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Proposals for an episteme of the “other”

 states of conscience

Alloisio Miriam and Pracca Pierpaolo



The study of alterated or "other" states of conscience is the idea that we can penetrate inside the subjective world to underline some hidden aspects of it or, at least, something that for our "official" culture and our universally accepted reality is not sufficiently interesting.
Yet, 90% of human communities all over the world has, in some way, its form of ritual of alteration of mind, more or less istitutionalized or recognized, or, if you prefer, its ritual of research for an "other" dimension.
The Western society, exactly as the people considered of some ethnological interest, although it seems to be refractory to it, has its places and moments dedicated to the individual or collective catharsis, in which the "other" dimensions of conscience are shown: the acid parties, the Saturday night fever with the rhythm of the discos and the psychedelic lights, the use of hard drugs, and also the attitudes of football supporters are good examples of how different are the possible moods of conscience.
This large diffusion of states of conscience alternative to what is considered as common, is supposed to be an evidence of their importance in human life.
This article should underline, from an epistemological point of view, the importance of all these moods of human experience about reality. Moreover, what can be the missing link between the study of the "other" states of conscience and the question of the relation Subject/Object, knowing that our interpretations of reality depend from our deepest psychic conditions, that are, in turn, in an interdependent relation with our bio-neuro-cerebral conditions.


Experiential methods to identify an "other" state of conscience.

According to Tart (1975), different levels of conscience can be distinguished in addition to the ordinary fundamental one.
The ordinary fundamental state is the state we experience when we're awake and that is indispensable to survive in the physical world that is planned by the principle of non-contradiction. In our culture the ordinary conscience is characterized by a high degree of rationality and a relatively low degree of imaginative capability. At the other end, there is a region of psychological space in which the rationality is usually low or different; for example, this is the case of the ordinary night dreaming, during which we create the whole dreamt world.
According to Fisher (1971), the "other"states of conscience can be divided in two classes: the first ones are the states of conscience named ergotropic, which are characterized by a psychic hyperactivity; they can be produced by hallucinogens and mystic exaltations. The other ones, named trophotropic states of conscience, on the contrary, are characterized by a psychic hypoactivity that produces a progressive desensibilization to the external stimula and then leads to ecstatic states as zozen and samadhi.
An "other" state of conscience is a new experiential space, that has his own properties, a new organization of the conscience, that has his own consistency and laws. The term "other" must be understood in a pure descriptive sense, without leaving space to any kind of judgement.
The "other" states of conscience present essentially these specific characters:

- A distorted perception of time compared with the ordinary one, or a sense of atemporality.

- Depersonalization and loss of oneself.

- Attenuation of inhibitions.

- Increased empathy followed by sensations similar to a fusion with other people or objects.

- Prevalence of thoughts based on the use of analogy and metaphor, with consequent suspention of the principle of non-contradiction.

The induction of an "other" or alterated state of conscience involves two fundamental interventions: firstly, to the ordinary fundamental state are applied disruptive forces (actions of psychological and/or physiological kind). The induction cannot work in the case in which the ordinary state of conscience is characterized by a strong stability; it happens very often with the use of psychedelic drugs or with the hypnosis; they are techniques of induction, that allow to get to an "other" state only after that the subject knows how to widen his own attention/consciousness and has strong expectations in this kind of experience. All this makes clear how in the field of "other" states is important the psychological aspect and the socio-cultural conditions in which it is experienced.
In the second part of the process of induction are applied psychological and physiological organizing forces directed towards the creation of the desired "other" state. The description of the mechanism through which we get from an ordinary state of conscience to an "other" one, and then from this "other" one back to the ordinary utilizes the cybernetic pattern of the theory of systems that can be summarized with a circular scheme in which the effects are in continuous and constant feedback with the causes.


Ordinary State ----> induction of disruptive forces -----> breakdown -----> transition -----> Other or Alterated State -----> breakdown -----> transition -----> Ordinary State

"Other" states of conscience: a Neuro-Transcendence?

