THE BASIC NATURE OF ALTERED
STATES OF CONSCIOUSNESS:
A SYSTEMS APPROACH
Charles T. Tart
University of California, Davis
Institute for the Study of Human Consciousness, San Francisco
This paper is an edited version of a talk presented to a meeting of
the AmericanAcademy of Psychoanalysisin Detroit, Michigan,
May 4, 1974.
When I was asked to speak at this meeting and discuss my
theory of the basic nature of altered states of consciousness, I
was quite pleased with the idea of being able to speak to a
group who would be able to give me useful feedback from their
expertise on the workings of the mind. Little did I know,
however, that I would also be asked to perform a miracle,
namely to cover the basic nature of altered states of consciousness in 30 to 40 minutes! I’m going to see what I can do
with this kind of challenge, but I warn you we are going to
cover an awful lot of ground very rapidly in order to get this
overview. Hopefully, we shall have time in the workshop this
afternoon for those who would like to go into various aspects of
the theory in more detail. More detailed presentations of the
theory and background data can be found elsewhere (Tart,
1970; 1971a; 1971b; 1974; 1975a; 1975b).
In a dozen years of reading the literature on states of consciousness, conducting extensive researches into hypnosis,
sleep, dreams, and marijuana intoxication, with minor excursions into psychedelic drug phenomena and meditation, I have
been struck over and over again by the degree of disorganization in this field. It’s as though we have ten thousand miscellaneous pieces of data, a few pieces hanging together here, a
few pieces hanging together there, and many pieces not
seeming to connect with anything else. What I have mainly
tried to do in the last few years, and what 1 shall share with you
The basic nature of alteredstates of consciousness: A systems approach 45
this morning is to create a theoretical framework, a paradigm,
that will give some coherency to the isolated bits of data in this
field and provide a useful framework for asking further quesdons. I had originally thought of this as a theory, but I found
it’s of wide enough scope to be more in the order of a metatheory. Only recently I discovered the difference between a
‘theory’ and a ‘metatheory’: a theory is easily disprovable if the
facts don’t check out against it, but a metatheory is an obviously sensible sort of way of thinking about a field that is not
easily destroyed by a few inconvenient facts, and thus carries
less risk for its proponents!
The theory 1will give you today is a psychologicalframework,
since that’s the basic nature ofthe phenomena of altered states
of consciousness.I shall let others try to relate it to physiological data eventually, but this framework is perfectly compatible
with both physiological and behavioral data, as it is primarily a
systems approach,and as the particular units from which one
builds systems can be varied according to what one likes to
believe is’fundamental’,I feelno need to ‘physiologize’ psychology in order to make it ‘scientific’, so I shall be happy to
keep it on the psychological level.
THE CONSTRUCTED NATURE OF ORDINARY CONSCIOUSNESS
I want to begin by reminding you ofthe questionableness of an
assumption that is almost universally made by professionals in
this field, one which is implicitly and emotionally made even
when it’s not intellectually accepted, namely the assumption
that our ordinary state of consciousness is somehow the ‘best’
or ‘optimal’ state or organization of consciousness that a human being can have, and that all altered states of consciousness
are somehow inferior or pathological variants of this. Modern
psychological research indicates clearly that ordinary consciousness is a construction, not a given, and a construction that
has a very large number of arbitrary aspects in it whose value is
quite arbitrary and/or culturally relative.
Figure I illustrates a concept I call the spectrum of human
potentialities. Byvirtue of being born a human being you have
a certain kind of body and nervous system operating in the
environment of spaceship earth. That means there are an untold number of thousands of potentials which could be developed in you. Everyone, however, is born into a particular
culture, and we can view any human culture as a group of
people who have, through various historical processes, decided
that some of these human potentialities are good and so to be
encouraged, others are bad and so to be discouraged, and
46 Journal of TranspersonalPsychology,1976, Vol.8 ,No.1
Figure 1; Spectrum of human potentialities.
many others simply have not been heard of. So culture A in
Figure 1 selects certain human potentialities for development,
the ones shown with arrows, and blocks others, the ones shown
with hexagons. Culture B makes different, possibly partially
overlapping, selections from the spectrum. Both cultures ignore many potentialities. This should remind us that the ‘normal’ state of consciousness any adult ends up with is culturally
relative, and represents only a small fraction of the potentialHiesopen to a human being. As we are all too aware, of course,
each local culture tends to think of its particular selection of
human potentialities as the best possible and likely to regard
other cultures as ‘primitive’ or semi-human.
