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In the mid 1970s psychologist Charles Tart (1975, 1972) showed that consciousness can be usefully understood from a systems perspective. He argued that ordinary waking consciousness, or ordinary reality, can be seen as a state of consciousness surrounded by a large number of alternative or “altered” states. Dream sleep is another system, although several states may be accessible in dreams (Krippner, 1994). Others include an unknown number of ecstatic states that can erupt spontaneously into ordinary consciousness, plus states that are accessible through meditation, the shamanic trance, hypnosis, and drug induced states, as well as ordinary non- dream sleep. Tart states that consciousness is composed of a harmonious set of psychological functions, which include memory, cognition, sense of humor, sense of self, external perception (exteroception), and perception of internal body states (interoception). Together they form a gestalt- like whole, or a working system.
According to William James, “Our normal waking consciousness…is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are all there in all their completeness” (James,1929, 378).
Allan Combs’ Theory of Consciousness
According to Combs, transitions between states of consciousness can be brought about by disrupting the stabilizing processes and the positive patterning of forces in the direction of the new desired state. For example the technologies of consciousness, found in yoga or shamanism, involve many patterning techniques designed both to disrupt ordinary consciousness and to move the practitioner toward extraordinary states (Combs, 1993, 1995).