Hello and welcome to this week’s round-up of things I am currently interested in and/or thinking about! But first: a confession. I broke the rules. I posted on Instagram! And then, I quickly remembered why I hate Instagram!
Read Max put out an excellent piece of satire this week about the nature and treatment of brain worms, a social media-induced information overload that he defines as having “your interests, your sense of humor, your politics, your personality, and, maybe most importantly, the reference points by which you set those things shifted to orbit a new center of gravity: Your feed.”
His “3-pronged treatment strategy” for this cyberailment is indispensable wisdom which includes restricting your intake of information and refusing to give your opinion on current events, but my favorite part, one I will be holding dear to my brain as I wade back into social media feeds, is this last bit:
In many situations, it is better to embrace ignorance. The motto of the healthy brain is: I don’t know what this is and I shan’t be finding out.
A Rabbit Hole I Just Fell Down:
Have you heard of consciousness hacking? Techbros hack everything, because they think about the brain and body in computer terms, and spiritual enlightenment is not exempt:
Those types of mystical experience, and others, have neural signatures. Today’s technology can read those signatures using brain imaging techniques. Then we can lead people toward such states, either with transcranial stimulation technologies or with neural feedback that encourages a desired mystical state without any external stimulation.
I discovered this particular rabbit hole by poking around the work of Jamie Wheal, a “neuroanthropologist” who runs something called the Flow Genome Project.
He wrote a book in 2021 called Recapture the Rapture that’s basically like, a manual on how to create meaning in your life by doing psychedelics and having transcendental sex (things I support!) but his Project is endorsed by such entities as the United States Navy, Google, and Goldman Sachs (things which make me very skeptical!).
I found an enlightening (ha ha) Wired piece on this movement from 2017 that reports on a talk Wheal gave to a group of Silicon Valley elites:
"So one of the things to realise," says Wheal, as a chart titled "Altered States Economy" projects behind him, with the figure $4 trillion (£3.1tn) at its centre, "is A, massive market. B, largely unintentional, this is hiding in plain sight."
In other words, getting out of our own heads, tweaking the diodes on our emotions and consciousness, is a "Four-trillion-dollar opportunity for the entrepreneurial-minded".
To be fair, Wheal has said that his goal in writing that book was to outline methods anyone could use to access altered states, regardless of money, which is why he focused on stuff like sex, breathing, and music.
But you can’t give a talk to a bunch of CEOs and venture capitalists about the astronomical value of this new market and expect them not to come away thinking about ways to capitalize on it. (It should also be noted that Wheal sells courses that teach you how to “improve performance” by getting into a flow state on demand, and they start at $697.)
The piece goes on to profile Mikey Siegel, a former MIT roboticist who started an organization called Consciousness Hacking, dedicated to designing tech that can “change the world from the inside out.” (Neoliberal alert!)
This is all part of a larger movement called transhumanism, which seeks to augment and enhance human brains and genes with technology. All the techbros are obsessed with this shit, but their “move fast, break things” MO tends to skip past ethics on their way to utopia.
Transhumanists want to get rid of suffering with electrodes and designer drugs. They want to make rich people immortal. (Have they read absolutely no science fiction about why these could be bad ideas??) It’s a philosophy that reduces humanity to genes and outdated computational models of brain functioning.
Professor of philosophy Susan B. Levine put out a great critique in Slate last month that I would recommend if you’re interested. Here’s how she describes transhumanist thought:
Here, the key idea is that animate entities and machines are, in essence, information, their operations fundamentally the same. From this perspective, brains are computational devices, genetic causality works through “programs,” and the informational patterns constituting us are, in principle, translatable to the digital realm. This informational lens is the crux of transhumanism—its scientific convictions and confidence in prospects for humanity’s technological self-transcendence into posthumanity.
The problem with the idea that you can hack human consciousness is the simple fact that consciousness is not a machine, it’s an experience, and science still cannot explain it whatsoever!
Spiritual enlightenment comes from wisdom, which takes a lifetime of dedication and spiritual practice to develop. Siegel admits this himself in the Wired piece, citing brain scan studies done on Buddhist monks:
"These are 30,000-hour meditators," says Siegel. "Their brains are profoundly different. Their experience of reality is profoundly different. They're not just a little bit happier." Taking a seat and drinking a smoothie, he says, breathlessly, "What does that mean if you can create the technology that makes that accessible to everyone? That's like, I don't know. It could alter all of humanity."
30,000 hours is about 3.5 years of meditation, which, yeah, would take decades. But the problem with Siegel’s idea is that he’s thinking of it in sheer mechanistic terms. Buddhist monks don’t just meditate — they live entire lives centered around their spiritual philosophy, and this is how they cultivate wisdom.
You can’t hack that wisdom with consumer products that electrically induce meditative states, because this won’t change the structure of people’s consumer-driven lives. It will end up being another band-aid anesthetic for the pain of capitalism, another thing to profit off, and another way to separate the haves from the have-nots.
