5.3 Altering Consciousness Without Drugs

Learning Objective

  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 Behavior 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. 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 trancelike state (they were said to be “mesmerized”) and reported feeling better when they awoke (Hammond, 2008).

Figure 5.14 Franz Anton Mesmer passed magnets over the bodies of his patients to put them in a trancelike state; the patients were “mesmerized.”

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 behaviors 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 heightened suggestibility, deep relaxation, 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).

Because hypnosis is based on the power of suggestion, and because some people are more suggestible than others, these people are more easily hypnotized. 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. Kinnunen, Zamansky, and 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 behaviors against their will. Although hypnotized people are suggestible (Jamieson & Hasegawa, 2007), they nevertheless retain awareness and control of their behavior 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. Hilgard and Cooper (1965) investigated this question and found that they could lead people who were very highly susceptible through hypnosis to show at least some signs of posthypnotic amnesia (e.g., 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. But research finds that this is not successful: People who are hypnotized and then asked to relive their childhood 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 behaviors, 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. Kirsch, Montgomery, and Sapirstein (1995) found that that adding hypnosis to other forms of therapies increased the effectiveness of the treatment, and Elkins and 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 PTSD (Cardena, 2000; Montgomery, David, Winkel, Silverstein, & Bovbjerg, 2002), and for reducing pain (Montgomery, DuHamel, & Redd, 2000; Paterson & 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 resulting changes in consciousness. Sensory deprivation is used for relaxation or meditation purposes, and in physical and mental health-care programs to produce enjoyable changes in consciousness. But 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.

Figure 5.15

Sensory deprivation tankJon Roig – Sensory Deprivation Tank – CC BY 2.0.

Treatment in sensory deprivation tanks has been shown to help with a variety of psychological and medical issues.

The sensory deprivation tank has been used for therapy and relaxation. 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 behaviors such as smoking, alcoholism, and obesity (Suedfeld, 1990a).

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, Avdemin, & 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 well-being. Followers of various Eastern religions (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 practice deep breathing. You might want to try it out for yourself (Note 5.43 “Video Clip: Try Meditation”).

Video Clip: Try Meditation

(click to see video)

Here is a simple meditation exercise you can do in your own home.

Brain imaging studies have indicated that meditation is not only relaxing but can also induce an altered state of consciousness. Cahn and 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, 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.

Figure 5.16

A man meditating in the woods by a pondMitchell Joyce – Meditation – CC BY-NC 2.0.

Research has found that regular meditation has positive physiological and psychological effects.

Research has found that regular meditation can mediate the effects of stress and depression, and promote well-being (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 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. Lutz and others (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. And 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, Greischar, Rawlings, Ricard, & Davidson, 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 behaviors, 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 behaviors are abused, leading to exceedingly negative consequences for us. We frequently refer to the abuse of any type of pleasurable behavior as an “addiction,” just as we refer to drug or alcohol addiction.

Roy Baumeister and his colleagues (Baumeister, 1991) have argued that the desire to avoid thinking about the self (what they call the “escape from consciousness”) is an essential component of a variety of self-defeating behaviors. 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. But 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. And 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. Baumeister believes that 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 behaviors in terms of the desire to escape consciousness. Perhaps most obvious is suicide—the ultimate self-defeating behavior and the ultimate solution for escaping 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 behavior 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). And cigarette smoking may appeal to people as a low-level distractor that helps them to escape self-awareness. Heatherton and 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).Baumeister, R. F. (1991). Escaping the self: Alcoholism, spirituality, masochism, and other flights from the burden of selfhood. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Newman and Baumeister (1996)Newman, L. S., & Baumeister, R. F. (1996). Toward an explanation of the UFO abduction phenomenon: Hypnotic elaboration, extraterrestrial sadomasochism, and spurious memories. Psychological Inquiry, 7(2), 99–126. have argued that even the belief that one has been abducted by aliens may be driven by the need to escape everyday consciousness. Every day at least several hundred (and more likely several thousand) Americans 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 and his colleagues have 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 conscious consisting of heightened susceptibility, deep relaxation, 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 well-being.

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?


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