Saturday, December 24, 2011
The Stoned Ape Theory
Although some of Terence Mckenna's ideas are admittedly outlandish, the idea of mind altering drugs as having had something to do with the sudden growth of the human brain in our ancestors deserves further study and consideration.
The fossil record does demonstrate a quite sudden doubling in size of the human brain in a matter of an evolutionary blink of an eye (approximately a million years). Traditionally, the official theory that the anthropologists favor says that the shift was owed to an increase in the consumption of meat, and therefore of protein. One theory does not contradict other theories, however, and I think protein definitely fed the brain.
But another major change that happened was that as humans became savannah animals, and as they became meat eaters and hunters, they began following the herds. Mckenna's theory suggests that magic mushrooms would have been found in the dung of the animals that they herded or hunted.
Neuroscientists have recently begun to study the effects of meditation on the brain, using mainly Buddhists Lamas in their research. What they are finding is that the human brain is much more elastic and changeable than previously thought.
Not many similar studies have been performed with mind altering entheogens and their effect on the brain - and we must separate the chemical poisons that pass for drugs today versus the natural entheogens that shamans of antiquity and modernity have used to alter their perception, such as kava, ayahuasca, cannabis, peyote and mushrooms.
I suspect that funding will be hard to come by for such research in our current paradigm, but the meditation studies do suggest that altered states of mind do change the brain's chemistry and shape within one lifetime. Many generations of psychodelic mushroom users would have, therefore, experienced a huge shift in consciousness.
Some of the symptoms of magic mushrooms include glossolalia, which means that they not only very likely changed the shape of our ancestors' brain but also triggered an increase in more elaborate speech patterns.
I only had one experience with sacred mushrooms. It was when I was 18 years of age, it lasted about eight hours and I was laughing and in a state of ecstatic joy the whole time. The moon was full and the next day when I woke up, the entire Earth was filled with life to me. I felt love and a sense of being in unison with all of nature, including the grass, the trees. It is one of the most profound and beautiful spiritual experiences I've ever had.
Sometimes looking back I wish I had had a shaman to guide me, but when I think about the experience I remember that I did (the guy who provided the mushrooms was a self-denominated initiate who had had very deep shamanic experiences). I simply was not mature enough to understand what I was going through, and that innocence, that openness, was most likely crucial to the experience and I wouldn't change a thing. If I ever do it again, the only thing I would add is maybe the formality of a ceremony with an elder.
These entheogens have been with our ancestors from the dawn of time, and if we look far back enough we'll come across instances inevitably where these drugs must have had a huge effect on our ancestors's perceptions, maybe even for as few as five to ten generations each time. But that was enough for a spurt in brain growth.
My own suspicion is that there were several instances during human evolution where entheogens played a part in increasing and changing our brain and that art (and therefore religion and inventiveness), in any and all of its forms, as well as the parts of the brain engaged in it, most likely arose as part of a process that may have involved altered states of consciousness.
It's important to separate the potentially eureka theory of the stoned ape from some of Mckenna's other, more outlandish ideas (he believes mushrooms arrived on Earth from outer space). And it's also important to keep a broad perspective and not think that one theory excludes the others: the brain of our ancestors doubled in size in a relatively short period, in part due to meat eating, but also in part due to experiences that exercised the muscles of the brain and gave some human groups leverage over others and allowed them to better survive.