deep in the cave,
there’s a hole that knows no light;
and nothing can reside
within that black hole
During 2019, each month I gave special attention to studying some state of consciousness that exists outside of the normal waking state. (Of course, the folly of believing that there is one “normal waking state of consciousness” is one of the major lessons learned from this exercise.) My investigations included: meditation, hypnosis, lucid dreaming, sensory deprivation, psilocybin consumption, and various others — a number of which were variations on inducing a Flow state.
In December, because I was traveling so much I was reading even more than usual, and it occurred to me that there is a kind of reading in which the mind behaves differently from the norm. I’m not talking about all reading, but — specifically — when one gets lost in story. There’s run-of-the-mill reading, and then there’s the reading in which a hundred pages seem to fly by in minutes, but you realize you’ve lost a lot more time than that. This topic might seem like a dull ending to this project. Being absorbed in story might not appear as enthralling or “sexy” as mushroom tripping or floating in sensory deprivation tank, but the experience can be just as profound.
As I was looking into this, I discovered that there is a term that addresses what I’m talking about, “narrative transportation.” Narrative transportation relates to absorption, which I learned is a factor in hypnosis. That is, how easily does one become completely mentally occupied with an object of contemplation such that one loses awareness of the passage of time and external stimuli. In this type of reading, one is mentally reconstructing the world and events of a story, and that process is demanding of one’s attention. Furthermore, there is an intense emotional experience that one is feeling simultaneous to this mental construction. This doesn’t leave much room for the mind to wander — if the story is intriguing enough to hold one’s attention.
As a reader, one facilitates narrative transportation largely by picking stories that are appealing to one, and by finding extended time periods to read without distraction. However, what’s really interesting is how a writer can facilitate this state through his or her style and method. The most commonly discussed aspects of this facilitation are: the story arc (i.e. arranging events to create and maintain excitement) and building lovable or loathsome characters (either way, just as long as they aren’t tedious or boring.)
But there is another aspect that I think of as readability. How easy does the storyteller make it for the reader to create their own mental story-world? In large part, this has to do with the art of finding the Goldilocks Zone of description. If one describes too little one creates “floating head syndrome” in which the reader (if they continue reading at all) may imagine floating heads conversing in a blank white room. On the other hand, if one spends twelve pages describing the drapes or the weather, one is unlikely to keep readers engaged. Coincidentally, one of the books that I read in December that was educational (though not transportational) was Milan Kundera’s “The Art of the Novel.” In it, Kundera bemoans the tendency to over-describe characters such that one interferes in the reader’s imaginings. He points out that readers learn almost nothing about the physical description and background of some of the most important characters in literature.
And so concludes my year of altered states as I look forward to new adventures in 2020.
It’s May and this is the fifth installment tracking my investigations into the mind and altered states of consciousness. [I’ll post links to the preceding entries at the bottom.]
This month I’ve been spending time wearing an EEG [electroencephalogram] headset, and watching my brainwaves [or graphs of them, to be more precise.] In many science and / or children’s museums today, you may see a ball game that employs an EEG headset. My wife and I saw one last year at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry [one of my favorite museums.] Like most ball games, the goal is to drive the ball into the opponent’s goal, but there’s a twist. The twist is that the ball moves forward for the player whose mind is most calm, rather than the one who is “trying hardest.” This twist often makes for an amusing turn of events in which a player who is about to score gets so excited that he finds the ball being swept back toward his own goal.
Therein lies the challenge of an EEG headset — observation changes outcome. While there are many apps to choose from, two of the most common are: a.) apps that show one’s brainwave conditions in the moment; b.) apps that record one’s brainwaves over a period of time. (There are variations and combinations of the above — not to mention scaled-down games like the one mentioned in the previous paragraph. One app that I intend to try allows one to video oneself carrying out an activity (I’d like to try it with taiji or yoga practices) with measures of focus and relaxation shown on the recording. However, I’ve not yet worked with said app, and so will have to write about that experience at some later date.)
At any rate, there are trade-offs with the two approaches that I mentioned. With “a,” becoming more analytically minded changes your result. With “b,” it’s hard to make a connection between experience and brainwave state because one will be trying to do so after the fact (and the more one engages in the conscious thought needed to allow one to remember the flow of one’s experience, the less one will be in a meditative mindset.) Having mentioned this, it’s also a beauty of the practice. One has to keep from letting one’s mind respond to the lights, colors, and changing shapes, and just take in gross level feedback without being highly responsive or analytical about it.
