Altered states of consciousness

Mario Di Fiorino


From: If the world does not end.When the prophecy plays false!
Copyright 1996 Psichiatria e Territorio

English traslation 1998

Lazzaretti Publisher

It seems to me it would be useful to publish an appendix of the explicative schedules on some of the phenomena met with, such as the states of trance, automatic writing and the mystic experiences (ecstasy, visions).

The ascetic practices, transcendental meditation (like Autogenic Training, Yoga exercises and dance) can induce "abnormal" states of consciousness (Fizzotti, 1992). It will be remembered, then, how also the use of inebriating substances causes altered states of consciousness.

There is a change in the functioning of mental parameters, since those who experiment with them find they have a perception of their own consciousness radically different to that they consider normal (Tart, 1972).

The destructuring of consciousness is brought about by precise techniques, sometimes with the use of images on which the attention is focused (a pendulum, a metronome, a mandala) or of sound stimuli (repeated, as in the recital of a rosary, or of a mantra).

The experience is not understood unless the cultural expectations and the psychological motivations that urge participation with the medium in a séance and with the therapist (or with the charlatan) in a hypnotic session are also taken into consideration.

The mystic experience of ecstasy

Mystic experience connotes inclusion of these fundamental elements: a feeling of union with nature, a feeling of fusion with God, preserving feeling of the self, loss of feeling of self until fusion with the other (Prince and Savage, 1972).

Then significant are: renunciation of worldly interests, ineffability of the experience, the noetic quality, ecstatic feeling, experience of union as basal and central event.

St John of the Cross describes the course which leads to ecstasy in two steps: "night of the senses" and "night of the spirit." "The first night is bitter and terrible for the senses, the second, however, cannot be compared with the first because it is simply horrendous and frightening for the spirit." And he adds: "in that way God clouds the souls of those who no longer know which way to take with imagination and with reasoning."

St John of the Crossís experience, like those of other mystics (for example St Theresa of Lisieux and St Francis of Assisi) passes, therefore, through states of soul dominated by sadness and anxiety. These are accompanied, in some mystic journeys , with atmospheres also of depersonalization and great intuitive flourishing.

St Augustine proposed a classification of corporeal, imaginary and intellectual visions.

The intellectual visions are considered the highest by theologians.

St Theresa of Avila tells that the imaginary visions are unexpected and vanish if an effort is made to fix the details.

Vision, therefore, presents distinctive characteristics with respect to hallucination. For Servadio, recalling Esquirolís classic definition of hallucination: "inward conviction of an ongoing perceived sensation," not even in St Theresa is there ever "the sensation of finding oneself before objectively perceivable experiences."

Borgna observes that the mystic experience is the counter-image of the psychotic experience. This latter is closed to the world-of-others and is not remembered, while the mystic experience is open to life and rooted in existence. The author takes his stance alongside Lhermitte: "What distinguishes absolutely mystic visions from pathological hallucinations are the effects that derive therefrom for the conduct of life." "We cannot put in doubt -- Lhermitte also wrote -- that impressive external manifestations might derive from a supernatural source and appear divine in their prime cause. We need only ask ourselves whether, physiologically or psychologically, the visions are not human actions set in motion by a power which goes beyond us and which we call God."

For Father Gemelli, "Empirical psychology cannot describe for us the nature of mystic facts because these phenomena do not in any way come within the scientific pictures already formed and because they elude experiment" (quoted in Arena, 1985].

On the relationship between illness and mystical experience, instead of asking ourselves if the mystic and other exceptional experiences of the religious life are pathological phenomena, we might better ask whether that practical person who has reported mystic experiences might or not be affected by some illness (Grühle).

After all, even the presence of disease need not a priori exclude that God might be revealed (Bini & Bazzi, 1967).

In an agnostic perspective, on the other hand, a pathological meaning is attributed to every revelation of divine communication.

Some authors have pointed out analogous elements between temperamental disorders and some ecstatic and religious exaltation experiences (Maudsley, Arieti, Goodwin & Jamison).

