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Collective Unconscious or Collective
Provenance of Mystical Experiences #1
This article submitted by
ON THE NEUROLOGICAL ORIGIN OF MYSTICAL EXPERIENCES & NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCES
Question: "What are the causes and brain mechanisms involved in mystical
experiences?" This one has the beginnings of a real answer from contemporary
neuroscience. Below, I summarize information from my neurological research
utilizing excerpts from two books: (i) "Neuropsychiatry, Neuropsychology,
and Clinical Neuroscience" by Rhawn Joseph, and (ii) "Is There
Anybody Out There? The Fate of God in an
Accidental World" by Taner Edis.
Answer #1: (from Neuropsychiatry, Neuropsychology, and Clinical Neuroscience
by Rhawn Joseph Williams & Wilkins Press, Second Edition, 1996)
(A) THE AMYGDALA AND EMOTION
The amygdala enables us to hear "sweet sounds", recall "bitter
memories", and determine if something is spiritually significant,
sexually enticing, or good to eat. The amygdala makes it possible to experience
the spiritually sublime, is concerned with the most basic animal emotions,
and allows us to store affective experiences in memory or even to reexperience
them when awake or during the course of a dream in the form of visual,
auditory, or religious/spiritual imagery. The amygdala also enables an
individual to experience emotions such as love and religious rapture,
as well as the ecstasy associated with orgasm via enkephalin secretion,
and the dread and terror associated with the unknown.
In fact, the amygdala, in conjunction with the hippocampus, contributed
in large part to the production of very sexual as well as bizarre, unusual,
and fearful mental phenomenon, including dissociative states, feelings
of depersonalization, and hallucinogenic and dreamlike recollections involving
threatening men, naked woken, sexual intercourse, religion, and the experience
of gods, demons, and ghosts.
(B) THE AMYGDALA, THE TEMPORAL LOBE, AND THE SOUL Mystical states may
be voluntarily or involuntarily induced and are dependent upon the differential
stimulation and deafferentation (i.e., cutting off the afferent nerve
supply with afferent nerves being nerves that carry impulses from
receptors to the central nervous system) of limbic system nuclei, including
the hypothalamus, hippocampus, and amygdala, as well as the right frontal
and right temporal lobe. Moreover, it appears that these brain areas differentially
contribute to non-mystical religious and emotional experiences as well.
Interestingly, the hypothalamus is concerned with all rudimentary aspects
of emotion and controls the hormonal and related aspects of sexual activity
(again, including the capacity to experience orgasm and heroin-like highs
via enkephalin secretion). By contrast, it is the amygdala, in conjunction
with the temporal lobe and hippocampus, that enables a human being to
have religious, spiritual, and mystical experiences.
The amygdala, hippocampus, and temporal lobe are richly interconnected
and appear to act in concert in regard to mystical experience, including
the generation and experience of dream states and complex auditory and
visual hallucinations. Moreover, intense activation of the temporal lobe,
hippocampus, and amygdala has been reported to give rise to a host of
sexual, religious, and spiritual experiences; and CHRONIC HYPERSTIMULATION
can induce and individual to become hyper-religious or visualize ghosts,
demons, angels, and even God, as well as claim demonic and angelic possession
or the sensation of having left the body.
The amygdala and inferior temporal lobes are also highly involved in the
generation of feelings of intense sexual arousal, fear, or conversely,
rapture and euphoria the latter being a consequence of the large
quantities of enkephalins being released and the high concentrations of
opiate receptors located throughout the amygdala. In response to pain,
stress, shock, fear, or terror, the amygdala and other limbic nuclei begin
to secrete high levels of opiates, which can induce a state of calmness
as well as analgesia and euphoria.
As noted, if these neurons are hyperactivated, such as occurs during dream
states, seizures, physical pain, terror, food deprivation, and social
and sensory isolation, and under LSD (which disinhibits the amygdala by
blocking serotonin ) an individual might infuse his perceptions with tremendous
religious and emotional feeling. Hence, under these conditions, the individual
may hallucinate and ordinary perceptions, objects, or people my be regarded
as spiritual in nature or endowed with special or religious significance.
