Radio Review: ‘Altered States of Consciousness’

BBC Radio 4, 11.00 am 3rd March 2017

‘Altered States of Consciousness’ was the title of a recent radio investigation presented by Jolyon Jenkins. First the background. In the 1950s and 60s people experimented with LSD and other psychedelic drugs in order to experience altered states of consciousness. LSD was made illegal fifty years ago. Jenkins set out to explore methods now being used which purported to offer a similar sort of heightened experience but without venturing outside the law. The point was made that in other civilisations — I think he meant ancient Greece and pre-conquest America — mind altering drugs were part of the culture. In the modern western world the only legal drugs that induced any state that could be called ‘altered’ (and only in the most tenuous sense, surely, in the case of three out of the four) were alcohol, tobacco, coffee and tea. By the way, I learnt from the program that there is a name for those who seek to travel into unfamiliar mental states: psychonauts.

Here are some of the methods he explored and his comments on his own experiences:

  • FLOTATION TANK: Jenkins went to the Oasis Float Centre in Totnes, Devon. The tank contained Epsom salts in water at body temperature that allowed the person to float. He was told that after a certain time in the flotation tank the brain might enter into the same condition as that of monks who had been practising meditation for twenty years. (A short cut to bliss? asked Jenkins.) He found the experience relaxing but nothing more; certainly he had no experience that could be called, in this context, ‘altered’.
  • LUCIA LIGHT: A specially designed machine emitted flickering light at different frequencies into the eyes. There had been reports from some who had used this machine of unusual experiences, stress relief, enhanced creativity, inner peace and even astral travel. Jenkins reported that for him it was like looking at a kaleidoscope but again he had nothing that resembled an ‘altered state’.
  • ALTERED STATES OF CONSCIOUSNESS INDUCTION DEVICE: This device had been invented by Jean Houston, once a researcher into LSD and more recently an advisor to Hillary Clinton, in conjunction with Hoyt Edge, a philosophy professor and parapsychology researcher. The device was a sort of canvas stretcher on which you were swung back and forth and round and round. Again there were claims that it might induce visionary states, fairy tale narratives, even ‘visits to other worlds’. Jenkins made his own version of this device and tried it out on willing volunteers. There were reports of unexpected experiences, such as a feeling like that of being under water, but again not what might be classed as ‘altered’. Jean Houston wondered if the failure of this device, which she remembered being successful in the 1960s, was attributable to the contrast between that earlier decade when expectations were high and our present more sceptical age.
  • HOLOTROPIC BREATHWORK: Jenkins visited a farmhouse in Buckinghamshire. The technique centred on breathing. The experimenter took very deep breaths for up to three hours to the background of rhythmic music and in the company of a facilitator. Some people had reported having psychedelic experiences. Jenkins tried it. He described a tingling effect on his skin, a twitching, shaking, a sense of floating and some visual hallucinations. It was an experience he did not want to repeat and he put it down to the stress his body had been put into.

A couple of comments:

  • I was struck by the phrase ‘short cut to bliss’. I am by nature wary of short cuts, whether it is paths that seem likely to save a long round trip, quick and easy ways of making money or the latest trouble-free way to lose weight. The notion of a short cut to enlightenment sounds unconvincing to me. But maybe I am just too suspicious.
  • Jenkins reported that one interviewee had mentioned that he had given up one of the practices (the induction device, I think) because he found that people, even though they had experienced altered states of consciousness, had forgotten about them some weeks later. His point was that a genuine mystical experience ought to have some lasting effect on the person. I agree. Otherwise such experiences are not much more than diversions, amusements.

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Some additional points:

The question to which I keep returning is this.  On this planet, at least, when the biosphere is considered, there is evidence in abundance that the collections of atoms and molecules we call plants, animals and humans act in pursuit of goals. The particular example I found useful (in ‘Animal Architecture 1, 2 and 3’) was nest building. Here a complex set of activities is completed in a particular order with the result that a useful structure is built. But I could have selected from a countless number of goal-oriented tasks in the biological world.

And my question, a little naïve you might think, is how it came about that purposeful, goal-seeking behaviour occurred and multiplied in a universe of cause and effect mechanics.

I am being careful to draw a line between goal-oriented behaviour and behaviour with conscious intention. In the human domain goal oriented activity is accompanied by awareness of a goal and an intention to achieve it. I am not suggesting that this is the case when, for example, a spider spins a web. I think it unlikely that there is an image of a completed web in the mind of the spider as it sets about its work. A human, in the other hand, might have an image of a castle form when building with sand on a beach. Whether or not some animals share this ability to conceive goals in advance I leave to the enquiries of experts in animal studies.

