Consciousness, States of

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CONSCIOUSNESS, STATES OF . Consciousness is the great enigma. We experience it in the present moment. Yet when one tries objectively to understand it within oneself, it becomes amorphous and changing. Sometimes changes from one state of consciousness to another are not recognized until the change has occurred, as if these states were separated by a zone of forgetfulness. When one observes changes in consciousness in someone else, the description always seems colored with one's own biases and preconceptions, in spite of attempts to be objective. A physiologist sees only a range from stupor through sleep and from the normal everyday waking state to hyperexcitability. A psychiatrist who subscribes to depth psychology sees waking consciousness as the mere tip of the iceberg, the rest being composed of a vast domain of the unconscious lying below the surface of awareness, all of which is considered more primitive than rational consciousness. The religious adept wants to acknowledge the reality of hellish as well as transcendent states, the former considered lower and darker and more painful, and the latter higher and deeper or more subtle and more highly refined, than that of the normal waking condition. Hence one's model of consciousness depends largely on the scope of one's personal experience and the context of one's worldview.

Most scientists remain firmly committed to a positivist and reductionist epistemology in their approach to the study of consciousness. Traditionally, this view demands adherence to the idea that there is no other state than the normal everyday waking one. All phenomena are merely variations of this one single state. When one is asleep, according to this view, there is no consciousness. Consciousness and awareness are identical. There is nothing else. There is no such thing as an unconscious, nor is there any reality to the idea of states of consciousness, let alone higher or lower ones, as these are all thought to be mere projections of the waking state.

Psychologists and psychiatrists who subscribe to the psychodynamic view at least acknowledge the reality of the unconscious. Thoughts, words, and deeds may be influenced by images held below the surface of consciousness, many of which are representations of past traumatic experiences or other forms of intrapsychic conflict. The prevailing view in the social sciences, however, is that the unconscious is more primitive and undeveloped than the waking rational state. The model only ranges from the normality of the waking state through the maladjustment of the neurotic to the complete disintegration of consciousness in psychopathology. The very acknowledgment of different states of consciousness, perforce, implies a disintegration of the essential continuity of waking consciousness.

Most of the major religions and philosophies of the world, on the other hand, speak, most often in symbolic terms, about higher and lower states of consciousness other than those of ordinary experience. These are the realms of the heavens and hellsthe highest ecstatic states of expanded consciousness possible for humans to experience or the lowest states of suffering even beyond imagination. According to these teachings, people have the potential to experience qualitatively different and superior levels of perception, awareness, and orientation toward themselves, others, and the universe. Indeed in such states the ultimate nature of reality may be revealed.

But the problem is always the same with each of these teachings, namely that religious traditions tend to advocate that transformation from a lower state to a higher state of consciousness may result from adherence to the ideas, methods, and prescribed meditations of only one's own authentic spiritual discipline, whereby consciousness is refined, converted, and realigned from "the coarse to the fine." The question still remains, however, about the extent to which such experiences can only be mediated through a specific religious tradition, or whether or not this is a generic transformation toward spiritual consciousness possible in each individual regardless of the tradition or cultural context. Individuals, not institutions, after all, experience states of consciousness. Institutions meanwhile can foster the experience of interior states or either actively or inadvertently repress them.

Most contemporary histories, however, do not delve into the religious literature but look more toward the objective, scientific approach to the study of states of consciousness in the West, which they maintain begins only with Franz Anton Mesmer in the late eighteenth century.

Franz Anton Mesmer

A remarkable healer of what are called psychosomatic and hysterical illnesses, Mesmer (17341815) was knowledgeable in medicine, psychology, hermeticism, and alchemy. He postulated that people possess two distinct realms of consciousness, the ordinary waking state and an underlying unseen realm. In this invisible realm two related powers seem to be activated. The first is an exchange of rarefied energies or "fluids" between individuals that allows certain sensitive persons to influence others by their presence; that is, to influence them in more subtle ways than are generally believed operative in human exchanges. The second is a faculty of superior intelligence and will. The recognition of these submerged potentials as put forth by Mesmer and the psychologists who succeeded him led to investigation into the powers, scope, and subtleties of the unconscious as opposed to the functioning of normal everyday waking consciousness.

