Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
–T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
Here’s a curious phenomenon; maybe you’ve experienced it.
For several years in my mid-twenties I spent my summers tree planting in northern Ontario. It was a difficult job. Every morning at 5 a.m. some classic rock anthem would blare out across the makeshift camp and we’d drag ourselves from our warm tents and pile into the rusted yellow school buses idling on the logging road. Out on “the block,” we were assigned huge chunks of napalmed land, uneven mixes of charred duff, swamp, and scraggly brush. For eleven hours we’d plant little eight-inch saplings–kick-shovel-draw-bend-insert-stompkick-shovel-draw-bend-insert-stomp–little mechanical humans jerking along the horizon. Every seven feet, several hundred an hour, several thousand a day. It was fantastically tedious, made worse by bone-chilling drizzle, a fog of biting blackflies, hidden wasps’ nests, thickets of sharp sticks, and patrolling bears who’d ransack our lunches and terrorize the cooks.
Beginner planters spent their time in an agony of unhappiness and frustration. But as the weeks wore on the privations lessened, in part because we became habituated to the job, but also because of an odd recurring experience that some of us discussed among ourselves.
I remember the day it first happened to me. It was still early, a little after 9 a.m. I had just loaded up my bags with trees and stood gazing out over the denuded expanse of earth and rubble. I sighed, looked down at my shovel, and began planting. When I raised my head I noticed the sun was on the other side of the sky. Little green spruce dotted the landscape all around me, and on the road empty tree containers sat in a disorderly pile. My watch said 2 p.m. Five hours had passed and I remembered nothing. What happened?
I had no idea, but like other planters before me I welcomed the state. Now days alternated between time-crawling nowness, idle daydreams–another important consolation–and these strange absences, little wormholes in time where we dropped off the land and reappeared several hours later.
One day I experienced a new variation. I mounted a steep ridge and there, towering before me, was an enormous white pine with silver scales and a broad, knotted trunk. The tree was wrapped in a gauzy halo of needles, and in the late-afternoon sun they filled with golden light. I caught my breath and everything went suddenly very still. The background chatter of the forest faded, and I had the feeling that time had paused, except, in contrast to my wormhole experiences, “I” remained to witness the ellipsis. But it was not an “I” I recognized. As strange as it may sound, I felt as if I were somehow part of the tree. I stood transfixed, a large, unblinking eyeball. And then the feeling passed. In front of me was just a tree. I looked down and continued planting.1
The experience of tree planting didn’t end at night. As soon as our eyes closed, a slow-moving landscape flickered up on our retinas and we watched reruns of the day–kick-shovel-draw-bend-insert-stomp, kick-shovel-draw-bend-insert-stomp. I remember being struck by the photographic perfection of these images, bright visuals that were often accompanied by the physical sensation of movement, like that wobbly sea-legs feeling you get after a day of sailing. Once fully asleep, the activity seemed to rev up a notch. I dreamed of twisting in my sleep so I could plant my bedroll, or trying to slam my shovel through the asphalt of an endless dream highway. I often woke in the night protesting: it isn’t fair, this isn’t my workday, this is my time off. I shouldn’t have to plant now! When I struggled against the dream narrative I inevitably woke myself up, though several times I flickered into momentary self-consciousness in the dream itself, and stood there in the empty expanse of dream land with my dream shovel in my hand thinking this was a really weird situation, I’d have to remember to tell someone. Inevitably I woke exhausted, and on the bumpy ride out to the block, all of us muttered about our diabolically doubled workloads.
Tree planting got me thinking about consciousness because the unvarying sameness of the days provided a perfect backdrop for alterations. I noticed the differences, and they seemed to correspond to shifts more fundamental than those of mood or even alertness. In the previous few paragraphs I’ve described seven distinct states of consciousness that most of us have likely experienced at some time or another: general alertness, daydreaming, deep absorption, a heightened present, sleep-onset imagery, dreaming, and the very beginnings of a lucid dream. Some of these occur with strict regularity, others are more rare. And although a few of them may sound mystical, one of the main preoccupations of this book is how far science has come in shedding light on their character.
Until that summer, my conception of consciousness was little more than a crude on/off switch in my head. We were awake, and then we were asleep. Sure, there were dreams, but these sort of happened off the record. Unless you wanted eye rolls and public derision, you only told your bed-partner about them (“I opened the umbrella and out flopped a half-dozen pale cow udders–can you believe that?”). Clearly there was more to consciousness than these two options–how many variations were there, exactly?
The answer, of course, is billions–as many variations as there are individuals to experience them, and within each individual a succession of seemingly unique moments. This disorienting plentitude seems all but impossible to quantify, for the one thing we can say with certainty about consciousness is that it is an ineffably private and subjective affair.
Except that isn’t the full story. Because underneath our shifting tides of awareness are specific–and regular–physiological changes occurring in the brain. The most elemental of these are the circadian processes that govern our sleep-wake cycle. These undulating rhythms form the basic contours of subjective consciousness; they guide changing levels of alertness through each day and, in concert with their chemical emissaries, move us through the various stages of sleep at night.
The notion that sleep is not a single monolithic state is perhaps not fully appreciated by most people. We cycle through stages, of which slow-wave and rem sleep are the most distinct. Each of these two states is as different from the other as they are from waking. This is the case regarding: 1) their specific functions; 2) the physical processes that form them; and 3)–crucially, for the purposes of this book–what they feel like to experience. These three states of consciousness–slow-wave sleep, rem sleep, and waking–form the primary compass of human experience.
