Magic Mushrooms and Humans: A Brief History
Emily Mullins looks at the history of magic mushrooms in cultures around the world.
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I can still remember the first time I read the phrase “forward escape,” somewhere in the hazy realm of a DMT session. As I took the third hit, my eyes landed on an album cover containing what could only be described as a cross-section of someone under the influence of psychedelics. Underneath the otherworldly, beautiful design sat the words “Tipper” and “Forward Escape.”
It’s a great album and a trip-hop classic, but the album name has far more meaning and history. This may be a tangental pre-ramble, but I deem it necessary to share some of the influence Terence McKenna’s Forward Escape holds.
The phrase “a forward escape” was coined by none other than McKenna himself. It describes the escape of the historical process by which civilization builds slowly towards a peak, before crashing and then beginning another cycle. This process is the result of technological development and common and repeated cultural and ideological patterns. Meaning, ancient societal (technological or ideological) peaks may have been much more severe than our current societal standing. I don’t mean to say “ancient” and “current” as much as I mean to indicate something about the eternal- the notion that perhaps other societies at other times truly had it better. We yearn to nostalgia for the consciously unknown, subconsciously vibrant, ingrained in our DNA. This summary is problematic, which is why I intend to provide commentary, evidence, and explanation for this overarching theory.
The need for a forward escape is evident all around us, if only within the confines of documented historical evidence and current events. Since before the recording of history, the forces at work have sought higher orders of arrangement- all of which is ultimately, inevitably digested by the forward movement of time. All of our struggles and achievements will ultimately be erased when the sun reaches the end of its life. Such is the passage of a continuum. Yet, this is not the “forward escape” McKenna spoke on.
The implications of the need for a forward escape merely on the level of humanity are proprietarily complex. For example, McKenna believed our “dominator culture” is responsible for leading us down a path toward catastrophe. He said, “Every time a culture gets into trouble, it casts itself back into the past looking for the last sane moment it ever knew.” But, of course, everyone’s opinion about what “the last sane moment” was is different. At the height of the Great Depression, or at the worst moment of the Second World War, perhaps people thought back to the simpler times experienced during the 1920s.
Terence McKenna believed that the last sane moment we shared as a species was on the plains of Africa, 15,000 years ago. He theorized that the human race underwent a plant-human symbiosis with psilocybin mushrooms, which scattered the African plains. This idea is known as “Stoned Ape Theory” and is believed to be the “innate nostalgia” in the forward escape.
It would be improper of me not to divest an extended portion of this text to McKenna’s “last sane moment” that humanity spent on the mushroom-dotted plains of Africa in prehistory, a component of his Stoned Ape Theory. At its core, Stoned Ape Theory suggests that the evolutionary link between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens was directly caused by their intake of mushrooms along the African savanna. The neurogenic nature of psilocybin is evidence of this.
The fact that the human brain tripled in size in just two million years is a crucial postulation of Stoned Ape Theory. Dennis McKenna put it this way: “It’s not so simple to say that they ate psilocybin mushrooms, and suddenly the brain mutated, I think it’s more complex than that, but I think it was a factor. It was like a software to program this neurologically modern hardware to think, to have cognition, to have language—because language is essentially synesthesia. Language is the association with apparently meaningless sound except that it’s associated with the complex of meaning.”
It is a fact, quite plainly, that all drugs that modulate synaptic serotonin concentrations impact neurogenesis. It has been shown that serotonergic psychedelics within this class directly cause a permanent increase in neuritogenesis and/or spinogenesis both in vitro and in vivo. In other words, serotonergic psychedelics (such as the psilocybin that our ancestor Homo erectus consumed on the plains of Africa) create new neural pathways and generate brain matter.
How does all this relate to the forward escape? The cradle of the horned mushroom goddess. Africa. The last sane moment that we shared as a species. The implications, I’ll admit, are vast and far too complex to understand immediately. Terence stated that western civilization has been on a bummer for a long time, and personally, I cannot agree more with him on that. Our shared nostalgia for the ancient innate is louder than ever. As we move forward into the future, the quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald rings true, and we are “borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
The nostalgia that resides in an embryonic state in our DNA has been passed down over millennia in an ancestral cascade. Without the forward escape, we are accelerating towards an ineffable, inexpressible catastrophe that will only reveal itself with time. This feeling of terminal existential dread that we have shared more and more is our vertigo at history’s edge. We have boxed ourselves into a corner of time, and the only way out is through fundamental change – to break the cyclical pattern of historical peak and collapse. What lies on the other side? Perhaps only history can remind us of the inevitable long fall ahead of us if we do not learn to overcome our egoic, tribal nature and unify as a species. We call this the forward escape.
