Synthesis: Reflections on the Journey
January 7, 2014 § 46 Comments
“We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.” ~ Marcel Proust
“The only journey is the one within”. ~ Rainer Marie Rilke
The turn of another year inspires reflection on what has come before.
When I first started Parallax three years ago, I didn’t know what the theme would be. I wasn’t sure if anyone would care about the topics that interested me, or indeed, if I had anything interesting to say. I had only a vague feeling—a multitude of disconnected puzzle pieces floating around inside me, like dots begging to be connected.
I had one focal point, and it became the source of my first entry: “The Role of the Dreamer & the Falseness of Civilization,” inspired by a stop light. I realized how automatic my response had been upon seeing the amber traffic light turn red: foot on break, like a trained animal. Then the light changed to green and without conscious thought my foot obediently pressed upon the gas.
In that moment, I wondered what else I had been conditioned to accept that had become automatic—even intimate—to my functioning, which was the product of some external system. I saw that my experience with the traffic light—my unconscious conditioning—was a metaphor for society at large.
The blog soon became my shared in-process journey connecting the dots, many of which (of course!) remain unconnected. Yet, a picture emerges…
I began to see a coherence to the topics, which at first seemed merely a loose, eclectic collection of curiosity-driven investigations.
A theme began to crystallize. I realized I was trying to mentally pan back—to accurately perceive a reality, which I had witnessed for so many years that I had ceased to truly see it. Familiarity seems to breed a kind of trance state of assumptions. I began to attempt to deconstruct society as I knew it—imagining what our world would like like to an alien observer (“The Mad Cult of the World”) with no preconceived notions. This excercise was a tremendous eye-opener for me.
What I saw was a well oiled machine. An (apparently) self-perpetuating system of control, with built-in reinforcements & viscous cycles so as to appear both inescapable & desirable.
I observed how conformity & consumer-based lifestyles that feed the system—and increase people’s wage-slave circumstance with debt & emotional dependence on external status—are marketed & reinforced constantly from every angle (“Invisible Architects,““The Engineering of Human Desire,” “Mind Control in the Music Industry,” “The Perversion of the American Dream”)…
How our natural instinctual herd mentality & desire for acceptance (“The Mythology of Conformity: Totem & Taboo“) is exploited by marketing to create a climate of uniformity (“The Politics of Normalcy“), where independent thought that jeopardizes the status quo (“Polarity & Paradox”) is not given a widespread platform of expression.
I began to realize that my feelings of alienation within mainstream society were not necessarily indications of personal failing, but perhaps symptomatic of a larger imbalance within the system.
As Krishnamurti says, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society” (“The Outsider” ).
I became convinced that positive social change, in fact, could only come from an outsider, because only someone looking in from the outside could see the problems for what they were (“The Outsider As Visionary”, “The Art of Madness”).
I became interested in the idea of personal authenticity (“Authenticity & The False Self”) as the path towards true self-knowledge, beyond social conditioning. For I believe we can only incite true social change—contribute positively to society— when we have processed our own shadows (“Navigating the Dark Night of the Soul,”) and begun to piece together our true selves, which have been fragmented by a compartmentalized system (“Soul Retrieval”).
As I became more conscious of my personal journey (“The Modern Vision Quest,” “The Question of Reality, “The Human Soul & The Floating Man,” “The Art of Seeing,”) I began to explore my own thoughts, feelings & direct experiences with reality. The further down the rabbit hole I went, the more the dots seemed to connect. And it felt different to come to these ideas in a visceral way—through personal gnosis—than through reading the ideas of other minds. I only used their works to substantiate my own discoveries, and offer what I hoped would be interesting background to the topics which most compelled me.
As I wrote on these subjects, I received—wonder of wonders!—a positive response from readers (you guys!), which reflected back to me that I was actually speaking to subjects which were not just in my heart, on my mind, alone, but were also meaningful to others. I actually acquired readers at all, which itself is both humbling & thrilling.
Your feedback is what keeps this blog going. To know I am not dropping letters into a well but actually contributing to the collective conversation has shown me that these subjects, which at first seemed so disconnected, are truly on our collective mind—and truly form a cohesive picture.
The idea put forth by British Zen philosopher Alan Watts in the 60s that “[We] are an aperture through which the universe is looking at and exploring itself,” later re-popularized in the 80s by American astrophysicist Carl Sagan—“We are a way for the cosmos to know itself”—was actually first developed in its modern form by 18th century German philosopher George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.
