Overweening Generalist

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Improvisations off Leary and Wilson's 5th Circuit

A couple of years ago I read Harvard History professor Daniel Lord Smail's On Deep History and the Brain. Smail is interested in pre-history of humans, so he has a tough row to hoe, since by definition there are no written documents. Still, I thought he did a hell of a job. What a terrific read. And what's stuck with me ever since was his notion that, very early in our development as hominids, we began to develop techniques to alter our own consciousness ("autotropic") and the neurochemistry of others, from a distance ("teletropic"). Smail notes that we haven't stopped since we began this and have developed an extraordinary "array of practices that stimulate the production and circulation of our own chemical messengers."

This resonated with me in a number of ways. Books on the cognitive science of pleasure have been proliferating over the past ten to 13 years, and some of them seem quite good. I also read about pleasure with an eye toward Timothy Leary's and especially Robert Anton Wilson's posits regarding their Eight Circuit Brain model and metaphor, and pleasure seems to have most to do with their 5th Circuit. For those new to this Model, who are interested in finding out more, both thinkers wrote quite a lot about the Eight Circuit Brain (8CB) model, and much of it is diffused throughout their texts; for starters I would look at Leary's Info-Psychology, section 11, "A Neurosomatic Aesthetic: Beauty is Natural, Art is Artificial," pp.27-31. Very late in Leary's life he told his colleague R.U. Sirius (AKA Ken Goffman) that Wilson had developed Leary's 8CB model to such a degree that he knew it better than Leary himself did. (I'm paraphrasing from a passage in Design For Dying that I don't have on hand at the moment.)

From Wilson there is much writing on this 5th Circuit all-over-body pleasure/rapture, but if I had to pick one section of one book, read chapter 11 of Prometheus Rising: "The Holistic Neurosomatic Circuit," pp. 177-194, which is replete with ideas about the evolution of this circuit in humanity, quotes from Adepts, a discussion that intertwines history, class, yoga, cannabis, sex, comparative religious aspects, fear of these states of pleasure by Priests and Kings, its relationship with hypnosis and brainwashing, exercises for the reader to experience this "circuit," and the idea that this circuit might be involved in some sort of teleological movement in human evolution toward space travel. Most of the time, in any of Wilson's books, when he's discussing tantric sex or cannabis use he's also writing about some aspect of this "circuit."

For both Leary and Wilson this metaphorical "circuit" is associated with healing, floating, bliss, aesthetics, deep enjoyment in the whole body, flexibility in mind and body, "glowing" sexual and sensual beauty, and tolerance of difference.

Both thinkers employed various nomenclature regarding this "circuit": hedonic, neurosomatic, cybersomatic intelligence, psychosomatic synergy, and many others. You get the picture. They guessed that this circuit was relatively recent historically, and was indeed historical: there was writing and surplus and a relatively wealthy caste that had the time to pursue methods of whole-body bliss. The first articulators of this circuit may have been Hindus, but Smail's book and others suggest the picture may be more complex than this.

Some Recent Riffs on Pleasure
First off, I'm struck by the proliferation of books and research on the subject while the very cultures that support the research and readership seem to be undergoing crises of mistrust between governments and the governed (see "NSA and Snowden"), and rapidly accelerating inequality in income. One wonders about the semantic unconscious and this development, which might require a better mind than mine for a satisfying analysis.

1.) Cognitive scientist Gary Marcus (last seen at NYU) wondered about our appreciation of cave paintings versus the latest 3-D, audio-sensurround extravaganza. He thinks artists become savvier and savvier over time about what makes humans tick, and takes a page from Stephen Jay Gould, who in his 1980 collection The Panda's Thumb described how Disney had, over decades, retooled Mickey Mouse's image, so slowly that no one noticed. But Mickey has become "cuter and cuter: less adult, less threatening, more juvenile, more adorable." (Marcus) In describing the "evolution" of music, Marcus writes, "My contention is that music is like Mickey: not the direct product of evolution at all, but the product of artists evolving their craft in order to tickle the brain in particular ways. Music, art, and iPhones spread not because we have innate circuitry for funky dance beats or electronic toys, but because musicians, artists, and inventors are often uncommonly talented at reverse-engineering the human psyche." (see Guitar Zero, p.113)

Here we would be talking about Smail's teletropic aspect of brain-state modulation. For autotropic developments, pay attention to whatever you and your friends are doing that gets you high or makes you feel a deep pleasure.

2.) Two "field reports" on cannabis use from Dale Pendell's marvelous Pharmako/Poeia:

I used it to learn organic chemistry. If I memorized the reactions both straight and high, they stuck and I never forgot them. - "a student"

Sex is affected also: other worldly, this worldly, her worldly, his worldly, one-worldly. Two voices singing one aria, creation and improvisation in one long, stretching, eternal now. Tactile sensations exist in their own space: accessible to both but owned by neither. Genitals and other bodily parts expand, become the whole body, the two of you climbing over them like Lilliputians. - Pendell himself, see p. 202

If ya ain't got the gnosis...We're making it more available all the time. Step right up! (And board a trip to Colorado?) Or just go get your Card?

