GT: Today we’ve managed to have a chat with one of the world’s most respected researchers and commentators on altered states of consciousness (ASCs), Dr Charles Tart. I thought we might start off by “filling in the blanks” for those not familiar with his work, or even with the research into ASCs over the years.
Dr Tart was born in 1937 and grew up in Trenton, New Jersey. He was active in amateur radio and worked as a radio engineer while a teenager. He studied electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before electing to become a psychologist. He received his doctoral degree in psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1963, and then received postdoctoral training in hypnosis research with Professor Ernest R. Hilgard at Stanford University.
Dr Tart is internationally known for his psychological work on the nature of consciousness (particularly altered states of consciousness), for his research in scientific parapsychology, and as one of the founders of the field of transpersonal psychology. His two classic books, ALTERED STATES OF CONSCIOUSNESS (1969) and TRANSPERSONAL PSYCHOLOGIES (1975), became widely used texts that were instrumental in allowing these areas to become part of modern psychology. He is currently a Core Faculty Member at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology (Palo Alto, California) and a Senior Research Fellow of the Institute of Noetic Sciences (Sausalito, California), as well as Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the Davis campus of the University of California, where he served for 28 years.
Thanks for joining us Dr Tart. First off, a little history – considering where it has led, I’d be interested in knowing what inspired the change in your early study pursuits, from Electrical Engineering to Psychology?
CT: As a teenager, electronics was my hobby and a burning interest. I was a ham radio operator, enjoying learning about and building the equipment more than the actual talking on the air with other hams, and I taught myself enough electronics to pass the government tests for a First Class Radio Telephone license. That allowed me to work as an engineer in various radio stations, responsible for keeping the equipment tuned and running. It was a great way of working my way through college, as my main job was to be there and log the meter readings every half hour, so I could study in between. Of course if anything happened that took the station off the air, I had to work fast and furious to put it back on – no broadcast, no commercials, no income! So it was natural for me to plan to become an electrical engineer. Also, I was really interested in parapsychology, but it never occurred to me that I could make a living in it – most people still can’t, actually, given the lack of money in the field and the prejudice against it – nor did I realize I could become a psychologist, which would be close and fit in with all my interest in the human mind generally. I don’t think my high school had anything like vocational counseling when I was there in the early 50s, or, if they did, I was already so set on electrical engineering that I paid no attention to it.
Once I became a student at MIT, though, several things happened. On the positive side, some other students and I formed a parapsychology club and I got to personally meet and correspond with some of the leading figures in the field, like J. B. Rhine, Gardner Murphy, and Eileen J. Garrett, so my interest went up enormously. Mrs. Garrett introduced me to Andrija Puharich, a parapsychologist who was “far out” even by parapsychological standards, but he seemed to have found a way to use electronic equipment (a Faraday cage system) to enhance ESP functioning, and that kind of enhancement was exactly what the field needed (and still needs). I was able to spend the summer of my sophomore year working with him as a research assistant. On the negative side, I found I didn’t really have the very mathematical kind of mind that was needed for engineering, so I put these things together, found out I could become a psychologist and, with the assistance of J. B. Rhine, transferred to Duke University after my sophomore year. All in all, a very good move!
GT: That’s quite an incredible list of influential contacts so early in your career, and I didn’t know that you worked with Andrija Puharich. Do you think that the revolutionary work undertaken by individuals and groups in the 1950’s (such as the Round Table Foundation) had an influence on the rise of the experimental “counter-culture” of the 1960’s and 70’s…or were they simply parts of a larger trend in the way humans thought about themselves?
CT: No, I’m sorry to say that Puharich’s research has been almost totally ignored by scientific parapsychologists at the time and since then. I fear this has been a big loss. Puharich had a lot of influence in more fringy, “New Agey” circles, but that has not resulted, to my knowledge, in any solid scientific discoveries. As to the counter-culture, that was created by a combination of existential discontent with a shallow, materialistic culture, plus a desire for actual spiritual experience, not just being told what to believe, plus the introduction of oriental meditation techniques – something you could actually *do* instead of just believe – plus psychedelic drugs, which showed many, many people that there were more profound experiences possible than consumerism – to vastly oversimplify a complex historical phenomena, of course.
GT: In your work you seem to have covered basically the whole range of subjects that come under the banner ‘ASC’, from remote viewing, to OBEs, Psi and hallucinogens. Amongst these, do you have a favourite area of study?
CT: First an important correction. Psi, the study of telepathy, clairvoyance, etc. does not normally come under the ASC banner. You can study consciousness and ASCs without knowing anything about psi, and it’s a lot “safer” careerwise because ASCs are fairly accepted in science while parapsychology, the study of psi, is strongly rejected. When I created my ALTERED STATES OF CONSCIOUSNESS book (1969), e.g., I deliberately avoided psi as much as possible as I knew I was pushing the prejudices of the establishment back then to think about ASCs, and if I’d done more than mention psi in passing, the automatic rejection of psi would have resulted in the ASC material being rejected, instead of it being accepted so widely. Now personally and scientifically, I know psi is an important aspect of consciousness, but I still generally keep them distinct for tactical reasons – I want to be effective in communicating, not uselessly rouse people’s prejudices.
