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States of Consciousness, by Charles Tart

  States of Consciousness

    Charles T. Tart

        13.   Strategies in Using the Systems Approach

The systems approach generates a number of strategies for studying states of consciousness. Some of these are unique consequences of using a system approach, some are just good-sense strategies that could come from other approaches. Many of these methodological strategies have been touched on in previous chapters; some are brought out in later chapters. Here I bring together most of these methodological points and introduce some new ones.


The Constructed Nature of Consciousness

    Realizing that the ordinary d-SoC is not natural and given, but constructed according to semiarbitrary cultural constraints, gives us the freedom to ask some basic questions that might not otherwise occur to us. And it should make us more cautious about labeling other states as "pathological" and other cultures as "primitive." The Australian bushmen, for example, are almost universally considered one of the world's most primitive cultures because of their nomadic life and their paucity of material possessions. Yet Pearce {49} argues that, from another point of view, these people are among the most sophisticated in the world, for they have organized their entire culture around achieving a certain d-ASC, which they refer to as the experience of "Dream Time." Our bias toward material possessions, however, makes us unable to see this.
    Recognizing the semiarbitrary nature of the system of the ordinary d-SoC that has been constructed in our culture should make us especially aware of the implicit assumptions built into it, assumptions were so taken for granted that it never occurs to us to question them. In Transpersonal Psychologies {128}, nine expert practitioners of various spiritual disciplines wrote about their disciplines not as religions, but as psychologies. In the course of editing these contributions, I was increasingly struck by the way certain assumptions are made in various spiritual psychologies that are different from or contrary to those made in Western psychology. As a result, I wrote a chapter outlining several dozen assumptions that have become implicit for Western psychologies and that, by virtue of being implicit, have great control over us.
    I have found that when asked what some of these assumptions are, I have great difficulty recalling them: I have to go back and look at what I wrote! Although my study of systems that make different assumptions brought these implicit assumptions to mind, they have already sunk back to the implicit assumptions to mind, they have already sunk back to the implicit level. We should not underestimate the power of culturally given assumptions in controlling us, and we cannot overestimate the importance of trying to come to grips with them.
    We should also recognize that the enculturation process, discussed earlier, ties the reward and punishment subsystems to the maintenance and defense of ordinary consensus reality. We are afraid of experiencing d-ASCs that are foreign to us and this fear strengthens our tendency to classify them as abnormal or pathological and to avoid them. It also further strengthens our resolve to deal with all reality from the point of view of the ordinary d-SoC, using only the tool or coping function of the ordinary d-SoC. But since the ordinary d-SoC is a limited tool, good for some things but not for others, we invariable distort parts of reality. The tendency to ignore or fight what we do not consider valuable and to distort our perceptions to make them fit is good for maintaining a cohesive social system, but poor for promoting scientific inquiry. A possible solution is the proposal for establishing state-specific sciences, discussed in Chapter 16.


The Importance of Awareness

    The systems approach stresses the importance of attention/awareness as an activating energy within any d-SoC. Yet if we ask what awareness is or how we direct it and so call it attention, we cannot supply satisfactory answers.
    We may deal with this problem simply by taking basic awareness for granted, as we are forced to do at this level of development of the systems approach, and work with it even though we do not know what it is. After all, we do not really know what gravity is in any ultimate sense, but we can measure what it does and from that information develop, for example, a science of ballistics. We can learn much about d-SoCs in the systems approach if we just take basic awareness and attention/awareness energy for granted, but we must eventually focus on questions about the nature of awareness. We will have to consider the conservative and radical views of the mind to determine whether awareness is simply the product of brain and nervous system functioning or whether it is something more.


System Qualities

    The systems approach emphasizes that even though a d-SoC is made up of components, the overall system has gestalt qualities that cannot be predicted from knowledge of the components alone. Thus, while investigation of the components, the subsystems and structures, is important, such investigative emphasis must be balanced by studies of the overall system's functioning. We must become familiar with the pattern of the overall system's functioning so we can avoid wasting energy on researching components that turn out to be relatively unimportant in the overall system. We might, for example, avoid spending excessive research effort and money, as is now being done, on investigating physiological effects of marijuana intoxication, as we have seen, indicates that psychological factors are at least as important as the drug factor in determining the nature of the d-ASC produced.
    The systems approach also emphasizes the need to examine the system's functioning under the conditions in which it was designed to function. We are not yet sure what, if anything, d-ASCs are particularly designed for, what particular they have. We must find this out. On the other hand, we should try not to waste effort studying d-ASCs under conditions they were clearly not designed for. For example, conducting studies that show a slight decrement in arithmetical skills under marijuana intoxication is of some interest, but since no record exists of anyone using marijuana in order to solve arithmetical problems, such studies are somewhat irrelevant. This emphasizes a point made earlier: that it is generally useless to characterize any d-ASC as "better" or "worse" than any other d-SoC. The question should always be, "Better or worse for what particular task?" All d-ASCs we know of seem to associated with improved functioning for certain kinds of tasks and worsened functioning for others.[1] An important research aim, then, is to find out what d-ASCs are optimal for particular tasks and how to train people to enter efficiently into that d-ASC when they need to perform that task. This runs counter to a strong, implicit assumption in our culture that the ordinary d-SoC is the best one for all tasks; that assumption is highly questionable when it is made explicit. Remember that in any d-SoC there is a limited selection from the full range of human potential. While some of these latent human potentials may be developable in the ordinary d-SoC, some are more available in a d-ASC. Insofar as we consider some of these potentials valuable, we must learn what d-SoCs they are operable in and how to train them for good functioning within those d-SoCs.
    This last point is not an academic issue: enormous numbers of people are now personally experimenting with d-ASCs to attain some of these potentials. While much gain will undoubtedly come out of this personal experimentation, we should also expect much loss.


