The Problem of the Subtle Sybil Effect

LAWS OF WISDOM by Ralph Losey

The underlying reason the big questions are so difficult to answer is ultimately personal ñ we are swamped in a plethora of identities, most of them false. These false personas were imposed upon us from the outside by society and from the inside by our own muddled thinking. For most of us there is no single unified self, no uniform field of continuous consciousness. Our “common sense” notion to the contrary, that we are one person with a singular identity, is based on a false assumption. In the words of psychologist Charles Tart, Ph.D.:

We just assume that a given person is relatively consistent with himself, that he constitutes one person with various characteristics, traits, and so on. Thus you call yourself by one name, with the implication that you are indeed one person even though you have a range of moods and feelings. …. we actually have many quite discrete subpersonalities, each of which calls itself “I” when it happens to be activated by appropriate environmental stimuli, but we have no unity of personality at all except in the sense that all the various subpersonalities are associated with the same physical body and name. (1)

As Professor Tart and many others have found, by the time we become adults our identity is disjointed, fragmented, perhaps even fractal, like a “Julia Set.”(2) We have one series of identities and personalities inherited from our parents, fashioned to meet their expectations, or to rebel against them. There is another series of personalities acquired in the course of schooling, another while dating, another at work, another in a sport or hobby, etc.

Close observation of yourself will reveal that you are different people at different times. There is precious little continuity between your different states of consciousness. When you are one person one moment, you have usually forgotten that you were a completely different person a few moments before, and will be yet another person later. You are consumed by the personality of the moment. The personalities are isolated from each other by barriers of unawareness. There are defenses or buffers between the many “I’s”. There is no underlying actor to play the part. No one who remembers and coordinates all of the roles.

It’s as if a series of different people – acquaintances, not friends – took turns inhabiting the same body. We are one person when we first wake up, another person to our children, another to our spouse, another to our boss, etc. One “I” may make a promise, but the next “I” will not remember to keep it, or will not want to keep it. We live in a chaotic world where an endless series of things happen to us that do not fit together, do not make sense. Many important things seem to be the result of chance or luck. There is no conscious being there to see the “big picture” so that it can all make sense. There is no center, no empty hub uniting the many spokes of the wheel, the many fragments of self. The conscious states alternate unconnected by inner silence. It is like hearing foreign words or sentences without any underlying comprehension. The underlying being who comprehends and integrates is unconscious. The actor is asleep. The play goes on mechanically, uncomprehendingly. For such a one the “scientists” are correct, man is a machine and enlightenment is impossible, or merely a delusion, another fleeting role.

Since most everyone suffers from weakly-connected consciousness, this appears to be natural and normal. We only recognize it as a problem in its most extreme forms, where there is total and complete disconnection of the different parts of the self. These are the cases where the different people inhabiting the body are complete strangers to each other. This is the pathological disorder of multiple personalities made famous by the case of Sybil.(3) Sybil Dorsett was a woman with sixteen separate personalities. At first none of them knew or remembered any of the others. For instance, one personality named Victoria Antoinette Scharleau was a self-assured, sophisticated, attractive blond, and another named Mike Dorsett thought she was male, a builder and carpenter. With multiple personality disorders it is not uncommon for the shy personality to be shocked to wake up naked in bed with a man the sexy personality met the night before. One personality shifts with another and there is no recollection of the prior person. There is a complete discontinuity of consciousness.

This kind of multiple personality disorder is often caused by extreme negative events as a child. In Sybil’s case, she was tortured and sexually abused as a young girl. This caused her to break up, literally, because she could not bear the extreme abuse she was subjected to. Through years of therapy Sybil was able to confront the memories and eventually integrate the separate personalities into one. She became a whole person.


