(This piece was created in collaboration with research from drugscience.org.uk)
At first glance, the title ‘a science of mysticism’ appears paradoxical. However, at its epistemological roots, science is considered by some schools of thought to be a product of the false dichotomy between the lens of the observer (psychology) and the observed laws of nature (philosophy).
This is important to acknowledge because in tackling a broad domain such as the ‘science of mysticism’ we must consider what defines both science and the mystical. The title deliberately communicates ‘a science’ as opposed to ‘the science’ – as one of multiple possible processes.
This article attempted to integrate polarities and bring some objectivism to an inherently subjective experience, communicated via variations in perspective and language, firstly by standardising the terminology.
It then sought to reconcile the interplay between emergent and reductionist perspectives by both zooming out (a holistic inter-disciplinary approach) and zooming in (changes at a neurobiological level).
In doing so, the article touches upon the key role of the inter-dependence of the psychological and physiological, as manifested in the placebo / nocebo effect, or mind-body consciousness connection; alongside the elements of ritual, ceremony and narrative in such a process.
Language And Etymology
Mysticism remains relatively intangible and encompasses a variety of definitions including:
‘The experience of mystical union or direct communion with ultimate reality as reported by mystics; The belief that direct knowledge of spiritual truth or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience (such as intuition or insight); A vague speculation or belief without substantial evidence; A theory postulating the possibility of direct and intuitive acquisition of ineffable knowledge’.
Its etymology stems via Latin from Greek: ‘mustēs’ – ‘initiated person’ and ‘muein’ – to close the eyes or lips. While modern science is the art of what can be observed, measured, repeated, and rationalised, this etymology perhaps hints at the irrational half of experience – such as what may be unconscious, intuitive, imagined or felt.
A critical definitional feature of the mystical is a sense of unity, or becoming one with all that exists. This is reminiscent of the subjective accounts of ‘ego dissolution’ – an experience commonly referenced by those that undergo psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy in clinical trials.
Stace (1960) makes a distinction between ‘extrovertive’ and ‘introvertive’ mystical unity. He defines the extrovertive experience as involving recognition of oneness with all (finding unity at the core of the inner subjectivity of all things despite apparent individual identity and separation) and the introvertive experience as a complete dissolution of the self and individual identity.
Introvertive experience involves a unity that is otherwise devoid of content, sometimes referred to as ‘the void’. While both types are considered experiences of mystical unity, Stace considered extrovertive unity as an ‘incomplete kind of experience which finds its completion and fulfilment in the introvertive experience’.
He went on to describe six other dimensions of mystical experience: sacredness (a sense that what is encountered is holy or sacred), noetic quality (imbued with an aspect of meaning and a sense that what is encountered is more real than everyday reality), deep positive mood, paradoxicality and transcendence of time and space.
As such an experience wears so many faces, making it challenging to cover every aspect in any depth – the overall aim was to touch upon commonalities across the findings from different disciplines, and unite this grey zone full circle under the modern definition and timeless etymology of ‘mysticism’.
While the integrative lens purports the benefits of a lack of separation between silos, each category has been emphasised using the headings below. It is acknowledged that this method is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete, but it aims to bring some form of calibration and structure to perspective, while leaving scope for personalisation through modification of the underlying assumptions, interpretation and belief.
Frequently referred to as ineffable, ‘ego-dissolution’ experiences are often described as a feeling of ‘oneness’: entering into a new state of consciousness beyond the limits of identity that generates sentiments of interconnectedness and being a part of a larger whole.
From a scientific perspective, hallucinogen-related changes in brain areas cannot be taken as absolute markers of mystical experience, since not all experiences with classic hallucinogens are currently considered ‘mystical’.
Spontaneous or organic experience (without the assistance of substances) are also possible, and 5HT2a receptor agonism may play only an initiatory role in the brain processes that account for, or correlate with mystical experiences.
Therefore the literature on the neural correlates of classic hallucinogens alone is believed to be insufficient to provide a complete model of the neural basis of mystical experiences. One approach additionally considers the impact of practices such as meditation, which can also initiate such experiences.
Just as the placebo effect provokes endogenous healing responses, psychedelic medicines along with traditionally spiritual practices such as meditation and yoga, can activate both the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, creating shifts in activity and balance within the autonomic nervous system.
These shifts are found in many ritualistic treatment processes involving altered states of consciousness, and are showing promise in relieving some of the symptoms of stress (chronic overstimulation of the sympathetic system).
In the modern era, it has become a rare feat to maintain a parasympathetic dominant state, which would allow for an intense internal focus of attention. It may be this internal locus that could be at the heart of the introvertive mystical experience, with its defining non-spatial and non-temporal aspects.
Such a phenomenology possesses links to the notion of panpsychism. In the philosophy of mind, panpsychism is the view that ‘mentality is fundamental and ubiquitous in the natural world’ – that a mind, or a mind-like aspect (consciousness) is a ubiquitous feature of reality or awareness. Due to the circular nature of prevailing paradigms, it is also being found that psychedelic-use encourages the adoption of this view.
Descartes is considered one of the first Western philosophers to have identified the mind with consciousness and self-awareness, and to have distinguished this from the brain, as the seat of intelligence. This laid the groundwork for the mind-body problem as it exists today: the explanation of the relationship that exists between minds or mental processes, and bodily states or processes.
This concerns the question of how it can be possible for conscious experiences to arise out of a lump of grey matter endowed with nothing but electrochemical properties, or how an individual’s propositional attitudes (e.g. desires and beliefs) affect that individuals’ responses on a neurochemical basis.
Dualism is a set of views about the relationship between mind and matter (or body). One of the earliest known formulations of mind-body dualism was expressed in the Eastern Samkhya and Yoga schools of Hindu philosophy, which divided the world into purusha (mind / spirit) and prakriti (material substance).
Later figures such as the philosopher of science Roy Bhaskar came to advocate for the consideration of ‘spiritual’ thought and experiences as a constant feature of everyday life: arguing that even a successful act of communication is, in effect, an example of the spiritual principle of non-duality, where both parties become, momentarily, the same person.
This communication and synchrony is not limited to the verbal. The animal kingdom abounds with examples of groups functioning as a single whole: schools of fish, flocks of birds, ant and bee colonies work together and interact with their inorganic surroundings as an emergent organism.
We see a similar notion repeated in different phrasing through the lens of transpersonal psychology, which is more inclusive of anecdotal and phenomenological evidence. Here, psychological healing is evidenced by the enhancement of human wellbeing through the experience of elements of the psyche as deriving from relationships with ecological dimensions and nature.
Again, some transpersonal healing is achieved by temporarily shifting consciousness beyond the limits of identity construction, the influence of which can produce a personal metamorphosis through a rebalancing at physiological, emotional, psychological and spiritual (existential) levels.
This suggests that a holistic systems science of the nervous system includes a neurophenomenological perspective in which psychological changes produce physiological effects that produce experiences, and vice versa. A metaphoric logic of transformation is based on effects that are provoked physiologically and interpreted culturally, which shall be touched upon in more detail later.
In this sense, such treatment ideologies illustrate the intersection of transpersonal psychology and ecopsychology, whereby humans and nature are part of a larger transpersonal whole, similar to the Gaia hypothesis proposed by scientist and environmentalist James Lovelock.
The Gaia hypothesis proposes that living organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a synergistic and self-regulating complex system that helps to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on the planet. This emergent perspective was named after the ancient Greek personification of the Earth – Gaia.
This opens up further hypotheses as avenues for exploration, including the possibility of a psychoid principle in the theory of evolution.
History Of Science and Religion Meets Modern Mathematics
Mystical experiences are often confined to the realms of the spiritual, existential or religious because Newtonian science is based on objectivism and the Popperian philosophical foundation that you can only disprove something, not prove it. Whereas religion hinges on the ineffable and the notion that there are things that you cannot test.
However this year marks the 90th year of Kurt Gödel’s seminal and math-shattering paper ‘On Formally Undecidable Propositions Of Principia Mathematica and Related Systems I’, which provides evidence for the incompleteness of formal logic (initially for first order logic, but extended to all higher forms) – demonstrating that not all Truths that can be stated in a logic system are Decidable or Provable.
After encoding the formal limits by defining mathematical completeness, Göedel went on to show the absolute limits of any mathematical system using what has come to be known as Göedel numbering. This has already revolutionised the fields of mathematics and quantum computing, its next target could be its implications within the fields of biology and bioengineering.
Many areas exploring the mechanisms behind life are affected by biological constraints and opportunities; they are also affected by the intrinsic incompleteness of biological systems and their bult-in (logic) capacity to handle all situations from ageing to inflammatory disorders.
This suggests that both scientific and religious philosophies can co-exist. Changes in perspective could be brought about by the shift from applying a reductionist, closed systems lens to biological processes, and moving towards a multi-dimensional emergent perspective with an integrative interdisciplinary approach.
In an era where we are beginning to find evidence for the beneficial impacts of ancient traditions such as meditation on mental health, simply regarding such wisdom as primitive could be a costly mistake.
The idea that science and religion (as evidence or experience of the existential) exist on polar ends of the spectrum is a modern misconception. In many ways, science has come to represent the secular religion of the west, however scientists practicing a diverse array of faiths have contributed to the rise of the scientific revolution. This demonstrates the impact of cultural container in framing the interpretation of findings.
Medical Anthropology (Cultural Container)
With the debate still open as to whether many psychiatric diagnoses are truly universal, or relative to the prevailing culture, tools such as entheogens help us to better question what it means to live the human experience, across a spectrum that does not respect the borders of the binary.
Culture influences our behaviours in diverse ways. It consists of the social ethics, principles or morals seen in society, and manifests as a way of living that encompasses beliefs, values, customs, language and traditions. This provides the lens necessary for understanding how mind, mental illness, and abnormal behaviour are studied differently in varying cultural contexts.
Within the medical sphere, there are 3 main components to consider: the culture of the patient, the physician and the medical culture within which treatment is practised. This can affect the diagnosis, prognosis, treatment expectations, compliance, and presentation.
An illustrative example of this is ‘culture-bound’ syndromes – which often have a special relationship with their setting. Culture-bound syndromes show few objective biochemical or structural alterations of organs or functions, but are a mix of behavioural and somatic symptoms.
For example ‘Ghost Sickness’ is a term used among the Navajo of North America to describe a preoccupation with the deceased. This manifests as loss of appetite, suffocation, recurring nightmares, and anxiety; culturally it may be associated with experiences of ghosts or witches.
There are a variety of mainstream psychological theories about ‘ghosts’ and ‘spirits’ – emotional energies which may be viewed as being directly or indirectly related to the cause of an event, accident or illness.
Alternative interpretations of symptoms affect subsequent approaches to treatment. For example in Creek culture, purification rituals for mourning focus on moving an energy called ‘Ibofanga’ which is supposedly obstructed between mind, body and spirit – causing prolonged emotional and physical drain.
The prevailing paradigm and culture is therefore the container framing the entire experience of mental health for both the patient and clinician – moulding the interpretations of thoughts, emotions and behaviours that rise to the level of symptoms.
While cultural variations are broad and diverse across the globe, on a reductionist level, some researchers believe that there are fundamental similarities in spiritual experiences that could reflect innate brain processes in the neurobiology of the human species.
One common reference is the mechanism of action that is initiated through activation of the 5-HT2A receptor and likely involves downstream glutamate effects. This also involves the endocannabinoid system – an equally extensive systems science with emergent properties, the precise molecular components of which are only just emerging.
Integrative Neurobiology In Practice
A modern intervention that demonstrates the success of integrating a variety of disciplines and perspectives is that of the treatment of addiction. A paradoxical situation exists in the fundamental role of spirituality in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and the acceptance of this approach by mainstream biomedicine.
The AA, an avowedly religious or psychospiritual approach to overcoming addictions, is the treatment of choice for what medicine still categorises as a predominantly physiological disease.
The contradiction between the mainstream definition of addiction as biochemical and the predominant treatment modality based on spiritual healing, has some resolution in a framework that understands the interplay between ritualistic approaches to the narrative of existential experiences, alongside their neurological foundations.
Treatment results indicate that psycho-biological perspectives are useful both as a prophylactic against addictive behaviours, as well as potential treatment. They can provide an alternative source of transcendence, and facilitate a smoother transition to the path of recovery.
Many forms of altered states of consciousness such as drumming groups, shamanic circles and group meditation also provide a like-minded social support community and set of activities to occupy the time and energy of participants. Creating a social reference group to affect behaviour and sense of self can be central to the self-transformations underlying recovery.
It is the added intangible elements of faith / belief and emotional connection that are the existential features provoking endogenous healing responses. This is supported by studies demonstrating that placebo (mind) and drug (body) are not separate, psychological and physiological processes, rather they are part of a highly complex integrated systems interaction between consciousness, genetics, environment, and the types of substances being used.
The difficulty with such phenomena has currently been the lack of molecular measurability. Current theories as to how the mind-body consciousness connection operates are based along the lines of the Pavlov’s dog effect. However the precise molecules involved in things such as conditioning, expectancy or emotion are still poorly understood.
The emergence of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy and its potential to transform the medical model could be leading us towards a new paradigm that bridges the gaps between quantifiable Hippocratic (biochemical – rational) and intangible Asclepian (emotional – irrational) dimensions.
Dr Ted Kaptchuk is a professor of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard and Director of the Harvard-wide programme in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter. His findings demonstrate that the positive results of placebo were strongest in patients that received the most warmth and care. The encounter itself provoked a biological response, and the more intense and focused, the more healing it evoked.
It has become standard practice to measure the efficacy of a drug by isolating the imagination. The paradox therefore, is that the placebo effect is treated as an important part of every treatment, but is not given the same respect as a stand-alone option or even extensively used in synergy with medication to improve current practices.
However, according to Dr Kaptchuk it would be a mistake to reduce the placebo response to just its molecules, as measuring it quantitatively in this way transforms it into something other than what it is. For example, it could be akin to reducing an intangible holistic process such as ‘love’ to its constituent hormones and molecules.
Art And Aesthetics
A picture says a thousand words – while language is a tool for progress, collaboration and communication, it can simultaneously be one of division and limitation.
In Japenese Aesthetics, the notion of ‘wabi-sabi’ is the culture, philosophy, art form or perhaps altered state of consciousness that captures the concept of that which is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete.
Wabi-sabi tends to be portrayed in both man-made and natural objects that symbolise the quirks and anomalies in things. It is indicative of natural processes that result in objects that are irregular or ambiguous.
‘Sabi’ refers to the influence of time on objects. Objects are ‘sabi’ if they have on them, the imprint of natural forces – resulting in flaws, irregularities and a constant state of change and flux.
For centuries, art has been used to portray that which is sacred or mysterious, and to capture the state of consciousness of the prevailing culture. It is open to subjective interpretation, evokes different responses in different people, and has the ability to tell a new set of stories through emergent properties.
A Holistic Systems Science
We know that everything is more than just the sum of its parts, and there is surmounting evidence for a holistic systems science of the nervous system that is inclusive of cognition and consciousness; replacing the monolithic concept of psyche with an integrated systems operation of information, mind, self and life.
‘The science of mysticism’ is in many respects synonymous with ‘the science of experience’, or a science of the imagination. This can include non-ordinary states of consciousness that seem entirely irrational or ‘magical’, but can also encompass feelings and emotions, and the meaning we ascribe to certain sensations or events. Such a picture could not be limited to the scope of one dominant silo, context, or a reductionist molecular theory, despite these being no less important.
Integrating polarities forces us to find the common ground located in the grey zone. It suggests that we can often be left with a paradoxical perspective that accommodates both sides in a non-binary manner. The incompleteness of such a spectrum builds a more complete picture that helps science to tackle some of the areas that still have question marks hovering above them today.
This includes the domain of the mind-body consciousness connection (placebo and nocebo) and the limitations of the definition of ‘non-psychoactive’ – for example caffeine and entertainment equally alter consciousness and physiologically produce alterations in the endocannabinoid system.
It is for this reason that some of the sources above include practices such as the ritualistic application of Kambo, which is typically considered ‘non-psychoactive’ but can still instigate ‘mystical’ experiences in participants, including ‘ego-dissolution’ and the dispersal of symptoms of depression – in line with the personal beliefs and value-orientations of the participants.
Such substances also highlight the importance of connection, narrative and ritual in symbolic healing processes, which vary depending on the cultural container. It is believed by some researchers that these processes of myth, archetype and metaphor represent the social, bodily and psychological domains respectively.
When it comes to modern methods for managing mental health, integrative solutions already champion the benefits of a personalised, bio-psycho-social approach to sustainable outcomes in chronic care. However a truly integrative approach is not limited to secular scientific departments, but may equally extend an arm into the humanities and the existential.
In the quest for answers, we are often only presented with further questions – and this process, as opposed to event, is one of collaboration and co-creation where paradoxical truths can find unity in diversity by reconsidering their underlying assumptions, in order to adopt alternative perspectives based on the cultural container.
As we look forwards towards a horizon where the branches of science and technology are set to deliver exponential rates of progress and intelligence, perhaps there is equal weighting to be found in glancing back towards some of the ancient wisdom traditions and symbolism of our long-forgotten roots.