Hegel contended that Spirit was at first unconscious of Itself. (Hegel’s use of “Spirit” is a translation of the German word “Geist,” a nonreligious term, not comparable to our English word for “God,” but a neutral term, mingled with the idea of “transpersonal mind” & “essence”.) He called this stage of unconscious Spirit the Thesis stage.
At one point, Spirit-exploring-itself-through-Man became conscious of existing.
The self-aware man looked around (or Spirit looked around through Man’s eyes) seeing himself and others—others who might be similar to him, but were not him. And the newly self-aware man defined himself through this negation. In short, he knew himself in part by what he wasn’t: the other. He looked at the world and saw many, a multi-facetted prism. He saw division. Those who were not him were perceived as foreign, alien, other—often, too, inevitably, as “enemy.”
This was Antithesis stage.
Eventually, as man’s time on the planet progressed, a few, rare introspective humans—specifically, for Hegel, the philosopher—became aware of the interconnectivity of all life-forms (“Connectivity Through Form”), at which point he perceived Self in Other (a hallmark throughout all mystical literature of enlightenment) and became self-realized. The prism revealed itself to be—while multi-faceted in appearance—in essence, a single diamond.
This was the Synthesis stage—where thesis & antithesis, two apparent opposites, merged & integrated to form a more complete truth.
I believe we are currently experiencing the growing pains of collectively & individually moving—shifting—into a Thesis stage of existence (“Transformation, Destruction & The Inner Apocalypse“). That is where my studies thus far have lead me. (“Starseeds, Cosmic Consciousness & The Galactic Generations,” “Stardust Contemplating Stardust: Inner Space & The Science of Illumination”).
There are many fighting this emerging connectivity. But there are an increasing number straining towards it. Some, only half-consciously, as I was when I first began this blog—driven only by a vague sense of discontent & yearning. As Morpheus tells Neo in The Matrix: “Something is wrong with this world, you’ve known it all your life, you don’t know what it is. It’s like a splinter in your mind … driving you mad.”
Still others, aware & awake through their own process of trail, error & self-discovery, are fighting for the cause: of reverence for life & planetary harmony.
The Fear Culture of the media news may tell you otherwise, but I—perhaps you, and so many others—are beginning to tear down the facade like a paper sky and see it for what it is: the attempts of a system under threat to maintain control through division, traumatization & uncertainty.
I perceive this as a time—intense & trying as it may be—of integration for many. We are all connecting the dots. Feeling more connected to one another, across space & time, even while we may still experience major bouts of isolation…we see that we are not alone in our strange (or not so strange) thoughts & visions. If through the advancement of technology alone.
We are a mere Google search away from learning, for example, that the long-dead Hegel’s complete life philosophy beautifully articulates that intuition we could not quite put to words; or perhaps that blogger you’ve never met, but read sometimes, has been mulling over the same insights you’ve been contemplating on your journey.
And it is a journey. (“Alchemy: An Allegorical Map for the Transmutation of Consciousness.“) No doubt about it. Complete with dragons to slay, puzzles to solve & dark forests in which we must, by virtue of necessity, learn to generate our own inner light to illuminate the path ahead.
We are heroes and heroines scaling Dark Nights of the Soul like mountains … swimming rivers of sorrow, where we reach dry land of revelation & new strength. Each trial, an initiation, each passage, a threshold into new insight, if we continue to search for the lesson, for the center, for the truth. Nothing is wasted. We can use it all.
Happy 2014, fellow journeyers! I would love to know what you think about all this! All comments on this first post of the new year—as has become Parallax tradition!—will be entered into a drawing, the winner of which will receive my current heart-compass book-companion, “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…And It’s All Small Stuff,” By Richard Carlson, Ph. D: a slim inspirational little easy-read manual for transcending postmodern angst and tapping into inner peace.
Here’s to the journey, fellow travelers.
The Engineering of Human Desire
April 26, 2011 § 2 Comments
In an earlier post, Invisible Architects, we explored the birth of a fascinating marriage in American consumer culture: psychoanalysis and marketing.
To recap briefly, the original, pre-commercial boom advertisements were simple, innocent. They highlighed practical virtues and were basically very straight forward. There weren’t girls eating hotdogs in bikinis or anything like that, stirring subconscious connections between sex, desire and sandwiches.
