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


Together, these mechanisms allow for the increased flow of information along neural pathways, playing a role in the overstimulation of the temporoparietal junction (TPJ), an area of the brain that is associated with our ability to perceive a bodily distinct self. Overstimulation of the TPJ is responsible for the production of dissociative effects that are often experienced during ASC, including out-of-body experiences (OBE).

However, the crucial question is: How does this brain functioning produce experiences and effects that are beneficial for humans?

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.

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