Many people have had mystical experiences. To those who experience them, they often seem like learning some great truth or perceiving some great reality. Mystical experiences are often cited as proof of various Religious and Philosophical beliefs, though what is experienced varies widely. However, they do have various commonalities, and there is strong evidence that they are a sort of Hallucination.
Though what is experienced in mystical experiences varies widely, many mystical experiences have much in common, and various people have created lists of shared features. In Religion and Science, Bertrand Russell has listed three of them, which are roughly
- Real Reality is one
- Real Reality is timeless
- Real Reality is good
Multiplicity, time, and evil mystics then explain as due to our usual perceptions being inadequate. For instance, many Hindu mystics claim to have direct experience of the identity of Atman, each individual soul, and Brahman, the world soul. Our normal perceptions, they claim, are illusions, hallucinations.
Likewise, Eugene d'Aquili and Robert Newberg have proposed that mystical experiences feature the loss of these perceptions:
- Passage of time
- Extension of space
- Distinction between objects in the external world
- Distinction of the self and the external world
An Epistemological Problem
Mystical experiences pose an interesting epistemological problem that can be illustrated with the phantom limb or stump hallucination. Amputees sometimes experience the continued presence of an amputated limb, despite the absence of the limb being very evident. The problem here is that we do not really perceive objects. We get perceptions and we unconsciously interpret them as objects, creating a mental model of the external world as we go. Thus, rainbows and clouds seem like solid objects because that's how our perception interpretation works. So in the case of a phantom limb, the phantom-limb perception and all our other perceptions yield external-world models that cannot be reconciled: the limb present and the limb absent. So one perception or the other must be erroneous. It seems easy to decide that the phantom-limb perception is erroneous, because the absent-limb external-world model has much greater explanatory power than the present-limb model.
But many mystics have preferred the solution that their experiences are the real perceptions and that all other perceptions are illusory. This may seem like an amputee deciding that the amputated limb is still present because of phantom-limb perceptions -- and less kind things. In response, some mystics have created elaborate metaphysical systems that explain why mystical experiences are real perceptions and why all other perceptions are illusory.
A clue to their nature can be found in the circumstances that can induce mystical experiences. Sensory deprivation, fasting, meditation, breathing exercises, heavily rhythmic music, chanting, hallucinogens, schizophrenia, migraine headaches, epilepsy, especially temporal-lobe epilepsy, ... Bertrand Russell once noted that if you eat too little, you see Heaven, while if you drink too much, you see snakes. This suggests that mystical experiences may be like many other mental functions, residing in the brain and subject to physio-chemical circumstances and provocations. That may mean that they are a kind of hallucination, a "transcendence hallucination".
Strong evidence of the neurological origin of mystical experiences was discovered by Andrew Newberg. He has done brain scans of meditating Buddhist Monks and Roman Catholic Nuns, and he has found some physiological changes that happen as the subjects meditate. In particular the parietal lobes often become quiet. The right parietal lobe keeps track of spatial orientation, while the left parietal lobe keeps track of what objects are in grasping distance, helping us distinguish between self and non-self. When the parietal lobes become quiet, we stop keeping track of space and separateness, making reality seem like one undifferentiated entity, thus satisfying Bertrand Russell's first criterion.
A counterargument to this neurological argument is the "God pod" or "God antenna" argument, that parts of our brains act as antennas for God or Brahman or some gods or Absolute Unitary Being or a transcendent world or whatever. But if all the "antenna" affects can be produced without any of the brain being an antenna, then the antenna hypothesis becomes an unnecessary one. There's also the problem of lack of information that the experiencer could not have learned about, a problem with revelation in general.
- Oregonians for Rationality:* Neurology of the Weird
- 'Mysticism' by Bertrand Russell
- Andrew Newberg's research
- Are Mystical Experiences Evidence for the Existence of a Transcendent Reality? Evaluating Eugene d'Aquili and Robert Newberg's Areguments for Absolute Unitary Being, by Jonathan Scott Miller, Bowling Green State University, Florida Philosophical Review, Volume 9, Issue 1, Summer 2009