[Side note: for all those who see the reading of James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and...poetry in general as unpleasantly effortful or just too goddamned difficult, I report very good results from using a method much like the organic chemistry student, above. And aye: deeply pleasurable.]

Talk about pre-history: how does the Cambrian explosion hit ya? 600 million years ago, the fossil record shows that, for some "reason" Life decided to go nuts with just the most psychedelic expansion of new forms of critters. This seemingly overnight copious display of creativity by Nature was one argument, Darwin thought, against his idea of relatively slow evolution by means of natural selection. It led Gould and Eldredge to invent the evolutionary of idea of "punctuated equilibrium."

What does this have to do with pleasure? Stick with me here for a sec or two.

The US government, for near 100 years, has been at war with cannabis. Agents for the government still claim that we don't know enough about cannabis to declare its safety. Being morally and intellectually bankrupt themselves, they ought have no say in the matter. But they're wrong anyway: despite the prohibition against doing scientific research into cannabis, there's now an overwhelming body of evidence to make Obama look like a damned fool (again?) when he recently said - probably thinking himself charitable? - that pot is no more dangerous than alcohol. In fact, it's far, far more healthy. Ironically, the Unistat government funded a study of the human immune system, giving funds to researchers at the St. Louis University School of Medicine. In 1988 the researchers showed that a major component of the immune system is the endocannabinoid system: these are receptor sites all over the body (recall Wilson's term "psychosomatic synergy") that regulate immune function, body temperature, blood pressure, hunger, relaxation, sleep cycles, bone density, inflammation, and fertility.

And when did the endocannabinoid system arise, evolutionarily? In the Cambrian explosion, with tunicates. Sea-squirts! They had elementary backbones and a cannabinoid system 600 million years ago. (We share 80% of our DNA with them, as Ripley would say: believe it or not!) Today, all animals except insects have this system.

But wither pleasure here? Just this:

Smoking cannabis docks one of around 100 phytocannabinoids (plant-based cannabinoids) in receptor sites that we have endogenously. One of the psychoactive effects of cannabinoids is the ability to cause us to "break set": we become temporarily more amenable to new ideas, new approaches to things that we previously reacted habitually to. Speculating from there: Darwinian survival is all about fitness over changing environments. When the environment changes, time for new ideas. And for new ideas to come into play, there should be some alteration of memory, which plays a big part in habits. Endocannabinoids such as Anandamide help us to forget things that we don't need to clutter our minds with, which is easily seen as adaptive. Cannabis has been shown to encourage neurogenesis in the hippocampus: new neurons, new neural-circuits, novel connections. Cannabis seems to have played a big part in adaptation over the Longue Duree. When the "normal" environment threw us for a loop, it may have been a very good idea to just, like...hold on, man. Let's sit down and have a smoke or ingest this godstuff and talk this out. There's gotta be some way we can deal with this. Let's chill. Memory seems thus psycho-somatic, all over the body. The cannabinoid system CB2 has receptor sites distributed throughout the body and internal organs. There is no mind-body duality...

Pot does more
Than Newton can
To justify
Goddess's ways to man.
-paraphrase from a classic poem

A cannabis high feels so good maybe because we co-evolved with the endocannabinoid system, which probably got going with the Cambrian Explosion. Nature threw in this Gift, and we ought never let any cops keep us from it, for any reason. (Still have some ways to go...)

Summary of this section: I posit the development of the endocannabinoid system as at least the scaffolding for very much of what we consider "pleasurable" today.

3.) In a recent book by Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, How Pleasure Works, he notes early on his colleague Paul Rozin's observation that, "(I)f you look at a psychology textbook, you will find little or nothing about sports, art, music, drama, literature, play, and religion. Bloom says that these are "central to what makes us human, and we won't understand any of them until we understand pleasure." (p.xiv)

A most fascinating aspect of Bloom's book, for me, has been his very-convincing argument that humans are essentialists: they/we perceive/imagine a "real" essence "in" objects and people. This essentialism was something that Korzybski (not mentioned in Bloom's book) thought was a mistake that led us to act irrationally and non-adaptively, and should be overcome if we are to survive as a species. Bloom shows that rationality and looking into things - say, scientifically - was essentialist and yet led many humans to reject essentialism for a nascent body of mathematical and scientific "facts" about the physical world. I now see essentialism in a new light, and I do think these relatively new insights can be read as making Korzybski's thought even more robust...even if we must accept essentialism as something that absolutely will NOT go away any time soon.

