Altered States of Consciousness
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:
- 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.
- Stored memories, which do not become self-conscious until the individual reactivates them.
- 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.
- Stupor, which is induced by psychosis, narcotics, or over-indulgence in alcohol, and is characterized by greatly reduced ability to perceive incoming sensations.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- Lethargic consciousness, characterized by sluggish mental activity that has been induced by fatigue, sleep deprivation, feelings of depression, or certain drugs.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Daydreaming, induced by boredom, social isolation, or sensory deprivation.
- 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.
- 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.
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The term hallucination comes from the Latin alucinari, meaning "to wander in the mind." When a person sees, hears, smells, or feels something or someone that is not really there, he or she has experienced a hallucination. Although the hallucinatory state is commonly confused with that of an illusion, the latter is caused by real sense perceptions that have been misinterpreted, whether by natural phenomena or in the case of a stage illusion, by someone deliberately misdirecting and tricking an audience.
Hallucinations result when certain situations have altered one's brain metabolism from its normal level. Common causes of hallucinations are a high fever, an adverse reaction or side effect of a drug, the deliberate ingestion of a psychedelic or hallucinogenic substance (LSD, peyote, opium), an adverse reaction to alcohol, or a post-traumatic stress disorder. The grief of suffering the recent death of a loved one sometimes prompts hallucinations of hearing or seeing the relative or close friend. Those individuals experiencing psychosis or delirium are also susceptible to the manifestations of hallucinations.
While people often associate a hallucination with dramatic circumstances, sleep deprivation can prompt the phenomenon, as can boredom, fatigue, and the frightening experience of "highway hypnosis," when people have been behind the wheel driving too long and the monotony of the road causes them to see things that aren't really there.
Many individuals who suffer from migraine attacks report certain kinds of hallucinations, especially those of colored, shimmering geometric shapes, quite likely induced by changes in the retina or the visual pathway. Some researchers suggest that some of the visions experienced by certain mystics and saints were set in motion by migrainous hallucinations.
Some people have hypnopompic episodes, a kind of hallucinatory experience, while either falling asleep or waking up. They may believe that some kind of supernatural being has entered the room and settled on their chest. They may even hear the entity speaking to them in a peculiar language. Some researchers suggest that such hypnopompic hallucinations might explain the incubus and succubus phenomena of nighttime demonic attacks that have been reported since medieval times.
Hallucinations caused by sleep or sensory deprivation require no medical treatment unless the individual continues to abuse the normal bodily demands for rest. Those caused by substance and alcohol abuse may likely need medical help to allow the individual to establish normality. Hallucinatory manifestations that continue without an individual's being able to determine any physical or mental reason may require a psychiatric consultation.
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The process of hypnosis generally requires a hypnotist who asks a subject, one who has agreed to be hypnotized, to relax and to focus his or her attention on the sound of the hypnotist's voice. As the subject relaxes and concentrates on the hypnotist's voice, the hypnotist leads the person deeper and deeper into a trancelike altered state of consciousness. When the subject has reached a deep level of hypnotic trance, the hypnotist will have access to the individual's unconscious.
Many clinical psychologists believe that hypnotherapy permits them to help their clients uncover hidden or repressed memories of fears or abuse that will facilitate their cure. In certain cases, police authorities have encouraged the witnesses of crimes to undergo hypnosis to assist them in recovering details that may result in a speedier resolution of a criminal act. Increasing numbers of clinical or lay hypnotists employ hypnosis to explore cases suggestive of past lives or accounts of alien abductions aboard UFOs. There are also show business hypnotists who induce the trance state in their subjects for the general amusement of their audiences.
Skeptical scientists doubt that hypnosis is a true altered state of consciousness and contend that the people who are classified as good subjects by professional or lay hypnotists are really men and women who are highly suggestible, fantasy-prone individuals. While it may be true that some psychologists and hypnotherapists make rather extravagant claims regarding the powers inherent in the hypnotic state, what actually occurs during hypnosis with certain subjects remains difficult either to define or to debunk.
Throughout the ages, tribal shamans, witch doctors, and religious leaders have used hypnosis to heal the sick and to foretell the future. Egyptian papyri more than 3,000 years old describe the use of hypnotic procedures by Egyptian soothsayers and medical practitioners.