Below is a picture from an app that shows one instant’s real-time brainwave conditions.
As one can see, the visualizer gives one both bar-graph and spider-graph representations of the relative make up of one’s brainwaves at a given instant. Neurosky divides the brainwaves into eight categories:
DELTA: less than 4Hz; dominance of this state is associated with deep, dreamless sleep
THETA: 4 – 7Hz; dominance is often associated with daydreaming and road hypnosis
LOW ALPHA: 7 – 11.5Hz; quiet thought and meditation
HIGH ALPHA: 11.5 – 15Hz; quiet thought and meditation
LOW BETA: 15 – 23.5Hz; normal waking consciousness / active mind
HIGH BETA: 23.5 – 31Hz; normal waking consciousness / active mind
GAMMA: >32Hz; cross-modal sensory processing, short-term memory matching, transcendental mental states
[Note: While the order and approximate values are agreed upon by all, one may see different numbers for cut-offs in Hertz. I chose at random from among the numbers I saw. It should further be noted that the descriptions are rough, and it’s not always known exactly what causes a particular brainwave state.]
One will also note the two dials in the lower right corner. These show one one’s state of attention / focus (left) and relaxation / meditative consciousness (right.) These two scales aren’t strict trade-offs. One can be high on both scales, simultaneously. However, if one is super-intense about focusing then the relaxation score will drop, and it won’t be easy to be attentive and extremely relaxed. I’d say going up to about 80 on both scales simultaneously isn’t unusual, but I don’t believe that I’ve had both scales maxed out [except when the headset first comes on and there’s a brief period of weirdness before it settles into normal operations.]
Here is a snapshot with a more focused state of mind.
I’ve found this practice to be beneficial. I often do my pranayama (breathing exercise) and meditative practices lately while wearing the headset. It will be interesting to see if I can get it working with moving practices. (The headset is sensitive to physical movement, and so I’m not sure how well contact will be kept during movement — even for slow practices like taiji.)
Below is a pic of me modeling the headset. (No, that’s not the facial expression with which I meditate.) I’ve been working with the Neurosky Mindwave Mobile 2. I sometimes have trouble getting it up and running, but once it’s operating, I haven’t had any problem with the unit at all. A friend has the Muse, and he also has had trouble getting his settled on his head and started; so that may be a universal difficulty. Some people complain about the Neurosky being uncomfortable, but I haven’t found it so. (Though I think they fixed some of those problems with the current model.)
Next month, I’ll be experimenting with some breathing practices (Holotropic breathing / Tibetan Tummo) that are said to lead to altered states of consciousness on occasion.
As a neophyte on the subject at hand, I can’t say how many books are on the market on this subject. However, I’ve read one other (one I’m led to understand is famous in relevant circles, entitled “Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide” by O.T. Oss and O.N. Oeric [pseudonyms / nom de plume for the McKenna brothers]) and I will say that I found this book to be a more beneficial read. Only part of the advantage of this book is to be found in its more substantial length. The McKennas’ book was more narrowly focused on cultivation, and to the degree it touched on other aspects of psilocybin mushrooms, it engaged in a more mystical approach. What I liked about Bryant and Bouseman’s book is that it takes a scientific approach and a pragmatic tone. Also, it seems to be one-stop shopping for anyone interested in the how-to of psilocybin mushrooms, even if one doesn’t intend to cultivate one’s own.
This book is divided into four parts. The first part of the book is designed to give the reader an understanding of what psilocybin mushrooms are, what varieties they come in, what effects they have, and how they can be safely used. It should be noted that this doesn’t mean that the sum of all knowledge is provided. The authors repeatedly state that the best practice with respect to both foraging / identifying as well as consuming these mushrooms is to have an expert on hand. There is only so much that can be passed on by way of a book, and picking mushrooms as an amateur can result in deadly mistakes. (Which is not to downplay the advice to have an experienced guide, but knowing oneself goes a long way for an inexperienced consumer – whereas being an inexperienced forager can get you killed.) The book does provide descriptions and pictures for a variety of the most common psilocybe species to give the reader an idea of the differences. The first part of the book is useful whether the reader has any intention of engaging in fungiculture or not.
