The Arrival of Consciousness Science at the University of Michigan Medical School

Photography by Joni Strickfaden

The Crazy Wisdom Journal Interview with Dr. Tarik Bel-Bahar, Research Investigator


In the Middle: George A. Mashour, Director of the Center for Consciousness Science and the associate dean for clinical and translational research in the Department of Anesthesiology; On the Left: Dr. Uncheol Lee, Associate Director of the Center for Consciousness Science and Research Assistant Professor with the U-M Medical School Department of Anesthesiology; Dr. Tarik Bel-Bahar – Interviewed in this Feature Article

In the Middle: George A. Mashour, Director of the Center for Consciousness Science and the associate dean for clinical and translational research in the Department of Anesthesiology; On the Left: Dr. Uncheol Lee, Associate Director of the Center for Consciousness Science and Research Assistant Professor with the U-M Medical School Department of Anesthesiology; Dr. Tarik Bel-Bahar – Interviewed in this Feature Article

The Center for Consciousness Science at the U-M Medical School was inaugurated in June 2014 by its Founder and Executive Director, Dr. George Mashour. That was around the same time that Dr. Tarik Bel-Bahar arrived in Ann Arbor. We were approached by Bel-Bahar in mid-2015, who suggested that CCS’s mission and activities might be ripe for a story in the CW Journal. We agreed. So what follows is an interview with Dr. Bel-Bahar, about the Center and its work. For long-time Crazy Wisdom Journal readers, this is a “must-read” about exciting work on the frontiers of consciousness research being done right here in Ann Arbor, right at the University, in the Medical School, no less.

Tarik Bel-Bahar is a Research Investigator at the CCS. He does data collection, analysis, and reporting on studies using psychometrics (questions and tests) and neurometrics (high-density EEG). His interests are focused on brain dynamics, consciousness, emotion, and other topics including psychopathology, personality, social cognition, mobile biosignals, ritual cognition and experience, and religio-contemplative metaphysics. 

Bel-Bahar is highly intelligent, gentlemanly and quick-witted. He has an exceptional grasp of the many and varied threads of the fields of consciousness science and consciousness studies. He is as at home talking about altered states of consciousness induced by meditation, shamanism, Roman Catholic chants, psychoactive substances or Sufi dances, as he is talking about examining brain dynamics with research-grade high-density-array EEG. Best of all, he’s possessed of a twinkle in his eye and a wizard-like appreciation for the mysteries yet to be solved in the field of consciousness exploration.

Bel-Bahar, 43, was born in Poland and spent his early childhood there. He spent some of his growing up years in Algiers, and then in New York City. He went to the University of Alaska in Anchorage as an undergraduate, and later received his Ph.D. in Psychology and Neuroscience from the University of Oregon. Currently single, he lives in Ann Arbor Hills.

Bill Zirinsky: Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Tarik. The Center for Consciousness Science (CCS), part of the Department of Anesthesiology at the U-M Medical School, is doing some exciting research, and I think our readers will be interested in the Center, its research, and what's ahead. 

Please tell our readers some basic information about the Center. How long has it been around? How did it come to be? Who are the movers and shakers behind its inception?

Tarik Bel-Bahar: The CCS is only two years old and was born after a decade of growing efforts at the U-M Medical School by Dr. George Mashour and colleagues to explore brain and behavior changes associated with anesthesia, and especially the induction of unconsciousness and the emergence of consciousness. The Center’s leaders also include Tony Hudetz and Uncheol Lee, two deans in the world of anesthesia and consciousness research.

Developing a better understanding of the mechanisms and measurement of consciousness (i.e., awareness, subjectivity, and conscious experience) is fundamental for the mind and brain sciences, and may have profound psychological, clinical, philosophical, and theological implications. Building on recent advances in consciousness research by the Department of Anesthesiology (U-M Medical School) and on the strong need for research centers dedicated to rigorous multidisciplinary studies of consciousness, the Center for Consciousness was founded. The CCS is focused on innovative and long-term research that will advance interdisciplinary models of consciousness. Researchers at the CCS are doing basic and translational research funded by NIH grants, using advanced brain connectivity and modeling techniques, providing training and research opportunities, and engaging with the emerging international community of consciousness researchers. In the first year and half of the CCS, we have grown to include over 50 core and associated faculty from the fields of neuroscience, physiology, anesthesiology, neurology, neurosurgery, psychiatry, psychology, philosophy, engineering, physics, mathematics, computer science, and music across seven institutions. 

A research center is usually setup by dedicated scientists when there is: 1) a strong core set of researchers with overlapping interests, 2) young or growing research agenda with international merit, and 3) good research infrastructure. The development of a center serves as a galvanizing force that can make the research more impactful.

We are part of a growing movement in the cognitive, medical, and engineering sciences to better understand the fundamentals and complexities of mind, brain, and behavior. As one of a few centers worldwide, the CCS is at the forefront of research into anesthesia, sleep, and altered states, but also reflects to some degree the broad multi-disciplinary nature of modern consciousness research. CCS faculty and associated faculty come from a range of disciplines including medicine, philosophy, psychology, physics, and engineering. This past year in April, we co-sponsored the premiere Science of Consciousness conference in Tucson and presented a range of experimental, behavioral, and brain-imaging work there. Readers are invited to peruse the Tucson conference website, the CCS website, and to look out for CCS-sponsored events open to the community.

As one of a few centers worldwide, the Center for Consciousness Science is at the forefront of research into anesthesia, sleep, and altered states, but also reflects to some degree the broad multi-disciplinary nature of modern consciousness research.

Bill Zirinsky: Can you tell us about the background of Dr. George Mashour? And how does he define the purpose of the Center? 

Tarik Bel-Bahar: George A. Mashour, M.D., Ph.D., is an anesthesiologist and neuroscientist who founded and directs CCS. Dr. Mashour’s primary scholarly interest is in consciousness and anesthesia. In his clinical research he studies intraoperative awareness and has conducted several major randomized controlled trials on brain monitoring. In his laboratory he investigates the mechanisms of unconsciousness during general anesthesia and sleep. Finally, his computational research group explores network science approaches to consciousness and unconsciousness. Mashour’s research is funded by the NIH and the James S. McDonnell Foundation.

Bill Zirinsky: Can you give us a sense of the size of the Center? How many scientists and researchers are working at the Center, how much money is being budgeted for the Center, either out of the U-M budget and/or from grant money and other funding sources? Were there also a few major donors to the Center, and who are they?

Tarik Bel-Bahar: The Center consists of about ten core faculty, about ten other collaborators at U-M, and about fifty associated faculty from around the country. We have an external advisory board of world leaders in consciousness research. Our current budget comes mainly from current and new federal grants focused on research into anesthesia, along with support from U-M. We actively seek out new opportunities to build out our research portfolio into other research areas. We have received some private funding for a one-year project examining kundalini yoga. Considerable seed funding is required to jumpstart long-term research programs into traditionally underfunded research areas such as altered states of consciousness associated with religious, mystical, psychedelic, or contemplative practices.