Personality dissociation in its extreme form is obviously a problem which must be corrected. But the less severe manifestations – the “subtle Sybil” effect, wherein we are disconnected to a certain degree – is a problem unknown to most people. Psychology is just beginning to recognize this as a root problem which underlies many others.(4) Most people do not know they are shattered. They treat themselves and others as if they were one person, already fully integrated and whole. In fact, most people are just integrated enough to function in society. They are not solid enough to answer the big questions for themselves, to make sense of their lives, and know who they are and what they can do.

If we stop to think about the discontinuity – the differences in our moods and personalities – we just assume it is natural and of no importance. For instance, who can constantly recall their dream selves, or who they were in deep sleep – unconsciousness? We accept the barriers between our waking and sleeping selves as natural, inevitable, just like the barriers between our left and right brains. We fail to recognize the significance of the basic discontinuity between waking and sleep. Even the lack of continuity in waking consciousness – which occurs to everyone in the course of a day, or even a few minutes – is accepted as natural. We are sad one minute, then the next we are happy, in the next reflective, in the next absorbed in music, in the next answering the phone. When we are with some people we have a submissive personality, with others a dominant persona comes out. Is there a conscious being underlying all of these different states of consciousness? Is there a center unifying the multiple personalities? For almost everyone the answer is no. Their consciousness is not fully integrated, and they do not even see this as a problem. How is the actor to awake?

Recognition that “integration” of multiple selves is a problem is the critical first step in the solution. It is also the first step to answering the question of who you are. Only you can discover who you are, no one can do it for you. The discovery comes from observation of yourselves – all of them – and then integration into a conscious whole. This requires bridging the great divide between the waking self and the sleeping self. The corpus callosum dividing the left and right brains must be transformed from a wall into a highway. Then you can start to understand who you are, and begin to integrate all of the many snapshots of your life into a flowing movie.

Until you attain this continuity, your true identity will elude you. The meaning of life will remain an enigma wrapped in a mystery. Your true desires, your real potential, will remain hidden between the intervals of your many selves. You will be incomplete, asleep.

One reason most of us fail to notice the lack of continuity is that one or two personalities – and the states of consciousness that go with them – tend to dominate the other weaker personalities and their consciousness. They hide the gaps, cover up the problem. Frequently the dominant personalities are imposed upon us from the outside. The strong alien personalities – the dominant consciousness states – frequently overpower and sublimate the other parts of our self, the other states of consciousness we experience. The weaker states are then forced into subconsciousness or unconsciousness. They are forgotten, disassociated from the conscious identity.

One or two of the many personalities act in place of our overall Self. We do not know the plethora of possible personalities, unified and integrated in one being. We do not experience a healthy variety of conscious states. As a result our potential is artificially limited. We experience only a small slice of life. We see the rest as if through a glass darkly.

Consciousness of the other parts of our self eventually becomes forbidden. They are not even recognized when experienced. If they are consciously experienced, they are promptly forgotten. They become “altered” states of conscious, momentary lapses of character. This dissociation and imbalanced dominance of one personality and consciousness over all others – a kind of psychological cancer – frequently leads to illnesses, psychological complexes and neurosis. The underlying being aware of the many sides of self is asleep, relegated to the unconscious. The strong role has taken over the actor and prevents him from waking.

For most people the dominant personality is not even their own. It is a false personality imposed on them from their parents, friends, job or society. The false personality is a muddled thinker, with no connection to the other innate capacities of the whole being. The false persona is not linked with the true Self, it is not naturally a part of the underlying being. It is instead linked to the cultural consensus, the mass hypnosis and pseudo-thinking. If the actor should awaken he would not play that role, he would not accept that thought. People dominated by false personalities are usually weak, with little energy or vitality. Usually, only personality which is in connection with a person’s potential – their true inner Self – can vitalize and naturally make room for the whole Self. Only a real persona can accept and try to integrate “altered states”. The false, unconnected personalities only block energy. They act as a negative mask to hide true potential, instead of expressing it.

