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Customer Review

43 of 43 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Secular Shamanism, April 16, 2011
This review is from: Psychedelic Information Theory: Shamanism in the Age of Reason (Paperback)
My acid-drenched late-teen spanned the very end of the 1960s. I longed for ways to describe and understand my highs and, at that time, the only book that claimed to interpret psychedelic experience was Timothy Leary's book of that name, which, modelled on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, handed the entire thing, lock, stock and goofy (but superior) grin, over to oriental mysticism.

What's more, the illegalization of acid in 1966 meant that book was left high and dry, washed up by the first wave of research, and so, by default, acquired a much more canonical status than it deserved. Another phase of investigation didn't emerge until the late 80s, when the MDMA craze catapulted psychedelics into the public domain again. Since then we've seen a cautious re-appearance of studies on psychedelic experiences; we seem, at least for the time being, to be in a modest renaissance of psychedelic research and evaluation.

James Kent's book is a timely and thorough attempt to describe and evaluate the psychedelic experience in non-religious, non-spiritist terms. He defines psychedelic information theory as: 'The study of nonlinear information creation in the human imagination, particularly in states of dreaming, psychosis and hallucination', and on its scope:
'It is the conjecture of PIT that all mystical states, including healing and regenerative states, have unique formal nonlinear qualities that can be described in physical terms close enough to make good approximations. This means that PIT is also a work of technical shamanism, neurotheology, or spiritual neuroscience, and can be referenced in the clinical application of psychedelic drugs in shamanic ceremony, mystical ritual, or psychedelic therapy.'

That's an early warning of unusual word-usage, with the peculiarly broad use of 'mystical states' telling us straightaway that Mr Kent does not hang out with mystics. He also positions PIT next to chaos magic, defined rather oddly but not inaccurately as:
'The practice of using ritual techniques of spiritual transcendence to manipulate belief systems ... an occult blend of neo-shamanism, cognitive theory, and social theory.'
More of which later...

Writing about how psychedelic information moves through societies, he has the insight to ask why we should care about PIT and answers with a whole chapter (2). Also, he is alert to the well-known dangers of psychedelically-triggered megalomania, and to the bad trip, which generates 'Psychedelic information with negative value ... delusional, paranoid, false, or subverts the health of the individual or culture.'

...

One of the most hopeful passages is a section on that mysterious sense that most ayahuasca users get that some transformation is happening at the level of gene expression. He notes that 'hallucinogens target 5-HT2A receptors, and ... 5-HT2A activation has also been demonstrated to produce powerful anti-inflammatory effects in cardiovascular and soft tissues; and 5-HT2A agonists like LSD may produce potent anti-inflammatory effects against TNF-a (tumor necrosis factor alpha), an autoimmune regulator which has been indicated in atherosclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, type II diabetes, depression, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer's disease.'

This is tremendously exciting, especially for people like the two guys from [...] I met at the Breaking Convention conference last weekend, who could only get relief from their crippling pain and fear from regular LSD use.

Dealing with spirits, he has the wisdom to assert that '... psychedelic spirits are tricksters', but recognizes that 'it does not matter if the spirits are real or delusion, the information they generate is real and can be analyzed from a formal perspective.'

Finally, he approaches the subtle and knotty problem of 'Gnosis, the All One, and Nonlinear Communion', and concludes that 'Without debating the metaphysical existence of God, the formal techniques for subjectively communing with the All One are reliable and repeatable, and can be readily achieved'.

There are some problems with this book. The minor one is that it very badly needs a proof-reader. Mis-spellings and solecisms abound; 'entoptic' is spelt 'entopic' in a chapter heading, and consistently thereafter, and there are some small but annoying problems with his biology, like reversing the night-day attributions of the retina's rod and cone cells (and 'amine crystals' do not pass thro the blood brain barrier - oww, that hurts! - amine molecules do).

