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An altered state of consciousness (ASC), also called altered state of mind or mind alteration, is any condition which is significantly different from a normal waking beta wave state. The expression was used as early as 1966 by Arnold M. Ludwig and brought into common usage from 1969 by Charles Tart. It describes induced changes in one's mental state, almost always temporary. A synonymous phrase is "altered state of awareness".
The term "altered state of consciousness" was introduced and defined by Ludwig in 1966. An altered state of consciousness is any mental state induced by physiological, psychological, or pharmacological maneuvers or agents, which deviates from the normal waking state of consciousness.
Some observable abnormal and sluggish behaviors meet the criteria for altered state of consciousness. Altered states of consciousness can also be associated with artistic creativity or different focus levels. They also can be shared interpersonally and studied as a subject of sociological research.
Altered states of consciousness may be caused either accidental or intentionally, and being interpreted depending on these causes and their contexts:
Sometimes two or more causes lead to altered state of consciousness, for example a psychiatric disorder and consumption of psycho-active substances.
Altered states of consciousness can be assessed by observations and imaging of the brain such as computed tomography scan (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or electroencephalography (EEG) which records the electrical brain wave activity. Imaging is most important to make a diagnosis when patient’s history is unobtainable and the physical examination is not dependable. (Dandan, 2004)
Accidental and pathological causes refer to unforeseen events, or illnesses. According to Dr. Jeffrey R. Avner, professor of clinical pediatrics, a crucial element to understanding accidental and pathological causes to altered states of consciousness (ASC) is that it begins with reduced self-awareness followed by reduced awareness in the environment (2006). When the reduction of self-awareness and environmental awareness take effect, they produce altered states of consciousness. The specific conditions below provide clarity on the types of conditions compromise accidental and pathological causes.
The first condition, traumatic experience, is defined as a lesion caused by an external force (Trauma. (n.d.) In Merriam Webster Dictionary online, 2013). Examples include impact to the brain caused by blunt force or even a car accident. The reason a traumatic experience causes altered states of consciousness is because it changes how the brain works. The external impact diverts the blood flow from the front of the brain to other areas. The front of the brain is known as the prefrontal cortex responsible for analytical thought (Kunsman, 2012). When the damage becomes uncontrollable, the patient experiences changes in behavior and impaired self-awareness. This is exactly when an ACS is experienced (Spikman et al. 2013).
Another common cause is epilepsy, according to Medlineplus epilepsy can be described as a brain disorder that causes seizures (2013). During the seizure it is said that the patient will experience hallucinations and loss of mental control (Revonsuo, Chaplin, and Wedlund, 2008) causing temporary dissociation from reality. A study that was conducted with six epileptic patients and used the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) detected how the patients did indeed experience hallucinations while a seizure is occurring (Korsnes M, Hugdahl K, Nygard M, Bjornæs H, 2010). This not only altered the patient’s behavioral pattern, but also made them dissociate from reality during that particular time frame.
The next item of interest is oxygen deficiency, questioning how oxygen deficiency impacts the brain is an important part of comprehending why ACS occurs. When there is oxygen deprivation in an environment. A study conducted by Edwards, Harris, and Berisher illustrated how 20 navy men were impacted when they were exposed to nitrous oxide for 10 minutes. The study confirmed that inhaling substances other than oxygen results in impaired self-awareness, which can produce ACS (1976).
In addition to oxygen deprivation or deficiency, infections are a common pathological cause of ACS. A prime example of an infection includes meningitis. The medical website WEBMD  states that meningitis is an infection that causes the coverings of the brain to swell. This particular infection occurs in children and young adults. This infection is primarily viral. Viral meningitis causes ACS and its symptoms include fevers and seizures (2010). The Impairment becomes visible the moment seizures begin to occur, this is when the patient enters the altered state of consciousness.
Another type of deprivation that can cause ACS includes sleep deprivation. This refers to the loss of sleep that will provoke possible seizures, caused by fatigue. Sleep deprivation can be chronic or short-term depending on the severity of the patient’s condition. Many patients can even report hallucinations, because sleep deprivation impacts the brain as well. A Harvard Medical school study conducted in 2007, also indicated with the use of MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) that a sleep deprived brain was not capable of being in control of its’ sensorimotor functions. Therefore, there was impairment to the patient’s self-awareness. Patients were also prone to be a lot clumsier than if had they not been experiencing sleep deprivation.
Coupled with deprivation of sleep and oxygen, another form of deprivation includes fasting. Fasting can occur because of religious purposes or from psychological conditions such as anorexia. Fasting refers to the ability to willingly refrain from food and possibly drinks as well. Anorexia, as previously mentioned, is psychological disorder in which the patient is irrationally afraid of gaining weight. Therefore, he or she restricts the intake of calories on a daily basis. Anorexia can lead to seizures due to malnutrition (Hockenbury, Don, and Hockenbury, Sandra, 2008). The dissociation caused by fasting is not only life-threatening but it is the reason why extended fasting periods can lead to ACS. Thus, the temporary dissociation from reality allows fasting to fall into the category of an ACS following the definition provided by Dr. Avner (2006).
