In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Altered States of Consciousness in the Bible

  • Introduction

Biblical Studies Altered States of Consciousness in the Bible
Pieter Craffert
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 April 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0259


The term “altered state of consciousness” (ASC and plural ASCs) became prominent in the 1960s as a replacement for terms such as “ecstasy,” “trance,” “hallucination,” and “mystical experience” to describe conditions (states of consciousness) that are qualitatively different from “ordinary” or “baseline” states of consciousness. ASC is not a homogeneous phenomenon, but the term refers to a collection of complex, composite biocultural experiences and phenomena. Alterations can take place under many different circumstances and display a spectrum of features—all of which contribute to the complexity of the phenomenon. An ASC can be involuntary and spontaneous or voluntary and induced. Spontaneous ASCs can be the result of illness or brain injury and trauma but can also occur unexpectedly during waking or sleep modes of consciousness (such as sleep paralysis). Voluntary ASCs can be invoked or induced in many different ways, including the intake of drugs or hallucinogens, physical and physiological stimulation or deprivation, or by means of psychological mechanisms such as during ritual activities or fear and trauma. The term was popularized by anthropologists and parapsychologists to describe voluntary and culturally structured or ritually induced ASCs but was taken over by psychiatrists, psychologists, and neuroscientists to analyze involuntary, pathological ASCs. Since consciousness itself is a complex and componential phenomenon, the alteration of consciousness takes on many different forms that affect one’s awareness of the world, the self, the own body, or a combination of these. Some of the most common ASCs affect the sense of the own body (such as experiencing out-of-bodiness) or dissociation of the self (identity), such as the experience of being possessed and ecstatic trance and mystical experiences of unity or harmony with the cosmos. Most cultures, referred to as polyphasic cultures, embrace the alteration of consciousness as a natural way of processing information and obtaining knowledge about the world and the self. Therefore, many folk traditions, explaining the world on the basis such experiences, exist. Because ASCs manifest in such different circumstances and are themselves complex composite experiences, it is not surprising that they are studied from many different perspectives and by means of different disciplinary frameworks. There is no single or agreed framework for describing, categorizing, or explaining the alteration of consciousness that finds expression in many cultural practices and beliefs, and no single cultural explanation takes into account the cross-cultural or neurological explanations. Although scholars generally use the term “altered” state of consciousness, it makes sense to reserve that for the pathological alterations and employ the term “alternate” state of consciousness for the culturally approved and involuntary alterations of consciousness. The complexity and diversity of ASCs are also reflected in the diverse scholarly interpretive traditions, which see them as anything from culturally approved to anomalous and pathological conditions.

What is an ASC?

A leading early-21st-century ASC researcher pointed out that the study of ASCs is currently at a similar stage where botany was before Linnaeus proposed his taxonomy; namely, a collection of interesting observations lacking enough organization and integration to make theoretical and empirical sense of them. Add to this the fact that the term refers to a variety of phenomena that all are complex composite experiences, and it is not surprising that there is, to date, no agreement on what an ASC is. Therefore, the two most significant insights about ASCs in the early 21st century are that the study of ASCs is in its infancy and that ASCs are not a homogenous phenomenon but a collection of complex composite phenomena. As a result, many scholars argue that at this point in time we have a poor understanding of what, exactly, is being studied, and a broad disagreement about the type of phenomena that should be classified as ASCs. All of this does not negate the existence and reality of the alteration of consciousness but situates them in a fluid framework for interpretation. Given this state of ASC research, there are four easy ways of becoming familiar with the topic and with what is going on in this area of research: the first is by looking at ASC definitions and definitional discussions, the second is maps of ASC phenomena, the third is surveys and overviews of ASC research, and the fourth is multivolume publications on ASCs.

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