BZ: In explaining to me why the growth of the Center is an interesting story, you noted it is a story of anesthesia "rediscovering" consciousness just as the "consciousness science movement is heating up." Please elaborate.

Tarik Bel-Bahar: For nearly a century and a half, anesthesiologists have been working with turning general consciousness on and off in operating rooms for millions of people around the world. But to date we still do not understand this on/off process in terms of neuropsychology. What is this consciousness that we lose when we go to sleep and that returns when we wake up? Some researchers, including Dr. Mashour, have increasingly focused on directly examining cognition and brain dynamics before, during, and after anesthesia. This kind of research reflects a growing synergy between the medical, brain, and cognitive sciences. It builds on the extensive knowledge about anesthesia at a neurochemical level and in terms of fine titration and control of various substances used for anesthesia. It also builds on developments in cognitive neuroscience, millisecond-resolution functional brain imaging, and advanced computational methods that draw from advanced math and physics, including graph theory and dynamical systems. In another sense, this line of research brings about interesting findings that consciousness and cognition researchers can benefit from, and anesthesia research in turn benefits from the wide range of techniques and theories for examining consciousness and cognition. Other influences have included research programs focused on the cognitive unconscious (some pioneered by CCS collaborators here at U-M) and disorders of consciousness involved with brain damage and coma.

BZ: You noted that there are three pillars of the Center's work. Please delineate those three pillars?

Tarik Bel-Bahar: There are three “pillars” or general research themes. They are: 1) Human experiments focused on brain dynamics and monitoring of consciousness, 2) Experimental neuroscience with small animals, focused on brain and biochemical dynamics, and 3) Altered States of Consciousness (including those related to anesthesia, contemplation, mysticism, etc.). The Center is also associated with multi-center studies of anesthesia effects and post-surgery recovery.

BZ: You provided an article for me by Anil Seth, the co-director of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex, on "Consciousness: Eight questions science must answer." Which of those eight questions is the CCS engaged in exploring and understanding more deeply? 

Tarik Bel-Bahar: We are primarily looking into questions one and two regarding anesthesia, what are the critical brain regions and mechanisms for consciousness? Researchers at CCS look at how different parts of the brain work together in modulating local and global network dynamics during anesthesia and other forms of altered states of consciousness. We are also looking at which brain regions are active and coordinated most during specific kinds of altered states. By understanding how these brain effects and associated altered states are modulated in different conditions, we also contribute to the growing knowledge about the mechanisms of anesthesia, especially in terms of fluctuations in high-order cortical function linked to awareness and integrated cognition.

BZ: I saw that John Krystal, Chair of Psychiatry at Yale, was in town a few months ago talking about ketamine therapy for depression. You mentioned to me that there is a 50-year history of ketamine research, and ketamine can be an anesthetic, an analgesic, an anti-depressive, and a psychedelic. Tell us more about ketamine, and, in a nutshell, what Dr. Krystal talked about.

Tarik Bel-Bahar: Ketamine is an important compound in anesthesia, on which early tests in humans were run in the early 1960’s by Dr. Edward Domino, a scientist from the U-M Department of Anesthesiology. Since then there has been continuing work on the mechanisms and effects of ketamine, including ongoing studies by CCS researchers that focus on examining brain dynamics and altered states during different ketamine doses. Overall, ketamine is a great example of a substance that can help us understand more about mind, brain, and behavior. It has known effects that can be replicated and studied in controlled medical contexts. 

Dr. Krystal’s talk was the 2nd Annual CCS Lecture and focused on developments over the last decade or two (among others) in the use of ketamine as a therapy for clinical and/or chronic depression. This groundbreaking work has well established the main effects of light doses of ketamine on quickly reducing depression. The work now continues to examine these effects over time, at different dosages, and over treatments of varying length. Although much research remains to be done, this progress at a premiere academic institution bodes well for more research in psychiatry on the effects of substances that have psychedelic and dissociative properties. 

This groundbreaking work has well established the main effects of light doses of ketamine on quickly reducing depression.

So, unlike some anti-depression medicines, ketamine has a psychoactive component? And how might that be useful in the treatment of depression?

Yes, ketamine is known for its psychedelic properties including, particularly, dissociation and disembodiment. The total effect on depression is what has been mainly studied thus far, and the specifics are not clear, though there is a growing set of data and theories that attempt to explain what’s going on. The empirical story about how psychoactive components might be useful in various forms of psychiatric therapy is still in development, and the real systematic and long-term work has not yet really begun. One theory that makes some sense is that ketamine helps to disrupt coordinated brain activity, which along with producing a psychedelic component, also somewhat “resets” or “de-stabilizes” the system. It’s probable that it’s useful for chronic depression for these reasons of “resetting,” and other psychedelic substances may have positive mental health effects (e.g., LSD or psilocybin for insight therapy). The effects of various dosage levels, long-term psychological effects, and the variety of effects across different psychedelics have yet to be studied comprehensively.

The current age of brain science has been going on for about 25 years, is that correct? 

Overall, brains, like minds, are seen from afar, like stars, through the telescopes of scientific methods, and different kinds of telescopes are needed to really “see” the action in full. Further, there are of course multiple arcs in science and society, some short, some taking years, some taking decades or longer. The current version of modern cognitive neuroscience really jumped off in the late 80’s with the advent of human brain MRI and functional-MRI (fMRI) for psychological research, which followed up on the heyday of cognitive science in the 70’s and 80’s. But the field has grown quickly and moved past older points of view focused on particular brain regions as loci of mental faculties (aka blob-ology). 

Over the past few decades there have been several waves of changes, including moves to combine various brain imaging technologies, stronger synergy between cognitive and brain sciences, advances in brain imaging technologies and analysis methods, and, recently, growing national and international funding for big-data/brain science projects. So, in a sense, a new age of brain science has already begun, and the fields of brain imaging and cognitive neuroscience are likely to make big strides as over this century, increasingly in synergy with genetics, molecular-imaging, medicine, and engineering. One thing for sure is that new technologies and more computational capacity will continue to transform the brain and cognitive sciences. It’s also important to note that various kinds of experimental neuroscience have been going on for over 60 years, including work with brain pathologies, cellular and systems neuroscience, and with electroencephalogram (EEG) approaches to capturing brain dynamics. Overall we should expect many new and interesting developments in the analysis of brain dynamics in the coming decades.

You explained to me that "the way each of us is brain-wired is the connectome." Can you define for our readers what the human Connectome Project is about? How long has connectome research been going on? And what are a couple examples of the kinds of cutting edge research in brain-science being done as part of the Human Connectome Project (HCP)?

