Main content

"Five ways I tried to alter my state of consciousness"

For 50 years, one of the most powerful psychoactive drugs, LSD, has been illegal in Britain. The authorities do not want you to alter your state of consciousness. In 2016, the government passed a law banning all psychoactive substances except caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine. But can you enter altered states of consciousness without drugs?

“Psychonaut” was a term invented in the 1960s to encompass anyone who was interested in making a journey into their psyche, or “inner space”, or to give them a heightened sense of reality, or expand their consciousness. In our culture, that sounds pretty wacky and fringe. Historically, a lot of cultures including the Greeks and Romans thought that being able to expand your consciousness was pretty important. In some cultures today, for example in Bali, being able to enter a trance state is considered a normal part of life.

Out of the Ordinary presenter Jolyon Jenkins has tried out five highly experimental methods that Psychonauts have developed. There is no peer-reviewed evidence for any of the effects and they are officially untested and unproven. Presenter Jolyon Jenkins describes his personal experiences.

1) The God helmet

It’s like a bicycle helmet surrounded with 64 electromagnets which emit a varying low level magnetic field. Many subjects have reported “mystical experiences and altered states”. Not me, unfortunately.

Jolyon Jenkins tries out the God helmet.

2) Floatation tanks

Invented back in the 1950s, by a neuroscientist and Psychonaut called Dr John Lilly. Dr Lilly was also seriously interested in LSD, and tried to communicate with dolphins. Eventually all these fields of study got mixed up. He took LSD while in flotation tanks and tried to talk to dolphins while both he and the animals were on LSD. Even without dolphins, lots of people think flotation tanks are a way to achieve altered states. I went to one in Totnes, possibly Britain’s oldest. “It’s a short cut to bliss,” manager Faith Luke-Fennell told me. But I got a bit chilly and not very blissed.

Dr Dirk Proeckl demonstrating flickering lights.

3) Flickering lights

Writer Aldous Huxley, who experimented with psychedelic drugs in the 1950s, thought flashing lights could have the same consciousness-altering effect as LSD. So does Dr Dirk Proeckl, an Austrian neurologist and psychologist. He and a colleague invented a machine that flashes bright lights into your eyes - a so-called “hypnagogic light experience”. Dirk claims it “provides you access to a unique transcendental journeying experience.” My own journeys took me to Finsbury Park, London to try out Dirk’s machine, but no further.

4) The “Altered States of Consciousness Induction Device” or ASCID

This was invented by Jean Houston and Robert Masters. Jean Houston is pretty much the elder stateswoman of altered states of consciousness. For a while she was a guru to Hillary Clinton and helped her get inside the mind of the late Eleanor Roosevelt. She researched LSD in the 1960s, but later on started to get anxious about how many students were on psychedelic drugs, and tried to come up with different ways to have altered states experiences. One of them was the ASCID.

The ASCID device in my living room.

It’s a kind of swing, which the participant stands on. The swing can go back and forth, but also side to side and rotate round and round. The participant leans back onto a kind of canvas stretcher and is strapped in, blindfolded. The movements of the swing make them become disoriented, and then they get some frankly weird experiences. Inventor Jean Houston wrote: “Frequently, subjects move into a realm that can be described as employing a kind of visionary anthropology, experiencing subjective realities in which detailed fantasies unfold: fairy-tale like narratives, myths, archetypal figures, visits to 'other worlds' and to 'other dimensions.' Sometimes, religious and mystical-type experiences have occurred.”

The ASCID became pretty much forgotten. Hardly anyone has used one since the 1970s. But the results were so intriguing! So I made one myself. A few weekends and evenings in my workshop and I had one. It took up most of my living room.

Jolyon Jenkins investigates the retro ASCID machine

Jolyon constructs his own retro "altered states of consciousness induction device".

5) Holotropic breathwork

It’s a technique invented by another thwarted LSD researcher, a Czech psychiatrist called Stanislav Grof. Basically you lie on a mattress for two and a half hours, breathing fast and deep, while listening to loud music. In effect, hyperventilating. It certainly had an effect on me. Within a few minutes my face and limbs started tingling, I started twitching and shaking. I started to get emotional, tearful and angry, and felt very on edge. It was an altered state but caused by bodily stress, I think, not a voyage into inner space. The holotropic breathwork people think you shouldn’t try this at home. Personally, I wouldn’t really recommend doing it anywhere.

You can hear more about these experiments and Jolyon Jenkins’ experiences in the programme Out of the Ordinary.