Altered States of Consciousness
This special issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies is about altered states of consciousness (ASCs). One might be forgiven for thinking that this is an obvious choice of topic for this journal, and the field of consciousness studies in general. After all, isn’t it the most normal of practices in science to systematically manipulate the phenomenon one is interested in? Studying ASCs, therefore, should be one of the best ways to study consciousness itself. But, as it happens, this is not the case.
To start, if consciousness is notoriously difficult to define, try defining altered states of consciousness! Several attempts have been made to crystallize the concept into a workable definition but to say that they have not been widely adopted is an understatement. The reason for this is that ASCs rely on subjective verbal report. The exclusive reliance on subjectivity means that only we can determine for ourselves whether or not we have reached an ASC. This renders ASCs unverifiable. Consider two individuals who have the exact same level of alcohol intoxication (matched for tolerance, weight, etc.), but one is claiming an ASC while the other isn’t. What about antidepressant medication? Does Prozac induce an altered state? It’s easy to see how unsatisfactory this state of affairs is. Two examples that never fail to generate a heated debate among students underscore this predicament. Do you consider the feeling of being madly in love an ASC? Didn’t you seem to process everything differently at the time? And what would you make of PMS? Apart from the bodily changes, many women describe their symptoms in terms of alteration to mental functioning. Does that count as an ASC?
A related problem is that we must decide whether or not our experience is altered by comparing it to normal consciousness. But what is normal? Default consciousness itself is highly variable and the baseline, if one exists, differs not only among people but also within each individual. Still, there have been several attempts to map ASCs on to a continuum and/or hierarchy of states of consciousness. This also hasn’t stuck, primarily because if this tacit assumption of a default normal state. William James (1890), for instance, didn’t think of altered states of consciousness as qualitatively different, writing over 100 years ago: ‘our normal waking consciousness is but one special type of consciousness.’
As a result, we have a poor understanding of what, exactly, is being studied and a broad disagreement about the type of phenomena that should be classified as ASCs. This is evident in the papers that make up this special issue. Nearly every author felt compelled to wrestle with the issue of a definition.
That said, we can exclude one feature from the definition. ASCs are temporary in nature and the individual will eventually go back to a ‘normal’ mind state. In other words, permanent alterations to consciousness, such as those occurring in neurological and psychiatric disorders — delusions in psychosis, brain damage, or epilepsy, for instance — are typically not considered ASCs, although we can safely assume that they alter consciousness in one way or another.
From an empirical standpoint, the matter goes from bad to worse due to the ephemeral nature of ASCs. Save for a few exceptions such as sleep research or experimental hypnosis, altered mind states are difficult to induce reliably and any effect an induction procedure might have on consciousness is even more difficult to observe, let alone quantify. In short, the independent variable cannot be readily manipulated and the outcome measures rely on introspection, a set of circumstances that has all but stopped serious research on the subject.
What’s more, ASCs is a subject still seen by most psychologists and neuroscientists as career suicide. Again, there are of course exceptions, but, by and large, ASCs are gravely underfunded by grant agencies and few psychologists or neuroscientists can afford to make them their main area of research. This is also due to the insidious cliché attached to ASCs. Many view them with suspicion — some sort of abstruse psychopathology at the lunatic fringe frequented mostly by potheads and meditating yogis. This bias is further exacerbated by the excessive use of esoteric language often used to describe ASCs, which does little to disabuse others of the aura of lawlessness and unscientific hogwash that sadly surrounds them.
But, as with consciousness as a whole, there has been a resurgence of good research on ASCs in recent years, although most of it isn’t packaged that way. This is fuelled in part by data showing bona fide medicinal benefits for some altered states, such as hypnosis, meditation, cannabis use or, to use the most recent example, the administration of psychedelic compounds to facilitate psychotherapy. The upshot of this progress, apart from restoring a measure of scientific legitimacy to the topic, is a great deal of new data that inform our understanding of the phenomenology and brain mechanisms of ASCs.
Organizing this special issue was a very challenging task indeed. ASCs is a topic where respectable people, even those of the highest scholarly standing, regularly rise to levels of speculation that can safely be called imprudent. Everyone, it seems, holds a strong opinion about it. The trouble started right from the beginning, when decisions had to be made on which ASCs to include in the special issue and which ones to leave out. I hoped to somewhat sidestep the mess of (subjective and unverifiable) definitions, as well as possible inclusion or exclusion criteria, by limiting the special issue to putative ASCs. Actually, this is simply another way of applying the logic of natural concepts or fuzzy sets. Instead of a precise definition (which we don’t have anyway), natural concepts are based on one or more prototypes that have features that are probabilistically associated with category membership. In other words, there are no sharp boundaries. But even that approach ran into trouble right away, with some supposedly high-probability exemplars — hypnosis or daydreaming, specifically — being called into question. In the end, we had to proceed one way or another, and the present special issue contains predominantly papers on altered states that most people would consider solid prototypes. If the special issue has a shortcoming, it’s rather on the other end — the fact that many forms of altered consciousness could not be included.
With this in mind, the papers of this special issue are, first and foremost, a collection of the usual suspects: dreaming (Fazekas et al.), mind-wandering (Abraham), hypnosis (Kihlstrom), meditation (Sedlmeier), flow (Csikszentmihalyi and Nakamura; Mohr), and drug states (Girn and Christoff; Passie and Scharfetter). Rounding things off are two papers on what might best be called ‘spiritual rituals’ (Fischer and Tasananukorn; Newberg and Yaden) and a paper on a general brain mechanism for ASCs (Dietrich and Al-Shawaf). As might be suspected, there is very little cross-talk among the papers, but the mere fact that they are all gathered in one issue and under one heading might help in thinking about all the commonalities the various ASCs share and how that fits into the broader field of consciousness studies.
James, W. (1890) Principles of Psychology, New York: Holt.