In his healing endeavors, Mesmer found himself capable of affecting other people by his presence. He was able to transmit a mysterious energy that he named "animal magnetism" to his patients. He believed he had the ability to transfer surplus energy from himself to others. While treating a woman who vacillated between episodes of illness and periods of relative calm, he was reminded of the endless oscillations of the tides and the seasons. This gave Mesmer the idea that these bouts, like the ebbs of the tides, might be essential components of a more complete process. That insight generated his strategy of inducing an "artificial tide" in his patient (with the aid of magnets) to evoke a cathartic ebb or "crisis," a therapeutic convulsion to enhance the body's "fluid" circulation and bring about a cure. The cures he effected in this way persuaded him that the cure of illness caused by mental factors was facilitated by circulating this subtle fluid and rebalancing the underlying realm within the patient. Such a realignment seemed to be induced by Mesmer's own magnetism and internal balance, for it was inexplicable by the prevailing theories of the day. The inferences are that one's state of consciousness, balance, or sensitivity may profoundly affect another person, and that this balance corresponds to the fundamental order of the universe itself. He wrote:

Man's sleep is not a negative state, nor is it simply the absence of wakefulness; modifications of this state have taught me that the faculties of a sleeping man not only are not suspended, but that often they continue to function with more perfection than when he is awake. One can observe that certain persons walk, and conduct their affairs with more planning and with the same reflection, attention, and skill as when they are awake. It is still more surprising to see faculties which are called "intellectual" being used to such an extent that they infinitely surpass those cultivated in the ordinary state. (Mesmer, 1980, p. 112)

Gustav Theodor Fechner

A German mathematician, physicist, and philosopher, Fechner (18011887) is often credited as the founder of modern psychophysics for his expression of the Weber-Fechner Law, in which the just noticeable difference between two weights can be detected. Intensely interested in the mind-body problem, Fechner's true intent, however, was to measure the threshold between any two different states of consciousness, but this idea was lost on later reductionists in experimental psychology who claimed him as their patron saint. Fechner experienced a nervous breakdown in 1839 as an aftereffect from experiments gazing into the sun, and he spent a year in a condition of blindness, during which time he had various Asian scriptures read to him. In 1851 he produced his own text outlining a theory of universal consciousness. Borrowing his main title from the great Zoroastrian scripture by the same name, he called it Zend Avesta: Oder über die Dinge des Himmels und des Jenseits.

William James later became enamored with Fechner's writings on the subject. In his Hibbert Lectures at Oxford in 1907, James summarized Fechner's doctrine of the earth soul and of beings intermediary between God and man. James also wrote a preface to the fourth edition of the English translation of Fechner's Little Book of Life after Death (1907), in which Fechner outlined the three great spheres of evolutionary consciousnessa womb consciousness characterized by the fetus immersed in amniotic fluid, waking rational consciousness in the physical body, and a higher spiritual consciousness after death. Fechner believed that each stage presaged and was therefore preparation for the next, but that all stages were available simultaneously in human beings while still alive in the body.

William James

James (18421910) is the most noted modern psychologist to have seriously investigated altered states of consciousness and the influence of states of consciousness on the perception of reality. An avid physiologist, psychologist, philosopher, and psychical researcher, James studied trance states in mediums from an early age. He also experimented throughout his professional life with mind-altering drugs, including ether, chloral hydrate, nitrous oxide, and peyote. He was an expert hypnotist and often encouraged people to try automatic writing. In his monumental Principles of Psychology (1890) he defined consciousness as a stream and investigated subconscious conditions at the periphery of awareness, such as fugue states in somnambulism. He also studied the hypnogogic zonethe twilight period between waking and sleepingin his 1896 Lowell Lectures on exceptional mental states. In The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) James discussed ultimately transforming mystical states that, although inaccessible to purely rational consciousness, impart exceptional meaning and understanding to experience. The enhanced powers of cognition exhibited in such states suggest that human beings possess faculties beyond those of the ordinary mind for attaining certainty and wisdom:

One conclusion was forced upon my mind at that time, and my impression of its truth has ever since remained unshaken. It is that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the questionfor they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality. (James, 2002, p. 318)

