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Altered States of Consciousness

When you hear the words "altered states of consciousness," you might immediately think of intoxication. The term "altered state" is often used as a euphemism to mean that someone has been drinking. But what if I told you that we all shift through altered states of consciousness throughout the day? 

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When you hear the words "altered states of consciousness," you might immediately think of intoxication. The term "altered state" is often used as a euphemism to mean that someone has been drinking. But what if I told you that we all shift through altered states of consciousness throughout the day?

  • What are altered states of consciousness?
  • What are the characteristics of altered states of consciousness?
  • What are some examples of altered states of consciousness?
  • Are there advantages to altered states of consciousness?
  • What does Andrew Weil say about altered states of consciousness?
  • What does Charles Tart say about altered states of consciousness?

Altered States of Consciousness: Definition

How can consciousness be defined? Consciousness is abstract and hard to measure, but psychologists and philosophers alike agree that consciousness is our unique awareness and perception of the environment and ourselves.

Consciousness enables us to make sense of our world, emotions, and sensations. Our conscious awareness helps us evaluate our experiences, make decisions, and make plans for our life. Conscious awareness is fundamental to everything we do. What if there was a change in our conscious awareness? What is it called when you find yourself daydreaming in class? An altered state of consciousness. But what does that mean?

Altered states of consciousness are changes in our normal conscious awareness due to internal or external factors.

We can change our mental state by eating or drinking certain substances or intoxicants. Our mental state can change through mindfulness practices as well. We also pass through several spontaneous changes of consciousness throughout the day.

Characteristics of Altered States of Consciousness

Altered states of consciousness share certain characteristics. Fundamentally, they are characterized by a change in our normal mental state. These changes can look like distortions of perception, the sense of time, or the sense of place like we experience in dreams. The following dream sequence might sound relatable.

You find yourself in an abandoned mansion, but you somehow know that it symbolically represents your grandmother's house. You sit down to chat with her for two minutes, but it's suddenly the next morning, and you're already late for school. Glancing at your watch, you suddenly find yourself in a field.

We might experience changes in awareness, memory, thinking, behavior, emotions, or self-control when we consume alcohol or drugs.

Claire had one too many drinks at a party and found herself sobbing about an ex she hadn't thought of in years. She tries to call him, but she can't figure out her phone. Her friends have to convince her not to jump in a taxi and go to their house.

Altered States of Consciousness Examples

There is more than one type of altered state of consciousness that can be experienced.

Spontaneous States

Spontaneous states of consciousness occur on their own throughout the day. We pass into them without awareness. We become aware of passing through these states after they occur.

Altered States of Consciousness, Photo of woman daydreaming, StudySmarterFig. 1 Our daydreams are an altered state of consciousness.

Daydreaming

During conscious awareness, we are primarily focused on internal stimuli. We are observing, processing, and reacting to events and sensations in our environment. When we daydream, we focus our attention on internal stimuli. We detach from the external world and focus on our internal feelings, thoughts, and on imagined scenarios. Our daydreams can be made up of fantasies or the situations we fear the most. In our daydreams, we can rehearse important events or plan for our futures.

Drowsiness

When we are drowsy, we are less focused on external stimuli than we are during regular conscious awareness. We are unable to consistently exert mental effort to do things like fully follow a conversation or college lecture. We can even momentarily lose control of our bodies when we're drowsy. There's nothing more embarrassing than having your head come crashing down onto your desk in class due to a severe case of drowsiness.

Dreaming

When we dream, we experience a much lower level of focus on external stimuli. However, our brains remain quite active. In our dreams, we live our stories, experience our surroundings, and have emotional experiences. All of these things feel incredibly real, although none of it is actually happening.

Psychologically Induced

We can actually train our minds to enter into a different state of consciousness.

Meditation

Meditation involves actively focusing our attention inwardly. It usually involves sitting in a comfortable position, rhythmic breathing, and focusing on internal sensations as they occur. We experience reduced focus on external stimuli when we meditate.

Altered states of consciousness, photo of a woman meditating, StudySmarterFig. 2 Meditation is also a form of altered state of consciousness and has proven beneficial to health.

Hypnosis

Hypnosis occurs when a trained professional suggests certain feelings, perceptions, behaviors, and thoughts into existence in a patient. During hypnosis, patients can appear to be perfectly alert or awake but have no memory of their experience once they come out of hypnosis. Through hypnosis, patients have emerged with better pain management, a better emotional state, and healthier behaviors like no longer desiring to smoke.

Sensory Deprivation

Sensory deprivation involves intentionally reducing the stimuli that affect our five senses. This can be as simple as placing a blindfold over our eyes for a short time or as comprehensive as floating in the water of a special sensory-deprivation tank. Sensory deprivation shifts our focus from the external to the internal.

Physically Induced

Some states of consciousness are produced by changes in our bodies.

