Straddling Order & Chaos, Psychedelics & 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.


Kaleidoscopic journey through light

Image: Fractal Geometric Patterns

“Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type… whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.”

William James

Yesterday I went to a workshop held by MIND, the European Foundation for Psychedelic Science. I have been interested in psychedelic states since having a profound experience of unitive consciousness whilst practicing transcendental meditation. That experience had such a significant effect that I have been investigating what happened to me ever since and as a result have been curious about altered states in consciousness in general.

The workshop was focused on creating hallucinogenic experiences through Flicker Induced Hallucination, using stroboscopic lamps. This phenomenon of hypnagogia induced through light has been scientifically documented since the early 19th century and the invention of this machine is entwined within the fabric of the renaissance of scientific research on psychedelic experience that has taken place over the last fifteen years.

I didn’t really have any expectations prior to the session, despite the fact that the other participants coming into the room after their own experience had this dazed, wide-eyed look of wonder on their face. The experience itself was one of the most awe-inspiring internal experiences of my life.

Lying down on the bed under the light head with my eyes closed, I expected to see blobs and swirls, the likes of which you see if you have accidentally looked directly at the sun and then immediately closed your eyes. What actually happened was extraordinary. When the lights first turned on I initially saw some vague red and purple blobs and then all of a sudden it was like I had been dropped into a kaleidoscope. I was seeing spinning, fractal, geometric shapes of amazing complexity, predominantly made up of crystalline-like diamonds and triangles, with incredible colours starting with tangerines and oranges before shifting to obsidian black and emerald greens. The shapes and the kaleidoscope were moving fast enough that I felt as though I were being propelled with increasing velocity through this fractal atmosphere, the planes and spirals and funnels enveloping me until it felt like I had broken free of the orbit of that world and was now floating in a misty blackness, surrounded by stars. I soon felt a physical sensation of falling back into my body, a similar feeling to when you are lying in bed and have that falling feeling that jolts you awake, and as I was falling the geometric, fractal shapes returned. As I was falling back into this geometric plane there was a bright, white light sitting at the apex of this visual storm and I had this urge to move toward it, a feeling as though I could move toward it, like I could will myself there despite the fact that I was stationary. That bright light felt like it was positioned at the point above and between my two eyes and reminded me of what many spiritual traditions refer to as “The Third Eye”. That sense of wanting to move toward that white light was probably the most profound during this intense experience.

What was incredible to me was the fact that these were simply white, strobe lights, rhythmically pulsing in front of my face and that was enough for my mind to project the most incredible visual complexity along with giving me a sense of motion into the infinite blackness created by my closed eyes. It gave me an insight into the scaffolding of our visual perceptions, how our brain has this innate sense of geometry that it uses as one of the building blocks for us to understand the physical world.

I had noticeable physical reactions to this experience. My heart was thumping from the intensity of the visual experience and my palms and fingertips were sweating. Throughout the experience my breath was deep and purposeful as I tried to breath my way through the anxiety generated by this powerful experience. There was a constant sense of mild fear that I was breathing through and trying to let go of, knowing that I wasn’t in any physical or mental danger; this feeling was mirrored by a feeling of exhilaration as I was propelled through this vast unknown.

The first session only went for three-and-a-half minutes, after which we had a pause and the instructor then placed some headphones over my ears and started playing some instrumental folk music. By the time the second session started my body was shaking, particularly my legs. I tried to calm the shaking by placing my hands on top of one another and resting them on my stomach, paying even closer attention to my breath, trying to let myself fall further into my body, allowing my weight to sink into the bed. The second session with the music was more relaxing than the first, partly due to the music and partly due to getting used to the experience; much of my shaking was partly a residual effect from the mild shock and intensity of the first session.

Once the experience was over I sat up and had a brief conversation with the instructor, my voice and hands were mildly shaking. I had a conversation with a couple of others who had been through the experience, whilst speaking to them I had physical jitteriness similar to when you drink too much coffee. Once I left the workshop, walking down the stairs I suddenly felt this rush of euphoria, which was accentuated as I walked into the cool, foggy, night air of Berlin, jumping on my bike and cycling at full-pelt through the empty streets toward home.

It was such an awe-inspiring experience that showed me for the second time this year, the first being my unitive experience through meditation, how many other realms there are available to us, and how through the right approaches, we can open the gate and ‘the world’ is completely transformed through the dissolution of our day-to-day perceptions.

The shadow of luck

Image: Brett Whiteley, Bondi 1978
But their minds were always closed,
And their hearts were held in fast suburban chains.
- Cold Chisel, Khe Sahn

There is a complacency of mind in Australia. A complacent sense that what has worked in the past will continue working indefinitely into the future. There is a sort of trembling fear that pervades much of the national psyche, an anxiousness that all the time spent and sacrifices made in the pursuit of wealth, status and comfort maybe won’t be reflected in a sense of contentment, calm and delayed joy. So many people have been led to believe that the ‘Australian Dream’ is the paradise to which people should aspire, as though it were a final destination, a foretold promised land, where in truth it is more like a trap. Be mindful of politicians extolling the virtues of certain lifestyles!

