Altered thinking

A random choice last night led me to watch an old movie from about 1980, Altered States.

It’s a bit of a freaky movie, about drug-taking in the search for the ‘first man’ – the primordial self – and there’s a bit of it which looks and feels like an acid trip.

There’s a Harvard University professor, William Hurt, who is certain that we can regress with the help of drugs to earlier states of being. He locks himself up in an isolation tank, and with the help of some choice Mexican brews undergoes a series of transformations. In one he comes out of the tank as a Neanderthal man, causes all sorts of confusion and mayhem, chews on a zoo animal, where he wakes up naked back as his normal self. He’s proved there is something in it, but ever the passionate scientist he wants to take it further. Against the protestations of his wife, he goes back into the tank and this time regresses to a state way beyond that of Neanderthal. It destroys the lab, and he is something now less than human – a writhing, tortured energy with a flickering existence. He is only saved by the devotion of his wife reaching through the vortex to pull him out.

He is left shocked. There is nothing, he concludes, there is nothing at the beginning. Then, spontaneously, he begins to transform again – and I’ll leave it there.

It’s a flawed but entertaining movie. Ken Russell directed it, and though it has its extreme moments, it’s not as out there as some of his other stuff. I’m not sure if I’m left with a lot to ponder, though I’m tempted – as I have been for years – to try LSD one day (I’m not inclined to drugs in general. I’ve had ecstasy, and of course grass, but that’s it).

The funny thing as I’m watching last night there comes to mind a couple of things I’ve been reading lately about human consciousness and psychology.

Many years ago, I read Wilhelm Reich’s The Passion of Youth and enjoyed it. He was fascinating, if controversial figure, but this was basically an autobiography of his formative years, and touched upon the other great figures of the day, particularly Freud. I went through a phase when I read a lot of popular psychology and biography and still have an interest.

Alfred Adler was one I knew of but hadn’t really investigated until recently. Having delved into some of his teachings recently I find to my surprise that I have been living by basic Adlerian principles for many years. If I were to summarise very simply it is to take responsibility for your actions and to disregard the approval of others. In a large sense, what I read seems also to validate my recent decision to open up and let go of the things I had let hold me back.

Separately I read somewhere else about serotonin, about confidence and self-belief. Those who have those qualities are flushed with serotonin, which reinforces the sense. Those who fail successively, or who are generally without confidence, don’t experience that, and instead are subject to negative influences.

What was interesting to me was that I was once one of the first group, and know well the sensation of being infused with certainty. Then I became someone who lost it all and was subject to repeated defeats. In that situation, we go into our shell apparently, unwilling to dare and reluctant to hope. It becomes a circular process.

I experienced that. As I read, I knew exactly what was described. But then I recognised that I was fortunate to retain something – I know not what it is – that allowed me to disregard that perception ultimately and to try again and again. Perhaps it was a store of serotonin left in me which made for a hardcore of self-belief. Whatever it was, I’m grateful for it.

Human nature is a fascinating thing, and you can’t go wrong learning all you can about the intricacies of it.

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