December 21, 2020: The winter equinox; the longest night and shortest day of the year…
Who are you? Ever wonder? You didn’t just create this personality out of thin air. No, it’s been a long, complicated process. One in which you have had very little control. You did not create yourself; you were created by your environment. If you were born on the other side of the globe, you would be a completely different person behaving in line with the culture and values of that land. If you were born in the middle east, there is a high likelihood that you would practice the local religion, eat very different food, and have different values. If you were born in Mexico there is an extremely high likelihood that you would would be Christian and eat a diet heavy in beans, rice, and tortillas. I know, I’m Mexican, and it’s delicious, but that’s for another post.
The point is you are a reflection, a product of your environment, because that’s how the brain works. We create our identity by mimicking the behavior of those around us. The most influential being our parents of course but next are usually our siblings and relatives, then as we get older, friends and colleagues. The brain is wired to mimic. You may remember acting like your parents or older siblings when you were young or perhaps you started talking like your closest friends in adolescence. We mimic our environment in order to survive in that environment. We look up to those around us and emulate them. Their behaviors, their values, their outlook on things, their worldviews, their defense mechanisms, their belief systems. Jim Rohn has famously said that we are the “average of the five people we associate with the most.” So if our current personality is a product of all the personalities we have ever been exposed to in life, then who are we?
Case studies of feral humans, humans who grew up in the wild without human contact, provide evidence of just how much we mirror our environments. The case of Marcos Rodríguez Pantoja is one such account. Marcos lived in the wild among wolves for fifteen years, during which time he was not exposed to any humans since the day he was abandoned at seven years old in the mountains of the Sierra Morena in southern Spain 1953. Years earlier he had been sold into slavery by his father where he would tend to a herd of 300 goats until he was transferred into the care of an elderly sheperd who lived in a small cave deep in the Sierra Morena, a sparsely populated mountain range full of wolves and wild boars. Over the next fifteen years he learned to hunt and stay alive by watching animals and mimicking their behavior. When he was found by police in 1965, he was wrapped in a deerskin and with long, matted hair, and eating fruit under a tree. He was no longer human. Having lost the use of language, he did not know how to respond to the officers questions. He tried to run but the police caught him quickly, tied him up and took him to the nearest village where he began his difficult and strife ridden life with humans. Marcos was then brought to the hospital ward of a convent in Madrid where he stayed for a year and received a remedial education from the nuns. Having lost the use of language, Marcos communicated through a combination of barks, chirps, screeches, and howls.
His reintegration into human society in his early twenties delivered a multitude of shocks as he had never been exposed to technology. His first time in a cinema, Marcos ran out of the theater because he thought the horses in the cowboy film were going to pop through the screen. The first time he got a haircut, he sat in front of the mirror and wondered who was looking back at him. Then, when the barber began sharpening his razor, Marcos lunged at him thinking the barber was going to kill him. “I thought it was either me or him,” Marcos later explained after relearning language. The first time he heard a radio, he thought there were actual people trapped inside the radio, speaking. On his first boat ride from Barcelona to Mallorca, Marcos wondered why there was so much water surrounding the boat. He asked the captain who replied, “We tied the water to the boat,” pointing to one of the ropes hanging off the gunwhale. Marcos’ physiology even changed to adapt to his environment. He walked like a bowlegged monkey, had thick callouses on his feet, and was “seemingly immune to the cold,” recall his caretakers. They tied him to a board to straighten his back out.
The rest of his life Marcos was in and out of several homes and worked many odd jobs. He did eventually learn to speak again but it took several years of intense effort by many teachers. Though he now has the ability to speak, his level of interaction and communication skills remain at the level of a seven year old, the year he was abandoned. Because of Marcos’ inability to integrate into human society, his naivety and ignorance was taken advantage of by many. He was robbed several times and underpaid for most jobs that he worked as he did not understand money. It has been an extreme struggle for Marcos to live among humans and when asked, he replies adamantly that his life was “much better in the mountains than among humans.” Among humans, he says, he was constantly humiliated. “Among people, I learned to hate and to be embarrassed,” says Marcos. “Even in my worst moments, I preferred the mountains to the thought of home.”
