Experimental Study of Mystical States



Experimental Study of Mystical States

...First and foremost, we emphasize again, and again as in the case of genius, the vital importance of focusing more future research on the real thing—here, genuinely deep meditative and mystical states and persons who experience these—rather than on conveniently available but inadequate surrogates. Furthermore, although it would now be technically possible and certainly worthwhile to carry out more comprehensive and penetrating field studies of the Das and Gastaut sort, it should not really be necessary to travel to places such as India or Japan to find suitable subjects. One longterm consequence of the culture wars of the 1960s is the creation throughout the Western world of sizeable cadres of individuals seriously engaged with meditation and other transformative practices, at least some of whom would surely be willing to participate in meaningful scientific research conducted by sympathetic investigators.

Second, collection of new data should be far the highest priority until we really know something about what is going on in these unusual individuals and states. Most of the theorizing that we have seen so far is very premature, and implicitly presupposes that information derived from neurophysiological and neuropsychological investigations of “ordinary” cognitive functions can be extrapolated freely and without limit to “extraordinary” ones. This approach fails to take into consideration recent neuroscientific research revealing a previously unrecognized degree of plasticity even in the adult nervous system. The human brain is heavily weighted toward top-down anatomical connectivity and shows remarkable functional adaptability at all time scales, from milliseconds upward, with numerous mechanisms available to make some of these functional changes—for good or ill—persistent or even permanent (Gilbert, 1998; Kohn & Whitsel, 2002; Merzenich, Recanzone, Jenkins, Allard, & Rudo, 1988; Taub, Uswatte, & Elbert, 2002; see also Chapter 1). Such effects seem a priori likely to be reflected in the anatomical structure and functional organization of the brains of longterm practitioners of meditation and other transformative disciplines (as well as in persons who have undergone powerful mystical-type experiences), and indeed some evidence of topographically specific anatomical changes in meditators has recently appeared (Lazar et al., 2005). We should study these anatomical and functional arrangements directly, and with minimal presuppositions regarding their possible form.

This need for better empirical grounding also bears strongly upon our final suggestion, which is this: The more we can learn about the nature of essential physiological changes associated with deep meditative and mystical states, the better will be our chances of learning how to encourage or reproduce these states under controlled experimental conditions, which in turn will permit us to study both the states themselves and associated supernormal phenomena in greater detail. What is to be avoided here is the premature closing of scientific accounts that gave rise in the 1970s to the first generation of EEG biofeedback devices...

Mrs. Piper & the Society for Psychical Research, by Michael Sage
During the trance the sensibility of Mrs Piper's organism to exterior excitation is much blunted. If her arm is pricked, even severely, it is withdrawn but slowly; if a bottle of ammonia is put to her nostrils, and care is taken that it is inhaled, her head does not betray sensation by the least movement. One day, if I am not mistaken, Dr Hodgson put a lighted match to her arm, and asked Phinuit if he felt it.[7]​


"physical experiments which certain investigators made during the season of 1909, one of which made,-as I was afterwards told when I complained of the results-to establish the degree of anesthesia present in the trance state, resulted in a badly blistered and swollen tongue which caused Mrs. Piper considerable pain and inconvenience for several days ; while yet another left on the palm of the right hand a series of small very red marks, something like pin pricks, in the form of a circle. This last test tesulted in numbness and partial paralysis of the right arm for some time afterward."

The Life and Work
Mrs Piper

Among other experiments, Prof. James reported
that during trance he had found Mrs. Piper's lips and
tongue insensible to pain, and Dr. Hodgson later
confirmed this statement by placing a spoonful of
last in Mrs. Piper's mouth no notice whatever being
taken of the proceedure. Hodgson, also, applied
strong ammonia to the nostrils taking "especial
pains to see that the ammonia was actually inhaled"