Within the ASC field, my initial research for a number of years was with hypnosis and dreams, then psychedelics, then meditation, to oversimplify a complex career. But the interesting thing is that I’m now much less interested in “exotic” altered states than in ordinary consciousness! This is because we spend most of our time in ordinary consciousness (consensus consciousness is the technical name I coined for it) and so it has enormous importance – that’s usually where we mess up! – and because our understanding of ASCs implicitly assumes we already understand ordinary consciousness, which is not at all the case! My most recent book, MIND SCIENCE: MEDITATION TRAINING FOR PRACTICAL PEOPLE, teaches people the classical concentrative and insight meditation practices, but then mainly goes into how to be more mindful in the course of everyday life. I’ve seldom heard of anyone getting in trouble because their thoughts on the meditation cushion weren’t mindful, but we sure get in trouble through mindlessness in everyday life!
GT: I know from your writings that you are a great fan of the scientific process, but you also do criticise the philosophy of physicalism, ie. the belief that reality is all reducible to certain kinds of physical entities. In the past you have suggested State Specific Sciences as a “scientific way” of researching ASCs further. Could you give a quick recap on SSS, and I would also like to ask whether you truly think that matters of consciousness can be answered by science?
CT: Science, to me, is a commitment to put DATA, what actually happens and can be observed, internal experiences as well as external observations, ahead of all your theories and beliefs, no matter how much you like them and are attached to them. That’s a hard commitment to live up to, we do so fall in love with our clever ideas! Putting that on the spiritual level, one of my favorite sayings is that “There is no God but Reality. To seek Him elsewhere is the action of the Fall.” Seek the highest, yes, but if you let your ideas, desires and beliefs about the highest get in the way of learning from actual experience, you have fallen into ignorance. So a basically scientific – not the scientistic approach of physicalism, but genuine science – approach to life is quite applicable to one’s spiritual search. Be open to experience, try to observe it as mindfully and openly as possible, form tentative beliefs about what is, but always keep checking those tentative, working beliefs back against direct experience. Spiritual teachers I really admire, like the Buddha and Gurdjieff, have given this advice – don’t believe blindly, keep open and figure things out.
One of the categories of experience is experience in various ASCs – dreaming, meditative states, emotional states, etc. That kind of experience should neither be dismissed as irrational and so ignored, nor as automatically being THE TRUTH. It’s data, it’s experience, and as such, just like the data of ordinary life, you form tentative, working interpretations and beliefs about it, but you keep testing these against further experience. Humility, in a big way!
It’s not easy. Even with ordinary experiences, when we form a belief that makes us feel good or special, we easily tend to fix that belief into THE TRUTH and defend it from new experience. With ASC experience, which can be more intense than ordinary experience, it’s easy to get fixated, so we have to be open to it – some kinds of things only make “sense” in an ASC – but not get overly attached and forget our basic humility. My proposal for state-specific sciences, in a nutshell, is to systematically apply the basic procedures of essential science (and common sense) to the unusual experiences that happen in various ASCs. The idea is still, I’m afraid, ahead of its time. Lots of people have thought it a great idea, but few have even begun the work to make it real.
Science has worked very well in many other areas, so let’s try it! After all, as Henry Ford said, “Those who think they can and those who think they can’t are both right.” If we don’t try, or try with a defeatist attitude, of course we’ll get nowhere. I don’t know that we’ll get all the answers from science, but let’s see how far we can go!
GT: You’ve written about this tension between science and consciousness research as a paradigm clash, which you say have historically been characterised “by bitter emotional antagonisms, and total rejection of the opponent”. Is this part of the reason why you created the website journal TASTE (“The Archives of Scientists’ Transcendent Experiences”)?
CT: Yes. One major reason is to provide an outlet for scientists who’ve had transcendent experiences to express them and get the social support of being on a site with others who’ve had similar experiences. A second reason, why I hope as many people as possible read the experiences on TASTE, is that I want to destroy the stereotype that scientists, as it were, have no souls……. If I can help destroy that stereotype, more scientists will be able to look at these kind of experiences and help us learn more about them.
GT: Viewing TASTE, it certainly seems that a lot of scientists do have transcendent experiences, but do not talk about them publicly for fear of being ostracised. In the same respect, do you find that a larger number of scientists support the research on ASCs privately, while staying removed from the debate on a public level?
CT: Right. There can be very real consequences of “coming out” with personal transcendent experiences for a scientist, ranging from mild social ostracism at the least consequential end to losing her job (she must be a little crazy, we can’t have her teaching students…) at the more consequential end of the spectrum.