Work into the brain connectome is only a few decades old and represents important current questions in neuroscience. For example, there are tens of thousands of miles of wiring in the brain, and single neurons have thousands of connections. The idea of “connections” and “connectivity” have gained more importance as researchers have started assessing the influence of major fiber tracts in the brain on cognition and behavior, and as researchers continue to hunt in more complex ways for the “brain code,” which is likely based on the functional-dynamic interactions across brain regions and networks. The rise of connectomics and connectivity is also a reflection of society-wide trend of increased interest into networks and complex systems over the last 20 or 30 years.

The HCP is an example of a large brain science initiative that is really pushing the boundaries forward and creating a whole new playing field for researchers. There are several similar initiatives focused on special populations such as autism or pain, or focused on particular kinds of brain imaging methods. The HCP is a federally funded project that includes various forms of data about brain connections, structure, and connectivity in a large number of participants. It also provides tools for viewing and analyses. It is reflective of current mood focused on big standardized databases, partly due to developments in engineering and computing, but also partly to push for standardized and coordinated efforts that can make big impacts. With continued effort, this kind of big-push funding will lead to amazing new brain-based technologies and industries over this century. 

In a sense, our brains’ idiosyncratic patterns of connectivity make us who we are, both unique and similar to other individuals who presumably have slightly different connectivity patterns. We can also see this emphasis on “individuality” in the growing emphasis on “personalized or precision medicine.” 

You sent me a link about the U.S. Brain Initiative. You explained to me that the European Union has been ahead of us in devoting research dollars to brain science, and I learned, from reading about the U.S. Brain Initiative, that President Obama got behind brain science in mid-2014 by making a commitment to fund $4.5 billion dollars over 12 years to seven high-priority research areas. And that, later in 2014, $46 million was given in grants to over 100 investigators in 15 states and other countries. What are the seven high-priority research areas? And what are some of the research projects now taking place at University of Michigan, or soon to take place, as a result of this? 

Yes, America has gotten on board in terms of coordinated funding into brain and mind, a program, which in the long run may be more impactful than the heyday of the U.S. space program with all its benefits to humanity. We are also likely to see synergy across U.S., E.U., and other brain-research initiatives, both public and private. The final seventh goal of the U.S. initiative is the most telling: Discover how dynamic patterns of neural activity are transformed into cognition, emotion, perception, and action in health and disease. This is the ultimate current goal of the brain and mind sciences, and is strongly related to explaining how human consciousness happens. It may take us several centuries to really get there, but big consolidative leaps in progress are on the way. The first six research goals are about the heavy lifting and fundamental work needed to really reach that seventh goal. 

These goals involve a lot of fascinating work, including mapping the brain circuits of mice and monkeys, building computer simulations of the brain in action, and building out new ways to compute and visualize data. In brief, the first six goals are as follows 1) full parts list including specific types of cells across the brain, 2) maps ranging from synapses to the whole brain, 3) large-scale monitoring of neuronal populations, 4) brain-behavior causality, 5) fundamental principles for biological basis of mental processes, and 6) innovative technologies and research networks for understanding the brain and treating associated disorders. One of the center’s recent publications is from Dr. Cindy Chestek’s U-M lab, a Brain Initiative awardee, where recent work has shown for the first time that ketamine anesthesia disrupts connectivity between sensory and motor neurons.

Can you connect the dots for our Crazy Wisdom readers who will be interested in the work CCS is doing and how it relates to the contemplative sciences, meditation, yoga, psychedelics, shamanism, and so on. Please lead us through this thicket so we can understand how it happened that the Department of Anesthesia became a logical, albeit beguiling, place for cutting edge brain and consciousness research to be taking place, and how CCS is integrating practices not customarily studied at the Medical School?

In brief, anesthesia, drugs, and altered states have long been intertwined topics. Relatedly, altered states also go together with yoga, meditation, prayer, religion, and psychedelics. The CCS connection with altered states is based on several reasons. Altered states often happen during or after anesthesia. Tracking specific altered states is important for anesthesia and consciousness research. At CCS, some of our studies focus on the anesthetic and cognitive effects of drugs such as ketamine and nitrous oxide, which are known for inducing altered states of mind. Traditionally, altered states have been generated endogenously via a range of structured practices associated with religion and mysticism. During the early days of the psychedelic movement, pioneering psychonauts such as John Lilly self-administered ketamine and other drugs as part of their explorations. Looking further into these approaches, some of which also entail the use of specific drugs or rituals, may help us better understand altered states across a range of contexts, and build up a brain-based theory about the neural and cognitive mechanisms during altered states.

A science of consciousness, as we envision it, builds on models and methods from psychological, biological, and social sciences and is perfectly poised to make breakthrough contributions in our scientific understanding of experiences in practitioners from the world’s religious and contemplative traditions. As part of the CCS commitment to studying a wide range of normal and altered states of consciousness, our current and planned studies focus on expert long-term practitioners involved with certain forms of shamanism, yoga, and Buddhism. In the long-term, we are also interested in altered states during prayer, religious ritual, and mystical states. For example, what are the brain and consciousness dynamics involved during experiences of God, divinity, sacredness, total/absolute reality, non-duality, unity of being, self-cessation, transcendence, ineffability, bliss, or various forms of “awakening”?

Research is heavily under-developed in comparative religious studies as well as the neuroscience of religion and contemplation, with most of the basic descriptive and exploratory research work yet to be done. New data-driven models and taxonomies are needed now. To build an understanding of complex phenomena such as spiritual experiences requires high-resolution scientific models that track various neuropsychological processes (e.g., awareness, cognition, perception, emotion, memory, motivation) and states of consciousness (e.g., the experience of God, bliss, non-duality). The new work being planned by the CCS can serve as a basis for future explanatory and predictive studies on the mechanisms of specific religious-spiritual practices and their effects. Such systematic projects will lead to important implications for our understanding of 1) the neuropsychological processes and consciousness states associated with religious experiences, in general and in specific traditions, 2) the impact of religious practices on practitioners’ experiences in terms of agency and free will, beliefs and expectations, emotion and pain regulation, self-knowledge, self-control, well-being, and character strengths, and 3) enriching inter-religious, inter-cultural, and science-religion dialogues. 

Shamanic practitioners are thought to enter altered states of consciousness (ASC) including trance, interacting with non-physical entities, and traveling to different levels of shamanic reality.

Please tell us about your study of shamanic healing and the brain?

