by Todd Murphy
Signals as the Basis for States of Consciousness
In what could turn out to be one of the most important discoveries
in cognitive studies of our decade, it has been found that there are
five million magnetite crystals per gram in the human brain.
the meninges, (the membrane that
envelops the brain), has twenty times that number. These
‘biomagnetite' crystals demonstrate two interesting features.
first is that their shapes do not occur in nature, suggesting that
they were formed in the tissue, rather than being absorbed from
outside. The other is that these crystals appear to be oriented so
as to maximize their magnetic moment, which tends to give groups of
these crystals the capacity to act as a system.
The brain has also
been found to emit very low intensity magnetic fields, a phenomenon
that forms the basis of a whole diagnostic field, Magnetoencephalography.(2)
Unfortunately for the present discussion, there is no way to ‘read'
any signals that might be carried by the brains magnetic emissions
at present. We expect that subtle enough means of detecting such
signals will eventually appear, as there is compelling evidence that
they do exist, and constitute a means whereby communication happens
between various parts of the brain.
This system, we speculate, is
what makes the selection of which neural areas to recruit, so that
States (of consciousness) can elicit the appropriate
phenomenological, behavioral, and affective responses.
While there have been many studies that have examined the effects of
magnetic fields on human consciousness, none have yielded findings
more germane to understanding the role of neuromagnetic signaling
than the work of the Laurentian University Behavioral Neurosciences
They have pursued a course of experiments that rely on
stimulating the brain, especially the temporal lobes, with complex
low intensity magnetic signals. (3)
It turns out that different signals
produce different phenomena.
One example of such phenomenon is vestibular sensation, in which
one's normal sense of balance is replaced by illusions of motion
similar to the feelings of levitation reported in spiritual
literature as well as the sensation of vertigo. Transient ‘visions',
whose content includes motifs that also appear in near-death
experiences and alien abduction scenarios have also appeared.
Positive affectual parasthesias
(electric-like buzzes in the body) have occurred.
that has been elicited neuromagnetically is bursts of emotion, most
commonly fear and joy. Although the content of these experiences can
be quite striking, the way they present themselves is much more
ordinary. It approximates the ‘twilight state' between waking and
sleep called hypnogogia. This can produce brief, fleeting visions,
feelings that the bed is moving, rocking, floating or sinking.
Electric-buzz like somatic sensations and hearing an inner voice
call one's name can also occur in
The range of
experiences it can produce is quite broad. If all signals produced
the same phenomena, then it would be difficult to conclude that
these magnetic signals approximate the postulated endogenous neuromagnetic signals that create alterations in State. In fact, the
former produce a wide variety of phenomena. One such signal makes
some women apprehensive, another doesn't. (5)
One signal creates such strong
vestibular sensations that one can't stand up. Another doesn't.
The temporal lobes are the parts of the brain that mediate states of
consciousness. EEG readouts from the temporal lobes are markedly
different when a person is asleep, having a hallucinogenic seizure,
or on LSD. Siezural disorders confined to the temporal lobes
(complex partial seizures) have been characterized as impairments of
There was also a study done in which
monkeys were given LSD after having various parts of their brains
The monkeys continued to ‘trip' no
matter what part or parts of their brains were missing until both
temporal lobes were taken out. In these cases, the substance did not
seem to affect the monkeys at all. The conclusion seems unavoidable.
In addition to all their other functions (aspects of memory,
language, music, etc.), the temporal lobes mediate states of
If exposing the temporal lobes to magnetic signals can induce
alterations in States, then it seems reasonable to suppose that
States find part of their neural basis in our postulated
neuromagnetic signals, arising out of the temporal lobes.
Hallucinations are known to be the phenomenological correlates of
altered States. Alterations in state of consciousness leads,
following input, and phenomena, whether hallucinatory or not,
follows in response. We can offer two reasons for drawing this
The first is one of the results obtained by a study of
hallucinations caused by electrical stimulation deep in the brain.
In this study, the content of the
hallucinations was found to be related to the circumstances in which
they occurred, so that the same stimulations could produce different
hallucinations. The conclusion was that the stimulation induced
altered states, and the states facilitated the hallucinations.
