Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness

Book Review: The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness  
by Jeff Warren   (Random House 2007)

I really enjoyed reading this book. It is very up-to-date, thorough, fascinating, applicable, and written in an entertaining style with some anecdotes that really made me snicker. The Wheel of Consciousness is presumably the author’s classification scheme of states of consciousness, both naturally occurring and those that can be trained. There are twelve given and they are as follows: 1) The Parasomnias – which include sleep paralysis, sleep-walking, and narcolepsy, 2) The Hynagogic – state of drowsy pre-sleep imagery, 3) Slow-wave sleep, aka deep sleep, 4) REM sleep – or dreaming, 5) The Watch – a between sessions of sleep state of euphoria, 6) The Lucid Dream, 6) The Hypnopompic – slurred half-awake state after sleep, 8) The Trance – induced through hypnosis and shamanic methods, 9) The Daydream – fantasy state, 10) The SMR (sensory-motor rhythm) – a trainable mindful state characterized by low-beta brain waves with a rhythm on the border of beta and alpha , 11) The Zone – optimum state noted by athletes, musicians, and others, 12) The Pure Conscious Event – highly aware meditative states. Some of these “states” may not be entirely distinct such as the hynagogic, hypnopompic, and parasomnias and may, as well as others, overlap and otherwise be indistinguishable or barely distinguishable from some of the other states of consciousness.

The author is a Canadian journalist/producer in radio and science. He made it a point to travel to various workshops and centers to practice things like lucid dreaming induction, meditation, hypnosis, neurofeedback training for multiple sessions – some extensive. He also managed to personally interview and learn from some of the experts in these fields. The book is illustrated with the authors own cartoons, drawings, charts, and musings – often to make learning fun. There are also extensive notes and references to many interesting works in these fields.

He begins with Hypnagogia showing the brainwave patterns transitioning from waking to sleep – or sleep onset. He spent time in a sleep lab as a subject during this phase. Scientists are not exactly sure how to classify hynagogic experiences – whether they are dreams or thoughts, something in between, or something altogether different. For me, hypnagogia is one of the more fascinating aspects of this wheel of consciousness as I have had some personal experiences and read about many others. Some see the hypnagogic as a doorway to other realms. The 18th century Swedish Emmanuel Swedenborg is said to have made his extensive mystic travels in the hypnagogic state. The author introduces the fascinating work of Andreas Mavromatis regarding hynagogia. Mavromatis described four stages of hypnagogia: 1) Flashes of light and color – what William James called ideoretinal light, 2) Floating, drifting, faces, nature scenes – aka body schema distortions – this is the stage where one may hear auditory hallucinations or feel as if one is falling resulting in the twitch known as the myoclonic jerk (this is not uncommon and I know I have experienced it many times), 3) Autosymbolic phenomenacoined by Viennese psychologist Herbert Silberer ( a contemporary of Freud) it refers to a way of making thought more energy-conserving for a drowsy mind where thoughts are simplified into easy symbolic perceptual pictures. This is the stage where it may be possible to mine creativity. Both Thomas Edison and Salvador Dali developed rather similar methods for doing this as they would be prone to dozing off in chairs  – they would devise a mechanism for waking themselves just after crossing over into the stages of sleep onset.  4) Hynagogic Dreams – these are the strange dreams that sometimes occur during sleep onset – I find them to be often different in quality but not always.

During stage 2 of Mavromatis’s scheme is where the parasomnia called Sleep Paralysis occurs. This is the Incubus/Succubus phenomena of the Middle Ages and it is common for most people to have experienced it on occasion although some folk experience it in a more chronic fashion. The author goes through some interesting analyses and theories about Sleep Paralysis in the literature and in folk beliefs. There are some interesting newer books devoted to the subject that relate and compare SP experiences with many other psychic phenomena including spirit possession, poltergeist activity, schizophrenia, alien abduction experiences, shamanic illness and destruction/reconfiguration, strong EM exposure, Out-of-Body experiences (OBEs).Near-Death experiences (NDEs), etc. The author even has an interesting SP experience in the lab where he awakens unable to move:

“But when I tried to move my lips no sound came out. I was frozen. At that moment I became aware of a presence directly behind my head. I tried to crane my neck but again, I was paralyzed. And then a voice, very clearly, whispered in my ear: “Harry versus Mad Potter.”
      “Harry versus Mad Potter.”! At the time it seemed like one of the most profound things I had ever heard, clearly a message of great import, possibly for all of civilization.”