In the early 1500s, Swiss physician/alchemist Paracelsus (1493–1541) released his theory of what he called magnetic healing. Paracelsus used magnets to treat disease, believing that magnets, as well as the magnetic influence of heavenly bodies, had therapeutic effects. Magnetic treatment theories went through several stages of evolution and many successive scientists. It was during the latter part of the eighteenth century that Franz Anton Mesmer (1734–1815), acting upon the hypotheses of these predecessors, developed his own theory of "animal magnetism" and hypnosis.
According to Mesmer, hypnosis entailed the specific action of one organism upon another. This action is produced by a magnetic force that radiates from bodily organs and has therapeutic uses. Hypnotism makes use of this force, or the vibrations, issuing from the hypnotist's eyes and fingers.
When Mesmer reintroduced hypnotism to the modern world, paranormal activities and occult beliefs were associated with his works. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the British Society for Psychical Research appointed a commission for the study of pain transference from hypnotist to hypnotized subject. At the same time, psychologist Edmund Gurney and his assistant Frank Podmore experimented with the same area of research. In the Gurney-Podmore experiments the hypnotist stood behind the blindfolded subject. The hypnotist was then pinched, and the subject told that he would be able to feel the pain in the corresponding area of his own body. Gurney and Podmore reported substantial success, although none of their experiments were carried out with the hypnotist and researcher at any great distance from the subject.
Those earlier psychical researchers were intrigued by the fact that the hypnotic state so closely resembles the state of consciousness in which manifestations of ESP occur. Although a description of the hypnotic state is difficult to achieve, it appears to be much like that somnambulistic state between sleep and waking. Somewhere within this nebulous region, conscious mental activity ceases and deprives the mind of its usual sensory impressions, thereby directing all attention to that one area from which psychic impressions presumably come. To the psychical researcher, there seems scant difference between the trance of a psychic and an individual in the hypnotic state. The only immediately discernible difference is that the one is self-induced, while the other is induced by, and subject to, the control of the hypnotist. The argument therefore presented itself that if ESP can manifest under trance, then why cannot a hypnotist so manipulate the hypnotic state as to achieve the proper state of consciousness and, thereby, literally, induce ESP?
Research continued into the extrasensory aspects of hypnosis, despite hostility from the established sciences. In 1876 Sir William Barrett, an English physicist, presented the results of his experiments in clairvoyant card reading to the British Association for the Advancement of Science. A number of Barrett's colleagues rewarded the physicist's extensive endeavor by walking out during his presentation.
Hypnosis arrived on the threshold of the twentieth century under much the same cloud that had covered it since Mesmer's day; and, in spite of decades of research and experimentation, the great majority of scientific researchers maintain a solid skepticism toward hypnosis at the dawn of the twenty-first century.
The Stanford Hypnotic Susceptibility Scales, a scientific yardstick by which to measure the phenomenon of hypnosis, was developed in the late 1950s by Stanford University psychologists Andre M. Weitzenhoffer and Ernest R. Hilgard. Scoring on the Stanford scales ranges from 0 for those individuals who do not appear to respond to any hypnotic suggestions, to 12, for those who are assessed as extremely responsive to hypnosis. Most people, according to extensive experimentation, place somewhere in the middle range, between 5 and 7.
Among the results of the studies of Weitzenhoffer and Hilgard were demonstrations that a person's ability to be hypnotized is unrelated to his or her personality traits. Earlier suggestions that those individuals who could be hypnotized were gullible, submissive, imaginative, or socially compliant proved unsupported by the data. People who had the ability to become absorbed in such activities as reading, enjoying music, or daydreaming did appear to be the more hypnotizable subjects.
Another objection by the skeptics that the process of hypnosis was simply a matter of the subject having a vivid imagination also proved to be a false assumption. Many highly imaginative people tested by the experimenters proved to be bad hypnotic subjects, and there appears to be no relation between the ability to imagine and the ability to become a good hypnotic subject.
The Stanford experiments also learned that hypnotized subjects were not passive automatons who would obey a hypnotist's commands to violate their moral or cultural ideals. Instead, the subjects remained active problem solvers while responding to the suggestions of the hypnotist.
