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date: 24 March 2017

Scientific Approaches to Mysticism

Summary and Keywords

The title “Scientific Approaches to Mysticism” reveals half the task and belies the other half—namely, which of the sciences and whose mysticism are to be considered. Is it Capra’s tao of physics, Bohm’s holomovement of undivided wholeness, or Saver/Rabin’s limbic correlates of mystical ecstasy? Is it Freud’s psychoanalytic oneness of nursing at the breast, or Goodall’s evolutionary biology of mystical wonder? Numerous mystics have presented us with a cornucopia of mystical experiences, and many sciences have been employed to analyze mysticism. Any effort to create a singular scientific approach to an “imagined singular mysticism” is doomed to vagueness. Specifics matter, and they matter in the scientific approaches to mysticism.

A scientific study of mysticism must first clarify what mysticism means—namely, a conscious experience in which one feels that the normal subject-object boundaries manifest in waking consciousness are altered, presenting a state of unity, union, or interrelationship. This definition of mysticism is broad enough to encompass nature mysticism, theistic I–Thou mysticism, and various forms of non-dualistic mysticisms ranging from experiences of the oneness of Being to the awareness of the emptiness of becoming. Each of these broad categories of mysticism must be refined by examining the particular tradition in which it manifests. As such, the scientific study of mysticism cannot assume, for example, that all Christian mystics, proclaiming the ultimacy of a personal communion with the Trinitarian god, are uttering the same thing, nor that non-dualistic mystics from different traditions, such as Christianity and Hinduism, are saying different things.

The scientific study of mysticism must immediately confront the threat of reductionism, in which “mystical experience” is reduced to some elemental explanation such as, “it is only one’s brain.” This threat of scientific reductionism has long been elicited by the knowledge, for example, that the intake of drugs is correlated with mystical experience; more recently, this threat of reductionism has been intensified by the knowledge that we have machines that measure the neural patterns associated with individuals having mystical experiences, and we have machines that can allegedly induce mystical experiences. Stepping beyond the psychological, cognitive, and neuropsychological approaches to mysticism, the connections between mystical experience and physics have also been drawn. Relativity and quantum theories have become the hermeneutical tools to analyze and interpret the declarations of all sorts of mystical experiences. These studies of mysticism tend to present parallel explanations of the world. Evolutionary theory and biology also offer different angles of approach to the study of mysticism proposing explanations, for example, which relate mystical experience to the evolutionary chain of being or to techniques for transcending present limitations.

Keywords: mystical experience, mysticism, meditation, neuroscience, quantum physics, reductionism, hallucinogenic drugs, temporal lobe, EEG, fMRI

Subject Overview

The scientific study of mysticism is a multi-disciplinary endeavor and is sometimes an interdisciplinary endeavor. An array of scientific approaches, which includes physics, biology, psychology, psychoanalysis, cognitive theory, evolutionary theory, linguistics, and a host of social sciences, has been engaged in the study of mysticism, each utilizing its own methodology, holding its own presuppositions, and interpreting mysticism in different ways. Furthermore, none of the sciences, from physics to neuropsychology to biology, are monolithic in their approach to mysticism.

So what are mystical experiences? What range of experiences is to be included in the scientific study of mysticism? Do we include visions, voices from the Holy, or revelations? Should we include only those experiences that are the result of a religious, spiritual practice, or should we include experiences that seem to appear “out of the blue?” Investigating the etiology of each of the aforementioned cases is different. Should we include “satanic” experiences as mystical experiences, drug-related experiences, and experiences associated with diagnosed mental illness? Should we limit mystical experiences to experiences of unity with Ultimate Reality or should we be as inclusive in our understanding of mystical experiences as William James was? James included déjà vu and, for example, an experience of Charles Kingsley, “. . . an innate feeling that everything I see has a meaning . . . this feeling of being surrounded with truths which I cannot grasp . . .”1 And, what do we do with Buddhist mindfulness practice (vipaśyanā), which is intended to provide insight into the momentary and selfless nature of existence, but according to Varela, Thompson, and Rosch, mindfulness is the opposite of mystical experience?2 Yet other Buddhist practitioners and scholars include vipaśyanā.3 There is no universally accepted definition of mystical experience. All too frequently different scientific endeavors are analyzing different phenomena. Mysticism and mystical experience is an umbrella term, encompassing a wide variety of phenomena; therefore, one must be cognizant of this diversity when reviewing the scientific approaches to mysticism. In order to set the parameters for this entry and the types of mystical experiences discussed, mystical experiences are those conscious experiences in which one feels that the normal subject-object boundaries of waking consciousness are altered, presenting a state of unity, union, or interrelationship with the external world, Ultimate Reality, or the Holy. This definition puts no restrictions on the etiology of the experiences, from yoga to drugs to mental illness, etc., nor does this definition place a judgment on the objective referent of the experience, or place the experiences in a hierarchical ordering. Insofar as this definition includes an alteration of subject-object boundaries, cognitive reflections on the beauty of a sunset or the miraculous birth of a child may be life-transforming moments, but not necessarily mystical.

There is an enormous array of trans-cultural and trans-historical experiences and issues related to the term mysticism that must be sorted out in order to undertake this study. Mysticism is present in all major religions and is, by no means, restricted to the religions of the world. R. C. Zaehner proposed a threefold typology of mystical experience. While his typology may be problematic in terms of the hierarchical ranking he attributed to the different types, believing that theistic mysticism is superior, nonetheless, this typology is useful in highlighting the diversity of forms of mysticism.4 His typology includes theistic, I-Thou, relational mysticism, whose focus on an individual’s relation with the divine appears in a wide array of religions and in a spectrum of positions within a given religious tradition. There is also non-dualistic mysticism, in which the separation of subject and object is overcome in the oneness of Being. Non-dualistic mysticism is also found in those forms of Buddhism in which the experience of the interrelatedness of becoming, rather than the unity of Being, is revealed. Finally, there is panenhenic mysticism, associated with nature mysticism, in which one’s unity or interrelationship with the plethora of nature is highlighted. The litany of individual names associated with each of these types is beyond the scope of this article; therefore, this article will highlight select examples that must not be taken to be exhaustive of the diversity of mystical experiences.

The scientific study of mysticism is broader than the study of mystical experiences. It requires that we look at the etiology of mystical experiences and consider the conditions within an individual and in the world that make such an experience possible, understanding that the verticality of the experience is not assured and assuredly will be questioned. These conditions include one’s belief system (theology/philosophy), the alleged metaphysical structure of the universe, and one’s neuro-biological and psychological nature. Second, a scientific study of mysticism must analyze the experience itself, asking what is happening in the individual and/or in the world such that this experience can be present. When these experiences are culled in their enormous diversity, the tendency for those analyzing the data is to create typologies, such as Zaehner’s. Other typologies include apophatic and kataphatic mystical experiences in which the former emphasizes the inexpressibility of the mystical experience, while the latter emphasizes the describability of the mystical experience. Introvertive mysticism and extrovertive mysticism, as articulated by W. T. Stace, is another common typology.5 Such typologies are not mutually exclusive. One must be cautious about the utilization of these typologies as pre-existing filters, establishing the parameters for scientific investigations. Finally, scientific studies of mysticism should include an analysis of the effects of the practices and experiences associated with mysticism, understanding that different practices and different experiences may yield different effects, some therapeutic and others questionable.

