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What is an Altered State of Consciousness?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Feb 24, 2024
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When most people who are healthy are conscious the brain produces a variety of measurable and fairly predictable brain wave types. These change when people do things like sleeping, if they take certain medications or illegal drugs, when they meditate or pursue a variety of other activities that change consciousness. The above activities and many others create what is known as an altered state of consciousness.

Definitions for an altered state of consciousness can vary depending on the source. Essentially, there is dissociation between the mind and body connection. Or alternately, the self as perceived psychologically, is not dually perceived as necessarily connected to the body. Perception of the self may be very different and some of the normal restrictions of the self, what Sigmund Freud might call ego and superego may be lifted.

Most people enter an altered states in dreaming. In dreams, people can do many things they either could not or would not do in ordinary life. They might commit a murder or have an affair, since presence of the normal sense of “morality” is lifted during a dreaming state. Dreams also free people to do things that aren’t physically possible, such as breathing underwater or flying. Some dreams are highly imaginative and entertaining, while others are very frightening.

It’s difficult to avoid dreaming, even when people have little recollection of their dreams. There are many other altered states into which people may enter without choice. A very high fever, a seizure, and some forms of mental illnesses, particularly dissociative disorders may change perception of mind and body, and of their connection. People requiring pain medication that is opiate-based might experience an altered state of consciousness too.

There are many who theorize these altered states fuel creativity and can lead to better perception in the conscious state. For a while, in the 1960s, there were many who advocated inducing altered states of consciousness through methods like sensory deprivation or by taking known hallucinogens such as magic mushrooms or acid. Such studies were mostly discredited.

Yet, there are many psychologists and others who advocate working in different states of consciousness at some times to promote better understanding of the self in the conscious state. In some cases, people under hypnosis reach an altered state. They may have access to the unconscious brain or a better way of understanding some of the ways the conscious brain acts.

Other people may reach an altered state of consciousness through different types of activities. Certain forms of prayer, chanting, meditation or yoga may cause mind/body dissociation. These dissociations can promote extremely positive feelings, especially when a person returns to regular consciousness, which then reward the person for entering the altered state and may encourage interest in re-entering it.

The experiments that led to drug use to enter altered states, and fear that an altered state somehow represents witchcraft or association with paganism leads some people to criticize all such states, and intentional entry to them. However, these critics cannot avoid dreaming, getting a high fever or possible diagnosis with mental illness. There’s little evidence to suggest that an altered state is evil or based in paganism; instead these differences in conscious perception occur to all people, and most cultures have created unique interpretations of altered states.

It’s clearly unadvisable to use illegal drugs to enter an altered stated of consciousness, though in some native cultures, it may be commonplace to use certain substances to create altered states. People must also understand that it’s widely unnecessary to try to induce an altered state of consciousness by illegal means. There are plenty of perfectly legal ways to do this while awake, and each person will certainly do so while asleep.

AllTheScience is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a AllTheScience contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon272706 — On Jun 02, 2012

I'm glad this article advises against the use of drugs to reach such states of consciousness. I don't believe they are necessary. Sure I could take LSD and probably experience some things I've never experienced before, or perhaps I would experience things I've long been experiencing without it.

As far as being afraid that lucid dreaming will make you go crazy, I wouldn't worry about that. Just keep your fantasy life and your reality separate.

From experience, I would recommend not questioning your sanity, contemplating madness or trying to identify too strongly with other people's mental problems. Not good.

By TrogJoe19 — On Feb 18, 2011

I think of a recent preoccupation with "lucid dreaming" or "conscience [sic] dreaming" which were obsessed over by shooter Jared Loughner. This makes me shrink from pursuing any sort of deeper understanding of the unconscious mind. It is a potent and dangerous place to go.

By Qohe1et — On Feb 17, 2011


I think it can be hard to differentiate between "thinking outside of the box," and actually having an altered state of consciousness. Sometimes it is not a clear line, and "daydreams" may end up taking the form of actual dreams for some people who hallucinate or see images. This can become schizophrenia if it is not kept in check by a strong dose of reality.

By SilentBlue — On Feb 15, 2011

Some people try to read into their own dreams and re-analyze reality based on a larger metaphysical picture stemming from their own images. This can be an immensely powerful tool, and therefore it can also be immensely dangerous, if it is not kept in check. Even well-trained geniuses who think too far outside of the box, where their mind was not meant to go, have gone insane at the end of their lives. These men include Nietzsche, Godel, Cantor, and John Forbes Nash. Even smart people need to realize they have their limits.

By Proxy414 — On Feb 14, 2011

Albert Einstein would get lost in his own mind from a young age. Others perceived this seeming disconnection with reality as stupidity, but it ended up fueling the greatest mind of the 20th century. Einstein may not have been particularly gifted from birth, but he exercised his creative capacity by daydreaming about forces of nature and the wonders of the universe for his entire life, and enjoyed nothing more than pursuing this "altered state." While this may seem like a psychological issue to some, it can also be a very productive exercise of the psyche.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a AllTheScience contributor, Tricia...
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