Especially confusing to Marcos was the drastic change in the way he was treated after receiving fame as the subject of the Spanish documentary based on his life, “Entrelobos.” People wrote to him from all over the world wanting to understand him, some wanted his advice, and some said they wanted to take care of him. Schools asked him to visit to share his story to their pupils. Journalists called Marcos nonstop asking for interviews. “There was a queue outside as long as the one at a benefits office,” says Marcos. “People still come round all the time. Some of them think I’m rich and try to exploit me. I don’t have a penny!” On one occasion, a woman visited his house and declared her love for him. “She offered herself to me and said that we should go into business together. I suppose she thought I made loads of money from the film!” Marcos has never been able to understand why humans would ignore him, ridicule him, treat him poorly, and take advantage of him for so many years and now all of a sudden they seemed to love him. “Especially when I hadn’t changed,” he says.
“You know, at first they didn’t want to listen to a word of what I was saying. Now, they can’t stop listening. What is it they actually want?”
“When a person talks, they might say one thing but mean another. Animals don’t do that.”
Marcos has never been able to assimilate to human life. He lives alone in a small house that was given to him in Rante, a small town of 60 or so families in Galicia, in north-west Spain. He no longer works and spends his time walking in the countryside, at the bar drinking and smoking cigarettes, or hunting wild boar. Marcos watches a lot of daytime TV.
There are several hundred cases just like Marcos’, abandoned as a child and forced to live in the wild with no human interaction. As in the case of “John Ssebunya,” a young boy who was discovered in a forest near Kampalain Uganda in 1991 who, after relearning language, claims to have been raised by monkeys. He claims they brought him food and containers of water made of giant leaves and that he even played hide-and-seek with their young. Or the case of Victor of Aveyron who emerged from a forest in southern France in 1800, aged 12, after seven years living in the wild. Or “Genie,” who spent almost her entire childhood locked in a bedroom, isolated, and abused for over a decade. She had little to no human contact her entire childhood. Genie’s life prior to her discovery was one of utter deprivation. She spent most of her days tied naked to her potty chair only able to move her hands and feet. When she made noise, her father would beat her. Her father, mother, and older brother rarely spoke to her.
In each of these cases, language acquisition proved almost impossible. The unique circumstances surrounding these feral children who had not learned language at a young age sparked interest by learned men keen to test their theories of language and education. Could a child reared in utter deprivation and isolation develop language? Could a nurturing environment make up for a horrifying past? This research led to the development of the “critical period hypothesis,” first proposed by Montreal neurologist Wilder Penfield and co-author Lamar Roberts in their 1959 book “Speech and Brain Mechanisms,” which claims that there is an ideal time window to acquire language in a linguistically rich environment, after which further language acquisition becomes much more difficult and effortful.
The hypothesis states that the first few years of life is the crucial time in which an individual can acquire a first language if presented with adequate stimuli, and that first-language acquisition relies on neuroplasticity. If language input does not occur until after this time, the individual will never achieve a full command of language. There is much debate over when this critical period is with estimates ranging between 2 and 13 years of age.
We learned a lot about the human brain from these cases. But why did we stop with language? Let’s think about this a bit more. Let’s remember these cases to remind us how much our environment matters in the formation of who we are, and who we continue to be. If we are simply a reflection, a mirror image, can we look away from the mirror for a second and see what lies beyond it? Can we reshape, re imagine, and recreate our identity by looking away? Logic would have it that only in this way can we gain awareness of our behaviors and a broader perspective of who we are. In the same way that a sports player views the game on the screen in order to improve their performance, we can and must look away from the mirror to find out who we truly are. To see our weaknesses and blind spots that are invisible in our construct of reality. Only then, with awareness of our behaviors and where they originated from can we begin to deconstruct the different adopted facets of our personality that are harmful and hurtful to ourselves and those around us and recreate a new outlook, a new worldview, new neurological connections in the brain based on thoughts and feelings of gratitude, love, and empathy. Only then can we wake up to who we truly are. Otherwise we are living blind. As Alan Watts, the late British writer and philosopher said, “Waking up to who you are requires letting go of who you imagine yourself to be.”
