The benefits of madness: A positive account of arationality

This post originated in a comment I posted about a strange and unpleasant experience I had when pushing myself too hard mentally. People seemed interested in hearing about it, so I sat down to write. In the process, however, it became something rather different (and a great deal longer) than what I originally intended. The incident referred to in the above comment was a case of manic focus gone wrong; but the truth is, often in my life it’s gone incredibly right. I’ve gotten myself into some pretty strange headspaces, but through discipline and quick thinking I have often been able to turn them to my advantage and put them to good use.

Part 1, then, lays out a sort of cognitive history, focusing on the more extreme states I’ve been in. Part 2 continues the narrative; this is where I began to learn to ride them out and make them work for me. Part 3 is the incident in question: where I overstepped myself and suffered the consequences.

Some of you, however, may want to skip ahead to part 4 (unless you find my autobiographical writings interesting as a case study). There, I’ve written a proposal for a series of posts about how to effectively use the full spectrum of somatic and cognitive states to one’s advantage. I have vacillated for a long time about this, for reasons that will be discussed below, but I decided that if I was already laying this much on the line, I might as well take it a step further. Read if you will; and if you’re interested, please say so.

Part 1: My cognitive background

Let’s start with full disclosure: there is madness in my family. My father was an alcoholic; it was clear to all of us that he also had some other psychological issues, but I never fully learned the details. My sister has been variously diagnosed with depression, bipolar, borderline personality disorder, etc, and has a breakdown about three or four times a year. My brother is also bipolar. He’s had two manic episodes so far; he became psychotic during the first one, and both times he’s been hospitalized. And then there’s me: the sane, dependable one.

That’s what I thought, anyway, until my brother had his first episode and I started to look back on my own history. I’d always regarded myself as rather unusual, certainly, but basically stable. But seeing full-blown psychosis for the first time, and within my own family at that, gave new definition and clarity to some of the experiences I had had. My first episode happened when I was in my senior year of high school. I had been getting into New Age for about six months, reading rather credulously the work of one Dr. Joshua David Stone, author of the Ascension Manual and a number of other books inspired primarily by theosophy. I had not thought much about spirituality since renouncing God at the age of twelve, yet a vague unease had led me to begin seeking. Once I got started, I just ate it up; yet the vague unease persisted. I did my best to believe and to perform the meditative exercises, and for the most part I did, but it just wasn’t sitting quite right.

During winter break of that year, I began reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig. Now, here was something new: Pirsig rejected the analytic method as the sole arbiter of truth, yet he was also clearly uncomfortable with holism and spirituality. In fact, he seemed uncomfortable with all his ideas: they had come to him during a period of degenerating mental illness, culminating in a nervous breakdown and subsequent electroshock therapy. Yet rather than dismiss these ideas, he seemed determined to confront them and grapple with them, to sift for genuine insights among the delusions. Even more interesting was his rhetorical style: rather than simply stating his ideas, as is typical in a philosophical treatise, he would present problems first—present them as problems, really convince the reader that these were questions worth thinking about—and then move on to something else, only proposing solutions several pages later. This forced me to really think, for the first time in what seemed like ages. It was exciting; I couldn’t put the book down.

And this is where the trouble started: I really couldn’t put the book down. It was as though the mental stimulation afforded by ZAMM had pushed me over the lip of an energy barrier, and I was now in an incredible downhill rush. My thoughts raced, day and night, about the nature of reality. New Age was the first thing to go: I could hardly believe my own unthinking credulity, and I summarily rejected what Dr. Stone had taught me. I also, however, rejected everything else I had thought I knew, eventually concluding that I wasn’t sure if I existed; and then on further examination, unable to find any fundamental ground of reality, I departed from Descartes and concluded that even I did not exist, that all was illusion.

I began to withdraw, although I felt I was surging with mental energy. For the next few months, I spent most of my time in my room, either staring at nothing and pondering or else writing frantic screeds about philosophical matters. Eventually one of my few remaining social contacts managed to get a grudging confession out of me of my own existence, but I wasn’t out of the woods yet. The following months brought paranoia, existential anxiety, delusions of grandeur. It was at its worst during the summer: I began to feel that I was trapped in reality, in some sense, and that there were beings outside the universe—previous escapees—who were sending me telepathic messages in an effort to help me escape as well. I even had one brief moment of hallucination, once: waiting on my bicycle at an intersection, the traffic light shimmered silvery-blue, like an arc of liquid electricity creeping across the surface, and then returned to normal.

