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 consciousnessa 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
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
stabilizationkeeping attention/awareness and other psychological
energies deployed in habitual, desired structures by loading the
person's system heavily with appropriate tasks; (2) negative
feedback stabilizationcorrecting the functioning of erring
structures/subsystems when they deviate too far from the normal
range that ensures stability; (3) positive feedback stabilizationstrengthening
activity and/or providing rewarding experiences when structure/subsystems
are functioning within desired limits; and (4) limiting stabilizationrestricting
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) Exteroceptionsensing
the external environment; (2) Interoceptionsensing what
the body is feeling and doing; (3) Input-Processingautomated
selecting and abstracting of sensory input so we perceive only
what is "important" by personal and cultural (consensus
reality) standards; (4) Memory; (5) Subconsciousthe
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-Makingour cognitive evaluating skills and habits;
(8) Space/Time Sensethe construction of psychological
space and time and the placing of events within it; (9) Sense
of Identitythe quality added to experience the makes it
a personal experience instead of just information; and (10) Motor
Outputmuscular 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-SoCpsychological 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 periodpsychological 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.