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by Imants Baruss
American Psychological Association, 2003
Review by Maura Pilotti, Ph.D. on Sep 10th 2003

Alterations of Consciousness

In Alterations of Consciousness, ImantsBaruss, a psychology professor, examines consciousness, an intriguing and controversial subject in cognitive science.  He discusses eight different states of consciousness: wakefulness, sleep, dreaming, hypnosis, trance, chemically induced alterations, transcendent states, and experiences associated with death.  His approach is multifaceted, and it features three perspectives (physiological, cognitive and experiential) as frameworks for understanding the study of consciousness.  Even though the narrative is slanted towards the experiential viewpoint, Baruss manages to organize these different perspectives into an appealing mosaic of research findings and related commentaries.  This is truly a commendable effort.

Baruss' discussion of consciousness is diligently organized and transparent.  He introduces readers to the terms that will be used to discuss any issue and displays a great deal of sensitivity to the fact that there are generally different accounts or simply points of view for each of them.  When he presents research evidence, he invariably does so in a clear, succinct, and organized manner, avoiding cryptic assertions and obscure references.  This approach helps readers to understand even the most complex issues and appreciate the controversies surrounding some of them.

The cleverest organizational devices that Baruss uses to discuss consciousness are what he calls "thematic threads".  They are basic dichotomies or unique perspectives, which are used to remind readers of the different viewpoints regarding the nature of consciousness and reality.  Thus, while readers are engaged in absorbing the complexities of the states of consciousness that Baruss discusses at length, they can refer to the thematic threads to clarify and unify their new knowledge.  Furthermore, they can rely on the threads to understand that these complexities are, by and large, the reflection of more fundamental issues regarding the study of consciousness.  Given the difficulty of the subject matter, such organizational devices allow readers to turn the last page of the book and feel that they have acquired a unified, albeit not entirely uncontroversial or conclusive, set of ideas about consciousness, which can be further explored by the most motivated readers or simply remembered as interesting by those who just want to understand the current status of the study of consciousness. 

Alterations of Consciousness is the product of Baruss' keen insights, his focus on the ideas behind research, the many theoretical connections that he successfully makes, and his multifaceted approach to the subject matter.  The bookis quite interesting and engaging.  It can intrigue readers who are looking for an introduction to the topic of consciousness, and still challenge those who have enough background knowledge to disagree or concur with some of Baruss' claims.  This is a book that puts readers on a pedestal, gives them the tools to understand a complex subject, and then dares them to think deeply about it.  At the end, readers may not always agree with Baruss' view of things, but they will undoubtedly savor the realization that they have learned a great deal about consciousness by reading this book.  Of course, a lot more is to be known, but this is for the future when researchers will have gained fresh insights into the subject matter.

 

© 2003 Maura Pilotti

 

Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Dowling College, New York.