James defined mystical states by demarcating four of their salient qualities. The first is the "noetic" or cognitive aspect of the mystical state. This is not the rational, discursive, comparative function of thinking, however. It is, rather, visionary understanding or wisdoma power of heightened intellectual discernment and relational understanding in which positioning, valuation, and function are apprehended and seemingly disparate facts are properly ranked and organized into meaningful entities. The second quality he characterized as "ineffability." Because they are ineffable, these transformations in consciousness cannot be verbalized in a manner that ever does justice to the nuances of the experience. The third quality is "transience." Mystical states usually are short-lived. Having their own distinctive flavor, they appear to be connected and continuous with each other, and those who experience them generally report a new and vivid awareness of being in the present moment. Fourth, mystical states are characterized by a feeling of "passivity," as if one's personal will were suspended and one had opened oneself to a higher or superior force. The experience is of not quite being oneself; there is another force, power, or "person" operating through one.

At the end of this groundbreaking work James postulated the need for a cross-cultural dynamic psychology of mystical states in order to grasp psychology's true contribution to the religious sphere and to understand the experience of higher states of consciousness as central to the evolution of human spirituality in different cultures.

But what is the relationship between altered states of consciousness, the superior intellectual faculties described by James, and the evolution of this power of sustained directed attention toward ultimate reality? On the whole, these questionsso central to the esoteric traditionswere only slightly addressed at the interface between depth psychology and religious studies, and largely ignored by mainstream scientific psychologists, until interest in the neurosciences forced the issue of different states of consciousness on reductionistic theorists. Other scientific and medical men, both around James and since James's time, have also been interested in the reality of different states of consciousness, however.

Pierre Janet

Phenomena such as dissociation and somnambulismthe waking fugue stateand the study of hysteria and other "neuroses," including multiple personality, brought the French neurologist Pierre Janet (18591947) into the international spotlight in the late 1880s through the so-called French experimental psychology of the subconscious. This school of thought flourished between 1880 and 1910 as a driving force behind a larger French, Swiss, English, and American psychotherapeutic axis that dominated developments in scientific psychotherapy in the West long before psychoanalysis came into international prominence. In such works as L'automatisme psychologique (1889), L'état mental des hysteriques (1894), and The Major Symptoms of Hysteria (1907), Janet postulated that human beings are either in control of themselves if they are psychologically strong or operate under the control of the subconscious if they are psychologically weak.

The separation of subconscious from conscious awareness through psychological weakness creates a debilitated person, exemplified by the dissociated personalities and amnesiacs Janet treated. Such a person is compelled to live in a distorted corner of reality. This nonintegrated person becomes enslaved by the impulses and fears buried in the subconscious and succumbs to its cunning power to constrict and obfuscate reality into piecemeal fragments. The subconscious absorbs the very fragments it has manufactured, and these fragments are in turn present for the next event, creating still further splintered replacements for reality. This process condemns its victims to a life of intellectual distortion and neurotic symptoms.

Optimal human functioning, according to Janet, is the rule of the conscious mind over the subconscious. It is the sublimation and integration of the subconscious into ordinary consciousness. He calls the apex of his "hierarchy of the mind" a "grand synthesis," which he counterposes against the automatic actions or motor discharges of "psychological automatism," that which is relegated to the lowest rung of his system. Later in his career, under the influence of James Mark Baldwin, Janet reworked his theories into a developmental model of the normal personality and, turning away from an exclusive focus on pathology, also applied his model to an understanding of religious phenomena.

ThÉodore Flournoy

Another figure in the late nineteenth century associated with the so-called French, Swiss, English, and American psychotherapeutic axis, Flournoy (18541920) was a professor of experimental psychology at the University of Geneva. He was a close friend of James and an important influence on C. G. Jung and Jean Piaget. His major contribution to the psychology of the subconscious was an investigation of Helene Smith, a case of multiple personality with speaking in tongues (Flournoy, 1899). His final conclusion was that, whereas an experimental psychology of the subconscious had failed to prove the spiritualists' claim for the reality of life after death, there was concrete evidence for the development of exceptional human abilities beyond what seemed normally possible (Flournoy, 1911).

