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Dec. 12th, 2015

Transitory Perception and the Out-of-Body Experience:
Interpreting Shamanic Journeying as a Hypnagogic State
Kaleb Smith
Saybrook University

Course: EHTP3110
Dr. Stanley Krippner
December 11th, 2015
A systematic empirical conception of the perceptual anomalies experienced in the hypnagogic state, and the distinction of these anomalies into discrete classes of experience, cannot be realized until an equally-systematic conceptual framework of consciousness, and its many levels, is first proposed. That is to say, in order to study the anomaly, we must first understand the medium which carries it. This prerequisite theoretical framework, serving as the base for further organized study towards an understanding of transitional perception, while undoubtedly based partially on aspects of that recorded perception, presents a far greater challenge to the researcher, requiring the analytical reach of observational science to extend beyond and within that of physical observation, itself, into the subtle energetic realms for which our naked eye serves little purpose. The first step towards this goal, however, is in unambiguously defining the various states (or bandwidths) of consciousness.

To establish a strong association between perceptions of the hypnagogic or hypnopompic class and the perceptions of the shamanic journey, I will use the term “transitory,” as it implies both the transitional state of the edge of sleep and the trance state of inward “transportation” commonly described by the journeying shaman as he or she transitions into realms of awareness purported to exist above or below our baseline waking state (Harner, Mishlove, & Bloch, 1990). I will attempt to interpret both experiences as discrete non-ordinary states-of-consciousness, distinguishable, in the most basic sense, by whether the experiencer’s perceptions occur spontaneously or with the focused intention of one’s subjective state.

Is Awareness A One-Way Street?
By their common dictionary definitions, the words “awareness,” “sentience,” and “consciousness” are essentially synonymous with one-another, contributing to a problem of vagueness as one attempts to simply express one’s experience of self and world. This problem extends, unabated, into academia, arguably representing the centermost issue in our current understanding of mind (Van Gulick, 2014). A multitude indistinct definitions and philosophical stances for the most basic of our mental states -- sometimes overlapping, sometimes conflicting -- force the serious researcher to adopt dead-end philosophical ruts of unresolved contentions on one hand and dense heaps of semantic generalities on the other, simply to establish the terms of discourse, To be clear, from the outset, it is not my belief that awareness and consciousness, as mental states, are one and the same.

This problem, in many ways, can be considered cultural -- made obvious, for example, when the defined vocabulary of Western psychology is compared, side by side, with that of the ancient inner-science of Hinduism. Twelve Hindu concepts can be found representing twelve distinct states of consciousness (Tart, 1969). Yet, when translated to English, these twelve Sanskrit words are crudely reduced to a single English word: “consciousness.” In a sense, whole millennia of refined subjective differentiation is lost to us before we even begin reading the Vedas. It can be read that awareness cannot exist unless an individual is fully conscious and awake (Freedheim & Weiner, 2003). And, yet, psychology is confronted with unexplained instances of experiences which suggest a connection between subconscious or unconscious states and aspects of physical awareness (Levitan & LaBerge, 1991; Tart, 1968, 1998). Lucid dreams, night paralysis, and the out-of-body experience, while controversial, are now recognized as legitimate and universally-occurring human occurrences which, at least in some fields of psychology, worthy of serious academic attention. And while the realm of mental activity just below the threshold of waking consciousness does not lend itself easily to observation or recording, brave and forward-thinking theories and experiments (Kahan, LaBerge, Levitan & Zimbardo, 1991)* continue to expand the acceptance of the subconscious experience as one relevant and deserving of dedicated study.