Reductionism: A Central Issue in this Field of Study

Reductionism, as a methodological approach, attempts to explain a given phenomena in terms of a discipline asserted to be more basic. In the case of mysticism, reductionism takes the first-hand experience of the mystic and asserts that a third-person analysis, from the perspective of one of the sciences, better understands the etiology, the ontological referent, and the effects of the experience on the individual mystic. Different sciences have different forms of reductionism, and there should be no assumption that each science is uniform in its forms of reductionism. The reductionism of psychology, cognitive theory, and, most dramatically, the neurosciences is often the most pernicious. These reductionisms put fear in the fields of religious studies and theology because they appear to reduce the ontological referent of the mystical experience to a neurological event—it is not God, but only the brain. This fear of reductionism pits believers or caretakers of mystical experience against critics of mystical experience who wish to invalidate the claims of the mystics.6 For the latter position, think, for example, Francis Crick, “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.”7 Or, ponder the “Last Hippie,” by Oliver Sacks, renown neurologist, who recounts the history of a young man who, during the 1960s, goes from being an LSD-taking “Dead Head” to a follower of the Hare Krishna movement, a devotional (bhakti) Hindu movement that engages in singing, dancing, and meditation to produce ecstatic states, “mystical states.”8 Greg’s spiritual companions believe him to be advanced because he can sit in meditation for long hours without interruption. His parents eventually locate him and place him under medical care, which discovers that he has a large benign tumor running from the frontal lobe to the temporal lobe. The removal of the tumor is successful, but the patient is no longer able to form new memories, with the exception of musical memories, and he no longer initiates actions. While Sacks makes no explicit comments regarding the nature of mystical experience here, the implications of his presentation are easily drawn when he says that Greg’s “living in the moment,” admired by his Hare Krishna companions, is clearly pathological.9 Here we see one neuroscience case study confronting one type of mysticism, leading to the understanding that mystical experiences are produced by neurological conditions, can be reduced to neurological conditions, and removing those neurological conditions removes the experiences. The ontological referent of the experience is not God or Krishna, and the spiritual benefits of appearing to be at peace are an illusion, the consequences of a neurological disorder.

This reductionist threat strikes fear in those who want to envision a mind/soul that can exist independently of the brain/body, who want to maintain Descartes’ dualism and ensure that mystical experience can transcend the limits of the body. John Hick, Christian theologian, laments the implications. “In correcting Descarte’s error, mind/brain identity rules out a God or gods, a transpersonal Brahman or Dharmakaya or Tao, the survival of human consciousness beyond bodily death and realms of existence other than the physical universe.”10 Hick is philosophically aware that mind/brain identity does not actually rule out the existence of God. Nonetheless, he is looking to a mind, not tied to a brain, which can relate in an on-going manner to a spiritual reality, God. Nancey Murphy, Christian theologian, confirms this fear of reductionism: “. . . the fact that someone in nearly every audience I address takes the denial of the existence of the human soul to be the denial of God’s existence shows the extent to which Christian dualists have thought of their souls as little gods!”11 This fear of reducing the ontological referent to neurological states is certainly not restricted to Christianity and the other Semitic traditions. The Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, as expressed by B. Allan Wallace, practitioner and scholar, recoils against neuroscientific reductionism, as it undermines the Dzogchen position of a substrate consciousness (ālayavijñāna) accessible to the practitioner through the cultivation of śamatha. Rejecting reductionism, Wallace states: “[n]o patterns of neuronal events actually become mental events . . . this empty luminous, substrate consciousness transforms into the mental images, discursive thoughts, perceptions, emotions, and so on . . . these mental events influence the brain, body, and the physical environment, but they do not transform into those physical phenomena.”12

While this fear of reductionism grips a wide audience, not all theologians engaged in scientific approaches to mysticism fall under this cloud. For example, some Christian theologians have chosen to return to a non-dualist reading of human nature rooted in Biblical terms. Human beings are not a dualism of soul and body, but a psycho-physical unity whose religious hopes lie not in an ascension to a heavenly abode, but to a future resurrection into a new transformed body. Consistent with this position is the adoption of a non-reductive physicalism, which puts forth the notion that mystical experiences do not depend on an independent soul, but rather on a God who is a causal agent interacting with human beings.13 Other traditions, such as the Hindu schools of Advaita Vedānta, Yoga, and Sāṃkhya, are not threatened by this neuroscientific reductionism. For them, the dualism is not between mind (manas, citta) and body (śarīra). Both mind and body are constituted by matter (prakṛti). The dualism, if only a provisional dualism for the Advaita school, is between prakṛti (mind and body) and consciousness (cit). For Advaita, mind lacks awareness, lacks consciousness. Cit is not mind; it is self-illuminating (svaprakāśa) awareness. Cit is the nature of ultimate reality, ātman/Brahman. As such, the neuroscientific reductionism, which threatens to reduce mind to brain and mystical experience to neurological firings, is not a threat for this tradition. These traditions might fear a reductionism of consciousness to brain, but that reductionism raises different issues. Finally, James Austin, neurologist and Zen practitioner, is comfortable adopting the position that the mind is reducible to the brain since he understands the goal of Zen practice not to be a state of other worldly consciousness, but rather the goal is to see the world as it is.14 Three different religious traditions, with three different senses of the mystical, offer us three different responses to the threat of neuroscientific reductionism.

The neuroscientific community is also not united behind neuroscientific reductionism. Some scientists distinguish between neural correlations and neural causation, claiming that as a discipline, the neurosciences are methodologically reductionist but ontologically neutral, the latter being beyond their pay grade. Patrick McNamara, neuroscientist, frames this as follows: “Correlations, of course, cannot speak to causation, but no one here is claiming that the brain causes religious experiences. My claim is more modest: Religious experiences are realized via the brain in human beings, and knowing how the brain mediates religious experiences can tell us something about potential functions of religious experiences.”15 In addition, knowing that a mystical experience is preceded by the intake of a drug such as LSD and that “unusual neurological processes are taking place” does not tell us what the ontological referent of the experience actually is—is it an experience of God, for example, or only a brain experience? Or, is it both a series of neurological processes and an experience of God? Some members of the neuroscientific community, who claim that mental events are neurally caused, are nonetheless “cautiously agnostic” on the ontological referent of those experiences. The reduction of the mental experiences of seeing an apple to nothing but brain states, does not tell us that apples are only brain states. V. S. Ramachandran, among others, asserts that mystical experiences are neurological events, yet he recognizes that one cannot rule out the possibility that the mystic is experiencing God, the Holy.16 Finally, even if one were to assert that the ontological referent of mystical experience is only a brain process, one may still find therapeutic value from the experience. The reductionist may assert that the mystic does not understand the nature of the experience, but the mystic may realize positive value such as being more content with life, being less stressful.

