becoming at one with the universe through the interaction of matter and energy, and other remarkable things. The second part of the course was practical. We learned how to meditate, and then we chanted a type of mantra to focus our energies. This went on for quite some time. Jack explained that some people might experience some startling emotions. I didn't, try as I might, but others certainly did. Several women fell off their chairs and began writhing on the floor, breathing heavily and moaning in what appeared to me as an orgasmic state. Even some men really got into it. To help me get in tune with my chakras, one woman took me into a bathroom with a wall mirror, closed the door and shut off the lights, and tried to show me the energy auras surrounding our bodies. I looked as hard as I could but didn't see anything. One night we were driving along a quiet Oregon highway and she started pointing out little light-creatures on the side of the road. I couldn't see these either.
I took a few other seminars from Jack and since this was before I was a "skeptic," I can honestly say I tried to experience what others seemed to— but it always eluded me. In retrospect, I think what was going on had to do with the fact that some people are fantasy-prone, others are open to suggestion and group influence, while still others are good at letting their minds slip into altered states of consciousness. Since I think near-death experiences are a type of altered state of consciousness, let us examine this concept next.
What Is an Altered State of Consciousness?
Most skeptics would agree with me that mystical and spiritual experiences are nothing more than the product of fantasy and suggestion, but many would question my third explanation of altered states of consciousness. James Randi and I have discussed this subject at length. He, along with other skeptics like psychologist Robert Baker (1990, 1996), believes that there is no such thing as an altered state of consciousness because there is nothing you can do in a so-called altered state that you cannot do in an unaltered state (i.e., normal, awake, and conscious). Hypnosis, for example, is often considered a type of altered state, yet hypnotist "The Amazing" Kreskin offers to pay $100,000 to anyone who can get someone to do something under hypnosis that they could not do in an ordinary wakeful state. Baker, Kreskin, Randi, and others think that hypnosis is nothing more than fantasy role-playing. I disagree.
The expression altered states of consciousness was coined by parapsychol-ogist Charles Tart in 1969, but mainstream psychologists have been aware for some time of the fact that the mind is more than just conscious awareness. Psychologist Kenneth Bowers argues that experiments prove that "there is something far more pervasive and subtle to hypnotic behavior than voluntary and purposeful compliance with the perceived demands of the situation" and that "the 'faking hypothesis' is an entirely inadequate interpretation of hypnosis" (1976, p. 20). Stanford experimental psychologist Ernest Hilgard discovered through hypnosis a "hidden observer" in the mind aware of what is going on but not on a conscious level, and that there exists a "multiplicity of functional systems that are hierarchically organized but can become dissociated from one another" (1977, p. 17). Hilgard typically instructed his subjects as follows:
When I place my hand on your shoulder (after you are hypnotized) I shall be able to talk to a hidden part of you that knows things are going on in your body, things that are unknown to the part of you to which I am now talking. The part to which I am now talking will not know what you are telling me or even that you are talking... . You will remember that there is a part of you that knows many things that are going on that may be hidden from either your normal consciousness or the hypnotized part of you. (Knox, Morgan, and Hilgard 1974, p. 842)
This dissociation of the hidden observer is a type of altered state.
What exactly do we mean by an altered state or, for that matter, an unaltered state? Here it might be useful to distinguish between quantitative differences—those of degree—and qualitative differences—those of kind. A pile of six apples and a pile of five apples are quantitatively different. A pile of six apples and a pile of six oranges are qualitatively different. Most differences between states of consciousness are quantitative, not qualitative. In other words, in both states a thing exists, just in different amounts. For example, when sleeping, we think, since we dream; we form memories, since we can remember our dreams; and we are sensitive to our environment, though considerably less so. Some people walk and talk in their sleep, and we can control sleep, planning to get up at a certain time and doing so fairly reliably. In other words, while asleep we just do less of what we do while awake.
Still, sleep is a good example because it is so different that we do not normally mistake it for a waking state. The quantitative difference is so
EEG recordings for six different states of consciousness.
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