Some altered states of consciousness take place in the ordinary course of everyday living, while other, more profound, "mystical" experiences require disciplined training in meditation. In either case, the alteration in consciousness appears to be mediated by an alteration in attention.
Traditionally, it has been assumed that there is a close relationship between consciousness and attention. We become consciously aware of objects and events by virtue of paying attention to them. 'Preattentive" processing is preconscious processing. However, Koch and Tsuchiya (2007) noted that the relationship between attention and consciousness is more complicated that that, and that it is possible to construct a 2x2 table consisting of the crossing of two factors: Attending-Not Attending and Conscious-Not Conscious.
Still, there are a number of attentional lapses in consciousness, discussed in the lectures on Attention and Automaticity and Implicit Cognition (Mack & Rock, 1998; Kim & Blake, 2005; Kanai et al. , 2010).
These attentional failures of consciousness occur under strictly controlled laboratory procedures. In these lectures, however, we are going to focus on alterations in consciousness, mediated by alterations in attention, that occur outside the laboratory in the ordinary course of everyday living.
Absorption was defined by Tellegen (1987) as a cognitive restructuring of the self and of ego boundaries, involving narrowed or focused attention, and a departure from everyday modes of thought. An informal content analysis by Tellegen and Atkinson (1974) indicated that absorption has a number of different elements, including:
While the peak experience and flow are generally assessed impressionistically, Tellegen has developed a specific instrument, the Tellegen Absorption Scale, to measure individual differences in absorption. Factor-analytic studies of the internal structure of the TAS reveal six major dimensions of absorption.
Absorption, in turn, is related
to the Openness to Experience dimension (Factor V) of
the Big Five" structure of personality:
On the NEO Personality
Inventory (named after Neuroticism, Extraversion, and
Openness),Openness to Experience is measured in terms of six
Actually, research from my laboratory indicates that Openness to Experience is actually composed of three dimensions which are conceptually and empirically quite different from each other.
Openness is also related to a dimension of personality sometimes known as intellectance. Hypnotizability is related to the absorption component of openness, but not to either socio-political liberalism or intellectance.
Absorption, intellectance, and liberalism are probably not
closely tied together -- they appear to fall together in analyses
of the "Big Five" personality traits for psychometric reasons that
are, frankly, boring. The important point is that people can get
absorbed in experiences and activities even if they don't have
particular intellectual leanings, and even if they're not
particularly liberal in their political and social
We have probably exhausted the research we can do on absorption with impressionistic or questionnaire measures of the construct. Now it is time to start experimental research on the cognitive mechanisms of absorption and flow (hint, hint...).
A clinical interview
by Josephine Hilgard (1970) found
that people who are highly hypnotizable had a
history of strong "imaginative
involvements" in various domains.
Ronald Shor (1970) expanded the notion of imaginative involvement in reading into the book-reading fantasy. In this phenomenon, readers become so engrossed in what they are reading that they are oblivious to other things going on around them:
Hilgard (1970), for her part, identified two different types of book-reading fantasy:
Hilgard also identified a number of characteristics of involved readers, who are especially susceptible to the book-reading fantasy.
Victor Nell (1988), a South African psychologist, developed the concept of ludic reading, or reading for pleasure, which he argued entailed an actual change in consciousness through "the world-creating power of books" and the reader's effortless absorption" in the material being read.
Ludic readers typically read at least one book per week of fiction
or narrative nonfiction.
theater director Constantin Stanislavski (1863-1938)
developed the concept of The Method (Stanislavski
himself called it "The System") in acting, by which the
actor becomes completely absorbed in his or her
role. The Method, which is clearly distinguished
from technical acting, was rechristened and popularized in
the United States through the Group Theatre and the
Actor's Studio in New York, led by Lee Strasberg, Stella
Adler, and Harold Clurman, and whose products included
Marlon Brando, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and Paul Newman
(among among others in the generation of stage and film
stars that came to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s), as
well as (among a later generation, in the 1980s) Robert
DiNiro, Dustin Hoffman, and Al Pacino. The System,
as conceived by Stanislavski, required actors to set aside
their own self-consciousness and embrace the inner lives,
the inner desires, of the characters they're
playing. Strasberg's Method focused on the actor's
personal emotional memories (Stanislavski himself rejected
Strasberg's interpretation of his Method). While
Strasberg's Method required actors to delve deeply into
their inner selves, Adler's variant asked the actor to
"enlarge your own soul to meet -- or become worthy of --
the character you were to play".
