This summer, Renegade Inc. went on the road to the Port Eliot Festival in Cornwall in search of new ideas, great speakers and of course those people who are thinking differently. One of those people is the comedian Shane Mauss. He turned away from a traditional Stand-Up career to follow his passion for science communication and the advocacy of psychedelics.
He’s not promoting recreational drug use but he is highlighting a growing movement towards understanding the potential benefits of using psychedelics for healing. He feels that the pace of modern life is out of kilter with our evolutionary intelligence and as a species, we are suffering.
Renegade Inc. caught up with him to find out what he thinks about the shift towards a new era of psychedelic-assisted therapy and if a change in attitude towards psychedelics can begin to address the escalating mental health issues of our increasingly neurotic world.
The evolutionary & modern world disconnect
Mauss posits that the disconnect between the pace of modern life and evolutionary intelligence indicative of human suffering relates to genes that were created in our past environment. “There’s this idea of this hygiene hypothesis which is that in our past ancestral environment you could never get rid of all of the bacteria, parasites and germs…We evolved these psychological tendencies to be cleaning and all of these things. And there was nothing you could do to have a completely sterile environment”, says Mauss. The mismatch between our evolutionary past and psychological present is, according to Mauss, played out in terms of legitimate and non-legitimate threats.
In relation to the former, for example, humans are psychologically prepared to be on the lookout for an invading tribe or dangerous animals. Legitimate threats were an intrinsic part of our evolutionary past. But because modern humans are no longer faced with these threats, our complex brains are able to not only reconfigure them in a subjective way but they are also able to project things far into the future.
“So now the same stress response that is meant for running from a lion is being activated when you are thinking about your retirement plan or something like that. It’s at this point that your sympathetic stress response is releasing cortisol in the system”, says Mauss.
What your consciousness is doing is filling in the story of what’s going out that articulates an inner experience while looking for external evidence that embodies a view of the world that’s reinforced, for example, by the corporate ‘mainstream’ media. This process, in other words, amounts to a form of confirmation bias where humans are isolating themselves in front of TV screens from which their perceptions of threats emanating from the outside world often materialize.
According to Mauss, an effective way of triggering people’s emotional responses is to present them with hyper salient scenes of violence and explosions. Moreover, claims the former Stand-Up, these kinds of experiences are something that humans, on a subconscious level, are desperately seeking. Even though we don’t realize it, human beings are constantly looking to validate fears which bare no relation to their mainly mundane day-to-day lived experiences. “If the news was actually reporting what reality was, no one would watch. It would be the most boring thing”, says Mauss.
Instead, the news media tend to focus on what Mauss terms as highly exaggerated “anomalies”. The question that then arises is why human beings keep returning to these kinds of hyperbolic filled stories? For Mauss, this is associated with the notion of the hedonic treadmill – in other words, the extent to which humans have a tendency to return quickly to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes.
Mauss uses the metaphor of a rat in a cage to emphasize his point:
“If you give a rat one little treat or whatever, dopamine spikes. It then gets very excited. ‘I just got this reward’. It gets used to that but then gets complacent with the one reward. Then you give it two – it just got a raise. You give it three – it gets another raise. But then it gets complacent, it goes back to where one was originally. You get to four or five, same thing happens. But the moment you plateau that’s when you start taking it for granted.”
In the view of Mauss, this process “explains a lot of our work experiences”. With promotion, comes more money and with that more responsibility. But the rise through the ranks is also indicative of responses to increasing levels of fear.
Mauss uses a hypothetical example:
“If you’ve gone from zero fear to now ten units of fear but then have gone back to five, it seems like you’re missing out on something. Five would have been great on day one but now you just got fired. I think that our fear response works in the same way where we’re looking to validate that same hit. And really this is just a mismatch with our outdated psychological mechanisms that were built in a world looking for threats that basically no longer exist.”
What Mauss appears to be saying here, is that although the hits a person receives increase with promotion and more money, these hits are nevertheless negated by higher expectation levels predicated on perceived future threat-based fears that result in no permanent gain in happiness. This logic offers up an explanation of why humans have a tendency to return to a hysterical press and violent movies which appear as an omnipresent feature on our TV screens.
According to Mauss, the mismatch between perceived and actual threats created in the brain, explains panic attacks:
“In other words”, says Mauss, “your brain is looking for an actual threat and not finding one. You’re getting this feedback loop in the mind of your brain going, ‘maybe there’s a threat’, and then it’s releasing this hormonal response. Meanwhile, another part of your brain is picking up sweat on your palm and it’s going, ‘why are your palms sweaty’?
The same logic applies to allergies. Mauss argues that the response people have to dealing with them is often counter-intuitive:
“What people normally do as a response to things that make them feel sick is to avoid making any contact with the potential source of the disease-causing the sickness. By putting yourself more and more into a bubble, you get more sensitive and develop more and more allergies whereas you should actually be exposing yourself to benign threats that gives the immune system something to do.”
Triggering healthy stress in response to modern comforts
Mauss highlights the example of a roller coaster as a safe and valuable way of triggering stress responses to the kinds of scary situations faced by our ancestors:
“A roller coaster is the exact kind of stress that you want. It’s very scary for a minute, you get down, ‘Phew that threat is over.’ That’s why it feels so good. And that’s how the stress response system is supposed to work.”
