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  States of Consciousness

    Charles T. Tart

        6.   Stabilization of a State of Consciousness

The basic function of a d-SoC is to cope successfully with an (external) environment. A d-SoC is a tool that senses and interrupts what the world is and plans and executes strategies for dealing with that changing world. A good tool should not break easily when applied to the job: the system of structures and energies that constitutes a state of consciousness should maintain its integrity in coping with the changing world it was designed for. It would be most unadaptive, for example, if, while you were driving on the freeway, your d-SoC suddenly converted to a d-ASC of great ecstasy that totally shut down your senses! A d-SoC is a dynamic system: its components change all the time, but the overall pattern/organization that is its nature is maintained because the possible interactions between the component structures and subsystems are controlled and limited by various stabilization processes.
    This chapter describes four major ways of stabilizing a system that constitutes a d-SoC. They are analogous to the ways people control one another. If you want someone to be a good citizen (1) you keep him busy with the activities that constitute being a good citizen, so he has no time or energy for anything else; (2) you reward him for carrying out these activities; (3) you punish him if he engages in undesirable activities; and (4) you try to limit his opportunities for engaging in undesirable activities. The following discussion applies to stabilizing a d-SoC as a whole, but it should also be applied to the stabilization of the individual structures/subsystems within a d-SoC.


Loading Stabilization

    The first type of stabilization is ballasting or loading, to use an electrical analogy. In electrical ballasting, you impose a large electrical load on a circuit that draws on the power resources sufficiently so that very high voltages cannot occur; the power supply lacks the capacity to produce them, given the load. Loading in general refers to any activity that draws a large proportion of the energy of the system so that the system does not have excess free energy available. A load may also store energy, giving the system inertia that prevents a sudden slowdown or speedup.
    Psychologically, loading means keeping a person's consciousness busy with desired types of activities so that too little (attention/awareness) energy is left over to allow disruption of the system's operation. As Don Juan told Carlos Castaneda {10}, people's ordinary, repeated, day-to-day activities keep their energies so bound within a certain pattern that they do not become aware of nonordinary realities.
    For example, right now, in your ordinary d-SoC, a number of things act as loading stabilization processes. The stable physical world you constantly deal with, the dependable relationships in it, give you a pattern of input that constantly stimulates you in expected patterns, in ways you are used to. If you push your hand against your chair, the chair feels solid, just as it always has felt. If you push it again, it still feels solid, and so on. You can depend on the lawfulness of the spectrum of experience we call physical reality. But, if the next time you pushed on the chair, your hand passed through it, you would be surprised or alarmed. You would begin to suspect that this was not your ordinary d-SoC or find it difficult to maintain your composure, your ordinary d-SoC.
    Your body (and your internalized body image) is another source of stabilization by loading. Every morning when you wake up you have sensations from one head, two arms, and two legs. Although the exact relationships of the parts of your body to one another change as do your body's internal feelings, the changes are within a well-learned range. If you suddenly felt half your body starting to disappear, you would question whether you were in your ordinary d-SoC.
    Body movement also supplies a type of loading. If you move your body, it has a certain feel to it. The kinesthetic feedback information on the relation of parts of your body and on muscle tensions as you move is within an anticipated range. If your arm suddenly felt three times as heavy as usual when you lifted it, this again would disrupt your ordinary d-SoC. Conversely, if you felt sleepy but did not want to enter the d-ASC of sleep, getting up and moving around would help you stay awake.
    A final example of loading concerns the thinking process. You have a constant internal thinking process going on, constant internal chatter, which runs through familiar and habitual associative pathways and keeps you within your ordinary d-SoC. You think the kinds of things that please you; you feel clever as a result of thinking them; feeling clever makes you relax; feeling relaxed makes you feel good; feeling good reminds you that you are clever; and so on. This constant thinking, thinking, thinking loads your system and is extremely important in maintaining your ordinary b-SoC.
    The importance of this constant loading of consciousness by thinking in maintaining and stabilizing our ordinary d-SoC cannot be overestimated. A Hindu metaphor for the ordinary d-SoC compares it to a drunken, horny monkey, carousing madly through the treetops, driven by its desires for sex, food, pleasure. The linkages between thought processes and emotional processes addict us to clever thoughts and make it hard to slow or stop the thinking process. Don Juan instructed Castaneda {10} to "not do," cease the constant thinking and doing that maintain ordinary consciousness, and Castaneda found this extraordinarily difficult to accomplish. This experience has been shared by innumerable practitioners of meditation who have found how difficult it is to escape from the incessant chatter of their minds.


Negative Feedback Stabilization

    The second type of stabilization is negative feedback. Particular structures or subsystems sense when the rate or quality of operation of other subsystems goes beyond certain preset limits, and they then begin a correction process. This correction process may be conscious, as for example, anxiety resulting when your thoughts stray into certain areas you consider taboo. The anxiety then functions to restabilize subsystems within the acceptable range.
    You may not be conscious of a particular feedback correction process, however. You may be lost in thought, for example, and suddenly find yourself very alert and listening, although not knowing why. A sound that indicated a potentially threatening event may have occurred very briefly, and while not intense enough to be consciously perceived, it was sufficient to activate a monitoring structure that then sent out correction signals to bring the system of consciousness back within optimal (for dealing with the threat) limits. This kind of negative feedback stabilization essentially measures when a subsystem's or structure's operation is going beyond acceptable limits and initiates an act of correction, reduces the deviation.