Now let us change the labels in Figure 1 to make this a spectrum of experiential potentialities, the various potentials for
different kinds of conscious experiences. We could again take
the selection foci as two cultures, but this time let us consider
them as two states of consciousness in a given individual. (I
shall later define the concept of a state of consciousness more
specifically,but here we will use the term generally.) State of
consciousness A, which might be our ordinary state of consciousness, develops and uses some human potentials and rejects others. State B has a different gamut of selections and
rejections. Insofar as an individual is dissatisfied with his life in
state A, he may find some of the potentials available in state B,
but not available in his ordinary state of consciousness, very
intriguing and of considerable value. This is the basis of the
Widespread cultural interest in altered states today, as more
and more people find the lifestyle in their ordinary state of
consciousness unsatisfactory. I refer not simply to neurotic
dissatisfaction, failure to function smoothly within a culture,
but also to the existential dissatisfaction of the successful.
The basicnature of alteredstates of consciousness:A systems approach 47
Looking at this a little more systematically, a human being
comes into the world with a basic capacity for attention or
awareness, and with a given biological structure. Figure 2
shows the enculturation process in schematic form. On the left
is the basic capacity for awareness. Then come various fixed
biological structures which must develop if a person is to be a
human being. These include such things as the capacity for
language. To use John Lilly’s (1967) analogy of the human
biocomputer, we notonly have awareness, but we come with a
certain design of computer, and certain ready-made programs
are already stored in the computer. Then we have many other
potential programs, given potentialities which may develop if
the culture reinforces them, but which do not necessarily have
to develop. Finally we have what may be the most distinctly
human category, the many potentially programmable structures or capacities, the blank spaces in the computer that can
be filled in, Because of pressures from the culture, from the
physical environment, and from random factors, there is a
process of selective development and inhibition of both the
capacity for awareness and the various fixed and programmable structures, until finally we talk about an adult having
a ‘normal’ state of consciousness. Normal, of course, is defined relative to the culture. The achievement of this normal
state of consciousness is also part of the process of learning to
function in consensusreality,the reality we learn to perceiveas
it is defined by and perceived by significant agents of the
To begin our systems approach more formally, consider the
elements or basic molecular components of the system we can
(a state of) consciousness. A molecular approach to looking at
consciousness is to see that it basically consists of attention!
awareness, which can act as a kind of activating energy, and
of large numbers of structures. The structures are what we
mean by things such as arithmetical skills, ability to dance,
various types of emotions, etc. These structures are always
present in non-activated form, but can be activated either by
having attention/awareness focusedon them, and/or by other
kinds of biological or psychological energies flowing into them.
Now I am skimming rapidly over the concepts of attention as a
kind of psychic energy and of the existence of (psychic) structures because these are concepts familiar to those with psychoanalytic training, and I suspect I am using them in a fairly
straightforward psychoanalytic sense. But I do want to make
two important points about them before we move on.
First, I have been saying attention! awareness to indicate that
not only do we have a basic capacity for being aware, for being
conscious in some sense, but it is partiallydirectable, thus we
48 Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 1976, Vol. 8, No.1
_———A ….—— __ POTENTIAL
f cd~~~~is~~ss \ c y
o T N ,
DEVELOPMENT I SELECTION I INHIBITION (~~~Wt:LL) FORCES
speak of attention. I emphasize the ‘partially’, however, for we
almost never have anything like a total ability to control our
attention volitionally. If one looks at many meditative systems
and other systems for spiritual development (Tart, 1975a), a
main technique running through all of them is training in
learning to focus attention more selectively. Since attention I
awareness serves to activate structures by being able to deploy attention at will,one potentially can have enormous control over the activity of consciousness.
