Thursday, February 16, 2012

E. Pustoshkin & A. Khlopushin - States of Consciousness Theory


I found this old article co-authored by my Facebook friend, Eugene Pustoshkin at a site called altstates.net, which appears to have gone inactive in 2010. Too bad - there is a lot of nice material there and it would be cool if it were still aggregating newer research into altered states of consciousness. That area of research has literary exploded in the past three years or so.

There is a definite Wilber-integral slant to this piece, but it is interesting and well-written.

States of Consciousness Theory

In this section the reader is offered an introduction to contemporary theory of consciousness and its altered states.  At first the reader is going to get acquainted with a possible perspective on the basic term consciousness; then the reader can read about concepts of states of consciousness and altered states of consciousenss (ASC). The section concludes with a discussion on relationship between two groups of phenomena—states of consciousness and structures of consciousness.

Consciousness

Nescience about a Man is, perhaps, the strongest nescience of the contemporary science.
Vasily Nalimov (2007, p. 209)

Consciousness is that which is available to the one who reads this page right now, in the present moment. According to most scientists today, consciousness is an essential characteristic of human existence. Perspectives on consciousness are multiple (Seager, 2007; Frith, Rees, 2007); and A. R. Luria includes the problem of consciousness into the list of the most difficult interdisciplinary psychological problems which is being studied not only by psychology but also by philosophy, sociology, psychosemantics, neuroscience, psychiatry, and other disciplines (Luria, 1979).
Fig. 1.  The brain is a material basis for consciousness. Image source (Creative Commons).
First of all, in the today's science consciousness refers to the capacity of subjective experiencing of the world  (Farthing, 1992), while self-consciousness is thought of as the capacity to be aware of oneself as a subject as well as of the system of relationships that emerges around this subject (Chesnokova, 1977). At any rate, the term consciousness is multifaceted; and it can refer to a wide range of phenomena. If we are to use V. V. Nalimov's terminology, consciousness can be seen as a fuzzy term which contains a polyphony of meanings that are being brought forth and cognized probabilistically rather than as something to which can be concretely pointed out (Nalimov, 2007).

Many works studying consciousness begin with a linguistic analysis of the term, with comparisons of entries in various dictionaries (Velmans, 1997); and sometimes when some authors confront the plenitude of meanings of the term  they  conclude that it is impossible to define consciousness and sometimes that the concept of consciousness per se is useless. Such an approach is most likely caused  by a naive view on the relationship between the sign and the reality to which this sign points (so-called "reflection paradigm" or "naive realism" which is still widespread in modernism-oriented academic circles and which results from the assumption that language directly and concretely reflects reality).

The use of reflection paradigm and attempts to define the subject of investigation as something concrete or specific when applied to such a complex phenomenon as consciousness seems not to be feasible and looks anachronistic. Any dictionary is simply a cross section of meanings which is transformed by the collective minds of its authors; a dictionary is a secondary interpretation of primary data whence in relation to such a fundamental phenomenon as consciousness one needs to closely combine those with the primary realities (otherwise on the very first stage of investigation one could get lost in language games and so-called "constant deferring of meaning"). In terms of consciousness the primary reality refers to the foundational fact brought forth by R. Descartes: cogito ergo sum—which literally means "consciousness therefore exist." Perhaps, the multidimensional term consciousness (which, for instance, has an analogue in the Russian language as the word soznanie [сознание]) emerged in human language in the process of evolution as an adaptive realization of the fact of existence of subjectivity and the fact that this subjectivity can cognize itself.

From the point of view of integral semiotics (Wilber, 2006), consciousness is a complex signifier that comes with a diapason of signifieds, with each signified having its particular flavor of meaning but, nonetheless, being in a more or less intimate relationship with the referent which generates these very signifieds and inevitably includes the "phenomenological given" of subjectivity's existence, the primary intuition of "consciousness therefore exist"  (but, as further development of science shows, it does not limit itself only to phenomenological data). In other words, while consciousness as a word has a polyphony of sounding, all flavors of this term, most likely, are based on a certain aspect of its complex referent, that is on a certain reality which lies behind words.