Our study is mainly focused on brain dynamics and altered states of consciousness in shamanic healing experts while they do shamanic healing at a distance directed at a specific adult human target. Shamanic traditions are found across human cultures, and include proto-religious and visionary elements that serve as a foundation for modern ritual, prayer, and contemplative practices. Shamanic practitioners are thought to enter altered states of consciousness (ASC) including trance, interacting with non-physical entities, and traveling to different levels of shamanic reality. Currently there are few empirical studies that have examined shamanic practices and associated psychological states in controlled laboratory conditions. 

In this study we assessed ASC and emotion states in experienced shamanic healing practitioners relative to an age/gender-matched control group with no interest in shamanism. All participants experienced two music conditions with simultaneous EEG recording: shamanic drumming and classical. The shamanic-practitioners performed shamanic healing during the drumming music condition whereas controls only listened to the drumming music. We are examining changes in self-reported altered states and brain dynamics across the different conditions and groups. 

Here is an example of findings regarding self-reported altered-states: In the drumming versus the classical music conditions, the shamanic-practitioners group, relative to controls, reported significant increases for the following ASC dimensions: bliss, changed meaning of percepts, complex imagery, disembodiment, experiences of unity, insightfulness, spiritual experiences. Further, for shamanic-practitioners, retrospective-timeline reports of states across the shamanic healing period showed a gradual increase and decrease in: lack of environmental awareness, communicating with the healing target, intensity and being in a different physical or spiritual place. Shamanic-practitioners also reported an initial brief increase at the start of the drumming music condition, and a subsequent gradual decline for visual imagery, effort, traveling, flying, and communication with helping forces.

How do participants enter altered states of consciousness in the shamanic and meditation studies? Do you get oral histories of their interpretations of these processes? 

All participants are asked to perform a prototypical well-known series of steps. In some cases we ask participants what the steps are that they take. Expert participants in our recent shamanic healing study used their personal technique for beginning their shamanic healing ritual, which involved some combination of drumming, rattling, focusing on a sacred object, and the like. They also listened to drumming music during this period.

And, yes, we get “written and/or oral descriptions of their experiences” after a particular experimental period is over. We also use more quantitative psychometric measures of ASCs, like emotion, and associated psychological states like the ASC dimensions I just mentioned.

In some of our meditation-related studies, participants perform a specific technique from their contemplative tradition, with as clear of a start and end as possible. In all our studies we ask specific questions about the expected experiences within that tradition, as well as more general questions about a range of known ASCs (disembodiment, unitive experience, complex imagery, and so on). Some of the tradition-specific questions are often done on a timeline to better capture temporal aspects of the experiences (such as, in shamanism, flying, presence of spiritual beings, or travelling-between-worlds). 

What is this consciousness that we lose when we go to sleep and that returns when we wake up?

Can you cite some questionnaire feedback from people reporting on their ASC? What does the reporting read like compared to people answering the same question in the control group? 

We mainly analyze the questionnaire data, and found that the shamanic healers reported a lot more ASCs related to spiritual experience relative to the controls, as well as experiencing generally more positive emotion during the 25 minutes of listening to drumming music. In terms of brain dynamics, the differences between the shamans and the controls are more subtle and we are currently working on the results. Currently, the differences in terms of the brain dynamics seem to not be very different between the shamanic healers and controls. We expect to publish the results early next year . 

What does the brainwave activity look like for people during an ASC? 

We use baseline periods of eyes-closed resting to compare to other periods where we believe ASCs to be occurring. Our main work, in terms of the neuropsychology of ASCs, is associating self-reported ASCs with specific aspects of brain dynamics (including brainwaves). However, it should be noted there are many dimensions to ASCs.

You have an upcoming study on meditation and the brain. Tell us about that. Who will be your subjects, and what are you hoping to accomplish?

We plan to work soon with long-term 15+ year Zen Buddhist practitioners in one upcoming project. Of all kinds of meditation, Zen probably has the strongest roots and development in the Western world, and we plan to work primarily with ordained monks and abbots from across the nation, as well as long-term lay practitioners. We will look for unique activity of altered-states and EEG brain dynamics associated with several kinds of meditation and chanting, relative to baseline control periods, control cognitive tasks, and a control group of matched participants. The control groups will consist of meditation-naïve people that are age, gender, and education matched to the Zen practitioners. Some tasks to be performed are unique to Zen, and some of the tasks are designed to be comparable to meditation practices in other traditions, such as specific forms of chanting or compassion prayers. We also hope to compare outcomes of this study with those from similar studies we have developed looking into shamanism and yoga. This kind of research also allows the development of a database of information about psychological variables in Zen practitioners relative to controls, including ASC levels in daily life and practice, health factors, quality of life, pain, depression, anxiety, and character strengths such as optimism and patience.

And, later on, you are intending to also study kundalini yoga from an "Effects of Aging" angle? 

The Kundalini Yoga movement in the West is fascinating in many ways, and offers an opportunity to study yoga-based practices that are relatively formulaic and well-rehearsed. Our Kundalini Yoga study is designed similarly to the Zen study, except that it is focused on practitioners over 50 years of age, and includes Kundalini Yoga practitioners as the “expert” group. The focus will be on understanding altered states and brain dynamics that are unique to a small subset of the varied Kundalini Yoga practices originally taught by Yogi Bhajan. For example, this would include some advanced kriyas, pranayama, and meditation practices. As with the Zen study, the focus on these studies is to develop small yet impactful well-designed research focused on isolating the “active” ingredients, if any, in well-selected expert groups. These kinds of studies will make a big difference in advancing research into meditation and contemplation techniques, especially by mapping out similarities and differences between groups and practices, and overcoming many of the problems with past research into meditation techniques.

And in these research projects which you just described, you are using EEG testing, not MRIs, is that correct? And why?

The CCS includes researchers that use a range of technologies including EEG, MRI, and other methods. The focus in the projects I am involved with is examining brain dynamics with research-grade high-density-array EEG. Modern EEG is really a thing of wonder that is set to outclass current fMRI for functional brain imaging. EEG is five percent of the cost and size of fMRI, provides exquisite millisecond temporal resolution, as well as “pictures” of brain activity and connectivity that are quite similar to those from fMRI. Further, EEG has a strong base of over 60 years of active research, relative to the youth of newer approaches.

You said to me that there is a move in brain science to get out of the lab and move into more realistic, day-to-day situations. You told me that there are now mobile, wearable and "dry" EEG systems. Tell us about them, and their uses for brain science research, and also, will there come a time that there will be wearable MRI "hats," and if so, when?

In the future we will wear (in our clothes) or implant (in our bodies) tools for continuous brain and body assessment. It will most likely be something like EEG, or some new technology that integrates developments in nanotechnology and computation speed. Currently, there are new EEG systems that allow movement which is usually restricted in traditional cognitive and EEG studies. These new systems increase the realism of the studies, as we are usually moving about when we think and act. Some of these systems also require very little time or training to apply, and have dry electrodes which require none of the traditional sticky gel. There are a few consumer-grade systems on the market that can be bought and used by anyone, but they are still low-quality. There are also a handful of companies that build mobile EEG systems such as in San Diego. 

