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  States of Consciousness

    Charles T. Tart

        9.   Individual Differences

Inadequate recognition of individual differences is a methodological deficiency that has seriously slowed psychological research. Lip service is paid to individual differences, but in reality they are largely ignored. Psychologists, caught up in the all-too-human struggle for prestige, ape the methods of the physical sciences, in which individual differences are not of great significance and the search is for general fundamental laws. I believe this failure to recognize individual differences is the rock on which psychology's early attempts to establish itself as an introspective discipline foundered. Following the lead of the tremendously successful physical scientists, the early psychologists searched for general laws of the mind, and when their data turned out to be contradictory, they quarreled with each other over who was right, not realizing they were all right, and so wasted their energies. They tried to abstract too much too soon before coming to terms with the experiential subject matter.
Figure 9-1. Problems arising when individual differences are ignored. Charts A, B, and C are experiential mappings of the sort done in Figure 5-1. The other two charts are summary charts, as explained in the text.

    We psychologists all too often do the same thing today, albeit in a more sophisticated form. Consider, for example, the procedure described in Chapter 5 for mapping a person's location in experiential space. Suppose that in the course of an experiment we measure two variables, X and Y, in a group of subjects. To concretize the example, we can define X as the degree of analgesia (insensitivity to pain) the subject can show and Y as the intensity of the subject's imagery. Tempted by the convenience and "scientificness" of a nearby computer, we feed our group data in a prepackaged analysis program and get the printout in the lower chart of Figure 9-1—a straight line fitted to the data and indicating a highly significant (thus publishable) correlation coefficient between variables X and Y. It looks as if ability to experience analgesia is linearly related to intensity of imagery, that in this region of experiential space there is a straight-road connection: if you do whatever is needed to enhance imagery, you automatically increase analgesia.
    If we distrust such great abstraction of the data, we can ask the computer to print out a scatter plot of the raw data, the actual position of each subject instead of the abstraction for all subjects. This new printout (lower left-hand chart of Figure 9-1) apparently reassures us that the fitted curve and correlation coefficient are adequate ways of presenting and understanding our results. The straight road is somewhat broad, but still basically straight. More imagery goes with more analgesia.
    We have extracted a principle (more imagery leads to more analgesia) from group data that is based on one pair of observations from each subject. Suppose, however, that we actually go back to our subjects and test some of them repeatedly, obtain samples over time, an experiential mapping, of their simultaneous abilities to experience analgesia and imagery. Then we find that our subjects actually fall into three distinct types, as shown in the upper charts of Figure 9-1. Type A shows either a low degree of both analgesia and imagery or a fair degree of analgesia and imagery, but no other combinations. Type B shows a low to fair degree of analgesia and imagery or a very high degree of analgesia and imagery, but no other combinations. Type C shows a high variability of degree of analgesia and imagery, a much wider range of combinations.
    For subjects of type C, the conclusion, drawn from the group data, of a linear relationship between intensity of imagery and intensity of analgesia, is valid. But how many type C subjects are included in our group? Subjects of types A and B, on the other hand, do not show a linear relationship between analgesia and imagery. There is no straight road, only some islands of experience. For type A subjects, analgesia and imagery cluster together at low levels or at moderate levels of functioning, but show no clear linear relationship within either cluster. For type B subjects, analgesia and imagery cluster at low to moderate or at very high levels, and again show no clear linear relationship within either clustering. Indeed, subjects of types A and B show the clustering used in Chapter 5 to define the concept of multiple d-SoCs, while subjects of type C seem to function in only a single d-SoC.
    Thus the conclusion drawn from the grouped data about relations between analgesia and imagery in this region of experiential space turns out to apply only to some people and to misrepresent what others experience. Indeed, the error may be more profound: people may be only of the A and B types, but combining their results as subjects when some are in one part of experiential space and some in another gives us a set of numbers that spans the whole range. This leads us to the straight-road or linear relationship concept, even though that concept actually represents no one's experience.
    It is hard to realize the full impact of individual differences because of the deep implicitness of the assumption that we all share a common d-SoC. Since we are members of a common culture, this is generally true, but the more I come to know other individuals and get a feeling for the way their minds work, the more I am convinced that this general truth, the label ordinary d-SoC, conceals enormous individual differences. If I clearly understood the way your mind works in its ordinary d-SoC, and if you understood the same about me, we would both be amazed. Yet because we speak a common language, which stresses external rather than internal events, we are seldom aware of these differences.
