Thursday, August 30, 2007

How to produce spiritual experiences

I have been working on the following post for a while. I was going to wait until I finished reviewing each of the distinct classes of spiritual experiences, but I want to go ahead and post what I have so far.

When I was a true believer, I experienced many wonderful sensations that I was taught to attribute to God. When I came to no longer believe in God, I still had the desire to have those wonderful experiences because I enjoyed them so much and they enriched my life. Due to the particular path that led me to no longer believe in God, I had become fairly sure that those phenomena were produced and experienced solely by my physiology despite the strong impression that they were caused by some external source. The key to illiciting those internal experiences was to find what the necessary conditions were that led the body to produce those mental states. Or, to be more specific, how do we activate the neurons responsible for producing the phenomena?

As far as we can tell, all mental representations, sensations, perceptions, and emotional states are produced by neurons. During brain surgery, the doctor often electrically stimulates various neurons around a tumor to determine which neurons to cut around. While doing this, the patient is awake and will report seeing lights, hearing sounds, thinking of words, or tingling of limbs. The limbic system, which is responsible for the experience of emotions is deeper in the brain and so is not usually stimulated this way during surgery. However, through drugs and other means, researchers have been able to reproduce many of the sensations involved when having a spiritual experience or near-death experiences. For just a taste of the exciting research in this field, see , , or .

As fascinating as these studies are, they do not show that something supernatural is not involved, only that the brain is involved in producing these phenomena. I have other reasons to suspect that nothing supernatural is in play. But, what I was really interested in were the cognitive and environmental conditions that led to spiritual experiences without artificial stimulation. What follows are my results thus far. I first list the experience and the way I interpreted it as a believer, then what I believe is happening psychologically and how one might experience it without a belief in God being a prerequisite.

Warmth in my chest

This particular sensation is already being investigated by psychological researchers. They refer to it as “elevation”. This is what they have to say about it: Elevation appears to be the opposite of social disgust. It is triggered by witnessing acts of human moral beauty or virtue. Elevation involves a warm or glowing feeling in the chest, and it makes people want to become morally better themselves. Because elevation increases one's desire to affiliate with and help others, it provides a clear illustration of B. L. Fredrickson's broaden-and-build model of the positive emotions.

Here are some links about elevation:

Looking back at the times I felt the warmth in my chest as a believer, I felt it when I thought of the sacrifice Christ made for me, or when I imagined life in heaven, or thought about a particular verse that illustrated something I thought I should be striving for, or when serving others. All of these are examples that which is noble, the opposite of that which is base and defiled. So, whenever I want to feel the warmth in my chest, I focus on that which is aspirational, noble, exemplar, virtuous, pure, etc.

I realize that some people have never felt warmth in the chest. I am not sure why it would be so with them. Out of curiosity, since elevation is theorized to be the opposite of social disgust, for those of you who never feel a warmth in the chest, do you ever feel disgusted by morally reprehensible behavior, such as the behaviors of con men?

Brightness and clarity in thought

Sometimes we just experience epiphanies in which everything just clicks and suddenly makes sense. They are those “ah-ha” or “oh, yeah” moments. Typically, they occur when we have been thinking about something for a while, sometimes with and sometimes without a break. The wikipedia entry on epiphany has this to say:

As a feeling, an epiphany is the sudden realisation or comprehension of the essence or meaning of something. The term is used in either a philosophical or literal sense to signify that the claimant has "found the last piece of the puzzle and now sees the whole picture," or has new information or experience, often insignificant by itself, that illuminates a deeper or numinous foundational frame of reference

Epiphanies have also made possible forward leaps in technology and the sciences. Famous epiphanies include Archimedes' realisation of how to estimate the volume of a given mass, which inspired him to shout "Eureka!" ("I have found it!") The biographies of many mathematicians and scientists include an epiphanic episode early in the career, the ramifications of which were worked out in detail over the following years. For example, Albert Einstein was struck as a young child by being given a compass, and realising that some unseen force in space was making it move. An example of a flash of holistic understanding in a prepared mind was Charles Darwin's "hunch" (about natural selection) during The Voyage of the Beagle.

Among hackers in the proper sense of the word, the word "zen" is used as a verb in the same sense as epiphany, to mean acquiring a sudden comprehension” ( ).

The epiphany I had was that one can experience an epiphany and still be wrong. We may think we have found the missing puzzle piece and feel exuberance, and still have the wrong piece. The feeling does not accompany what is actually correct, but does accompany the belief that the idea is correct because it seems to have a lot of explanatory power.

This “brightness and clarity of thought” is related to what psychologist call “insight learning”. Insight learning is the grasp of the solution to a problem without the intervening series of the trial and error steps that are associated with most types of learning (e.g., a monkey housed behind the bars of a cage who, without proceeding through countless hours of futile attempts with one stick or the other, fits two sticks together to retrieve a banana outside the distance measured by either stick alone). Having a lot of experience with many of different things, practice finding novel connections between ideas, familiarity with problem solving, and the ability to think symbolically increase the likelihood of insight learning.


Psychologists are also studying the emotion of awe. "Awe is a distinct emotion, and specifically an aesthetic emotion (Loew, 1997). And though it might seem that awe is more likely the result of positive stimuli such as a sunrise at sea, rather than the result of negative stimuli such as a tsunami wave, awe does in fact occur in the face of both pleasant and ominous stimuli. Dangerous stimuli such as volcanic eruptions, battles, or extreme electrical storms can produce awe. However, the experience of awe cannot occur if the percipient is in actual danger. A direct threat of harm produces an emotional response of fear, overriding awe. To experience awe rather than dread in the face of forbidding stimuli, one needs to be an observer at safe remove."

And also, "In this paper we present a prototype approach to awe. We suggest that two appraisals are central and are present in all clear cases of awe: perceived vastness, and a need for accommodation, defined as an inability to assimilate an experience into current mental structures. Five additional appraisals account for variation in the hedonic tone of awe experiences: threat, beauty, exceptional ability, virtue, and the supernatural. We derive this perspective from a review of what has been written about awe in religion, philosophy, sociology, and psychology, and then we apply this perspective to an analysis of awe and related states such as admiration, elevation, and the epiphanic experience."

Here is a link about awe:

Other spiritual experiences

There are a number of other experiences that I am be doing a similar write up of as I have time. They include the following:
Out-of-body experiences
Appreciation of beauty
Feeling loved
Feeling oneness and connected
Being filled to overflowing
Sense of depth and "realness"
Peace of mind
Serenity and calmness

In short, I believe that most these experiences evolved to give our ancestors an evolutionary advantage by producing an affinity for things that were good for them and motivating them to do things that will increase the likelihood of the survival and reproduction of their genes. Some of the experiences such as out of body experiences I think are produced as a byproduct of how our brains work to produce our usual sense of self.

More to come, but we can start discussing these things now.

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