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

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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 nonhuman 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. 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.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2013 issue of Brain World Magazine.

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