Friday, December 13, 2013

Relieving Subvocal Tension in the Vocal Cords by Muting the Internal Monologue

The ultimate form of meditation, in my opinion, is to stop the restless subvocalization that is going on both within our head and within our larynx. The part of your brain that is responsible for speech is called Broca’s area and it is always active, running speech patterns. Sometimes its actions are not broadcast globally to the PFC and other association areas. When this happens we have a brief respite from being aware of our internal monologue. Usually however, not only is it broadcasting its speech to much of the cortex, but it is broadcasting instructions for speech to the supplementary motor areas, the premotor areas and the primary motor areas responsible for moving the vocal cords in the larynx.

I realized recently that I have no respite from muscular tension in my vocal tract and the tension extends out to my neck and head. Even though I am not speaking out loud, because I am talking to myself in my mind, my vocal tract remains tense, as if I was always speaking. This is a common cause of hoarseness and weakened/diminished voice. I try to stop the tension in my vocal tract, but I realize that in order to do this I have to mute my internal monologue. I can’t though. I am gradually learning to pay attention to how my constant internal monologue controls my subvocal tension, but I am rarely able to turn it off completely. My attention diverts from this meditative practice before I can effectively turn it off.

I am constantly tensing my throat, silently going through the motions of speech. Language is always running through my mind, whether it is me planning my day, me defending myself in a hypothetical argument, me predicting what someone else will say, or me singing the words to a song. Sometimes my mouth and tongue move with the words, sometimes they don’t, but always my throat mimes the words. It has been difficult for me to create respite from this interminable narrative.

I believe that what I have described is a malady that afflicts nearly everyone. I also think that people that practice advanced meditation focus on thinking without this internal dialogue. Surely it is helpful, without it we would only practice speaking when we are really speaking out loud to actual people. But I think that it afflicts us and we should all learn to subdue it temporarily at will. I think that the only way to do this is to: 1) become aware of it, 2) notice what it feels like to try to stop it, 3) practice subduing it for as long as possible. I think the best way is to try to subdue it from both ends: A) we can try to focus on the feeling and sensation of letting our vocal tract go completely limp and relaxed, and B) we can try to focus on the feeling and sensation of thinking without using words.

Here are some helpful books on similar topics that I have enjoyed:

Monday, December 9, 2013

Temporarily Forgetting what it is You are Excited About

As a kid one of the most interesting psychological phenomena to me was being really excited about something, and then temporarily forgetting what it was that I was excited about. When this happens you may still feel excited, but it is bitter sweet, because you can’t remember what you were planning or anticipating. The “trigger” or the “object” of excitement is displaced. 

I would know that my current thoughts were too mundane to warrant so much excitement so something enticing must have recently crossed my mind. I remember being frustrated, asking myself: “wait a minute, what the heck was I so happy about.” Sometimes, if it took a while to remember, the excitement would fade. Other times I would remember what it was and my excitement would be rekindled.  This still happens to me at times today. 

We can tell that our dopaminergic neurons are firing away, but the trigger for them can be temporarily misplaced because of a shift in our attention.  Lucky for us, the dopamine system of the brain is designed to keep representations about the object of excitement active and details about potential rewards in mind.  

As a kid I was puzzled, "how can my brain still be excited about something, even though I cannot remember what it is?" These two systems (attention and reward) interact extensively but can become uncoupled. The experience taught me to question whether it was “me” that was excited or some mechanism in my brain. Of course, we identify with both our internal narrative, and with even with the feeling of “wanting” so I think there is a true dissociation of “self” here. 

***Edit on 2/4/2021. I would like to append a story about an experience I had here. I was embarrassed to post it back in 2014 but now the topic is less controversial and more scientific. I don't want to create a new blog post about it so I decided to hide it away underneath this old post. I do NOT encourage illicit drug use. In fact I have spent my life trying my best to avoid drugs, and have only used them on a few occasions, and only soft ones. They erase your memories and, by way of addiction, create a hole in your soul. 

I believe that illegal drugs hurt us in three major ways: 1) they force our brain to run under unfamiliar chemical circumstances, and during this time the brain rewires plastically to compensate. I fully expect that these compensatory changes are unhelpful once the person becomes sober again and have deleterious effects on processing and memory, 2) they overexcite dopaminergic systems making real life feel shallow, empty and uninteresting, 3) they force our sympathetic system into overdrive and can cause new forms of bracing, shallow breathing, and tachycardia that create deep-seated trauma, sympathetic upregulation, and increased susceptibility to stress. In other words, sorry for posting the following, and don’t do drugs.


