robin carhart-harris

robin carhart harris.png

intro’d to Robin while reading Michael Pollan‘s how to change your mind (esp Robin and Alison bit and carhart-harris entropy law):

5 – the neuroscience – your brain on psychedelics


‘if the only way we can access the unconscious is via dreams and free association.. we aren’t going to get anywhere.. surely there must be something else’.. he asked his prof if that something else might be a drug.. his prof sent him to read a book called realms of the human unconscious by stanislav grof..


carhart harris thinks that psychedelics render the brain’s usual handshake of perception less stable and more slipper.. he suspects that there are moments during the psychedelic experience when confidence in our usual top down concepts or reality collapses, opening the way for more bottom up info to get thru the filter.. but when all that sensory info threatens to overwhelm us, the mind furiously generates new concepts (crazy or brilliant, it hardly matters) to make sense of ait all – ‘and so you might see faces coming out of the rain..


‘that’s the brain doing what the brain does’ – that is, working to reduce uncertainty by, in effect, telling itself stories..

by adulthood, the brain has gotten very good at observing and testing reality and developing reliable predictions about it that optimize our investment of energy (mental and otherwise) and therefore our chances of survival

really? i don’t buy that

i think that makes us fragile.. and not alive

ie: antifragility et al

uncertainty is a complex brains’ biggest challenge, and predictive coding evolved to help us reduce it.. in general the kind of precooked or conventionalized thinking this adaptation produces serves us well. but only up to a point

i don’t think it serves us well at all.. only serves whales in seal world well .. at least.. so far as it keeps them there

precisely where that point lies is a question robin carhart -harris and his colleagues have explored in an ambitious and provocative paper titled ‘the entropic brain: ..’ the question at its heart is, do we pay a price for the achievement of order and selfhood in the adult human mind.. the paper concludes that we do.. while suppressing entropy (in this context a synonym for uncertainty) ..the brain ‘serves to promote realism, foresight, careful reflection and an ability to recognize and overcome wishful and paranoid fantasies’ at the same time this achievement tends to ‘constrain cognition’ and exert ‘a limiting or narrowing influence on consciousness’

entropy et al.. antifragility.. et al

[ – 30 min convo in 2017]

[ – 16 min tedx 2016]

[ – 1 hr w russel brand 2017]

14 min – on what we have to bring to this indigenous practice.. ability to break it down to understand it

52 min – on hearing other’s stories – seeing thru their eyes

53 min – rosalind on connectedness..

1:02 – one common theme coming out of this.. ‘oh my.. my self was a construction.. built up.. not actually real’.. once that happens.. common thing is .. seeing us as all one


for all his ambition his affect is strikingly self effacing and does little to prepare you for his willingness  to venture out onto intellectual limbs that would scare off less intrepid scientists

the entropy paper asks us to conceive of the mind as an uncertaitny reducing machine w a few serious bugs in it.. the sheer complexity of the human brain and the greater number of different mental states in its repertoire (as compared w other animals) make the maintenance of order a top priority, lest the system descend into chaos..

? maybe it should..?

magical thinking (a much more anarchic – no rules – form of  primary consciousness.. from long ago) is one way for human minds to reduce their uncertainty about the world.. but it is less than optimal for the success of the species

success defined in what way..?

a better way to suppress uncertainty and entropy in the human brain emerge w the evolution fo the default mode network.. carhart harris contends.. a brain regulation system that  is absent or undeveloped in lower animals and young children..  along w the default mode network, ‘a coherent sense of self or ‘ego’ emerges’ and w that the human capacity for self relection and reason..  he calls this more highly evolved mode of cognition.. secondary consciousness.. pays deference to reality and diligently seeks to represent the world as precisely as possible’ in order to minimize ‘surprise and uncertainty (ie entropy)’

whoa.. fromm surprise/spontaneity.. is what keeps us alive.. same too w uncertainty/disorder


the article offers an intriguing graphic depicting a ‘spectrum of cognitive states’ ranging from high entropy mental states to low ones.. at the high entropy end .. he lists psychedelic states; infant consciousness; early psychosis; magical thinking; and divergent or creative thinking. at the low entropy end.. he lists narrow or rigid thinking; addiction; obsessive compulsive disorder; depression ; anesthesia ; and finally, coma.

wow – that’s huge

carhart harris suggests that the psychological ‘disorders’ at the low entropy end of the spectrum are not the result of a lack of order in the brain but rather stem from an excess of order. when the groves of self reflective thinking deepen and harden, the ego becomes overbearing. this is perhaps most clearly evident in depression, when the ego turns on itself and uncontrollable introspection gradually shades our reality..


carhart harris believes  that people suffering from a whole range of disorders characterized by excessively rigid patterns of thought – including addiction, obsessions, and eating disorders as well as depression – stand to benefit from ‘the ability of psychedelics to disrupt stereotyped patterns of thought and behavior by disintegrating the patterns of [neutral] activity upon which they rest’

so it may be that some brains could stand to have a little more entropy, not less

indeed.. yes

this is where psychedelics come in by quieting the default mode network, these compounds can loosen the ego’s grip on the machinery of the mind, ‘lubricating’ cognition where before it has been rusted stuck..


