A few weeks ago I saw a talk by Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris about using psilocybin to treat depression. It was fascinating and the video is below if you want to watch. Carhart-Harris works at Imperial College London as head of their psychedelic research group, and at around 28:00 he says something very interesting that I had never heard before. He suggests that psychedelics might create a brain state (and subjective state) that was the default resting state for humans at a previous stage in our evolution.
The reason behind this hypothesis is that during a psychedelic experience, there is greater connectivity between areas of the brain that are not ordinarily connected. This reflects the brain state not only of individual humans at an earlier stage of our development (childhood) but perhaps, as Carhart-Harris suggests, an earlier stage of our evolution as a species.
It later occurred to me that this might be the reason for the feeling of remembering something one has forgotten or being “let back in on the joke” that is characteristic of psychedelic experience. I emailed Dr. Carhart-Harris asking what he thought about this, and he agreed, saying also that it is hard to test. More on this later.
The Fruit, The Tree, and The Serpent
As you may know, I’ve also been listening to a lot of Jordan Peterson lectures recently. Peterson has an interesting take on the story of Adam and Eve in the Bible, drawing on recent work by an anthropologist named Lynne Isbell. Isbell, in her book The Fruit, The Tree, and the Serpent: Why We See So Well (Amazon link), makes a case for the evolution of sight in human beings.
Isbell describes how snakes were the first predators of mammals living in trees, and how our primate ancestors likely co-existed and co-evolved with snakes. The threat of snakes constituted selection pressure on the primates, and over millions of years led to developments in the brain and eye that allow us to detect moving snakes, even with their camouflaged scales. This specialized snake-detection circuitry is the primary reason humans have such good vision.
Isbell also describes how a diet that included fruit or nectar would have been required to give the brain enough nutrients and neuroprotection to develop in the way described. Compared to other mammals, humans have much better depth perception as well as ability to see colour. This, according to Isbell, was to see snakes but also spot ripe (colourful) fruit among tree branches.
So together, the combination of snake-detection and the need to consume fruit while living in trees played an essential role in our evolution into the creatures we are today. Further research testing people’s instinctive fear response to images of snakes has been done, and the results support Isbell’s hypothesis.12
The Development of Self Consciousness and Morality in Genesis 2-3
If one takes a symbolic, non-literal view of the stories in the Bible, the story of Adam and Eve is accurate in the way it describes our evolution as a species. The fruit, the tree and the snake did in fact make us human. But enhanced vision was only the beginning, as it led to further cognitive and social capacities that make us what we are today.
In the story in Genesis, Eve sees the snake and it causes her and Adam to eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Peterson describes how this is “no ordinary fruit. It has the capacity to entirely transform moral understanding, of the world, of the relationship between the absolute and man, and of the self”.3
It’s not hard to see how enhanced vision, in and of itself, could alter a primate’s perception of themselves in relation to the outside world, and perhaps also allow them to distinguish better between self and other. But vision is also explicitly connected to the development of self consciousness, or self awareness.
This is reflected in Genesis, as once Adam and Eve eat the fruit “the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked”. They sew fig leaves together to create clothing and cover themselves from the outside world. Knowledge of nakedness – vulnerability – is only possible with self consciousness. Peterson comments:
“The transformation produces immediate enlightenment. Adam and Eve can finally see. Their now-transcendent vision… produces within them a vastly heightened self-consciousness… a precondition for genuine individual existence.”4
Enhanced vision may also have contributed to self consciousness through the development of language. In her book, Isbell describes how language likely originated from the ability to point at objects, which is critically dependent on vision. Language is fundamentally social, and requires the idea of a self in relation to others to serve its communicative function.
Human self consciousness also includes the ability to remember the past and project into the future. This is made explicit when God says to Adam:
“…cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken; for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
God condemns Adam to a life of work in the fields – work itself as a concept necessarily depends on an understanding of the causal relationship between the present and future. The ability to imagine one’s future also means becoming aware of mortality. Peterson explains:
“Adam’s essential self-conscious tragedy is the necessity of work… Human beings, cursed with the knowledge of their own finitude and vulnerability, painfully aware not only of the present but of the past and future… must continually discount the pleasures of the present in favor of the security of the future.”5
According to most Biblical scholars, the story of Adam and Eve also describes the development of morality – the ability to make moral distinctions. This is why the fruit comes from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Morality follows from self consciousness because it, like language, is a social phenomenon. Morality is fundamentally relational, as we are moral or immoral only in relation to other human beings. Awareness of oneself as a distinct entity in relation to a social group and outside world is a precursor for its existence.