Overall these mobile systems are important because they can be used for studying everyday life perception, cognition, and interaction. They will also provide a window into the embodied mind, as our mind-brains are continuously and permanently intertwined with the rest of the body and the world. This area of research is really a frontier territory, and we’re still a bit away from a time when everyone puts on their brain monitor all day long to track themselves or to send data to their doctors (but we’re almost there!). In the near future, wearable and unobtrusive brain and bio-signal monitors will be used for augmenting performance and cognition across domains and the lifespan.

For example, what are the brain and consciousness dynamics involved during experiences of God, divinity, sacredness, total/absolute reality, non-duality, unity of being, self-cessation, transcendence, ineffability, bliss, or various forms of awakening?

How do you screen for people with 15 or 20 years of expertise as meditators or yoga practitioners or shamanic healers?

“High-quality and representative” participants is one of the major issues in meditation and religious science. This is a general issue for researchers working in communities without large homogenous groups of contemplative practitioners. First there are some historical (which schools and methods are most developed in the West?) and regional (major coastal cities that are hotbeds of alternative spirituality) factors. Further, self-ascribed “great meditators” will likely not be that great, and true “great meditators” are most likely to be hard to find. For some of our studies, verifiability and authenticity of training depends to some degree on the “official” affiliation of a potential participant with a specific tradition. We’re not expecting to find the top one percent, but rather in the upper twenty percent of the population, in terms of documentable expertise in particular practices. 

Other issues abound, such as the heterogeneity and individualism of contemplative practices in the West, Westernized and de-contextualized forms of yoga and Buddhism, and the degree to which researchers choose to draw only from formal contemplative communities. The success of finding experts also depends on the specific group and type of practice in question. Finally, there is no one well-known method for pulling expert contemplatives from the population. We vet our protocols and target “expert” groups with consultation from tradition-specific experts, and plan a collaborative alliance with other related centers of research to maximize our efforts and share the opportunity to work with high-quality long-term practitioners. 

Some steps that can be taken to maximize the quality of participants in empirical studies of meditation, contemplation, and religious experience include:

  • Advertising through direct contacts to practice communities, contemplative hotspots, and major cities around the country, and word-of-mouth with leaders in specific practitioner community
  • Focusing on people that are usually over 40 or 50 with practice experience mainly in only one or two major traditions
  • Focusing as much as possible on formally trained and ordained contemplative practitioners, although advanced lay/self-taught practitioners are an interesting sub-group of participants
  • Interviews about background, training, and practice history, including general descriptions of practice actions and content. Getting details about “other practices” besides the one of interest in the study
  • Confirmation by the participant of training under an expert in a known established school or methods for two or more years
  • Confirmation by the participant of ongoing practice of a specific form of practice for at least the last five years with a certain number of hours per week and month
  • Confirmation by the participant of ongoing practice of specific form(s) of practice(s) for at least the full number of years that are set as the threshold for the study
  • Brief interview with three references (other practitioners) to confirm practice history of the participant

Screening questions to make sure that the person can do the tasks (for example, sitting relatively still, doing a specific practice) and does not have various characteristics (for example, epilepsy, traumatic brain injury, major physical or psychiatric illness)

Please tell us about the "extensive self-report measures of altered states of consciousness" that are being used across the CCS studies? You sent me a link to an article on "psychometric evaluations of altered states of consciousness." Can you explain that to our readers, in laymen's language, because I think it's pretty darn interesting now that I have a layman's inkling of what you're doing in building standard measures for understanding altered states?

We ask people questions about their experiences during various experimental periods, such as after a shamanic healing session, a light dose of ketamine, a round of pranayama, or a non-dual meditation. The questions vary in number and topic, but essentially touch on emotional states and a range of empirically well-established altered states including disembodiment, unity, bliss, oceanic boundlessness, changed meaning, visual imagery, audio-visual synesthesia, and insightfulness. These questionnaires build on over a half-century of work in measuring altered, religious, mystical, and drug-induced states. Our work will allow comparison of altered states across groups and conditions, and also allow comparison of our findings to those of other researchers assessing altered states in a similar way. In the near future, a range of new questionnaires are being developed focused on experiences that are specific to particular practices (for example, bliss about what?, or describing the specific features of one’s experiences of unity). In our meditation studies, questionnaires are also supplemented with brief post-task interviews and open-ended questions that allow participants to provide a personal narrative about their experiences. Future studies will have no-self-report “behavior” or “performance”-based assessments of changes during or after a specific experience, which will be detecting or reacting to some kind of visual or auditory stimulus.

In the article on psychometric measures, it appeared to me that current-day consciousness researchers would like to understand and evaluate the experiences of "oceanic boundlessness" and "visionary restructuralization" that one might go through in ingesting psilocybin, MDMA, ketamine or other substances. In other words, the time has finally come that academia is again able to study the properties of, and the effects of, and the value of, hallucinogens and other psychoactive substances, after decades in which academia had to turn away from such research and exploration. Can you briefly survey for us where else this kind of consciousness research is going in this country? How unique is the work going on at CCS?

There are so few consciousness science centers that most of the work done at each center is unique. There are several other consciousness science centers, for example in Arizona, Finland, and England. These include several other groups that work in the areas of anesthesia and/or consciousness. Consciousness science centers also have a focus on perceptual and cognitive processes, simulation of brain and mental dynamics, as well as robotics and artificial intelligence. A lot of work related to these topics is also done under the auspices of more traditional psychology and neuroscience centers, or centers associated with Integrative/Complementary healthcare, Contemplative Studies, Or “Integrative Studies.”

Research into altered states and psychedelics is certainly on an uptick in the last five years or so. For research into altered states and psychoactive substances, it’s worth taking a look into research at Johns Hopkins and at Imperial College London. We’re still far from a full opening of the floodgates of research into psychedelics, but the recent research is well-controlled, done in healthy humans, and promising. In the long run, old and new psychoactive substances will likely serve as excellent empirical telescopes to better understand the mind and consciousness both at the level of mental-health effects and the level of examining the “nature and architecture” of consciousness.

In the near future, wearable and unobtrusive brain and bio-signal monitors will be used for augmenting performance and cognition across domains and the lifespan. We ask people questions about their experiences during various experimental periods, such as after a shamanic healing session, a light dose of ketamine, a round of pranayama, or a non-dual meditation.

You would like to build a "self-report platform" online. Tell our readers what that would be, and how and why?

