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The PNSE Paper

I’ve mentioned this a few times, but it’s worth going over in detail. The full title is Clusters Of Individual Experiences Form A Continuum Of Persistent Non-Symbolic Experiences In Adults by Jeffery Martin, with “persistent non-symbolic experience” (PNSE) as a scientific-sounding culturally-neutral code word for “enlightenment”. Martin is a Reiki practitioner associated with the “Center for the Study of Non-Symbolic Consciousness”, so we’re not getting this from the most sober of skeptics, but I still find the project interesting enough to deserve a look.

Martin searched various religious and spiritual groups for people who both self-reported enlightenment and were affiliated with “a community that provided validity to their claims”. He says he eventually found 1200 such people who were willing to participate in the study, but that “the data reported here comes primarily from the first 50 participants who sat for in-depth interviews…based on the overall research effort these 50 were felt to be a sufficient sample to represent what has been learned from the larger population”. Although Martin says he tried to get as much diversity as possible, the group was mostly white male Americans.

Martin’s research was mostly qualitative, based on in-depth interviews, so we’re mostly going with his impressions. But his impression was that most people who self-described as enlightened had similar experiences, which could be be plotted on:

…a continuum that seemed to progress from ‘normal’ waking consciousness toward a distant location where participants reported no individualized sense of self, no self-related thoughts, no emotion, and no apparent sense of agency or ability to make a choice. Locations prior to this seemed to involve consistent changes toward this direction.

He describes this distant form of consciousness as involving changes in sense-of-self, cognition, emotion, memory, and perception.

Starting with sense-of-self, he says:

Perhaps the most universal change in what PNSE participants reported related to their sense of self. They experienced a fundamental change from a highly individualized sense of self, which is common among the ‘normal’ population, to something else. How that ‘something else’ was reported often related to their religious or spiritual tradition(s), or lack thereof. For example, Buddhists often referred to a sense of spaciousness while Christians frequently spoke of experiencing a union with God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit depending on their sect. However, each experienced a transformation into a sense of self that seemed ‘larger’ and less individuated than the one that was experienced previously. Often participants talked about feeling that they extended beyond their body, sometimes very far beyond it…

This change was dramatic and most participants noticed it immediately, even if initially they could not pinpoint exactly what had occurred. Sense of self changed immediately in approximately 70% of participants. In the other 30% it unfolded gradually, with the unfolding period reported as varying from a few days to four months.

Those who were not involved in a religious or spiritual tradition that contextualized the experience often felt that they might have acquired a mental disorder. This analysis was not based on emotional or mental distress. It was typically arrived at rationally because the way they were experiencing reality was suddenly remarkably different than they had previously, and as far as they could tell different from everyone they knew. Many of these participants sought professional mental health care, which no participant viewed as having been beneficial. Clinicians often told them their descriptions showed similarities to depersonalization and derealization, except for the positive nature of the experience.

There were nuances within how sense of self was experienced at different locations along the continuum. In the earliest locations, the sense of self felt expanded, and often seemed more connected to everything. In the farthest locations on the continuum, an even more pronounced change occurred in sense of self; a ll aspects of having an individualized sense of self had vanished for these participants. Prior to this location some aspects of an individualized sense of self remained, and participants could occasionally be drawn into them.

On cognition:

Another consistent report is a shift in the nature and quantity of thoughts. Virtually all of the participants discussed this as one of the first things they noticed upon entering PNSE. The nature and degree of the change related to a participant’s location on the continuum. On the early part of the continuum, nearly all participants reported a significant reduction in, or even complete absence of, thoughts. Around 5% reported that their thoughts actually increased. Those who reported thoughts, including increased thoughts, stated that they were far less influenced by them. Participants reported that for the most part thoughts just came and went, and were generally either devoid of or contained greatly reduced emotional content.

Almost immediately it became clear that participants were not referring to the disappearance of all thoughts. They remained fully able to use thought for problem solving and living what appeared outwardly to be a ‘normal’ life. The reduction seemed limited to self-related thoughts. Nevertheless, participants were experiencing a reduction in quantity of thoughts that was so significant that when they were asked to quantify the reduction, t hose who could answered within the 80-95% range. This high percentage may suggest why someone would say all thought had fallen away.

There do not appear to be negative cognitive consequences to this reduction in thought. When asked, none said they wanted their self-referential thoughts to return to previous levels or to have the emotional charge returned to them. Participants generally reported that their problem solving abilities, mental capacity, and mental capability in general had increased because it was not being crowded out or influenced by the missing thoughts. They would often express the notion that thinking was now a much more finely tuned tool that had taken its appropriate place within their psychological architecture.

On perception:

Participants in the later part of the middle range of the PNSE continuum often reported seeing the unfolding layers of these perceptual processes in detail. They reported being able to begin to detect the difference between the orientation response and the physical, cognitive, and emotional processes that arose after it. They reported reaching a point where some events were reacted to by one or more of these layers while others were not. This was in contrast to participants on the early end of the continuum who perceived all of these layers as one during an event, or at least as a greatly reduced number of discrete processes.

You can read more, plus the sections on emotion and memory, yourself; they mostly fit with the stereotypes you would expect of enlightened people; a lot of tranquility, joy, and focus on the present moment.

What I like about this paper is the parts where it departs from these stereotypes. It makes clear that most of these people’s external characteristics didn’t change at all. In many cases, their friends and family didn’t even notice anything was different, and could not be convinced that anything about them was different:

Despite an overwhelming change in how it felt to experience both themselves and the world after the onset of PNSE, the outward appearance of the participants changed very little. Generally speaking they retained their previous mannerisms, hobbies, political ideology, food and clothing preferences, and so forth. If someone were an environmentalist prior to PNSE, typically they remained so after it. If they weren’t, they still are not.

Many participants discussed the thought, just after their transition to PNSE, that they would have to go to work and explain the difference in themselves to co-workers. They went on to describe a puzzled drive home after a full day of work when no one seemed to notice anything different about them. Quite a few chose to never discuss the change that had occurred in them with their families and friends and stated that no one seemed to notice much of a difference. In short, although they had experienced radical internal transformation, externally people didn’t seem to take much notice of it, if any.

Similarly, despite people saying that they no longer had any sense of agency, they were behaving as agentically as anyone else:

On the far end of the continuum, participants reported no sense of agency. They reported that they did not feel they could take any action of their own, nor make any decisions. Reality was perceived as just unfolding, with ‘doing’ and ‘deciding’ simply happening. Nevertheless, many of these participants were functioning in a range of demanding environments and performing well. One, for example, was a doctoral level student at a major university. Another was a young college professor who was building a strong career. Still another was a seasoned public and private sector executive who served as a high-level consultant and on various institutional-level boards.

Can you imagine investing in a company whose executive believes he cannot take any action and is just watching reality unfold? But it seems to work out.

Other times the PNSE participants are just outright wrong about their experience. When asked if they were stressed, they would say of course not, they were experiencing inner peace. But their friends and family said they were totally stressed. For example:

Over the course of a week, [one participant’s] father died, followed very rapidly by his sister. He was also going through a significant issue with one of his children. Over dinner I asked him about his internal state, which he reported as deeply peaceful and positive despite everything that was happening. Having known that the participant was bringing his longtime girlfriend, I’d taken an associate researcher with me to the meeting to independently collect the observations from her. My fellow researcher isolated the participant’s girlfriend at the bar and interviewed her about any signs of stress that the participant might be exhibiting. I casually asked the same questions to the participant as we continued our dinner conversation. Their answers couldn’t have been more different. While the participant reported no stress, his partner had been observing many telltale signs: he wasn’t sleeping well, his appetite was off, his mood was noticeably different, his muscles were much tenser than normal, his sex drive was reduced, his health was suffering, and so forth.

Or:

It was not uncommon for participants to state that they had gained increased bodily awareness upon their transition into PNSE. I arranged and observed private yoga sessions with a series of participants as part of a larger inquiry into their bodily awareness. During these sessions it became clear that participants believed they were far more aware of their body than they actually were. For example, the instructor would often put her hand on part of the body asking the participant to relax the tense muscles there, only to have the participant insist that s/he was totally relaxed in that area and did not feel any muscle tension.

Or even:

During some interviews participants expressed that they no longer felt it was possible for them to be racist or sexist. I asked these participants to take Harvard University’s Project Implicit tests online. All of these participants were white males and each showed a degree of sexism and/or racism, including participants who were in the later no emotion and agency locations on the continuum. Project Implicit uses physiology to test these responses.

It’s tempting to say these people are just making it up. But I think about some of the people I know with very severe psychiatric issues, people who are constantly miserable – and are similarly externally unaffected. These people are holding down stressful jobs, keeping difficult relationships together, etc – and often the people they haven’t “opened up to” don’t have any inkling of what they’re going through. They may tell me it must seem obvious to everybody that they’re completely falling apart – whereas in fact they are speaking fluently, they’re well-dressed, and they haven’t made a single social misstep during the whole time I’ve known them. If unusually negative mental states don’t affect behavior as strongly as people believe, why not unusually positive mental states?

Also, other times these people under-estimate themselves:

As participants neared the further reaches of the continuum, they frequently reported significant difficulty with recalling memories that related to their life history. They did not feel this way about facts, but rather about the details of the biographical moments surrounding the learning of those facts. They also reported that encoding for these types of memories seemed greatly reduced. A lthough this was their perception it did not appear to be the case when talking to them. They were typically rich sources of personal history information and their degree of recall seemed indistinguishable from participants who were in earlier locations on the continuum.

But:

There was a noticeable exception that seemed to be a genuine deficit. As they neared and entered the farther reaches of the continuum, participants routinely reported that they wereincreasingly unable to remember things such as scheduled appointments, while still being able to remember events that were part of a routine. For example, they might consistently remember to pick their child up at school each day, but forget other types of appointments such as doctor visits. Often they had adapted their routines to adjust for this change. Many would immediately write down scheduled events, items they needed to get at the store, and so forth on prominently displayed lists. When visiting their homes I noticed that these lists could be found on: televisions, computer monitors, near toilets, on and next to doors, and so forth. It was clear that the lists were being placed in locations that the participants would look with at least some degree of regularity. Participants consistently stated that they would prefer to remain in PNSE even if going back to ‘normal’ experience meant that they would no longer have this type of deficit.