The recognition and dropping of such lifeless personalities is the first step in discovering who you really are. It is the first step in “waking up”. As you wake up you begin a conscious journey to realization of your full potential. There are many ways to wake up, many procedures. You need to find a procedure which is good for you. In that way you can move beyond legal study into the actual “practice of the Law.” With an effective method, and adequate teachers and counselors, you may be lucky enough to wake up. You may be able to tap your inner essence and develop a true personality.

That is just the beginning, however, not the end. At first, there are many dangers. You can still be dominated by the first real aspect of your self that wakes up. The first strong fragment personality to awaken may try to block the awakening of the rest. Still, it is easier to awaken to the full dynamics of yourself from out of a true personality than a false one. The actor once stirred may awaken. Once awakened, the road to self actualization may be traveled.

Another danger that remains after the journey has begun arises from cultural restraints and muddled thinking. This can cause you to awaken only certain socially-acceptable sides of yourself and repress the rest. You may be afraid of parts of yourself or be prejudiced against them. For instance, you may have been taught as a child that sex was bad and so refuse to awaken that part of your human nature. If the real and awakened personas don’t know any better, the phony censor persona may continue to have real power. Objective, holistic thinking is the answer. It can counteract the censor, the cultural restraints and inherited beliefs. Once your real personas are taught to think straight, they will see through the muddled thinking inherited from the past. Unlike the false personalities, the real personalities have the power and courage to act on their thinking. They can transcend the hindrances of the past. Armed with true thinking, they can overcome the cultural censor, and liberate all parts of your human potential.


Professor Charles Tart is an American scientist and academic who has thought deeply about these topics. More importantly, he has taken action and tried hard to clarify and solidify his own consciousness, to take it out of what he refers to as the “cultural consensual trance” of so called normal consciousness. His careful scientific research has shown that what passes for normal or average consciousness is just one possible form of consciousness among many. He found that normal consciousness is actually quite limited, subject to many artificial constraints and disruptions. Professor Tart is one of the pioneering scientists in the new fields of altered states of consciousness, hypnosis, cultural consensus trance, multiple personalities, transpersonal psychology, being and the procedures or technology of “waking up”.

Born in 1937, the son of a musician, Charles Tart grew up as a Lutheran with deep religious convictions and intellectual interests. As a precocious teenager his eyes opened to science. A strong conflict then developed in his soul between the differing world views of science and religion. The resolution of this conflict has proven to be the driving force of his life. As a teenager looking at the hypocrisy he saw in religion, and the strength and elegance of science, he went head-strong into the modern scientific world. He became particularly fascinated with electronics, earning a first-class radio telephone license while still in high school. He also began to read widely in the field of psychic research or parapsychology. In this one field of science he found some kind of a link between his new found love for science and his earlier, deeper thirst for spirituality.

In 1955 he was admitted to the premiere engineering school in the country, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Then he ran into calculus and his enthusiasm for engineering began to flounder. At the same time his high school interest in parapsychology blossomed. He started a psychic research club at MIT and connected with the dynamic cultural life of Cambridge. He then had an opportunity to meet many of the leading psychics and parapsychologists of that time. When he discovered that you could actually make a living at psychology, he decided to change career tracks. His ideal was to try to apply the methods of science to the general field of religion. He wanted to use science to start separating out the superstitions and nonsense in religion from the core of important truth. That ideal fired him then and has remained as one of the main guiding principles of his life. His opportunity to change came from famed parapsychology scientist Dr. Rhine, who helped Charles transfer to Duke University in 1957 to major in psychology.