Hallucination

Hallucinations involve sensory experiences that occur in the absence of actual sensory stimuli. They often involve hearing or seeing things that are not actually there. Hallucinations are perceptual distortions and can occur during oxygen deprivation, migraines, substance withdrawal, seizures, sensory deprivation, or conditions like schizophrenia.

Orgasm

When we experience an orgasm, we experience an increase in some regions of awareness and a decrease in others. Our bodily awareness increases, and we keenly experience bodily sensations. At the same time, we experience a reduction in time and space awareness.

Oxygen or Food Starvation

An altered state of consciousness occurs in mild or severe food or oxygen starvation. In mild oxygen starvation, like altitude sickness, you might experience euphoria or drowsiness. In cases of choking or stroke, you might experience hallucinations, seizures, or total loss of consciousness.

Advantages of an Altered State of Consciousness

Altered states of consciousness can be adaptive. Meditation and simple sensory deprivation have resulted in a greater sense of well-being and purpose and reduced anxiety and depression. Hypnosis has helped people give up addictive behaviors, process grief, and manage pain.

Our bodies might even require certain altered states in order to function properly. There is a growing body of research that supports a link between dreaming and memory. Those who were deprived of REM sleep, when dreaming occurs, performed significantly worse on tests of memory and recall. (Empson & Clarke, 1970; Karni & Sagi, 1994).

Sleep plays an important part in memory consolidation. During sleep, memories are moved from the hippocampus to a more permanent location in the brain. Moreover, the brain areas that are active when we learn new things are the same areas that are active when we dream. Want to do better on an exam? Get better sleep!

Certain thinkers and cultural traditions have long used altered states of consciousness for spiritual practices, self-discovery, and enlightenment. More recently, altered states of consciousness have been linked to the treatment of certain mental conditions. In his book, How to Change Your Mind1, Michael Pollen investigates the positive effects of psilocybin, a naturally occurring psychedelic found in certain mushrooms, on conditions like depression, addiction, and those coming to grips with terminal illnesses.

Altered States of Consciousness and Andrew Weil

Andrew Weil is an American doctor who completed his undergraduate and medical studies at Harvard University. However, his interest in altered states of consciousness began long before he started university studies.

In his book, The Natural Mind 2, Weil proposes a change in our understanding of drug use. He was particularly interested in mind-expanding drugs like psilocybin or LSD, the chemical equivalent of psilocybin. Seen as a tool, drugs can help us to achieve a state of deep thinking. Through deep thinking, we are able to understand ourselves as an integrated part of the world.

For Weil, drugs are a tool for spiritual growth and profound self-discovery.

Charles Tart: Altered States of Consciousness

A contemporary of Weil, Charles Tart is an American psychologist with similar ideas about the manipulation of altered states of consciousness. His book, Altered States of Consciousness3, explores the use of altered states in the expansion of the self and increase in personal fulfillment. He discusses spontaneous and induced states of consciousness. His work has helped to establish the field of transpersonal psychology.

Transpersonal psychology is a subfield of humanistic psychology. It explores the nature, causes, effects, and variety of altered states of consciousness.

Like Weil and Tart, the field of transpersonal psychology encourages deep thinking and personal discovery to improve our understanding of our place in the world and the overall quality of our lives.

Altered States of Consciousness - Key takeaways

  • Consciousness is our unique awareness of our environment and ourselves. Altered states of consciousness are changes in our normal conscious awareness due to internal or external factors.
  • Altered states of consciousness can be spontaneous, psychologically induced, or physically induced.
  • Spontaneous states of consciousness are daydreaming, drowsiness, and dreams.
  • Psychologically induced states of consciousness are meditation, hypnosis, and sensory deprivation.
  • Physically induced states of consciousness are hypnosis, orgasm, and food or oxygen starvation.

References

  1. Pollen, M. (2018) How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
  2. Weil, A. (1998) The Natural Mind: An Investigation of Drugs and the Higher Consciousness Mariner Books 3. Tart, C. (1990) Altered States of Consciousness Harper
  3. Tart, C. (1990) Altered States of Consciousness Harper

Frequently Asked Questions about Altered States of Consciousness

Some examples of altered states of consciousness are daydreaming, drowsiness, dreaming, meditation, hypnosis, sensory deprivation, hallucination, orgasm, and oxygen or food starvation.

The advantages of altered states of consciousness are that they can be adaptive and can help us process grief, manage pain, curb addiction, reduce anxiety and depression, and give us a greater sense of well-being.

Altered states of consciousness are changes in our normal conscious awareness due to internal or external factors.

The difference between consciousness and an altered state of consciousness is a change in normal awareness due to internal or external factors.

The characteristics of altered states of consciousness can look like distortions of perception, the sense of time, or the sense of place like we experience in dreams.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Which of the following is not a spontaneous state of consciousness?

Which of the following is not a psychologically induced state of consciousness?

Which of the following is not a physically induced state of consciousness?

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