Consciousness: An Outside View

Kevin is a 2013 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog over at Melting Asphalt.

How can ‘mere’ matter, properly configured, manage to be conscious? Are chimpanzees or elephants conscious? Can a computer be conscious?

Today we will answer none of these questions. In fact, we won’t even address them. These questions probe what David Chalmers calls, for good reason, the “hard problem” of consciousness. It’s a notion so slippery that some have spent their whole careers misunderstanding it, while others flirt with denying its very existence.

But ours is not to get mired in this debate. Instead, we’re going to do an end-run around the hard problem of consciousness by taking the “outside view.” Rather than asking about consciousness in the context of an individual mind, we’re going to step back and take a populations-eye view of it.

Enter here the field of epidemiology. Epi (upon) + demos (the people) + logos (study). The study of what is ‘upon’ the people.

Traditionally this has meant diseases — immunity, susceptibility, vectors, contagion, etc. But epidemiology can be used to study other things that live ‘upon’ the people. Dan Sperber, for example, uses the tools of epidemiology to study culture. In the broadest sense, it’s the study of the patterns, causes, and effects of certain conditions within a population.

So today we’re going to look at consciousness through the lens of epidemiology.

This isn’t a rejection of the neuroscientific approach, but rather a complement. We’re going to see how far we can get, and what interesting things we might be able to say about consciousness, without “looking under the hood,” so to speak.

More precisely, though, our investigation will concern itself with different states of consciousness. We don’t care about consciousness in the abstract (i.e., what distinguishes a man from a vegetable), but rather in specific instances. We’ll be studying the different ways someone might be conscious. For example:

  • Sleeping or being awake.
  • Being drunk, high, or hopped-up on caffeine.
  • Different moods like happiness, awe, and fear.
  • Being hypnotized, in a battle trance, or mesmerized by a charismatic speaker.
  • Daydreaming.
  • Meditative consciousness.
  • The state of ‘flow’.
  • Religious, spiritual, or transcendental experiences.
  • Collective effervescence.

Etc. — but these are just the states of consciousness our culture has identified and given name to. In reality there are hundreds of different states, each a characteristic pattern of attention and control. It’s all about what we pay attention to, how we pay attention to it, and what kinds of control it gives us over our behavior.

If you’d asked me, six months ago, what consciousness looks like from the outside, I would have balked at the question. I was so thoroughly accustomed to looking at consciousness from the ‘inside’ — as something lived, felt, experienced — that I was blind to its external dependencies. But those dependencies are very real and (most importantly) observable, which is why epidemiology is a viable approach. Different state of consciousness have characteristic, observable causes and effects — i.e., triggers and behaviors — which make them ripe for studying from an external perspective.

But enough preambling. Let’s begin our investigation.


Here’s a provocative claim:

In most cases, consciousness isn’t something that arises from within, but is instead modulated from the outside.

Yes, sometimes we enter a particular state of consciousness by act of will — as when we decide to meditate, or focus in the face of distraction — but these are the exceptions rather than the rule. In most cases, states of consciousness are systematically and reliably triggered by external stimuli.

To illustrate the point, here are some of the more important (external) triggers:

  • Drugs. The effects of drugs on consciousness are easy to understand. Take a few shots: get drunk. Drink a cup of coffee: feel focused and energized. Take ecstasy: experience instant love and empathy. Incidentally, drugs’ power to trigger specific states of consciousness, intensely and reliably, is why they’re such a political issue — but we’ll get to that later.
  • Our bodies. I’ve written about this before — and fairly extensively — because I think it’s an underappreciated fact about human behavior. What we do with our bodies changes how we think, feel, and perceive. Influence runs in both directions: the mind takes its cues from the body just as often as the other way around. Because of this, our bodies can induce different states of consciousness. Dance and you’ll feel happy. Bow and you’ll feel submissive. Stand tall and you’ll feel proud.
  • The behavior of other humans. It’s not just what you do with your own body that has an effect on your consciousness — it’s also what others are doing with their bodies. One way this is achieved is through mirror neurons, empathy, etc. When someone frets anxiously in front of you, you’ll often become anxious yourself. But other bodies can also trigger particular states of consciousness through synchrony, i.e., when your body moves together with other bodies. This induces a feeling of group identity, a sense of the collective, and feelings of affinity leading to enhanced trust. See e.g. Synchrony and Cooperation.
  • Our physical environments. Environments have predictable effects on consciousness. Frantic environments induce excitement. Quiet spaces induce focus. Vast spaces (like cathedrals, stadia) induce awe.
  • The tasks we are required to perform. Different tasks are triggers for different types of consciousness — i.e., different patterns of attention and control. The consciousness required for driving is distinct from what is required for programming — or for hunting, playing Tetris, dancing, reading a math book, doing improv, or being a trader on the floor of the NYSE. Each task requires us to attend to particular types of information (in particular ways), and to produce certain types of behavior while suppressing others.
  • Rewards and punishment. We can train ourselves — not unlike the way we train dogs and horses — to experience specific types of consciousness. The best illustration of this is industrial-age, classroom-based education (e.g. American K-12 public schooling). Education of this sort is a systematic exercise in training children to enter and maintain a particular state of consciousness, i.e., sustained, focused attention with control over one’s impulses. All else being equal, the more a child is able to achieve this state, the better the child will do in school (with attendant rewards), while deviations from this kind of consciousness will typically result in punishment (through bad grades and/or disciplinary action). It’s no coincidence that this is the type of consciousness required for factory work and desk jobs.