Correlated with the reductionism issue is the philosophical debate regarding constructionism versus pure experience, which dominated the discussions on mysticism for several decades beginning with the 1978 publication of Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, edited by Steven Katz. Katz’s thesis that, like all experiences, all mystical experiences are mediated sent shock waves through those who understood mystical experience as an unmediated experience of ultimate reality. Katz declared, “. . . there are no pure (i.e., unmediated) experiences.”17 Our conceptual apparatus not only transforms our recounting of the experience, but it shapes the experience itself. Buddhists do not experience Jesus, and Christians do not experience Shiva. Furthermore, recognizing that many mystical experiences are labeled “ineffable,” “paradoxical,” or with philosophical terms such as experiences of “emptiness,” (ayin, śūnyatā) does not tell us that all these experiences are the same. Different mystical experiences can be labeled “ineffable” or “paradoxical.” Robert K. C. Forman and colleagues responded with a variety of tactics to protect “the pure consciousness experience” (PCE), which is proposed to underlie one type of mystical experience, in which there is only pure unmediated consciousness and no mental constructions. Forman contends that PCEs, as a universal form of mystical experience in which nothing is thought and all mental phenomena are forgotten, are at the root of perennial philosophy. His disclosure of his own mystical experience as unmediated, and his discussion of Robert Ornstein’s notion, referenced below, that meditation is neurophysiologically trans-cultural and trans-historical and those practices lead to an unconstructed state of voidness, are intended to silence the Katz camp.18 This debate spawned an enormous literature review.

Psychological Debates on the Nature and Value of Mysticism

Rebuking the reductionists of his day, William James opens The Varieties of Religious Experience by informing us that locating the etiology of religious and mystical experiences in organic causes is “illogical and arbitrary.” Furthermore, while acknowledging that identifying the etiology of mystical experiences is not as important as discerning the effects of mystical experience,19 and while acknowledging that an individual’s mystical experience cannot be authoritative for another individual, James opens the possibility that mystical experiences “. . . add a supersensuous meaning to the ordinary outward data of consciousness.”20 James, rooted in the pragmatist tradition, offers four characteristics of mystical experience that have shaped a good deal of the discussion for the last century. First, mystical experience is ineffable, defying adequate expression. Second, it has a noetic quality illuminating the nature of reality, Ultimate Reality, and/or the Holy. Third, mystical experiences are transient experiences of limited duration. Finally, mystical experiences are passive, whereby the mystic feels as if her will is not operative in the experience. While these experiences have not always yielded healthy-minded individuals, James contends that mystical experience tends toward optimism and monism, and the key test for the effects of mystical experiences are the ethical behavior of the individual.

James’ discussion sets up some of the key parameters for the scientific studies on mysticism, namely whether, in understanding mystical experience, one looks to the etiology of the experience or one looks to the effects of the experience, and whether mystical experience tends to lead one to health, wholeness, or toward regression. Abraham Maslow, humanistic psychologist noted for his theory of the hierarchies of needs, contends that the root of religion lies in mystical, peak experiences.21 Maslow understands mystical, peak experiences in naturalistic, not supernaturalistic terms, and, like James, he is focused on the effects that peak experiences have, seeing them as integral to the fullest development of human spirituality and a healthy individual. Maslow sees mystical experiences as perceiving “B-values,” the values constituent of the nature of Being itself, which include such positives as Wholeness, Truth, Perfection, and Dichotomy-Transcendence.

James and Maslow are joined by a wide range of thinkers who offer a series of explanations for the positive effects produced by mystical experience. Such experience “opens the doors of perception” and expands our mind. For Aldous Huxley, such mind expansion, reaching to the “Mind at Large,” may occur naturally, through spiritual practices, through hypnosis, or through drugs such as mescaline. Offering his neurological insights, Huxley contends that mescaline inhibits the enzymes that regulate the amount of glucose in the brain, thus lowering the glucose levels and the level of cerebral gate keeping. The latter relaxes the filters that restrict our awareness.22 There are numerous variants on opening the doors of perception to produce a healthy individual. The neuroscientist, Patrick McNamara puts forth the notion that these experiences are “decentering.” They represent a process by which our ordinary sense of self is “. . . taken ‘off-line’ or decoupled from its control over attentional and behavioral goals of the individual, while a search is conducted in semantic memory or a suppositional space (or in a ‘possible worlds’ space) for a more ideal or complex Self-concept that can better match the needs and behavioral goals of the individual.” 23 For McNamara, this decentering is part of the process to transform the self, creating a more unified self, an opening of the doors to understanding the self, not to anything outside the self. The notion of “deautomatization” articulated by Arthur Deikman, is another version of this approach. Citing studies of motor behavior, which indicate that conscious steps can be removed from behavioral actions creating an automatization process, Deikman posits that deautomatization is the reversal of this process.24 It is the process by which the perceptual and cognitive habits that individuals construct are deconstructed by practices such as meditation, allowing the individual to experience the world “anew,” no longer constrained by the information screening that our brains have constructed over the years. While deautomatization may be a more “primitive state,” he contends that this process is a movement toward health, progression via regression, a trend that reappears in the literature of this field.

Deikman also sees that meditation, used to foster this deautomatization, may be responsible for the release of psychic energy within the brain, a release that is concomitant with the experience of unusual phenomena such as the experience of light and the feeling of a “presence.” While acknowledging that these experiences can be understood in the context of neural chemical processes, Deikman does not rule out the possibility of a transcendent source.

“Changing the channel” of the mind/brain is a variant of this approach. This expression appears in the teachings of the Buddhist monk, Thich Nat Hanh, in his description of the role of meditation, the simple practice of breathing and smiling. If we change the channel, as we do with a TV, then we can be at peace.25 Also using the metaphors of radio and TV and drawing upon the ideas of James and Bergson, William Barnard makes two interrelated points.26 First, he describes the brain as a filtering device, setting our mind to one channel and not another. Our normal channels eliminate the incidents of experiencing the mystical, paranormal dimensions of existence. Second, he sees the brain as a transmitter of consciousness, not the producer of consciousness. Since the brain is not the producer of consciousness, he need not fear neuroscientific reductionism.

The trend to see mystical experience in regressive terms is exemplified by Sigmund Freud’s explanation of the “oceanic feeling,” the subjective feeling of limitlessness and eternity, to which he acknowledged no personal familiarity.27 Such an experience, he reckons, can be explained in terms of the development of the ego, which at one time does not differentiate itself from the world. It is the developing ego that separates itself from the external world, and as such, the developed ego is a shrunken version of the one that first nursed at the breast. The mystical experience of oneness is the recall of that early infantile experience, a boundless, intimate experience prior to the ego’s separation from the other. This experience is never lost, always stored, just as the layers of ancient Rome lay beneath the surface. Freud, in looking at the etiology, reduces mystical experience to a regressive experience. Prince and Savage also utilize the notion of regression; however, they envision this regression to an early period of infancy to be in the service of the ego and therefore, it can have positive and creative value, likes forms of psychotherapy and moments of creativity.28 Nonetheless, it may also be similar to psychosis. Utilizing these regression models, one can still explain James’ four criteria. The noetic quality of mystical experience comes from a psychical return to the experience of breast-feeding, in which the developing ego is presented with its initial and powerful sense of reality. Being pre-linguistic, such an experience would be ineffable. Returning one to a stage of ego development prior to shrinking, this experience would appear not to be the work of one’s current ego, exhibiting the quality of passivity. Finally, such experiences are transient. Regressing even farther, Alexander Maven posits that mystical experiences should be understood in biological terms as a consciousness of the moment of conception, the joining of sperm and ovum, the ultimate, primordial union.29 Positing that somehow this primordial event is recorded in the brain and retrieved at a later date, it bears the four characteristics of mystical experience articulated by James.