Among the "other" states of conscience studied in these years there are: the intoxication of drugs and alchool, the ESP visions, the states of trance of mediums, the perithanatic experience of the almost-death, the fasting and the meditation, the guided dreams and the sensory deprivation.
We think it is interesting to examine three types of study about "other" states of conscience that have been made in the USA. The first one about which we'll talk is by Siegel (1978), who, in the field of experimentation with hallucinogens, noticed how in a group of "psychonauts", whom was given a certain dose of psycho-active drugs, there were prototype-images of average kind. After years of precise surveys, he found out that the human mind tends to keep in only a finite number of visions.
When the psychonauts kept their eyes close and looked into themselves without having taken any drugs they talked about black, white and purple shades, while under the effects of psychedelic drugs the prevailing tones were red and orange; finally, the T.H.C. (tetrahydrocannabinol), the active principle of marijuana, produced an iced blue.
Under the effects of L.S.D. and of mescaline the "psychonauts" talked about geometrical figures that became more and more complex during the "trip". The more intense the experience was, these figures wheeled and pulsed and then left space to more personal images.
The most important aspect of these studies was the discovery that, under the effect of hallucinations, four fundamental and recurrent types of geometrical figures were recorded: the spiral, the tunnel or the funnel, the cobweb and the grid.
The visions obtained in laboratory were very similar to the visions of people among which, during specific religious rituals, taking hallucinogens is usual; all the evidence of this study makes it clear that our brain should create predeterminated images in response to particular stimula. Siegel found out that we can distinguish two stages in the hallucination:
1) Geometrical stage, in which there is the preponderance of coloured figures.
2) A stage in which occur strictly personal images, linked to the psycho-socio-cultural environment of the person who makes this kind of experience.
This second stage, compared to the first one, cannot be scientifically classified, because it happens as if the mind gets from a catalogue of inner and strictly subjective figures and impressions.
Lilly (1979) came to a conclusion very similar to the Siegel's one (1978): some years before him, he examined a classic philosophical and neurological enigma: what could happen to our brain if it was deprived of every kind of sensory input?
Most of the scientists supposed that, without any stimulations, there would be a lack of conscience, although this hypothesis couldn't be objectively confirmed. Lilly (1981), in order to strengthen the hypothesis of no cerebral activity in a state of sensory deprivation, built the first isolation tank: a dark and soundproof tank, filled with an ultrasaline fluid. All evidence of the first tests made clear that something surprising had happened; our brain was not empty of impressions, but, on the contrary, was subject to an hyperproduction of states of conscience that were not ordinary, as trance, mystic flashes of inspiration and extracorporeal trips. After these tests, Lilly combined for the first time the isolation tank with the use of L.S.D. and experienced deeper hallucinations. After these experiences, Lilly embraced the theory of a radical position of our brain, which implied the consciousness of a principle that existed outside the physical structure of brain; in religious terms, this is the idea of a soul which uses and is used by the body.
This theory, extremely unpopular in scientific circles, was shared then by Pearce (1973; 1974) and Moody (1976). What was evident in these heterodox studies was the fact that Man is not coincident with his own brain and neither with his body, because there would be a spiritual essence which is distinguished from a corporeal medium.

In our opinion, another interesting study is the research made by S. La Berge (1981) about lucid dreaming. Since 1953 we have known that the sleep with dreams is associated to characteristic and rapid movements of eyes (R. E. M.), which can be easily recorded by a sensor put under the dreamer's eyes. If it was really possible to be aware during the dreams, thought La Berge, why could not the dreamer communicate with the external world and why could we not use his eyes' movements as a dictionary? He made use of a polyphonograph, which is a device similar to a lie detector, that is able to control automatically the movements of the eye muscles and other physiological signals; during every lucid dream, our eyes move according to a predetermined sequence: left-right-left-right.
Then, when he examined the record, between the EEG graphs and REM irregular eyes movements it was possible to read the codified message. After this test La Berge could formulate a technique of induction of dreams, named MILD (Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams) that was able to allow to turn usual dreams into lucid dreams. The simple criterion of clearness corresponded to the capability to create the situations in the dreams through an act of will. The aim of this technique was to establish a relation between the reality of lucid dreams and the state of awakeness. Further developments made the lucid dream work as a laboratory in which we could simulate experiences and situations that in a state of awakeness would cause an insuperable emotional impact, while in this reality, which was self-inducted and virtual, we could work with otherwise inaccessible emotional blocks.


The “other” state of conscience and the noumenal reality


The research for alternative states of conscience compared to the ordinary one, which has been underlined by the reported tests and which is present in the overwhelming majority of religious and esoteric traditions, can be read as an attempt to catch different or superior aspects of reality and is actually the everlasting dream to break the circularity of human knowledge and to overcome the recursivity of logical and rational processes. According to many cultural circles, in fact, some alterated states should lead to the understanding of a reality beyond what can be known; the ecstasy, for example, according to many religious traditions, would be a mood of conscience in contact with the supposed noumenal reality.