By using hypnosis, the scientists at Stanford were able to create transient hallucinations, false memories, and delusions in some subjects. By using positron emission tomography, which directly measures metabolism, the researchers were able to determine that different regions of a subject's brain would be activated when he or she was asked simply to imagine a sound or sight than when the subject was hallucinating under hypnotic suggestion.
The mechanisms by which the process of hypnosis can somehow convince certain subjects not to yield to pain remain a mystery. Many researchers theorize some hypnotic subjects and experienced meditators can allow the altered state of consciousness to bring about an analgesic effect in brain centers higher than those that register the sensations of pain. A 1996 National Institutes of Health panel assessed hypnosis to be an effective method of alleviating pain from cancer and other chronic conditions. Numerous clinical studies demonstrated that hypnosis could also reduce acute pain faced by pregnant women undergoing labor or the pain experienced by burn victims. In some instances, it was judged that hypnosis accomplished greater relief than such chemical pain killers as morphine.
While such experiments certainly indicate that something is going on within a subject's mind during the process of hypnosis, many psychologists, such as Dr. Nicholas Spanos, argue that hypnotic procedures merely influence behavior by altering a subject's motivations, expectations, and interpretations. Such influences have nothing to do with placing a person into a trance or exercising any kind of control over that person's unconscious mind. Hypnosis, in Spanos's view, is an act of social conformity, rather than a unique state of consciousness. The subject, he maintains, is only acting in accordance with the hypnotist's suggestions and responds according to the expectations of how a hypnotized person is supposed to behave.
Critics of hypnotic procedures during police investigations are concerned that too many law enforcement officers consider hypnosis as a kind of magical way to arrive at the truth of a case. The American Society of Clinical Hypnosis has certified about 900 psychologists, only five of whom specialize in forensic hypnosis and assist in police work. Federal courts and about a third of the state courts allow testimony of hypnotized individuals on a case-by-case basis.
Dr. William C. Wester, a nationally recognized psychologist, has used hypnotism to assist victims and witnesses of crimes to remember the details of more than 150 cases. Wester agrees that hypnosis is not magic, but maintains that it is an effective tool in police work. "Hypnosis doesn't always lead to an arrest," Wester told Janice Morse of The Cincinnati Enquirer in 2002. "But it almost always generates some additional investigative leads for the police to follow."
Since 1991, Wester and John W. Kilnapp, a special agent and forensic artist with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, have teamed up to work on more than 50 robberies, rapes, kidnappings, and murders nationwide. After Wester has hypnotized a witness or victim of a crime and assisted that person to describe minute details of the events, Kilnapp works on a composite sketch of the perpetrator of the crime. While the team of artist and psychologist admitted that it was the police who solved the crimes, they estimated that in 95 percent of their cases, they helped expand a brief description of a suspect to fill several pages for investigators to use.
The Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis has stated that hypnosis should not stand alone as the sole medical or psychological treatment for any kind of disorder, but the society suggests that there is strong evidence that hypnosis may be an effective component in the broader treatment of many physical problems and in some conditions may increase the effectiveness of psychotherapy. While the clinical use of hypnosis has not become an accepted means of treatment among medical personnel and psychologists, it has gained many scientific supporters and evolved greatly from its occult and superstitious roots.
Baker, Robert A. They Call It Hypnosis. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1990.
Bowers, Kenneth. Hypnosis for the Seriously Curious. New York: W. W. Norton, 1983.
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Meditation is generally defined as the act of extended thought or contemplation/reflection and is most often associated as being spiritual or devotional in nature. Interest in Eastern religions from the 1960s through the 1980s brought about a vast amount of scientific research regarding the benefits of meditation, which as a result has broadened its definition into two main categories: mystical and secular. Either type can include any of a variety of disciplines of mind and body, and although the techniques and desired goals of meditation are varied, the results are quite similar and include: achieving a higher state of consciousness, psychic powers, self-discovery, self-improvement, stress reduction, reduced anxiety, spiritual growth, better health, creativity, increased intelligence, and union with the Creator or God. Meditation itself doesn't directly provide or guarantee these benefits but somehow is believed to facilitate their cultivation.
Many have said there are only two ways to obtain a mystical state or altered state of consciousness and that is either through drugs or meditation. Hoping to achieve that altered state, there are those who take up meditation as the safe means to the more spectacular psychic experiences of visions, voices, out-of-body experiences, and traveling to an astral realm and to have the mystical "high" without inducing chemicals.
