Your Brain on Altered States: On the Origin of Altering Consciousness

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)

Integrating the Conscious and Subconscious

The idea of integration is crucial to understanding how altered states can be beneficial. Winkelman explains that brain functioning during ASC “integrates information from the lower levels of the brain into the processing capacity of the frontal cortex, particularly integrating nonverbal emotional and behavioral information into the frontal brain.” He adds that this process brings “preconscious or unconscious functions and material into self-conscious awareness,” which, in turn, can provide individuals with new levels of insight and understanding.

We might wonder how the experience of dissociation, so common during altered states, can play a role in integration, since the two processes seem diametrically opposed to each other. However, if we consider the use of dissociation in hypnotherapy, for example, we can begin to see how dissociation can paradoxically lead to integration. By providing people with a sense of psychological distance from negative and traumatic information, dissociation can provide a sense of psychological safety and comfort that bypasses the mechanisms of repression, allowing them to engage or reconnect with repressed content and ultimately lead to integration, or acceptance of the content. Very often, troubling thoughts, feelings, and experiences just feel too close to us—we’re not comfortable dealing with them, and because of this, we can’t really get a clear view of them. This often results in an inability to learn from our experiences and successfully adapt our thinking and behavior accordingly.

We can now begin to appreciate how much more there is to the phenomenon of altered states than the typical stereotypes associated with them, especially so when considering that the capacity to experience them is based on innate human biology structures and functions. The evidence showing that altered states can be psychologically beneficial only further underscores how common social misconceptions and biases have greatly hindered our understanding. However, there is another feature of this phenomenon that is equally if not more remarkable than what we have already learned.

Evolutionary Evidence

Winkelman has pointed out that research indicating significant differences between humans and chimpanzees (our closest living evolutionary relative) provides evidence of “a long-term relationship between psychotropic substances and humans,” allowing for human use of “environmental sources of consciousness-altering chemicals.” This is especially evident in our ability to utilize natural opioids from the opium poppy and serotonin-like substances such as psilocybin from hallucinogenic mushrooms. Exogenous neurotransmitter analogues are substances originating from outside of the body which share characteristics with endogenous neurotransmitters — those naturally produced within the body. Through successful evolutionary adaptation, endogenous mechanisms in humans have enabled the selective benefits for using exogenous serotonin-mimicking substances.

There is evidence that evolutionary changes influenced the role that serotonin plays in higher-level cognition, and that it even may have participated in the specialization of cognitive functions. For early human ancestors, the pressures for survival facilitated successful adaptation. Consistent with these demands, the desirable effects of ASC on behavior, cognition, and emotions seemingly fulfilled this need.

Comparative research on the genetics of humans and chimpanzees has found that human gene variations have enhanced the capacity to metabolize plant toxins in addition to opiates and other drugs such as the antidepressant selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These variations are found in CYP2D6, a gene involved in the metabolism of foreign substances that are not naturally produced or part of the normal diet. Variations in these genes indicate positive selectivity for humans specifically with CYP2D6, thus increasing the chances of survival.

Ancient Aliens or Ancient Entheogens?

The psychobiological functions that form the basis of ASC can help explain the regularity of certain types of perceptual experiences that transcend the cultural and historical context of the individual experiencing them. After all, our shared biology provides not only the basis for the capacity to experience ASC, but also for producing certain types of experiences that are consistent regardless of how they may be interpreted. In this sense, ASC could be said to offer certain archetypal or universal experiences.

Winkelman has found a remarkable consistency in the shamanic practices of various cultures, noting that a shaman in one culture will often have more in common in terms of beliefs and practices with shamans in other cultures than he or she does with other healers within their own culture. He has noted the use of well-known induction methods such as consuming entheogens (psychoactive substances), drumming (auditory driving), and dancing (extreme motor activity), combined with such distinct experiences as soul flight, encountering non-human beings, experiencing emotional catharsis and gaining insight as transcultural elements of ASC.

David Lewis-Wilson, emeritus art historian at Johannesburg University and author of “The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art,” has argued that many of the geometric patterns and symbols in prehistoric cave paintings in Western Europe were derived from ASC. Many of these forms are typical entoptic phenomena (perceptions originating in the eye itself ) experienced during such states.

That similar motifs have been found in the cave art in Teleilat Ghassul, 50 miles from the Dead Sea and dating thousands of years later, provides support for ASC being the inspiration for many of the iconic images in cave art. The perception of spirals and dark tunnels leading to a single point of light are commonly experienced during altered states and could account not only for their use in cave art but also in leading early humans to associate caves with entrances to other worlds. This in turn may have been an influential factor in the selection of caves as a site for creating art.

Yulia Ustinova, a professor of general history at Ben-Gurion University, has noted that ASC may have played a role in the divinatory practices of several cultures and could account for the visionary aspects they share in common. She notes that descriptions of the behavior of prophets and diviners as well as the content of their visions can be correlated to typical experiences of ASC. Many instances of prophecy in the Bible closely parallel many aspects of an ASC experience. Ustinova notes, for example, that the vision recounted in Ezekiel 1–3 features “a formidable description of complex multistage experience that comprises visual, auditory, tactile, gustatory, and kinesthetic” elements that are very common to experiences of altered states.

Ustinova has also pointed out that a recent geological discovery has shed light on the potential role of ASC at a historical site famous for being a source of prophecy: the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Fissures beneath the temple have been found to emit hydrocarbon gases that could induce ASC. She notes that a lone descent into a darkened grotto (which would certainly produce sensory deprivation) was a typical procedure for people seeking a divinatory experience, and that it was often combined with fasting and other preparatory activities, which are also methods for inducing ASC.

However, ASC may have played an even larger role in the development of some of the foundational ideas that have influenced the metaphysical beliefs shared by most of the major religions developed throughout history. The dissociative effects of ASC, including out-of-body experiences (OBE), can easily have provided the basis for belief in humans’ possessing an independent, transcending spirit that is capable of separating from its body, flight, and entering other realms of existence where it would encounter non-human beings who could either be benevolent or hostile. These experiences could have clearly helped establish the cardinal points of the spirit world and the roles of its inhabitants as conceptualized by most cultures throughout history. The validity of cultural interpretations of ASC experiences is not so much the point. Rather, the crucial point is the role that altered states may have played in the development of human culture, potentially moving us from a rudimentary level of perception to being capable of developing richly imagined conceptualizations of the world around us and within us.

Along with deep space and the ocean depths, the fabulous organ between our ears is one of the great frontiers that science has yet to fully explore. There can be little doubt that advances in neuroscience and technology will continue to shed new light on the mysteries of ASC. Arnold Mandell recently commented that, “new computational-mathematical techniques” are now allowing researchers to take on increasingly complex questions into the nature of consciousness and its alterations. There can also be little doubt that biological and cultural power of ASC will continue to prove both controversial and irresistible as we struggle to come to terms with its role in our history and the innate human drive to alter consciousness.

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)

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