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Field, N. (1992). The Therapeutic Function of Altered States. J. Anal. Psychol., 37(2):211-234.

(1992). Journal of Analytical Psychology, 37(2):211-234

The Therapeutic Function of Altered States

Nathan Field, Ph.D.

Our normal waking consciousness … 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.… No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.

William James 1901M


While we may go through life without suspecting the existence of other forms of conciousness, as William James suggests, in fact we move in and out of them continuously. Even on casual inspection ‘normal waking consciousness’ appears to be much less common than we habitually assume, since it is continuously infiltrated by primary process thinking. When we are in the company of other people our interactions are repeatedly affected by the primitive mechanisms of projection and projective identification; when we are alone we frequently fall into day-dreaming, usually while performing some automatic task. Then there are those states intermediate between sleeping and waking which have been called hypnagogic (Bertini et al. 1964). These usually occur in the brief phases before falling asleep, or in periods of intermittent drowsiness while trying to stay awake. While some have no memory of such states, for others they are filled with intense visionary fragments, creative insights, music, and enchanting sensations.

The most familiar altered states of consciousness (hereafter called ASC) are those we experience nightly in sleep and dreams. In recent years sleep has been subject to considerable research, while dreaming has been a source of fascination and mystery throughout recorded history.

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