How do we Self-reflect and Use Technology to Learn, and What Role Could Psychedelics Play?
I’ve begun to feel as though I need some fresh perspectives. Truffle Report is still young, but we’ve managed to collect a good number of expert opinions. While there are some differences in the fine details, most agree on the high-level points. Psychedelics, in some form or other, will be medicalized and more readily available as a treatment for a wide range of mental health problems at some point in the not-too-distant future. Through no fault of my excellent interview subjects, it’s felt like a bit of an echo chamber. In the spirit of mixing things up, I contacted Professor Steve Joordens of the University of Toronto. Joordens is a professor of psychology at U of T’s Scarborough campus. “I’m also the director of what we call the advanced learning technologies lab,” he tells me, as we start our talk.
“I get a lot of requests from journalists these days,” Joordens says. “Mostly it’s about ‘why aren’t people following Covid rules’. You seemed like something different.” I was glad to give him a break. While he freely admitted that psychedelics were a blank spot in his professional knowledge, he does have a background in the space connecting technology and mental health. It’s an overlap that psychedelic companies are eagerly reaching into. Therapeutic psychedelic use is, after all, not just about treatment, but about self-knowledge and cognitive development.
The Growth Mindset and Psychedelics as a Tool to Teach us About Ourselves
“The real passion we have is trying to help students develop skills like critical thinking, communication, creativity, and collaboration,” Joordens says of his work at U of T. “The tie to mental health there is that if you have these skills, you tend to be able to better negotiate the challenges of life. I tell my students that critical thinking might help them get a promotion at work, or it might help them choose the right life partner. Either way, it’s a major positive advancement. Giving people the skills allows them to make good decisions, which is key to mental health.” Joordens adds, “We created these courses more to target student success than mental health,” but says the connection between the two is apparent. I’m inclined to agree.
In my quest for an outside opinion, I chose — admittedly with great heaps of my own bias— to frame psychedelics as a set of tools with the potential to teach us about ourselves. Using language from a previous interview, I expressed to Joordens the view that there are those who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves, and that psychedelics might be key in breaking down these barriers. “It’s interesting,” he answers. “One of the core ideas in a lot of educational work right now is this notion of a growth mindset. Which sounds really simple, but turns out not to be. It’s associated with Carol Dweck, a Stanford professor, and she distinguishes between what she calls a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset would be characterized by that speaker who says things like ‘I can’t learn that.’ Just having this notion that things are beyond them. Having a growth mindset is the notion of someone who is looking to grow, to learn, and the key to this mindset is the ability to listen to constructive feedback.”
“Now when someone gives you constructive feedback, they are in a sense, insulting or attacking you, or at the very least making naked some aspect of your work that is suboptimal. Most of us have this very natural reaction when there’s even a hint of an attack, and that is to fight or flee. It’s a primitive part of us.” Joordens draws an example from his academic background, saying “we know that over fifty percent of students don’t read what professors write on their papers. They don’t even look at it. Don’t want to see it. Others will go through it looking for something to argue with. What we want are those students who go through it carefully, are thinking about the feedback critically, and deciding whether they agree or not. The ability to get over that quick emotional reaction to being called out, bite that back and ask yourself ‘what’s actually being said and do I agree with it? Could that improve my performance going forward?’ That’s a lot of what I spend time on. I have a whole process and technology to support it, all focused on helping students develop that skill.”
Self-reflection as a Key to Learning
Much of what we’ve read and reported on firsthand in the field of psychedelic therapy revolves around the changing self-perception of the patient, that all-important openness and willingness to have thought patterns or ways of living altered. I posited to Joordens, in my own imperfect fashion, that psychedelics are not themselves a cure for anything, but a way, as an adjunct to therapy of one kind or another, to manifest that same growth mindset in order to overcome personal challenges.
“So the theory is that psychedelics might do that in a more natural way?” Joordens asks in response. “There are other things that do. I can give you another non-psychedelic example. One of the tasks I sometimes give students is to use their phone, and to record a video of themselves expressing some argument. Students get super paranoid about their image being out there. In the research I’ve done, they’ll create an average of seven videos before they submit one. They’re reflecting. They’re looking at the video, asking themselves ‘what do I like?’ or ‘what could I do differently?’ and engaging in this deep, self-reflective process because it’s their image. They don’t usually do that, but the idea of their image being out there elicits this response.” It’s an intriguing holistic comparison to the shift in self-perception brought on by a psychedelic experience.
