You may have seen images of an entranced person lightly walking barefoot across a bed of red hot coals without a single blister. Perhaps you’ve heard about how a hypnotized person sitting quietly in a chair can feel no pain when a needle is stuck into his arm. The person may even have his eyes open and be watching the process. This is the type of phenomena often associated with trance and other altered states of consciousness.
For several hundred years Western thinkers have distrusted these states. That view may be changing. At present there are neuroscientists, physicists, psychologists and psychiatrists, medical doctors, and parapsychologists are all trying to understand how these types of phenomena work and whether or not the have value.
An altered state of consciousness (ASC) is generally defined as any mental state that is perceived by an individual, or an observer, as being significantly different from ‘normal’ waking consciousness. These ASCs may range from ordinary day dreams to experiences of mystical ecstasy to near death experiences. (see graph) A person can tell if he is in an altered state by any of the following signs: alterations in thinking, disturbed time sense, loss of control, changes in emotional expression, changes in body image or sensation, and perceptual distortions.
Ruth-Inge Heinze has graphed some ASCs onto two axes: mind expansion or dissociation, and gain or loss of control. From ‘Trance and Healing in Southeast Asia Today’
Copywrite Ruth-Inge Heinze- 1984
All ASCs are deviations from our normal consciousness. Charles Tart, who wrote ‘Altered States of Consciousness’ more than 30 years ago, proposed that even this normal consciousness should in fact be called the ‘consensus trance’. This is because how we perceive reality is a construct of our beliefs and cultural conditioning. Any time we perceive a belief as absolute or unchangeable we are in trance. The way we live entranced may explain why we have so much difficulty understanding trance and ASC. Advocates and skeptics of the value of these states are both firmly entrenched in their ‘belief’s about them. Is there a way to understand these altered states outside of belief? I believe so. I’ll take a look at several avenues of scientific inquiry that are bringing together both what we know objectively about the brain and what we know subjectively from our own experience.
Neurologists have traditionally felt that all we see, hear, feel and think is mediated or created by the brain. Some are trying to discover the neurological underpinnings to spiritual and mystical experiences. Dr. Andrew Newberg has been mapping the brains of meditators in mystical states with radioactive tracers pumped into the brain at critical moments which he then ‘photographs.’ He reports that what really stood out in the photos were the quieter areas of the brain. “A bundle of neurons in the superior parietal lobe, toward the top and back of the brain, had gone dark.”1 This region, called the ‘orientation association area,’ tells us where we are in time and space. It requires sensory input to function. When it quiets down in certain ASCs, we lose the distinction between ourselves and the world, we perceive everything as self, interwoven and connected.
This activity, or lack of activity, shows how brain function is related to these states. Does it mean the nature of these altered state experiences is mechanical? Not necessarily. Consider if you were to photograph your brain while you were eating an orange. All the neurological activity in the brain wouldn’t negate the reality of the orange. Newberg says, “there is no way to determine whether the neurological changes associated with spiritual experience mean that the brain is causing those experiences... or is instead perceiving a spiritual reality.”
In related research Michael Persinger of Laurentian university in Canada uses a device to send a weak magnetic field into peoples’ heads to influence their temporal lobes. This creates experiences described as mystical, out of body, or even like hauntings. In one study a woman’s nightly visitations by the ‘holy spirit’ were found to be caused by a clock on her bedside table. The “magnetic pulses generated by the clock (were) similar to shapes that evoke electrical seizures in epileptic rats and sensitive humans.”2 In another experiment a journalist who had previously experienced a haunting, reported “rushes of fear” and a visual apparition which he said was very similar to his original experience. Persinger suggests that this type of experiment may help researchers understand what environmental variables give rise to the original occurrences of this kind of phenomena.3
In another paper he seemingly proves his point. He correlated experiences attributed to Christ and Mary at Marmora, Ontario, Canada to the location of an open pit magnetite mine that has been filling with water. He noted epicenters for local seismic events have also moved closer to the pit. “Most of the messages attributed to spiritual beings by "sensitive" individuals occurred one or two days after increased global geomagnetic activity.”4 This research clearly seems offers a causal, non-paranormal explanation for some spiritual experiences.
