Lived experience isn’t binary. Experience is perceived, felt, inter- and intra-dimensional; it is known on a continuum. To conceive of this is to say, any can know that in themselves the divine is present.
“Queer is deeply personal and public. It’s intensely individual and communal. It’s a verb and a noun. It’s the sexual and the platonic. It’s identity and it’s disidentification. Queer is a rejection of the seduction of binaries.”@DecoloniallyQueer, Instagram/Twitter
Space-time isn’t straight and psychedelics are queer.
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The theoretical physicist, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, who specializes in early universe cosmology and is the author of The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred, writes that her investigation into the workings of the universe reveals that the ways we have historically oriented ourselves to each other, our environment, and the numinous is incongruous with the very essence of all matter (Prescod-Weinstein, 2021). Principally, Prescod-Weinstein’s realization of her love of quarks led to the conclusion that “quarks are queer.” Particle physicists uses mathematics to describe particle behaviors, e.g., the flavor of a quark, but when using the equation to observe it, find they don’t always follow the rules. They defy their own definitions. They are bizarre and elusive and beautiful. Queer.
Further, Prescod-Weinstein sees in this a central implication for justice. Definitions and equations cannot explain human beings. None follow all the rules that social scientists derive, and when the ones doing the observing hale from a narrow demographic, interpretation of the data is shallow. Marquis Bey goes further when they “points out in Anarcho-Blackness: Notes Toward a Black Anarchism, ‘The gender binary is part and parcel of capitalism’s division and devaluation of gendered labor’” (in, Prescod-Weinstein, 2021). That is, the gender binary supports a socio-economic binary.
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein goes on to explain how her own “experience with ‘agender’ [specifically] was different from what a lot of trans people go through,” so, hesitates to locate her experience there. Attempting to discern how to understand it, she finds illumination in physics. “I trust that other people have strong gendered identifications, but I don’t understand it. I…think that a strong gender identification is like quantum spin—you either have an internal sense of it (a spin greater than zero) or you don’t (spin zero).” That “understanding of gender and sex is always in flux. But for now: I am genderless yet in my everyday life I am gendered by others. There is a distance between what people believe my gender is and how I feel on the inside. My subconscious gender experience does not align with my physical and social sex experience” (Prescod-Weinstein, 2021).
Prescod-Weinstein explains that gender identity is infinitely faceted and shifty, that cissex women interact with patriarchy differently than trans women and men, and that women and men who have a complex gender identity, and nonbinary people are “regularly erased entirely from the discussion.” Observing a single facet will neither reveal the myriad complexities of a thing nor the prismatic effusion of possibilities. To imagine wholeness, one must expand the frame.
My experience is a (significant) step removed from Prescod-Weinstein who has the added othering of race and the Black experience. And I have the added experience of a neurodivergent processing brain. Still, this bright shiny star of an astro-/particle-physicist adeptly describes my own grapple with gender identity as I’ve never encountered anywhere else. In dissecting the universe to its bare energies, observable by their effects, but elusive at the attempt to see straight on, a quantum entanglement of experience has been effectually made.
And my experience is outside the realm of judgment. It is my own. It is lived in the context of a white, cis-male patriarchy capitalist system that prioritizes dominance and the hoarding of resources. And it is daily met with, to employ a currently overused term, diluting its potency, but which, nevertheless, is apropos to the discussion, “gaslighting.” Very little changes when the public discourse is an elaborative gaslighting all who do not—cannot—present to the world this one-dimensional expression of humanity.
This is what I love about the term Queer. Queer is identity and it is disidentification. It is a rejection of the seduction of the binary. And why I have long participated in the discipline of queer theology. I believe it is essential to the project of understanding a Being beyond categorization. And it highlights what makes queering psychedelics imperative to the task of doing policy right and to facilitate psychedelics use in healing with excellence .
