OSP: Altered States of Consciousness

Float tanks are a fairly recent introduction to the ongoing and dynamic domain of altering our consciousness. In fact, people have been experimenting with altering consciousness as far back as “the great leap forward”, (to use Jared Diamond’s term for the jump in our evolution). That is, according to Terence McKenna, as we’ll see a bit later in this post. However, first I want to discuss where ASC comes from, and perhaps even probe the answers to why people keep venturing into manipulating consciousness (this is where Terence McKenna comes in). I’ll take a specific look at sensory deprivation as a way of playing around with consciousness and brain function, as well as the more modern approaches to ASC, including the dark side of how it has been used in the past. Finally I’ll come full circle in this Obsessive’s Starter Pack post-series and talk about the introduction of modern floating as a positive means to alter consciousness and how it has become more accessible to us today.

Altered States of Consciousness goes WAY back
One of the most obvious and most radical ways to manipulate how your brain works, even for a short time, is using drugs: sugar, coffee, alcohol, hallucinogens etc., some of which are more socially accepted or less stigmatised, but nevertheless have the desired outcome. Pamela Watson is a retired anthropologist and pharmacist, and retired though she may be, she still actively runs her blog Prehistoric Drugs on WordPress where she discusses (among other really interesting things!) psychoactive drug use in human society through history. She writes in her abstract, published on her blog:

“Psychoactive drug use has great antiquity, and not only because taking drugs makes individuals feel good. In the distant past, as now, people also used drugs as tools for social bonding; for contacting the sacred/spiritual; for expressing identity; for manipulating others; and as aids in confronting culture-specific problems. In short, for millennia, drug consumption occupied a central place in the economic, political, religious and social life of human beings.”

Similarly, this ‘spiritual journey’ with drugs is not solely a human phenomenon either. Michael Pollan writes in his book “The Botany of Desire”[1] that while there were Native American groups that used to keep an eye on which plants animals were using to “get high” (like jaguars with Ayahuasca vines or plants containing DMT) and use it themselves, there are also wild animals that would consume psychoactive plants to their own absolute detriment: “bighorn sheep will grind their teeth to useless nubs scraping a hallucinogenic lichen off ledge rock”.

Ooh, really?
It’s obvious that our dabblings are supported by thousands of years of experimenting with our minds. There is a wealth of information on the web if you’re interested in prehistoric role of drugs (Pamela Watson’s blog: Prehistoric Drugs is a great starting point) along with its use through the ages up to modern times. I really enjoyed “Sex, Drugs and Chocolate” [2] and soon I want to read Eva Hopman’s paper on “Hallucinogens and Rock Art” [4]; sorting through the more esoteric sites about shamanism can also be interesting. There is one specific theory which I found fascinating – Terence McKenna’s ‘stoned ape’ theory of evolution & psychoactives. Many evolutionary scientists don’t support this theory, and personally I don’t know enough to stand on either side of the line, but it’s tantalizing nonetheless. In his book “Food of the Gods” [3] McKenna theorizes that due to environmental circumstances our ape ancestors had to adapt to living on the ground (instead of in trees), and with this change in lifestyle came modified diet, which suddenly included hallucinogenic mushrooms. Minds expanded and horizons broadened, bringing abstract thinking into our development and finally enabling ‘us’ to evolve into what would become a talking, strategising and technological species. Quite interesting…

What about now-ish?
The fact of humans’ dabbling with consciousness altering being established, we fast-forward to the 1950’s: sensory deprivation studies are being done, but volunteers find it extremely uncomfortable. The sensory deprivation itself is not so much the issue as the methods by which senses are restricted – tiny beds, goggles and cardboard covering their exposed skin [5] [6]. Yep, that sounds pretty uncomfortable. Then, in 1953, Mr. John C Lilly jumps on the innovation of float tanks. The first float tank was far better than abovementioned techniques – it was upright and you would ‘hang’ suspended in the water, your head kept clear. However, Lilly kept tinkering and somewhere between 1960 & 1970 he got the Epsom salt buoyancy addition spot on. Sublime!
John Lilly’s resourcefulness with the tank didn’t happen in a vacuum, nor was it used solely for the purposes of his research. He started using the floatation tank for personal mind altering journeys and his research topics reflected his changing priorities – from taking LSD while floating, to the idea of interspecies communication (talking with dolphins). This is probably a bit more ‘out-there’ than people get with their first float… but to his credit, he had just discovered an incredible tool for increasing creativity, achieving mind-blowing relaxation and even a form of ‘natural’ hallucination. 🙂

Dream Pod at Dream Waters Floating in Taipei

Dream Pod at Dream Waters Floating in Taipei

This sounds too good to be true
As with anything remarkable, too much can be really bad for you. The Human Rights Watch recognises that sensory deprivation and isolation have been used as a form of torture in Iran (aka white torture). During white torture prisoners are kept isolated and deprived of as many senses as jailers can control, for months [7]. Damn… o.O However, this is a very different situation than voluntary, recreational sensory deprivation &/or floating.

How else can I alter consciousness?
Besides using ‘drugs’ like coffee or alcohol, there are plenty of interesting ways to change the functioning of your brain for a short time. radofo on the Instructibles website published an awesome and well-written post about 10 ways to alter consciousness without drugs. Besides floating, he tries binaural beats, self-hypnotism and biofeedback (among others).

Float tanks have come a long way
Glenn and Lee Perry not only run one of the most successful and world-renowned float tank manufacturing companies, Glenn Perry was mentored by John Lilly himself. Perry went on to develop the first commercial float tank and started the Samadhi Tank Co, of which Lee Perry is the president and advocater of best practices [8].

Image Copyright of Where to Float

Image Copyright of Where to Float

Riveting References
[1] Pollan, M. (2001) The Botany of Desire: a plant’s eye-view of the world. Random House: New York.
[2] Martin, P. (2007) Sex, Drugs and Chocolate: The Science of Pleasure Fourth Estate: London.
[3] McKenna, T. (1993) Food of the Gods: the search for the original tree of knowledge Bantam: London.
[4] Hopma, E. (2008) Hallucinogens and Rock Art: Altered states of consciousness in the Paleolithic period University of Groningen. Retrieved 13 August from Academia.edu
[5] Mechanic, M. (2012) What extreme isolation does to your mind Retrieved 13 August from MotherJones.com
[6] Paradise, L. (2005) Sensory Deprivation Retrieved 13 August from Encyclopedia.com
[7] Newton, P. (2008) Iranian exile speaks out on colorless ‘white torture’ Retrieved 14 August from CNN news website
[8] Glenn and Lee Perry Retrieved 16 August from Where to Float

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