Altered States and the Self

By Jack Allocca

Homo Sapiens is the only species we know to actively use their consciousness to muse about the nature of consciousness. Nonetheless, this question has largely been left unanswered. There exists a myriad of diverse and often conflicting theories speculating on where consciousness comes from, and how it operates. It is perceived as a wide spectrum within the human experience, from non-pathological ordinary wake to non-dreaming sleep, dreaming sleep, lucid dreaming sleep, orgasm, peak experiences, depersonalisation, sensory deprivation, the vast range of psychedelic states, just as vast as that of psychotic ones. Different schools of thought approached this as a material or spiritual epiphenomenon. We still don’t really know if consciousness is a product of the brain, of the whole body, or neither. Many neuroanatomical and neurofunctional brain structures have been speculated to hold the cornerstone of sentience, from the default mode network (DMN), to the claustrum, and more generally, the neocortex at large. However, this still poorly explains the seemingly astounding intelligence observed in organisms devoid of such structures, from invertebrates, insects, to plants and fungi, notwithstanding unicellular organisms and viruses themselves. Indeed, many key players suggested organic assembly like ourselves are merely a transducer of an external force permeating all that there is, from subatomic particles to the vastness of the void of the observable universe. Drawing from a vast body of neuroscience, pharmacology and electrophysiological research, with a pinch of philosophical inquiry I will attempt to shed more light on this evergreen dilemma.

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