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  States of Consciousness

    Charles T. Tart

        1.   The Systems Approach to States of Consciousness

    There is a great elegance in starting out from simple ideas, slowly building them up into connected patterns, and having a complex, interlocking theoretical structure emerge at the end. Following the weaving of such a pattern, step by step, can be highly stimulating. Unfortunately, it is easy to get bogged down in the details, especially when the pattern has gaps to be filled in, and to lose track of what the steps are all about and what they are leading toward. This chapter gives a brief overview of my systems approach to state of consciousness—a brief sketch map of the whole territory to provide a general orientation before we look at detail maps. I do not define terms much here or give detailed examples, as these are supplied in later chapters.
    Our ordinary state of consciousness is not something natural or given, but a highly complex construction, a specialized tool for coping with our environment and the people in it, a tool that is useful for doing some things but not very useful, and even dangerous, for doing other things. As we look at consciousness closely, we see that it can be analyzed into many parts. Yet these parts function together in a pattern: they form a system. While the components of consciousness can be studied in isolation, they exist as parts of a complex system, consciousness, and can be fully understood only when we see this function in the overall system. Similarly, understanding the complexity of consciousness requires seeing it as a system and understanding the parts. For this reason, I refer to my approach to states of consciousness as a system approach.
    To understand the constructed system we call a state of consciousness, we begin with some theoretical postulates based on human experience. The first postulate is the existence of a basic awareness. Because some volitional control of the focus of awareness is possible, we generally refer to it as attention/awareness. We must also recognize the existence of self-awareness, the awareness of being aware.
    Further basic postulates deal with structures, those relatively permanent structures/functions/subsystems of the mind/brain that act on information to transform it in various ways. Arithmetical skills, for example, constitute a (set of related) structure(s). The structures of particular interest to us are those that require some amount of attention/awareness to activate them. Attention/awareness acts as psychological energy in this sense. Most techniques for controlling the mind are ways of deploying attention/awareness energy and other kinds of energies so as to activate desired structures (traits, skills, attitudes) and deactivate undesired structures.
    Psychological structures have individual characteristics that limit and shape the ways in which they can interact with one another. Thus the possibilities of any system built of psychological structures are shaped and limited both by the deployment of attention/awareness and other energies and by the characteristics of the structures comprising the system. The human biocomputer, in other words, has a large but limited number of possible modes of functioning.
    Because we are creatures with a certain kind of body and nervous system, a large number of human potentials are in principle available to use. but each of us is born into a particular culture that selects and develops a small number of these potentials, rejects others, and is ignorant of many. The small number of experiential potentials selected by our culture, plus some random factors, constitute the structural elements from which our ordinary state of consciousness is constructed. We are at once the beneficiaries and the victims of our culture's particular selection. The possibility of tapping and developing latent potentials, which lie outside the cultural norm, by entering an altered state of consciousness, by temporarily restructuring consciousness, is the basis of the great interest in such states.
    The terms states of consciousness and altered state of consciousness have come to be used too loosely, to mean whatever is on one's mind at the moment. The new term discrete state of consciousness (d-SoC0 is proposed for greater precision. A d-SoC is a unique, dynamic pattern or configuration of psychological structures, an active system of psychological subsystems. Although the component structures/subsystems show some variation within a d-SoC, the overall pattern, the overall system properties remain recognizably the same. If, as you sit reading, you think, "I am dreaming," instead of "I am awake," you have changed a small cognitive element in your consciousness but not affected at all the basic pattern we call your waking state. In spite of subsystem variation and environmental variation, a d-SoC is stabilized by a number of processes so that it retains its identity and function. By analogy, an automobile remains an automobile whether on a road or in a garage (environment change), whether you change the brand of spark plugs or the color of the seat covers (internal variation).
    Examples of d-SoCs are the ordinary waking state, nondreaming sleep, dreaming sleep, hypnosis, alcohol intoxication, marijuana intoxication, and meditative states.
    A discrete altered state of consciousness (d-ASC) refers to a d-SoC that is different from some baseline state of consciousness (b-SoC). Usually the ordinary state is taken as the baseline state. A d-ASC is a new system with unique properties of its own, a restructuring of consciousness. Altered is intended as a purely descriptive term, carrying no values.
    A d-SoC is stabilized by four kinds of processes: (1) loading stabilization—keeping attention/awareness and other psychological energies deployed in habitual, desired structures by loading the person's system heavily with appropriate tasks; (2) negative feedback stabilization—correcting the functioning of erring structures/subsystems when they deviate too far from the normal range that ensures stability; (3) positive feedback stabilization—strengthening activity and/or providing rewarding experiences when structure/subsystems are functioning within desired limits; and (4) limiting stabilization—restricting the range of functioning of structures/subsystems whose intense operation would destabilize the system.
    In terms of current psychological knowledge, ten major subsystems (collections of related structures) that show important variations over known d-ASCs need to be distinguished: (1) Exteroception—sensing the external environment; (2) Interoception—sensing what the body is feeling and doing; (3) Input-Processing—automated selecting and abstracting of sensory input so we perceive only what is "important" by personal and cultural (consensus reality) standards; (4) Memory; (5) Subconscious—the classical Freudian unconscious plus many other psychological processes that go on outside our ordinary d-SoC, but that may become directly conscious in various d-ASCs: (6) Emotions; (7) Evaluation and Decision-Making—our cognitive evaluating skills and habits; (8) Space/Time Sense—the construction of psychological space and time and the placing of events within it; (9) Sense of Identity—the quality added to experience the makes it a personal experience instead of just information; and (10) Motor Output—muscular and glandular outputs to the external world and the body. These subsystems are not ultimates, but convenient categories to organize current knowledge.