without, however, eliciting any signs of discomfort.
Experiments in pinching "sometimes rather severely"
were also tried
, the effect of which was to make
the affected parts " feel like a stick." And once,
when Dr. Hodgson suddenly placed a lighted
match against the forearm
, in reply to his question
if pain was felt, he was told " No, felt cold."
But the most drastic experiment ever tried in
those early days was when Prof. James, who was
a fully qualified physician as well as psychologist,
during a sitting at which Mrs. James was present,
made a small incision in Mrs. Piper's left wrist.
During the trance state no notice was taken of
this action and the wound did not bleed ; but
immediately upon awaking the wound bled freely,
and Mrs. Piper bears the slight scar the incision
left on her wrist, to-day.
In England, a few similar experiments were
tried. Prof. Lodge pushed a needle suddenly into
Mrs. Piper's hand ; and at another time Prof.
Richet inserted a feather up her nostril.
But in
neither case was any notice taken of the act
or any discomfort felt.
To anyone who knows Mrs. Piper well in everyday
life, and realises her extreme sensibility to pain,
these experiments afford food for thought. In
normal .life Mrs. Piper is a true "Sensitive" in
all ways. An almost imperceptible bruise will
cause the skin to remain discoloured for days ;
while an inconsequential
Unfortunately, the same cannot be
said of those physical experiments which certain
investigators made during the season of 1909,
one of which made,-as I was afterwards told
when I complained of the results-to establish
the degree of anesthesia present in the trance
state, resulted in a badly blistered and swollen
tongue which caused Mrs. Piper considerable
pain and inconvenience for several days
; while
yet another left on the palm of the right hand
a series of small very red marks, something like
pin pricks, in the form of a circle. This last test
tesulted in numbness and partial paralysis of the
right arm for some time afterward.

http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Trance.aspx (html)
http://www.eso-garden.com/specials/encyclopedia_of_occultism_and_parapsychology_2.pdf (pdf)
About 1846 the limbs of Mary Jane, servant girl of a Dr. Larkin of Wrentham, Massachusetts, were, under the spirit influence of a rough sailor, thrown out of joint in several directions in a moment and without pain. Larkin was often obliged to call in the aid of his fellow doctors and two or three strong assistants to replace them. On one occasion the girl's knees and wrists were thrown out of joint twice in a single day. These painful feats were always accompanied by loud laughter and hoarse, profane jokes.
There is quite a bit more at the above link. Sources are listed at the end of the article.
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This is Your Brain on God
Christine Farrenkopf
The "peak" of meditation is clearly a subjective state, with each individual attaining it in different manners and having different time requirements. However, the sensation and meaning behind this moment is consistent among all who reach it. At the peak, the subjects indicate that they lose their sense of individual existence and feel inextricably bound with the universe. "There [are] no discrete objects or beings, no sense of space or the passage of time, no line between the self and the rest of the universe" (Newberg 119).


The subjects then meditated. When they reached the peak, they pulled on a string attached at one end to their finger and at the other to Dr. Newberg.2 This was the cue for Newberg to inject the radioactive tracer into the IV connected to the subject. Because the tracer almost instantly "locks" onto parts of the brain to indicate their activity levels, the SPECT gives a picture of the brain essentially at that peak moment (Newberg 3). The results revealed a marked decrease in the activity of the posterior, superior parietal lobe and a marked increase in the activity of the prefrontal cortex, predominantly on the right side of the brain (Newberg 6). Such changes in activity levels demonstrated that something was going on in the brain in terms of spiritual experience. The next step was to look at what these particular parts of the brain do. Studies of damage suffered to a region of the brain have enabled us to draw conclusions about its role by observing loss of function.

It has been concluded that the posterior, superior parietal lobe is involved in both the creation of a three-dimensional sense of self and an individual's ability to navigate through physical space (Journal 216). The region of the lobe in the left hemisphere of the brain allows for a person to conceive of the physical boundaries of his body (Newberg 28). It responds to proprioceptive stimuli, most importantly the movement of limbs. The region of the lobe in the right hemisphere creates the perception of the matrix through which we move.​
"Overall, this study provides the first strong evidence that persistent non-symbolic experience does not represent higher levels of ego development."



