Other States of Consciousness


If you’ve ever watched a stage hypnotist perform, it may paint a misleading portrait of this state of consciousness. The hypnotized people on stage, for example, appear to be in a state similar to sleep. However, as the hypnotist continues with the show, you would recognize some profound differences between sleep and hypnosis. Namely, when you’re asleep, hearing the word “strawberry” doesn’t make you flap your arms like a chicken. In stage performances, the hypnotized participants appear to be highly suggestible, to the point that they are seemingly under the hypnotist’s control. Such performances are entertaining but have a way of sensationalizing the true nature of hypnotic states.


People being hypnotized on stage. [Image: New Media Expo, https:// goo.gl/FWgBqs, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, https://goo.gl/FIlc2e]

Hypnosis is an actual, documented phenomenon—one that has been studied and debated for over 200 years (Pekala et al., 2010). Franz Mesmer (1734 – 1815) is often credited as among the first people to “discover” hypnosis, which he used to treat members of elite society who were experiencing psychological distress. It is from Mesmer’s name that we get the English word, “mesmerize” meaning “to entrance or transfix a person’s attention.” Mesmer attributed the effect of hypnosis to “animal magnetism,” a supposed universal force (similar to gravity) that operates through all human bodies. Even at the time, such an account of hypnosis was not scientifically supported, and Mesmer himself was frequently the center of controversy.

Over the years, researchers have proposed that hypnosis is a mental state characterized by reduced peripheral awareness and increased focus on a singular stimulus, which results in an enhanced susceptibility to suggestion (Kihlstrom, 2003). For example, the hypnotist will usually induce hypnosis by getting the person to pay attention only to the hypnotist’s voice. As the individual focuses more and more on that, s/he begins to forget the context of the setting and responds to the hypnotist’s suggestions as if they were his or her own. Some people are naturally more suggestible, and therefore more “hypnotizable” than are others, and this is especially true for those who score high in empathy (Wickramasekera II & Szlyk, 2003). One common “trick” of stage hypnotists is to discard volunteers who are less suggestible than others.

Dissociation is the separation of one’s awareness from everything besides what one is centrally focused on. For example, if you’ve ever been daydreaming in class, you were likely so caught up in the fantasy that you didn’t hear a word the teacher said. During hypnosis, this dissociation becomes even more extreme. That is, a person concentrates so much on the words of the hypnotist that s/he loses perspective of the rest of the world around them. As a consequence of dissociation, a person is less effortful, and less self-conscious in consideration of his or her own thoughts and behaviors. Similar to low awareness states, where one often acts on the first thought that comes to mind, so, too, in hypnosis does the individual simply follow the first thought that comes to mind, i.e., the hypnotist’s suggestion. Still, just because one is more susceptible to suggestion under hypnosis, it doesn’t mean s/he will do anything that’s ordered. To be hypnotized, you must first want to be hypnotized (i.e., you can’t be hypnotized against your will; Lynn & Kirsh, 2006), and once you are hypnotized, you won’t do anything you wouldn’t also do while in a more natural state of consciousness (Lynn, Rhue, & Weekes, 1990).

Today, hypnotherapy is still used in a variety of formats, and it has evolved from Mesmer’s early tinkering with the concept. Modern hypnotherapy often uses a combination of relaxation, suggestion, motivation and expectancies to create a desired mental or behavioral state. Although there is mixed evidence on whether hypnotherapy can help with addiction reduction (e.g., quitting smoking; Abbot et al., 1998) there is some evidence that it can be successful in treating sufferers of acute and chronic pain (Ewin, 1978; Syrjala et al., 1992). For example, one study examined the treatment of burn patients with either hypnotherapy, pseudo-hypnosis (i.e., a placebo condition), or no treatment at all. Afterward, even though people in the placebo condition experienced a 16% decrease in pain, those in the actual hypnosis condition experienced a reduction of nearly 50% (Patterson et al., 1996). Thus, even though hypnosis may be sensationalized for television and movies, its ability to disassociate a person from their environment (or their pain) in conjunction with increased suggestibility to a clinician’s recommendations (e.g., “you will feel less anxiety about your chronic pain”) is a documented practice with actual medical benefits.

Now, similar to hypnotic states, trance states also involve a dissociation of the self; however, people in a trance state are said to have less voluntary control over their behaviors and actions. Trance states often occur in religious ceremonies, where the person believes he or she is “possessed” by an otherworldly being or force. While in trance, people report anecdotal accounts of a “higher consciousness” or communion with a greater power. However, the body of research investigating this phenomenon tends to reject the claim that these experiences constitute an “altered state of consciousness.”

