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Most, if not all people seek out some kind of altered state as part of their daily lives. This might be through sex, drugs, meditation, movement, hypnosis, sport, video games, taking risks or just watching TV. There is a fine line between addiction and normal human pleasure seeking, but it is completely normal to seek out pleasurable states of mind. There are other features and benefits common to altered states and we will dive into some examples and how people describe these states.
Why do we seek out altered states ?
Altered states have a variety of desirable properties in common, which is why we seek them out.
- Time distortion – People say ‘Time stood still’ or ‘It was in slow motion’ or ‘hours went by when it felt like a few minutes’
- Performance enhancement – ‘Getting a eureka moment during a run’, ‘mental clarity’, ‘extreme focus’
- Emotional detachment – ‘ I could see my mind debating with itself’, ‘all my worries vanished’ , ‘ I had no inner voice chattering and no inner critic’
- Loss of self-consciousness – ‘ I danced like no one was watching’ ‘ I performed in front of 10,000 people, but forgot they were there’, ‘I didn’t care what anyone thought’
- Self-evaluation – “I could consider my successes and failures, but learn from them”
- Insight – ‘I found my true self’, ‘I have the solution’
- Lack of awareness of bodily needs , ‘I didn’t feel tried or hungry or hot or cold’
- Fear of death or injury vanishes ‘I was in the moment and loving it even though I was 1000 ft in the air’
- Pain control ‘All my aches and pains were gone’, ‘I felt like I was 20 again’
- In the moment ‘I had no thought of yesterday or tomorrow, only what I was doing right now’
- Being at peace with the world or at one with something ‘I felt like I was part of the ocean’, ‘I felt grateful to be a human and at one with the human race’
Brain chemistry and brain waves
Everything we do, every thought we’ve ever had, is produced by the human brain. But exactly how it operates remains one of the biggest unsolved mysteries, and it seems the more we probe its secrets, the more surprises we find. – Neil deGrasse Tyson
Lets get started with some brain basics.
There are some key neurotransmitters, which are special chemical messengers in our bodies which can either inhibit (quieten down) or excite (ramp up) signals or impulses that nerves use to communicate. An impulse is a burst of electricity which in a nutshell forms the ‘wiring; of our brain and in part form brain waves.
Electroencephalography (EEG) is a method to record and measure electrical activity in the brain. It is cheap, reliable and non-invasive, with the electrodes placed along the scalp. You can buy home EEG devices to plug into smart phones and computers and look at your own brain waves.
Whenever you encounter stimuli or a thought you create an impulse, or burst in electrical activity which creates brain waves, you can measure these waves using EEG.
There are five basic types of brain waves, measured in Hz which is frequency as we are looking at how many ‘burst’ there are per second. The lower the Hz or frequency the greater the pauses between bursts or put another way there are less burst per second. The bandwidths are fairly board, briefly they go as follows;
- Delta waves have the longest pauses between bursts and go from 1 -3.9hz. This is a deep dreamless sleep state and many believe healing or regeneration occurs in this phase.
- Theta waves 4- 7.9Hz. This is R.E.M sleep, insight, meditation, processing of novel incoming stimuli
- Alpha waves 8-13.9 Hz . Characterized by relaxed calm and lucid state, sort of the basic resting state of the brain
- Beta waves 14-30hz. Low beta waves are learning, problem solving or ‘thinking’ and high end beta waves are associated with stress and fear. Some people think panic disorders are in part due to a person getting stuck in high beta waves.
- Gamma waves are above 30 Hz. This is binding together brain activity from ‘different corners of the brain’ and combining thoughts to create and idea or a solution.
During a task such are making a decision or performing a complex skill with many outside variables, your brain needs to travel through different phases and produce different brain waves at the right time in the right order for the right length of time. High performers and elite athletes are very good at smoothly and efficiently moving through these phases in the brain, which is one of the keys to super human performance.
Neurotransmitters are information molecules used by the brain to transmit signals, either excitatory or inhibitory – lots and lots of small signals can make a myriad of different outcomes or emotions or experiences. In a way we have our own pharmacy or mini drug factories in out bodies, and there are many natural ways to access our ‘biological pharmacy’, although lot of people don’t know how to do this so use drugs instead. I think over 20% of people in the US have an ‘illegal drug’ problem.
Brain chemistry is sort of like baking, with say five ingredients eggs, flour, sugar, milk, chocolate and nuts, the possibilities that can be created are vast and it depends on the relative amounts of the ingredients and ‘timings’, such as what order you add the ingredients and how you cook them.
