Do you take hallucinogenic drugs? Ok, let’s go easy. Do you pray or meditate? Do you run or work out? Dance, do yoga? Do you dream? All of those activities, of course to a different extent, result in altering your usual string of thoughts.
“For thousands of years man has been looking for ways to break through the physical bonds of life on Earth and travel to places beyond experience.” This is the opening line of the National Geographic Taboo episode entitled “Altered States”. Immediately after typing these two innocent words into Google will you realize how much controversy they bring up in so called Western society. You will also find the official name for it: ASC, altered states of consciousness.
Before explaining what ASC is, the author of this article would like to express her believe in there being very few more fascinating fields of research, as of today, than neuroscience and its connection to the construct of society. It is simply, as the author of this article tends to say, awesome.
In short, ASC is a stage in which one’s brain (or mind, which according to the brain\mind monism principle, is the same thing) gets detached from the body and its normal sense perception. One of the definitions goes like this: a temporary change in one’s normal mental state without being considered unconscious. How does it happen? Perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is drugs. That is because drugs are a sort of a shortcut. Accidents, traumas, high fever or sensory overload can have a similar effect. There are ways of attaining it deliberately, like meditating or chanting, for example for spiritual purposes.
The controversy about ASC is rather obvious. On one side we have scientist, doctors and legal systems saying that hallucinogens are poisonous to the human body and have a life-threatening effect. Others, such as journalist and writer Graham Hancock would call the act of altering consciousness in a self-healing and self-searching process an individual choice and basically a human right. Watch Hancock’s 2013 TED Talk “The War on Consciousness” (famously banned by TED) to learn more about purposes of consciousness alteration and decide for yourself.
However, because of all the controversy that would need few pages to discuss thoroughly, this article drops the topic of consciousness alteration by substances such as alcohol, opiates, marijuana, cocaine, or powerful hallucinogens like LSD or the Amazonian ayahuasca. Of course the cultural impact of those substances is huge and as such absolutely worth investigating. But for now, instead, we will take on another task, namely to prove to the readers that ASC is more common than one might think. In order to do that, more obvious altered states caused by accidents, shock or trauma will also be left out.
Continuing down this path, the first thing to notice is the variety and multiplicity of states of intentional, recreational consciousness alteration. It really shows how, just by practicing, one can purposely use mild ASC to get rid of stress, rethink some deep questions, get new ideas.
We need to have our consciousness altered and so we seek ways to achieve it, unconsciously. For that matter, nobody knows why humans need sleep to function. Dreaming is a state when we are not awake, yet still conscious enough to react to example giving someone slapping our face. Whereas both lucid dreaming and sleep deprivation can cause more intense ASC. Perhaps even some part of the readers will find this familiar: a friend who has been working nights twitches or abruptly turns around, thinking he saw something in the corner of the eye. Not to mention experiencing it personally during the exam period. Of course, the extreme cases of insomnia like the Narrator’s in ‘Fight Club’ don’t come from skipping a few hours of sleep because of an exam due next morning. After all, as the Iron Lady used to say, “sleep is for wimps.” Some people might use that to explain some of the more frantic points of the TINA policy. Fasting is another consciousness altering state, and again, it was during his isolation in the desert that Jesus got to have his famous chat with the Devil. ASC? Moving on.
The repetitive moves and sounds, steady breathing during workout can put a mind in a hypnotic state. The more one pays attention to this, the stronger the effect. There is several ways of achieving self-hypnosis that anyone at any time can practice. If it isn’t going to get you something to think about, it will at least give you something to talk about, so why not try. You don’t need to be a yogi or a liberated Buddhist on the verge of nirvana; you might still get surprised by the effect.
And lastly, a few more things worth considering through an ASC perspective: 3D screenings, curved (panoramic) screens, the Oculus goggles, roller coaster rides, daydreaming and so on.
FLOAT ME TO THE MOON
Some people treat ASC very seriously. Those are the people who travel great distances to visit societies in which altering minds is a form of ritual, often achieved with help from vegetable brews and mixtures threatened similarly to sacraments in the Catholic Church. But then, after a few weeks or months with the shamans, those people are back at home, let’s say in Oslo, working and starting families. One of them is Carl.
Carl is Scottish and a new dad with a great deal of travelling experience. He is also a co-owner of Floating Oslo, a place in Frogner where anyone can try out a flotation tank (or isolation tank) used in REST, Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy. Sounding very technical, the primary goal of the tank is to help you relax like you’ve never relaxed before, creating conditions of sensory deprivation reaching 90%. The sensation is therefore nothing short of being quite trippy.
LET’S FLOAT DOWN TO PERU
First experiments with floating involved a certain dolphin-loving neuropsychologist named John Cunningham Lilly getting high on LSD in a tank of his own design in Maryland, US. This was the 50s, when scientists had just begun to study consciousness, its origins and alterations. How? Yours truly went to check it out.
Don’t drink coffee or any energy drinks prior to the float. You will find Floating Oslo in Hafrsfjordgate (you cannot put 5 consonants in a row and expect people to pronounce it, Norway), right off Bygdøy Allé. It is small, but cozy. “So, are you excited?”, says Carl and it is hard to answer no. The tank doesn’t look as scary or as clam-like as the ones on Google images, or the one used in the 1980 si-fi horror movie ‘Altered States’ about a good trip going bad. It has a kind of murky but soothing mood to it, the air smells like salt. The light in the room is dimmed and you have to really focus to follow Carl’s crash course on when to turn the dehumidifier back on, how to avoid getting salt in your eyes and what to pay attention to while floating. Than he says, “See you in an hour!” and the door closes. These are the steps you take: put on the earplugs (to prevent water getting in your ears), shower and get in the tank. There is a delicate blue light inside that you can turn off whenever you feel like. The tank is filled with ca 30 cm deep water so salty, that it will push you nicely right on the surface. The salt is enriched with magnesium that gets absorbed through your skin while you’re floating, a nice touch for all of you who overdose on coffee. Now, relax.
The feeling is something out of the ordinary. Once you realize that you don’t need to hold up your head it gets even more interesting. I would imagine that for someone who meditates and practice relaxation techniques this must be heaven. There is no sound, just blackness, just you. Time acts funny when your brain looses all physical references, except for maybe your breath. It feels unfamiliar, strange, so strange and at the same time so utterly comfortable, like this is where you originally belong, this is the only real state, and the world outside of the tank is just very distant, if not an illusion. Carl says that many pregnant women come to float to bond with their unborn children, to feel as they feel. Eventually, even a complete noob’s thoughts will float far away, leaving a deeply relaxed feeling, a true lightness of being. You can’t tell if your eyes are open or closed. You feel like sliding through space without actually moving. Powerful, unique and simply… a nice experience. Worth it just for the sake of trying something radically new. The opposite of bungee jumping, perhaps.
So either you sit down and try self-hypnosis, meditation, warm bath with salvia oil, or the flotation tank, doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you try it, you make the effort to intentionally, purposely clear your mind, see what else is there. Scary? Maybe. Still the effects have the potential to flabbergast you.