    Our current knowledge of human consciousness and d-SoCs is highly fragmented and chaotic. The main purpose of the systems approach presented here is organizational: it allows us to relate what were formerly disparate bits of data and supplies numerous methodological consequences for guiding future research. it makes the general prediction that the number of d-SoCs available to human beings is definitely limited, although we do not yet know those limits. It further provides a paradigm for making more specific predictions that will sharpen our knowledge about the structures and subsystems that make up human consciousness.
    There are enormously important individual differences in the structure of the d-SoCs. If we map the experiential space in which two people function, one person may show two discrete, separated clusters of experiential functioning (two d-SoCs), while the other may show continuous functioning throughout both regions and the connecting regions of experiential space. The first person must make a special effort to travel from one region of experiential space (one d-SoC) to the other; the second makes no special effort and does not experience the contrast of pattern and structure differences associated with the two regions (the two d-SoCs). Thus what is a special state of consciousness for one person may be an everyday experience for another. Great confusion results if we do not watch for these differences: unfortunately, many widely used experimental procedures are not sensitive to these important individual differences.
    Induction of a d-ASC involves two basic operations that, if successful, lead to the d-ASC from the b-SoC. First, we apply disrupting forces to the b-SoC—psychological and/or physiological actions that disrupt the stabilization processes discussed above either by interfering with them or by withdrawing attention/awareness energy or other kinds of energies from them. Because a d-SoC is a complex system, with multiple stabilization processes operating simultaneously, induction may not work. A psychedelic drug, for example, may not produce a d-ASC because psychological stabilization processes hold the b-SoC stable in spite of the disrupting action of the drug on a physiological level.
    If induction is proceeding successfully, the disrupting forces push various structures/subsystems to their limits of stable functioning and then beyond, destroying the integrity of the system and disrupting the stability of the b-SoC as a system. Then, in the second part of the induction process, we apply patterning forces during this transitional, disorganized period—psychological and/or physiological actions that pattern structures/subsystems into a new system, the desired d-ASC. The new system, the d-ASC, must develop its own stabilization processes if it is to last.
    Deinduction, return to the b-SoC, is the same process as induction. The d-ASC is disrupted, a transitional period occurs, and the b-SoC is reconstructed by patterning forces. The subject transits back to his customary region of experiential space.
    Psychedelic drugs like marijuana or LSD do not have invariant psychological effects, even though much misguided research assumes they do. In the present approach, such drugs are disrupting and patterning forces whose effects occur in combination with other psychological factors, all mediated by the operating d-SoC. Consider the so-called reverse tolerance effect of marijuana that allows new users to consume very large quantities of the drug with no feeling of being stoned (in a d-ASC), but later to use much smaller quantities of marijuana to achieve the d-ASC. This is not paradoxical in the systems approach, even though it is paradoxical in the standard pharmacological approach. The physiological action of the marijuana is not sufficient to disrupt the ordinary d-SoC until additional psychological factors disrupt enough of the stabilization processes of the b-SoC to allow transition to the d-ASC. These additional psychological forces are usually "a little help from my friends," the instructions for deployment of attention/awareness energy given by experienced users who know what functioning in the d-ASC of marijuana intoxication is like. These instructions also serve as patterning forces to shape the d-ASC, to teach the new user how to employ the physiological effects of the drug to form a new system of consciousness.
    This book also discusses methodological problems in research from the point of view of the systems approach: for example, the way in which experiential observations of consciousness and transitions from one d-SoC to another can be made and the shifts in research strategies that this approach calls for. The systems approach can also be applied within the ordinary d-SoC to deal with identity states, those rapid shifts in the central core of a person's identity and concerns that are overlooked for many reasons, and emotional states. Similarly the systems approach indicates that latent human potential can be developed and used in various d-ASCs, so that learning to shift into the d-ASC appropriate for dealing with a particular problem is part of psychological growth. At the opposite extreme, certain kinds of psychopathology, such as multiple personality, can be treat as d-ASCs.
    One of the most important consequences of the systems approach is the deduction that we need to develop state-specific sciences. Insofar as a "normal" d-SoC is a semi-arbitrary way of structuring consciousness, a way that loses some human potentials while developing others, the sciences we have developed are one-state sciences. They are limited in important ways. Our ordinary sciences have been very successful in dealing with the physical world, but not very successful in dealing with particularly human psychological problems. If we apply scientific method to developing sciences within various d-ASCs, we can evolve sciences based on radically different perceptions, logics, and communications, and so gain new views complementary to our current ones.
    The search for new views, new ways of coping, through the experience of d-ASCs is hardly limited to science. It is a major basis for our culture's romance with drugs, meditation, Eastern religions, and the like. But infatuation with a new view, a new d-SoC, tends to make us forget that any d-SoC is a limited construction. There is a price to be paid for everything we get. It is vital for us to develop sciences of this powerful, life-changing area of d-ASCs if we are to optimize benefits from the growing use of them and avoid the dangers of ignorant of superstitious tampering with the basic structure of consciousness.

Chapter 2

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