To observe psychedelic experience, quantify and qualify it, the field must include as many voices possible. “Include” isn’t the right word. It presupposes a permission-giving entity. It implies a paternalist, patriarchal system that feigns benevolence while continuing to substantiate a system that hoards the power, resources, and influence. A just, equitable, creative psychedelic science will incorporate the view of the underresourced, the “other.”
To borrow from Liberation Theology, the psychedelic space must employ a “preferential option” for the under resourced non-cisgender/white/male. A preference for those who possess insufficient power to effect social change means that “intermediary structures…should be freely organized, without any unwarranted interference from…dominant groups, in view of their development and concrete participation in the accomplishment of the total common good. They constitute the vital network of society. They are also the true expression of the citizens’ liberty and unity.” (Schlabach, 1968)
It also means that those who are members of the dominant group need to stop talking. The straight-white-cisgender male has said more than enough. I do not mean to say these humans have nothing of value to say. What I do mean is that they do no not have to say it. Defer. Give due credit. Create conditions for other voices to be easily heard . If we say that we all belong to the community, that everyone has a seat at the table, that we value all voices, some people will need to leave the table.
We do this by returning to “the universal body”. Recognizing the complexity of the whole of humankind. The universal body is gay, is other-abled, is a gender, is Black, is middle-aged…. The universal body is Queer. So to heal the universal body, “We need more sophisticated views of healing”. We also need more sophisticated views of illness and intellectual capacity. Because queerness encompasses the whole—mind, body, and soul, and the community in which these queer bodies do life.
“Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.”— Bessel van der Kolk in The Body Keeps the Score
The psychedelic experience is queer. It is non-binary. And it holds unimaginable insight into how we perceive mental illness, how we process information and interact with our environment (embodied and engaged), even, how we love. A binary is only creative when (creatively) applied to computer code—by a creative human. Still, computer code is not organic, living (though some might argue a computer program has a life of its own!) But even matter is energized, particles attracting and repelling creating all that is perceived of the universe—and as Chanda Prescod-Weinstein clarifies, dark matter isn’t dark and space-time isn’t straight.
So where do psychedelics fit in here? Specifically, how might psychedelic therapy inform how we approach healing personally and as a society ? How might psychedelics help us perceive outside the binary ? To be sure, there are likely as many applications to the use of psychedelics in perspectival expansion as there are individuals investigating them. I will limit my observations to three general areas currently, and perniciously, viewed in binary: mental illness/wellness, intellectual deficit/facility, and gender, and ultimately how these influence the (non)binary ascribed to the Mystery.
Why It’s Important Now
In November, 2022, Coloradoans voted in support of establishing a regulated system for accessing psychedelic mushrooms, and decriminalizing possession and use of psychedelic mushrooms in CO law for individuals aged 21 and over. Residents have already supported the legalization of cannabis use, but the relatively recent spate of publicity around research indicating the profound healing power of psychedelic substances for a range of psychiatric disorders has already prompted the Journal of the American Medical Association to observe that “…the industry ‘may even outpace the legal US cannabis market’”.
Around the same time, during the 2022 World Science Festival, the theoretical physicist, Brian Greene, hosted a panel that discussed the state of Psychedelics in science wherein the neuroscientist, Gül Dölen, gifted some of her research suggesting psychedelics may soften neuro-synaptic networks to a level of openness (neuroplasticity) seen at ‘critical periods’ of development . That is, psychedelics may reopen critical periods of learning. A deeper question around how ‘learning’ is defined is salient here, and touched on below.
This research holds promise for those who develop autism spectrum disorder or other neuro-atypical brain processes. It also raises questions about connections between psychedelics’ action on the brain and psychotic brain processing, including the genetic link among other psychiatric conditions such as ADHD, certain learning disorders (e.g., Dyslexia), Bipolar-Disorder, and Major Depression. And it is crucial Colorado, and other states moving in the same direction, get policy right so all have equitable access to the healing potential of psychedelic therapies, and that it is done safely.
First, a story.