And Now, We Interrupt This Newsletter to Bring You, a Shameless Self-Plug:
Ayesha and I started a podcast! We’re combining both our special interests into a project that will take a critical look at capitalist mental health and explore alternative possibilities for a future based in community care.
It’s on all the podcast apps, and it also has a Substack. Here’s the first episode:
If you’ve followed me on the internet for a while, you may have seen me talking about wanting to shift into audio and video work, as I think it’s a more accessible way to communicate complex ideas. It’s taken me the better part of a year to get here, because I severely underestimated how much time I would need to learn a new medium and confront my creative anxieties about it (~8 months lol), but I finally made my first podcast (and two videos on Patreon) and I’m excited in a way I haven’t felt since I learned how to develop film in a dark room.
As a photographer, I spent most of my creative life learning how to take light and turn it into art, and now I get to figure out sound. It’s so different! And since video is the synthesis of light, sound, and writing, it just feels like I’m going in the right direction in a cosmic, everything-is-coalescing sort of way. Thank you all for reading and supporting my work as I learn and grow artistically in public, I appreciate it so much! Like, Comment, and Subscribe okay thank you!
Something for Your Heart to Chew On:
Speaking of videos, I’ve been doing some research for one that I’m working on, and I stumbled upon this talk with Bayo Akomolafe. He’s one of my favorite thinkers (a “recovering” psychologist, as he says) and ever since I heard him say “the times are urgent, let us slow down” I have felt a sort of slug camaraderie with him.
In this talk, he goes in depth about what he means by that (it’s much deeper than just taking a break).
A Very Intriguing Response:
A couple weeks ago I wrote about the distinction I see between ADHD-as-disorder and ADHD-as-identity, and I got some really great feedback from readers! Miles wrote in to suggest that I look into Lacanian psychoanalysis, a field I will admit I know basically nothing about, because every time I try to read about it, I sort of just end up confused. (I’ve been watching some YouTube explainers instead, pls ELI5.)
Miles thinks psychoanalysis can be useful for my proposed conundrum, and graciously obliged my request to share his email with the class:
I think psychoanalysis has something to say here, because, strictly speaking, it does not recognise pathology as such—only each subject's singular attempt to address the basic question of living in the world, which it calls the subject's symptom.
It aims not to use diagnosis as a normative label but as a tool to guide the direction of the treatment. Psychoanalysis has its own troubling and even shameful history of co-optation and science envy, but when it stays true to its essential spirit, it makes no attempt to determine for the subject how they should conduct their lives or themselves, it only seeks to aid them in living in a way that involves a little less suffering. It is for each subject to discover the meaning of their symptom themselves.
Lacanian psychoanalysis in particular is concerned with the question that you raise about identity. As you very rightly point out, identity thinking does allow us ways of understanding ourselves. However, Lacan might add that this thinking, which works on what he calls the level of the Imaginary, is based on a sense of rivalry: I can only know what I am by separating myself from what I am not, and that division can lead to a great deal of conflict. (I was reminded of this in your collaborative posts with wokescientist about capitalism and mental health on Instagram, in which the comments section ran very plainly along the lines of: 'If I am not my pathology, then what am I?').
On the other hand, when you speak of changing our culture and not ourselves, this would be similar to the work on Lacan's level of the Symbolic, re-symbolising and lending new meaning to the signifiers that we use in reference to our knowledge, our bodies, mental distress, and 'madness'. Thinking on the Imaginary level has a stake in a fixed image of the self; work on the Symbolic level does not operate in terms of definitions, fixity, and certainty, but flexibility, multivalence, change, and play.
I have much homework to do on this topic, but I will keep you all posted on what I discover. Thank you for the insight and the PDFs, Miles!
I love to receive both these things, so if you have ideas or suggestions or found something on the internet you think I’d be into, send it to me at email@example.com (please be aware I can take anywhere from 5-15 days to reply to emails; I am on snail time, after all.)
silicon valley never fails to attempt to capitalize on literally every aspect of the human experience UUUUUGGGGGHHHHH literally i hate it so much.
on a random note, it's such a weird, niche thing, but i was reading this marvel fanfic and it involves a version of spirituality based around the sanctity of sex and all this stuff. and there's this duo on insta who run @queernature, and the way both of them write is such a balm. overarching point being, i want to get into spirituality and mindfulness more. and reading about tech doing all this nonsense just cements the fact that i should, and i should do it in such a way that divests from capitalistic society entirely.
(here's the fanfic link - it's a really good story if you're into marvel, and is great even without. but the spirituality side of it is just phenomenal. NSFW as hell + polyamory: https://archiveofourown.org/works/19107019/chapters/45401134 )
I am also woefully ignorant on Lacanian psychology, and so now I will definitely have to dive down that rabbit hole (thanks to both you and Miles!) without any wish to create undue work for you, is there a place where you (or anyone else) recommend I begin? Thanks, as always.