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Altered States of Consciousness (ASC)



There is still considerable debate over nomenclature. Some academics question whether the technical term Altered State of Consciousness (ASC) should be used at all. Perhaps Flow, The Zone, Trance, Hypnosis and other special mental experiences are just social interactions in which one plays the expected role. But, as we shall see later, the precise choice of words can be highly significant, so the debate over names cannot be avoided.


My point of view is Phenomenological and Experiential: What is happening? How does it feel? From this viewpoint, Flow, being in The Zone, and other trance-like conditions (including formal hypnosis) manifest themselves as Altered States of Consciousness.  


And whilst social interactions certainly influence our state of mind, recent Neuro-Scientific evidence shows that there are characteristic changes in brain activity associated with trance-like conditions. These changes reflect the experiences people report in Flow; experiences of Concentration, Relaxation, reduced Self-Consciousness, Action that seems to proceed without conscious volition, etc. So I take Flow to be an ASC.



According to the modern Theory of Dreams developed by Joe Griffin, dreaming is associated with the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) part of the sleep pattern. Dreams resolve unfulfilled expectations (positive or negative), addressing emotionally significant themes of the previous day. Those themes are processed in metaphors, by means of the Unconscious mind's ability to pattern-match.


In Griffin and Tyrell's view, human beings had an evolutionary breakthrough some 40,000 years ago, when they developed the ability to enter the REM-state whilst awake, in day-dreams and intense imagination. This development - the Brain's Big Bang - facilitated the understanding of Past, Present and Future; self-awareness; complex language; cave-paintings; and indeed, all artistic culture. Flow, The Zone, self-induced Trance, Hypnosis etc are different ways to enter particular sub-sets of the REM-state.    



The traditional view, especially amongst academics, is that someone is only in Trance when they have received a formal Induction that includes the word 'Hypnosis'.


The modern view, favoured by many practitioners, is that Trance is a naturally-occuring state. We all go in and out of different types of trance many times each day. Perhaps you have had the experience of driving somewhere, and being unable to recall the journey once you arrived. You were in your 'driving trance', with one part of your mind driving you safely to your destination, whilst another part was busy with interesting thoughts about other places, other times; memories of the past, plans for the future.


Although there is still no agreed scientific definition of Hypnosis, most experts accept that it involves some kind of Dissociation. One part of your mind is here and now, another part is 'somewhere else'.You might be day-dreaming about another place, remembering another time, imagining an alternative reality, hearing music in your mind, mentally rehearsing the movements for a sports technique, summoning up the inner strength needed for a competition, anticipating a successful outcome. 


In Altered States of Consciousness, you dissociate some Control and/or some Awareness. Perhaps your Unconscious mind takes Control, so that your Actions seem to happen 'by themselves'. Perhaps your Conscious mind dissociates from its normal awareness, so that you find yourself responding correctly, even before you become consciously aware of the situation.


The Flow Pairs I have identified represent various ways in which the mind dissociates certain functions, e.g. simultaneously Concentrating and Relaxing. Normally, Concentration might be associated with a certain tension. Contrariwise, Relaxation might normally be associated with being un-focussed.


The ASC of Flow allows you to 'have your cake and eat it'. You can have simultaneously high levels of Control & Unselfconsciousness, Concentration & Relaxation, Delayed Gratification & Time Distortion.


All of this works just fine for those of us interested in the  phenomena of Flow (What happens?) and in the subjective experience (What does it feel like?). But we should have some sympathy for academic researchers. If we are all drifting in and out of various States of Consciousness all the time, how can a researcher know which ASC his subject is in, right now? And what is the 'normal' state, to which any Altered State should be compared?


Formal studies of Hypnosis compare a group of hypnotised subjects to another group who are supposedly not hypnotised. But all those studies break down completely, as soon as you realise that you cannot be sure that the non-hypnotised group are not in trance. "Remember, you are dreaming!"


Luckily, in our practical exploration of Flow, we do not need to worry about such theoretical difficulties. We can examine what happens, and how it feels, and from there we can construct a variety of approaches to the question that really matters: How to get into Flow?

"Numerous experimentally controlled investigations have produced consistent and converging findings demonstrating physiological responses associated with hypnotic conditions ... and showing that role-playing and suggestion-expectancy without hypnosis are insufficient to produce these unique responses... These markers directly reflect the alterations in consciousness that correspond to participants' subjective experience of perceptual alteration."  


Barabasz & Barabasz Hypnosis and the brain in The Oxford Book of Hypnosis: Theory, Research, and Practice (2008)

Ivan Tyrell

on the importance of the REM-state.



Whether you call it  "hypnosis", "meditation", or "altered state" doesn't really matter. The important part is that you learn to control your state of consciousness ... so you can apply a powerful tool to harness the ability to learn.


Being able to put yourself ito a state of relaxation, a state of deep meditation, should become a skill as natural as breathing.


Various experts have listed more than one hundred signs of trance, which is making things too complicated. You need focus on only a few of the more obvious ones.


Look out for:


  • Slowed breathing rate

  • Dilated pupils

  • Lower lip engorging with blood

  • Slowing and slurring of speech

  • Increasing flaccidity of facial muscles and skin tone

  • Altered blink rate (slower or faster)

  • Increasing immobility of limbs

  • Eyelids fluttering, or closing naturally.


Richard Bandler Guide to TRANCE-formation (2008) 

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