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Are We Recording?

teafaerie | Musings | Monday, March 23rd, 2009

I can see excellent reasons for allowing drug experiences to unfold as ephemera.  I get it.  I really do.  But when it comes down to it we need more data, damn it, and I feel like I have a duty to the community to gather as much information as I possibly can.  Or maybe that’s just how I justify my practice.  In any event it’s hilarious to listen to myself trying to read Finnegans Wake when the words keep rearranging themselves on the page, and this one guy’s crazy breakthrough experience is hands-down the most moving monologue I’ve ever heard in my life.

I’m particularly interested in primary records, by which I mean records that are made during the experience itself.  Hunter S. Thompson strapped a big clunky ’70s tape player to his belly when he wandered into the neon night in search of the American Dream. Both the raw tapes themselves and the gonzo articles that proceeded from them are records of his misadventures, but the tapes are primary and the finished pieces are secondary.  Your notebook doodles, EKG readouts, tapes of your drum jams, and the poems written in mustard on your walls are primary. Finished trip reports, recipes, and the musical comedy inspired by your experience are secondary.  Neither is inherently more valuable than the other, but primary records are hard to come by and rarely discussed.

It’s good to keep in mind the possible legal and social issues raised by evidence of crimes having been committed.  The ways in which your past can come back to bite you in the ass are not always predictable. Consider the case of the Canadian psychologist Andrew Feldmar.  In 2007, when attempting to enter the United States, a border guard Googled his name and discovered an article he had written wherein he admitted to having taken LSD twice in 1967.  Andy’s scofflaw admission resulted in him being barred from entering the country.  And that was over a mere secondary record with no hard evidence to back it up. Imagine how bong-toting Olympian Michael Phelps must feel about primary records these days!  Remember, almost every cell phone is a camera now, and they’re all plugged in to the shared data field.  Your friends might not intend to sell you out (at the moment) but stuff gets away from people.  It gets lost, or stolen, or accidentally left on abandoned hardware, or posted somewhere “safe” that isn’t.  I always joke that if I ever run for office I’m running on the Party Platform anyway, but in deadly earnest I may one day want to emigrate or get a job or something and it could really suck if some of my favorite records slipped out of my control.  And information is very slippery stuff.

Video records are especially problematic.  I’m personally ravenous for firsthand testimony.  I think I’ve actually read every experience report in the Vaults on the dozen or so substances that are of particular interest to me, and I often think how cool it would be if there were a large repository of video reports out there as well.  We could all benefit from seeing what various states look and sound like, and good demonstrations of cultivation, extraction, preparation and administration techniques would be an invaluable resource.  Unfortunately, in these benighted times, the risks involved with video can far outweigh the potential benefits.  People get locked up for life over this stuff.  It’s nuts.

Even if the enterprises that you choose to engage in are not, strictly speaking, illegal, videotaping them can have unwanted ramifications. This is a delicate moment in history.  Studies are quietly getting approved and showing good results, and so far the popular media is approaching the topic  of psychoactives with a refreshingly open mind. People relate to video much differently than they relate to text, and the intense nature of some of these experiences can easily frighten the untrained eye. And let’s face it, some people are jackasses. The folks putting their salvia vids up on YouTube, for instance, don’t seem to have given much thought to what sort of impression their activities might reasonably be expected to make on concerned parents, law enforcement agencies and members of the press. Also, remember that the vast majority of primary records are painfully boring, even to the participants, and most of the rest of them are bound to make you look like a moron.  What’s left over when you edit out the inane, the banal, the gobsmackingly pathetic, the utterly ridiculous, and the extremely personal? What would your family think?  Or your employer?

Another problem that comes up I think of as the Uncertainty Principle, though my abuse of the term probably makes Werner Heisenberg spin with unknowable momentum in his grave.  What I mean by it is the notion that the act of observing a thing changes it. It changes it in principle, and it changes it in practice if it distracts the voyager.  Extracting yourself to jot down notes or to change audio cassette tapes can become a disruptive chore whilst communing with the ineffable.  As a rule of thumb I’d say that the trip is always more important than the record, and if record-making is detracting from the experience then it’s not worth doing and it should be suspended immediately.

In general, though, I’ve become something of a booster for giving it a try, particularly with audio recordings. Keep in mind not to mention any specifics regarding illegal actions or substances and you should be pretty safe.  Most people forget about the tape recorder after a few minutes if it’s unobtrusive enough, and some people actually use it to good effect as a focus or an anchor.  Having observed hundreds of experiments, I can say with complete confidence that more people end up wishing that they had recorded more of their trip than the reverse.  You can always erase the damn thing.  You can’t choose to go back and record the experience after the fact.