“The key to this whole process for this whole thing is to try and get students out of their locked-in perspectives on how they look at themselves. Part of the learning process is asking them to give feedback as well, because when they are ultimately receiving it, I want them to be able to put themselves in the minds of those who gave it. Try to see your work through their eyes. That’s really the key. In the same way, if you take any kind of substance, you are changing the way you think about yourself. We are so held into our way of thinking about ourselves by our environment, by the people we work with, and our standard rituals of life that define who we are. Some psychedelics blow that all away,” Joordens says. “I can see a connection there. That they might be a more natural way of breaking us out of our standard approach to life, to viewing, thinking and perceiving, and maybe opening us up and giving us a richer sense of ourselves.”
How Deeply Should we Involve Technology in Our Educational Experience, Psychedelic or Otherwise?
Given Joordens’ background, I wanted his take on the emerging psychedelics tech platforms. The psychedelic industry has been increasingly flirting with tech, which is no surprise considering where so much of its leadership and capital come from. If psychedelics can be a tool to teach us about ourselves, then apps like Trip and MindLeap are the EdTech of the industry. My feeling around technology as a teaching tool has always been that there is a tradeoff between accessibility and efficacy at some point. There are certain things that, barring massive technological advancements, are just better taught in person. Psychedelic-assisted or otherwise, can tech substitute for the human connection in mental health? Does it facilitate it? Is it an adjunct? How reliant should we be on these tools?
“You’re getting into an issue that I’m very passionate about” Joordens answers. “When we think of the term educational technology, the word technology shouldn’t be given any special mojo. All it does is logistics, handling the passing around and presentation of information in effective ways. What it comes down to is what the technology is managing, that educational process. My efforts are to focus on the development of these skills, and to be able to do them at scale. I’m also one to argue that my ultimate goal for the kinds of technologies I work with, or the image that I have in mind in terms of success, is one of my students sitting in an interview for a job they want, and having the skills and ability to impress the people around the table. Can they think on their feet, react quickly, and display those real human interaction skills? I think we can lay the foundations through digital technologies, but none of that coaching is the same as literally sitting across the table from that person. Technology takes you close, laying an excellent foundation, but to really get those skills you have to be around that table, and able to apply what you’ve learned in the real world.”
The Expectations for Psychedelics, and Parting Thoughts on Metacognition
The goals Joordens has described, in my opinion, are not so different from those seeking to undergo psychedelic therapy, with the tie-in ultimately being that psychedelics are entering the mainstream in order to alter our perceptions of ourselves. Not as quick-fix panaceas for mental health, but to give us the tools and self-knowledge necessary to overcome conditions like addiction, depression, and anxiety. The discussion is still very much ongoing as to their long-term efficacy. What we do have is significant clinical and anecdotal evidence that they can cause those who take them to reevaluate their priorities, think critically about their lives, and change their patterns of behaviour. Time will tell whether the emerging tech platforms seeking to make the most of this space will be effective facilitators, or prove to be a clunky extra step to a previously naturalistic process.
“We have this notion called metacognition,” Joordens tells me as we begin to wind down. “Are you able to reflect on your own conditions and abilities and see where your strengths and weaknesses lie? It’s almost like we’re on analogous paths, where I’m trying to reach the same goal but doing it through this rigorous process, learning from feedback, whereas the notion of the psychedelic is that it does that in a more natural organic type of way.” Joordens explains this further in terms of cognitive states, adding, “I deal with a person as they are, fully conscious, trying to get them to see themselves differently. It could be that I’m fighting a much harder battle than if I could just give them some psilocybin tea or something. One of the keys to any kind of mental health, which ties all of this together, is having the sense that you are at the driver’s wheel. Having these skills I teach helps empower students, which they need to feel like they’re better able to meet the challenges. Maybe this is another way of reaching that goal.”