My Experience with Dimethyltryptamine

I went first. We stood in the backyard after midnight with a lighter held under the tin foil. My friend had convinced us that it was best to use the Terence McKenna method for smoking it. They handed the Canada Dry bottle over to me, removed the foil and told me to inhale. I took a slow, voluminous breath and held it for at least 15 seconds. The smoke was harsh, but I could tell that it wouldn’t create a lasting burn. It felt good to exhale. As soon as I started to exhale the second time, I could feel that the substance was already psychoactive. The world seemed to inflate and my two buddies took on a cartoonish appearance. I felt like I was a na├»ve five year old again, and my two friends were “cool” teenagers that I was looking up to literally and figuratively. As I looked around wide eyed I felt that I had recovered some of the perceptual innocence of childhood. Everything looked brand new. I looked at my friends’ dark silhouettes and felt a powerful pressure in my head. It felt like I had been submerged in an extremely dense gas. It was much like blacking out, and I felt the tingling and surreal headiness associated with syncope. I also had the scary feeling that I was putting my life in the hands of someone or something I don’t know. The effects were incapacitating and it seemed like it might be extremely difficult to stand up or walk around. The pressure that passed from my head into my chest was severe enough to cause consternation, but I was confident that the experience would eventually resolve positively. I said the words: “wow guys.” The sound of my voice felt like it came from somewhere else. Saying those two words felt effortless, as if I hadn’t said them. They were full of helium. Bar-shaped phosphenes in red and orange intruded into my field of vision. My friends told me to lay back onto the trampoline. Before I could settle my head and close my eyes the hallucinations burst into my mind’s eye.

I was disembodied, hurling through space-time. There were purple and black splotches everywhere. They were similar to what one might see in the dark after rubbing their eyes. Upon closer inspection though they were graphic and animated enough to constitute “simple hallucinations.”  From what I could tell this was a more compelling and lively version of phosphene activity. Within two seconds these amorphous, out-of-focus splotches transformed into a vibrant and crystal-clear checkerboard room. There was a phantasmagorical female figure standing in the room. She was looking right at me. She was very crudely shaped and had the appearance of a fertility figure. The room felt like it could be the dark hut of a witch doctor, yet at the same time, the interior of a brightly lit mansion during a party. She was silent, and her head was above my field of view, so I was looking at her torso. My perspective on the distorted room was slowly panning to the right as the walls danced.

The female figure was a giant. Her arms and legs were very thick and shaped like macaroni. She had no clothes and no skin. Her surface was continuous with the wall/background, as with everything else in the room. Everything I could see was a single layer made up of square tiles that each had moving patterns inside. The patterns were all morphing/evolving at the exact same rate and shared some of the same motifs. Their patterns expanded, retracted and flowed into one another kaleidoscopically. I could try to close my eyes and imagine this now, but I could never visualize this much detail, with this much clarity and this many moving parts. As Terrance McKennna noted: “everything is machine-like and polished and throbbing with energy.” I had seen the “astral plane” depicted in science fiction and comic books since I was a child, and I felt that now I was within it.

I became aware of crushing pain in my body from my face to my heart, to my diaphragm. I felt that if I didn’t carefully monitor my breathing that I could die. I recognized the pain that I was in as my “pain body,” the same pain that I carry with me every day. In fact, I was nervous before administration so I was experiencing this nervousness magnified, and accelerated. My throat was tight, each heart beat hurt, and all of my facial musculature ached. My breathing was very shallow and heavily labored. I knew that this was not the DMT itself, but rather the DMT amplifying or perhaps just unmasked my preexisting condition. I could feel my familiar angst and anxiety in the tension within each muscle of my body. On the occasions that I have smoked weed I usually feel simmering, diffuse discomfort, but on DMT this same discomfort was so agonizing that I concluded that I was going through an experience more intense than death.  At the point in time where this pain was the most accentuated, an eerie skull appeared in the hands of the female figure. The skull was slender and seemingly alive with an evil looking face. Its face shined iridescently with pastel colors and its sinister expression changed suddenly. As it changed I recognized the skull as my own, it was a simulacrum of an x-ray taken a week before. At that second I felt that I could feel my life as the side of a coin opposite death.

