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A cognitive shift is a psychological phenomenon most often experienced by individuals when undergoing new experiences, including religious experiences, using psychedelic drugs, or suffering from mental disorders such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder (also known as manic-depressive syndrome). During a cognitive shift, one experiences a change in how their conscious mind and unconscious mind communicate with each other. The result can be a wide range of feelings, from euphoria to panic.
A cognitive shift can occur when one undergoes a new experience, such as astronauts experiencing the overview effect when launched into space.
A cognitive shift can occur with or without the aid of an externally ingested psychoactive substance such as LSD, peyote, or other psychoactive drugs. Religious mystic experiences are often described as a sudden shift from one cognitive function or another, for instance in the writings of William James.
Cognitive shift (in the development of psychology) is also a term that relates to the understanding that thoughts (i.e. cognitions) play a key role in a person's emotional state and actions (behaviour). It was theorised by earlier behavioural psychologists that individuals were empty vessels and new experiences would be created by being repeatedly exposed and/or rewarded in relation to certain things (such as in rote learning of times tables).
The cognitive shift however, demonstrated that thoughts also play an integral process. A key experiment placed a rat in a circular maze and after rotating the maze the rat was able to use pointers around the room in order to find a food reward. This suggested that the rat had used internal cognitions in order to influence its behaviour to gain a reward.
Also the fact that children, when learning a language, often and quite suddenly begin to apply rules they have learnt to new phrases such as by saying "I've drinken all my drink" after learning "I've eaten all my food". This is usually without being taught these rules first and as such demonstrate a key role of cognitions in terms of learning.
With the ingestion of psychedelics people often experience sudden shifts in cognitive association and emotive content. The experience can shift rapidly from negative to euphoric, and in certain cases mimic the schizophrenic condition, as researched by Humphry Osmond and others. Hypnosis has proven very effective in generating predictable cognitive shifts with LSD and mescaline.