This is a pet project of mine, an easy to use web-based data-gathering platform for assessment of mind-body practices for use by scientists and practitioners. It would essentially contain high-quality questionnaires and cognitive tasks regarding health, emotion, and a range of psychological factors including altered states of consciousness. There would be short version and long versions, which people could take just once or twice, or many times in order to get a data report. The idea is that millions of practitioners (and teachers) at yoga, meditation, and other mind-body centers can “share” data to get a clearer empirical picture of what’s happening as a result of mind-body practices. These kinds of questions require international samples in the thousands and more to be valid and robust in their implications and usefulness. Such a system would allow individual centers or teachers to track before/after scores for classes and retreats, and, over time with many respondents, would potentially lead to a kind of consumer reports on known schools and styles (for example, which class, teachers, or style is good for anxious types? What are the increases in positive emotion after classes using a particular style or at a particular center?). In brief, the tool would benefit the students, the teachers, and the community with more refined information about what’s going on with mind-body practitioners in the U.S. and around the world. In a sense it would be a mind-body assessment toolkit in line with a range of NIH toolboxes for assessment of mental health and pain using well-established questionnaires and tasks.

What led to your interest in altered states of consciousness? Please trace the evolution of that interest, and bring it to your current activities at CCS.

We all have altered states awareness, consciousness, and experience, of one kind or another, and that is fundamentally interesting. I initially had a natural interest regarding internal experience as a born introvert, only child, and a bookworm. Understanding the life of the mind, and the varieties of mental life, both loom large as core motivating factors for many research-focused psychologists and neuroscientists. 

In my early 20s I was a yoga enthusiast and interested in becoming a mind-body therapist or counselor. However I could see that the “data was weak” for treatments/theories in New Age and complementary health techniques, they smacked too much of the philosophical or spiritual, and thus chose to go into psychology, where I could continue my interests in the self, mind, and people, as well as possibly make a contribution to empirical knowledge on those topics. I went through a phase with serious interests in mysticism before coming to psychological science as a career, as it seemed there was no “career” in mysticism besides being a “spiritual/philosophical” counselor (now the situation has changed, with the continued growth of Yoga, Mindfulness, and CAM Health approaches in the last two decades). 

Have you been personally involved in the practice of meditation in addition to  yoga? What have been your own consciousness-altering practices? What’s worked well for you, and what has not-so-much worked for you?

Yes, I’ve had a few experiences in my life with a few specific traditions, with a focus primarily on hatha yoga and ritual-devotional yoga. As I assume many others Crazy Wisdom readers do, I practice a DIY amalgam based on my own brew of experiences, teachers, loves, and sorrows. However, I generally recommend adherence to tradition rather than purely DIY approaches, so to make use of all the technologies available to adherents when they “adhere in the prescribed manner” to a specific tradition’s methods and overall praxis. 

My consciousness-altering practices have included daily thinking and feeling, hatha yoga, deity yoga, as well as, in general, “focusing” and “opening up” meditation techniques. A few experiences with psychedelics have given brief but deep insights (back in late adolescence) and helped with my healing from some life losses. Overall, I’ve had the chance to experience good and very simple/easy experiences in a range of religious and contemplative traditions, including ones that involve others in ritual spaces/movements/chants/mesmerizations (such as Roman Catholic Mass, Krishna/Vaishnaivaite celebrations, Buddhist ceremonies, Muslim prayers, Sufi circles, Zen sitting, Sikh ceremonies). However, most of my personal practices (in the past and now) are personal, quiet or musical “alone time,” in nature or in a quiet room. Sufi poems and Krishna scriptures such as the Gita were especially useful in pointing out the immanence of a transcendental reality and “personality.” Music has played a pivotal role, for achieving some minor trances and ecstasies. The most important work has been that which one tries to get done day in, day out, chopping wood, carrying water. Or in my case, chopping self and spilling water, all mostly by accident! 

I encourage readers to embrace their extremely rich global heritage in terms of contemplative practices, communities, and experiences. We don’t have to know it all or explore it all, but it is our cross-cultural treasure chest. And we can also certainly build new traditions, both collective and personal. However, I think it’s our duty to know our global contemplative heritage, as a path to better understanding the diversity of possible “interior spaces and lives” that “others” might experience. In the same sense, understanding a culture’s literary canon (Shakespeare, the Mahabarata) can provide new eyes into the lived realities of minds and hearts from “other” places, as well as our own “internal” and “subjective” realities.

Overall, for good long-term personal progress, I believe it’s best to be connected with a particular tradition with a specific set of practices, and a community of “practitioners” is important for a healthy spiritual life. However No Guru, No Method, No Teacher can certainly work well for some percentage of the population, regardless of the spiritual culture they may have been born into.

In the long run, old and new psychoactive substances will likely serve as excellent empirical telescopes to better understand the mind and consciousness both at the level of mental-health effects and the level of examining the “nature and architecture” of consciousness.

It’s fascinating to hear how dynamic and diverse your background is. And what a keen sense of humor you bring to bear on this subject. We are all chopping ourselves and spilling water, indeed! Every day. Blindsided by life, every day. 

Returning to the Center for Consciousness Science, anesthesia research has gone on for a very long time. Can you succinctly describe for us how the anesthesia research going on at CCS is qualitatively different from much of the previous research, or from much of the current research in anesthesiology that is unrelated to "consciousness studies"?

Brain and cognitive research into the many forms and effects of anesthesia is only a few decades old and will likely take many more decades to achieve to deliver on the promise of providing some major theory about consciousness. Each center for consciousness, as the field is so young, reflects the core interests of the leaders of those centers. The research at the CCS is unique in part because it focuses on the specifics of brain activity before, during, and after anesthesia in healthy humans, and because of our focus on examining brain network dynamics using advanced computational methods (e.g., systems-level and dynamical-systems analyses). The CCS network of collaborators do both similar and different studies in the realm of neuroscientifically-oriented anesthesia research.

In brief, anesthesia, drugs, and altered states have long been intertwined topics…. Looking further into these approaches, some of which also entail the use of specific drugs or rituals, may help us better understand altered states across a range of contexts, and build up a brain-based theory about the neural and cognitive mechanisms during altered states.

Can you illuminate our readers on what blobology is, how it is analogous, in a sense, to phrenology of the 19th century?

Blobology is not a scientific term and just refers to the tendency to dumb down refined scientific findings into something like the following statement: “this lit-up blob in the fMRI picture represents ‘fear’ or ‘language.’”  This kind of localism is false, as brain activity is usually ongoing throughout various brain networks, and no brain process occurs independently as some kind of isolated blob of activity. The isolated blob is usually just a peak at the signal, and does not reflect the full complex picture. There are also other problems that have to do with mis-reading current scientific findings about brain activity, which altogether are not always that clear or decisive. Overall we are still far from really understanding the nature of brain function and direct links to cognition. The field of research is currently often called Brain Mapping or Brain Imaging, and in many ways we are still far from Brain Explaining. Phrenology was similar to blobology as it focused on trying to link the morphology of the skull to specific mental traits. Even though Walt Whitman may have decided to be a poet because he visited phrenologists in lower Manhattan, phrenology was pseudo-science, and we should always remain wary of trends in over-simplified popular models of brain-behavior explanations.

