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Altered states of consciousness

or: The key to unlocking the doors to the unknown of the Physical Mind

Left-brain-imbalanced scientists have assumed that consciousness is an epiphenomenon, a quality that emerges from extremely complex electrochemical interactions in the brain, being ultimately reduceable to insentient matter. Their key to realizing the ontological mistake is their own consciousness — specifically the perturbation of its state.

An altered state of consciousness (ASC), also called altered state of mind or mind alteration, is any condition which is significantly different from a normal waking beta wave state. The expression was used as early as 1966 by Arnold M. Ludwig and brought into common usage from 1969 by Charles Tart. It describes induced changes in one's mental state, almost always temporary. A synonymous phrase is "altered state of awareness".

So what exactly is a state of consciousness?

Graham Hancock - States Of Consciousness

Graham Hancock describes various states of consciousness.

The psychedelic philosopher Terence McKenna explains why altered states of consciousness are (not just relevant but) essential to the understanding of consciousness:

Terence McKenna - DMT, religion, altered states, philosophy, life

Terence McKenna - Extreme experience is how you find out what the world is

“And what is shamanism but philosophy with a hands-on attitude. Philosophy not made around the camp fire, but philosophy based on the acquisition of extreme experience. That’s how you figure out what the world is, not by bicycling around in the burbs, but by forcing extreme experience.”

"Extreme Experience is the necessary key. This is true in all forms of endeavour. I mean, If you want to understand the atom, you must smash it. You know, sitting around looking at it, will never yield its secrets. You have to smash that sucker to bits and then collect the pieces and examine how it all came apart. In the same way we must smash ordinary consciousness. Get smashed and then look at the pieces flying in all directions and say, I didn't know minds could do that!"

Naturally-induced altered states

Sleeping, dreaming, orgasm, dizziness, etc, can be thought of as some of the most common and obvious (unmissable) naturally-induced altered states of consciousness. Some more subtle but obvious ones include fasting (food deprivation) and sleep deprivation, both of which can induce powerful hallucinations if such ordeal is taken far enough.

There are some state-of-consciousness-altering systems that are far less obvious (i.e. more subtle) yet probably extremely significant. Perhaps the most interesting of these is the pheromonal messaging system found in most animals, which affects the consciousness and behavior of other organisms of the same species:

Pheromonal bonding

Wikipedia defines pheromones:

A pheromone (from Ancient Greek φέρω phero "to bear" and hormone, from Ancient Greek ὁρμή "impetus") is a secreted or excreted chemical factor that triggers a social response in members of the same species. Pheromones are chemicals capable of acting outside the body of the secreting individual to impact the behavior of the receiving individual. There are alarm pheromones, food trail pheromones, sex pheromones, and many others that affect behavior or physiology. Pheromones are used from basic unicellular prokaryotes to complex multicellular eukaryotes. Their use among insects has been particularly well documented. In addition, some vertebrates and plants communicate by using pheromones.

Pheromones are apparently active in the picogram and nanogram scale — 5 to 7 orders of magnitude more potent than LSD, the most potent psychedelic (active at tens and hundreds of micrograms). One species of green algae uses a glycoprotein pheromone which is "one of the most potent known biological effector molecules", used to "trigger sexual development at concentrations as low as 10-16 M" (100 attomoles).

Pheromonal messaging in a sense provides an "underlying" biochemical basis for physicalists to attempt to explain romantic love as an emergent phenomenon just as with consciousness itself. As altered states of consciousness connoisseur Terence McKenna explains:

I mean, we are addictive animals — we addict to everything. We addict to each other, and glorify it as our most noble outpouring of sentiment, in the phenomenon of romantic love. I mean, when a pair of lovers are parted, the withdrawal symptoms are indistinguishable from heroin. I mean, vomiting, shaking, uncontrollable emotional outbursts, sleeplessness, short temper, hysteria... this is real. What romantic love is, is a pheromonal bonding — an exchange of chemical messengers, which takes these two autonomous organisms and weaves them into one galaxy of need and intention and understanding and expectation... well when we just tear that apart, people are, you know, shook up. We addict to political ideals...

