As pure science gained in power and popularity, so we began to move away from belief in the usefulness, or even the existence of an altered state of mind. Studies that were conducted were basically flawed from the start, because it is impossible to experience a mind state in the physical sense, and the debate began, attempting to locate the mind in the physical brain. Ancient practises of meditation were discredited as belonging to heathen religions and research such as there was into the scientific basis for altered awareness hung on the fringes or respectability.
And in spite of huge advances in scientific study, in the minds of many this is still a fairly basic belief. Let us now, with the aid of some layman’s science, attempt to explain what has been discovered about ‘altered awareness’.
EEG (or electroencephalograph) readings have shown four basic types of brainwave pattern in the human brain.
These are patterns of electric discharge by the neurones in the brain. Over many studies they have found that certain waves are most often associated with certain activities. Alpha and Beta waves occur mainly during waking, and Theta and Delta waves occur during sleep. Beta waves are the fastest, and show up as short spiky squiggles on the graph. Delta waves are the slowest, and occur during deep, unconscious sleep, or unconsciousness. Between these two extremes lie Alpha and Theta waves. Of the two, Theta waves are slower, and are found during sleep. Alpha waves occur during the threshold period between ordinary wakefulness and regular sleep. When practising altered awareness, the EEG measures Alpha waves, and the slower the wave, the deeper the state of mental relaxation – or usually the ‘more pleasant’ the experience of altered awareness is reported to be on a subjective level.
Other changes occur to the physiology when in this state that have been proved to be most beneficial, and of the order of increasing the body’s ability to deal with external stresses. One of the key elements of altered state awareness, which will be discussed further in a moment, is an alteration in breathing rate. Now without going into an unnecessary lesson on the biological structure of nerves and the nervous system, it is enough to state that as breathing becomes slower, there is less exchange of gasses in the lungs, and the level of carbon dioxide in the blood stream increases. Nerve impulses are transmitted along a series of nerve fibres, which are long stringy fibres running through the body, and massed in the brain. There are little gaps between the fibres, and these gaps are filled with chemical substances called neurotransmitters. A nerve impulse is a change in the small electrical polarity of the outside of the nerve relative to the inside of the nerve cell. When a nerve impulse starts – in other words, when this wave of polarity change starts along the length of a nerve – it cannot stop until it reaches the end of the nerve. This is where the little gaps between the nerve fibres come in. If there were no gaps, it would be impossible to have relief from pain for example, because the transmission of the pain impulse would race along these nerves and be experienced as pain at the other end. When the change in polarity reaches the gap between nerves, it has to hop across, literally on the back of the chemical carriers. If for some reason the body (or the doctor, via the introduction of a chemical) does not want the nerve impulse to be transmitted, it changes the nature of the chemical in the gap. Some chemicals act as inhibitors of the nerve impulse, while others act as transmitters.
At the risk of simplifying to absurdity what is a vastly complex chemical process, we can say that a change in the gas levels in the blood – in this case increased carbon dioxide – sets up a chain of messages that results in nerve impulses being blocked or retarded…
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