Positive Feedback Stabilization

    The third stabilization process, positive feedback, consists of structures or subsystems that detect when acceptable activity is going on and then stimulate the emotional reward systems (making us feel good when we do a particular activity) or otherwise strengthen the desired activity. We may or may not be particularly conscious of feeling good, but we like to maintain and repeat the rewarded activity. During the formation of our ordinary d-SoC during childhood, we are greatly rewarded by our parents, peers, and teachers for doing various socially approved things, and because most of our socially approved actions are initiated by socially approved thoughts and feelings, we then internalize this reward system and feel good simply by engaging in the thought or actions that were rewarded earlier.
    Let us illustrate how negative and positive feedback stabilization can work. Suppose you are driving home late at night and are rather sleepy. Driving carefully was an active program in your ordinary d-SoC, but now, because of fatigue, your mind is drifting toward a hypnagogic state even though you are managing to hold your eyes open. Hypnagogic thoughts are very interesting and your mind starts pursuing them further. Because the integrity of your ordinary d-SoC is now beginning to be disrupted, you do not make an appropriate correction as the car begins to drift over toward the shoulder of the road. You run off the shoulder, narrowly avoiding an accident, and this jars you back to full wakefulness. Learning occurs; a structure is formed. Sometime later the same circumstances occur again, but this time the new structure notes two facts—that your thoughts are becoming interesting in that hypnagogic way and that you are driving. Via the Emotion subsystem, the new structure sends a feeling of anxiety or alarm through you that immediately activates various subsystems toward the "physical world survival priority" mode of operating, and so reinstates full consciousness. This is negative feedback stabilization. Then you feel clever at not succumbing to the hypnogogic state. It shows you are a good driver; all sorts of authorities would approve: this constitutes positive feedback for keeping your consciousness within the wakefulness pattern.
    Thus, a state of consciousness learns that certain processes indicate that part of its system is going beyond a safe limit of functioning (the error information) and then does something to restore that ordinary range of functioning (feedback control). You may or may not directly experience the feedback process.
    Note that the terms positive feedback and negative feedback, as used here, do not necessarily refer to consciously experienced good or bad feelings, although such feelings may be experienced and be part of the correction process. Negative feedback refers to a correction process initiated when a structure or system starts to go or has gone beyond acceptable limits, and designed to decrease undesirable deviation. Positive feedback refers to an active reward process that occurs when a structure or subsystem is functioning within acceptable limits and that strengthens functioning within those limits.


Limiting Stabilization

    A fourth way of stabilizing a d-SoC, limiting stabilization, consists of interfering with the ability of some subsystems or structures to function in a way that might destabilize the ongoing state of consciousness. It limits the range of possible functioning of certain subsystems.
    An example of limiting stabilization is one effect of tranquilizing drugs in blunting emotional responses of any sort, limiting the ability of certain subsystems to produce strong emotions. Since strong emotions can be important disrupting forces in destabilizing an ongoing state of consciousness, this limiting stabilizes the ongoing state. Sufficient limiting of crucial subsystems would not only stabilize any d-SoC (although at some cost in responsiveness of that d-SoC in coping with the environment), but would prevent transit into a d-ASC that required changes in the limited subsystems either for inducing the d-ASC or for stabilizing the d-ASC if it were attained.
    Loading stabilization can, in some instances, be a limiting stabilization, but the two types of stabilization are not identical. Limiting directly affects certain structures or subsystems, while the effect of loading is indirect and operates more by consuming energy than by affecting structures directly.
    In a system as multifaceted and complex as a d-SoC, several of each of the four types of stabilization activities may be going on at any given instant. Further, any particular action may be complex enough to constitute more than one kind of stabilization simultaneously. For example, suppose I have taken a drug and for some reason decide I do not want it to affect my consciousness. I begin thinking intensely about personal triumphs in my life. This stabilizes my ordinary state of consciousness by loading it, absorbing most of my attention/awareness energy into that activity so that it cannot drift off into thoughts that would help the transition to an altered state. It also acts as positive feedback, making me feel good, and so increasing my desire to continue this kind of activity.
    Many stabilizing processes use psychological energy, energy that could be used for other things. Thus there is a cost to stabilizing a d-SoC that must be balanced against the gain the results from the focus obtainable from a stable d-SoC. The question of the optimal degree of stabilization for a given d-SoC when functioning in a given degree of stabilization for a given d-SoC when functioning in a given environment is important, although it has not been researched. If there are too few stabilization processes, the d-SoC can be broken down too easily, a circumstance that could be most unadaptive—when driving for example. If the d-SoC is too stabilized, if too much energy is being consumed in stabilization processes, then that much less energy is available for other purposes. Some of the psychological literature on rigidity as a personality variable might provide a good starting point for investigating optimal stabilization.
    A d-SoC, then, is not simply a collection of psychological parts thrown together any old way; it is an integral system because various stabilization processes control the interaction patterns among the structures and subsystems so as to maintain the functional identity of the overall system.

Chapter 7

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