The “Misattribution of Meaning” (Or Not)

There’s an interesting article on how psychedelics seem to infuse the world with meaningful experience.
It includes this passage:

Like in bouts of psychosis, psychedelic-induced meaning can be found everywhere and anywhere. It’s no longer dependent on an external trigger that the sober mind would also find meaningful, like the birth of a child. On psychedelics, I could stare at tree bark for three hours, or dirt, or the back of my eyelids, and feel that I’ve discovered the hidden order behind all phenomena. It seems like it’s not particular things that are imbued with meaning, but the whole of perception itself. “I might call it a misattribution of meaning, where everything gets imbued with a sense of meaningfulness,” Manoj Doss, a research fellow in the department of psychiatry at the University of Texas at Austin, told me. “A lot of times I can attribute the noeticism I’m getting to a memory. We’re usually good at aiming these feelings of knowing. But sometimes they get cut loose. Under psychedelics, I think there’s this misattribution process, where the prefrontal cortex is sending that off in all kinds of different directions where they don’t make sense.”

It was interesting to me that the writer referred derisively to the experience of staring at tree bark and discovering the hidden order of the universe. I’ve had that exact experience — looking at the bark of a tree, I saw the tree pulsing with life, breathing. I didn’t experience it as a semi-inanimate chunk of wood, but a living, breathing being. Ask an arborist which is the more accurate impression — chunk of wood or living being. There’s no question which is the reality, and it ain’t chunk of wood. Likewise when I perceived the simple light of day not as mundane reality, but as a substance pouring from the sky, an inexhaustible gift of life-giving energy free to all, it was not “a misattribution of meaning,” it was a psychedelic assisted insight into a profound truth to which we are so often blind.

No doubt, people emerge from psychedelic experiences with all kinds of crazy ideas. But I would argue that’s not the fault of psychedelics, it owes not to the experience itself, but to a not fully prepared or integrated attempt to interpret it after the fact. Psychedelics allow you to glimpse a more profound glimpse of reality. Making sense of that is the work of a lifetime.

Acid Test, Optimized Edition

My publisher is putting out a new edition of Acid Test, with a search engine optimized subtitle (never occurred to anyone in 2016 apparently) and an introduction from Rick Doblin, the book’s hero and the man who has brought psychedelic therapy to the brink of complete legalization. This is all about the flood of news about the progress being made in the final stage of FDA testing, and the great hope for a coming (soon.) revolution in the treatment of a whole range of mental health challenges

Proposal for a political ad

Clip from Axios interview:

Interviewer: A thousand Americans are dying every day.

Trump: It is what it is.

Image of mourners weeping as they lower casket.

Trump: It is what it is.

Image of hospital corridors filled with critically ill.

Trump: It is what it is.

Image of long unemployment lines with people wearing masks.

Trump: It is what it is.

Image of mall plastered with out of business “ signs.

Trump: It is what it is.

Image of Trump not wearing mask on tour of factory.

Trump: It is what it is.

Image of Trump with announcer voiceover:

It is what it is. it isn’t.

Black line crosses Trump image.

Announcer: on November 3, vote for someone who cares.

A Student of Psychedelics

A university student asked if I would answer some questions about Acid Test for a paper he was writing. Below are the questions and my responses:

Q: How would you describe to someone who has never done psychedelics, why they should?

A:I would never tell someone they SHOULD do psychedelics. These are powerful drugs with not always predictable effects, and with widely varying impact from time to time and person to person. What I would say is that the psychedelic experience CAN be extremely enlightening and helpful by allowing a more profound experience of reality. In a safe environment, with a properly respectful mindset, psychedelics allow you to step out of the iron grip of your own ego — the rote, oversimplified categorizations that you use to deal with an overwhelming universe by keeping yourself at safe remove — and to for once see the world, and yourself, as they really are.

Q: What are misconceptions about these drugs that could change people’s opinions?

A: Considering their spectacular effects, psychedelics are remarkably safe in a physiological sense. They are non-addictive and serious adverse physical side effects are very rare. The psychological dangers of taking them — which can be substantial — can be minimized by taking them in a safe and comfortable environment with someone who has a reassuring, positive attitude and ample psychedelic experience.

Q: Why did you feel the need to begin taking these psychedelics?

