At the Gates of Alternate Consciousness: James and Huxley Chime In

by phil on Tuesday Feb 10, 2004 12:54 PM
alternate realities, consciousness, drugs

The following is an excerpt; citation appears below...


In his Varieties of Religious Experience William James (1929) observes:

[O]ur normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence but apply the requisite stimulus and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. (pp. 378-379)

The above lines are famous and they are quoted often, but not so often cited are the two sentences that introduce them:

Some years ago i myself made some observations on [the basis of a personal] nitrous oxide intoxication. . . . One conclusion was forced upon my mind at that time, and my impression of its truth has ever since remained unshaken. It is that . . . .

And there follow the lines that I have cited above (for more information, see James, 1882).

The novelist-philosopher Aldous Huxley (1959/1979) made similar observations following his personal experience with another psychoactive substance, mescaline. The mescaline experience led Huxley to write two essays, The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell. The following quotes are from the opening pages of the latter:

Like the earth of a hundred years ago, our mind stil has its darkest Africas, its unmapped Borneos and Amazonian basins. In relation to the fauna of these regions we are not yet zoologists, we are mere naturalists and collectors of the specimen . . . Like the giraffe and the duck-billed platypus, the creatures inhabiting these remoter regions of the mind are exceedingly improbable. Nevertheless they exist, they are facts of observation; and as such, they cannot be ignored by anyone who is honestly trying to understand the world in which we live. (p. 71)

A man consists of what I may call an Old World of personal consciousness and, beyond a dividing sea, a series of New Worlds -- the not too distant Virginias and Carolinas of the personal subconscious and the vegetative soul; the Far West of the collective unconscious . . . ; and, across another, vaster ocean, at the antipodes of everyday consciousness, the world of Visionary Experience. (p. 72)


From "Altered States and the Study of Consciousness -- The Case of Ayahuasca" by Benny Shanon, published in The Journal of Mind and Behavior, Spring 2003, Vol. 24, No. 2 (pp. 125-126)

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