William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experiences, deals with the initiators or renewers of religious movements, those "for whom religion is not a banal habit but an acute fever."

"Still more, perhaps, than other types of genius, have the great religious leaders been subject to abnormal psychic visitations. Invariably, one was dealing with creatures endowed with exalted emotive sensitivity who, often, led a discordant, inward existence and suffered melancholy for a part of their career. They knew no bounds, exposed as they were to obsessions and fixed ideas; and frequently they fell into trances, they heard voices, they saw visions ...; moreover, these pathological manifestations helped them in their careers, conferring on them religious authority and influence."

In describing the features of the ecstatic experience, he speaks of a type of consciousness "realized as rich in importance and meaning", "a sense of perception of truth not before known," a feeling of well-being, hallucinatory phenomena. For the author, a doctor and influential scholar of the psychology of religion, affected by bipolar disorders, the ecstatic experience is the prerogative of certain temperaments:

"This enchantment is there or it is not, and there are persons who have no more likelihood of being possessed by it than they have of falling in love with someone to order."

Maudsley wrote that, in Arabic and Greek, the same words were used to say: the more the number of fits of madness, the more the prophetic or revealing frenzies of things divine, often equally incomprehensible."

A character disorder has been hypothesized in Martin Luther, George Fox, Emmanuel Swedenborg (Goodwin & Jamison) and Joseph Smith (Foster).

In the diary of Fox, founder of the Quakers (The Society of Friends) there is a note about an episode which happened on his seeing the city of Lichfield:

"At once the word of the Lord came to me, that I go there ... then the Lord commanded me to take off my shoes. I was barefoot and it was winter, but the word of the Lord was like a fire in me. So I took off my shoes and gave them to the pastors: and the poor pastors trembled and were stupified. Therefore, I continued on for about a mile, and, as soon as I entered the city, the word of the Lord came again to me and said: "Shout: Shame on the bloody city of Lichfield!" and no one laid a hand on me. While I was going along, shouting, it seemed to me that a torrent of blood ran through the street and the market appeared like a lake of blood."

Swedenborg, Swedish scientist and philosopher, was 57 years old (in 1745) when he had an apparition. He heard the voice of God say to him: I have chosen you to reveal the spiritual meaning of the Holy Scripture. I myself will dictate to you what you must write." He believed he was the Messiah.

Later. in 1757, he claimed to have been present at the last universal judgment. He left in his "The True Christian Religion" (1771) his project for the foundation of the church, that "saw light of day" only after his death.

The techniques of meditation (spiritual exercises, ascetic practices) can facilitate the achievement of ecstatic states.

In the "Spiritual Exercises" of St Ignatius Loyola (1548) the practiser must make a "composition of place".

In the first preamble of the first week, for example:

"the composition consists in seeing, with the sight of the imagination, the bodily place where what it is wished to contemplate is found ... In the (meditation) of an invisible thing, as is here, of the precepts, the composition will be to see with the imaginative sight and to consider my soul as imprisoned in this corruptible body and all the mixture in this land, as exiled among brutal animals; I say all the mixture of soul and body."

Scholem was asked about the elements of continuity between mystic and prophetic experience.

Usually, mysticism performs a preserving function: the experience of the mystic in fact confirms the religious authority under which he lives. It may, however, happen -- writes Scholem -- that a mystic oriented towards revolution "may think he possesses a prophetic gift and claim a prophetic function meant to reform his own community."

The author, however, clearly differentiates the mystic experience from the prophetic experience. He underlines the distinct character of the visions of the prophet while, on the contrary, the mystic experience is indeterminate and, often, undefinable.

Pavesi dwelt on the risk, for psychic equilibrium, inherent "also in practices of the traditional mystic way, for which reason such practices are strictly only for people with sufficient stability" (Pavesi, 1992).

