Published on: 2020-05-30

PCP is for the memories not for the experience

I always thought there's a tiny insight that can vastly improve people's relationships with recreational drugs. I am rather surprised I never saw any written mention of it.

Granted, maybe assuming that a short anecdotal article will change dangerous drug usage patterns for a majority of its readers is just the result of an overdose of behaviorism mixed with idealism. (I think the street lingo for that is leftacademiaball).

I also suspect a tremendous amount of ignorance is the reason I never stumbled upon this insight in someone else writing. But maybe that's just oxymoron, seeing as I already painted my perspective as behaviorist.

Still, there's an itchy sensation maniacally driving me towards writing it.

In short

You should, really, really, really only take recreational psychoactive drugs with the purpose of observing, remembering, thinking about, and recreating the state of mind they give you, not because you like experiencing that state of mind.

Note, please replace all further usage of drugs with recreational psychoactive drugs.

Ok, maybe that's a bit too vague, so let me write a whole book chapter expanding upon it.

Think of "observing, remembering, thinking about, and recreating the state of mind" as the kind of thing that you travel to Japan for.

Sure, you got to Japan because it has tasty soba and you enjoy the momentary pleasure of them brushing against your tongue. Because you seek serenity gazing upon a particularly alluring Zen garden and a nearby (will totally not rip your face off and eat you) snow macaque.

But not really, those things are not worth the money and time sink, or being stuck in a plane for 10 hours. No zen garden is that serene and no noodles that wondrous.

You got to Japan because of the overall "experience", because you want to observe their surreal society, feel awe and curiosity when dipping into it. You go because traveling literally makes your mind feel more expansive, memories form more often and with higher clarity, you get more new ideas. You go because you want to see if you can replicate the whole "meditating in the Zen garden" thing at home. You go because you want to talk with your friends and family about it, or at least spice up your internal monologues.

If someone goes to Japan for two months and you ask:

So, how was it? Tell us some stories.

And they answer:

Oh, it was nice I guess, don't have much interesting to say, same old, same old.

Then we'd be awfully surprised and think that something is wrong with that person.

Conversely, if somebody went to visit their great-uncle in a very boring de-industrialized town, say Birmingham for the sake of examples, we'd be rather unsurprised by that answer.

Now go for the obvious analogy and replace Japan with a high dose of LSD, Birmingham with a shitty heroin cut with fentanyl.

A taxonomy of drug stereotypes

Let's classify drugs into the stereotype of:

  1. Addictive drugs that lead you to becoming a boring washout

  2. The kind that great artists mention taking once in their youth, causing an enlightening experience that forever changed their worldview.

The first stereotype has things like heroin, meth, and cocaine. The second has things like LSD, psilocybin, and DMT.

You can envision it as more of a gradient, say:

Heroine > Cocaine > Methamphetamine > PCP > GHB > Amphetamine > nicotine+MAOIs (tobacco) > salvia > MDMA > mescaline > psylocibine > LSD > DMT

I can't think of a single person that took MDMA, mescaline, salvia, LSD, psilocybin, or DMT for the first time and didn't talk a lot about that experience.

On the other hand, people don't chat too much about their time smoking meth, cigarettes, crack, nicotine or heroin. Although this former sequence of drugs is much more widespread and frequently used.

I think this is only in part due to the drug and in great part due to people's mindset before taking it.

Psychedelic experiences are hard to place in the realm of normal feelings. You can call them "good trips" and "bad trips" and you associate normal emotions with them. But the only constant for a psychedelic trip is the fact that it's weird, the first, second, and 100th time, it keeps being weird.

Thus they are almost by definition interesting. It's very easy to carry something out of a psychedelic trip because many things catch your eye.

If you have a spiritual bend that thing might be a revelation about the fabric of reality or the meaning of life or the nature of death. If you have a mathematical inclination that might be an insight on how to shift your perspective of some abstract objects or how to map it to reality. If you have a passion for psychology it might be a realization about the inner workings of perceptive processes and how they related to conscious reasoning.

Even if you haven't taken psychedelics it's fairly easy to look at the books and works of art inspired by them or read the testimonials.

On the other hand, it's really hard to find similar works or testimonials resulting from snorting speed. People like Paul Erdos took amphetamine all the time and have a lot to show for it. But Paul Erdos didn't take amphetamine on occasions to achieve a breakthrough, it was part of his daily maintenance, a way to press the "energy and concentration" button to increase mathematical output by 34.5%.

I'll let two much better writers describe their experiences.