Second, we must note that various structures have important,
innate properties that determine if and how they may interact
with other structures. Figure 3 illustrates this, using the analogy of structures being like various shaped blocks which must
exist in a gravitational field, this field being analogous to the
energetic functioning of the system comprising a state of
consciousnessfunctioning in an environment. There are four
illustrations here of ways different kinds of blocks can be
stacked up to form structures that will be stable in the gravitational field. The one in the upper left-hand corner (A) for
instance, isquite stable in the gravitational field.The one in the
upper middle (B) is easily disrupted by a push on the arc
structure because of leverage.The one in the right-hand corner
(C) is much taller, but rather vulnerable to sideways pushes.
We may think of states of consciousness (or of cultures) as
being ways of interconnecting various human potentials into
for states of
The basic nature of altered states ofconsciousness: A systems approach 49
Figure 3: Constraints and limits of structure.
functioning systems. One gets certain useful things out of various combinations of potentials, but has various vulnerabilities
as a result Fancifully, we may say the state of consciousness in
the left-hand corner (A) presents a very ‘straight’ and stable
state of consciousness that may be somewhat dull, but certainly
resists the vicissitudes of life, while the one in the upper
right-hand corner (C) enables its possessor to get ‘high’, but is
rather susceptible to certain kinds of stresses.
The structure in the lower left-hand corner (D), by contrast,
indicates an obviously impossible organization. You can’t put
blocks together like this in a gravitational field, as it will collapse the-instant you remove the constructing forces. Similarly,
one can think of the possible combinations of human potentialities which one simply never hears of as existing in stable
systems. This suggests very strongly that the number of ways
you can combine human potentialities into a state of consciousness is indeed limited. I do not think our current knowledge of exactly what these limits are is any too good, but we
must be aware of this. Again using John Lilly’s analogy of the
human biocornputer, the biological computer given 11Sis apparently not totally ‘general purpose’. There are a lot of programs you can put into it, but there are some programs you just
can’t run on a functioning human biocomputer. This means
50 Journal ofTranspersonal Psychology, 1976,Vol. 8, No.1
that the number of states of consciousness one can have will be
DISCRETE STATES OF CONSCIOUSNESS
J am now ready to define what a state of consciousness is. As a
preface I should note, with some guilt, since J helped to popularize the terms ‘state of consciousness’ and ‘altered state of
consciousness’ (Tart, 1969),that those two terms are now generally used in such an ambiguous way as to be almost meaningless. People use ‘state of consciousness’ simply to mean
what’s on their mind at any moment, and if it changes a
moment later then they talk about an altered state of consciousness. So now as I touch the top of my head I am in ‘top
of the head state of consciousness’, and now as I touch my
chest I am in the ‘altered state of consciousness’ of ‘chest consciousness’, etc. Clearly this use is so ambiguous as to simply
I am now attempting to introduce two new terms, discrete state
of consciousness and discrete altered state of consciousness for
scientific usage, and I shall define these in a moment. Recall
that on a molecular level the systems approach to (states of)
consciousness has two basic components, energies and structures. We have a kind of basic awareness, partially directable
so that we call it attention/awareness, as well as other forms of
biological and psychic energy, and we have various kinds of
semi-permanent structures that are activated by attention/
awareness and other kinds of psychic and biological energy.