Richard Maurice Bucke, F. W. H. Myers, and Roberto Assagioli

The Canadian psychiatrist Richard Maurice Bucke (18371902) took the issue much further by postulating an evolutionary model of consciousness similar to that of Fechner (Bucke, 1901). Humans are emerging from the domain of the primitive and instinctual into the rational and are evolving toward a more cosmic and expanded spiritual state. Possibly the most important theorist of the time in this regard was F. W. H. Myers (18431901), the British psychical researcher. Myers postulated a spectrum of states of consciousness ranging from the psychopathic to the transcendent, with waking consciousness appearing merely as one state among many, its primary function being the preservation of the biological vehicle that experiences those other states. Dissolutive states tended toward personality disintegration, while evolutive states showed the higher spiritual possibilities of the race in the future. Myers's work had a major influence on James, Flournoy, Jung, and others, such as the young Italian psychiatrist Roberto Assagioli (18881974), who associated himself with this axis and the idea of a growth-oriented dimension of personality as early as 1909.

Sigmund Freud

Freud (18561939), however, is generally recognized in mainstream Western history as the purveyor of a theory of different states of consciousness in psychology and psychiatry. Fallaciously, he is said to have discovered the unconscious, when in actuality he was the first to succeed in injecting a dynamic language of the unconscious into Western reductionistic science. His task was to establish the conscious, rational functions of the ego as the controlling factor in the growth of civilization. The ego is moderated by two opposing forces, the ethical boundaries of right and wrong set by the superego, and a dynamic tension created by immediate sexual gratification of primitive, instinctual needs of the id, the basic force of the unconscious.

Consciousness, for Freud, was the ego's awareness and mediation of the unconscious in relation to forces in the external world. What was preconscious was what the ego could consciously represent from the unconscious. What was unconscious had never and could never come directly to consciousness. One approached the unconscious, rather, indirectly, through the method of symbolism. Thus, whereas the goal of psychoanalysis was a return to the ability to love and to work, the heart of Freud's method was an exploration of the unconscious through free association, the interpretation of dreams, and analysis of other unconscious behavior, such as humor, slips of the tongue, and recurring symptoms where the unconscious suddenly interposes itself into the field of waking consciousness.

In Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) Freud was inclined to identify the mystical experience as merely one more self-deception to which humans, in their desperation and naïveté, fall prey. There Freud wrote of a friend who was opposed to his idea that religion is a crutch allowing psychologically weak people, enfeebled because of their ignorance of scientific truths, to project a father figure in the form of God onto the universe. The solace provided by this wishful thinking assuages their fears in the face of a terrifying and unintelligible world. Freud considered himself a scientist first, and therefore declared himself to one correspondent as "a God-forsaken incredulous Jew." But other interpreters, such as David Bakan (1991), have analyzed Freud's theories in light of an unconscious legacy from the Jewish mystical tradition.

C. G. Jung

As a younger colleague of Freud from 1906 to 1912, a close correspondent with Freud, and at one point heir apparent to the psychoanalytic throne, Jung (18751961) can be considered the twentieth-century exponent of the symbolic hypothesis. He took the method of symbolism much further than Freud, but epistemologically he is more accurately placed within the context of the late-nineteenth-century psychologies of transcendence. This places him more centrally within the psychologies of James, Flournoy, and Myers than as a mere acolyte of Freud. Jung's entire psychology is a commentary on different states of consciousness. He spoke about a dialogue between consciousness and the unconscious, individuation, wholeness, and the development of the "self" rather than the "ego" as the mature center of personality. In "The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man," chapter ten of Modern Man in Search of a Soul (1933), he described the modern person as the rare, exceptional human being who, completely conscious and having fully integrated the solutions of the past and faced the problems of the future, is free to break with all constraints and live wholly in the present.

