4.3 Altering Consciousness Without Drugs

Learning Objectives

  1. Review the ways that people may alter consciousness without using drugs.

Although the use of psychoactive drugs can easily and profoundly change our experience of consciousness, we can also — and often more safely — alter our consciousness without drugs. These altered states of consciousness are sometimes the result of simple and safe activities, such as sleeping, watching television, exercising, or working on a task that intrigues us. In this section, we consider the changes in consciousness that occur through hypnosis, sensory deprivation, and meditation as well as through other non-drug-induced mechanisms.

Changing behaviour through suggestion: The power of hypnosis

Franz Anton Mesmer (1734–1815) was an Austrian doctor who believed that all living bodies were filled with magnetic energy (see Figure 4.12). In his practice, Mesmer passed magnets over the bodies of his patients while telling them their physical and psychological problems would disappear. The patients frequently lapsed into a trance-like state, referred to as being “mesmerized,” and reported feeling better when they awoke (Hammond, 2008).



This diagram is a portait of Franz Anton Mesmer.
Figure 4.12. Portrait of Franz Anton Mesmer.

Although subsequent research testing the effectiveness of Mesmer’s techniques did not find any long-lasting improvements in his patients, the idea that people’s experiences and behaviours could be changed through the power of suggestion has remained important in psychology. James Braid, a Scottish physician, coined the term “hypnosis” in 1843, basing it on the Greek word for sleep (Callahan, 1997).

Hypnosis is a trance-like state of consciousness, usually induced by a procedure known as hypnotic induction, which consists of deep relaxation, heightened suggestibility, and intense focus (Nash & Barnier, 2008). Hypnosis became famous, in part, through its use by Sigmund Freud in an attempt to make unconscious desires and emotions conscious and, thus, able to be considered and confronted (Baker & Nash, 2008).

Since hypnosis is based on the power of suggestion, and since some people are more suggestible than others, certain people are more easily hypnotized. Ernest Hilgard (1965) found that about 20% of the participants he tested were entirely unsusceptible to hypnosis, whereas about 15% were highly responsive to it. The best participants for hypnosis are people who are willing or eager to be hypnotized, who are able to focus their attention and block out peripheral awareness, who are open to new experiences, and who are capable of fantasy (Spiegel, Greenleaf, & Spiegel, 2005).

People who want to become hypnotized are motivated to be good subjects, to be open to suggestions by the hypnotist, and to fulfill the role of a hypnotized person as they perceive it (Spanos, 1991). The hypnotized state results from a combination of conformity, relaxation, obedience, and suggestion (Fassler, Lynn, & Knox, 2008). This does not necessarily indicate that hypnotized people are faking or lying about being hypnotized. Taru Kinnunen, Harold Zamansky, and Martin Block (1994) used measures of skin conductance, which indicates emotional response by measuring perspiration and, therefore, renders it a reliable indicator of deception, to test whether hypnotized people were lying about having been hypnotized. Their results suggested that almost 90% of their supposedly hypnotized subjects truly believed that they had been hypnotized.

One common misconception about hypnosis is that the hypnotist is able to “take control” of hypnotized patients and, thus, can command them to engage in behaviours against their will. Although hypnotized people are suggestible (Jamieson & Hasegawa, 2007), they nevertheless retain awareness and control of their behaviour and are able to refuse to comply with the hypnotist’s suggestions if they so choose (Kirsch & Braffman, 2001). In fact, people who have not been hypnotized are often just as suggestible as those who have been (Orne & Evans, 1965).

Another common belief is that hypnotists can lead people to forget the things that happened to them while they were hypnotized. Ernest Hilgard and Leslie Cooper (1965) investigated this question and found that they could lead people who were very highly susceptible to hypnosis to show at least some signs of post-hypnotic amnesia — that is, forgetting where they had learned information that had been told to them while they were under hypnosis — but that this effect was not strong or common.

Some hypnotists have tried to use hypnosis to help people remember events, such as childhood experiences or details of crime scenes, that they have forgotten or repressed. The idea is that some memories have been stored but can no longer be retrieved and that hypnosis can aid in the retrieval process. However, research finds that this is not successful. People asked to relive their childhood under hypnosis might be compelled to act like children, but they do not accurately recall the things that occurred to them in their own childhood (Silverman & Retzlaff, 1986). Furthermore, the suggestibility produced through hypnosis may lead people to erroneously recall experiences that they did not have (Newman & Baumeister, 1996). Many states and jurisdictions have therefore banned the use of hypnosis in criminal trials because the “evidence” recovered through hypnosis is likely to be fabricated and inaccurate.