That consciousness is modulated from outside is rendered vivid by what happens when all these triggers are removed, as in a sensory deprivation tank. There, sequestered from external stimuli (light, sound, the presence of others, and even, so far as it’s possible, our own bodies), our minds are ‘free’ to do whatever they like. But such freedom is unnatural, and the strange effects (hallucinations, out-of-body experiences) only serve to illustrate how much we rely on external stimuli to produce our ‘normal’, everyday consciousness.

Constructive and destructive interference

As we just discussed, different triggers induce different states of consciousness. But we rarely experience the effect of a single trigger in isolation. Instead we are subject to a constant barrage of triggers, and their effects must duke it out inside our brains.

It’s therefore natural to ask, for a given set of triggers, whether they exhibit destructive or constructive interference. In other words, do the triggers — via the states of consciousness they induce — clash or harmonize within our brains?

Most triggers clash. Consider the task of working on a large Excel spreadsheet — a trigger for focused, analytical consciousness. Now imagine adding some other triggers. Alcohol? Nope, destructive interference. Sitting in a football stadium? Hugely destructive. Reclining in a comfortable lounge chair? Also destructive, if only mildly (by sapping your energy and focus).

What about listening to music? Well it depends what kind. If it’s lyrical, it’s going to compete for access to the verbal regions of your brain (which are necessary for programming). But if the music is instrumental, it won’t interfere — and if it has a fast, heavy rhythm, it might even enhance the focus you’re trying so hard to maintain.

Organizing triggers so that they interfere constructively (rather than destructively) is hugely important. Wherever we see harmony/constructive interference, we will find stable behavior patterns — including social behavior patterns crystallized into institutions. Our most successful institutions harness constructive interference across multiple triggers, to induce and accentuate a particular state of consciousness (or multiple states that harmonize with each other).

Museums, for example, are designed to induce and heighten a sense of reverence. The vast space, the pieces elevated on walls or pedestals (set apart and forbidden), the hushed tones, and the way people dress and move (carefully, methodically) — all contribute to putting visitors in a highly reverential state.

Nightclubs are exquisitely tuned to induce and heighten an embodied, sexual consciousness. Triggers here include loud, pulsing music, flashing lights, people dancing and bumping into each other, a sexualized dress code, and of course alcohol.

Spectator sporting events are designed for collective excitement. Triggers here include alcohol, huge crowds, a synchronized dress code (home team colors), and synchronized activities like cheering, chanting, and doing the wave.

Cathedrals and temples are designed to suppress ego-centered consciousness and enhance collective reverence. Triggers here include humbling, awe-inducing monumental architecture, beautiful ceilings (prompting a craned-neck/open-mouth posture), kneeling, bowing, holding hands, and synchronized chanting and singing.

These are just a few examples; we could apply this analysis to all sorts of other rituals and institutions. Libraries, coffee shops, and corporate offices. Pep rallies and parades. Choirs, concerts, and raves. Monasteries. Funerals and war memorials. Presidential inaugurations. Military basic training. AA meetings and KKK meetings. Casinos and shopping malls. Etc., etc. Each of these institutions assembles a variety of triggers which interfere constructively, in order to induce a specific ‘cocktail’ of consciousness.

Consciousness is contagious

If you take nothing else from this essay, let it be this: consciousness is contagious. Or more precisely, certain states of consciousness are contagious. Not all states, but many of them, and arguably most.

A good illustration of this is panic. Panic is a state of consciousness characterized by heightened attention and a frantic readiness to action (the “fight-or-flight” response), and it’s especially (and swiftly) contagious. This is how stampedes begin. If your neighbors in a crowded theater burst from their seats and start screaming, you will ‘catch’ their panic as surely as a child catches the flu at school.