The psychedelic "trip"

Aldous Huxley (1954) wrote that "lysergic acid and mescaline open the door to what is called the ëOther World of the Mind.í"

In the same year, the English psychiatrist, Osmond, after taking peyotl in the course of a religious ceremony with Canadian Indians, coined the term ëpsychedelicí (psyche, mind; delos, manifest).

LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) induces confusional states, characterized mainly by changes in the perception: hallucinatory images with very vivid colours, in kaleidoscopic sequences. Light is sought (staring at the sun can damage sight). Feelings of depersonalization, autoscopy, synaesthesia (fusion of perceptive experiences. An auditory perception, a sound, for instance, can be accompanied by visual perceptions. A noise confers a coloured tonality on the surrounding environment.) are experienced. The state of the soul fluctuates between euphoria and depression. Even long after the trip, flash-backs may happen with return re-presentations of the hallucinations.

Naturally, the peculiarity of hallucinatory experiences accounts for the difficulty in expressing them through narrative (as happens on the other hand with mystic experiences).

Many authors have described elements of similarity between the states induced by taking hallucinogens or, as a rule, inebriants, and mystic experiences (W. James, Huxley, Servadio).

The use of hallucinogens is sometimes made during religious rituals (like the use of fungi in shamanistic circles, described by Weitlander and Johnson at Oaxaka, Mexico [1938]), in order to obtain communication with the divinity.

The hypnotic trance

In the second half of the eighteenth century, Franz Anton Mesmer, an Austrian physician-ocultist, devised a series of operative techniques of magnetization. With an expert ceremonial framework, among reflections from large mirrors hung on the walls, accompanied by notes of "magnetized instruments", Mesmer proceeded to magnetize his patients with magnetic steps, hand manoeuvres of lightly brushing against and touching them, or with iron wands. He also carried out group sessions, using a "magnetic tub".

By means of the "magnetic fluid" flow, there were induced functional symptoms such as paraesthesia, but also true critical episodes generally of convulsive type. The crises were then followed and "guided" by assistants in an adjoining "chambre de crises".

One of Mesmerís followers, the Marquis of Puységur, held a magnetization session with a young countryman. But, instead of the usual crisis, he obtained a sort of sleep "in which, however, the subject seemed more alert and attentive than he was in his waking state." He responded to Puységurís questions and carried out his commands. On his reawakening, he remembered nothing of what had happened. The Marquis defined "artificial somnambulism" the condition that had induced the first hypnotic trance.

Mesmer exercised a deep influence in many directions, on hypnosis in general, on psychoanalysis, on many realities of esoteric-occulistic natures and of the new religious movements (Pavesi, 1986).

In particular, one healer, Quimby, held sessions with Mary Baker Eddy, the future founder of Christian Science.

The communicative chain was then taken up in spiritualistic circles, but by initiatory fraternities like Henry Durvilleís "orante animistic chain," as well.

The term hypnotism was coined and first used by James Braid (1795-1860), an English doctor, who reinterpreted what had taken place in the Mesmer environments in a neurophysiological key. Through the Nancy School, directed by Bernheim, and the Salpetrière of Paris, directed by Charcot, hypnosis became accepted in academic medical circles. Thus it came to influence Pierre Janet and Sigmund Freud.

Hypnotism was defined by Granone, the most authoritative Italian scholar of hypnosis, as "the techniques which induce in a subject a particular psychophysical state permitting influence over the psychic, somatic and visceral conditions of the subject by means of the "relationship" created between the subject and the hypnotizer."

For the author, the passage is from suggestion to the state of wakefulness to one of trance, to alert or somnambulist hypnosis through different degrees, for a progressive restriction of consciousness around the suggestive idea.

The mediumís trance

"The Book of the Spirits" by Hippolyte Rivail (1857), published under the pseudonym of Allan Kardec, was the first systematic presentation of spiritism.

In the spiritist doctrine, the medium is the intermediary between our world and that of the spirits. Inducing that state of trance makes use of Mesmerís techniques.

