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It is the central hypothesis of this paper that the mental states commonly referred to as altered states of consciousness are principally due to transient prefrontal cortex deregulation. Supportive evidence from psychological and neuroscientific studies of dreaming, endurance running, meditation, daydreaming, hypnosis, and various drug-induced states is presented and integrated. It is proposed that transient hypofrontality is the unifying feature of all altered states and that the phenomenological uniqueness of each state is the result of the differential viability of various frontal circuits. Using an evolutionary approach, consciousness is conceptualized as hierarchically ordered cognitive function. Higher-order structures perform increasingly integrative functions and thus contribute more sophisticated content. Although this implies a holistic approach to consciousness, such a functional hierarchy localizes the most sophisticated layers of consciousness in the zenithal higher-order structure: the prefrontal cortex. The hallmark of altered states of consciousness is the subtle modification of behavioral and cognitive functions that are typically ascribed to the prefrontal cortex. The theoretical framework presented yields a number of testable hypotheses.

Recent theoretical and empirical work in cognitive science and neuroscience is brought into contact with the concept of the flow experience. After a brief exposition of brain function, the explicit-implicit distinction is applied to the effortless information processing that is so characteristic of the flow state. The explicit system is associated with the higher cognitive functions of the frontal lobe and medial temporal lobe structures and has evolved to increase cognitive flexibility. In contrast, the implicit system is associated with the skill-based knowledge supported primarily by the basal ganglia and has the advantage of being more efficient. From the analysis of this flexibility/efficiency trade-off emerges a thesis that identifies the flow state as a period during which a highly practiced skill that is represented in the implicit system's knowledge base is implemented without interference from the explicit system. It is proposed that a necessary prerequisite to the experience of flow is a state of transient hypofrontality that enables the temporary suppression of the analytical and meta-conscious capacities of the explicit system. Examining sensory-motor integration skills that seem to typify flow such as athletic performance, writing, and free-jazz improvisation, the new framework clarifies how this concept relates to creativity and opens new avenues of research.