For a history (actually, the author calls it
a "biography") of Method acting, see The Method: How
the Twentieth Century Learned to Act by Isaac
Butler, reviewed by Simon Callow -- who in his review is
quite critical of both Strasberg and The Method -- in
"Shape-Shifters", New York Review of Books,
08/18/2022. Butler summarizes The Method by pointing
out the Pacino "became known in the industry for his
ability to 'absorb' people, watching them intensely and
then somehow, mysteriously, taking on their essence and
embodying it". Callow, himself a distinguished
British actor and director, adds that Pacino "was an
example of what actors have alarmingly been from the dawn
of time: shape-shifters stealing people's souls.
That... is somehow the domain of the Method".
Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced CHICK-sen-mee-hai, just like it's spelled) and his colleagues (1988, 1990) have developed the concept of flow, "a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The connection to absorption and the book-reading fantasy is clear.Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as an "optimal experience" with several characteristics:
Flow, in turn, is an aspect of what Maslow's (1954, 1968) has called the peak experience. In the 1950s, Abraham Maslow developed a theory of motivation centered on a pyramid of needs. In Maslow's view, needs at a particular level of the pyramid can be satisfied only once needs at all lower levels have been satisfied.
self-actualization gives rise to the peak
experience, which Maslow describes in almost
mystical terms: "the experience or the object tends to be seen as
a whole, as a complete unit, detached from relations, from
possible usefulness, from expedience and from purpose". In
such a state, Maslow thought, the subject experiences a "unity of
consciousness" in which "the whole world is seen as... a single
rich live entity".
Maslow trained as an experimentalist (at Wisconsin, under Harry Harlow, doing research on rhesus monkeys no less), but when it came to studying the peak experience, all he could do was fall back on subjects' self-reports of "the most wonderful experience" in their lives, which were then coded impressionistically to yield the characteristics of the peak experience described above.
More recently, UCB's Dacher Keltner and his colleagues have
developed a method for studying the related experience of awe
(Keltner & Haidt, 2004). In one study, for example,
Shiota et al. (2007) exposed subjects to the Tyrannosaurus Rex
skeleton on the UCB campus. This procedure was successful in
eliciting feelings of awe in many subjects.
Link to Faculty Lecture by Dacher Keltner on "The Evolution of the Sublime: The Science of Awe" (09/05/2014). Apparently there are different kinds of awe. Usually, researchers focus on a positive form of awe, but there is also a negative (threat-based) awe. And while awe is often elicited in natural settings, there is also a non-nature form of awe.
and his colleagues note, nature is particularly likely to inspire
awe. Here are two extracts from the writings of early
visitors to the Yosemite Valley, taken from The
National Parks: America's Greatest Idea (2009)
by David Duncan and Ken Burns, based on Burns's PBS film of the
same name. (Image: "Yosemite Valley", 1868, by Albert
Bierstadt, on view at the Oakland Museum of California.)
Early in 1851, during the frenzy of the California Gold Rush... the Mariposa Battalion... came to a narrow valley surrounded by towering granite cliffs, where a series of waterfalls dropped thousands of feet to reach the Merced River on the valleuy's floor. One of the men, a young doctor named Lafayette Bunnell, found himself transfixed by the vista. "As I looked, a peculiar exalted sensation seemed to fill my whole being," he wrote, "and I found my eyes in tears with emotion. I said with some enthusiasm... "I have here seen the power and glory of a Supreme Being: the majesty of His handy-work is in that 'Testimony of the Rocks'".