More recently, building on the research of neuroscientists Jaak Panksepp and Antonio Damasio, Jason Blum highlights that consciousness in animals and infant humans arises before language, and it arises as an affective response to the world.30 Using the “tip-of-the-tongue” phenomena, in which an individual has the felt knowledge that he knows something, but cannot name it, Blum argues for understanding mystical experience as pre-linguistic, pre-conceptual, and rooted in the affective nature of consciousness. Blum is not only debating Katz’s constructivist approach, but he leads us to consider positions such as the one offered by Jane Goodall, in which mystical experience is not the sole property of humans. “Lost in awe at the beauty around me, I must have slipped into a state of heightened awareness . . . Even the mystics are unable to describe their brief flashes of spiritual ecstasy . . . that self was utterly absent: I and the chimpanzees, the earth and trees and air, seemed to merge, to become one with the spirit power of life itself.”31 In reporting on her observations of chimpanzees at a waterfall, Goodall ponders whether the experience of awe and wonder, which she sees at the root of human spiritual-mystical experience, is not also present in the chimpanzees she is observing?32 As a primatologist, she is lead to ponder mystical experience as a trans-species phenomenon that is pre-linguistic and linked to the intricacies of the biological web that ties living creatures together. Goodall’s approach is related to those of religious naturalists such as Ursula Goodenough33 and Brian Swimme,34 in so far as each of these thinkers finds the natural order, the evolution of the cosmos, to be the grounds for uncovering meaning, for experiencing the unity of creation, and the source for encountering the mystical element of existence.

A Brief History of Mystics and Machines

There are machines that are said to induce mystical experience and machines that are intended to measure mystical experience. Robert Ornstein utilized two machines to propose an understanding of concentrative meditation, the practice that fixes the mind on a single point such as a visual image or a sound, a mantra.35 The two machines, which focused on visual perception, are an image stabilizing device, and one that produces a ganzfield, a patternless visual field. The latter can be produced by placing half of a ping-pong ball over each eye. The retina stabilizing machine, is designed to keep an image fixed on the retina in spite of the retina’s natural constant motion. Because our retinas constantly move, no single image remains fixed, an evolutionary advantage in a dangerous world. Fixing an image on the retina, with either device, produces the same neural subroutine over and over again; and as a consequence of this repetition, consciousness is no longer cognizant of the stimuli. A constant image, like a constant sound, etc., is neurologically censored (inhibited) by the reticular system in the thalamus; and although, the image is still present on the retina, it is no longer experienced. According to Ornstein this produces a state of unity or voidness, emptiness (śūnyatā). Ornstein reported that, concomitant with this process, EEG studies of the brain reveal an increase in alpha rhythms, those between 8 and 12 Hzs indicating a state of decreased awareness of the external world. Ornstein, like others mentioned, infer that, by turning off the world by either of the machines or by concentrative meditation, one sees the world afresh, one “deautomates.” While stating that he does not intend to be totally reductionist and looking to the wisdom of the esoteric disciplines, Ornstein declares mystical experience to be “. . . a matter of applied psychology.”36

Much more controversial than the retina-stabilizing device, and attracting significant media coverage, is the God helmet utilized by Michael Persinger, St Laurentian University, and his colleagues. Placing individuals in a solitary, sensory restricted room with the God-helmet on their heads, Persinger’s team stimulates the individual’s brain, specifically aiming at portions of the temporal lobe, with low levels of complex magnetic fields.37 Persinger contends these stimulations produce a variety of religious, mystical experiences including experiences of hearing voices, feeling a presence, and having near-death experiences.38 Crudely stated and reductionist in nature, the God-helmet produces mystical experiences of God and other spiritual entities because it tickles the God spot in the temporal lobe. Persinger has also examined neurological alterations related to hemispheric differentials and the alleged concomitant phenomenological experiences, including out-of-body experiences, changes in religious beliefs of the elderly, and the presence of ghosts. Experiences like the latter, Persinger proposes may come from alterations in the earth’s magnetic fields, which have an effect upon temporal lobe functioning of some individuals, more sensitive than others to such alterations.39

Machines that measure the brain states of mystics are currently the rage. As we saw above, increases in alpha waves, as measured by EEG, have been associated with concentrative meditation and with a decreased awareness of the external world. However, more recent EEG studies, focusing on mystical experiences reported by Carmelite nuns, indicate that there are a variety of EEG changes at different cortical areas. (The nuns were not having the mystical experience at the time of these recordings; rather, they were recalling these experiences when measurements were taken.) These studies found, for example, “. . . theta power increases over left and central frontal and parietal regions, and gamma 1 power increases in the right temporal and parietal regions.”40 Adding to this picture, James Austin notes that zazen performed either sitting in a chair or on a cushion, produces the same increases in alpha waves, but he adds, “. . . meditation is not one state but a series of dynamic physiological changes. So it comes as no surprise to find that many different EEG changes have been recorded during meditation, and that most studies are open to criticism . . . Interestingly, Buddhist meditative chants are themselves associated with enhanced, rhythmic, synchronous theta activity.”41 Since the brain is not a series of discreet parts, but is an interrelated web of neural activity, where local functions are systematically connected across hemispheres and lobes, with cascading consequences, singling out one alteration must be closely monitored.

Going beyond attaching electrodes to the scalp, giant machines with powerful magnets operating on enormous currents of energy can simultaneously measure alterations in blood/oxygen levels in different regions of the brain—your “typical” fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging). Searching PubMed with a variety of key terms, including fMRI, SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography), meditation, and mystical, will produce an extensive bibliography, including Beauregard and Paquette who utilize fMRI to examine the recall of mystical experiences by a group of nuns.42 As in their EEG study cited above, a number of different brain regions exhibit increased blood/oxygen levels, not just in the temporal lobe, as sometimes asserted, leading us to see the complexity of this phenomena. d’Aquili and Newberg, with their publication of The Mystical Mind, have drawn an enormous amount of public interest to the topic of neurotheology—utilizing neuroscience to study theology.43 Their research, employing SPECT to measure blood flow in the brains of meditating Tibetan Buddhist monks, posits, among other things, that concomitant with this meditative practice is a deafferentiation of the parietal lobe, a shutting down of input to the parietal lobe, particularly the right superior parietal lobe.44 The parietal lobe, with neurons attuned to the act of grasping, will, under normal circumstances, provide one with a sense of an embodied self in relation to a world of objects. When the parietal lobe is hypoactivated, or according to d’Aquili and Newberg deafferentiated, by meditative practice, and the grasping diminishes, one loses the boundaries between self and other. This lead to a state they term AUB—Absolute Unitary Being, which they contend is the highest mystical experience. This is a bold theological claim, rooted in a neuroscientific inquiry, especially in light of the fact that that they leave open the question of the ontological referent of this experience.45

Stephen Kaplan explores this notion of grasping raised above, noting that the terms for subject and object within a number of Hindu and Buddhist schools is derived from the verbal root, gṛh (to grasp).46 Here, the subject is literally the grasper (grāhaka), and the object is that which is grasped (grāhya). Furthermore, asparśayoga (the yoga of no-touch) is aimed at stopping the grasping of the mind, eliminating the grasper and the grasped, and arriving at the fourth state of consciousness, ātman/Brahman. Both disciplines—the neurosciences and Indian philosophy—contend that grasping leads to the subject-object dichotomy, and both contend that shutting down that grasping process brings one to a mystical state. While no identity of thought between these two diverse disciples should be assumed, Kaplan suggests that it is time to move beyond the reductionism debate that overshadows much of this field and uncover cross-cultural and interdisciplinary insights, such as those regarding the development of subjectivity.

