This rather excellent remix of Maurice Sendak‘s Where the Wild Things Are by the Better Book Titles blog has more truth to it than perhaps they realise; Being a child is a lot like being on drugs, and vice versa. In her book ‘The Private Life of the Brain’, Susan Greenfield explains it quite well while talking about LSD hallucinations.
“A hallucination, like a dream, could readily be described as the slipping of the anchor of the carefully developed inner resources: one is back yet again to the irrationality and magic of childhood. ”
(p.88, Greenfield, 2000)
At the same time, quite a lot of researchers argue that children cannot hallucinate. The reasoning is in reverse but the idea is similar. As Celia Morgan pointed out at a recent Wellcome Collection Packed Lunch (podcast here); This is also one of the reasons why children are routinely given ketamine as anaesthetic. Children aren’t thought to capable of hallucinating. Either that or they are hallucinating all the time and so it doesn’t really matter.
Personally, I think the parallels between childhood and drug induced hallucinations are being taken too lightly in both these cases. (Bear in mind that I am a developmental psychologist so I am bit biased.) Start by asking youself, why is childhood both magical and terrifying? The primary reason is that we have no idea what is coming next, our brains lack enough experience to predict what will happen. This is true both at a broad experiential level, children have vastly few memories to compare their present situation to and also at the neuronal level. Their networks of associations have not been parcelled and pruned back to adult efficiency. The older we get the better we get at ‘coping’ with the world and are less capable of being surprised. Our brains experience the world in the same way day in, day out and so it’s not surprising that we’re not surprised.
But hallucinogenic drugs and a few other experiences (for example, deep culture shock ) return us and our brains to a state resembling childhood. And they do so precisely because the aren’t reliable any more. They aren’t like grown ups because they haven’t had a lifetime of experience in this altered function or other country. On hallucinogens, the noise and cross-talk in the amongst the neurons means that our brains are not predicting things as well as they did. Which leads to experience the world a new but as any 6 year old will tell you that can be quite frightening.
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