Altered states of consciousness

Everything from coffee, extreme sports, music, drugs, pornography, cinema to hypnosis - Americans spend 4 trillion dollars a year on various ways to change their state of consciousness. Why influencing how we feel and think has become so important for us?

In 2012, the award-winning photographer John Downer, with the use of spy cameras designed as fish or sea turtles, captured the behaviour of bottlenose dolphins in their natural habitat.

What he discovered was that dolphins got high on pufferfish, which when facing a threat releases a yellow cloud of deadly neurotoxins. In small doses, this substance has a narcotic effect and it seemed to be affecting the dolphins. Dolphins chewed the pufferfish in order to activate its defense mechanism. Then, they took turns in passing the puffer around, so that the rest of the bunch could take a hit and enter a blissful, trance-like state.

It turns out that such behaviour is quite natural in the animal world, just as it is in the human world. The difference is that we have a much wider spectrum of methods available to affect our consciousness, drugs being just one of them. For thousands of years, people and animals have learned to enter non-ordinary states of consciousness in various ways.

Why do we do all this? What are altered states of consciousness exactly? What measures and methods do we resort to escape our head? How can these states help us enhance our personal development and overcome internal obstacles? Read on to find the answers to these questions. Inspired by Steven Kotler's book "Stealing Fire", I decided to elaborate here on the fascinating and mysterious subject of altered states of consciousness. It does concern all of us, no exception.

What are altered states of consciousness?

An altered state of consciousness is any condition which is significantly different from a normal waking state. The synonym for this concept is "ecstasy", which in Poland is often used to refer to an experience of intense pleasure (usually sexual). This word, however, has a much broader meaning. The word "ecstasy" (ἔκστασις, ekstasis) comes from ancient Greece and literally means "standing outside oneself."

Plato described ecstasy as a non-ordinary state in which our normal, "awake" consciousness is dissolved completely and replaced by intense euphoria and connecting with the higher intelligence. Experiencing such states is an opportunity to self-transcend (transgress one’s self), shake off the chains of schematic thinking, abandon your ego, and to feel more in unity with nature.

As estimated by Steven Kotler, Americans spend $4 trillion a year on ways to temporarily alter their state of consciousness. In his calculations, he took into account many various methods and tools with which we can influence how we feel and how we think. Here are the most popular ones:

  • Drinking coffee,
  • Smoking,
  • Using drugs
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Doing extreme sports,
  • Having sex,
  • Watching pornography,
  • Listening to music,
  • Going to the movies,
  • Going to concerts and music events,
  • Watching TV,
  • Practicing personal development,
  • Going to therapy,
  • Playing computer games,
  • Practicing yoga,
  • Practicing meditation,
  • Practicing breathing exercises,
  • Taking part in personal development workshops,
  • Gambling,
  • Virtual reality,
  • Hypnosis.

Some of the ways to achieve altered states of consciousness can have a destructive effect on our body and psyche, while some of them are quite safe and can have a significant impact on the development of our cognitive capacities. All the methods, however, have the same goal: to change the way our mind sees and experiences things, even if it’s only for a few minutes.

For what purpose does it serve? Do we just want to feel better for a moment, or is there some deeper motivation hidden behind the facade?

Modifying the brain’s software

Let's go back to the animal world for a moment. Dolphins are not the only species that fancy altered states of consciousness. Dogs tend to lick toads, cats love catnip, goats like mushrooms with psilocybin, baboons like ibogaine (hallucinogen growing in Africa), elephants get drunk with fermented fruits.

In his book "Intoxication", psychopharmacologist Ronald K. Siegel asserts that pursuing and consuming drugs is a biologically normal behavior in the animal world and that it is a rule rather than an exception.

Siegel even suggested that this need to transgress our normal states of consciousness is so strong that it can be described as “the fourth force" shaping our behaviour. The first three consist in the desire for food, water and sex.

Why do animals resort to consciousness altering techniques?

According to some research, such rituals have an important, evolutionary role. This role is called "depatterning", that is eliminating or "disempowering" common patterns and mental cliches from our mind (there is no direct Polish translation of that word). Living creatures maintain habitual ways of operating all the time and resort to the means that allow them to see the reality in a completely new way, from a new angle, which gives them a better chance of survival.

In the human world, intoxication is also a way of escaping from the default, standard mode of operating and thinking. Unfortunately, due to the current condition of humanity, in most cases, it is a method of avoiding difficult emotions that overwhelm us and cutting ourselves from our internal world. We use stimulants to relax, to reset, to increase our concentration at work, or to party.

"When you think of billions of dollars worth industries that make the business of altered states of consciousness - aren’t they created just for that? The whole point is to switch off the self. To give us even a brief moment of relief from this nagging voice in our head. (...)

When our attention is focused on the present, we stop scanning yesterday for painful experiences we want to avoid repeating. We quit daydreaming about a tomorrow that’s better than today. With our prefrontal cortex offline, we can’t run those scenarios. We lose access to the most complex and neurotic part of our brains, and the most primitive and reactive part of our brains, the amygdala, the seat of that fight-or-flight response, calms down, too." - Steven Kotler

There is no denying that more and more people try the "ecstasy business" in a more conscious way, using this drug not so much to escape from one’s inner self, but rather for mose self-insight, self-discovery and self-work, especially in relation to those more tricky and deep aspects of personality. Many studies indicate that altered states of consciousness can significantly increase creativity, productivity and learning capabilities, by up to several hundred percent, and can be effectively used to solve certain important issues of the modern world.

