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  States of Consciousness

    Charles T. Tart

        10.   Using Drugs to Induce Altered States

Serious misunderstandings occur when an external technique that might induce a d-ASC is equated with that altered state itself. This error is particularly seductive in regard to psychoactive or psychedelic drugs, for we tend automatically to accept the pharmacological paradigm that the specific chemical nature of the drug interacts with the chemical and physical structure of the nervous system in a lawfully determined way, invariably producing certain results. This view may be mostly true at a neurological or hormonal level, but is misleading at the level of consciousness. Within this paradigm, observed variability in human reactions is seen as the "perverseness" of psychological idiosyncrasies interfering with basic physiological reactions, and is averaged out by treating it as "error variance." While this pharmacological paradigm seems usefully valid for a variety of simple drugs, such as barbiturates that induce drowsiness and sleep, it is inadequate and misleading for the psychedelic drugs, such as marijuana or LSD.


Nondrug Factors

    Figure 10-1 depicts a model of the effects of drugs on consciousness that I developed when I was beginning to study marijuana intoxication {103, 105}. In addition to the physiological effects that constitute disrupting and patterning forces impinging on the subject (upper right portion of the figure), there are a large number of psychological disrupting and patterning forces that are, in many cases, more important than the physiological effects in determining whether a d-ASC will occur and what the content of that altered state will be. Thus while it is useful to know what psychoactive drug a subject has taken, the quantity of the drug, and the method of administration, such information may be relatively unimportant. Without one knowledge of the psychological factors, accurate prediction of the subject's behavioral and experiential reactions maybe very difficult.
    These nondrug factors can be classified in three groups: long-term factors, immediate factors, and factors related to the setting in which the drug is used.
    Long-term factors include (1) the culture the subject was raised in and all the effects that has had in terms of structuring his ordinary d-SoC, and providing specific expectations about the drug; (2) the personality of the subject; (3) possible specific physiological vulnerabilities he may have to the drug; and (4) his learned drug skills—whether he has taken this drug many times before, and learned to enhance desired reactions and inhibit undesired reactions, or is naive with respect to this drug, so that most of his energy will be needed to cope with the (often stressful) effects of the novelty.
    Immediate factors are (5) the subject's mood when he takes the drug, since this mood may be amplified or inhibited; (6) the subject's expectations about the experience; and (7) whether these expectations are the same as what he desires to experience.
    Factors related to the situation or experimental setting in which the drug is taken include (8) the physical setting and its effect on the subject; (9) the social setting and its effect—the kinds of people who are with the subject and how they interact with him (a frightened person present, for example, may communicate his fright sufficiently to make the effect of the drug quite anxiety-provoking); (10) in the case of an experiment, the formal instructions given to the subject and how he reacts to and interprets them; and (11) the demand characteristics {45, 55}, the implicit instructions, and how they affect the subject (for example, if the experimenter tells the subject the drug is relatively harmless, but asks him to sign a comprehensive medical release form, the total message communicated belies the statement that this is a relatively harmless drug).
    Further, the subject or user is not just a passive recipient of all these forces, reacting mechanically. He may selectively enhance the action of some and inhibit others. If the social situation is "bringing you down," you can leave. If you feel unsettled and unsure of your control, you can choose to use only a small amount of the drug. If certain aspects of the situation are unsettling, you can try not to focus attention on them but on more pleasant or useful aspects of the situation. This aspect is indicated by the feedback arrow in Figure 10-1.
    Since, as discussed earlier, as person's control of his attention and energy is limited, to some extent he is at the mercy of the various factors diagrammed in Figure 10-1. In the experimental situation particularly, the subject usually has no control at all over most of these factors and so is at their mercy. This is important because so much of our scientific knowledge in this area is based on experimental studies of drugs—studies that might be assumed to be the most dependable. Unfortunately, a close reading of the experimental literature on drugs suggests that most experimenters were not only unaware of the importance of the psychological factors diagrammed in Figure 10-1, and so failed to report them, but usually set up the experiment in a way that maximized the probability of bad trips, of anxiety-filled unpleasant reactions.
    This situation is summarized in Table 10-1. The values of drug and psychological factors listed in the rightmost column are those that increase the probability of a bad trip; those in the third left column, a good trip. Knowing that the values of some of three factors are in one of the other direction has little predictive value at the present stage of our knowledge, but knowing that most of them are in one direction allows fair prediction. I infer (sometimes from the published description per se, sometimes from reading between the lines of talking to former subjects) that in the more than one thousand scientific experiments on drug-induced d-ASCs reported in the literature that most experiments had most of the determining factors in the bad trip direction. Thus most of our scientific knowledge about drug effects is badly confused with effects of coping with the stress of a bad trip.