I came across a relevant point recently in a review by Oliver Moody of From Bacteria to Bach and Back, the Evolution of Minds by Daniel Dennett in the Times, 25th February 2017. (A double coincidence since Daniel Dennett was mentioned in my most recent post, ‘What is Consciousness, A YouTube video’, 23rd February 2017). According to the reviewer Dennett makes the point that animals ‘carry out sophisticated tasks without understanding what they are doing — “reasons without reason” ’. Dennett’s example summarised in the review is more striking than mine concerning nest building.
‘The piping plover will draw predators away from her nest by feigning the dipping
flight of a bird with a broken wing so that her pursuer will think she is an easy target.
She is almost certainly not aware of her own deceit; it’s probably a reflex.’
Consider for a moment that this bird behaves in such a way as to deceive another animal and all without any understanding of why she is behaving in this way.

It seems that there are at least three distinguishable categories:
a) inanimate objects not goal oriented: stars, planets, rocks, minerals, liquids, gases
b) living beings unaware of the goals they pursue (plants and animals)
c) living beings aware of the goals they pursue (humans)



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‘What is consciousness?’ a YouTube video

‘What is consciousness?’

A YouTube video from the Economist:

This video is a useful introduction to the present state of play in the academic study of consciousness, featuring among others, the chief protagonists, the captains of the opposing teams, David Chalmers and Daniel Dennett. Below are some of the key points made:

The opening words of the video: ‘It is the most fundamental experience of all, defining our waking moments and giving rise to all that we think and feel. Without consciousness we have no way of proving that we or anything else exists and yet what it is and why we have it is a mystery that some of the greatest minds have been unable to solve.’

‘The only way I know I exist is because of consciousness’ says Christof Koch, Chief Scientific Officer,
The Allen Institute for Brain Science.

David Chalmers, Professor of Philosophy, New York University, says that consciousness is known from the first person point of view; it is subjective. We know our own consciousness directly whereas others come to know of our consciousness only indirectly.

The problem of consciousness has puzzled philosophers for millennia but now it is being addressed by science

Daniel Dennett, Philosopher and Professor of Cognitive Science, Tufts University, in contrast with David Chalmers, argues that the problems associated with consciousness will be solved.

Nowadays the brain, the ‘basis’ for consciousness, can be scanned and analysed in great detail and scientists can try to answer the question of which parts of the brain ‘support’ consciousness, i.e., they can search for neural correlates.

Also mentioned in the video was a related question, called the binding problem, i.e., how does the brain integrate different bits of information it receives, e.g. , movement, shape, colour, to give us a whole and integrated picture.

The problem of evolution and consciousness. How did consciousness arise in evolutionary history? Chalmers asks ‘Why couldn’t we do everything that we do without it? Without first person subjective experience of the world?’

There was  a discussion about ‘theory of mind’, the ability that humans have from about the age of three, which allows them to imagine the world as seen from the subjective experience of another human. The ‘rouge’ test shows recognition of one’s body in a mirror but not necessarily evidence of awareness of another’s awareness. It is arguable to what extent other animals have ‘theory of mind’.

Chalmers has made famous the term the hard problem. Here he explains it: ‘Methods of science right now are great for explaining objective processes and objective functions so when it comes to explaining things like the behaviour of an organism you can tell some story about a bit of the brain, neural process or computer like process in the brain that makes us behave a certain way. But the problem of consciousness, what we call the hard problem of consciousness (which is explaining how you get subjective experience from the brain) is not that kind of question. It is not a question about how we behave … you can explain all those objective behaviours and processes and you still won’t have answered the hard problem which is why is it that all that functioning is accompanied by consciousness.’

According to Dennett, however, there are a lot of puzzles but no mysteries. Consciousness, he predicts, will be understood completely. It is a cognitive illusion, a user friendly version of the world made by the brain. The brain used to be off limits but now it can be analysed; we have the toolkit to do this and  we need to use it



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For this post I have found very helpful An Introduction to Animal Behaviour (1967) by Aubrey Manning.

In his analysis of animal behaviour Manning employs the term ‘motivation’ but he quite clearly points out that he is not assuming that animals are motivated by conscious desires. We are in no position, he admits, to say definitely whether animals feel emotions in the same way that humans do. As a scientist, a zoologist, to be more specific, he restricts himself to observations of ‘physiological changes in the body’, for example, the mouth becoming dry, sweating, the acceleration of the heart-beat, events which usually follow the secretion of adrenalin into the bloodstream.

