Chapter 13: Altered states of Consciousness


James, at some point, said the following; ‘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. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. 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 question.’

So how do we define ASCs?

James’s ‘other forms of consciousness’ would now be called ‘altered states of consciousness’ or ASCs – a concept that seems simple but is notoriously difficult to define. I get drunk and so feel and act differently; I recover from depression and wonder how life could ever have felt so unliveable; I feel like a calmer person on the meditation mat. In all these cases, something has obviously changed, but what? As soon as we start to think more deeply about altered states of consciousness, the problems begin.

You can define ASCs;

  • Objectively. Taking objective definitions first, we might define ASCs in terms of how they were induced, for example by mind-altering drugs or by hypnosis or progressive relaxation. Then we might label different drug-induced states according to which drug the person took, saying that someone was drunk on alcohol, stoned on cannabis, tripping on LSD, or spaced-out or loved-up on ecstasy. But you cannot say whether the things two people are experiencing are the same or if different factors cause the same ASC.
  • Physiologically. Defining ASCs on the basis of physiological and behavioural measurements, such as heart rate, cortical oxygen consumption, ability to walk in
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