Consciousness: What is it? Are your thoughts and emotions nothing more than neural static? Will your physical death extinguish your awareness? Is your individual consciousness just one of innumerable facets of a universal consciousness?
In search of answers to questions like these, local writer/neuroscience researcher David Jay Brown has mind-melded with many of the world’s most prominent philosophers, visionaries, culture-shapers and snorkelers of the psyche, including Timothy Leary, Terence McKenna, Robert Anton Wilson, Noam Chomsky, Ram Dass, Albert Hoffman, Jack Kevorkian, George Carlin, Sasha Shulgin, Deepak Chopra, Alex Grey, Jerry Garcia, Stanislav Grof and John Lilly. He’s chronicled these meetings in his bestselling interview compendiums “Conversations on the Edge of the Apocalypse,” “Mavericks of the Mind,” “Mavericks of Medicine” and “Voices from the Edge.” Dubbed “the most compelling interviewer on the planet” by author Clifford Pickover, Brown is currently working on an interview collection/psychedelic memoir called “Over the Edge of the Mind.”
Brown (mavericksofthemind.com; myspace.com/davidjaybrown; sexanddrugs.info) is also the author of the sci-fi books “Brainchild” and “Virus: The Alien Strain” and coauthor of the health book “Detox with Oral Chelation.” He frequently serves as guest editor of the tri-annual newsletter from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a local psychedelic research organization that recently published the second edition of “Mavericks of the Mind” (available at Bookshop Santa Cruz). He has written for periodicals such as Mondo 2000, Scientific American Mind, Wired, High Times, The Sun, Magical Blend and the Journal of Psychical Research. The diversity of his output is telling of his leave-no-stone-unturned approach to consciousness exploration: It’s a good bet he’s the only writer in history who’s contributed to both the Buddhist wisdom publication Tricycle and the porn magazine Hustler.
Brown’s studies of learning and memory at the University of Southern California in the early ’80s earned him a B.A. in psychology. Between 1985 and 1986, he did research on electrical brain stimulation at New York University, obtaining a master’s degree in psychobiology. His inquiries eventually led him into the realm of parapsychology: He’s the man behind the California-based research for biologist Rupert Sheldrake’s books “Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home” and “The Sense of Being Stared At,” both of which presented scientific studies of unexplained phenomena. Brown’s knowledge of such mysteries, as well as of technology, smart drugs, health, psychedelic research and sex-drug interaction, have landed him guest spots on shows like HBO’s Real Sex, Fox’s A Current Affair, PBS’s Nature, ViaCom’s The Montel Williams Show and the BBC and Discovery Channel’s Animal X.
Journey with us, if you will, through the labyrinth of Mr. Brown’s mind …
GOOD TIMES: Tell me about the electrical brain stimulation research you’ve done.
DAVID JAY BROWN: When I was at New York University, I did research for years where I surgically implanted electrical stimulating probes into the lateral hypothalamus of rats, which is a pleasure center. I would watch rats press a bar that delivered an electric current into their brain center over and over and over again until they fell asleep from exhaustion. Then they would wake up, and there was food sitting next to them, water sitting next to them and a mate sitting next to them. They ignored all three and would continue to press that bar over and over again to get the reward stimulation over survival instincts. The other area of research I was involved in was at University of Southern California, and it was the exact opposite of the research I did at NYU, where I was surgically implanting electrodes into the brain centers of mammals and stimulating them: In this case I was inserting cold probes, which are devices that actually freeze or inhibit a certain part of the brain temporarily, so you can see how the animal operates with that one part of the brain missing, and how they operate when that part of the brain comes back. The anesthetic that we gave to the rabbits prior to surgery was a drug called ketamine. I took some of this ketamine home and experimented on myself with it. After injecting 50 milligrams of ketamine chloride into my right thigh muscle and turning the lights out, I suddenly “realized” that my professors and my fellow researchers and colleagues at USC were in reality extraterrestrials—that they were scientists who were there not to study rabbits; they were there to study me. I was the test subject, and they’d left this bottle of ketamine out for me to take. They were watching me right at this moment with a video camera. And suddenly I found myself in a cage with cold probes implanted in my brain and giant rabbits all around me. They were measuring me, and I was naked and helpless. Suddenly, I snapped back into my body. I did not continue very much longer in that program after experiencing what I was experiencing from the rabbit’s point of view. That’s what ketamine taught me: what the rabbit was experiencing from what I was doing.
You often ask your interviewees what they think happens to consciousness after death. If you had to put money on what happens after death, what would you bet on?
I guess wherever you go after death, the money’s not going to matter anymore! [Laughs.] You know, I think about that question every day, as an exercise of the imagination, and I change my mind about it all the time. I used to debate with my friend Nina Graboi—whom I interviewed for my book “Mavericks of the Mind,” and who passed away about 10 years ago—all the time about what happens to consciousness after death. It was one of our favorite topics of conversation. In general, I took the position that after you die, your individuality leaves, and your sense of awareness merges with the higher consciousness, the oneness, the source that everything came from originally. And her position was, “Well, there is that, but then there are all these levels in between where individuality remains besides the body, and you go through [multiple] incarnations with that. For years we went back and forth with this. Nina referred to her body as a spacesuit, and she always said she was going to get a new spacesuit when she died; she would go from one spacesuit to another. Well, after Nina died, I was writing in my journal, and the TV was on in the background. I was thinking about what was going on in Nina’s mind when she was dying: “I’ll bet she was thinking, ‘Now I see: David Jay Brown was right! You do just merge with the one consciousness.’” As I’m sitting there in this kind of self-congratulatory way, I look at the television screen, and there on the TV screen is one word: SPACESUIT. There was this tingle up my spine; I stopped in my tracks; my jaw dropped open. It was the most profound sense of communication with somebody after they died that I’d ever experienced. That is the most compelling evidence I’ve experienced that consciousness not only continues [after death], but that some sense of individuality continues as well.
