These Are Your Senses on Drugs

Psychedelics and the nature of perception

Credit: yngsa/iStock/Getty

Last summer, when I took acid with a close friend, she told me she could suddenly see the world in 3D.

“Don’t we always see in 3D?” I asked her.

“Of course,” she said, “but you know what I mean.”

And I absolutely did.

From the balcony of my third-floor apartment, we peered out into the branches of a nearby tree like sailors on the prow of a ship. Every leaf appeared in crystalline clarity, while the fractal nature of the structures at each level was immediately and unmistakably clear — the leaves’ vein patterns mirroring the stems and twigs that supported them, and twigs sprouting from branches in patterns that matched the branches and trunk itself.

Earlier, in a nearby park, we had marveled at the movement of ants across a small patch of dry ground and how they could be perceived not just as one colony, but as a collection of countless autonomous units that somehow acted as one. And on the way home — by a slow and circuitous route, due to the circumstances — even the bricks and paving stones were bursting with subtleties of color and texture, light and shade.

Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

This is not an essay about the spiritual experience of taking psychedelics, although that topic is worth a great deal of attention. It’s about the particular effect that psychedelics have on our visual perception, an effect that lies in a curious, liminal space between distortion and enhancement: between outright lie and profound revelation of truth.

The nature of this dual effect was famously described by Aldous Huxley in his 1954 essay, “The Doors of Perception,” which detailed his experience with mescaline. In a memorable passage, Huxley writes:

The vase contained only three flowers — a full-blown Belie of Portugal rose, shell pink with a hint at every petal’s base of a hotter, flamier hue; a large magenta and cream-colored carnation; and, pale purple at the end of its broken stalk, the bold heraldic blossom of an iris. […] At breakfast that morning I had been struck by the lively dissonance of its colors. But that was no longer the point. I was not looking now at an unusual flower arrangement. I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation — the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.

“Is it agreeable?” somebody asked.

“Neither agreeable nor disagreeable,” I answered. “It just is.”

For me, this has always been one of the key understandings of Huxley’s essay: that the dramatic shift in our senses while under the influence of psychedelics does not disconnect us from reality; rather, it facilitates radically direct engagement with the true nature of what is in front of us. Indeed, it’s a sentiment reflected in Huxley’s choice of title for the work, taken from a line in William Blake’s prose poem, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”:

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.

The Doors of Attention

In pop culture, there is a clear idea of what it means for visual art to be “psychedelic.” Prevalent examples include fractal designs in high contrast, portraits with distorted perspectives, fabrics in loud colors and swirling patterns, and perhaps a Hindu deity or two thrown in for good measure. But if we look beyond these somewhat clichéd examples, a more nuanced idea of what constitutes psychedelia can be discovered.

In art critic Ken Johnson’s Are You Experienced?, the author argues that minimal works that experiment with abstracted form and color were born out of the enhanced sensory perceptions provoked by LSD and should thus be considered through the lens of the psychedelic movement.

Johnson writes:

All kinds of things look better to the stoned observer, but many works of art produced in the 1960s seemed to require not just a new sort of taste but a heightened, Zen-like state of attentiveness, a kind of receptivity to the subtleties of space and time and forms and materials that could readily be achieved by ingesting a psychotropic drug.

According to Johnson, candidates for inclusion in this reevaluated psychedelic pantheon are James Turrell’s light installations or the minimalist slabs of John McCracken, which invite a deep contemplation of the nature of one’s body in relation to the artworks and gallery space.

Photo by Harold Cunningham (left), Uli Deck/picture alliance (right) via Getty

Beneath this assessment is a recognition that while the psychedelic experience is often thought of in terms of connection to the natural world, it can also provoke an awareness — maybe more of a rediscovery — of the complex materials that surround us in the contemporary human habitat.

On close inspection, the patterns and textures of wooden tables, or woolen sweaters, or painted walls tell a story of the skillful manipulation of organic materials by human hands. Contemplating these inanimate objects with enhanced attention is enough to reveal that they retain an imprint of life. One could even say that the truth of an assertion made by Karl Marx 150 years ago becomes suddenly legible: Our relation to all manufactured objects will forever be a social one, but obscured to us by the tortuous supply chains of an advanced economy.

Would more widespread use of psychedelics increase demand for items that were handcrafted rather than mass manufactured? I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest it. But along with revising our view on commodities, there are other, more metaphysical lessons we might take from the perceptual shift.

Visual Empathy

Before the term “psychedelic” was coined by psychiatrist Humphry Osmond (in his correspondence with Aldous Huxley), the class of perception-altering drugs that includes peyote and psilocybin were known as psychotomimetics, meaning “mimicking psychosis.” Through administering such drugs to research patients, it was believed that psychiatrists could temporarily induce psychosis and therefore study the altered mental state under laboratory conditions.

This line of thinking was eventually abandoned once it became clear that the psychedelic experience had little in common with a psychotic break, since the former was characterized by feelings of wholeness and understanding rather than anxiety and paranoia. Nonetheless, there is something deeply fascinating about the ability to experience such radically different mindsets, albeit temporarily.

Personally, when I take LSD, I have more than once experienced the feeling that my consciousness has become closer to that of a predatory animal — a cat, for example. (I appreciate that this might seem nonsensical to anyone who hasn’t felt the urge to trip, but like “seeing in 3D,” it’s easier to communicate from within the experience.) Under the influence of psychedelics like LSD, sensory stimuli can become so rich, vivid, and compelling that they interfere with the capacity for sustained abstract thought: When trying to maintain a conversation, sentences branch into endless tangential clauses or taper off into silence. Yet at the same time, the movements of a tree in the wind or a plume of curling cigarette smoke can be instantly deconstructed into hundreds of individual points of motion.

Indigenous belief systems that predate the monotheistic religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam often contain elements of therianthropy, the ability for humans to take on the form of animals. Whether in the Native American stories of shamanic transformation, Aztec myths of the nagual, or werewolves in European folklore, archetypal tales in which humans adopt animal features (or vice versa) abound.

Most modern readers will likely be too skeptical to take these myths literally, but it’s not hard to imagine that such stories actually spoke of humans taking on certain sensory characteristics, reminiscent of the way animals experience the world, as a result of ritual trance or the ingestion of psychoactive substances. After consuming preparations made from certain psychedelic mushrooms or cactii, the resultant hypersensitivity to sound and color, coupled with reduced cognitive coherence, could be read as the embodiment of an animal spirit that has been called to bless the human vessel with its insights. And unlike the Christian doctrine in which mankind is given dominion over the earth, indigenous traditions that access this animal consciousness take a holistic view of human beings’ role in nature: a view in which we walk the earth not as masters, but as stewards.

To see — and more than that, to see clearly — is no easy task. Our brain already fills in so many gaps in the visual information we perceive that we live in a world that is half-imagined as it is.

To change the nature of our visual perception is to transform our reality, but in a sense, the psychedelic experience is a method of intervening directly to disrupt a process of interpretation and reconstitution that is happening all the time. As the thesis of “The Doors of Perception” maintains, our miraculous consciousness is constituted just as much by what we filter out as by what we let in, yet we’re fortunate to have the tools in our possession to catch a glimpse of things as they really are: infinite.

Freelance journalist writing on tech, cities and much in between.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store