Then Edward Bernays entered the scene in the 1920’s. Freud’s nephew, he applied his famous uncle’s ideas about the inner wild beast within man’s psyche (also known as the “Id“) to better hypnotize the public into associating certain products with fulfillment of these inner libidinous impulses. He is now considered the “father of public relations” and a pioneer in the field of advertising. A dubious honor.
Bernays felt quite high and mighty about his role as public perception manipulator, having the view — shared by many in the elite corporate world, then and now — that the masses were a “bewildered herd,” whose riotous urges needed to be channeled in positive directions. For them, this positive direction was consumerism. This way, the masses were docile and the economy boomed.
The hay day of this phase of marketing is epitomized by the now-cheesy typical 1950’s commercial we’ve all come to associate with the era of conformity.
What no marketing guru could predict, was the liberation from social conformity that happened in the cultural renaissance of the 1960s.
The inner wild beast was certainly loose. Suddenly American youth began to reject homogenous mass-produced products. The international political situation became more important. Liberating the individual spirit of each human being became more important. Corporations began to take a serious hit as the hippie culture began to spread like wildfire throughout American consciousness.
A very ancient tribalism began to re-emerge — transcendence through disorientation of the senses. It had been happening since the festivals of Dionysus in ancient Greece, it had been happening among native tribal cultures for centuries, and now the spirit had been taken up by American youth.
These wild impulses could not be channeled into the purchase of a new toaster. The ad companies were flummoxed.
Though the hippie radicals had a moment in the sun, soon enough, what with student demonstration beatings, the assassination of various symbolic “hope figures”, such as JFK and John Lennon, a disillusion began to brew — free spirits wondered if they really could change Washington with a few marches, or the paradigm of the world with a drug-induced vision, etc.
A slow turning away from politics, towards the self, began to take place in response. “Be the change you seek in the world” became the primary mantra of the burgeoning Human Potential Movement. Not a bad thing in itself, if a little sad considering where the movement began — with a greater, more far-reaching hope towards universal peace and love.
All this time the public relations and marketing gurus — inspired by Edward Bernays’ marriage of psychoanalysis with advertising — had been scrabbling to find a market in the changing times. And when the Human Potential Movement hit its stride, advertisers began to see a window.
This new breed of people, the maturing hippies and all those influenced by the philosophy of the 60’s, did have desires which could be met by mass produced products, they were simply more specific, more nuanced, more particular than before.
These people went hiking after all, and hikers need apparel, tools. They played music — musicians needed instruments. They read books, etc. These were all untapped marketing opportunities, the corporations now realized with the help of a new creation: focus groups.
The corporations learned that the more specific the questions, the more enthusiastic people were in answering them. People simply loved to think about their answers, talk about themselves, etc. And they gave the advertisers exactly what they wanted: the keys to the psychology of the new consumer.
A new marketing system was developed, addressing people’s values. Lifestyle marketing was born. The reasoning went like this: if a new product expressed a particular group’s values, it would be bought by them. And they were right.
These new beings were consumers after all, the ad companies realized, but they no longer wanted anything that would place them within the narrow strata of American society. Instead they wanted products that would express their individuality, their difference in a conformist world — the very things US corporations had not, until that point, been able to manufacture. But with the advent of focus groups, they developed specific categories of “nonconformist consumer.”
Among others, (like the “outward bound/adventurer” type, to whom they could sell sporting goods) there were the “self-directeds” also known as “self-actualizers” : inner-directed, artsy, socially aware, bookish types who were curious and interested in the world around them, as well as in distancing themselves from conformist society (in short, the very free spirits marketers had given up on.) Advertisers realized that these new creatures would buy products which symbolized or accentuated their identity as “individuals.” Oh, the irony.
“Be anything you want to be” became “buy anything you want to be.” Products became extensions of personal identity and individual expression. The corporations and marketing gurus had adapted.
I know it’s “in” to hate on American corporations, and I want to be clear that I’m actually not jumping on that band wagon, though it may seem I am, because I believe that putting caps on corporate expansion (even while the homogeny is boring and the monopoly is rather terrifying) is a fascist road.
Yes, it’s gross and creepy that a single corporation can secretly own hundreds of seemingly separate business entities, but to governmentally enforce restrictions is to invite a new kind of oppression. I would rather advocate responsibility and awareness — conscious consumerism — within the strata of freedom.
