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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
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 factsthat 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
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
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 unadaptivewhen 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