Physiological and Psychological Effects

    Given this cautionary note on the complexity of using drugs to induce d-ASCs, a few general things can be said about drug-induced states in terms of the systems approach.
    Particular drugs may specifically affect the neurological bases of various psychological structures/subsystems, exciting or activating some of these structures/subsystems, suppressing or slowing the activity of other structures/subsystems, altering or distorting the mode of information-processing within some structures/subsystems. Psychological processes in relatively unaffected structures/subsystems may, however, compensate for changes in affected subsystems and/or maintain sufficient stabilization processes so that the d-SoC does not break down. The drug may both disrupt and pattern on a physiological level, but not necessarily induce a d-ASC. Remember that a d-SoC is multiply stabilized.
    When physiological effects occur in various structures/subsystems, their interpretation by the subject determines much of his (multilevel) reaction and whether a d-ASC results. Changing the interpretation of a sensation alters its importance and the degree of attention/awareness energy it attracts. For example, if you consider a tingling sensation in your limbs "just" a dull feeling from "tiredness," you handle it differently than if you interpret it to mean that you are getting high, that the drug is beginning to work.
    An excellent example comes from marijuana use. Most marijuana smokers have to learn how to achieve the d-ASC we refer to as marijuana intoxication or being stoned. Typically, the first few times a person smokes marijuana, he feels an occasional isolated effect like tingling, but the overall pattern of his consciousness stays quite ordinary and he usually wonders why others make so much fuss about a drug that has so little effect. With the assistance of more experienced drug users, who suggest he focus his attention on certain kinds of happenings or try to have certain specified kinds of experiences, additional psychological factors, patterning and disrupting forces, are brought to bear to disrupt the ordinary d-SoC and pattern the d-ASC. Often the transition takes place quite suddenly, and the smoker finds that he is now stoned. This is a good illustration of how the physiological action of the marijuana disrupts many of the ordinary feedback stabilization processes of the ordinary d-SoC, but too few to destabilize and alter the d-SoC.
    The fact that a naive user can smoke enormous amounts of marijuana the first several times without getting stoned, and then easily get stoned with a tenth as much drug once he has learned how, is paradoxical to pharmacologists. They call it the reverse tolerance effect. This effect is not at all puzzling in terms of the systems approach. It simply means that the physiological disrupting and patterning effects of the drug per se are generally not sufficient to destabilize the b-SoC. Once the user knows how to deploy his attention/awareness properly, however, this deployment needs only a small boost from the physiological effects of the drug to finally destabilize the b-SoC and pattern the d-ASC—being stoned.
    Indeed, the placebo response of getting stoned on marijuana from which the THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the main and perhaps only active ingredient) has been extracted may not illustrate the idea that some people are hypersuggestible so much as the fact that psychological factors are the main components of the d-ASC associated with marijuana use.
    We should also note that it is a common experience for marijuana users {105} to say they can come down at will, that if they find themselves in a situation they feel unable to cope with adequately while in the d-ASC of marijuana intoxication, they can deliberately suppress most or all the effects and temporarily return almost instantly to the ordinary d-SoC. By psychological methods alone they can disrupt the altered state and pattern their ordinary state into existence: yet the same amount of THC is still circulating in their bloodstreams.
    A third and quite striking example of the importance of psychological factors in determining whether a drug produces a d-ASC comes from a review by Snyder {60} for the attempts to use marijuana in medicine in the nineteenth century:
It is striking that so many of these medical reports fail to mention any intoxicating properties of the drug. Rarely, if ever, there an indication that patients—hundreds of thousands must have received cannabis in Europe in the nineteenth century—were "stoned," or changed their attitudes toward work, love, their fellow men, or their homelands...When people see their doctor about a specific malady they expect a specific treatment and do not anticipate being "turned on."

    Apparently, then, unless you have the right kinds of expectations and a "little help from your friends," it is unlikely that marijuana will produce a d-ASC. Equating the inhalation of marijuana with the existence of a d-ASC is a tricky business.
    This should not be interpreted to mean that marijuana is a weak drug, however. Some people fail to respond to large doses of far more powerful drugs like LSD.


