DR. GARY CLARK

DR. GARY CLARK

DR. GARY CLARK

THE DIONYSIAN PRIMATE: THE DEFAULT MODE NETWORK, PSYCHOPATHOLOGY AND THE PSYCHEDELIC BRAIN

Currently depression and various other uniquely human forms of mental illness represent a major component of the global disease burden. Over the last century archaeologists and anthropologists have demonstrated the centrality of psychedelics in traditional healing practices and their importance for our understanding of human cultural evolution. However, the ability of psychedelics to alleviate and heal psychological suffering is something Western science is only starting to investigate thoroughly. I will be looking at how the current renaissance of research in this area opens new vistas of scientific investigation into the nature of the human psyche, with the potential of developing innovative ways of addressing the various forms of psychopathology that contemporary human populations are burdened with.

My talk will focus on the current use of psychedelics in the treatment of depression being undertaken by Robin Cahart Harris and colleagues from Imperial College in London. More specifically, I will be looking at how psychedelics target the default mode network. The default mode network is a recently evolved brain region that underpins human theory of mind, metacognition, mental time travel and the human ego complex. This uniquely human neural network is most likely involved with our intensified interior life enabling us to ruminate upon the conditions of our existence. This network would have been beneficial to ancestral humans in terms of adaptation, providing the basis of learning, group cohesion and social cognition. However, it seems to also be associated with human psychopathology, suggesting this region may have given rise to maladaptive evolutionary by products that are implicated in the global disease burden. Psychedelics target this neural network and seem to reduce the attendant problems associated with its over activation. Further, by altering default mode network connectivity there are suggestions in the emerging neuroscientific literature that psychedelics may also result in disinhibition of the deeper and more archaic subcortical regions of the psyche. It is such disinhibition that seems to underpin the peak mystical states and quite profound alterations of personality and character induced by the acute psychedelic state. Further, psychedelics seem to enable people to bring the more recently evolved default mode network into a state of synchrony and harmony with the more ancient subcortical regions of the brain, thereby achieving a state of increased psychological health and wholeness. In essence we are the Dionysian primate - a unique species that has developed various cultural and ritual technologies that aim to unify the different and often antagonist subsystems of the human brain.

My talk will situate current scientific research into psychedelics in the context of evolutionary biology. I will also be dealing with the implications these findings have for our understanding of the evolutionary origins of ritual, music and art. I will argue that psychedelics, by opening up previously unknown regions of the human psyche to scientific investigation, will contribute to unifying our scientific paradigms with our humanistic, literary and artistic traditions. This may result in a general deepening and enrichment of our cultural, social and psychological paradigms.

I am a Visiting Research Fellow with the University of Adelaide School of Medicine. As part of the school’s Biological Anthropology and Comparative Anatomy Unit I am currently researching paleoanthropology and human brain evolution. Originally my background was in music, ecological literature and anthropology. My move into the sciences was motivated by a desire to develop a unified framework, grounded in evolutionary biology, that accounts for the centrality of human music and ritual in human biological and cultural evolution. My published scientific research to date focusses on early human social and mating systems, particularly the early hominin Ardipitehcus ramidus, a 4.5-million-year-old species who is believed to be ancestral to modern humans. My interest in human brain evolution is currently focused on the ethnographic, archaeological and neuroscientific understanding of psychedelic use. In this research, I am building on the work of Robin Carhart-Harris from Imperial College in London who has developed an innovative model for the interpretation of fMRI data obtained from subjects administered psychedelic compounds. Robin is also undertaking trials for the use of psilocybin in the treatment of depression. My main interest is understanding what brain regions psychedelics target and how they may produce the quite profound therapeutic effects reported in the emerging scientific literature. My overarching thesis is that science is currently discovering the profound healing potential of psychedelics that Indigenous cultures have known about for millennia.  In applying the techniques of modern scientific analysis to the effects of psychedelics on the brain we are witnessing the fusion of the deeply archaic and the hypermodern, a fusion that has wide ranging implications for our conceptions of human nature. The ramifications of this paradigm shift for Western scientific conceptions of the human psyche are profound and have yet to be assimilated into orthodox scientific thought. As well as writing for scientific publications I am also preparing a manuscript for a book on the evolutionary biology of shamanism, ritual and poetry that will elaborate on these findings.