Hence, the individual may come to believe the or she is experiencing,
through the one or more of the various sense modalities, God, the gods,
demons, angels and so on. In actuality, the individual is hallucinating
and is excessively emotionally/religiously aroused and/or experiencing
an enkephalin high among other thing.
(C) OBES, FEAR, & LIMBIC HYPERACTIVATION The prospect of being
terribly injured or killed in an auto accident, fighting during wartime,
and the like is often accompanied by feelings of extreme fear. It is also
not uncommon for individuals who experience feelings of terror to report
perceptual and hallucinogenic experiences, including dissociation, depersonalization,
and the splitting off of ego functions such as that they feel as if they
have separated from their bodies and floated away or were on the ceiling
Feelings of fear and terror are mediated by the amygdala, whereas the
capacity to cognitively map, or visualize, ones position and the
position of other objects and individual in visual-space is dependent
hippocampus. The hippocampus contains "place" neurons that are
able to encode ones position and movement in space.
The hippocampus, therefore, can create a cognitive map of an individuals
environment and his movements within it. Presumably, it is via the hippocampus
that individuals can visualize themselves as if looking at their bodies
from afar, and can remember, and thus "see" themselves, engaged
in certain actions, as if one were an outside witness. Moreover, under
conditions of hyperactivation, it appears that the hippocampus may create
a visual hallucination of that "cognitive map" such that the
individual my experience himself as outside his body, observing all that
In fact, is has been repeatedly demonstrated that hyperactivation and/or
electrical stimulation of the amygdala-hippocampus-temporal lobe can cause
some individuals to report that they have left their bodies and are hovering
upon the ceiling staring down. In psychoanalytic terms, their ego and
sense of personal identity appears to split off from their body, such
that they may feel as if they are two different people, one watching,
the other being observed.
(D) LIMBIC SYSTEM HYPERACTIVATION, HALLUCINATIONS, AND NEAR DEATH
EXPERIENCES (NDES) Excerpt from Susan Blackmores book
"Dying to Live," then back to Rhawn Joseph.
(i) The Consistency Argument
The first argument for The After Life Hypothesis is The Consistency Argument.
This is that NDEs are similar around the world and throughout history.
The only possible explanation for this, so the argument runs, is that
NDEs are just what they appear to be a journey through a
real tunnel to another world which awaits us after death. Consistency,
it is argued, amounts to evidence for an afterlife.
The consistency is certainly there. We have explored may different kinds
of NDEs and seen that, although no two are the same, there are consistent
patterns: the joy and peace; the tunnel; the light; the out-of-body experience;
the life review and the dissolution into timelessness; the return to life
and the changes it brings. The consistency is there but this does NOT
mean there is an afterlife.
The joy and peace are consistent because of the natural opiates (endorphins
and encephalins) released under
stress. The tunnel + light and noises are consistent because they depend
on the structure of the brains cortex and what happens to it when
it is deprived of oxygen or is affected by disinhibition and random activity.
The OBE [out-of-body experience] is consistent because it is the brains
way of dealing with a breakdown in the body image and model of reality.
The life review is consistent because the endorphins and encephalins cause
random activation and seizures in the temporal lobe and limbic system
where memories are organized. The same effect leads to the breakdown of
time and its relationship to self. And it is this dissolution of [the
model of] self that accounts for the mystical experiences and aftereffects.
NO Afterlife Hypothesis is required to account for the consistency of
the NDE across times, peoples and cultures. Indeed, The Dying Brain Hypothesis
accounts for it much better.
(ii) The Reality Argument
The second argument I call The Reality Argument. It is that NDEs
FEEL so REAL that they must be what they appear to be, a real journey
to the next world.
By exploring the reasons why things seem real I have provided an alternative
interpretation. It is useful for us, as biological organisms, to separate
what is real from what is not. However, the distinction is largely
artificial. ALL we have is [the] model-building [capacity of the brain
and nervous system] and we call some models "real" and some
"imaginary." The most STABLE and PERSISTENT ones, like those
based on the senses, we call real. The ones that affect the limbic system
in certain ways we feel as "familiar" or "meaningful."