Terence McKenna

There is a whole distinct organ in the animal kingdom that exists apparently for the sole purpose of pheromonal messaging — the vomeronasal organ:

In reptiles, amphibia and non-primate mammals pheromones are detected by regular olfactory membranes, and also by the vomeronasal organ (VNO), or Jacobson's organ, which lies at the base of the nasal septum between the nose and mouth and is the first stage of the accessory olfactory system. While the VNO is present in most amphibia, reptiles, and non-primate mammals, it is absent in birds, adult catarrhine monkeys (downward facing nostrils, as opposed to sideways), and apes. An active role for the human VNO in the detection of pheromones is disputed; while it is clearly present in the fetus it appears to be atrophied, shrunk or completely absent in adults. Three distinct families of vomeronasal receptors, putatively pheromone sensing, have been identified in the vomeronasal organ named V1Rs, V2Rs, and V3Rs. All are G protein-coupled receptors [the same type as the major neurotransmission systems] but are only distantly related to the receptors of the main olfactory system, highlighting their different role.
The human vomeronasal organ has epithelia that may be able to serve as a chemical sensory organ; however, the genes that encode the VNO receptors are nonfunctional pseudogenes in humans. Also, while there are sensory neurons in the human VNO there seem to be no connections between the VNO and the central nervous system. The associated olfactory bulb is present in the fetus, but regresses and vanishes in the adult brain. There have been some reports that the human VNO does function, but only responds to hormones in a "sex-specific manner". There also have been pheromone receptor genes found in olfactory mucosa. Unfortunately, there have been no experiments that compare people lacking the VNO, and people that have it. It is disputed on whether the chemicals are reaching the brain through the VNO or other tissues.
Even though there are disputes about the mechanisms by which pheromones function there is evidence that pheromones do affect humans. Even with all of this evidence, nothing is conclusive on whether or not humans have functional pheromones. Even if there are experiments that suggest that certain pheromones have a positive effect on human, there are just as many that state the opposite or that they have no effect whatsoever.

Psychoactive compounds

While altered states can be induced in a large number of ways, including meditation, fasting, lucid dreaming, out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences (accidents), etc, an easy and consistent method is with psychoactive drugs. In terms of the degree to which human consciousness is altered, we can distinguish 3 categories of psychoactive drugs:

Stimulants and depressants

These are the (relatively) simple altered states induced by drugs affecting the more easily categorizable neurotransmitter systems. Stimulants increase neurotransmitter levels of dopamine (most associated with motivation and reward) and norepinephrine (energy, attention, environmental awareness), thus increasing concentration/focus. Depressants increase levels of GABA (except in the case of opioids), which relaxes the CNS, causing reduced anxiety/stress and a feeling of contentedness.

Entheogenic experiences

Far more interesting and far more difficult to describe are the entheogens, also known (less precisely) as hallucinogens.

McKenna explained in hundreds of lectures the reasons why hallucinogens, particularly psychedelics, are of everyone's interest. Serotonergic psychedelics, especially the natural tryptamines (psilocybin mushrooms, DMT, ayahuasca) are the most interesting type of drug, while also being very safe when used correctly. He lamented that many people take far too small doses and too often, and put particular focus on the most interesting of the tryptamines, the mysterious endogenous trace neurotransmitter dimethyltryptamine (DMT).

Terence McKenna - Conversations at the edge of magic [FULL]

McKenna discusses many things, such as ego, his stoned ape theory, and new psychedelics in detail.

As McKenna points out, many spiritual practices are about "pushing and pushing", while with psychedelics the question is "where are the breaks?" The idea of self-discipline, particularly the idea of taking great care to be in the best set & setting, is useful (or even a requirement) before embarking on an entheogenic trip, but once a proper strong entheogenic experience begins, the idea of "staying in control" can (slowly or rapidly) become inconceivable.

Set and setting

Unlike more commonly-used drugs such as ethanol (drinking alcohol), which normally induces relaxation regardless of where it is taken or the mindset of the user, this is not so with serotonergic (tryptamine and phenethylamine) psychedelics, which tend rather to amplify one's current mindset (internal input) and awareness of environment (external input) — thus the useful idea of "set & setting":

Set and setting describes the context for psychoactive and particularly psychedelic drug experiences: one's mindset and the setting in which the user has the experience. This is especially relevant for psychedelic or hallucinogenic experiences. The term was coined by Norman Zinberg, and became widely accepted by researchers in psychedelic psychotherapy.