Next on the wheel he goes through Slow-Wave sleep. Not much to say here as it is deep sleep with no noticeable conscious activity or REM. Scientists think that there is unconsciousness (and thus complete unawareness) in slow-wave sleep possibly with repetitive mentations rather than dreams. Vedantic and Buddhist yoga traditions, however, consider deep sleep to be a profound state of bliss – though only accessible to the realized beings. As to the function of slow-wave sleep, the obvious choice is for rest as certain bodily systems are off-line but some researchers think that it is a maintenance time to repair neural free radical damage. Others note that growth hormone is released in deep sleep – that is when children put on growth spurts. Cortisol is at its lowest level during deep sleep which is generally beneficial for the immune system.

Next on the wheel is a curious ‘state’ or period of which I was completely unaware, known as – the Watch. This is also known as – the Stirring Hour. Apparently, without dependence on artificial light people would sleep in a more segmented pattern – having a ‘first sleep’ from about 9PM to sometime after midnight and another sleep session from about 2AM till dawn. I between was the state/period he calls the Watch. He notes the characterization of the ‘first sleep’ in medieval literature and also some modern experiments to re-introduce where after a while in controlled conditions of having to lay down for 12-14 hours (the dark time in the winter) for several days and nights, the participants would fall into these patterns. One researcher, Wehr, suggested that this was a time for ancient man to contemplate and have a sort of channel of communication between dreams and waking life that has been lost. Perhaps it is one of the way in which we differ from our ancestors. Perhaps also – this is another place where we have lost touch with our mythic mind. The Watch has to do with circadian rhythms, our biological clocks. People have been divided by some into larks and owls, night and morning people and it seems we see this and experience it alot. Artificial light can delay the release of melatonin, our night hormone – while candles and oils lamps seem to remain below the threshold. The late-night awakening called the Watch is characterized by normal alpha brain waves but also with a definite increase in a hormone called prolactin, considered to have a calming effect. This may account for the notion of an altered state. Prolactin is associated with lactating mothers and peacefully roosting chickens – I can vouch for the super-relaxed, drowsy chickens. As well as prolactin, melatonin and cortisol are also increased during long nights. Prolactin was thought to be only produced and maintained during sleep but at least one researcher noted that higher prolactin levels were retained during these late-night awakenings. But it is a subtle state as any small disturbance was found to interrupt prolactin release.

The author actually does do a very good experiment to study this state by going to an isolated family cabin alone for nearly three weeks in late autumn. He has some very interesting experiences such as waking up while his dream continues to play out before his eyes. He notes increased sensitivity to light, including even small clock lights which he ends up turning off early in the experiment. After about a week he began to experience the Watch, where he would wake up. He notes that it was generally pleasant but a delicate state that any stimulus could ruin. Towards the last week of the experiment he notes that he stayed awake longer and noticed waking up more times in the night. Interestingly, he notes that humans in hunter-gatherer societies sleep like this. Of course, they are much more affected by circadian rhythms and less affected by artificial light. They also need to be on guard for predators and raids. So segmented, or polyphasic sleep is the norm for them as monophasic sleep is for us. Some have tried to increase their productivity and sleep requirements by implementing polyphasic sleep but with generally less than desirable results. Many cultures include napping. He notes the almost required mid-day nap in Cairo, Egypt. This is also common in many European countries. I remember when I was a small child my grandmother would take a short afternoon nap. This would be considered bimodal sleep. What all this suggests to the author is simply that sleep is plastic, or flexible to a certain extent, although most research suggests that it is important to get enough sleep for health reasons. But I also have heard tale of those who can maximize or efficientize their sleep with powerful mental habits – such as a Theravadin monk I had met who says he feels entirely refreshed after sleeping four hours a night.

Next on the Consciousness Wheel is the REM Dream. Here is an interesting quote from Lucid Dream pioneer Stephen LaBerge:

“Asking why we dream is like asking why we are conscious. We dream because the brain is designed to make a model of the world whenever it’s functioning.”