Responsibility in this context means buying local when possible, supporting individually owned businesses, and not allowing media mind-washing machines to convince us that our identity can be bought. Buying a new brand-name technology is not revolutionary. Thinking for yourself is.
*For more detailed information on this subject, watch The Century of Self documentary series.
January 3, 2011 § 10 Comments
“You have taken over the job of creating desire and have transformed people into constantly moving happiness machines, machines which have become the key to economic progress.” — President Herbert Hoover, (to a room full of public relations and ad men.)
Few things are creepier than the president of a country comparing its people to machines.
In the 1920s and 30s Freud popularized the idea that man, though perhaps appearing tame, has irrational, libidinous, uncontrollable animal desire raging just below the surface of his well-groomed exterior.
Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays—considered the father of modern commercialism—was the first to apply his uncle’s theories of the Unconscious Mind to advertising.
As a result, he revolutionized commercials from a plodding industry, reciting the practical virtues of products, to a psychologically savvy form of not-so-subtle brainwashing.
When cigarette companies approached Bernays in the late 1920s with the question of how to improve sales to women, Bernays paid top dollar to get leading New York psychoanalyst A.A. Brill ‘s opinion on the subject.
Brill opined that the cigarette was a phallic symbol and represented male sexual power. If Bernays could find a way to connect cigarettes with the idea of challenging male power, then women would smoke, because then they would “have their own penises.”
Using this dubious little psychological gem, Bernays staged a spectacle at the New York Easter parade when he hired a group of good-looking young women to walk together in the parade, each secretly holding a pack of cigarettes somewhere on her person. At his signal, the girls were to light up in unison. He informed the press that he’d heard a group of suffragettes were planning on attending the parade and lighting up their “torches of freedom.”
The girls lit up, the newspaper reporters snapped their picture—using Bernays’ catchphrase—and all over America, cigarettes were suddenly linked to independence, freedom and equality.
It had been considered socially taboo for a woman of good moral character to smoke in public. (In 1904 a woman named Jennie Lasher was sentenced to thirty days in jail for “putting her children’s morals at risk” by smoking in their presence!)
So the connection between women’s liberation & cigarettes was emotional, but not rational. For the first time, Bernays showed American corporations that irrelevant objects could become powerful emotional symbols—embodying how people wanted to feel and be seen.
During this time, leading political writer Walter Lippman spearheaded the idea that if, as Freud suggested, human beings were driven by irrational forces, then perhaps it was necessary to rethink democracy. What was needed, he said, was a new elite to manage “the bewildered herd.” This would be done through psychological techniques that would control the unconscious feelings of the masses. In Propaganda (1928), Bernays argued that the manipulation of public opinion was a necessary part of democracy:
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government, which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.”
By stimulating people’s inner desires and then sating them with consumer products, Bernays argued, he was creating a new way to manage the irrational force of the masses. This way the masses remained docile, while the economy remained stimulated. Bernays called this marketing strategy,“The engineering of consent.”
If that term doesn’t give you the willies, the following quote by leading wall street banker, Paul Maizer, ought to do it:
“We must shift America from a needs to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things even before the old have been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”
These words were spoken the better half of a century ago in the 1930’s, and it appears the manifesto has become prophecy.
Clearly, these elite ad men succeeded in their task. The bewildered masses have been funneled into an endless conveyer belt of overstimulated consumeristic desire.
The inner emptiness created by our materialistic lifestyle only further feeds the need to fill the hole inside. And while we race on the wheel of our engineered desire, we power the system. The best prisons are invisible.
In an age when the industrial spirit of creativity has been overshadowed by the insatiable zeal to consume—when invisible architects burn the midnight oil while strategizing how best to engineer your consent—every act of independent thought is a small but meaningful triumph.
Read Part 2: “The Engineering of Human Desire”
*For more information on this subject, watch The Century of Self documentary series.
The Role of the Dreamer & The Falseness of Civilization
December 24, 2010 § 32 Comments
“We are the music-makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.”
We were born into a world built on dead men’s dreams.
Our reality, the society that has been conditioning our perception from the day of our birth, is a construction built on a construction built on ideas from minds long dead. Their creations compose our world and make up the maps of our psyches, a collective human inheritance.
Today, staring at a red traffic signal in the shape of an arrow, waiting to get on the freeway, I was struck by my—and everyone’s—trance-like acceptance of the symbol.