For Jung, consciousness consisted of three realms. The first is the everyday, waking rational state, which includes the functions of the ego, contact with the proverbial objects of one's material identity, and the many masks a person wears in society at large that are the ways he or she wishes to be seen, as opposed to the way he or she really is. The second most accessible layer is the personal unconscious, which contains one's motivations for personal survival and the largely repressed material that violates the self-image he or she can tolerate for himself or herself. It also contains the cultural habits and heritage that condition him or her unawares. The third and fundamental layer is the collective unconscious. This is a transcendent, primordial realm that contains a person's impersonal aspirations, cunning adversaries, and ultimate possibilities. Access to it is mediated by the archetypes, inborn biologically conditioned modes of perceiving and thinking that have to be penetrated and transcended if one is to prevail in confrontation with the unconscious and achieve psychic growth and health, a process Jung called individuation.

The collective unconscious helped Jung account for the plethora of parapsychological phenomenasuch as psychokinesis, clairvoyance, and synchronicitythat captivated him. If a person's psychic life is somehow linked to that of all humanity, then reports of apparently inexplicable events such as extrasensory perception are not quite so unintelligible.

Existential-Humanistic and Transpersonal Psychologies

In the 1960s, transpersonal psychology emerged from its existential-humanistic and phenomenological roots as a movement devoted in part to the study of meditation and alternative states of consciousness. Though by no means representative of the mainstream of psychological research in the West, transpersonal psychologists are intrigued by the possibility that human beings possess transcendent powers of consciousness. Some speculate about the brain's untapped potential and hold a view of the universe as continuous with oneself, being both conscious and purposive. They are convinced that one can be motivated by broader and less-selfish impulses than physiological needs and egoistic emotions. For these psychologists, the most important motivations spring from a selflessness that revolves around the pondering of ultimate questionsquestions about the meaning, purpose, and value of human life. Often influenced by the influx of Eastern psychologies and philosophies into the West, transpersonal psychology seeks to reverse what it considers the disproportionate attention given to psychological afflictions at the expense of great potentialities as human beings. This movement may be understood as an attempt to reconnect the science of psychology with the perennial metaphysical teachings of the spiritual traditions.

Abraham Maslow

Maslow (19081970) was particularly interested in fully developed or "self-actualized" people who frequently undergo "changes in consciousness" that he called "peak experiences." Believing people have an inherent inner core that strives for growth (cf. Carl Rogers, Rollo May), Maslow developed a hierarchy of human motivations that seeks to encompass the entire spectrum of personality. Thus there are not only self-actualizing personalities but a self-actualizing dimension to all personalities.

Maslow designated the lowest and most basic needs as physiological and safety needs; these are fundamentally personal, selfish, and self-serving. The next stages include aesthetic and cognitive impulses. At the top of Maslow's hierarchy are "beta" or "being" needs. These operate in the self-actualized person who surpasses all personal motivations and strives for the good of humanity by acting from feelings of "wholeness," "justice," "self-sufficiency," and "aliveness," strivings capable of affecting all aspects of life. These fortunate people have thoroughly developed the inner self with which all people are born but which is generally squelched, obfuscated, or distorted by societal and parental conditioning. Such conditioning can be overcome, however.

Peak experiences are most often the prerogative of Maslow's self-actualized persons. These experiences are held to be transformations of consciousness and perception wherein life is imbued with a sense of transcendent meaning. In Toward a Psychology of Being (1968), Maslow reported that they are states where vision is whole rather than partial, where perception is based upon reality rather than subjective projection, and where life's meaning and goodness are experienced directly and with certainty. Time appears to be suspended, and the experiencer escapes the stress of "becoming." He or she seeks a tension-free life in the calm of "effortless being." Through such self-actualizing development and peak experiences, one is then able to live a completely engaged life.

Fueled by the writings of such thinkers as Aldous Huxley, who was involved with the Vedanta Society in Southern California from the 1940s; Alan Watts, an Episcopal priest and disciple of D. T. Suzuki who became a leading interpreter of Zen; and even the existential Christian theology of Paul Tillich (a major influence on both Rollo May and Carl Rogers); Asian concepts of consciousness, particularly the epistemological idea of states higher than the normal everyday waking condition, entered the scientific lexicon through humanistic and transpersonal psychology. Maslow talked about a Daoistic attitude of noninterference and comfortability with paradox in the self-actualizing personality. Gardener Murphy and Lois B. Murphy published Asian Psychology (1968). Elmer Green and Alyce Green at the Menninger Foundation began studying yogic adepts, such as Swami Rama. Indeed, a new dialogue seemed to be emerging at the interface between psychology and comparative religions.

