A Phenomenological Map of Consciousness

For people of a particular disposition (nerds), mapping consciousness is a popular pastime; lots of psychologists and at least one neurologist have tried it out. It’s sort of the ultimate reduction, an attempt to jam that great, unquantifiable diffusion of consciousness into a nice, neat box. Yet for all their obvious limitations, such maps can be useful tools, because they force you to think about how all these different states of consciousness relate to one another.

Here is mine. It appears at the end of The Head Trip, originally spread over two facing pages. Unlike other maps of consciousness, its focus is the shifting experience of consciousness, that is, what dimensions best describe the way different states of consciousness feel? Below the fig you can read a long-winded explanation, which – if you are one percent of the population (ie, you’re a 40-year old male virgin into D and D), you will find thrilling – but if you are the other 99% (what’s it like?), you will want to jam a fork in your eye. Fortunately, this being the internet, you can always click away.

As always, the map is not the territory, but hopefully the map will get you thinking about the territory in new ways.


I realize the map – and the following description – may not make sense unless you’ve read The Head Trip; I include them both solely in the interest of expanding global consciousness using obscure hermeneutic systems of classification that no one will understand (we all have our own role to play).

So, the first thing to note is the fold that separates the two pages and the two sides of the diagram. This is the sensory dividing line between waking, on the left-hand side”where the mind is immersed in a model of the world built from sensory input”and sleeping, on the right-hand side”where the mind is immersed in a model of the world built from memory. These worlds get more vivid the farther out you move from the dividing line, which is why slow-wave sleep is tucked in close and REM sleep is way out at the edge.

As we’ve seen, the dividing line between waking and sleeping can be more than a little ambiguous, which is why I have labeled those areas closest to the center Dissociation Zones. So on the left inner side are waking states of consciousness that are tweaked by sleep or dreaming processes (trance, sleep paralysis); on the right inner side are sleeping states of consciousness that are tweaked by waking processes (sleepwalking, REM Behavioral Disorder). The hypnagogic and hypnopompic states are at the edge of their respective Dissociation Zones, with the former moving into sleep and the latter into waking. Although the Watch does skip back and forth into dreams, I characterize that state as more of a waking phenomenon, and thus it’s located on the left side of the spread.

The vertical axis refers to level of brain activation or energy in the system. Even when we’re slumbering peacefully, the brain is highly activated in REM sleep, which is why REM is at the top. Similarly, even though we may be sleepwalking through the neighbor’s backyard and thus our bodies are aroused, our brains are not”we’re actually deep in slow-wave sleep, and thus sleepwalking is at the bottom of the activation axis. A general principle to keep in mind is that the intensity of conscious experience depends a lot on activation; in fact, the former may be a function of the latter. There is also a link here to general arousal. And as we saw in the trance and meditation chapters, the more aroused we are, the greater our capacity for absorption, which is our next axis.

Absorption refers to how immersed we are in whatever we are experiencing, a kind of unself-conscious doing, as opposed to its opposite, the hyper-conscious mindfulness. Examples of the former are the prototypical REM dream and the absorbed end of the Zone, where we hurtle along on automatic, responding to changing conditions without a lot of rumination. At the other end of the scale is the alert clarity of both the lucid dream and the SMR, both of which I classify as species of mindfulness. These are flexible states in which attention can be directed out at the world (or, in the case of lucid dreaming, out at a memory model of the world) or inside to our own thought processes.

The horizontal axis, which does not extend into the two Dissociation Zones, requires a bit of explaining. It refers to orientation toward or focus on the external, on the one hand, or the internal, on the other. This is easy enough in waking: external focus is external focus (on the daffodils, the butterflies, our hairdos in the mirror), while internal focus happens when we’re daydreaming or lost in thought. The focus in sleeping is trickier, and not all internal, as one might suppose. Yes, it’s all happening in our minds, but it still makes sense to distinguish between two poles of orientation. In a normal REM dream we are externally focused in the sense that we are paying attention to the dream imagery and rushing along responding to new situations that, from the point of view of the dreamer, seem real. The opposite pole is slow-wave sleep, in which sleepers report fewer vivid dreams and more repetitive mentation. No fireworks here; the waking equivalent would be sitting on the sub¬way thinking about your laundry.

Finally, though I have a hard time showing it with my clumsy boxes, both sides of the map are supposed to taper at the high back-end because there are certain very deep states of absorption that can be reached only with relatively high brain activation. Here things get even more wildly speculative. At the very back, it no longer makes sense to even talk about the presence or absence of sensory input. Once you get into the meditative jhanas, both external and internal stimuli apparently fall away, and you get deeper and deeper into your own mind until finally you arrive at that big spooky sphere in the center: the Pure Conscious Event, or PCE. Here there is no content whatsoever, not even, paradoxically, your inquiring mind itself. (see footnote 1 at bottom)

So what do we notice then, about this map? The most important thing is that the sensory divide acts as a mirror, and each state of sleeping consciousness has its waking twin. This, for me, was a completely unexpected finding, one that, to the best of my knowledge, has never been suggested elsewhere, though it does fit more generally into Stephen LaBerge’s and neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinas’s idea that dreaming and waking are equivalent states. By plotting all these states on a single map, I found no nighttime state that did not have a daytime equivalent and vice-versa; in their range of potential states, consciousness at night and consciousness during the day are almost identical (slow wave caveat to come). The primary nighttime difference is that changes of state are more rigidly demarcated, and the ballooning of memory fragments in a world without constraining sensory input (along with the activation of unconscious schemas and expectations) means we tend to forget the larger context in dreaming, and thus skip more credulously from moment to moment.