In the parapsychology labs at Duke he met Judy Bamberger, the girl who would later become his wife. A few years later at age 22 in these same labs Charley became the “first American psychedelic guinea pig”, taking mescaline for the sake of science. It all came about quite by accident. Dr. Ivo Kohler, a Professor from the University of Vienna, was one of the first scientists in the world to experiment with psychedelic drugs. He began experiments with mescaline in Vienna, Austria in the nineteen thirties. These experiments were unknown in the United States. Professor Kohler was visiting the Duke parapsychology laboratories and there started talking to a young graduate student named Charley Tart. Charley had read Aldous Huxley’s book on taking mescaline, The Doors of Perception and was curious about Dr. Kohler’s experiments. The Professor mentioned that although he had tested many subjects from all nations in Europe, he had never seen any experiments with an American. Professor Kohler was curious to see if an American would have any different psychological reactions than Europeans. Charley bravely volunteered to be the first American test subject. In 1959 psychedelic drugs were almost totally unheard of (these substances were not outlawed until the mid nineteen sixties) and the good Professor happened to be traveling with a large quantity of chemically pure mescaline sulfate.

After some preparation Charley was given a large dose of the mescaline which he says tasted like vomit. He sat with Professor Kohler for two or three hours and nothing happened. The Professor was beginning to think that Americans were indeed quite different. They were ready to call it quits, but as one last try, Charley took still more of the drug. That put him over the edge and all at once his psychological resistance to the drug broke down. A few moments later he went directly into the peak of a psychedelic experience. His consciousness expanded tremendously and he had a deep and profound experience which totally changed his life. Professor Kohler found that Americans were just like Europeans. A small step for science, but a giant leap for Charley Tart.

A few years later while a graduate student at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Charles again had an opportunity to participate in one of the first scientific experiments with LSD and psilocybin. A private foundation began funding a series of experiments with psychedelic drugs. Naturally enough he volunteered for many of the tests. Again he had deep and profound experiences with artificially induced altered states of consciousness. The conflict in his soul between science and religion was bridged in these scientific experiments. This proved to be the guiding light for his later scientific work, where he became the unquestioned leader in the scientific exploration of spiritual experiences.

Only years later did Professor Tart learn that he had the CIA to thank for all of the LSD he ingested in those experiments. In the early nineteen sixties the CIA had set up dummy foundations to secretly fund research into psychedelic drugs. They wanted to know if there was any military potential to these strange new psychological drugs. They found the drugs were powerful, and potentially dangerous, but the experience of God was found to have no military value. Although not all unwitting government guinea pigs were as fortunate as Charles Tart, he, at least, was eternally grateful to the CIA.

In 1963 Charles Tart received his Ph.D. degree from Chapel Hill. His special interests then were research into personalities, dreams and hypnosis. Dr. Tart was virtually alone in these fields at the time. His work has pioneered what has since become known as the study of altered states of consciousness, consciousness other than the average consensus trance. By 1969 Charles Tart edited what was to became a landmark book in consciousness research Altered States of Consciousness. This was the first publication to bring together scientific research on dreaming, hypnosis, meditation, yoga, psychedelics and other expanded states of consciousness. He has since written many other books, including: Open Mind, Discriminating Mind (1989); Waking Up: Overcoming the Obstacles to Human Potential (1986); States of Consciousness (1975); Transpersonal Psychologies (1975) (1990). When not writing books and researching into these fields, Professor Tart has been a teacher of Psychology at the University of California in Davis for over thirty years.

Tart transcends the narrow confines of academia and science, and uses the scientific methods and independent thinking to tackle the really big questions. In the process of formulating his own answers, he has gathered information which helps us realize that “discontinuity of consciousness” is the essential threshold problem. The problem must be addressed – we must “self remember” and wake up from out of the cultural consensual trance – before we can ever know ourselves and find the answers within. One of the basic procedures he employs is called “self remembering” or “self observation”. It is a process where you impartially and dispassionately observe the false personalities in action. His quest for answers necessarily led him beyond the confines of academia and science into the martial arts, where he now holds a black belt in Aikido. It also led him into the world of esoteric spiritual philosophies and psychologies, exemplified by the work of the great Russian mystic and philosopher, G. I. Gurdjieff.(5) It was Gurdjieff who first brought the “self remembrance” procedures to the West.