This review of mystics and machines leads, on the one hand, to an acknowledgement of a universality, which cuts across religious and spiritual traditions. For example, concentrative meditation is neurophysiologically similar across traditions even as they utilize different sense modalities—sight, sound, etc.—and utilize different symbols—different visual icons or mantras. Religious differences, such as those embodied in the repetition of different mantras (sacred sounds) or the visualization of different icons, be it Krishna or Christ, appear to be neurophysiologically irrelevant, even if the verdicality or reductionist nature of the mystical experience has yet to be firmly established. In other words, neurophysiologically, it does not matter if one visualizes Krishna or Christ. On the other hand, the studies, which utilize different machines to measure neurophysiological changes, illuminate that different types of practices, such as visualization practices versus rhythmic movement practices, engage different physiological systems. The latter differences lead to the engagement of different neurophysiological systems, resulting in different subjective experiences. Bluntly stated, different practices produce different “brains,” which are concomitant with different mystical experiences, making a hierarchical ordering of mystical experiences a complicated if not questionable endeavor.47

Drugs, Epilepsy, and the Ecstatic Personality

In addition to machines that “produce” mystical experiences, there are drugs, a time-honored vehicle for inducing mystical experience. In the Vedas soma, a plant-based hallucinogen was thought to bring power to the god, Indra, and to bring visions of immortality and ecstasy to those that partook. Native American peyote consumption is likewise renown for its spiritual and mystical inducements. The mid-20th century proponents of LSD and other psychedelics, from Aldous Huxley to Richard Alpert (Ram Das) to Timothy Leary, had an initial enthusiasm for the mystical inducing nature of these substances. Walter Pahnke’s famous Easter study involved ten students who were given psilocybin and a control group of ten who were given nicotine acid, a non-psychedelic.48 Their responses to questionnaires, based upon Walter Stace’s typology of mystical experience, indicated that the drug-taking group reported more religious mystical experiences. Pankhe maintained that such drugs could be a catalyst for mystical experiences, an important tool for studying mystical experience, and provide meaningful, therapeutic experiences for individuals. While changes in attitudes toward drugs limited continuation of those studies, R. R. Griffiths and colleagues recently reported that high doses of psilocybin (30 mg/70 kg) can facilitate experiences whose markers mirror mystical experiences and these experiences are seen as having a positive effect on the individual.49 In addition, fMRI studies on individuals under the influence of psilocybin indicate that the default mode network (DMN), which includes the anterior cingulate cortex, the posterior cingulate cortex, the bilateral temporal parietal conjuncts, and the hippocampus, shows a decrease in blood/oxygen levels.50 The DMN effectuates non-goal oriented self-referential brain activity providing an individual’s self-narrative. Correlating a decrease in DMN activity with mystical experience suggests that such an experience, which claims to lose one’s self, is returning one to a more primary level of consciousness without the self-narrator, which is so closely associated with human consciousness.51

Turning to the drug ecstasy, X, MDMA, methylenedioxymethamphetamine, known to produce states of ecstasy, euphoria, and strong feelings of empathy for others, we find characteristics not unlike those reported by some mystics.52 This drug affects centers deep within the mid-brain, such as the ventral tagmental area (VTA), which is involved in synthesizing dopamine, the nucleus accumbens, which communicates these chemical messages to the limbic and motor systems, the amygdala, which sets affective tone, and the hippocampus, which is central to the establishment of blissful memories. Neurochemically, MDMA facilitates the release of three neurotransmitters—dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin—and it inhibits the reuptake of the released neurotransmitters, leaving them to more intensely activate the subsequent neural pathways producing a chemically induced euphoria that again sounds mystical and reductionist.

As in MDMA, the limbic system can also be stimulated by epilepsy. Relevant here is temporal lobe epilepsy, which is associated with a temporal lobe personality prone to religious fervor, mystical experiences, and religious ecstasy.53 Temporal lobe epilepsy has been connected to a long list of notable figures including St. Paul, Muhammad, Teresa of Avila, and Joseph Smith.54 Succinctly stated, the key elements of mystical experience, including its noetic quality, its ineffability, and its accompanying ecstatic nature, have been correlated with this personality. The heightened emotions associated with these conditions make the cognitive elements of the experience seem very real, truly significant, and as such, these emotionally charged experiences are said to carry a noetic quality to them that is beyond description, ineffable, mystical, and brain-based.55

This analysis of ecstasy in mystical experience, which evokes the fear of reductionism, is under scrutiny. First, other neuroscience studies note that the rate of correlation between epilepsy and religious experience is remarkably low. By one study, among a number,56 only 1.3% of epilepsy patients reported a religious experience, and only 2.2% of patients with temporal lobe epilepsy reported such an experience.57 Second, the type of analysis reported above tends to homogenize the data. Drawing upon three religious traditions illustrates the complexity of the situation. David Bradford, who also notes that mystical experiences are far more common in the population than are cases of temporal lobe epilepsy, adds that temporal lobe epilepsy does not account for the phenomenological complexity of the ecstatic mystical experience in such figures as Symeon the New Theologian, an 11th century Christian. According to Bradford, Symeon was seeking an ecstatic experience in relationship to God “. . . which originates in the intensification of loving desire, rises to joy and sweetness, and terminates in pain and grief.”58 Such an experience would be radically different from Śaṅkara, the 8th century Hindu Advaita Vedāntin, whose notion of bliss (ānanda) was related to the non-duality of ātman/Brahman.59 Śaṅkara would find none of Simeon’s adjectives appropriate, certainly none that elicit a self-Other relationship of longing. The research of Patricia Sharp, a neuroscientist, focuses on Buddhist śamatha meditation, which could not be described in terms appropriate to either Symeon or Śaṅkara.60 Sharp builds a case for the neural correlates of bliss and proposes that Buddhist meditation induces bliss by increasing dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens.61 While Sharp seeks to differentiate the dysphoric consequences of drugs and worldly pleasures from the euphoric consequences derived from meditation, she is clear that both kinds of experiences are rooted in neurochemistry. However, she contends that the neurosciences cannot account for the subjectivity of experience, for the awareness of the event; therefore, she seeks to avoid a reductionist interpretation of this research. In light of these three examples, thinkers like Bradford wonder how the scientific study of mysticism is going to manage this diversity of mystical experiences; in light of Sharp’s analysis, one may wonder if the problem of neuroscientific reductionism is any closer to a resolution?