Consciousness: Above and Below
The conception of consciousness as a spectrum of distinct ranges or bandwidths of frequency, which we slowly travel down through towards sleep and back up through towards waking, is one of the most meaningful implications of EEG research. The detection of brainwaves revealed that our conscious state exists as a dynamic and measurable frequency, as a set of distinct and definable fields of oscillation, carried within the dense resonant branches of the neuronal networks of our cerebral cortex. By measuring this measured electrochemical frequency, as distinct from the cellular network that conducts it, conscious experience may be expressed a modulatory energetic phenomenon; a measured waveform traveling across a carrier medium. The changes which occur to these neuronal firing rhythms during hypnagogia may be monitored electroencephalographically and compared

*For an overview of transpersonal experiences of this and other types, see Friedman, & Hartelius (2013) and Scotton, Chinen, & Battista,(2008).

with those changes occurring during shamanic visionary trance. One of the few things we can say with any certainty about the hypnagogic period is that it is highly variable, both physiologically and psychologically, among individuals. “For some people this is an experientially nonexistent period, with no conscious recollection of any experience at all. For others this may be a period of enchantment, with beautiful visions, sweet music, and insights into themselves” (Tart, 1969, p. 73).

As we drift downward into the subconscious towards sleep, the range of our awareness changes accordingly. Closing our eyes and allowing our attention to recede inward, our thoughts become “long,” our semantic associations extending outward in branches, as we approach the lower state of Delta consciousness, where our dreamstate awaits. This change in the range of our awareness slowly limits the upper register of perception, that physical “surface” awareness of sound and bodily sensation, while, at the same time, opening our perception to awareness of a lower register, of those ranges typically unperceived in our everyday open-eyed waking (Beta) state. That is to say, as we travel downward through these frequency states, our awareness of self and environment does not simply disappear, but changes accordingly with our descending state of consciousness (SoC). For many, this transition from waking to sleeping takes place so quickly, there is little notice of the change occurring in awareness during that time. However, there are those individuals, as we know, who drift more slowly into sleep (if they enter sleep at all!) For these people, the uncommon thought associations and perceptual anomalies of the hypnagogic transition are more prominent, as the length of that transitory period of pre-sleep is extended. That is to say, while some individuals drop immediately into deep sleep within a few minutes of closing their eyes, like a stone dropping to the bottom of a pond, other individuals are predisposed to drift gradually down through the discrete ranges of consciousness towards sleep, whereby they are able to more closely perceive the distinct perceptual states of those non-ordinary ranges.

While the majority of these hypnagogic and hypnopompic perceptions are obvious hallucinatory manifestations of residual thought associations made during the onset of pre-sleep, or the alpha REM period (Mavromatis, 1987), still others suggest a legitimate state of sensory experience of the physical environment, able to be validated by subsequent waking observation in an experimental setting (Tart, 1968 ,1998). The unique hypnagogic sensory experiences of these “gifted” individuals suggest an framework of consciousness which include non-ordinary state-dependent perceptions, or perceptions which are dependent on the perceiver crossing over into a discrete SoC, whereby perceptual experiences like autoscopy or shamanic imagery may be made available. The fact that both of these examples can be considered culturally-universal human experiences, accepted by the consensus of nearly every culture of the world, extending back into prehistory, suggest these perceptions represent less a belief system and more an aspect of our species’ biology; a universal, albeit perhaps exceptional, range of human experience which, in the case of the out-of-body experience and its autoscopic perceptions may occur spontaneously, but in the case of shamanic journeying imagery, may be, with practice, be induced at will.

