Disentangling noetic feelings from perceptual content in hallucinogenic experiences

Disentangling noetic feelings from perceptual content in hallucinogenic experiences

When asked about the reality status of the things seen under ayahuasca or psilocybin psychonauts usually reply that during and after their experience they have no difficulty in distinguishing what belongs to the ordinary world and what belongs to the hallucinatory effects – and yet they refuse to gather from this that the things they hallucinate have no existence whatsoever. Hence the following conundrum: psychonauts report that hallucinatory entities they experience under hallucinogens can readily be discriminated from other entities they ordinarily encounter in the non-hallucinatory world, but they nonetheless refrain from saying that these hallucinatory entities are not real.

Non-experimental philosophers cannot help us solving this conundrum since the kind of conceptually-defined hallucinations they are discussing at length in their armchairs shares almost nothing with the experienced hallucinations we are examining here. Contrary to armchair philosophers, empirically-oriented ones offer us quite promising hints. In a very stimulating paper Dokic & Martin (2012) have suggested that two distinct components which are too often lumped together should be disentangled: on the one hand are sensorial contents of visual experience, and on the other are noetic or metacognitive feelings whose role is to tag sensorial contents as being familiar (or unfamiliar), difficult to process (or fluent), internally-generated (or externally-generated), real (or unreal), etc.

Dokic & Martin’s theory was first intended to shed light on hallucinations in which subjects are unable to discriminate hallucination from perception – from this point of view, their theory cannot properly help us solving our conundrum. However, it is my contention that mutatis mutandis the dual-phenomenology approach might be able to shed new light on hallucinogenic experiences. My conjecture is the following: psychonauts might suffer from a metacognitive dysfunction which leads them to tag (more precisely: to feel) hallucinatory entities as “hyper-real” – hence the persistent discriminability between hallucinatory entities (which are experienced as “hyper-real”) and ordinary entities (which are experienced as “real”) and hence the robust reluctance to assess the former as “unreal” while assessing the latter as “real”. Interestingly enough, first-person reports in which psychonauts say that hallucinatory entities are “more real than real” seem to corroborate the view I am tentatively putting forward.

In my research, I intend to explore mechanisms which could possibly explain such a metacognitive dysfunction and I am doing so by comparing the phenomenology and neurophysiology of hallucinogenic experiences to that of the feeling of presence as reported by patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease, to that of the feeling of unreality as reported by patients suffering from derealisation and to that of the feeling of reality as experienced in virtual reality.

Part of this research project consists in collecting data thanks to which I hope to adjudicate between two theories: one which claims, in the vein of orthodox theories of religious cognition (e.g., Boyer’s or Atran’s), that the supernatural character of entities stems from their minimal violation of intuitive laws; and another, in line with recent studies in “procedural metacognition” (Proust), which proposes that supernaturalness depends upon metacognitive feelings rather than observable content.


Responsable : Martin FORTIER

École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales

Contact: martin.fortier@ens.fr