The Hindu Vedantic tradition, for example, speaks of four states of consciousness. The first (jãgrat ) is the habitual waking consciousness, analogous to that experienced by Plato's shackled prisoner. The second (svapna ) occurs when one experiences reality as the product of one's subjective projections rather than as random, inexplicable, and either indifferent or cruel in its circumstances. Svapna conforms to the experience of the unchained prisoner seeking escape. The third state (susupti ) is one of "divine wisdom"clearly the purview of the liberated person. The fourth (turīya ) is, fittingly, ineffable.

According to the philosophy of Sākhya Yoga, the mind can be found in any one of five habitual states of consciousness: Ksipta, or restless; Mudha, meaning stupefied; viksipta, or distracted; ekagra, meaning one-pointed; and niruddha, referring to the concentration of samādhi. Yoga, relative to attaining the concentration of samādhi, pertains only to the last two. One-pointed concentration weakens the afflictions, loosens the bonds of karma, and paves the way toward samādhi or complete absorption. In the various stages of samādhi the mind produces a continuously flowing stream of insights into all objects (samprajnatasamadhi ), whereas the highest state of consciousness is described as a complete separation of lifeless inert matter (prakti ) from pure consciousness (purua ); that is, a separation of the illuminating quality (sattva ) of consciousness from the stream of all objects themselves, a condition called asamprajnatasamadhi. This last is chittavrittiniruddha or a complete cessation of the fluctuations of all mental activity.

According to the philosophy of Buddhism, which originally borrowed heavily from the Yoga tradition, the perfection of meditative concentration is described. According to the Tibetan teachings of the Jewel Ornament of Liberation (Sgam-Po-Pa, 1959), the first stage is overcoming restlessness. The second stage is the promotion of insight coupled with tranquility. The third leads to compassion for all sentient beings. The fourth is to abide in the oneness of thought without swerving between the opposites of being and nonbeing. The fifth is transcendence, which means the arising of discriminative awareness born from wisdom and transmutation. The sixth is that same state but now purified through emptiness and compassion. The seventh is the attainment of unsurpassable enlightenment.

The idea of levels of consciousness is also evident in the work of the ūfī teacher Javad Nurbakhsh Shaykh of the Niʿmatullahīyah order, who delineates four stages of development:

  1. self becoming emptied,
  2. self becoming illuminated,
  3. self becoming adorned,
  4. self having passed away (fanā ʾ).

Through a spiritual training revolving around an exceptional master-pupil relationship, an initiate on the path (arīqah ) may penetrate the sufferings, confusions, and convolutions inherent in egoismrepresented by life in the Platonic caveand pass beyond them to bliss, truth, and communion with God.

Such interest soon directed attention back to the Western mystical tradition. Jakob Boehme, Meister Eckhart, Hildegard of Bingen, Saint Ignatius, Saint Teresa, Maimonides, and numerous others have all come in for study of their deep contemplative spirituality and its meaning for understanding of profound and transforming states of consciousness. Fueled by the possibility of a dynamic, transcendent psychology of interior experience, humanistic and transpersonal psychologists then delved more deeply into not only their own cultures but the mystical traditions of all world cultures.

The new emphasis on alternate states of consciousness was also influenced through dramatic developments in physiological monitoring. The field of biofeedback, for instance, became one of the primary technologies through which the scientific study of techniques such as Yoga and meditation was conducted. From the 1970s onward, an exponential progression of scientific studies on meditation then appeared in the scientific literature.

The earliest work was conducted at Harvard Medical School by the cardiologist Herbert Benson, who first identified the relaxation response, and at Maharishi International School of Management in Iowa by scientific researchers who were studying the effects of transcendental meditation (TM). Based primarily on data from the study of the electroencephalogram and other physiological differences noted between sleep and meditation, these investigators postulated the existence of a fourth state of consciousness beyond waking, sleeping, and sleep with dreams.

