State-Specific Sciences: Altered State Origin of the Proposal

State-Specific Sciences: Altered State Origin of the Proposal

Charles T. Tart

Perhaps the most important and creative idea I’ve had in my half-century career as a psychologist has been the establishment of state-specific sciences.  The basic idea is to greatly expand our ability to gain knowledge by practicing the essence of science in a variety of states of consciousness, instead of just one, and to be able to study and eventually use the unusual experiences of altered states more clearly.  Little has been done by others to actually establish such sciences as of this time (2015), and I believe that, for a variety of reasons, the idea is still ahead of its time, but I have high hopes for it.  I’m also aware that just because an idea seems exciting and plausible does not necessarily mean it is correct, so it may turn out to be an idea that is false, as some people said at the time, but we shall see…

Note on Eye Candy: Various charts from my systems approach to understanding and using Altered States of Consciousness, taken from my States of Consciousness book.

Fig 2: Factors affecting marijuana intoxication

Here’s how it came about.

By the early 1970s, I had finished my graduate degree and spent a decade focusing my empirical research primarily on the nature of hypnosis and on using posthypnotic suggestion to influence the content and processing of stage I-REM dreaming during the night.  I had also been a subject while in graduate school of a psychiatrist colleague’s (Martin Keeler) experiments with psychedelic drugs, particularly LSD and psilocybin, so I had some personal experience of the drastic changes that these kind of drugs could make to mental functioning.  And although consciousness per se was still largely a taboo topic in science back then, I was familiar with a very wide variety of early studies and reports on things like creative states, what little was known of meditation at the time, lucid dreams, and the like.

I had also, through the kindness of Michael Murphy, the founder of Esalen Institute, attended a number of human potential programs at Esalen.  One of the growth techniques I became aware of was Structural Integration, commonly known as Rolfing.  This was a therapy developed by New York physiologists Ida Rolf.  To greatly oversimplify, she observed that, probably as a result of various physical traumas through life, our body became poorly aligned within the Earth’s gravitational field, connective tissue grew into permanent tensions to try to compensate for this, and as a result a lot of physical energy was wasted or took pathological directions.  She developed a form of therapy (10 sessions) in which a Rolfing therapist, using intense physical manipulation techniques (not just fingers but elbows with full body weight behind them, e.g.) softened and broke hardened connective tissue until the body was optimally aligned vertically in the gravitational field.  Some of the Rolfing practitioners also felt that this released many psychological traumas that had been incorporated in chronic bodily tensions and practices.  I could look in the mirror and see that my posture was not all that good, and decided to go through the standard 10 sessions of Rolfing.  I was ambivalent about this, already knowing that it was usually a quite painful procedure, and I’ve always been afraid of pain.


Pain-Induced Altered States:

I was living in Davis in 1971, so drove down to San Francisco for my first Rolfing session with Seymour Carter.  My expectations of it being extremely painful work were, unfortunately, repeatedly confirmed throughout the approximately 90 minute session!  I tried to be a strong, silent manly type, but I’m sure I let out a fair number of moans and groans!  When I stood up at the end of the session, though, I felt taller and many of my bodily motions felt smoother, as if my joints had been rusty and now the rust had been removed and my joints had been oiled.

I drove straight back to Davis, and in that hour of driving all of the ideas that later came out in my proposal for establishing state-specific sciences arose in my mind, in a comprehensible and orderly manner.  I got home, grabbed my portable electric typewriter and took it to a table in my back yard (it was a pleasant afternoon) and began typing.

Almost all of the proposal came out within the hour, with no corrections or editing, and by three days later I had run off more than 100 mimeographed copies of the proposal to distribute at the Council Grove conference on consciousness that I was going to attend in Kansas in a few days.

So what was my proposal for state-specific sciences?

Stripping it down to the barest of essentials, if you ask what science is, it’s a set of procedures for (1) better observation of what happens in reality and (2) for creating, testing, and refining theories, explanations, as to why things happen the way you observed.  What is usually left out in thinking about science, though, is that the process of essential science is done by a human being, done by a creature with characteristics, both innate and acquired, that can make it more sensitive to some kinds of things, less sensitive or blind other kinds of things, able to reason and see clearly about some kinds of relationships, but not about others.

Besides characteristics inherent to all human beings, each of us has been socialized into a particular culture and so is biased to observe things and think about things in accordance with the values of that culture.  But when you look at the way the mind can change its functioning in various altered states of consciousness (ASCs), you realize that the “ordinary” or “normal” state for any particular culture has many semi-arbitrary characteristics.  So doing science in one’s ordinary state of consciousness is doing it with, as it were, a specialized instrument.

It would be, by analogy, as if all astronomy were done through telescopes whose lenses were made from a kind of glass that was inherently red.  Those telescopes would be more sensitive to certain kinds of light, less sensitive to other.  There’s nothing wrong with the observations and theories based on them made with the red-biased telescopes, of course, but it’s wrong to assume that they are the complete picture.  So what I basically proposed is that we develop detailed knowledge of various ASC’s, the strengths and weaknesses of each of those, and then practice science within each of those.  That would give us a variety of “instruments,” and so give us additional ways of observing and thinking.