The more major problem is that he has brought together many of the elements of a powerful theory, but it feels unfinished; the text continually swallows itself up, getting lost in a maze of details, as if it's waiting someone to come along and supply an overarching narrative.

In this book's sub-genre, there is probably nothing else since Jim DeKorne's 1994 book 'Psychedelic Shamanism'. De Korne navigates between science and magic, and never really makes a satisfactory link between them; Kent has gone much further and produced a much more useful discourse, but is confused about magic, his ideas contaminated by airy-fairy wishful thinking about shamanism.

For all those objections, this is a brave and useful work whose time has come. At its best, it reads like a manual that has dropped through a wormhole from the future, maybe 15 years on, from when we know how to run our brains.

***This is just two excerpts from a much longer review at my blog, at [...]
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Showing 1-10 of 10 posts in this discussion
Initial post: May 5, 2011 12:14:25 PM PDT
Another excellent essay on this topic can be found on psychedelicpsychology.org

In reply to an earlier post on May 9, 2011 11:26:43 AM PDT
D. R. Lee says:
Thanks Robert, you have some very interesting things to say about the psychedelic experience. I'm still reading your article...

In reply to an earlier post on May 26, 2011 6:13:44 AM PDT
D. R. Lee says:
Hi Robert, I've just reviewed your webpages on my blog. Good stuff!

Posted on Jun 27, 2012 1:00:34 PM PDT
I come from the same era you came from, and most of what I've read about the psychedelic experience is closer to the spiritual perspective----Alan Watts, and Stanislav Grof, for example; and also Leary, of course. But I think it's probably important for their to be a good, well-researched book on the psychedelic experience that allows scientific types start learning about psychedelic consciousness in a way that doesn't turn them off. Many would likely be turned off by the spiritual approach, perhaps considering it unscientific. This would probably be a good book for them to read. Later they may be in a better position to grasp the reason that so many psychedelic researchers have become spiritual seekers, and why that perspective is so common in their writings and philosophies. Great review! I've decided I need to read this book.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 27, 2012 2:18:46 PM PDT
D. R. Lee says:
Yes, the serious spiritual seekers you mention are in another class of dscourse. Interesting that you class Leary with the 'spiritual' side, he seems to justify himself via science most of the time. Thanks for your comments!

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 21, 2012 4:40:26 AM PDT
Really interesting review. I was hoping you would have gone into a bit more the reasons the author describes chaos magick inadequately, and what you meant by his 'airy fairy thinking about shamanism'...?

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 23, 2012 6:23:29 AM PDT
D. R. Lee says:
Hello, thanks for your comment. It's so long since I read the book now that I don't have the quotes to hand. However, it strikes me he has a naive, raver/hippie approach to ayahuasca shamanism - the idea that it's all sweetness and light, which if you talk to anyone who's really looked into it is very far from the case. Donal Ruane, (http://headoverheels.org.uk/donal-ruane/) who certainly has looked into it, writes of the routine battling between shamans. As for CM, I believe I referred to his definition as 'odd but not inaccurate' or something like that. I've just never heard CM defined in terms of social theory, apart from the other elements of the definition!

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 23, 2012 7:37:04 AM PDT
Yes, and this is why we westerners need new myths of models. We can glean wisdom from the past but obviously not mimic their worldviews and traditions. I think any kind of war is dumb and stupid and shows ignorance and not wisdom. I don't care who so and so is. I also think that one can project stuff onto the imaginal realms depending on where you mind is at. This is something I am very interested in.
I took an interest in Chaos Magick about 2004---just dipped me toe in, but I found out that many of the chaotes seemed shallow to me and had no deep sense of politics.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 23, 2014 12:22:23 PM PST
Amazon User says:
Will you post your blog url, please? Thanks!

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 25, 2014 4:21:37 PM PST
D. R. Lee says:
Hi, it's at: http://chaotopia-dave.blogspot.co.uk/ . A bit slow at the moment but I hope you find something worthwhile there.
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