My mortality became fully apparent and I felt like a worm that had poisoned itself and first glimpsed its humble plight. I understood what it meant to feel like a grotesque biological puppet. I realized that life is simply staving off this incredible pain that we feel in our traumatized tissues. I saw this pain as a simple reflection of my continually increasing morbidity. Day in and day out we try to ignore this pain, but this drug had brought to light all of the features of my corporeal burden that I had previously habituated to. It was like I was feeling my ordinary discomfort from a new perspective, and it acquired new significance. What if I could use this experience to meet it and conquer it head on? Instead of being traumatized by this ordeal, could I make it into something therapeutic? My breathing was strained and shallow, and my heart was racing but I decided that if I could just start breathing calmly, deeply, at a constant rate; if I could stay aware of the tension in my body and purposefully abate it, that I could come out of this experience better than I went in.

A wispy male figure appeared to the right of the fertility figure. He was only partially in the frame of view. He held up a bizarre playing card for me to see. The playing card had a Rorschach–like face with one cruel eye that winked and disappeared. I wondered why he wanted me to see the card. It occurred to me that these figures were likely evil and malicious. But then I realized that I was projecting my discomfort and fear onto ambivalent figments of my imagination.

All of the above happened in the first 30 seconds of the trip. But I was out for something between 5 and 8 minutes. After these first 30 seconds I continued to see visual phenomena similar to what I had seen in the tiled/checkerboard room. However, after my revelation about them, there were no more beings, objects or places. Everything was purple and black with bits of white and green. The subsequent visuals were barely memorable. I think this was because all of my attention turned to my body and breathing. I think that I spent the entirety of the rest of the trip trying to breathe calmly, and diaphragmatically. The visual experience was secondary, because I put trying to keep my body calm first. This turned the trip from an optical carnival to an analytical body high. I was glad though because I spent the time analyzing my breathing, and its tendencies to become shallow, from a totally different vantage point. The DMT allowed me to visualize my breathing musculature at the same time that I felt the felt the sensorimotor sensations of breathing. I built mental imagery of the weaknesses in my breath, the tiny gasps and uneven flows. For the first time I could not just feel, but also see in my mind’s eye what smooth, long-interval, high-depth breathing looks like. I could feel the density, viscosity, pressure, and temperature of the air in my lungs. I could feel the texture, luminance, reflectivity, color, and fluid properties of healthy compared to unhealthy breathing.

The visuals were more resplendent than I expected, and more vivid than any dream or childhood reverie. Even though I was in the dark, the apparitions were luminous. I finished reading Oliver Sacks’ book “Hallucinations” earlier in the day and had spent the entire week reading and learning about hallucinations in preparation for this trip. But I wasn’t prepared for total hallucinatory immersion. If I had been standing up and acting in my environment, my behaviors may have been bizarre, and the pain involved would have probably made them manic, desperate or even psychotic. For this reason, I imagine that the experience has parallels with schizophrenic states. Was the state I was in clinically a form of stupor or delirium? At the same time, I could tell that much of my conscious mind was unaffected and I felt that perhaps my prefrontal cortex was online much of the time. DMT users report maintaining the ability to think and reason normally, and I had glimpses of this. But if I couldn’t remember much of the trip doesn’t that mean that my level of consciousness was obtunded? We did not use marijuana in the preparation and even though some facets of my cognitive standing seemed cloudy, others seemed to remain quite sharp.

What I saw definitely amounted to “scenic” or “panoramic” hallucinations in the sense that, they was not superimposed over my visual experience, rather they replaced my entire visual field. I recognized it as a “level 5 psychedelic experience” with total loss of visual connection with reality. Time became meaningless, my senses blended, and much of what I felt was ineffable. The arabesque geometric forms were extremely vivid, they progressed autonomously and had innumerable points of articulation. Transient objects were melting and flickering into one another. I do not remember noticing any of the four fundamental “form constants”: lattices, spirals, cobwebs, or tunnels. Heinrich Kluver regarded all geometrical hallucinations as permutations of these basic elements. This made sense to me when I had read about it, but it wasn’t part of my experience. My DMT landscape was mostly like abstract painting, not cubism or surrealism, but like random daubs and smears of paint. They were colliding and combining. A newly christened psychonaut, I was finally privy to the McKennian hyperspace and “continually transforming geometries.” The geometries I saw were nonfractal because the patterns were different from the ones they were nested within. The cinema in front of me definitely progressed as if it had a mind or will of its own yet there was very little narrative continuity. I was taken aback because I did not expect to feel the hallucinatory experience thrust forcefully upon me. It was violent though and felt like it was a side effect or symptom of some kind of toxin.