The second has to do with the relative speeds of the operant neural
Neurochemical response times are limited by the time required for
their transmission across the synaptic gap, .5 to 2msec. (9)
By comparison, the propagation of action potentials is much faster.
For example, an action potential can travel a full centimeter (a
couple of orders of magnitude larger than a synaptic gap) in about
The brain's electrical responses,
therefore, happen orders of magnitude more quickly than do it's
Magnetic signals are propagated with much greater speeds than those
of action potentials moving through neurons. Contemporary physics
requires that magnetic signals be propagated at a significant
fraction of the velocity of light, so that the entire brain could be
exposed to a neuromagnetic signal in vanishingly small amounts of
It seems possible that neuromagnetic signals arise from structures
which mediate our various sensory and cognitive modalities. These
signals then recruit those functions (primarily in the limbic
system) that adjust the changes in state.
These temporal lobe
signals, we speculate, then initiate signals to structures that
mediate modalities that are enhanced or suppressed as the state
as a Feedback Interface of Sensory and Cognitive Modalities
The problem of defining the phrase ‘state of consciousness' has
plagued the field of cognitive studies for some time.
into the history of studies in the area, we would like to outline an
hypothesis concerning states of consciousness in which the
management of states gives rise to the phenomenon of consciousness.
There are theories that suggest that cognitive modalities (such as
memory, affect, ideation and attention) may be seen as analogs to
We hypothesize that the entire set of modalities, cognitive and
sensory, may be heuristically compared to a sound mixing board. In
this metaphor, all the various modalities are represented as
vertical rheostats with enhanced functioning increasing towards the
top, and suppressed function increasing towards the bottom.
the act of becoming conscious of phenomena in any given modality
involves the adjustment of that modality's ‘rheostat'.
Sensory input from any modality can alter one's state. The sight of
a sexy person, the smell of fire, the unexpected sensation of
movement against one's skin (there's a bug on me!), a sudden bitter
taste experienced while eating ice cream, or the sound of one's
child screaming in pain; all of these phenomena can induce
alterations in State.
Although the phrase ‘altered states' has come
to be associated with dramatic, otherworldly experiences,
alterations in state, as we will be using the phrase, refers
primarily to those alterations that take us from one normal state to
Alterations in state can create changes within the various sensory
and cognitive modalities.
An increase in arousal following the sight
of a predator will typically suppress the sense of smell (very few
are able to stop and ‘smell the roses' while a jaguar is chasing
them), suppress introspection (nobody wants to know ‘who am I
really?' while an anaconda is wrapping itself around them), suppress
sexual arousal, and alter vision so that the center of the visual
field is better attended then one's peripheral vision allowing one
to see the predator's movement better.
The sight of a predator will
also introduce a host of other changes, all of which reflect the
In the Hindu epic,
the Mahabharata, there is a dialog between the
legendary warrior, Arjuna, and his archery teacher. Arjuna was told
by his teacher to train his bow on a straw bird used as a target.
Arjuna was asked to describe the bird.
not?', asked his teacher.
‘I can only see its eye', he answered.
‘Release your arrow', commanded the teacher.
Arjuna did, and hit the
target in the eye.
‘I'll make you the finest archer in the world',
said his teacher.
In this story, attention to peripheral vision had ceased so
completely that only the very center of his visual field received
Our model of states would be constrained to interpret Arjuna's
(mythical) feat as a behavior specific to a state. The unique
combination of sensory enhancement, heightened attention, and
sufficient suppression of emotion, ideation, and introspection that
support such an act suggests specific settings for our metaphorical
Changes in state make changes in sensory and cognitive modalities,
and they in turn, trigger changes in state. We can reasonably
conclude that there is a feedback mechanism whereby each modality is
connected to the others.
States also create tendencies to behave in specific ways in specific
circumstances, maximizing the adaptivity of behavior in those
circumstances; behavior that tends to meet our needs and respond to
threats to our ability to meet those needs.
Each circumstance adjusts each modalities' setting, tending to
maximize that modality's contribution to adaptive behavior in that
The mechanism may function by using both learned and
inherited default settings for each circumstance and then repeating
those settings in similar circumstances later on. Sadly, this often
makes states maladaptive.
