Psychodrama and sociodrama participants in general, and protagonists in particular, often report that during a session their conscious experience is altered. Many are in fact drawn to experiential methods by their desire for this experience of heightened awareness. Psychodrama will be seen as altering most of the 14 dimensions of changed subjective experience that characterise altered states of consciousness (ASC’s). Psychodramatists need to be aware of both the dangers and benefits of experiencing altered states. As in hypnosis, the director needs to be especially careful not to elicit false memories or make strong suggestions.
Altered states of consciousness, psychodrama, suggestibility, false memories
Throughout history humanity has been drawn to experiment with different means of altering consciousness, such as drugs, meditation, mysticism, hypnosis, drumming, ritual, ecstatic trance, sex, peak experience, sensory deprivation, biofeedback and, even, pain. Many followers of the human potential movement and clients in psychotherapy aspire to transform their consciousness. For some this desire for heightened awareness and living in the moment is the main reason they are drawn to experiential methods, such as psychodrama, sociodrama, drama therapy, bioenergetics, gestalt therapy, holotropic breathing, rebirthing, encounter groups, or primal therapy. Improvisational acting also alters the actor’s consciousness, such as is heard in Ruth Zaporah's Action Theater: "This practice turns the mind inside out" (Zaporah, 1995, p. xxi).
Using the definitions and classifications presented in a prominent textbook (Farthing, 1992), this article investigates how these methods relate to the psychology of consciousness field. Experiences during psychodrama will be seen to fit Farthing's definition of Altered State of Consciousness (ASC). Note that the goal of the paper is not to promote ASC as a (new or old) form of treatment, rather to create awareness that ASC often occur in psychodrama as currently practised, whether intended to or not. While the focus is on psychodrama in the remainder of the article, most of the observations also hold true for sociodrama and related techniques.
The point that ASC experiences are beneficial has been made by many authors (most prominently Leary 1968; Grof 1980, 1993). I am not necessarily agreeing that ASC’s in psychodrama should be encouraged, rather that I will show they occur, whether the practitioner encourages them or not. The last part of the article reflects on both the desirable and undesirable implications.
Farthing (1992) classifies such states as sleeping, dreaming, hypnosis, meditation, and drug-induced states as ASCs. His definition reads that
“An altered state of consciousness (ASC) may be defined as a temporary change in the overall pattern of subjective experience, such that the individual believes that his or her mental functioning is distinctly different from certain general norms for his or her normal waking state of consciousness”.
Farthing (1992, p. 205)
It is worth noting that Farthing defines an ASC as a subjective experience. At least until now, psychologists have not found an objective way to determine from the outside whether someone is in an ASC. In particular, there is no consistent brain wave pattern corresponding to ASC, or any other measurable physiological response (Farthing 1992, p.206; Wulff 2000, p.405). In the absence of instrumentation, researchers are left to question the subjects directly about their experience.
Farthing lists fourteen dimensions of changed subjective experience, several of which need to be altered to be in an ASC. Thus to establish whether psychodrama typically induces an ASC, one needs to show that it alters several of these dimensions. The following descriptions give explanations for the fourteen dimensions and demonstrate how they are altered during psychodrama.
Dimensions of Altered Consciousness
Psychodrama involves highly focused attention to everything that happens in the moment. Even when re-enacting a past event, attention is focused on the experience in the here and now, interacting with auxiliary egos. It is characteristic of psychodrama that past events are not just remembered and analysed, but they are brought into the present. This living in the moment is of course a goal that is accomplished to varying degrees.
"To relax our attention into the present moment is extraordinarily simple, but, for most of us, it demands a lifetime of practice"
Zaporah (1995, p. xx)
In both psychodrama and acting, training directors employ techniques to help the actor to be fully present and to make the experience "real", as-if it were happening right now. This is the reason for using scene setting, sound effects, impromptu costumes, lights and other theatrical devices. Attention to the elements of the scene is heightened, whereas attention to other events is diminished to the background. The actors live in a different reality and therefore it is important that they are in a safe and protected environment.