The meditative state, they maintained, was a wakeful hypometabolic state of parasympathetic dominance; that is, a relaxed, wakeful state of sustained attention. Benson maintained that periodic entry into this state could have measurable effects on improving health, especially from stress-related illnesses. Based on almost thirty years of studying advanced meditation practitioners, the TM researchers have gone a step further and claimed that additional experimental evidence they have collected on this fourth state suggests that it is a higher state of consciousness, such as those described in the inner sciences of Asian cultures.

Psychedelic drugs also contributed significantly to the modern revolution in the scientific study of consciousness. Psychedelics were first introduced into the general population in the United States in the late 1950s. This occurred first through physicians and scientists in the military working with various U.S. government intelligence agencies, who disseminated psychoactive substances, such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), among prisoners, soldiers, and test groups of civilians before dispersing such substances throughout the medical establishment. Within a short time, in an unprecedented occurrence within the research community, scientists began to experiment personally with these agents. Psychiatrists, psychologists and nonprofessionals in others countries then followed suit as word spread about the drug and its effects on consciousness throughout popular culture.

Soon a scientific literature developed that was radically split in the interpretation of the empirical evidence defining the physiochemistry and effects of various substances such as the cannabinols, LSD, mescaline, and fungi such as psilocybin. Scientists and physicians associated jointly with the military and medical establishments universally declared that psychedelics were psychotomimetics, suitable only for mind control and the artificial induction of insanity in warfare. An entirely different group of scientists, however, began experimenting with these drugs on themselves and their patients in controlled clinical settings and came to the conclusion that particularly psychedelic compounds were invaluable aids in the treatment of other chemical addictions, such as alcoholism and morphinism, that psychedelics immeasurably deepened the experience of psychotherapy and contributed significantly to accelerating the process of self-knowledge, and moreover that such substances held the promise of opening science up to an entirely new understanding of altered states of consciousness.

Two of the foremost models of consciousness in this vein have been proposed by Charles Tart, now a professor of psychology, emeritus, at the University of California at Davis, and Stanislav Grof, former psychiatrist at the Maryland Psychiatric Institute. Tart, a parapsychologist, psychedelic researcher, and personality theorist, in a series of pioneering works in the 1960s and 1970s proposed that the framework of traditional science was sufficient only for an understanding of the rational waking state. Newer forms of science were required that were internally consistent with and exclusive to the state of consciousness in which they were applied. Tart's call for the development of state-specific sciences was accompanied by the assertion that scientists needed to have experienced the particular conditions they were studying as a necessary prerequisite for objectivity. Grof undertook a variety of different investigations of altered states of consciousness, including the recovery of birth memories, the study of transformative religious visions, and shamanic states of healing, especially in non-Western cultures.

Contemporary Neuroscience, Neurophilosophy, and Neurotheology

Neurotheology refers specifically to modern attempts to study religious experience using the techniques and theories of the neurosciences, which include neuroimaging of meditative and contemplative states of consciousness. Neurotheology in this sense is an extension of the more recent term neurophilosophy, in which cognitive scientists, such as Daniel Dennett, Patricia Churchland, Paul Churchland, and Robert Searl, have dominated the discussion about the philosophical implications of the biology of consciousness. Here again, however, is the paradox that the neuroscience revolution is generating humanistic implications that demand a return to the kind of philosophical discussions long banned from the discourse of reductionistic science. The problem is that the new breed of scientific philosophers are all trained in cognitive behaviorism and Aristotelian and Kantian thought, the very epistemologies that the scientific revolution in consciousness is fast transcending, and if these so-called neurophilosophers know any philosophy at all, it is the analytic philosophers from Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell through Ludwig Wittgenstein to Rudolf Carnap, Herbert Figel, and Willard van Orman Quine, whose overemphasis on the logical ordering of sense data alone may become the approach in science most vulnerable to extinction.