Finally, Martin is impressed with the certainty that accompanies all of these experiences. People describe their PNSE as obviously more real and better than past states. They tend to be very effusive about this, saying that having the experience shattered everything they had previously believed in the most obvious and final way. But here too, there are signs that the participants are not well-attuned to what is going on in their own heads. Martin says that participants who moved from one level of his continuum to another (whether forward or back) would always say that the level they were currently at was the most fundamental and obviously real (even if they had said the opposite before). When he would tell participants about the experiences of other participants who were at different points of the continuum or just describing their experiences a slightly different way, both participants would confidently pronounce that the other wasn’t really enlightened.

I like this paper because it provides the basis for a minimalist account of enlightenment, similar to Daniel Ingram’s. Enlightenment hasn’t transformed these people’s personalities. It hasn’t given them infinite willpower or productivity or the ability to shoot qi bolts from their third eyes. It hasn’t even given them that much self-understanding. It’s just given them a different kind of internal experience.

The experience itself is hard to describe, but seems marked by drawing the self-other boundary in a different place. Participants don’t see themselves as making decisions; the decisions get made “under the hood” in a way where the person just feels like their path is laid out before them. They don’t see themselves as having thoughts; computations obviously get done, but they are not in awareness. They don’t feel like they have stress, even if the stress is physiologically present and obvious from their actions. On the other hand, they were more aware of certain low-level perceptual processes that are usually unconscious. It seems to be accompanied by total certainty that this is correct and revelatory and new (…much like the altered states people sometimes get on drugs).

None of this seems wildly outside the realm of possibility. It seems about as surprising as the existence of some new mental disorder. If 50 (or 1200, depending on how you count it) people with no history of lying said they had some kind of weird new mental disorder, I’d be willing to credit that they were describing their experience correctly, and able to give some useful information on the sorts of things that caused this disorder. It just sounds like information processing in the brain switching to some new attractor state if you force it hard enough.

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206 Responses to The PNSE Paper

  1. Radu Floricica says:

    They don’t feel like they have stress, even if the stress is physiologically present and obvious from their actions.

    Part of my mental health focus lately is fixing that – I have a pretty big disconnect between how I feel and how I think I feel. If I were to change myself, I’m pretty sure I’d chose to go in the opposite direction, at least in this respect – no much point in going through a couple of months of bad sleep without realizing that something’s bothering me. (Ironically, meditation is helping in this respect. Well, the contemplation kind)

    The most important data point here is probably the existence of the continuum (of which the author is probably aware – it’s in the title, and appears quite a few times in the text). It suggest there’s something measurable down there, like g. That’s an obvious next step…

    • dionisos says:

      I would make a difference between two things (maybe off topic but maybe not)

      Sometime I have a conscious experience like an emotion or a feeling, but I have a hard time to know exactly what it is, it is confused. The cognition/reflexivity part, the way my subjective experience include a “description” of this subjective experience is fuzzy.
      And I prefer it not to be. (at least, for moderate feelings, for strong negative feelings any amount of reduced consciousness is good)

      But what I understand about this text is more like, there isn’t any feeling, just the physiological and behavioral part of them.
      Here it seems preferable to me.

      To resume, I would prefer to better know my negative emotions and feelings , but also to have less of them, even if the consequences of these, mostly stay.

    • VivaLaPanda says:

      That’s a really interesting idea. Perhaps the continuum implies the existence of some anti-meditation that could make a person *more* aware of their stress/thoughts. I’m in the same camp as you that I already have a hard time judging my own emotional states properly, being more aware of when I’m stressed would be great (or at least having that option).

    • JT_Peterson says:

      Sounds like you might have Alexithymia. It’s common among autistic individuals (and therefore SSC readers)

  2. Great summary. Glad to finally learn this. A handful of thoughts:

    * Meditation books are often written by people who have undergone PNSE, and I’ve always wondered when I would get my “cold snap” as I labeled it. My read is that everybody has some low probability of obtaining PNSE should they encounter meditation, chemicals, or some deep experience.

    * I wonder if the attachment to PNSE comes from the moral weight we give de-egoification. People who undergo PNSE, for example, and become religious ascetics, must, on some level, feel like they’re doing the “right thing,” and society does kind of support them in doing so.

    * If nearly everybody was already experiencing PNSE, if someone suddenly became non-PNSE (i.e. more agentic), would they feel enlightened relative to everybody else?

    * Something has to be gained and lost with PNSE. Even if people with highly agentic jobs are able to still maintain them, I wouldn’t be surprised (as per the problem of the scheduled appointments), if they lost the ability to maintain that agency if they switched out of a familiar job or routine. It seems like being agentic gives more weight to issues that are related to you, and thus makes you think harder about how to approach those issues. You can accomplish a lot as an adult with automatic responses to things, which it seems like PNSE people are doing, but perhaps there are limits. It would be a cruel trick of evolution to make us suffer if we could be equally highly functional without it.

    * Does PNSE activate issues with the zombie problem in philosophy? Zombies act and behave as humans on the outside, but inside they don’t have a conscious experience. Likewise, PNSE people don’t suffer inner anguish the way ‘normal’ people do.

    • roystgnr says:

      Does PNSE activate issues with the zombie problem in philosophy?

      I have no idea what the answer to this question is, but I’m glad I’m not the only one whose immediate reactions included asking it. People whose cognitive performance seems to be as good as normal or even better, but who don’t “waste” so much of it on naval-gazing self-reflection? It’s not exactly the standard p-zombie problem, but it sure looks a lot like the Blindsight-“p-zombie” problem, which IMHO is much creepier.

    • Dacyn says:

      Does PNSE activate issues with the zombie problem in philosophy?

      Not as such, no. The original goal of the p-zombie thought experiment was to show that the existence of consciousness disproves materialism. However, the difference between PNSE and regular consciousness arises from distinct material conditions in the brain, so it doesn’t say anything about whether materialism is true.
      (that said, it is fair to see an analogy between the p-zombie thought experiment and PNSE, though I am not sure what the point of making such an analogy would be)

  3. Nornagest says:

    I asked these participants to take Harvard University’s Project Implicit tests online. All of these participants were white males and each showed a degree of sexism and/or racism…

    Or the implicit bias test is horseshit. Or both.

    I’d certainly be skeptical of claims like this if someone came to me with them — hell, I’m already skeptical — but treating Project Implicit results as gospel isn’t much better. Especially after leading with “All these participants were white males…”.

    • Enkidum says:

      The degree of hostility here towards priming and bias studies is really quite unfortunate. As I’ve said many times, these have been a central part of experimental psychology since Helmholtz (yes, that one) precisely because they are often extremely replicable and reliable.

      That being said, interpreting ANY results on the Harvard tests as “showed a degree of sexism and/or racism” is extremely misguided. And I’ll happily admit that there may be a problem with the way Project Implicit presents themselves. But to assume that the whole thing is nonsense… you’re making a mistake there.

      • kerkeslager says:

        Trying to summarize your comment in a different way:

        The tests do identify a replicable, reliable phenomena. However, identifying that phenomena as “sexism and/or racism” is a misguided logical leap.

        • Enkidum says:

          Thanks, that’s a much more succinct version of my point. What I’d also add is that it’s almost certain that what those tests reveal is importantly related to racism (or other -isms), in a way that merits a lot of study. So it’s great that a lot of study is being done. But unfortunately people are very quick to jump to over-interpretations of these findings (and the Project Implicit people may be guilty of this, I don’t know).

          • Aapje says:

            @Enkidum

            Unfortunately, the scientific fields that use this method may be so tainted that they are largely impervious to interpretations of IAT tests that are scientifically defensible, but that run counter to their biases*. If scientific studies that uses the method will typically draw wrong conclusions, then it makes sense to disbelieve the claims from such studies (as well as newspaper stories and such that repeat those claims).

            Anyway, one issue seems to be that advocates of the method tend to fail to distinguish between implicit measures of bias and measures of implicit bias. If IAT tests are merely a proxy for explicit bias with greater errors than measuring explicit bias with explicit tests, then IAT tests are simply a less accurate way to measure explicit biases.

            in a way that merits a lot of study. So it’s great that a lot of study is being done.

            IAT has been used in very many studies for 20 years and yet there are only a handful validation studies. So I strongly disagree that “a lot of study is being done” into the worth of IAT.

            Entire fields of study hold the existence of significant implicit bias as a key premise for their work, yet failed to demonstrate that implicit bias even exists, let alone that it is significant.

            * Or to be explicit: Social Justice advocates typically seem to use implicit bias as evidence for their claims of systemic discrimination, even in contexts where people don’t seem explicitly discriminatory.

          • Aapje says:

            Also:

            is importantly related to racism (or other -isms)

            An issue is that the definition for racism (or other -isms) that used by many scientists is very ideological & subjective & culturally defined, in the sense that negative feelings against specific groups get defined as racism (or other -isms).

            This means that negative feelings against other groups are not measured and that those studies are thus (ironically) arguably racist (or other -ist) themselves.

            Or even worse, racism (or other -isms) can be defined as opposition to activism which according to SJ ideology, would help a group. Then ‘racism’ and such are really anti-wokeness.

      • dogiv says:

        I took one of these tests in college, and it told me I have a strong preference for fat people.

        I do believe they can get reproducible results over large enough sample sizes, but I’m not sure how much real-world relevance we can assign to them.

        • Watchman says:

          So do you have a strong preference for fat people? I’m assuming this was not in accord with your own understanding of your preferences. Note though that isn’t the point of these tests to analyse our actual reactions not our stated preferences?

          • dogiv says:

            No, in fact at the time I felt I had a moderate preference for thin people. It’s intuitively plausible that this kind of test can show some of the consequences of suppressed racism or sexism, since many people don’t want to think of themselves as racist or sexist. But the comparatively minor social and/or moral pressure regarding views of fat people would have gone the other way–I and most of my peer group would have preferred not judging people based on their body type.

