The Psychedelics of Writing

It so happens that as my experience of writing evolves, I keep wondering what it is I’m doing and why. As both a doer of the process and an observer, and as someone very interested in brain function and consciousness, I have some random observations.

Here goes.

  1. Is the Writing Brain Like a Brain on Psychedelics? What results in flat lines of words on a page is actually the end product, or representation, of a multidimensional, active model, with countless moving parts and locations in time and space. I’d be very interested to know what a writer’s brain looks like in a functional MRI. So I read, in normal waking states the different systems in our brains don’t actually communicate with each other very much. A brain on psychedelics though, with the area called the “default mode network” temporarily shut down, the systems start massively connecting. Could the writing brain, calling upon multiple brain functions at the same time, be a little bit psychedelic?
  2. The Lego Bin of Materials. In writing something seriously, you aren’t just putting words together, selecting them from a big Lego bin of vocabulary accumulated over the whole of your life, you are simultaneously reaching for every relevant memory, any image, concept or metaphor that will help build new structures and bridges with which to interpret and express the information (or narrative) you are trying to convey.
  3. Using Raw Materials. The thing is, all these accumulated materials must be treated as raw. If you use pieces that have already been put together from previous experience, i.e. something formulaic, you will kill your idea dead. Old formulas won’t apply, and yet you depend on the accumulation of all these bits, because without them you would have nothing to work with.
  4. What Has Never Before Existed. Nothing of the new has ever existed before (at least not in your experience), even if it’s built of familiar material. All the molecular permutations are new, and you are bringing them into being moment by moment, transferring energy into matter that can then be transferred to other minds.
  5. Focus Tames the Ego. With the intense focus that writing requires, you find the suspension, at least temporarily, of all the ego’s usual cage-like narratives. All the negative clutter that habitually brings you down and reduces your experience of living to a tiny set of harsh judgements. Riding the wave of energy that can accompany, or propel, a project can be so absorbing and exciting it wipes out everything else. Your mind becomes your friend and helpmate, the indispensable tool of your creation. You are a mind dancing with itself. (A little bit transcendent, a little bit psychedelic. Or, in other words, a little bit country and a little bit rock ‘n’ roll?) Even if you aren’t that excited about a project, and getting yourself to the writing desk takes all the self-discipline you can muster, the focus needed to do the writing still takes up all the mental space, leaving no room for excess chatter.
  6. And Now We Have to Grow. Add to this the new emotional growth the project facilitates—or rather, demands—in order to be born. New growth becomes a requirement, you have to dig deeper, finally enter those areas you previously managed to successfully avoid, in order to actually create what wants to emerge. But, is it even growth, if all you are doing is mental and emotional excavation of stuff that’s already there? I guess so, because the unearthing (of things you yourself [or an earlier version of yourself] buried) requires the container of “you” to expand, to digest and bring forward the old/new material. (Expansion, another feature of the psychedelic experience.)
  7. Shifting Reality. New growth on the inside and new work on the outside can create an experience of shifting realities. Let’s say our view of reality is composed of a stack of transparent slides that together form a cohesive three-dimensional image. Then let’s start sliding those slides around. Images fracture, rejoin, reconfigure, become indecipherable, rearrange, and, wherever they ultimately land, it’s not in the same picture you started out with. This is another reason why writing can feel psychedelic.
  8. And What Do You Get? Next, how do you like the results of your efforts? Not even the “final” results, but all the results that unfold in the process? At any point it can seem hopeless. The sentence, the paragraph, the page, sucks. It fails. Or you can’t see how to solve the many problems your editor has so humblingly illuminated for you. The macro-structures have to effectively support the narrative, and the micro-structures have to support the macro (and all levels in between). Each is essential, and doomed without the other. Each one plays a complimentary role in conveying the beauty and value of the whole piece. And this is only one aspect of all the possible problems you have to solve. It can be overwhelming.
  9. Forging the Beauty. We are working with beauty and ugliness, but it seems to me most writers are essentially going for beauty. The characters may struggle and suffer, (or the information may be chaotic and contradictory and out of control) but rendering that in a beautiful way helps make life bearable (and in the case of expository writing, understandable) for all of us, and is surely a big reason why we read at all. So the writer composes her work of small beauties—single images, turns of phrase—and the larger beauty of building the case, bringing the character and reader through an evolution. All to make a story that maybe no one will like, or an article no one will take seriously.


In conclusion, (at this arbitrary moment in time where I’m ending this piece) I have no conclusions. Why do we do this writing thing? James Baldwin said, “I’m a writer and there’s nothing I can do about it.” Nature finds its expression, or can’t avoid it. The “why do we do this?” and “what are we doing?” questions of writing are different ones, of course. With both, I myself am only speculating. The eye can’t see itself, but maybe, in writing, that’s what we are trying to do.

Here’s my recent review of

How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence

by Michael Pollan

If you want to follow my latest publications and book reviews on Goodreads, visit me there!

It’s cliche to call a book a “landmark achievement,” but to me, Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind is exactly that. In astonishing depth, Pollan covers the history, neuroscience, and modern therapeutic application of a class of drugs—or “medicines”—known as psychedelics, in the treatment of such paralyzing human conditions as end-of-life anxiety, addiction, and depression. Combined with his own “travelogue” of personal experiences in psychedelic-assisted therapy, Pollan explores this fascinating subject with both a journalist’s hard-edged skepticism and a pioneer’s sense of wonder, synthesizing and articulating his material with a facility that is truly beyond compare. Reading this book is a journey through human consciousness of the most remarkable kind.