Manning identifies three stages in motivational behaviour:

  1. A phase in pursuit of the goal, the ‘appetitive behaviour’ of searching or hunting
  2. Behaviour oriented around the goal: once ‘the appropriate goal stimuli are located’ there now take place what Manning calls ‘consummatory acts’, regular patterns of action, e.g. feeding, drinking, copulation.
  3. A phase of quiescence following the achievement of the goal during which the animal no longer responds to stimuli (at least to stimuli related to the goal just attained).

In the most recent posts ‘Animal Architecture 1’ and ‘Animal Architecture 2’ (24th and 25th January 2017) I looked at the example of nest building. Manning’s description increased my awareness of its complexity. A blackbird builds its nest in a series of stages:

  1. searching for large twigs that will form the framework of the nest
  2. construction of the sides from ‘finer material’
  3. conveying mud to the nest to form the cup shape
  4. making a lining with fine grass and hair

If we humans were to try to copy a blackbird’s method, we would naturally thing in terms of having an overall goal, the construction of the nest, which for our practical convenience we would break down into four subsidiary goals. We can think of the blackbird’s behaviour as being not just long-term goal-oriented but, more subtly, both subsidiary goal and long-term goal oriented.

Which brings me back to the underlying philosophical issue relevant here. On the one hand every individual, every tiny speck of muscle movement of the blackbird as it builds its nest is caused by its previous physiological state in response to natural forces that operate in line with fundamental laws, what in a previous post (‘Pushed and Pulled’, 18th January 2017) I called the process of being ‘pushed’. Complete determinism rules at this level of description.

However, over and above the mechanistic chain of cause and effect, when we stand back and look at sequences of animal behaviour during a period of time, there is no getting away from the conclusion that it is undertaken  with regard to an end, a goal (‘pulled’ as distinct from ‘pushed’) and, furthermore, a goal of which the animal is unaware.

So my question is this. How did it turn out to be that in a universe of ‘pushing’, fourteen billion years of physical cause and effect, there arise in at least one small region of the universe collections of atoms and molecules (animals including humans) which move in ways that we can’t help but see as goal seeking.

Where did goals arise in this apparently blind and purposeless universe?

Is there a real problem here or have I missed the point?


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The weaver bird’s nest is a fine example of elaborate animal architecture. The raw material is strips of grass that are fresh and supple, perhaps a thousand of them required for a single nest. The male bird begins by tying a half hitch knot made of this grass to a twig. Next it weaves a ring large enough for its own size but not so large that it is offers access to bigger predators. When the ring is firmly established, it constructs the nest roof by threading the strips in and out on the same principle as weaving done by humans. The final stage is to make an entrance tube which again has to be the right size to allow entrance and exit for the weaver bird and its mate but not wide enough for intruders.

A goal seeking activity par excellence. And all down to instinct, whatever that word means

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To the vexed question of purpose in the universe, two responses:

  1. As regards the purpose of everything, of the entire universe which includes in one tiny corner, this earth, the venue for human civilisation, I suggest that it is a problem beyond reason, at any rate beyond my reason. The human intellect (I should say my intellect) is not capable of resolving the problem insofar as it is seen in the following way.

    If by purpose is meant the role of a part in a whole (a cog in a machine, a cell in organ, an organ in a body, a worker in a company, a company in the national economy), then it follows that we cannot make any sense of a purpose of the all-encompassing entirety of everything for the obvious reason that it is not part of a greater entity. I accept that this is only one way of dealing with the question of purpose on this ultimately macro scale. It may be the wrong approach based on a mistaken notion of purpose. And it may say more about the limitations of thinking (my thinking, again) than about the universe. Let those who can make more sense of it, have their say.

  2. But to the question, ‘Is there purpose in the universe?’, one response is that, at the micro level, the biosphere of this little planet is teeming with purposes. Just consider one niche within a much greater area of animal behaviour, namely, the way that animals make structures. Here are a few examples: birds (and wasps) build nests, beavers make dams, rodents burrows, badgers sets, foxes holes, spiders webs, bees hives, ants and termites mounds. I dare say that there are many more examples of ‘animal architecture’. In the most recent post (‘Pushed and Pulled’, 18th January 2017) I used the terms ‘push’ and ‘pull’ to stand for two explanations of physical activity. ‘Push’ stands for causation by forces of nature, the standard explanation as to why events occur in the physical world: why an apple falls from a tree, rust forms on iron, custard thickens, fingernails grow. ‘Pull’, on the other hand, stands for purpose, the way that humans account for their own activity — I swallowed the pill in order to get rid of a headache; I voted for candidate X in order to help him or her win an election. In short, the ‘pull’ explanation of human behaviour sees it in terms of goal seeking, of intentions to achieve a particular result.