A participant in a retreat during which my spouse recently participated, came to the event without registering and without payment. She would arrive at restaurants where many agreed to meet for a meal assuming her own meal would be covered by someone, all the while making comments to the effect of, “God provides,” and “see, the Lord has provided.” The retreatant began to fixate on one member of the group, who, in one instance, covered her expenses, and is now the object of her guilt-inducing sagas of having no funds—wrapped in the same language of God’s continued provision for her.
While perception of the miraculous is not outside the limit of what is considered mentally healthy, this woman is an example of one whose behavior suggests a likelihood of something within the class of personality disorders. The distinction is not always clear. And how one might trust a mystical experience when a similar experience in another setting might indicate psychopathy is worth exploring.
“[T]o conjure with the passive culture and adapt to its rules is to degrade and deny the fullness of our meaning and intention…” —Adrienne Rich
The Mental Illness – Wellness Binary.
The mental health profession determines a diagnosis based on criteria outlined and described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR). Disordered mental processes are quantified by their social and internal effects. If it impacts your relationships, your job, and/or the way you think about yourself or others, in often not-so-quantifiable-yet-significant ways, you might be diagnosed with a mental disorder. Interesting to note, many of the “classic” disorders are now scheduled as spectral (e.g., Schizophrenia Spectrum Disorder, SSD).
The trick, then, is to determine when characteristics of any given diagnosable disorder becomes diagnostically disordered. Who determines where the distress lies? When does the discomfort tip into distress? What is the source of the catalyst that effects the tipping? Because, the brain on psychedelics looks remarkably like the brain on schizophrenia. A considerable portion of artists suffer significantly with depression and anxiety. Yet their work has a profoundly positive impact on society.
Some distinguishing characteristics can be seen with brain imaging. Atrophy in cortical neurons, for instance, is associated with the development of depression and anxiety. So, psychedelics are shown to yield reductions in depression and anxiety, and promote fear extinction learning, and may do so, in part, by reducing inflammation (Ly et al., 2018). They also appear to promote dendritic growth and increase synaptic connectivity in the prefrontal cortex. It must be said, dendritic growth occurs with any new learning, but primarily in areas related to the specific learned activity.
University of Alabama at Birmingham PhD candidate, Haley Dourron, offers a comprehensive survey of the existing research investigating the use of psychedelics and their action on the structure and biochemistry of the brain, some of the resulting experiential effects, and possible ways to distinguish these changes/effects from psychosis—what the authors refer to as a “psychotomimetic-psychedelic paradox” (Dourron et al., 2022).
Attributing exaggerated meaning or importance to insignificant events or experience—“misattribution of salience”—is one affect psychedelics appear to have on the brain and on subjective experience. “Attribution of salience is thought to involve dopamine-mediated processes, a mechanism that is disrupted in schizotypy” (Chun et al., 2019). How psychedelics interact with the dopamine process emphasizes the importance of discerning distinctions between the disfunction of a psychiatric condition and the benefit of a psychedelic experience. It is also important to discover whether the psychedelic action on brain mechanisms play a role in healing the mechanisms specific to problematic features of psychosis.
As with theological interpretation, we ought also to hold loosely interpretations of scientific data. Self-entropic broadening theory (SEB), a confluence of entropic brain theory (EBT) and broaden-and-build theory, describes “the level of self-focus in entropic processing states [that] can either facilitate well-being or exacerbate mental illness” (Dourron, et al., 2022). Other factors and concepts involved include, “awe as a mechanism” (Hendricks in Dourron, et al), “cognitive-phenomenological-behavioral framework”, and “entropic processing styles (i.e., an increase in attentional scope and a decreased predictability in processing stimuli, facilitating a hyperassociative style of thinking).” Which sounds a lot like neurodivergent brain processing. (More on neurodivergence below) And, “hyperassociativity may create the environment in which novel insights, new solutions and creativity can flourish,” which is also experienced in, for instance, REM dreaming (Horton & Llewellyn, 2021).