‘psychedelics alter consciousness by disorganizing brain activity’ carhart harris writes.. they increase the amount of entropy in the brain, w the result that the system reverts to a less constrained mode of cognition..

‘it’s not just that one system drops away’ he says ‘ but that an older system reemerges’

yeah.. wow

already there ness

that older system is primary consciousness, a mode of thinking in which the ego temporarily loses its dominion and the unconscious , now unregulated, ‘is brought into an observable space’.. this, for carhart harris is the heuristic value of psychedelics to the study of the mind, though he sees therapeutic value as well.

worth noting that carhart harris does not romanticize psychedelics and has little patience for the sort of ‘magical thinking’ and ‘metaphysics’ that they nourish in the  acolytes – such as the idea that consciousness is ‘transpersonal’ a property of the universe rather than the human brain..  in his view, the forms of consciousness that psychedelics unleash are regressions to a ‘more primitive’ mode of cognition..  w freud, he believes th tat the loss of self, and the sense of oneness, characteristic of the mystical experience – whether occasioned by chemistry or religion – return us to the psychological condition of the infant on its mother’s breast, a stage when it has yet to develop a sense of itself as a separate and bounded individual..


for carhart harris, the pinnacle of human development is the achievement of this differentiated self, or ego, and its imposition of order on the anarchy of a primitive mind buffeted by fears and wishes and given to various forms of magical thinking.


while he holds w aldous huxley that psychedelics throw open the odors of perception, he does not agree that everything tha comes thru that opening… is necessarily real..  yet.. he also believes there is genuine gold in the psychedelic experience..

too much entropy in the human brain may lead to atavistic thinking and, at the far end, madness, yet too little can cripple us as well..  the grip of an overbearing ego can enforce a rigidity in our thinking that is psychologically destructive..  it may be socially and politically destructive too, in that it closes the mind to info and alt points of view

in one of our convos.. robin speculated that a class of drugs w the power to overturn hierarchies in the mind and sponsor unconventional thinking has the potential to reshape users’ attitudes toward authority of all kinds; that is the compounds may have a political effect. many believe lsd played precisely that role in the political upheaval of the 1960s

‘was it that hippies gravitated to psychedelics, or do psychedelics create hippies..? nixon thought it was the latter.. he may have been right’ .. robin believes that psychedelics may also subtly shift people’s attitudes toward nature, which also underwent a sea change in the 60s..  when the influence of the dmn declines, so does our sense of separateness from our environ..


‘the brain operates w greater flexibility and interconnectedness under hallucinogens’ (a high entropy brain)


when the brain operates under the influence of psilocybin.. thousands of new connections form.. linking far flung brain regions that during normal waking consciousness don’t exchange much info..  in effect, traffic is rerouted from a relatively small number of interstate highways onto myriad smaller roads linking a great many more destinations..  the brain appears to become less specialized (ie: talking mostly w/in silos) and more globally interconnected, w considerably more intercourse, or ‘cross talk’ among its various neighborhoods..

the increase in entropy allows a thousand mental states to bloom, many of them bizarre and senseless, but some number of them revelatory, imaginative, and , at least potentially, transformative..


entropy in brain supplies diversity of raw material on which selection can then operate to solve problems and bring novelty in to the world.. .. and aid to creativity.. to thinking outside the box..


franz vollenweider has suggested that the psychedelic experience may facilitate ‘neuroplasticity’..  but so far .. all highly speculative

carhart harris argues in the entropy paper that even a temporary rewiring of the brain is potentially valuable.. esp for people suffering from disorders characterized by mental rigidity..  disrupting unhealthy patterns of thought and creating a space of flexibility – entropy – in which more salubrious (health giving) patterns and narratives have an opp to coalesce 

oh entropy et al.. antifragility.. et al

am thinking.. a case for no training.. ness

the idea that increasing the amount of entropy in the human brain might actually be good for us is surely counterintuitive

to me.. very intuitive..

most of us bring a negative connotation to the term: entropy suggests a gradual deterioration of a hard won order, the disintegration of a system over time.. certainly getting older feels like an entropic process – a gradual running down and disordering of the mind and body.. but maybe that’s the wrong way to think about it.. robin’s paper got me wondering if, at least for the mind, aging is really *a process of declining entropy, the fading over time of what we should regard as a possible attribute of mental life

i don’ think it’s a *process of aging.. i think it’s a process of living a life of supposed to’s.. only natural for ie: whales in seal world..


certainly by middle age, the sway of habitual thinking over the operations of the mind is nearly absolute, by now, i can count on past experience to propose quick and usually serviceable answers to just about any question reality poses, whether it’s about how to soothe a child or mollify a spouse, repair a sentence, accept a compliment, answer the next question, or make sense of whatever’s happening in the world..

who says any of those are working.. not to mention.. good even if they did

w experience and time, it gets easier to cut to he chase and leap to conclusions – clichés that imply a kind of agility but that in fact may signify precisely the opposite: a petrification of thought

indeed.. whales in sea world..