“Life has been on this planet for about three and a half billion years and throughout all of that time it was a life or death situation for basically every organism on Earth. There was a lot of legitimate fears out there.” But modern comforts have ameliorated and suppressed these ancient fears which, in turn, have been integrated through the media sphere. “We have psychological mechanisms in place to detect X number of fears that were in our past and no longer exist [in their ancient form].”
One of the key characteristics of human nature, is it’s ability to construct narratives that incorporate innate fears into areas that reflect the modern human experience of which the drive for profit is the catalyst. For Mauss, human beings are actively engaged in looking for that fear ‘hit’ that gives rise to the said profits. But these fears are symptomatic of our inability to recognize that only by addressing the ‘external’ structural issues can the actions of politicians like Trump, for example, be reined-in.
“There’s always going to be a con man or someone trying to scare the crap out of people. Trump’s whole platform – when you boil it down – is, ‘look there’s a lot of scary things out there and different things are really scary so look at all the different people out there, they’re a threat’. And ‘trust me. The future is really scary and unknown so let’s go back to the past. We made it through that which was great so let’s just make it great again”, says Mauss.
The former comedian opines that psychedelics come into their own in terms of their ability to differentiate, and help deal with, traumas and perceptions of fear:
“The purpose of the psychedelic experience is to shake up and transform the perception people are familiar with and bring out the persons inner world as a means of exposing insecurities and fears. “I mean this is stuff that’s underlying our daily lives. These insecurities that we’re not addressing, that we’re not even necessarily consciously aware of but are driving much of what we do”, says Mauss.
The exploration of the human inner world through psychedelics as a potential remedy to trauma and other psychological disorders is an interest of child and adolescent psychiatrist and psychedelic researcher, Dr. Ben Sessa who set up a study using MDMA assisted psychotherapy to treat alcoholism. “What MDMA does”, says Sr. Sessa, “is it provides a very containing safe and emotionally stable mental state in which patients can recall past traumatic memories and explore those traumas and put them to bed”
Dr. Sessa adds:
“A lot of the time during the MDMA experience the patient is lying motionless on the bed with headphones on and eyeshades and we call this going inside. And there’s a lot of an aspect of letting the medicine do the work. So although they come into the drug session with an agenda of things to explore, on the day of the drug session it’s very non-guided by the therapists. We let the medicine take it where it goes. And what we find is that the patients uncover aspects that they haven’t planned. Particularly MDMA has this ability to massively increase levels of positive felt mood and allow access to traumatic memories that normally they would avoid….MDMA will be a prescribed drug by 2022 in the USA and in Europe initially for PTSD but thereafter we can begin using it with other conditions as well.”
Former artist, Amanda Fielding, undertook research on LSD during the late 1960s:
“I realized what an incredible compound it is to alter consciousness in a positive way which we can use to our benefit…Under a psychedelic, suddenly the whole brain becomes interconnected, interactive and that underlies the feeling of ego disillusion and unity with… whatever you’d like to call it – God, nature the world. So that was a big breakthrough to find that the mystical experience…in which a person can break the old pattern of setting which was not beneficial to them like addiction and set a new setting which is more beneficial. The world is desperately in need of help and I think this group of compounds which are non-toxic, psychoactive compounds like psychedelics – and indeed cannabis – share very valuable potential which we need to learn to use to talk its optimum”, says Fielding.
Shane Mauss notes that the use of MDMA has been extended to the US military who have used it to treat PTSD sufferers. “In the US”, says Mauss, “we have the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies. They are a very reputable research organization that is taking the worst of the worst cases. What happens is someone goes through this traumatic event. You don’t want to experience that again and want to be really vigilant that that never happens again. And you might be back home no longer in a war but there’s a part of your brain that doesn’t know that and has learned fear on a level that most humans have never experienced. I mean never in our evolutionary past was a grenade exploding next to you and you’re seeing a friend of yours blown to bits. That never happened. That’s something we are never prepared for. Fifty percent of people come back from a scenario like that and they’re totally fine because they express themselves, they write a book about what they went through.”
“And people with PTSD don’t want to complain about it because that’s, you know, at least they made it out and that would be doing a disservice or they feel like they’re whining or something like that. And so then you’re suppressing what’s trying to come out and trying to remind you, ‘hey there’s a big threat… And it doesn’t know that there’s not. You’re now in an environment where there are not grenades around you, everywhere, at any moment. So what MDMA does is it inhibits the amygdala so it’s actually shutting down that fight or flight response. It then increases blood flow to the prefrontal cortex [the last evolved part of the brain] that makes us the most human.
The result, says Mauss, is:
“You’re able to talk about those things that are normally really triggering in a non-triggered way and talk about them in more of a contemplative way than you would normally. And that’s how LSD, when it was discovered was used for therapy before it eventually hit the streets. It didn’t really become that much of a problem and it helped a lot of people but the news was able to take some footage of some hippies with their shirts off or whatever, and create this story of people going crazy.”
“But the news can also show stories of some of the most promising cutting edge things that can help people’s lives and I bet people would tune in for that as well.”