Wrinkles in Time

In Altered States of Consciousness: Experiences Out of Time and Self, Marc Wittmann underscores how little separates ordinary consciousness from other forms of it, writes Scott McLemee.

August 31, 2018

“Our normal waking consciousness,” William James wrote in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), “rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.”

As the founding father of psychological research in the United States, James was as well informed as anyone about “potential forms of consciousness” that landed some people in asylums. But he did not assume that everything outside the purview of normal, waking rationality was necessarily pathological. In particular, there were the experiences described by saints, mystics and ordinary adherents of various religious traditions -- a spectrum of states of awareness that seemed to cut across seemingly enormous differences in belief. For that matter, it was possible to undergo such experiences without adhering to any creed. I don’t know if Walt Whitman believed in a personal deity, but the point seem moot: his poetry is the gospel of an individual who merges with the universe with some regularity, implying that the reader might do so, as well. Just remain open to the possibility. Doctrine is optional.

Published in Germany in 2015 and now out in translation, Marc Wittmann’s Altered States of Consciousness: Experiences Out of Time and Self (MIT Press) is an update of sorts on what’s happening along the trail William James blazed. Here the connection between religious experience and altered states fades from view almost entirely. Wittmann, a research fellow at the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health in Freiburg, Germany, instead seems to underscore James’s idea that only “the filmiest of screens” separates ordinary and altered states of consciousness. The spectrum includes modes of awareness that are extraordinary without being mystical, such as dangerous experiences seeming to occur “in slow motion, [with] a moment that was actually quite brief expanded noticeably.”

A study of survivors of life-threatening events such as drowning, falling and auto accidents found that “the phenomenon of the ‘altered passage of time’ applied in 71 percent of cases.” The proverbial “life flashing in front of the eyes” when faced with the possibility of imminent death is a similar occurrence. And while considerably more mundane, both extreme boredom and excited anticipation are likewise experienced as a lengthening of time. Wittmann notes that studies of cannabis consumption in laboratory conditions show it to have the same effect. (I do seem to remember as much.)

None of these phenomena sound remotely comparable to mystics’ accounts of leaving time completely, of somehow apprehending eternity. But Wittmann’s examination of a range of behavioral and neurological research suggests that a number of related processes are involved in all of them. Perhaps the most efficient path through his argument would be to go back to William James’s reference to “normal waking consciousness,” which seems reasonably close to what Wittmann calls mental presence.

“I can only describe as present what is now available to me as an internal or external experience,” he writes. “Anything that has just been experienced and thought and has not yet been forgotten is still present. In other words, all thoughts that can be operated mentally within the span of working memory are present.”

Said “working memory” has been studied experimentally by psychologists, who find that it normally can manage “the short-term retention of things such as numbers, words and visual systems” for a span “of between several seconds and perhaps half a minute.” At the same time, the brain anticipates and expedites the activity underway in the working memory through the “predictive coding” of perceptual information. That is, “based on prior experience, the brain constantly makes predictions about what might happen next” and monitors discrepancies between what it expects and what it perceives.

All of this takes place in fractions of a second, but within certain limitations. “In order to detect a sequence of three or more acoustic or visual stimuli in their correct sequence,” for example, “the individual events must take place at intervals of at least 300 milliseconds.” A life-threatening situation, staring at the wall during a Zen retreat and being trapped by a bore at a party have this much in common: the finely tuned rhythms of predictive coding by the neural circuits are thrown off, and the working memory is forced to operate in unfamiliar and perhaps uncomfortable ways.

Normal waking consciousness usually goes about its business without being aware of any of this, of course. But the seemingly self-present cogito is in reality a flux of sensations, memories and anticipations so rapid and incessant that it’s no wonder we have to dream every night -- that is, to experience an altered state of consciousness -- just to clear the cache enough to face another day of it. Meditative practice deliberately transforms mental presence by narrowing and concentrating the focus of the working memory. While Altered States discusses some of the research in this area, I suspect the author has another book on the topic in him to write.

“Subjective time and consciousness, felt time, and experience of self are closely related,” writes Wittmann. Indeed, he makes them sound like different words naming the same enigma. William James would not find any of it surprising, though he doubtless would appreciate how carefully the processes are being examined and measured.


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