Perspective broadening facilitates cognitive flexibility, and flexibility of behavior (Dourron et al., 2022). It increases openness to new experience and curiosity. It encompasses the experience of “awe” which seems to be “due to significant changes in network connectivity” and involves perspectival conceptions such as “vastness and novelty,” and “high information density”(Dourron et al., 2022). Dourron describes these phenomena as “a more ‘anarchic’ style of information processing” (Dourron et al., 2022). In otherwise healthy individuals (e.g., social, stable-enough emotional states to integrate into “normal” daily life), psychedelics appear to induce “hyperassociativity.”
But what constitutes “normal”? Perhaps a distinction need be made here between normal and normative. Something is normative when it establishes or derives from a standard or norm, and it is socially/culturally informed. Normal indicates the average or expected range. While both terms can be problematic as each may be determined by subjective data, the latter can be applied to measures that inform, for instance, physical health or structural integrity.
So, when holding loosely the data and definitions compiled by scientific inquiry, the “normal” range broadens, and we can recognize in, for instance, neurodivergence, a display of hyperassociativity and affiliated characteristics, before labeling it “learning disorder.” The concept of “anarchic” style of information processing is intriguing, and feels empowering to me. At the same time, “anarchic” also suggests anti-social and antagonistic behaviors. The perception of disordered and chaotic thinking is often met with negativity and suppression. Even creative thought is creative insofar as it isn’t prevented from expression. With creativity, novelty is self-evident but as such, without curiosity, is often met with suspicion or misunderstanding, at best, or revulsion and violence, at worst.
When not accessing the whole brain (experientially living into the fullness of oneself), influenced by a stereotypical patriarchal/masculine construct, the brain functions (interacts with the environment) from a top-down, hierarchical process and perception. Loosening rigid mental structures allows for the dismantling of hierarchical scaffolding, creating greater freedom for increased numbers—and kinds—of connections otherwise disallowed by the climb to the top (Carhart-Harris & Friston, 2019).
I wonder about the implications for approaches to mental/emotional health systems and models. Awareness and understanding of the variety in structural and functional connectivity might shift how and when we label it “disordered” or “dysfunctional,” versus, one’s style of brain processing.
“Intelligence is the ability to sense one’s environment, follow a non-linear set of rules, and adapt to those rules based on the outcome of one’s actions. Intelligence exists on a spectrum of capacity; all forms of intelligence deserve the right to self-determination.” —S. B. Divya, Machinehood“The Machinehood Manifesto, March 20, 2095”
The Neurodivergent – Neurotypical Binary
Neurodivergence refers to brain processes that do not conform to a model of neuronal connections considered within the normal limits (wnl). This is most commonly determined by the effects: can the person focus (wnl, of course), create an outline, “accurately” solve mathematics and resolve facial expression? Yet these also rely on data derived from contexts that are not necessarily conducive to learning, and rarely mindful of individual needs, home environment, relationship with instructors, etc. So, here’s what we know right now.
Neurodevelopmental research is currently dominated by inquiry into Autism-Spectrum Disorder (ASD). From this research geneticists have identified specific DNA changes associated with disorders found within the neurodevelopmental continuum (ASD, ADHD, major depression, SSD and BPD). Neuroscientists discovered the mutations in the gene called CACNA1C is implicated in all five (Owen & O’Donovan, 2017). These also “share common clinical feature of anxiety.” One of these studies (2016) found that, in mice, “loss of the CACNA1C gene from the forebrain of mice results in decreased survival of newborn neurons in the hippocampus.” And, helpfully, using “a neuroprotective compound called P7C3-A20” may restore neurogenesis of the CACNA1C gene.
The specific genetic overlap is seen by “chromosomal microdeletions and duplications in 16p11.2” in, for example, ASD individuals, “and common copy number variations have been reported in ASD, schizophrenia, and ADHD. Genome-wide association studies have also revealed common risk variants among ASD, ADHD, bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia” (Yoshiro Morimoto, 2021). All five are also linked with learning disorder (also known as specific learning disorder) by genetic markers, as well as by structural anomalies (Lai et al., 2019; Rosen et al., 2018). Ne novo mutations of “postsynaptic proteins, such as L-type calcium channels and proteins involved in N-methyl-D-aspartate signaling” indicate that synaptic mechanisms may also underlie these conditions (Morimoto, 2021).