Lets look at some neurotransmitters
Dopamine is key in altered states and is commonly known as the reward chemical and plays a big role in addiction, so can get a bad name. Dopamine’s drug analogue is cocaine, as cocaine causes large amounts of dopamine to be released in the brain creating the ‘high’ and making the user want to come back for more and more. In saying that dopamine is involved in ‘bonding’ as are noradrenalin, oxytocin, endorphins and anandamide. Dopamine has many other roles in the body. For example it is heavily involved in movement, increases sodium excretion and increases urination in the kidneys. In the pancreas, dopamine reduces insulin production.
Dopamine makes you feel motivated, engaged in what you are doing, excited, creative and a desire to make meaning of the world. Human beings are hard wired for exploration, novelty, and adventure, the release of rewards us for this behavior. Dopamine also increases attention and blocks out distractions, making it easier to find mental focus and clarity.
Dopamine increases pattern recognition, which is part of neural chunking and is key for learning. It is often said that those who overtake their competitors are those who can learn the fastest. This can mean in business, academia, performance or sport.
In the body noradrenaline aka norepinephrine and adrenaline (a slightly different molecule) play a part in the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response as well as being part of altered states. Noradrenaline speeds up heart rate, send blood away from the gut and to the muscles and increases glucose metabolism, so it is preparing your body for action. The drug analogue is speed (amphetamines) as this drug causes an increase in noradrenaline (and dopamine) release.
In the brain noradrenaline produces a ‘high’ and increases arousal, emotional control and focus helping you to stay 100% locked on target while keeping distractions at bay. Too much noradrenaline or adrenaline contributes to the freeze which can happen when a person is so terrified they can’t move and it can put a strain on the heart.
Endorphins or inside-morphine are our natural opiates. They relive pain and produce euphoria. The drug analogues are morphine, heroin and codeine. Interestingly our natural opiates or endorphins are many times stronger than medical opiates. Endorphins are released during exercise and sex, as well as other pleasurable activities. They play a role in maternal bonding, empathy and other sorts of human bonding.
Anandamide is an endogenous cannabinoids or your own cannabis and this produces a feeling of bliss and again ‘loving everybody’. Exercise induced flow states are one way anandamide is produced. Anandamide dilates blood vessels, amplifies lateral thinking and inhibits fear. From a ‘self help’ perspective anandamide, helps to extinguish long term fears, which is why its common for people to do a ‘scary’ activity in order to help with related phobias which get in the way of other parts of their live, like a ‘transferable skill’.
Most people think of ‘ The happy hormone’ as low serotonin is implicated in low mood and drugs like Prozac and other SSRIs work by making your own serotonin ‘hang around longer’ in your brain. Others say serotonin helps people cope with adversity and feel content or grateful. It is also involved in bonding and empathy. In terms of natural highs or altered states serotonin produces the ‘after glow effect’, so by the time the serotonin arrives the ‘buzz’ has been and gone. The drug analogue is MDMA or ecstasy as this causes serotonin to be released in the brain, along with noradrenaline and dopamine. MDMA has been used in psychiatry for a long time and one of its uses is to help people overcome social anxiety. It is an illegal substance, so it is not advisable to go and buy some ‘Es’ as Ecstasy tablets can contain all sorts of other random drugs and sometimes no MDMA!.
Serotonin has other roles outside the brain and 90% of the human body’s total serotonin is found in cells in the GI tract, where it is used to regulate gut activities and movements, including vomiting. Too much serotonin leads to something called ‘serotonin syndrome’ as well as a reduction of norepinephrine and dopamine in the brain. Therefore, long-term use of SSRI antidepressants will likely result in a high serotonin condition, which is actually another type of depression.
Acetylcholine has many jobs in the body. it is the chemical that motor neurons in the nervous system release in order to activate muscles. Drugs that affect cholinergic systems (acetyl choline pathways), like Botox have effects ranging from paralysis to convulsions.
Acetylcholine is also used as a neurotransmitter in the autonomic nervous system the final product released by the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest system) and has a role in arousal.In the brain, acetylcholine choline plays an important role in arousal, attention, memory and motivation. A drug analogue would be a racetam smart drug, such as piracetam.
Too much acetyl choline results in a wide variety of symptoms; Flu like symptoms, headaches, joint pain, difficulty concentrating, gut issues, tingling or numbness in arms or legs, pessimistic, negative idealization or rumination. Too much MSG or mono sodium glutamate can raise acetyl choline and this is partly why some people have bad reactions to MSG. Not enough acetyl choline also causes all sorts of problems, including memory issues. You can obtain choline for sources such as egg yolks, or buy a choline supplement if you dont eat eggs.