So how do we step outside of ourselves in order to view ourselves? There are several ways of achieving this broader perspective; this 30,000 foot view of life. Any mental practice that incorporates introspection, such as meditation and yoga, are very effective and powerful ways to not only improve our physical and mental health, but to begin turning our mind into the observer, in effect “looking away from the mirror.” Another extremely powerful tool to achieve this goal is using psychedelics in a controlled, safe setting, through what is known as “ego dissolution.” Three years ago, on December 22, 2017, my life was saved from severe clinical depression overnight with the use of psilocybin mushrooms. In a matter of hours, the depression was gone and has stayed gone. This was the day I looked away from the mirror and began deconstructing who I had become, and creating who I am today. Over the next three years to this day, I maintained a yoga/ meditation/ breathwork/ ice bath/ exercise routine that allows me to step outside of my subconscious programming daily, to watch my performance on the screen, so to speak, so that my game never falters. Strategic use of psychedelics have allowed me to dive deep into my psyche, to look at the traumas I have endured in my life and realize my faults, my shortcomings, my dysfunctions, my neuroticism, my need to be right, my tendency to manipulate situations, were not my fault and not my own. In this way, I don’t have to continue mimicking these behaviors, I can create new ones. I can create an entirely new personality. And the person I want to be, and have become, is a strong, happy, healthy, person who is deeply in love with life and everything in it. As author Dr. Joe Dispenza says, 95% of who we are is a subconscious set of beliefs and behaviors that were adopted for survival purposes. We can tap into the subconscious through various means, however, and begin to rewrite these programs. If we can create and connect with the emotions of our imagined future, we can being to let go of the knee jerk reactions that have dominated our lives and begin to rewrite new reactions. Cultivating the power of visualization to achieve this has been paramount in my journey. So dramatic and powerful was my shift and so incredible my life has been that I wrote a book about my experience called “Taking Back My Mind,” which I recently published. I went from almost killing myself to being a genuinely happy, published author because of the ingestion of a few nontoxic psilocybin mushrooms.
This is the power and the promise that psychedelics hold. Every week now there is an ever growing body of scientific evidence showing the safety and effectiveness of psychedelics to heal trauma and eradicate mental illness. The aspirin in your medicine cabinet is much more lethal than any of the classic psychedelics. Coffee is much more lethal. To fail to consider these treatments, practices, and medicines for the purpose of self improvement is to refuse to look at the game on the screen with the team for no reason other than false beliefs (understandably so as we have been fed lies about the safety of psychedelics for over fifty years) and fear. Fear of the experience and fear of change. But as Terence McKenna, the late American ethnobotanist and psychedelic enthusiast, has said, “All flows. Nothing lasts. Nothing is saved, and this is our glory and our agony. That the people we love and the people we hate are swept away by time. Empires, dynasties, continents are swept away by time. And yet our search for security is cast in the dominator culture as a search for permanence. So what you do when you do that is you set yourself at war against the cosmos.” Change is inevitable and the only constant. Embrace change and you will embrace the momentum of the universe.
There will be a day when neglecting this opportunity to “look away from the mirror” and discover our true selves, to rewire the subconscious behaviors and beliefs we inherited, to achieve self awareness, self improvement, emotional control, and transcendence of the ego through a mental discipline of some sort and/or with the use of psychedelics, will be seen as primitive, as willfully staying blind to the greater consciousness, as willfully limiting our awareness. It will be seen as the behavior of a savage animal, of feral humans who have never been exposed to the civil norms of a mentally and emotionally advanced society. It will be compared to the days we did not wash our hands before medical procedures, which was not that long ago.
According to Terence McKenna’s “Stoned Ape Theory,” the human frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex developed rapidly over a period of about two million years as a result of neurogenesis sparked by the consumption of psilocybin mushrooms growing on cow patties as climate change forced Homo Erectus into the Savanna. The psychedelic effect of the mushrooms would have given them a hunting advantage due to enhanced visual and auditory acuity, increased focus, a reduction of activity in the fear centers of our early brains, as well as a reproductive advantage due to the mushrooms’ aphrodisiac effect, thus evolving into Homo Sapiens. In fact, throughout the history of humanity, every civilization that has ever existed, with the exception of the Inuit in the Arctic; the only place on earth that psychedelic plants do not grow; have used psychedelic plants and fungi in sacred spiritual ceremonies as well as to heal trauma and treat emotional and mental health. I believe the worlds problems we see today are simply a societal manifestation of the same issues we deal with as individuals: the battle with our ego. If we wish for a better future, we must enable the individual the necessary tools for self reflection, self awareness, and self improvement. We must look away from the mirror in order to discover ourselves.
If it took two million years of psychedelic consumption for Homo Sapiens to get this far, I believe it will take psychedelics for us to make it another two hundred years as a species.