Altered State of Consciousness

Altered State of Consciousness
First used in the 1970s, the term altered state of consciousness (ASC) refers to a change, usually temporary, in a person’s mental state so that his or her awareness differs significantly from what would be considered normal. Reports vary regarding what an ASC is like, but in many cases the experiencer perceives colours, sounds, tastes, and smells differently and/or more intensely than would otherwise be the case.

An ASC also typically involves a lessening of self-awareness, which often means that one’s mind no longer seems tied to one’s body. In many such cases, the consciousness seems to leave the body, perhaps to travel to different places or realms or to connect with another being’s consciousness. Such is the case with paranormal phenomena that some people believe are caused by an ASC, including astral projection, near-death experiences, and mystic experiences.

An ASC can also produce the feeling that time is standing still or moving at a faster or slower pace than normal, and it might result in the experiencer seeing bright lights or other images that seem real but which others say are hallucinations. These two characteristics have led some researchers to theorize that the alien abduction experience is the result of an ASC. Abductees not only report seeing aliens but often cannot determine how much time passed during their experiences. Moreover, abductees talk of seeing bright lights that they believe emanate from an alien spacecraft. Altered states have also been credited with causing paranormal phenomena in which the experiencer’s body seems to perform independently of the mind, which is left with no memories of the event; these phenomena include channelling and automatic writing.

An ASC can come about unintentionally—as the result of such traumas as illness and/or high fever, certain types of injuries, sleep deprivation, or starvation—or intentionally—as the result of meditation, intense prayer, electrical stimulation of the brain, the use of drugs or alcohol, or other practices that change body chemistry or overstimulate or understimulate the brain.

Most people believe that hypnosis can also bring about an ASC. At least some experts say that a hypnotic trance is not a true altered state because even under hypnosis an individual’s awareness does not necessarily change. In other words, hypnotized people sometimes perceive everything in their environment normally, as though they were in an ordinary waking state.

It is impossible to determine whether any particular person is experiencing an ASC, even using medical diagnostic tools such as electroencephalography and magnetic resonance imaging, that measure brain activity. These tools can only measure levels of brain activity, not perception. Consequently, an ASC can only be determined subjectively—that is, from reports by the person actually experiencing the ASC. This fact makes it difficult for researchers who want to determine whether any particular paranormal phenomenon is caused by or causes an ASC.

See Also:

  • Alien Abduction Experiences
  • Astral Projection
  • Channelling
  • Hypnosis
  • Near-Death Experiences


The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Paranormal Phenomena – written by Patricia D. Netzley © 2006 Gale, a part of Cengage Learning