    Back to the structures made by animals. Take nest building as a prime example and think of all the intricacies involved: the choice of site, the selection of appropriate materials, the juxtaposition of one item alongside another, some element of weaving, the shaping of the angles of the nest to ensure its rigidity and strength, the measurement of a space sufficient for adult birds, eggs and later fledglings etc. I am sure that studied in detail the whole process would prove to be far more complex than one might at first imagine.

    The ‘pushing’ explanation certainly works. All the movements of the birds, every journey back and forth, every stage of the construction can be accounted for in terms of the natural forces impinging on the brain and muscles of the birds. But, in addition, when the whole process is seen in its natural context, it is undeniable that the activity is goal oriented. Each individual action is part of a whole; there is an end to which the many parts contribute.

    Now I was careful to write ‘end’ and not ‘end in view’ since the latter implies that the bird in the course of building had an image of the finished nest in its mind and was actively intending to make it manifest in material form in the way the a builder of houses has an architect’s plan to refer to. I have no idea what images, if any, appear in the consciousness of birds.

    (By way of explanation of phenomena like nest building we tend to trot out the word ‘instinct’. But I wonder if that is any more than a label for a process we do not understand. To me it does not add up to an explanation. But I leave that aside for the time being.)

    The discussion of animal architecture has been brought in to show that within the biosphere of the earth there is an abundance of purposes. I have just touched on one small section of animal behaviour. I might have explored the use of camouflage or the endless struggles between predator and prey. And this is without venturing into the domain of vegetation with its photosynthesis and plants bending towards the sun. Human purposes, of course, are another enormous and varied area.

    The last question in this post is this: granted that there is a universe of physical forces following laws of nature, a universe in which the merest of events is ‘pushed’ in a chain of causation, how and why did it so happen that goal oriented activity came into being? It seems odd to me, to say the least, that there should emerge what I cannot help but see as purposes in a universe ‘pushed’ by blind, purposeless forces.

    And I put the question, by the way, not as a poorly disguised invitation for a religious answer but out of genuine puzzlement. In a universe driven by mindless forces how come these miniature purposes, the beavers’ dam, the finches’ nest etc. occur?





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Pushed and pulled, two opposite causes of movement. I can push a wheel barrow from behind or I can turn it round and pull it. A train can be pulled by a locomotive at the front or pushed by one at the back.

In Aristotle’s long discredited physics objects fall because they are seeking the ground:  in other words a purpose is pulling them.  However, under the tuition of scientists during the past few centuries we have learnt that all actions and movements are pushed and that there is no such event as pulling. In short, we generally believe that there is a physical cause for everything that happens, for crops growing or failing to grow, for rainfall, erosion of rocks, the development of the human body and, indeed, for every movement of every atom in the universe. The philosophical term for what I am calling ‘pushing’ is the causal closure of the physical domain, i.e., every physical event has a physical cause or causes which fully account for it.

This way of talking about physical activity in a physical universe makes a good deal of sense (though in the spirit of honest science we ought to remember that it has the status of theory and as such is open to the possibility of being falsified by fresh evidence in the future).

But here is where the problem emerges. Though, on the one hand, we accept this theory, the all-embracing ‘pushing’ form of causation, as plausible, even convincing, on the other hand we simultaneously hold beliefs that ostensibly run counter to it. (I am using the pronoun ‘we’ out of habit and you may want to be excluded from it for all I know.)

As mentioned in a previous post (‘Causes and Intentions’ 6th November 2016) if you stopped me in the town and asked me why I had come there, I could give two answers, one involving pushing and the other pulling.  I was pushed there in the sense that my body is subject to natural laws and every cell, organ and limb of my body moves in response to the physical conditions which precede it. My legs moved to this place because of signals sent to them along nerves from the brain which is a complex mechanism totally obedient to the laws of nature.

But it is more likely that I would explain my arrival in terms of being ‘pulled’ rather than of being ‘pushed’. By this I mean that I would talk in terms of coming to the town in order to do some shopping. I had a purpose in mind and pursuit of that purpose is the reason why I came.

‘Pushed’ by causes, physical forces in accordance with laws of nature or ‘pulled’ by purposes, intentions, goals.

Or both ‘pushed’ and ‘pulled’?

How do we reconcile the two?

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