Major Psychedelic Drugs

    The results of using the very powerful drugs, like LSD, mescaline, or psilocybin, are extremely variable. Almost everyone who takes these more powerful psychedelic drugs experiences a disruption of his ordinary d-SoC. The primary effect of the powerful psychedelic drugs is to disrupt the stabilization processes of the ordinary d-SoC so that d-SoC breaks down. But, while there is a great deal of commonality of experience among marijuana users (at least in our cultural setting) {105}, so that it is useful to speak of the "marijuana state" as a distinctive d-ASC across users, the variability of experience with powerful psychedelics is so great that there seems to be no particular d-ASC necessarily produced by them. Rather, a highly unstable condition develops characterized by temporary association of scattered functions in the third part of Figure 7-1 illustrates this. There is a continuous transition between various kinds of unstable conditions. The colloquial phrase tripping is appropriate: one is continually going somewhere, but never arriving.[1]
    While this is probably true for most experience with powerful psychedelics in our culture, it is not universally true. Carlos Castaneda's accounts of his work with Don Juan {9-12} indicate that Castaneda's initial reactions to psychedelic drugs were of this tripping sort. But Don Juan was not interested in having him trip. Among other things, Don Juan tried to train Castaneda to stabilize the effects of the psychedelic drugs so that he could get into particular d-ASCs suited to particular kinds of tasks at various times. Thus, the addition of further psychological patterning forces to the primarily disruptive forces caused by psychedelic drugs enables development of d-ASCs with particularly interesting properties.
    Meanwhile, we should avoid terms like "the LSD state." We should not believe that the statement, "X took LSD" (or any powerful psychedelic drug), tells us much about what happened to X's consciousness. Indeed, a statement like "subjects were administered 1.25 micrograms of LSD per kilogram of body weight," commonly found in the experimental literature, is especially misleading because it seems so precise. It must be replaced by statements like "subject number 2 was administered such and such as dose of LSD, which then produced a d-ASC of type X, while subject number 3 did not enter a d-ASC with the same dose of LSD."
    I want to emphasize that I am in no way downgrading the potential value of psychedelic drug experiences simply because they probably seldom become stable d-ASCs in our culture. When used under the right circumstances by individuals who have been prepared, psychedelic drug experiences can be very valuable. Perhaps the most basic value is simply the total, experiential demonstration that other modes of awareness exist, that the ordinary d-SoC is only one of the many possible ways of structuring the mind. Specific insights into a person's ordinary self, which are valuable for therapy and growth, can also occur, and data and ideas about the nature of the mind can be obtained. This book is not the place to discuss the growth and therapeutic use of psychedelics: the interesting reader should consult several chapters in Altered States of Consciousness {88 or 115}.



    [1] Alternatively, this variability can be interpreted as indicating very rapid transitions from one d-SoC of a few seconds' duration to another, to another, etc., but as discussed earlier, a d-SoC cannot be readily studied unless it lasts for a while. (back)

Table 10-1. (back)

Table 10-1
Values of Variables for Maximizing Probability of Good or Bad Trip

  VariablesGood Trip LikelyBad Trip Likely

Drug factorsQualityPure, knownUnknown drug or unknown
  degree of (harmful) adulterants
  QuantityKnown accurately, adjusted
  to individual's desire
Unknown, beyond
  individual's control
Long-term factorsCultureAcceptance, belief
  in benefits
Rejection, belief in
  detrimental effects
  PersonalityStable, open, secureUnstable, rigid, neurotic,
  or psychotic
  PhysiologyHealthySpecific adverse vulnerability
  to drug
Learned drug skillsWide experience gained
  under supportive conditions
Little or no experience or
  preparation, unpleasant
  past experience
Immediate factorsMoodHappy, calm, relaxed,
  or euphoric
Depressed, overexcited,
  repressing significant emotions
  ExpectationsPleasure, insight, known
Danger, harm, manipulation,
  unknown eventualities
  DesiresGeneral pleasure, specific
  user-accepted goals
Aimlessness, (repressed)
  desires to harm or degrade
  self for secondary gains
Experiment or
  situation fctors
Physical settingPleasant and esthetically
  interesting by user's
Cold, impersonal,"medical,"
  "psychiatric," "hospital,"
  Social eventsFriendly, nonmanipulative
  interactions overall
Depersonalization or
  manipulation of the user,
  Formal instructionsClear, understandable,
  creating trust and
Ambiguous, dishonest,
  creating mistrust
  Implicit demandsCongruent with explicit
Contradictory to explicit
  communications and/or
  reinforcing other negative

Chapter 11

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