James Mason Hutchings, leader of a group of tourists(!) in 1855, wrote of their experience of viewing Yosemite Falls:
Descending towards the Yo-Semite Valley, we came upon a high point clear of trees, from whence we had our first view of the singular and romantic valley; and as the scene opened in full view before us, we were almost speechless with wondering admiration at its wild and sublime grandeur.... If man ever feels his utter insignificance at any time, it is when looking upon such a scene of appalling grandeur.
Now, that's awe!
Perhaps even more dramatic, but less accessible to mere mortals, is what is known as the overview effect, an "intense state of self-transcendent awe and wonder" experienced by astronauts when they view the Earth (the "Big, Blue Marble") from space -- an "explosion of awareness", as described by astronaut Edgar Mitchell. The term was coined by White (1987), who collected anecdotal reports of the effect (the famous image on the left, entitled "Earthrise", was taken by astronaut William Anders in 1968). See also the article by Yaden et al. (Psychology of Consciousness, 2016)
Dacher Keltner, Evolution of the Sublime: Toward a Science of Awe - See more at: http://psychology.berkeley.edu/watch-our-videos#sthash.fDO2kFot.dpufDacher Keltner, Evolution of the Sublime: Toward a Science of Awe - See more at: http://psychology.berkeley.edu/watch-our-videos#sthash.fDO2kFot.dpuf
Flow and Positive Psychology
Just as Maslow's concept of self-actualization was at the center of the humanistic psychology that developed in the 1950s and 1960s as an alternative to both psychoanalysis and behaviorism, so Csikszentmihalyi's concept of flow is an important component of the positive psychology that began to emerge in the 1990s.
Absorption, Flow, and Everyday Life
People can become absorbed in, and experience flow during, even the most mundane activities. Consider this precis of the Mind at Work by Mike Rose (2004), as reviewed by Matthew B. Crawford in the Wall Street Journal, 09-05-06/2009:
If in absorption attention is
tightly focused on some experience, in daydreaming
attention drifts away from its original object.
Antrobus developed the Imaginal Processes Inventory to
provide an exhaustive survey of the daydreaming
experience. They sat down and wrote items covering
every conceivable aspect of daydreaming, resulting in a
very long questionnaire.
Because the IPI is somewhat unwieldy in actual use, Huba et al. developed a short form, the Short Imaginal Processes Inventory, which measures three broad dimensions of the experience.
Of course, people can become
absorbed in their daydreams. Although
absorption and daydreaming would appear to be polar
opposites, it's also true that people can become absorbed
in their daydreams. For that reason, there is
actually a moderately high correlation
between the two states.
Hypnotizability is not as highly correlated with daydreaming as it is with absorption. To the extent that hypnotizability is correlated with daydreaming at all, the correlations are strongest with positive-constructive daydreaming.
Experimental studies of daydreaming may serve as a kind of model for the sort of laboratory research that might be done on absorption. In one early study, Antrobus (1968) recruited subjects for a vigilance task that lasted all of 2 hours! the subjects were supposed to listen to a tape, and press a specific button whenever they heard a specific tone. To keep subjects motivated over the course of this very long experiment, they were given a monetary reward for each hit. Antrobus also varied the informational load, varying both the number of different tones (1, 2, or 3) and the rate at which they were presented (1 tone every 5, 1, 04 0.5 seconds). Every 15 seconds, he used a "thought-sampling" method to probe for stimulus-independent mentation or task-unrelated intrusive thoughts (TUITs) -- that is to catch the subjects daydreaming. The finding of the experiment was that daydreaming occurred frequently, but the more so under conditions of light cognitive load. When the subjects' cognitive capacity was more fully engaged, the frequency of daydreaming went down. But it was still pretty high, no matter what the informational load.
Based on more recent research of this type, Stawarczyk et al. (2010) has introduced a two-way classification of stimulus-independent and task-unrelated thoughts (SITUTs). When thoughts are task-related and stimulus-dependent, the subject is performing the task as it is supposed to be performed. Daydreaming occurs when thoughts are both task-unrelated and stimulus-independent.
Take the Imaginal Processes Inventory
Link to a page containing the SIPI and scoring instructions.
