#23 Assessing expectations of inner space

A Neurophenomenology of Awe and Wonder by Gallagher et al, pages 115-173

“NASA generated a single black-and-white photograph of the earth on August 23, 1966; …The image, however, could not achieve any major degree of impact, despite its unquestionable superlative nature, because the earth’s inhabitants already knew the perspective from popular culture. Reality could only catch up with, but not outdo, what science fiction had already broached” (Gallagher et al, 2015, 140-141). 

Cosmonaut experiencing awe and wonder.

I really like the above idea of reality catching up with science fiction. By 1966, the public had been exposed to science fiction and tales of space adventures for decades, even perhaps for up to a century if we go as far back as Jules Verne’s and H. G. Wells’ stories. People expected more than a simple black and white photograph of earth. People at the time probably thought: if we can travel to space, we should be able to get a picture as well. It was no small feat to get that photograph, but people wanted more, they wanted to see the earth as a round whole or entire organism. For this reason, it was the “Blue Marble” photograph of earth that ended up becoming the symbol, the visual representation, of what the earth was. We could finally see our own planet. This moment I would argue is like our species seeing itself for the time in the context and background of space, similar to Lacan’s mirror stage. Instead of an 18-month-old infant realizing for the first time that that baby, that being, was itself, the Blue Marble photograph served the same realization for an entire species. Instead of looking up from the ground, for the first time in history we were able to see down from the vantage of space. For the first time we could literally see our home in our galactic neighborhood, which in turn would let sink into our consciousness that we were one among countless others. 

The idea I want to flesh out today is that of expectations. Gallagher et al remarked that the expectations of study participants impacted experiences of the simulated environments in Experiments 1 and 2. Prior exposure to films and pop culture led participants to expect something different, a Hollywood experience, from the simulations. When such expectations weren’t met for some participants, they felt let down and this led to lower or no experiences of awe and wonder in addition to feelings of boredom (Gallagher et al, 2015, 151). I find it interesting that conceptions of space for most people including myself entails adventure, space wars, aliens, high technology, etc. Space is one of the last frontiers, a very big one; the notion of “Wild West” is incomparable to the vastness of space in all its directions. So, when it comes to these participants expecting a specific experience, how do you, or even should you as the researcher, tell them to not have expectations? How do you tell them to clear their minds of everything they think they know or imagine about space? It’s not possible. I just don’t see how you can enter any experience without any expectations or knowledge about what that experience might be like. Our brains have evolved to survive, to stay alive, and thus they are well-equipped to speculate and imagine future outcomes of situations. We are hardwired to do this. 

In addition to some participants feeling let down from the non-Hollywood simulations, I got the feeling that researchers were let down from not anticipating the above scenario from participants. Or perhaps the technology let the researchers down because it wasn’t convincing enough, immersive enough, simply not [insert word] enough. 

I was reminded of a paper I wrote during one of my master’s courses called Assessment of Emerging Technologies, wherein I asked: “what technology assessment framework could serve to assess emerging novel techniques of illegal technologies” in the context of LSD microdosing among Silicon Valley technologists (see my Academia.edu profile to download the paper). In this paper I wrote about expectations and exaggerated expectations (e.g. hype). One of the expectations from technologists’ LSD microdosing was that it served as a cognitive enhancer to stay ahead in a competitive work environment. They may be right; we don’t have the data yet to confirm or deny this claim. What interests me though are people’s expectations of psychedelic experiences or lack thereof prior to ingestion. Are people going into the experience expecting certain things or thoughts to happen or are people going in with as much a blank slated mind as possible? Is there any research done on this? I don’t know, but if you know of a study please mention it in the comments section. 

First, just as the abovementioned example of reality catching up with science fiction—that is, people already having a concretized conception of space through pop culture with an eventual clear photograph of earth to back it up, ideas of hippies, free love, social disorder, bad trips, lack of control, fear of one’s own mind, etc. etc., likely inform many people’s conception of psychedelic experiences and hence their avoidance of these experiences and/or condemnation of people that do choose to work with these substances whatever their reasons. What is the psychedelic equivalent to the Blue Marble photograph of earth? What can be captured, brought back, from psychedelic experiences to show/prove that critics’ or the fearful’s conceptions of inner space are not necessarily wrong, but perhaps misguided, or shall we say, that their conceptions are part of the story but only minimally.

Second, with regard to experiencers expectations, even if their expectations are positive and constructive, how do these expectations form, inform, transform their experiences? How does one’s prior history, language, culture, life experiences, affect their psychedelic experiences, and the environment in which they take the substance? Although this is impossible, I would like to know what it would be like for someone who knew nothing of the world, grew up in a vacuum, and then took a psychedelic. I’m essentially talking about baby consciousness, a consciousness so new to the world that it has not been shaped yet by others and the world. I propose the following thought experiment: what if we were to artificially grow human beings, for example, like in the film The Island (2005). The adult human beings grown at the facility in the movie had no experience of anything. They operated with baby-like consciousness since they were just “born” or just woke up, yet in fully-grown adult bodies. Now, what would happen if we gave these people a psychedelic? What would they report if they hadn’t had the same lifelong conditioning and experiences as the rest of us have had? 

You know the feeling when you’re in the middle of a vomit session. You know you got more to give, more to expunge, but it won’t come out, not even when you jiggle the epiglottis (a.k.a. “pulling the trigger”). That’s how I feel right now when speaking about expectations. There’s something more in my mind that wants to come out, but it doesn’t want to yet. I say yet, because I will keep thinking about this. I’ll leave an addendum at the bottom of this post when it comes. Until then I’m left holding my mental puke bucket…

Gallagher, S., Reinerman-Jones, L., Janz, B., Bockelman, P., & Trempler, J. (2015). A Neurophenomenology of Awe and Wonder: Towards a Non-Reductionist Cognitive Science. Palgrave Macmillan. 

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