Altered states of consciousness: the elusiveness of the mind

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Altered states of consciousness may immediately bring to mind psychedelics or hypnosis, but there are many ways to induce such non-ordinary states. But first, a conundrum. In order to define altered states of consciousness, we need to ask: what is an ordinary state of consciousness? Because scientists can’t agree on an answer to this question, altered states of consciousness don’t have a clear definition. That is not to say they don’t matter. However transient, altered states of consciousness are key to understanding the human mind.

Since the origins of humankind

Altered states of consciousness have been used by humans for more than 30,000 years. According to the Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Transpersonal Psychology, excessive dancing, meditation, and mind-altering plants were used in ancient civilizations to modulate the activity of the mind. Terence McKenna, an American ethnobotanist, even thought that the use of psychedelic mushrooms had led to the “evolution of human language and symbol use.” Other researchers suggest that mind-altering substances may have been a core factor in the creation of today’s most common religions.

Much later, in 1892, the term “altered states of consciousness” was used for the first time in reference to hypnosis: “The faculties of reason and judgement, the elaborate and regulative faculties, in this altered state of consciousness, are obviously dependent on sense perceptions, and vary accordingly as they do,” writes an anonymous doctor in an article about hypnosis published in the Aberdeen Standard.

There are many forms of non-ordinary mental states, which all seem to distort our sense of space and time. Marc Wittmann is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health in Germany. In his book Altered States of Consciousness, he explains: “In extraordinary states of consciousness—moments of shock, meditation, sudden mystical experiences, near-death experiences, under the influence of drugs—temporal consciousness is fundamentally altered. Hand in hand with this goes an altered consciousness of space and self. In these extreme circumstances, time and concepts of space and self are modulated together— intensified or weakened together. But in more ordinary situations, too, such as boredom, the experience of flow, and idleness, time and self are collectively altered.”

While these altered states may seem to belong to the realm of purely subjective experiences, Wiliam James introduced the scientific investigation of “mystical experiences and drug-induced states” into the field of psychology, positioning such experiences as valuable academic research tools to explore the multiple facets of the human mind. We still know very little about altered states of consciousness, but the progress we are making has profound implications for modern psychology, neuroscience, pharmacology, and psychiatry.

The five altered states of consciousness

Between breathwork, dance, lucid dreaming, sexual intercourse, sleep deprivation, fasting, music, meditation, sensory deprivation, hypnosis, psychoactive substances, and physical exercise, there are many ways to induce altered states of consciousness. These do not include all the pathological and uncontrollable ways people can experience these altered states, such as psychosis, epilepsy, or brain trauma. In 2012, Dr Dieter Vaitl from Bender Institute of Neuroimaging in Germany proposed a model with five distinct altered states of consciousness based on the induction method.

  1. Pharmacological. These altered states include short-term changes in the general configuration of one’s individual experience caused by psychoactive substances, such as LSD, MDMA (ecstasy), cannabis, cocaine, opioids (morphine, heroin), or even alcohol. Many of these substances alter the state of consciousness by shifting levels of neurotransmitters in the brain, causing changes in awareness and behaviour.
  2. Psychological. Hypnosis, meditation, and even music can lead to altered mental states. For instance, hypnosis can lead to reduced peripheral awareness as well as an enhanced capacity to respond to suggestion, and music therapy can enhance relaxation and decrease anxiety. Meditation can be hard to define, but it is used in many religious and spiritual practices to achieve a clear and calm mental state.
  3. Physical and physiological. One the most common ways to achieve an altered state of consciousness is sleep, where we dream and dissociate from reality. Two others are fasting and sex. Deprivation from food and drinks over an extended period of time can lead to a perceived dissociation from reality. Yet other physical and physiological inductive methods include sleep deprivation and oxygen deprivation.
  4. Pathological. Because it fundamentally changes the way the brain works, a traumatic experience causing brain damage can lead to an altered state of consciousness. According to Dr Jeffrey Avner, patients report either a reduced self-awareness and overall awareness, or an increased awareness of the environment. Other pathological sources of altered states of consciousness include epileptic or psychotic episodes.
  5. Spontaneous. Finally, altered states can be spontaneous, such as daydreaming and mind wandering, or when people report a near death experience.

The case of daydreaming is particularly interesting. Several studies show that it may be the brain’s default setting when we’re not actively engaged in a task, and that the default mode network, which is associated with this default setting, is more active when we are daydreaming. Would daydreaming then be the default state of consciousness, rather than an altered state? Can we really call these “altered” states when it is so hard to define the “default” state? And why do we spend so much time and energy seeking these “altered” states?

Universal elusiveness

“The  production and use of substances that alter perception, change consciousness, and create illusion and hallucination seems to be embedded throughout the natural world, as a thread somehow woven into the fabric of life itself,” writes Dr Peter Brace from Swinburne University.

Maybe instead of considering a default state and a myriad of altered states, we need to contemplate the possibility that all these states of consciousness are all equally important modes of perception. Some may seem more useful to productively function in our world—to make decisions, to navigate our immediate environment, to effectively communicate with others—but none is more valid than the others. Any mental state forms an elusive part of consciousness as a whole.