The Cognitive Failures Questionnaire (CFQ) was developed by Broadbent et al. (1982) -- yes, the same Broadbent who proposed the filter theory of attention -- to assess the frequency with which people experienced cognitive failures, such as absent-mindedness, in everyday life -- slips and errors of perception, memory, and motor functioning. Scores on the scale predict episodes of absent-mindedness in both the laboratory and everyday life, including slow performance on focused attention tasks, traffic and work accidents, and forgetting to save one's data on the computer.A study by Rast et al. (2008) indicates that the CFQ items load on three different factors, or dimensions of absent-mindedness:
Take the Cognitive Failures Questionnaire
Link to a page containing the CFQ and scoring instructions.
If absorption and daydreaming count as altered states of consciousness, and absent-mindedness and mind-wandering count as lapses of consciousness, boredom also has to count as some kind of altered state of consciousness.
In a pioneering study of
boredom by Thomas Goetz and his colleagues at the
University of Konstanz (Motivation and Emotion,
2013), German high-school and college students were given
PDAs (like Palm Pilots, for those who are old enough to
remember them), which were programmed to signal the
students at random six times per day. Each time, the
students were asked to report what they were doing and how
they felt about it. Over the two weeks of the study, the
subjects reported that the were bored almost 40% of the
time! Unfortunately, many of these reports were
given during the subjects' academic classes.
Analysis of the resulting data, including the subjects' reactions to boredom and the situations in which they became bored, indicated that boredom came in at least four different forms:
This much was expected from prior research and
theory. But the data also provided evidence for a
fifth kind of boredom:
A series of experiments by Timothy Wilson and his
colleagues ("Just Think: The Challenges of the Disengaged
Mind", Science, 07/04/2014) showed just how
aversive boredom can be. They asked their subjects
to spend a short period of time, just 6-15 minutes,
thinking about absolutely nothing. They found this
so difficult to do that they preferred to do almost
anything else -- including administering electrical shocks
to themselves! The point is, as James noted in his
great introspective analysis of consciousness, "thinking
of some sort is always going on". It takes great
effort to suppress it -- and even with great effort we
can't do it (except, perhaps, during periods of
meditation, as discussed later). Even when the mind
is supposed to be focused, it tends to wander; and it
wanders even more when it's not focused.
In a series of studies that combine daydreaming with absent-mindedness, Jonathan Schooler and his colleagues (2002) have developed a method for studying lapses of attention that occur during reading -- what is commonly called "zoning out". Much like the Antrobus studies, the subjects are asked tor read an attention-demanding text, and then report instances of mind-wandering -- either self-caught, or in response to a probe from the experimenter. One of the most interesting findings of these experiments is that subjects are often unaware of their mind-wandering. Obviously, they're aware of mind-wandering when they catch it and report it themselves. But apparently, subjects do not always realize that their minds have wandered from the assigned text until the probe draws their attention to it.
Based on findings such as these, Smallwood and Schooler (2006)
have pointed to a paradox: mind-wandering is not just a matter of
"zoning out. Rather, attention has become decoupled from the
subject's primary task, and shifted to the subject's own personal
goals. As in the Antrobus experiments, mind-wandering
decreases during controlled processing, which consumes attentional
resources. But it increases with practice, as the subject
becomes skilled at the task -- making more resources
available. This is the paradox: mind-wandering is more
likely to occur, the more the subject is skilled at what he is
doing. Still, Smallwood and Schooler argue that
mind-wandering occurs unconsciously: subjects have no conscious
intention to shift attention away from the task at hand, and they
are often not aware that such a shift has occurred.
Based largely on his studies of mind-wandering, Schooler (2005) distinguished among three levels of consciousness:
The Monastic Rules to Prevent Mindwandering
In what has been called the "attention
economy" (Davenport & Beck, The Attention
Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business,
2001), individuals, businesses, and other organizations
are constantly vying for our attention; and their
ability to capture our attention means increased
revenue, fame, and notoriety for them. As a
result, the world is full of distractions. The
situation has become increasingly dire with the advent
of the internet (it was once called the World Wide Web),
and later the widespread availability of personal
computers, first towers and then laptops (you no longer
had to go to a library or stay at the office to access
it), and finally the proliferation of cellphones,
tablets, watches, and similar devices that keep us
snared in that "web" 24/7.