Mostly this works well, but during the NDE it leads us astray. Stable
tunnel forms in the cortex seem real. An out-of-body perspective taken
on in imagination seems real. So the felt "realness" of the
NDEs is NO evidence that there is anyone to travel out of the body
or any next world to go to. The Dying Brain Hypothesis thus accounts better
for why the experience seems so real and can also account for why obviously
"unreal" things are seen in NDEs as well.
(iii) The Paranormal Argument
Third comes The Paranormal Argument. That is that NDEs involve paranormal
events which cannot be explained by science. Since they cannot be explained
in any normal way they must be evidence that the NDE involves another
dimension, another world, or the existence of a non-material spirit or
This is NOT a good argument for The Afterlife Hypothesis for two reasons.
Firstly, I have cast considerable doubt on the evidence itself. Many cases
are simply very weak to start with, others become weaker the deeper you
look into them and some have even been INVENTED altogether. Secondly,
even if the evidence were compelling, it could NOT be explained just by
claiming that "There is an afterlife." If the evidence changes
in the future and truly convincing paranormal events are documented then
certainly the theory I have proposed will have to be overthrown
along with a lot more of psychology, physics and biology BUT THE
AFTERLIFE THEORIES WE HAVE ENCOUNTERED HERE WILL NOT DO INSTEAD.
By contrast, The Dying Brain Hypothesis explains why people seek "paranormal"
evidence to bolster their impression of realness and how the stories are
passed on and elaborated. By understanding the role of the limbic system
and temporal lobe it accounts for the experiences of familiarity, insight
and "deja vu" and for the increase in psychic-[seeming] experiences
after the NDE. I shall keep looking for evidence that might prove it wrong,,
but for now The Dying Brain Hypothesis accounts better for what we know.
(iv) The Transformation Argument
Finally, there is The Transformation Argument. This is that people are
changed by their NDEs, sometimes
dramatically for the better, becoming more spiritual and less materialistic.
The Afterlife Hypothesis attributes this to NDEers having a spiritual
experience in another world. IN FACT THIS DOES NOT REALLY EXPLAIN IT AT
ALL. THERE IS NO OBVIOUS REASON WHY AN AFTERLIFE SHOULD BE A BETTER ONE
NOR WHY CONTACT WITH IT SHOULD MAKE PEOPLE WHO RETURN NICER. THIS IS SIMPLY
By contrast, The Dying Brain Hypothesis is compatible with two reasons
for transformation. One is simply that being made to THINK about death
[concretely] can affect a persons priorities deeply, whether it
is their death or anothers and whether they have an NDE or not.
This alone can make them less selfish and more concerned for others. The
other is that coming close to death can provoke the insight that self
was only a construction of the brain and nervous system; that all the
struggles, attachment and suffering of life depend on that artificial
construction and that it can be let go. There never was any SOLID SELF
and there is no [substantial] self to die. With this insight fear is left
behind and life can be lived more directly and fully. The Dying Brain
Hypothesis accounts better for the mystical insight of the NDE and the
changes it can bring about.
All things considered, I can see NO reason to adopt The Afterlife Hypothesis.
I am sure I shall remain in the minority for a long time to come, especially
amongst NDErs, but for me the evidence and the arguments
are overwhelming. The Dying Brain Hypothesis, for all its shortcomings,
does a better job of accounting for the experiences themselves. And it
reveals NOT a false hope of the self being perpetuated into an infinite
and everlasting tomorrow by God (or whatever), BUT A GENUINE INSIGHT BEYOND
We are biological organisms, evolved in fascinating ways for NO purpose
at all and with NO END in ANY MIND. We are simply here and this is how
it is. I have no [substantial] self and "I" own nothing. There
is NO ONE to die. THERE IS JUST THIS MOMENT, AND NOW THIS AND NOW THIS
(E) OBES, HEAVENLY, & OTHERWORLDLY LIMBIC EXPERIENCES
back to Rhawn
The preeminent neurologists Penfield and Perot describe several patients
who, during temporal lobe seizures, claimed they could seem themselves
in different situations. One woman stated that "it was as though
I were two persons, one watching, and the other having this happen to
me", and that it was she who was doing the watching , as if she were
completely separated from her body.