An habituated alteration in State, in
response to threats from an abusive parent, for example, can make
for self-defeating responses to stress in other circumstances, where
theses same responses are no longer advantageous. (10)
Because different States are going to be dominated by specific
combinations of modalities, it stands to reason that a possible
strategy for aligning the rheostats (making alterations in state) is
to move them in tandem, so that after a person associates the sound
of a scream to the concept of a threat, that sound, with it's unique
auditory signature, will cause all the affected modalities (most
likely most of them in most cases) to take the positions they had at
the time the association was made.
When we say changing states, we are referring to much more than the
dramatic states created by LSD, isolation tanks, REM sleep, etc.
are also including normal states of consciousness, which we can
imagine as kindled ‘default settings' of our various modalities.
When any one of these settings returns to one of its default
settings, it will, we conjecture, tend to entrain all the other
modalities to the settings they habitually take in that state.
To accomplish this, we must suggest that each modality is connected
to every other one. A sight, a smell, a sound, or a tactile feeling
can all inspire fear. Fear can motivate ideation. Ideation can
inspire arousal. Changes in affect can initiate alterations in
introspection. Introspection alters affect.
State specific settings
of individual modalities could initiate settings for other
Our main hypothesis here is that all these intermodal connections,
operating as a single system, has a single phenomenological
correlate. The phenomena of subjective awareness.
We proposed in our first section that the alteration of
consciousness involves having a modality receive input that triggers
a change in State. The structure associated with that modality then
broadcasts a neuromagnetic signal to the temporal lobes, which then
produces signals that then recruits various structures throughout
Specifically, those structures whose
associated modalities' values must be changed in order to accomplish
the appropriate alteration in state. In the second section, we found
the possibility that states are settings for the variable aspects of
cognitive and sensory modalities.
We also offered the suggestion that
consciousness is the phenomenological correlate of the feedback
between the management of states on the one hand, and the various
cognitive and sensory modalities, on the other. If all of these
conclusions were to stand up to testing, we could conclude that the
content of the brain's hypothesized endogenous magnetic signals
might consist of a set of values for adjusting each sensory and
We might also conclude that
neuromagnetic signaling is the context in which consciousness
The specific mechanism whereby subjectivity is generated is out of
the reach of this work.
Nevertheless, we can say that the fact
that multiple modalities are experienced simultaneously, together
with our model's implication that they are ‘reset,' all at once,
with each alteration in state suggests that our postulated
neuromagnetic signals may come in pairs, with the two signals
running slightly out of phase with one another.
In this way, neuromagnatic signals, like the two laser beams used to produce a
hologram, might be able to store information in a similar way, as
has already been explored by
The speeds at which neuromagnetic
signals are propagated, together with their capacity to
recruit/alter multiple modalities suggests that the underlying
mechanism has been selected to make instant choices on which
specific portions to recruit in order to facilitate the behaviors
acted out of the State, and to do so quickly.
In this way, the onset time for the initiation of States is kept to
a minimum, and with it, the times needed to make the initial,
cognitive response to stimuli.
When it comes to response to threats,
or sighting prey, the evolutionary advantages are obvious.
(1) Kirshivink, Joseph L, Kobayashi-Kirshivink,
Atsuko & Woodford, Barbera J., "Magnetite Biomineralization in
the Human Brain" Proceedings of the National Academy of Science,
1992, 89 7683-7687
(2) cf. Stefan, H. Abraham-Fuchs, K., Shnieder, S., Gebhardt, M.
Neubauer, U. Hummel, C., , Huk, W.J., & Thierauf P., "Magnetic
Source Localization and Morphological Changes in Temporal Lobe
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Scandinavica. Supplementum. 1994, 152 83-8
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Exposures to Milligaus Intensity Extremely Low Intensity Magnetc
Fields" Journal of Bioelectricity 9 (1) 33-54, 1990
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Healing: Beyond Suffering and death. Publications MNH, 1993
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"Experimental Stimulation by Burst-Firing Weak Magnetic Fields
over the Right Temporal Lobe May Facilitate Apprehension in
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(7) Baldwin, M., "Neurologic Syndromes and Hallucinations."
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(10) Kalat, James W. "Biological Psychology (2nd Ed.)" Pg. 46,
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(11) Perry, Bruce D., M.D., Pollard, Ronnie A., Blakley, Toi L.,
Baker, William L., Vigilante, Domenico "Childhood Trauma, The
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