Graham Hancock
Video still from

Graham Hancock is a popular author and researcher best known for his books about ancient civilizations, such as Fingerprints of the Gods and The Sign and the Seal. A controversial figure, Hancock puts forth unconventional theories about the origins of human civilization. While he has been considered an outsider to most mainstream scientists, Hancock is a hero to many who share his questioning approach to the conventional understanding of human history.

In January 2013, Hancock was invited to speak at TEDx Whitechapel where he gave a fascinating presentation about the shamanistic roots of human civilization, humanity’s ancient relationship with psychedelic plants, and his own personal experiences with ayahuasca.[1. “The War on Consciousness,” Graham Hancock.] The talk was titled “The War on Consciousness” and, in an ironic twist of fate, it would become somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy when the TED organizers decided to remove the presentation (along with another convention-challenging talk from the same event by Rupert Sheldrake) from their main archive on the grounds that it had unscientific tenants and spoke too candidly about the effects of psychedelics on consciousness. While the controversy surrounding Hancock’s presentation was dramatic and image-tarnishing on both sides, the net effect of the talk and the ensuing debate has been to encourage precisely the kind of dialogue that we need about the use of psychedelics.

The Controversial Talk

In his talk, Hancock describes how his own experiences with ayahuasca were part of his investigation into how entheogens may have played a role in the evolution of human consciousness, art, and symbolic thinking. His experiences with the “vine of souls” were powerful and life-changing. In addition to helping him better understand the world’s ancient visionary traditions, he describes how ayahuasca served as a tool for self-reflection in his own life, explaining how it helped him to make positive behavior changes and give up his decades-long habit of excessive marijuana use.

After the video of the talk was published, TED lashed back. In initial public statements, they argued that the talk was “well beyond the realm of reasonable science” and that Hancock spoke about psychotropic drugs in a “nonscientific and reckless” way.[1. “Open for discussion: Graham Hancock and Rupert Sheldrake from TEDxWhitechapel.” March 14, 2013.] [2. TED softened their message over time, acquiescing that the language of the initial statement was “clumsy” and that because Hancock and Sheldrake “explicitly take on mainstream scientific opinion, it gives them a stronger reason to be listened to than those who simply use scientific sounding language to make nonsensical claims.” However, despite their claims that this was not censorship, the video remains unavailable on TED, TEDx, or their respective YouTube channels.]

This was certainly an overstatement. TED and TEDx regularly feature speakers from many varied disciplines – not just scientists – and Hancock, who does not claim to be a scientist, spoke of the substance from a personal point of view rather than that of a scientist. He described ayahuasca as a nauseating, non-recreational substance that should only be used in a ceremonial context, and also shared how his experiences with ayahuasca helped him to give up his overuse of cannabis, which he described as being counterproductive to his relationships and his work. While Hancock explained that he believes cannabis can be a highly beneficial plant when used appropriately, his candid self-reflection about his struggles with cannabis overuse is important. Rather than being reckless, as the people at TED argued, this is exactly the kind of real and nuanced talk about psychotropic substances that we need.

The War on Consciousness

Throughout the talk, Hancock advocates for the sovereign right of every adult to have the freedom to explore their consciousness with visionary plants, so long as they do it responsibly and without endangering others. He points out that scientific and political establishments are often antithetical to this kind of freedom, forcing people who want to try psychedelics to do so illegally, incarcerating people who are caught with these plants, and dismissing the insights gained on these substances as meaningless hallucinations. However, this “war on consciousness” is less a concerted effort on the part of the political or scientific establishment than it is a byproduct of Western culture, which heavily emphasizes rational thought and scientific progress over intuitive understanding and inner exploration. This begs the question: What have we lost in our myopic pursuit of this kind of progress?

The indigenous cultural perspectives that Hancock advocates for have largely been dismissed as superstitious and primitive. It must be noted, however, that while modern science is only a few hundred years old (and arguably endangering our natural world on multiple fronts), these cultures have used ayahuasca and lived in harmony with their environments for thousands of years. Just as a remote tribe could potentially benefit from innovations in medicine and technology, our Western culture could certainly benefit from the sacred wisdom that visionary plants provide us about our interconnection with the biosphere and the cosmos.

The Rational Mind and Mystical Experience

Despite TED’s dismissal, or perhaps because of it, Hancock’s TED talk has been successful in catalyzing a debate about the merits of the transcendent experiences that psychedelics provide, as well as the systematic pressures that restrict this vital message. It serves to illustrate the friction between cultures that value rational thought and those that value intuitive insight, and the messy process of integrating these two worldviews. While it is challenging, it seems that we will need the very best of both of these worlds if we want a future that is enhanced by our greatest scientific progress but balanced by a sustainable and holistic understanding of life and the wonderful mystery of consciousness.