Thus, consciousness can be perceived, first of all, as a space of open subjectivity which is available to us in our own immediate experience and which makes this experience possible. At the same time, according to the integral theory of consciousness which is being developed by K. Wilber (Wilber, 2000) and his colleagues, qualitative characteristics of consciousness—and of our notions of consciousness—have always been formed under the influence of sociocultural factors (education, language and cultural norms, social system's structure)  and are mediated and modulated by the material substrate (the brain, the nervous system, the organism).

States of Consciousness

Those who have studied consciousness for long time tend to become aware of the self-evidence of the fact that consciousness and its qualitative characteristics demonstrate dynamics. One example of such a dynamics is that the human being regularly goes through the cycle of waking, dreaming, and deep sleep in his or her own experience. Another example of the states of consciousness dynamics which is well-known in clinical psychology and psychiatry could be the tendency of persons who suffer from severe endogenous depressions to experience, within the depressive episode, the state of profound melancholy, dispiritedness, and loss of life meaning in the morning that sometimes gets somewhat better by the evening (while outside of depressive episodes life of such people can be quite adaptive and their state of consciousness can be pretty favorable).

The phenomenon of consciousness dynamics and of what state of consciousness we exhibit plays an important role in all spheres of life, from education to sports. Many people engaging in sports, perhaps, have experienced moments and episodes of the so-called "flow state," in which they showed excellency and were able to set a series of breakthroughs and personal records. Furthermore, it seems that the capacity to operate the state of one's own consciousness, in addition to the trained technique, is an essential quality of champions (see Murphy, White, 1995).  Another example of the states of consciousness phenomenon which is familiar to many people is the state of profound concentration and focus that emerges at work when one is performing a particular professional task.

It is necessary to note that states of consciousness (including altered states of consciousness) represent a wider concept and phenomenon than  phenomenal states of joy, interest, hate, fear and so on. In other words, a person can directly observe—through introspection—mainly that which is referred to by the term phenomenal states (a term that comes from phenomenology which points to the multiple directly-experienced states of joy, happiness, hate, and other feelings and emotions which we can witness during the day) rather than states of consciousness per se.

This relates to the fact that, according to C. T. Tart, a state of consciousness is an overall pattern of subjective (psychological) functioning (Tart, 1972). When compared to phenomenal states the dynamics of states of consciousness—or qualitative shifts of the overall pattern of subjective functioning—is a phenomenon which is harder to observe through direct phenomenology. One rather observes the products of shifts in the state of consciousness in the form of phenomenal states.

This is why from the point of view of the subject or individual the awareness of the fact that the state of consciousness has shifted tends to emerge (if it emerges at all) as a result of cognitive deduction when one observes the change of phenomenal states' qualities which are open to direct phenomenological observation. That is, from the subject's point of view, in order to "see" the shift in the state of consciousness one needs to step back from his or her phenomenological method and objectify his or her own phenomenal states so as to get the understanding that a discrete leap into a different state of consciousness was made. This, for instance, sometimes happens when one becomes aware of oneself in a dream. Wilber describes this as follows:

States of consciousness are in one sense experienced by subjects—the dream state, for example—but usually what is actually experienced is some specific, if different or altered, phenomenal state. The individual then compares many similar phenomenal states and concludes they all belong to a broad state of consciousness (such as dreaming, or intoxication, or some such) (Wilber, 2000).

Altered states of consciousness

Thus, one feature of our consciousness is experiencing of some general dynamic patterns of phenomenal states organizing (i.e.,  "states of consciousness"). This could be understood better if one takes into account the types of states of consciousness that exist:

First, there are normal or ordinary states of consciousness which are familiar to every human being from their birth. The list of such states includes three broad or natural states of consciousness (waking, dreaming, and deep sleep). Every human being experiences all of them daily in the cycle of waking/sleeping (Hobson, 2007).

Second, there are altered states of consciousness (ASC), or qualitative shifts in subjective experience or psychological functioning of the particular, generalized for the subject, norms of which the person can be aware or which can be noticed by outer observers (a classical definition of A. Ludwig [Ludwig, 1966]).