There are many more neurotransmitter such as oxytocin, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), glutamate, glycine, phenethylamine, oxytocin, histamine and nitrous oxide. In fact, there are believed to be 50 or more ‘trace’ neuro active molecules, the exact function of some are still unknown and new ones have been discovered recently. This means brain chemistry is still not fully understood, yet. It is very difficult to measure levels of neurotransmitters in the brain as they ‘come and go’ very fast in small amounts. By knowing what the neurotransmitters do, you can deduce which ones you may be low i or high in. Personally, I often want to eat 100% chocolate or cocoa powder and this is believed to be in part a sign of low dopamine, I also seek out activities with a reward at the end (usually movement based by learning difficult skills with a risk attached), but I have never sought out cocaine or sugar as I don’t like intense highs or rushes.
There are many different ‘flavors’ of altered states and ‘flow states’ which Steven Kotler (Author of The Rise of Superman) describes, have been well studied and are known to cause a release of the cocktail of neurotransmitters described above in just the right amounts, the ‘Golidilocks amount’. Many of the studies have been done on elite or adventure athletes, as adventure sports can put people into a flow state very quickly. The flow states obtained from adventure sports require an element of danger to create focus, high skill level and fast feedback (eg in gymnastics, diving or trampolining if you do a bad flip, you will know in about 1s you made a mistake). It would appear that being outside or in a group helps some people enter these states.
There are many ways to induce a flow state and it can be via creative activities, performing under pressure where there is a risk and a reward or neural feedback devices. The reason these flow states are so desirable is they increase performance both mentally and physically which is a key element of a superhuman. Flow states are key for aiding creative thinking, making decisions under pressure and ‘out of the box thinking’.
Other related altered states share some similarities with flow states. Deep mediation or using psychedelics can often produce insights, but during this state you are not required to take action, draw on knowledge or move. Hypnosis is different again as insights can be obtained, but during an active hypnosis session you are requited to take action and if it is in a stage show then there is a lot of moving around. In my many years of doing and studying hypnosis, it is common on training courses to continuously hypnotise each other. Most people find they have endless energy, less desire for food and can learn more quickly. I have had this effect many times, so in order to create this yourself you would require a hypnotist to follow you around all day. Self-hypnosis sessions are more like deep meditation, so I think it is a different state.
Some people find doing simple, rhythmical repetitive tasks with a reward, such as chopping wood, gardening or playing tetris is causes them to enter a blissful state where time flies by. Tetris is known to put people in a sort of hypnotic trance and interestingly playing 20 min of tetris has been shown to reduce cravings. Playing other video games will have a different effect depending on the game. Games involving killing hundreds of people, aliens or zombies in a variety of gruesome ways produce dopamine floods, which although is a buzz at the time, dopamine floods can deplete your stores and more likely to lead to addictions. Dopamine drops or burst are better.
Sensory deprivation, which involves ‘nothingness’ induces ‘an altered state’ and this means taking away vision, hearing and touch (proprioception). This can be obtained using an isolation tank, witches cradle or a blindfold, ear plugs and a suit to block out touch. In the olden days, witches were hung for days in special thick bags (witches cradle) to block out all senses, but the witches had amazing and profound experience in the ‘bags’. Out curiosity other people went in the witches cradles and they too had deep profound hallucinations and insights.
When researches measured brain activity in altered states like flow states, hypnosis, deep meditation and other states, they found that the pre frontal cortex was less active. To be brief the pre frontal cortex, is what distinguishes us from animals as it allows us to reason, make calculated, logical and rational decisions. The pre frontal cortex (PFC) acts as a voice of reason, inhibiting impulsive behaviour or emotions. Adolescence are less rational and take risks as the pre frontal cortex is not fully developed until the age of about 25. The PFC can be thought of as the inner critic and can make you hesitate at the last minute, when it goes quiet risk taking is less scary and you just do. An over active PFC is the enemy of people trying to get into a flow state or attempting a tricky move in say diving or gymnastics as it can. Ive experience and watched people do back flips. Often when a person is learning to flip, the commonest fails are to hesitating, not fully committing or freezing in the air. That’s the best way to land on your head doing a back flip is to let the PFC interfere with the ‘flow’. 100% commitment is key, this is the same for most adventure sports and Olympic athletes.
As you know our brains are wired differently, which means different people will have different preferences on the types of altered states. For an 17 yr old boy he might find off road BMX stunts are his way to get into a flow state, where as a 65yr old lady might get the same thrill from doing a handstand or creating an artistic masterpiece.
Thank you for reading my blog.
For more on the brain and how to hack it, watch this space to listen to my 5 hr interview / discussion with one of the world’s most well know master hypnotists Igor Ledochowski. We talk in detail on brain chemistry, brain waves, neuroscience, brain lobes, hypnosis, neuro hacks and more, so well worth a listen and I am grateful to Igor for getting in touch as he was my gateway into hypnosis in 2012, so it was wonderful to get to talk with him for so long.