Individual Differences

    As we have seen, what for one individual is a d-ASC may, for another individual, be merely part of the region of his ordinary d-SoC, one continuous experiential space. By following the common experimental procedure of using group data rather than data from individual subjects, we can (Chapter 9) get the impression of continuity (one d-SoC) when two or more d-SoCs actually occurred within the experimental procedure. We should indeed search for general laws of the mind that hold across individuals, but we must beware of enunciating such laws prematurely without first understanding the behavior and experiences of the individuals within our experiments.
    Recognizing the importance of individual differences has many application outside the laboratory. If a friend tries some spiritual technique and has a marvelous experience as a result, and you try the same technique with no result, there is not necessarily something wrong with you. Rather, because of differences in the structures of your ordinary d-SoCs, that particular technique mobilizes attention/awareness energy in an effective way to produce a certain experience for him, but is not an effective techniques for you.


Operationalism, Relevant and Irrelevant

    Operationalism is a way of rigorously defining some concept by describing the actual operations required to produce it. Thus an operational definition of the concept of "nailing" is defined by the operations (1) pick up a hammer in your right hand; (2) pick up a nail in your left hand; (3) put the point of the nail on a wood surface and hold the nail perpendicular to the wood surface; (4) strike the head of the nail with the hammer and then lift the hammer again; and (5) repeat step 4 until the head of the nail is flush with the surface of the wood. An operational definition is a precise definition, allowing total reproducibility.
    Some claim that whatever cannot be defined operationally is not a legitimate subject for scientific investigation. That is silly. No one can precisely specify all the steps necessary to experience "being in love," but that is hardly justification for ignoring the state of being in love as an important human situation worthy of study. A further problem is that in psychology, operationalism implicitly means physical operationalism, specifying the overt, physically observable steps in a process in order to define it. In the search for an objectivity like that of the physical sciences, psychologists emphasize aspects of their discipline that can be physically measured, but often at the cost of irrelevant studies.
    An example is the equating of the hypnotic state, the d-ASC of hypnosis, with the performance of the hypnotic induction procedure. The hypnotic state is a psychological construct or, if induction has been successful, an experiential reality to the hypnotized person. It is not defined by external measurements. There are no obvious behavioral manifestations that clearly indicate hypnosis has occurred and no known physiological changes that invariably accompany hypnosis. The hypnotic procedure, on the other had, the words that they hypnotist says aloud, is highly amenable to physical measurement. An investigator can film the hypnotic procedure, tape-record the hypnotist's voice, measure the sound intensity of the hypnotist's voice, and accumulate a variety of precise, reproducible physical measurements. But that investigator makes a serious mistake if he then describes the responses of the "hypnotized subject" and means by "hypnotized subject" the person to whom the hypnotist said the words. The fact that the hypnotist performs the procedure does not guarantee that the subject enters the d-ASC of hypnosis. As discussed earlier, a person's b-SoC is multiply stabilized, and no single induction procedure or combination of induction procedures will, with certainty, destabilize the ordinary state and produce a particular d-ASC.
    I stress that the concept of the d-SoC is a psychological, experiential construct. Thus, the ultimate criterion for determining whether a person is in a d-ASC is a map of his experiences that shows him to be in a region of psychological space we have termed a d-ASC. The external performance of an induction technique is not the same as achievement of the desired d-ASC. A hypnotic induction procedure does not necessarily induce hypnosis; lying down in bed does not necessarily induce sleeping or dreaming; performing a meditation exercise does not necessarily induce a meditative state.
    When an induction procedure is physiological, as when a drug is used, the temptation to equate the induction procedure with the altered state is especially great. But the two are not the same, even in this case. As discussed in Chapter 10, smoking marijuana does not necessarily cause a transition out of the b-SoC. Nor, as is shown in Chapter 14, is knowledge of the dose of the drug an adequate specification of depth.
    We do need to describe techniques in detail in our reports of d-ASCs, but we must also specify the degree to which these techniques were actually effective in altering a subject's state of consciousness, and we must specify this for each individual subject. In practice, physiological criteria may be sometimes so highly correlated with experiential reports indicating a d-ASC that those criteria can be considered an indicator that the d-ASC has occurred. This is the case with stage 1 REM dreaming. Behavioral criteria may be similarly correlated with experiential data, though I am not sure any such criteria are well correlated at present. But the primary criteria are well correlated at present. But the primary criterion is an actual assessment of the kind of experiential space the subject is in that indicates the induction procedure was effective.
    Operationalism, then, which uses external, physical, and behavioral criteria, is inadequate for dealing with many of the most important phenomena of d-ASCs. Most of the phenomena that define d-ASCs are internal and may never show obvious behavioral or physiological[2] manifestations.
    Ultimately we need an experiential operationalism, a set of statements such as (1) if you stop all evaluation processes for at least three minutes, (2) and you concurrently invest no attention/awareness energy into the Interoception subsystem for perceiving the body, (3) so that all perception of the body fades out, then (4) you will experience a mental phenomenon of such and such a type. Our present language is not well suited to this, as discussed earlier, so we are a long way from a good experiential operationalism. The level of precision of understanding and communication that an experiential operationalism will bring is very high; nevertheless, we should not overvalue operationalism and abandon hope of understanding a phenomenon we cannot define operationally.