Figure 3, illustrating the limitations of structure, is partially
misleading in that it illustrates a static kind of system. As our
first look at a discrete state of consciousness, we can consider it
a large number of psychological structures, dynamically interacting with each other as attention I awareness energy and
other kinds of psychic and biological energy circulate through
the structures of the system. There are certain preferred, habitual paths of energy circulation, and others which are seldom
used. Certain structures, which are latent in a given state of
consciousness,receive no energy ordinarily at all and so are not
active. Other kinds of structures receive certain kinds of psychic energies but not the energy that attention I awareness
constitutes, and so affect the quality of consciousness of the
system indirectly. These, of course, are what we mean by the
Figure 4 is a representation of a discrete state of consciousness
as a system. Each of the circles of various sizes represents
different sorts of human potentialities. The heavy lines represtates
The basic nature of altered states of consciousness: A systems approach 5 I
r;:;>~ rA.. UNTAPPED t…..JPOTENTIALS
Figure 4: Representation of a d-Sot” as a configuration of structures/
subsystems forming a recognizable pattern. Light lines and circles represent
potential interactions and potentialities/structures/subsystems not used in
the baseline d-SoC.
sent attention/awareness energy and other kinds of psychic
energy flow routes which keep certain structures connected
and interacting with one another in a relatively stable and
habitual sort of fashion. Input from the environment, filtered
by selective attention, also tends to activate certain structures
habitually. In the upper right hand corner I have shown certain
human potentialities as untapped, not connected with the system. By the light lines I have shown another possible way of
connecting up various structures of human potentialities to
form a different kind of system, a system with a different
configuration. We shall come to that in a moment.
Now [ shall formally define a discrete state of consciousness
(d-SoC) for a given individual (and I emphasize for a given
individual)as a uniqueconfigurationorsystem of psychological
structures or subsystems. The structures or subsystems show
somequantitativeand minor qualitative variationin the wa.vin
whichtheyprocessinformationor copeor haveexperiences,but
the structuresor subsystemsand their energeticpattern of interJournal of Transpersonal Psychology, 1976, Vol. 8, No.1
actions comprisea ‘system’. The operationsof the components,
thepsychologicalstructures,interactwith each other and stabilize each other’sfunctioning by means offeedback control such
that the system, the discretestate of consciousness,maintains its
overallpatterning offunctioning within a varyingenvironment.
That is, the parts of the system that comprise a discrete state of
consciousness may vary over various ranges if we look at individual components, but the overall, general configuration,
the overall pattern of the system remains recognizably the
same. As an analogy, you can drive your car faster or slower,
with a varying number of passengers in it, or change the color
of the seat covers, but it retains its identity as the system we
know as an automobile. So one may have variations in consciousness, such as being more or less activated, more or less
aware of the environment, etc. that represent quantitative
changes in certain subsystems or structures of the system, but
they do not change the overall, recognizable configuration of
the systemas being that of our ordinary state of consciousness,
or, for that matter, of any particular discrete state of consciousness. The way to understand a discrete state of consciousness,then, is not only to investigate the structure of the
parts in a more and more molecular way, but also to be aware
of the way in which the parts interact and the ‘gestalt’ sys~
tern-properties of the configuration that arise that may not be
predictable from a knowledge of the parts alone.
Figure 5 illustrates what I mean by a discrete altered state of
consciousness (d~ASC). Now the pattern that was the background of the previous figure becomes the foreground, and the
earlier pattern is the background. We have a radical reorganization of the selection of structures making up consciousness
and/ or the pattern of energetic and informational interaction
between them. The basic difference of a discrete altered state
of consciousness from the baseline state, the discrete state of
consciousness we take as a reference, is that the system-properties now produce something quite different. You might say
there has been a quantum jump to a quite different type of
organization (Tart, 1975b).If we take your automobile apart
and use the parts to form the components of an airplane, with
the addition of a few other parts (corresponding to latent
potentials), we obviously have a quite different system, although one can certainly find similarities of functioning in
I am deliberately stressing radicalreorganization or a kind of
quantum jump here in order to keep the concept of a discrete
state of consciousness useful. A discrete state is discretely
different from some other state. On the psychological level,
one might, for example, argue that one can dream about almost anything that one can experience in the waking state.
The basicnatureof alteredstatesof consciousness:A systemsapproach 53
/—–, ~~ I/ ‘——-j) \ SELECTIVE f ATTENTION , t<~TTENTION \ ENERGY “‘\> \ / I J –
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