Wednesday, April 6, 2011

E is for ... Eight Circuit Theory

The late Dr. Timothy Leary, currently orbiting this Earth in accordance with his last wishes, was a hero of the counterculture and remains a controversial figure in academic circles. The Harvard professor of psychology is infamous for encouraging his students to partake of psychedelic drugs - including psilocybin and LSD - in order to facilitate their creativity. He was inspired on this unorthodox pedagogical approach by his own experiences using so-called "magic mushrooms," from which psilocybin is obtained; he later opined that he'd learned more about his own mind and the discipline of psychology on his first trip than in fifteen years as a psychological researcher.

At the time Leary was embracing and encouraging the counterculture - his Harvard Psilocybin Project was actively supported by the beat poet Allan Ginsberg, for example - the drugs he was peddling to his students were quite legal, although they were eyed with increasing suspicion by the authorities. Marijuana, an altogether inoffensive substance by comparison, was illegal, thanks to the Marihuana [sic] Tax Act of 1937. This legislation, which marked the opening salvo of the U.S. government's long and fruitless War on Drugs, was remarkable for several reasons. Firstly, as the name implied, the legislation actually concerns imposing a tax on vendors of cannabis sativa - principally doctors and pharmacists. The letter of the law criminalizes possession of the weed only on the basis that the taxes levied under the Act haven't been paid. These taxes were designed deliberately to be unaffordable to that class of persons commonly to be found using cannabis for recreational purposes, therefore virtually guaranteeing that anybody regularly using the drug did so in contravention of the law. This may seem a roundabout way of outlawing the drug - it was not illegal to own it, to cultivate it, to smoke it, or even to sell it, only to avoid the excise tax upon it - but it should be borne in mind that, at that time, there was considerable doubt over the constitutionality of a law that forbade citizens from partaking in a form of commerce. In those innocent times before the New Deal, the Supreme Court placed considerable weight on the Tenth Amendment deference to state legislatures, and regularly thwarted federal efforts to regulate all manner of industries. Alcohol had been prohibited by the Eighteenth Amendment, but the fact that a constitutional amendment had been required to accomplish this indicates that the path to outlawing drug use was not clear - not least because prohibition had subsequently been repealed by the same mechanism.

The regulation of a trumped-up tax provided a constitutional mechanism, but it was still necessary to sway popular opinion. To that end, Congressional hearings leading up to the Act relied heavily on sensational anecdotes from people who claimed the evil weed had driven them to acts of depraved enormity. An appropriately sensational term - "reefer madness" - found its way into tabloid headlines and thence into common parlance, even becoming the title of an unintentionally-hilarious 1936 movie (which you can actually go and watch here). Dr. William Woodward, counsel for the American Medical Association, rejected the claims of drastic personality alteration resulting from cannabis use, concluding the drug was essentially harmless and questioning the approach adopted by the committee in gathering evidence. The committee not only disregarded his objections, having very compelling - if hardly altruistic - reasons for doing so; it later reported to the house that the AMA was in full support of the bill, a blatant lie that went unchallenged. "Reefer madness" had no scientific basis whatsoever, but the Congressional imprimatur saw it cited in the defense of murderers and other violent criminals - sometimes successfully.

Leary's own "madness" in dosing his students with psychoactive drugs whose effects were still poorly understood hastened the hardening of the official line against all recreational drugs - the government did, in fairness, have a much better case to make regarding the dangers of LSD and psilocybin, and they'd done the top-secret research with Project MK-ULTRA to prove it, although that, alas, is a story for another time - but there was some method to it. That method, belatedly, harks back to the title of this post: Eight Circuit Theory.

Eight Circuit Theory is a classic piece of pseudoscience, cobbling together a lot of mystical ideas with a lot of valid observations into an overarching theory that is beguilingly untestable, and so unscientific. Despite this drawback, it has a certain appeal, which is why I'm choosing to talk about it here today. Essentially, Leary's model of cognition likens the brain to a radio - a tuned circuit, or more accurately, eight separate tuned circuits, each of which receives (and broadcasts) specific kinds of information. The eight circuits are hierarchically arranged, from the instinctive processing of the bio-survival circuit to the transcendental comprehension of the non-local circuit. Much of the theoretical scaffolding of Leary's model seems preposterous; but his assertion that, for most of us, the higher circuits are customarily closed seems reasonable enough within the terms of the model. The real controversy lies in his related belief that drugs such as LSD and psilocybin could "turn on" the circuits, and allow the user to "tune in" to information that otherwise passed them by: hence the phrase "turn on, tune in, drop out." What were the participants in Leary's Psilocybin Project "dropping out" of? Robert Anton Wilson, currently percolating in the Pacific off the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in accordance with his last wishes, had theories of his own about that; but they can wait.

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