What are your memories of your friend Timothy Leary?
Well, my fondest and most important memories of Tim, I think, are [of] while he was dying. The last year [of his life], he announced to the media that he was thrilled and ecstatic that he was dying. And for the last year, while he was dying from prostate cancer, there was continuous celebration, continuous parties, continuously people coming around his house to tell him how important his work was to them. There was such a feeling of festivity and celebration and Tim deliberately trying to be playful and have fun with this process. This really made a very, very deep impression on me, because I ask so many questions about death—it’s an important philosophical topic for me. And there have been so many people throughout history trying to die bravely or courageously or nobly, but before Tim, I don’t think anybody ever tried to say, “Let’s make dying fun!” [Laughs.] Tim really tried to party through the dying process, and I thought it was just a stroke of brilliance. I cried when he died; as much fun as it was, it was terribly sad the moment that he really left. But he just left us all with such a great message, I think.
Tell me about your connection to Robert Anton Wilson.
Bob was not only one of my closest friends, but he was the person who actually inspired me to become a writer. It was at the age of 16 that I read “Cosmic Trigger,” and that was how I encountered Timothy Leary, John Lilly and a number of the other people I went on to interview. I went to a lecture that Bob gave here in Santa Cruz back in the late ’80s. At the end of the lecture, I went over to talk to him. I told him I was working on a book, and I asked him if he would possibly consider writing a blurb for the back cover. He kind of hemmed and hawed and looked not terribly enthusiastic, like I was the 15th person that day who asked him that, you know? [Laughs.] But he did tell me to have my publisher send him a copy of my book, and he would take a look at it. So you could only imagine my absolute delight when I discovered from my publisher that he ended up writing an 11-page introduction to my first book, “Brainchild.” It was through that that I became friends with him. He was a tremendous friend and mentor. When I had difficulty paying my rent early in my writing career, he actually sent me money to pay my rent! He was always there when I called him, giving me great advice. When an editor made some kind of change to one of my articles that I wasn’t happy with, [he said,] “Editors don’t like the way the soup tastes until they pee in it themselves.” [Laughs.]
What was your experience as a guest on The Montel Williams Show?
I was on Montel Williams’ show back in the early ’90s, during his first season. There was all this anti-drug hysteria, and I was on the show to talk about smart drugs: cognitive enhancers like hydergine, piracetam and depronal—different drugs that are commonly prescribed for senile dementia, but have been used by people to enhance their memory or improve their concentration. He didn’t seem to be very open to even discussing the research or hearing anything about it. He kept cutting us off, and he’d talk about how dangerous methamphetamine was, how this was sending the wrong message to people and how the whole idea of putting “smart” before “drugs” was wrong, and there was no smart way too use drugs. He would not even carefully consider what we were saying; he had his mind made up. And what I think was so interesting is that since he’s developed multiple sclerosis and has had to use medical marijuana to treat the symptoms of this disorder, he’s now become one of the leading spokespeople for the legalization of medical marijuana. What is it about illness that turns people around? People think that medical marijuana is a joke until they’re faced with an illness, or until a loved one is, and then they really understand the medical value that it has and what a horrible, horrible atrocity it is that it’s against the law.
Is there a primary goal of your work or a primary message you’re trying to get out?
It seemed to me since I was a child that our species is in ecological danger, destroying ourselves. Since I was a teenager, since my very first psychedelic experiences, I felt a very strong commitment to help elevate and expand consciousness on this planet through my work. I made a personal pact with what I felt was DNA or higher intelligence. I felt that if I aligned my personal mission with life’s overall mission, then I would always be supported throughout my life in what I was doing, and I would be working for a noble cause.
And what is DNA trying to do?
I think DNA is ultimately trying to create a world where the imagination is externalized, where the mind and the external world become synchronized as one, so that basically whatever we can imagine can become a reality. Literally. And I think that everything throughout our entire evolution has been moving slowly toward that goal. In the past couple thousand years, it’s been very steady. And through nanotechnology, through artificial intelligence, through advanced robotics, I think we’re entering into an age where we’ll be able to control matter with our thoughts and actually be able to create anything that our minds can conceive of. We’re very quickly heading into a time where machines are going to be more intelligent than we are, and we’re going to most likely merge, I think, with these intelligent machines and develop capacities and abilities that we can barely imagine right now, such as the ability to self-transform. What we can do with computers—digital technology, the way we can morph things on a computer screen—is the beginning of understanding that that’s how reality itself is organized, that we can do that with physical reality through nanotechnology and artificial intelligence, that the digital nature of reality itself will allow us to externalize whatever we think. So I think that eventually reality will become like a computer graphic screen, and we’ll be able to create whatever we want. That sound right? [Laughs.]