I noted how automatic my responses to the direction had been. I stopped calmly and waited for the light to turn green. A perfectly reasonable thing to do. Except, in that moment, I felt unusually aware of the lab-rat-like nature of my obedience. Stranger still, I realized I had never noticed the phenomenon before, because it had always been that way.
Green light, go. Red light, stop. Yellow, slow.
It’s as if we are placed on a motorized conveyor belt at birth, with an endless array of arrows telling us where to go.
Apart from the occasional miscalculation, our roads, our cities, our skies, run like the inside of a well-oiled machine. Stop. Go. Cogs and wheels. The machine of the city, like the inside of a clock.
Our education starts young. We are groomed for the world: sit quietly, yield to authority and accept the consensus reality. Anything that falls outside of this perimeter is systematically dismissed.
We aren’t taught to ask questions but to regurgitate articulately. We go to school and learn the rules. Then, when we’re of age, we get a job and try to play the learned rules as good as or better than our peers, to make money to survive.
In a basic sense, this rule-playing to survive is the only option given us. The alternative is homelessness, insanity, exile.
There are other options, of course, and many brave souls live the unfettered life of the irrepressible spirit within the thinly populated margins of the cultural fringe.
But it’s damn hard, against the grain, and the majority of us get funneled into the general conveyor belt of The System–because our survival depends on it.
Spending all day at work to afford the house or apartment we leave empty five days a week to go to work.
As we all know—but rarely stop to consider the wild absurdity of—part of The Education involves some very highly regarded paper notes printed by The System to represent worth.
We are told that some of these notes are worth more than others. Some are worth enough to exchange for a yacht and others are worth enough for only a cup of coffee. The only difference between these two notes is a symbol.
Despite our Education, I think everyone has had the passing thought that we’ve been duped. As we all know, this Monopoly money isn’t even backed by its worth in gold anymore.
And gold has its own hollow ring—you can’t eat it. It provides no information, functioning solely as a signifier—at least it has a tangibility. But the System ran out of gold years ago, and just kept printing bills. So, after spending all day at work we are given a handful of Monopoly money for our trouble.
“Here ya go!” says The System, patting Its worker bee on the head. “Some nice, crisp, colored paper. Don’t spend it all at once! Or do…”
Once we are equipped with our colored paper symbols, we are bombarded by advertisers who seek to steal our image of ourselves as we exist without their product and sell it back to us, “upgraded,” in exchange for the paper notes we have earned with our labor.
We are encouraged by media everywhere to overeat bad food and shop our cares away. It’s not personal, it’s marketing. And yet how many commercials does an average American watch in a lifetime? Billions. It would be impossible to be unaffected by such a bombardment.
MBG recently underwent some criticism for creating a commercial that literally burned the image of their logo onto the inside of movie-goers retinas. Utilizing the phenomenon that happens when you look at the sun and close your eyes, the effect left an after-image on the inside of the viewers’ eyelids for several moments after they had stopped viewing the advertisement.
But how different is this from what regular commercials are doing every day? In this world of advertisers who steal our images of ourselves, this time of speedy soundbites and cheap entertainment, a newer, bigger, faster culture of diversion has taken us hostage on its runaway train.
Writer Nicholas Carr speculates that our constant Internet trolling is remodeling our brains, making it nearly impossible for us to give sustained attention to a long piece of writing. He posits that modern humans’ addiction to technology may be weakening our ability to engage in deep thought.
Tests show that internet perusal activates the “seeker” instinct in humans, leftover from foraging days, so that when a quest for online information is initiated, the promise of obtaining a new nugget of social interaction or trivia sets the dopamine flowing in our brains.
But research suggest that, chemically, the payoff is less exciting than anticipated. An obsessive loop can be activated, leaving us continually pressing the lever for another crumb.
In our tick-tock world we are encouraged to function like clockwork, prescribed medication when we aren’t integrating well with society [See “The Politics of Normalcy”] and given our mollifying diversions in many forms. As Jim Morrison said:
“We have been metamorphosised from a mad body dancing on hillsides to a pair of eyes staring in the dark.”
For centuries, the medicine men and women of indigenous cultures have utilized disassociative substances to step outside the hive mind & brush with other dimensions of reality. They have taken psychotropic plants to travel through inner space, bringing back dreams & stories to stimulate the imagination of the tribe.