One reason for capturing your trips by making audio recordings is that it gives you an opportunity to finally solve some of those eternal riddles: How many times has this happened?  Did I say that out loud?  Is our conversation really so incredibly deep and clever as it seems? What do we sound like when we’re high, anyway?  (On the other hand, perhaps there are some things that we’re better off not knowing…)
A record can be a window into lost time.  Some deep trance material apparently never makes it into long term memory.  Either memory isn’t set up to encode it, or it’s repressed, or it’s state dependent, or something else.  People frequently forget whole sections of a trip right after they take place, and later go back and find out to their utter amazement that they were like speaking in tongues for 15 minutes or something and they never would have known it if they didn’t have the recording.

Once when I took ayahuasca in the Amazon I found myself spontaneously singing a beautiful melody that was previously unknown to me.  It was haunting and timeless, rising and falling in subtle and intricate patterns; a delicately recursive and ever-mutating statement about mind and world, jungle, space, intelligence, the body, art, time and death. I sang my way out of a very dark place indeed and then held the flame aloft, warming everyone in the nighttime maloka with the golden sunlight of an honest-to-gosh icaro.  Everybody agreed that it had happened, but after it was over nobody could remember a note of it.  Nothing.  I tried and tried.  I had a sense of the feeling, more or less, but the fragments of the tune itself that I thought I could recall were deeply suspect.  Entropy!

The next day I blew off part of an awesome conference to travel by third world bus into Iquitos, where I spent my very last nuevos soles on a micro-cassette recorder.  There was another ceremony the following evening, and at one point I walked out into the jungle by myself and essentially made it happen again, but this time I caught the genie in the bottle!  It wasn’t the same one, but it was a real one and I got it – and now any time I want to I can sing it again, by heart.  It’s my favorite lullaby.  Also, by a particularly uncanny twist of fate, I managed to find out what it is. Or what it might be, anyway.  The first time I ever downloaded any icaros off of the net I pulled down some random 40 minute compilation and opened it up in iTunes somewhere in the middle of the track.  Guess what?  You got it.  I was all alone in the house when the voice of a little old jungle shaman inside of my computer speakers started singing the self-same song that had poured through me in the bejeweled night forest lo those many months before. I did all the classic tests too see if I was dreaming, to be sure.  Then I totally flipped out.  Eventually I managed to track down the person who had done the recordings and it turned out that this song was somehow considered to be intrinsic to the very area where my trip had taken place. Nobody would ever believe this story in a million years if it were not for the recorded evidence.  Even I wouldn’t believe it, and that’s the truth.

When taking drugs that affect short term memory, a micro-recorder with a play back feature can function as a buffer.  You know that game where you’re constantly sure you were just now saying something absolutely brilliant, but you keep on not quite being able to remember what we were just talking about? (If you love a train of thought let it go—if it comes back to you, it’s yours.  If it doesn’t, it never was…)  Well with the handy-dandy recording device, all you have to do is back it up for a few seconds and press play. You can probably even do it on your cool phone.  Just remember to hit record again when you’re done listening. […]

And hey—this could be the time that you finally get some really big insight, and you don’t want to forget what it was!  I’m afraid that most of my own revelations from on high have later proved to be subject to rather broad interpretation.  I once awoke in the morning after a multi-molecule bender to find that I had apparently managed to get the goods down once and for all.  I had circled and underlined something in my notebook dozens of times, then decorated the page with arrows and stars so I would be sure to take special note of the nearly illegible scrawl when I returned to my normal upright position.  And what was the message that I had so valiantly succeeded in preserving for suffering mankind?  ”It’s all one thing and it doesn’t exist”.  Riiiight.  I have notebooks full of such pithy proclamations and impenetrable koans.  I find that taking them down is quite satisfying to me at the time of their generation, and they provide me with no end of amusement after the fact, both cosmic and comic.

Sometimes the records are just awesome for their sentimental value; pix from trips that changed my whole life are like graduation photos or wedding portraits.  Just remember to keep the bong out of the shot.