Charles Tart discovered that there is a basic resistance in our culture to self observation. We tend to equate self observation with judgmental self criticism, with feelings of inadequacy, punishment, shame and guilt. To be effective, self remembrance procedures should be devoid of all judgments and criticism. It should be a neutral process of objective, detached observation. This requires tremendous commitment and honesty. In self observation you essentially try to observe yourself and your world, no matter what it is, good or bad, ugly or beautiful, happy or sad. You don’t just observe yourself only when you happen to be doing something you like, or in order to support something you already believe in. You try to observe yourself in your world to see what really is.

To convey the kind of commitment required to remember to observe yourself in all situations, Tart likes to quote a famous American spiritual leader of sorts, Patrick Henry: Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. Tart found from his own experience and from working with hundreds of others, that if you aren’t vigilant about yourself – with a commitment to knowing reality as it is – you build up fantasies. You forget yourself, like the actor asleep. You live instead in what he calls “consensus trance”. You are lost in fantasies widely shared in the culture. Tart’s research has shown that although everyone thinks they are normal, they are actually seriously cut off from the world around them. As a result people do a lot of stupid things.

Observing the great difficulty of the self observation process, especially at first, Tart emphasizes the importance of personal training and group work to begin to use this procedure effectively. But once the skill is learned, Tart and others have found that it is a powerful tool to awaken the actor. With it you can begin to integrate the many roles – the many personalities – into a play where life has meaning. The actions of the moment then begin to make sense by relation to the overall drama. The actor begins to know herself, to know the myth of her life, the plot and potential destiny, and then to write her own script. Without such an awakening the actor meanders aimlessly through life. They keep repeating a few lines, a few roles, over and over, never realizing their full potential.

Tart found that self observation can awaken us from consensus trance. It allows us to get a much wider idea of who we are, and to dare to fulfill potentials and dreams we never even knew we had. This is because the consensus trance into which we were hypnotized as a child significantly narrows our human potentials. We could be so many things, but society tries to fit people into preconceived molds. Our self-concept gets narrow, squeezed and tight.

Tart likes to quote Gurdjieff’s observation that a lot of people you see walking around in the street are dead. They have been so squeezed in terms of their inner psychological self, that it is all habit and conditioning, and the essence – the vitality – is dead. Tart was first exposed to Gurdjieff’s ideas in 1966 and his ideas and spiritual practices of self observation have had a continuing influence on him ever since. Tart says that he still uses Gurdjieff’s “trying to remember yourself in everyday life” as his principle spiritual practice today, even though he is no longer involved with Gurdjieff groups.

In my interview with Charles Tart in late 1993, he described in some detail the process of how as young children we are entranced into the local cultural consensus in which we were born:

When we are born each of us has the potential to be a human being which means thousands and thousands of things which could be developed. But each one of us is born into a particular culture, and a culture is a group of people who know about certain human potentials which they think are good and they cultivate them. They draw them out of people and reinforce them in people. So when a little baby looks at its mother and its starting to make sounds like “ma ma ma,” people smile and encourage the baby. A given culture knows about other potentials which they consider animal or evil or something like that, and they actively discourage them. So if the same little baby looks at its mother and starts to go “shi shi shit”, he doesn’t get encouraged, and that kind of thing.

Any particular culture is also ignorant of all sorts of human potentials and they don’t draw them out of people simply by neglect. They have no idea its even possible.

In order to survive you have to fit into your culture. The adults who only want a certain set of potentials developed keep pressing on you, drawing those out and discouraging the ones they don’t like. In a very real sense, the “essence” of what we are when we are born, to use a Gurdjieff term, gets shaped and shaped and shaped and eventually evolves into what Gurdjieff called “false personality.” That means as part of defending yourself against the pressure of adults you come to adopt their way of thinking. A baby can’t really say, “Gee, I’ve been born into a weird tribe this time, here’s how I’ll have to act in order to get by, but I don’t believe a word of it.” The baby is pretty helpless, absolutely dependent upon the giants, the gods and goddesses, for its survival. So the baby and the child internalize these things, they start thinking like the culture expects people to think. To the extent they don’t, they feel guilty about it and hide it.

