Review: Am I Dreaming? by James Kingsland

Am I Dreaming? The New Science of Consciousness and How Altered States Reboot the Brain [2019] – ★★★

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 [2000]), 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.

8 thoughts on “Review: Am I Dreaming? by James Kingsland

  1. I really feel like I need to add Camille Paglia’s comment that everyone she knew in the 1960’s who tried LSD, even once, has irreversible brain changes which resulted in their inability to create anything of substance after. I’m noting this in Fellini’s movies, a very steep decline in quality after he dropped acid after 8 1/2. I would strongly advise against trying this.

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    1. Ken Kesey, of Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test fame, is another one. He read from his work-in-progress at a literary festival I attended back in college. Cringe-worthy in the extreme, something about a squirrel, and when he tried to explain it, he made it even worse.

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      1. I can imagine, too. That’s all part of that special “creativity” emerging, I suppose. I can name a few similar authors, and though their ideas are not bad, I always find their execution of them rather “distinctive”, to say the least. I think Hunter S. Thompson is another example. I once read his daily “drug” routine. I was amazed he was able to stay alive even for a day after that, let alone write a line of anything…

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    2. That’s interesting about Fellini. Would you equate that “decline in quality” with his films’ becoming bolder, stranger or more incomprehensible in some way? It seems like the Beatles fared better, much not that much, I suppose, and not for that long. I re-read Huxley’s The Doors of Perception end of this spring and I see its power and persuasion even today.

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      1. La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2 are great, profound works of art. Afterwards it’s all bad except maybe Amarcord. Paglia though is speaking about a much wider range of people. Academics as well as artists. I think she described it mostly as an inability to focus intellectually and be coherent. This comes out in Fellini’s interviews before and after. Before he is incredibly sharp, brilliant, intelligent, afterwards he is vague, incomprehensible. John Lennon is always used as an argument against me but I wonder. There’s something in Rubber Soul and Revolver that is lost in the White Album.

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        1. Perhaps you are right. My favourite Fellini is actually La Strada, but I also think it is a bit hard for directors “to replicate” the immense success of some of their more idiosyncratic or personal films, especially ones dealing with existential crises or directing or one that focuses on specific periods in history. I also notice that those directors who flourished in the 1960s did not do so well in the 1970s, and those who hit it big in the 1970s, did not do so well then in the 1980s, and of course new directors were emerging. This is rather obvious, I know, but still interesting. I mean, what happened to Francis Coppola or now happens with Tim Burton? Can age be also a factor? I guess other examples is that, very strictly speaking, Jane Campion has only now emerged after her The Piano of 1993, and will Paolo Sorrentino ever do anything better than The Great Beauty of 2013 (which also shares something with La Dolce Vita)? I very much doubt it. So, there must be a number of factors at play. But, again, you make very good points, especially about coherence, so there must be truth in that as well.

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