Hypnosis is also frequently used to attempt to change unwanted behaviours, such as to reduce smoking, overeating, and alcohol abuse. The effectiveness of hypnosis in these areas is controversial, although at least some successes have been reported. Irving Kirsch, Guy Montgomery, and Guy Sapirstein (1995) found that adding hypnosis to other forms of therapy increased the effectiveness of the treatment, and Gary Elkins and Michelle Perfect (2008) reported that hypnosis was useful in helping people stop smoking. Hypnosis is also effective in improving the experiences of patients who are experiencing anxiety disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD; Cardena, 2000; Montgomery, David, Winkel, Silverstein, & Bovbjerg, 2002), and for reducing pain (Montgomery, DuHamel, & Redd, 2000; Patterson & Jensen, 2003).

Reducing sensation to alter consciousness: Sensory deprivation

Sensory deprivation is the intentional reduction of stimuli, affecting one or more of the five senses, with the possibility of subsequent changes in consciousness. Sensory deprivation is used for relaxation or meditation purposes as well as in physical and mental healthcare programs to produce enjoyable changes in consciousness. However, when deprivation is prolonged, it is unpleasant and can be used as a means of torture.

Although the simplest forms of sensory deprivation require nothing more than a blindfold to block the person’s sense of sight or earmuffs to block the sense of sound, more complex devices have also been devised to temporarily cut off the senses of smell, taste, touch, heat, and gravity. In 1954, John Lilly, a neurophysiologist at the National Institute of Mental Health, developed the sensory deprivation tank. The tank is filled with water that is the same temperature as the human body, and salts are added to the water so that the body floats, thus reducing the sense of gravity. The tank is dark and soundproof, and the person’s sense of smell is blocked by the use of chemicals in the water, such as chlorine.

The sensory deprivation tank has been used for therapy and relaxation (see Figure 4.13). In a typical session for alternative healing and meditative purposes, a person may rest in an isolation tank for up to an hour. Treatment in isolation tanks has been shown to help with a variety of medical issues, including insomnia and muscle pain (Suedfeld, 1990b; Bood, Sundequist, Kjellgren, Nordström, & Norlander, 2007; Kjellgren, Sundequist, Norlander, & Archer, 2001), headaches (Wallbaum, Rzewnicki, Steele, & Suedfeld, 1991), and addictive behaviours such as smoking, alcoholism, and obesity (Suedfeld, 1990a).



This picture shows an open door to an empty sensory deprivation tank.
Figure 4.13. A sensory deprivation tank.

Although relatively short sessions of sensory deprivation can be relaxing and both mentally and physically beneficial, prolonged sensory deprivation can lead to disorders of perception, including confusion and hallucinations (Yuksel, Kisa, Aydemir, & Goka, 2004). It is for this reason that sensory deprivation is sometimes used as an instrument of torture (Benjamin, 2006).


Meditation refers to techniques in which the individual focuses on something specific, such as an object, a word, or one’s breathing, with the goal of ignoring external distractions, focusing on one’s internal state, and achieving a state of relaxation and wellbeing. Followers of various Eastern religions (e.g., Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism) use meditation to achieve a higher spiritual state, and popular forms of meditation in the West, such as yoga, zen, and transcendental meditation, have originated from these practices. Many meditative techniques are very simple. You simply need to sit in a comfortable position with your eyes closed and practise deep breathing. You might want to try it out for yourself.

The following YouTube link provides a guided meditation exercise:

Brain imaging studies have indicated that meditation is not only relaxing but can also induce an altered state of consciousness (see Figure 4.14). Rael Cahn and John Polich (2006) found that experienced meditators in a meditative state had more prominent alpha and theta waves, and other studies have shown declines in heart rate, skin conductance, oxygen consumption, and carbon dioxide elimination during meditation (Dillbeck, Cavanaugh, Glenn, & Orme-Johnson, 1987; Fenwick, 1987). These studies suggest that the action of the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) is suppressed during meditation, creating a more relaxed physiological state as the meditator moves into deeper states of relaxation and consciousness.



This picture shows a young woman meditating in a park.
Figure 4.14. Research has found that regular meditation has positive physiological and psychological effects.

Meditation can mediate the effects of stress and depression as well as promote wellbeing (Grossman, Niemann, Schmidt, & Walach, 2004; Reibel, Greeson, Brainard, & Rosenzweig, 2001; Salmon et al., 2004). Meditation has also been shown to assist in controlling blood pressure (Barnes, Treiber, & Davis, 2001; Walton et al., 2004). A study by Nicolai Lyubimov (1992) showed that during meditation, a larger area of the brain was responsive to sensory stimuli, suggesting that there is greater coordination between the two brain hemispheres as a result of meditation. Antoine Lutz, Lawrence Greischar, Nancy Rawlings, Matthieu Ricard, and Richard Davidson (2004) demonstrated that those who meditate regularly, as opposed to those who do not, tend to utilize a greater part of their brain and that their gamma waves are faster and more powerful. A study of Tibetan Buddhist monks who meditate daily found that several areas of the brain can be permanently altered by the long-term practice of meditation (Lutz et al. 2004).