In a chapter on how religion gives pleasure by firing our imaginations about "deeper realities," Bloom discusses some of the so-called New Atheists:

They are not blind to the attraction of a deeper reality; they just resonate to this attraction outside the bounds of organized religion. As an illustration, consider the view of some prominent modern-day atheists. I have already discussed how Richard Dawkins wrote a book about the transcendent appeal of scientific inquiry. Sam Harris is well known for his attack on the monotheistic faiths, but he is strongly enthusiastic about Buddhism, describing it as "the most complete methodology we have for discovering the intrinsic freedom of consciousness, unencumbered by any dogma." And Christopher Hitchens, author of  God Is Not Great, has spoken about the importance of the "numinous" - which usually refers to the experience of contact with the divine - and has argued that one can experience it without religious or supernatural belief. He suggests that humans rely on the numinous and transcendent, and says that personally he wouldn't trust anyone who lacked such feelings.

4.) Because I've gone on too long, I take leave here by linking to a popular listicle-article about why sex is good for us, trusting the links within my link will lead to something moderately illuminating, or at least for laffs. What interests me here is how much of what sex does that's healthy intersects and intermingles and even seems to have intercourse with what cannabis does.

I take hashish with some followers of the eighteenth-century mystic Saint-Martin. At one in the morning, while we were talking wildly, and some are dancing, there is a tap at the shuttered window; we open it and three ladies enter, the wife of a man of letters...caught in our dream we know vaguely that she is scandalous according to our code and to all codes, but we smile at her benevolently and laugh. - William Butler Yeats, Autobiography

a prominent 20th century science writer and thinker and public intellectual, on cannabis:
I do not consider myself a religious person in the usual sense, but there is a religious aspect to some highs. The heightened sensitivity in all areas gives me a feeling of communion with my surroundings, both animate and inanimate. Sometimes a kind of existential perception of the absurd comes over me and I see with awful certainty the hypocrisies and posturing of myself and my fellow men. And at other times, there is a different sense of the absurd, a playful and whimsical awareness. Both of these senses of the absurd can be communicated, and some of the most rewarding highs I’ve had have been in sharing talk and perceptions and humor. Cannabis brings us an awareness that we spend a lifetime being trained to overlook and forget and put out of our minds. A sense of what the world is really like can be maddening; cannabis has brought me some feelings for what it is like to be crazy, and how we use that word ‘crazy’ to avoid thinking about things that are too painful for us. In the Soviet Union political dissidents are routinely placed in insane asylums. The same kind of thing, a little more subtle perhaps, occurs here: ‘did you hear what Lenny Bruce said yesterday? He must be crazy.’ When high on cannabis I discovered that there’s somebody inside in those people we call mad. - Carl Sagan, in 1969, on his experiences smoking cannabis, which he did to the end of his life. See HERE.

Some Sources
"The Marijuana Miracle: Why a Single Compound in Cannabis May Revolutionize Modern Medicine," by Martin Lee
"The Lie That Won't Die: 'We Don't Know Enough About Marijuana'," by Paul Armentano
"High on Health: CBD in the Food Supply," by Allen Badiner
"Science For Potheads: Why People Love To Get High," by K.M. Cholewa
"Sea Squirt, Heal Thyself: Scientists Make Major Breakthrough in Regenerative Medicine"
"Introduction To The Endocannabinoid System," by Dustin Sulak
"The Endocannabinoid System"
"How Sex Affects Intelligence, and Vice-Versa," by Dan Hurley
The Eight-Circuit Brain, by Antero Alli (I don't know what happened with this book, which I find to be a very unique take on Leary's and Wilson's ideas. Antero diverges from both significantly, but he's never boring. He knew RAW in Berkeley and writes about him in this book. Why is this book only available for $1500? I have a pristine, signed copy I'd be willing to part with for a mere $800. Contact me at that address ----->)

A 3 min, 30-second film that addresses tunicates (sea squirts) and the endocannabinoid system in all of us:


Eric Wagner said...

Terrific piece. I find reading Eliot's "Four Quartets" or Pound's "Drafts and Fragments" out loud a powerful way of activating the fifth circuit.

I wonder if our society's attitudes about the fifth circuit may change over the next few years. I hope so.

In recent years classical music seems my favorite way of activating the fifth circuit. (The autocorrect on my computer changed "fifth" to "gift" - I like that.)

michael said...

If we collect a very large sample of RAW's writing about the 5th circuit, reading poetry and listening to music barely appear as modes of activation. RAW would write about Beethoven in terms of circuits "higher" than the 5th. I always found that intriguing.

Many passages that describe music and altered states seem like a conundrum for the student of the 8CB who seeks to index the passage with one circuit and not another.

