The concept of altered states of consciousness (ASCs) came into prominence in Western psychology in the 1950s and 1960s, primarily due to three paradigm breakthroughs. One was the discovery of rapid eye movements (REM) during dreaming sleep, which was the first time recordable physiological variations could be reliably correlated with a specific subjective state of consciousness. The second breakthrough was the discovery that recordings of electrical activity in the brain (EEG), in the frequency range of 8-12 cycles per second (called “alpha waves”) were reliably correlated with calm, eyes-closed states of relaxation and meditation. The third breakthrough was the discovery of LSD and other psychedelic, “consciousness expanding” drugs, – which meant that profoundly transformed and transformative states of consciousness, hitherto accessible only to a few individuals engaged in meditative or yogic practices, could be induced with fairly high reliability in ordinary people, given the right preparation, safeguards and set and setting.
These discoveries of correlations between variations in neural functions and variations in subjective consciousness stimulated an enormous upsurge of research, which continues to this day, using technologies such EEG, MRI, PET and others. This approach – the study of associations between measures of brain activity and mental states – has become the dominant paradigm in the scientific study of consciousness. It is based on the underlying philosophical assumption of the Western, materialist worldview that consciousness must somehow be located in the brain. This is a view that goes back to the work of the 18th century French mathematician René Descartes, who famously speculated that the soul might be found in the pineal gland. The Eastern philosophies of Yoga and Buddhism come from a completely different approach, basing their conceptions of the mind on systematic observations of inner states during meditation.
The key insight that came out of the Harvard studies with psychedelic drugs in the 1960s, was the significance of set (intention) and setting (context) in understanding psychedelic states of consciousness. Unlike drugs that affect the functioning of one or another bodily organ, such as the heart or kidneys, psychedelics expand the range, focus and clarity of perception itself – the way we see reality and ourselves. Their effect goes far beyond even the mood-elevating or anxiety-calming effects of stimulant or sedative drugs.
Timothy Leary used to say psychedelic drugs were potentially to psychology what the microscope was to biology – affording the conscious perception of ranges and levels of reality that were previously inaccessible. But just as what we perceive through a microscope is a function of what we have put on the slide (such as the leaf of a plant, or a drop of blood), so the content of a psychedelic experience (the thoughts, images, feelings, sensations) is a function of the pre-existing set or intention, and the chosen context or setting. The drug merely functions as a kind of catalyst or trigger that shifts mental functioning into a different mode.
In the graduate courses on altered states of consciousness that I taught for many years, I found it useful to expand this basic paradigm of set, setting and catalyst to any and all states of consciousness, from the most common to the most exotic. Well-known catalysts or triggers of ASCs (besides drugs) are hypnotic inductions, meditative practices, shamanic drumming, music, nature, sex and others, as well as the normal cyclical variations of brain chemistry that catalyze us into the sleeping or waking states. It’s also useful to apply the ASC paradigm to understand psychopathological states that are contractive, fixated or dissociative, and have negative and toxic consequences for individuals, families and communities – including drug or behavioral addictions, fear (panic attacks), rage (fits of temper), psychotic breaks or episodes, depression, mania and others. We shall discuss such states in a later chapter.