An important role is played by the expectations of the group that takes part in the spiritualist séance, and by the support of the "animistic chain".

If song has always exercised an influence in magic spells (Maxwell, 1905), the medium needs an atmosphere with darkness, stimuli, voices, shouts and songs."

In trance, Lombroso says, a "momentary psychic disintegration" is reached, making possible for the spirits of the dead to penetrate therein and take over the organs almost as if they were their own.

For Kardec, ecstasy is a more purified somnambulism. The ecstatic soul is still more independent. The spirit actually penetrates into the higher world; it sees and understands the happiness of those who are or wish to stay there, but it is a world that is inaccessible to impure spirits.

Automatic writing

Morselli defines it as "directed writing", "mediumistic writers", Lombroso as: "intuitive writers who hear a voice in the brain, dictating to them what to write."

This latter assimilates the phenomena of ecstatic revelations such as were described by St Theresa, St Brigit and St Catherine.

In the same years, a French doctor, Gibier, was interested in the "spontaneous writing" experiments of M. Slade. Jacob, a conjuror, made a statement attesting to the supernatural nature of the observed phenomena. Gibier described the writing of an invisible scribe on a slate. Slade said he felt the "current" pass through his arms. In fact, the writing formed even after two small slate slabs were placed at the sides of the sheet.

For Jung "it was a primary suggestion directed to the mind when the sensitivity was maintained, to the unconscious when the sensitivity was suppressed, but it was not a simple type of suggestion in that it contained an intellectual element: ëwriteí meant ëwrite somethingí"(1902). In the "mediumistic state" there enters into the conscious a mnemonic image (which does not have the distinctive signs of mnemonic images).

In a subsequent essay, Jung offers a different interpretation. In trance, the collective unconscious surfaces (1920).


Lombrosoís work "Ricerche sui fenomeni spiritici e ipnotici" (Researches on spiritistic and hypnotic phenomena) (1909) with its translations into German (Hoffman, Stuttgart) the same year and into French in 1922 (Flammarion, Paris) has exercised a certain influence on European culture. It has been used in an attempt to provide some scientific legitimacy in spiritistic spheres.

Lombroso recounts how his interest in spiritism was received with perplexity by his friends, who feared he might "damage an honoured name and a career which, after so many struggles, had at last reached its aim, for a theory which the whole world would repudiate and worse still would look upon with scorn and even find ridiculous." On the other hand, still in 1889, in his study on Lazzaretti, published together with Prof. Nocito, Lombroso states:

"... when in recent years prejudice was shown and spread against magnetism, and that more stolid still against speaking tables, it never went beyond the limits of a widespread error, and the alienation on this side had only sporadic victims."

In March, 1891, he accepted to take part in an experiment with the medium Eusapia Paladino and saw the elevation of "very heavy objects without contact."

The spiritistic sessions followed: the book contains the full account of 17 sessions held in Milan in 1892. Precautions were taken: "visit the medium, change his clothes, tie his hands and feet, put the electric light on the table so as to be able to put it on and off at will." Finzi summarizes the sessions in which the best names of the "Società di Freniatria" (Freniatric Society, the association of psychiatrists at the time) took part, and in his book there are phorographs of these austere professors with their hands on the table. Thus, there were attestations to table-lifting, contacts with the human face and other experiments of apport.

Morselli, in "Psicologia dello spiritismo" (The Psychology of Spiritualism) (Turin, 1907), indulging perhaps in the taxonomic classifying habit, registered 44 orders of manifestations, in 6 classes.

At other spiritist sessions with Lombroso and Paladino, in 1893 at Naples, Bianchi, Tamburini and Vizioli all took part. In 1906-7, experiments were conducted at Genoa at the Minerva Scientific Circle and at Milan in the Psychic Studies Society with Morselli, Marzorati and others.

On some occasions, Lombroso described the ghost of his mother, who took off the veils wound around her face to kiss him.

