Saturday, April 30, 2016

A Partial Review of Graham Hancock's Book "Supernatural"

A Partial Review of Graham Hancock's Book "Supernatural"
by Brendan Bombaci, MA

Creative Commons License

(picture html-linked from

This posting will be very short, as I am trained in the field of anthropology (in which I hold a Masters degree with a subfocus on psychology) and therefore logically criticize the autodidactic culture punditry that exists in the world, of which Graham Hancock is a spearhead, to a qualitative intensity that leaves me without time for extensive account in this instance.  I was, in fact, unable to review beyond the fifth chapter of this particular book, as it was far too biased and misinforming by that point for me to handle any longer.  The result of my brief review, in all likelihood representative of the sort of reading one can expect beyond those chapters, now follows.

        Chapters 1 and 2 are innocent enough, but by Chapter 3, Hancock's bias begins to shine through.  In said chapter, he fails to address his own acculturation when assessing the origins of visions that he receives from consuming ayahuasca (a powerfully psychoactive brew made by myriad indigenous peoples of the Amazon).  He even starts off with a mention of how quantum physics seems to provide us with an alternate model for reality, but draws parallels between altered states of consciousness (here forth "ASC") and purported realms of alternate-to-material aspects of our universe.  Just how it is that psychoactive plant chemicals (which alter the way our brains coordinate information relay and sensory perception & therefore reasonably create hallucinations that are purely materially based) give us some mental presence in other dimensions, that as quantum physics would have it are actually being experienced all the time anyways (aside from dark matter which does not form geometries or anthropomorphs), is plainly an imaginary & untenable phenomenon.  
        As of page 49, I have to argue that seeing "geometry, nets, and lights" is already established as being caused by particular neural-optical disruptions when under a psychedelic spell.  It is therefore not some representation of the fabric of spacetime, whether or not it occurs in "the anteroom" of "the doors of perception."  Seeing snakelike undulations in objects is therefore a human universal potential, but seeing actual snakes & jaguars is something particular to the Amazonian environment which would not only inherently be thought about even a little bit - just enough to create a psychedelic thought loop - while enduring all night outdoor ritual, but is also simply a set of loaded archetypes that ayahuasqueros tell people about beforehand and that can be, and typically are, read about with the first Google hit on "ayahuasca," by anyone interested in such a psychonautical excursion.  If Hancock were to say he went to the Amazon to experience this brew without knowing anything of it, he would either be a serious fool or in belief that he is seriously fooling his readership.  He experiences visions of anthropomorphs, which may not be so odd or relative to aliens or spirits but rather an effect of the human mind being on guard to an overwhelming force that under other circumstances might only be interpersonally caused (initiation, torture, therapy, etc).  There is also a certain Egyptian vision theme he engages, which is unsurprising given his admitted areas of private research and interest which he has otherwise written about.  Claiming such visions to be cosmically generated, like he also does with others of Chinese dragons, is frankly absurd.  No less, it is a major assumption that such cultural artefacts were generated purely by psychedelic inspiration (an assertion he makes), rather than psychedelic-forced reflection upon acculturation.  Images of Pablo Amaringo's ayahuasca vision paintings are strewn throughout the chapter to reveal similarities between his and Pablo's visions (a "look-see" attempt), but even though he claims at the end of the chapter to never have seen the paintings before taking ayahuasca himself, he doesn't remark at all on the crucial fact that Amaringo has much exposure to Western culture & mythos and so cannot be held in esteem as an unadulterated indigenous Amazonian visionary artist.