"Set" is the mental state a person brings to the experience, like thoughts, mood and expectations. "Setting" is the physical and social environment. Social support networks have shown to be particularly important in the outcome of the psychedelic experience. They are able to control or guide the course of the experience, both consciously and subconsciously. Stress, fear, or a disagreeable environment, may result in an unpleasant experience (bad trip). Conversely, a relaxed, curious person in a warm, comfortable and safe place is more likely to have a pleasant experience.

Of course, the drug dose does not produce the transcendent experience. It merely acts as a chemical key — it opens the mind, frees the nervous system of its ordinary patterns and structures. The nature of the experience depends almost entirely on set and setting. Set denotes the preparation of the individual, including his personality structure and his mood at the time. Setting is physical — the weather, the room's atmosphere; social — feelings of persons present towards one another; and cultural — prevailing views as to what is real. It is for this reason that manuals or guide-books are necessary. Their purpose is to enable a person to understand the new realities of the expanded consciousness, to serve as road maps for new interior territories which modern science has made accessible.

Timothy Leary, The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead

In 1966, Timothy Leary conducted a series of experiments with dimethyltryptamine (DMT) with controlled set and setting. The aim was to see whether DMT, which had then been mostly thought of as a terror-inducing drug, could produce pleasant experiences under a supportive set and setting. It was found that it could.


As McKenna points out, each one of these naturally-occuring plant/fungi psychedelics (DMT, ayahuasca, psiloc(yb)in, mescaline), and many of the lab-made ones (LSD, 2C-B, 2C-I-NBOMe, etc) in a sense represent a universe onto themselves. A person who explores these extraordinary realms of consciousness is referred to as a psychonaut, and the general idea of this field of study is called psychonautics:

Psychonautics (from the Greek ψυχή (psychē "soul/spirit/mind") and ναύτης (naútēs "sailor/navigator")—a sailor of the mind/soul) refers both to a methodology for describing and explaining the subjective effects of altered states of consciousness, including those induced by meditation or mind-altering substances, and to a research paradigm in which the researcher voluntarily immerses himself or herself into an altered mental state in order to explore the accompanying experiences.

The term has been applied diversely, to cover all activities by which altered states are induced and utilized for spiritual purposes or the exploration of the human condition, including shamanism, lamas of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, sensory deprivation, and archaic/modern drug users who use entheogenic substances in order to gain deeper insights and spiritual experiences. A person who uses altered states for such exploration is known as a psychonaut.

Scroll through Bluelight's Psychedelic Index to get an idea of the magnitude of this somewhat obscure field of research.

Wikipedia further lists these methodologies:


  • Hallucinogens and especially psychedelics such as peyote, psilocybin mushrooms, LSD and DMT, but also dissociatives and atypical psychedelics such as ketamine, dextromethorphan, Tabernanthe iboga, Amanita muscaria and Salvia divinorum
  • Disruption of psychological and physiological processes required for usual mental states - sleep deprivation, fasting, sensory deprivation, oxygen deprivation/smoke inhalation, holotropic breathwork
  • Ritual, both as a means of inducing an altered state, and also for practical purposes of grounding and of obtaining suitable focus and intention
  • Dreaming, in particular lucid dreaming in which the person retains a degree of volition and awareness, and dream journals
  • Hypnosis
  • Meditation
  • Meditative or trance inducing dance, like Sufi whirling can also be used to induce altered state of consciousness
  • Prayer
  • Biofeedback and other devices that change neural activity in the brain (brainwave entrainment) by means of light, sound, or electrical impulses, including: mind machines, dreamachines, binaural beats, and cranial electrotherapy stimulation

These may be used in combination; for example, traditions such as shamanism may combine ritual, fasting, and hallucinogenic substances.


