Readercon Report #2: States of Consciousness talk by Eric Van

Eric handed out a list of Natural States of Consciousness and Neurochemicals (transcribed below)
He was surprised by how many people showed up at dinner time and didn’t make enough handouts, but I typed it up below.

Eric: Normal psychology is very good at discounting and throwing away anything that isn’t a “normal” state of consciousness. My own visual processing is 3 standard deviations worse than normal.
If you tested Steven Pinker and me and a chimp on that, you would think I was the chimp.
Sophomores who take introductory psych, they throw away the outliers.
I thought they should save all the outliers and save all the data from study to study.
What if you found out that there was a correlation (or causitive) that deviation in vision a correlated with high creativity.
So I figured it would be a good idea to tap into the outliers among the science fiction community.

    Natural States of Consciousness
  • 1) The canonical

    • a) wake
    • b) non-REM sleep
    • c) REM sleep

  • 2) Also normal and ubiquitous

    • a) s1 sleep
    • b) disoriented waking

  • 3) Also normal and less common

    • a) lucid dream
    • b) semi-lucid dream?
    • c) hypnagogic hallucination with sleep paralysis
    • d) out of body experiences) and maybe “Flow” also counts

  • 5) Experienced by your presenter

    • a) sensory distance and illusoriness

    • i) Same, with slowed time and memory gaps
    • b) Misperceived sounds and sights while tired (probably not unique)
    • c) Hypnopompic tactile and proprioceptive hallucination
    • d) Failure of will (one; probably equals unilateral narcoleptic automatic behavior)
    • e) Collapse of sensory input (once)
    • f) Collapse of oreintation (once; may equal disoriented awakening)
    • g) loss of auditory gating (once)

The neurochemicals: (which vary over sleep states)
Acetylecholine: elevated in REM, very low in NREM
Norepinephrine (NE) very low in REM
Serotonin (5-HT) very low in REM but peaks just before sleep onset
Histamne: low in all sleep states
Dopamine (DA): varies with circadian rhythm but not significantly lower in sleep

s1 is the goofy thoughts you have when you think you’re awake but you’re drifting off and really not in control of your thoughts. Not rapid eye movements yet, but slow rolling movements of your eyes.

Some say there are 4 stages of consciousness, but s1 is so short in duration, it’s not of a lot interest to scientists. Dramatically under-studied. Very tiny chunks of data.

If you undergo long term REM sleep deprivation, you get more elaborate non-REM dreams as the brain adapts to the need.

The even more transient state than s1 is when you are awakened from stage 4 sleep and you barely know your name. Also very small chunks of data. Acetylcholine is dragging its butt.

Then there’s the states that aren’t normal but are recognized as widespread, including the lucid dream. To varying degrees you have control/awareness in a lucid dream.

Then there are semi-lucid dreams where I reach the conclusion that something is not right, but I don’t conclude that it’s a dream. Other people describe having the experience of realizing it’s a dream, but then not being able to change or control it and being stuck in it. I decide I’m in a movie and these are special effects and I must be an actor and I must have a part to play.

How many people have dream sequels? (Nearly everyone raises hands.) That’s not in the literature! And if I asked that question in a normal group of people with normal brains I might not get so many hands. We are an unusual set , highly intuitive Myers Briggs types, low acetylcholine, and so we have many with dream sequels. Dream sequels are a lot like alternate personalities. I had a theory that acetylcholine levels would explain alternate personalities and memory retention and access. Disassociative identity does have to do with information flow with acetylcholine pulses being out of sequence.

The brain can store separate sets of memories. People with really low acetylcholine have access to parallel memory systems during wakefulness which accounts for separate personalities.

A couple of audience members give examples of integrating sensory input into dreams (baseball game audio, visual etc). One woman only dreams lucidly. Another guy falls asleep during the baseball game and wakes up right before the last out.

Hypnagogic hallucination, sometimes with sleep paralysis. A lot of alien abduction reports and the incubus/succubus myths probably come from this. Your proprioception remains, but you can’t move. Considered normal if you’ve had sleep deprivation. Narcoleptics have this a lot. Not all the chemicals that are supposed to collapse when you fall asleep went down, they stayed up while other systems went down. You really lose the ability to distinguish sleep from wakefulness while you are stuck in sleep paralysis.

Survey of out of body experiences? Very few in this fannish population, but there were a few.

FLOW is a state of zoning on something while playing frisbee, or something, your time sense disappears, being in the zone, you can do no wrong, everything physical is seamless, you think 2 hours has passed but it’s been 6 or 7, you haven’t felt hunger, you havent felt cold, etc. It was like every throw was right on target and I was on remote control.

I should probably add hypnosis in here.

What about lost time? Audience person asks: you are standing there with a toothpaste tube in your hand and your toothbrush, and a half hour goes by and you realize you still haven’t put the paste onto the brush.

Eric: Your buffer is in overflow and you are experiencing normal consciousness but you’re constantly going back to reexperience the moment without moving forward. It also could be a fugue state where you just check out.

You can get into flow through meditation, listening to music like Philip Glass, while driving.
I could remember my thoughts and I knew I had spent several minutes thinking about the Red Sox starting rotation, but I came to the point in the drive where I said but… where I am? I had already negotiated a bunch of turns and intersections but I did them by remote control, and then I didn’t know where I was by then.

Next year we’ll have to continue with the really weird stuff, the things you think don’t happen to other people.

A lot of the study of the three standard states of consciousness are about the varying level of the principle neurochemicals. It’s a very short step to say if even only 3 chemicals are involved, we will get way more than 3 states based on varying levels up, down, etc. States like narcolepsy is when the nonstandard combinations of high/low occur. Unusual states are the result of novel settings on the volume knobs. There is some function correlation, so not ALL states are possible, but many variations are.

Acetylcholine too high you lose the ability to make connections between things, you lose the ability to tell what’s weird. Everything is wrong in your dream but you just don’t question it. All associations are broken and so you can actually make associations later on things that don’t actually go together. Two contradictory things can still seem true, etc. Very hypo-associative.

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