    Psychologically, each of us assumes that his own mind is an example of a "normal" mind and then projects his own experiences onto other people, unaware of how much projecting he is doing. For example, most of us have imagery in our ordinary d-SoC that is unstable and not very vivid, so that trying to visualize something really steadily and intensely is impossible. Some people report that in d-ASCs their imagery is much more intense and controllable, steady. Yet the inventor Nikolai Tesla had such intense, controllable imagery in his ordinary d-SoC. When Tesla designed a machine, he did it in his head, without using physical drawings: nevertheless, he could instruct a dozen difference machinists how to make each separate part, to the nearest ten-thousandth of an inch, and the completed machine would fit together perfectly. Tesla is also reported to have tested wear on his machines through imagery. He designed the machine by visualization, put the imaged parts together into a complete machine, started it running in his mind, forgot about it, resurrected the image thousands of hours later, mentally dismantled the machine, and inspected the parts for wear to see what needed reinforcement of redesign {43}. Regardless of how one evaluate the accuracy of such imagery, Tesla's procedure is a good example of what for most of us is exotic imagery associated with d-ASCs, but what was for him the imagery of his "ordinary" d-SoC.
    On those occasions when we do recognize great differences in the mental functioning of others, we are tempted to label the differences weird or abnormal of pathological. Such blanket labels are not useful. What are the specific advantages and disadvantages under what circumstances for each individual difference of pattern?
    This tendency to project implicitly the workings of one's own mind pattern as a standard for the working of all minds can have interesting scientific results. For example, controversy rages in the literature on hypnosis over whether the concept of a d-SoC is necessary to explain hypnosis, or whether the hypnotic "state" is in fact continuous with the ordinary "state," is simply a case of certain psychological functions, such as suggestibility and role-playing involvement, being pushed to higher levels of activity than they are under ordinary conditions. A chief proponent of this latter view, Theodore X. Barber {4}, can produce most of the classical hypnotic phenomena in himself without doing anything special.[1] The phenomena included in his ordinary d-SoC encompass a range that, for another person, must be attained by unusual means. How much does this affect his theorizing? How much does anyone's individual psychology affect his thinking about how other minds work? Again consider Figure 9-1. Whereas A and B type people may have two d-SoCs, one that we call their ordinary d-SoC and a second called their hypnotic state, the ordinary range of consciousness of type C people includes both these regions. Thus it may be more accurate to say that what as been called hypnosis, to stick with this example, is indeed merely an extension of the ordinary range of functioning for some people, but for other people it is d-ASC.
    I cannot emphasize too strongly that the mapping of experience and the use of the concept of d-SoCs must first be done on an individual basis. Only then, if regions of great similarity are found to exist across individuals, can common names that apply across individuals be legitimately coined.
    This idealistic statement does not reflect the way our concepts actually evolved. The very existence of names like dreaming state or hypnotic state indicates that there appears to a fair degree of commonality among a fair number of individuals. Though I often speak as if this commonality were true, its veracity cannot be precisely evaluated at the present stage of our knowledge, and the concept is clearly misleading at times. Several d-ASCs may be hidden within common names like hypnosis or dreaming.
    In addition to the large individual differences that may exist among people we think are all in the same d-SoC, there are sit from one d-SoC to another. In discussing stabilization processes, I mentioned that some people seem overstabilized and others understabilized. The former may be able to experience only a few d-SoCs, while the latter may transit often and effortlessly into d-ASCs. Understabilized people may undergo breakdown of the ordinary d-SoC and be unable to form a new d-ASC, unable to organize consciousness into a stable coping form. Some types of schizophrenia may represent this understabilized mode of consciousness.
    Besides the sheer number of simultaneous and reinforcing stabilization processes, the degree of voluntary control over them is important. To the extent that your stabilization processes are too powerful or too implicit to be altered at will, you are stuck in one mode of consciousness. These dimensions of stabilization, control, and ability to transit from one d-SoC to another are important ones that must be the focus of future research, as we know almost nothing about them now.


[1] As discussed in Chapter 12, some individuals may transit so rapidly and easily between d-SoCs that they do not notice the transitions and so mistakenly believe they experience only one d-SoC. This case is ordinarily difficult to distinguish from that of actual continuity through a wide region of experiential space. (back)

Chapter 10

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