To get back to the map, then, one way to think of the slow wave is as a sleep version of the daydream”low activation, deep absorption, and internal focus. This hints at something else quite radical: on some level”barring a coma”we may always be conscious. Not “conscious” meaning aware of the external world, obviously, but “conscious” meaning mental content of some kind is skittering through our heads. This could be the wildest point in the entire book, buried in the Epilogue, but there you have it. Now, a note on the slow wave: the real experts of internal witnessing”the long-term meditators”report the slow wave is a state of “intense bliss,” like nothing else we experience. Add this to the conventional wisdom that during many slow wave wake-ups people have nothing whatsoever to report, and you end up with a pretty superficial resemblance to daydreaming. To really plot this state properly, I would need to blow right out of the 3D paradigm and lay down some mad fourth dimensional bliss/void axis. Nevertheless, the fact remains that a lot of sleep lab evidence points to some kind of mentation going on. It may be exactly like those times we zone out when we’re driving on the highway”we’re simply lost in low-intensity thought, oblivious to the outside world. This is hard enough to remember in waking, let alone in deep sleep, when we have to rise up four fathoms to make our report.

The typical REM dream, with its high activation, external focus, and deep absorption, I have paired with the more automatic side of the athlete’s Zone. In both states we are moving and responding to external “events”; self-consciousness is an interruption. The lucid dream is paired with the SMR or waking mindfulness; in a lucid dream, we’re able to pull away from the dream, to get some perspective and thus be less absorbed. In both states we can choose to pay attention to “external” events, or to our own internal thoughts”something I experienced firsthand with the NovaDreamer when I spent most of the dream sitting in a sturdy model of my bedroom wondering how this whole insane scenario was even possible. I should also say here that although in the text I have occasionally taken Alan Hobson’s lead and characterized lucid dreaming as a type of dissociation, I don’t actually think this is the most useful way to conceive of it. Certainly the man who has studied the phenomenon most, Stephen LaBerge, doesn’t think of it as a dissociation. LaBerge argues that lucid dreaming is simply a kind of mindful awareness”a very evolved and mature species of awareness”that we are capable of tapping into anytime. As we saw with the SMR, this can be every bit as hard to do in waking.

Finally, REM Behavioral Disorder (RBD) and sleep paralysis are like juiced-up versions of waking trance, all of them deeply absorbed and highly activated, but each with a dissociative foot in the other world. (In RBD the foot is literally in the other world in the form of uninhibited movement; with trance and sleep paralysis the otherworldly features are muscle paralysis and dream imagery or some other kind of dissociation.) Though low on the activation scale, sleepwalking too is a kind of trance”a little like the dull end of the Zone, where you’re moving on autopilot, barely awake, and barely tuned into the external world. So the Zone, then, is kind of over here too”a long, diagonal oblong running all the way through the daydream to low trance.

This taxonomic sloppiness highlights another important aspect of the map: it falls apart when you really examine it, because there is so much overlap every¬where. These balloons aren’t so much rigidly demarcated states of consciousness as they are extreme tendencies of consciousness. The reason there is no regular waking consciousness on this map is because there is no such thing as regular waking consciousness”consciousness is literally all over the map. Waking consciousness is constantly in flux. It’s a mixture of alert mindfulness, absorbed action, and distracted rumination, sometimes plunging deep into one of these tendencies, but more often an overlapping combination of all three. This will sound like common sense regarding waking consciousness, but as I have shown here, I believe this is also true of sleeping consciousness, though again, those same tendencies are more rigidly proscribed by cyclical changes happening in the brain (you can’t fake-out the deep, synchronized swells of delta sleep).

If it isn’t obvious already, I consider hypnosis, meditation, and neurofeedback to be induction tools that can all lead more or less to the same places. They are all methods that amplify certain tendencies within consciousness, in particular, our innate capacity for absorption and mindfulness, but also our capacity for dissociations. Each of these tools is capable of pushing at the limits of any one of the dimensions described on the map. Trance and SMR do not “belong” to hypnosis and neurofeedback respectively; they are simply that technique’s name for a state that can be accessed in many different ways. Trance simply means deep focal absorption; in hypnosis, this kind of absorption has been shown to tap into our natural suggestibility. I would guess that deeply absorbed meditation and neurofeedback subjects”whether you describe their journey as following the path of concentration or the path of alpha”are also deeply suggestible, something that would not be difficult to verify. There is also plenty of evidence to show that we don’t even need to be deeply absorbed to be open to suggestion. Hypnosis can also tap into very alert and externally directed states, as I experienced firsthand in Herbert Spiegel’s Manhattan office. Suggestibility may simply be”as Spiegel suggests”a phenomenon independent of noticeable state changes.

The practice of meditation has the greatest range and depth of experience because it has two and a half thousand years of history and hundreds of thousands if not millions of practitioners, many of whom practice the techniques for ten hours a day for their entire lives. There really should be a whole other map for the meditative experience, except of course it can’t really be mapped. The states are so nuanced that they slip through the coarse weave of classification. Still, I hope someone will try.


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