GT: And as a final question: You’ve been at the center of consciousness and parapsychology research for around 40 years now – any thoughts of slowing down? Or is this all just too engaging to leave alone?
CT: Why would I want to stop doing something that I enjoy doing and that I think is of some service to helping others understand the mind? As long as this body holds up, there are so many interesting things to think about, research, write about, and encourage others to think about, research, and write about!
GT: Dr Tart, reading through your work has certainly inspired me not only to research further into areas of consciousness, but has also changed the way I think about myself and the world around me. Personally I’d like to thank you for all the great research you have contributed to a number of fields, and on behalf of TDG readers I’d like to thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer these questions for us.
[Attached is more information about the TASTE website, as well as a small description of one of the awards that TASTE has been honoured with. More information on Dr Tart, as well as other content including free publications, can be found at his personal website]
The Archives of Scientists’ Transcendent Experiences (TASTE)
Over the years many scientists, once they’ve realized I’m a safe person to talk to, have told me about unusual and transcendent experiences they’ve had. Too often I’m the first and only person they’ve ever spoken to about their experiences, for fear of ridicule from their colleagues and adverse, prejudicial effects on their careers. Such fears have, unfortunately, too much of a basis in fact. It’s not that there are a lot of scientists with nasty intentions deliberately trying to suppress their colleagues; it’s just the social conditioning of our times.
I want to change that, and I ask your help in doing so.
Scientists today often occupy a social role of “high priests,” telling laypeople and each other what is and isn’t “real,” and, consequently, what is and isn’t valuable and sane. Unfortunately, the dominant materialistic and reductionistic psychosocial climate of contemporary science (what sociologists long ago named scientism, an attitude different from the essential process of science), rejects and suppresses a priori both having and sharing transcendent, transpersonal and altered states (or “spiritual” and “psychic,” to use common words, in spite of their too vague connotations) experiences.
From my perspective as a psychologist, though, this prejudicial suppression and rejection psychologically harms and distorts the transcendent (and other) potentials of both scientists and non-scientists, and also inhibits the development of a genuine scientific understanding of the full potentials of consciousness. Denial of any aspects of our nature, whatever their ultimate ontological status, is never psychologically or socially healthy.
The Archives of Scientists’ Transcendent Experiences (TASTE) site that I have opened is intended to help change this restricted and pathological climate through the operation of a World Wide Web site in journal form that allows scientists from all fields – from anthropology through botany through mathematics through physics through psychology through zoology, to name just a few – to share their personal, transcendent experiences in a safe, anonymous, but quality controlled space that many people have ready access to.
- Allows individual psychological growth in the contributing scientists by providing a safe means of expression of vital experiences;
- Leads toward a more receptive climate to the full range of our humanity in the scientific professions, which, in turn, will benefit our world culture at large;
- Provides research data on transcendent experiences in a highly articulate and conscientious population, scientists;
- Facilitates the development of a full spectrum science of consciousness by providing both data and psychological support for the study of transcendent experiences;
- Helps bridge the unfortunate gaps between science and the rest of culture by illustrating the humanity of scientists.
Please take a look at TASTE: the URL is http://psychology.ucdavis.edu/tart/taste or www.issc-taste.org. If you find it valuable, please pass this information on to friends and colleagues. I have no budget for advertising, so must depend on word of mouth to get this information around.
If you have a web site of your own and can add a link to TASTE, thank you! Feel free to copy one of the TASTE experiences as an example on your web site, if you like.
In terms of conventional, slower publicity, if you can recommend any journals I should send notices to, please let me know. If you are the editor of any publication, you have my permission (and thanks!) to print this notice in your publication.
And if you value The Archives of Scientists’ Transcendent Experiences as much as I do and would like to make a financial contribution to help support it, email me about it. TASTE is sponsored by the Institute for the Scientific Study of Consciousness Inc., and all contributions are fully tax deductible.
Charles T. Tart, Ph.D., Editor
Professor Emeritus, Psychology,
University of California at Davis
Professor, Core Faculty, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology,
Palo Alto, CA
“BEST SCIENCE SOCIAL INNOVATION OF 2000
The Science Social Innovations Award 2000 goes to Professor Tart in California for The Archives of Scientist’s Transcendent Experiences (TASTE) on the web (at www.issc-taste.org). Professor Tart believes that the materialistic and reductionist psychosocial climate of contemporary science has rejected and suppressed both the having and the sharing of transcendent, transpersonal, spiritual or psychic states and experiences.
The website is a safe and anonymous, quality-controlled space that scientists can contribute to and that the general public can have access to. It will lead, he hopes, to a more receptive climate within the scientific profession to the full range of our humanity.
[The Institute for Social Inventions is an educational charity founded in 1985 and based in London, with as patrons, inter alia, Brian Eno, Anita Roddick, Sir Peter Parker and Fay Weldon. Schemes around the world are drawn to the Institute’s attention by its international correspondents and are judged by the directors of the Institute.]”