Altered States

entopic elk

Previous posts of this blog have discussed the magical flight of shamans, magicians and mystics, during which they believed their spirits left their bodies and travelled in vision to the heavens or underworld. So how did they achieve these extraordinary altered states of consciousness —and can we also experience them? According to the research of neuropsychology, altered states are “hardwired” into the human species and experienced by all peoples—naturally produced by our brains and nervous systems. The universal urge to alter consciousness, and techniques for doing so, have existed in all societies down through the ages.

petroglyph of shaman- Tamgaly, Kazahkstan
petroglyph of shaman- Tamgaly, Kazahkstan

Altered states of consciousness are brought about by the withdrawal of consciousness from every day awareness as we shift to the inner world of imagination, reverie, dreams and visions. These experiences range along a continuum from mild waking trance to deep comatose states of trance where awareness of the environment is drastically reduced. Waking trance is brought about by techniques such as Jungian active imagination, magical pathworking, and shamanic journeying in which the practitioner is in control of their physical body and aware of the external world while engaging in the visionary state. Self-hypnosis, visualization, chanting, drumming, rituals, incense, etc. are used to effect a shift in awareness from ordinary awareness to shamanic or magical consciousness. On the other end of the scale are cataleptic trances of some traditional shamans in which the body becomes rigid and immobile. In some cases violent shaking similar to epileptic seizures precedes a deep comatose state in which shaman’s soul is believed to leave their body to journey to the otherworld.

A wide range of techniques can be used to induce altered states: isolation, fasting, meditation, breath control, prayer, fatigue, celibacy, chanting, sensory deprivation, monotonous drumming and dancing, staring into flames or darkness, ingestion of hallucinogens, etc. Although the shaman’s use of hallucinogens has been emphasized recently, field studies show that South American shamans are among the few who use them consistently in their practice.

Bison headed man.  Le Gabillou Cave, France 13,000-12,000 BCE
Bison headed man.
Le Gabillou Cave, France
13,000-12,000 BCE

Cognitive archaeologists Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams argue that the awe-inspiring cave paintings of the Paleolithic period were created by shamans during solitary vision-quests in caves as records of their trance journeys, and through their artwork they relived those experiences and communicated them to others. These include not only the well known paintings of animals, but also depictions of men with the heads of animals, perhaps representing shamans transforming into their animal helping spirits.

Another category of cave art consists of abstract geometric designs termed “entopic images” consisting of zig-zags, hatched lines, and starbursts. According to these authors, such designs likely represented the psychedelic patterns that appeared before the eyes of shamans while entering trance states, generated by their visual system in the retina and visual cortex. Lewis-Williams and David Pearce in their book Inside the Neolithic Mind provide the following neuropsychological model influenced by data obtained from laboratory experiments with the hallucinogen mescalin. With it they classify the movement through deeper levels of altered consciousness into three generalized stages :

Entopic imagery from El Castillo Cave, Spain 40,000-34,000 BCE
Entopic imagery from El Castillo Cave, Spain 40,000-34,000 BCE
  • Stage 1- Altered states often begin with geometric mental imagery: entopic phenomena or “phosphenes”, which appear as grids or lattices of expanding patterns, sets of parallel lines, bright dots and flecks, zig-zag lines, or filigrees of thin meandering lines and spirals, as described above. These forms are rapidly changing and pulsate with bright light which expand, rotate, or “morph” into each other.
  • Stage 2- When subjects move into the next deeper stage they try to make sense of the entopic images they are seeing by construing them as objects with cultural or religious significance. The mind organizes the chaotic flow of images into recognizable forms or icons. As they move into more profoundly altered states of consciousness they often experience a vortex or tunnel at the end of which is a bright light. This appears in experiences of shamans world-wide, who associate it with the tunnel that leads to the underworld in their visions. The authors note this tunnel is often associated with the near-death-experience in our culture.
  • Stage 3- During the deepest stage of the altered state, subjects emerge from the previous vortex experience. They enter a bizarre, ever-changing world of hallucinations such as somatic hallucinations related to distorted awareness of one’s body, and zoopsia which involves seeing animals, and changing into animals and other transformations. Awareness of entopic forms (stage 1) persists, along with iconic hallucinations (stage 2). Hallucinations are experienced in all the senses and one may experience synesthesia—where the senses become confused and one may “smell a sound” or “hear a color”.
Entopic Imagery Chart - David Lewis-Williams
Entopic Imagery Chart – David Lewis-Williams

The three stages theory, based on psychedelic research, has its scientific critics who argue that many naturally induced trance states do not progress in the clearly defined stages described above, and their differences are far more numerous than their similarities. They also point out that there is no evidence that psychedelic plants such as mescaline grew in Paleolithic Europe. Nevertheless, the model does explain entopic images in cave art, some aspects of trance experienced by shamans such as shapeshifting into animals, as well as reports of traveling through tunnels by shamans and survivors of near-death-experiences.

Lewis-Williams and Pearce suggest consciousness should be thought of as a spectrum: at one end is alert consciousness by which we rationally relate to our environment. Further along are more introverted states in which we engage in problem solving through thinking. A step further brings relaxation and day-dreaming unaffected by the environment. Gradually we slip into the hypnagogic state with hallucinations as described above. From there we drift into dreaming. Surveys show more than 70 percent of the population experiences vivid mental imagery called “hypnagogia”–in the state between waking and sleep. Lewis-Williams and Pearce insist that we can learn to engage, control and prolong both hypnagogic experiences and dreams.

It becomes apparent that altered states of consciousness are part of the shared human experience—we are all neurologically “wired” for them. In fact, a great deal of religion, mythology and the arts may have originated from the visions of shamans experienced in altered states of consciousness. Although ancient shamans, mystics and magicians cultivated these states to an extraordinary degree, the research suggests we can learn to access them as well.


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