      • Nornagest says:

        I don’t mean to imply that the tests aren’t measuring a reproducible phenomenon (though I’d be interested to see what a slightly different methodology turns up), only that whatever they’re measuring has been very badly overinterpreted — by pop culture, by the authors here, and to a lesser but still substantial extent by the tests’ originators.

    • John Schilling says:

      Especially after leading with “All these participants were white males”

      That really does call out for a control group, or really two control groups. If somehow 100% of enlightened white males “test positive” for racism, what is the rate for A: unenlighted white males and B: enlightened people of color?

      Seriously, “100% of [X] test positive for racism, meh, let’s move on to our next subject”, for any value of X this side of e.g. active KKK members, is either a very surprising result worthy of further study or an indication of such sloppy thinking that I am disinclined to take the author seriously about much of anything. And, yes, the most common use of “Implicit Bias Tests” is to put a quick stamp of scientific quasi-legitimacy on that sort of sloppiness, so I’m disinclined to take that seriously either.

      • dionisos says:

        Even if the test could be interesting in itself, it is indeed very sloppy to call it a test for racism. (and I think bad, given the gravity of the subject)

        • Orion says:

          Okay, but what exactly is “under the hood” of the claim that enlightenment *prevents* racism? Surely it must be something like “enlightened people’s cognitive process are so different from non-enlightened people that they no longer engage in the kind of pattern-matching necessary for the formation of racial stereotypes.”

          I will agree that you can’t actually use the results of one persons IAT to prove that person is racist. But I think it’s reasonable to say that if enlightenment changed the way people’s minds work so radically as to make racism outright impossible, it would probably also create some kind of change in the results of IATs. If the enlightened subjects’ IATs come out indistinguishably from a control group, that is decent Bayesian evidence favoring the hypothesis that their racial attitudes should mirror a control group in other ways.

      • georgeherold says:

        I couldn’t help wondering if ‘enlightenment’ is more of a male thing. What’s the ratio of enlightened males to females?

        • Aapje says:

          Women seem to be more likely to seek out meditation, but men seem to be more interesting in progress/winning & more monomaniacal in general, so it seems plausible, in the same way that more women cook, but top chefs are more often men.

    • Watchman says:

      To be fair the test here was being used to assess a hypothesis put forward that enlightenment meant sexism or racism were not possible, rather than to characterise unconscious bias or whatever. I think it stands up as an initial finding that the hypothesis was wrong.

      It’s a weird hypothesis anyway if you think about it. Why would enlightenment, a status that has been known for over two thousand years (just to take the Buddha as a baseline), somehow achieve perfection in defeating particularly modern evils (neither racism nor sexism was a major issue 100 years ago…)?

      • Nornagest says:

        To be fair the test here was being used to assess a hypothesis put forward that enlightenment meant sexism or racism were not possible, rather than to characterise unconscious bias or whatever. I think it stands up as an initial finding that the hypothesis was wrong.

        It does no such thing. It indicates that “enlightened” participants — or at least the white male ones — pattern-match more readily to nouns related to genders or ethnic groups when primed with nouns related to associated stereotypes. Using that to assess the hypothesis that self-described enlightenment rules out sexism or racism requires not only that this type of pattern-matching accurately measures unconscious bias but also that said unconscious bias implies racism or sexism (however defined). I don’t think either of these are true — well, I don’t think the former is well evidenced, and I think the latter, while not an uncommon take, isn’t a very useful one.

      • John Schilling says:

        I think it stands up as an initial finding that the hypothesis was wrong.

        It does not. Either it stands up as an initial finding that the Project Implicit tests as used here are pseudoscientific nonsense, or it stands up as an initial finding that the hypothesis was completely inverted. This is akin to someone testing the hypothesis that a high-fiber diet prevents colon cancer, finding that literally 100% of their fiber-eating test group goes on to develop colon cancer, and responds with “meh, nothing here, on to the next hypothesis”.

        I am at a loss for a charitable explanation for this behavior, so it’s down to deciding which uncharitable explanation seems most plausible.

      • eucalculia says:

        neither racism nor sexism was a major issue 100 years ago…

        erm… not to derail the entire thread, but… what? 100 years ago women in the US were not allowed vote, and the entire Civil Rights movement hadn’t happened. I’m genuinely confused at what you could mean by this sentence that isn’t obviously false.

        • Berna says:

          OP probably means that while of course sexism and racism existed, they weren’t an issue, in the sense that no-one called them that, and most people didn’t think they were a problem.

  4. Bugmaster says:

    Martin’s research was mostly qualitative, based on in-depth interviews, so we’re mostly going with his impressions.

    So… it’s basically a bunch of testimonials, or what ?

    If 50 (or 1200, depending on how you count it) people with no history of lying said they had some kind of weird new mental disorder…

    If 50 people told you they were abducted by aliens, does it mean that there are aliens abducting people ?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I think if fifty otherwise-trustworthy people told me they were abducted by aliens, I would be pretty convinced this was at least an experience something was producing beyond just “this was a coincidence” or “they made it up”. That something could be “it’s an unusually common and vivid dream to have in our culture” or something.

      I think enlightenment being a mental experience (even if it’s real) goes part of the way to removing the “this is something people are deluded into thinking” vs. “this is something real” dichotomy. If enlightenment just turns out to be “people who meditate enough have a sudden experience in which they become deluded into thinking they have selflessness and inner peace for their whole lives”, it’s hard for me to see how this is different (in a rent-paying way) from the account in this paper.

      • viVI_IViv says:

        I think if fifty otherwise-trustworthy people told me they were abducted by aliens, I would be pretty convinced this was at least an experience something was producing beyond just “this was a coincidence” or “they made it up”. That something could be “it’s an unusually common and vivid dream to have in our culture” or something.

        If these 50 “otherwise-trustworthy” people were all practicing Raëlians, and the study was conducted by somebody affiliated with the Church of Raël, wouldn’t it be more proper to conclude that “it’s a common hallucination or made up claim they have in *their* culture”?

      • Bugmaster says:

        Like HeelBearCub and viVI_IViv said, I think there might be a bit off motte-and-bailey going on here. If I ask 50 self-reported alien abductees about their abductions, I’m going to get 50 somewhat consistent descriptions of the experience. If I ask 50 Christians about their relationship with Jesus during prayer, I’m likewise going to get 50 somewhat consistent descriptions.

        The motte here is, “something is causing all these people to report similar experiences”. It could be a shared cultural context, or a common side-effect of ritual chanting, or a combination of such factors (and many more).

        The bailey is, “aliens are real and so are Jesus and Rael”. This hypothesis also explains why all those people would report similar experiences, but it needs a lot more experimental evidence before we can accept it.

        I get your point about “self-deluding oneself into thinking one has selflessness and inner peace”, but even those claims belong in the bailey. Selflessness is not just a mental state; it’s a description of one’s actions, and humans are notoriously bad at accurately self-reporting their actions. Inner peace is admittedly harder to discern, but even that is measurable to some extent, via things like pulse rate, blood pressure, etc. People can be wrong about their own levels of selflessness and inner peace, and are in fact wrong about such things all the time. This is why I’m not inclined to just take 50 people at their word when they self-report their mental states.

        • drocta says:

          So, I’m a bit confused.

          Are other Christians often claiming that most of the time when they pray, that they get some sort of immediate feedback?

          I often hear atheists talking about this idea, but while I do believe that my prayers are heard, and that some particular things I’ve experienced may have been influenced by God through some subtle intervention (and perhaps other things that I’m not aware of through subtler intervention?), I don’t generally expect, when I’m praying, to be like, “oh, yes, this is obviously and unambiguously a response from God”.

          ok so what, are people claiming that they hear a voice or something in response? If they are, I’m not seeing them make these claims, only the people making jokes and whatnot about them.

          I mean, yes, I’ve of course heard people testifying about, like, they were trying to make a difficulty choice, and praying about it repeatedly for some time, and then eventually feeling that they were answered, and that they should make a particular choice. But my impression has been that they don’t mean “I heard God’s voice and he told me to do ” so much as something like “I suddenly felt that God probably wanted me to do , and I believe that that was due to God’s intervention.”.

          • dogiv says:

            Well there are the speaking-in-tongues people, isn’t that supposed to be an experience of direct intervention by God in your mental state?

          • viVI_IViv says:

            Many Christians certainly do claim to have mystical experiences.

            The exact content and frequency of these experiences varies with the specific denomination and subculture, it may range from a generic feeling of bliss (I used to experience it as a child when I went to Catholic mass) to full ecstatic trance and “speaking in tongues” of the Pentecostals. And of course there were plenty of saints and heretics throughout history who claimed to have had all sorts of visions, to have spoken with God, and so on.

          • Bugmaster says:

            In my experience (and, if we’re focusing on testimonials, my experience is as good as any other), Christians do not just say, “I prayed and I felt better”. Instead, they say, “I prayed and Jesus personally guided me to the right decision”, or even, “I prayed and Jesus healed my sister’s cancer”. So, yes, they do believe in tangible feedback. Many will gladly testify to that belief. Some will even come to your door, in person, to do so.

          • Jaskologist says:

            As viVI_IViv says, the exact details certainly vary by denomination, but hearing a literal voice from God is generally considered a rare thing, and usually not what is meant when they say Jesus guided their decision. Speaking in tongues would be a different kind of thing from that.

            “Mystical experiences” are very a broad category that should also not be confused with the above, though they could include them. I feel like I need to write up something about my own encounters with the numinous so we can compare notes.

          • Elementaldex says:

            My mother who prays frequently reports a direct contact with God in a perceptible way in response to her prayer once every five years or so.

        • boylermaker says:

          I think that Scott is using “selflessness” here to refer to the inner state of not perceiving strong barriers distinguishing “you” from “not you”. That’s something that is much less (if at all) externally-validatible that charity/altruism/etc.

          Also, the paper does discuss that self-reported-inner-peace does not seem to correspond 1:1 to physiological-stress-responses. The underlying data seemed like it was only a few cases, but I think it’s intriguing. It doesn’t seem to me to be doing motte-and-bailey stuff to say explicitly that these people have un-correlated physiological and psychological stress responses.

    • bsrk says:

      Have you read Passport to Magonia? It makes a pretty persuasive case that the new aliens are the same as the old supernatural beings.