Michelangelo Merisi known as  Caravaggio - Narciso


It is evident that we come straight to the gnoseological issue par excellence: what are the boundaries of human knowledge and is it possible to overcome our partial point of view which is represented by our ordinary sectorial apparatus?

According to Goedel, this is not possible because no system of knowledge can know or affirm itself completely, starting from its own means of knowledge.
Hallucination, madness, mystic delirium, do they represent the access to meta-points of view or are they, precisely like the so-called ordinary state, the results, even if different, of interpretations of the same phenomenal reality? In a superior (or, more correctly, different) state of conscience can we get a direct experience of truth/reality, or have we got simply a different interpretation of sensory inputs that we receive from our environment? Some of them, as we know (drugs, alcohol, techniques of meditations, music), drop the distinctive categories of our phenomenal universe (object/subject, space/time) to offer an alternative interpretation in which it would appear as possible the experience of a unity that, according to many religious/esoteric traditions, is the truth itself.
About that, we think it is appropriate to remark what I. Kant wrote in his Prolegomena, in which the problem of recursivity of knowledge is evident with all its dramatic consequences:
according to him, the innate laws of thought would prevent the perception of the thing in se.

This gnoseological pessimism, according to many esoteric traditions, could be overcome through inducted and self-inducted techniques that should support the achievement of a meta-point of view (Nirvana, Samadhi, Direct State, Tao), after which it would be possible to suspend the Kantian categories of space, time and cause. This belief, which is common to most spiritual disciplines, considers the human being as usually in a state of conscience that can be described as: illusion, daydream, ignorance, maya (Buddha's precept, for example, defines the ordinary state of conscience as a state of sorrow and entrapment within the forms and deliria of our mind) and this can be overcome, according to Maslow (1971), through the "mountain experiences", in which, at least for some time, we could go beyond the "samsaric" condition of ordinary conscience and then get to the truth.
We think, anyway, that it is necessary to distinguish the idea of scientific truth from the sentiment of the truth that, as Morin (1989) said, adds an emotional/existential dimension to the idea of truth. We are referring to a religious truth in the ethymological sense of the word religio: it religat, that is connects the human being to the essence of reality and establishes more than a communication, a communion.
The evidence of the previous arguments makes it clear that there are two different attitudes: on one hand the attitudes referring to a sentiment of truth and considering these experiences as coincident with the noumenal reality; on the other hand the neuro-physiological riductionism of supporters of organic cause in religious and mental states.

Is it possible to overcome these two attitudes?
Perhaps the solution is offered by Maturana (1974), who maintains that, from a biological point of view, the knowledge is a subjective process and, being an individual phenomenon, is subordinated to the self-poiesis of the knowing subject. So, from an epistemological point of view, according to this pattern of interpretation, there wouldn't be any qualitative difference between an ordinary state of conscience and an "other" one because we should live for ever in a state of virtuality in which is completely indifferent to establish the ontological status of a psychic event. But, from a psychological point of view, the main aspect is the meaning that the "other" state assumes in the person who experiences it; what is important is this meaning within a certain bio-psycho-socio-cultural environment.



Fischer, R., A Cartography of the Ecstatic and Meditative States in Science, 174, 1971, pp. 897-904.

Kant, I.: Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1997.

La Berge, S., Lucid Dreaming: Directing an action as it Happens, in “Psychology Today, Je”, 1981.

Lilly, J.C., The Center of the Cyclone: An Autobiography of Inner Space, Bantam Books, New York, 1979.

Lilly, J.C., The Scientist, Bantam Books, New York, 1981.

Maslow, A., Towards Psychology of
Being, John Wiley & Sons

Maurana, H.R., Autopoiesi e Cognizione, Marsilio, Venezia, 1985.

Moody, R., Life After Life, Bantam/Mockingbird Books, New York, 1976.

Morin. E., La conoscenza della conoscenza, Feltrinelli, Milano, 1989.

Pearce, J., The Crack In the Cosmic Egg,, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1973.

Pearce, J., Exploring the Crack in the Cosmic Egg, Julian Press, New York, 1974.

Siegel, R.K., Allucinazioni, in “Le scienze”, 113, Gennaio 1974, pp. 88-96.

Tart, C.T., States of Consciousness, E.P. Dutton & Co., New York, 1975


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