Research can no longer be effectively suppressed.  When the formal institutions that we deputize to figure stuff out are unable to get the job done because of the limitations of circumstance and their own complex agendas, it falls to the proscribed field’s practitioners to gather and share information.  In the Middle Ages doctors had to rob graves or visit battlefields to study human anatomy, but by golly they did what had to be done.  There’s a long and glorious tradition of standing up in defiance of the idea that ignorance can be legislated, letting go of professional rivalries (which matter less when nobody can get paid anyway) and working together to figure out what the bleep is going on.  They can’t stop us.  We can’t stop ourselves.  Technologies of connectivity have made it possible for millions of private practitioners to pool their data and work together towards establishing some consensus.

Erowid is leading the charge of collecting and publishing various types of data, with a focus on secondary records, for obvious reasons. At this time it may be best to consider primary records to be personal records—records of a sort that you mostly keep to yourself or share with trusted loved ones.  However, primary records can be a big help when creating secondary records.  They can assist you in writing experience reports, for example.  More and more people every day are participating in the effort, mindfully recording the relevant times and dosages, sets and settings, and any other factors they deem to be of possible interest to fellow explorers, as well as noting their impressions of the experience itself.  Go team!  Thank you for playing!  Everyone who has the discipline to put in the extra effort rocks the Casbah.

And who knows?  We may yet live into a day when the primary records you are gathering now can be freely shared without fear. So consider holding on to the real gems; squirreling them away in safe little hiding places until the tide has good and truly turned.  Every bit of data brings us closer to understanding the Big Picture, and everyone has an opportunity to make a significant contribution to the evolving conversation. Also you’re so damn cute when you think you’re omnipotent.


  1. I loved this article and how articulate you are in your writings :) I too feel strongly about this and my only major hesitation with trying any substance is the lack of knowledge about interactions with prescription meds or specific health conditions. We have been exploring how we can alter consciousness for who knows how long and aren’t stopping anytime soon. I think of it as a health issue that we simply don’t know enough about a lot of psychoactive substances.

    Comment by ranalicious — March 23, 2009 @ 4:21 pm

  2. Wonderful post. But it makes me wonder – how much can our explorations, individually and in the aggregate, really contribute to the Big Picture of consciousness? Isn’t it better left to the formal institutions that can find out about things like 5HT2A receptors and G-proteins? What do we stand to learn from a mass of individual subjective experiences when no experience really applies to anybody except the person who experienced it?

    I think the response to that is: regardless of whether any one experience applies to any other, once we collect enough data points we’ll be able to see a big picture, a range of experience with norms and outliers.

    Comment by DT — March 24, 2009 @ 5:51 pm

  3. No, *You’re* so cute when you’re omnipotent! Thanks again Teafaerie!! Always a joyful experience glimpsing into your realm :^)

    DT, I would say that the value of a mass of individual subjective experiences is that even though it may only be specifically relevant to that one person, or those people at that time, in a more general sense it is at least somewhat relevant to the rest of us. It will only be directly relevant to the original participant, however it is not too difficult to gleam at least some information from such sources, primary or secondary, as to what types of insights may have been obtained, what depths of experience are possible with what substances and combinations thereof, and possibly even a fairly good understanding of the truths perceived. After all, great truths are universal in nature. It’s great to know about various serotonin receptors and proteins involved, the nuts and bolts of your drugs, but ultimately that usually doesn’t help you determine what you want from a particular substance, and it doesn’t do much in the way of developing relationships with the plant’s spirits. If anything you might be able to prepare something more effectively or be safer about how you ingest something, which isn’t a bad thing at all. Who, prior to departing on their first entheogenic voyage, did not wonder at what it was like to be bemushroomed, or to be in the throes of a deep ayahuasca trance? And who, having found a wealth of collected experience reports such as Erowid, was not better off for having found it once they were peaking for the first time?

    Comment by Night Nine — March 25, 2009 @ 1:36 pm

  4. You are at your most cute when you know you are omnipotent!

    Comment by Lost — March 26, 2009 @ 6:08 pm

  5. Great column! Your prose really buoys me swiftly along from start to finish. I especially loved the part about the icaros. Thanks for sharing that.

    Comment by Optic — March 26, 2009 @ 10:31 pm

  6. Great article! I actually planned ahead and recorded approximately 3 hours of my first mushroom trip a couple of years ago, and I’m quite glad I did so.

