Altered States
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Altered States

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We may not put a lot of thought into it, but the state of unconsciousness is one of the most critical pieces about humanity and who we are as an individual. This is why during any differential diagnosis and alteration in this state is considered diagnostically relevant. Long before mankind started the ongoing narrative recalled history people have discovered that certain herbs, roots, and brewed beverages a profound effect altering our consciousness. That was a turning point in mankind trying to understand himself his place in the universe and methods of altering consciousness have been consistently employed by those seeking spiritual enlightenment or for recreational purposes. During the 20th century formal medical research on mind alteration has become a frequently visited topic of scientific investigation. One of the pioneers in major contributors to this burgeoning form of research was John C. Lilly, a scientist and philosopher who pushed the boundaries of investigating the mind with such unorthodox directions as communicating with dolphins and the highly controversial study of the neurophysiological effects of several psychotropic drugs. One of the most remembered aspects of his long and varied career was his development of the isolation tank; an enclosure filled with body temperature water where the subject would float devoid of visual, auditory, and sensory input. The nature of this research was used as a foundation for a book by Patty Paddy Chayefsky, and author, playwright and screenwriter little regard for the traditional. In 1980 his novel ‘Altered States’ was made into a motion picture, directed by the avant-garde filmmaker, Ken Russell. The resulting work was a very unusual movie made by a group of people with an exceptionally untraditional view of life.

Edward Jessup, is a university professor’s field of study is ostensibly abnormal psychology. During his investigation of schizophrenia, he began to become obsessed with the concept of what is responsible for consciousness and more importantly what results and altered states. The foundation for the premise you wish to investigate was that his alternate state where is real as our waking state; the one considered normal. During a routine faculty party Jessup meets to all the members of the faculty somewhat similar interest; Mason Parish (Charles Haid) and Emily (Blair Brown), a kindred spirit that Jessup would soon marry. One element of their research was to investigate the cultural use of psychoactive substances and purposely altering the state of consciousness. These cultures would purposely use psychotropic plants and other concoctions to achieve spiritual enlightenment and expand their consciousness. This line of research brought them to antidotal stories of a tribe in Mexico that utilize such verbs and roots to achieve a higher spiritual understanding of the universe. Jessup travels down to Mexico to engage in aAyahuasca ceremony. This type of right uses blends of various mushrooms and other plants to induce a hallucinatory state. Those who’ve undergone the experience report a distinct similarity in what the potion induces, specifically the feeling of a vastly expanded understanding of the universe, and awakening of their spirituality. As part of his scientific quantification of what he ingested Jessup discovers that the primary ingredients in the group included Banisteriopsis caapi, commonly known as the ‘vine of the soul’ and Amanita muscaria, a mushroom long regarded for psychoactive effects. Jessup felt that this experience proves he was on the right track, in his investigations, but also made him certain that he would have to take significantly more drastic measures to obtain a better understanding of consciousness.

Jessup brought back from Mexico a concentrated tincture of the mixture that he consumed planning to use it orally in conjunction with the sensory deprivation tank. The purpose of this experiment was to remove all external stimuli, leaving only those induced directly by the drugs remaining. Early iterations of the experiment proved to have effects he had not anticipated, particularly pronounced physiological changes. During the course of one such experiment Jessup emerge from the tank significantly smaller and stature as a light-skinned, primitive man. The profound changes not only in his state of consciousness, but his physical form results in Parish and Emily dissenting and how next to proceed. They feel that this is much too dangerous, while Jessup is steadfast in his determination to push on. Subsequent experimental trials results in even more pronounced changes. Jessup emerges from the tank as the form of primordial ooze that exhibited a degree of consciousness. Emily was able to reach him on an emotional level, and bring him back. Emily in Parish is even more concerned and afraid of what might lie ahead. Jessup is determined that these experiments will ultimately bring him to the point of the proto-consciousness before it developed in the physical form. Jessup’s study took on a new significantly darker goal, to the devolution of our biology to reach the purest essence of consciousness. Jessup experienced physical and mental changes without the use of the tank or ingestion of the solution. Things had already spiraled out of control.

It is always important to properly place a movie in the correct context of its time and place. The two decades leading up to the 80s on the generation that was intently interested in the expansion of consciousness. Sociological group we retrospectively referred to as hippies did not see drugs is just a means to get high, although that certainly was a contributing factor. Many sort true spiritual enlightenment through the pharmacological expansion and alteration of consciousness. Icons of this type of research such as Timothy Leary brought substances like LSD out of the laboratory and into the homes of millions of young people. There was also a lot of concern that the government, particularly the military, using hallucinogenic substances such nefarious purposes as mind control an interrogation. It was the generation that grew up during this time that came to watch ‘Altered States’ providing them with a form of cautionary tale that research on this level of how our mind works is potentially very dangerous. This was the first movie for William Hurt, who would go on to four Academy Award nominations, with one win. Hurt’s potential as an active was clearly evident even in this initial time on the screen. He portrays Jessup, as a man consumed by the scientific research of one of the most fundamental aspects of humanity that has been largely ignored by the academic research community. In a little touch of irony, Blair Brown would go on to portray a principal character in the J.J. Abrams enigmatic television series ‘Fringe’, there are major plot point revolves around the use of the same type of isolation tank, seen here. Ken Russell was a pioneer in television programming and established a career through his flamboyant and often controversial style. The feature film just prior to this one was Russell’s psychedelic treatment of the rock opera ‘tommy’, by the Who. He also had a foray into drug and sex infused horror movies with such cult classics as ‘Gothic’ and ‘The Lair of the White Worm’. Mr. Russell was a filmmaker with an undeniably strange and untraditional approach to his craft. I cannot think of many other directors could have done this story justice in the way Mr. Russell, achieved.

Posted 07/05/2014

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