A: I never felt a “need” to take them. I wanted to try psychedelics because accounts I read of the psychedelic experience persuaded me that it might be a valuable tool for learning about myself and the world.

Q: What is your most intriguing finding throughout your research about psychedelics?

A: I think I would say it is that the fact that the remarkable power of psychedelics to heal people who suffer from addiction, depression, PTSD, anxiety and other serious mental disorders seems not to be so much about what the drug does on a synaptic level in the brain (as is the case with most psychiatric drugs), but rather it is a direct consequence of the experience the drug facilitates. People are being healed not through chemical interactions, but rather through genuine insights that come from seeing the world in a different, more profound way than “normal” consciousness generally permits. Albert Hofmann,  who discovered LSD, said something really deep on this subject: “LSD wanted to tell me something. It gave me an inner joy, an open mindedness, a gratefulness, open eyes and an internal sensitivity for the miracles of creation.”

Q: Why do you believe the government lied about psychedelics, particularly LSD?

A: This is a complicated and interesting question. Ultimately, I think that there is a significant part of Western culture that is overinvested in a simplistic and materialistic view of the world. Anything that challenges that severely limited worldview is seen as a threat, and the powerful sense of spiritual connectedness fostered by the psychedelic experience definitely challenges that worldview.

Q: Would you let your children do psychedelics?

A: I believe physical and mental maturity are prerequisites for the safe and beneficial use of psychedelics.

Q: At what age did you first do psychedelics?

A: I think I was 19.

Q: Has the stigma increased or decreased around these drugs?

A: I think the stigma is rapidly diminishing as the facts and reality of the beneficial uses of psychedelic drugs become clear in the many carefully controlled medical studies and clinical trials now underway.

Q: Do you believe that spiritual drug experiences will ever have a place in modern medicine?

A: Absolutely, and in just a few years. The use of MDMA for treating PTSD is already in the third and final phase of clinical trials and should be an available prescription therapy within five years. The use of psilocybin and LSD for conditions like smoking cessation and the treatment of depression, among other things, is not far behind in my estimation. As I mentioned, the healing these drugs provide is because of the spiritual experience they provide, not the direct chemical effects. As these drugs become available to psychiatrists, they will inevitably be used not just for life-threatening mental illness, but as well for people who are “normal” mentally but want to explore spiritually and improve their own healthy mental functioning.

Q: What is the craziest story you have about tripping?

A: I actually wrote an article about that. You can find it here:…/tried-psychedelic-mushrooms-35-years-sa…/

Nature’s Acid Test

Sure wish I had come across this when I was writing Acid Test.

This is the most bizarre mind-bending story about psychedelics I have ever seen, and that’s a pretty high bar. Quick (if unbelievable) summary: Scientists have discovered that a fungus which infects cicadas, eating away their lower body until their butts and genital organs fall off, genetically manufactures psilocybin, the psychedelic substance that gives magic mushrooms their magic. Instead of killing these cicadas, the psilocybin and an amphetamine like substance the fungus also manufactures, make the insects uninterested in food but hyperactive sexually — even minus their sex organs. This hyperactivity causes the fungus node where their hind parts used to be to spread through air and soil, infecting the next generation of bugs. So it in effect uses psilocybin as a kind of insect mind-control and chemical warfare weapon.

Have I overemphasized how weird this is?


Deja Vu

This essay on how we would take better care of the world if we all knew we might be reincarnated is a nice thought, but I feel I have to add something Ian Stevenson — the most serious investigator of reincarnation claims — told me when I was researching Old Souls twenty years ago:

““In general, I tend not to claim too much for the spiritual benefits of proving reincarnation,” he said. “When I first went to India, I met with a swami there, a member of a monastic order. I told him about my work and how I thought it would be quite important if reincarnation could be proven, because it may help people to lead more moral lives if they knew they would come back after death. There was a long silence, a terrible silence, and finally he said, ‘Well, that’s very good, but here, reincarnation is a fact, and we have just as many scoundrels and thieves as you do in the West.’ I’m afraid that rather deflated my missionary zeal.””




It’s been a couple of years since my book about my grandfather and the dark side of fame and fortune came out, but it’s always nice to see a thoughtful review.