      With the case of alien abduction.. I believe that there are hungry ghosts. And they are not without influence on their former relatives and friends.

      (Hungry ghosts are beings in deprivation who’s mind is consumed with craving, they cannot easily fulfill)

    • Enkidum says:

      So… it’s basically a bunch of testimonials, or what ?

      I’m not sure if you mean to come across as dismissive of interviews, but it certainly reads that way to me. So I’ll just say that talking to people and thinking about what they say does seem to be rather an important part of understanding how people work. And if a bunch of them are talking about the same kind of thing, but that is rather unusual, then it seems worth trying to provide an overview of what they say.

    • AlexanderTheGrand says:

      There are a bunch of people here who have been suspicious that they’re making this up — I’m curious exactly what you mean by this. What do you think their internal dialogue is about their experience? That they were meditating long enough and didn’t feel any change, and decided “it’s time to tell people I’m enlightened now, so they don’t think I’m wasting my time?

      I’m on Scott’s side on this, that Occam’s razor says they’re telling their own subjective truth.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        Not “making it up”, just not reliable self-reporters.

        Take the a simple case:

        Q: “Is your hamstring tense?”
        PNSE self-report: “No, it is as relaxed as it has every been.”
        Yoga instructor: “It’s tighter than a tick.”

      • DarkTigger says:

        Self reporting has shown to be an incedible mediocre tool, to learn anything about people. It’s sadly also the only tool we have to determine the inner state of someone. Scientist nowadays prefer to think, that people do not consciousnessly make things up, but some part of our brain missreports to our consciousness.

        Beeing skeptic about peoples claims, espacially when they don’t match up with apparent behavior (see bias studies, sex scandals, our favorite Scottish Gurkha), is sensible.

        • Bugmaster says:

          I generally agree with you, but:

          It’s sadly also the only tool we have to determine the inner state of someone.

          I guess it depends on what you mean by “inner state”. For example, we can measure blood pressure and pulse rate to diagnose excitement and/or anxiety; we can measure eye movement to verify attention; and, ultimately, we can use fMRI to at least get an idea about various brain states. Sure, such tests are far from perfect, but they’re definitely better than nothing.

        • FormerRanger says:

          I agree on self-reporting, and would add that the cases listed could easily fall into the category of self-editing reported states.

          If (and I obviously don’t know) there is a mental module that takes in perceptions of physiological and even psychological state and outputs them to your “consciousness,” it could easily be that the PSNE is a result of very strong training to edit (… censor) certain perceptions. Possibly relatedly, some people can ignore pain: they know it’s there if they look but alarm bells aren’t going off in the brain.

    • drocta says:

      My priors for “50 people have some kind of weird new mental disorder” are higher than “50 people were abducted by aliens”.

      Aren’t yours?

  5. Lambert says:

    The agency stuff reminds me of the Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang.

    And what of the control group? Humans are weird.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I’ve experienced this form of agency while in an altered state, and it’s really something. You let yourself take every action perfectly and in accordance with a perfectly-determined destiny. 5/5, would recommend.

      • bsrk says:

        Here is how one can replicate wisdom-release: When wisdom is entrapped, whatever confuses wisdom makes it hard to tell that it’s evil & unskillful. ie: A thought of hatred makes it hard to tell that hatred is bad. A thought of anger makes it hard to tell that anger is bad, etc.

        These three qualities are heavy-handed obscurers: sensuality thoughts, anger thoughts, hatred thoughts
        These three qualities are light-handed obscurers: empathy thoughts, fame, gain & offerings-seeking thoughts, fear of being despised thoughts.

        Once these thoughts are set aside, it can be expected that wisdom is released. The task is to see in the here & now that these thoughts are evil.

      • viVI_IViv says:

        altered state” != Enlightenment, no matter what Jeffery Martin, Daniel Ingram, Scottish Gurkha warrior and 50 other Western hippies say.

        You let yourself take every action perfectly and in accordance with a perfectly-determined destiny. 5/5, would recommend.

        You take some chemicals that fuck up your brain, preventing you from reflecting on your own actions, which will most likely result in making poor decisions. And try to dress it with some Eastern mysticism which doesn’t actually have much to do with what you do. 1/5 wouldn’t recommend.

        • Radu Floricica says:

          Consider coffee. It’s altering your brain in a way that’s widely thought to be both useful and harmless. Which suggests there is a matter of degree – of course talking cactuses (cacti?) are a bit beyond useful, but there are probably quite a few substances and dosages that are over coffee and under high dose of LSD.

        • Freddie deBoer says:

          drugs are bad mmkay

          • viVI_IViv says:

            I mean, do whatever you want to your brain, I don’t care, I just find it ludicrous when somebody who has no cultural connection to Dharmic religions takes drugs and then claims “this must be what Gautama Buddha was talking about”.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          I never claimed that it was, I just claimed that the “sense of not making your own decisions” is something that can be associated with various other states as well.

      • Lambert says:

        How do you get to that state without learning about Hamiltonians and hanging out with aliens?

  6. chaosmage says:

    I have more to say about this than I can squeeze into a comment – I’ll blog about it and link it from the subreddit.

    But anecdotally, at a level of evidence not worthy of a blog post… I do claim that sort of altered mental state. I also have a diagnosis of adult ADHD. The phenomenology in this paper sounds like the two might be related more generally, not just in my case. Especially the thing about difficulty remembering scheduled appointments seems to be part of both. And spending more time “in the moment” might be the flip side of impaired ability to do mental time travel.

    • Gurkenglas says:

      I have a diagnosis of adult ADHD, difficulty remembering scheduled appointments unless they’re routine, am bad at perceiving or even quantifying the effects of medication, and my akrasia has taught me to word my replies as though I had no free will, at best prognosticating based on past experience whether I will do something.

    • Hyperfocus says:

      Thirded. Also an ADHDer, and my immediate response to reading the part about missing appointments, but being able to function around routines, was to think “maybe that’s my problem; I’ve been going around half-enlightened my whole life”.

    • acbabis says:

      This has always confused me. I have ADHD and I take medication. What I find confusing is that it helps me manage my time better but also makes it easier to achieve alternate states of consciousness through meditation. This seems to contradict what PNSE research says. Any idea where this incongruity comes from?

  7. Seppo says:

    The most interesting enlightenment-skeptical thing I’ve ever heard is this interview (“Meditation: Deconstructing Nonsense” with Bill Joslin; h/t peach jam on David Chapman’s blog).

    To summarize (from somewhat hazy memory, sorry):

    Joslin did various Buddhist and Taoist practices and had… some kind of weird experience and/or insight. I’m reluctant to throw the word “enlightenment” around since it’s defined in too many ways, but Joslin explains what his thing was in a good amount of detail. He also gives a lucid account of several different kinds of meditation practices that people do and why each of them would lead to something freaky happening to the self/other boundary.

    Afterwards, he started teaching meditation, probably without an official licence. (At least, he doesn’t mention having one; even ex-Buddhists who have such certifications will normally say so and name the person who gave it to them, if the topic ever comes up.)

    After having some doubts about the whole thing, he spent some time trying to talk about his Insights into the Nature of the Mind and/or Reality with ordinary Americans who had never been interested in Buddhism or meditation or the like⁠—and a lot of them told him something like, “Oh, sure, I know all about that. I was walking in the woods one day and sorta… noticed?”

    Now he thinks that (1) whatever valid insights come with wild experiences like his are things that random people stumble into all the time without making a big fuss about it, and (2) the main function of mystical/meditation traditions is to get those insights to come at you in the form of unnecessarily dramatic experiences that they can then take credit for.

    • Shpoon says:

      whatever valid insights come with wild experiences like his are things that random people stumble into all the time without making a big fuss about it

      This brings up a thought I’ve been having for a while reading this – how much of this is about how much people make of their experience?

      disclosure: I grew up in a Buddhist country, have read the Pali Canon and generally have an interest in Eastern Mysticism. Given all that I’m still often skeptical of discussing “enlightenment” in so many words – in the context of Thailand, the idea of ordinary people gaining enlightenment never came up (although there were expectations about serious practicing monks and patriarchs of course). People were more likely to discuss reincarnation (a common supposition, or so my brother tells me, is that most indolent or rude people return as these little spotted lizards; the word for these lizards is thus a common insult now).

      In my own life, I have had one experience that fit the bill. Psychedelics never had a profound or noticeable effect on me – I saw things, felt things and imagined things, but I never had a “moment of clarity” or what I would consider a long-term change in my personality after. Strangely enough, one day on the New York subway system I had a rather unique experience – going up the stairs of Wall Street Station, I noticed a kind of rhythm in the way the people ahead of me and behind me were moving. It wasn’t a very conscious thought or observation, but something about the way I perceived myself in the middle of this throng of people triggered a very short, but very intense episode. Have you ever been tired in such a way that you might be sitting or standing, but you get hit with a sudden wave of drowsiness then drop your head forward – only to jerk yourself awake from the falling reflex? If you have, you might recall the odd sensation of popping out, then back in with an uncertain duration to the lapse. The experience I had was somewhat like this in that it felt like it could have lasted a long while, but in all certainty it was only the time it took to climb one step. Even though it lasted a brief moment for the rest of the day I felt pretty different – I noticed a lot of things in the area I had never taken the time to consider, felt more “a part” of the bustling city around me, and didn’t feel the urge to read, game, drink or take up any of my vices.

      Did this have a lasting impact? No. I still mostly rush through my surroundings, I only slightly feel like I’m a part of the great human machine, and I still partake in all the same vices (save smoking, now that I think about it). I may have had several broad changes in disposition since, but I definitely don’t attribute them to this experience. Perhaps less anger and more willingness to do things that are good for me – like exercising regularly. Ultimately I have the sense that my experience resembled what many people describe when they talk about stream entry – but that it likely didn’t have lasting effects beyond the memory of the foreign sensation. So – not sure what to make of

  8. skaladom says:

    Since we’re using Buddhist terminology, it might be worth pointing out that in Buddhism only those at the far end of the spectrum would be called enlightened. What the paper calls Stage 1, in particular, sounds pretty close to what Theravada Buddhism calls stream entry, which is recognized as an important step to enlightenment. A more generic term used by spiritual seekers to encompass all these levels is “realized”.

