DynaPsych Table of Contents

Consciousness as a System

Near the Edge of Chaos

Allan Combs

University of North Carolina at Asheville


Saybrook Institute

Copyright Allan Combs, 1996

Consciousness is viewed here from an ecological perspective in which the ongoing events that structure it are seen as a rich complex of interacting cognitive, perceptual, and emotional processes, not unlike the interactive metabolism of a living cell. The result is an organic, self-generating, or autopoietic, system, constantly in the act of creating itself.

Informal introspection reveals the overall fabric of conscious experience at each moment to be constructed of a variety of undergirding psychological processes such as memory, perception, emotion, and memory (e.g., James 1890/1981; Combs, 1993b; Combs, 1995b). This idea is consistent with Tart's (1975) view that states of consciousness, including dream and non-dream sleep, various drug-induced and ecstatic states, as well as ordinary waking consciousness, are formed of unique patterns of psychological processes that fit comfortably together to form something like a gestalt.

There is increasing evidence on many fronts that such psychological processes, as well as the neurological events that undergird them, are partially chaotic or, if they do not meet the formal criteria for chaos (e.g., Kellert, 1993), at least chaos-like (e.g, Abraham & Gilgen, 1994; Basar, 1990; Pribram, 1995; Robertson & Combs, 1995). That is, they appear to be deterministic and nonlinear, exhibiting globally predictable patterns of behavior that never exactly repeat themselves, and are not predictable in detail. In other words, these psychological processes can be modeled as chaotic attractors. >From this it seems reasonable that consciousness itself, as a whole fabric, can be understood as a complex system comprised of chaotic or chaotic-like psychological processes, or put differently, that it can be described by a single exquisitely complex chaotic equation. Indeed, the logic and prototype for such an equation has already been developed in some detail (Goertzel, 1994; Goertzel, 1995).

It is very likely that some if not all the psychological processes that undergird consciousness are in fact systems on the edge of chaos. That is, they are poised between chaotic and predictable regimens (cyclic or static), depending on small changes in their control parameters. There are both empirical and theoretical reasons for this conclusion (e.g., Pribram, 1995). The advantage, however, is flexibility. For instance, in a memory search the injection of chaos keeps the process fluid, so the memory attractor, which can be viewed either psychologically or neurologically, is not permanently distracted into small incorrect minima, or in plain English, so that incorrect items are not selected and the search terminated before the correct one is recalled.

Bringing the above ideas together, I suggest that each state of consciousness, mood, or frame of mind, represents a unique but optimal fit for the many psychological processes which comprise it, producing a stable pattern or gestalt. Further, the stability of the pattern arises from its autopoietic tendency to self-organize. How this works is discussed at length elsewhere (Combs, 1993a, 1995a, and in the DynaPsych paper Consciousness: Chaotic and Strangely Attractive), but need not be subtle. For instance, an ordinary episode of depression is usually accompanied by behaviors that actively feed that state of mind, or at least don't rally against it. In the mean time, cognitive processes such as thought, perception, and memory become tilted toward discouraging outcomes. Research suggests, for example, that when we are depressed we tend to recall unpleasant episodes from our past (Bower, 1981). These recollections in turn feed the mood of depression, and so perpetuate a continuous cycle of memory and mood. To disrupt such a self-perpetuating circuit one needs to engage in activities that can up-end the dominant depressive attractor. For instance, one can visit friends, listen to a rousing piece of music, eat a good meal, or take a brisk walk in the forest.

The essential notion is that the whole cloth of consciousness is woven of a tightly knit patchwork of subprocess, each made possible and supported on all sides by the totality of the cloth itself, while at the same time contributing its part to the creation of that totality. To take another example, consider two discrete states of consciousness, the ordinary waking state and dream sleep. Each is an entire world of experience. Each carries its own intrinsic styles of thinking, its own forms of memory, feelings, thought and perceptions--its own possibilities. Now, dream thought arises from the total experience of the dream and cannot be sensibly separated from it. At the same time, it contributes its unique quality to the dream. Finally, what is possible to know in the dream may make not make sense in waking life, and what is reasonable in waking life may not be sensible in a dream. Thus, knowledge is state specific (Tart, 1985), as is the entire experienced world of each form of consciousness.


Abraham, F. and Gilgen, A. 1994. Chaos Theory in Psychology. Westport, CT: Greenwood Pub.

Basar E. ed. 1990. Chaos in Brain Function. Berlin: Springer- Verlag.

Bower, G.H. 1981. Mood and memory. American Psychologist, 36:129- 148.

Combs, A. 1993a. The evolution of consciousness: A theory of historical and personal transformation. World Futures: The Journal of General Evolution. 38:43-62.

Combs, A. 1993b, June. A naturalist's process phenomenology of the human mind. Paper presented at The First Brandenburg Colloquium on Evolutionary Thought, Potsdam, Germany.

Combs, A. 1995a. Psychology, chaos, and the process nature of consciousness. In Chaos Theory in Psychology, edited by F. Abraham and A. Gilgen. Westport, CT: Greenwood Pub.

Combs, A. 1995b. The radiance of being: Chaos, complexity, and the evolution of consciousness. Scotland: Floris Books.

Goertzel, B. 1994. Chaotic logic: Thought and reality from the perspective of complex systems science. New York: Plenum.

Goertzel, B. 1995. A cognitive law of motion. In A Chaos Psychology Reader, edited by R. Robertson and A. Combs. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.

James, W. 1890/1981. The principles of psychology. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Kellert, S.H. 1993. In the wake of chaos: Unpredictable order in dynamical systems. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Pribram, K.H. 1995. Proceedings of the second appalachian conference on behavioral neurodynamics: Origins; Brain and self-organization. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Robertson, R. and Combs, A. eds. 1995. A chaos psychology reader. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Tart, C.T. 1975. States of consciousness. New York: E.P. Dutton.

Tart, C.T. 1985. Consciousness, altered states, and worlds of experience. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology. 18:159-170.