James Fadiman’s Symphony of Selves
James Fadiman, Ph.D., the 81-year-old American psychologist best known for his far-reaching work in psychedelic research, has written a new book. Only this one isn’t about psychedelics — at least not on the surface.
In Your Symphony of Selves, as the book is titled, Fadiman argues that each person consists not of one single capital-s “Self,” but rather of a collection of various and disparate “selves,” plural.
Fadiman’s interest in multiple selves began over 30 years ago, when he presented a talk on the subject at the MIND Center. In the audience sat Jordan Gruber, a writer and attorney who would over the years become Fadiman’s dear friend.
“I gave him [Gruber] a file drawer full of files,” Fadiman tells me, “and then a couple of weeks later, another one… And he came back to me and he said, ‘Do you know you have made eight outlines for a book over the years?’”
Fadiman and Gruber’s final product is a 448-page volume summarizing Fadiman’s research and reflections on the multi-faceted nature of personality.
Through an extensive review of multiple selves as seen throughout history, science, religion, art, and pop culture, the authors explain how shifting in and out of the right self at the right time increases our talents, productivity, creativity, emotional wellbeing, and physical health.
Having multiple selves, Fadiman argues, is not a sign of pathology, but rather of health — that is, provided we know how to shift “into the right mind at the right time,” as he puts it.
Think of it this way: if your internal village of selves includes a salesperson who looks sharp in a suit, a party animal who loves running around nude, and an empathetic poet; which one do you want to shift into on Monday morning as you’re logging in to a business Zoom meeting? While these selves are all a part of you, they are not all appropriate in every situation: If the exhibitionist shows up to a board meeting, you’ll be out of a job.
What does that have to do with psychedelics? A surprising lot, as Fadiman tells me over the phone.
“Psychedelics obviously not only shift you,” he says, “but, if you take a high enough dose, [they] take all your selves and throw them in a box.” Integrating a psychedelic experience, then, “is trying to put your puzzle back together, but not the same way… it’s a chance to re-establish a better harmony with your selves.”
This reworking of the self-puzzle may at least in part explain why psychedelics work so well in the treatment of substance use disorders.
Fadiman states that after taking psilocybin to treat smoking addiction, for example, a person’s selves may have a conversation like this:
Smoker Self: “Does anyone else here want to smoke?”
Other Selves: “No, none of us do! And did you notice that you, the Smoker, like breathing and tasting and not having your kids angry at you?”
Fadiman explains that the Smoker Self in this example doesn’t disappear, die, or get banished from the personality. Rather, it “just gets a lot less air time — but it’s still there.”
Fadiman has observed similar shifts in alcoholics who have used LSD to get sober. “It wasn’t willpower, it wasn’t A.A. meetings, it wasn’t incremental. It was that they’d shifted, and they’d shifted into a part of themselves that didn’t drink.”
While some of those who use psychedelics to quit drinking can go on to have the occasional drink without relapsing, Fadiman warns that for others, “The taste of alcohol can be so strong that it shifts them into the person who had incredibly poor judgment about their physiology.”
MDMA is also a valuable tool for harmonizing our many selves, especially for those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This may be because, as Fadiman puts it, “MDMA lets you talk among your different selves and nobody walks out of the room.”
Psychedelic medicine is not the only tool for creating greater harmony within one’s symphony of selves, however. In fact, psychedelics are rarely mentioned in his latest book.
This may be because Fadiman, too, has multiple selves, and the self that co-wrote Your Symphony of Selves was a self other than his Psychonaut/Researcher Self. “I have a very strong curiosity,” Fadiman says. “I’m equally interested in the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the 12th century ruler of England and of France… I have a lot of interests.”
One of those interests, of course, is microdosing.
When I asked him if he ever expected his work on microdosing to get so much attention, Fadiman replied, “I had no idea.”
He continues: “When microdosing came along, I thought, ‘Well, isn’t this puzzling?’ and I thought, ‘I’m not particularly interested…’ But when the rabbit hole beckons, there you go!”
And there he went, indeed. “As I started discovering some of the really remarkable sides of microdosing,” Fadiman says, “the idea that it can help people easily, inexpensively, and safely was really amazing.”
In 2019, Fadiman co-authored a study on microdosing with Sophia Korb, Ph.D. The study summarizes data self-reported by over 1,000 people located in 59 countries who have tried microdosing psychedelics. Fadiman and Korb continue to gather reports at MicrodosingPsychedelics.com.
Their data show that the microdosing of psychedelics is not only correlated with improvements in mental health — Fadiman says it has about an 80% success rate for depression — but also for physiological ailments like premenstrual syndrome (PMS), migraines, and pain. One individual even reported that their blurry vision intermittently improved with microdosing. “For most people with this or that condition, they improve,” Fadiman marvels.
As for a biochemical mechanism of action, “There are too many different positive reports for it [microdosing] to fit into an easy pharmacological model,” Fadiman muses. “So what we’re looking at is something that seems to improve the equilibrium systems in the body.”
In other words, microdosing psilocybin or LSD may help nudge the body back toward its inherent propensity for health. That could be why some report that taking a microdose at the first sign of a cold or flu can work wonders. “Microdosing seems to allow the system to right itself more easily,” says Fadiman.
That being said, he points out that some companies are selling microdosing as a treatment for obesity and Alzheimer’s disease, when “there’s no data,” per his reports. To him, this flavor of commercialization “just feels like a very sad, infomercial way to go about working with things that are really valuable and sacred.”
As for the medicalization of psychedelics, however, he is on board: “If you’re going to try and go from inside the culture, you find where is the power, where are the levers. The current religion of the United States is science-and-medical. So I’m okay with it.”
The many selves Fadiman has shown to the world include: the Psychonaut, the Peace-and-Love-Guy, the Researcher, the Ph.D., the Teacher, the University Co-Founder (of Sophia University), the Fiction Writer, the Nonfiction Writer, the Photographer, the Speaker, the Father, the Husband, the Eleanor-of-Aquitaine Fan Club Member, and the Healthy Multiplicity Researcher.
He says that looking at himself through the lens of the multiple self model “has made it clear to me why I could do certain shifts that seemed externally from a unified self model to make no sense.”
In other words: James Fadiman knows that he is no one thing.
To him, it is “clear that one’s personality is not the best way to view the whole being. You are larger than your ego structure. You are more connected to other people and to the natural world than you are separate.”
And once you realize that — whether it’s with the help of a microdose, a macrodose, or a book about multiple selves — it “shifts your relationship with pretty much everything.”