Hits the backs of the legs first, then the back of the neck, a spreading wave of relaxation slackening the muscles away from the bones so that you seem to float without outlines, like lying in warm salt water. As this relaxing wave spread through my tissues, I experienced a strong feeling of fear. I had the feeling that some horrible image was just beyond the field of vision, moving as I turned my head, so that I never quite saw it. I felt nauseous; I lay down and closed my eyes. A series of pictures passed, like watching a movie: A huge, neon-lighted cocktail bar that got larger and larger until streets, traffic, and street repairs were included in it; a waitress carrying a skull on a tray; stars in a clear sky. The physical impact of the fear of death; the shutting off of breath; the stopping of blood

And then came the insight that irrevocably transformed my sense of how good human life could be. I was feeling boundless love for one of my best friends, and I suddenly realized that if a stranger had walked through the door at that moment, he or she would have been fully included in this love. Love was at bottom impersonal—and deeper than any personal history could justify. Indeed, a transactional form of love—I love you _because_…—now made no sense at all. The interesting thing about this final shift in perspective was that it was not driven by any change in the way I felt. I was not overwhelmed by a new feeling of love. The insight had more the character of a geometric proof: It was as if, having glimpsed the properties of one set of parallel lines, I suddenly understood what must be common to them all.

One of those quotes is by William S. Burroughs, one is by Sam Harris. One is about MDMA, one is about morphine. I doubt that I have to mention which is which.

No such thing as bad drugs (maaaan), just bad perspectives

Some drugs tend to be informative or transformative, whilst others tend to be about the momentary experience, the sensation the user is experiencing during the high, not after it.

Or, it might just be that some drugs are better at putting you in the kind of state where you can get the transformative insights. A repository of transformative insights might be made available by any drug if only you closely inspection of your state of mind

People take MDMA and they can get this feeling of openess; A boundless love of people, of experiences, of themselves. On the whole, this is a rather unhealthy feeling. Universal love is great and all, in the abstract. In the real world, it would take about 5 minutes to 5 months, depending on luck and location, for a "100% universal love" mindset to lead to your lifeless body being found in a ditch.

But you needn't feel the absolute universal love all the time. The next morning, when essentially no traces of the drug are left, or even after 20 years, that momentary realization that there is such a thing as "universal love" that you are capable of feeling is enough to slightly shift your perspective.

It's not magic, you can't give it to Sauron and have him forever become a friend of the elves and the men of the House of Bëor. But you can probably give him to Sauron and make him slightly less evil in the long run, make him torture elves, and invade Gondor a little less. Maybe have him shift some resources towards providing comfortable living conditions for this orc armies and reducing pollution in Mordor.

You can be shelf this under "brain chemistry changes", as you could with literally any other experience. But this doesn't give you much material for describing how the change came about.

A better way to think about it is more like seeing an external event.

You can read a book that contains a poor old man finding a beggar on the street during Christmas and taking him into this home, sharing with him the little that he has, giving him a small gift and a warm place to sleep.

You can see two of your friends being really in love, constantly being next to each other, always finding an opportunity for a little hug or kiss or sideways glance, thinking about the preferences of their partner before they think of their own.

Those kinds of things are, well, the kind of things that might slightly shift your perspective towards a "universal love" kind-of view. We don't throw them into the "brain chemistry changes" bin, quite the opposite, we think of them as moments that fundamentally define what is to be human.

Is the MDMA experience that fundamentally different from them? Why are we so quick to invalidate the "reality" of the MDMA experience, to analyze it through the lense of human-as-wetware-automaton?

PCP and learning to get rid of anxiety

Once you adopt the perspective of all drug experiences being just as "real" as the stimuli coming from reading a book or watching a movie, if not more so, you can take the psychedelic perspective for many drugs.

Observer or query your state of mind and say "Huh, that's interesting so that's how being {X} feels". Where {X} can be replaced by e.g. clam, focus, lacking anxiety, not feeling lonely, being free from pain.

I'm sorry that 2/3rd of this post is anecdotes, quotes, stories, and metaphors. However, it's rather hard to write about how one should view drug experiences through a more "human" lense and then proceed to explain that using medical statistics as proof and philosophy of mind as context.

So I'm going to give another more personal anecdote here, about my only experience with PCP (well 3-MeO-PCP, but by all accounts, they are rather similar).

PCP is a dissociative, unless you are a bit of a junkie you're likely not to have tried any similar dissociative drugs. For a slightly related experience think drinking loads of alcohol but without the severe physical impairment. For more similar ones, think Ketamine, diethyl ether, or DXM.

PCP has, let's say, a bad reputation. Say mescaline and people might think "The Doors of Perception". Say PCP and they'll probably think something along the lines of:

He is serving a life sentence for murdering 21-year-old roommate Tynisha Ysais and eating parts of her body.

Dissociation can be an interesting feeling but only up to a point, the best way to think about a dissociative is to think about losing the desire to control. The "conscious" part of your brain feels less present, less powerful, you "experience less," you form fewer memories, you act with less inhibition.

Personally, my state of mind was detached and relaxed in a way I very much welcomed.