How to cope with all that distraction?
Here are some hints: turn off all
notifications (yes, I did). Unsubscribe to
Facebook and Twitter (never subscribed in the first
place). Turn your phone off at 8PM, and don't turn
it on until 7AM the next day (yes I do -- mostly; and
unless I'm expecting an important call in the middle of
the night, my phone and I sleep in separate
It turns out that a world full of distraction isn't an entirely new phenomenon. It was what Medieval monks experienced as they tried to devote their lives to the contemplation of God. Their story is told by Jamie Kreiner, a professor of medieval history, in The Wandering Mind: What Medieval Monks Tell Us About Distraction (2023). Casey Cep, reviewing the book in the New Yorker ("Eat, Pray, Concentrate", 01/30/2023), writes:
Singer & Antrobus,
Stawarczyk et al. (2012), and other early
daydreaming researchers, defined daydreaming or mindwandering (we'll
use these two terms
interchangeably, depending on the preferences
of the researchers we're discussing), defined
the state largely in terms of content: daydreaming and mindwandering occur when
subjects are not thinking about what
they're supposed to be thinking
about. That is what
it means to have
task-unrelated or stimulus-independent
thoughts. However, Christoff et
al. (2016) have proposed a different
approach -- one based on process
rather than content. That is, daydreaming
occurs when there is an absence of
strong constraints on the person's
thinking. These constraints
come in two forms:
Research on daydreaming, mind-wandering, and "zoning out" reminds us that the brain is always active -- even when it's not engaged in a particular mental activity. This may seem obvious, but it wasn't always so self-evident. As Raichle (210a, 210b) points out, historically, psychology and neuroscience have entertained two quite different views of brain function.
dominated neuroscience for a long time. You can see the
effect pf this assumption in what might be called the standard
paradigm for cognitive neuroscience. Consider, for
example, the paradigm employed in countless studies of functional
brain-imaging. Subjects are asked to perform some sort of
task (like viewing pictures of familiar faces), and the
experimenter records the activity of the brain while the subject
is so engaged. The experimenter also records brain activity
during a control condition -- either a baseline in which the
subject isn't performing any particular task, or in which the
subject is performing some contrasting task (like viewing pictures
of unfamiliar faces). Brain activity in the control
condition is subtracted from that in the experimental condition,
to yield a pattern of activity that is specific to the task
assigned ot the subject. Especially when the comparison is
between the experimental task and the baseline, it seems to me
that the underlying (if often tacit) assumption is during the
baseline condition the subject isn't thinking about anything
at all. Or, put another way, the brain is only active
when subjects are engaged in some task.
More recently, however, neuroscientists have come to appreciate Berger's view, that the brain is intrinsically active. The assumption of pure insertion -- that brain activity is instigated by external stimuli -- is now understood to be incorrect. Some regions of the brain are active even during control tasks when subjects are resting with their eyes closed, or simply maintaining fixation on a visual target. These regions are de-activated when the subject engages in goal-directed activity.
So, in fact, there are two modes of brain activity:
In fact, Raichle and his colleagues
(2001, 2010) have argued that task-negative activity entails a
specific pattern of activation, which he calls the default-mode
network (DMN). Depicted in the slide at the
left, the DMN consists of medial portions of the temporal lobe and
prefrontal cortex, the posterior cingulate cortex, and the medial,
lateral, and inferior portions of the parietal cortex. The
slide at the right compares brain activity in the "default mode"
with activity under other conditions.
Actually, Christoff et al. have
identified two, maybe three, default-mode networks
-- or perhaps three somewhat dissociable components of a single
Here's the kind of evidence that
Christoff et al. obtained in support of these distinctions.
They employed an experience-samlpling technique, asking subjects
to report what they were thinking about while brain activity was
recorded with fMRI. Activity in DNCORE and DNSUB3
increased increased during periods of task-unrelated thought, and
internally-oriented thought, while activity in DNMTL
increased when deliberate constraints on thought were weak.
Interestingly, when activity in DNMTL increased,
subjects were unaware that they were engaged in task-unrelated
thought. This is reminiscent of Schooler's claim that,
sometimes, subjects are unaware that they are daydreaming.
Based on their research, Christoff et al. (2016) mapped out the interactions between various networks involved in attention and mindwandering. For example, the DNMTL and the sensorimotor areas serve as sources of variablity in thought content (based on memory or perception, respectively). At the same time, the salience networks, the dorsal attention network (DAN), and DNCORE automatically constrain the output of DNMTL and the sensorimotor areas, increasing the stability of thought. Similarly, the frontoparietal control network (FPCN) is a source of deliberate constraint on thought. The interactions among these networks give rise to various kinds of thinking.
Be that as it may, Raichle's fundamental point is well taken --
the brain is active all the time, not just when it's been
stimulated -- though it's a little sad that we needed
brain-imaging to be convinced of that!. And it's interesting
that the "default mode" is not just some level of overall
background brain activity, involving the cerebral cortex as a
whole, but rather a specific network of brain regions.
However, I think it's a mistake to identify the DMN with
daydreaming or mind-wandering -- simply because daydreaming
and mind-wandering are mental activities as well. When
you're daydreaming, your thinking about the content of your
daydream. Even when you're engaged in mind-wandering, your
mind is wandering from one idea or image to another. There's
always content. Apparently, the DMN is the neural basis of
that spontaneous thinking.
Apparently related to the DMN is an extremely slow, spontaneously
occurring brain-wave -- less than 0.1 Hz, compared to 1-4 H
for the low-frequency delta activity discussed in the lectures on
Sleep and Dreams,
and named, appropriately enough, infra-slow activity
(ISA), which is observed when organisms (including humans) are in
the resting state. A study by Raichle and his colleagues
(Mitra et al., Neuron, 2018) found that the ISA, like
delta activity, was observed when mice were resting (literally in
a hammock!), but disappeared when they were anesthetized --
suggesting that ISA has something to do with consciousness.
In an interview ("Thinking Slow" by Tanya Lewis, Scientific
American, 07/2018) Raichle offered an oceanographic analogy:
ISA is like a groundswell, running underneath visible waves;
task-specific activity, reflected in higher-frequency brain waves,
then is like whitecaps, which are formed from the
groundswell. Maybe. Or maybe ISA is just another brain
Discovery of the DMN signals a victory for Berger over
Sherrington, but it also has implications for the identification
of functional specializations in the brain. Consider, again,
the standard paradigm for cognitive neuroscience, discussed
above. In such studies, the researcher is interested in
identifying the neural module, or system, that performs some
function -- such as recognizing a face. In fMRI, subjects
are scanned while they're performing the task in question, and
they're also scanned while performing some control task - -such as
recognizing a word or describing a face. The brain activity
recorded while performing the control task is subtracted out of
the brain activity recorded while performing the target task,
leaving only the activity that is specific to performing the
target task. This subtractive method is,
essentially, the same one used by Donders in his 19th-century
reaction time studies aimed at decomposing mental processes, and
by Sternberg for the same purpose at the dawn of the cognitive
revolution in the 1960s.
But it's obvious that the identification of some functional
specialization depends entirely on what's been subtracted
out. If you're interested in the neural system that
recognizes faces, you'll get different results if your control
task involves recognizing words, than you would if your control
task involves recognizing faces. The implication is that, if
you want to accurately delineate the DMN, you have to pay just as
much attention to the control task as you do in standard
functional neuroimaging experiments.
It seems to me that, in order to identify the true default mode network (TDMN), we'd need to find a network which is active when the subject is thinking of nothing at all, and deactivated when the subject is thinking of anything at all. Ideally, the experiment to identify the TDMN would contrast three different states:
Only one minor detail: how to get subjects to think about nothing. In fact, that's precisely the goal of certain Eastern meditative traditions, to which we now turn.
This page last revised 07/07/2023.