What do mystics experience?

For thousands of years, there have been mystics who describe an experience of a transcendent reality that most humans beings do not have.  In different cultures and religions, this experience takes various forms, but they all seem to revolve around a loss of a sense of self accompanied by a sense of unity, sometimes with “God,” sometimes with the universe, sometimes even with a vast potential of “nothingness.”

Today there is a newly developing field of study called neurotheology which is trying to understand these mystical experiences more fully.  Using magnetic resonance imaging or MRI scans, some scientists are trying to identify which part of the brain is activated when a meditating person achieves such a state of mysticism.

This is a relatively new field with many fascinating questions yet to be explored.  But whether it is a Buddhist monk or Carmelite nun, the brains of mystics seem to be stimulated in the same way during meditations that lead to what are generally called transcendent experiences.  It is a non-analytical state in which a person’s sense of time and space are suspended for a period of time.

An interesting parallel finding suggests that non-believers by and large have brains in which the analytical centers are most active.  Richard Dawkins, the avowedly atheist biologist from Oxford University,  agreed to a test in which that part of his brain activated during mystical experiences was artificially stimulated.  He said he felt as if someone else was present, but did not experience “god,” or any other transcendent reality.

Some people believe that this research, if it holds up under the pressure of further study, demonstrates that “God” is nothing more than brain waves.  But scientific method does not support this conclusion.  Everything we experience is mediated by the activity of the brain.  Some of our experiences we believe have no objective reality, like our dreams or hallucinations caused by drugs or psychosis.  Other things we experience during our waking hours we believe have an objective reality independent of whether we sense them or not.  Mostly, we take it for granted that the voices we hear, the food we taste, the objects our eyes perceive are real.

Sometimes, though, we have experiences we’re not sure about.  “Did you hear that sound?”  “Did we go there last year together?”  “Did I dream that or did it really happen?” are the kind of question most of us have asked at least once in our lives.  We ask others if their experience matches ours.

The scientific method uses this same method to check on the validity of scientific findings.  If a finding or piece of evidence can’t be replicated by other scientists, the scientific community assumes that there may have been a mistake or even a deliberate lie, but that in any case, the evidence cannot be relied on.

That is why science cannot study those things which cannot be observed by more than a single individual.  There are individuals, for instance, who sincerely believe that they were kidnapped by aliens and then released.  The problem is that no one else can replicate an experience like this.  The “Loch Ness monster,” which some people believe they have seen remains unproven for the same reason.  Despite great efforts to find it, other people cannot find the monster or anything that might resemble it.  We just don’t know.

And so it is with mystical experiences.  It may be that the human brain is capable of experiencing some transcendent reality such as “god.”  The scientific method simply cannot know whether there is an objective reality corresponding to the mystic’s experience.  It is not something which science can prove either way.  We can see a parallel between reports of apparently mystical experiences and what is happening in the brain.  What we can’t know is whether the apparent object of this experience has an objective reality outside the person’s consciousness.  Is it comparable to a hallucination or a dream?  Or is it more like the rare experience of an astronaut looking down at the very real planet earth orbiting miles below?




About Terry Sissons

Terry Sissons is the author of The Big Bang to Now: All of Time in Six Chunks, and this blog is a dialogue about the universe and what’s happened in the last 13 billions years.
This entry was posted in beyond earth, how do we know that?, Questions beyond Science, science and religion, something new about something old, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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