Note on Eye Candy: Various charts from my systems approach to understanding and using Altered States of Consciousness, taken from my States of Consciousness book.

induction diagram

Creative Flow in the Wisdom of Hindsight:

I’ve been a student of my own, as well as others’ mental processes my whole life, and knew what had happened was quite amazing.  I was not that fluent a writer, and to have a complex proposal like that just pour out of my fingertips on to the typed page in practically final form was very unusual.  I had never experienced creativity like that, and I later reasoned that some combination of the strong physical pain from the Rolfing session, my attempts to lie still on the worktable so I could be worked on, and the many brief ASCs induced by the pain, states centered around the painful stimulation and my efforts to be quiet and manly, must have shaken up and eliminated all sorts of mental blocks in my mind.  (Induction procedures for ASC are discussed in the systems approach to consciousness in my States of Consciousness book)  As I thought about what I’d written about in the proposal, I could see that practically each individual item was something I had thought about the some extent at some time or another in my past, but these had been isolated, unconnected thoughts.  The creative miracle was them just pouring out.


I spoke briefly at the 1971 Council Grove conference on this material, and many attendees (researchers interested in consciousness) made encouraging comments, so I did a little bit of editing and submitted it to Science.  Since this was about expanding our potential uses of science in general, not just in terms of properties of ASCs, I thought it deserved to get as wider distribution in the scientific community as possible.  I feared it would be too far out for the editors of Science, but they accepted it.  Their acceptance letter included comments from two anonymous referees.  One of these referees clearly understood the revolutionary import of the proposal and thought it was an excellent idea.  Years later I found out that this referee was Elmer Green, who was uniquely knowledgeable for understanding the state-specific sciences proposal.  The second referee was, I concluded from the tenor of his remarks, probably a professor of agriculture or something pretty irrelevant to my proposal, but he went along with publishing the paper.  The paper appeared as a feature article (seven pages) in a 1973 issue of Science.


Reaction: Brilliant or Crazy?

As most of us who have published scientific articles know, the vast majority of these articles disappear with scarcely a trace, perhaps a few citations in passing in some specialty journal, and that’s it.  To my amazement, and I assume the amazement of the editor of Science, my proposal drew over 100 letters to the editor!  With journal space always being considered precious, Science only published four of them, with some balance between letters stating it was a good idea and those saying the idea was nonsense.  They sent all the rest of the letters to me, and these were not anonymous like refereeing reports, but showed the writers names and affiliations.

These letters to the editor were very interesting.  Roughly half of them said state-specific sciences were a good idea, let’s get on with developing them, we will learn a lot.  The other half said science depended on the scientist being in a normal, sane state of consciousness, any and all ASCs were obviously inferior and crazy states, you couldn’t possibly do science in any ASC, Science should not have published the article.  I recognized the names of many of the writers in the “This is crazy” category: they were prominent senior scientists in a variety of fields.  From what I could trace down of the names of the writers in the “This is wonderful” category, these were younger scientists.

The most interesting letter, or actually pair of letters, submitted to the editor, was from a psychiatrist I had met once at a conference who was just a little older than me.  His first letter was like the letters from the older scientists, this whole idea was, to use the appropriate psychiatric term, nuts!  His second letter, written a few days later, reported that he was in an altered state of consciousness one evening and he thought about the state-specific science proposal, and it made perfect sense!  He was embarrassed at having to contradict his own position, but his scientific integrity compelled him to…

This proposal for state specific sciences has been widely reprinted in many journals and books.  I was also invited to write an updated version of it for a journal I was told was the South American equivalent of Science, Ciencia e Cultura, Journal of the Brazilian Association for the Advancement of Science, and I was happy to report that I could see the possible beginnings of state specific sciences in several fields.  One was in mathematics, were a number of mathematicians I spoke or corresponded with about their mental state when they were actually doing creative mathematics strongly suggested they were in altered states of consciousness, and that they needed to be in that kind of state to fully comprehend other mathematicians work at times.  This was the state specific communication I talked about in the proposal.  Another was the extensive information exchanges that were going on between lucid dreamers on the World Wide Web,.  In lucid dreams a person’s state of consciousness changes drastically within a nocturnal dream, so they feel as if their mind is sharp, lucid, knowing that they are dreaming, but they can then deliberately experiment with the qualities of the state.

As I concluded in that article,

It is difficult to predict what the chances are of developing state-specific sciences. Our knowledge is still too diffuse and dependent on our normal SoCs. Yet I think it is probable that state-specific sciences can be developed for such SoCs as auto-hypnosis, various meditative states20, marijuana intoxication, LSD intoxication, self-remembering, reverie, various emotional states, and biofeedback-induced states [4], in addition to lucid dreaming. In all of these SoCs, volition seems to be retained, so that the observer can indeed carry out experiments on herself or others or both. Some SoCs, in which the wish to experiment during the state may disappear, but in which some experimentation can be carried out if special conditions are prepared before the state is entered, might be alcohol intoxication, ordinary dreaming, hypnagogic states, and high dreams [4]. Some SoCs, like those associated with NDEs, may simply be too dangerous to deliberately experiment

MINDS full system view

The original Science article:

Tart, C. T. (1972).  States of consciousness and state-specific sciences.  Science, 176, 1203-1210.

Later expanded version:

Tart, C. T. (1998).  Investigating altered states of consciousness on their own terms:  A proposal for the creation of state-specific sciences. Ciencia e Cultura, Journal of the Brazilian Association for the Advancement of Science50, 2/3, 103-116.

My published articles in general:

Ongoing blog, essays:



One comment

  1. Re: The Multi-Dimensional Paradigm

    I think you will find my project of great interest. It is similar to the above, but by no means identical… It is very ambitious, and could possibly open up new avenues of understanding. Please read the piece on Multi-Dimensional Science…if you haven’t already in the past ofcourse….

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