Brain-based technologies of spiritual enhancement can induce mystical experiences in many people on demand. What does this mean for spirituality today?
- Spiritual or mystical experiences have particular "neural signatures."
- Technology like transcranial stimulation can lead people toward these experiences.
- The technology appears safe and offers "authentic" experiences, but there are clear dangers.
What do you get when you mix transcendental meditation with EEG-guided neurofeedback? What does ultrasound brain stimulation have to teach us about equanimity? Can a virtual reality technodelic hold therapeutic potential on par with psychedelic medicines?
These are the types of questions emerging within a new field of technological research that is creating brain-based technologies for spiritual enhancement. An eclectic group of innovative designers and scientists are using their education and skills to serve the good of humanity rather than the profit margin. These are the consciousness hackers, technodelic psychonauts, and enlightenment engineers who are exploring the possibility of "technoboosts" that can contribute to holistic human wellness and spiritual flourishing. They recognize that the path toward spiritual insight can be incredibly difficult, with one obstacle after another, and always uphill. Who has time for a fifty-day meditation retreat, let alone a two-year isolated meditation experience?!
Spirituality meets technology
Several commercial products already claim to help spiritual seekers achieve spiritually meaningful experiences with a lot less frustration, including the Muse brain-sensing headband, which uses neurofeedback to guide your brain into meditative states, and the Zendo e-meditation headset, which enhances meditation with electrical brain stimulation. In our new book, Spirit Tech: The Brave New World of Consciousness Hacking and Enlightenment Engineering, we cover these and many other exciting innovations.
"Fool's gold!" some say. But experiences enhanced by spirit tech appear to be every bit as authentic and transformative as spontaneously occurring intense spiritual experiences or hard-won mystical meditation states.
The key insight behind spirit tech is the way the human brain works. There isn't a single "god spot" in the brain, and there isn't even circuitry dedicated to spirituality or mysticism. No surprise there; after all, spiritual experiences, including intense mystical experiences, are incredibly diverse in the way they feel to people, and it is unlikely a single region or circuit within the brain could generate such diversity.
But there are patterns in the variation, recurring types of mystical experience. For instance, there's the "unitive" experience where you feel like your body boundaries dissolve and you merge into the surrounding environment. There's the "insight" experience where you become vividly aware of the pulsing ultimate reality just beneath the surface of everyday convention and appearance. There's the "compassion" experience where you feel bonded to every living being, especially those closest to you and partners in a ritual process. There's the "demonic" experience in which you encounter unspeakable evil and desperately call on whatever powers you can to overcome it with beauty, truth, and goodness.
Those types of mystical experience, and others, have neural signatures. Today's technology can read those signatures using brain imaging techniques. Then we can lead people toward such states, either with transcranial stimulation technologies or with neural feedback that encourages a desired mystical state without any external stimulation.
Yep. Consider neural feedback-guided meditation training. A meditation guide feeds the brain signature of your desired mystical state into a machine and uses a few EEG sensors on your scalp to feed your current brain state into the same machine. The machine compares the two states and supplies feedback to help you get from where you are to where you want to be. Maybe you stare at a screen and aim to align two circles, for instance. You are still meditating, but you're no longer lost in the forest of the mind.
Expert meditators, who have special brains with built-in auto-feedback capabilities, have an advantage over the rest of us. Spirit tech democratizes meditation. It speeds up the learning process, decreases frustration, and brings us more quickly to prized states of mind and associated behavioral changes.
Spirituality in the brain
Scientists found out about neural signatures for mystical experiences partly by imaging the brains of expert meditators in mystical states and partly by observing the effects of selective brain damage. For example, Parkinson's disease, though mostly known as a neurodegenerative process affecting motor skills, also makes connecting to spirituality more difficult, especially when the Parkinsonian shakes start on the left side of the body. That means that the damage due to the disease process — in this case, the dopamine circuitry in the right medial-frontal cortex — is implicated in producing some kinds of spiritual experiences. That's a giant hint about how to produce such experiences. Scientists have tried to affect those parts of the brain with specially aligned and pulsed magnetic fields — a weak version of the repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation used in hospitals to treat intractable depression — and seem to have produced powerful spiritual experiences in healthy people.
