John Suler's Teaching Clinical Psychology
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Fact and Fiction in the movie

"Altered States"

For my course States of Consciousness I often show the movie "Altered States." Being a Hollywood depiction of research on altered states, the movie gets a bit carried away in its portrayal of how the protagonist (William Hurt) undergoes a metamorphosis in his quest for the "self." However, along the way, it does present some ideas that are very useful in stimulating a class discussion. Below is the handout I give to students. In brackets are my comments that may help you - the teacher - inform and stimulate the discussion:

 

Several interesting ideas were presented in the movie "Altered States," but are those ideas fact or fiction? Here are some of those ideas. Are they true or false?


1. Schizophrenia is not a disease but rather an alternative way to perceive reality that may in fact be "spiritual." [R.D. Laing, among others, seemed to think so]

2. As they get very close to death, people often describe this experience as frightening or "terrible." [Consider Conrad's character in "Heart of Darkness" - played by Brando in "Apocalypse Now" - muttering "the horror" on his deathbed]

3. Sex can be an altered state of consciousness. [only if you do it right]

4. Sex can be a spiritual experience. [consider Tantric Buddhism]

5. Some cultures use hallucinogenic drugs as part of a religious/spiritual ceremony. [obvious anthropological evidence on shamanism, "medicine men," flower children, etc.]

6. Hallucinogenic drugs can create experiences that unlock ancient human memories (i.e., they can unlock the "collective unconscious.") [Jung would say so, wouldn't he?]

7. The "self" can be located in a specific area of the brain. [I imagine Descartes wouldn't have a problem with this one]

8. "God" can be found in a specific area of the brain. [didn't a famous physiologist suggest something like this concerning the pineal gland?]

9. The very first beginning of life (mind) is the "ultimate moment of terror." [enter Primal Scream Therapy]

10. Events in the mind - like hallucinations - can become "externalized" and produce actual physical changes in the body. [a bit science-fictionish, but science seems to support the idea that mind can indeed influence physiological processes. Yogi's can indeed control their heart rate and breathing far beyond what we might ordinarily expect.]

11. During intense altered or mystical states of consciousness, people sometimes experience an intense WHITE LIGHT. [Kubler-Ross and others also claim that after-death experiences involve this]

12. There's something psychologically (emotionally) wrong with people who actively pursue altered states of consciousness. [consider the topics of addiction and sensation-seeking]

13. There's something psychologically (emotionally) wrong with people who are on an intense spiritual quest. [Freud considered religion to be neurotic]

14. People who actively pursue altered states and spiritual quests often become out of touch with their friends and family. [didn' t Jesus tell the disciples-to-be that they must leave their families to come with him?]

15. Humans evolved from "ape-like" creatures; the human mind therefore evolved from the "ape-like" mind. [take a look at Ornstein's book about the evolution of consciousness]

16. Primitive experiences like hunting and killing can be "beautiful" spiritual experiences. [the famous Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi suggested this in his "Book of Five Rings." Walt Whitman also talked about the beautiful quality of Civil War battles - scenes that most people would consider horrific]

17. People hallucinate when placed in sensory deprivation tanks. [some do, according to this classic research]

18. The state of consciousness called "love" is more powerful than anything else. [a gimme]



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