Inoculating against Psychedelic Woo

by MikkW5 min read21st Aug 202011 comments


PsychologyPsychiatrySpaced RepetitionPsychotropicsRationality

(If you're familiar with recent discourse on psychedelics, feel free to skip to the section "Inoculating against Woo", which presents the main thrust of this post)

Psychedelics (e.g. LSD and psilocybin) have both well-documented potential benefits, as well as downsides. One hypothesis that I'm familiar with (presented in Michael Pollen's How to Change Your Mind) suggests that Silicon Valley has its origins, four or five decades hence, in smart, technically competent people getting high on LSD, and suddenly seeing their technological and engineering problems come together, and be presented in a way that just... makes... sense, in a way they never did before. We grow up with a certain model of the world, and past a certain age, our model shifts from being fluid like oil, to being thick and viscous, like molasses- our world model can shift, but only slowly, and even after a surprisingly long amount of time, you can still see imprints of your old model as gentle ripples still present in the fluid

Having a thick, viscous world model makes sense when you're dealing primarily with the same world you grew up in. But for engineers and scientists, the world they deal with, the worlds of atoms and bits - which is often learned most in detail at an advanced age - while physically the same world, acts completely differently from what they've grown to expect after a childhood filled with playing basketball, sitting at desks, and playing tag. Plus, even dealing with the same familiar world, the world itself is changing faster and faster- faster these days than we are designed to handle.

Psychedelic molecules reverse this vitrification- one's capacity to learn, and make connections between disparate parts of the brain, becomes much more fluid, allowing for one's world model to update faster, and see important things they never saw before. This can be an invaluable tool for people trying to make sense of the world, and want that sense to be deeply internalized.


Of course, if I mention "Bay Area”, “1970’s”, and "Psychedelics", Silicon Valley engineers are not people's first thought- one rather thinks of the Counterculture (who, as it happens, got their supply from the same guy), a rather (in)famous movement of people, spouting (among other things) nonsense that, let's just say, I certainly have a hard time imagining many here on LW endorsing. Psychedelic substances, in addition to making people see true and important things that map to the real world, also tend to get certain ideas in their head, that while strongly and vividly felt, very much do not map to this world (or any external world a good reasoner should expect exists, even based on the bayesian evidence of the experiences of those who have been on psychedelics). This takes away some from the appeal that psychedelics otherwise may have for rationalists striving to improve their understanding of the real world.

Before I get to my main point here, it is worth pointing out that there are important differences between LSD and psilocybin, and my understanding is that much of the bad reputation of psychedelics comes from LSD, which is particularly prone to implanting non-useful ideas in its users. Psilocybin users (as I understand it) tend to get much of the same benefit, with much fewer drawbacks compared to LSD users.

Inoculating Against Woo

Imagine your best friend just got a job, and he's pretty happy about his new job- there's just one catch: the offices are in a different city, so he has to move. Specifically, the offices are in Salt Lake City, Utah- the capital of Mormonism, and you find yourself worrying that your friend, while right now a decently grounded person, his epistemic standards aren't quite up to snuff, and if he isn't careful, he might get sucked into the Church of Latter-Day Saints. You don't want that to happen, but you still have a few weeks with him before he heads off, and he's happy and willing to work with you to help him defend against the Mormons. What do you do?

If it were me, I'd be giving my friend a crash course on epistemic defenses. Maybe I'd organize a time for us to read through some relevant chapters of The Sequences, and if I knew I'd be spending enough time with him, I'd even consider making an Anki deck based on our readings, which the two of us would review together for those few weeks together, so when he does go off from epistemic bootcamp to the epistemic trenches, he has some solid defenses in the back of his head to help him counteract the constant pressure he'll be facing.

But I'd probably take things even further- I'd arrange a time for us, early on, to visit a Mormon church, for the same reason a doctor vaccinates his patients- I want my friend to know what the enemy looks like. I want him to know what weapons they will use against our epistemic defenses. I want him to experience struggling with what he'll face in Utah, while he's still in a friendly environment, and still has ready access to the epistemic arsenal which will ensure he's well-equipped to navigate the trial he's about to face.


