Hallucinations and delusions are rarely mistaken for real when they are familiar occurrences. Except for a small minority of especially fantasy-prone people, almost none of us think of dreams as real. Because we’ve experienced them since as far back in childhood as we can remember, and had ample opportunity to compare them with waking life, talk to people about them, learn about them in books, etc., we don’t think of dreams as being equally real as what we experience when awake, nor worse yet as somehow giving us some deep insight into something more real than waking life. We accept that there are mundane neurological explanations for why weird, disjointed, fuzzy images and ideas pass through our minds while we sleep.
However, when it’s a novel sort of illusion, there’s much more of a tendency to insist that it’s real.
For example, people tend to be a lot less familiar with the concept of a hypnagogic hallucination, which is an illusion that some people experience when they are transitioning between being asleep and being awake. Often it is a combination of something visual—a being hovering, standing, or sitting near or on your bed—and a scary sense of being unable to move, of being somehow pinned down. (Basically, the latter occurs when your brain is at least partly awake but the rest of your body is still in sleep mode and hence unresponsive to the brain’s commands, which feels like being paralyzed.)
Many of the stories of demons, angels, vampires, succubae, outer space aliens, etc. stem from such hypnagogic hallucinations. They deserve to be regarded as real no more than standard dreams, and they are no more mysterious in terms of their neurological causes, but many people who experience them adamantly insist that they are absolutely real. “I know what a dream is and this was no dream! If it happened to you, you’d be singing a different tune! You have to experience it, and then you’d know that aliens absolutely are real and they absolutely can visit us in the night and paralyze us and abduct us!”
But why is subjective experience somehow self-affirming? Why does it “feeling real” supposedly trump all other evidence of something’s being imaginary? People say it like it’s self-evident, but it’s really not. Seeming real and being real are decidedly different things.
Hypnagogic hallucinations feel uncannily real because they are so uncommon, unlike a standard dream, which we have learned not to regard as real. If they happened all the time to everybody, it would probably be as commonplace for those who experience them to dismiss them as illusory as we do with dreams.
On the other hand, if dreaming was very rare, and, say, you had your first dream when you were 35, might that experience not seem highly significant to you, like a possible glimpse into another (real) world? After all, it wouldn’t closely resemble experiences you had had all your life that you knew were illusory, any more than the person today who has a hypnagogic hallucination easily recognizes it as a run-of-the-mill imaginary experience.
The same can be said of so-called “near-death” experiences, and “out-of-body” experiences. Seemingly floating over yourself and observing your own body from above is not an ordinary occurrence that you’ve long since accepted is illusory. So people—some people, sometimes—respond to such experiences with the insistence that they are absolutely real, that if only you experienced them you’d know that it’s impossible they could be something unreal like a dream.
And so we come to hallucinogenic drugs. Alter the brain chemistry with something like LSD or hallucinogenic mushrooms and people have subjective experiences so unlike anything they have had before—so unlike dreams or flights of imagination or anything they have long since learned to treat as illusory—that they’re convinced that they’ve entered into some new kind of reality, some spiritual reality, some beautiful and wondrous reality more real than regular reality.
As one of the protagonists of the documentary The Sunshine Makers puts it, in the usual supremely confident, arrogant, “once you’ve experienced it you can have no doubt,” manner of such folks, “Some people say, ‘I believe in God.’ I don’t have to believe in God. I have been one with God.”
But that’s every bit as delusional as a little kid becoming aware of dreaming for the first time and thinking that the dream world of sleep is as real as, if not more real than, the waking world. This doofus hasn’t “been one with God” any more than last night you really went back in time to middle school where you were frantically and futilely trying to remember your locker combination.
The Sunshine Makers is a documentary about two hippie chemists—Tim Scully and Nick Sand—who were especially prominent in the ’60s and ’70s popularization, production, and distribution of LSD, and the various folks associated with them, from financial backers and business partners to romantic partners to law enforcement officers hunting them down to Timothy Leary. There are extensive interviews with almost all the main characters, including the two principles.
Scully and Sand, probably Sand especially, see themselves as idealistic heroes, and I’d say the film to some extent shares this view. These two aren’t, say, Al Capone seeking to get rich off an illegal substance that people crave. They believed they were doing good in the world, that by facilitating as many people as possible “turning on” with LSD, they were freeing people’s minds from the illusions and dead ends of hate, bigotry, greed, war, etc., and giving them insight into the true spiritual reality that would cause them to reorient their lives around love, peace, and joy.
Was that all just a bullshit story they tell, when in fact they were simply drug dealers who wanted to get rich, fuck slutty hippie chicks, experience the rush of being treated like cult leaders, and live a thrilling fast lane lifestyle of defying conventional authority? I read them as more sincere than not. I think they got off on some of those other things at least as byproducts of their enterprise, but let’s say they were 80% idealistic drug evangelists and 20% phonies with more worldly motives.
I suppose even if one conceded that rather than being some genuine insight into a higher, more spiritual reality, what you perceive when you’re high on hallucinogenic drugs are, duh, hallucinations, that wouldn’t preclude the possibility that the people in a society with more widespread drug use would be happier, freer, more loving, and more committed to peace. You know, maybe even if they’re illusions they’re useful illusions that trick people into being good.
Except I think the evidence doesn’t support that much better than it supports the notion that the talking bugs, flying guitars, and angels that these people see are real. I suppose druggies are pretty useless at fighting a war when they’re high, but only in the sense that they’re pretty useless at everything. I don’t think it’s because they’ve attained some state of spiritual enlightenment.
I remember in The Beatles Anthology film, one of the Beatles—I think George—recounted how much they had been looking forward to visiting Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco and experiencing the environment of love and spirituality of all those who were experimenting with psychedelic drugs to attain higher states of consciousness, only to discover the disillusioning reality that the druggies stumbling around and pathetically hustling for their next fix were as sad and damaged as any stereotypical drunks on skid row.
No doubt there are ways you can facilitate people rejecting some of the worst and most inhumane vices of modern life to become more enlightened and loving, but I’m not convinced that turning them into acid heads is one of them.
Still, as a documentary The Sunshine Makers is reasonably entertaining and thought-provoking, with engaging characters and compelling interviews. I’d give it at least a modest thumbs up.