Most researchers today describe both hypnosis and trance states as “subjective” alterations of consciousness, not an actually distinct or evolved form (Kirsch & Lynn, 1995). Just like you feel different when you’re in a state of deep relaxation, so, too, are hypnotic and trance states simply shifts from the standard conscious experience. Researchers contend that even though both hypnotic and trance states appear and feel wildly different than the normal human experience, they can be explained by standard socio-cognitive factors like imagination, expectation, and the interpretation of the situation.


You may have experienced the sensation– as you are falling asleep– of falling and then found yourself physically jerking forward and grabbing out as if you were really falling. Sleep is a unique state of consciousness; it lacks full awareness but the brain is still active. People generally follow a “biological clock” that impacts when they naturally become drowsy, when they fall asleep, and the time they naturally awaken. The hormone melatonin increases at night and is associated with becoming sleepy. Your natural daily rhythm, or Circadian Rhythm, can be influenced by the amount of daylight to which you are exposed as well as your work and activity schedule. Changing your location, such as flying from Canada to England, can disrupt your natural sleep rhythms, and we call this jet lag.


Sleep is necessary in order for people to function well. [Image: jaci XIII, https://goo.gl/pog6Fr, CC BY-NC 2.0, https://goo.gl/ FIlc2e]

You can overcome jet lag by synchronizing yourself to the local schedule by exposing yourself to daylight and forcing yourself to stay awake even though you are naturally sleepy.

Interestingly, sleep itself is more than shutting off for the night (or for a nap). Instead of turning off like a light with a flick of a switch, your shift in consciousness is reflected in your brain’s electrical activity. While you are awake and alert your brain activity is marked by beta waves. Beta waves are characterized by being high in frequency but low in intensity. In addition, they are the most inconsistent brain wave and this reflects the wide variation in sensory input that a person processes during the day. As you begin to relax these change to alpha waves. These waves reflect brain activity that is less frequent, more consistent and more intense. As you slip into actual sleep you transition through many stages. Scholars differ on how they characterize sleep stages with some experts arguing that there are four distinct stages (Manoach et al., 2010), while others recognize five (Šušmáko, & Krakovská, 2008) but they all distinguish between those that include rapid eye movement (REM) and those that are non- rapid eye movement (NREM). In addition, each stage is typically characterized by its own unique pattern of brain activity:

Stage 1 (called NREM 1, or N1) is the “falling asleep” stage and is marked by theta waves.

Stage 2 (called NREM 2, or N2) is considered a light sleep. Here, there are occasional “sleep spindles,” or very high intensity brain waves. These are thought to be associated with the processing of memories. NREM 2 makes up about 55% of all sleep.

Stage 3 (called NREM 3, or N3) makes up between 20-25% of all sleep and is marked by greater muscle relaxation and the appearance of delta waves.

Finally, REM sleep is marked by rapid eye movement (REM). Interestingly, this stage—in terms of brain activity—is similar to wakefulness. That is, the brain waves occur less intensely than in other stages of sleep. REM sleep accounts for about 20% of all sleep and is associated with dreaming.


Figure 1. Changes in brain activity or brainwaves across different stages of consciousness – from being awake and throughout various stages of sleep. [Image: Noba]

Dreams are, arguably, the most interesting aspect of sleep. Throughout history dreams have been given special importance because of their unique, almost mystical nature. They have been thought to be predictions of the future, hints of hidden aspects of the self, important lessons about how to live life, or opportunities to engage in impossible deeds like flying. There are several competing theories of why humans dream. One is that it is our nonconscious attempt to make sense of our daily experiences and learning. Another, popularized by Freud, is that dreams represent taboo or troublesome wishes or desires. Regardless of the specific reason we know a few facts about dreams: all humans dream, we dream at every stage of sleep, but dreams during REM sleep are especially vivid. One under-explored area of dream research is the possible social functions of dreams: we often share our dreams with others and use them for entertainment value.

Sleep serves many functions, one of which is to give us a period of mental and physical restoration. Children generally need more sleep than adults since they are developing. It is so vital, in fact, that a lack of sleep is associated with a wide range of problems. People who do not receive adequate sleep are more irritable, have slower reaction time, have more difficulty sustaining attention, and make poorer decisions. Interestingly, this is an issue relevant to the lives of college students. In one highly cited study researchers found that 1 in 5 students took more than 30 minutes to fall asleep at night, 1 in 10 occasionally took sleep medications, and more than half reported being “mostly tired” in the mornings (Buboltz, et al, 2001).