It is possible that the positive effects of meditation could also be found by using other methods of relaxation. Although advocates of meditation claim that meditation enables people to attain a higher and purer consciousness, perhaps any kind of activity that calms and relaxes the mind, such as working on crossword puzzles, watching television or movies, or engaging in other enjoyed behaviours, might be equally effective in creating positive outcomes. Regardless of the debate, the fact remains that meditation is, at the very least, a worthwhile relaxation strategy.



Psychology in Everyday Life

The need to escape everyday consciousness

We may use recreational drugs, drink alcohol, overeat, have sex, and gamble for fun, but in some cases, these normally pleasurable behaviours are abused, leading to exceedingly negative consequences for us. We frequently refer to the abuse of any type of pleasurable behaviour as an “addiction,” just as we refer to drug or alcohol addiction.

Roy Baumeister (1991) has argued that the desire to avoid thinking about the self, what he calls an escape from consciousness, is an essential component of a variety of self-defeating behaviours. Their approach is based on the idea that consciousness involves self-awareness, the process of thinking about and examining the self. Normally we enjoy being self-aware, as we reflect on our relationships with others, our goals, and our achievements. However, if we have a setback or a problem, or if we behave in a way that we determine is inappropriate or immoral, we may feel stupid, embarrassed, or unlovable. In these cases, self-awareness may become burdensome. Even if nothing particularly bad is happening at the moment, self-awareness may still feel unpleasant because we have fears about what might happen to us or about mistakes that we might make in the future.

Baumeister argues that when self-awareness becomes unpleasant, the need to forget about the negative aspects of the self may become so strong that we turn to altered states of consciousness. In these cases, we escape the self by narrowing our focus of attention to a particular action or activity, which prevents us from having to think about ourselves and the implications of various events for our self-concept.

Baumeister has analyzed a variety of self-defeating behaviours in terms of the desire to escape consciousness. Perhaps most obvious is suicide, which is the ultimate self-defeating behaviour and permanent way to escape the negative aspects of self-consciousness. People who commit suicide are normally depressed and isolated. They feel bad about themselves, and suicide is a relief from the negative aspects of self-reflection. Suicidal behaviour is often preceded by a period of narrow and rigid cognitive functioning that serves as an escape from the very negative view of the self brought on by recent setbacks or traumas (Baumeister, 1990).

Alcohol abuse may also accomplish an escape from self-awareness by physically interfering with cognitive functioning, making it more difficult to recall the aspects of our self-consciousness (Steele & Josephs, 1990). Additionally, cigarette smoking may appeal to people as a low-level distractor that helps them to escape self-awareness. Todd Heatherton and Roy Baumeister (1991) argued that binge eating is another way of escaping from consciousness. Binge eaters, including those who suffer from bulimia nervosa, have unusually high standards for the self, including success, achievement, popularity, and body thinness. As a result, they find it difficult to live up to these standards. Because these individuals evaluate themselves according to demanding criteria, they will tend to fall short periodically. Becoming focused on eating, according to Heatherton and Baumeister, is a way to focus only on one particular activity and to forget the broader, negative aspects of the self.

The removal of self-awareness has also been depicted as the essential part of the appeal of masochism, in which people engage in bondage and other aspects of submission. Masochists are frequently tied up using ropes, scarves, neckties, stockings, handcuffs, and gags, and the outcome is that they no longer feel that they are in control of themselves, which relieves them from the burdens of the self (Baumeister, 1991).

Leonard Newman and Roy Baumeister (1996) have argued that even the belief that one has been abducted by aliens may be driven by the need to escape ordinary consciousness. Every day at least several hundred, and more likely several thousand, US citizens claim that they are abducted by these aliens, although most of these stories occur after the individuals have consulted with a psychotherapist or someone else who believes in alien abduction. Again, Baumeister has found a number of indications that people who believe that they have been abducted may be using the belief as a way of escaping self-consciousness.



Key Takeaways

  • Hypnosis is a trance-like state of consciousness consisting of deep relaxation, heightened susceptibility, and intense focus.
  • Hypnosis is not useful for helping people remember past events, but it can be used to alleviate anxiety and pain.
  • Sensory deprivation is the intentional reduction of stimulation to one or more of the senses. It can be used therapeutically to treat insomnia, muscle tension, and pain.
  • Meditation refers to a range of techniques that can create relaxation and wellbeing.



Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. Do you think that you would be a good candidate for hypnosis? Why or why not?
  2. Try the meditation exercise in this section for three consecutive days. Do you feel any different when or after you meditate?


Congratulations on completing Chapter 4! Remember to go back to the section on Approach and Pedagogy near the beginning of the book to learn more about how to get the most out of reading and learning the material in this textbook.

Image Attributions

Figure 4.12. Franz Anton Mesmer by unknown author has no known copyright restrictions.

Figure 4.13. Flotation Tank SMC by Sean Mack is used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

Figure 4.14. Meditate by Relaxing Music is used under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.


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