The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley is a vivid first-person description of the psychedelic experience. It details a trip on mescaline (peyote, similar to LSD). His superior skill in writing makes the experience come to life. Huxley wonders about many aspects of life, describes his visual experience, and his interactions with a guide and his wife. A good, and short, introduction to the psychedelic experience.
“The critically acclaimed novelist and social critic Aldous Huxley describes his personal experimentation with the drug mescaline and explores the nature of visionary experience. The title of this classic comes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.”“
“Is the mental disorder due to a chemical disorder?” Throughout the book, Huxley asks if – at a level – it’s just a chemical imbalance. This matches our current understanding and hypothesis of what is going on in the brain. Nor he or scientists ignore the broader scope of interpersonal relationships (i.e. he isn’t preaching or arguing for a behaviorist interpretation of the mind).
“I swallowed four-tenths of a gram of mescalin …” This is on the high-end of a normal dose (PsychonautWiki).
“To see ourselves as others see us is a most salutary gift. Hardly less important is the capacity to see others as they see themselves.” This follows a part where he talks about our subjective experience/sensation (qualia) and how it’s difficult to (perfectly) understand others.
At various moments he talks about “Istigkeit” or “Is-ness“. He compares this to Being-Awareness-Bliss, and I think you can also understand it as a form of ego dissolution.
“When I got up and walked about, I could do so quite normally, without misjudging the whereabouts of objects.” The influence of psychedelics seems to be confined mostly to our ‘higher-level’ aspects of our brain, all – if not most – bodily functions and capabilities are not affected. Further on, Huxley remarks “… the body seemed perfectly well able to look after itself.”
“The suggestion is that the function of the brain and nervous system and sense organs is in the main eliminative and not productive. Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe.” This is a quote by Dr. C.D. Broad and highlights the ‘Mind at Large’ hypothesis. This seems like a top-down model and reminiscent of Plato (and that we have to go ‘back’ to this ideal state), and opposed to other ideas like those of Popper.
But there is logic and science to the “reducing valve”, the REBUS model and our, limited, understand of consciousness does say that there might be more criticality when under the influence of psychedelics.
Huxley also observed the following:
- The ability to remember and to “think straight” is little if at all reduced
- Visual impressions are greatly intensified
- Though the intellect remains unimpaired and though perception is enormously improved, the will suffers a profound change for the worse
- (later on, he mentions again no will to do anything productive/work) “And yet there were reservations. For if one always saw like this, one would never want to do anything else.”
- These better things may be experienced “out there,” or “in here,” or in both worlds, the inner and the outer, simultaneously or successively.
“In the final stage of egolessness there is an “obscure knowledge” that All is in all – that All is actually each.”
“… when the cerebral sugar shortage … “ We now understand better how the brain works and that a sugar shortage is not how mescalin works. But that it binds to and activates the serotonin 5-HT2A receptor with a high affinity.
“What the rest of us see only under the influence of mescalin, the artist is congenitally equipped to see all the time. His perception is not limited to what is biologically or socially useful.” A great way of describing what artists (he mentions some painters and musicians throughout) might be able to perceive over ‘the rest’ of us.
“How could one reconcile this timeless bliss of seeing as one ought to see with the temporal duties of doing what one ought to do and feeling as one ought to feel?” This speaks to the ‘importance’ or euphoria that one experiences on psychedelics. The here and now feels as important is anything in the world. “This participation in the manifest glory of things left no room, so to speak, for the ordinary, the necessary concerns of human existence, above all for concerns involving persons.”
“Mescalin opens the way of Mary, but shuts the door on that of Martha. It gives access to contemplation – but to a contemplation that is incompatible with action and even with the will to action, the very thought of action. In the intervals between his revelations, the mescalin taker is apt to feel that, though in one way everything is supremely as it should be, in another there is something wrong. His problem is essentially the same as that which confronts the quietist, the arhat and, on another level, the landscape painter and the painter of human still lives. Mescalin can never solve that problem; it can only pose it, apocalyptically, for those to whom it had never before presented itself.”
What a wonderful reflection of your mind under the influence of psychedelics.
“The Highest Order prevails even in the disintegration. The totality is present even in the broken pieces.” This again refers to the Higher Mind.
“Most takers of mescaline experience only the heavenly part of schizophrenia.” This refers to a moment of terror he experienced and which brought him more empathy for those who are suffering from mental illness.
Alas the trip has to end somewhere, “… I had returned to that reassuring but profoundly unsatisfactory state known as “being in one’s right mind.” “
Huxley laments that only alcohol and tobacco are available without restriction. He mentions that we use them to escape daily life and its drudgeries. Prohibition is not what will prevent this, “The universal and ever-present urge to self-transcendence is not to be abolished by slamming the currently popular Doors in the Wall. The only reasonable policy is to open other, better doors in the hope of inducting men and women to exchange their old bad habits for new and less harmful ones.”
But, he is not advocating that we all should start using mescalin, “… there is a minority that finds in the drug only hell or purgatory.” The effects of mescaline (8 hours on average) are also much too long for most situations.
In the final parts of the book, Huxley comments on the “foppish” nature of speech, on how it isn’t everything that consciousness is.
Although the book is mostly his first-person experience, some other works are mentioned:
- The Tibetan Book of the Dead – by/translated Graham Coleman
The Doors of Perception are mentioned in many works and scientific papers. If particular ones spring to mind, they will be added here.
About the author
(from the back of the book) “Poet, playwright, novelist, short story writer, travel writer, essayist, critic, philosopher, mystic, and social prophet, Aldous Huxley was one of the most accomplished and influential English literary figures of the mid-twentieth century.”
His best-known work is the dystopian novel Brave New World.
His other book about the psychedelic experience is Heaven and Hell (review).