Thus we see how the development of vision leads to self consciousness and morality (knowledge of good and evil) in humans, as described in Genesis. The snake causes Eve to eat the fruit from the tree, after which she and Adam become aware of their nakedness and vulnerability. According to Isbell and Peterson this translates roughly to:
Predatory snakes acted as a selective pressure on primate visual systems, which demanded increased consumption of fruit. Together these led to the development of enhanced visual acuity and, consequently, self consciousness and morality.
“The Fall” and Perceived Duality as Separation from God
After vision and awareness of their nakedness – self consciousness – Adam and Eve are cast out of the Garden of Eden. This is the “fall of man” from paradise, the pivotal moment where human beings are separated from God. To understand what that means, let’s dig a little deeper into the phenomenology of self consciousness.
Self consciousness means awareness of past and future and the inevitability of death, in addition to awareness of oneself in the world. But to know yourself, you must in some sense also be separate from yourself. Eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil represents the beginning of what Terence McKenna called the “double thinking ape” – homo sapiens sapiens.
Humans have a unique capacity for recursive thought – “double thinking” – which is the ability not only to think about ourselves, but to think about ourselves thinking, think about ourselves thinking about ourselves thinking, and so on. At least one level of recursion is required to imagine oneself in the past and future, and to distinguish between self and other or self and totality.
If you know anything about Buddhism, or have spent time meditating or thinking about the nature of the self, this next part will sound familiar. Dissatisfaction is inherent to human experience because we become attached to permanence in an ever-changing world. We grasp for the unrealized future and cling to the bygone past. Suffering arises from our concept of self, and from the ability to project this self forwards or backwards in time. All of this rests on self consciousness and the capacity for recursive thought.
If the story of Adam and Eve is a symbolic representation of the trajectory of human development, the “fall of man” is the emergence of self consciousness, and along with it the ability to conceive of a distinct self, of past and future, and of mortality. It is also the beginning of perceived duality, as the fundamental duality is between self and other.
But it is also duality between the self and the divine. Adam and Eve are cast out of the Garden, separated from their paradisal state of unity with God. This is not God the Father with his white beard but God the totality of being, God the entire universe, God that is you and me and everything all at once. As we know from the literature on mystical experience, this is how God is described in firsthand accounts and actually experienced in transcendent states.
Thus the fall from paradise is the emergence of self consciousness and the capacity to perceive duality, which is the basis for the suffering inherent to the recursive mind. And so it marks the beginning of history: the history of humankind as truly self conscious beings. Beings with an innate self concept who can wonder, remember, analyze, plan, project, worry, stress, and so on.
Do Psychedelics Take Us Back in Evolutionary History Before “The Fall”?
Remember Dr. Carhart-Harris’ suggestion from the beginning, that psychedelics might create brain states akin to our default resting state at a previous stage of human evolution?
My hypothesis, as you may have already guessed, is that psychedelics do in fact take us back to such a state. It is the state before our co-evolution with the fruit, the tree, and the serpent made us self conscious. Before we developed the capacity for recursive thought and perceived duality – before we became able to experience ourselves as separate from everything and separate from God.
Psychedelics take us back to the state where there is no distinction between self and other, or self and totality. This is the state of paradisal unity with God as described in Genesis. Psychedelics take us back to the Garden of Eden.
In closing, I will say that this of course is an incomplete idea and I don’t know enough to prove or disprove it either way. Perhaps no one does (yet). Although it is speculative, this might map accurately on to what we know about psychedelics and the brain during mystical experience. Psychedelics act primarily on the Default Mode Network, which is responsible for our sense of self in space and time. Social cognition, which as we saw is likely a key component of self consciousness, is also linked to the DMN.6 In any case, I am not claiming this to be fact, just a potentially interesting synthesis of ideas. I hope it’s been thought provoking for you, and I am curious to know what you think.
- Van Strien, Jan & Franken, Ingmar & Huijding, Jorg. (2014). Testing the Snake-Detection hypothesis: Larger early posterior negativity in humans to pictures of snakes than to pictures of other reptiles, spiders and slugs. Frontiers in human neuroscience. 8. 691. 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00691. ↵
- Van Strien, Jan & Eijlers, R & Franken, Ingmar & Huijding, Jorg. (2013). Snake pictures draw more early attention than spider pictures in non-phobic women: Evidence from event-related brain potentials. Biological psychology. 96. . 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2013.12.014. ↵
- Peterson, Jordan. (2007). A Psycho-ontological Analysis of Genesis 2-6.. Archive for the Psychology of Religion / Archiv für Religionspychologie. 29. 87-125. pp. 105 10.1163/008467207X188649. ↵
- Ibid. ↵
- Ibid. ↵
- Mars, Rogier & Neubert, Franz-Xaver & Noonan, Maryann & Sallet, Jerome & Toni, Ivan & F S Rushworth, Matthew. (2012). On the relationship between the “Default Mode Network” and the “Social Brain”. Frontiers in human neuroscience. 6. 189. 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00189. ↵