Predictive Capabilities of the Systems Approach

    In Chapter 8 I briefly describe some basic subsystems we can recognize in terms of current knowledge. We can now see how the systems approach can be used to make testable predictions about d-SoCs.
    The basic predictive operation is cyclical. The first step is to observe the properties of structures/subsystems as well as you can from the current state of knowledge. You ask questions in terms of what you already know. Then you take the second step of organizing the observations to make better theoretical models of the structures/subsystems you have observed. The third step is to predict, on the basis of the models, how the structures/subsystems can and cannot interact with each other under various conditions. Fourth, you test these predictions by looking for or attempting to create d-SoCs that fit or do not fit these improved structure/subsystem models and seeing how well the models work. This takes you back to the first step, starting the cycle again, further altering or refining your models, etc.
    The systems approach providers a conceptual framework for organizing knowledge about states of consciousness and a process for continually improving knowledge about the structures/subsystems. The ten subsystems sketched in Chapter 8 are crude concepts at this stage of our knowledge and should eventually be replaced with more precise concepts about the exact nature of a larger number of more basic subsystems and about their possibilities for interaction to form systems.
    I have given little thought so far to making predictions based on the present state of the systems approach. The far more urgent need at this current, chaotic stage of the new science of consciousness is to organize the mass of unrelated data we have into manageable form. I believe that most of the data now available can be usefully organized in the systems approach and that to do so will be a clear step forward. The precise fitting of the available mass of data into this approach will, however, take years of work.
    One obvious prediction of the systems theory is that because the differing properties of structures restrict their interaction, there is a definite limit to the number of stable d-SoCs. Ignoring enculturation, we can say that the number is large but limited by the biological/neurological/psychical endowment of man in general, by humanness. The number of possible states for a particular individual is even smaller because enculturation further limits the qualities of structures.
    My systems approach to consciousness appears to differ from Lilly's approach {34, 35} to consciousness as a human biocomputer. I predict that only certain configurations can occur and constitute stable states of consciousness, d-SoCs. Lilly's model seems to treat the mind as a general-purpose computer, capable of being programmed in any way one can conceive of: "In the province of the mind, what one believes to true either is true or becomes true within certain limits." Personal conversations between Lilly and I suggest that our positions actually do not differ that much. The phrase "within certain limits" is important here. I agree entirely with Lilly's belief that what we currently believe to be the limits, the "basic" structures limiting the mind are probably mostly arbitrary, programmed structures peculiar to our culture and personal history. It is the discovery of the really basic structures behind these arbitrary cultural/personal ones that will tell us about the basic nature of the human mind. The earlier discussion of individual differences is highly relevant here, for it can applied across cultures: two regions of experiential space that are d-SoCs for many or all individuals in a particular culture may be simply parts of one large region of experiential space for many or all individuals in another culture.
    I stress again, however, that our need today, and the primary value of the systems approach, is useful organization of data and guidance in asking questions, not prediction. Prediction and hypothesis-testing will come into their own in a few years as our understanding of structures/subsystems sharpens.