  9. Elo says:

    You should really read his book, “the finders”. And try to locate some real life finders. I am collecting for myself as many as I can. I have met less than ten but they do exist.

    I’m working on his stuff and making progress, meditation, core transformation and a few other paradigms help with directions.

    His stuff seems to disagree with the Buddhist enlightenment stuff, or at least suggest there are orthogonal locations. He proposes that there might be a second dimension to the locations he’s talking about. He also offers that there are deeper places in each location. And recently he’s come out with more locations (details in the book).

    His work doesn’t match integral theory right now and I’m interested to see how the two (and the Buddhism maps) line up to one another.

  10. bsrk says:

    This should not be characterized as awakening/enlightenment. It pays to be more precise.

    no individualized sense of self: unification of awareness (ie, awareness split between eye, ear, nose, tongue, touch & heart has been unified into one)
    no self-related thoughts: ceasing of self-argumentation (ie, where once a person argues “the self is ____!”, that has ceased)
    no emotion: increase in feeling endurance (where once the mind used to be overloaded by pain, now it is barely perceptible)
    no apparent sense of agency: awareness-release (ie, awareness released from discrimination)
    no ability to make a choice: wisdom-release (ie, wisdom released from discrimination)

    People do overestimate progress in this regard. And also underestimate deterioration in this regard.

    It should be understood that a breakthrough is a sharp spike upwards. This does not mean the new normal will sustain itself at a higher level forever.

    Nor do people always observe evidence contrary to their view (about their attainment) when it does occur.

    The lowest level of awakening destroys of the fetter of self-argumentation (ie, to never arise again). Of course, they experience these above mentioned states many times before the fetter actually breaks.

  11. Timothy M. says:

    This very strongly reminds me of the “interpreter theory“, i.e., that decisionmaking mostly happens at an unconscious level and the conscious mind just makes up interpretations of our decisions.

    In that framework, you could say that these people actually are “enlightened”, in the sense that their conscious minds recognize that they don’t know where decisions are coming from. But you wouldn’t expect this to really change their decisions in any meaningful way or make them “better people”.

    It makes sense that this would be tied to a lack of sense of self, as one plausible purpose of this conscious interpretation is to provide some kind of cohesive narrative of “who you are”, which has allegedly been rendered moot in these people.

    (This is assuming they aren’t just cranks following some pervasive idea that has slipped into the culture pervasively, which still seems possible. There are other nonsense ideas that show up a lot, like predicting the future or mind reading.)

  12. Kaj Sotala says:

    Can you imagine investing in a company whose executive believes he cannot take any action and is just watching reality unfold? But it seems to work out.

    I’ve briefly had meditation induce these kinds of experiences, sometimes for several days, though not longer than that.

    My interpretation has been that normally, I have a sense of choosing my actions and thoughts to some extent. Then something happens that makes me aware of the fact that I’m actually not choosing the content of my consciousness; there are processes which influence the content, but the actual selection process happens on a preconscious level, and the attribution of agency is a post-hoc event.

    (One simple way of noticing this, though probably not sufficient to give you a no-self experience: decide to just follow your breath for as long as you can, without getting distracted. Eventually you will get distracted and forget to follow your breath. Did you consciously choose to get distracted? Well, sometimes it does feel like it, if a more important thought came up and you made a deliberate choice to stop with this breath thing. But if that wasn’t the case, then a preconscious process decided that something else was more important than this boring breath-following, and shifted your attention; you “just forgot” about the breath. And even if you do feel like you made a deliberate choice to think about something else, suddenly thinking of that something else surely wasn’t something that you consciously decided to do; the other thought just occurred to you, and then you had to choose between the two.)

    If you train your awareness to more closely follow what’s actually happening in your mind, you will become more aware of these kinds of dynamics on an experiental level. Eventually the fact that none of your conscious content is consciously chosen, becomes too obvious to ignore, and your mind is forced to update its underlying models.

    But of course, just the fact that you realize what’s actually going on, doesn’t change what’s actually going on. If the content of your consciousness was controlled by preconscious processes before, it is still being controlled by them after that realization. So people will (correctly) experience that they have no conscious control over their actions, but still act the way they always have, because the underlying mechanisms which actually drive the behavior never needed the system that attributes agency anyway.

    (I’ve got an article that tries to sketch out some of those thought selection processes, but I’m not a neuroscientist; would be happy to hear comments from anyone who does know more neuroscience than me.)

    • alwhite says:

      My issue with your breath example is it’s only half the interaction. Ok, yes, you didn’t chose to get distracted, but how do describe the process of returning to the breath after noticing you were distracted? As it appears to me, all conceptualization of returning requires this act of choosing. If returning to the breath happened as naturally and pre-consciously as distraction, we wouldn’t do meditation, we would achieve meditation by simply doing all our normal stuff. Yet, meditation is a specific act that has to happen to fight the distraction tendency. Again, how do you describe the returning to breath action as not conscious control when it is a decidedly different event than the non-conscious distraction?

      I also think we need to look at some of your end statements because I believe they are failing to notice what’s really happening. You’re talking about people “correctly experiencing no conscious control” and behaviors happening the same as always. But the finding that really sticks out to me is the finding that people who were outwardly observed to be very stressed, no longer recognized they were stressed and those same people correlated to people who recognized they had no conscious control. This seems like backwards progress. Prior to this “correct experience” they would have known they were stressed. Now, they claim to not be stressed and yet everyone else can tell they are stressed. This does not seem like a “correct experience” to me. It seems like something got derailed. How do you see that?

      • Kaj Sotala says:

        That’s a good question, and I realize now that my comment could have been better. As you say, it addresses the part about what content becomes conscious, but it doesn’t really say anything about the actual decision-making that happens when that content is conscious.

        Also, I shouldn’t have used the expression “no conscious control”, because that conveys something quite different from what I meant. To be more specific, I don’t mean that consciousness would play no role in the decision-making, or that it would be possible to make the same decisions without something equivalent to consciousness.

        What I meant was something like… whenever something (such as the need to make a decision or re-orient attention) becomes conscious, many different subsystems in the brain start processing that information (see global workspace theory / global neuronal workspace model). There’s an analogy of consciousness as a message board where different systems pass information to each other. Now nobody obviously knows the exact details, but it might go roughly like this:

        One system that monitors the contents of consciousness, notices that the sensations of breath are no longer in consciousness. Since it had previously been deemed important to keep monitoring this, it sends a message about this to consciousness. Now there is a competitive process determining whether that message gets into consciousness or not; a lot of other subsystems also are sending their own messages, so one of them might take priority (depending on that process of unconscious prioritization I alluded to earlier). But hopefully the right message eventually does. When that message does become conscious, it is disseminated to many different subsystems. Subjectively, the person experiences this as the sudden realization that they’ve forgotten about their breath.

        So now comes the moment when they need to redirect their attention back to it. But there are also lots of other things that they could be doing, such as giving up this boring old thing with meditation and going to watch a movie. There will be some subsystems which prioritize the movie, some subsystems which prioritize continuing to follow the breath, some subsystems which want to do a third thing, and so on. Each submits messages to consciousness pulling attention to some direction – subjectively experienced as e.g. the attractive thought of the movie, and some mental conflict about whether to go watch it or whether to continue meditating. Eventually, some particular subsystem will win the competition – some of the relevant mechanisms being described in my post – and this is subjectively experienced as the person again making the decision to continue meditating.

        (This model is basically the same as the one described in The Mind Illuminated, which Scott has reviewed previously, but it also draws on my understanding of neuroscience and seems compatible with how I understand it. E.g. here’s some additional discussion of these kinds of mechanisms.)

        So there is a sense in which the person does have “conscious control” – the decision-making happens through consciousness, and the relevant subsystems rely on it for coordination. But this model leaves no place for any privileged subsystem that would be “the self”; it’s all just lots of distinct modules competing to push the decision in different directions. And the eventual decision of which one wins the competition, happens through lower-level mechanisms such as the evidence accumulation system that was described in my first link. So although the decisions happen through consciousness, they are not made by consciousness, if that makes any sense.

        Part of how skill at meditation develops, is that gradually the system notices that making the decision to continue following the breath tends to feel more pleasant than doing something else. This reinforces the tendency for the subsystems with the “let’s continue following the breath” intention to win the competition. Now the decision-making process is always influenced by a wide variety of situational factors, so you don’t get a straightforward progression to better and better and focus. But the long-term average tends to gradually improve, as the preconcious processes determining which of the conciously experienced desires wins out, get updated towards favoring the decision which used to produce satisfaction in the past.

        But the finding that really sticks out to me is the finding that people who were outwardly observed to be very stressed, no longer recognized they were stressed and those same people correlated to people who recognized they had no conscious control. This seems like backwards progress. Prior to this “correct experience” they would have known they were stressed. Now, they claim to not be stressed and yet everyone else can tell they are stressed. This does not seem like a “correct experience” to me. It seems like something got derailed. How do you see that?

        It’s not entirely clear to me what’s going on with those individuals. But note that according to the paper, the stress thing “was observed in a total of three participants”; he says that he then went on to “went on to conduct other experiments” and found results among similar lines, and then gives the yoga and racism examples. So it’s not clear to me exactly how many individuals had that kind of a disconnect between their experience of stress and their objective level of stress; 3/50 at least sounds like a pretty small minority.

        That said, if you learn to better focus your attention in meditation, then it’s possible to take that to pretty extreme levels. Some systems of practice (though not all) particularly instruct people to focus on positive sensations, and exclude unpleasant ones. One can use the kind of learning process that I described above, to make their brain gradually drop various unpleasant feelings – such as the sensation of stress – and just bring pleasant ones into awareness. The physiological stress is still there, but subsystems which would send messages about it to consciousness get ignored. I have some experience of this as well – being able to drop unpleasant sensations out of consciousness can be very convenient at times – but I’ve shied away from practicing it too much, because there are obvious risks in learning how to better suppress content from your consciousness. Like I said, not every system of practice does this, and after getting a taste of what can be done with the systems that do do it, I’ve gravitated more towards the ones that just teach you to monitor everything in your mind, good or bad.