The rest of the book, is geared toward those who have an interest in how mushrooms are cultivated. Part II discusses the basics that might be employed on a small scale at little cost by an inquisitive beginner. There is more sterilization than one might expect, and the book describes the equipment (e.g. pressure cooker) and processes that must be applied. (Compared with gardening, with which I have a little experience, mushroom cultivation involves some amount of added complexity – though both this book and the other suggest it’s not a daunting process. And for gardeners who can their produce, it’s probably not much more extensive.) Part III delves into more advanced techniques for those who are considering growing on a larger scale, over a longer / continuous span, or outdoors. This book offers a number of more options on varying scales than the McKenna brother’s book. However, the processes seem quite similar. That said, I can’t really comment on the technical merits of any approaches to fungiculture, and I presume from the clear and well-written instructions that the authors know of what they speak.
The last part of the book discusses problems that one can run into with these processes, as well as the varying legality across the US and abroad. (The latter is bizarre and changing landscape. In many places having and consuming mushrooms is perfectly legal, but if the psilocybin or psilocin were extracted and put into a capsule it would become a Schedule I drug with immense potential consequences. Which is how it is where I currently live.) The last section also has sources for additional information.
The book has graphics (drawings and photos) as are quite beneficial in a book of this nature. I found the graphics to be clear and well-presented.
I’d highly recommend this book for individuals who are interested in exploring fungiculture. For those who aren’t interested in cultivation, part I will be quite useful as will be much of part IV. (Though there may be books that are more focused on non-agricultural issues, if that is your case.)
This is the third installment in a series of posts on my study of altered states of consciousness. The January and February posts described my experiences with psilocybin mushroom tea and a sensory deprivation float tank, respectively.
This month (March) I’ve stepped up my meditation practice to at least an hour per day, every day of the week. (As opposed to a couple of one hour sessions as well as a couple of shorter sessions per week.) Meditation might seem tame in comparison to the previous practices (and some to come.) However, if one can quiet the mind, one experiences some of the same phenomena as are had during more dramatic practices, as well as other events that are too subtle to notice in other states. It’s easy to get more excited about practices that dial an experience up to eleven than ones that require one to listen carefully and patiently, but that’s a mistake.
Immediately after I completed the Vipassana ten-day course, I maintained a practice of this intensity for a brief period of time (as is the recommendation) before it became a bit cumbersome. (My discussion of the Vipassana course can be found here.) For readers unfamiliar with the practice, Vipassana practice uses bodily sensations as an anchor for the mind. One repeatedly scans the body, observing any sensations that one feels along the way without judgement. It’s technically a Theravadan Buddhist practice, but is taught in a secular way. By “anchor” I mean some “object” that the awareness can be directed toward so as to make it more readily apparent when one’s mind wanders and easier to bring it back because there is something to direct the attention. Besides bodily sensation, some of the common anchors include: breath, mantra, visualizations, or external objects.
This doesn’t mean that every meditative practice requires an anchor, and the practice I’ve been using this month (by-and-large) did not. I use an anchor (most often breath awareness) to achieve stillness of mind, but then switch to observation of what thoughts or imagery pop to mind. One might call this an anchorless meta-cognitive meditation. One just watches the mind, becoming witness to whatever arises, noting it, letting it move on, and resuming the watch. For yoga practitioners, this equates to the early stages of antar mouna, through and including chidakasha (watching subconscious imagery pop up.)
One notices many things about how the mind operates during meditation. The coarsest way of differentiating what I find arises in meditation is the distinction between conscious thoughts versus the subconscious imagery. Typically, I don’t observe the latter until the former have subsided. Conscious thoughts are often verbal as well as visual, but the subconscious matter is virtually all imagery.
One also realizes the crucial role played by memory. Often what I see is a memory residue of an image that arose. I’ve become very aware of essential memory is in our human style of consciousness. While in meditation one wants to reduce or eliminate the mental activities that come in tow with memory (i.e. analysis, making connections, elaboration, etc.,) one can’t help but notice how central such activities are to language and other learning that make us uniquely human. Then there is recognition of the limits of memory. Just as one sometimes has an inkling of the substance of a dream, but can’t pull front and center in one’s mind, there is often the inkling of an image — gone before it registers.