The author has collected his own observations, but has not proceeded to formulate a theory (the book ends without a conclusion).

It has been asked if there can be found in the medium a complete explanation of spiritistic phenomena. He considers another effort should be directed to this work. "And this effort by tradition through the centuries and of all the peoples and from experimental observation is set out for us in the residual action of the dead."

Examination of the medium Paladino revealed "a hollow pit in the left parietal", a stenocrotaphy and a dolichocephaly (which, however, he adds, is ethnic). In addition, in the left eye, there was the Claude-Bernard-Horner phenomenon, commonly found in epileptics.

Morselli observed that it was easier to magnetize Paladino than to hypnotize her. Magnetizing (see above) from below caused her a hemicatalepsy.

"In the trance state, she first paled, turned her pupils upwards and inwards, and moved her head sideways, then became ecstatic and yawned a lot, laughed spasmodically, frequently chewed, looked into the distance, and spoke a language sometimes very elevated and even scientific, ideation was very rapid,so that she grasped the concept of those present, even when they did not express it aloud, or expressed it in a mysterious form."

A great interest in spiritism is present also in Freud. In 1909, together with Fereczi, he witnessed mediumistic phenomena by the medium Seidler at Berlin. On the other hand, there are many writings by the Hungarian psychoanalyst that show attention to occult phenomena (such as the article Spiritismus [1899] and the review of Sonnambulismo e spiritismo by Lowenfeld [1900]) (Casonato, 1995).

Mine is not intended to be an irreverent exercise. Lombroso, though controversial, is certainly one of the great Italian psychiatrists for the originality of his thought.

The question remains as to how so many men of science, often deterministic and agnostic, come to have been attracted by esoterism and the world of the occult (1).

Certainly, a role is played by the historical context, which sees the fierce controversies against the assistance provided by the religious psychiatric institutions.

Lombrosian research on spiritism seeks to accumulate data and facts that "speak for themselves" with the pretext of reaching a "scientific" explanation. That reading might have opened a wound, by attacking the set-up and the responses the religious tradition has made to the problem of communication with the spirits and with the other world.

The Dissociative Trance Disorder in DSM-IV

In the latest edition of "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-IV, 1994) apropos "Dissociative Trance Disorder" involuntariness in induction is considered necessary. The intention is to discern the conditions attained in the course of cultural or religious ceremonial practices, which are accepted by the group to which the subject belongs.

All the same, even people who take part in socially accepted practices may then show anxiety or deficit.

In the trance, at the transient loss of the usual personality, there does not correspond the appearance superficially of another distinct personality as in Multiple Personality Disorder (which the DSM IV designates with the term Dissociative Identity Disorder). The movements are in general not complex (convulsive, falling, continuous). In "possession trance", there is the apparition of a distinct identity, or several, (spirits of the dead, supernatural entities, gods, demons) with characteristic behaviours, memory and habits. The movements tend to be more complex (coherent conversations, gestures, facial expressions, which are culturally established as belonging to the particular agents of the experience of possession). It is very likely there is complete or partial amnesia after an episode of trance by possession than after one of trance alone. In agreement with local cultural parameters some individuals can fluctuate between the two types of trance.

In the appendix on Culture Bound Syndromes, "spell" is spoken of as a state of trance, in which the persons "communicate" with deceased members of the family or with spirits. Sometimes, there is associated brief periods of personality change. It is a specific cultural syndrome found in southern United States practitioners, of both African and European origin. In folk tradition, they are not considered to fall within the province of medical attention, but they can be wrongly interpreted clinically as psychotic episodes.

Then there is described a picture called "zar", a term which indicates the experience of possession by spirits in Africans, Arabs and Persians.


(1) It has been recorded that the Assembly of Natural Researchers (counting German doctors and naturalists among its numbers), which met for the first time in 1820, had, in 1832, lauded Isis "goddess without peer, who, mysteriously to us, near and far, reigns in a grain of sand as in the brightly shining star." (Pavesi, 1986).

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