Altering Consciousness: Multidisciplinary Perspectives. Vol. 1: History, Culture, and the humanities/Altering Consciousness: Multidisciplinary Perspectives. Vol. 2: Biological and Psychological Perspectives

By Hastings, Arthur | Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Altering Consciousness: Multidisciplinary Perspectives. Vol. 1: History, Culture, and the humanities/Altering Consciousness: Multidisciplinary Perspectives. Vol. 2: Biological and Psychological Perspectives


Hastings, Arthur, Journal of Transpersonal Psychology


CARDEÑA, ETZEL, & WINKELMAN, MICHAEL. (2011). Altering consciousness: Multidisciplinary perspectives. Vol. 1: History, culture, and the humanities. Santa Barbara, California: Praeger. xx + 401 pp. 978-0-313-38308-3, Hardbound 2 volume set $124.99. Reviewed by Arthur Hastings.

CARDEÑA, ETZEL, & WINKELMAN, MICHAEL. (2011). Altering consciousness: Multidisciplinary perspectives. Vol. 2: Biological and psychological perspectives. Santa Barbara, California: Praeger. xvi + 399 pp. 978-0-313-38308-3, Hardbound 2 volume set $124.99. Reviewed by Arthur Hastings.

This two volume set delves into a topic that has long needed a thorough and systematic inquiry. To begin with, it should be noted that this topic has had several names: altered states of consciousness (ASC), alternative states of consciousness, and now altering consciousness. Etzel Cardeña and Michal Winkelman deserve credit for the hard work of mobilizing an in-depth treatment of altering consciousness, the resulting state changes that occur, and their effects. The concept of consciousness composed of states was popularized by Charles T. Tart's pioneering volumes Altered States of Consciousness (1969/ 1972) and States of Consciousness (1975). (Arnold Ludwig actually coined the ASC phrase, as Tart points out.) These books and the theory and research that have been accumulated since then have at least earned a place in introductory texts of psychology, which at this writing usually include a chapter that names various consciousness states, such as sleep, dreams, meditation, hypnosis, psychedelics, and addictive drugs. Instead of one chapter, these two volumes have 32 chapters of text along with insightful orientations by the editors. Volume 1 addresses altered states in history, cultures, and the humanities. Volume 2 covers biological dimensions, neuroscience, and psychology. The chapters go far beyond the listing of a few states of consciousness. They range widely from ancient divination, cultural rites, and ceremonies, to ASC's role in expressive and performance arts, spirituality, religion, emotions, somatics, and biological, chemical, and neuroscience correlates, which appear to be the present cutting edge of altered state research. As one would expect, psychedelic substances receive attention, including LSD, DMT, and peyote. These two volumes will be standard references for many years.

The chapters provide references to many research studies with altered state relevance and reveal that there is a substantial literature in this area, albeit not necessarily pulled together, but at least available. Much of it is documented in these two volumes. The chapters are balanced, including first hand reports (qualitative) of experiences, as well as experimental (quantitative) studies. The authors have respect for the positive values that have been and are being served by various altered states, with such purposes as social organization, mental and physical healing, guidance, inner exploration, decision-making, spiritual and religious development, and conviviality. Considerations of addiction and pathology are addressed as well, with a consideration of dependence as an altered state and mental disorders as negative ASCs.

These are not flippant do-it-yourself books, but ones that take alternate states and their many potentials seriously.

The volumes build a case that many of these alterations of consciousness can be considered as stable states of subjective reality that are often correlated with psychological and biological systems. Consciousness alterations may be explained as constructions by our brains, doors to other realities, conditioned social patterns, non-conscious thinking, useful hypothetical entities, or creative illusions. They have parameters, repeatability, properties, and inherent rules. As William James (1929/1902) noted after experiencing an altered state (from nitrous oxide), ''our waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential kinds of consciousness entirely different, .

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