Flying Tigers Take a Bite out of Amazon

The Flying Tigers: The Untold Story of the American Pilots Who Waged a Secret War Against Japan by Sam Kleiner, my latest book editing project to see publication, is out and already breaking into the top 500 on Amazon, an increasingly difficult feat in an increasingly crowded media world — especially for a first time author like Sam. Check it out here.

Advice to a Young Writer

Recently, I received an email from a young writer, still in high school, with a list of very smart questions about writing. They all were about things I’d thought about endlessly over the years, so I found I had more to say than I expected. It The Q-A follows:

Do you get writer’s block very often? If so, what do you do to try and write through it? 
I think the first thing to know is that writer’s block isn’t some ailment akin to polio, a paralysis that is initiated by some outside force. It’s simply confronting the reality that identifying something novel and interesting to say, then saying it in the best possible way, is an extremely challenging enterprise. The “block” is really just recognition of the huge gap between a blank screen and the finished project. There’s a kind of shock at the realization of how much effort lies ahead, and that shock triggers panic. I guess you can equate writer’s block to a kind of tantrum, like a little kid might throw, rebelling when she’s ordered to clean up a room that is buried under weeks worth of scattered toys, dirty clothes, half-eaten snacks and general chaos. It’s. Just. Too. Hard. BOO HOO HOO. Underlying it all is a fear of failure. Every time you start to tentatively type a few words, your critical instinct tells you THEY STINK, and you just recoil from your own ineptitude and shut down. The solution to writer’s block is to shut down your gag reflex, to allow yourself to stink, understanding as Hemingway  famously recognized, “The first draft of anything is [bad word goes here].”  I used to have a headline set in type over my desk at work. It said, “DON’T WRITE, TYPE.” This reminded me that the purpose of the first draft is not to write something good, but to write something bad that you can then begin to work on to make better. Before Michelangelo could begin sculpting the statue of David, he had to have a big old block of marble he could begin chiseling away at. The first draft is your block of marble. Trying to really write what you intended to write without having an indifferent lump of first draft is like trying to sculpt David out of thin air. Can’t be done. So JUST TYPE. It doesn’t matter how bad it is. Disengage all your critical functions and just let your subconscious put whatever words out there it wants to. Then you start: You look at what is on the page and you think, what’s wrong with this? Why does it suck? and  in answering those questions, you begin to figure out ways to make it better. Continue the process. Rinse, lather, repeat.
What I’ve found is I hate writing, but I actually love to rewrite. Identifying problems and fixing them can be challenging but fun, like a good puzzle.
How long does it usually take to write a full manuscript?
By full manuscript I assume you mean a book. I have written books under very different circumstances. My first book was written while I was working full time. I would wake up at 4:30 and spend two and a half hours working on the book before starting to get ready for work. Then I’d spend at least one day on the weekend working on it. It was exhausting, but I was able to finish the book in about a year that way. My last few books I was able to work on full time, but under different deadline circumstances. One book, on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster, I had to report and write in just seven months because the publisher wanted to bring the book out at the one year anniversary of the explosion. I did it, but I had to work seven days a week, sometimes as much as 14 hours a day to get it done. I wrote my most recent book at a more leisurely rate and took about 18 months to do it. I have a friend and client who has been working on a book for five years (while doing other projects as well) and he still isn’t finished. A recent client wrote an excellent novel in the space of four months.
So I guess the answer to your question is that there is no one answer to this.
        How long does your editing process normally take? 
As someone who has been both an editor and a writer, I tend to write and edit simultaneously, and as mentioned above, this isn’t always a great thing. But when I am writing, each day I start by going back through what I had written previously and editing that, then going on into fresh territory. But if you mean how long does it take once I submit a manuscript to the publisher’s editor, the way it works is this:  The first thing that happens is I have to wait for the editor’s response. This can take weeks or sometimes months, and it can be a frustrating wait. Once I get the editor’s notes I can usually go through the entire book dealing with edits, questions and suggestions in a week to a couple of weeks. This would be different, longer, of course, if the editor had very significant problems that required rethinking, reorganizing, or even re-reporting large sections of the book. After I have resubmitted my responses to the edits then I need to wait once again for the editor to go back through and react. Usually this doesn’t take long. Then, once we are both happy with the manuscript, it goes to the copy editors who will take a few weeks to go through the entire manuscript suggesting changes for spelling, grammar, syntax, consistency