Ego Development Stage Does Not Predict Persistent
Non-Symbolic Experience
Jeffery A. Martin
A Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty of the California Institute of Integral
Studies in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of
Doctor of Philosophy in Transformative Studies
California Institute of Integral Studies
San Francisco, CA
Non-symbolic experiences have been reported for millennia and generally
attributed to spiritual and religious contexts, although atheists and agnostics also
report them. Popular terms for them include: nondual awareness, enlightenment,
mystical experiences, peak experiences, transcendental experience, the peace that
passeth understanding, unity consciousness, union with God, and so forth. Most
are temporary, but some individuals report a persistent form of them. Some
scholars have argued that these experiences represent advanced stages of human
development and placed them atop existing levels in various domains of
developmental psychology such as cognitive or ego development. There is little
evidence for this view. Moreover, several problems with it are pointed out in the
present work.

The primary goal of this study is to test the above taxonomy by comparing
ego development and Mysticism Scale measurements from a diverse population
of individuals who report persistent non-symbolic experience. This investigation
first hypothesized that individuals who report persistent non-symbolic experience
would exhibit a range of psychological developmental levels, specifically tested
here as a composite, ego development, using the Washington University Sentence
Completion Test (WUSCT). Second, it hypothesized that individuals who report
persistent non-symbolic experience would score higher on Hood's Mysticism
Scale than those who do not report such experiences. Third, it hypothesized the
absence of a simple or linear relationship between scores on the WUSCT and
Mysticism Scale for those who report non-symbolic experience.

These hypotheses were examined in 36 adults (F=9, M=27) reporting
persistent non-symbolic experience. The first hypothesis was supported: ego
development stages ranged from 5 (Loevinger and Cook-Greuter's "Self Aware"
stage) to 10 (Cook-Greuter's "Unitive" stage). The second hypothesis was also
supported: average and median Mysticism Scale scores notably exceeded those
reported in studies of other populations.
The third hypothesis could not be
adequately tested because the Mysticism Scale score distribution was strongly
skewed upwards, making most statistical comparisons unworkable. Overall, this
study provides the first strong evidence that persistent non-symbolic experience
does not represent higher levels of ego development.

This video by Dr Martin discusses the question further.

The playlist containing that video has interesting background on PNSE
Publications relating to Dr Martin's research
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"So far in our sample the average amount of time that somebody is impaired so this is not just how long this experiences last but how long they are to the point of interfering with daily functioning. The average amount of time was 3.4 years."

An interview with Willoughby Britton in which Willoughby describes some of the negative experiences produced by meditation
There tends to be an, I would say, increased sampling rate of reality. So your ability to notice things has increased.

And that might be pretty fun on retreat but when people get off retreat they still have so much information coming into their systems that it can feel very overwhelming, like stimulus overload. And along those same lines a lot of increase in sensory clarity and sensory threshold. So meaning that you can hear much softer sounds which also means that louder sounds sound louder and you might even feel them in a different sense.

Like a truck might feel like it’s actually driving through your whole body rather than just hearing it and that goes with every sound. So that’s the sort of cognitive effect. They tend to be very just overwhelming and disorienting. I would say one of the most, besides sort of sensory overload, one of the most common central features–it’s not everyone but its pretty close, which is a change in the way people experience their sense of self.

And this can be an attenuation in self or it can be a complete dropping away. And even though you can read about this and think that this might be the goal of the contemplative path. For a lot of people it’s very very scary when that happens. And so when I mean dropping the sense of self, it can be a lack of a feeling like there’s anybody controlling. So one word are coming out of the mouth like who would be speaking them. When you move your arms and legs and walk it’s not really sure who decided that. When somebody ask you a question there’s almost a panic feeling because you don’t know who’s going to answer the question. There’s a sort of temporal disintegration. So the sense of time can fall apart, along with that your sense of a narrative self over time. Part of the sense of self is about being able to have continuity over time. And if you just don’t have that kind of sense of past and future and you only have a sense of now, your sense of self just by not having a past and a future and being able to imagine that can be sort of truncated and attenuated.