Contemporary Physics and Mysticism

Twentieth century physics has generated a range of attitudes toward mysticism and a range of meanings associated with the word mysticism, leading to a fecundity of ideas, not conclusions. Albert Einstein, who rejects the notion of a personal God, but affirms the God of Spinoza, also explicitly rejects the notion of mysticism when it is associated with theosophy, spiritualism, or some sort of transcendental experience. However, he affirms that the experience of the “mysterious” is the emotion that is at the heart of science, art, and religion, even referring to this experience of the “mysterious” as a “cosmic religious feeling.”62 The latter, Einstein associates with the desire of the individual to experience the universe as a whole and not as a separate individual.63 This idea returns us to the opening definition of mysticism, yet stands in opposition to his disavowal of the mystical. In a similar twist, Niels Bohr juxtaposes the term mystical with the term pragmatic and uses them as two ways of knowing the world, where the former is associated with Indian thinkers who try to express the notion of wholeness. But here he offers no additional elaboration clarifying the term mystical and its use.64 Werner Heisenberg, father of the uncertainty principle, alludes to a relationship between the philosophical underpinnings of quantum theory and the ideas found in the Far East, but again does not elaborate on this point in his work on physics and philosophy.65 Edwin Schrodinger, Nobel laureate renown for his work on wave mechanics, contends that both Bohr and Heisenberg were instrumental in breaking down our understanding that the boundary between subject and object is definitive, and he sees Bohr and Heisenberg leaving us with the distinction between subject and object as mysterious.66 Building upon such notions, Schrodinger consistently expresses his affinity toward the Vedānta system, which sees all individual forms of sentient beings not as a part or a piece of an infinite Being, but as the whole of the Being. Utilizing the Upaniṣadic phrase tat tvam asi, (thou art that),67 Schrodinger articulates a “mystical-metaphysical doctrine . . . the plurality of sentient beings is mere appearance (maya); in reality they are all only aspects of the one being.”68

These great minds of the 20th century revolution in physics set the stage for Fritjob Capra, a high-energy physicist. Capra describes his personal experience of watching the waves of the ocean, feeling the rhythm of his breathing, and becoming aware that his entire environment was engaged in a cosmic dance. “I knew that this was the Dance of Shiva, the Lord of Dancers worshipped by the Hindus.”69 So begins Capra’s The Tao of Physics, which captured the zeitgeist of a cultural set—those wishing to move beyond the strife of the 1960s. Capra contends that western science, dominated by its mathematical prowess and its powerful atom analyzing machinery, is espousing the same intuitive wisdom as the mystical traditions of the East; and while science and Eastern religions could each survive on its own, he put forth the notion that humanity needs them both. Quantum physics, with emphasis on the Copenhagen school, and the traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Zen lead us to understand that the universe is fundamentally characterized by unity and interrelationship. He maintains there is one truth divulged within each of the religious traditions and that truth “parallels,” the word he commonly uses, the wisdom of quantum physics. While Capra acknowledges the diversity of the religious traditions he compares, one cannot overlook the generalizations, which allow him to assert that these traditions are seen as holding the same basic position. Generalizing “the sameness” of the religious traditions is, at a minimum, questionable. The Buddha did not accept the tradition in which he was raised, yet now we are lead to believe that Buddhism and those Upaniṣadic traditions are fundamentally the same.

Moving between the worlds of physics and the brain, Sir Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff have proposed a non-computational theory of consciousness that grows out of Penrose’s work in quantum physics70 and Hameroff’s work as an anesthesiologist, whose patients’ brains are performing calculations while they are not conscious.71 This theory does not look for consciousness to be developed at the neuronal level or in the interlacing networks connecting neurons, but rather at an intracellular level, at the level of microtubules. According to their theory, called Orchestrated objective reduction (Orch-OR), initially formulated in the mid-1990s, consciousness is correlated with coherent quantum processes in the microtubules within brain cells. Furthermore, Penrose and Hameroff contend that these microtubular processes are structurally aligned with the basics of quantum mechanics in the universe. Thus Hameroff contends that this theory could account for near death, mystical experiences if at the time of the near death experiences the cessation of brain functions does not destroy the coherence of the consciousness associated with the quantum state generated in the brain’s microtubular structures, but rather this consciousness passes into the universe. In this model, pre-consciousness is fundamental to the universe and is part of the cosmic structure.

Making a similar leap from the cosmos to the brain are the independent yet tandem works of David Bohm, 20th century physicist, and Karl H. Pribram, neuroscientist.72 Bohm’s proposal is rooted in the principles of holography, the technique by which three-dimensional optical artifacts are produced from an imageless two-dimensional film. His theory presents two domains.73 The explicate domain is our empirical world of three-dimensional objects in a temporal framework. The implicate domain is the domain of undivided wholeness, in which the three dimensions of space are enfolded into two dimensions, so that there is no appearance of discreet objects, no subjects, no individual entities. The information needed to reproduce the particular entities is spread throughout the entirety of the implicate domain such that each piece of the implicate domain can reproduce the entirety of the explicate image/object. Thus, one can say each piece equals every other piece and each piece equals the whole. For Bohm, the universe is an undivided flowing holomovement. From such a Bohmian perspective, mystics who proclaim the non-duality of all existence and who claim to have immediate knowledge of this ultimate reality are those who experience the non-dual nature of the implicate-like ultimate reality.74 Karl Pribram put forth the notion that our brains process and store information in a manner similar to a hologram, which records information in Fourier transforms, in wave patterns, which can be reconstructed by subsequent wave patterns, but do not appear as images/objects in the brain. Pribram notes that our visual images are projected in front of us, our auditory sensations appear “out in the world,” and we do not find images of apples in the brain. The confluence of Pribram’s and Bohm’s holographic proposals have led to the following. “Our brains mathematically construct ‘concrete’ reality by interpreting frequencies from another dimension . . . that transcends time and space. The brain is a hologram, interpreting a holographic universe. Phenomena of altered states of consciousness . . . may be due to a literal attunement to the invisible matrix that generates ‘concrete’ reality.”75 The holographic brain uncovers the holographic universe in a mystical moment. Moving beyond Bohm and Pribram, the holographic model is having a second incarnation. The notion of a holographic universe, with its scientific potential to explain gravity and black holes, as well as it potential to explain mystical experience, has surfaced in the work of some of the leading physicists of the 21st century such as Leonard Susskind,76 Stephen Hawking,77 and Brian Greene, who says “. . . I’d pick the holographic principle as the one most likely to play a dominant role in future research. It emerges from a basic feature of black holes—their entropy—the understanding of which, many physicists agree, rests on firm theoretical foundations.”78

Review of the Literature and Future Directions

First, it must be noted that the preceding sections of this entry have already been a review of the literature of the scientific approaches to mysticism. This field is, essentially nothing but, the literature the particular scientific studies on mysticism produce. Contrast this to mysticism, which has an enormous cross-cultural and trans-historical body of texts, practices, theologies, etc., as well as a large body of literature analyzing and categories mysticism. That dichotomy is largely absent here.

