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Holotropic breathwork is a non-drug technique developed by Stanislav Grof used in psychotherapy. The therapy as a whole is usually called holotropic breathwork (at least by Grof himself) and will most probably rely on a range of effects. However, I am mainly concerned about the core technique, which leads to hallucination and a changed state of conciousness (i.e. being half concious and having a distorted perception of time).

As quick googling does not reveal any specific information of the technique, I will describe a demonstration of an amateur enactment of something which was stated to be based on the same principle as holotropic breathwork. (I consider the respective people very irresponsible to have done this without trained assistance, it is probably very dangerous, do NOT try at home!)

A person squats curled near a wall and breaths as quickly and as heavily as possible for a few minutes. After that they quickly stand up in front of the wall and another person pushes them quickly in the chest and presses them strongly against the wall behind them. The pushed person collapses completely, their muscles relaxed, they even don't have the time to close eyes and you can see their eyeballs rolling around freely. They are in this state for about 15 seconds and then wake up reporting vivid hallucinations. Some of the people said that their perception e.g. of sources of light and surfaces were altered for another several hours.

So, what is the biological basis of this collapse and hallucinations? (It would be perhaps good to also comment on the possible risks.)

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I think this is mostly caused by hyperventilation. The excessive breathing disturbs the balance between CO$_{2}$ and oxygen in our lungs. This will cause respiratory alkalosis (the blood pH, which is normally strictly regulated, gets higher), which can cause dizziness, headaches and fainting.

The shift in pH can also disturb the eclectrolyte balance, especially the concentration of the free dissolved calcium, as it binds to negatively charged plasma proteins (which release protons into the blood due to the higher pH). This can lead to craps and spasms. I would be very careful not playing around here, as this can have some severe consequences.

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  • $\begingroup$ It makes sense that the high levels of oxygen may cause fainting, but what is the mechanism of the hallucinations? Somebody told me that the procedure causes a sudden peak of adrenaline which overwhelms the receptors, but I cannot find any reference. $\endgroup$ – Void Aug 2 '14 at 22:51
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Pressing on the chest changes the concentration of dissolved gasses in the blood stream. Your brain reacts due to excessive oxygen in the blood. This is oxygen toxicity.

Why the brain generates vivid imagery when unconscious is a big topic. There's a theory that correlates dreams with a lack of cognitive stimulation. This is called autostimulation and may function as pseudo-learning when external stimulation is low. For children it's thought this helps them learn when they can't communicate. We may dream less as we age because adults are highly stimulated.

I hypothesize dreaming while knocked unconscious has side effects which mimic dreaming.

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