One patient had a sensation of being outside her body, watching and observing
herself from the outside. Another neurosurgery patient alleged that, while
outside her body, she was also overcome by feelings of euphoria and eternal
harmony. Yet another patient reported an epileptic aura in which she experienced
a feeling of being lifted up out of her body, coupled with a very pleasant
sensation of elation and the feeling that she was just about to find out
knowledge no one else shares, something to do with the link between life
and death. Yet other patients suffering from temporal lobe seizures have
noted that feelings and perceptions suddenly became CRYSTAL CLEAR (my
"Space-Like Mind" experience) or that of having Truth revealed
to them, or of having achieved a sense of greater awareness such that
sounds, smells, and visual objects seemed to have greater meaning and
(F) DEATH OF THE TEMPORAL LOBE
It is likely that conditions involving extreme fear and/or traumatic injury,
and some cases of temporal lobe epilepsy, result in hyperactivation of
the amygdala and hippocampus, which in turn will begin to hallucinate
and/or trigger visions of brilliant light, as well as secrete opiate-like
neurotransmitters than induce a state of euphoria and, thus, eternal peace
and harmony. Given that similar experiences are reported by those who
have been declared "clinically dead", the possibility is raised
that the hippocampus and amygdala may be the first areas of the brain
to be affected by approaching death, as well as one of the last regions
of the brain to actually die. That is, as one approaches death, and even
after "clinical death", the amygdala and hippocampus may continue
to function briefly and not only become hyperactivated, but produce a
feeling of eternal peace and tranquillity and a hallucination of floating
outside the body and of meeting relatives and other religious figures,
like in a dream.
(G) SEXUALITY, RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE, AND TEMPORAL LOBE HYPERACTIVATION:
A not uncommon characteristic of high levels of limbic system and inferior
temporal lobe activity are changes in sexuality as well as a deepening
of religious fervor. It is noteworthy that not just modern-day evangelists,
but many ancient religious leaders, including Abraham and Muhammad, tended
to be highly sexual and partook of may partners. Many also displayed evidence
of the Kluver-Bucy syndrome, such as eating dung (Ezekiel), as well as
temporal lobe hyperactivation and epilepsy.
Muhammad, Gods alleged messenger, was apparently dyslexic and agraphic
(loss, partial or total, of the ability to write) and was known to lose
consciousness and enter into trance states. In fact, he had his first
truly spiritual/religious conversion when, as the story goes, he was torn
from his sleep by the archangel Gabriel.
Muhammad was basically a kind and considerate man, but he was also known
to fly into extreme rages and to kill, or at least order killed, wealthy
infidels and merchants and those who opposed him. These behaviors, when
coupled with his increased sexuality, heightened religious fervor, trance
states, mood swings, and possible auditory and visual hallucinations of
a titanic angel, certainly point to the limbic system and inferior temporal
lobe as the possible neurological foundation for these experiences.
Remissions, parallax beacon of truth reveals the Chimeric Blastula
of intelligent design.
The new Black, the True Black
WHICH BLACK SHOULD YOU CHOOSE?
The new Black is the True Black
The new Black is the True Black
incestuous amplification IS THE NEW incestuous amplification
TRUE black is the NEW black
incestuous amplification:: the new black
is the true black
NEW black is the TRUE black
Unconscious or Collective Subjective
inc incestuous amplification
The n THE
Subjective Collective is the
new Collective UnconsciousBlack is the TruThe ne
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Irreverent_Irrelevance The new Black is the True
(H) RELIGION, LIMBIC SYSTEM HYPERACTIVATION, AND TEMPORAL LOBE SEIZURES
Among a TINY MINORITY of humans, the nuclei of the limbic system have
a tendency to periodically become over-activated. When this occurs, emotions
may be perceived or expressed abnormally, and the sensory and emotional
filtering that normally takes place in these nuclei is reduced or abolished
Moreover, instead of being merely overly sensitive, those affected may
suddenly experience extreme anger, rage, paranoia, depression, sexual
desire, or even religious ecstasy. And they may hallucinate the presence
of threatening people, animals, or even religious figures. Deepening of
emotions, hallucinations, alterations in sex drive, and the development
of extreme religious beliefs (i.e., hyper religiousness) are not uncommon
manifestations of limbic-temporal lobe seizures and hyperactivation.