Psychoactive Drugs

On April 16, 1943, Albert Hoffman—a Swiss chemist working in a pharmaceutical company— accidentally ingested a newly synthesized drug. The drug—lysergic acid diethylimide (LSD)— turned out to be a powerful hallucinogen. Hoffman went home and later reported the effects of the drug, describing them as seeing the world through a “warped mirror” and experiencing visions of “extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.” Hoffman had discovered what members of many traditional cultures around the world already knew: there are substances that, when ingested, can have a powerful effect on perception and on consciousness.

Drugs operate on human physiology in a variety of ways and researchers and medical doctors tend to classify drugs according to their effects. Here we will briefly cover 3 categories of drugs: hallucinogens, depressants, and stimulants.


It is possible that hallucinogens are the substance that have, historically, been used the most widely. Traditional societies have used plant-based hallucinogens such as peyote, ebene, and psilocybin mushrooms in a wide range of religious ceremonies. Hallucinogens are substances that alter a person’s perceptions, often by creating visions or hallucinations that are not real. There are a wide range of hallucinogens and many are used as recreational substances in industrialized societies. Common examples include marijuana, LSD, and MDMA (also known as “ecstasy”). Marijuana is the dried flowers of the hemp plant and is often smoked to produce euphoria. The active ingredient in marijuana is called THC and can produce distortions in the perception of time, can create a sense of rambling, unrelated thoughts, and is sometimes associated with increased hunger or excessive laughter. The use and possession of marijuana is illegal in most places but this appears to be a trend that is changing. Uruguay, Bangladesh, and several of the United States, have recently legalized marijuana. This may be due, in part, to changing public attitudes or to the fact that marijuana is increasingly used for medical purposes such as the management of nausea or treating glaucoma.


Depressants are substances that, as their name suggests, slow down the body’s physiology and mental processes. Alcohol is the most widely used depressant. Alcohol’s effects include the reduction of inhibition, meaning that intoxicated people are more likely to act in ways they would otherwise be reluctant to. Alcohol’s psychological effects are the result of it increasing the neurotransmitter GABA. There are also physical effects, such as loss of balance and coordination, and these stem from the way that alcohol interferes with the coordination of the visual and motor systems of the brain. Despite the fact that alcohol is so widely accepted in many cultures it is also associated with a variety of dangers. First, alcohol is toxic, meaning that it acts like a poison because it is possible to drink more alcohol than the body can effectively remove from the bloodstream. When a person’s blood alcohol content (BAC) reaches .3 to .4% there is a serious risk of death. Second, the lack of judgment and physical control associated with alcohol is associated with more risk taking behavior or dangerous behavior such as drunk driving. Finally, alcohol is addictive and heavy drinkers often experience significant interference with their ability to work effectively or in their close relationships.

Other common depressants include opiates (also called “narcotics”), which are substances synthesized from the poppy flower. Opiates stimulate endorphin production in the brain and because of this they are often used as pain killers by medical professionals. Unfortunately, because opiates such as Oxycontin so reliably produce euphoria they are increasingly used—illegally—as recreational substances. Opiates are highly addictive.


Stimulants are substances that “speed up” the body’s physiological and mental processes. Two commonly used stimulants are caffeine—the drug found in coffee and tea—and nicotine, the active drug in cigarettes and other tobacco products. These substances are both legal and relatively inexpensive, leading to their widespread use. Many people are attracted to stimulants because they feel more alert when under the influence of these drugs. As with any drug there are health risks associated with consumption. For example, excessive consumption of these types of stimulants can result in anxiety, headaches, and insomnia. Similarly, smoking cigarettes— the most common means of ingesting nicotine—is associated with higher risks of cancer.


Caffeine is the most widely consumed stimulant in the world. Be honest, how many cups of coffee, tea, or energy drinks have you had today? [Image: Personeelsnet, https://goo.gl/h0GQ3R, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://goo.gl/iZlxAE]

For instance, among heavy smokers 90% of lung cancer is directly attributable to smoking (Stewart & Kleihues, 2003).

There are other stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamine (also known as “crystal meth” or “ice”) that are illegal substances that are commonly used. These substances act by blocking “re-uptake” of dopamine in the brain. This means that the brain does not naturally clear out the dopamine and that it builds up in the synapse, creating euphoria and alertness. As the effects wear off it stimulates strong cravings for more of the drug. Because of this these powerful stimulants are highly addictive.


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