Aldous Huxley Opening The Doors of Perception

British novelist, essayist and poet Aldous Huxley at the theatre. (Photo by Sasha/Getty Images)

Aldous Huxley is arguably one of the most prolific writers of the twentieth century. The member of the famous Huxley family in Britain (which includes Sir Julian Huxley and the Nobel Laureate, Andrew Huxley) is arguably the most creative one. When he wrote, it was easy to see the exuberance and burst of creativity the surrounded him. His novel,  Brave New World, is a stable in American literature and his essays have become legendary. One of those collections of essays was the now iconic book on his psychedelic experience, The Doors of Perception. Huxley was part of the culture that experimented with powerful hallucinogens, which even brought experimental psychology to explore their power to experience new states of consciousness and lively perceptions.

The Doors of Perception and his other book, Heaven and Hell*, became accessible writing for those who wanted to know about the experiences through psychedelics. Although they became illegal and their use even for research was prohibited, such chemicals are making a comeback for research, specifically in therapy. Just last year, prolific author and New York Times writer Michael Pollan published a book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, centered on psychedelics. Last week in the Joe Rogan Experience Podcast, a war correspondent from VICE, Ben Anderson – who has been in places like Yemen, Syria, and Afghanistan – talked about the impressive results of MDMA (ecstasy) therapy for his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Opening the Doors of Perception with Aldous Huxley

Huxley, Mescalin, and the New World

Huxley’s account starts with describing the origins of Peyote. As he explains, it was Louis Lewin who first published a study on the strong hallucinogen. Brilliantly, Huxley synthesizes the recent findings on the chemical compositions of the peyote, which are similar to those on adrenochrome (decomposition of adrenaline) and which us human can produce in our body. He even speculates that schizophrenia could be a chemical disorder as other mental disorders.

Huxley then takes us to California and his mescaline trip, as he explains on page 18:

“By a series of, for me, extremely fortunate circumstances I found myself, in the spring of 1953, squarely athwart that trail. One of the sleuths had come on business to California. In spite of seventy years of mescalin research, the psychological material at his disposal was still absurdly inadequate, and he was anxious to add to it. I was on the spot and willing, indeed eager, to be a guinea pig. Thus it came about that, one bright May morning, I swallowed four-lengths of a gram of mescalin dissolved in half a glass of water and sat down to wait for the results.”

For that point on, Huxley, through the help of a recorder that the researchers had set and his mind changing experience, describes his hallucinations. The drug had a delayed effect, but, when it exploded, Huxley’s consciousness was transformed. He writes of the initial effects, “Half an hour after swallowing the drug I became aware of a slow dance of golden lights.” Huxley, who describes himself as a “poor visualizer” went off to have fantastic visual hallucinations. “I had been struck by the lively dissonance of its colors”, he writes on seeing a vase with three flowers. He then added, “I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation – the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.”

When reading Huxley’s experience, one can’t help to make comparisons to other hallucinogen experiences.  The neuroscientist and famous atheist Sam Harris wrote in his book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, how his psychedelic experience had shaped him. He writes on ingesting MDMA: “Unlike other drugs with which we were very familiar (marijuana and alcohol), MDMA produced no feeling of distortion in our senses. Our mind seemed completely clear.”

Clarity and Visions

Clearness seemed to be a topic that Huxley went back to it on various occasions on his book. He speculated, as the philosopher C.D. Broad, that the brain is “eliminative” and that it narrows our experiences and perceptions so that we don’t get overwhelmed. In other words, in order to survive, rich and grandiose experiences with tons of illuminating colors and perception were substituted by narrow and more focus experiences that led us to survive and evolve in creatures with more attentional focus. Indeed, it has been shown that the brain looks for focus on vision and wants to cut down on distractions, especially for the working memory. George A. Miller’s Magical Number Seven, Plus Minus Two, in which we can only hold 7 ± 2 objects in our working memory, is applicable in most aspects of life. Huxley thought that mescalin had opened a door, a New World, where Miller’s Law (7 ± 2) wasn’t applicable.

Other insights that Huxley brings in his books was the perception of art under the effect of mescaline. He was perplexed and taken by the deep visual intensity of art when going to a drug store under such effects. He even theorized that while we normal beings need mescalin to see such beauty in art, artists are “congenitally equipped to see it all the time.” He even finds that mescalin can bring enjoyment to any musical piece that he hears.

The Religious and the Schizophrenic

The last two points that make The Doors of Perception a unique book is Huxley’s comparison of mescaline to the experience of schizophrenics and the introduction of mescaline to western faith. He writes on the schizophrenics:

“The schizophrenic is a soul not merely unregenerate, but desperately sick into the bargain. His sickness consists in the inability to take refuge from inner and outer reality (as the sane person habitually does) in the homemade universe of common sense – the strictly human world of useful notions, shared symbols and socially acceptable conventions. The schizophrenic is like a man permanently under influence of mescalin, and therefore unable to shut off the experience of a reality which he is not holy enough to live with, which he cannot explain away because it never permits him to look at the world with merely human eyes, scares him into interpreting its unremitting strangeness, its burning intensity of significance, as the manifestation of human or even cosmic malevolence, calling for the most desperate countermeasures, from murderous violence at one end of the scale to catatonia, or psychological suicide at the other.”

In fact, schizophrenia has such effect because of other chemical imbalance. Excess of dopamine is one part of the story on why schizophrenics present such relentless hallucinations. Although many other factors contribute, like genes and even malfunction in the development of glial cells, the chemical imbalance is a huge part of why the visions and paranoid states are compared to those in mescaline. Indeed, one could even find himself under the paranoia and accusatory voices in auditory hallucination like the schizophrenics if ingesting some type of psychedelics and experiencing negative effects. These are called by Huxley, Heaven, and Hell.

On religion and spirituality, Huxley draws on how native Americans use peyote for transcendence and how western culture and religion can benefit from it. “The urge of transcending self-conscious selfhood is, as I have said, a principal appetite of the soul,” writes Huxley on the topic. The need of mescalin could fill the gap that religion can’t fill and may be an alternative for those experiences that many can’t achieve through prayer.

Last Word on Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception

While it is a short book, Aldous Huxley’s vivid account is one that has lasted more than 50 years. His insertion into mescalin was echoed by a culture that started to experiment with psychedelics in the 1960s. Although it was derailed and prohibited, it now sits on a promising work of research. Huxley passed away the same day as iconic writer C.S. Lewis, but more importantly, the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The death of these figures might have finalized the end of an era, an era that had found transcendence and deep experiences through psychedelics. But now, it seems that Aldous Huxley might have a comeback, with many wanting to open the doors of perception that he wrote about.

 

*Huxley’s other book, Heaven and Hell, centers on the same topic of mescaline, but in how the visions can be compared to art, schizophrenics and religious experience.

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