Second, this field of study is constructed around the notion of “mystical experience,” as a viable and universal category with an essential, yet polymorphic meaning. This categorization of mysticism has been under serious scrutiny for years and questioned in the opening segment above, which pleaded for specificity. Setting the stage for this critique is the analysis by Steven Katz and his allies, such as Hans Penner, who famously declared “. . .‘mysticism’ is an illusion, unreal, a false category, which has distorted an important aspect of religion.”79 In excavating the etymological origins and historical development of the term mystical from its Greek meaning “to close,” and its early uses in Christian Biblical exegesis, as related to allegorical interpretation, Louis Bouyer leads us to distinguish our modern usage of mysticism from its early developments.80 Scholars like Wayne Proudfoot81 and Leigh Eric Schmidt82 have illuminated the enormous significance given to religious and mystical experience during the past century and a half and have traced these developments to elements within Protestant thought, which sought to create a category separated from modernist attacks on religion. Additionally, Robert H. Scharf contends that the category of mystical experience allows the study of religion to be conceived as an empirical endeavor, with its own phenomena to be analyzed. He questions “. . . whether we can continue to treat the texts and reports [of mystical experience] upon which such theories are based as referring, however obliquely, to determinative phenomenal events at all.”83

Finally, there is a growing body of related scientific literature that focuses more on mental health than mystical experience. The United States Army, under the “Warrior Reset Program,” has begun teaching yoga and meditation to soldiers so that they may raise the energy (kuṇḍalinī) up their cakras, the energy centers that run from the base of the spine to the top of the head. The U.S. army is not interested in developing mystics, but rather in helping soldiers recover from PTSD—post traumatic stress disorder. We have seen that many believe that mystical experiences produce healthy-minded individuals, and now we are uncovering therapeutic aspects, in which techniques and concepts related to mysticism, are specifically employed for health reasons, with little emphasis on the mystical elements. Herbert Benson, has explored the bio-physiological responses of repetition meditation like those of TM (transcendental meditation) or the repetition of the word “one,” as suggested in his programs.84 Benson, his collaborators, and numerous others have documented the “relaxation response,” which he sees as an innate response, the opposite of the flight and fight response, and which he sees as capable of lowering blood pressure, reducing anxiety, lowering heart rate, lowering breathing rate, and relieving some forms of depression. The list of researchers in this area is growing, especially as studies document that such treatments can be replicated and involve less invasive practices with fewer side effects than drugs and surgery, and are less expensive than other therapies. Notable among this list is Jon Kabat-Zinn, whose Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program has been applied in numerous settings, from hospitals to jails to corporations to athletics.85 Also among those leading in this area of research is the Mind & Life Institute, affiliated with his Holiness, the fourteenth Dalai Lama. To foster these programs the Mind & Life Institute holds conferences, award research grants, runs research institutes, publishes newsletters, and manages a web-site, which provides a plethora of additional resources, interested in promoting the development of compassion, stress reduction, pain management, and insights into violence.86 Richard Davidson, University of Wisconsin at Madison, whose focus has included brain plasticity, meditation, and the ability to produce healthy minds with less stress, capable of compassionate acts, has been one of the leading researchers.87

Further Reading

Alter, Joseph S. Yoga in Modern India: The Body between Science and Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Fingelkurts, Alexander A., and Andrew A. Fingelkurts. “Is Our Brain Hardwired to Produce God, or Is Our Brain Hardwired to Perceive God? A Systematic Review on the Role of the Brain in Mediating Religious Experience.” Cognitive Processing 10 (2009): 293–326.Find this resource:

Forman, Robert K. C. “What Does Mysticism Have to Teach Us about Consciousness?” Journal of Consciousness Studies 5 (1998): 185–201.Find this resource:

Green, Joel B. What About the Soul: Neuroscience and Christian Anthropology. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Katz, Steven T. ed. Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.Find this resource:

Richard King. Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India and “The Mystic East” London: Routledge, 1999.Find this resource:

Scerri, Eric Robert. “Eastern Mysticism and the Alleged Parallels with Physics,” American Journal of Physics 57 (1989): 687–692.Find this resource:

Taves, Ann. Religious Experience Reconsidered. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Wildman, Wesley J. Religious and Spiritual Experiences. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge Univeristy Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Wulff, David M. “Mystical Experiences.” In Varieties of Anomalous Experience. Edited by Etzel Cardena, Steven Jay Lynn, and Stanley Krippner, 397–440. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2014.Find this resource:


(1.) William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Collier Books, 1973), 303.

(2.) Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch, The Embodied Mind (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000), 23.

(3.) James H. Austin, Zen and the Brain (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), 15.

(4.) R. C. Zaehner, Mysticism Sacred and Profane (London: Oxford University Press, 1973).

(5.) W. T. Stace, Mysticism and Philosophy (London: Macmillan, 1973), 61.

(6.) Francisca Cho and Richard K. Squier, “Reductionism: Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 76 (2008): 412–417.

(7.) Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul (New York: A Touchstone Book, 1995), 3.

(8.) Oliver Sacks, “The Last Hippie,” in An Anthropologist from Mars (New York: Vintage Press, 1995), 50.

(9.) Oliver Sacks, Hallucinations (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 291–293. Sacks comments about William James and the presence of the Other in this section.

(10.) John Hick, The New Frontier of Religion and Science: Religious Experience, Neuroscience and the Transcendent (Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 57.

(11.) Nancey Murphy, “Whatever Happened to the Soul? Theological Perspectives on Neuroscience and the Self,” Annals of the New York Academy of Science 1001 (2003): 51–64, 61.

(12.) B. Allan Wallace, Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism and Neuroscience Meet (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 16–17.

(13.) Nancey Murphy, “Nonreductive Physicalism: Philosophical Issues,” in Whatever Happened to the Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature, ed. Warren S. Brown, Nancey Murphy, and H. Newton Maloney (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998).

(14.) James H. Austin, Zen-Brain Reflections (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 184.

(15.) Patrick McNamara, The Neuroscience of Religious Experience (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 11. See also, Nina P. Azari, “Neuroimaging Studies of Religious Experience: A Critical Review,” in Where God and Science Meet, Vol. 2, ed. Patrick McNamara (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006), 41.

(16.) V. S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee, Phantoms in the Brain (New York: Quill, 1998), 185.

(17.) Steven Katz. “The ‘Conservative’ Character of Mystical Experience,” in Mysticism and Religious Traditions, ed. Steven Katz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 4.

(18.) Robert K. C. Forman, “Introduction: Mysticism, Constructivism, and Forgetting,” in The Problem of Pure Consciousness, ed. Robert K. C. Forman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 3–49.

(19.) William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Collier Books, 1973), 30.

(20.) Ibid., 335.

(21.) Abraham Maslow, Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences (New York: Penguin Group, 1970).

(22.) Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell (San Bernardino, CA: Borgo Press, 1990), 23–24.

(23.) Patrick McNamara, The Neuroscience of Religious Experience (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009), xii.

(24.) Arthur J. Deikman, “Deautomatizaion and the Mystic Experience,” in Understanding Mysticism, ed. Richard Woods (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1980), 247.

(25.) Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1996), 7.

(26.) William Barnard, “Exploring the Unseen Worlds of Consciousness,” Journal of Consciousness Studies 21 (2014): 40–59.

(27.) Sigmund Freud, Civilizations and Its Discontents, trans. and ed. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton, 1962).

(28.) Raymond Prince and Charles Savage, “Mystical States and the Concept of Regression,” in The Highest State of Consciousness, ed. John White (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1972), 114–134.

(29.) Alexander Maven, “The Mystic Union: A Suggested Biological Interpretation,” in The Highest State of Consciousness, ed. John White (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1972), 429–435.

(30.) Jason Blum, “The Science of Consciousness and Mystical Experience: An Argument for Radical Empiricism,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 82 (2014): 150–173.

(31.) Jane Goodall and Phillip Berman, Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey (New York: Warner Books, 1999), 173.

(32.) Jane Goodall, “Do Chimpanzees have Souls? Possible precursors of religious behavior in animals,” in Science and Beyond, ed. B. V. Sreekantan, et al. (Bangalore, India: National Institute of Advanced Studies, 2004), 279–282.