Throughout time, mystics, saints, and gurus have reported these expansive occurrences as commonplace amongst dedicated and longtime meditators; however, most of them caution against entering meditation in order to seek such incidents. Ancient texts caution that whatever the mind meditates on, it eventually takes the shape of or becomes the object habitually dwelled upon.
Zen Buddhism urges meditation practitioners to see the "extraordinary in the ordinary" or the "splendor in the simple" and warns that such mystical, supernatural experiences as those listed above are irrelevant to the process of spiritual development and should they occur, they should not be given any special attention at all, as the ultimate goal is to achieve the state of nirvana, which is defined as the complete release from all physical limitations of existence.
Although the founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama (c. 563 b.c.e.–486 b.c.e.), himself found spiritual enlightenment while meditating under a bodhi tree, the Buddhist approach to spiritual awakening does not only consist of meditation but of three ways believed to work together. Those ways are:
- Sila or Purification
- Samadhi or Concentration
- Punna or Insight
Sila, or purification, is simply cleansing the body, mind, spirit. Samadhi, or concentration, involves fixing one's mind or attention on a single object that can be any object such as a colored wheel, a candle, reflections on attributes of Buddha or the elements of nature, etc. Punna, or insight, doesn't come until the student masters mindfulness of the body, feelings, mind, and mind objects, and even then it is said that there are many states in between that may trick one into rapturous states or feelings such as happiness, lucidity and the like, that might make the student believe the state of nirvana has been reached when in fact there may be many other levels yet to be mastered.
Once the three levels are achieved, meditation becomes effortless and consciousness ceases to have a need of any object of any kind, thus all attachments to the material world are severed to the "wakened being." This final stage is said to only be able to last for seven days as the person's pulse, metabolism, and all other physical functions drop so low that death would occur.
In Tibetan Buddhism, training is composed of three parts as well. Those three parts are:
- Hearing, which includes reading and listening to lectures, or studying and the like.
Meditation dates back to antiquity as the Ria Veda, the earliest recorded religious literature of Northern India, written about 1000 b.c.e., in an Indo-European language, describes in detail the ecstasy experienced in meditation.
In the Taoist work, Tao Teh Ching of China, written four or five centuries b.c.e., formalized meditation is also recorded. The Taoists emphasized breath control in meditative practice and believed it to be a skill to be achieved in many stages. The ultimate stage or goal is to be able to breathe without inhaling or exhaling—to the point of the complete cessation of the pulse. If one were able to arrive at this stage successfully, it was said they would transcend conscious thought to the state of what they called the Great Quiescence, or the highest form of enlightenment and the goal of Taoist meditation.
The Upanishads of India give a detailed description of the psychology of meditation as being the way to control the physical senses and actions, thereby freeing oneself from the bondage of the external world. The Upanishads speak of the cultivation of a one-pointed mind through meditation as being the prelude to attaining God consciousness.
Kabbalistic literature and teachings, as well as biblical references to prayer and meditation throughout both the Old and New Testaments, cite setting self apart from the masses and going to a still, quiet place—within and without—as a source of mystical communication with God.
The process of meditation, whether spiritual or secular, is most often described as simply being a way of learning to still the mind— to slow it down, enabling one to listen within, to the "voice within." Although most individuals are not aware of the myriad of thoughts and chatter that rampage through the mind like a wild, untamed horse at each and any given moment, that is the challenge—to slow down all thoughts to a single thought or even to no thoughts at all—complete stillness, the unruly beast tamed at last.
Another analogy often used to describe the process of meditation is to compare the human mind to a lake that contains great treasures deep within, but an intense storm agitates and stirs the waters—clouding the view of the treasures below. Even if an occasional glimpse of the treasures is possible through the windswept waters, the view would be distorted. Here again, to gain mental control and focus is the aim of slowing down the raging storm or the "mental tapes" that continually play in one's head.
Some say that even the descriptions themselves of meditation are a misnomer by definition. Experts say it is not a manipulation of the mind, but a going beyond mind, beyond thought—to the total absence of thought. That "beyond mind" state—much like a calm, clear reflective pool—that not only mirrors the mind's surface, but also reveals its depths. Accomplishing this mental/spiritual state isn't something that occurs in a one-time meditation and sitting; it is an achievement of much discipline and consistency.
