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Drugs and Altered States of Consciousness

altered states of consciousness

A great deal of scientific literature on drug use comes from psychologists who study altered states of consciousness. To give you some background, consciousness is often considered the holy grail of psychology. If we can understand consciousness, then we will understand a great deal about human nature. Although animals are conscious, their version is nothing like ours. We’re pretty sure that aardvarks don’t wander about pondering their lives or how unfair life is because they didn’t get wings. 

Most people think that the “normal” state of consciousness is our waking state. We wake up in the morning, go to work or school, drive the kids to soccer practice, do chores, and so on. An altered state of consciousness is one that is different from our normal waking state.

Then there are many different types of altered states. Perhaps the most famous is dreaming. But there are many ways to experience altered types of consciousness: meditation, hypnosis, near-death experiences, religious epiphanies, and fasting, to name a few (there are also altered states that arise from illnesses, such as a fever or psychosis). 

And, of course, there are altered states of consciousness that drugs produce. It’s curious that mainstream addiction experts often dismiss the experience of being intoxicated, usually with a single word, such as “euphoria” or “escape”. If you think about it, though, you’ll realize that their descriptions are actually comments about consciousness. Anyone who dismisses an altered state is really saying that they believe the only consciousness worth understanding is our waking state. Andrew Weil, who wrote The Natural Mind: An Investigation of Drugs and the Higher Consciousness, points out that such descriptions betray an error in logic. They mistake the method of achieving an altered state (the drug) with the altered state itself (consciousness).

In fact, it seems common sense to say that the reason why people use drugs is to experience an altered state of consciousness. Research has suggested that one of the most important features of this drug-induced altered state is that people see themselves and their world in new ways.

This blog examines a few of the things researchers have discovered about drugs and altered states.

Altered States are Natural and Normal

In our technological and scientific society, altered states of consciousness don’t sit very well. We tend to dismiss any experience beyond our typical waking state. Dreams may be interesting but have no real importance to us. Meditation may be good for relaxing, but that’s about it. People who announce that they have seen God often end up in a psychiatric ward. Hypnotism is a trick to make gullible people believe they are chickens. And, of course being drunk or high is not worth paying attention to.

Andrew Weil, formerly an expert on marijuana but who has since spent his career promoting integral medicine, tells us that altered states of consciousness are natural and normal. Weil points out that even kids love to whirl about and make themselves dizzy. Many scientific discoveries have been the result not only of rational thought but also of revelations from dreams or from the altered state between waking and sleeping. That we can’t logically explain altered states does not detract from their importance. In fact, it tells us that consciousness is not simply being intellectually aware; consciousness also includes awareness of our bodies and emotions, and that our unconscious influences us.

Drugs are popular, says Weil, because they allow us to achieve an altered state quickly and reliably. And because the urge for an altered state is as normal and natural as hunger or thirst, it makes sense that people would turn to this easy method. 

Altered States and Creative Problem Solving

Creativity studies are a growing field in psychology, and drug-induced altered states have been associated with creativity. We’ve all heard about painters and musicians ingesting drugs, but researchers have studied creativity in those who are not artists.

In a typical experiment, 27 working professionals, such as engineers and physicists, were asked to bring with them work problems that they had been trying to solve. Each participant was given LSD and invited to work on the problem.

Results indicated that of the 44 problems worked on, 1 had no further activity beyond the experiment, 20 had new methods of exploration, 1 had a new model to describe it, 6 were solved, 10 were partially solved, and 4 had no solution. These impressive results were typical of similar experiments.

Participants told researchers that, under the influence, they looked at the problem in a new way. Here are some of the ways that participants said they found insight. Intoxication reduced inhibitions and anxiety, allowed for greater concentration, increased flexibility in thinking, encouraged participants to see the problem as a living thing, provided access to the unconscious, and helped associate dissimilar things in meaningful ways.

Altered States and Altered Perceptions of Self and the World

One of my former classmates is a psychologist in New York, who is providing ketamine to those recently diagnosed with cancer. His interest is to help ease their suffering. You can imagine a person suffering from cancer is worried and fearful, and in pain from the disease and the treatment. Sadly, many people diagnosed with cancer become completely victimized by it, to the point where cancer dictates what they do, think, feel, and talk about. For many, even their identity becomes rooted in having cancer.

Studies have shown that cancer patients who undergo ketamine therapy often realize that cancer does not define who they are and that they do not need to live their lives victimized by it. This new perception of themselves through the experience of ketamine intoxication seems to help them live fuller and more comfortable lives. Researchers are also using ketamine and other drugs to help ease the symptoms of those with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Studies in the 1950s where LSD was given to alcoholics had impressive results for recovery. Participants reported having spiritual experiences, which provided a more positive image of themselves and deeper connections with others.  

Altered States as a Response to a Meaningless Life

If we see drug use as the user’s desire to experience an altered state, we can begin to understand why intoxication is so powerful. If those who interpret their sober lives as meaningless, monotonous, and boring, then a drug-induced altered state of consciousness provides them with another way to see themselves the world. This other way to make sense of things seems to help create an experience that is more comfortable and appealing. 

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