    • Enkidum says:

      I’m hopelessly biased here, as I’m literally avoiding writing a paper about aspects of this right now. But…

      Your article makes a lot of (correct) observations about the importance of incremental processes in the cognitive economy of humans and other animals. But something it doesn’t note (I think) is the importance of discrete processes, and this is (I think) because people in the fields you’ve surveyed have been wilfully blind to them for decades. Gazzaniga is a case in point, someone whose (deserved) influence over the field of neuroscience has subtly shaped it away from being able to figure out the right way to investigate these issues.

      I can only get at this in a bit of a roundabout way, but here goes:

      The most common way that researchers demonstrate the presence of learning is by taking some measure of performance, averaging it across participants, and showing that it increases from some baseline to some higher level of performance over trials or blocks. For simplicity, imagine you have some binary task where there is always one correct option and one incorrect one, and you get feedback on accuracy after each answer. Then the y-axis could be “accuracy”, and let’s say our plot shows people slowly going from a chance level of 50% to 90% over the course of the experiment.

      So you have a smooth curve showing incremental changes, and the temptation is to infer that what this demonstrates is an incremental process occurring in people. But this is a terrible assumption.

      The issue is that an average curve says very little about the nature of the individual curves that it averages. One possibility is that the smooth incremental improvements in the average are the result of smooth incremental improvements in individual learning episodes, where people just keep getting a little bit better. There are certain kinds of learning that we do that are correctly thought of this way.

      But another possibility is that what actually happens is a sudden discrete moment of “aha!”, where you shift from 50% to 90% in an instant, but the timing of this instant varies, such that on some blocks it is on trial 1, on others it is on trial 50. If there’s enough variance in the timing of the aha!, then when you average enough of these completely discrete learning curves together, you will get the smooth incremental average plot we’ve been discussing.

      This has been explicitly discussed since 1953, but virtually completely ignored for most of this time. Smith and Ell published a great overview of it in 2015, which is fortunately open access. They note that literally every model in the category learning field makes the tacit assumption that learning is incremental and gradual, but this is simply false. If you know how to look for it, it turns out that learning in virtually all of the kinds of categorization studies that are published in the literature is of the discrete “Aha!” type I just described. Which means that all the models of how learning works are just fundamentally wrong.

      I am not trying to argue that incremental processes don’t exist, or don’t influence learning, that would be stupid. What I am trying to say is that on many tasks, the contribution of discrete, explicit processes is vastly, vastly more important. If I tell you “the store is at the corner of 15th Avenue and Clark Street”, you don’t need an elaborate dopamine-driven reinforcement learning process of trial-and-error to train up your cortex to get you to the right place – you can instantly go there with 100% accuracy, and this ubiquitous aspect of human (and other animal) life is completely undescribable from an incrementalist perspective.

      This is something that various researchers have been realizing for quite some time now. A key name would be Samuel Gershman (though I make no claims that he would agree with everything I’ve described above).

      I think that there is something very important to the notion you (and Gazzaniga, and Dennett, and others) bring up of conscious/explicit/discrete thinking often being simply an interpretation of the results of unconscious/implicit/incremental processing. There are far too many neat demonstrations of this. But the people who have been making these kind of arguments since the early 80’s have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. Because the fact is that the benefits of conscious/explicit/discrete thinking are incredible (roughly speaking, it enabled us to take over the world) and this type of thought is supported by specialized neural machinery that constitute some of the most important anatomical differences between humans and all other animals. (Which is not to say that other animals don’t demonstrate this kind of thinking, just they’re not as good at it.)

      I think the metaphor (and please remember, it is a metaphor) of consciousness being a quasi-Turing machine running on non-Turing hardware isn’t a bad one, but remember that Turing machines are super powerful.

      OK I’m running out of steam here. But I really want to push back at the notion that “the content of your consciousness [is] controlled by preconscious processes”. Again, there is no (known) way that such processes can describe our amazing capability to get to the store without ever making a mistake. Or how humans actually learn on probably the large majority of learning tasks that have been described. This is really, really important.

      (I hope that doesn’t come across as hostile or unhinged, though probably the latter a little bit.)

      • janrandom says:

        I agree that discrete thought for sure adds something. But it is not really on top of the incremental stuff but both are mutually interlinked and supporting each other.

        I wrote about the importance of this for learning a few years ago:

        > If we take ‘learning’ to be ‘understanding on the symbolic level’ …, you need some actual structure formed by [system 1] to do so. If you haven’t been exposed long enough for [system 1] to pick up any patterns, any explanations will be dry and without life (possibly connecting knowledge but without the underlying connection to reality by [system 1]).
        > And if, on the other hand, all the connections are already there ([system 1] has picked up all patterns there are), then learning on the symbolic level can become uninteresting too, because no new patterns about reality can be added (you feel that you already know everything there is).

        http://wiki.c2.com/?FuzzyAndSymbolicLearning

        • Enkidum says:

          Agreed. I’d also add that what I’ve been calling incremental processing (which I think you’re calling System 1) is quite probably one of the basic functions of neuronal tissue. Discrete processing requires a whole lot more specialized hardware to get off the ground, and is basically what the upper front of our brain is for. Probably not much other than mammals and birds does much of it, and humans do more of it than anything else.

      • alwhite says:

        I might agree with you about it being a little unhinged. 🙂

        I am having a hard time following what you’re saying. The Smith and Ell paper looks a bit dense, I’ll see if I can make sense of it later.

        Do you have any good sources for Gazzaniga’s work? And also, in your reference to throwing the baby out with the bathwater, can you provide sources for what the baby is?

        • Enkidum says:

          Here’s a decent introduction to some heavily Gazzaniga-inspired ideas. He came to prominence for being one of the people who extensively studied so-called “split-brain” patients, who had some of the communicative fibres between the two hemispheres of their brain severed in order to help with extremely severe epilepsy.

          The line of thinking I’m objecting to, which @Kaj Sotala brings up in his comment and linked article, is something along the lines of “consciousness is like a surfer on top of a wave – it looks cool and flashy, but the real motive power comes from the subconscious processes that make up the wave, and our conscious states and selves are simply the end products of unconscious processes”.

          The “baby” in this case is the notion that consciousness / discrete thought / explicit learning / etc is a hugely useful adaptation with real causal powers that is a central feature of human (and other animal) life.

          The “bathwater” is the notion that we have perfectly accurate insight into all our mental processes, that we can just think about thinking and thereby know how our minds work, that consciousness is self-transparent. (Or at least that’s some of the bathwater.) I think most cognitive scientists have correctly rejected that view. But in doing so, many of them have abandoned the notion that there’s much of anything at all that consciousness is doing.

          • alwhite says:

            Yeah, I think I see the same things.

            What is happening that makes people reject the simultaneous experiences of “we do make choices” and “our subconscious also makes choices”? More than just baby and bathwater, it seems like we’re being forced into a false binary and I don’t get why that binary represents reality.

      • ADifferentAnonymous says:

        Good post, I’m definitely down to read more on this.

        That said, I’m not sure how much you’re actually contradicting Kaj’s article (we’re talking about this one, right?). I think we might be in a sort of bravery debate–a disagreement about whether the unconscious gets too much or too little credit, driven not by a disagreement about how much it deserves but rather by a disagreement about how much it’s currently getting.

        • Enkidum says:

          Thanks. I think you’re right, we’re not necessarily in disagreement about anything other than interpretational emphasis we place on conscious/unconscious processes. However I think that emphasis has important effects.

      • Kaj Sotala says:

        Thank you for your detailed comment, as well as the references! It did not come across as hostile at all.

        Though I am a little confused, in that I did not experience myself as making the claim that there would be no discrete processes. But like I mentioned in my reply to alwhite above, I shouldn’t have used the expression that a person has “no conscious control” over their actions – I do definitely think that consciousness plays an important role in decision-making, and I’m not in the “consciousness is actually unnecessary” camp. Hopefully that comment clarifies things.

        I also agree that incremental processes alone are insufficient to explain how the brain works. In a later article in the same series, I focused more on discrete learning, specifically the kind of sudden and transformative change that happens in successful therapy.

        My model is something like – there are various subsystems capable of discrete reasoning and learning; they have some kind of input-output access to consciousness. The decision of which of those subsystems get access at any give moment, is largely driven by gradual learning together with all kinds of innately “hardwired” priorities (e.g. “give fight-or-flight related subsystems priority when a danger has been detected”). So discrete and gradual learning/reasoning at the subsystem level, and gradual learning at the level of mediating between subsystems.

        • Enkidum says:

          Though I am a little confused, in that I did not experience myself as making the claim that there would be no discrete processes.

          Ah, but your experience of yourself is simply an illusion, because all that counts is the subconscious processes. Checkmate!

          OK, it sounds like I just over-interpreted that one sentence about “no conscious control” and started running with it.

          I would say that personally I suspect the discrete reasoning and learning systems are necessarily conscious, or something like that. But I don’t have anything beyond handwavium to support that claim.

          Thanks for the links to your work, it’s most interesting.

          • Kaj Sotala says:

            Ah, but your experience of yourself is simply an illusion, because all that counts is the subconscious processes. Checkmate!

            : )

            I forgot to say that your paper sounds really interesting as well! Please feel free to let me know when it’s published, or if you’d like to share a draft at some point. xuenay@gmail.com

    • FeepingCreature says:

      Whenever I try the kind of meditation exercise where I put my thoughts aside, this happens: I discard running thought processes for a while, and then there’s a few seconds of silence, and then a thought pipes up: “This is boring. Nothing is happening. Go do something else.”

      And the thought is right, and nothing contradicts it, and so I do that.

      If you follow your breathing, you eventually get distracted. But just because the thing that distracts you is not your explicit reasoning doesn’t mean it’s not a part of your mind. I feel like it’s unreasonable and not beneficial to draw the line of your self so tightly that entirely valid, useful processes like noticing and interrupting idleness lie outside of it.

      • Kaj Sotala says:

        But just because the thing that distracts you is not your explicit reasoning doesn’t mean it’s not a part of your mind.

        Sure. I said that the distraction was caused by preconcious processes, but non-conscious parts of your mind are certainly also a part of your mind.