Can you tell us about two or three other interesting research projects going on at CCS?

One involves neuromolecular dynamics during and after anesthesia. Another is impact of anesthesia on delirium and recovery in adults. Another is tracking awareness and brain dynamics during and after operations. As well as computational modelling of brain networks during transitions between consciousness and unconsciousness.

And can you tell us a bit about Dr. Chestek's NIH grant through the Brain Initiative having to do with mapping "the circuitry of the brain and how individual neurons communicate with one another"?

Yes, this is fascinating work and I encourage readers to learn about her work from their lab website, In brief, Dr. Chestek is one of the only U-M investigators to receive direct Brain Initiative funding for her work on arrays of electrodes that can sit directly on the brain surface in order to more directly measure the dynamics of neuronal ensembles. It is this kind of work, in alignment with needs outlined by the Brain Initiative, which will push our understanding of brain function and communication further.

I see that Dr. Mashour gave a talk last year, in Ann Arbor, on the "psychedelic brain." What was he covering in that talk?

The talk was about the history of psychedelic culture, research, and propaganda, with a focus on LSD. Dr. Mashour emphasized some of the recent work from Dr. Robin-Carhart Harris and colleagues in the U.K. on brain dynamics during psilocybin, and some of the work on ketamine being done at University of Michigan. 

What is happening in the area of contemplative studies around the country? Succinctly, how are contemplative studies programs at places like Brown University and University of Virginia interfacing with the purer science approach being taken at CCS? And what else do you regard as exciting and worth noting in what is happening in the new contemplative studies programs that have sprouted forth?

This is an interesting topic that is still in development. Essentially, faculty, departments, and funders get together and form centers around their core interests. It’s also likely we have a lot more researchers now in academia than 30 years ago who’ve had strong experiences with transpersonal psychology, altered states, meditation, contemplation, yoga, and/or other religious or mystical practices. There is also a strong interdisciplinary trend in contemplative studies and science. Most of these centers are associated with at least several empirical data-driven researchers that use modern psychological and neuroscience methods, as well as scholars of religion, mindfulness education, death and dying, history, literature, and other topics. My view is that within a few years we’ll see more formal agendas from these centers rather that what currently looks like a patchwork quilt of common interests. The most important thing about these centers is that they serve as a meeting place for interested minds and dialoguing. These are nutritive contexts for the next generation of empirical research into contemplative techniques.

At the University of Virginia site for its contemplative studies program, much is made of the concept of “disciplined interiority.” What does it mean, what is its application in the real world, and is your own research concerned, also, with disciplined interiority? Are you seeking to isolate the ingredient/s present for an experienced meditator or shaman or yogic master?

At the CCS, we want to track the dimensions, contours, and changes of subjective (phenomenological) experience, an important goal for consciousness science. In the case of our studies with contemplative practitioners, we are looking to “get data” about instances where people are “presumed” to be in specific well-practiced states of so-called “disciplined interiority.”

This concept is considered by some to refer to what happens during meditation and contemplation in general. I don’t really agree with such views, but concepts can be helpful organizing forces in new fields. It’s associated with an inward focus, and relates to the internal, subjective, and phenomenological aspects of experience, and draws to some degree from depth psychology. This kind of disciplined interiority is presumably something that occurs with contemplative practitioners who spend a long-time practicing it, or in general with people who try to really get strong and grounded feel for their internal experiences. It is also presumably the primary focus of centers of education and research with a contemplative focus, to advance disciplined interiority.

However, I’m not sure that there is yet a testable theoretical empirical model of disciplined interiority that we can refer to here. As a simple example, let’s consider a brief mindfulness program for war veterans that have P.T.S.D. A brief training course in a clinical version of mindfulness should lead to some greater awareness and control of one’s “interiority,” and thus perhaps increased emotion regulation. Another example could be a research protocol where individuals are asked to pay close attention to their emotional states over short periods of time in the lab, thus fleshing out the dimensions and temporal dynamics of their own affective phenomenology. Presumably this is part of what happens in contemplative training, where one comes to know the ups and downs of one’s inner life quite well. 

You said to me that within the field of consciousness studies, meditation researchers are not the integrative medicine researchers who are not the contemplative studies researchers who are not the mindfulness researchers, and so on. Tell us about the continuum within consciousness studies (between pure research and research with realistic applications).

There is no perfect continuum, but it would be safe to say that it consists of several dimensions, including medical treatment focus, experimental psychology focus, pro-meditation focus, and psychometric focus. And there is certainly overlap in those researchers that you mentioned. However, in general, there are also unclear definitions about mindfulness and meditation that abound in the scientific literature, and low quality in a lot of previous studies, problems that are only just beginning to change. Thus the context is not solid, and the field is still somewhat nascent and fragmented. 

In terms of the consciousness studies field, it’s a very diverse field, ranging from experimental neuroscience with animals and humans, to theories about mysticism and the nature of mind, to distance healing, and to robotics, AI, machine-learning, virtual-reality, and futurism. The realism (and empiricism) also depends on one’s stance, training, and values. Scientists would tend to focus on theories and data, therapists tend to focus on treatments and outcomes, and engineers tend to focus on building new tools. Although it’s a complex mix, one can easily look to more well-established fields to see that the trend is towards integrating pure research with translational applications. In the case of contemplative science, it’s such a young field that pure first-questions research is probably the best approach to take. However, due to the way federal research funding works, most researchers have to modify their approaches so as to somehow make them useful or novel (for example, focusing on treating depression, eating disorders, or addictions; or working with athletes, military personnel, or seniors).

You and others from CCS attended a major conference in Tucson, called "Toward a Science of Consciousness," in Spring 2016, is that correct? Can you share two or three highlights of the conference?

The CCS co-funded and helped organize this important annual conference. It was an exciting conference that is inclusive to many different kinds of thinkers and groups, including non-scientists from the public, with presentations ranging from across philosophical, psychological, spiritual, and technological approaches. The primary speakers included Dr. Mashour and Dr. Hudetz from the CCS, who both talked about major types of empirical approaches to consciousness. Several of the other speakers included world leaders representing major approaches to consciousness science, including Stan Dehaene speaking on his theory of the Global Neuronal Workspace of Consciousness, Anil Seth speaking about how prediction plays a major role in consciousness, and Robin Carhart-Harris speaking about his research into psychedelics. There were also a range of non-science activities including meditation groups, live music, and great “consciousness” parties. I was especially moved regarding the sense of community and togetherness I felt there compared to more mainstream psychological and neuroscience conferences. 

