The LSD study: an author responds
|Picture by Imperial College London.|
[Updated on 16 April 2016. A follow-up has also been published here.]
Yesterday I published an essay criticizing the media coverage of a brand new study on the neural correlates of the LSD experience. In that essay, I analyzed the original study and compared it to what the media reported. Towards the end, I also shared some social commentary about the media's role in our culture today, based on a philosophical interpretation of the study's results.
Today one of the study's authors, Luke Williams, responded to my essay through a comment in a Facebook group. I reproduce his response verbatim and in full below, inserting my comments and rebuttals as appropriate. Since, as you are about to see, Williams attacks the second part of my essay unceremoniously, I feel legitimized to now bring to the table aspects of my argument that I have held back in yesterday's essay. Namely, I feel now warranted to criticize the study authors themselves, for what I see as their shortcomings in ensuring accurate communication of their results to and by the media.
Williams starts by acknowledging the accuracy of my analysis. Referring to my essay, he writes:
This is half ok. The first section about the misrepresentation of the research in CNN and the Guardian is actually good, and he's clear that the paper itself doesn't support such interpretations, and it's a shame that the reporting is poor.
Great. The authors, of course, are authorities when it comes to their methods and results, so Williams' comments dispel any doubts there might have been about the accuracy of my assessment. But he continues:
On the other hand, the material is of a technical level that makes it really, really hard to describe without quite a lot of background, and it's hard to know how we can make this situation better.
But this is true for ALL science & medical journalism, from the most simple examples of relative and absolute risk, to the misrepresentation of experimental data of all kinds - pretty pictures sell more copies (apologies, generate more clicks and sell more adspace) than dry technical prose.
This is a defeatist appeal to sympathy and acquiescence that I certainly do not condone. If we were to follow along with Williams's views here, our culture and society would soon turn into a circus. Whether we like it or not, science has gained tremendous power in defining our cultural narrative about truth and reality, and neither the scientific media nor the scientists themselves can shy away from the responsibility this invests them with. As a matter of fact, I herewith call on the LSD study's authors to own up to this responsibility and actively demand that the media amend and correct their reporting. In my view, it is not OK for the authors to wash their hands as they watch the circus unfold. If they don't actively attempt to rectify the media's mistakes, who will? No, think about it: who else will? Moreover, it is even less OK for the authors to contribute to the circus by misrepresenting their own results (more on this below).
The second step of his argument is that the images and words chosen by the Guardian and CNN support a materialist metaphysics which is actually the opposite of what the paper says: "their choices portray the research results as confirming materialist expectations. That the results in fact do the opposite is not discussed anywhere". This is just total nonsense ...
Well, let us take a step back and contemplate the obvious: under materialism, brain activity constitutes experience. When people trip on psilocybin or LSD they report a significant increase in the intensity and breadth of their experiences. Therefore, materialists would expect to see an also significant increase in activity somewhere in the brain (yes, yes, I know about inhibitory neural processes and all that; more on it below). That the opposite is seen certainly doesn't corroborate materialist expectations, does it? Refusing to acknowledge this is puerile.
As I mentioned above, the study's authors are authorities when it comes to their methods and results. But they are not necessarily authorities when it comes to the philosophical interpretation of their results. The assertion Williams is calling 'total nonsense' is an assessment of philosophy, particularly metaphysics (as Williams himself acknowledges) and philosophy of mind. As such, Williams is simply expressing an uninformed opinion here; which he is, of course, entitled to do, just as any (lay) person.
My assertion that the LSD study's results favor a non-materialist ontology was not a casual one. I have been elaborating on this ontology for years now and the body of my work grounds my assertion. I have now written six books on the subject, countless essays and articles, and published dozens of videos. I have even written an analytic white paper summarizing my position, which is freely available in pre-print format.
... and based a weak understanding of the background of brain imagining science. Reductions in brain activity (as demonstrated via MEG in this current paper) no NOT support any non-materialist interpretations, universal consciousness, etc. For the very simple reason that reductions in brain activity occur all the time in normal cognition.
This can't possibly count as a refutation of my assertion, can it? Yes, reductions in brain activity occur all the time, and so do reductions in the intensity and breadth of subjective experience. The point is this: when a significant increase in the intensity and breadth of experience comes accompanied by a simultaneous decrease in overall brain activity, it becomes at least trickier to see how brain activity could constitute subjective experience.
