Aldous Huxley and Neuropsychiatry

Below is a transcript of a paper I delivered in April, 2017, at the Sixth International Aldous Huxley Symposium in Almería, Spain. Held at the University of Almería, the symposium was organised by Bernfried Nugel and the Aldous Huxley Society. There I met and became friends with a number of the scholars I cite in the paper, including Sam Deese and Jerome Meckier. Running for three days, it was a wonderful event, and I am grateful to the Aldous Huxley Society for inviting me to attend.

Please do not use or reproduce this work without my express consent or permission. If you wish to cite this work, please specify that it was originally delivered as a conference paper and give details of this website. I also prepared a presentation, which is accessible here.

I have decided to speak a little about Huxley’s relationship to modern neuropsychiatry—not an easy subject, since Huxley was never directly engaged in the brain science as it emerged in the ’50s and ’60s. Nevertheless, some modern scholarship has drawn the connection.

Most directly, Nicholas Langlitz has sensed the way in which Huxley’s interest in the psychedelic experience relates to neuroscience in an article subtitled “Fieldwork in Neuro- and Perennial Philosophy.” Langlitz compares Huxley’s perennial philosophy—a philosophy of religion he describes as a “major form of philosophical thought”—to the neurophilosophy of Thomas Metzinger, who offers a more “modern philosophy of mind.”1 Salient differences between the thinkers, however, derive from the histories from which their ideas spring. For one, Metzinger’s neurophilosophy is a product of his “participation in the counterculture of 1970s Frankfurt,” as Langlitz notes. Huxley, by contrast, never witnessed the efflorescence of the counterculture after World War II. (Of course, some have suggested that the Californian counterculture was partly inaugurated by Huxley, so profound was his influence on the founders of the Esalen Institute; on this, for instance, see Jeffrey Kripal’s book, Esalen.2) But Huxley would likely have had mixed, even disdainful, feelings about both the Californian and Frankfurt countercultures. Huxley preferred that drugs were used intelligently and safely, expressing misgivings about mescaline in, among other essays and writings, Heaven and Hell3 And while Huxley provisionally approved of Timothy Leary’s early experiments (he participated in his Harvard Project with psilocybin as subject no. 11 in November 1960, and attended, with Leary, the 14th Annual Congress of Applied Psychology in Copenhagen in August, 1961 (see figure 1)), this did not seem to last long—and probably would not have lasted any longer had he lived beyond November 1963.4

Figure 1. Timothy Leary (far left), with Aldous and Laura Huxley (née Archera) (centre) at the 14th Annual Congress of Applied Psychology, Copenhagen in August, 1961. Original photograph from the Leary Archives, New York Public Library.

Huxley is sure to have rejected the chaos of Leary’s 1963 Millbrook mansion, notwithstanding (or perhaps because of) its abstract resemblance to Crome Yellow, the locus of his eponymous novel of 1921. Huxley had modelled “Crome” on Garsington Manor, Lady Ottoline Morell’s mansion, near Oxford (see figure 2).

Figure 2. Aldous Huxley, Dorothy Eugénie Brett, Lady Ottoline Morrell, and Philip Edward Morrell at Garsington, sometime in the 1920s. (Photographer unknown. Photograph courtesy the National Portrait Gallery.)

But what is the relevance of the counterculture in distinguishing Huxley from Metzinger? Langlitz notes: Since Metzinger’s philosophy of brain emerges from the Frankfurt counterculture after the Second World War, it is outwardly antithetical to “biologism” and eugenics, both of which he associates—as do we all—“with Nazi ideology.”5 And here the lines are drawn. Because Aldous’s neurophilosophy, if it may be called that, cannot be described as antithetical to biologism. His ideas are so profoundly connected with improving the body—with cultivating the “non-verbal humanities,” with educating the amphibian’s senses and emotions—that it must come to grips with biology, which is to say both with the human’s potential and limitations. Sexual selection, a subset of natural selection, must come into Huxley’s equation. Hence Huxley’s abiding interest in biological determinism: bodily functions and their failures underline all of Huxley’s thought.