We develop what I call “consensus consciousness” to reflect the fact that our so-called ordinary state of consciousness, or “normal consciousness” (which is a culturally-relative term of course) means we have actually constructed the habits of our thinking and feeling and perceiving to reflect the consensus of what our culture thinks is important and good. It is an altered state of consciousness in the sense that it is not natural. Our ordinary state is not simply the way consciousness is, it’s a semi arbitrary construction, so that you fit in as normal, bound by the rules of your particular group.

When I talk about this in a neutral way, and want to use this information scientifically, I use the term “consensus consciousness.” But when I want to emphasize the cost of this process, that there is a lot of important stuff left out, then I say “consensus trance.” I am using “trance” in the negative sense of the word: a state of less animation, being controlled by others and what not.

I also asked Professor Tart what methods he had found work best to allow people to overcome their natural resistances to self observation, and enable them to awaken from the consensus trance. His answer expounded upon the theme developed by Gurdjieff as “intentional suffering.”

There are lots of ways [around the resistance to self observation]. Most of them depend on suffering. When things are going well, you don’t tend to question the structure you’re locked into. When things start going badly, usually we blame somebody else: “Its those damn republicrats in Washington.” But when you get a little more mature, people begin to realize that “maybe I bring something to my suffering, just maybe its not all the fault of the outside world, but that I contribute something to it.” When people are ready to work with their suffering like that, when they are ready to look at it more closely and see how they are creating some of it, then you have an opening for people to learn things.

The suffering can motivate people to observe themselves, to take mental snap shots of themselves, and try to figure out what is going on wrong, what internally is producing the suffering. In self observation you will undoubtedly see many habits, attitudes and other things about yourself that you do not like. From an attitude of intentional suffering and responsibility, these insights into your mental machinery provide you with the opportunity to change, to escape from your suffering. As Tart says, we create a lot of our suffering quite uselessly. Suffering motivates you to change, to escape from the mental conditioning and false thinking which keeps you entranced, keeps you in needless suffering. Suffering thus opens up the possibility of real change.

Charles Tart also speaks of another major way of escape from the culture trance, the method of “altered states of consciousness.”

If you think of your ordinary state of consciousness as a semiartificial structure, you can see an altered state as something that temporarily knocks it to pieces. With many of your habits temporarily nonfunctional there is a chance for you to perceive in a more unedited, unconstricted sort of way, a more natural sort of way. Alternatively, you may go into an altered state, which is also arbitrary in some ways, but is different from your ordinary state, and you realize that there is a different way of functioning. A lot of our suffering comes from the fact that we think there is only one way to function, in our ordinary state of consciousness. As long as you think that, you don’t explore alternative possibilities. But if you have the experience of functioning in a different state, then when you are stuck in some situation, you might be able to remember that your state of consciousness may be making the situation so bad. You might try changing your state of consciousness to see if that gives you new possibilities.

The two approaches of suffering and altered states have intrigued Professor Tart throughout his career. He counsels knowledge of altered states and looking at your suffering more closely next time, instead of trying to flee from it. But he does not mean to put all of the emphasis on suffering. As Tart says: As you begin to observe yourself more closely, you will also begin to see the ways in which you create happiness in your life, effectiveness, and so forth. That of course is the carrot, suffering is just the stick. Gurdjieff, the philosopher much admired by Tart, also spoke of the average people as being “imprisoned by their own thinking” and stressed the importance of “objective ratiocination“. The way to escape from this prison of false personality, and attain real life and essence, is not only by obtaining objective reliable information about yourself through self observation, but also by correctly processing this information using clear and objective thinking. Here the Way of the Lawyer can help.