Derren Brown's 'Tricks of the Mind' is fascinating. It doesn't go into too much detail, but does give a bunch of links to books on various subjects if you do want to go deeper. He is a skeptic who does things anyway.
One particular area he talks about is hypnosis, which he doesn't believe is an 'altered state'. When it works, it works because of 4 reasons (in his opinion):
- The subject is faking it, and is being encouraged to fake it by the hypnotist.
- The subject is faking, but only because he feels too embarrassed to call a halt to his performance.
- The subject is really trying to experience the suggestions and is helping the process along by doing his best not to 'block' them, and really 'going for it'.
- The subject is again very happy to help the process along by acting out the suggestions regardless of any strange compulsion not to do so, but at the same time is the sort of person who can easily 'forget himself' and seize the permission granted by the hypnotic demonstration to act outrageously. Afterwards, it is more comfortable for him to put his actions down to an amazing experience he can't explain and believe he was in a special state. Most probably he will believe the hypnotist has his perceived ability anyway, so it is easy to take this step.
I am a bit of an extrovert myself and am up for this sort of thing. So once, myself and a similarly extroverted friend were at a hypnotist show and both went up. Difference was... it worked for him (and the hypnotist said it didn't require much effort), and not with me. It didn't work with me, because I was very keen to 'really' experience it and not fake it. The whole time I was conscious of what was going on. So was the friend. The difference was, that when it came to suggestions that I thought if I did I was clearly faking, I didn't do them... so I walked off the stage fairly early, disappointed. He went on with it. He says he felt really relaxed and like he could stop at any time. Perhaps it was because he could... but just didn't want to, and was less worried about 'faking it' than me. This seems the most likely to me. He is a great guy, and not nearly as concerned about being 'judged' as I was (even if I would be the only person who knew the truth).
It kind of reminded me of when I was younger and very involved in the Church. When there was a 'slain in the spirit' wave with a number of fellow church goers speaking in tongue and having various ticks. I was super keen to experience this, and really wanted to... but didn't want to fake it. So didn't. And much like the hypnotist show, I would leave disappointed.
But... what if all this is is a deep relaxation, openness to suggestibility and in a safe environment where you are not putting on any pretense at all? Since reading these bits and pieces, I have been more actively giving this a go in my Yoga classes. And it does make a substantial difference. The 'magic altered state' of hypnosis/meditation etc. is perhaps no more than a willingness to relax, focus and believe something possible.
So, you can be a skeptical atheist and still get the good stuff without the guilt. Awesome.