The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness

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9781433206771: The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness

In The Head Trip, science journalist Jeff Warren explores twelve distinct, natural states of consciousness we can experience in a twenty-four-hour day, each state offering its own kind of knowledge and insight and its own adventure. The hypnagogic state, when our minds hover between waking and sleeping, can be a rich source of creativity and even compassion. The Watch is an almost magical waking experience in the middle of the night that has been all but lost to electric light and modern sleep patterns. Daydreaming and trance, lucid dreaming, the Zone, and the Pure Conscious Event from sleep laboratory to remote northern cabin, neurofeedback clinic to Buddhist retreat, Warren fearlessly tries them all. Along the way, he talks to neuroscientists, chronobiologists, anthropologists, monks, and many others who illuminate his stories with cutting-edge science and age-old wisdom.

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About the Author:

JEFF WARREN has lived and worked in Paris, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, San Francisco and London. He has published articles in the Globe and Mail and the National Post. His two hour-long documentaries on sleep and dreaming for CBC Radio's Ideas became the springboard for The Head Trip. He is an on-again, off-again producer for The Current and is researching his next book.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction

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 thin...

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