Some researchers believe that when areas of the brain, like the orientation area, become quiet, it is a regression from higher functioning to a more primitive state, unthinking yet aware. Laurence O. McKinney writes that the state of “selfless perception would be experienced as a state of grace to a religious Westerner, samadhi or satori to a Hindu or a Buddhist.”5 Except he says that this self-induced state is a “lower consciousness in fact.” McKinney believes that these experiences can be positive, that “moments of mild ego loss are instructive, not destructive, because they were done purposefully... Every time we repeat thoughtfully something that we love to do, we add to our growing networks of associative energy.” Are these states a regression to a more primitive functioning that is only beneficial because it’s managed by the ‘higher’ consciousness of normal cognitive functioning?
Neuroscientist Rhawn Joseph questions assumptions like this, “Why would the limbic system evolve specialized neurons or neural networks ... to experience or hallucinate spirits, angels, and the souls of the living and the departed if these entities had no basis in reality? We can hear because there are sounds that can be perceived and because we evolved specialized brain tissue that analyzes this information. First came sounds, and then later, specialized nerve cells evolved that could analyze vibrations and then later, sounds. Likewise, if there were nothing to contemplate visually we would not have evolved eyes or visual cortex, which analyzes this information. Visual stimuli existed before the neurons that evolved in order to process these signs. Should not the same evolutionary principles apply to the limbic system and religious experience?”6
Neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield’s research on epileptics significantly increased our understanding of the relationship between the brain and the mind. He discovered that since the brain has no pain receptors, he could directly stimulate the brain of a conscious patient. For example, he would stimulate one spot and the person’s arm would move, another spot and they would suddenly smell lemon. Penfield conducted volumes of experiments showing how various experiences were located in different areas of the brain. Although he found that the content of consciousness depends in large measure on neuronal activity in the brain, this activity, “always occurred within the dominating and enveloping radiance of an autonomous mind.”7 His research failed to show where the mind resided in the brain. Later in his career he went so far as to say that although all his experiments were built on the principle that the brain generates the mind they in fact proved exactly the opposite.8
Dr. Les Fehmi, a psychologist and neurofeedback researcher from Princeton, is also studying the value of subjective experience as well as what we know about the physical mechanisms in the brain. His promotes an ‘open focus’ state of awareness signified by synchronous alpha frequencies in the brain. He first experienced these alpha frequencies for himself when he tried and failed. “At the moment of surrender I experienced a deep and profound feeling of disappointment. Fortunately, I surrendered while still connected to my EEG and while still receiving feedback. It was surprising to observe that I now produced five times the amount of alpha than before the act of surrendering.” After learning how to open his focus and create the alpha waves, he “felt more open, lighter, freer, more energetic and spontaneous. A broader perspective ensued which allowed me to experience a more whole and subtle understanding. As the letting go unfolded, I felt more intimate with sensory experience, more intuitive...”9
Fehmi found that imagining space was one of the ways to force the brain to stop grasping and move into open focus. The state is experienced as “a vast three dimensional space, nothingness, absence, silence and timelessness. The scope of our attention is not only expanded, but is experienced with greater immersion. Thus, the ground of our experience is reified, realized as a more pronounced sense of presence, a centered and unified awareness, an identity with a vast quality less awareness in which all objects of sensation float, as myself.”10 This sounds surprisingly similar to the meditators’ reports when they quieted the orientation area in their brains. You can get a taste of open focus now, if you wish. As you read, become aware of the space in between the letters on the page while you are attending to the words and the meanings of the words? Can you also be aware of the space between you and the paper? At the same time, is it also possible to be aware of sounds around you? Let all of that stay with you as you attend to the words, and the meanings of the words, you read.
This graph shows a common attention style in each corners and Dr. Fehmi’s
Open focus state in the center allowing equal access to all modes of attention.
Copywrite Dr. Les Fehmi - 1998 - http://www.openfocus.com
Fehmi believes that the way we pay attention is important. If someone is always in narrow objective focus they will start to experience stress, regardless of the content of their attention. (see graph) Fehmi was chronically in narrow focus; that is why he experienced such a profound breakthrough. He finally ‘gave up’ and went into the open focus state. Consideration of our society’s chronic narrow focus may help us to explain our society’s rampant drug use and fascination with meditation and ecstatic spiritual states. These methods help us alleviate the tension of remaining chronically narrow focused in our ‘consensus trance’.
