What happens in the brain to bring about the conditions necessary for a peak or ‘mystical’ experience?

According to studies, the most impactful peak experiences are characterized by a weird combination of pronounced alertness without thinking content. No doubt the unusual combination helps explain why some meditators talk about a state of no-mind or no-thought. Yet the condition is not exclusive to meditators. Similar reports flood in around activities involving serious attention, such as getting lost in a game of football or even staring wistfully at an open fireplace for a while. But what is going on in the brain?

Other than during still meditation, when a person focuses exclusively on a single action or series of actions so engrained that they need no conscious attendance to the movements – like a tea ceremony, a sequence of worshipful offering, or even a golfing putt – the target amplifies in working memory until it takes up all the available room.

Soaking up all working memory disengages the other activities in the brain’s main thinking area, the pre-frontal cortex. It is a bit like an old computer that seems to be able to cope with one program at a time, running slower and slower when other tasks are asked of it.

At varying levels and with different intensities, we have all experienced the conditions of concentration described above along with its consequences. The deeper the episode, the more unlikely it is that any consideration will be given to what is happening at the time. However later, as we snap out of it, we begin sifting through the experience as the thinking, reflective capacities of our brain come back on line.

Typical reports from studies along with our own anecdotal accounts of these events suggest that most of us feel a diminished sense of time, an absent, distorted or blurred sense of self, very little of any conscious, analytical thinking, and perhaps an occasional but impressive glimpse of insight through some abstract thought or concept. For a lucky few, brief sensations of unity with something grand but indescribable may occur as if temporarily connected directly to something greater.

You can immediately see how the latter would be interpreted as God or something spiritual upon later reflection by someone who had been praying or meditating. Studies show, however, that other ritualized activities can also lead to peak or mystical episodes. Examples include choir practice, sports watching (especially with singing and chanting), household chores like dishwashing, and during ceremonial services such as the signature solo bugle in the military’s last post.

It turns out that ritualized activities focus attention on certain aspects of sensory expression and can arise through hyperventilation, deep-breathing meditations, contemplative mountain walks, or orchestrated singing and chanting. These sensory inputs drive responses in the limbic system, which houses those functions responsible for deep-seeded, primal emotions.

When the limbic system goes into overdrive, its hyperactivity has nowhere to direct its powerful emotions, leaving undirected but intense feelings of gravity. A spillover subsequently floods raw and unprocessed emotional input through the body’s nervous system. With nothing to take the weight, the tidal flow of information cascades through the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the nervous system. In terms of function, the former system prepares the body for action as in the fight or flight response, while the latter brings about rest as in relaxation and sleep. However, when the two get moving at the same time, a system collision occurs.

The result from all of this simultaneous activity is a paradoxical ramping of both systems causing a heightened respiratory and heart rate, muscle tone, and hormonal output related to fight or flight, as well as the physiological conditions encouraging relaxation and quiescence.

Inevitably, one of the systems wins out. For example, in meditative states, the parasympathetic system wins, allowing an individual to remain alert, focused and cognitively intense without giving up a general state of relaxation. In contrast, when the sympathetic system takes the victory, more frenzied states like those associated with chanting and singing deliver terrific highs. Here, prolonged and heightened arousal is followed by a sensual release of the kind that is stereotypically followed by a cigarette.

Either of the previous outcomes can generate feelings of insight and unity with the world or with a belief-related issue. In fact, the strength of the episode is directed by an individual’s emotional response; the stronger the emotional response, the greater the later inclination to attribute significance to the event in line with existing beliefs.

In one study where brain states were recorded during peak experiences, the regions dedicated to temporal and spatial relations showed disruption. For subjects in the experiment, the practical correspondence was a blurred experience of time going hand in hand with a strange deconstruction of the barriers around a personal sense of being. Subjects had difficulty in describing the state, but talked in terms of a personal merging with a seemingly unified cosmos.

Other streams of research have revealed that peak experiences also generate a complementary suite of feel-good neuro-chemicals. For example, a concentrated focus on a singular item or idea leads to a causal chain blocking sensory impulses until they can no longer be transmitted. Inhibition tames the brain’s thinking engine, the cortex, like a Rottweiler fed steak laced with sleeping pills. Instead of thinking reflectively, a complex flood of neuro-chemicals makes a person more likely to feel invincible. Other studies have confirmed that prayer stimulates the dopaminergic (reward) system, delivering a pleasant afterglow of gratification.

In other research, the brain states of subjects involved in various meditation and meditation-like thinking, expose further relevant features of deep insights. In fact, with any dedicated attention towards a singular target, sensory input reduces and relaxation increases. Neither seems noteworthy, but the combination leads to another interesting and rare brain state.

Less dramatic than a collision of systems, thinking hard on one thing can bring about a synchronization of brain waves. This means something is happening in the brain where all of its levels of normal thinking and perception are conflated to a coordinated condition. If the mind were a stadium full of spectators, brain wave synchrony is the equivalent to a perfectly orchestrated Mexican Wave.

During moments of brain wave synchrony, the limbic system takes control of the cortex, which means in effect that the primal part of the brain is taking care of business, in a sense allowing the fox to run the henhouse. The upside, however, of the limbic system running the show, is that instead of the heavy analytical response of the frontal brain’s cortex, the new chief allocates a pleasant sensation of unity, and perhaps even transcendence.

A synthesis of behavior, emotion and thought deliver a remarkable degree of focus while giving the recipient a sense of unified, boundary-less consciousness from which new insights spring with the help of later interpretation based on pre-existing beliefs. All you need to get started is a brain. 

About the Author

Aaron C.T. Smith

Aaron Smith is a professor of management at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University, in Melbourne, Australia.

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