The out-of-body experience has been shown to produce consistently verifiable sensory information from the environment of the perceiver from a location outside that perceiver’s physical body. It is safe to assume that this OBE state can and has been reliably induced by traditional consciousness-altering practices like meditation or the use of psychedelic sacraments and has been traditionally been recorded as the “night flight” experience, representing the core of Judeo-Christian, Abrahamic, and Muhhammadian religions, and that this practice of controlled out-of-body journeying can be generalized as shamanism. These disciplined attentional practices have fallen out of practice and, despite representing the roots and ritual of major religions of the world, are not typically part of modern religious practice (lets remember, if the modern Christian were to truly be aiming to emulate Jesus, he would be spending 40 days fasting in the sandlot behind his suburban home!)
A model of consciousness which relies upon our understanding of the frequency measurement of discrete SoCs would provide us with a unique spectral mapping scheme, whereby these distinct states of consciousness, and any perceptions or ranges of information unique to them, could be located within a cartography of multiple bandwidths and “channels,” much like a how we’ve come to understand the bandwidths of the electromagnetic spectrum, and the many channels available to us via our radio receiver. As we watch an individual descend into the hypnagogic state, towards sleep, and monitor the electromagnetic signature of this descent with EEG equipment, we can note the bandwidths, Gamma through Delta, which represent the entire known frequency range of human consciousness. It is meaningful to measure and study the rarer experiences known to take place during the hypnagogic state, as well as the rarer experiences known to take place by the intentional induction of state-specific perceptions within the hypnagogic state, as in the practice of OBE or shamanic journeying or mystical experiences occasioned by the meditative use of psychedelic sacraments. Despite longitudinal EEG studies are labor intensive and the results notoriously difficult to interpret, hybridized studies which, for instance, focus on the event-related potentials recorded at the moment of purported out-of-body experiences may yield a set of signature cortical responses, most likely within specific cerebral areas, which could help us more reliably identify that state of consciousness electrochemically. As they say, this is an area ripe for future research and what is most exciting, at least to my mind, is the focus of these technologies, like EEG and MRI, which allow us to measure, image, and study the activity of our cerebral cortex, is the potentiality to focus them on exceptional human experiences, like those at the core of organized religions, which adherents cite as night flights and the interaction with divine entities; with gods or beings of white light. What would that EEG look like? What, if any, influence does divinity have on the nervous system of the person experiencing it? While it’s a far flung and unrealistic goal to ever perform that particular sleep study, I’d venture to say there are people alive today – be them shamans of the deep Upper Amazon Basin, or a hermit nestled deep in the mountains of rural India – who can reliably control their state-of-consciousness in ways which could be considered “exceptional,” and that this ability may be reliably verified in a multitude of ways, if there were a sleep lab in the mountains of rural India, or a mobile EEG computer system on a raft in the mosquito-ridden rainforests of Peru!

The systematic empirical conception of the perceptual anomalies of the hypnagogic state will depend, first, on the reliable measurement of those anomalies. But, even now, with the limited handful of studies we’ve discussed which seem to have captured those anomalies, a faint outline of a larger system underlying our conscious experience can be glimpsed and a possible cartography of our species’ greater subjective potential can be drawn.


Freedheim, D. K., & Weiner, I. B. (2003). Handbook of psychology: History of psychology (Vol. 1). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Friedman, H. L., & Hartelius, G. (Eds.). (2013). The Wiley-Blackwell handbook of transpersonal psychology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Levitan, L., & LaBerge, S. (1991). Other worlds: Out-of-body experiences and lucid dreams. Nightlight, 3(2), 1-5.

Harner, M. J., Mishlove, J., & Bloch, A. (1990). The way of the shaman. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row.

Mavromatis, A. (Ed.). (1987). Hypnagogia: The unique state of consciousness between wakefulness and sleep. London: Routledge.

Scotton, B. W., Scotton, B. W., Chinen, A. B., & Battista, J. R. (2008).Textbook of transpersonal psychiatry and psychology. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Tart, C. T. (1968). A psychophysiological study of out-of-the-body experiences in a selected subject. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 62(3).

Tart, C. T. (1969). Altered States of Consciousness: A Book of Readings (1st Ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Tart, C. T. (1998). Six studies of out-of-body experiences. Journal of Near-Death Studies, 17(2), 73-99.

Van Gulick, R. (Eds.). (2014). Consciousness, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/consciousness/


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Dec. 12th, 2015 10:09 pm (UTC)
; )
i like the white space...

it is very transcendental!
; )
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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