In fact, certain individuals who develop temporal lobe epilepsy and, thus,
limbic hyperactivation, may suddenly become hyper-religious and spend
hours reading and talking about the Bible (or other culturally relevant
scriptures) and other religious issues. Once this condition develops,
they may spend hours every day preaching or writing out their mystical
and/or religious thoughts, or engaging in certain actions they believe
have religious significance. Many modern-day religious writers also happen
to suffer from epilepsy are, in fact, exceedingly prolific, and those
who feel impelled to preach tend to do just that.
People who suffer from periodic episodes of limbic and temporal lobe hyper-activation,
such as those with temporal lobe epilepsy, typically have seizures. It
is not uncommon for these seizures to be preceded by an
The great existential author, Feodor Dostoevsky, apparently suffered from
temporal lobe epilepsy. Dostoevsky alleged, via one of his characters,
that when he had a seizure the gates of Heaven would open and he could
see row upon row of angels blowing on great golden trumpets. Then two
great golden doors would open and he could see a golden stairway that
would lead right up to the throne of God.
As noted above, there is some evidence that many religious and spiritual
leaders have had similar temporal lobe, limbic-system-induced religious
experiences. Moses, for example, may have suffered from temporal lobe
seizures. Presumably, this was a consequence of being left, as an infant,
for days to bake in the sun, after his mother abandoned him in a basket
on a small stream. If that were the case, his brain could have become
overheated and damaged by the scorching Egyptian sun.
If Moses subsequently developed temporal lobe epilepsy, this cold explain
his hyper-religious fervor, his rages, and the numerous murders he committed
or ordered. His speech impediment, hyper-graphia (copious and obsessive
writing with a neurological etiology), and hallucinations, such as hearing
the voice of God speaking to him from a burning bush, are symptoms not
uncommonly associated with temporal lobe seizures and limbic hyperactivation.
(I) ISOLATION, LIMBIC HYPERACTIVATION, AND HALLUCINATIONS
It has been well established that even short-term social and sensory isolation
lasting just a few days can induce emotionally and visually profound and
complex hallucinations that can be so personally distressing
that volunteers will refuse to discuss them.
John C. Lilly in 1972, combined LSD with prolonged water immersion and
social and sensory isolation for about 7 hours on several occasions, and
experienced and observed the presence of spiritual God-like beings who
beckoned to him.
Isolation, as well as food and water deprivation, increased or decreased
sexual activity, pain, drug use, self-mutilation, prayer, and meditation
are common methods of attaining mystical states of religious an spiritual
awareness, and have been employed world-wide, across time and culture.
These states also activate the limbic system.
For example, not only can pain or a desirable food item or sex partner
result in limbic arousal, but when the limbic system is denied normal
modes of input, be it sensory, emotional, social, or nutritional, it can
become hyperactive; stimuli normally deleted and/or subject to sensory
filtering are instead perceived. That is, limbic sensory acuity is increased,
and in some respects what is perceived is not always an "hallucination"
in the sense that it really involves the perception of overlapping sensory
qualities that are normally filtered out. Sensory filtering is quite common
at the level of the amygdala, which contains neurons that are multimodally
responsive as well as inhibitory via serotonin. However, when this filter
is removed, hallucinations and/or the perception of unusual sensory qualities
(J) LIMBIC HYPERACTIVITY AS AN INHERITED SPIRITUAL TRAIT
As pertaining to many religious figures
Provenance of Mystical Experiences #2
FHB/Remo_Ruffini on 9/16/99.