I understand that a Neuroscience Graduate Program course on consciousness was taught here at U-M recently, and another one is in the works? What department at the University is the course associated with, or is at the Medical School, or where? And what are the prerequisites for taking that course?

Yes, Dr. Mashour was the first to develop a course in the Neuroscience Graduate Program that focused on consciousness. This past fall we had another iteration of this seminar that consisted of reviews of major new research work and theories in consciousness. There are few prerequisites besides being matriculated, and several attendees are interested non-students from the campus or community.

I understand that CCS recently hosted a one-day symposium on “Altered States of Consciousness.” Please tell us about who the keynote speakers was, and what were the other highlights? 

The Center for Consciousness Science hosted a one-day symposium on “Altered States of Consciousness” this past August in the U-M Rackham Amphitheatre. The symposium was open to the public and is the first in a series. Invited speakers discussed diverse altered states of consciousness, including the psychedelic experience, ketamine anesthesia, emergence from unconsciousness, and near death experiences. Keynote speaker Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, Imperial College London, discussed his outstanding work on the basic action and effects of psychedelics. Additional speakers included George Mashour, Jimo Borjigin (University of Michigan), Alex Proekt (University of Pennsylvania), Ben Palanca (Washington University), Andrew McKinstry-Wu (University of Pennsylvania), and Dinesh Pal (University of Michigan). Some highlights included Carhart-Harris’ reports on his ground-breaking work on brain dynamics and entropy during psychedelic experience, as well as a small recent study examining the possibility of positive effects of LSD for depression. Dr. Borjigin talked about her innovative work in rats looking at the interaction of heart and brain dynamics during death, providing fascinating insights into how the body attempts to protect itself during serious physical trauma, and how heart, brain, and body systems are coordinated in more ordinary states of consciousness. Other presenters focused on understanding acetylcholine-based arousal systems as a method to perhaps facilitate awakening from anesthesia (Dr. Pal), as well as reports from our multi-center work on neural aspects of anesthesia (Drs. Pallanca and McKinstry-Wu).

Shamanic practitioners are thought to enter altered states of consciousness (ASC) including trance, interacting with non-physical entities, and traveling to different levels of shamanic reality.

I noticed that one study at the CCS was about neurophysiological coherence and connectivity in the dying brain. So I asked you about that, and was disheartened, in my naiveté, to learn that it was an experiment on rats. I understand the practical and ethical and spiritual problems inherent in doing tests on human beings who are dying. But, one day, it sure would be interesting to understand more about "neurophysiological coherence and connectivity in the dying brain" especially in the dying brains of those long-time yogis and Zen masters and shamans, in the dying brains of those who say they're reached a state of non-duality, an "awakened state." Can you envision the steps to get there? Any ideas of what we might find?

Studies about brain activity during death in humans are possible, it just requires really fine-tuned and humane protocols that work with medical patients that are near death, for example, during advanced stages of cancer. In terms of working with long-time contemplation experts, this would take a lot of specialized hunting down of older experts and having them agree to have brain recordings done around the time of death. One way do this kind of research would be to work with collaborators in hospices and therapists focused on thanatology. One can also imagine a future where most people have their bio-signals recorded via wearable or implanted technology across the lifespan from birth to death.

It’s hard to know what we would find, because we don’t know exactly what happens in typical humans who are not contemplation experts. Let’s imagine that the self, memory, expectations, and other features of the brain-mind have been expunged or totally transformed in experts. Let’s imagine that experts have somehow connected and merged (temporarily or permanently) with a fundamental matrix of life or consciousness. One simple hypothesis is that, as a result of beliefs and practices over many decades, experts simply would not have brain dynamics related to death that we see in typical humans. The “death” of the personal consciousness and body in experts could look very different, or completely “still” or “usual.” In another sense, it very much depends on the tradition too, as each set of practices emphasizes differing beliefs, realities, selves, and notions of death and after-life. This last point is also important in understanding that most contemplative practices might only be “correctly practiced” if they are practiced by individuals fully embedded in the culture and beliefs associated with those particular contemplative practices. This represents a culture-first view that is odds with the de-contextualized and DIY approach of many western contemplative practitioners who believe that they are “correctly practicing” a particular set of techniques. 

Thank you for collaborating on this, Tarik. Finally, what’s most personally meaningful to you about the work you’ve been doing at CCS? 

Having a chance to grow professionally in an interdisciplinary center, and helping answer basic questions about the nature, architecture, and dynamics of human awareness and consciousness. Contributing to novel and much-needed studies regarding psychological and brain dynamics during practice of contemplative techniques known to generate specific Altered States of Consciousness. Thanks, Bill.

Thank you, Tarik.



Further Reading about Consciousness and Altered States of Consciousness: A Reading List by Tarik Bel-Bahar

When we asked Dr. Bel-Bahar for a reading list related to consciousness and altered states of consciousness, he suggested three categories. 

Not exactly for the lay audience but highly recommended: The Play of Consciousness by Muktananda, plus books by Trungpa, Yogananda, Swami Rama, and SUNY Press Shaivism books. 

Publicly available scientific articles: Public Library of Science ( and Frontiers ( journals are accessible by all, and individuals can also read materials online from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, similar groups, as well as the online archives at the Tucson Consciousness Conference site, 

And last, books about consciousness science written for a lay audience and put out by the popular press:

  •  Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist by Christof Koch 
  •     (MIT Press, 2012)
  •  Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts 
  •     by Stanislas Dehaene (Viking, 2014)
  •  Introducing Consciousness: A Graphic Guide by David Papineau and 
  •     Howard Selina (Icon Books, 2010)
  •  The Cambridge Handbook of Consciousness (Cambridge University Press, 2007)
  •  The Ancient Origins of Consciousness: How the Brain Created Experience 
  •      by Todd E. Feinberg and Jon M. Mallatt (MIT Press, 2016) 
  •  Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain by Antonio Damasio
  •     (Vintage, 2012)
  •  Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction by Susan Blackmore (Oxford University 
  •     Press, 2005)
  •  The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death by 
  •     Jean-Dominique Bauby (Vintage, 1998)
  •  Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution by Ken Wilber (Shambhala, 1995)
  •  Altered States of Consciousness by Charles T. Tart, Ed. (Harper, 1990)
  •  Cognitive Models and Spiritual Maps: Interdisciplinary Explorations of Religious    
  •     Experience by Jensine Andresen and Robert K.C. Forman 
  •     (Journal of Consciousness Studies, Jan. 2001)
  • From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds by Daniel C. Dennett 
  •     (W.W. Norton & Co, Feb. 2017)
  •  The Philosophy of Cognitive Science by Mark J. Cain (Polity, 2015)
  •  Neuroscience: A Historical Introduction by Mitchell Glickstein (MIT Press, 2014)