and it appears from neuroimaging data that this point of ‘criticality’ in our own consciousness occurs in a more archaic or ‘primary’ state, a consciousness sitting below our normal waking experience. It appears as though our normal waking consciousness actively represses entropy, pushing the system into a more sub-critical state with less chaos and more rigidity. The paper focuses on how psychedelic states appear to return our conscious experiences to a more primary state, a state of greater entropy and connectivity, a less ‘repressive’ state.

The brain is a hierarchical system with consciousness being described by some as an emergent property resulting from the ‘self-organised criticality’ of the system, or in other words the brain being more than the sum of its parts, with consciousness emerging somehow from the interrelationship of neural structures. Carhart-Harris, with a background in psychoanalytic theory, discusses Freud’s theories of the ego & the id in the context of his entropic brain theory and proposes that the neural correlates of the ego have been found in something called the default mode network.

The functional centrality of the default mode network is not shared by other neural systems. Current research implies that the default mode network is the highest level of control in the brain. The default mode network serves as a conductor of the orchestra, the executive of total brain function, being relatively removed from sensory processing and predominantly engaged in higher-level, metacognitive tasks such as self-reflection, theory-of-mind (attributing mental states to yourself and others) as well as mental time travel (reflecting on the past, imagining the future). Essentially the default mode network is the centre for the creation of the narrative-self, what Freud described as the ego.

This narrative self is responsible for how we orient ourselves in the world, along with determining our goal directed activity that allows us to survive and thrive, what is called our normal state of consciousness or ‘waking/secondary consciousness’. It appears as though this state of awareness is responsible for filtering out the experiences that are superfluous to our survival, repressing more primary or entropic states, that are representative of what Freud called the id. This repression of entropy, it is proposed, is what allows us to focus on that which is immediately important for our evolutionary success, but it also blocks out many different states of consciousness that are lurking beneath our normal waking veneer.

The authors desire to integrate psychoanalytic theory into the study of mind is motivated by the gap in our scientific understanding of the unconscious, partly created by the consensus of cognitive psychology. Cognitive psychology focuses on the thoughts and subsequent actions of someone in mental distress, seeking to reduce maladaptive behaviour by creating tasks and coping mechanisms to redirect thoughts and action. The authors view is that whilst managing maladaptive thoughts and behaviours relating to mental distress via cognitive & behavioural psychology is very important, this approach only deals with the symptoms of a deeper, more intractable problem. The psychoanalytic viewpoint has been left behind by the scientific consensus of the psychology field, due to the previous inability to test these assumptions using the scientific method. The hope of Carhart-Harris et al. and others is that by examining the effects of psychedelics on the brains of both patients and ‘healthy normals’ we will be able to examine the unconscious mind and devise therapeutic methods to treat previously intractable psychological problems.

Based on neuroimaging, the administration of psychedelics appears to decouple the hippocampi region, the region responsible for the regulation of emotion and development of memory, from the Default Mode Network. This could mean that the brain is no longer repressing the signals emanating from the hippocampus, allowing access and insights into memories or emotions that we suppress or have forgotten. This hypothesis reflects the subjective reports of many people who have taken psychedelics, particularly in a therapeutic setting, reporting vivid childhood memories, forgotten traumas and visceral emotions. It is hoped that by gaining access to this deeper wellspring of mental life, and through the right integrative therapeutic approaches, this primary state can serve as the catalyst for individuals to engage with psychological issues at their source, rather than just their symptoms.

Depression is one of the most pressing of these psychological issues today. The SSRI drugs, which showed so much promise for its treatment when launched in the 1980’s do not work as well as they did and access to adequate mental health care is lacking for most. It is proposed that the hyperactivity of the default mode network (an overactive ego) leads to a narrow and intense introspection which is characteristic of depressive symptoms. An overactive ego leads to more introspective metacognitive tasks, leading to an over emphasis on maladaptive self-narrative and an increase in negative, rigid thinking characteristic of depression and anxiety. This rigid thinking and excessive order is characterised as the ‘tyrannical’ ego, an incessantly critical voice that obscures perspective, filtering out or repressing outside experience that could potentially break pathological patterns of thought. The authors discuss how mild depression may have been evolutionary adaptive, with it potentially being a form of reality testing that allowed us to successfully and efficiently navigate our ancestral environment. However, for those suffering from treatment resistant depression, it appears as though this potentially adaptive trait has become overactive, no longer serving the individual and potentially putting their lives in danger.

Extensive research has demonstrated the astounding positive results of psychedelic experiences in improving the psychological outlook of those diagnosed with terminal cancer and people struggling with addiction and treatment resistant depression. It appears that psychedelics break the neural patterns of thought that lead to excessive rigidity of thinking, ‘rebooting’ the mind through a return to a primary consciousness that increases connectivity between different parts of the brain and allows a kind of cognitive reset.


Psychedelic therapy could possibly be a major breakthrough in the enhancement of the existing efficacy of psychotherapeutic techniques. By silencing the ego, clients or patients of therapists may be able to feel emotions that have been previously unavailable to them, recollect and come to terms with long-forgotten memories and face down demons locked deeply away in their unconscious, gaining a new sense of perspective and laying new ‘tracks’ of thought. The narrative and explanation of the ego being located in the default mode network may yet prove to be to simple, however as neuroscience and our understanding of these compounds develop, the potential for significant breakthroughs in mental health treatment could be revolutionary.