When disturbed, dynamic emergent systems, such as tectonics on Earth, may transition from one stable state to another if the perturbation is sufficiently large. Here, we identify such state shifts through examination of statistically-significant change points in the time series of metamorphic pressure–temperature and cooling rate data. Change points occur in the mid-Paleoproterozoic, the Mesoproterozoic, the early and late Palaeozoic, and the Cenozoic. To compare the timing of change points with mantle geodynamics, we interrogate the time series of calculated mantle potential temperature, which yields a statistically-significant drop of > 130 °C in the mid-Paleoproterozoic, indicating a change in the mechanism of mantle cooling. We interpret changes in the mid-Paleoproterozoic to relate to the global emergence of stable subduction, orogenesis associated with the formation of the Nuna megacontinent, and slab breakoff, consistent with the operation of a distinctive style of Proterozoic plate tectonics. By contrast, changes from the dawn of the Cambrian onward may relate to the large volume of sediments supplied to trenches following multiple Cryogenian and Palaeozoic glaciations. Sediments acted as a lubricant, enabling deeper subduction, transport of lower continental plates to mantle depths, and faster metamorphic cooling rates—features characteristic of modern plate tectonics.