But panic is only the most vivid example of contagion. We are all, constantly, ‘catching’ states of consciousness from, and transmitting them to, the people around us. When we drink, we urge others to drink with us. When we yawn, our neighbors do too. When we watch sports, we get caught up in each other’s excitement. When someone is sad, we get sad too.

This effect — of syncing up our consciousness with those around us — is so reliable, and happens across so many different states, that it suggests a general-purpose explanation.

In economics, a system is said to enjoy a “network effect” when each additional user provides benefit for all other users. Examples of such systems include telephones, railroads, and social networks like Twitter. When network effects are particularly strong, a population tends to converge on a single network — the so-called “winner-take-all” dynamic. It’s hardly guaranteed that a single winner will emerge (there are countervailing forces, after all), but the economic benefits push people toward bigger and bigger networks.

A variety of human social systems exhibit network effects. The easiest to understand are languages and cultures. The more people who share a given language or culture, the easier it is for everyone to communicate with each other — i.e., the fewer miscommunications there will be, linguistic and/or cultural.

Now (as I will argue) certain states of consciousness also enjoy network effects. It’s not hard to see why this should be the case. Consider the benefits of syncing up with those around you:

  • Better communication. When people experience the same consciousness, it’s easier for them to understand each other’s behavior and motivations. You can see this in reverse when people misunderstand each other due to different states of consciousness, e.g., when an extrovert mistakes an introvert for being unfriendly, or when someone who’s been drinking mistakes friendliness for flirting.
  • Shared goals. Many states of consciousness are intentional (i.e. directed toward a goal), and often these goals are best pursued collectively. Political rallies, riots, religious worship, finding mates, watching sports or comedy, going into battle — all of these activities benefit from the presence of others who share the same goals and the same types of consciousness.
  • Shared environment. When we’re synchronized with the people around us, we can benefit from an economy-of-scale by sharing a single environment (rather than requiring isolated environments tailored to each person). This is true whether we’re pursuing collective goals or individual goals. Many students can use the same library, for example, even when they’re studying alone.

If these benefits are hard to see in daily life, it’s because most of us are mentally-healthy, well-adjusted adults. We synchronize with each other so effortlessly, and so automatically, that we hardly even notice. But it’s happening all the time — as we can see from the (rare) examples when it breaks down.

Consider, then, the case of the drunk man in a coffee shop.

Before he enters, most of the patrons are synchronized on roughly the same state of consciousness: energetic focus. People are typing or talking in small groups. The room is warmly lit and buzzing with a pleasant amount of noise and energy. Everyone’s sitting in a comfortable buffer of personal space and maintaining control of their bodies, taking care not to bump into one another or make any large, sudden movements. Most are happily caffeinated, but even those who aren’t drinking coffee (or tea) are nevertheless striving for ‘energetic focus.’ (It’s a type of consciousness accentuated by caffeine, not uniquely caused by it.) All of these factors are harmonizing to help people achieve a particular type of attention and control.

Now enter the drunk. Suddenly everyone becomes aware of an unwelcome, jarring presence. He’s too loud. He moves clumsily. He bumps into people. If the other patrons don’t realize he’s drunk, they may even suspect him of being mentally ill. No one is enjoying what he brings to the room — nor, to be fair, is he enjoying what the room has to offer. It’s too quiet, too calm, too uptight.

In other words, the drunk’s consciousness is frustratingly out-of-sync with the coffee-shop environment. (And yet it would be perfectly suited to a nightclub….)

What this illustrates is just how carefully we are all, always, syncing up with the people around us (and with our environments), and how much benefit we’re getting from this. When the synchrony breaks down, as with the drunk in the coffee shop, the network effects are greatly diminished — something we experience as social discord.

* * * *

What I hope to have shown here, so far, is that “states of consciousness” are a productive unit of analysis for understanding human behavior. Now let’s see what these ideas can tell us about important social issues.

Mental illness

One way to think about mental illness is to note that it’s less about objective disease states, and more about deviations from socially-acceptable patterns of consciousness.

I’m not denying that there are very real things that can go wrong in a human brain — even things that are objective, categorical pathologies. Rather, I’m simply noting that there are some politics inherent in the question of whether a given type of consciousness is useful or harmful, acceptable or deviant.

Imagine a society of people whose brains are wired so that they behave, all the time, like drunk nightclubbers. A calm, sober man would appear mentally ill to these people — just as the drunk appears mentally ill inside a coffee shop.

Or to use a real example, consider the aspirational diagnosis du jour: Asperger’s syndrome.

It’s no great revelation to point out that people with Asperger’s attend to the world in a way that’s different from how “neurotypicals” attend to the world. Their brains are great at processing discrete data (dates, numbers, words, logical statements, rules), but struggle with nuanced, messy, continuous social data. Aspies are also less expressive with their bodies and less comfortable with spontaneity. (If it weren’t a ‘syndrome’, we might call this being uptight.)