It’s noteworthy and suspicious that substances which might open up new ways of thinking are illegal in our culture, but consumption of the cancer-causing distraction of cigarettes and the numbing agent of alcohol is legal and actively encouraged (shades of “1984‘s” Victory Gin.)
What is to be done then, once it becomes clear that we are living in a reality inherited by long dead others?
The first thing is to step outside of the consensus spell, as much as possible. Awareness is key.
And then what, after deconstruction? Endless analysis? What really can be done? Society will not disappear.
Enter, the Dreamer. ..
The role of the Dreamer is the same as the philosopher, the artist, the mystic, the shaman, the monk, the poet, the sage, the writer, the dancer.
The Dreamer has the same noble destiny throughout the ages: to stimulate the imagination of society. To act as a bridge between consensus reality and the greater mystery of existence.
During times when philosophical complacency runs high and value for the arts and the humanities runs low, it is the moral and spiritual obligation of every Dreamer to speak their truth as best they can in whatever medium most excites them.
It is the destiny of every Dreamer to bring aliveness to the mechanized time, provocation to the complacent culture.
In order to engage in the original thinking necessary to provide the world with stimulating observations, the Dreamer must effectively step outside of the mental framework of society and perceive the world from a bird’s eye view.
We must question everything we have been taught and hereto assumed. We must seek new information of worth and be on a constant mission to set the imagination on fire.
There is so much beauty available, so many notes left behind by Dreamers before us who have questioned the way we live.
To combat the alienation and emptiness produced by the mechanized, disposable, consumeristic, materialistic worldview infiltrating our minds everyday from the outside world, we must consciously cultivate contact with our inner spirit and feed our soul.
We must give ourselves time to dream, to exist in undisturbed silence and nature, to ruminate on our lives and question reality.
As the advertisement-driven Western World slowly succeeds in covering the globe with McDonald arches and brand name blurbs—as people become more and more addicted to the instant gratification of pop technology—we are increasingly in danger of losing the impulse to dream.
Without vision, without self-questioning, we lose our way.
Dreamers are in high demand these days. This is a call to arms. Can you be a professional dreamer? I, for one, am certainly going to try.
“Creative Connections & The Science Of Inner Space”
The Love Pill: Future Brave New Drug of the Masses?
May 12, 2012 § 28 Comments
By Tai Carmen
“The warm, the richly colored, the infinitely friendly world of soma-holiday. How kind, how good-looking, how delightfully amusing every one was! […] Swallowing half an hour before closing time, that second dose of soma had raised a quite impenetrable wall between the actual universe and their minds.”
~ Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
You may soon be able to get a prescription for falling in love.
A team of Oxford researchers are working on a pill to recreate the feeling of being in the honeymoon stage. They aim to accomplish this by combining pheromones, testosterone (to up sex drive,) Oxytocin and Vasopressin — naturally occurring “bonding chemicals” produced by the body at the early stages of a relationship — CRH (a hormone that induces the fear of separation) and Entactogens, a “feel good” drug similar to MDMA.
There you have it folks, the recipe for love: one part sex, another part bonding, mix in the fear of separation and some ecstasy. Or so the Oxford research team is hoping.
While the love pill might seem to many like the absurd and even chilling culmination of a cultural trajectory best left to science fiction, others wonder if perhaps it might not have some therapeutic effect.
Take for instance the success researchers have had with treating Post Traumatic Shock with MDMA (known for its street name, ecstasy.) According to Science Daily, “participants treated with a combination of MDMA and psychotherapy saw clinically and statistically significant improvements in their PTSD — over 80% of the trial group no longer met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, stipulated in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (DSM-IV-TR) following the trial, compared to only 25% of the placebo group. In addition, all three subjects who reported being unable to work due to PTSD were able to return to work following treatment with MDMA.”
Likewise, psychologists like Harvard researcher Richard Doblin have long been interested in the empathy enhancing effects of MDMA for possible use in marriage counseling. Though the 1986 criminalization of the drug has hampered such investigation, there has been renewed interest on this front in the past few years.
The theory goes that breakthroughs in communication and emotional vulnerability could be stimulated by this kind of neurochemical enhancement in a therapy situation.
But where do we draw the line when tinkering with brain chemistry? Is happiness more important than authenticity? Judging from the statistics — one in ten Americans is currently taking antidepressants — it would appear the answer for many is yes.
