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Spatial and Temporal Continuities in Phenomenal Experience in Fringe and Different States of Consciousness

by Todd Bresnick
Yeshiva University


The study will consist of the administration of measures to a group of participants who will be attending a seminar at the Wasiwaska Center for the Study of Psychointegrator Plants, Visionary Arts, and Consciousness in Manaus, Brazil, August 4 - 14, 2002. At this seminar participants will ingest ayahuasca, a South American hallucinogenic tea used historically by indigenous tribes and currently by indigenous tribes and three organized religions. The current study sill consist of the collection of retrospective report data associated with the participants' experiences after the ingestion of the tea, as well as their general experiences of mystical states, dissociation, and dreams. Measures including the Hood Scale of Mystical Experiences, the Dissociative Experiences Survey (DES), the Tellegen Absorption scale, the Hallucinogen Rating Scale (HRS), and a dream measure, will be administered at the beginning of the seminar. A Structured Interview will be administered after the completion of experiences influenced by the ingestion of the Ayahuasca. A follow-up questionnaire will be administered six months after the experience of the ayahuasca ingestion. The quantitative data will be administered six months after the seminar to collect longitudinal data concerning the maintenance of gains and effects from the experience of ayahuasca ingestion. The quantitative data will be analyzed using statistical analyses to find inter and intra-measure correlations. The qualitative data will be analyzed for relations to the quantitative data as well as to describe the phenomenal experience of ayahuasca. The fieldwork for this study was completed in Manaus, Brazil in August 2002. The data analysis and write-up are in process. Projected completion date for dissertation and publication is March, 2003.

The central construct through which this study will be examining consciousness, mystical states, dissociation, and dreams is that of William James' concept of fringe consciousness. James used the term "fringe" consciousness to indicate the sometimes vague halo of context and experience on the periphery of consciousness as well as the elusive transitional moments between more stable thoughts. He contrasted this fringe state of consciousness to "substantive," "focal," or "nuclear" consciousness, which is exemplified by those thoughts within a group that involve clear representation, i.e. thoughts with substbace. Fringe cognition, while being elusive and difficult to study, plays a significant role in defining substantive thoughts. By acting as the surrounding or interwoven consciousness between and within more definable cognition, it is what imbues that cognition with a sense of meaning. Fringe consciousness is thus present in simple experiences such as our sense of meaning associated with words which can be detected in retrospect through semantic satiation, or the loss of meaning experienced by the repetition of a word. Fringe consciousness is also central to more significant experiences such as leaps of understanding or feelings of rightness that take place during aesthetic experience, the sense of meaning that occurs during meditative, mystical, and religious experience, as well as similar experiences during other altered states of consciousness.

This study is approaching fringe consciousness by examining the use of the ayahuasca teas as the tea has historically been used to access fringe states of consciousness, including mystical and other states revealing aspects of space, time, and feelings of meaning. Ayahuasca has been used by indigenous peoples in parts of South America for medicinal purposes and in religious ceremonies for an estimated one thousand years (Metzner et al., 1999). The tea is also currently used by three religions in Brazil: Santo Daime, Uniao de Vegetal (UDV), and Barquena (McKenna et al., 1998). Reports of subjects who have ingested ayahuasca have included effects such as the enhancement of perception, increased understanding of the mechanisms of thought and perception, an increase in mystical states and religious experiences, an increase in synesthesia, a heightened sense of immediate present, and alterations in spatial and temporal experience (Strassman, 2001). Due to its particular properties, and by reversing the background and foreground of cognition, ayahuasca ingestion provides better access to the fringe states, mystical states, and the structures of consciousness than do other phenomenological and introspective research methods alone. The first goal of the study is to investigate phenomenological experience related specifically to fringe consciousness as well as spatial and temporal aspects of consciousness after the ingestion of ayahuasca. During strong versions of fringe consciousness such as mystical states, time and space often display distortion (Strassman, 2001). Given the experiences reported during these states, it is expected that subjects' reports will indicate a significant association between the sense of immediate present and the sense of spatial expansion and depth, both of which are experiences central to fringe states of consciousness. These potential findings would coincide with James' complementary definition of fringe both/alternately spatially and temporally defined. Understanding how fringe, temporal, and spatial components of consciousness vary in relation to pharmacological agents helps to illuminate the underlying mechanisms of consciousness, cognition, and fringe ontology.

The second goal is to investigate more generally the associations between spatial and temporal phenomenologies that occur after the ingestion of ayahuasca, and to investigate how these experiences are related to other commonly reported altered states such as mystical experiences, religious experiences, near-death experiences, introspective and emotional experiences, and parallel realities.

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