  13. System3 says:

    I think he’s doing important work. Just another piece of the puzzle as we try to figure this thing out as a species. Skepticism is expected and understandable. I self diagnose somewhere around middle or later half of the described “continuum”, or alternatively late 2nd or early 3rd path within Buddhist framework, and his descriptions have always seemed accurate to me.

    I think his biggest mistake regarding the Finders Course is promising too much. That’s not the path i took, but i don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t work if one is sufficiently motivated. What is being asked is essentially a conscious suicide of the narrative self, so no wonder so few succeed. That’s not a very attractive sales pitch. Suffering seems like the most potent fuel, and probably necessary to make any real progress.

  14. alwhite says:

    Jeffery Martin has a pdf out describing all the research he’s done. The summary statistics are at the bottom. The methodology is not clearly written out, but he provides a list of the measures he used and most of them are valid from my experience.

    The document is a findings summary, so there’s a lot of stuff not being shown, but it doesn’t look awful. I’m interested in trying to dive deeper into the data here.

  15. viVI_IViv says:

    Martin searched various religious and spiritual groups for people who both self-reported enlightenment and were affiliated with “a community that provided validity to their claims”. He says he eventually found 1200 such people who were willing to participate in the study, but that “the data reported here comes primarily from the first 50 participants who sat for in-depth interviews…based on the overall research effort these 50 were felt to be a sufficient sample to represent what has been learned from the larger population”. Although Martin says he tried to get as much diversity as possible, the group was mostly white male Americans.

    This is like a Japanese otaku doing a study on the Kabbalah by interviewing 50 Japanese fans of Neon Genesis Evangelion.

    I like this paper because it provides the basis for a minimalist account of enlightenment, similar to Daniel Ingram’s. Enlightenment hasn’t transformed these people’s personalities. It hasn’t given them infinite willpower or productivity or the ability to shoot qi bolts from their third eyes. It hasn’t even given them that much self-understanding. It’s just given them a different kind of internal experience.

    So, 50 people from the same demographic and subculture, who might have well interacted with each other and read the same books (including Ingram’s), arbitrarily chosen by a “researcher” who is also part of the same subculture, allegedly report similar experiences. And this is surprising how, exactly?

    • Jaskologist says:

      I’m not normally one to complain about lack of POC voices, but when you’ve got a culture with thousands of years’ experience in the field, and one with about 50, how in the world do you end up with most of your sample coming from the latter?

      • DarkTigger says:

        Make that a round 150 “oriental mysticism” is a common pasttime in the western upper-class since at least the Victorian times.

      • ADifferentAnonymous says:

        I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this sample was a lot easier for the researcher to recruit and study.

        Post a link to an equivalent study conducted in Asia and I’ll agree it should take precedence. But until then, refusing to look under the streetlight won’t help you find your keys.

  16. keaswaran says:

    So what you’re saying is that Derek Parfit was a Bodhisattva.

    • Came here to say this. On reduced sense of self:

      “My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness… [However] When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others.”

      He also had the difficulty with recalling memories relating to his life history, but no problem with facts or abstract knowledge:

      “[Parfit] has few memories of his past, and he almost never thinks about it, although his memory for other things is very good.”

      He sometimes experienced intense emotions, but not ones related to attachment:

      “As the years went by, Theo came to accept that although her brother loved her, it was simply not important to him to spend time with his family. He was extremely softhearted, and she knew that in a crisis he would always help her, but deepening ties to his past through continuity, valuing blood as a source of kinship—these were just not part of who he was.”

      And he relied on highly repetitive routines, e.g. eating the exact same meals every day. (Although this might have been intentional to reduce mental bandwidth.)

  17. captbackslap says:

    “Before enlightenment: carry water, chop wood. After enlightenment: carry water, chop wood.”

  18. Rachael says:

    “participants reported no individualized sense of self, no self-related thoughts, no emotion, and no apparent sense of agency or ability to make a choice.”

    Am I in a minority here for thinking that sounds like a bad thing?

    • EchoChaos says:

      You may be, but it’s at least a minority of two, because I agree with you.

    • OriginalSeeing says:

      It immediately put me off.

      How can I become anti-enlightened?

    • Jaskologist says:

      It sounds like a pretty good description of death.

    • NoRandomWalk says:

      Will repeat a comment I made in earlier thread.
      Enlightenment is billed as the end of suffering through a cessation of desire.
      Once you have no more desires, you stop the cycle of rebirth and have no more life (and life is suffering, remember).
      So I asked the monk after the silent retreat was over whether enlightenment is preferable to non-existence (trying to figure out if it really is as anti-natalist as it was coming across), and after he understood what I was asking replied ‘they’re the same thing.’

      I still meditate because it allows me to self-modify in ways I find personally highly desirable, but I am very aware it’s a dangerous practice and if the end-point of the usual path is something I presently consider undesirable I should be very careful following the early steps.

    • dionisos says:

      If the self is indeed a illusion, it is just removing a false belief and a part of the stuff associated with it.

      It could sounds bad if you consider it to remove the actual thing (you have a self, and after, no), but if you think of it as removing only the false belief (you think and feel you have a self, but it is just a illusion, and after, no), it probably could sounds a lot less bad.

      • NoRandomWalk says:

        Can you elaborate on why you think believing false things is bad?
        Is it a terminal value, where you have a purity norm around truth and that’s the end of it, or do you think that seeking and discovering the truth will help us get other things we value?

        For example, let’s say one of two things is true:
        A) the part of the brain experiencing stuff is the ‘same’ as the part choosing
        B) a part of the brain chooses, and then selects for ‘viewing’ what part to feel, so that the feeling/experiencing part of the brain has no agency.

        The feeling of not having agency might be undesireable (from the values perspective of an unenlightened, those who are enlightened generally report it as a state of incredible calm that they have no issues with) even if it is not accompanied by ‘suffering’.

        • Protagoras says:

          You can use strategy, or you can rely on luck, hoping that whatever your instincts or natural inclinations or whatever are will guide you well. Some people, perhaps most people (maybe even all people, if the universe is perverse enough) may be sufficiently bad at strategy that relying on luck will leave them better off, though relying on luck for that reason is itself an instance of applying strategy, and so not to be trusted if strategy is that poor. In any event, for someone relying on luck, the truth or falsity of beliefs may not be of overriding importance. But for anyone attempting to employ strategy, any false belief has the potential to corrupt the process. Being strategic about when to insist on true beliefs and when not to just doesn’t work, as the false belief may among other things be misleading you about whether it is actually strategically valuable.

        • dionisos says:

          Can you elaborate on why you think believing false things is bad?

          It isn’t a terminal value, and I don’t think believing something false is always bad. (even if I think it is often bad, and a pretty good heuristic to always try to believe what is true)

          The feeling of not having agency might be undesireable (from the values perspective of an unenlightened, those who are enlightened generally report it as a state of incredible calm that they have no issues with) even if it is not accompanied by ‘suffering’.

          But there is something strange here :
          – I understand that we could expect the feeling to be bad, and so think it is. (but as you said, it seems to be the opposite, at least from my very limited knowledge of the subject).
          – I understand that we can think that losing the self (the actual thing), is bad, whatever the feelings associated with it.
          – But I have a hard time understanding how the feeling could be bad in a moral sense, if it isn’t in a hedonistic sense, and it rely on a true belief.
          Even if I can understand, it seems very strange to me, and it is why I think more probable than it is one or both of the two others thing I listed.

      • Ghatanathoah says:

        The problem is, based on this paper, it doesn’t look like enlightenment is merely making you aware of certain facts that you didn’t realize before. Enlightened people become less aware of their body and other stimuli than they were before. Their memories get worse. For an illusion, the self seems to be doing a number of useful things.

        In fact, the enlightened people seem to be mistaken about how lacking-a-self they are. They retain aspects of their personality that make them distinctive people, and they retain their ability to remember personal anecdotes, even though they claim otherwise. It might be that the self is very real, and that their “enlightened” perception that it isn’t is the true illusion.

        I think that is the reason why enlightenment seems so repulsive to so many of us. It feels like a rejection of basic truths about our minds in order to get a nice feeling. It even seems harmful, if you make some jerkish decisions, will it be easier to realize that you are being a jerk if you think those decisions are your decisions, or if they are the unfolding of “destiny?”

        To me, dismissing yourself as a false belief because it is possible to achieve a state of consciousness where you don’t notice it is like me dismissing my pants as a false belief because I usually don’t notice or feel them unless I am paying them attention. And the notion that the self is illusory because neuroscience can reduce it to the parts of the brain that make it up is like saying that my pants are illusory because chemistry can reduce them to the fibers and chemicals that make them up.

        • Aapje says:

          will it be easier to realize that you are being a jerk if you think those decisions are your decisions, or if they are the unfolding of “destiny?”

          Even severe stress/suffering often seems to be presented as a learning moment and something that only the sufferer needs to solve by ‘enlightened’ people, which makes it easy for them to refuse to fix harmful situations, including those that they create.

    • Mark V Anderson says:

      @Rachael
      Yes I came to the comments to say the same thing. It sounds like a terrible way to live one’s life. Why live a life that has no emotion?

      I can imagine if you are a drama queen and easily get emotional about the smallest things, it would be useful to be able to withdraw on occasion and just watch the world go by. But it’d be terrible to live that way as a steady diet. Aren’t low affect and apathy generally considered to be symptoms of a mental disease and something psychologists try to fix?

  19. Jo says:

    What you call “under-estimate themselves” can also be interpreted as a sign of over-estimating themselves, i.e. “I am so detached from this world because I am enlightened”.

  20. Alex M says:

    I think one of the main problems with the current state of rationalism (and many other fake “sciences” such as economics or sociology) is fuzzy thinking and lack of falsifiable empirical testing. So somebody claims to be “enlightened.” Does a smart person take that at face value? Of course not. Once you just start believing random shit, you’re no better than a superstitious primitive cargo-cult. You have to TEST all claims. For example, I don’t just take it at face value that economics is a real science just because a bunch of IYIs tell me so. I analyze economist predictions, see that their track record of successful predictions is atrocious, and then make the totally RATIONAL choice to discard my priors and treats economics as the laughable hocus-pocus that it is – because when you genuinely have an accurate view of reality, it doesn’t collapse under scrutiny. We should treat mystical claims exactly the same way. So somebody claims to be enlightened? Fine. How can they substantiate it? Can they do things that unenlightened people can’t, like clairvoyance, predicting the future, or sending messages through the collective subconscious in order to significantly impact world events? Do you see what I’m saying? Enlightenment should have some objectively quantifiable impact beyond just having a different internal narrative that is completely subjective and unprovable.