Stability and Growth

    Implicit in the act of mapping an individual's psychological experiences is the assumption of a reasonable degree of stability of the individual's structure and functioning over time. The work necessary to obtain a map would be wasted if the map had to be changed before it had been used.
    Ordinarily we assume that an individual's personality or ordinary d-SoC is reasonably stable over quite long periods, generally over a lifetime once his basic personality has been formed by late adolescence. Exceptions to this assumption occur when individuals are exposed to severe, abnormal conditions, such as disasters, which may radically alter parts of their personality structure, or to psychotherapy and related psychological growth techniques. Although the personality change following psychotherapy is often rather small, leaving the former map of the individual's personality relatively useful, it is sometimes quite large.
    The validity of assuming this kind of stability in relation to research on d-SoCs is questionable. The people who are most interested in experiencing d-ASCs are dissatisfied with the ordinary d-SoC and so may be actively trying to change it. But studies confined to people not very interested in d-ASCs (so-called naive subjects) may be dealing with an unusual group who are afraid of d-ASCs. Stability of the b-SoC or of repeatedly induced d-ASCs is something to be assessed, not assumed. This is particularly true for a person's early experiences with a d-ASC, where he is learning how to function in the d-ASC with each new occurrence. In my study of the experiences of marijuana intoxication {103, 105}. I deliberately excluded users who had had less than a dozen experiences of being stoned on marijuana. The experience of these naive users would have mainly reflect learning to cope with a new state, rather than the common, stable characteristics of the d-ASC of being stoned.
    An individual may eventually learn to merge two d-SoCs into one. The merger may be a matter of transferring some state-specific experiences and potentials back into the ordinary state, so that eventually most or many state-specific experiences are available in the ordinary state. The ordinary state, in turn, undergoes certain changes in its configuration. Or, growth or therapeutic work at the extremes of functioning of two d-SoCs may gradually bring the two closer until experiences are possible all through the former "forbidden region."
    Pseudomerging of two d-SoCs may also be possible. As an individual more and more frequently makes the transitions between the two states, he may automate the transition process to the point where he no longer has any awareness of it, and/or efficient routes through the transition process are so thoroughly learned that the transition takes almost no tie or effort. Then, unless the individual or an observer was examining his whole pattern of functioning, his state of consciousness might appear to be single simply because transitions were not noticed. This latter case would be like the rapid, automated transitions between identity states within the ordinary state of consciousness.
    Since a greater number of human potentials are available in two states than in one, such merging or learning of rapid transitions can be seen as growth. Whether the individual or his culture sees it as growth depends on cultural valuations of the added potentials and the individual's own intelligence in actual utilization of the two states. The availability of more potentials does not guarantee their wise or adaptive use.


Sequential Strategies in Studying d-SoCs

    The sequential strategies for investigating d-SoCs that follow from the systems approach are outlined below. These strategies are idealistic and subject to modification in practice.
    First, the general experiential, behavioral or physiological components of a rough concept of a particular d-ASC are mapped. The data may come from informal interviews with a number of people who have experienced that state, from personal experiences in that d-ASC. This exercise supplies a feeling for the overall territory and its main features.
    Then the experiential space of various individuals is mapped to determine whether their experiences show the distinctive clusterings and patternings that constitute d-SoCs. This step overlaps somewhat with the first, for the investigator assumes or has data to indicate a distinctness about the d-ASC for at least some individuals as a start of his interest.
    For individuals who show this discreteness, the third step of more detailed individual investigation is carried out. For those who do not, studies are begun across individuals to ascertain why some show various discrete states and others do not: in addition to recognizing the existence of individual differences, the researcher must find out why they exist and what function they serve.
    The third step is to map the various d-SoCs of particular individuals in detail. What are the main features of each state? What induction procedures produce the state? What deinduction procedures cause a person to transit out of it? What are the limits of stability of the state? What uses, advantages does the state have? What disadvantages or dangers? How is the depth measured? What are the convenient marker phenomena to rapidly measure depth?
    With this background, the investigator can profitable ask questions about interindividual similarities of the various discrete states. Are they really enough alike across individuals to warrant a common state name? If so, does this relate mainly to cultural background similarities of the individuals studied or to some more fundamental aspect of the nature of the human mind?
    Finally, even more detailed studies can be done on the nature of particular discrete states and the structures/subsystems comprising them. This sort of investigation should come at a late stage to avoid premature reductionism: we must not repeat psychology's early mistake of trying to find the universal Laws of the Mind before we have good empirical maps of the territory.



    [1] Objectivity is hard to maintain here, for functions that are improved in a particular d-SoC may not be valued functions for the culture of the investigator. The first thing we can do is be explicit about our value judgments, rather than pretending we do not make them. (back)
    [2] I refer to present-day levels of physiological measurement: in principle, if we could measure the microstructures of the brain finely enough, we could distinguish d-ASCs that are presently not distinguishable from scalp recordings of brain activity. (back)

Chapter 14

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