Altered States of Consciousness during Psychodrama and Sociodrama - Eberhard Scheiffele

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. Please click on the link at the bottom pf the page for the whole pdf article.



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.

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About the author Eberhard Scheiffele, PhD, CP, PAT, is a theatre artist, psychotherapist, and scholar. His dissertation entitled "The Theatre of Truth", written at the University of California, Berkeley, focused on Jacob Moreno's theatre of spontaneity and psychodrama. He is certified by the American Board of Examiners in Psychodrama, Sociometry, and Group Psychotherapy. While his first love remains acting, his experience also includes working in private practice and for agencies as a psychotherapist for children, adolescents, and adults. He has over 15 years of teaching experience in mathematics, philosophy, theatre arts, and psychology, at universities in California, Pennsylvania, Texas, Michigan, Germany, and Russia. His research and experiential workshops have been presented at universities and regional, national, and international conferences in theatre and psychotherapy all over the United States, Canada, Germany, Norway, Portugal, Greece, Austria, Russia, Siberia, and Senegal, West Africa. He has been published in Research in Drama Education, Journal of Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama, Dramascope, amongst others.

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