So is Asperger’s a pathology? The current consensus seems to be no. It’s just a different type of consciousness, and it falls within the range that society finds acceptable. Aspies get along with neurotypicals without too much friction, and Aspie consciousness has undeniable benefits — for math, engineering, understanding computer systems, etc.

But tweak the balance of variables just a few degrees in any direction, and it’s easy to see how Asperger’s might get classified as unacceptably deviant. Being Aspie in a world of neurotypicals makes everyone’s lives harder. Aspie folks thrive in different environments, and have different styles of body language and ways of relating with others. This can cause major miscommunications, as when a neurotypical mistakes an Aspie’s flat affect for being dismissive, or when an Aspie fails to notice someone’s “leave me alone” body language. In this way, Asperger’s disrupts the network effects that neurotypicals enjoy with each other.

But Asperger’s is interesting for an additional reason: it benefits from its own network effects. Put ten Aspies in a room together and they’ll have a glorious time, exchanging all sorts of information — mutually (and blissfully) ignorant of each other’s (quote/unquote) faux pas. In other words: Aspie consciousness harmonizes with itself. This sets it apart from other, more severe mental illnesses like paranoid schizophrenia. Put ten schizophrenics in a room together and brace yourself for some serious discord.


Analytically-speaking, drugs present a problem that’s similar to mental illness. Where and how should we draw the line between acceptable and deviant? Which drugs are legitimate public health concerns, and which are ‘merely’ political issues?

Certainly, many drugs cause public health problems. Among these are heroin and methamphetamine, both of which are highly addictive and devastating, both for the individuals who (ab)use them and for the communities in which they live. Arguably this is true of tobacco as well, although the pernicious effects are physical (cancer rates, etc.) rather than psychological.

But not all drugs are problematic in the same way as heroin and meth. Marijuana and LSD, for example, don’t seem particularly addictive or harmful. They’re probably much safer than alcohol, for instance. Why, then, are they treated as such a threat — the perennial bogeyman of so many politicians and (let’s be honest) much of the voting public?

The answer (I think) is that marijuana and LSD induce states of consciousness that interfere destructively with the way society is organized. Even though these drugs don’t lead to violence or increased hospital bills, they are still somehow dangerous — somehow at odds with sober, Western-domesticated consciousness.

Over prolonged periods, these drugs can change the goal hierarchies of the people who use them. Someone who takes LSD regularly will, by virtue of attending to different facets of reality, find it harder to be motivated by the same things (and in the same ways) as the rest of the population. And since so many of our institutions, norms, values, etc., are orchestrated to harness a particular style of motivation (the work/consumption cycle?), someone who’s using these drugs isn’t going to resonate ‘properly’ with the rest of society. Turn on, tune in, drop out: and therein lies the trouble.

Any drug that can reliably induce discordant consciousness is a potential threat to those who aren’t using that drug. But the threat will be especially pronounced when the induced consciousness has its own network effects. Marijuana and LSD aren’t used in isolation (e.g. the way someone might take Adderall as a ‘study drug’). They’re enjoyed with others — in the context, if not always the immediate presence, of a community — and the consciousness that they induce harmonizes with itself. Thus these drugs are nontrivially contagious, and compete with the network effects of the rest of the population.

By no means am I the first person to point this out; it’s what counter-culturalists have been saying for at least half a century. And for all I know, this is common knowledge. But for some reason, it never made sense until I looked at it through the lens of epidemiology.


Finally, and most tentatively, we can apply this framework to the question of how technology is re-shaping our conscious experience of the world.

In epidemiological terms, three things seem to be happening.

1. New forms of media are inducing new types of consciousness.

Of course this isn’t a recent development — it’s been going on for millennia. First there was language, which gave rise to verbal consciousness. Then came writing, from which literate consciousness was born. The introduction of photography heightened the visual aspects of our culture (with an attendant increase in visual consciousness), while moving pictures gave rise to an especially powerful, comfortable, trance-like state — one which has since fueled an incredible global addiction to ‘entertainment.’

But the pace of change — in technology and consciousness — has only been accelerating. Notifications now claw incessantly for our attention. Reddit lets us submerge, anonymously, into the hive mind. Twitter helps us feel connected to the entire world in real time, even as we sit alone at a bus stop. Games like WoW enthrall and enchant us, inducing a state of flow so powerful we often forget to eat, drink, and even excrete. Meanwhile, users react to Workflowy — ‘mere’ mindmapping software — with sentiments ranging from romantic infatuation to narcotic addiction, and even to religious ecstasy.