Lastly another pathological cause is psychosis otherwise known as a psychotic episode. In order to comprehend psychosis, it is important to determine what symptoms it also implies. Psychotic episodes often include delusions, paranoia, de-realization, depersonalization, and hallucinations (Revonsuo et al., 2008). Even with these symptoms studies have not been able to clearly identify when a person is reaching a higher level of risk for a psychotic episode (Schimmelmann, B., Walger, P., & Schultze-Lutter, F.,2013). The earlier people are treated for psychosis the more likely they are to avoid the devastating consequences that could lead to a psychotic disorder (Schimmelmann, B., Walger, P., & Schultze-Lutter, F., 2013) Unfortunately, there are very few studies that have thoroughly investigated psychotic episodes. The one symptom that is very clear is the fact that it happens for a brief moment intermittently throughout a person’s life span. However, the ability to predict this disorder remains unclear. (Schimmelmann, B., Walger, P., & Schultze-Lutter, F., 2013).
Reviewing the previous conditions for accidental and pathological causes we can come to understand that all of these accidental or pathological causes all share the component of reduced self-awareness. Therefore ACSs cannot only be caused naturally but they can be induced intentionally with methods that include hypnosis meditation amongst others. But there are ACSs that are caused by less recreational purposes; people who utilize illegal substances, or heavy dosage of medications, as well as large amounts of alcohol can indeed comply with the definition of an ACS (Revonsuo et al., 2008).
An ASC can sometimes be reached by meditation, prayer, or disciplines (e.g. Mantra Meditation, Yoga, Sufism, dream yoga). Spiritual beliefs enclose concentration of thoughts through meditation, and spiritual or mystical rituals, for the removal of bad spirits that may cause altered state of consciousness.
An altered state of consciousness may be defined as a short-term change in the general configuration of one’s individual experience, such that one believing that their rational functioning is clearly altered from certain overall norms of their usual state of consciousness. (Revonsuo, A., Kallio, S., & Sikka, P. 2009) There are many ways that one’s consciousness can be altered and drug use is one of them. Psychoactive drugs aides in altering the state of consciousness. Psychoactive drugs can be defined by: a chemical substance that passes through the blood and disturbs brain function, causing changes in awareness, attitude, consciousness, and behavior. (Revonsuo, A., Kallio, S., & Sikka, P. 2009)
Marijuana is a psychoactive drug that is known to alter the state of consciousness. Marijuana enhances mental activity, memory and also alters pain perception. One who is under the influence of Marijuana may experience paranoia, sensory sensitivity and also delayed reaction that is not the norm for their usual conscious state.
MDMA: Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (Ecstasy) is drug that also alters one’s state of consciousness. MDMA releases serotonin and can bring about some individual effects when ingested. Persons who take MDMA typically want to feel like they are on "cloud 9" (A feeling of total bliss), or a feeling that "everything is right with the world." This state of consciousness often range from a rise in positive feelings and a reduction in negative feelings (Aldridge, D., & Fachner, J. ö. 2005). The person's emotions are increased as well as becoming more outgoing and having a sensation of intimacy or connection with other people. Also, there is a decrease in self-awareness as well as their awareness and an increase in sensitivity.
An opiate is also a drug that alters consciousness. Examples of opiates include heroin, morphine, hydrocodone, and oxycodone. Opiates numb the senses and cause a false state of consciousness and satisfaction. Opiates also harmfully disturb the interaction of the brain by slowing down and sometimes stopping the construction of its own natural opiates, named endorphins. Endorphins are natural pain relievers whose effects may be heightened by drugs. If one takes a large dose of opiates to compensate for the lack of natural endorphins, the result may be death. (Berridge, V. 2001)
Cocaine alters one’s state of consciousness. Cocaine affects the neurotransmitters that nerves use to communicate with each other. Cocaine gets in the way of norepinephrine, serotonin, dopamine, and other neurotransmitters from being absorbed. This chemical buildup between nerves results in an altered state of consciousness or a "high." (Aldridge, D., & Fachner, J. ö. 2005).
Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) blocks serotonin (the amine transmitter of nerve urges) in brain matter. LSD acts on certain serotonin receptors and its effects are most prominent in the cerebral cortex, an area involved in attitude, thought, and insight, which obtains sensory signs from all parts of the body. LSD’s main effects are emotional and physical. The consumer's feelings may alter quickly through a range of fear to ecstasy. (Humphrey, N. 2001) This may cause one to experience many levels of altered consciousness.
Alcohol alters consciousness by shifting levels of neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters transport chemicals throughout the body that controls the thinking process, performance and feeling. Neurotransmitters either motivate brain electrical activity, or reduce brain electrical activity. Alcohol increases the effect of the neurotransmitter (GABA Gamma-Aminobuturic Acid) in the brain. GABA causes slow actions and inaudible verbal communication that often occur in alcoholics (Berridge, V 2001). Alcohol also decreases the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate. Suppressing this stimulant results in a similar type of physiological slowdown. In addition to increasing the GABA and decreasing the glutamate in the brain, alcohol increases the amount of the chemical dopamine in the brain, which is one of the causes of alcoholism.