(33.) Ursula Goodenough, The Sacred Depths of Nature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

(34.) Brian Swimme, The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996).

(35.) Claudio Naranjo and Robert E. Ornstein, On the Psychology of Meditation (New York: Viking Press, 1974).

(36.) Ibid.,169.

(37.) Michael A. Persinger, “Religious and Mystical Experiences as Artifacts of Temporal Lobe Function: A General Hypothesis,” Perceptual and Motor Skills 57 (1983): 1255–1262.

(38.) In reference to the reliability of Persinger’s research, see James Austin, Zen-Brain Reflections, 157, and in reference to the fear of reductionism, see the online video, “Persinger vs. Dawkins: The God Helmet,” from Tommy Decentralized.

(39.) M. A. Persinger, “Vectorial Cerebral Hemisphericity as Differential Sources for the Sensed Presence, Mystical Experiences, and Religious Conversions,” Perceptual and Motor Skills 76 (1993): 915–930.

(40.) Mario Beauregard and Vincent Paquette, “EEG activity in Carmelite nuns during a mystical experience,” Neuroscience Letters 444 (2008): 1–4.

(41.) Austin, Zen and the Brain, 88.

(42.) Mario Beauregard and Vincent Paquette, “Neural Correlates of a Mystical Experience in Carmelite Nuns,” Neuroscience Letters 405 (2006): 186–190.

(43.) Eugene d’Aquili and Andrew B. Newberg, The Mystical Mind (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999).

(44.) For a critique of this work, see Michael L. Spezio, “Engaging d’Aquili and Newberg’s ‘The Mystical Mind,’” Zygon 36 (2001): 477–484.

(45.) d’Aquili and Newberg, The Mystical Mind (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 193.

(46.) Stephen Kaplan, “Grasping at Ontological Straws: Overcoming Reductionism in the Advaita Vedānta-Neuroscience Dialogue,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 77 (2009): 238–274.

(47.) “Different Practices, Different Brains, and Different Spiritualities?” was the title of a symposium run at the Sivananda Ashram and Yoga Retreat (January 2014), Paradise Island, Bahamas, organized by Stephen Kaplan.

(48.) Walter H. Pahnke, “Drugs and Mysticism,” in The Highest State of Consciousness, ed. John White (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1972), 257–277.

(50.) Robin L. Carter Harris, et al., “The Entropic Brain: A Theory of Conscious States Informed by Neuroimaging with Psychedelic Drugs,” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 8 (2014).

(51.) Ron Cole-Turner, “The Potential Religious Relevance of Entheogens,” Zygon 49 (2014): 642–651, 646.

(52.) “The Brain from Top to Bottom,” Canadian Institute of Health Research and The Institute of Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction (INMHA).

(53.) For a discussion of this notion see Ramachandran and Blakeslee, Phantoms in the Brain, 174–198.

(54.) Jeffrey L. Saver and John Rabin, “The Neural Substrates of Religious Experience,” The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences 9 (1997): 498–510.

(55.) Ibid., 498.

(56.) D. M. Tucker, R. A. Novelly, and P. J. Walker, “Hyperreligiousity in Temporal Lobe Epilepsy: Redefining the Relationship,” The Journal of Nervous and Mental Health 175 (1998):181–184; and A. Ogata and T. Miyakawa, “Religious Experiences in Epileptic Patients with a Focus on Ictus-Related Episodes,” Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences 52 (1998): 321–325.

(57.) O. Devinsky and G. Lai, “Spirituality and Religion in Epilepsy,” Epilepsy Behavior 12 (2008): 636–643.

(58.) David T. Bradford, “Emotion in Mystical Experience,” Religion, Brain, and Behavior 3 (2013): 103–118, 111.

(59.) Śaṅkara, “Taittirīya Upaniṣad Bhāṣya,” in Eight Upaniṣads with the Commentary of Śaṅkarācārya, trans. Swami Gambhirananda (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1995), 341–342.

(60.) Patricia E. Sharp, “Meditation-Induced Bliss Viewed as Release from Conditioned Neural (Thought) Patterns that Block Reward Signals in the Brain Pleasure Center,” Religion, Brain, & Behavior 4 (2014): 202–229.

(61.) For a critique of Sharp’s position, see Michael Spezio, “Modeling Meditation Bliss: Addiction and the ‘Default Mode’ of Self-Referential Processing,” Religion, Brain, & Behavior 4 (2014): 245–248.

(62.) Max Jammer, Einstein and Religion: Physics and Theology (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 78.

(63.) Ibid., 73; and Albert Einstein, Out of My Later Years (New York: Citadel Press, 1956), 21–30.

(64.) Niels Bohr, Essays 1958–1962 on Atomic Physics and Human Knowledge (Woodbridge, CT: Ox Bow Press, 1963), 14.

(65.) Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), 202.

(66.) Edwin Schrodinger, Science and Humanism: Physics in Our Time (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1961), 51.

(67.) Edwin Schrodinger, My View of the World, translated by Cecily Hastings (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1964), 22

(68.) Ibid, 101.

(69.) Fritjob Capra, The Tao of Physics (Boulder, CO: Shambala, 1975), 11.

(70.) Roger Penrose, “Mechanisms, Microtubules, and the Mind,” Journal of Consciousness Studies 1 (1994): 241–249.

(71.) Stuart Hameroff, “Consciousness, Microtubules, & ‘Orch OR,’” Journal of Consciousness Studies 21 (2014): 126–143.

(72.) Karl H. Pribram, Languages of the Brain (California: Brooks/Cole, 1977).

(73.) David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980).

(74.) For an interpretation of Bohm’s model, which illustrates how one can envision the ultimacy, not penultimacy, of three different forms of mystical experience, including those of Richard of St. Victor (theistic), Śaṅkara (non-dualistic Being), and Vasubandhu (process non-dualism), see: Stephen Kaplan, Different Paths, Different Summits: A Model for Religious Pluralism (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002).

(75.) Marilyn Ferguson, “An Editorial,” Brain/Mind Bulletin 2 (1977): 1.

(76.) Leonard Susskind, The Black Hole War (New York: Little, Brown, 2008).

(77.) Stephen Hawking, The Universe in a Nutshell (New York: Bantam Books, 2001).

(78.) Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos (New York: Vintage Books, 2004), 485.

(79.) Hans H. Penner, “The Mystical Illusion,” in Mysticism and Religious Traditions, ed. Steven T. Katz (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 89–116.

(80.) Louis Bouyer, “An Essay on the History of the Word,” in Understanding Mysticism, ed. Richard Woods (New York: Image Books, 1980), 42–55.

(81.) Wayne Proudfoot, Religious Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).

(82.) Leigh Eric Schmidt, “The Making of Modern Mysticism,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 71 (2003): 273–302.

(83.) Robert H. Sharf, “Experience,” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, ed. Mark C. Taylor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 110.

(84.) Herbert Benson, Timeless Healing: The Power and Biology of Belief (New York: Scribner, 1996).

(85.) Jon Kabat-Zinn, et al., “Effectiveness of a meditation-based stress reduction program in the treatment of anxiety disorders,” American Journal of Psychiatry 149 (1992): 936–943.

(87.) For an overview of Davidson’s research agenda see The World We Make with the Dalai Lama.