This psychological and neuroscientific and experiential story of how consciousness changes over twenty-four hours is the first story I want to tell, and it forms the loose skeleton of this book. But there is a larger, more important story, one that involves some of consciousness’s more dramatic variations, because overtop and between these three primary states, the mind is capable of visiting some very strange destinations. Since I can’t reliably talk about the shifting experience of consciousness without test-driving some of those changes myself, I have gone on six adventures, six major head trips that ended up challenging everything I thought I knew about the expanse of consciousness and how our minds relate to our brains.
The trips themselves were far-ranging in both a geographic and a psychological sense. From Montreal to Hawaii, London to New York, Scotland to northern Ontario, my body moved and my mind moved with it, propelled through the visionary logic of the hypnagogic, the mysterious mid-night awakening known as the Watch, that astonishing challenger to waking consciousness, the lucid dream, the plunging well of attention known as the trance, the sublimely alert high-resolution smr (captured on a computer’s monitor), and the quasi-mystical substratum of awareness itself known as the Pure Conscious Event. Along the way I discovered other states–some familiar, some less so: the parasomnias, the slow wave, the rem dream, the hypnopompic, the daydream, and the athlete’s Zone. That these various states are not better known–at least in the West2–or more clearly understood has to do with the interrelated histories of the scientific study of consciousness in general and the study of sleep in particular.
Things started well enough in the late nineteenth century, with psychologists like William James championing a new scientific field. “A science of the relations of the mind and brain,” wrote James, “must show how the elementary ingredients of the former correspond to the elementary functions of the latter.”
First-person approaches to consciousness were deemed essential, and indeed they took off in philosophy under the banner of phenomenology–the study of consciousness and its immediate objects–and in psychology, in a school of thinking called introspection. Yet although introspectionist psychologists like Wilhelm Wundt and his student E. B. Titchener developed some interesting experimental methods for measuring the contents of the mind, the young discipline was heavily criticized by other psychologists: introspection wasn’t scientific enough, self-reports of mental phenomena could not be trusted, even introspectionists themselves, the critics argued, could not agree on the facts. Looking back on the school now, part of the problem was an inability to access purely objective measurements of mental activity; the brain-imaging tools we possess today had not yet been developed.
While phenomenology flapped around in continental European academic circles, introspection took a nosedive, and in its place rose the behaviorists. Forget about interiors, for these scientists what mattered were the externals: behavior. Behavior could be replicated and quantified. Ring a bell, a dog salivates; stimulus, response. Under the reign of the behaviorists, “consciousness” became a dirty word, an airy-fairy object of scorn with no place in the lab. Consciousness was left to the humanities–to the writers and the philosophers. And without a scientific language to describe or even acknowledge the shifting experience of consciousness, it remained for New Age and religious traditions to co-opt some of its more dramatic manifestations (such as lucid dreaming and the various levels of meditative absorption). Which only served, of course, to further remove them from scientific respectability.
One exception to this trend was a blip of activity in the 1950s and ’60s, when the nascent science of “altered states” took off under psychedelic researchers like Charles Tart, Oscar Janiger, Stanislav Grof, Timothy Leary, and others. With their focus on mind-altering drugs, they were among the few investigators to consider seriously the significant fact that consciousness changes. In his landmark 1969 anthology Altered States of Consciousness, the psychologist Charles Tart defined an altered state of consciousness (ASC) as one in which an individual experiences a “qualitative shift in his pattern of mental functioning [Tart’s italics].” That is, not just a quantitative shift of becoming, for example, more or less alert, but a sense in the individual that “some quality or qualities of his mental processes are different.” This definition, of course, didn’t extend only to the effects of drugs; experiences like dreaming and meditation and hypnosis were examined alongside LSD and psilocybin trips.3
Today consciousness has been rehabilitated. Neuroscientists like Christof Koch write about the quest for the neural correlates of consciousness, and in forums like The Journal of Consciousness Studies psychologists and philosophers are once again debating the merits of “first-person approaches to consciousness.” To back up these arguments, a new generation of Buddhist monks are having their eegs scrutinized for signs of unusual activity. So, waking consciousness is hot–but what of sleeping consciousness?
1 Years later, while reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I was excited to find this passage: “I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance.” It was, Dillard writes later, as if a great door had opened on the present, and the tree flickered with “the steady, inward flames of eternity.” Same sentiment, different tree. Dillard calls these moments “innocence”: “the spirits’ unselfconscious state at any moment of pure devotion to any object . . . at once a receptiveness and total concentration.” My friend Dawn, more prosaically, calls them “Matrix moments,” after the film’s signature frozen-in-air martial arts scenes.
2 More than one observer has pointed out that in the West we don’t appreciate the full spectrum of naturally occurring altered states because they are not part of our legislated lived experience, our “consensus reality,” as psychologist Charles Tart puts it. We have a very sophisticated understanding of some things–the material universe, for example–but we neglect others. In the case of consciousness, most of us are not taught to recognize the subtle variations, so we have no vocabulary to describe them. This is not the case in many Eastern cultures, particularly those that put a premium on introspection. Thus the Buddhists, for example, describe dozens of meditative states, each with its own specific and apparently reproducible phenomenology.
3 By Tart’s criteria, extreme mood changes also qualify as ascs. This makes perfect sense to me; when you’re furious or deeply depressed, you see the world in an entirely different way. That said, the emotional brain has been the subject of many excellent books. It is not the specific subject of this one.