I'm a freelance science writer formerly on the staff of New Scientist and the Guardian in London. Right now my particular interest is Buddhist psychology and mindfulness research. My book about the science of enlightenment, Siddhartha's Brain, comes out in 2016 (on 26 April in the US and 2 June in the UK)
Aaron Paul Orsini felt utterly alone in the world: emotionally numb and devoid of any sense of connection with anybody, including himself. Sunk deep in depression since his teens, he spent much of his time alone in his bedroom, as he puts it, “trying to figure out how the game of being human worked … I kept going to therapy. I kept reading books. I kept working at my desk job. I kept trying new medications. I kept failing, time and time again, with the simple act of identifying the emotional needs of myself and others.”
He spoke to his therapist about his struggles to maintain contact with friends and make new ones, “and how even one-on-one moments felt very confusing at times. I was physically close to people such as my girlfriend, but still very much emotionally distant, from her, myself, and really, everyone in my life.”
Awake or asleep, “Am I dreaming?” may be one of the most important questions you ever ask yourself because, sooner or later, reality has a way of catching up with delusions and fantasies. There’s going to be a rude awakening.
Dreams are so convincing while you are in the midst of one. For all you know you could be dreaming right now. How do you know this is actually happening, that you are wide awake reading these words on a solidly, physically existing electronic device? You could be fast asleep dreaming the whole thing.
It is not difficult, in principle, to determine whether or not you are dreaming. There are plenty of readily available tests. Of course the classic is to pinch yourself. Another is to try pushing your finger through the palm of your hand. A popular though less discrete method is to jump into the air to check whether or not gravity is working as it should. Or you could scrutinise a clock or watch face: if the numbers are jumbled or the hands are moving too fast or too slow – or in the wrong direction – the chances are you’re dreaming. As you read this, are the words behaving themselves on the page? Are they making sense?
As a child, did you have an imaginary friend? Studies have found that up to two thirds of seven-year-olds play with invisible friends, but it turns out a surprisingly large number of adults also have fantasy companions.
In the biggest online survey of its kind, conducted by psychologists at the University of Durham in the UK, 7.5% of people claimed to have had one as an adult. The same people were also more likely to report experiencing auditory vocal hallucinations (AVHs) or “hearing voices” than those who had never had an imaginary companion. A second, lab-based study conducted by the same psychologists backed up the findings, raising the possibility that the two phenomena – hearing voices and fantasy friends – share the same underlying brain mechanism. Continue reading “Grownups with imaginary friends may be more prone to hearing voices”→
Earlier this week I was honoured to spend some time as a guest at Night Club, chatting to its founder Andrew Holecek about dreaming, meditation and consciousness. Night Club is an online forum where members learn how to become lucid during their dreams – fully aware that what they’re experiencing is a fantasy created by their own minds. But Night Club offers a whole lot more than this, because the practices and disciplines that can be deployed to cultivate nighttime lucidity also help members penetrate the illusions of their waking consciousness.
Andrew is a renowned lucid dream and dream yoga teacher who has written several wonderful books on this and related subjects. At the request of my publisher a few months ago he had kindly set aside some time to read my own book Am I Dreaming? before it hits the shelves on 1 August, and subsequently invited me to be interviewed for Night Club.
We had plenty to talk about and the interview is now live (see below).
Am I Dreaming? explores the neuroscience of altered states of consciousness, such as dreams, trance, hypnosis, meditation and the psychedelic state, and the role they can play in improving our spiritual and psychological wellbeing. The major surprise that came from my investigation of the latest scientific thinking is that all forms of consciousness, including ordinary, waking consciousness, are based on hallucinatory, virtual reality conjured by the brain and are powerfully influenced by expectation and belief.
In the softly lit Acid Room of Hollywood Hospital, Ravel’s Bolero is playing through expensive speakers. Prints of Dali’s Crucifixion and Gauguin’s Buddha hang on the wall. Dressed in pyjamas and a bathrobe, a man swallows 400 micrograms of LSD – a truly heroic dose – stretches out on a plush couch and dons an eye mask. For the next 6 to 12 hours, a female and a male member of staff – representing his mother and father – will watch over him. “Just go with the experience – whatever happens,” they advise. Later, in the midst of the trip, they encourage him to gaze at photographs of his loved ones and contemplate his reflection in a hand mirror, dredging emotionally charged, repressed memories from his subconscious and sparking life-changing flashes of insight.