Well, if I had told my family about this, I might have ended up medicated; but I put on a straight face, and I kept my grades up despite the inclination to up and head for the hills, so no one ever really noticed. I think this is why I had never considered this a mental disorder: there was a part of my mind that always kept me in check, making sure to perform all necessary maintenance operations while I lost my shit. Next thing I knew I was in university, doing remarkably well; the sudden change of scenery and the newfound freedom of living in a major city, as well as increased social contact with a variety of new people, seemed to stabilize me. I still maintained an interest in spirituality and the occult, but I had learned my lesson: I regarded everything I read as only a hypothetical, perhaps something to be tested but never to be strongly affirmed.

And then, just as suddenly as it had come, my energy departed. After a stellar first year, I spent the next several years holed up in my room on my computer, not going to class nor doing much else. Even after I became aware of the problem, I found I could not pull myself out of it, no matter how hard I tried. This all went about as well as you could expect, and I almost got kicked out of school a couple times.

Part 2: How I learned to stop worrying and use my madness

My second episode began when my father died, and it never really ended. Our relationship had not been uniformly or even predominantly negative, but it had certainly been complicated, and I felt he held me back in a lot of subtle ways; it was like I was pulling against an elastic tether, and the day he died, it finally snapped. The school term (and my tenancy in the student residence) was just wrapping up at this time, so on a momentary whim I decided to move to another city where some friends of mine lived; within a week I was unpacking in my new room. Said friends were heavily into the occult, particularly the work of Aleister Crowley and assorted characters, who take a (selectively) skeptical approach to occultism, even going so far as to suggest that it is more a tool for self-analysis and self-change than anything else. For the following several months, therefore, I would be inundated with messages of self-improvement and introspective understanding of one’s own mind.

So, possessed with a desperate fervour, I began to practice yoga, meditation and ritual magic, attempting to use them as cognitive levers. At the same time, suddenly deprived of my father’s financial support, I struggled to make ends meet, working awful temp labour jobs for minimum wage. At any time I could have packed up and returned to live with my mother, but I dimly perceived a higher presence urging me onward, promising wisdom and power if I could learn self-discipline against difficult odds. During this time, I would occasionally have moments of incredible clarity and expansiveness, overwhelmed by the beauty around me and more strongly aware of invisible presences guiding the events in my life, seemingly benevolent yet somewhat harsh in their methods. Sometimes I would even talk to or argue with myself, addressing darker parts of my psyche as separate entities as described in certain recensions of demonic invocation.

And yet, this time something was different. This time, I saw exactly how crazy this all was. The solution, then, was simple: I simply did not attach any definite ontological state to what I was experiencing. As long as there was some part of me still grounded in the mundane, refusing to judge these entities as separate intelligences or as aspects of myself or even just as figments of my imagination, I could simply follow them along and evaluate the results. Rather surprisingly, the results were uniformly good: I was learning a great deal about how the world worked as well as my own constitution; the challenges I faced were difficult but surmountable, which boosted my confidence; and my overall life satisfaction dramatically increased. I learned to push through serious discomfort—physical, emotional or mental—if it was beneficial to do so. And I learned how to pay attention to my extremes of mental excitation: how to encourage them, how to use them, and how to keep them in check when necessary.

Urged on by my visions, I returned to school with new dedication and discipline, which blossomed into a deep and abiding love of mathematics. A year later, it was a vision that compelled me to ride my bicycle from Ontario to Georgia, an incredible and life-changing experience which also introduced me to communal and alternative living as I met people along the way. It was another vision that compelled me to start my own communal house, where I am living happily to this day, and it was yet another vision that caused me to finally sit down and learn physics. And this is only a small selection of the ways in which arational impulses and visionary experiences have improved my life; they’ve also contributed to the development of my social skills, to my construction of a broad circle of friends and acquaintances, even to my moral development. They’ve also been highly entertaining: I have something of a penchant for the bizarre and mindbending, after the fashion of Philip K. Dick or David Cronenberg, and it’s all the more exciting if it appears to be really happening.

More interestingly, visionary experiences have often furnished me with new and interesting ideas. In the worst case, these ideas turn out to be totally absurd and useless, and I dismiss them easily, no harm done. In some cases, the ideas are dead ends but for very subtle reasons; in these cases, I often learn a great deal in trying to work them out. But in many cases, the ideas have proven to hold water even after I come down, perhaps after a little revision and formalization. The most recent of these was a game theoretic analysis of the relationship between government and citizen, which may end up as another post. Another time, I had a direct and visceral experience of living in a Tegmark universe, several years before I even heard of the idea—but we’ll get to that.

At any rate, I’ve benefited a great deal from arational urges verging on madness. But there is one more tale to tell: the time I pushed myself too far off balance and suffered the consequences.