You know those days where everything seems to be going wrong?

You're late submitting a paper, you got in late for work, you said something that made your boss scowl at you, your family is angry with you for some stupid reason and you've got a pile of work to do tomorrow and you have no way to finish it all and and and... and you have very little control over those things.

It's late, it's time to just relax for a bit, read a few pages from a good blog, and go to sleep. But you can't, you stew in bed ruminating all night, feeling that which I can best describe tired-regret-anxiety.

Well, by pure coincidence it was one of those days when a friend offered me ~15mgs of crystalline powder and I'm very thankful for it.

Suddenly I could relax, not in a "nothing matters" sort of way but in an "It's late, I have no control over most of these things, the one I can control I'm better of handling in the morning whit a fresh brain, now I should just relax, walk for a bit, enjoy the summer night, then go to sleep".

When I say I "felt" that way I mean it in the deepest possible sense. I can tell your brain to "just relax" but I'm rewarded stress about not being able to relax. PCP just sort of went in and did it for me, it "showed" me "hey, dummy, you're doing this wrong, here's how you relax when you want to".

From that day forward I think I've literally become better at voluntarily chilling out.

It's one thing for someone to describe how relaxedness feels and how you get there, it's quite another to experience it directly.

You can't have experienced a state of mind and then consciously wish to relive it in order to get there. If that was the case people would just remember "really pleasurable thing" very well, then consciously stay there all the time and die.

However, I do think there's an argument for experiencing a state of mind as a helper for guiding you towards it in the future. You may still lack exact directions but at least you have some idea of how the destination looks like.

Maybe I can never get to "PCP relaxed" without just taking PCP again, but I can get 10% of the way there. Which seems consistent with people's experience of psychedelics.

Or take amphetamines and "ADHD" or some other condition indicating that you are a perfectly normal human, made for living in a Dunbar-number tribe hunting and gathering rather than sitting still at a desk for 12 hours.

Concentration on a subject of your volition is a really important state of mind to have, but one that is not readily accessible to most people. So we feed amphetamines to people that can't do this well enough. This helps but could be problematic in several ways, from the "turning you into a literal corporate zombie" variety to the "built-up tolerance and can no longer be an efficient corporate zombie" type to the "sudden death from heart arrhythmia" kind.

Our more "natural" procedure for building concentration is, well, just asking people to practice focusing on things a lot.

Kids are really bad at it, but we torture them with schools, and the ones that don't take their own life usually end up better at concentrating. Granted, this could be a natural part of growing up but see Chinese vs European ability to focus and their schooling system. I think the schooling probably plays a big part here.

However, all that you are really doing when "concentrating" consciously is starting from {default state} and slowly taking your brain into {focused state}. On the other hand, all you are doing when taking amphetamines is starting from {default state} and allowing some dopamine transport modulators to take your brain into {focused state}.

The two approaches might seem vastly different to you, if you think that, I invite you to consider the following 3 situations:

Our intuition is that case nr. 3 is different because Adderall == "changes in brain chemistry", but again, everything == "changes in brain chemistry". More specifically, eating leads to some pretty severe changes in "brain chemistry". The difference in levels of acetylcholine between the fed and fasted person will be day and night. To add to that, eating something rich in certain amino-acids will likely independently lead to a short-term significant boost/repletion of acetylcholine, serotonin, and catecholamine.

You could argue that "fed" and "fasted" are state one will reach naturally throughout the day but "5mg Adderall" is not. However, when we are learning to focus and when we think about it, we hardly think "I will learn to focus between minutes 30 and 90 after a meal" or "I will learn to focus when fasted for 10+ hours".

Why would we disqualify learning to focus while being focused with the help of Adderall?

You could generalize this to many psychoactive drugs. For some reason, we have set this arbitrary boundary of "don't take a drug" and "take it on a frequent schedule all the time", with very little in-between for "take it once or thrice, see how you feel on it and then see if that's enough for you to work out your problems without it in the future".

A lot of it might boil down to this idea of how you relate to the whole experience. Take a drug with the plan to carefully observe the sensations it give you for potential future replication without it and I think you've got a really powerful heuristic on your hands.

Addictive drugs like PCP and amphetamines can become longer-term useful and self-limiting. Since your conscious justification for taking them is "exploration" it might be obvious that something went wrong if you're taking one of them for the 12th time this month.

But then again, this is very much a shot in the dark based on rather limited personal experience, it might completely missing the mark.

My lived experience tells me something must be a certain way, but finding anything that counts as objective evidence for it is improbable. Thinking rationally about this dictates that I am probably fooling myself, but writing it felt so addictively good I will irrationally cling to the idea.


twitter logo
Share this article on twitter
 linkedin logo
Share this article on linkedin
Fb logo
Share this article on facebook