EDWARD ROSENFELD is a writer and editor. His newsletter, INTELLIGENCE (1984 -2017) was the first to cover the history and development of neural networks and artificial intelligence. His three books on neural nets include Talking Nets: An Oral History of Neural Networks. He also did An Oral History of Gestalt Therapy. He was a founding editor of Omni magazine as well as an intellectual property executive at Columbia University. His screenplay, MKULTRA, has been adapted for the opera as Huxley’s Last Trip. His new website is worldworking.net. He was born and still lives in New York City.
THE VALVE THEORY OF CONSCIOUSNESS
“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
The profound experiences that Blake so eloquently and poetically expresses, are vital to me and have enhanced me in living a full life. When laws were being enacted in the 1960s to make sure that psychedelic drugs were made illegal, I was troubled, outraged and motivated to take action. When I thought about the legislation seeking to curtail access to and use of psychedelics, I thought: they can outlaw drugs, but CONSCIOUSNESS CANNOT BE OUTLAWED! Not even altered states of consciousness! I believed by assembling and compiling at least a short list of ways to get high without drugs into book form I could make sure that these extraordinary states of being would be available to all.
Inspired by Blake, Aldous Huxley described his experiences with altered states of consciousness in his book, The Doors of Perception. The rock and roll group The Doors took their name from both Blake and Huxley. The experiences Huxley wrote about in that book, and in other books he wrote, were as a result of taking psychedelics. Following Blake’s poetic observation, Huxley realized, while in an altered state of awareness, that normal, everyday consciousness is the ‘narrow chinks’. He surmised that the brain basically behaves as a reducing valve, acting as a filter of Blake’s “infinite”. In The Doors of Perception, Huxley says: “[E]ach one of us is potentially Mind at Large. But in so far as we are animals, our business at all costs is to survive. To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet.”
The idea of the reducing valve theory of mind and consciousness was and continues to be an inspiration to me. The idea has a long history and has been discussed and explicated by Friedrich Schiller, William James, Henri Bergson and others. Bergson, in addition to the reducing valve metaphor, thought that the brain also limited the amount of reality that can be perceived by consciousness. He wrote in 1911, “The brain is the organ of attention to life;” the way it functions is by “shutting out from consciousness all that is of no practical interest to us.” What human beings have discovered, since the beginning of recorded history, is that altering consciousness can act as the cleanser that enables humans to perceive “every thing as it is, Infinite.”
More inspiration from William Blake:
“I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.” Jerusalem
“To see the world in a grain of sand, and to see heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hands, and eternity in an hour.” Auguries of Innocence