#43 To partake in awe through self-experimentation

I’m going to write a couple of pieces soon about researcher self-experimentation. As I was in the shower, I thought, what does it mean to self-experiment on oneself? For me, most things have a psychedelic twist, so naturally I would think about self-experimenting with psychedelics, either researcher or first-timer. But what does it mean to self-experiment generally speaking? Aren’t we all self-experimenters on some level? I’m trying to think of the last time I self-experimented with some known phenomenon, but not-yet-morseled into my experience machine. I will need to interrupt this stream, pullover at the nearest bank to let my mind think of the last time I tried a new food stuff…

That’s not good. It actually took me a few minutes to think of the last time I thought to myself, this is a first moment, I’ve never tried that before whether I’m looking forward to it or not. So, the last time I recently tried something new was a licorice-raspberry flavored liqueur. I’m not a fan of licorice and almost respectfully declined the invitation to try a bit until the person holding the bottle said that he made it and that it won an international competition in London recently. Hmm, ok, it’s not every day you randomly bump into the proud creator of a new flavor/brand of alcohol that is validated by his knowledgeable peers. I swallowed a dram and it wasn’t bad considering my expectations. In truth, it leaned on the side of good, that is, better than bad. I tried two other liqueurs and, in the end, preferred his homemade Irish cream that had a hint of butterscotch.

Self-experimenting. It’s hit or miss. What can we learn from ordinary try-for-the-first-time events like above?

First, I’d say that you should like that which you’re trying in the first place. I like alcohol and appreciate its craftsmanship, the artisan that pulled an idea from the other realm and brought it into our realm. If he had offered me anything with majority concentrations of fish or eggs in it, I would have denied the taste test no matter who said it was good or the best in the world. Some things I just can’t do. Related to psychedelics, if vomiting or potential diarrhea is not your thing, then you’d do well to avoid ayahuasca or iboga at all costs. Just stay away, because these substances are known for their heavy physiological loads.

Second, even though I’m not a fan of licorice liqueur, what sold me was that he personally made it and won an award, but most importantly I was asked to try a small sample. There wasn’t commitment on my part except for willing to take the glass and empty its small contents into my mouth. He just wanted people to share in his creation, and hopefully buy a bottle one day so he can continue doing what he loves and so the customer can continue drinking what they hopefully love too. The point I want to dig into more is this idea of the small taste, the low commitment, the in-and-out experience. The experience of sampling the roughly 6 centiliters of liqueur was very short compared to many other experiences I’ve had. The liqueur affected my taste buds first. My mouth was neutral upon tasting. I hadn’t eaten anything in hours and only drank water after dinner. I had a flavor-neutral mouth. Then all my taste buds were overwhelmed and mildly surprised how much they liked the liqueur, even though it was licorice. I’m not sure what it was that I liked; maybe the texture, the sweetness, maybe the raspberry infusion. I swirled the contents around my mouth, gulped it, and then slowly the thin layer of liqueur that hugged the walls of my mouth, not wanting me to forget it, eventually went into me, but not without resistance. Like listening to an oncoming ambulance, the approaching siren is like the first swirl around the mouth, my caloric toilet bowl of sorts. The siren at its loudest is the gulp down my throat, and the fading siren into the distance is the liqueur loitering around my mouth. Trying a shot of that liqueur took less time to experience than the time it took me to write the above words. A bite of food or a sip of liquid is a short experience; however, the bite is representative of the whole dish and likewise the sip is a part of the whole drink.

The same cannot be said about psychedelics. While it is true that eating a whole dried mushroom affords a sample of what magic mushrooms taste like, eating only one cap and stem will not provide the same experience as eating 5+ dried grams. Sure, gustatorily speaking it is the same taste, but experientially speaking, parts and whole of psychedelics do not add up because dosage is so important in this case. The experience of one mushroom versus 2 grams, 4 grams or more are not equivalent. You cannot dip a toe into psychedelic spaces and claim to have had a proper experience of that particular substance.

Back to the question: what does it mean to self-experiment on oneself? I suppose we can add that if one is experimenting, then likely the experimenter does not have much experience in that which he or she participates. Or they have experience yet not with the slight modifications made to their originary experience or whatever a proper experience should be. I suppose self-experimentation ceases to be experimentation when the experiencer repeats a past experience. Once that happens, we’re talking about experiencing, not experimentation. The experiencer knows what to expect, in fact the experiencer has an idea what to expect even with slight modifications to the experience, in an Husserlian imaginative variation kind of way. For example, if I’ve had a cheeseburger before, eating a cheeseburger with bacon for the first time is technically experimenting but it’s so low level, it’s not even adventurous. (It is tasty though!)

Another thing to glean from self-experimentation is that we’re all self-experimenters. Think about it: if you have ever tried something for the first time, which is a lot of experiences throughout your life, you are an experimentalist whether you were conscious of your actions or not. Likely, the only time you give yourself credit or big yourself up as a daredevil is when you tried something that is rarely done, never done before, done a handful of times, or is very dangerous. As a bartender, sometimes I run out of people’s favorite tap or bottled beverages. It always makes my day when I recommend something new to one of our guests and they end up loving it. Sometimes it becomes their new favorite drink and that’s all they drink for a while. They wouldn’t have known this was their new favorite drink had their go-to drink ran out and I hadn’t recommended the new drink. Regarding their old favorite drink: even that they tried once for the first time.

I’m fascinated by this idea of self-experimentation and trying new things for the first time. How do new experiences find us? How does the idea of experiencing that phenomenon enter our awareness? Why, how, what? Who was that person who put that seed into our minds? How did that seed germinate to the point of me trying that thing? Whether I liked it or not, I had the experience. In this regard, how and why do people take psychedelics for the first time? Were they seeking it out or was the psychedelic seeking a human host out? I think it was Terence McKenna (when in doubt, it’s usually him, and yes, there is a Terence McKenna search engine) that said psychedelics (mushrooms, I think he was referring to) seek out us humans to use as avatars in order to experience what it is like to be a human in addition to experiencing human consciousness. There’s no proof of this claim but it is weird, and I like it. Most people take and do not take psychedelics depending on who’s story they get, whether their interlocutor’s experience was positive, negative, therapeutic or strange. As well, people’s motives are manifold; people take these substances for many reasons and they are all good reasons. Just as I don’t like licorice but tried that artisan’s liqueur because it was he who made it and won an award, likewise, I’m curious what factors would tip someone over the edge to say, alright, let’s give this psychedelic thing a go no matter what the experience will be?

In wrapping up, another important question is: why do we try new things at all? Who cares, what is the point? Am I not content with what I’ve already tried in my life? Am I not content? Whether you are content or not with your life and what you’ve done with it, I think there is an element of seeking, a seeker component that is part of what it is to be human. We are explorers, we seek out new things, new experiences, new lands, new peoples. We get bored when life is routinized, monotonized, the humdrummery of repeated daily existence. It’s as if we need to inject fresh experiences and tales into our lives, something for us to chew on and also to recount to others, “I tried this” and “listen here” to what it was like, “I’ll tell you all about it.” And many people listen intently, especially if they haven’t had the same experience, but also if they have had the experience because they want to learn whether your experience was slightly different, or they can compare experiences. They say no news is good news, but I would argue that humans need news, either us giving the news or listening to others’ news. We need fresh experiences; we crave them actually. In this sense, we crave hearing about the other side of the unknown, and upon hearing how others’ experiences unfolded we can make a decision whether we would like to see it with our own eyes as well, to personally partake in awe.

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