ALTERED STATES OF CONSCIOUSNESS



An altered state of consciousness is a brain state wherein one loses the sense of identity with one's body or with one's normal sense perceptions. A person may enter an altered state of consciousness through such things as sensory deprivation or overload, neurochemical imbalance, fever, or trauma. One may also achieve an altered state by chanting, meditating, entering a trance state, or ingesting psychedelic drugs.

The testimonies of mystics and meditators who claim that their ability to enter altered states of consciousness has brought them enlightenment or transcendence are generally regarded with great skepticism among the majority of scientists in Western society. Other researchers, especially those in the field of parapsychology, maintain that Western science must recognize the value of studying altered states of consciousness and face up to the fact that what scientists consider baseline or normal consciousness is not unitary. In the opinion of many parapsychologists, science must abandon the notion that waking, rational consciousness is the only form of any value and that all other kinds are pathological.

Researchers who study aspects of human consciousness have suggested that within the course of a single day an individual may flicker in and out of several states of consciousness. Some theorize that there are six states of "nonreflective consciousness," characterized by the absence of self-consciousness. These states include:

  1. Bodily feelings, which are induced by normal bodily functioning and are characterized by nonreflective awareness in the organs and tissues of the digestive, glandular, respiratory, and other bodily systems. This awareness does not become self-conscious unless such stimuli as pain or hunger intensify a bodily feeling.
  2. Stored memories, which do not become self-conscious until the individual reactivates them.
  3. Coma, which is induced by illness, epileptic seizures, or physical injuries to the brain, and is characterized by prolonged nonreflective consciousness of the entire organism.
  4. Stupor, which is induced by psychosis, narcotics, or over-indulgence in alcohol, and is characterized by greatly reduced ability to perceive incoming sensations.
  5. Non-rapid-eye-movement sleep, which is caused by a normal part of the sleep cycle at night or during daytime naps, and is characterized by a minimal amount of mental activity, which may sometimes be recalled upon awakening.
  6. Rapid-eye-movement sleep, which is a normal part of the nighttime sleep cycle, and is characterized by the mental activity known as dreams.

The reflective, or self-conscious, states of consciousness are:

  1. Pragmatic consciousness, the everyday, waking conscious state, characterized by alertness, logic, and rationality, cause-and-effect thinking, goal-directedness. In this level of consciousness, one has the feeling that he or she is in control and has the ability to move at will from perceptual activity to conceptual thinking to idea formation to motor activity.
  2. Lethargic consciousness, characterized by sluggish mental activity that has been induced by fatigue, sleep deprivation, feelings of depression, or certain drugs.
  3. Hyperalert consciousness, brought about by a period of heightened vigilance, such as sentry duty, watching over a sick child, or by certain drugs, such as amphetamines.

Levels or types of consciousness with varying degrees of what could be considered an altered state might include:

  1. Rapturous consciousness, characterized by intense feelings and overpowering emotions and induced by sexual stimulation, the fervor of religious conversion, or the ingestion of certain drugs.
  2. Hysterical consciousness, induced by rage, jealousy, fear, neurotic anxiety, violent mob activity, or certain drugs. As opposed to rapturous consciousness, which is generally evaluated as pleasant and positive in nature, hysterical consciousness is considered negative and destructive.
  3. Fragmented consciousness, defined as a lack of integration among important segments of the total personality, often results in psychosis, severe neurosis, amnesia, multiple personality, or dissociation. Such a state of consciousness is induced by severe psychological stress over a period of time. It may also be brought about temporarily by accidents or psychedelic drugs.
  4. Relaxed consciousness, characterized by a state of minimal mental activity, passivity, and an absence of motor activity. This state of consciousness may be brought about by lack of external stimulation, such as sunbathing, floating in water, or certain drugs.
  5. Daydreaming, induced by boredom, social isolation, or sensory deprivation.
  6. Trance consciousness, induced by rapt attentiveness to a single stimulus, such as the voice of a hypnotist, one's own heartbeat, a chant, certain drugs, or trance-inducing rituals and primitive dances. The trance state is characterized by hypersuggestibility and concentrated attention on one stimulus to the exclusion of all others.
  7. Expanded consciousness, comprising four levels: A) the sensory level, characterized by subjective reports of space, time, body image, or sense impressions having been altered; B) the recollective-analytic level, which summons up memories of one's past and provides insights concerning self, work, or personal relationships; C) the symbolic level, which is often characterized by vivid visual imagery of mythical, religious, and historical symbols; D) the integrative level, in which the individual undergoes an intense religious illumination, experiences a dissolution of self, and is confronted by God or some divine being. Each of these four levels might be induced by psychedelic drugs, hypnosis, meditation, prayer, or free association during psychoanalysis. Through the ages, many of humankind's major material and spiritual breakthroughs may have come from these virtually unmapped, uncharted regions of the mind.

There are many reasons why the great majority of scientific researchers remain doubtful about the validity of altered states of consciousness, such as the misuse of hypnosis by amateur practitioners, the lack of understanding by professionals and public alike of the creative processes, and the disastrous results of the recreational use of LSD and other psychedelic drugs. Descriptions of mystical revelations become almost florid as self-proclaimed seers and mystics attempt to translate their psychedelic drug or trance state experiences into the language of a technically oriented society. Quite frequently, creative geniuses of Western culture have compared their moods of inspiration to insanity. The composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) once compared his behavior during creative periods to that of a madman. Such comparisons are regrettable, and it is unfortunate that modern culture has few models other than madness to describe the throes of creativity.

William James (1842–1910), the great pioneer of the study of consciousness, wrote in the Varieties of Religious Experience that what is called "normal waking consciousness" is but one special type of consciousness, while all about it, separated by the slightest of barriers, "there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different." While many individuals may go through life without suspecting the existence of these states of consciousness, "…apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness…No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these forms of consciousness disregarded."

While skeptical psychological researchers continue to label claims of revelation and transcendence through altered states of consciousness as delusional and self-deceptive, others call for a serious examination of various states of consciousness and ask for more research to learn the particular significance of each state on the totality of the human entity. Many parapsychologists firmly believe that continued research into altered states of consciousness may well reveal that humankind's most important discoveries, its highest peaks of ecstasy, and its greatest moments of inspiration occur in reverie, in dreams, and in states of consciousness presently ignored by the professional world and the general public.


DELVING DEEPER

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DELVING DEEPER

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Three students cover their faces with their shoes while under hypnosis. (AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS)
Three students cover their faces with their shoes while under hypnosis. (
AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS
)

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DELVING DEEPER

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DELVING DEEPER

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DELVING DEEPER

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DELVING DEEPER

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User Contributions:

Sonia Gallagher
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Aug 20, 2009 @ 1:13 pm
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hannah
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Aug 11, 2012 @ 12:00 am
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Chris Arriaga
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Dec 17, 2013 @ 2:14 pm
Meditation is used for your own spiritual development. To evolutionize yourself into a different state of being. Into something completely different then the person you look at in the mirror everyday. Please be ready, for once you break the barrier that is holding you down... You will be visited. Take into account that there is so much for us to learn as a whole... as a race.

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