Warren divides modern dream researchers into two competing camps: the hardware folk – ie. the neorophysiologists, esp. Harvard’a Allan Hobson, and the software folk – ie. the psychologists starting with Freud. In studying dream content Freud noted emotional connections between memories as making another type of narrative decipherable by the psychoanalyst. Hobson’s Activation-Synthesis dream theory is based on correlation between dream content and brain physiology – in terms of which areas of the brain are activated and de-activated and which neurotransmitters are fired. Hobson suggests that dream content is by-product nonsense. The psychological camp acknowledges the physiology but says that dreams are still involved with emotional wish-fulfillment and suggest that the physiological changes are more results than causes. Theories of why we dream include those of emotional processing and those of memory consolidation as well as those of preparing the brain for waking. Another old one is that of ‘ancestral skill rehearsal.” REM sleep occupies the most time in early life when the brain is most rapidly developing. Some researchers suggest that dreams are an instinctual type of knowledge, possibly pre-lingual.

Next we have the Lucid Dream. Here we get to experience the author’s first bout with the Nova Dreamer, Dr. Stephen LaBerge’s headgear device that helps to induce lucid dreams. This is used in addition to other techniques. There are reality tests during lucid dreaming such as checking a digital clock, reading and re-reading text, examining the hand (from Carlos Casteneda fame), and toggling a light switch. If one uses cues during the day to habitually ask oneself if one is dreaming one will be more likely to ask the same question during a dream. That idea derives from the Indo-Tibetan dream Yoga tradition. The author had his first ever lucid dream the very first night he used the Nova Dreamer, although he admits he did not have another one for quite a while. He was very excited and it seemed a n awesome experience to him. LaBerge along with his mentor William Dement at Stanford sleep lab had discovered that lucid dreamers can signal with the eyes to researchers when they were dreaming lucidly. Over much experimentation they discovered that lucid dreaming happens almost exclusively in REM sleep.

The author and his girlfriend Kelly than attend one of LaBerge’s Lucid Dreaming retreats in Hawaii. There is a section in the book from the workshop designed to highlight (or un-highlight as it were) one’s scotoma, or blind spot –where the optic nerve breaches the retina due to no presence of rods or cones (although I don’t quite get it). A dot and a plus sign within a circle on a piece of paper are used to make one disappear. When one then does it again on a checkered surface – where the plus sign in the circle disappears the mind replaces the empty space with more checkerboard – as that is what the brain expects to see. So as LaBerge says – this replacement section is made of the same stuff dreams are mad of. LaBerge calls these expected scripts or assumptions about a given object or situation – schemas. He says that these ‘schemas’ “capture the essential regularities about how the world has worked in the past and how we assume it will act in the future.” Hobson believes that lucid dreaming is a dissociation in the same way that sleep paralysis is thought to be a dissociation. In sleep paralysis it is said to be a sleeping component invading waking in lucid dreaming it is a waking component invading sleeping. And this, would say Hobson, is all a result of neurobiological happenings. LaBerge would disagree based on solid cognitive psychology evidence. The author’s girlfriend got a WILD, or a wake-induced lucid dream resulting in a classic OBE. There is the technique of “dream spinning” or spinning in a lucid dream in order to stabilize a lucid dream. The author had experienced a classic “false awakening” during his first lucid dream. LaBerge makes the interesting note that the dreaming state is similar to the waking state but without sensory input and the waking state is like dreaming but with the addition of sensory input. Another big factor in inducing lucid dreams seems to be expectation at least more-so than desire. It is suggested that is perhaps why beginners who think about and focus on having a lucid dream seem to get one when they had never had one before. The author does get another lucid dream near the end of the workshop that ends up being quite hilarious and keeps well to the overall hilarity of the book.

Next is the hynopompic state, or transition from sleep to waking. The term hypnopompic is often used interchangeably with hypnagogic but there are likely some differences. Imagery seems to be a little different as hypnopompic imagery seems to arrive fully formed from the dream state rather than transforming before our eyes. The author sees the hypnopompic as most common with the Watch state. I guess a lot of Sleep Paralysis is experienced in the morning hypnopompic although I have only experienced in the early evening hypnagogic. There is the phenomena of hypnopompic speech – which is often garbled or mumbled – and the disoriented feeling many people experience upon awaking. Neurochemically, our levels of cortisol typically rise an hour or two before we awake so that may be a factor in the hypnopompic state.

Next on the wheel is the Trance State. He focuses way more on the clinically described Hypnotic Trance rather than the Shamanic Trances experienced by peoples around the world – which are harder to study. Harrington actually describes those mentioned above as the two main types of trances. He says that the shamanic trances are involved with performance and cultural expectation. Although this may be true – especially in the early stages and in the induction or upkeep of the state – I think that is a bit misleading and may serve to degrade the validity of such states. Other examples of trances include highway driving, book reading, nightclub dancing, musical performance, athletic performance, and TV watching. Clinical hypnosis does have some definite medical applications like mitigation of pain (especially during surgery) and smoking cessation. Apparently some people are more hypnotically suggestive than others and perhaps more importantly, some hypnotists are more skillful at inducing the trance state than others. The Placebo Effect, ie Psychosomatic Effect (which has been proven to be very real and very powerful) is implicated by some to be the real force behind hypnosis as its exact mechanism is unknown.