I asked myself: “are these forms I am seeing deriving from personal memories or innate brain architecture?” I concluded that it was both. The visages were exotic enough to be unlike anything I had ever seen. But it was very consistent with what I have read about other people’s psychedelic experiences. Having never tried any hallucinogenic drug before I concluded that the psychedelic experience must derive from some fundamental neurological features common to all humans. For instance, I didn’t expect or will myself to float through the “chrysanthemum” or be visited by “machine elves.” They just popped up on their own.

The outrageousness of the visual experience came down a level every few minutes until near the end it felt more like my normal imagination. I felt my proprioceptive awareness coming back as the degree of visual immersion diminished. During this I remembered peoples descriptions of floating back into their bodies and I could see how people could interpret it that way. I reconnected with the real world when I remembered my friends. I became aware of the fact that they could probably hear my strained breathing. I looked up and saw their heads and remembered that they were waiting on me, and I felt obliged to address them.  As I propped myself up I said: “Wow guys, that was incredible… I am still there.” The complex hallucinations were gone but the body high remained and some of the visuospatial abberations persisted for at least 30 minutes. I turned on the voice notes application in my phone so that I could record my description of the trip to my friends. My buddy gave me some water. Then I quickly got up to help prepare the next dose for my him. By the time I got up, there was no pain left, and I tried to ensure that my social interactions were calm and dispassionate. We gave each other big hugs, the simple act of which transformed the experience into something much more positive. The three of us laid on the trampoline together for an hour as they partook and I stared at the brightest star in the sky and tried to let my diaphragm guide each breath.

I can understand how such a visual odyssey could make someone feel that they were transported to a very real place. I could even see how someone might believe that the “machine elves” that visit them are not simply figments of their imagination but real beings. However, my scientific knowledge, and even my genuine intuition told me that all of this was in my mind. The hallucinations were crystal clear, and my internal/external boundaries were “annihilated” but it did not, for a second, seem metaphysical. I never felt like any part of me had left the trampoline. Before and after my experience I ascribed to James Kent’s interpretation of a DMT trip, that 1) our visual cortex takes internal brain data and interprets it as external stimuli; and 2) that our natural affinity for anthropomorphic things predisposes us to see humanoid entities. It is remarkable though that the humanoid creatures experienced by most DMT users share many similarities. Mine were not elf like, in some ways were similar to the descriptions of other users that I have read.

The two beings acted as if they were sentient but I knew that they were not – just like the characters in a dream. They both engaged me but because I knew they were not real I ignored them. I looked at the ground and simply focused on lengthening each breath as if my life depended on it. I treated them dismissively as the effete figments I took them to be. I did however, use the intentional stance to infer that they were welcoming me, observing me, and respecting my wish not to talk or communicate. And pretty much as soon as I stopped paying attention to them, they disappeared. There were no other beings for the remainder of the trip.

I assume that even a drug as intense as DMT may not be so bad for the brain of a user given that it occurs naturally in the brain in trace amounts, and that it is broken down substantially within only 15 minutes of use. A psychoactive trip that lasts a day has a lot of time to retune neurons for the worse, but I believe that a trip that lasts 15 minutes cannot change the brain neuroplastically to a terribly harmful degree.  20 minutes after the experience I asked myself what DMT stood for. I mistakenly thought, “there is no way that the word ‘trip’ could be in the chemical name –that would be too much of a coincidence - so the T could not stand for tryptamine.” This scared me because I could not think of anything else that the T could stand for. This was strange because I was very familiar with this chemical name, and had been for years. It was disconcerting because the drug must have severely altered my declarative, semantic memory. When I went inside, looked it up, and confirmed the acronym I concluded that the “trip” had strongly, albeit temporarily affected my long-term recall. Also, I forgot a lot of the experience very quickly. This may be because after 8 minutes I sat up and started talking to my friends. I think that this verbal engagement disrupted my ability to remember what had happened like when an early morning trip to the sink disrupts the ability to recall a dream. 