Ask a software engineer her opinion about different programming languages, then sit back while she effuses, glowingly, about her favorites, and heaps blistering scorn on those she dislikes. Why such passion? Because each language requires a different kind of consciousness to navigate. And as consciousness is a personal, intimate experience, so too are our love affairs with different languages.

Technology, in other words, has created a broad set of new triggers, and our minds have learned new ways of configuring themselves in response.

2. Smartphones and wearable computers are changing the way we attend to, and interact with, our physical and social environments.

Drew Austin has written eloquently here about how these devices are refactoring city life. “The internet,” he argues, “[now] functions as a back office to the city’s ‘front end’ of streets and public spaces.” And at the same time, our experience with that ‘front end’ is increasingly mediated by the smartphones we use to navigate it.

The result is a devaluation of local, real-time perception. Ten years ago, walking the streets of a city, we were fully attentive to our surroundings; they were, after all, the best and richest source of information about where to go and how to get there. Now we choose destinations in advance — often from tailored, algorithmic recommendations — and navigate by tracking a blue dot on a map. If consciousness is a pattern of attention and control, then increasingly we are blending consciousness with our devices — paying more attention to them (and through them) and, more and more often, taking their advice.

But this kind of plugged-in, smartphone-enabled consciousness goes beyond changing how we navigate our physical environments. It also changes how we relate to each other.

For those who walk its streets, the city is (was?) a trigger for inducing a shared conscious experience with other pedestrians. Now we walk with our heads down, eyes and fingers glued to our screens, ears filled not with the symphony of the city — shared by all — but with headphones, fractured by songs, phone calls, and podcasts into a million different aural worlds. Once-public spaces have turned eerily private.

Meanwhile, omnipresent email lets us carve attention into ever finer slices, decoupling it from its traditional environments. With our phones, we bring our social lives to our offices, and our offices into our homes — and even into bed with us.

If there’s any place to live in the moment, it’s over food — yet I’m constantly reminding myself to “Be here now,” because even among friends at a restaurant, my mind is elsewhere: intent on a screen that (like a portal) gives me instant access to anything, anywhere, except what’s right in front of me.

God only knows what Google Glass will do.

3. Finally, technology is enabling better, faster, and richer communication between people — not to mention simply more communication — the predictable result of which is to strengthen the network effects of whatever is taking place ‘on’ that communication network. Language, culture, and (as I’ve argued) consciousness are three systems whose network effects will grow stronger as communication technologies improve.

In 1800, it was all but impossible for someone in the US to communicate with someone in (say) Germany, so it hardly mattered that we spoke different languages. In those days, the local, in-person network effects dominated the (much weaker) cross-continent network effects. Since then, every improvement in communication — telegraphs, telephones, satellite TV, cheaper flights, tighter supply chains, etc. — has made the language barrier more painful, and the Internet only takes us further along this trajectory.

Local languages are dying out, and local cultures and patterns of consciousness will die by the same forces. Maybe automatic translation tools will render the language barrier moot (by bridging the gap between languages) — but we’ll still be left with culture and consciousness barriers. And every technology that improves communication will unlock more benefit for those who share the same culture and the same patterns of attention and control. Increasingly we will come to standardize on only the biggest networks: a homogeneous globalized culture, and a shared industrial-technological consciousness. Technology is pushing us, bit by bit, toward a single, unified human network.


Thanks to Kyle Erickson and Mills Baker for critiquing an earlier draft of this essay.

P.S. If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy:

About Kevin Simler

Kevin Simler is a writer and technologist. His ribbonfarm posts explored the biological roots of human nature. Follow him on Twitter.


  1. I’m not sure if you were trying to communicate this, but your last paragraph is an horrifying notion to me.

    Good post and good links – I loved listening to the talk with Dan Sperber.

    • Dale Fitz says:

      I second that.

      Although a global, mostly homogenized culture is now inevitable- the transition will be horrifying if we allow the government to dictate it.

      • You said you’re horrified by the prospect of global homogenized culture but you think it’s inevitable. What do you normally do when you’re faced with something horrifying?

        And, which government?, and how would it cause your culture to change? What other institutions cause cultures to change?

        Happenstance is not a stance.

  2. Very interesting.

    Consciousness seems the wrong word for this, but I can’t think of a better one. This idea of a contagion state is somewhere between a meme — a thing that inhabits a mind viewed as a container — and a replicant-demon that possesses a population. Like a zombie contagion, but a more varied phenomenon.

    There is also a personality attribute. At least the core Myers-Briggs states seem to be consciousness states as well (Fi, Ti, Fe, Te in particular) in your sense.

    I think there’s a big difference between social contagion states and other forms. Feels like they ought to be broken out. It’s like inter-processor communication versus I/O to physical world. Clean and low friction digital world transactions versus messy bits to atoms transactions.