A step between stimulants and psychedelics, the prototypical empathogen/entactogen is MDMA. As with psychedelics, empathogens/entactogens are a type of consciousness alteration device (psychoactive drug) that can only be experienced in order to be understood. Quoting Wikipedia:

The term "empathogen" was coined in 1983 by Ralph Metzner to denote chemical agents inducing feelings of empathy. "Entactogen" was coined by David E. Nichols as an alternative to "empathogen", attempting to avoid the potential for improper association of the latter with negative connotations related to the Greek root "pathos" (suffering); Nichols also thought the word was limiting, and did not cover other therapeutic uses for the drugs that go beyond instilling feelings of empathy. The word "entactogen" is derived from the roots "en" (Greek: within), "tactus" (Latin: touch) and "gen" (Greek: produce). Neither term is dominant in usage, and, despite their difference in connotation, they are essentially interchangeable, as they refer to precisely the same chemicals.

These drugs appear to produce a different spectrum of psychological effects from major stimulants such as methamphetamine and amphetamine or from major psychedelic drugs such as LSD or psilocybin. As implied by the category names, users of entactogens say the drugs often produce feelings of empathy, love, and emotional closeness to others. [...] These substances possess other effects including serenic effects, stimulant effects, antidepressant effects, anxiolytic effects, and psychedelic effects.

Another major difference between empathogens and psychedelics is that empathogens (at least the most well-known empathogens of the substituted methylenedioxyphenethylamine class, also known as the MDxx family) are much easier to handle (generally as easy as GABAergic drugs like ethanol), inducing extreme relaxation and heightened feelings of empathy and appreciation for self and others — provided of course that it is used correctly (i.e. at the appropriate dosage and without combining with other powerful psychoactives, except perhaps cannabis or short-acting tryptamines like DMT).

The criminalization of altered states

While the ego's fear of self-exploration explains a lot...

We have been to the moon, we have charted the depths of the ocean and the heart of the atom, but we have a fear of looking inward to ourselves because we sense that is where all the contradictions flow together.

Terence McKenna

... the criminalization of consciousness-alteration tools is agenda-driven.

We're playing with half a deck as long as we tolerate that the cardinals of government and science should dictate where human curiosity can legitimately send its attention and where it can not. It's an essentially preposterous situation. It is essentially a civil rights issue, because what we're talking about here is the repression of a religious sensibility. In fact, not a religious sensibility — the religious sensibility. Not built on some con game spun out by eunuchs, but based on the symbiotic relationship that was in place for our species for fifty thousand years before the advent of history, writing, priestcraft and propaganda. So it's a clarion call to recover a birthright.

Terence McKenna

Neurobiologists and consciousness

The combined knowledge of all fundamentalist-materialist neurobiologists (a.k.a. neuroscientists) is shattered in a single instant in the DMT hyperspace. A scientist in any way related to the study of consciousness who is unaware of the existence of the experience of DMT is no scientist. The extrapolations made from behavioral studies in rodents are of very limited use and are utterly meaningless when it comes to 5-HT2A agonism, especially and above all DMT, the endogenous yet most powerful hallucinogen.

How it is that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as a result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as unaccountable as the appearance of Djin when Aladdin rubbed his lamp.

Thomas H. Huxley (1866)

Physical correlates

Pirates causing global warming

Fundamentalist-materialists assume that consciousness is an emergent, illusionary property that emerges from physical processes — comitting the false cause logical fallacy known as cum hoc ergo propter hoc ("with this, therefore because of this"). In this case correlation implies causation only if physicalism is assumed to be true. Hence, fundamentalist-materialist neuroscientists "studying" the effects of 5-HT2A agonists on rodents have no idea that they could be putting the compound to much better use.

Neurochemistry, brainwave activity, etc correlate with states of consciousness, but that does not prove that that's what causes a state of consciousness.

Wikipedia on altered states of consciousness

In its article about "altered levels of consciousness", Wikipedia lists only lower levels/states of consciousness (metaconscious, conscious, confused, delirious, somnolent, obtunded, stuporous, comatose), providing no more than a "see also" link to the article "Level of consciousness (Esotericism)", which has "multiple issues" ("possibly contains previously unpublished synthesis of published material that conveys ideas not attributable to the original sources" and "is written like a personal reflection or opinion essay that states the Wikipedia editor's particular feelings about a topic, rather than the opinions of experts"). Apparently, there are plenty of "experts" ("authorities") on what drugs and therapies may be best for "patients" with an "altered [low] level of consciousness", but there are no such "authoritative" experts on higher levels of consciousness. Why would that be?