First the author took two of the standard tests to determine his suggestibility to be hypnotized – the Harvard Scale and the Stanford Scale. He ended up on the lower end of responsiveness and then went home with a CD in order to do a regular practice of self-hypnosis. He seemed to have no trance-like experiences and remained at the lowest end of susceptibility. Among researchers of hypnosis there are those called ‘States’ who think that the hypnotic trance represents a state of altered brain function that represents a neurological reality. Others, the ‘Non-States’ think it only has a psychological reality. The author leans toward the ‘States’ theory as more evidence is mounting – although if I may suggest there certainly seems to be a very strong and definite psychological component as well. The neuro-scientist Allan Hobson in his book, The Dream Drugstore, thinks hypnosis “is a dissociated state of waking into which many of the features of sleep have been inserted” and thus is “the precise reciprocal of luycid dreaming.” Among the ‘States’ there is Howard Spiegel (and his son David Spiegel) who developed the Hypnotic Induction Profile (HIP) in the 1960s. This is a measure of hypnotic susceptibility. More specifically the – Eye-Roll Sign, or how much white shows when the patient closes the eyes while looking up at the eyebrows. Those who show very little white are the Apollonians – very unsusceptible; at mid-level are the Odysseans; and those who show the most white are the highly susceptible Dionysians. There are other suggestibility scales as well, some based on a patient’s ability to trust. The author actually visits Howard Spiegel at his apartment for an interview. Spiegel was 92 at the time. Spiegel dismisses the myth that the hypnotist can impose a trance. He says that all hypnosis is self-hypnosis, although a hypnotist can be skilled in showing them how to activate the trance state for themselves. Spiegel claims an 80-85% success rate in hypnotizing patients. The author gives a complete account of his being hypnotized by Spiegel where he raises his arm without realizing it, has an instance of amnesia, and a few other interesting things happen. He found the process rather mind-boggling. Spiegel describes the trance state as a state of receptivity where one is open and trusting towards whatever one is involved in. Spiegel notes as well that the psychological construct of expectation also plays a role in trance induction: “We know that our expectations even modify what we perceive, because often what we perceive includes what we interpret we perceive.” Speigel also dismisses the materialist premise that the mind is the brain perpetuated by Descartes. He thinks that modern medicine does not appreciate enough the psychological and social aspects of affliction and healing. He says that, “we are overmedicating people and not giving them enough psychological instruction to help change behavior and solve problems.” The author sees the medical implications of hypnosis as “mind-body renovation.”

Next is the Daydream, or what some psychologists term, Task Unrelated Thought. This is perhaps the weakest chapter in the book. It is known that working with mental imagery to solve problems and learn tasks can be effective and that children at play, which involves fantasy can help them learn and cope with situations. Daydreaming and fantasy may have some applications in brain rehabilitation as well. As for the value of daydreams for the rest of us, the author suggests that the state of daydreaming is more uncensored, open, and receptive so that we can perhaps better reflect on mistakes and faults and make new positive associations.