    • > I think there’s a big difference between social contagion states and other forms.

      Yeah, although it depends what question you’re addressing. I was primarily interested in *why* we synchronize (i.e., for the economic benefits). *How* we synchronize is a separate question.

      It’s interesting that you think of the communication mechanisms in terms of “clean” vs. “messy.” There’s also the question of reliability. Sometimes a mechanism that relies on “messy” interaction with the physical environment can be much more durable/reliable than the “cleaner” mind-to-mind mechanism. E.g. once you’ve built your cathedral or coffee shop, it can (like a factory) reliably churn out a particular state.

    • >Consciousness seems the wrong word for this, but I can’t think of a better one.

      um, “Groupthink?”

  3. What are some states of consciousness required to use different programming languages?

    • Well the differences between languages are pretty small (relative to the difference between programming and improv, for example), so the ‘states’ that they require to navigare are all pretty similar: focused, flow-y, analytical. The differences are in the nuances. E.g. low-level languages like C or assembly force you to think in a mechanical, almost embodied way (where each instruction changes the physical state of the computer in a predictable way), whereas high-level languages allow you to think more in terms of *what* you want to happen, rather than *how* you want it to happen. There’s also CSS, which asks you to think in spatial terms.

  4. Christian Molick says:

    New media and technology leading to greater power of communication spreading suggests that captioned image memes represent the echoing howls of an absent god. With this great power real meaning is laid waste. The globally disruptive artificial intelligence is already upon us, and like the security panopticon that angry god is us.

  5. Kevin – Nicely done, and largely convergent with Charles Tart’s not-very-well-known book _States of Consciousness_ (1975), which was decades ahead of its time.

    Tart started out in electrical engineering, and then went into experimental psychology because human brains and minds are a particularly interesting problem-set. From there he did extensive university research in parapsychology (because brains/minds doing things we think are impossible is an even more interesting problem-set). But his most consistent interest and biggest contribution has been to open up the entire field of study of states of consciousness (because brains/minds doing many things in many different ways is also a more interesting problem-set, and at the same time more tractable than e.g. remote viewing).

    His book _Altered States of Consciousness_ (1969) is a classic broad survey of the topic, and his central point was to debunk the then-current belief in “higher” states of consciousness. This he did most thoroughly in _States of Consciousness_ (1975) by bringing systems analysis to the issue for the first time. He explicitly made the point that states of consciousness are only “better or worse”, “higher or lower,” when seen in the context of intended purpose: what’s the best state for driving on a freeway, for playing a violin, for solving a difficult math problem, for intimacy with a loved one? And he mapped out a general method for understanding how altered states of consciousness (ASCs; and he coined the term) occur: through the destabilization of a baseline state, application of patterning stimuli to construct the ASC, and application of reinforcing stimuli to sustain the ASC. His paradigm has broad general applicability, and he set that out in more detail in his proposal for “state-specific sciences” (which can be found online; one version of it was published in Scientific American): the idea being that ASCs have their own systems of logic and methodologies, that can best be understood by working within each given state, under the framework of general scientific method.

    So in one short blog post, you’ve managed to independently discover and elucidate many of the same ideas. That’s impressive.

    A few specific points; speaking from academic background including human-subject research…


    Emotions are not only contagious, but _instantly_ contagious, and emotions are what make states of consciousness contagious. This, not only for “panic,” but for virtually any emotion you can name, with few exceptions that don’t invalidate the generalization. This is also what we value in actors and other performing artists: their ability to convey emotions convincingly enough to be immediately contagious, whether in recorded songs, on the concert stage seen from the back of the hall, in the “landscape” view of films on the big screen, or in the “portrait” view of television’s smaller screen (the distinction between film and television is starting to blur as TV screens increasingly resemble theatre screens, but none the less).

    Emotions are the core of what occurs in culture clashes such as “the drunk at the coffee shop,” “marijuana in a puritanical culture,” and “LSD in a mechanistic culture.” Emotions are at the core of social group acceptance and rejection: with rare exceptions what matters most isn’t whether someone agrees with the philosophical tenets of a group, but whether their emotional responses to stimuli are the same as those of other members. In the social environment, emotions lead, and the rest of the components of states of consciousness follow along, including shared ideas and beliefs.

    Asperger’s and the newest culture war:

    There is another culture war based on emotions: Asperger’s vs. Sociopathy. Have you noticed lately the proliferation of articles and books extolling the virtues of “just a little bit of sociopathy”…? One such is _The Brilliance of Psychopaths_ published in the UK (where the term “psychopath” is used in preference to “sociopath”), and a series of excerpts published in Scientific American. Other examples are the media praise for various public figures, often the CEOs of major corporations, who display overtly and diagnosably sociopathic traits. Compare and contrast to the media-hyped horror of parents, that their kids might turn out to be “on the spectrum.” Make no mistake, there is a culture war going on here.