In the early 1970s and 1980s, the National Institutes of Health conducted a series of experiments to determine the efficacy of the reported abilities of gurus from India to slow down their heartbeat, pulse rate, and even to raise and lower their body temperature to extremes through meditative states. Medically, this had been considered impossible, as it was believed that the autonomic nervous system was responsible and it could not be manipulated or controlled by mind or thought. Research proved this to be untrue and a whole bevy of human possibilities began to emerge which gave rise to the secular use of meditation.
As research continued, not only in the Institutes of Health, but in universities worldwide, new and astounding data emerged and continues to emerge on a regular basis. Scientists have proven the benefits of meditation in areas as farreaching as crime reduction to improved health, longevity of life, and stress reduction. The National Institutes for Health and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute now recommend meditation as a viable treatment for moderate hypertension. Their research also shows that certain types of heart arrhythmia or irregularities respond to meditation.
In his groundbreaking book, The Relaxation Response (1975), Dr. Herbert Benson documents some interesting research on meditation. Benson found that by having a patient focus on a sacred sound, or a mantra, as used in transcendental meditation, the person's heart rate decreased, as did their breathing rate and oxygen consumption. In fact, Benson's findings were so convincing that the Mind/Body Medical Institute, of which Benson is president, received $2.7 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to continue to investigate the scientific basis of the relaxation response.
Dr. Andrew Weil is an internationally recognized Harvard Medical School graduate and an advocate of alternative approaches to medicine, including the use of meditation. In his book Spontaneous Healing (1995), he recommends meditation to his patients as a means of restoring balance in their lives. Mood swings, depression, erratic energy levels, hectic schedules, unhealthy eating habits, and unstable relationships are all signs of a life out of balance, which is a high disease factor. Weil and many other doctors are advising and/or teaching a variety of meditation techniques with great success in treating these and other afflictions. Research and documentation continues globally in the use of meditation to treat hypertension, pain, muscle tension, and even high cholesterol.
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Psychedelics—The Mind-Expanding Drugs
Throughout the tenure of the human species on Earth, certain mushrooms, extracts from cacti, various roots and herbs, and other unlikely substances have been chewed and ingested, not for the purpose of sustaining life, but for the physiological and psychological effects that they have on the body and the brain. Cults of mystical expression have grown up around the use of these mind-altering substances, for many shamans and priests believed that they could open portals to higher planes of consciousness and even to other worlds by ingesting certain plants. The ancient Greeks held the mushroom sacred, and some contemporary researchers have postulated that the famed Oracle at Delphi may have ingested some form of psychedelic drug, along with the fumes the entranced woman inhaled. Other cultures have also held the mushroom or the cactus sacred. The Mayan Indians of Central America erected stone monuments to the mushroom earlier than 1000 b.c.e. These monuments have been found in the tombs of the wealthier citizens of the Mayan culture, and for many years were thought to be fertility symbols.
Such drugs as mescaline from the peyote cactus, ibogaine from the root of a rain forest shrub, and the so-called "magic mushrooms" came to be known as psychedelic, because they cause people to hallucinate, to see and hear things that are not really there. Dr. Humphrey Osmond (1917– ) began studying hallucinogens at a hospital in Saskatchewan in 1952 when he was examining the similarities between mescaline and the adrenaline molecule. It was Osmond who coined the word "psychedelic" to describe the effects of the mind-altering drugs, and it was also he who supervised the author Aldous Huxley (1894–1963) in the well-known series of experiments with mescaline that Huxley recorded in his book The Doors of Perception (1953).
While modern research techniques focus on psychedelics for purposes of learning more about the human brain, relieving pain, finding antidotes to drug overdoses, and other medical applications, the ingestion of such drugs in the past was most often done to achieve transcendence or to accentuate mystical experiences. In 1953, R. Gordon Wasson (1898–1986), a vice president of the J. P. Morgan Company, and his wife observed a rite of the Mixtec Indians that involved the use of a sacred mushroom by a curandero, or witch doctor, who was said to have powers of prophecy after he had consumed the mushrooms.
The curandero made extensive preparations long before the all-night ritual began. For five days before and five after, he did not allow himself the company of a woman. He explained his actions to the Wassons by saying he feared he would go mad if he consorted with any female. He drank no alcohol for the same period and fasted for 24 hours before the ceremony began.