For example, in The Widow's Son, here's Lady Babcock, writing in her "daybook," 1771:

"[...] I am growing larger every day and am continually aware of the miracle occurring inside my womb. I remember the time when I first experienced the healing power in my hands, and the time I went out of my body to the stars while listening to Mr. Handel's _Messiah_ oratorio, this is more wonderful and more awe-full than either of those ecstasies. Even with the morning sickness I am so happy and so full of the light of God that at moments I think I could float off the Earth." (144-145)

The healing and floating seem 5th circuitous, but the OBE to the stars was usually discussed in terms of a higher circuit.

It didn't help that some of the circuits got changed around with different texts.

Anonymous said...

This is totally off topic but you
might know, or have some insight.

Why is the word revolution not used
by anyone reporting on the Ukraine ?

I also followed another link from
here which led to a claim that they
had decode memory.This turned out
to be a misinterpretation since all
they had found was a mechanism for
neural plasticity. While it was of
interest we still don't know how
the brain encodes all of our senses
and stores it away for recall via
sensory triggers. By that I mean
the way we get flooded by recall
when cued by a single smell or a

I also noted that playing for Zappa
made you earn your money the hard

RAW always keeps you guessing, no
point to using rigid boundaries.

michael said...


"Rev" not used in Ukraine: only a guess, but the cozy Corporate-State Media Complex has decided to not buzz the neurons with the word, lest the proles get ideas themselves?

re: memory decoding claims: This seems like minutiae when I bring it up in polite intelligent conversation, but there seem almost always "straight" scientific claims, peer-reviewed and published, etc: that report on findings and then try in some subtle (or not) way to suggest a more grandiose claim. My first guess is that this is about further funding.

They've made a bunch of progressive leaps regarding the hard problem of memory since around 1990, but it is not solved. Indeed, do a gedanken and imagine a scenario in which it would be shown to have been solved once and for all, QED-ishly. For me, it pushes the bounds of credulity. Olfactory bulb info to memory of past moments: we know more about imaging and spreading activation, more nuanced and finer-grained ideas about subsets of neurotransmitters and receptors, better ideas about what circuits get dampened in the process, etc. I think where a lot of this is going is toward robotics and AI: make a model that seems to uncannily mimic human responses to stimuli, and you have not only "knowledge" but more power.

Another way this is going: there will always be heroic neuroscientists who want to slam-dunk with a grand unified theory of how all memory systems work, but the trend seems to be in how to limit damages from strokes, to attenuate the effects of Parkinson's, to map all the reasons why amyloid plaques get going and throw up roadblocks, etc. Why? That's where the money is.

And maybe that's not a bad thing at all.

The role of the endocannabinoid system seems related in some way to why we don't hear or see the word "revolution" w/re/to Ukraine. Maybe?

Re: Zappa: Steve Vai got the gig as "stunt guitarist" because he happened to impress FZ with his transcription of "The Black Page." Zappa hired him on because he was interested in finding a guy who could play guitar parts that seemed humanly unplayable. The last time I saw Vai play he had "Konx Om Pax" painted on his guitar.

I agree with you about RAW and no point to rigid boundaries. At the same time, it may be a puzzle-to-be-worked-on but never "solved": I would be interested to see a group effort in taking the nascent ideas about the four (or more?) "post-terrestrial" circuits and develop a more detailed taxonomy of it all. One can dream?

tony smyth said...

Ahhhh. one of my very favourite topics, and why I love Prometheus so much. And Zappa too (was just listening to 'Make a jazz noise here' tonight by coincidence. I've often thought that if we could just get 30% of people in each country to inhabit the 5th circuit they'd be so influential that it would completely change our world. Yes, its v idealistic, but one can dream.

Actually Michael, you havent mentioned an important part of circuit 5 (at least the RAW version). The GAME PLAYING of the previous circuits ceases at level 5 - ie the games people play at levels 1-4 cease(gOd, trying to remember the guy who wrote that book, and all I can remember is the song of the same name (Tony Joe White?) Ah Eric Frohm.

Anyhow, seems that the majority of the world around us is hooked into top dog/bottom dog, its an unsafe world, 'dont touch that, you'll go blind games', ie the bottom 4 mammalian circuits, that a move to circuit 5 would be such a massive improvement.

quackenbush said...

The 5th, seems to me, to be about getting into your body and experiencing the pleasure of feeling your body.

michael said...

Tony Smyth-

Do you mean Eric Berne's _Games People Play_? RAW thought Berne took Leary's academic work on the interpersonal diagnosis of personality and popularized it.

Yes, I will leave some stuff out when I scribble a blogspew. You're right: at times it was emphasized that 5th circ suspended the 4 terrestrial circuits temporarily. Although this aspect of the model seems especially metaphorical and speculative, it does remind me of recent hardcore neuroscience of similar neurosemantic circuits physically instantiated in the brain, and when one is activated, it dampens the circuits that "compete" with it.

Anonymous said...

You can buy Antero Alli's 8 Circuit Brain from him directly for $25.