Ineffability. A psychedelic issue.

Paolo Ruta
Sep 16, 2019 · 5 min read

I run into some books by accident. They come to me through all those crazy symbols which I like to use to justify their reading. But sometimes I wonder if those symbols aren’t really true and not only coincidences and figments. How to change your mind by Michael Pollan is one of those books.

As described by Penguin Random House, “How to Change Your Mind is a triumph of participatory journalism, […] a unique and elegant blend of science, memoir, travel writing, history, and medicine”. Pollan recalls the history of psychedelics and their contemporary usage for medical treatments of anorexia, PTSD, depression and addiction. But he shed some light on the benefits psychedelics can give to healthy people, too. That is the spiritual character of these compounds which, according to the latest research by John Hopkins Institute, can mark a turning point into the inner life of a human being.

Pollan himself reports his own personal experience with psychedelics like psilocybin and LSD, compounds he tested with the assistance of scientists and professional guides to look into this complex and fascinating world.

According to science, all the psychedelic experiences share the same issue: ineffability. In other words, people often have difficulty conveying what they feel during their journey.

If a single voyage can drive an alcoholic to stop drinking or a terminally ill patient to claim he/she does not fear death anymore, we are facing some really big questions. Which become bigger and fascinating if we think that this breakthrough can not be explained concretely by language. Indeed, to describe their experiences, psychonauts use words like oneness, awe, love. These are single words connected to abstract concepts to talk about visions and feelings that are able to change their mind over long term perspectives. What do they mean?

As a former scholar in Linguistics, at the age of 32, I finally decided to have my first psychedelic experience to test ineffability. I was curious to learn something new either about language and myself. So, I ate a mushroom containing psilocybin.

Psychedelics are susceptible compounds. Their effects depend on set (one’s mindset) and setting (the physical and social context where the experience takes place). I carefully prepared my mindset by reading as much as possible on the topic. I learned useful info about the dosage, the effects, the duration of a trip, how it creates new brain connections and a lot of other necessary things to start my journey consciously. As a setting, at first, I decided on a park close to home, but something changed my plans. Indeed, after a beautiful and relaxing walk, I found myself and my travel companions in the St. Matthäus cemetery, a historical graveyard where Grimm brothers have been resting for a couple of centuries.

I easily can claim it has been one of the most significant experiences of my life. But how to tell this story? I might say that I have perceived the most natural and deepest connections ruling this world and the life on it. That I felt this awareness about death, meant as part of a greater plan. That nature, along with its amoral love, contains all the answers. I might say also that freeing oneself from the ego should be taught at school, as the chance to have a full life and better human relationships. But who would really understand what I am talking about?

Indeed, every time I try to explain my psychedelic experience I run into the same linguistic problem which concerns all psychonauts: ineffability. For a non-psychedelics user, all the sentences above are a medley of clichés which make resemble the speaker like a stoned hippy.

We might describe those sentences as platitudes caused by hallucinatory states of mind. But we partially would be wrong. Because these linguistic platitudes actually try to describe something which has tangible consequences. The same serious consequences which bring contemporary science to invest a lot in this field of studies.

Ineffability happens because as Pollan explains “there are words we need that don’t yet exist” and the poetic language, with its natural attitude for synesthesia and metaphor, seems to be the only comfortable linguistic tool to describe something ineffable.

It is curious how it is easy here to apply an old rule which says: the word is from Paris because from Paris is the thing. It is used in Linguistics to explain how semantical innovations and foreign words spread through space. Paris, as symbolic capital, is the core of innovations and new trends: from here things and concepts (meanings) with their own words (signifiers) spread out along France and cross the national borders. Cinema, Tailleur, décolleté, dessert, vernissage, all words today used by speakers all around the globe.

This old nice rule can help us to understand why we miss words to describe psychedelic experiences. Indeed, we still do not have enough confidence with those compounds. We are not constantly in touch with the insights they bring to. We are still not able to understand them completely either under the scientific and the philosophical perspective. We miss the words because we do not know anything about what these words are describing.

After the cultural and political backlash that started at the end of the ’60s, we stopped to be in touch with psychedelics. The curiosity for these mysterious compounds has been kept alive by just a handful of brave psychiatrists and activists across Europe and the USA. Thanks to them, only in 2011 modern research on psychedelics started again with the approval of Institutions.

Nowadays, science is trying again to lure the attention of the public debate over this topic after a long period of moral stigmas. Indeed, in the United States, as MAPS reports “it’s difficult to turn on the radio or open a magazine at the moment without hearing about psychedelics.” People start to learn more, especially about the promising research on the potential medical uses of these compounds which probably might change not only our mind.

Indeed, history shows that psychedelics have played a role for the most important cultural changes of the last fifty years. On one hand, the excessive radicalism of activists such as Timothy Leary for the political application of these chemical compounds led to a dangerous stop in research at the end of the ’60s. On the other hand, a serious historical evaluation can not ignore all the positive outcomes originated from the counterculture movements inspired by psychedelics: peace, civil rights, environmentalism, gender equality. Issues that are definitely mainstream today.

As Pollan recalls, it is not a coincidence that during the ’60s, when psychedelics were largely used by baby-boomers, for the first time in history young people created their own movements and culture. They decided to not fight the war of their parents, to break taboos around sex, society, education and economics. Television turned into colours and music got as loud as consciousness. Cultural achievements which still have not changed the world, but which make it more tolerable.

I hope in the future we will be able to deal with psychedelics both for medical and other general issues, as a way to improve our lives not only as individuals but as a society. After all, psychedelics highlight networks. Ineffability would vanish and we would be able to create new words for new concepts coming to us from the psychedelic realm. We just need to discover what concepts.

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