Meanwhile a surge of interest in neurotheology has come from the work of Andrew Newberg and the late Eugene D'Aquili. Studying Buddhist meditators and Franciscan nuns, D'Aquili and Newberg employed SPECT scans (single photon emission computed tomography, as opposed to positron emission tomography [PET] scans or functional magnetic resonance imaging [fMRI]) to get a picture of the brain's activity during peak meditative states of oneness or union. From a neurophysiological perspective, they have proposed a heightening of the attentional areas in the frontal cortex, which they associate with activities of the will, and a diffuse, quiescent blurring of the boundaries between self and not-self mediated by the posterior superior parietal lobe. Moreover they have proposed that the parietal lobe is a major controlling factor in the experience of a continuum ranging from pleasure of an aesthetic moment, including everyday insights, to the heightened, transforming experience of religious ecstasy. They have also proposed an evolutionary role for such experiences relating the peak experience to ritual and mythmaking that have become wired-in to the nervous system.

The Correlation between Brain States and Mental States

As noted, the idea that human beings have access to higher realms of consciousness is prevalent in all esoteric contemplative traditions. To speak in purely Western terms, in Plato's remarkable allegory the ordinary human condition is portrayed as existence in a cave, where shackled prisoners with limited visionable to look only at the wall in front of themmistake shadows and echoes for reality. Liberation, the ascent into the real world, is arduous and requires loosening the chains, turning around, overcoming the initial confusion, and persisting in a quest that brings knowledge and freedom. The prisoner must become realigned so that he or she can control his or her dark fears and shadowy thoughts and so escape from the cave. Once he or she is out of the cave, complete vision is possible through the liberation of the higher mind (nous). Higher consciousness evolves in its encounter with reality, thereby apprehending the laws of the universal orderthe True, the Beautiful, and the Good.

Modern science has progressively attempted to penetrate into this domain, but to what end? The trend has been to reduce all phenomena to scientific terms, still elevating the objectivist stance and denigrating the experiential. But now engaged in the scientific study of consciousness and the organ that created science in the first place, scientists are confronted with the phenomenology of their own enterprise. One result is that science itself may in the end become transformed.

The quintessential example is the physiological monitoring of advanced meditators. Tibetan monks skilled in the techniques of G tumo Yoga are able to raise their body temperature in frigid conditions and sleep on the snow. They also engage in a meditation practice where they compete to see how many wet sheets they can dry on their backs outside in the cold. Advanced physiological monitoring confirms this phenomenon and further shows that their meditations are quite specific in that the internal core body temperatures remain the same but they raise their skin temperatures sometimes as much as 18 degrees centigrade, which accounts for the warming effect. When queried individually, each monk recounts entering a meditative state according to his own idiosyncratic practices, but all achieve the state of G tumo by employing the same advanced visualizations. These are described in detail in a classic Tibetan text, Tsong kha pa's Six Yogas of Naropa (Zhang, 1963).

How is it then that the monks, without a knowledge of Western science, achieve such drastic alterations of normally unconscious physiological processes? The answer is that the physiological measures demonstrate a correlation of brain states that can be quantified with states of mind described metaphorically. In other words which state is accessed through a particular spiritual practice in a religious tradition is likely dependent on the particular advanced teachings of that specific tradition as far as the voluntary control of internal states is concerned (Taylor, 2003).

The implications for the neurosciences seem clear. Scientists have always presumed in biochemistry that there cannot be a thought without some chemical reaction somewhere. This example offers similar confirmation that thoughts not only are driven by body chemistry, but that they can alter it as well, in ways not normally deemed possible by normative science. The monks obviously did not enter into a lifetime of training just to be able to dry wet sheets on their backs. Their goal was the teachings and their effects on transforming consciousness. One's epistemology therefore, the core of one's belief system, must be tied into the outcome where the problem of consciousness is concerned, a thought altogether new for the way science is normally conducted.


Virtually unheard of in the middle of the twentieth century, the expression "states of consciousness" has entered the common vocabulary. How this idea will present itself in the years to come, how a subject so intimately wedded to metaphysical and religious concerns will fare in modern culture, and how religion, philosophy, and psychology may meet in their concern over this subject may prove decisively important to all who seek answers to the larger questions of human life, who one is and why one is here. At the least the struggle to understand what happens to consciousness when it becomes more conscious of itself will contribute to the ongoing dialogue between science and religion.

See Also

Dreams; Ecstasy; Enthusiasm; Frenzy; Inspiration; Sleep; Visions.


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Eugene Taylor (2005)

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