Am I Dreaming? The New Science of Consciousness and How Altered States Reboot the Brain  – ★★★
From lucid dreaming and hallucinations to hypnotism and various effects of LSD and DMT, science journalist James Kingsland takes the reader on a journey explaining the altered states of consciousness and the present state of knowledge in this field, making his case that inducing altered states of consciousness is beneficial, and much can be gained by experimenting with psychoactive substances. Am I Dreaming? is an unnecessarily chaotic book, but if you are prepared to sift through the author’s more obvious statements on consciousness and his not-always-so-clear scientific explanations, there is some insight gained as the author talks about more recent studies and people’s first-hand experiences.
The author opens his book by recounting his experience of taking DMT (a powerful psychedelic that can be drunk as a brew ayahuasca) at the Dios Ayahuasca Sanaciones spiritual centre in Peru (see also my short review of Rick Strassman’s book DMT: The Spirit Molecule ), and his later chapters include lengthy talks on the discovery and “rise” of LSD and the research of scientist Amanda Fielding, who, in 2016, published “the world’s first images of the human brain on LSD”. Kingsland also talks about the finding of “scientific proof” of lucid dreaming (research of Keith Hearne (1975/82) and Stephen LaBerge) and about the benefits of deep meditation. One insightful book chapter concerned the link between psychedelics, music and mystical experiences (music increases the intensity of images while taking psychedelics and “psychedelics may “tune” the brain to the acoustic properties of music that carry… emotionally-charged information” [Kingsland, Atlantic Books: 179]), while another surprising book section was on the benefits of online gaming as an example of activity of “complete immersion”.
Kingsland’s thesis is very clear in this book: it is beneficial for us to induce ”altered states of consciousness”. It is good for our mental health and it boosts creative insight: “altered states of consciousness…restore openness, flexibility and meaning to our lives by temporarily messing with out reality-checking faculties” [Kingsland, Atlantic Books: 27]. The author is a proponent of using certain psychoactive substances to treat addictions, depression and severe cases of PTSD. He says in this book how taking psilocybin makes it easier for people with terminal illnesses to come to terms with the inevitable. One can clearly see the consequences of unlocking a Pandora’s box in this case and there is the fear of opening the floodgates. How to ensure that the misuse and abuse of drugs in this way does not happen? There are certainly more than enough people now living in the United States who became drug addicts just from their doctors’ prescriptions of very strong pain medications (for example, after surgery or complex dental procedures), and if psychoactive substances are freely prescribed, the situation can potentially get much worse. Where does one strike a balance between genuinely helping the few, and making sure that youngsters or vulnerable people do not veer to dangerous paths? In fact, it is precisely those who are most vulnerable to drug abuse are also those who are most likely to seek it professionally to treat their PTSD, depression or alcoholism. However, the author is unfazed, stating that the scientific and medical communities on both sides of the Atlantic are more than eager to pursue the matter further, and that psychoactive drugs are now recognised by medical practitioners as potentially alleviating human suffering, especially where other treatments prove fruitless.
As a journalist, James Kingsland has a good narrative flair, but his book also jumps chaotically from topic to topic, mishmashing DMT and LSD experiences, attention and dreaming theories, optical illusions and “superpowers” of Tibetan monks. Most of the time, the author is not divulging any new “truths” about consciousness, but is simply restating what has already been published a hundred times over, albeit in different words: “REM sleep is important for our daily functionity”, “the goal of any psychotherapy is to repair faulty, maladaptive cognitive models of reality ”, etc. [Kingsland, Atlantic Books: 97]. One sentence did caught my attention, though: “we can say with some confidence that a sense of having a discrete ego or self isn’t necessary for consciousness, otherwise how could a psychonaut remain fully aware after losing it?” [Kingsland, Atlantic Books: 197]. That is quite a statement to make. In fact, the jury is still out on the question of what exactly we are “losing” while on powerful psychedelics. Is it really an “ego”, a mere sensation of an “ego” (self) or only some part of it? (or maybe none at all, since an “ego” is merely an illusion in the first place?), as there are also stages of self-awareness, as some research on lucid dreams also seems to show.
Am I Dreaming? is a strange book, and the author did not seem capable of disentangling all the confusing bits and pieces which may arise in a person’s mind when hearing about “altered states of consciousness”. However, the great thing about the book is that it does introduce the reader to some of the most recent studies in the field of consciousnesses, sleep, dreaming and psychoactive substances.
As a bonus, here are three books on my TBR on a similar topic: (i) The Hidden Spring: A Journey to the Source of Consciousness by Mark Solms; (ii) Altered States of Consciousness: A Book of Readings by Charles Tart; and (iii) Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes our Thoughts by Stanislas Dehaene.