But then, Huxley rarely describes sexual fitness. In his early satires, he is more concerned with vomiting and flatulence. These bodily responses determine their characters’ personalities—and even their religiosity—which makes it even more ironic that Huxley so rails against Swift’s satires, including his poem “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” for being so “unclean and unsavoury.”6 In After the Fireworks (1930), Miles Fanning considers the extent to which, after drinking excessively and vomiting, one becomes more pious. “Christians,” he thinks, paraphrasing Pascal, “ought to live like sick men; conversely, sick men can hardly escape being Christians” (444). In Crome Yellow, Denis Stone realises that all his life he has been using the word “carminative,” which refers to an agent that relieves one from flatulence, in place of a word that describes something that engenders profound insights (223–24). As with the vomiting example, Huxley’s comedic and ironic suggestion, here, is that something that relieves the body, that can cause one to break wind, can indeed also be profound, and can enable one to penetrate mental impasses. Miles Fanning and Denis Stone’s mistakes express, for Huxley, a greater truth: the body’s movements and warblings are the sources of new insights. The brain, it seems, is thoroughly embodied—and absurdly so.

When it came to eugenics, Julian was more attentive than Aldous. Julian sought to reposition eugenics as “an applied form of human genetics in the 1950s.”7 But by the 1970s, the subject had become anathematic to mainstream scientists. With eugenics denounced, the British Eugenics Society’s journal Eugenics Review rebranded as Journal of Biosocial Science, and is still known by that title today. (See figure 3, below.)8 But Julian’s interest continued, his ideas reaching an apex when he and Ernst Mayr, two venerable biologists, co-authored a paper on the evolutionary persistence of schizophrenia with two young and then less renowned psychiatrists, Humphry Osmond and Abram Hoffer. The paper was titled “Schizophrenia as Genetic Morphism.”9 Aldous, of course, had introduced his brother to Osmond.10

Figure 3. The Eugenics Review (1965) and the Journal of Biosocial Science (1969). The fomer was rebranded as the latter in 1968 to avoid negative associations.

The story of that paper is fascinating. It influenced Nobel Prize winning chemist Linus Pauling, who adopted part of the molecular component of the quartet’s research into his own treatment model, “orthomolecular psychiatry.”11 Although intuitively ingenious, this method has been comprehensively rejected by mainstream chemists and scientists.12

Julian had long been a proponent for “racial improvement,” writing of its importance in the 1920s for “education, for health, for self-development in adult life, and for the steadily increasing amount of leisure which will be available in a planned society.”13 Living in France in this part of the ’20s, however, Aldous had no such “formal connections with the Eugenics Society,” as David Bradshaw notes.14 But the connection between Osmond and Julian develops a different picture: Aldous’s experiments with mescaline, and with LSD through Osmond, reflected his keen interest in an evolutionary theory of mental illness, and his handing over the scientific reins to Julian reflects a delegation of that interest.

And Julian and Aldous had always collaborated on what might advisedly be called eugenical projects. Exercised by the intellectual debates of the time, Aldous was curious about the topic in the ’20s, and his interest “no less fervid than that of his fellow-writers,” as Bradshaw notes. Proper Studies includes a “Note on Eugenics” that cites Leonard Darwin’s The Need for Eugenic Reform (1926), and among Aldous’s friends then was the psychiatrist Carlos Blacker, then General Secretary of the Eugenic Society.15 In the ’40s, Aldous introduced Julian to the German chirologist (palm reader) Charlotte Wolff and arranged for her to compare the handprints of zoo animals, caged in the London Zoo, whose gardens Julian managed, with those Wolff called “mental defectives.”16

Sam Deese masterfully summarises Julian and Aldous’s shared view about evolutionary biology in his 2014 book We Are Amphibians. Setting the pair’s common view against that of the less mystical D. H. Lawrence, Deese writes that