The Neuroscience of Enlightenment, with Dr. Andrew Newberg | Big Think www.youtube.com
Other sources of insight into brain function come from stroke or accident, both of which can selectively damage parts of the brain. Lost function tells us something about the roles brain regions play in producing thoughts, emotions, and behavior. Strokes and diseases affecting motivation often involve damage to the basal ganglia, producing a situation in which the patient has a feeling of no self, with no pleasure and no drive to do anything. Well, some meditation traditions aim for no-self equanimity that seems a bit like that, without the deadly side effects, of course. Could there be a safe way to inhibit or disrupt normal activity in the basal ganglia and see what happens? That's a deep structure, too deep for electric or magnetic fields to penetrate selectively. But ultrasound can reach deep into the brain. Anyone want to try a greatly weakened version of a technology similar to the one used to blast kidney stones?!
Famous meditation teacher Shinzen Young volunteered. He was patient #1 for neuroscientist Jay Sanguinetti. In what was an amazingly trusting relationship, they tried transcranial focused ultrasound (tFUS), targeting the parts of the brain they thought were critical to the production of a sense of self. Shinzen reported some of the most powerful mystical states in his entire meditation career. And so did a whole bunch of veteran meditators who subsequently tried the tech.
Spiritual experiences on demand
There are lots more of these spiritually potent technologies, including high-tech ways to enhance spiritual togetherness and virtual-reality experiences that create something like a psychedelic experience without any drugs. They are arriving thick and fast, and the landscape can feel confusing. So, let's close by considering two common concerns.
Are tech-assisted spiritual experiences authentic? Judging from the reports of people who have experienced both tech-assisted and no-tech spiritual experiences, we think the answer is usually yes. They are the real deal, potentially. But they create opportunities for exploitation by unscrupulous companies who would take advantage of spiritual questers for a quick buck. Our advice: make sure you know who is making these products and why.
Are tech-assisted spiritual experiences safe? So far, the answer seems to be yes, but there are dangers. Just as intense tech-free meditation experiences can skittle the psychic stability of some people and bring on psychosis, so tech-assisted spiritual experiences might be unhealthy for some people. Similarly, any technology can be abused and used to harm people. So, if you want to go this way, be a smart consumer, just as you study the safety features of a car before committing to buy.
Mystical experiences on demand? Apparently, yes. But while you're worrying about authenticity and safety, don't forget to pause and ponder the possibilities of setting loose in the world the kinds of experience that routinely change priorities and values in the direction of the good, the true, and the beautiful.
Wesley J. Wildman is a professor in the School of Theology and the Faculty of Computing and Data Sciences at Boston University. Kate J. Stockly is a lecturer at Boston University and a researcher at the Center for Mind and Culture. They are the authors of Spirit Tech: The Brave New World of Consciousness Hacking and Enlightenment Engineering (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2021).
The mummy was first thought to be a male priest. But a recent radiological analysis revealed a surprising anomaly.
- The woman was likely from a noble background, buried around 100 BC in the royal tombs of Thebes, Upper Egypt.
- The researchers said it's curious that she was buried with the fetus inside her, considering organs were typically removed and embalmed before burial.
- The peculiar burial may suggest that ancient Egyptians believed unborn babies possessed spirits.
Since the 1920s, researchers in Poland were under the impression that an ancient Egyptian mummy they were housing was a male priest named Hor-Djehuty. But a recent radiological analysis revealed an anomaly near the pelvis of the entombed: a tiny foot.
The discovery, reported by researchers with the Warsaw Mummy Project, marks the first-known case of a pregnant mummy. The woman was likely buried around 100 BC in the royal tombs of Thebes, Upper Egypt, according to a study published in the Journal of Archaeological Sciences.
"She came from the elite of Theban community and was carefully mummified, wrapped in fabrics, and equipped with a rich set of amulets," the study states. "Closer examination has revealed that the woman died between 20 and 30 years of age together with the fetus in age between the 26th and 30th week of the pregnancy."
The Warsaw Mummy Project has named the entombed "the mysterious lady of the National Museum in Warsaw," where she is housed.
It's not the first time this mummy has puzzled researchers. When it was donated to the University of Warsaw in 1826, the staff thought it was female, possibly because of the elaborate decorations on its sarcophagus. But after translating an Egyptian text on the sarcophagus, it seemed the mummy was Hor-Djehuty:
"Scribe, priest of Horus-Thoth worshiped as a visiting deity in the Mount of Djeme, royal governor of the town of Petmiten, Hor-Djehuty, justified by voice, son of Padiamonemipet and lady of a house Tanetmin," the translation read.
But computer tomography conducted in 2016 suggested the mummy might be female, revealing a delicate bone structure, long hair, and mummified breasts.
How did a pregnant mummy end up in the sarcophagus meant for a male priest? The researchers weren't quite sure. It could have been a mistake. Or it's possible that grave robbers or antiquities dealers swapped the mummies to increase its resale value, a common practice in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In any case, the main mystery centers on the fetus.
