Chapter 3

Altered states of consciousness

I suppose the mysticism of empty consciousness could be called an "altered state of consciousness," because the experience seems all-encompassing and veridical; but what usually go by this name are types of what is mainly sensory experience, produced either by drugs or hypnosis.

The kind of thing produced by LSD, peyote, jimson weed, and other psychedelic chemicals, including to some extent marijuana, is that they raise the level of vividness of imaginary experiences to the degree that they are as vivid as--or even more vivid than--perceptions, and hence are hallucinations. The person may or may not also be aware of the world he is perceiving, with the imaginary one superimposed upon it. But the essence is that what is experienced is imaginary.

What apparently happens is that these chemicals are like the chemical "transmitters" of energy in the nerves in the brain, and when they reach the brain, they allow large bursts of energy (and hence vivid consciousness) to flow more or less randomly through the brain, like a very vivid dream. It may be that the logic of the sequence of images is not quite like that of a dream (where the energy simply follows the path of most frequent or vivid association), but is more random. In any case, they tell us really nothing about the world or about our own reality, in spite of how vivid they are.

And they are also, as I said when dealing with the real and the imaginary in Chapter 3 of Section 4 of the first part 1.4.3, very dangerous, because their vividness can burn pathways into the brain, causing the "trip" over again when presented with the proper perception for a stimulus, and thus can lead to psychosis, where the person cannot distinguish between what is real and what is imaginary.

But there is another type of altered state of consciousness, hypnosis, where the experiences one has are not random, though their sequence is not controlled by the one under hypnosis.

Just as we can be persuaded by others, particularly if they can make us empathetically feel emotions they want to produce in us, there seems to be an extreme instance of this where we allow another person to take control over our instinct, and our ears become a kind of new "input port" for his voice, which takes over what our understanding ordinarily does for us in directing our instinct. What is going on seems to be a good deal like what happens when your computer is attached to another by means of a modem, and you see things going up on your screen that are put there by the person at the other end of the phone line, and which you have no control over.

The experience seems to be very like dreaming, including the fact that it is difficult to remember afterwards what went on; and in fact the word "hypnosis" itself is a transliteration of the Greek word for "sleep." But there are several significant differences. The hypnotist has a good deal more control over the subject than the subject ordinarily has over himself; the hypnotist can tell him to make his body rigid, and it can become so rigid that the subject can have no support under him except at his neck and ankles, and even have someone sit on his stomach without collapsing. The subject can be made to feel no pain during an operation without anesthesia, and can remember things that are completely inaccessible to him in his normal state of consciousness.

Essentially, what seems to have happened is that the subject has yielded the power of concentration (the spirit's direction of the instinct) to the other person; and presumably these abnormal feats are due to the fact that in the person's normal condition, the spirit does not have this power over the instinct because the spirit is also the unifying energy of the body, and some aspects of bodily regulation are best left by it to the energy-"dimension" of the act. As yoga shows, these aspects can, with much effort, be brought under conscious control; but this is by no means necessarily beneficial. Do you really want to decide how many times a second you should breathe, or how fast your heart should beat? Far better leave this up to automatic mechanisms. But when someone else controls instinct, apparently these functions are also subject to control by the input coming in through the ears, and it becomes possible to do abnormal things.

That the control is not absolute is seen from the fact that if the hypnotist tells the subject to do something that is contrary to his moral code, then he wakes up--much as too much of a disturbance wakes a person from a dream.

Hypnotism is a kind of "possession" of one person by another. We don't think of it in terms of possession, because we recognize that more or less anyone can be hypnotized by more or less anyone else, if two conditions are fulfilled. First of all, the subject must be not unwilling to be hypnotized. That is, you can't, apparently, be hypnotized against your will, or if you resist it; but you could unwittingly be hypnotized by listening to the hypnotist without resisting him; for example, if you were a member of a class watching a demonstration, and you inadvertently became hypnotized along with the one who was the real subject. Secondly, the hypnotist has to know what he is doing, and how to get the subject in the relaxed state where he can possess the subject's instinct.

There are allegedly other types of possession, which (if they occur) seem to be a kind of hypnotism by the spirit either of a dead human being or by a pure spirit like a devil. Conceivably, what they call "good witches" are supposed to be possessed by angels; but I have never heard this stated in this way.

I do not know whether any of this happens, because, as I said when discussing the evidence for immortality in Chapter 3 of Section 4 of the third part 3.4.3, seances and such are very often, if not always, fraudulent; and either fraud or error is even more likely to be the explanation of demonic possession. Still, if they happen, then based on what is reported about them, they would seem to be like hypnosis.

It doesn't seem to me that we can rule out these communications from beyond the grave, since, though a disembodied soul can't be affected by anything that happens on earth, he can still affect the earth, if my theory is true; and so it is at least conceivable that he could possess the medium in such a way that he could communicate with those who are left behind. There would be no problem in his answering questions and so on, because, though he is not in time himself, he eternally knows everything that happens at all the times he is interested in knowing about, and so he eternally knows the question, and eternally produces the act of causality of answering it at the time when it is appropriate (just as God eternally causes me to be typing this at this moment). Hence, there is nothing theoretically against what is reported to happen in a séance.

What seems to be going on in a seance is that the medium gets himself into a state where he can be hypnotized by the spirit of some dead person; and when this happens, often his voice alters and he speaks like the dead person. And while he is in this trance, he is said to report things about some living person that the dead one would want him to know--and can give details about the living person that only the dead one and the living one are aware of.

One way to test if this is actually going on, of course, would be to find out if the medium in his trance can actually report things that (a) can be checked, and (b) that he couldn't have known, such as facts about the living person's life that the medium couldn't have found out (or guessed) for himself. But here one must be very careful, because if the person known about is present, the medium could have (consciously or not) read certain subtle clues or made a lucky guess--or even read the other person's mind. I would suspect that the way to do it would be not to have the person known about present (nor to have the experimenter know the facts to be revealed), and then afterwards check to see how much of what is reported actually reflects what the alleged spirit would know of the absent person's life. Whether, of course, the dead spirit could be "called" under these conditions is questionable--which would make the testing procedure that much more tricky, but at the same time make me, at least, that much more suspicious about the whole thing.

What is normally called "possession" is the hypnotism of the person by a pure spirit, such as a devil or (as I said) perhaps an angel.

It is said to be a sign of possession by an evil spirit that the possessed person speaks in a language he never learned. This, I would think, is pretty good evidence of possession by some spirit; but of course since other human beings know languages, then it could be possession by some dead human soul. In order to establish possession by a superhuman spirit, one would have to prove that the possessed person had knowledge that no human being, even after death, could have; but it is hard to see what this could be. Not knowledge of the future, because if my theory is true, a human soul would know all about all the times he was interested in knowing about; and the same would apply to a knowledge of events occurring in far-off places. I don't think that actions beyond ordinary human powers would necessarily prove that it was a devil possessing the person either, even such amazing things as psychokinesis.

In fact, I can't think of any kind of thing a possessed person would do that would rule out the possibility that either he was in some kind of a self-hypnotic condition or that some other human being, alive or dead, had control over him.

For those who are concerned about demonic possession, the lesson from hypnotism should be instructive. If there is such a thing, and if it is at all like hypnotism, then you couldn't be possessed against your will, though you might be so if you foolishly left yourself open to it, like those who inadvertently let themselves be hypnotized. This also is what religious writers who have talked about such things say. So there really is nothing to worry about.