and in some cases, accuracy. Going back through those changes, approving them, rejecting them, or finding some other way to address their issues, takes a few days to a week usually. There can be other layers to the process. In some cases, the book will undergo a legal review from the publisher’s lawyers, which will require a conference call to discuss the areas of sensitivity, and in some cases rewriting a few key passages. In one case, when I ghost wrote a book for the Navy SEAL who shot Osama bin Laden, because it concerned missions that were conducted in secret, the entire manuscript had to be submitted to the Pentagon for clearance before publication. We heard nothing for six months, and then they returned the manuscript with some sections redacted. There was no way to discuss this with them, or argue about it. We just had to go through and try to rewrite in a way that compensated for the missing sections. But since we had changed the manuscript, we had to resubmit the changes for review. Fortunately that only took a few weeks before we were told they were accepted.
If your agent is expecting a novel is the deadline your own or does your agent set it? 
The deadline isn’t set by the agent. The deadline is set in the contract you agree to with the publisher. As noted above, sometimes the publisher has a firm deadline in mind because of marketing considerations. Other times when you are negotiating the contract they will ask you when you think you will be done and use your own estimate as the deadline date. In those cases, it’s not unusual for writers to need and ask for an extension, and it’s usually granted, within reason.
How long did it take for you to get published? What is the publishing process like?
Since I was a newspaper reporter for 15 years before writing my first book, I of course had been published in newspapers and magazines all the time. But I’d always wanted to write a book and as I said, getting one published happened 15 years after getting my first newspaper job. It’s very exciting when you first sell a book — almost like a movie. You fly to New York, go to your publisher’s office. Your editor takes you to lunch and you discuss the book and the process. You get the advance check! It’s a lot of fun. Then comes the process of writing, which can also be exciting as you make progress, and agonizing as you lose your way and get stuck, or anxiety-provoking as you wrestle with difficult aspects of reporting and writing or simply fear you might fail. Then when you finish the manuscript and get your editor’s approval there’s another blast of excitement, which then turns into the alternately gratifying and tedious process of all the copy editing, proofing and writing of marketing materials. Then there’s the great excitement of getting a box of your books, followed by publication. At first it might seem very gratifying to do publicity for the book — interviews, speaking appearances. But after a while, you get sick of the repetition and promotion of the book you just spent a year or years of your life on. Most writers at some point during the repetitious book talks begin to HATE their book. But that is a temporary kind of blindness that thankfully wears off. And then there is the obsessive concern with your book’s reception — most books of course are not best sellers — but that doesn’t stop you from hoping it will be, and being disappointed when it isn’t. Ultimately, however well it sold, all my books have had surprisingly positive consequences that go on for years. That’s the thing about a book, once it exists, it lives in the world, for many years in some cases. I still get responses on a book I wrote almost 20 years ago that are very gratifying.
In your opinion, what is the hardest genre to write?
Whichever one I am writing at the time.
How do you come up with your ideas? Where does your inspiration come from?
I just follow my curiosity. Whatever intensely interests me and makes me want to know more might turn out to be my next subject. As a practical matter, once I became a known writer, people come to me with things they want me to write. But I still let my own interest be the guide in whether I accept the project. A book is far too much work to agree to do something that I am not fascinated by.
Do you read reviews of your book? If so, how much do they effect what and how you write?
I do read them, and they can be exhilarating or depressing, but they really have no effect on how I write. Over time I’ve come to understand that everyone reacts to books differently, and what one person is looking for in a book can be the exact opposite of what someone else is looking for. So you really can’t write to please everyone. It’s literally impossible. But you can write to satisfy your own conception. And that’s the only way to do it.
Do you send your work to other authors for peer review or does it just go to your editor?
I have a small group of close friends whose judgment I respect who I will send a book to for their opinion before sending it to my editor. Sometimes, I will send portions of a book about a highly technical subject to an expert in the field for comment.
What is your pet peeve when it comes to writing?
What ISN’T my pet peeve, might be a better question. My wife will tell you I’m a champion whiner when I’m writing. It’s just hard. And mostly it’s hard because I know what truly great writing can accomplish, and I’m always afraid of falling short. But I guess if you don’t have that fear, you might not push yourself to do the absolutely best book you are capable of.

Where Harry Potter Was Born

My Washington Post travel story on Edinburgh.

Some more photos.