The sixth annual Mind Matters conference, hosted by U of T’s Buddhism & Psychology Students’ Union in conjunction with the U of T Jungian Society, took place last Saturday morning at Victoria College’s Isabel Bader Theatre. Titled “Altered States,” this year’s event brought a group of reputed scientists and thinkers together to engage in a lively intellectual discussion on the implications of psychedelics in medicine and psychology. 

The psychology conference, which attracted a full house audience and required almost 40 staff to organize, is the largest of its kind in Canada. Despite the packed house, Ammar Ijaz, one of the many student organizers, described it as a “community” gathering.  General admission tickets for the event sold out within six hours of being made available, while the supply of student tickets was exhausted after thirteen minutes.

Panelists for the event included Professors Dan Dolderman, John Vervaeke, and Jordan Peterson, all prominent thinkers in the field of psychology. American ethnopharmacologist Dennis McKenna joined the U of T lecturers on stage. The focus of this year’s conference revolved around altered states of consciousness. Topics of discussion included psychedelic medicine, meditation, lucid dreams, trance states, and mystical experiences.

The award winning lecturer, Professor Vervaeke, who is a five-time veteran of the conference, opened the conference with an exploration of what he described as the “meaning crisis of modernity.” Vervaeke invoked and interpreted the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche and other philosophers by way of delivering his point, observing a fundamental difference between wisdom and knowledge, ultimately concluding, “knowledge is about overcoming ignorance, wisdom is about overcoming foolishness.” He ended his presentation to a round of applause with an endorsement of the pursuit of altered states of mind for their potential to enhance human understanding and consciousness.

Professor Dolderman picked up after a brief intermission and schedule change. “This talk,” he said, “is a call to awakening … a call to battle” he exclaimed. “There is no altered state,” he said. “I’m not interested in ethics or morals. I’m interested in how I experience the world;” adding that, “we feel first, then reason later [but we] don’t feel deeply enough.” 

By listing a series of everyday interactions with seemingly mundane ideas and objects such as steaks, eggs, the War on Terror, and the economy, Dolderman argued that, “what we experience isn’t exactly the real world. Not experientially but rather simply intellectually.” Steaks do not magically become slabs of meat on our dinner plates. Rather, the reality is the mistreatment of cows. Wars are as connected to freedom and liberty as they are to death, he observed.

The speakers each presented academic theories on the potential of psychedelics in psychology and medicine, informed by current research and elucidated through term definitions and analogies, to a visibly engaged audience. Discussion on stage was supplemented with lively social media engagement, moderated by a dedicated team of volunteers, through the use of an official Mind Matters Twitter hashtag,

The event was initially supposed to consist of five speakers with intermissions for coffee, a provided lunch, and an interactive panel discussion. Unfortunately, a slight change of schedule was required since one of the speakers, Lee Maracle, fell ill and was unable to attend.

In a post-event interview, an exhausted, but pleased, Ijaz described some of the challenges he faces every year in organizing the conference. “Funding is always a big challenge.” This year, they were able to crowd fund a quarter of the projected conference costs. They were also successful in acquiring sponsorship for subsided student tickets.

Ijaz expressed his surprise at how quickly the event sold out. They had hoped to find a venue for 1,000 attendees, but were unable to find the necessary funding. He also drew attention to the conference organizers’ efforts to bring a broad range of perspectives to the selection of the event’s speakers after a comment on Twitter criticized the conference’s lack of visible diversity.  “We strive for incredible diversity,” noted Ijaz, though he conceded that, despite their best efforts, the event fell a “little bit short of the mark.”

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Editor’s Note (March 10th, 2016): An earlier version of this article misattributed a quote to David Taylor.