The Wassons first became involved in the ritual at nine o'clock in the evening when the witch doctor called them to a small room containing articles of ceremonial religious observance and asked them what information they sought. The Wassons answered that they wanted to know about their son, Peter, whom they had left in Boston.
Then in the small, dark room, illuminated only by candles, the witch doctor began the ceremony. By 10:30 p.m., he had eaten 14 pairs of the mushrooms. Other facets of the rite included the precise arrangement of the ceremonial articles in the room and the rubbing of green tobacco on the curandero's head, neck, and stomach. Then the candles were extinguished and they waited.
At 1:00 a.m. the witch doctor claimed that he was receiving a vision of the Wassons' son. He shocked them by saying that Peter needed them because of some emotional crisis in his life. The man continued, telling them that their son was no longer in the city they had thought he was in and that he was either going to war or joining the army. He ended his string of predictions by stating that a close relative of R. Gordon Wasson's would become seriously ill within a year.
It was not long after this ceremony that reality bore out the witch doctor's predictions. Peter Wasson had joined the army at the unhappy end of a romance that had left him emotionally distraught. He was only 18 at the time, but he had joined the service and was shipped to Japan before the Wassons could protest. At the time of the ceremony, he had been not in Boston but in New York. The last portion of the curandero's prognostication also came true when one of R. Gordon Wasson's first cousins died of a heart attack within the one-year period the man had foreseen.
Intrigued by the witch doctor's performance, the Wassons became interested in trying the mushrooms themselves. They traveled the back trails of Mexican bush country until they found a village where the natives were willing to let them join a mushroom ceremony.
The Wassons were given explicit instructions on what and what not to eat before they consumed the mushrooms. The gathering was held in the basement of one of the villager's dwellings, and each person present consumed six pairs of the greasy-tasting mushrooms within a half an hour. The scene was lit by the moon that shone through an opening in the wall.
About a half an hour later, Wasson said that he felt as if his soul had been scooped from his body and had been projected to a point far away. He went on to describe scenes resembling those commonly described by the users of mind-expansion drugs. Yet, in his case, there was no instance of any kind of prophecy or clairvoyance.
The question of whether psychedelic drugs can induce or enhance psychic phenomena or extrasensory abilities remains poised before researchers without an answer. Although the drug-induced experiences are similar qualitatively to those described by mystics and mediums all over the world, they may be only an accompanying manifestation of the brain state of these sensitives.
In 1960 Dr. Erick-Will Peuckert, professor at Germany's Gottingen University, found a formula for witches' salve in an ancient book on witchcraft. Peuckert was aware that the salve was known to contain such psychedelic drugs as the thorn apple, the Deadly Nightshade, and other regional fruits and roots, but he and an unnamed attorney friend decided to test the ancient recipe in the exact ritual manner prescribed by the book of magic.
After the salve had been applied, both men fell into a state of consciousness that resembled sleep. They were both entranced for 20 hours and awakened with mammoth hangovers, complete with dry mouths, sore throats, and headaches. Peuckert and his friend both claimed that they had witnessed the Black Sabbat of the witches.
In spite of the hangovers both men had upon awakening from the trance, they immediately set about writing separate accounts of what they had envisioned. Except for differences in wording, they described the same scenes. Peuckert's theory is that the Sabbat was often manifest with the use of such salves, and although the people involved actually had no physical experiences, they could be made to confess to their witchcraft because they could not separate hallucinations from reality.
Dr. Sidney Cohen, a Los Angeles psychiatrist-pharmacologist, author of The Beyond Within: The LSD Story (1972), commented, "It is hardly necessary to invoke supernatural explanations for the mind's more exceptional activities.…Intuition, creativity, telepathic experiences, prophecy—all can be understood as superior activities of brain-mind function.…The experience called hallucinogenic will play a role in leading us into the future. It points out the existence of unique mental states that must be studied and understood."
On May 2, 1938, Dr. Albert Hofmann of the Sandoz Research Laboratories in Basel, Switzerland, first synthesized Lyserg-Saeure-Diaethylamid (LSD). Lysergic acid is found naturally in ergot, a fungus that grows on rye and other grains, and throughout history it has been used in various medications. Some researchers have even attributed ingestion of ergot to hallucinations that in the Middle Ages may have caused people to believe that they could fly through the air like witches or transform themselves into werewolves.
