The Role of Poetic Language in Psychedelic Science
This presentation argues that poetry (i.e., experimental uses of language) represents crucial data about the content of psychedelic experiences within the context of scientific research. I call for the need to develop psychedelic studies in the humanities, since the discourse of science is essential but insufficient for exploring these liminal realms of consciousness. Although the majority of recent work in psychedelic studies relies on quantitative, objectively verifiable measures, my research demonstrates that psychedelic science is frequently characterized by a necessary reliance on both science and poetry. The process of exploring non-ordinary states of consciousness depends upon the communication of unprecedented subjective experiences—a process that necessarily relies on metaphor and other creative uses of language, since no ready-made vocabulary exists to describe these experiences. For this reason, I argue that literary theory and poetic interpretation are as crucial as chemical analysis for generating data in psychedelic science and the scientific study of consciousness more generally. Drawing on my recent scholarship as a Research Fellow with the New York Public Library’s Timothy Leary Papers, I demonstrate that psychedelic scientists have theorized about the experimental value of poetic language since the first wave of psychedelic research in the twentieth century. I connect this lineage to the psychedelic renaissance based on my experiences as a Research Fellow with the NYU School of Medicine, where I joined four other co-authors in collaboratively analyzing patient transcripts for underlying themes. My presentation ends by proposing future directions for clinical research based on Neiloufar Family's call at Breaking Convention 2015 for renewed scholarship on the relationships between psychedelics, neurochemistry, and language, and I argue that "trip reports" deserve further study as an established genre of literature.
NESE DEVENOT is an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Humanities at the University of Puget Sound, where she teaches classes on psychedelics and literature and is also working on her book project, "Chemical Poetics: The Literary History of Psychedelic Science." In 2016 she was awarded "Best Humanities Publication in Psychedelic Studies" from Breaking Convention in the United Kingdom as part of their First Annual Psychedelic Research Awards. As a 2016 Cosmic Sister Women of the Psychedelic Renaissance grant recipient, she is working on a journalistic account of a fully-funded trip to ayahuasca retreat centers in the Peruvian Amazon. She was a 2015-16 Research Fellow at the New York Public Library's Timothy Leary Papers and also a Research Fellow with the New York University Psilocybin Cancer Anxiety Study, where she participated in the first qualitative study of patient experiences. She received her PhD in 2015 from the Program in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied psychedelic philosophy and the literary history of chemical self-experimentation (“trip reports”). She taught the class “Drug Wars: The Influence of Psychoactive Rhetoric” as a 2014-15 Critical Speaking Fellow, and she was also a 2014-15 Andrew W. Mellon Graduate Research Fellow with the Penn Humanities Forum, where she worked on the project “‘Innumerable Fine Shades’: Psychedelics and Synesthesia in the Literary Self-Experiments of Aldous Huxley.” She is a founder of the Psychedemia interdisciplinary psychedelics conference, and the former editor of “This Week in Psychedelics,” a Reality Sandwich column that reported on psychedelic news in the media between 2011 and 2013. She was a founding member of the MAPS Graduate Student Association, which she moderated during 2011-13, and she has presented on psychedelics at numerous conferences in the United States, Canada, England, Australia, and the Netherlands. Her opinion articles about psychedelics and social justice have helped to inspire a psychedelic "coming out" movement in the United Kingdom.