According to L. I. Spivak and D. L. Spivak (1996) ASC can typologically divided into the following groups:
  1. Artificially induced: induced by psychoactive substances (for instance, psychedelics) or procedures (for instance, sensory deprivation).
  2. Psychotechnologically mediated: religious ceremonies, Schultz's autogenic training, Grof's holotropic therapy.
  3. Spontaneously occurring in the conditions that are ordinary for a person (in the situations of significant  exertion,  during listening to music, in sports play), or in non-ordinary but natural situations (for instance, during normal child bearing [Spivak et al., 1998]), or in non-ordinary and extreme situations  (for instance, professional athletes' peak experiences [Murphy, White, 1995], near-death experiences of various etiologies [Van Lommel et al., 2001] and so on).
Wilber offers a similar systematics; on the basis of extensive literature review he subdivides ASC on exogenous states (for instance, induced by psychoactive substances) and endogenous states (for instance, such trained states as meditative states that emerge when practicing Yoga, Buddhist meditation, Christian contemplative prayer, etc.). He establishes a separate category for peak experiences—or heightened, deep, spiritual experiences that can emerge both in natural or ordinary states of consciousness and in ASC (Wilber, 2006). This the general conclusion is that ASC can be stimulated by various triggers; and these states may or may not be related to pathology (Hobson, 2007). Also, these states often emerge spontaneously and randomly (Wilber, 2000).

It is the abrupt quality of how the process of altering of state of consciousness occurs (which often goes hand by hand with the phenomenon of "discontinuous memory" [Spivak, 1988]) that allowed C. T. Tart to speak about the discreteness of states of consciousness (and, hence, the introduction of the term discrete state of consciousness [Tart, 1975]). For example, the state of dreaming is such a discrete state in which one tends to be unaware of the dreaming quality of experience. However, as V. V. Nalimov (1982) has pointed out in his theoretical research, any discreteness (discontinuity) dialectically involves continuity; and when the state of dreaming is integrated into the continuum of consciousness the subject gets access to lucid dreaming in which he or she becomes aware that he sleeps and witnesses a dream (Wilber, 2000; LaBerge, 1985). It seems that this supports the J. A. Hobson's proposal  that, according to his neurophysiological states of consciousness model, lucid dreaming essentially means integration of certain components of REM-sleep and the waking state (in terms of neurophysiological correlates of subjective states of waking and dreaming) (Hobson, 2007).

States and Structures of Consciousness

Wilber has pointed out a general feature of altered states of consciousness: when they occur they rarely go through a series of developmental stages or structures. The list of exceptions includes trained states of consciousness which tend to follow a particular pattern of unfolding—from grosser phenomena to subtler states-stages (Wilber, 2006). (When speaking about the concepts of "stages" or "levels" or "waves," Wilber refers to various stages of development of structures of consciousness studied by such scientists as J. Piaget, A. Maslow, S. Cook-Greuter, C. Graves, E. Erikson.)

Thus, states of consciousness are dimensions of human experience that are available, to a different degree, to any individual at any stage of development (either in the form of shifts of natural states of consciousness in the process the waking/sleep cycle  or in the form of various spontaneous or artificially induced ASC or in the form of trained states). Simply put, both a person at the pre-operational stage of Piaget's cognitive  development and a person at the formal-operational stage are capable of waking, dreaming, and sleeping.
Understanding of relationship between states and stages plays an important role in the consciousness studies. An integration of states research with stages research can generate a more comprehensive and multidimensional panoramic view of consciousness, for it seems that consciousness is capable to "operate at multiple discrete levels, and these levels have a hierarchical structure" (Zelazo et al., 2007, p. 409). Wilber especially emphasizes the fact that interpreting of any experience brought forth by ASC would tend to be performed by an individual on the basis of his or her developmental level (whether it is a pre-conventional, conventional or post-conventional structure-stage of development) (for further discussion of this issue the reader is referred to Wilber, 2006; specifically to the sections on the notion of Wilber-Combs lattice). Thus, investigation of relationship between states and levels of consciousness can be considered one of the prospective directions of research in the field of consciousness studies for the coming years.

E. Pustoshkin, A. Khlopushin, 2010, http://altstates.net

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References

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