And then temporal disintegration can kind of go even further beyond that where people almost like they’re waking up in a new reality every several minutes. And they don’t really have any way of describing the reality that came before that and it can be very disorienting. You can wake up and really have to study your environment to figure out who you’re talking to and what the conversation is about. You can learn to get good at that, but it’s pretty disorienting for a while. And then I don’t know if this go in order but I think that the most common symptom, it’s hard to say but again these are all really common, but one of the most common symptoms is fear. And the lost of the sense of self I think is very tied in with this fear. And people can have really phenomenal levels of fear. I mean really just existential primal fear.

And what’s interesting about this fear and what I think seems to differentiate it from a lot of other kinds of fears is that it doesn’t seem to have any reference point. It just comes out of nowhere. It can be very debilitating. And then along with fear spectrum you also anxiety and agitation and panic and paranoia. Those are pretty common. Then there’s a sort of affective dimension. Affective is emotional. And the affective dimension seems to go in both directions. There can be a massive lability.

Your emotions can get really high in both direction both manic manifestations, euphoria, sometimes grandiosity and also the worst depression, meaninglessness, nihilism the other end of things can also happen. In addition to that, people can also just lose all affect all together. They don’t feel anything. Things become numb. So it’s a pretty wide range of changes. But I don’t think anyone has gone through, anyone that we’ve interviewed hasn’t had some kind change in their emotional life.

And usually it’s sort of an eruption of emotional material. So that comes to the next level which is a de-repression of the psychological material. Very often it can be traumatic material but it can also just be whatever can be traumatic in our lives. It doesn’t necessarily have to be memories of death or abuse or something that would sort of classify as classic trauma. It can just be whatever our particular psychological knots are. They seemed to come up with practice in a way that doesn’t necessarily seem to be contained to the cushion. It’s almost like you tear something open and then it’s just open. That’s the sort of affective dimension. And then the last dimension is physiological. So there seems to be a lot of physiological changes which are really surprising to a lot of people.

So things like general musculoskeletal body pain, headaches, and very strange sensations. Because we told people not to use the word energy so we got a lot of metaphors. So things like being plugged into a wall, like having a thousand volts running through you. There are a lot of electricity type metaphors. And then finally we gave up because people just kept using the word energy. So it’s not really a scientific word but it seems to measure something so some kind of movement sensation in the body. Vibrations a lot of different kinds of vibration. Changes in temperature. People are having really hot flashes and burning sensations. And then the one that I am really fascinated by because everything that we’ve been talking about up until this point has been subjective, like you can’t really see it on somebody. But the last category is involuntary movements. They look like convulsions. People twitch. They report feeling like a lightning bolt going through them but you can actually see it. This is something that you could actually take a video of. Their arms flap. Grimacing; different kinds of facial ticks and contortions. That’s kind of the laundry list. Oh yeah, I forgot one whole category, which is perceptional changes. And perceptional changes along with this faster sampling rate there also seems to be I don’t know if I would call them hallucinations but experiences in every sensory modality especially visual lights.

So that would be a perceptional change. So the lights again are particularly interesting to me because they tend to differentiate a spiritual experience from a potentially psychiatric situation. But seeing pinpoints of light, people call them Christmas lights, they might be different colors or lightning of the visual field in general. I should say that all of these symptoms or sorry, experiences, these are not just things that are happening on the cushion during meditation. These are things that are happening off the cushion which is where this starts to become difficult. They’re fine when they’re on the cushion. But you need to go to work and these are happening. People are having involuntary movements at their desk at work and you know eruption of emotions that’s where it becomes difficult is when it comes into your daily life. And the other thing that was very surprising to me was the duration of symptoms.

So I asked people how long did this last and how did this affect your life to a point where it was really difficult for you to work or take care of children. So we call that clinical impairment. So far in our sample the average amount of time that somebody is impaired so this is not just how long this experiences last but how long they are to the point of interfering with daily functioning. The average amount of time was 3.4 years. It’s actually quite a long time and there’s a huge range in that duration. And so sort of the next wave of research is trying to figure out what determines that duration. So people seemed to go through these experiences fairly quickly like under a year and other people can last a decade. So we’re trying to figure out what are some of the factors that might predict that.
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