Likewise, if I was about to trip on Psilocybin for the first time, I'd probably want to pump up my epistemic defenses as much as possible- I'd read up on people who've Gone Astray in the psychedelic forest, see what mistakes they've made, and study relevant parts of The Sequences to help me counter those mistakes. If I have enough time, I'd make sure to add plenty of cards to Anki, with high priority and short intervals, to make sure those ideas are burnt in to the back of my mind.

But really, what use will that be? My epistemic defenses live primarily in my Default Mode Network, which is exactly the part of my brain psychedelics operate by turning off. It doesn't actually matter how much I train my defenses, if they all get blown away in the opening salvos of the fight.

Because I want to make sure my epistemic defenses are merely challenged, and not blown to a million pieces, I would want to inoculate my defenses, just like you inoculated your friend against the Mormons. The first trip will not be an all-out trip on a full dose. Instead, I'd look to ingest the bare minimum needed to notice any effects. And even on such a light dose, I wouldn't just surrender myself to the experience straight out of the gates. I'll wait just long enough to let the effects take hold, and once I'm under the spell, I'd open up Anki, and spend 20-30 minutes reviewing all the cards I prepared to train my epistemic defenses.

Such a review wouldn't be easy- the psychedelics would be wearing away on my attention, and my default mode network would already be half-asleep, and would be very slow to provide me with the expected answers. Plus, I'd expect my brain will be filled with high-entopy answers, which will make taking such a task seriously even harder. But since I'd be only slightly under the influence, if I can corral my attention enough to generate the right answers while under the influence, the parts of my brain that are most awake under the psychedelics will be able to listen to the right answer, and will be prepared in the future to apply pressure to keep my brain in check, even without my Default Mode Network to police things.

To make the inoculation review most effective, I would invite a friend over to keep an eye on me, and most importantly, to administer the review of the cards. Instead of marking my answers right or wrong myself, I'd entrust my friend to judge my output when I can't trust myself. I'd ask him to keep my attention on the review even when I find my mind wandering. He'd reward with small doses of candy (on an unpredictable reward schedule) the correct answers I give, motivating my mind to stay focused on the review, and to stay in a semi-serious mood, so that I can experience generating the correct thoughts even when the psychedelics are challenging my epistemic defenses - and the reward will even motivate the awake parts of my brain to think like that later on!

Once the review was over, then I'd let myself surrender to the experience fully. Since I'd only be on a microdose, my Default Mode Network will be able to call out the most egregrious stuff my mind tries to pull, while letting the awake parts of my brain, already primed by my review, to do much of the work to keep my high-entropy exploration relatively sane.

Only after such an inoculation, and being able to sleep on the experience for a few days or weeks, would I then feel comfortable subjecting myself to a proper full dose of Psilocybin. Who knows, maybe I wouldn't want the full experience without having done a second microdose inoculation previously. In any case, once it came time for the full experience, I'd be able to be confident that I had some of the defenses I needed to be able to stay grounded in reality after a full dose. But even then, I'd strongly consider doing a microdose first, doing yet another review, and only once I was finished with the review, taking the full dose "booster" to get me into the full-fledged experience.

I'm not sure what material would be most effective to build durable defenses against woo while allowing for meaningful experiences, so if I had a group of people I was going into this with, I'd try to design an RCT, where some people would study one set of material (randomly assigned, of course), and others would study different material, and a few weeks after the full experience, I'd administer a test to my fellow participants, to see who is filled with woo-y ideas, and who had meaningful, grounded experiences, and see if the choice of review material had any impact on woo-yness.

But in the absence of a group-sized test, I'd still be willing to trust that such a procedure as I outlined above would help one experience psychedelics while minimizing potential of being lead astray, and think an LW-minded person already considering doing psychedelics, should consider utilizing such a procedure.


11 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 12:10 PM
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The premise that psychedelics usually permanently impair your long-term epistemic ability seems dubious.

I'll caution other readers that fighting a trip is how good trips turn bad.

Strong upvoted. That's an important warning to keep in mind

I'm in no way meaning to dismiss your concerns, but this all seems a bit much to me. Something like "person identified with their conception of themself seeks to remain identified with themself in circumstances where disidentification happens". Or if you like, comparable to trying to get drunk without actually being drunk or to engage in exposure therapy without actually being exposed to anything.