A more recent study confirms comorbidity is also found structurally in these so-called psychiatric illnesses (Taylor et al., 2023). Brain map typography may be different, but network mapping remained the same irrespective of single diagnosis. This neurobiological and clinical overlap highlights the spectral character of psychiatric conditions, opportunities for transdiagnostic treatments that target a shared brain network, and the implications of psychedelic therapies for conditions not otherwise considered for such treatment .
Other recent studies of the brain’s functional connectivity mapping reveals overlaps in ASD, SSD, BPD and ADHD, with sensory data processing (a key feature in ASD diagnosis): “The brain connectivity maps … show some similarities [in] an increase in connectivity between the thalamus and sensory-motor areas of the brain and a decrease in connectivity among visual areas” (Moreau et al., 2023). Thalamus activation is also involved in psychedelic sensory activation.
Heightened sensitivity to environmental data is a common feature for people who express these conditions. Psychedelics are known to profoundly augment sound, sight and touch in an internal-yet-transpersonal manner, yet, may reset the perception of overwhelming discomfort that comes with real-world heightened sensitivity. As more individuals with neurotypical brains use psychedelics—especially in fields given to negatively categorize individuals with neuro-atypical processing brains (i.e., as “disordered”)—the collective view of the latter might shift and see the value in, even advantage of such ways of engaging with/processing the world .
Connectivity is a crucial piece to this discussion. “Autistic people’s brains appear to have more functional connectivity between neighboring regions and less between distant regions than do neurotypical people’s brains…” or, in certain networks (García Domínguez et al., 2013; Just et al., 2012; Supekar et al., 2013). It also appears that traits associated with autism are related to disruptions in the default-mode network (Buckner et al., 2008). Connections to areas that are involved in social cue recognition tend to be weaker or delayed . Psychedelics (along with therapeutic integration) may activate connections to regions associated with social cue recognition, while leaving intact the brilliance of the unique regional-tight connections in the ASD individual.
As psychedelic science is constantly evolving, the latest discovery that serotonin is not the natural 5-HT2A receptor activator, but that it is intracellular 5-HT2ARs that “mediate the plasticity-promoting properties of psychedelics,” (Vargas et al., 2023) is curious. Much like quarks, serotonin receptors are queer.
I wonder about the implications for the education system. Whether increased awareness and understanding of some of these mechanisms at play, alongside invitations to those who present with neurodivergent brain processing to participate in creating instructional models that not only accommodate/access divergent learning apparatuses, but recognize the value in those who processes differently, might bring more learning opportunities for neuro-typical and –atypical processers alike.
“There is a world beyond ours, a world that is far away, nearby and invisible.”—Maria Sabina
The Bender (Non)Binary
Several sets of studies researching elements associated with ASD investigated the rate of autistic spectrum diagnosis among those identifying as gender diverse, and the prevalence of cisgendered individuals among those on the autism spectrum. The criteria were marginally varied, but consistent with general indications of autistic traits, specifically, empathy, systemizing, and sensory sensitivity. The studies showed higher rates of gender diversity among autistic individuals compared to non-autistic, the prevalence four times that of the non-autistic in one of the largest studies (Warrier et al., 2020).
Comorbidity of all but schizophrenia among transgender and non-binary folks is also found in two studies, but is still seen in a separate dataset (Rosen et al., 2018; Warrier et al., 2020). And in one of the two, higher rates of learning disorders were found with the trans- and nonbinary-identified compared with cisgender individuals (Huang et al., 2020).