In truth the Australian Dream is a way of tying people down and making them good little taxpayers. In the pursuit of security and comfort we sacrifice autonomy. When we sacrifice autonomy we stop manifesting potential, with time creaking into psychological stasis as our vision becomes blinkered by an arbitrary goal defined by others.

We are told to enjoy life when we are old, once we have retired from ‘doing our bit’, when the generative power of new ideas, people and places has lost its generative force, when they have become the pleasant distractions from the monotony of retirement. As Australians we cling in anxious fear to our possessions and houses, desperately reminding ourselves and others that we ‘have made it’ whilst being terrified to step off the treadmill and think for ourselves. 

Buy a house, sure. But do it with your eyes open and do it after experiencing the world and analysing all the possibilities, don’t do it just because everyone else is doing it. Make sure that in trying to attain security you don’t smother your potential by becoming chained by debt and societal expectation. Politicians do not want a mobile workforce, mobility means a lower tax base, so beware of their endlessly repeated prognostications of ‘The Australian Dream’. Keep your eyes open and think for yourself.

Don’t be fooled by groupthink that buying a house is the only asset to bother considering or that assets of monetary value are the only ones worth pursuing. Invest in yourself through the education of life; make mistakes, read, write, paint, try and understand why you think and act the way you do, understand what motivates you so that your values and goals are the product of your truth and not someone else’s.

When the wave rolled back

Image: Alexander Calder

We were all but proud of our drunkenness, debauchery and bravado. I would not say we were wicked; they were all good young men, but they behaved wickedly, and I most of all. The chief thing was that I had come into my own money, and with that I threw myself into a life of pleasure, with all the impetuousness of youth, without restraint, under full sail.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

The passage above is from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and is the account of the elderly monk Zosima’s youth, recounted by the protagonist Alyosha. This passage struck me when I read it last night and I wrote the section down as the first thing I did this morning due to it reminding me so much of my own approach to life in my ‘youth’.

Over the past couple of weeks I have been increasingly thinking of past behaviour and how hedonic and aimless so much of it was and how all I was interested in over the course of many years was where I could find fun and pleasure. It is interesting to me that it is only recently, during the last couple of months, that my own opinion of my old life has so rapidly shifted, shifted to a point where I sometimes find it difficult to recognise the motivations of that old self.

“We were all but proud of our drunkenness, debauchery … they were all good young men, but they behaved wickedly, I most of all.”

This was what university and the emerging adulthood period of life was for me. There was a feeling of pride. A sense that what we were doing was right, smart even. That we knew we were ‘making the most of it’ by sewing wild oats and getting our kicks whilst we could, before it was too late.

I always thought when I was younger that I had to see and do as much as possible so as that I could stave of future regret and not have the chaotic mid-life catastrophe that eventually engulfed my father. I realise now how misplaced some of these notions were, how pursuing fun and distraction only drove a chasm in my own life, a void in which I lost a sense of meaning, purpose. My expediency regarding work and university led me to feel that whatever it was I was doing over those years didn’t really matter. There was no wisdom in the drunkenness, debauchery or hedonism but it did ultimately yield wisdom, wisdom of what not to do.

The move to Hong Kong was the apex and termination of this ultimately unsustainable trajectory. We went to Hong Kong out of boredom, chasing fun, status, money; and the pressure, heat and brightness of that fascinatingly strange place incinerated this old part of myself, revealing an old truth and an old vein of understanding that I had lost. During this painful process, one which is still unfurling, it was as though I rediscovered a part of myself which had been occluded by the fog off all that I had tried to distract myself with. I realise now that I was blinkered and blinded by the light reflecting off the wrong values, values which I had never really stopped to consciously consider.

What is likely true is that in desperately trying to not repeat the same mistakes as our parents we simply blunder on, smashing into things on the periphery of the tunnel vision that focuses so determinedly on avoiding their bad examples, instead creating our own.

The remedy for this appears to be living as truthfully as possible. Of not giving up the potential you know is within you simply because it is difficult and will jeopardise your security and comfort at that moment. Manifesting what you intuitively know to be right seems to me at this moment to be a bulwark against the future corruption of your psyche. The difficulty of course is finding that moment of clarity, a still moment when the fog has lifted and you can not only see, but know that truth. What this might mean is that in order to find it you first need to jump into that fog.

You could be happy

Artist unknown

The pursuit of happiness is one of the traditional rights of man; unfortunately, the achievement of happiness may turn out to be incompatible with another of man’s rights, namely liberty.

Aldous Huxley

You could be happy. Happy like a fucking donkey strapped to a cart. Satiated by a regular carrot, a scratch behind the ear, some hay and a bucket of water at the end of the day. Happy because you have submitted. Given up your responsibility in order to be bound to the yoke of someone else’s charge. Preferring to be bounded to something, anything, simply so you don’t have to wrestle with the freedom of your own independent thought and subsequent psychological storms. You could be happy. Happy as a lobotomised automaton, blinkered and clopping through life to the tempo of someone else’s rod.