    The Asperger’s patient is innocently clueless about the emotions of others, but experiences emotions strongly. The sociopath is an emotional flatline, who uses their internal distance from others to study others for the purposes of manipulating them. The Asperger’s patient, it is often said, has a difficult time telling lies. The sociopath lies as easily and profligately as you type words on a keyboard. One of the sociopath’s main methods is the use of _charm_ to manipulate and con others. But the Asperger’s patient, being less able to interpret such subtleties, is often somewhat immune to being “charmed.”

    Thus, herein stands the nexus of this so-far undeclared war: Aspies are a threat to sociopaths’ ability to manipulate (think of the child who points out that the Emperor’s new clothes do not exist, and the Emperor is marching naked down the street). Sociopaths fight back by leveraging the cultural panic about autistic spectrum disorders, and by attempting to gain the cultural normalization and approval of sociopathic behaviors. You don’t have to believe me about this: keyword search and read up.

    First people made machines…:

    Science fiction author John Brunner, in his brilliant novel (one of many) _Stand on Zanzibar_, introduced a saying via one of his characters: “First people _made_ machines, then they _wore_ machines, then…” (unsaid but clearly and strongly implied: then they _became_ machines).

    There are two inherent risks to our infatuation with the internet, computers, and all that they have spawned:

    One, obviously is that they render us passive and even enthusiastic in the face of the erosion of local culture, and the production of a global monoculture. Keep in mind that genetic diversity is the strength of a species, and so it may go for memetic diversity as well. Global monoculture carries a strong darwinian risk.

    Two, that they represent and facilitate the subordination of _persons_ to _things,_ with all of the ethical problems that suggests. We often act (and are _expected_ to act) as if technology is like “the weather,” something that just “happens,” over which we have no control. But “happenstance” is not a stance: it is the abdication of stance, it is the supine position of submission.

    Ultimately we have control, as individuals and societies, over which technologies are deployed and over how they are deployed. We have control whether or not we choose to exercise it. And every technology we deploy has effects on our individual and collective states of consciousness.

    For one example: Televised sports and computer games induce a kind of synaesthesia (merging of senses) in which visual stimuli produce the subjective illusion of bodily activity. But imagine for a moment that taste sensations could also be thusly conveyed, and that people came to engage in regular eating of computer-simulated meals. A certain amount of that would be entertaining enough, but it would not be a substitute for real food. Yet we have come to a place in our culture where children spend most of their free time in front of screens absorbing computer-simulated exercise, and along the way ironically becoming as fat as beach balls to the point where many of them are so big they could practically get their own Zip Codes (postal codes). Some day you will see computer-simulated “eating experiences” (also synaesthetic plus or minus brain interfaces) as an attempt to even up the caloric score. Meanwhile, the efforts of video game makers to introduce some measure of physical movement are only a partial substitute for the real thing, like an intravenous glucose drip or a protein shake to go along with a computer-simulated meal.

    What is entirely lost, is the real-time, real-face-to-real-face communication with other humans whilst engaged together in real movement through a variety of physical spaces with real tactile and kinaesthetic qualities. No computer game can simulate the vestibular stimulation and interoceptive feedback of playing real sports, climbing real trees, or hiking through a real forest. And as research with rats shows, this leads directly to impairment of the fourth-order dendritic branching in the brain, that connects the areas of the brain that are responsible for impulses and their control, to the areas of the brain that are engaged with interpreting stimuli notably communication from others. In effect, raising a generation with screen-saturation is producing a culture that is neurophysiologically impaired, and impaired in subtle ways that will come back to haunt us as undesirable cultural traits such as the dulling of empathy.

    In proof-reading this comment, I noticed another effect of the Computer God religion and its ideological spawn that have come to pervade the intellectual culture in these times: that I made most of my arguements against screen-saturation on the basis of “hard” darwinian and medical criteria, rather than on the basis of values. But here I’ll be clear about values:

    Global monoculture through technology, the substitution of pervasive quantity for quality in social interaction, the depersonalization of contact with others, and the elevation of market-based logic to the status of catechism and even dogma: these things induce a subtle altered state of consciousness that impoverishes the cultural and emotional landscape, converting intrinsic values to commodity values, converting relationships to replaceable parts, experience to “consumer experiences”, and robbing us of more potential than they grant us.

