Altered states of consciousness

Any of a variety of states characterized by a radical shift in the pattern of consciousness from one’s “normal” waking state. The term “altered states of consciousness” (ASCs) was coined by parapsychologist Charles T. Tart. ASCs have been shown to be of some benefit in psi functioning, but have been difficult to study scientifically because of their subjective and internal nature. There is no universal “normal” state of consciousness from which to begin a study, though there are probably biological limitations to the possible range.

The highest ASCs are mystical states of consciousness. States of consciousness-ordinary and altered-take place in four levels of brain-wave activity: beta, alpha, theta, and delta. The beta level is complete, waking consciousness, with brain waves ranging from 14 to 27 cycles per second. Approximately 75 per cent of the waking consciousness is consumed with monitoring physical functions. The alpha level is characterized by brain waves of 8 to 13 cycles per second. In the alpha state material from the subconscious is accessible. The brain is in this state during light hypnosis, meditation, biofeedback, daydreaming, and the hypnagogic and hypnapompic states just prior to and after sleep. In the theta level, brain waves range from 4 to 8 cycles per second. Theta is the equivalent of light sleep, a state of unconsciousness in which one is unaware of what is going on around one. Some people are able to drop into the theta level in biofeedback and meditation. The delta level is deep sleep, with brain waves ranging from 0 to 4 cycles per second.

Numerous ASCs can be differentiated, including:

(1) dreaming, with periods of rapid eye movement (REM) and absence of “slow” brain waves;

(2) sleeping, with “slow” brain waves and absence of REM;

(3) hypnagogic, between Alchemy wakefulness and sleep;

(4) hypnapompic, between sleep and wakefulness;

(5) hyperalert, or prolonged and increased vigilance induced by intense concentration or drugs;

(6) lethargic, which includes depression, fatigue, and so on;

(7) rapture, or overpowering positive emotion;

(8) hysteria, or overpowering negative emotion;

(9) fragmentation;

(10) regressive, as in age regression induced by hypnosis;

(11) meditative, characterized by continuous alpha waves, lack of visual imagery, and minimal mental activity;

(12) trance, characterized by absence of continuous alpha waves;

(13) reverie, which occurs during trance and with REM;

(14) daydreaming;

(15) internal scanning, or awareness of bodily feelings on a nonreflective level;

(16) stupor;

(17) coma;

(18) stored memory, in which information must be recalled by conscious effort;

(19) expanded consciousness, such as peak and mystical experiences; and

(20) shamanic consciousness, an altered but lucid state in which a shaman accesses the underworld or the celestial world. See Shamanism.

ASCs can occur spontaneously, or can be induced through disciplines such as yoga, Zen, and other forms of meditation; prayer; and various occult and magical techniques. They also can be induced through dancing, chanting, intoxication, self-inflicted pain, sensory deprivation, sensory overload, sleep deprivation, progressive relaxation, hypnosis, fatigue, malnutrition, fasting and diet, physical and psychological trauma, birthing, staring, sex, and psychotic episodes. ASCs and Psi In laboratory tests since the early 1950s, ASC-inductive techniques, such as relaxation, sensory deprivation, ganzfeld stimulation, hypnosis, and meditation, have been shown to enhance psi functioning, especially in forced-choice extrasensory perception (ESP) tests, and also in Altered states of consciousness free-response tests and psychokinesis (PK) tests. The most frequently used induction techniques are progressive relaxation and ganzfeld stimulation. See Ganzfeld stimulation.

Drugs, especially psychedelics, are avoided because they are too disorienting. See Drugs in mystical and psychic experiences. Induced ASCs remove distractions from the conscious mind, and might serve to bolster the confidence and expectations of the test subject. The influence of suggestion, either deliberate or implicit, also must be considered, for suggestion alone can positively affect test results. Not all parapsychologists agree on the value of ASCs in psi testing. Remote viewing (seeing a distant site or object by clairvoyance or visiting a distant site by out-of-body travel) produces equally good results in “normal” consciousness, for example. Some factors are unpredictable, such as the individual reactions to an ASC, and the potential for bad experiences among some individuals. ASCs as a State-Specific Science Orthodox science largely rejects the experiences and knowledge gained from ASCs, many of which are intensely spiritual in nature.

Most ASCs have no physical phenomena and thus are epiphenomena, to which science gives little value. Furthermore, they are highly subjective and resist laboratory controls. However, in the mid-1970s Tart introduced the terms “discrete states of consciousness” and “altered states of consciousness,” referring to recognizable patterns that are maintained despite variations in particulars. Scientific research has been effective in the areas of dreams, meditation, biofeedback, and some intoxicated and drug-induced states. Transpersonal psychology has focused on the therapeutic benefits of ASCs, especially the higher mystical states.

See Also:

  • Biofeedback;
  • Dreams;
  • Meditation;
  • Mystical experiences;
  • Sheep/ goat effect;
  • Psychology.

Further Reading:

  • Hoyt L. Edge, Robert L. Morris, John Palmer, and Joseph H. Rush. Foundations of Parapsychology. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986;
  • Philip Goldberg. The Intuitive Edge. Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, England: Turnstone, 1985;
  • Charles T. Tart, ed. Altered States of Consciousness: A Book of Readings. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1969;
  • Charles T. Tart, ed. Transpersonal Psychologies. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1975;
  • Charles T. Tart. States of Consciousness. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1975;
  • John White, ed. The Highest State of Consciousness. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books/ Doubleday, 1972;
  • Benjamin B. Wolman, ed. Handbook of Parapsychology. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1977.


Harper’s Encyclopedia of Mystical and Paranormal Experience – Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley Copyright © 1991 by Rosemary Ellen Guiley.