Mindful of our Minds | Review of “The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness” by Jeff Warren (2007) Random House Canada

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I doubt very much that I am alone in being concerned about how my mind works. I worry about days that I find myself depressed or the nights I cannot sleep and so forth. Yes, there is mountains of books and philosophies and >gulp< medications that can help me try to deal with those issues. But Jeff Warren’s exploration of his own issues in The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness seems to have enlightened me the most in my personal journey of better awareness of my mental health.

Author’s Note – Page 1

The book you are holding is not a typical book on consciousness. It’s not about the qualia, or the language instinct, or what it feels like to be a bat.

Nor is it a typical brain book – describing how fear works, or the uses of the cerebellum, or what happens when you electrocute your amygdala.

While all these subjects are fascinating, they are philosophical and neurological discussions that are occurring elsewhere. And yet, both these kinds of books have contributed to this one, for occasionally as I have leafed through them, the consciousness – the feeling of time slowing down, perhaps, or the strange body twitches that happen at sleep onset – and I would nod, and look up, and think, “Yeah, that’s happened to me!”

Well, this books is in part an encyclopedia of “that’s happened to me” moments, organized by adventures through various familiar and less familiar states of consciousness. For this reason, this book is also about you, because you have these moments too. And I’ll say this outright: you won’t believe where you’ve been, and where your capable of going.

And Warren did surprise me with ‘that’s-happened-to-me’ moments. The book’s jacket states his research for documentaries on sleep and dreaming lead to this fantastic volume being created. And it is a fantastic read. Warren mixes personal observations, facts, and interviews into the book to give us more than one “thats-happened-to-me-moments.”

Page 20

When I was a kid I used to lie in bed and wait for sleep. I did not wait patiently; I was vigilant. I wanted to catch the exact moment that sleep set in, I wanted to pinpoint it – there it is. Now I am asleep.

Except it never worked. I would pop one eye open and wonder, “is this it? Am I asleep now?” An hour would pass like this. And then suddenly it would be morning, and my mission would be forgotten. Util that evening, when I’d take up the challenge again with new resolve.

The thing is, there really is an exact point at which you fall asleep: you can see it on your sleep-recording chart, or “polysomnography.” Philippe Stenstrom showed me mine. “Right there, that yellow line is where we marked sleep onset. You can see the change in your brain waves . . . they flat line. Alpha disappears. This characteristic of someone falling asleep.

Stenstrom is a graduate student in psychology at the University of Montreal. He works for a pioneering sleep researcher named Tore Nielsen, who runs the Dream and Nightmare Laboratory at Montreal’s Sacre-Coeur Hospital. Phil is friendly, and passionate about his subject. When I met him at Nielsen’s sleep lab, he looked slim in his dapper white lab coat, but he had the hollow-eyed, slightly gaunt look that I have come to associate with researchers who stay up all night staring at polysomnographs.

This is a very detailed book. And I have to admit that I skimmed over parts of it I felt that were a bit overwhelming. But in most part, this was an enlightening read. And one I will be re-reading again in the future.

Page 326

It bears repeating: We can learn to direct our own states of consciousness. Lucid dreaming, hypnosis, neurofeedback, and meditation all point toward the ability to self-regulate consciousness. This is no one-off special effect; the latest advances in neuroplasticity show how the brain is radically shaped by experience, and that thinking and experiencing in all guises – at night and during the day – are a kind of doing. Any action repeated in the brain is more likely to reoccur; thus the potential is there to customize our own mental processes, to create healthier, suppler, wider-ranging minds.

This is an astonishing capability. It suggests that our minds are still evolving, but no longer under the sole direction of natural selection; rather, we’ve jumped to a faster mechanism of change: culture. Our ability as a species to customize new environments is feeding back into our brains and changing the way we think, the way we are conscious. This is both supremely hopeful and utterly depressing, since it means that in nurturing, enlighten environments we may be able to cultivate whole new standards of mental health, but in violent, regressive environments we risk spawning awful new permutations of mental affliction. Technology – that great, on rushing field within which our minds are shaped – compounds all of this, for better or worse.

The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness by Jeff Warren was a book that awoke me about my thought patterns and consciousness. An enlightening read and one I will be rereading again soon.

******

Link to Jeff Warren’s website

Link to Penguin Random House Canada’s page for The Head Trip

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