The brain is a dynamic system that rapidly shifts resources to adapt to different functions. You can see reductions in brain activity in certain networks and areas under loads of different simple experiments and tasks, and these reductions are relative - we're talking about a few percent reduction in activity compared to the global brain, not a "total shutdown" as some have misrepresented it as.
Again, this misses the point entirely. For instance, in the original 2012 psilocybin study by the same Imperial College group, it has been shown that there were no significant increases in brain activity anywhere in the brain, only widespread decreases. The present LSD study shows no significant increases either. How can, under materialism, a significant increase in the intensity and breadth of experience correlate with no significant increase in activity anywhere in the brain? Where does the increase in experiential intensity and breadth come from? Appealing to a cessation of certain inhibitory processes doesn't cut the mustard, for that should then be accompanied by an increase in activity somewhere else in the brain (namely, the activity no longer inhibited). Yet, such an increase wasn't observed.
I have been debating neuroscientists on this for years now, and Williams doesn't really bring anything new to the table. In fact, he misses all the best materialist counterpoints that his more famous colleagues, such as Dr. Christof Koch and Dr. Steven Novella, have made against me. For completeness, here is a summary of my argument. If Williams can bring something to the table that hasn't already been covered in this summary, then by all means let us debate it.
Finally, to suggest that this is part of some sort of materialist conspiracy/stymergy is just speculative nonsense.
I seem to have hit a nerve...
It's only because this is poor reporting of some technical science, where the journalists have happened to go for the most pretty pictures they can, happens to be in the field of psychdelic neuroscience, that there's a connection with consciousness and materialism vs anti materialism at all.
This is a rather innocent view, especially when taking into consideration that the picture chosen by The Guardian wasn't the prettiest. Be it as the case may be, to counter this criticism Williams forces me to bring up what I believe to be an example of stigmergy rather close to him: that of Robin Carhart-Harris, his colleague and lead author of the LSD and psilocybin studies in question here. I believe it's safe to assume that Williams himself would acknowledge that Carhart-Harris isn't motivated by pretty pictures.
Before I proceed, however, let me make one thing absolutely clear: I've never said that the stigmergy I describe is necessarily malicious. I think the vast majority of its perpetrators do not act out of dishonesty or evil intentions. They are just caught up in the dynamics of the stigmergy. Regarding Robin Carhart-Harris, I feel absolute conviction that his actions towards the media have always been well-intended and honest; never malicious. Let this be very clear upfront.
Nonetheless, I believe Carhart-Harris has misrepresented the results of his own group's research towards the media; more than once. I've elaborated extensively on this in essay 3.5 of my book Brief Peeks Beyond, from which I quote below:
[In an essay] titled ‘Magic mushrooms expand your mind and amplify your brain’s dreaming areas,’ Carhart-Harris goes on to say that psilocybin ‘increased the amplitude … of activity’ in brain regions associated with dreaming. This is not corroborated by the 2014 technical paper, which reports an increase only in the amplitude of variations of brain activity levels. Carhart-Harris then speculates that psychedelics enabled ‘disinhibited activity’ in neural systems associated with emotions. This again suggests that activity increases somewhere in the brain as a result of psychedelic use, both in contradiction to Carhart-Harris’ own 2012 results and without substantiation in the 2014 technical article. In another popular article in which Carhart-Harris is quoted, he goes beyond mere suggestion: ‘You’re seeing these areas getting louder, and more active,’ he is quoted as saying. ‘It’s like someone’s turned up the volume there.’ What’s going on here?
Puzzled, I emailed Carhart-Harris asking for clarifications. He and Enzo Tagliazucchi, the main author of the second study, replied promptly and very generously. The email exchange that ensued over several days confirms my assessments above. Namely:
- Indeed, they found just an increase in the variability of the brain activity signal, that is, an increase in fluctuations as opposed to a constant, unchanging signal. Phase information is lost in the variability analysis, so no conclusions can be extracted about the average amplitude of the signal.
- Tagliazucchi interprets the variability of brain activity during rest as analogous to actual brain activity when the subject is engaged in performing a task. The variability may show how often spontaneously occurring neural processes engage and disengage, thus providing a measure of ‘something going on’ in the brain while the subject is at rest. As such, variability could be looked upon as a kind of ‘meta-activity’ measurement that may correlate better with the qualitative changes in subjective experience reported by the subjects.
