I was turned on to an intriguing TEDx talk by neuroscientist Arne Dietrich about Surfing the Stream of Consciousness by a reader of this blog.
His description of the core theme of the 17 minute video starts at about the 13 minute mark, if you want to get the gist in only four minutes.
A blog post on The Peaceful Self site, "Flying With the Pixies," includes a transcript of part of Dietrich's talk.
"Your mind, your soul, your hopes, your dreams, your emotions is about a cantaloupe size of meat crackling with electricity inside your skull. There's nothing sacrosanct about altered states of consciousness.
You've always been told that altered states of consciousness are higher states of consciousness. The hallmark is that altered states of consciousness is the subtraction of all the mental faculties that make us so special in the animal kingdom. Hypofrontality means that the very pinnacle of human evolution, the prefrontal cortex, must be down regulated, which means that you lose these higher cognitive functions that make us so special.
All altered states of consciousness are lower states of consciousness. You connect to nothing but your own reduced mind.
Some people find the idea repugnant, beneath the significance of the mystical experience and that's alright if you want to hold onto some sort of stone age, medieval sense of spirituality, but I think you will only find this counterintuitive if you hold onto the idea that in those special moments, when you catch a glimpse of some parallel, mental universe, in those very moments, the mind, somehow, can transcend the machinery of the brain, become a ghost in the machine, ride above the fray, and enter some sort of platonian world of eternal truth and beauty in flying off with the pixies."
Dietrich speaks about transient hypofrontality. This is when neural activation in the prefrontal cortex needed to do higher brain functions is much reduced. So you have "no ability to extract yourself from the here and now."
Hence, the feeling of being in a state of consciousness where time slows down and a sense of being at one with the world is experienced.
This is an entirely natural condition, but athletes, meditators, drug users, and other flow-junkies find the feeling so wonderful, often it is viewed as a higher state of consciousness. Actually, from the standpoint of evolution and neuroscience that sense of flow and loss of self is a lower state -- as Dietrich says in the transcript above.
Which doesn't mean transient hypofrontality, a.k.a, flow, isn't a good thing.
Our brains wouldn't have this ability if it wasn't adaptive in many situations -- such as being attacked unexpectedly and needing to fight back with our complete attention in the present moment (thinking about what we're going to have for dinner tomorrow isn't called for when there may be no tomorrow for us).
Nor is recognition of it a new thing.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi famously wrote about flow many years ago. "The Rise of Superman" is a recent book about optimal physical performance -- in line with the oft-heard advice my marital arts/Tai Chi instructor gives us students, the Yoda-like, No think, just do.
It is indeed cool that sitting in eyes-closed meditation, smoking marijuana, ingesting a magic mushroom, or walking in nature can bring us to much the same thoughtless, timeless state of consciousness as enjoyed by a big wave surfer or expert skateboarder.
Dietrich's point still stands, though: this is a subtraction from what makes us peculiarly human, a loss of higher cognitive functions.
Again, this can be highly pleasant and functional. In certain circumstances.
Transient hypofrontality obviously isn't a condition we'd want to be in permanently, as we pretty much lose the ability to plan for the future or learn from the past. And it isn't a path to enlightenment or some other ethereal altered consciousness.
It's just another way the physical brain works.