Saturday, November 12, 2005


States of Mind

Wandering around the web recently, I came across an interview and profile of Charles Tart. It seems Tart, a psychologist, began researching altered states of consciousness, hypnosis in particular, and was led to consider
How can anybody distinguish, then, between dream, hypnotic trance, and reality? Dehypnotization, the procedure of breaking out of the normal human state of awareness, according to both mystics and hypnotists, is a matter of direct mental experience. The method can be learned, and that's the nutshell description of the esoteric wisdom of the ages.

The result is the concept of "consensus consciousness" or "consensus trance". His work includes research into how to "wake up" from this "normal" state.

A scene toward the end of "Phantom of the Paradise" comes to mind: Biff, the beefcake star has been attacked by the Phantom in his dressing room. The manager, trying to calm him down, suggests that Biff had had a hallucination, to which Biff replies, "I know drug real from real real, I take the stuff, you just dish it out!"

A very common altered state, one I enter at least daily (nightly) is "sleep". I've read a few books on the subject, beginning with "Sleep Positions", and articles in Scientific American. I've been fascinated (and envious) of people, like Joel, who seem to need only four hours sleep, or short naps around the clock amounting to less than the standard "eight hours". What I have thus far found disappointing in what research on sleep I've read is that it is all "analytical" in the retrograde sense. Some measures brain waves, pulse, blood pressure, hormone levels--observing the parts moving in the machine. Other measures the impact of sleep deprivation, trying to deduce the role of sleep from the consequences of removing it.

I would have liked (and still would like) to find measures of restedness, rather than of fatigue. There are so many signs of not-enough-sleep: red eyes, bags under eyes, maybe even bad hair days. Most of us have had days "I wish I'd stayed in bed", and not just to avoid the day's events. There may be mornings one turns off the alarm, rolls over, and goes back to sleep (and later can't even recall hearing the alarm--it must not have gone off!). Waking in the middle of the night, thoughts abuzz, unable to go back to sleep (insomnia) feels more symptomatic of stress, worry, guilt, or digesting cabbage, than "time to get up, I'm not tired anymore." About the only sign resembling "enough sleep" is waking up before one's alarm clock rings, and even that may well be self-conditioned response to avoid the pain of being awakened by the alarm.

I was pleased to read in an IHT article (yesterday? from the New York Times) entitled " Why sleep? Science asks the iguana that research on sleep continues, with a possibly more interesting question than some addressed in the past. The researchers, at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, are studying sleep across the animal kingdom, to better understand what sleep is for by developing a sort of "unified sleep theory" that would explain the observed behavior from an evolutionary and survival perspective.

The researchers quoted include:

Particularly intriguing to me is the half-brain sleeping. "...some species of whales and seals sometimes swim with one eye closed while the corresponding hemisphere of the brain produces slow waves. Scientists are still debating whether they are asleep in this state." They had some fun watching ducks sleep, too:
"The ducks on the interior slept more with both eyes closed, and the ducks on the edge slept with one eye open. And they used the eye that was facing away from the other birds."

To give each side of the brain enough rest, the ducks at the ends of the row would stand up from time to time, turn around and sit down again. This allowed them to switch eyes and let the waking half of the brain go to sleep.

I think I'll go back and re-read (and finish, this time, as I might not have done twenty-five years ago) "The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind," by Julian Jaynes. The thesis, as I recall, is that consciousness, and self-awareness in particular, arises from the "conversation" between the two hemispheres. A "mistrust" between them might help explain why we can't sleep one side at a time, mightn't it, if neither side wanted to relinquish its control unilaterally. Readers' reviews at Amazon (no, I did not read all 113 of them) remind me that earlier proto-humans "heard voices" (gods?), and one points to

I've also tried to learn about hypnosis and meditation, but have not had much success. For some reason, although many consider me gullible, I don't seem to be easy to hypnotize. When I've tried meditating, I think I've fallen asleep, at least that is what it feels like. Is that all it is?

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