Monday, March 03, 2003

Alterations of Consciousness
By Imants Baruss
APA BOOKS; 312 PAGES; $39.95

A man gets in his car, drives to a distant house, locates a knife in the kitchen, and murders his wife's parents in their bed, all while he is asleep: a case of somnambulistic homicide... Obeying a post-hypnotic suggestion, a woman sees a person sitting in a chair in front of her, even though he is no longer there---he is standing behind her. She turns around and sees him there, but she also persists in seeing him sitting on the chair---an example of "trance logic..."

A woman has 29 alternate personalities, some with separate careers and bank accounts, and each may respond to medications differently... A man emerges from a coma with a permanently accessible cosmic consciousness of the intense connectness of everything, who comes to believe that our ordinary consciousness is deluded... A woman wakes with a vision that she is floating above her boyfriend's bed, sees his room with complete clarity, then calls him and confirms that each detail---the half-filled water glass, the crumpled red shirt, the sleeping dog---is exactly as she saw it... In a laboratory experiment, a group of healthy students was able to change the behavior of a particular kind of white blood cell by imagining it.

All of these are examples of alterations of consciousness that in the past have defied scientific explanations. This book surveys the most recent research and generally finds that science still can't explain them, but at least they are being taken seriously rather than simply denied.

Psychologist Imants Baruss covers everything from thinking and daydreaming to precognition, past life regression, Shamanism, alien abductions, out-of- body and near-death experiences, and of course the effects of psychedelic drugs. He describes and identifies the various scientific approaches and how those prior beliefs affect conclusions. He does so with a combination of brisk reference-book summary of research, a sense of narrative as an organizing principle, and an engaging, almost conversational style.

The result is a more consistent voice and unified work than the previous reference he acknowledges, the anthology "Altered States of Consciousness" (Doubleday 1972) edited by Charles Tart, but it lacks the aura of intellectual excitement and discovery displayed in another anthology published that year, "Consciousness and Reality" (Outerbridge & Lazard, 1972) edited by Charles Muses and Arthur M. Young.

The descriptive approach works best where there is lots of research (as on sleep and dreaming) but less well where it's lacking (LSD and similar psychedelics were banned even from laboratories from the late 60s until the mid 90s.) Baruss allows for more possibilities than the standard view. He wonders why "we have so much difficulty with the unseen explanatory principles of indigenous people" yet we swallow whole the unseen explanations of quantum physics], and speculates that "spirits may be as real as the stuff of which matter is made."

Nevertheless, most chapters end, as did the old Science Fiction Theatre, with variations on "Truth or fiction? You be the judge." It seems the progress made in the last 30 years is that science has forced itself to admit the existence of many phenomena it simply denied. Now all they have to do is figure out what's really going on. Our ignorance about ourselves is almost comical. Science doesn't even know why we sleep.

Though billed as "An Empirical Study for Social Scientists," this volume should prove useful to anyone seriously interested in research on these subjects, and on the questions left for future research.

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