After having seen an earlier draft of this essay, the researchers requested that I do not quote their email messages to me; a request I find disappointing but which I am honoring. All I can thus say is that, following extensive and in-depth exchanges with them, it is my genuine understanding that Carhart-Harris’ popular science piece and some of his statements quoted in the press were inaccurate. Carhart-Harris himself has neither explicitly agreed with nor denied this assessment, although I believe it to be an inescapable implication of the email communications.
- Actual brain activity has not been found to increase anywhere in the brain.
I see nothing wrong with exploring the idea of ‘meta-activity.’ In fact, I applaud it. I just feel that the terminology should be used rigorously and unambiguously to avoid misleading readers and the media alike. You see, brain activity – that is, metabolism – is one thing; variations of brain activity are another thing entirely. Speed is not the same as acceleration. A car that repeatedly stops, accelerates and then stops again is not necessarily a car that travels fast. The theoretical hypothesis that ‘meta-activity’ may be a more useful measurement does not make it valid to use the word ‘activity’ as shorthand for ‘activity variability.’
(Brief Peeks Beyond, pp. 89-91)
Do I believe Carhart-Harris' misrepresentation was a sincere and honest mistake? As I said above, absolutely. I even think the mistake was understandable. The confusion arose from a technical point related to signal processing (which I happen to have an education on), not neuroscience. For completeness, allow me to explain it: the 2014 study found an increase in the ‘total spectral power’ of brain activity in certain regions. This seems to suggest that brain activity increased, but it has nothing to do with it. Technically, to calculate the ‘spectral power’ one must first derive the so-called Fourier Transform of the brain activity signal. By doing so, the original time-domain signal is moved onto the frequency domain and broken down into its many frequency components (the so-called ‘frequency spectrum’). The ‘spectral power’ is calculated by squaring the amplitude of those frequency components. One then knows how much ‘power’ each component contributes to the original time-domain signal. But because phase information is discarded in the calculation, one doesn’t know whether the contribution of each component is constructive or destructive. In other words, one doesn’t know whether a component interferes constructively or destructively with the others. Often the total spectral power is huge but, because the components interfere mostly destructively with each other, the time-domain signal is puny. In contrast, low total spectral power often corresponds to a significant time-domain signal, because the component frequencies are in phase and interfere constructively with each other, adding up their respective contributions. Therefore, an increase in ‘total spectral power,’ in and of itself, neither implies nor suggests that brain activity increased. Carhart-Harris, perhaps misled by the word 'power,' thought that it did and passed that interpretation on to the media.
Again, this is an understandable mistake for sure. But it also happens to be a mistake that rendered the interpretation of the paper beautifully consistent with materialist expectations. So I ask you: if the mistake had led to a conclusion that contradicted materialism, would it have been more thoroughly checked before being passed on to the media? Would more questions have been raised? Would the media itself have been a little more critical about the message if it appeared to contradict materialism? No assumption of maliciousness is required to imagine that the answer to these questions is 'yes.' Carhart-Harris' mistaken interpretation contradicted even his own previous work, yet that apparently wasn't enough to trigger a cautious reconsideration. Could it have something to do with the fact that the mistake happened to fit materialist intuitions like a glove? If so, this is the stigmergy I am talking about, and it has nothing to do with pretty pictures. Materialism has become a self-reinforcing paradigm of thought whose increasing disconnect with reality is continuously and actively obfuscated by the stigmergy.
The remainder of Williams' criticism requires no rebuttal or comment, really. I quote it below purely in the interest of completeness:
Finally, EVEN if it was the case (although it's certainly not been demonstrated here) hierarchical power structures in society use the currently leading philosophical paradigm to further their own ends - um, so what? The point about entrenched power in late capitalism is that it tries to use whatever it can, including turning the apparently radical and revolutionary into tools (see "Commodify Your Dissent" for background). The power structures for 100s of years used another paradigm - dualism, via theology, to oppress, enslave and maintain their grip on power. It's not a unique problem to "evil" materialism, dudes.
I want to conclude this essay by highlighting my admiration for the world-class scientific work Williams, Carhart-Harris, and the entire crew at Imperial College London are doing in the field of psychedelic research. Theirs is courageous, pioneering, timely and incredibly important work. Its potential applications in restoring psychedelics not only as a legitimate, but also extraordinarily effective tool in our pharmacology are hard to overestimate. My criticism towards them is limited to only two points: their interactions with the media and their occasional attempt to foray into philosophy of mind, which does no service to their scientific work. I applaud their research and wish them only the best in their pursuits.
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