Email Address: Remo_Ruffini@hotmail.com
ON THE NEUROLOGICAL ORIGIN OF MYSTICAL EXPERIENCES & NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCES
(J) LIMBIC HYPERACTIVITY AS AN INHERITED SPIRITUAL
As pertaining to many religious figures such as the Buddha the following
may be said. While he may or may not have been hallucinating when he sought,
meditative isolation and enlightenment, given the other features of his
personality and religiosity, it could be argued that his amygdala and
temporal lobe were highly active. Similarly, others capable of great spiritual
experiences demonstrate signs and behaviors associated with limbic and
temporal lobe hyperactivation. Is this, perhaps, because they are, in
fact, hyper-activating this region of the brain via various meditation,
attentional, and breath-manipulation techniques?
That is, a person who lives a highly spiritual and mystical lifestyle,
might perpetually activate this region of the brain and achieve what others
can only hope for via drugs, fasting, and isolation/deprivation
access to the Spiritually Sublime.
(K) RIGHT HEMISPHERE, TEMPORAL LOBE HYPERACTIVATION, AND DREAMING
Some so-called mystics have reported a cessation of dreaming after years
of intensive meditation the intermediate stages of which were characterized
by silences, luminositys of all sorts, as well as changes in the
experience of time, space, causality, and self. Is there any basis in
neurology for claims like this? We believe the answer is in the affirmative,
though the condition would be VERY RARE.
The amygdala and the neocortex of the temporal lobe are highly interactionally
involved in the production of religious and hallucinatory experiences,
INCLUDING DREAM STATES. This is especially the case for the RIGHT temporal
lobe and RIGHT amygdala.
Moreover, the right hemisphere (and the right amygdala) is more involve
than the left in the reception and production of religious imagery. This
is likely, as the right hippocampus and right amygdala, and the right
hemisphere in general, also appear to be involved in the production of
hallucinations and dream imagery, as well as REM (i.e., rapid eye movement)
Electrophysiologically, the right temporal lobe become highly active during
REM sleep, whereas, conversely, the left temporal region become more active
in NREM (i.e., non-rapid eye movement). sleep. Similarly, measurements
of cerebral blood flow have shown an increase in the right temporal regions
during REM sleep and in subjects who, upon wakening, report visual, hypnagogic,
hallucinatory, and auditory dreaming. Interestingly, abnormal and enhanced
activity in the right temporal and temporal-occipital areas acts to increase
dreaming and REM sleep for an atypically long time.
Conversely, LSD-induced hallucinations are significantly reduced when
the right (but NOT the left) temporal lobe has been surgically removed.
Similarly, it has been reported that dreaming is ABOLISHED with right
(but NOT left) temporal lobe destruction. Furthermore, there appears to
be a specific complementary relationship between REM sleep, hallucinations,
mystical experiences, and right temporal (and thus right amygdala and
hippocampus) electrophysiological activity.
Answer #2: From "Is There Anybody Out There? The Fate of God in an,Accidental
Psychology provides a better starting point, keeping in mind that even,ordinary
experience is vastly complex and nowhere near adequately understood. First,
we need a rough map of mystical experience. Visions, hallucinations, and
the like take place in states of HYPERAROUSAL---levels of cognitive and
physiological activity are high. OTHER MYSTICAL EXPERIENCES ARE PHYSIOLOGICALLY
DISTINCT, CHARACTERIZED BY AN ABNORMALLY LOW LEVEL OF AROUSAL. AWARENESS
OF THE EXTERNAL WORLD FADES. Claims of special spiritual knowledge have
been based on both kinds of experience, but mysticism is more properly
associated with introvertive experiences brought on by concentration techniques,
"clearing the mind," and trying to remove dependence on ordinary
The most radical claims concern a "depth-mystical" state in
which no perceptual or conceptual content is said to be present. This
goes beyond having a vision of the deep nature of reality, or feeling
presence; it is a state of consciousness which lacks any object to be
conscious _of._ After emerging from this state, the mystic describes it,
perhaps by using the language of negative theology---setting God beyond
_all_ limitations, and therefore all concepts. Psychologically, the central
notion is the pure consciousness event (PCE), in which "The subject
is awake, conscious, but without an object or content of consciousness---no
thoughts, emotions, sensations, or awareness of any external phenomena.