    Friendship and love, affection, empathy, the “soft” feelings, the “warm and fuzzy” feelings, climbing trees and playing sports and hugging our fellow humans, feeling awe and reverence even within our scientific understanding of nature, turning off the screens and looking into each others’ eyes: these things not only enrich our personal and cultural experience, they are inherently and irreducibly good, and they help us keep our perspective and stay grounded in reality.

    Ultimately, human hubris does not hold a candle to the vastness of the universe at-large, and the implicate wisdom of the natural world. If we wish to expand our horizons to achieve comprehensively correct theories of nature, and some day spread out across our galaxy; and if we wish to persist until the last star winks out, we would do well to learn to temper our technological pride with scientific humility, and to utilize our inherent biological potential for all it’s worth rather than treating it as an inconvenience.

    Cyberspace is enchanting, but “inner space” is closer to the infinite: the human brain is the most complex object in the known universe and each of us has one. It is incumbent upon us to learn how to use it fully, and we have only just begun.

    • Beautifully said

    • >Asperger’s and the newest culture war:


      Similar, ominous thoughts have been rattling around my recesses for quite some time, and you’ve found the connection for me. Brilliant.

  6. I’ve been thinking for a little while on dissimilar but compatible states of consciousness, relating to divisions of labour and (art/engineering/programing/finance/pr).

    It occurs to me that you want language that both elides and emphasises that distinction in consciousness, allowing people to find common ground, and explicitly translate their differences.

    A poor version of this is management compartmentalisation or second/private language, which has a problem where people have two separate private languages and must communicate their differences in consciousness across the lingua franca of whichever division, is more dominant.

    An alternative, which exists better in small teams, is a sort of handwavey vocabulary of agreement, tied to a series of bridging analogies and stories that build up in order to allow people to communicate specific ideas. After a while this becomes a peculiar office language of it’s own, particularly as people start playing with it, although I suspect it rarely becomes anything more cohesive than a curiosity of convenience in most workplaces.

    • Oh first paragraph, missing a reasonably important phrase; “and their associated problematics, affectivities and rhythms”

  7. It also occurs to me that the value in working from home is not in the environment of the home per say, but in managers admitting that they are not architects!

  8. Wallace Chafe is one of my favorite academics, and he wrote some incredibly interesting things about human consciousness. Two books of his will interest you:

    1) The Importance of Not Being Earnest – fantastic! and his newest. It’s all about humor and laughter and the emotion behind them, as well as the workings that connect words with our emotions. I don’t want to give too much of a spoiler, but solid empirical science has a lot to say in this book about the various situations that induce laughter in human beings. I know Venkat has wrote about humor in the past, and that is why I brought this one up.

    2) Discourse, Consciousness, and Time – again, fantastic! but not his newest. At some risk of spoiling the suspsense, I will say that he argues that consciousness really just boils down to a life form having an internal representation of the external world, which is very useful in distinguishing between animal and plant life. He contends there are but a handful of abstract categories in the realm of human consciousness: actions, perceptions, evaluations, introspection, and maybe a few others that I have forgotten. I know he makes a big deal about our ability to take one specific perception and, by way of our prodigious memory and imagination, think of how it fits into some grander scheme of thoughts.

    A lot of what I read in this post seems to pertain to the politics of the various abstract categories of the realm of human consciousness, but not a lot seems incredibly foundational to consciousness itself. Anyway it was an interesting read.

  9. This thought:

    …marijuana and LSD induce states of consciousness that interfere destructively with the way society is organized. Even though these drugs don’t lead to violence or increased hospital bills, they are still somehow dangerous — somehow at odds with sober, Western-domesticated consciousness. Over prolonged periods, these drugs can change the goal hierarchies of the people who use them

    really resonated. As you say, it is not a brand-new idea, but framing it in terms of goal hierarchies really made it pop to new life, at least for me.

    But, I think I will quibble a bit. If there is a default Western consciousness, it isn’t particularly sober but soaked in alcohol (and to a lesser extent, caffeine). And the other drugs, while maybe not having a home in the economic workplace, are an essential element of culture and consciousness, influencing everything from the origins of religion to jazz.

    So I would revise or expand your thought. Drugs come with their own idiosyncratic twists on goals and goal hierarchies, but society incorporates them all, in one way or another.

  10. What about listening to music? Well it depends what kind. If it’s lyrical, it’s going to compete for access to the verbal regions of your brain (which are necessary for programming). But if the music is instrumental, it won’t interfere — and if it has a fast, heavy rhythm, it might even enhance the focus you’re trying so hard to maintain.

    (So this isn’t just me?)

    Anecdotally, however: most coders I’ve worked with do listen to lyrical music while they work. (“Most” are also pretty bad at their vocation. But it’s difficult to say whether that connection is Socratic?)


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