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.
Very nice post. This reminds me of Gerald Edelman's first and second nature features of consciousness, where first nature is PRESENT MOMENT, and second nature is our VIRTUAL SIMULATOR.... the latter is what makes us human.
Both are necessary and both can be wonderful in their own way.
Posted by: David Lane | January 14, 2016 at 11:13 PM
good post thanks
Posted by: Laura | January 15, 2016 at 09:37 AM
This theory of Arne Dietrich is that higher states of consciousness do not exist, and that all altered states of consciousness are lower states.. Very good. But there are some fundamental questions he need to answer:
Why is it that musicians, artists and creative professionals produce their best work in altered states of consciousness ? Why do they consider these states to be fundamentally superior ? Their work is there for all of us to evaluate.
It is not just creative artists. Even many scientists attribute their best works to altered states of consciousness. Why is that ?
In an earlier era, people attributed their best works in music and mathematics to "devotional states", in a state of direct communion with their muses and god. These people longed for these altered states to reappear, and in fact, wrong songs and poems about this longing. Why is that ?
The final nail in Mr. Dietrich's theory is about behavior. Even if a person is not gifted in any creative sense, why is it that the person behave differently in altered states of consciousness. No, this behavior is not primitive - in the sense of a reptilian behavior or a lower mammal behavior. In fact, people are released from the persistent dread of stress and cognitive overload while they are in these altered states. They may not be able to keep time, reason about the division of self from the environment, or appreciate the shiny bald pate of Mr. Dietrich, but that doesn't mean they are in any "lower state of consciousness". What is the criteria for evaluation ? Who is flying with the pixies here ?
Posted by: Vakibs | January 30, 2016 at 05:14 AM
Wow Mr Vakibs
Yes, Lets ask Van Gogh, Einstein, Mozart, Niels Bohr clearly stating his Dream about
The Theory of Atoms
In Fact ask anybody !
Posted by: 777 | January 30, 2016 at 11:36 AM
I couldn't agree more with what Vakibs has mentioned above.
This is just an awesome explanation.
Let's for a moment leave the discussion and comparison of lower or higher state of consciousness; by listening to a song, anyone in the world can clearly observe whether the song is making an impact or not. What these melodies brings in the heart of listener is: Love. Because these melodious songs were really composed in a state of Love and many times not in the full conscious state - call it altered state, higher state or lower state - whatever, but truth is that it's really beautiful.
And if it's more beautiful then the fully conscious state, then how it can be termed as lower ? I think so!
If Brian allows, I would like to given a live example of the above.
This song is part of one the greatest compositions of all time in Indian Music History. (And also recognised in many other parts of the world).
It's composed by the Indian Music Maestro: A.R.Rahman
If you wish to, you can listen the song here:
When interviewed about the song, Rahman explained that he was not fully consciously awake when he composed this song. He was in a sub-conscious state at 3 AM in the early morning when he was feeling a lot of love and was sitting in front of his piano - his eyes were closed and the tune flown through his fingers on to the keyboards.
This has been his repeated experience with most of the melodious songs he has composed.
Posted by: One Initiated | February 02, 2016 at 10:32 PM