"This whole discovery brought our attention to the question of why it was not removed," Wojtek Ejsmond, a co-founder of the Warsaw Mummy Project, told CNN. "We don't know why it was left there. Maybe there was a religious reason. Maybe they thought the unborn child didn't have a soul or that it would be safer in the next world. Or maybe it was because it was very difficult to remove a child at that stage from the womb without causing serious damage."
That the fetus wasn't extracted is especially curious considering that several of the woman's organs seem to have been removed, embalmed, and reinserted into the body, per the common mummification practices of Ancient Egypt. Could it be that the Egyptians believed the unborn baby had a soul?
It's unclear. The Egyptians had strong and complex beliefs about the afterlife. While these beliefs changed over the millennia, Egyptians generally believed that the physical body — called khet — needed to be preserved in order for the spirit (and its various parts) to journey into the underworld and, perhaps, beyond.
Given this belief system, it's understandable why the Egyptians developed such elaborate funeral and mummification rites, which often took 70 days. Of course, this process was time-consuming and expensive, usually reserved for those of royal or noble background. Common people were typically buried in the desert, wrapped in cloth and surrounded by a handful of everyday objects.
The researchers at the Warsaw Mummy Project hope their discovery will shed light on how the Egyptians conceptualized the souls of unborn children and that further interdisciplinary research can establish a cause of death for the mysterious lady of the National Museum in Warsaw.
Spirituality can be an uncomfortable word for atheists. But does it deserve the antagonism that it gets?
- While the anti-scientific bias of religious fundamentalism requires condemnation, if we take a broader view, does the human inclination towards spiritual practice still require the same antagonism? The answer, I think, is a definitive "No."
- Rather than ontological claims about what exists in the universe, the terms spiritual and sacred can describe the character of an experience. Instead of a "thing" they can refer to an attitude or an approach.
- One can be entirely faithful to the path of inquiry and honesty that is science while making it one aspect of a broader practice embracing the totality of your experience as a human being in this more-than-human world.
The tension between science and religion is old news to us moderns. Historical events like the Catholic Church's trial of Galileo or the Scopes Monkey Trial over teaching Darwin in schools, seem to imply that religion and science are incompatible. More recently, writers like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and other 'New Atheists' have been vigorous in their condemnation of the anti-scientific bias of religious fundamentalism. But if we take a broader view beyond these fundamentalisms, if we ask about the human inclination towards spiritual practice in general, do we still have to find the same antagonism? The answer, I think, is a definitive "No." And that answer is important as we consider the totality of what it means to be human.
First, it's important to distinguish between religion and what I'll call spiritual practice. In his excellent book "Sapiens," Yuval Noah Harari defines religion as "a system of human norms and values that is founded in the belief in a superhuman order." There are two parts of this definition that are important for our discussion. First is the "system of human norms." That phrase points to a lot of stuff, but it also means politics. There is an aspect of organized religion that has always been about establishing and enforcing social norms: Who is an authority; who justifies who is in charge; who marries whom; who tells you how to behave. This aspect of religion is about power within social hierarchies.
The second part of Harari's definition refers to a "superhuman order." Note that he does not say a "supernatural" order. Why? Because some religions like Buddhism don't pivot around the existence of an all-powerful deity. This distinction is important because it allows you to see a point many scholars of religion have made after looking at the long human history of what I'll call spiritual endeavor. From our beginnings as hunter-gathers, we have always been responding to a sense of a "superhuman order." That response has taken many different forms from beautiful paintings on cave walls to beautiful paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Even though I consider myself an atheist, experiences of a superhuman order have been with me since I was a kid.
In my first book, I looked in depth at this response, its history, and its relation to science. Even though I consider myself an atheist, experiences of a superhuman order have been with me since I was a kid. Heck, that's what science was to me—an order expressible in mathematics beyond the purely human. In fact, many of my deepest experiences of being alive had come to me through my scientific practice. Working through some line of mathematical reasoning or encountering some image of a nebula or galaxy, I'd get thrust into an overwhelming sense of the universe's presence, of its perfect unity and wholeness. At first, I saw the laws of physics as the source of that order but as I got older my focus widened.
Now, one could say that my experiences were "just awe" and nothing more. But as the great scholar of religion, Rudolph Otto noted, awe is the essential component of a spiritual experience. It is an encounter with what other scholars have called "sacredness."