Nothing." This state is attained by a process of "forgetting."
Through repetitive mental techniques, cognition and conceptual thinking
are turned off, producing an effect similar to sensory deprivation experiments.
"Meditators and mystics practice a technique in which they recycle
a constant mental subroutine. This technique serves as a catalyst to enable
the mind to come to forget all thought and sensation."
So mysticism is based on universal psychological processes, and even some
sort of doctrine-independent core might exist in PCEs. Of course, how
this is to be interpreted is the crucial question; the level of diversity
and doctrine-dependence that exists precludes a simple perennial-philosophy
While psychology illuminates the phenomenology of mysticism, it also naturally
leads to reductionist explanations requiring nothing beyond the brain.
Of course, esoteric knowledge claims are not associated with any single
psychological state, so complex explanations are required. While depth-mysticism
involves withdrawing into a cloud of unknowing, visionary experiences
are different altogether. A PCE might be intelligible in terms of the
attention-focusing function of consciousness: perhaps the neurological
basis for attention continues to operate even when parts of the brain
dealing with cognition and memory are occupied by a recycled mental subroutine.
Visionary mysticism is similar to hallucinatory and psychedelic experiences,
so it is likely that the brain is doing something altogether different,
though perhaps with some common elements.
Drug-induced experiences are helpful (within limits) in understanding
mystical states. For example, in a well-known experiment, seminary students
were given either a placebo or a psychedelic drug. All immersed themselves
in a religious environment by attending chapel, and engaging in prayer
and meditation. Many of the psychedelic group's experiences were closely
similar to classic mystical accounts. At present, it is fairly clear that
mystical states, like ordinary consciousness, have an underlying biological
basis. This is not to say that drug and visionary mystical experiences
are identical---the effect of a crude application of psychoactive substances
may well be different from what the brain's own chemicals produce within
a supportive social and religious context. However, there is no evidence
for anything beyond the brain. Proponents of psychedelic mysticism make
grandiose claims, like so-called "transpersonal experiences"
providing esoteric knowledge and transcending limitations of a "Cartesian/Newtonian
conception of the world." However, these rely on bad physics and
the kind of occult holism examined previously---little new is added by
a psychedelic orientation.
An emphasis on the brain lets us profitably compare extraordinary experiences.
Time perception is often distorted in mystical states, sometimes to the
extent of time feeling unreal or nonexistent. Very similar
phenomena are known from NDEs, and experiences involving the temporal
lobe of the brain. Many "weird" aspects of mystical experiences
are best approached in the context of paranormal claims in general. More
mundane psychological factors also can be recognized in mysticism. The
best known example of this concerns the oft-encountered sexual imagery
in mystical texts. An ecstatic state naturally will be described using
the emotions and vocabulary of sexual love, so unless the Christian identification
of sex and sin is taken too seriously, this is no embarrassment for mystical
religion. However, it brings up a mundane psychological substrate to the
experience, rendering it less mysterious.
Psychology is less helpful in understanding matters like the effect of
mystical experience on personality. We know too little about the complex
processes involved, though this ignorance does not call for a supernatural
resolution. Intriguing comparisons between some psychopathological states
and mysticism can be drawn, but this line of argument risks prejudicial
disease or deficiency implications. What is important is that there are
brain states not corresponding to perception of any objective reality,
but which are nevertheless intense in _feelings_ of insight or reality.
We can now give a naturalistic view of mysticism, to set in contrast with
mystical arguments for God. Humans have a natural capacity for ecstatic
experiences which have historically been interpreted in various religious
frameworks. These experiences can be valuable in learning about our brains,
but they do not signify anything beyond. While phenomena like the PCE
are curious, their use in explaining the world is limited. However, mystical
experience can of course be valued independently of explanatory concerns.
The Buddhist tradition in particular has much insight to offer, especially
as a counterpoint to the theist and monist tendency to view the self as
a unitary, even magical thing.
FHB/Remo_Ruffini on 9/16/99.
Email Address: Remo_Ruffini@hotmail.com
from Harvard Edu