Transcendent Experiences Inspire New Stories
and what this means for science
I explore science, spirituality, consciousness, the transpersonal, and more weird stuff in my book: Order here, or sold wherever books are sold.
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Woman. Life. Freedom.
Three weeks ago, a collaborator and I organized a Neuroscience & Spirituality Social at the biggest annual neuroscience conference (I wrote about it in my previous newsletter). I didn’t expect anybody to show up, but 50+ scientists (our updated headcount) showed up, eager to talk about these topics and share their own experiences.
I was blown away. But, I have been even more blown away by what followed. Over the last few weeks, many scientists and physicians who are interested in spirituality and/or anomalous phenomena have reached out to connect with us. Many of them have told me that they are excited to speak with me because they don’t have anybody else to discuss these topics with. As a result, emails are flying back and forth between us, in which we exchange thoughts, papers, books, and other media. You know how people used to write long, pensive letters before email was invented? Kind of feels like that. And I just LOVE it.
As I am fielding these inquiries and communications, my collaborator and I are discussing how we can continue to engage with all these interested scientists and physicians. We have a number of ideas that we are throwing around, but you’ll have to stay tuned to find out what we land on.
What has been really interesting, though, is getting to see scientists eager to interpret events/experiences that they consider either spiritual, self-transcendent, or anomalous, whether the events/experiences are personal or not. It serves as a reminder of what humans fundamentally are at their core: interpreters, storytellers, believers — and I don’t mean that in a condescending way! I mean it in a reverent way.
So, how do you make sense of something that should be impossible according to your worldview? I think if the event is insignificant enough, most people discard it.
“Does this fit my mental model of reality? Nope. Delete.”
But if the experience is powerful and compelling enough — such as those from psychedelic states or other altered states — they can actually transform your beliefs. I’ve found this in the people I’ve been speaking with (as well as in my own story). Beliefs inform our stories, and sometimes you need a new story that melds better with your experience of the world.
Using a recently published paper, I’m going to muse on how experiences that defy conventional explanations can upend the stories we tell ourselves about our reality and what this means for science.
Modern-day science is based on physicalism, the philosophy/worldview that everything in the Universe is composed of physical matter. A new paper (1) found that psychedelics can increase non-physicalist beliefs. Specifically, psychedelic transpersonal (or transformative or self-transcendent) experiences can change beliefs around mind-body dualism (the idea that mind and body are two separate substances), paranormal/spiritual phenomena, and the nature of consciousness and reality (as I’ve previously written about in this newsletter). (Note: Although the study focused on psychedelics, these experiences can happen in many other contexts, such as everyday life, breathwork, meditation, etc).
These experiences might include (2, 3):
- Experiences of deep or hidden meaning
- The living presence of all things
- Telepathic communication
- Entity and spirit encounter
- Leaving one’s body
- Death and rebirth
These experiences are often described as authoritatively true, or “more real than real,” “unusually compelling,” and they can result in fundamental changes to the person’s conception of reality, leaving behind enduring (new or increased) non-physicalist beliefs such as reincarnation, communication with the dead, the existence of consciousness after death, and telepathy (1, 4).
But, do we see these results because prior spiritual beliefs or expectancy of belief change can shape how a person interprets a particular experience? One study looked at this question by recruiting professors of philosophy – a group less likely to subscribe to spiritual frameworks. Although they didn’t find a correlation between psychedelic use* and non-physicalist beliefs, they did find that having had a transformative or self-transcendent experience did (5). (*the study only did a cursory investigation into psychedelic use)
In other words, people who have had self-transcendent or transformative experiences are more likely to believe there is more to reality than just physical matter.
The literature also shows that there are impressive and not-easy-to-dismiss similarities in the types of non-physicalist beliefs that psychedelics can bring on and the beliefs of many cultures around the world. Let me clarify. Many cultures across the globe and the history of humanity have had belief systems that encompassed more than physical matter, such as believing in the afterlife (6), the existence of spirits and deities (7), and that mind is something non-physical (8, 9). Western culture dismisses these belief systems as primitive rationalizations that have been passed down from culture to culture. But, research shows that these non-physicalist beliefs can spontaneously emerge after transformative and transcendent experiences in Westerners. So, it is likely that these belief changes are the result of factors other than cultural context or expectancy.
Many people, including scientists, turn to texts on spirituality, the history of world cultures, and various philosophies in an effort to make sense of their experiences because physicalism can’t (yet) provide a reasonable story. Then, they are usually shocked to discover eerily similar accounts from different experiences that come from other eras and cultures.
Scientists, like all other humans, are always looking for the story. When we analyze our data and experiments, the quest is to find the story thread that makes the most sense. When we encounter something new, we immediately get to work trying to find the story that explains how it all fits together. So, when it comes to unusual, transpersonal, and self-transcendent experiences, we have to ask: Are these experiences hard-coded into our DNA? But why? How do they happen? Why do they happen? Do they only happen to some people? Why those people and not others? What do these experiences tell us about ourselves, our evolution, and our reality?
There is a desire to find a story that ties it all together with the rest of our scientific findings. To borrow explanations from neuroscience or evolutionary biology. To tie a life’s work to the most profound and meaningful experience of one’s life.
Unfortunately, this is difficult to do because unusual phenomena are taboo and non-physicalist theories are currently unwelcome in mainstream science. Instead of allowing open inquiry with colleagues, it’s all hushed. Brushed under the rug. Sequestered for personal time, as a hobby.
This inevitably leads to private, enthusiastic email exchanges being one of the only avenues of expression, where scientific imagination can truly run wild in the creative playground of the Universe. Apparently, this is where the earnest, unfiltered search for new stories is happening.
I could go on and on about how much of a shame this is, especially since scientists are so well-equipped with analytical training to tackle the outlying data points of our reality.
But instead, I’ll leave you with this interview of Garry Nolan, PhD (Stanford) and Avi Loeb, PhD (Harvard) that expresses the true spirit of scientific inquiry: curiosity — and another desirous quality in the pursuit of knowledge: unbridled creativity that rebels against the established way of thinking.
*** Fun thought experiment: what would science look like if every scientist had a transformative, transpersonal experience? ***