American psychologist James Fadiman has carried out research showing that psychedelic consumption improves our problem-solving skills and develops lateral thinking (breaking the existing thinking patterns and looking at the situation from different angles). Among that study’s participants there were engineers, architects, physicists and mathematicians.

Music ecstasy

In addition to these very specific benefits of entering altered states of consciousness, there is also one more: feeling this incredible bliss which people of the addiction prone personality can get hooked on and crave to return to so much. Steven Kotler distinguishes 4 main characteristics of such states:

  • selflessness
  • timelessness
  • effortlessness
  • richness

As you experience all of these sensations at the same time, the feeling of ecstasy can be overwhelmingly powerful. Your ego is dissolving and you feel love towards all living creatures pouring out of our hearts, or as if we were touching the absolute.

Such powerful, deep experiences are achieved only through certain methods of altering states of consciousness, primarily doing extreme sports and using psychedelic drugs. With the more traditional techniques, the feeling of selflessness, timelessness or effortlessness is clearly subdued, but still captivating enough to want to reach for the drug again and again.

From the neurological perspective, the fact that we so often can’t help but return to altering states of consciousness (and so often get addicted to them) is fully understandable.

Noradrenaline, dopamine, endorphins, serotonin, anandamide and oxytocin are the six neurotransmitters released in our brain responsible for giving us the feeling of utmost pleasure. Altering states of consciousness is the only opportunity to experience what’s it like when so many of them are released simultaneously.

Let’s take music, for instance. When listening to music, our brain waves change frequencies from the beta waves characteristic for normal wakeful state of consciousness into the alpha and theta ranges dominant in deep meditation. The level of stress hormones (noradrenaline and cortisol) decreases, while the level of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, endorphins, serotonin and oxytocin goes up.
Listening to music at appropriate volume and on the right-quality equipment, our head stops producing thoughts and we enter altered states of consciousness. Now I know why I like to turn up the volume on my loudspeakers - it’s not only more enjoyable then but also feels as if I were sinking in the sounds that I'm hearing.

Interestingly, research shows that, when there is music on one’s home, the emotional distance between housemates shrinks by 12 percent. What’s more, then people invite and visit each other with a frequency higher by 85 percent, say "I love you" - by 18 percent and have sex - by 37 percent. I wouldn’t be surprised if, knowing that, you were to buy new loudspeakers today.

The music potential was probably the reason why many centers of the religious cult were designed to have a specific shape in order to amplify the sound of music played there. For thousands of years, we've been modifying the sound to alter our consciousness.

The dark side of ecstasy technology development

The development of technologies and tools allowing us to study states of consciousness also has its dark side. Some of them are already being utilized for unethical purposes. This is very well presented by Nicholas Kardaras, one of America’s most prominent addiction specialists:

"Today’s games are a multi-billion dollar industry that employs the best neuroscientists and behavioural psychologists to make them as addictive as possible.

Adolescent game testers wear devices that measure skin reactions, ECG and blood pressure. If the game fails to increase the blood pressure to the desired level, video game engineers modify it to get the product that will cause greater flows of adrenaline ...

Video games cause a flood of dopamine to the same level as sex and to almost the same level as cocaine. This mixture of adrenaline and dopamine high has a double effect when it comes to addiction. "

Of course, not all video games are designed like this. I’m definitely no specialist in this field, I haven’t played computer games since ages and, quite frankly, I am not a fan of this kind of leisure, but I want to draw attention to unethical practices of the video games industry, whose technologies offer unlimited possibilities of increasing addictive properties of games and other products.

Hedonic planning

In his book "Stealing Fire", Steven Kotler writes about the tool of ​​"hedonic calendaring" and suggests conscious planning of accessing altered states of consciousness via common activities. What a great idea! Although modifying our state of consciousness is a completely natural thing for us, indeed an inseparable part of every human life, we notoriously resort to methods that have a destructive impact on us. That’s why it’s good to consciously plan our flow engagement.

If the idea of entering non-ordinary states of consciousness sounds interesting to you, take a look again on the ways to do it  (listed above).

Note which of them make an essential part of your life. Then think about whether these methods really help you or maybe they have negative side effects. This is definitely the case in relation to such activities as smoking, watching pornography or gambling. However, you can choose from a range of other activities, which aren’t destructive to our body or mind, quite on the contrary, help us develop on many levels.

I recommend that you take some time to think what other tools or activities you might want to use to enter altered states of consciousness?

Go to therapy? Participate in a personal development workshop? Get started with meditating? Or maybe buy new headphones so that you can discover the real pleasure of listening to music? It’s up to you!

Conscious mind alteration

It is all about accessing altered states of consciousness wisely.

Interfering with how our brain functions requires knowing why you do it and what it can result in. This applies to all the ways to get you out of your own head, mentioned in this article. It’s not my place to tell you which ways are good and which aren’t - you need to decide for yourself. Prior to that, be sure to surf the web for more information and research on the effects of each of the methods and stimulants described here.

The bottom line is that you do not use these things to escape yourself and separate from your emotions. On the contrary, the purpose of accessing altered states of consciousness should rather be to look inside yourself and get in touch with those parts of your personality that need it now most.

One of such opportunities of conscious mind alteration is my Mind/Body/Soul workshop, which consists in sessions of TRE®, Biodynamic Breath®, yoga, Qi-gong, spontaneous dance and visualization. This will be a great opportunity to experience, discover and change your states of consciousness. For more information on this workshop go here.

This way, you will have more access to flows, i.e. states of selflessness, timelessness, effortlessness  and richness, on a daily basis, and, above all, you won’t need another sip of coffee or another cigarette for that.


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