So, what are we to make of these words "spiritual" and "sacred"? Some strident atheists recoil at these terms because they believe they must entail a belief in supernatural entities. This is a mistake. Both can point to something much broader. Rather than ontological claims about what exists in the universe, spiritual and sacred can describe the character of an experience. Instead of a "thing", they can refer to an attitude or an approach. This is the central point William James made in his masterwork "The Varieties of Religious Experience." To speak about sacredness is to understand that some experiences (the birth of your child, coming upon a silent forest glade, hearing a powerful symphony) evoke an order that is more than just our thoughts about that order. And to speak of "the spiritual" can call to the highest aspects of the human spirit: compassion, kindness, empathy, generosity, love.
This kind of understanding of spiritual and sacred have always been with us and they may, or may not, have anything to do with a particular religion. This is where we can draw a distinction between a spiritual practice and a religious one. In a spiritual practice, people purposely attempt to deepen their lived sense of the superhuman order they experience. It is, literally, a practice. You work on it every day, perhaps using meditation or ritual or service to others. The methods differ but the daily application and aspiration are the same.
The important point is that spiritual practice has a purpose: transformation. It is to become a person who lives in accord with that sense of experienced order, that sacredness. Such a lifelong aspiration and effort can happen within an individual religious tradition if there are domains within that tradition that truly support this kind of interior work. Unfortunately, the politics of religion can sometimes keep this from happening. As scholars Joseph Campbell, Walter Houston Clark, and others have said, church can be a "vaccination" against the real thing.
It's also possible to build such a practice outside of established religious tradition. In that case, the difficulty comes in inventing forms that can support a lifelong practice. There is something to be said for traditions or rituals that have endured for many generations and the best of these often occur within some religious traditions.
The bottom line is human beings have felt the need for spiritual practice for a long, long time. That means that even as participation in traditional religions drops, people claiming to be "spiritual but not religious" and people who embrace science continue to grow. The writer Annaka Harris and her spouse New Atheist Sam Harris are, for example, strong defenders of science. They have also both written about the importance of contemplative practice in their lives.
I have long argued that science is one way that the aspiration to know the true and the real is expressed. It is one way we express that sense of an order beyond us. But there are other ways that go beyond descriptions and explanation, and all of them make up the totality of being human. That means you can embrace science in all its power and still embed it within the larger context of human experience. All of us can be entirely faithful to the path of inquiry and honesty that is science while making it one aspect of a practice meant to embrace the fullness of your experience as a human in this more-than-human world.
There is a lot we don't know about psychedelics, but what we do know makes them extremely important.
- Having been repressed in the 1960s for their ties to the counterculture, psychedelics are currently experiencing a scientific resurgence. In this video, Michael Pollan, Sam Harris, Jason Silva and Ben Goertzel discuss the history of psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin, acknowledge key figures including Timothy Leary and Albert Hoffman, share what the experience of therapeutic tripping can entail, and explain why these substances are important to the future of mental health.
- There is a stigma surrounding psychedelic drugs that some scientists and researchers argue is undeserved. Several experiments over the past decades have shown that, when used correctly, drugs like psilocybin and LSD can have positive effects on the lives of those take them. How they work is not completely understood, but the empirical evidence shows promise in the fields of curbing depression, anxiety, obsession, and even addiction to other substances.
- "There's a tremendous amount of insight that can be plumbed using these various substances. There's also a lot of risks there, as with most valuable things," says artificial intelligence researcher Ben Goertzel. He and others believe that by making psychedelics illegal, modern governments are getting in the way of meaningful research and the development of "cultural institutions to guide people in really productive use of these substances."
Don't let a crisis be wasted. Use this moment to find meaning, purpose, and to refocus on self-care that will improve your mindset and relationships.
How have you been feeling, thinking and acting during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you implementing the right self-care so that you can be the person or leader that you want to be?
In this Big Think Live session, Deepak Chopra, M.D. and author of Metahuman, will bring his concept of "radical well-being" into the coronavirus context and discuss ways we can further our self-care and personal development—even, and especially, in this time of mass uncertainty. Watch the live stream to learn:
- The 3 major threats to well-being posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The STOP Method for dealing with stress (Stop, Take 3 deep breaths and smile, Observe your breath, Proceed with awareness and compassion). The goal is to observe your emotions without judgment and shift your mindset toward a restful, alert response rather than a reptilian, primitive one.
- The 4 As for increasing emotional intimacy and connection with others: Attention, Acceptance, Appreciation, and Affection + BONUS: making Amends.
Deepak Chopra's most recent book is the national bestseller Metahuman: Unleashing Your Infinite Potential.