McKenna liked to bring up the second law of thermodynamics when discussing the forward escape, which states that all matter is moving towards a state of maximal complexity or chaos, known as entropic equilibrium. Terence, commenting on the increasing complexity of the universe, said, “Well, if you have a universe that is building on achieved novelty, and building faster and faster, then you have a universe which is consuming its share of time, if you will. A universe which is building toward its conclusive denouement much faster than the entities, the beings embedded in it might suppose.”
If this quote is valid, it further lends itself to the idea of collective nostalgia for “the last sane moment.” The vertigo we experience as a society is a measure of our subconscious perception of the ascension of novelty. We are intuitively aware that nothing can continue to grow indefinitely and that one day, all things, including everything humanity has achieved, will dissipate into nothingness. It is comforting, in this light, that all things return to the same place of absolute possibility after an inevitable coalescence.
The rapid acceleration of novelty on the scale of our culture and technology alone indicates the fractal nature of time. The amount of time we spend in each stage of this process will shrink and shrink until “transitions from one domain to another actually can be noted within the lifetime of single human beings.”
Terence believed the institutions at play that allow for all this rapid acceleration have no idea how to halt or control it. At this point, governmental bodies are only able to mitigate the terror of apocalypse. Pollution, unprecedented population growth, and the depletion of resources are only a few ways that the agencies in power have set this thing in motion.
It also makes sense in the ever-expanding field of technology that McKenna argued the planet has shrunk to a single informational point something he called informational tangentiality. This is plausible because the advent of the internet has created a state of imminent knowledge for all those who can access it. The rapid and uncontrolled forward advancement of technology, McKenna argues, leaves humanity in the dust. To break out of this cycle, we must take the time to fully explore our conceptions before moving forward to the next iteration.
One of my favorite sentences ever spoken by Terence McKenna reads as follows: “We are living, we are the inheritors, of all the complexity that preceded us.” One piece of what we have inherited is a sort of time reductionism; the idea that the future and the past fade into unknowability, and here we are at the center of a perpetual state of ignorance to the truth in all directions as far as the eye can see in spacetime. The hyper-dimensional breakthrough that we must undergo as a species is a kind of shamanic leap to a state of universal understanding of all information, all ideas, and all actions, at all places and times. The route to this, Terence McKenna postulates, is the psychedelic experience.
Shamans do not look at the world with reductionist eyes. They see a goal, a beginning and end, and “the place where the ouroboric snake takes its tail in its mouth.” Without this shamanic awareness, we are left with tremendous and unyielding anxiety about the future. McKenna claims shamanism is a fractal point of view. By looking at one shaman, we can see the history or similarity in every other shaman. This makes a lot of sense to people within the shamanic or psychedelic community; the shamanic archetype is quite consistent across history and cultures.
The linearity of our society attempts to destroy the individual. It forces a mass psychosis and likens the self to a cog in a machine. This could not be further from the truth. McKenna explains that processes that occur on the grand scale do not have the same sensitivity toward anything as the individual and are much more of a stimulus-response scenario.
What we are leaving behind as we move forward is a lonely planet of technology and ideologies: all of the isms, they cannot survive. Neither can our feeble mechanical technologies, for it destroys what gives it life in the making of its own consumption. So all that will be left behind is a polluted wasteland, the furthest thing from that great reality on the plains of Africa, in the cradle of the horned mushroom goddess.
Our shared history as a species is important for several reasons. Mainly though, it shows that we are here together briefly on a pale blue dot. It shows the commonality of the human character, and above all else, it proves that we are caught on the same adventure. No one is irrelevant, and everyone matters completely. Whatever happens to us will also be the fate of an innumerable set of processes and circumstances, the likes of which are entirely unprecedented. What I hope, above all else, is for the human species to move into the forward escape with a shamanistic awareness of the self without the ego. The tools with which we can achieve this universal leap forward are psychedelics such as the psilocybin that triggered our brains to increase in size. I believe it is with psychedelics that we will evolve as a species.
A. Mayhugh | Community Blogger at Chemical Collective
A. Mayhugh is one of our community bloggers here at Chemical Collective. If you’re interested in joining our blogging team and getting paid to write about subjects you’re passionate about, please reach out to Matt via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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