Five years after synthesizing the drug, Hofmann accidentally inhaled a minute quantity while working with other ergot derivatives and experienced a kind of pleasant feeling of inebriation, which consisted of hallucinations that lasted for several hours. Since Hofmann's accidental discovery, scientists have been trying to fit LSD-25 and other drugs with hallucinogenic properties into biochemical schemes of many kinds. In the 1960s and 1970s, substances and chemicals that formerly had an aura of mystery around them were being broken down by chemical analysis and were hailed by some individuals as "mindexpanders" and by others as recreational drugs that could be exploited for fast "trips" to "farout" places.
During the 20 years following World War II (1939–45), LSD was used to study brain chemistry and to trace its effectiveness in treating patients with schizophrenia and other mental disorders. It was also utilized in conjunction with cancer patients and alcoholics.
LSD was found to create such primary effects as the following:
- a feeling of being one with the universe;
- recognition of two identities;
- a change in the usual concept of self;
- new perceptions of space and time;
- heightened sensory perceptions;
- a feeling that one has been touched by a profound understanding of religion or philosophy;
- a gamut of rapidly changing emotions;
- increased sensitivity for the feelings of others;
- such psychotic changes as illusions, hallucinations, paranoid delusions, severe anxiety.
In 1966 the investigational drug branch of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) distinguished four stages of LSD action:
- Initial, lasting for about 30 to 45 minutes after oral ingestion of 100 to 150 micrograms of LSD, producing slight nausea, some anxiety, dilation of pupils;
- Hallucinations, associated with significant alteration of consciousness (confused states, dreamlike revivals of past traumatic events or childhood memories), distortion of time and space perspective, anxiety, autistic withdrawal, alteration of personality, impairment of conscience lasting from one to eight hours;
- Recovery, lasting for several hours and consisting of feelings of normality alternating with sensations of abnormality;
- Aftermath, consisting of fatigue and tension during the following day.
According to many researchers, LSD is not addictive. It is, in fact, self-limiting. If one were to take the drug for three days in a row, it would no longer produce a psychic effect. A week or longer would have to pass before the drug would again expand the mind.
Long-term use of LSD has been known to cause permanent psychoses, schizophrenia, and severe depression. Some researchers have noticed a change in the aging process among native shamans and diviners who steadily partake of their own home-brewed psychedelics. Rapid aging might be an as yet unforeseen result of extensive use of psychedelics. Some psychiatrists maintain that a psychotic disturbance can occur days, weeks, or even months after receiving LSD.
In 1963, Dr. Timothy Leary and Dr. Richard Alpert were discharged from their positions at Harvard University for their enthusiasm in advocating the mind-expanding properties of LSD. Undaunted, the two went on to establish a number of colonies of their International Federation of Internal Freedom. Throughout most of the 1960s, Leary was the primary and most well-known prophet of the LSD movement, and he predicted that by 1970, as many as 30 million persons, most of them young, would have embarked on voyages of discovery through the limitless inner space of their own minds. According to Leary, these voyagers would return much wiser and much more loving than when they began.
Years before Leary's predicted voyages by millions through their inner space, law enforcement officials had begun to regard traffic in LSD and other hallucinogens as just another racket and feared that they would soon have to contend with a black market in the drugs and that it would be aided and abetted by the crime syndicates. The growing use of psychedelics by the counterculture, the "hippies," and those who felt alienated from mainstream American society because of their anti-Vietnam War sentiments, all contributed to a growing traffic in illegal distribution of the drugs on the streets of cities throughout the United States. Physicians and psychiatrists warned against the indiscriminate use of LSD and other psychedelics and the possibilities that people could provoke otherwise hidden psychotic processes within themselves.
In 1966 further FDA research noted that extended use of the drug could lead to mood swings, including depression, which could in turn lead to suicide. Those who had continued to use LSD could also suddenly experience a sense of euphoria, which could lead to socially embarrassing situations. Time and space distortions could present obvious traffic dangers. A sudden onset of hallucinations could endanger the users and those with them.