Even as they arrived at very different conclusions, Julian and Aldous Huxley each sought to articulate a worldview that was religious in its depth and power and yet fully compatible with both the long-standing methods of scientific research and the most current discoveries of evolutionary biology.17

But their methods differed as much as their conclusions. Trained in zoology, Julian exemplified the new empiricism, while Aldous’s scientific commentary was always political. He opens “Madness, Badness, Sadness” by recalling that “Goering and Hitler displayed an almost maudlin concern for the welfare of animals.”18 The tyrants’ ironic antipathy towards human animals revealed to him the “state of chronic and almost systematic inconsistency” of “the world,” a defect that, for him, even science—and even eugenics—couldn’t ever mend.19 Blinded as a seventeen-year-old, now unable to use microscopes, his plan for a medical career thwarted, Aldous set about writing cautionary tales and romans à clef—and later, works in this same genre again but now disguised as essays: broadsides against modern biopolitical life, and barbarous, even vindictive lamentations on the turpitudes to which humans have stooped.20

For whatever optimism we discover in his general vision of human potentialities, Huxley expresses as much pessimism in the details of his writings, everywhere pointing out our malice and wrongness. Jerome Meckier’s portrait of Huxley’s transition from “poet to mystic” is but one confirmation that Huxley never abondoned his youthful cynicism so much as came to refine it. If he experienced an “artistic and spiritual growth,” it was “from a parodic formative intelligence into a volatile blend of satirist and sage”—although, even Huxley’s sagacious traits are underlain by his dark, satirical odium. And as he grew older, Huxley’s views ossified, his ludic playfulness transmogrifying into, at times, a mild cantankerousness, so that, in both the satirical and mystical stages, this negative impulse is there. Meckier describes it as a happy willingness to “furnish an explanatory hypothesis for the nature of things provided it was negative, i.e. meaninglessness as, paradoxically, the meaning of modern life.”21 And this same, cold pessimism underscored his attitude to the mind and brain’s evolution, together with our potential to understand it.

Within Huxley’s own magnificent philosophy perrenialis thus lie the traces of its malevolent other, a philosophy of depravity. It is especially marked in his treatment of scientific progress. Again in “Madness, Badness, Sadness,” he mourns the fact that surgical interventions have subsumed “Animal magnetism and hypnotism,” two of Huxley’s favourite alternative therapies.

It had all happened before, of course. Cutting holes in the skull was an immemorially ancient form of psychiatry. So was castration, as a cure for epilepsy. Continuing this grand old tradition, the Victorian doctors removed the ovaries of their hysterical patients and treated neurosis in young girls by the gruesome operation known to ethnologists as “female circumcision.”22

Huxley’s views strike those familiar with biopolitics, both before and after its founder, Michel Foucault, as very modern: even today, debate continues in biopolitical discourse about the ethics of female genital cutting.23 Huxley does not name Africa as the locus of his critique but fulminates against Victorian England; he resented much of the Victorian period, railing against the repressed sexualities of Victorians in the essay “Battle of the Sexes,” and jesting the deceptive Romantic poets in his satires (they were poets who, according to Meckier, he could not quite emulate), including by hailing the modernist zeitgeist in his essay “The New Romanticism.”24 The point, however, is that, for Huxley, circumcision—and castration—is a gruesome substitute for our own ignorance about the human psyche, and its elaboration as a medical procedure likewise no better than what he called, in a brilliant 1925 essay, Freud’s “hocus pocus.”25

Huxley resists these physicalist aetiologies, and these physicalist treatments, because they take too little account of the mind and overlook many aspects of the psyche. Where psychology has been advanced, similarly, it takes too little account of the body: “The basic Freudian hypothesis is an environmental determinism that ignores heredity, an almost naked psychology that comes very near to ignoring the physical correlates of mental activity” (LAS, 97). Thus, ovaries have as little to do with hysteria as men’s desires for their mothers have to do with their neuroses. Huxley advocates a middle approach—a science of the “mind-body”—and urges we become more agnostic about the relations of mind and matter, neither physicalists nor psychologists exclusively. In Literature and Science, he claims that