Freedom doesn’t mean happiness, in fact it very likely means the opposite, particularly when it is first grasped. Newly found freedom can often be terrifying, as all the possibility of the world comes flooding in and you are made aware of all that you could be which you are not. Like the first moments when we wake up from sleep and are dazed, confused and vulnerable, freedom simply exposes you to all the potentialities of life, dazzling and overwhelming us. It takes a conscious focus to aim at that which you are interested and through that focus begin to build on that which sustains your interest as that is what brings meaning. Our interest determines what we value and by focusing on what we value we begin to breakdown the overwhelming vastness of the world’s potentialities into a world that reflects us, that we can mould into something that will allow us to manifest our own latent power. Freedom doesn’t mean happiness. However it allows us the capacity to make our own decisions that can harness our own potential in the pursuit of something that we value, that has meaning.

Finding the thread

Artist Unknown

Not a city that welcomes you with open arms, doesn’t really welcome you at all in fact. It makes you chase through layers of parties, graffiti, crumbling buildings, parks, confusion, beguiling you along the way, but keeping you off balance. The expectation of dropping into Berlin and riding the rail first go was naive. This isn’t Hong Kong. No welcoming fanfare and glittering carnival here. This is a city that you have to work for, a city you have to scratch around in the dust to find.

Goodbye to Hong Kong

Photo taken of a shrine in Wan Chai dedicated to a protester who committed suicide during the protests

My view of Hong Kong is that it is a spectacular place on the surface, full of fun and excitement, but when you look at the city more closely all you see is an edifice, a facade constructed on a shifting sand of money, corruption and exploitation. Increasingly I look around me when I am out at night in the ‘expat part’ of Hong Kong and am repulsed by the unthinking swilling, gorging and cackling of the people around me and of course by my own participation in this. It feels to me like we are in the middle of this decadent party, inside this enormous mansion whilst the city outside is burning to the ground.” 

I wrote these words at the end of May of this year, just as the first mass protests had begun and a month before I left the city. The decision for my wife and I leaving was made weeks before the outbreak of the protests, however the synchronistic nature of our leaving and the protests commencing is still something that I think about each day. Whilst our decision to leave Hong Kong was independent of the protests that began to take place, they were related to some of the issues that the protesters are citing, although related from a completely different perspective.

The increasing “Mainlandisation” of Hong Kong was narrowing the options available to my wife and I, making it fairly clear that our professional future in Hong Kong, if we had stayed, would have been a fairly constrained one. One of the other difficulties was the social tension within the office and in the city as a whole which we could clearly feel soon after we had arrived. This tension and the deterioration of social harmony in the office I was a part of steadily became worse as time went on and was almost unbearable by the time we left in May 2019. This tension finally found it’s release when the government tried to force through it’s extradition law and the initial unrest against this has now morphed into a demand for self-determination, anger against deteriorating social conditions represented by inaccessibility to decent housing, schooling free from mainland influence and declining economic prospects for those outside of the international educated elite.  

Exploitation has been the modus operandi of Hong Kong since the British turned the barren island of fishing villages into a fortress of trade to interface with China. An exploitation that began with the British, has been perpetuated by the tycoons that now act as lords in a modern feudal enterprise. These tycoons, who have been blessed by the mainland Chinese Government to continue with their oligopolies have been conspicuously silent in their response to the protests, wary of upsetting Beijing or the Hong Kong citizens that they rely on to keep their money wheels turning. 

It is no wonder that all Hong Kong needed for this pressure to finally release was a spark, and in the end the hapless government would be the one to light it. The people of Hong Kong have seen the light of what a society based if not on western values than at least on western principles of free speech and separation of government powers can be, and they won’t be pulled into the abyss of an authoritarian system whose legitimacy is held up by the increasing wealth and material freedom of its citizens. How this ends is anyone’s guess, however the comparisons to the various suppressions of the Soviet Union and mainland China are probably inaccurate. Beijing’s hands are tied for multiple reasons; firstly, the risk of using force could actually re-ignite and fan the flames of a previously flickering pro-independence movement. Secondly, the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act, which treats Hong Kong as a separate trading entity from the mainland is an enormous stick that the US is able to wield in the event of any escalation of China’s response. Thirdly, Beijing will not be able to ‘disappear’ the relevant agitators like they did after Tiananmen Square given the nature of relative openness of Hong Kong society in comparison to the mainland in 1989 as well as the fact that the Hong Kong legal system, despite its flaws, is not an extension of the Chinese Communist Party. 

I am hoping for a peaceful end to the protests and the concession of the government to the protesters demands for more self-determination and greater access to adequate housing and economic opportunities. Hong Kong was and always will be a part of China, however as demonstrated by the protests over the last three months, once people have been given a taste of freedom, they fight tooth and nail to maintain it, something that is likely to become more and more prevalent as the year 2047 looms closer on the horizon. For the protesters, who despite the limited prospect of success are risking life, limb and future prospects by bravely demonstrating their opposition to the direction Hong Kong is going in I wish godspeed and hope they can manifest their own philosophy of this “Water Revolution” by being “strong like ice, fluid like water, to gather like dew and disperse like mist.”