Would I do it again? The discomfort would not discourage me, in fact it was a blessing. If I did do it again I would try to keep even more calm. I would also try to take better mental notes on what I was seeing. I won’t do it again though because I am concerned about the long-term effects it could have on my brain. But was the trip itself worth it? As far as using it to discover deep truths – I am unsure about what aspects of the experience to focus on, or how to use it to make inferences or test hypotheses. I do feel like the experience helped me to better apprehend my own nature, even if I can’t put my finger on how. I also felt like my ego had diminished. Little things that I had been concerned about recently no longer seemed consequential.

I really hoped that the experience would allow me to understand, or even glimpse some foundational principles about the cognitive mechanics of the brain’s visual and perceptual systems. Days later, after replaying what I saw over and over in my mind, I haven’t been able to glean anything revelatory from the experience. I still believe what I believed before taking the drug: that the DMT experience is like a waking dream where chaotic inputs from the subcortex (such as the reticular activating system) and association cortex are interpreted intelligently by the visual cortex. The visual cortex is where we see our environment and also where our theatre of imagination takes place. For example, in a fMRI scanner the same pattern of neural activity will light up in the visual cortex whether you are looking at a specific scene or simply imagining it. DMT somehow makes the imagination so vivid that it seems real.

Most hallucinations are short lived and do not recruit large areas of visual cortex. The more complex a hallucination is (involving objects, and colors and motion…) the more brain areas need to cooperate to render the scene. In a DMT trance, very large areas of the visual cortex must be recruited because these hallucinations are extremely complex and must necessitate the cooperation of several functional, visual modules. In fact, to have stable constructs and anthropomorphic creatures, there must be sustained reverberating activity all the way across the ventral visual pathways. The sense of depth and personal space must have involved the parietal cortical pathway as well. What about the PFC and its role in modulating all of this? It seemed that my PFC and higher association cortices were not part of the trip as there was very little continuity between consecutive scenes. Taking the drug did help me appreciate how much raw, latent power our sensory cortices have and influenced me to pay more attention to and savor my dreams. On the other hand though, for several months after my experience I noticed that I had recurring side effects as I drifted off to sleep at night. Most people experience some level of “hypnagogic hallucinations” during the onset of sleep. This hypnagogia was highly pronounced for me for a very long time. Despite the fact that it was somewhat pleasurable, having lasting effects like that was somewhat worrisome.

The experience hasn’t changed the way I feel about consciousness or visual perception, at least not yet. But it has changed the way I feel about myself and my friends. One of my buddies said that he felt closer to me after the experience. I think this is because he saw me open up a little more than usual. The sad truth is that it is my anxiety that keeps me from being able to open up to him and others. The pain in my vocal cords and the shallowness of my breathing stops me from really communing with them. I want to take the opportunity that the experience afforded to tell him this. I often dismiss my friends in the same way that I dismissed the DMT visitors. Even though I don’t say anything rude or do anything hurtful to my friends, my social reservations sometimes make me appear aloof or disinterested. The trip definitely helped me better see how I come across to others and why. It also helped me get a little closer to the root of all my problems…

The DMT experience fortified a previous belief that I had. I had come to the conclusion that smoking weed without breathing along to a breath metronome was traumatizing and over time would result in shallower and shallower breathing. The DMT took my breath away and made me want to breathe incredibly shallowly. This provided me with a respiratory challenge to overcome. Instead of breathing at 2 to 3 second gasps I ensured that each inhale and exhale was at least 8 seconds. This caused the incredible pain at the beginning of the experience to subside and even disappear. If I hadn’t done this I would have come out of the experience worse rather than better. It turned a bad trip into a good trip. In fact, I believe that the experience allowed me to breathe through, and smooth out rough edges in my breathing musculature. I am now convinced that all entheogenic experiences (healing with illicit drugs) should be accompanied by diaphragmatic breathing. If you are allowing yourself to breathe shallowly while doing drugs, it is much more likely to be a traumatic experience rather than spiritual one. I am trying to frame this in an optimistic way… I would like to think that this one encounter with DMT retuned my sympathetic nervous system in ways that will help me breathe easier, and be more loving for time to come. But because of the risks involved I don’t necessarily recommend it.