#32 Toward an “entitiology” and neurophenomenology of psychedelic entities

I just had the pleasure of reading (again, or, I should say more thoroughly this time) Michael Winkelman’s (2018) paper on the ontology of psychedelic entities. If you know anyone who is definitely/blindly convinced that their psychedelic visions are real, make them read this paper. Until we know for sure what’s going on when we take psychedelics, I concede that we shouldn’t discredit the possibility that psychedelic visionary content are real; however, the burden of proof is very high, and much evidence from evolutionary psychology and neuroscience to neurophenomenology suggest that psychedelic visions including entity encounters are not real.

There are a number of things I liked from Winkelman’s text, but let’s start with what I didn’t like. First, the text was long in my opinion for a journal article. Or it felt long to read because there was a lot of talk about psychological and neurological concepts that I’m not too familiar with and usually my attention wanes and my eyes gloss when I hit one of these patches (in any article or book). The second thing I was displeased with was that he forewent addressing whether psychedelic entities are real as a kind of numinous “transcendent entity,” wholly separate and detached from our human constructs and minds, operating with their own agency. Fair enough, it’s a pretty hard thing to prove let alone talk about. I know because I spoke about “the unknown” in my master’s thesis. We can talk about noumena, but it is and forever will be “black boxed,” for when these unknown things seep from the noumena into our consciousness they cease being noumena and become phenomena, and so my point is that we can only speculate about the unknown but we will never know what resides in the unknown unless those things reveal themselves or some conscious agent such as a human being discovers them and exposes them.

So Winkelman isn’t going to tell us about noumenal psychedelic beings. Fine, what else do you got? What he does do very well is describe two other kinds of psychedelic beings, that of “objective entity” (intersubjectively validated; in other words, confirmed by another person separated by time, space and/or culture, or better, could be confirmed by someone who is also tripping on similar substance and dosage) and “conceptual entity” (the likely explanation for these experiences).

Let’s start with objective entity. Winkelman cross-culturally compares drug and nondrug experiences of entity encounters from angels and demons to UFOs, shamanism, and poltergeist phenomena, and so on. He calls for a new field to be developed, “entitiology,” that would assess the ontology of the variety of beings experienced by humans in order to compare, contrast, and analyze these profound claims. What are the structures of these encounter experiences; why do they manifest; is there something unique about the people who claim to have experienced these otherworldly beings? The reason he calls these kinds of beings objective is because this class of being has been corroborated by multiple people across different times and cultures. Something is going on if many people report the same thing, but what is going on is the question. Why are so many people reporting similar experiences? Are these beings simply a placeholder for some psychological disorder or some archetype that expresses itself from our collective unconscious, manifesting itself under duress and precarious moments of the experiencer’s life? While entitiology has not been formalized yet in the way Winkelman proposes, off the top of my head, authors such as like Jorge Luis Borges have begun the process of documenting reported mythological beings in his book, The Book of Imaginary Beings. The project has begun, and not with Borges; it is “simply” a matter of compiling, formalizing, and taking seriously such claims throughout the ages, and I recommend we should take as seriously these claims as would an anthropologist in the field practicing cultural relativity. (More on this in my first book on psychedelic science to be released next year.) In brief, whatever the members of a culture tell the anthropologist, the anthropologist, according to cultural relativity, mustn’t judge or interpret the members’ claims through the anthropologist’s own cultural biases; instead, they let the members’ concepts speak for themselves and should be taken as truth for that particular people and tradition.

The conceptual entity was a bit heavier for me to digest. It takes the idea of objective entity onboard and attempts to explain them “by reference to brain processes involving innate modular structures and their functions” (Winkelman, 2018, p. 3). In this section, he explains concepts such as cognitive operators, modular structures of the brain, concepts of self (drawing on Damasio’s work on self and consciousness; Winkelman also refers to Damasio’s work among other interesting topics on shamanism in his engaging book, Shamanism: A Biopsychosocial Paradigm of Consciousness and Healing, highly recommend), fantasy mode of consciousness (drawing on Horváth et al’s work; I mention it because I liked their article), and the neurophenomenology of psychedelic experiences.

I have another critique about Winkelman’s article, this time referring to his use of the term neurophenomenology. He did a very good job in giving an evolutionary psychology informed neurophenomenological explanation as to what likely happens when a psychedelic agonizes specific receptors in the brain and from which psychedelic-induced entities manifest and are experienced. In reference to the psychological underpinnings of psychedelic entity manifestation, Winkelman (2018, p. 13) says, “These are neurophenomenological relations in the sense that the neurological activities eliciting innate response categories are responsible for the phenomenological content of experience.” David Luke has a similar (para)psychological bent on psychedelic entity experiences that I also find interesting. While I find these angles interesting and informative, however, my personal research interest is more attuned to the phenomenological understanding of psychedelic entities in addition to neurophenomenology as a sub-interest that will likely inform my research. And since I’m also investigating psychedelic entity experiences, but more from a phenomenological perspective, my understanding of neurophenomenology is in line with Varela’s (1996) conception, which, in a nutshell, refers to overlaying qualitative subjective phenomenological data on top of neuroscientific quantitative data, thereby looking for correlation between the two and how each might inform the other. What makes Varela’s idea unique is that study participants are taught basic phenomenological principles, such as bracketing the taken-for-granted world (epoché), going back to the things/objects/phenomena themselves to reexperience them with fresh perspective (reduction), finding the essential features or structural invariants of experiencing said phenomena with the above fresh perspective (imaginative variation), and then confirming whether others share your observations (intersubjective agreement). Winkelman refers to some of the world’s leading psychedelic neuroscientists’ research, but I would argue that not mentioning the pioneering work done by researchers such as Francisco Varela, Antoine Lutz, Claire Petitmengin, Shaun Gallagher, and Evan Thompson, to name several, does not do full justice to the concept of neurophenomenology, especially the neurophenomenology of psychedelic entities.

The future of psychedelic entity research entails, in my opinion, first and foremost, phenomenological analysis, and secondly, neurophenomenological analysis (in the same vein as Varela’s use of the term). If we are to construct and add to an entitiology of which psychedelic-occasioned entities are but one taxon, an (evolutionary) psychology of psychedelic entities would benefit immensely from a phenomenologically informed reportage from those who experience these entities, and the only reason I bring it up is because I believe the latter approach is not getting the attention it deserves from its social science and humanities cousins, and that which I believe is the first step in understanding these very bizarre experiences. To better understand these entities, whether real or not, how they manifest, and what they have to say or can do, we must get first-person reports not only of what was experienced, but how they were given to and experienced by consciousness. For me, these are the building blocks of this investigation, and such phenomenological data will also lead to more informed questions and studies in other academic fields.

Borges, J. L. (2005/1967). The Book of Imaginary Beings. (A. Hurley, Trans.; P. Sís, Illus.). Penguin Books.

Winkelman, M. (2010). Shamanism: A Biopsychosocial Paradigm of Consciousness and Healing (2nd ed.). Praeger.

Winkelman, M. J. (2018). An ontology of psychedelic entity experiences in evolutionary psychology and neurophenomenology. Journal of Psychedelic Studies, 2(1), 5-23.

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