I'm not saying we can't optimize for better and more useful experiences, only that something seems off to me about your approach here where you're trying to have your cake and eat it, too.

On reflection, the method I described seems very cautious, perhaps overly cautious in its approach. Honestly, I think putting aside what I wrote above, my experiences with other (legal) mind-influencing substances has been much more in the style of charging forward, and just experiencing the effect a normal-sized dosage provides and only later, when I'm sober, reflecting on the effect the substance has on me.

So, the exact procedure I describe above may very well not be the way I'd approach psychedelics, although I think perhaps some part or another may provide useful inspiration in engineering a better experience

I'm also not sure how much of a problem "psychedelic woo" may be for someone already well rooted with epistemic defenses- perhaps the things that lead people astray can be untangled by a sufficiently careful thinker experiencing them, especially if psilocybin / peyote is used, as opposed to LSD, which supposedly has stronger negative effects on the mind. But I'm also pessimistic about the average LWer's epistemic defenses- simply reading The Sequences, without doing any exercises based on the ideas presented therein, won't give people the skills needed to successfully navigate the challenge of properly making sense of a psychedelic experience. It is a well known phenomenon in learning, that simply reading isn't enough. One needs to interact with the ideas, be rewarded for demonstrating understanding, and having their lack of understanding highlighted where it's missing. That's how people form strong connections to their ideas (Anki would be sufficient for this, based on my own experiences with Anki, although there may be even better ways of accomplishing this, at the cost of higher effort needed in implementation).

I think the version of my presented idea, which I still endorse, is that before experiencing psychedelics, if one wishes to gain the benefits, while avoiding well-known long-term pitfalls, one should strive to have a robust understanding of epistemic defenses - to have actually interacted with the ideas, felt the ideas push back against them, not just have read about them. This is not to (as my post above suggests) prevent irrational thought during the trip itself, but rather to ensure that one is properly prepared, once sober, to reflect critically about their experiences, and avoid common epistemic mistakes people make post-psychedelics

This is not to (as my post above suggests) prevent irrational thought during the trip itself, but rather to ensure that one is properly prepared, once sober, to reflect critically about their experiences, and avoid common epistemic mistakes people make post-psychedelics

This seems like the right place to intervene. Psychedelic trips are somewhat similar to mystical experiences, and there the problem tends to be taking what was experienced and trying to turn it into something like a universal truth. So, it quickly jumps from "I felt warm and connected" to "I was in the presence of God" or whatever else is ready at hand in the person's mind. Stated otherwise, you mostly have to watch out for overfitting the data to a pattern you want to be true.

I'm trying to think of the right tag for this post- It seems that it'd be mildly relevant for there to be a tag for psychedelics and other mind-altering substances, but I'm not sure what the right name for the tag would be. "Drugs" feels too broad, "Psychedelics" is too narrow, since there are substances which are technically not psychedelics, that can serve similar functions of having short-term effects on the brain's biology, but long-term (positive or net-neutral) effects on the brain's nature and structure. "Mind-altering substances" seems right, but I'm not sure that there isn't a better way to put it

I don't think Nootropics is the right tag for the concept I want to index- if I were ever to go to the Nootropics tags, I'd expect to find conversation about substances I could generally expect to take on a regular basis to improve my cognition. While I think the case can be made for microdosing being nootropic, microdosing is only mentioned here in the context of having a pseudo-trip experience, which is different in intent from nootropic microdosing.

The concept I'm looking to index is substances that create short-term experiences which lead to long-term influences on one's life, which is an overall different concept from nootropics

I understand that this may be well outside the scope of your writing, but still - any chance you could actually post some epistemic defense decks for Anki? Or are there any good ones already available?

(Apologies if the question is stupid, I'm somewhat new to LW)

It's a good idea. I'm not familiar with any existing decks, but a search on AnkiWeb shows a few LW-influenced decks: One of them looks like what I would be inclined to design as an "Epistemic Defenses Deck", although I may (or may not) approach it differently. If I do anything along those lines, I'll let you know.

I suspect there's some underlying factor which effects how much psychedelics impact your identity/cognition. Since even on doses of LSD so high that the visuals make me legally blind, I don't experience any amount of ego dissolution and can function fairly well on many tasks.