Men and women are much more than the locus of conscious and unconscious responses to an environment. They are also unique, inherited patterns (within a unique, inherited anatomy) of biochemical events; and these patterns of bodily shape and cellular dynamics are in some way related to the patterns of an individuals’ mental activity. Precisely how that are related we do not know, for we have as yet no satisfactory hypothesis to account for the influence of matter upon mind or mind upon matter (LAS, 82).

Seemingly technical, Huxley’s expression “cellular dynamics” is a curious reference to neuroscience. Published in 1963 before he died, Literature and Science might reflect Aldous’s attention to the work of his half-brother, Andrew Fielding, who had described the dynamics of cells and neurons in a mathematical model, the “Hodgkin–Huxley model,” in 1951, and had won the Nobel Prize in for it in 1963 with his co-author.26 I admit I haven’t reviewed Grover Smith’s edited Letters recently—Huxley might have congratulated Sir Andrew—but it seems possible Huxley used the term “cellular dynamics” with his half-brother’s work in mind. But then, Huxley must have thought too little of it to regard it as a “satisfactory hypothesis” in accounting for the influence of matter upon the mind.

It is typical for Huxley to use the best sounding nomenclature to introduce a topic only to then characterise it as altogether inarticulable—as inexpressible in language, mathematics, or any form. He had done so when he disavowed Euclidean geometry in Do What You Will, announcing ironically that “God is no longer bound… to obey [Euclid’s] decrees promulgated… in 300 BC.” And even when embracing Einstein and Riemann’s new geometric models of nature as “among the latest products of the human spirit,” Huxley would go on to question, and to mock, geometry’s fundamental truthfulness, its potential to reveal any real understanding.

An exceptional reification amid all this occurs in the Doors of Perception, where Huxley uses the expression “satisfactory hypothesis” to venerate Bergson’s model of “the brain… as a utilitarian device for limiting… the enormous possible world of consciousness… ”27 This is about as far as Huxley ever goes in the way of stamping his imprimatur on a neuroscientific theory of the mind. Enticing as it is, the assumption that we underuse our brains has long been discredited; Bergson, Broad and William James likely adopted the notion, consciously or not, from the concourses of Franz Gall and Johann Spurzheim.28

Huxley likely would have appreciated my disavowal, even of Bergson, as, for him, ignorance was not so much blissful as truthful. “Total awareness” he wrote in Knowledge and Understanding, “starts, in a word, with the realization of my ignorance and my impotence. How do electro-chemical events in my brain turn into the perception of a quartet by Haydn or a thought, let us say, of Joan of Arc? I haven’t the faintest idea — nor has anyone else.”

Huxley’s repeated denunciation of the Science of Man—which, like language, is too politicised and too technological—together with his advocacy of alternative therapies such as hypnotism and the Bates method, and his belief in animal magnetism, ESP, psi, and other parapsychological notions, constitutes his framework for developing the mind and brain for its evolution. His views presage the contemporary idea of neuroplasticity: the principle that novel processes that initiate new transmissions in the brain come to be entrenched as new capabilities. Modern neuropsychiatry accepts that just as the brain can be damaged or injured, so can its functions be improved, its fitness enhanced; it has partially come to embrace what Julian Huxley called transhumanism in 1951.29 But if Julian was quick to embrace population control and eugenics, Aldous suspected more was to be discovered through personal improvement. Educating the amphibian to deal with technological pressures could improve the future of the species. And while he burlesques neo-Lamarckians in his early satires, including in Antic Hay, where he parodies one biologist who has “found a way of making acquired characteristics . . . heritable,”30 many of Huxley’s ideas are compatible with the soft Lamarckism that is today, in spite of Darwinism’s long and continuing reign, embraced by many geneticists.31