Hallucinatory altered states of consciousness, Levente Móró, 2010

Hallucinatory altered states of consciousness

Levente Móró

Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 2010, 9, 2, 241-252.


DOI: 10.1007/s11097-010-9162-2


Altered states of consciousness (ASC), especially hallucinatory ones, are philosophically and scientifically interesting modes of operation of the mind–brain complex. However, classical definitions of ASC seem to capture only a few common characteristics of traditionally regarded phenomena, thus lacking exact classification criteria for assessing altered and baseline states. The current situation leads to a priority problem between phenomena-based definitions and definition-based selection. In order to solve the problem, this paper introduces a self-mapping procedure that is based on a three-part analysis on certain aspects of consciousness. Starting with commonalities found in current definitions of ASC, issues with self-evaluation, sources of data, and baseline comparison are analyzed first. Next, the concept of alterations is examined with respect to temporal dynamics, change mechanisms, and mental subsystems. Finally, hallucinatory phenomena are discussed regarding various definitions, the relationship between “external”  and “internal,” and the “trueness” issue of hallucinations. Conclusive to the analysis above, a technically based working definition of ASC and a stepwise operationalization procedure are also proposed.

Keywords : Altered states of consciousness . Hallucinations


The colorful spectrum of human conscious experience includes a multitude of scientifically and philosophically interesting phenomena. Dreaming, hypnosis, meditation, and various hallucinatory states are non-ordinary experiences that are commonly referred to as altered states of consciousness (ASCs). However, there are no commonly accepted definitions, but only partially agreeing descriptions of what an ASC is. On one  hand, the lack of a unified definition has well-understandable practical reasons: Many types of phenomena are studied with a wide range of methods by a large variety of disciplines, but on the other hand, acceptance of a common definition is also hindered L. Móró by more fundamental reasons, which concern the theoretical and conceptual basis of the whole ASC issue. Given the uncertainty concerning what is altered and how, the seemingly ever-ongoing debate on what exactly qualifies as a state, and the lack of a commonly accepted definition of consciousness itself, it is no wonder that ASC remains yet undefined. For establishing scientific theories and explanatory models about ASC, it is essential to examine the phenomena and their background assumptions in detail, from both theoretical and empirical aspects. Indeed, there are plenty of issues to look at. Which phenomena are regarded as ASCs and by what definitions? What counts as an alteration and what is a state? What exactly is getting altered and by what mechanisms? Or, how to tell apart hallucinatory altered “unreal” From the vast pool of diverse human conscious experience, only certain phenomena are commonly regarded as ASCs. Moreover, it is difficult to find commonalities in alterations of consciousness, as they may fundamentally differ from each other—or may greatly resemble each other despite cultural differences in time and place. Explicit listings of ASCs are mostly based on either commonly accepted traditional views or on hand, it could be a justified requirement for any categorization of ASC phenomena to be based on a solid theoretical phenomena from “real” ones? classical definitions that can be challenged. On one definition. On the other hand, this definition should be based on the characteristics of actual ASC phenomena. These two simultaneous requirements may lead into seemingly unsolvable mutual exclusion: There should be a prior selection of relevant phenomena that a definition should apply to, but there should be a prior definition to be used for selecting relevant phenomena. Lack of a prior selection or definition would potentially leave out relevant phenomena and/or include irrelevant ones, while a vague target group would render any ASC definition useless. What this paper proposes is that the precedent problem could be solved in an elegant way by using a self-mapping procedure. Such a procedure would not only avoid both arbitrary definitions and arbitrary selections at once, but would also yield a criterion-based target group to be described. For this purpose, a three-part analysis will be carried out. First, we take a look at certain commonalities that can be found in current ASC definitions. Then, to complement this with a definition-independent aspect, a detailed inspection into the concept of alteration is needed next. Furthermore, a special focus should be put on the phenomena of hallucinations, as one of the most prominent Summarizing the findings from these three aspects will reveal important criteria for a technical working definition of the ASC concept, as well as for an operationalizable assessment of altered consciousness—along with its unspecified comparative a cases of ASCs. reference: baseline consciousness. As this paper aims only to describe the general lines of this procedure and not to actually carry it out, listings and examples will be neither extensive nor exhaustive but rather illustrative only.