The relief that comes with altering our attention and our consciousness is more than just feeling good. Fehmi’s open focus, hypnotic trances, and other ecstatic states have been shown to bring about the remission of many stress related symptoms, chronic pain, insomnia, even eye and skin disorders. People who have been the most narrow focused may experience the most profound results. With practice most people can experience lasting changes.
Though many of these changes are subjective and hard to measure, some studies are showing how our attention may physically change the brain. Susan Greenfield has shown how the hippocampus’ in London taxi drivers were enlarged proportionately to the length of their employment - possibly related to their remembering abilities. She also noted a similar study where just practicing five finger piano exercises for five days enhanced the area of the brain relating to the digits. More remarkable is that just imagining the movements creates a comparable change in the brain, a measurable physical change.11
Since we can demonstrate that imagination does change the structure in the brain, then it becomes more believable that an altered state can generate other paranormal phenomena. The ability to control pain and resist burning that firewalkers and hypnotized people display may be a natural, though seldom used, potential of the mind-body connection. Parapsychologists Russel Targ and Jane Katra say that the interconnectedness demonstrated in quantum physics is the explanation for psychic abilities like remote viewing and distant healing.12 Our ability to control our brains and minds puts us in touch with the experience and phenomena of no separation. This is essentially the same thing the mystics have been reporting for thousands of years, that the separation between mind and body, between ourselves and others, even the phenomena of space and time, are illusions. Fehmi’s attention training along with meditation and other consciousness altering practices may be more psychologically and physiologically powerful than we’ve believed. Targ and Katra say, “The choice of where we put our attention is ultimately our most powerful freedom. Our choice of attitude and focus affects not only our own perceptions and experiences, but also the experiences and behaviors of others.”13
If you’ve been using your attention to alter your awareness while reading this article, you may have a sense how easy it is to shift your consciousness. Your experience may seem totally unlike the possession trance of a firewalker or a shaman, but it is related. It’s only a matter of degree. If you can fully appreciate the value of these milder controlled states, you may be more open to the value of states more alien to you, more altered. Those more extreme states have been used for millennia by indigenous shaman and healers to fulfill valid personal and social needs. Even scientists like Edison and Einstein used their ability to slip into natural trance states for creative breakthrough. Einstein even said some of his formulae were not derived from research or calculation, but from, “psychical entities as more or less clear images.”14
Many meditators, hypnotic patients, and open focus practitioners who use these ASCs report they feel more in control of their lives. Their direct experiences from these states gives them a flexibility that loosens the hold ‘consensus trance’ has on their minds. A century ago William James said, “the mystical feeling of enlargement, union and emancipation has no specific intellectual content whatsoever of its own... We have no right, therefore, to invoke its prestige as distinctly in favor of any special belief.”15 The work of these brain and mind researchers is helping us to understand without needing to believe; both the physiological and the psychological knowledge we possess has value. It is freeing to realize that we need not be believers or skeptics but can explore our states of consciousness with a more flexible and clearer mind. We may even enjoy and even be surprised at what we find.
1 - “Religion and the brain” - Begley - Newsweek, May 7, 2001
2 - “Experiences of spiritual visitation...”, PERSINGER & KOREN, Perceptual and Motor Skills, Feb 2001, v92 i1, p35
3 - “Experimental simulation of a haunt experience...”, Persinger, Tiller, & Koren, Perceptual and Motor Skills, April 2000, v90 i2, p659(16)
4 - “Experiences attributed to Christ and Mary...”, Persinger & Suess, Perceptual and Motor Skills, Oct 2001, v93 i2, p435(16)
5 - Neuro theology by Laurence O. McKinney
6 - “The limbic system and the soul”, by R. Joseph, Zygon, vol. 36, no. 1 mar. 2001
7 - “The Materialist Superstition”, George Gilder - The american enterprise, sept/oct 1998, v9, p38(5)
8 - Trance - A Natural History of Altered States of Mind, Brian Inglis
9 - “Attention to Attention”, Les Fehmi, www.openfocus.com - 1998
10 - Fehmi - 1998
“Altered States of consciousness”, Susan Greenfield, Social Research Fall 2001, v68 i3, p609(19)
11 - “The scientific and spiritual implications of psychic abilities”, Targ & Katra, Alternative therapies, May/June 2001 vol. 7, no.3
12 - Targ and Katra, 2001
13 - Trance, by Brian Inglis
14 - The varieties of Religious Experience, Willam James, 1902