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Altered States and the Brain

This course listing applies to a Spring 2014 course. To find current courses, check out the Find a Course page.

Spring 2014
Cognitive Science 98/198
2 Unit(s)



About the Course:

While modern neuroscience has made much progress in mapping brain anatomy and activity, relating this structure to our subjective internal experience remains a challenge. This divide is partially due to the difficulty in objectively describing the rich and multifaceted content of our awareness.

In this course we will approach the mind-body connection through the lens of altered states of consciousness. Several such states offer tangible counterpoints to our normal frames of reference, and have lent themselves to vivid phenomenological descriptions in multiple traditions. Crucially, they reframe brain function as an actively unfolding, dynamic process. By identifying physical and mental correlates of this process for different altered states, we aim to develop a more general perspective of the relation between mind and body.

Tentative topics from Neuroscience and Altered States, covered in an interleaved fashion, include:


-spontaneous activity & oscillations

-the physiology of sleep and dreams

-perceptual dynamics


-multi-scale interactions

Altered states

-sensory deprivation

-stroboscopic stimulation and binaural beats

-the interpretation of dreams


-flow states


-religion, art, cultural modes of expression

-group effects

-awareness in the modern age

Each topic will be discussed during one session, covering the mechanisms by which the states may be induced as well as the ensuing physiological and mental changes, and when possible, facilitated by an expert, or informed by a guided experience of the state. Discussion will be based on readings distributed in the week prior.

The course will meet once a week for 2 hours. Passing will be contingent upon completing weekly assignments, as well as a longer solo or group project on a relevant topic. This course is intended for students from both science- and humanities- oriented backgrounds.


The facilitators for this course are Chris Shaver and Gautam Agarwal. Chris is an EECS graduate student, and Gautam is a postdoctoral fellow at the Redwood Center for Theoretical Neuroscience at Berkeley, and has been a GSI for “Drugs and the Brain” and “Introduction to Neurobiology”. Both facilitators are actively interested in both neuroscience and deeper questions about the nature of experience.

We look forward to our first meeting and the ensuing explorations!

How to Enroll:

After the first class, interested students will submit a statement of interest. Selected students will come from diverse backgrounds and disciplines, and be motivated to tackle potentially challenging readings and subject matters.

Course Contact: alterstated AT

Faculty Sponsor: David Presti

Time & Location:

0Gautam Agarwal
Chris Shaver
30210 WheelerTh 5p-7p1/30started

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Course info last modified February 6, 2014. This page has been viewed 3360 times.

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