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Sights Unseen: Altered States and the Expansion of Awareness

Growing up in the rural countryside of Western North Carolina, it’s not uncommon to see a variety of different kinds of wildlife. Deer, wild turkeys, black bear, and a host of other creatures that are common only to those who look for them abound, and yet are often overlooked by those whose eyes aren’t trained to spot them along roadways, at the edges of forests, and around farmland where food for many of these animals grows in abundance.

Once I reached my teenage years, I recall being amused at how many of my friends seemed unaware of these animals that typically were all around us at any given time. As we’d go careening off down a country road somewhere, I was always the one that would spot a skittish doe as she foraged along the edge of the treeline nearby. Other times, I would chuckle at the flocks of turkeys that could be seen flapping about in cornfields in broad daylight of mid-afternoon. What was often funnier to me, however, was that my friends almost never saw these animals.

“You mean to tell me you didn’t see that turkey we just drove past?” I might remark something along these lines about one of the stray hens my friends in the car would always miss. Altogether, it seemed evident to me from a fairly early age that there were a lot of things in the world that, in order to be seen, really had to have somebody that was willing to look for them.

If we apply this manner of thinking to other subjects, it might stand to reason that there are a variety of things about our world, and perhaps reality in general, which require more active participation in order to be observed. Recently, a friend and listener of my podcast, The Gralien Report, wrote in with a story along these lines, in which he felt that experimentation over the years with psilocybin–the active hallucinogen within “magic mushrooms”–had expanded his awareness of the world in such a way that he and his friends who had done the same experienced things in reality which others did not.

James, the listener in question, told me a story about an unusual experience that occurred during a camping trip many years ago with his friend, who he calls “Jack.” While gathering firewood in preparation for that night, the two men observed three golden spheres, which they judged to each be roughly the size of a softball, hovering in the sky in a triangular formation. Up until that time, neither of the men had ever observed anything they would liken to a UFO.

“We stood there for a solid two minutes before we said anything, and the spheres didn’t budge,” James remembered. “I had the sensation we were being watched like the spheres knew we were there. Jack was freaked, but he composed himself and did his best to hide his fear.”

Sometime later, James returned back to the field to look for the spheres, which remained precisely where they had been earlier, hovering in a perfect triangular formation. At this point, James felt an overwhelming sensation that he was being watched and began to grow uneasy.

“Even though this was a time we were experimenting with hallucinogens, we were stone sober when we spotted the spheres,” James said. Later that evening, the two men decided that taking a small number of mushrooms might calm their nerves, which did work up until around the time they went to sleep. However, after laying down in his tent, James began to feel the same overpowering sensation of being watched again. Later that night, he awoke to the sound of footsteps outside his tent, which he recalled being unmistakably human, or belonging to some other bipedal animal.

“I always wondered if our experimentation with hallucinogens had anything to do with our sighting that evening, and now with further reading and research, I heavily suspect the two were connected.” James further noted that after the experience while camping, he and his friend Jack “never touched mushrooms again.”

It’s anybody’s guess whether the use of mind-expanding substances like this could make an individual more prone to having experiences that fall outside the ordinary. Modern science would tell us that such experiences–if occurring while in a state where reality is augmented (such as the case with hallucinogens)–would inherently make the narrative less reliable.

Alternatively, could it be that some people who have undergone the mind-altering effects of hallucinogens are in some ways more capable of perceiving unusual things, whether or not due to a sort of “heightened” or expanded awareness? Again, the thought comes back to mind of one having more or less experience growing up around wild animals, and hence possessing a greater ability to spot them in their natural habitat.

Whether or not one is seeking to have an experience that some might call “paranormal”, there is at least some degree of precedent for the idea that controlled use of mind-altering substances can lead to positive changes in a person’s perception of reality. Studies conducted over the years at John Hopkins University have shown that psilocybin administered to patients during studies had the capacity to affect their outlook on life, and improve their attitude, especially when going through periods of stress or doubt.

A general change in attitude or perception, in other words, might indeed have an effect on one’s experiences in life. Whether or not such things played a causal role in people’s experiences with unusual phenomenon (i.e. UFOs, etc), it could certainly be the case that a person who, after experiencing the lasting effect of an induced altered state, would have an outlook on reality that is more open to having such experiences. 

The question of whether altered states of consciousness may have a relationship to people’s experiences with the unexplained has often been raised by researchers–academic and laymen alike–over the years. Maybe understanding that relationship, and the potentials it has for teaching us new things about consciousness, makes it a worthwhile endeavor for future study.

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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