A collation of data from standardized psychometrics, found that transgender and gender-diverse individuals scored higher on the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ), the Systemizing Quotient (SQ), the Sensory Perception Quotient (SPQ) and lower on the Empathy Quotient (EQ) compared with cisgender males and cisgender females. Cisgender males scored higher on the first three and lower on EQ compared with cisgender females. Effect sizes were larger in autistic cisgender males and cisgender females than autistic trans and nonbinary.
Addressing the low EQ dimension, clinical psychologist, Simon Baron-Cohen, developed the Empathizing-Systematizing (E-S) theory (Baron-Cohen, 2002), which classifies individuals according to two dimensions: empathy—the ability to recognize others’ emotions or mental state (“cognitive empathy”) and the desire to respond to it with a relevant emotion (“affective empathy”); and “systemizing, defined as the drive to analyze or build a rule-based system,” (Greenberg et al., 2018) and are considered to be the classic characterization of ASD. Yet indications of what the data gleaned from these measures actually indicate can be imprecise.
Empathy and human felt connection are influenced by countless factors, and not what we always assume. For instance, the role of Oxytocin in pair binding, a deeply felt human connection, and in empathy, may not be as critical as prior research suggests. A recent study with prairie voles indicated that vole pairs with mutant oxytocin receptor function successfully produced, fed, and nursed pups to weaning  (Berendzen et al.). The authors noted that natural variations occurred in small guide RNAs (sgRNAs) that affected Oxytocin receptor coding sequence efficiency. Specific targeting was necessary for controlled study, but this fact reinforces what one might intuit, that social bonding is not exclusive to oxytocin signaling.
Psychedelics have been shown to increase serum oxytocin levels in concert with serotonin levels. Yet Holze et al., found that the 5HT2A receptor antagonist ketanserin reduced serum oxytocin levels, but not the elevated LSD-specific induced levels of empathy, also supporting the thesis that empathy and social bonding features are not dependent on oxytocin levels and signaling (Holze et al., 2021). A similar study with high dose psilocybin (30mg) produced similar effects, but, unlike LSD, also found increases in plasma oxytocin levels (Holze et al., 2022). Oxytocin is clearly involved in emotional bonding, but like quarks and serotonin, also seems to be queer.
While lower EQ scores are found among autistic individuals, this may reflect difficulties primarily with recognition of another’s mental state, but who still desire to respond to it with an appropriate emotion (versus individuals with psychopathic/antisocial personality disorders who show intact cognitive empathy with impaired affective empathy). “Difficulties with cognitive empathy tend to lead autistic people to avoid or be confused by social situations, rather than to act with cruelty” (Greenberg et al., 2018). As with any who present with difference, a traumatic encounter with “normals” may result in a response that appears aggressive, especially when “appropriate” affect isn’t easily accessed .
The E-S theory is also referred to as the “Extreme Male Brain Theory” (EMB). A Greenberg et al., article makes clear EMB does not mean to indicate and implicate “all male characteristics (such as aggression),” as if aggression is gendered in the first place. And yet, the field continues to frame autistic brain processes as consistent with distinctly “masculine” features. All while clearly demonstrating that transgender and non-binary individuals process more consistently with systemizing their environment than any other population, irrespective of assigned sex.
A number of early studies in the ASD investigation actually measured prenatal testosterone levels (pT) and conditions that effect cortisol and androgen levels. They are inconclusive, and they are asking the wrong questions (Dooley et al., 2022; Kung, Constantinescu, et al., 2016; Kung, Spencer, et al., 2016). Structural differences of the brain can be attributed to genetics, biological factors, impacts of environment, and nutrition and substances ingested, among myriad factors. Aggression isn’t a “masculine” trait that must be accommodated.
Rather, as anthropologist, Agustín Fuentes, explains, “males’ use of physical aggression … is a cultural co-option of a biological potential and not a specific evolutionary adaptation in our species” (Fuentes, 2016, 2022). Indeed, even size differentials (predominantly in height and muscle mass) are relatively insignificant across ethnicities, and is culturally derived (Fine & Duke, 2015b). Fuentes continues: