Bookslut.com has a fascinating interview with Jeff Warren, author of The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness [The Head Trip] (Amazon US and UK). Warren's book is a personal exploration of the various modes of consciousness that we encounter, from day-to-day changes through to the more earth-shaking changes experienced in psychedelic trips and the like.
One of the more interesting parts of the interview (though there's certainly nothing 'less interesting' about the rest of it) is when Warren starts discussing the altered state of dreaming, and in particular, the self-awareness that occurs in lucid dreams:
[W]hen you’re self-consciously aware inside the dream you can then squeeze up real close to the walls with your little magnifying glass and look for suture marks. You can conduct experiments. You come to realize that there is a set of laws operating in the dream world that is every bit as real as the laws of physics in the waking world. What are these laws? And why aren’t there as many scientists down here with their slide rules and theories as there are out there? We spend our lives in two worlds and yet we only pay attention to one of them -- the other is seen as an embarrassing curiosity, a forum for banality-rehearsal and botched sex.
People protest: “but it’s not real, stop living in fantasy.” All experience is real. On the personal side, dreams reveal all kinds of junk about the self. On the scientific side, our dreams represent an unparalleled opportunity to examine the dynamics of consciousness. I mean think about it: without sensory input to dilute everything, you get consciousness in a pure culture. And it so happens that this pure culture -- The Dream -- runs like an underground creek beneath the waking world, muddying the ground in all kinds of interesting ways.
And that’s just the conventional science. Who knows what else we may discover digging around in the dream world. For those interested in the wooly world of mind-matter speculation, the epistemological rabbit hole goes very deep indeed.
This is going to sound hyperbolic but I really believe we’re at are at the dawn of a new age of scientific exploration. The external world is mapped; now the explorers are turning inward. The galleons have left port. They’re approaching a huge mysterious continent. They won’t be the first to arrive. There are paths already cut in the forest, where shamans and monks and others have set up outposts and launched their own expeditions into the interior.
Warren also has what are, in my opinion, some valid insights and worthy warnings about the use of psychedelics to explore modes of consciousness:
I’m interested in drug-induced alternations of consciousness, but my feeling is they’re the really obvious ****. Too many “investigators of consciousness” overlook the fine-grained shifting texture of day-to-day consciousness. It’s the difference between the big budget Hollywood blockbuster and the art house Henry James adaptation. Drug-induced alterations of consciousness have great CGI -- which is fine, I mean who doesn’t appreciate form constant explosions and DMT Machine Elves? -- the problem is, character development sucks, or rather, the characters -- and by characters I mean the objects of consciousness -- tend to be cartoons. They’re exaggerated, that’s what psychedelics do -- “non-specific amplifiers” Stanislav Grof calls them. They expand the whole topography of the mind. It’s possible more than this is going on but that’s another story.
This expansion can be valuable for understanding consciousness since it boosts the resolution of previously discreet mental dynamics. But cartoons, of course, are caricatures. If you watch only Jerry Bruckheimer movies you risk losing your ability to appreciate -- and even notice -- the subtleties and complexities of real life and consciousness, which, to circle back to my original metaphor, is more like a Henry James adaptation.
That’s a long way of saying to understand conscious experience, I think it helps to start from the more subtle naturally-occurring variations, and then work your way out.
Something else I’ve noticed about the hard-core psychonaut set: if you get too deep into the mind you can become convinced of anything. Certain psychedelics -- ayahuasca, ibogaine, DMT, LSD -- they’re like cannons, they can fire you so far that you can’t find your way back out again. People can become permanently disoriented, one basket filled with brilliant insights, one with grotesque delusions. It’s serious: the mind is both a reality-perceiving and an illusion-generating machine. So people confuse their metaphysics with their epistemology, to paraphrase the philosopher Jerry Fodor.
I could have quoted the entire thing, it's that interesting. Head on over to Bookslut.com and check out the interview in its entirety.