What is an altered state of consciousness?

Most would cite an extreme example such as the hallucinatory state that certain drugs induce. Yet in normal everyday life, we do not experience consciousness in the same way, but experience different states of consciousness. We sleep, we meditate, we enter in deep concentration, and we daydream, each activity being quite different in nature to the other. Therefore, we can say that an altered state refers to a clear change in the normal, waking level of awareness, such as when we drift into a daydream, doze off, sleep or dream, or focus intently on an activity.


When we daydream, our awareness of our immediate physical surroundings decreases and is replaced by a heightened awareness of our thoughts, feelings and mental images. We allow our focus to drift from one thought to another, without defining logical connections. Some people are capable of daydreaming for sustained periods of time, creating entire, imaginary stories. Daydreaming is a perfectly common and healthy activity. There are cases, however, where excessive daydreaming is regarded as a sign of psychological instability (e.g. if an individual cease to be able to distinguish between daydreaming and reality).

Sleeping and Dreaming

While the nature of sleeping can best be left to physiologists, psychologists are concerned about the altered state of consciousness while dreaming occurs. A lot of research has been conducted to measure the depth of sleep and noting the periods in which dreams occur. During such research a device is employed to measure electrical changes in the brain’s activity, and another device measures eye movements (which tend to occur when dreaming).

There are five stages of sleep. Four stages involve deep sleep. The fifth stage involves rapid eye movement, thus it is called “REM sleep”. When aroused from REM sleep, subjects usually report a dream.  Dreams also occur during NREM (Non-REM), however these dreams are not recalled as easily. Although many people claim that they do not dream much, research into REM sleep supports conclusions that we all dream and do so approximately five times a night.

Some find it more difficult to remember their dreams than others. Time of waking also affects dream recall. Those that wake easily during REM will tend to have greater dream recall. As far as the length of dreams is concerned, research suggests that incidents in dreams last about as long as they would in real life. Experimental subjects have had the duration of the REM measured. When awoken, they were asked to mime the incidents in their dreams. The pantomime lasted for approximately the same amount of time as the duration of the REM sleep.

The Origin of Dreams

The greatest pioneer in the study of the psychological origin of dreams was Sigmund Freud. Freud stated that, despite their strangeness, dreams are meaningful, giving expression to the person’s wishes and impulses that have been repressed and cannot find other expression because of guilt or social inhibitions. These hidden wishes and desires constitute the content of dreams and are expressed through the images and experiences of our dreams.

Freud evokes the image of a “censor” at the threshold between our consciousness and our unconscious. This “censor” converts the latent content into the dream work, transforming some of the impulse-expressions that might be too disturbing into symbols that seem harmless and meaningless. In effect, the mechanism protects our sleep from too much psychological disturbance. Much of psychoanalysis is involved with trying to decipher the symbols of our dreams, and symbolic behaviours with which we disguise our true feelings when awake.

The activation-synthesis theory of dreaming formulated by Hobson and McCarley (1977) asserts that dreams have no inherent meaning, but that the mind tries to make meaning out of them by synthesising them into meaningful events. According to this theory, dreams are no more than the result of random firings of neurons in the brain. Dream images are triggered by the firing in different areas of the brain, so that firing in the part of the brain that controls balance will trigger sensations and images of falling.

Another theory of dreaming is the computer theory, which proposes that the brain is like a computer whose programs are adjusted and tested when the computer is offline (or the brain asleep). The images and sensations of our dreams are not new creations, but data being sifted and sorted: the day’s experiences, impressions, worries, ideas being organised. Yet another theory is that we dream to allow the brain to get rid of unwanted data, and the random firing of neurons that triggers images and sensations is the brain’s way of defusing unwanted neural connections.


Meditation is another activity which involves an altering of one’s state of consciousness. Some forms of meditation involve “opening up” or “emptying” of the mind, letting feelings, thoughts and images drift away, without focussing on anything. Other forms of meditation involve concentrating on a particular object or image, not analysing it, but rather letting it fill your consciousness. Either way, meditation seeks to minimise sensual perception – stimuli received through the senses – to find the still mind within. Meditation is said to be a very effective form of relaxation and stress release and is often seen as a passive activity. Meditation can promote significant health benefits as some studies have found.  Research suggests also, that the mind of the person meditating is very active and alert, and significant changes have been observed in brain and nervous system function.


Psychoactive drugs will cause changes to consciousness by changing the biochemistry of the body. Though psychoactive drugs are considered a problem in many societies, they are used in almost every society, though not necessarily in a way that causes harm or distress. Many societies intentionally use drugs in rituals or for recreation, yet drugs are so much a part of our lives that many of us use them without realising that we are altering our biochemistry and affecting our consciousness.  Tobacco and caffeine are stimulants that heighten out alertness, energy and mood.

Tobacco is also a major cause of death, and

caffeine increases can lead to anxiety, panic attacks, and high blood pressure.

Alcohol and many widely prescribed tranquillisers are depressants, reducing our anxiety but also slowing our reactions and leading to possible psychological problems, as well as some potentially fatal physical reactions.