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.