Part 3: How it turned around and bit me

This happened a little over two years ago. I had a psychedelic experience (legal highs only, of course) in which it was suggested that I investigate the topology of consciousness. Sounds a little crazy, but as mentioned, I’ve found a lot of value in the process of wrestling with these kinds of ideas, trying to make them work. Along for the trip was a man I had never met, who would become one of my closest friends. He had studied in some detail biology, physics, scattered mathematics, logic, and a variety of other technical fields. Not knowing what reaction I would get, I started talking to him about my idea. He became excited and began feeding back clever angles I might not have otherwise considered. As the conversation continued we fed off each other, growing more and more animated. Finally I stormed out onto the porch to have a cigarette. My mind was racing; this was the most brilliant idea ever! It was essential that I study this. But how would I support myself? The university was a good bet, but what department would I take it to? Which would be just crazy enough to fund me while I work on something this weird?

And then all of a sudden something felt terribly wrong. Like metaphysical poison, unbearable dysphoria flowed into my entire being. The strength left my limbs, and I sat down, briefly certain I was going to die. Fortunately I quickly recognized this as an entirely common and much-parodied psychedelic trope, and after confirming that my vital signs were good, I crawled off to the bathroom to lie on the floor until I started to feel better.

Looking back, I believe what happened was this: although I had gained some experience in effectively managing my more extreme mental states, I was accustomed to doing this in something of a vacuum; I didn’t know anyone else who was interested in the things I was interested in. But my new friend acted as an amplifier, and I needed new cognitive tools to recognize the threat and contain myself accordingly. In the meantime, though, I was terribly excited despite the bad trip and determined to begin on the project I had been given.

I quickly determined that I would need to understand physics better; all I had was Newtonian mechanics supplemented by pop science articles about relativity and quantum physics. So I began to study, with a passion. I bought some textbooks, found a number of physics courses on YouTube—quite a few of them, something like 150-200 hours in total—and began to spend all my free time giving myself a full, if a little sketchy, undergraduate physics education, condensed into about six months. And this was while I was also in university courses. To round it off, I started taking psychedelics on a regular basis. The character of my trips became darker and less euphoric, but they helped me develop richer intuitions for the systems I was learning about, and sometimes suggested new insights. I felt I was making good progress, and so despite feeling that I was stretched a little thin, I pushed further. Meanwhile, I withdrew from everything except school and my project, and the isolation began to take its toll.

This culminated eventually in my Tegmark vision: I felt I saw the entire mathematical universe, a densely connected fabric of causality with our own universe embedded within it. Deduction, duality, emergence, simulation, and other such operations were seen as directions in this space. I felt there was a kind of knot or defect in the Tegmark space, along the lines of circular causation but vastly more subtle, somehow embedded in the structure of causality itself, and that this was how anything manages to exist in the first place. Needless to say, I threw caution to the wind and redoubled my efforts after this, certain I was approaching a significant discovery.

And that’s when I got swine flu. No joke.

For three days I was unable to keep anything down but juice and tylenol. My fever was unbearable, and it got so bad at one point that I called 911, worried I might be dying—the one and only time I have ever called them for myself. Worst of all was the delirium: I hallucinated tiny quantum particle interactions, repeated over and over for hours in terrifying slowness and silence. I had visions of plagues sweeping the planet. I realized that this cold, mechanistic empty thing was all there was to reality, and there was not even the benefit of some kind of invisible being revealing this to me; I was just some poor schmuck who had discovered it by accident.

The fever broke, but for almost a month afterward I was weak and sickly, unable to stand for long without getting dizzy. During this time, I could not bear to think about math or physics or the mind; it triggered a kind of psychic nausea reaction. But the damage had already been done: I felt restless and anxious and desperate even as the physical symptoms abated, and although I was in fact functioning at peak capacity in purely practical matters—driven mainly by a sense of desperation—my social life and my mental wellbeing began to suffer. I started having panic attacks for the first time in my life. I felt like I was being tormented by some demonic influence (figuratively, in this case); life was tolerable at best and harsh and brutal at worst.

The mental state I had been maintaining, it seems, was a fragile one. It gave me a great deal of energy and dedication, which I was able to use to greatly enrich my understanding of the world, but it relied too heavily on nothing else going wrong in my life. It was like I had been building a tall but flimsy tower on a fault line, and when the earthquake finally hit—in the form of the flu—it all violently collapsed.

It took a year of damage control to finally return myself to stability, which takes us close to the present; I remember distinctly a particular day in September when I realized I finally felt completely at ease. In the months since then I have taken great pleasure in pursuing my degree, cultivating a new interest in applied mathematics. The old questions still linger, and I return to them for inspiration, but I take a more relaxed approach to my researches. My friend and I have discussed the feedback loops we get into, and through shared awareness we now keep our oscillations suitably damped. Most importantly, I have learned how to keep myself balanced. I still allow myself to go into ecstatic states, but in short bursts and with frequent breaks.

