What you gain when you lose rationality
Published: 2019-07-05 . Back to ≈

While recently on a run in the hills of my boyhood, I started thinking about the Lord of the Rings and Psychedelic Drugs. Not because I think about these things often… But I had recently read the book “How to Change Your Mind,” by Michael Pollan, which explains the second. And my partner and I had been listening to LOTR on audiobook, which explains the first.

For those not familiar with Michael Pollan’s book, its title alludes to hypotheses concerning how the (often therapeutic) use of psychedelic drugs can break the mind out of patterns of thought that have been ingrained and solidified by time. (For me, simply hearing the stories and reading about the studies was enough to change my mind, at least in the sense of providing rare insights into how the mind may work—I haven’t used psychedelic drugs, personally.) In some cases, ingrained patterns of thought are counterproductive to good health: cycles of rumination, depression, anxiety, or compulsion, for which drugs like LSD or psilocybin can provide a reprieve. In other cases, there may be nothing wrong with the patterns of our thought, but they still represent a sort of ordering principle or constraint that is enforced upon our thinking, culling out irrelevant or spurious connections that we might otherwise see in our surroundings.

The developing brain of a child reportedly contains many more connections than the mature brain of an adult. Although the adult brain has learned a set of principles for organizing and sorting out the world, these principles are negative, so to speak. They represent the suppression of possible connections and relationships which a child still needs to test out and prove unimportant over time.

As an adult with a habit of thinking scientifically, it can be hard to remember what these “spurious” connections might look like, which the brain has since all but purged. But I recently came across a source of many interesting examples. This is where LOTR comes in.

It has been a long time since I first read LOTR. Much longer than since I read Harry Potter, for example. I’ve always had a sense for the way in which these two books about magic and wizardry were different. The Harry Potter books invoked magic in a very gritty sense of spells, incantations, invisibility, and a whole litany of physically impossible feats made possible by magic. LOTR, on the other hand, tended to involve characters surrounded by a vague and mystical aura of power, who made seldom use of specific feats of magic.

In listening to the audiobook, I observed that Tolkien’s entire fictional world consisted of elements of such mystical nature, with a strong tendency to make use of connections long severed in the mind of an adult/scientist. For example, many of the places visited by the travelers seem to have a peculiar aura or power. They aren’t just places. They are inhabited and pervaded by spiritual or natural forces that incline the travelers at turns to weariness, restfulness, vigor, and so forth.

In Tolkien’s book, I believe that these and other strange impressions of power are meant to be taken as quite real. In my own world, I don’t believe that such strange forces exist. But if there is something that I remember of my childhood, it is that there seemed to be much more room for their existence. As I’ve grown older, my world has been purged and sanitized of mystical forces. If a particular place has a certain feel or effect on me, it never crosses my mind that that feel or effect could be a product of more than just my mind.

But listening to Lord of the Rings and returning to some of my boyhood haunts has reminded me that, to some degree, this wasn’t how I always experienced the world. My world used to be richer, in a way, for these qualities that I was willing to attribute to things themselves. Connections that I could observe without immediately labeling as spurious.

These are things that a scientific and rationalistic way of thinking has robbed from my world. The price of rationality.

It’s a fairly big price, to be perfectly honest. Science allows understanding of the world in ever-growing scope and detail. That understanding can be rich and breathtaking. But it is also dead and mechanistic.

This, I suppose, is where we come back to Michael Pollan. In suppressing some of the ordering structures of the brain and allowing more entropic connections to flourish, psychedelic drugs can reintroduce an experience of the world that has been systematically stamped out by the scientific quest for order or understanding.¬†What would it be like, as an adult, to temporarily shed the strictures of scientific thinking, and to experience the world again as a child, or as one of the travelers of middle earth? I’d kind of like to know.