In the 1950s and 1960s, wealthy clients paid to be psychoanalysed in the Acid Room at this private hospital in New Westminster, British Columbia, for problems ranging from relationship difficulties to alcoholism, depression and – it now transpires – homosexuality. Research papers and medical records that have gathered dust for decades reveal that LSD and mescaline-assisted “conversion therapy” was available not only in Canada, but also in the US and the UK. Continue reading “The shameful history of psychedelic gay conversion therapy”→
In an age of instant gratification and limited attention spans, why would anyone take up meditation? Perhaps for its soothing, stress-busting effects? Focusing on their breath or a mantra, even beginners start to notice the calming influence of their body’s “relaxation response”, the physiological flipside of the adrenaline-fuelled fight-or-flight response. Among other things the relaxation response slows respiration and heart rate, eases muscle tension and lowers blood pressure, and the changes are associated with a quieting of the brain’s “default mode network”, responsible for mind-wandering, rumination and worry.
But can that really be the whole story?
A peaceful mind is a wonderful thing and for many this is the biggest incentive to meditate regularly – not least for those of us prone to anxiety and depression – but there is another, related benefit that has received scant scientific or medical attention: meditation can be pleasurable, even ecstatic. In the Buddhist meditation known as jhana, for example, the early stages are characterised not only by feelings of peacefulness, but also joy and happiness. Continue reading “Meditation brightens mood by pumping up dopamine levels”→
Expert opinion is heavily weighted against Benjamin Mudge. “If you asked your average psychedelic scientist, your average ayahuasca ceremony facilitator or expert in the field, or if you asked your average psychiatrist,” he says, “they would all say ayahuasca is dangerous for people with bipolar disorder because there’s a risk of manic depressive mood swings getting worse.”
I’m sitting on a blue plastic, wipe-down mattress with my back to a wooden pillar. Within arm’s reach on the floor is a small torch to light my way to the toilet during the night, on the other side an orange plastic bucket to puke into. As the light fades my four companions, each with his or her own plastic mattress and bucket, disappear from view while on every side the barks, croaks, growls and cries of jungle life grow louder. Twenty minutes ago I gulped down a draught of the bitter psychedelic brew known as ayahuasca and I have convinced myself that I can feel its hot, unstoppable progress through my body, from my seething guts into my veins and onwards to my brain.
This is hardly a recreational drug experience, what with the nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea, not to mention the possibility of a truly terrifying trip, yet thousands now beat a path to Peru, Ecuador and Brazil every year to drink ayahuasca. Some are just looking for an exotic thrill, but others hope for enlightenment and healing from this ancient plant medicine. In the past few years, many of them have been war veterans desperate to escape the nightmares of post-traumatic stress disorder.
I’ve known Andy (not his real name) since we were at college together in the 1980s. In those days he was a drummer in his own Heavy Metal band, a bundle of untamed energy. His friends joked that he reminded them of Animal from the Muppets. Above all else he loved partying and being the centre of attention. But the sudden death of his father halfway through his course hit Andy hard. He started to spend more and more time alone in his room with his books, obsessively reading and thinking. Pastimes that had once given him pleasure no longer held any appeal.
Last weekend, a few months after the publication of Siddhartha’s Brain in Dutch, I gave a lecture about the science of mindfulness to a very polite, attentive audience at the wonderful Brainwash Festival in Amsterdam. Here’s a transcript.
Ladies and gentlemen, each and every one of us here will face two key problems in our lives. The first problem is that as creatures of biology, particularly when we’re young, we spend lots of time and energy pursuing the pleasures of sex, money, social status. And as biological creatures we also invest a lot of energy trying to avoid pain and unpleasantness.
For most people, this is what they mean when they talk about the pursuit of happiness. But pleasures never last and sooner or later, as we get older, we’re all going to experience the pain and unpleasantness of ill health and ageing. It’s just a fact of life.
So that’s our first problem, and I’m sure none of this is news to you.
The second problem is much more surprising and counterintuitive, but is just as important. The second problem is that we think way too much. Every second that we’re awake, our lives are dominated by what’s going through our minds. Continue reading “This is the happiness of the Buddha”→