Arguing the unpredictable results of uncontrolled use of such drugs as LSD-25, mescaline, and psilocybine, critics of unrestricted use of the drugs demanded legislation that would curb the distribution of psychedelics. In 1970 the U.S. Controlled Substances Act, responding to the unsupervised use and abuse of psychedelic drugs by millions of young adults, made open distribution of such mind-altering substances illegal. Since that time, however, the Food and Drug Administration has allowed projects by medical researchers to continue to explore the potential of psychedelics, explaining that the Controlled Substances Act was never intended to hinder legitimate research, only the misuse and abuse of the drugs.
Because the drugs are now classified as controlled substances, research scientists must apply to the Drug Enforcement Administration for a permit and file an application with the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Federal Drug Administration. During the 1990s, researchers reported medical promise for the use of psychedelic drugs in the treatment of alcoholism, addiction to pain medications, and alleviation of pain in cancer patients.
Individuals who continue to use psychedelics obtained through various means other than the Drug Enforcement Administration have organizations of their own and are determined to meet what they consider a challenge to their personal freedoms. They claim that the benefits gained from the psychedelic experience is valuable and should not be forbidden anyone who, of his or her own volition, would like to explore it.
Although mind-expansion drugs have not been found to be narcotic in the sense that they set up a physical craving within the user, possible long-term effects of the drugs have not yet been determined. If the drug is used as a means of escape from reality, it is possible that a user could become dependent upon it in the same manner that many people become dependent upon alcohol. Psychedelics have been studied extensively since ibogaine was isolated in the early 1900s, mescaline in the 1920s, and LSD since 1943, but government scientists state that it is still too early to determine whether or not the drugs have serious or practical medicinal uses.
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Unlike hypnosis, in relaxation the subjects do not enter a sleep or trancelike state. Instead, they are deeply relaxed and helped by a practitioner to achieve a positive state of mind wherein they can visualize (imagine) the alleviation of an illness or perceive a means by which they might achieve a certain objective or goal in their life. Generally, subjects are relaxed and led on a guided meditation or creative visualization by someone who reads the process from a script. In some cases, the individual may have prerecorded the script in his or her own voice and may thereby repeat the process as often as desired for reinforcement of the technique. Often, soft, soothing music is played in the background as the individual undergoes the relaxation process.
Relaxation and creative visualization utilizing symbolic imagery became increasingly popular among those in the New Age Movement in the 1970s, and seminars and workshops featuring such techniques continued to draw large audiences into the 1990s. Basically, the philosophy behind the relaxation process is quite likely as old as the first healers in ancient Babylon, Egypt, and Greece, who believed that the evil spirits within the ill could be replaced by good spirits if the patient concentrated on positive images of benevolent entities. New Age practitioners believe that in order to achieve a complete healing of body, mind, and spirit, one must counter the negative input that the individual has placed in his or her mind over decades of negative reinforcement. The individual must fill himself or herself with positive memories and images. Phobias, compulsions, and unresolved feelings of guilt can all be removed by relaxation techniques and healing miracles can be accomplished.
Generally, the person undergoing the relaxation process lies or sits in a comfortable position, undergoes a brief breathing exercise, then relaxes further by visualizing a peaceful scene. Once the individual appears to be as relaxed as possible, the practitioner guides him or her on a symbolic journey of discovery, in which valuable insights will be acquired.
Denning, Melita, and Osborne Phillips. The Llewellyn Practical Guide to Creative Visualization: The Dynamic Way to Success, Love, Plenty & Spiritual Power. St. Paul, Minn.: Llewellyn, 1985.
Gawain, Shakti. Creative Visualization. Mill Valley, Calif.: Whatever Publishing, 1979.
Soothing Yourself, Relaxation Techniques. [Online] http://www.soothingyourself.com/. 18 November 2002.
WildMind. "Guide to Meditation Techniques, Relaxation, and Stress Management. [Online] http://www.wildmind.org/. 18 November 2002.
"Altered States of Consciousness." Gale Encyclopedia of the Unusual and Unexplained. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/altered-states-consciousness
"Altered States of Consciousness." Gale Encyclopedia of the Unusual and Unexplained. . Retrieved February 17, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/altered-states-consciousness
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"Altered States of Consciousness." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/altered-states-consciousness
"Altered States of Consciousness." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Retrieved February 17, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/altered-states-consciousness