In their paper, Neuroenhancement of Love and Marriage: The Chemicals Between Us, the scientists researching the new love pill suggest:
“Even if love were not authentic, authenticity is not an overriding or exclusive value. People can trade a degree of authenticity for other values in their lives.”
And somewhere Aldous Huxley is rolling over in his grave.
Huxley penned the classic and increasingly prophetic dystopian novel, Brave New World, in 1931, about a future society imprisoned by their own addiction to escapism. A key medium of escape: soma, a drug of the future masses.
Huxley creates the vision of an overmedicated society, wherein, as author Neil Postman puts it: people have “come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”
In comparing Huxley’s Brave New World with the famous dystopian novel 1984 by George Orwell, Postman notes:
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.
“Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.”
The propagandized phrase “A gram is better than a damn” floats around Huxley’s world and people routinely check out for “holidays” via pharmaceutical enhancement:
“I don’t understand anything,” she said with decision, determined to preserve her incomprehension intact. “Nothing. Least of all,” she continued in another tone “why you don’t take soma when you have these dreadful ideas of yours. You’d forget all about them. And instead of feeling miserable, you’d be jolly. So jolly.” (Brave New World.)
Of course, people have been hawking love potions for time immemorial, and it hasn’t worked yet. But with science on their side, today’s researchers might be the first to create a true love drug.
There is something about seeing the same thing — the face of your beloved, for instance — over and over again, which creates a kind of automatic pilot of the mind. It seems that often the more we see something, the less we see it. Consciously grounding oneself in the moment can help. But to create a way to see our partners with fresh eyes could indeed have a revitalizing effect on stalled relationships.
Still, the Huxlian implications have this author wondering what kind of pain could be repressed, what kind of problems ignored, with the help of such a pill. We touch fire, it hurts, we withdraw our hand. What would happen if we anesthetized that hand? We might wind up playing with fire until our hand fell off.
Take this metaphor to the emotional level. Pain is our body’s natural warning mechanism, telling us that something is wrong, indicating a need for change. If we simply synthetically engineer our chemicals to send us messages that everything is wonderful when, in reality, it is not, the danger of losing touch with one’s natural sense of truth — for choosing self-deception over needed change — seems great.
And if a feeling of connection can be artificially induced, what true breakthroughs — which would require, perhaps, facing unpleasant truths — could remain unplumbed in a relationship? To me, it seems like a recipe for arresting growth, both in the individual and the relationship.
But in a society where many people would rather be happy than authentic, and most women would rather look young than real — there could be a true market for the love pill.
My authenticity, and all the feelings which go along with it, is important to me. My feelings, both good and bad, guide me like a compass, and tell me when I’m languishing in some un-constructive headspace or circumstance by increasing emotional pain, like a warning. Like most artists — and I’d wager to guess, most people — I have my ups and downs. But my “downs” mean something to me, as much as my “ups.” Coming through a bad time, I always feel like I have managed to change something awry in myself or my life. Something I wouldn’t have been forced to address if I had synthetically induced the sensation of feeling better.
I know these statements are considered controversial by some. When I suggested in The Politics of Normalcy that the dominance and commonplace usage of anti-anxiety medication in today’s culture was perhaps depriving us of the important philosophical journey of facing our existential angst head-on, I received a deluge of comments — some hostile — suggesting that I simply didn’t understand what it was like for those seriously crippled by anxiety.
It’s a personal choice for each, certainly. But my (admittedly self-assigned) job here at Parallax is to investigate cultural trends and their implication across the wider historical backdrop of mankind’s journey, and the truth is, these pharmaceutical developments are incredibly new. It’s only prudent to discuss all angles.
I don’t mean to imply that taking medication is equivalent to a lobotomy. Obviously, a slight boost in serotonin doesn’t change a person’s essential values. But the whole idea that we are chemically “fixing” a problem when we “normalize” a person’s neurochemistry contains language which, to me, is a red flag. What is normal? Someone who is happy working nine hours a day? Interesting. Who does that equation benefit?
Could it be the machine of society? That Prozac makes for happy worker bees, while discontent citizens brew rebellion?
My concern is that in a future where love and happiness can both be artificially induced, we make ourselves incredibly vulnerable to becoming a society like Huxley’s Brave New World. The subliminal message seems to be: Why change your life when you can just change your chemistry? Why change the world when you can just change how you feel about it?
What do you think?