a flattering term for this regime of good enough prediction is ‘wisdom’

a false term

reading robin’s paper helped me better understand what i was looking for when i decided to explore psychedelics: to give my own snow globe a vigorous shaking, see if i could renovate my everyday mental life by introducing a great measure of entropy and uncertainty into it..  to see if it wasn’t too late to skip out of some of the deeper grooves of habit that the been-theres and done-thats of long experience had inscribed on my mind

today we can do it.. for/with 7 bn  – ie: 1 yr to be 5 ness..

entropy et al.. antifragility.. et al


one of the most interesting things about a psychedelic experience is that it sharpens one’s sensitivity to one’s own mental states, esp in the days immediately following..  the usual seamlessness of consciousness is disturbed in such a way as to make any given state – mind wandering, focused attention, rumination  – both more salient and somewhat easier to manipulate..


if the neuroscientists are right, what i’m observing in my mind (spectrum ranging from contraction to expansion)  has a  physical correlate in the brain: the default mode network is either online or off; entropy is either high or low.. what exactly to do w this info i’m not sure yet..

1 yr to be 5 ness..  wake us up.. more highs (so to speak).. meaning.. more wonder, wandering.. whimsy.. eudaimonia

by now , it may be lost to memory, bu tall of us , even the pyschedelically naive, have had direct personal experience of an entropic brain and the novel type of consciousness it sponsors – as a young child..

1 yr to be 5 ness

baby consciousness is so diff from adult consciousness as to constitute a mental country of its own, one form which we are expelled sometime early in adolescence..

not yet scrambled.. to schooled.. not a natural/humane progression

is there a way back in?

yes.. today.. we can get to a nother way to live.. via mech (2 convers as it could be..).. that would allow all of us to leap at once.. to reset .. us..  in sync

talk to me man

the closest we can come to visit that foreign land as adults maybe during the psychedelic journey..  this at least is the startling hypothesis of alison gopnik.. who happens to be a colleague of main at berkely

there’s a nother way – (ie: findings from experimenting with it for 10+ years) –


alison and robin come at problem of consciousness from what seem like completely diff directions and disciplines, but soon after they learned of each other.. they struck up a convo that has proven to be remarkably illuminating.. at least for me.. in april 2016.. their convo wound up on stage at a conference on consciousness in arizona..  where they met for first time


both offer ‘altered state’..  that in a number of respects is a strikingly similar one..  she (alison) cautions that our thinking about the subject is usually constrained by our own restricted experience of consciousness, which we *naturally take to be the whole of it..

not naturally.. schooled to take it that way

she calls ‘professor consciousness’ .. ‘the phenomenology of your avg middle aged prof’

all of us really..whales in sea world..

‘if you thought , as people often have, that this was all there was to consciousness you might very well find yourself thinking that young children were actually y less conscious that we were’.. because both focuses attention and self reflection are absent in young children.. gopnik asks us to think about child consciousness in terms of not what’s missing from it or undeveloped but rather what is uniquely and wonderfully present – qualities that she believes psychedelics can help us to better appreciate and.. possibly.. re experience

cure ios city.. as detox

adults – spotlight/ego consciousness of adults.. .. w a point/goal..  vs lantern consciousness of children.. attention more widely diffused allowing the child to take in info from virtually anywhere  (by this measure, children are more conscious than adutls, rather than less)..

being *inexperienced in the way of the world, the mind of the young child has comparatively fewer priors, or preconceptions, to guide her perception down the predictable tracks. instead, the child approaches reality w the astonishment of an adult on psychedelics..

rather.. *inexperienced in the ways of sea world.. huge diff


gopnik believes that both they young child *(5 and under) and the adult on a psychedelics have a stronger predilection for the high temp search; in the quest to make sense of things, their minds explore not just nearby and most likely both ‘the entire space of possibilities’..

*before schooled.. hence.. the need for 1 yr to be 5 ness

these high temp searches might be inefficient.. higher rate of error.. require more time/energy.. yet there are times.. only ay to solve a problem

actually.. if we let go of all the supposed to’s.. (this isn’t a mechanical/efficeincy problem) .. we’d have the time/energy.. (not to mention the regenerating energy  from living this way) to ie: follow our whimsy/wonder.. everyday

the ai humanity needs..augmenting interconnectedness.. of 7bn alive people

meadows undisturbed ecosystem

gopnik has tested this hypothesis on children in her lab and has found that there are learning problems that 4 yr olds are better at solving that adults.. these are precisely the kinds of problems that require thinking outside the box..

rather.. that require thinking.. once you have a box.. not so much thinking.. as looking for right fits

ie: kids getting calaculus thinking.. ie: mathematical thinking .. more than hs/college/prof


the short summary is, babies and children are basically tripping all the time

high on life.. as we all should/could be



how to change the world – 20 min video – 2015


find/follow Robin:

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Head of Imperial Psychedelic Research Group 

psychedelic science site

The Psychedelic Research Group at Imperial focuses on two main research areas:  The action of psychedelic drugs in the brain. Their clinical utility, e.g. as aides to psychotherapy, with a particular focus on depression. The group is lead by Dr Robin Carhart-Harris.

imperial college site: