In the past decade especially, my interest in the puzzles of personal, unexplained “mystical” phenomena has been remorselessly worn away. It is as though science, or at least scientific theory, had gone to battle against my lust for wonder. True, countless other sources of wonder still surround me, but my own “spontaneous mystical experience” naturally was the one I liked best.
Let me explain. One day some years ago I returned to a favorite place in the country for a relaxed walk along a rustic pathway that had been worn into a forested hillside. Nothing extraordinary was happening in my life on that day, but after ten minutes’ walk something extraordinary did happen. I looked up into the sky and watched the lazily moving cumulus, smelled the scent of cedar on the light breeze. The cedars were waving gently, the sun was warm on my skin, and I was very relaxed, feeling absolutely no pain of body or mind.
And then I disappeared. Or at least the “I” that is me ceased to exist. My sense of self, that is to say my ego, took an unprecedented leave of absence and Nigel Hey wasn’t there any more. I was free in the cosmos, liberated from the burden of me-ness and aware of little else but a weightless, childish delight as I savored the serenity of the moment. And no, I hadn’t ingested any magic mushrooms or “recreational” drugs.
Hardly any time at all passed before “I” rejoined the visible “me.” I returned home the way I came, made myself a cup of tea, and thought very seriously about that experience. What I knew about such things was limited to simple curiosity, sporadic reading about Buddhist and Taoist religion, which have little use for the ego, and attendance at a lecture by the Zen teacher Alan Watts, who had a lot to say about the mistaken Western perception that skin forms a barrier between people and the rest of creation. Watts had by then tried hallucinogens that included mescaline (from peyote cactus) and LSD.
My experience on that hillside walk was remarkable enough that I included it in my book Wonderment, an autobiography published in 2012.
That sudden, short trip out of myself and back again – without the aid of drugs — wasn’t the sort of thing that I could comfortably discuss with my friends over a beer, not at that time in my life, but the memory stuck indelibly in my mind. And it turned out that such experiences were of interest to more people than I realized. Today Wikipedia even carries an entry on the temporary absence without leave of ego, misnamed “Ego Death.”
Maybe it was something I ate without knowing. But as months and years went by I saw many euphoric references to ego death in the works of people like Herman Melville, William Wordsworth, Virginia Woolf, Eugene O’Neill, Willa Cather, Bernard Berelson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, all the way back to Buddha (of course) and Plato. I doubt that they were all eating magic mushrooms but I don’t want to dismiss the possibility.
A number of neurologists and other scientists now have similar theories for what causes ego death, and it is not a call from the divine. Coarsely put, for their papers are thickly laced with technical terminology and jargon, ego death is what happens to an unbalanced human mind. The great novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky probably knew this through self-observation because he was both an epileptic and an ego-shedder. “There are moments, and it is only a matter of a few seconds, when you feel the presence of the eternal harmony,” he wrote in Demons. “A terrible thing is the frightful clearness with which it manifests itself and the rapture with which it fills you . . . During these five seconds I live a whole human existence, and for that I would give my whole life and not think that I was paying too dearly.” Five seconds!
Unlike the scientists of Dostoevsky’s time, today’s researchers have access to brain imaging techniques and benefit from the knowledge derived from carefully managed human experiments — mostly with the aid of hallucinogens like psilocybin, which provides the magic in the mushrooms that were of such interest during the hippie days of the 1960s. Their theories are more widely acceptable than mere magic for the reason that they have been verified by many controlled experiments, carried out by distinguished scientists using up-to-date techniques that include functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
Simplistically put, and with apologies to the genuine experts, we can imagine two main parts (complexes) within the brain, one of which, serving the “emotional brain,” is linked with the limbic system and is responsible for the information and commands that we have inherited from early ancestors, responsible for self-preservation, reproduction, memory, fear, anger and pleasure. Above and forward is the “rational brain,” centered in the neocortex, which handles language, future planning, abstract thought, imagination, and awareness of the self. These two systems operate in balance, or slightly out of balance, using more or less energy (therefore more or less blood supply) depending on the operational needs of each. A relatively new theory is that the balance is sustained by a third complex, the default network, which among other things apparently monitors and controls how much energy is used by individual brain functions, channeling extra blood from other parts of the brain as needed. (These are three of the many interrelated systems needed to keep the human brain alive and well.)
When the balance is tipped sufficiently toward criticality, thought to be “a transition zone between the two extremes of system order and chaos,” the mind’s normal functions are disrupted, causing unusual positive or negative effects that in drug-talk are called psychedelic. Regular connections between different parts of the brain are scrambled and the sense of self will be put aside in favor of what might be called a simplified worldview, or a more primitive type of consciousness. In professionally monitored psilocybin experiences the effect wears off after a while, though some participants report a long-term up-tick in their mental relationship with the world and cosmos. They had “experiences similar to spontaneously occurring mystical experiences and which were evaluated by volunteers as having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance,” reported a team led by Roland Griffiths, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in a 2006 issue of the journal Psychopharmacology.
“One explanation for why some people celebrate and romanticize the psychedelic experience and even consider it ‘sacred’ is that, in terms of criticality, brain activity does actually become more consistent with the rest of nature in this state,” reports a team led by Robin Carhart-Harris of Imperial College London, one of the main investigators in this field and a skeptic when it comes to metaphysical speculation. “It moves closer to criticality-proper and so is more in harmony with the rest of nature.”
I confess I was put off by the suggestion that I enjoyed viewing the world through even vaguely subhuman eyes. But if that was the case yes, I relished it for that short time and as a result my feelings toward existence had become more positive. I’ll leave the ego-death anecdote in future editions of the autobiography. And I am cheered by the news that this type of research is expected to give science a better understanding of Alzheimer’s disease, autism, schizophrenia, and other mental disorders.
Research in the field is described at length in first-rate popular-magazine language by Michael Pollan in “The Trip Treatment: Research into psychedelics, shut down for decades, is now yielding exciting results,” published in the February 9, 2015 issue of the New Yorker. It’s a must read for non-specialists who want to learn more about this fascinating subject. A journal article titled “The Entropic Brain,” by Carhart-Harris and colleagues, would be hard to beat for a detailed technical overview.