    Comment by Fiddlesticks — March 26, 2009 @ 10:45 pm

  7. While I agree that a first hand record of an experience is an invaluable source of insight into how psychoactives affect consciousness and our interaction with reality, they can be misleading when trying to discern what was happening inside the mind of the person under the influence. I recall one Salvia divinorum experience where I had thought to use a micro-cassette recorder to capture the trip. I had a wonderfully absurd and enlightening time, but when it came time to play back the tape, I found that there was about twenty minutes of me babbling about the difference between a sunrise and a sunset.
    Secondly, the primary accounts you long for are always viewed by the sober mind, which will distort the truth of the primary experience. What may seem to be a jumble of random words and colors to the sober mind may be the most complex and beautiful pattern to someone under the influence of even a mild hallucinogen.
    These two complaints aside though, I too would like to see more people be brave enough to share their experience with the world. The more data that can be added to the accumulated knowledge of these substances, the closer humanity will be to understanding and accepting them, instead of being frightened by them.

    Comment by StatusQuoExile — March 30, 2009 @ 11:51 pm

  8. “Isn’t it better left to the formal institutions that can find out about things like 5HT2A receptors and G-proteins?”

    Do you really think this is part of the Big Picture? That’s equivalent to saying the exact arrangement of the bouncing gas molecules inside a balloon is what’s worth describing/studying… when it’s clear that the floating balloon is the level we should study. It’s all about different levels of complexity: while the level consisting of brain chemicals and their respective receptors may seem like the more complex (and thus more important?) phenomena, the (epi)phenomena of minds, thoughts, ideas, concepts, etc. seems to be ultimately what we are really trying to comprehend/explain/understand. I think another good analogy is this: Mind:Brain::Brain:Atoms in the Brain. Clearly, the neurons firing (and the patterns that they fire in) is more important in understanding ‘consciousness, etc.’ than the atoms that make up each individual neuron (I really struggle with what to call this thing, consciousness is the word I’ve heard most people use, but I think it really lacks, thus ‘consciousness, etc.’ Hopefully, what I mean to reference is clear.). By extension, isn’t the mind that is (somehow) made up of this enormously large complex arrangement of neurons more central to our understanding than the simple machinery itself?

    Oy, discussion of this is going to continue to be difficult until we all find the words… but I guess that’s exactly the crux of the issue.

    teafaerie – I’ve taken your suggestion to heart; I’m going out to find a tape recorder as soon as it’s light! It can be both a trip toy and an instrument for scientific study. We definitely need as much evidence as we can get. Too many seemingly brilliant things have been lost to the void. I’ll begin collecting as much as I personally can. Thanks for the inspiration.

    Comment by Kevin M — April 3, 2009 @ 3:13 am

  9. To do with that melody that was intrinsic in the area, I have no hesitation in finding that perfectly believable being a musician I know that places impact on the music written. Last night i had a dream about a body floating under a jetty of one of my favourite sea towns, this morning i awoke and was informed that a body had been discovered in that same area at 10:15 this morning. That also was a freaky psychic occurence, that occurs often with me and another I know, now I take them in my stride and am not surprised, feel a bit blessed but.

    Comment by Bob Waldorf — April 15, 2009 @ 1:53 am

  10. I got a little teary eyed about the song you sang that you later heard. I too have experienced blissful melodies in dreams, or in a psychedelic fervor, even sang a few–actually, I have been doing this to some degree in a completely sober state while “seeking God” I’ll call it; it is truly beautiful and amazing and I believe with all my heart there is such a thing as an aesthetic truth and that this is ultimately what we are after–Truth, God, The Big Picture, The You-Know-What. I also tend to get a sense of “Paradox” that underlies reality; we know, yet we do not know; everything is different, yet everything is the same. Conciousness arises not only from the brain, but from sunlight, water, minerals–it is an inherent trait of Reality! I could ramble on for hours but I just wanted to put in my two cents.

    Comment by Michael — April 23, 2009 @ 2:24 pm

  11. I think that sometime users that have different personality characteristics find less common grounds on discussion of certain substances. i believe there is two main kinds of people/users. people that use substances to expand their knowledge of how physiology works, brain, social intricacies etc. and then people that just are part of an expanse of programmed people that cannot comprehend how drugs and society coexist. so they are limited to what different experiences can offer them and how it all works.

    Comment by melvo_88 — May 13, 2009 @ 2:48 pm

  12. You’re absolutely right! It IS all one thing AND it doesn’t exist! Paradoxes only SEEM to be conflicts.

    Comment by glenn — July 9, 2010 @ 1:43 am

  13. It’s all about the paradox you know :)

    Comment by Dan — July 13, 2010 @ 6:31 am

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