Conclusion: A proposal

I’m told that Bertrand Russell was once asked: “But haven’t you ever had any mystical experiences?” “Why, yes,” he replied, “I ignored them.” He had convinced himself, through rigourous argumentation, that there was nothing in the spectrum of supernatural phenomena that stood up to scrutiny; and so when faced with peak experiences, he simply disregarded them as cognitive artefacts and glitches. I’m in no place to disagree with him about the supernatural; I have some finicky ontological and epistemic quibbles with materialism as usually stated, but I regard it as basically correct. I do wonder, though, if he was too extreme in his reaction.

I won’t rehash the usual arguments linking madness and creativity, but I do want to call attention to the link. The consensus on Less Wrong seems to be that spirituality in the experiential sense is a cognitive glitch in and of itself. I suggest, on the contrary, that it is a somewhat glitchy and kludgy tendency nevertheless serving a useful cognitive purpose. I have always been struck by the fact that the revelations and felt presences I have experienced seem just as clever and aware as I am, sometimes even more so. I don’t mean to suggest anything supernatural by this; it is more likely that they are personified representations of my own unconscious ability to recognize patterns and solve hard problems.

The ability to loosen one’s associations and build bridges between disparate ideas seems to help us solve problems not amenable to direct, formal computation: to intuit mathematical truths before sitting down to prove them, for example, or to recognize that a pattern seen in one system is reflected in another, totally unrelated system. A state of mental excitation, even to the point of fervour, is also useful for overcoming akrasia, and promotes the quick thinking necessary when you don’t have time to sit around and compute. If this is the case, then there is considerable benefit to be had in learning to depart from rationality in a safe and controlled manner. I say safe and controlled because, as we have seen, there are real dangers in overextending oneself; but with proper technique, I believe these dangers can be minimized while still reaping the benefits.

If Less Wrong is simply about improving our techniques of rationality, then much of our work is already done: the voluminous Sequences encode both the core ideas and many of the consequences of good critical thinking, and we are left quibbling about subtleties of anthropic reasoning and speculating about AI design. If, however, we wish to use every advantage afforded by our mental constitution, then we should be studying ecstasy and passion. In fact, this generalizes to a wide variety of affective states; indeed, there have been some posts mentioning more effective managing of emotions, social skills, and so on, but not many concrete suggestions have been made. This is not surprising: much of the scientific research that has been done on emotions is either about business-as-usual or about treating serious pathologies.

The truth is, there are in fact techniques out there which seem to work. I’m perhaps an unusual case in that I already had some extreme cognitive states to work with, but these techniques have served me well, and they also seem to have worked well for other friends of mine who have tried them. Nevertheless, I’ve been reluctant to post them, for one major reason: they’re cranky as hell. Many of them come from spiritual, religious or occult sources, and it can be a little tricky to tease apart the techniques from the metaphysical beliefs (the best case, perhaps, is the Buddhist system, which holds (roughly) that the unenlightened mind can’t truly understand reality anyway, so you’d best just shut up and meditate). Nevertheless, these traditions have decades or even centuries of experience in inducing altered states of consciousness, and with a good cognitive hazmat suit we can pick out really effective techniques among the more fanciful detritus.

So, with little to lose, I’m putting this out there: I have a fair bit of experience with this sort of thing, and I can start posting about it if people are interested. I’ve done my best to filter out the woo-woo from a lot of it, and to get feedback from other people attempting similar techniques, but due to limited data it is sometimes difficult to separate what is actually effective from what is extraneous. So, fair warning: you’d be getting this in a rather rough and inexact form. For this reason, I would encourage everyone to analyze and critique what I post—and, more importantly, to experiment and report back their results.

To give you a sense of what I have planned:

  • Roadmap of the emotions: a post, or series of posts, attempting to categorize affective states in a more or less natural way, with an eye to neurochemistry. How to recognize particular emotions, how to induce them, how to keep them in check, what they’re good for, and when they’re not so good.

  • Effective use of the body: the benefits of particular kinds of exercise, how to develop muscle memory, how to construct good practice drills. Also some suggestions for what kinds of body awareness rationalists should develop: I believe, for example, that learning a martial tradition is of significant benefit even if you never have to use it.

  • Reprogramming the nervous system: recognizing and dealing with deep-seated cognitive blocks, traumas, pathologies, etc. If you’re accustomed to being a social outcast from an early age, for example, any interaction with strangers will tend to trigger anxiety and hinder the establishment of rapport.

  • How to step outside the rational box without going off the deep end. Essentially, techniques for maintaining a lifeline back to normality so you can explore the further reaches of the psyche in some degree of safety.

I have some other ideas, but in a more inchoate form, so I’ll leave it at that: this, then, is my pitch. I’d rather not clutter the main page with this stuff if it’s going to bother people, but at least a few have expressed interest in hearing about it, and so if there’s broader support I will proceed.