Next is the Sensory Motor Rhythm, the SMR, which refers to a specific brain wave signature in the low beta (or high alpha) range of 12-15 Hz. This is equated with a state of mindful alertness and feelings of well-being. It has been proven to be learnable to induce through the technique of neurofeedback training, formerly known as biofeedback. Neurofeedback is used for many things but lately has been found to effective for treatment of ADHD among children and ADD among adults. The author embarks on a multi-week scenario of visiting the neurofeedback lab . The technique consists in tweaking ones own mental state willfully and/or natural in order to change the brainwave graphs before them on a computer screen. Basically the whole technique is a form of Operant Conditioning, where one is rewarded (by the graph readout) after producing the desired state. The author had a lot of difficulty getting results with this training – at first. One day he noticed that he felt pleasantly relaxed and ‘zoned out’ and had associated that with the low part of the SMR state but really it turned out to be the alpha state (he did not have alpha graphs on his screen). Even though this was not his originally intended result, alpha biofeedback was once the main goal – before the discovery of the SMR. Inducing the alpha rhythm is actually quite desirable for stress reduction and it often a by-product of the meditative arts. The author talked to some folk at the lab who had experienced dramatic results with neurofeedback training regarding some dysfunctional conditions. The author finally did achieve the SMR: “I effused to Kelly when I got home:”The is-ness! I really felt the doors of perception cleansed! For those few moments I felt I had bypassed Huxley’s cerebral reducing valve! It was a classic deautomatization experience, baby, a classic.” “She patted my hand and told me to deautomatize the dishes.” He describes the experience as not about reducing sensory input but – boosting its resolution – resulting in “crisper, more sharply defined quality to both internal thoughts and external stimuli.” Unfortunately the author was not able to produce the SMR regularly although perhaps since he got it rather late into his 40 sessions – he did not train it enough. Some researchers are more skeptical of the actual benefits of neurofeedback training (not so much the states they produce) and think it is more applicable to stabilizing specific conditions such as epilepsy (its most famous success) and ADHD. Scientists involved in neurofeedback research such as Sterman think that in order to get better results the recording methods would need to be tweaked to get to places deep in the brain – for better signal isolation. He also thinks that the ubiquitous-ness of neurofeedback in questionable New Age marketing ploys has hurt the real scientific research possibilities. One is reminded of cybernetics, the development of cy-borgs, ESB (electical stimulation of the brain) experiments, and other mind manipulation methods that have yielded very interesting results. Sci-fi movies are full of these ideas.

Next he talks about –The Zone – which refers to the ‘state’ that artists, athletes, musicians, and others get into when they are deeply entranced in their work. This state certainly has similarities to and overlaps with the trance state, It seems to be a state where energy is preserved for efficiency when some difficult but wel-trained tasks become sort of automated. It is associated with a relaxed state and alpha brain wave activity. It is characterized by clear focus. The researcher Czech researcher Csikszentmihalyi noted the following criteria: “having a clear set of goals, getting clear and immediate feedback, and (most important) matching your skills with the level of challenge.” He referred to this as “flow” – ‘finding that sweet spot at the  top end of your abilities.”

Next we come to – The Pure Conscious Event. This is the set of states sought after during meditation. In this chapter he describes how to meditate, mostly according to the Buddhist tradition, and gives an explanation of the traditional jhanaa, or mediattive states according to Theravadin Buddhism. He chose to attend with Kelly a Buddhist meditation retreat in Scotland, since most of the more recent successful neurological experiments noting real neurological changes have been done with Buddhist monks. This is an interesting chapter with a lot of the more scientific studies of meditation given such as those by psychologist Daniel Goleman in his Varieties of Meditative Experience and also the tradition Pali/Theravadin meditation manual called the Vissudhimagga. The Pure Conscious Event refers to a state of consciousness that is beyond subject and object which may also refer to a deeply mystical state. This state is said to very difficult to achieve although some people can get there seemingly accidentally or unintentionally – but often only very temporarily. The ‘paths’ of meditative training are designed to get one to stabilized states such as this regularly and fully. Former professor of religion and founder of the Journal of Consciousness Studies – Robert Forman, has developed something called Forman’s Mystical Progression – where first is the Pure Conscious Event which is described as interior silence without external awareness followed by – Interior silence with external awareness – followed by – the merging of interior silence and external awareness.

Warren interviews the retreat master Smritratna about his own meditative experiences. He notes some experiences which he refers to in the traditional term samapatti – unusual or extraordinary experiences – but also notes as most veteran meditators do, that these ‘experiences’ are not important. He describes them as ‘special effects’ and far less important than increasing one’s presence of mind. The author even has a sort of ‘dark night of the soul’ where he wonders why he can’t meditate properly and why he is running all over the world chasing states of consciousness. The author makes the interesting suggestion – based on neuro research on meditators who have made the most consistent high-amplitude gamma across the cortex without pathology – that maybe evolving humans’ latest invention, the frontal lobe is still evolving and meditators are at the leading edge. “Not evolving in terms of natural-selection evolving, but evolving in terms of neuro-plasticity allowing our environment to customize newer and more radical uses for our brains.” Regarding Buddhist meditation he says (rightly I think) it is about flexibility, about selectively boosting benevolent compassion as a guide.

Finally the author concludes with some of his own rap-up ideas and charts of the wheel of consciousness as he has described it. Quite an enjoyable book this was and a great learning experience – a fun and very detailed and thorough way to study consciousness with all of its exciting implications.

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