If one is wondering why pick a one hour practice, it’s in part about the maximum my body is capable without needing a break to move lymph about and restore blood circulation to normal. During the Vipassana course, one has about ten hours a day of scheduled meditation, but I still needed a walk at least every hour or so. As for why not do smaller time chunks, I’ve found that I experience some phenomena past a half hour that I don’t recall experiencing in shorter practices. It takes some time to relax to a point at which one’s conscious mind stops trying to make plans or otherwise go off on tangents. Feelings of euphoria, oneness, and ease of mental quietness tend to come beyond a half of an hour for me — when they come.
I was disabused of any notions that a daily meditative practice over such a short period would lead to heightened mental clarity and emotional control. I’ve done 26 days out of 31 as of this writing, and have been as wild-minded as ever, and certainly more than the preceding months. I can’t say that this has anything to do with meditation one way or another. Perhaps, I’d have been even worse, given the nature of life’s ups and downs, if I hadn’t been practicing as such — but, of course, I can’t make such a claim — not meaningfully.
That said, I think I’ve made some interesting observations about how my mind works and what its limits are. I can’t say I experienced any wild mental phenomena, not of the nature I experienced during the long meditative days of the Vipassana course. However, I have been able to observe some fine detail about the sensation of shifting into a hypnogogic state, and other curious experiences that interest me. Subtle shifts of mind states have been a major point of curiosity for me.
Next month, I’ll be attending a workshop on hypnosis, and the next post will be on hypnotic trance states.
Consciousness remains one of the least understood phenomena of our world. It’s also one of the most intriguing subjects, and fascination with it has spurred debate both between science and religion and within science. While science has been moving toward the belief that consciousness is rooted in the brain, there remain many important questions to be answered. Of course, historically, it wasn’t at all common to think of consciousness as arising from the action of a material object (e.g. the human brain), it was beyond humanity’s intellectual capacity to comprehend how something as grand as consciousness could arise from a 1.2kg (<3lb) organ. Consciousness was intertwined with ideas of “the soul”—a non-material self-ness.
So it is that Blackmore takes on a shadowy subject in which questions are as likely to lead to more questions as they are answers. She lays out the arguments between scholars of science and philosophy as to what exactly consciousness is, how it operates, and how important it is or isn’t.
The book consists of eight chapters. The first chapter attempts to define consciousness and discusses the degree to which there is a lack of consensus on the subject. In doing so, it outlines why consciousness is such an elusive subject.
Chapter two describes the attempt to find correlates of consciousness in the brain, and it describes some of the case of brain damage that support the notion that consciousness is a product of the brain. Many beliefs of duality (i.e. the idea that body and mind are separate) have been in decline because of cases in which brain damage is specifically linked to changes in consciousness. Consider life-long love being uprooted by a scalpel.
Chapter three deals with a number of topics related to time and space, such as whether consciousness lags behind reality. That sounds ridiculous. However, remember that we experience the world from inside the frame of reference of consciousness.
Chapter four examines a number of illusions to which our conscious minds are systematically subject. We have a number of blind spots, many of which result from the fact that a great deal of what the brain does, it does without letting the conscious mind in on events.
In the fifth chapter, the author presents the link between consciousness and perception of self. It has long been taken for granted by most of the world that there is some soul that exists beyond the body, and it’s in this chapter that the author reflects upon whether this is an illusion or not.
Chapter six covers a topic that is integrally linked to consciousness and the idea of self, and that is free will. Free will is another notion that humanity historically took for granted that is coming under fire in the face of our increasing understanding of the brain. Current scientific evidence suggests that free will as we perceive it (i.e. thinking things through consciously and then making a decision at a conscious level) is an illusion.
Chapter seven is about the many altered states of consciousness, including: dreaming, drug-induced effects, meditation, and some of the widely reported experiences that seem to involve separation of consciousness from body (e.g. out-of-body and near-death experiences.)
Chapter eight ponders the evolutionary advantage offered by consciousness (especially if a major part of what we think we use our conscious minds for is an illusion.) One thing is clear; evolution doesn’t hand out vast and complex advances in capability if they don’t serve to make one more likely to survive to procreate. However, could consciousness—majestic as it may seem—be a mere side-effect of a big brain developed to facilitate survival in a world in which we weren’t the strongest, fastest, or most athletic creatures by a long shot?
The book uses a wide variety of black-and-white graphics including cartoons, technical diagrams, and photographs. These graphics help to communicate important ideas and are more likely to do so with levity than technical complexity. The book is readable, considering the challenging topic.
I’d recommend this book for those interested in an overview of the state of understanding and debate about what consciousness is.