        In Chapter 4, Hancock does use the current academic term for his “nets, ladders, and lights”: entoptic phenomena; however, he is wont to purport that these are ethereally rather than neurologically situated.  He is even proud to compare the half-man half-beast “therianthropes” of European cave paintings with those made by past and present African San bushmen, but doesn’t concede that his prior proclamation, that they are supernatural rather than metaphorical is wrong when he himself writes: “the (San) shamans believed that to enter the otherworld they had to adopt various animal forms and the paintings depicted them at various states of their transformation” (page 73).  This implies that the initiation itself, rather than the outcome, involved a sort of transformation, and, no doubt, many shamans to this day dress in ritual garb decorated with or representative of parts of and/or whole animals.  His section on the “Wounded Men” is cogent enough for anyone steeped in the “Healed Healer” literature on shamanism already (Read Vitebsky’s book “Shamanism”), but Hancock thereafter concludes his chapter by slandering scientists for determining hallucinations to be material, again.  His claim that scientists know not how hallucinogens work is just preposterous, as anyone with access to a university library system could attest to.  He must not be familiar with the more modern term for psychedelics: psychointegrators - an intuitive term for describing the way in which they cause inter-hemispheric & inter-compartmental hypercommunication (proven beyond theory in 2016 with research volunteers on LSD in an fMRI study), a fact that easily explains the “visualization” of thoughts both conscious & otherwise, as well as the arresting recall of sensory perceptions from memory, and even synaesthesia.  Around page 96, He even asserts with certainty that scientists altogether are wholly unfamiliar with the psychointegrator experience firsthand, and so they preach on matters they have no right to be doing so about.  I wonder if he has ever heard of Albert Hoffman, the father of LSD, or even Richard Evans Schultes, the greatest ethnobotanist in history who provided us with anaesthesia from Amazonian curare, with rubber from Amazonian trees, and with knowledge of ayahuasca, as well as coca, which brought us Novocain?   Near to closing the chapter, he describes ASC as “the x-factor in our evolution that jolted our ancestors not only into the practice of religion and the creation of great art, but also into the complete suite of fully modern behaviors that begins to be widely documented in the archaeological record after about 40, 000 years ago.”  If only he were aware that (1) all modern humans are neurologically similar to those that lived between 200-100 thousand years ago, and, being that homo sapiens have a 2.5-to-4-fold increased capacity for serotonin receptor agonists (read page 127 in Winkelman and Baker’s 2010 book “Supernatural as Natural” – a far more educated and profoundly informative volume, by the way), we must have been experiencing heavily altered states of consciousness as far back as that, at least; or, that (2) it is likely the case that ceremonial objects were being used by the ancestors of both Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapien as far back as 400,000 years ago (i.e., the red quartzite axe “Excalibur” at the European site Sima de los Huesos), indicating advanced symbolic thought and therefore cultural complexity. 
        It is in fact quite sad that he feels physical phenomena, without unexplainable supernatural causation, to be “the sublime thus efficiently reduced to the ridiculous” (page 97).  This is the “magical thinking” – the logic-hating behavior – that Carl Sagan warned of as we enter an age where information is disseminated faster than we are capable of tracking or realizing.  But perhaps scientists who can synthesize psychointegrators and even their antagonists (antipsychotics), to cure disabling mental disorders, aren’t on par with shamans who “really do know more – much more – than they do” (page 97), the ones who apparently promulgate a mindless basking “in the over-weening one-dimensional arrogance of the Western technological mindset.”  So, Alex Shulgin (the most prolific of chemists working in the field of novel neurotransmitter synthesis), Tim Leary (UC Berkley psychologist promoting clinical sets and settings for psychedelic experiences but also adoptive of Buddhist practices), and Robert Alpert (a contemporary psychedelic researcher who adopted views of Hindu Yogis, and who is still scientifically critical but now identifies as “Ram Dass”) must have all been frauds, no?  Hancock must be more informed than we academics, and it must be impossible to be open to cross-cultural ideological integration.

        In Chapter 5, Hancock tries to impress upon us the idea that entities encountered while in ASC are very real “in some modality not yet understood by science, that exist around us and with us, that even seem to be aware of us and to take active interest in us, but that vibrate at a frequency beyond the range of our senses and instruments and thus generally remain completely invisible to us” (page 102).  In this chapter, he finally does invoke some psychointegrator-savvy scientists, but mixes their assertions with those of the rather New Age (scientifically illiterate) persuasion such as William James (who says beings access our consciousness and impress us when we engage in subconscious exploration with ASC) and Rick Strassman (a clinical researcher, but one in passive agreement with such ideas and apparently without training in sociology or cultural anthropology).  In a dubious manner, he cherrypicks bits of phrases from Albert Hoffman and Aldous Huxley to fit his argument, ignoring context and misconstruing the personas of these important thinkers.  It would behoove Hancock to do some research on psychiatric disorders involving delusion and psychotic hallucinations, as well as research on the topic of empathy.  I have done so and been enlightened thereby.

        To discount the brilliant computational selectivity of the human brain and its way of encoding cross-cultural ages-old memories for the sake of social constructs and survival, is ignorant at best; ancestral (genetic) memories are very real, and tie us all together in a way that validates the “noosphere” concept but only on an evolutionary time scale (i.e., worldwide psychic connections are not taking place).  Stepping backwards a moment, perhaps Hancock’s fatal flaw is believing that humanity became capable of complex symbolic thought, language, art, and religion, only 40,000 years ago when people purportedly began using psychointegrators (how illogical and thoughtless they must have been prior to this).  And too bad he has apparently never read the enlightening book “How They Severed Earth from Sky,” which convincingly details the ways that myths and religions could well have developed as a system of record keeping with anthropomorphized elements and objects for the sake of emotional allure and therefore more fascinating and memorable transmission to later generations.  Oh, we with no fictional creativity or clever ways to interact with physiological constraints and predelictions, and therefore with no ancestral memory (of the regional rather than universal Animism that all religions developed fromor current-day acculturations affecting our subconscious visions.

And I conclude.