    This total lack of skepticism that people have is endlessly frustrating to me, because it results in bad data and popular narratives that are completely incorrect, if not outright delusional. In my opinion, the reason we have entire pseudo-scientific fields (like sociology or economics) that are nothing more than fake science cargo cults is because of this credulous behavior that results in people just believing whatever an “expert” with a fancy degree says. The fact that we have a replication crisis is a result of this gullible tendency to accept claims at face value. We are slowly learning to fix science by being more skeptical of expert claims, but we have to apply these same standards of falsifiability to spirituality as well, otherwise we are simply shifting our cult-like behavior from the field of science to the field of religion.

    We’re rationalists, for God’s sake. We have the ability to rise above this sheep-like behavior and I think we should strive for more. Rationalism has the opportunity to become a real scientific discipline of its own (a meta-science if you will), but only if we ruthlessly eradicate all the pompous grandstanding and credulous nonsense that blowhards always use to conceal their inability to achieve results. Above everything, the focus of rationalism should be on achieving verifiable results. As Eliezar said, rationalism is all about WINNING.

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      Talking to lots of people making the same claim and seeing how well they corroborate each other is a way of testing the claim.

      • Alex M says:

        Talking to lots of people making the same claim and seeing how well they corroborate each other is a way of testing the claim.

        1492

        “Hey, this Columbus dope thinks that the earth is round. What’s the consensus?”
        “It’s flat.”
        “It’s flat.”
        “It’s flat.”
        “See, you dope, I’ve talked to lots of experts to test this claim, and obviously Columbus is wrong.”

        1834

        “Hey, this jackass thinks, in defiance of all the medical experts, that Franz Joseph Gall’s idea about the bumps on your head defining your personality is wrong and that phrenology is NOT a real science. What’s the consensus?”
        “Phrenology is real.”
        “The bumps on your head DO measure personality.”
        “That’s why Europeans are smarter than Africans, obviously it’s the shape of their head.”
        “See, you dope, I’ve talked to lots of experts to test this claim, and obviously you’re wrong.”

        TODAY
        “Hey, this jerk on the internet thinks that expert opinion needs some sort of grounding evidentary proof beyond just consulting experts making the exact same claim. What’s the consensus?”
        “He’s wrong.”
        “Obviously opinions are the same as facts.”
        “When lots of different people all believe the same thing, it’s clearly true.”
        “See, you dope, I’ve talked to lots of experts to test this claim, and the experts are in agreement that expert agreement is what defines proper science.”

        • CombAdjuster says:

          Hardly anybody thought the earth was flat in 1492. They disagreed with Columbus about its circumference. Everybody knew since Eratosthenes that the earth was on the order of 20,000-30,000 miles around. Columbus thought it was much smaller, i.e. small enough to sail from Europe to Asia the long way around. Turns out consensus was right, and he would have died on his way to Asia, had it not been for the accidental discovery of the Americas.

          I think your point about falsifiability of claims is important, but citing a historical case of disproving folk wisdom (which is itself a piece of disproven folk wisdom) undermines that argument quite a bit.

          Also, when a claim is about what happens inside people’s brains, asking those people about their subjective experience is definitely relevant to the investigation. We don’t have perfect methods for understanding what’s going on inside the brain yet, so despite the fallibility of subjective reporting, it’s a useful part of the investigative toolkit. It’s only the start of the process, but that’s any piece of research, whether it uses an FMRI or a tape recorder.

      • Aapje says:

        @ADifferentAnonymous

        Except that people tend to be very poor at relating their actual experiences, often relating their interpretations instead. As the paper notes, these interpretations depend greatly on the tradition that the people operate within. So there seems to be a bias in these interpretations.

        So then if you ask people, is the commonality in what they say a reflection of their experiences, or is it is a reflection of the way in which they interpret them? Presumably, it is a mix of both, but what parts are then real?

    • Dacyn says:

      Most people who comment here are not rationalists (though the proportion is higher than elsewhere).

      In any case, I don’t see that rationalism has produced particularly more empirically quantifiable results than sociology or economics. So are you just believing whatever an “expert” without a fancy degree says? (To restate my point without sarcasm, I consider myself a rationalist and agree with a lot of what Eliezer says, but not because I consider him an authority. My point is that people may also listen to sociologists an economists and agree with what they say, and that this doesn’t necessarily constitute being beholden to authority.)

    • Nornagest says:

      Honestly, I started leaving rationalism behind precisely because it has a piss-poor track record of producing verifiable results. Pretty good at inspiring people to pompous grandstanding, though.

    • AlesZiegler says:

      Um, actually, real problem with your brand of rationalism is exactly the opposite of what you think.

      You are wildly oveconfident in your dismisal of long established academic disciplines (that have real problems, for sure) as “fake science” and in your ability to rise above sheep-like behavior of unwashed masses.

    • False says:

      As a few posters have alluded to, rationalism itself fails your test of “WINNING” but I’d also like to push back against something else:

      Enlightenment should have some objectively quantifiable impact beyond just having a different internal narrative that is completely subjective and unprovable.

      Wait, why? People who advocate for enlightenment begin by saying that its benefits are, indeed, “different internal narratives that are completely subjective”. The whole point of buddhist enlightenment is to reduce/eliminate suffering, not gain super powers(?).

      I understand what you’re saying about things needing to be substantiated/falsified, but you will always run into issues of evidence or proof when it comes to people’s subjective experience of themselves, as Scott has shown through his series on the efficacy or lack thereof of drugs for depression. The thing is, we don’t even know what “depression” even is (in terms of what is actually happening in the brain), but many many people report a sort of “suffering”, and we can’t ignore that just because we don’t have “physical” evidence.

      If what these people are reporting is true (and I actually agree with you that it’s reasonable to be skeptical), it could be a method to help depressed people or people who suffer in their subjective experience of themselves. One of the most interesting parts of this for me was that these “enlightened” people all believe that the current version of their mental state is far superior to a previous one or someone else’s; that alone seems like a tremendous benefit.

      • Aapje says:

        If what these people are reporting is true (and I actually agree with you that it’s reasonable to be skeptical), it could be a method to help depressed people or people who suffer in their subjective experience of themselves.

        Meditation/enlightenment seems to more or less be an extreme form of stoicism, which is useful if the anxiety/depression/etc is self-generated or if the circumstances can’t be changed, but which also can have the severe downside of people blaming others or themselves for not being able to handle a toxic environment.

        • False says:

          My understanding of the Buddhist conception of enlightenment is that life and all of existence constitutes a “toxic environment”, and that enlightenment is a way to “exit” that condition rather than handle it in the stoic sense, but from a non-metaphysical perspective your point is well-taken.

          • Aapje says:

            If I understand you correctly, your argument is that where pure stoicism tells people that they should learn to endure suffering/discontent and sees it as a necessary sacrifice, where burdening others with complaints just makes things worse for everyone; pure enlightenment makes it so the suffering/discontent is no longer experienced.

            The commonality being that both solutions refuse to fix the reason for suffering/discontent (which IMO can be good or bad depending on the situation).

            As Scott notes, it may be even more complicated, where enlightenment merely reduces/eliminates one specific kind of suffering/discontent, but not necessarily other kinds (like subconscious stress or bodily pain/stress). This is also similar to (male) stoicism, which seems to reduce suffering a bit from bad experiences, like violence, but doesn’t reduce and probably increases the amount of bodily pain/stress that men experience, as men are less likely to avoid/reduce sources of bodily pain/stress. Stoicism may also make people more callous about hurting people, especially other stoic people.

            Enlightened people may similarly be less likely to avoid/reduce sources of suffering/discontent and may be more callous about hurting people, especially other (partially) enlightened people.

            Whether the advantages of enlightenment (and stoicism) are then worth the cost is debatable, where I would expect that moderation is key and even then, the benefits only exists if people have certain traits. However, I definitely object to people presenting it as a general solution to all suffering (not saying you do this).

          • False says:

            @Aajpe

            This isn’t my argument exactly, but it’s my best understanding of what traditional Buddhism says (and I very well could be getting this wrong, as I am not, nor ever have been, a practicing Buddhist).

            I actually agree with your larger point. The best evidence in your favor is the extent to which meditation and “mindfulness” is instrumentalized in the workplace; if you’re stressed from the unreasonable demands of wage labor/office culture, it’s YOUR fault because you aren’t “Zen” enough. Your coworker Janice has read 4 books about Buddhism, and look how productive she is! Essentially instrumentalizing this lead up to the PNSE in the service of labor capital, at the detriment of the laborers (similar to a kind of stoicism, as you pointed out).

            That being said, there are two other components that get left out in the modern conception of “reaching enlightenment”; breaking the cycle of samsara (cycle of life, death, and rebirth) and the Buddhist system of morality.

            The first one is only really a technical issue in modern times: Buddhists believe that the “soul” is locked into a cycle of eternal “rebirth”, and the only way to break free from this cycle is to become enlightened. In the original conception of Buddhist practice, the “superpower” of Buddhism is getting to no longer exist anymore. That being said, if you don’t believe the Hindu system of cosmology, this is probably useless to you… however, if, for example you don’t believe in the Christian god or the existence of hell, it still might behoove you to follow some (if not all) of the teachings of the Judeo-Christian religions because of the merits of their morality, not just because you think your soul will be damned for all eternity if you don’t. Again, probably not important to you or what you are talking about, but still a big part of Buddhism as it was originally conceived.

            The second part is, I think, more relevant to your issue here. Buddhists who were originally practicing in monasteries in India, China, Japan, etc. (across most sects of Buddhism) were also receiving spiritual training (read: lessons in morality). Pacifism, vegetarianism, non-interventionism, abstention from work or labor (aside from begging), material aestheticism, and charitable works were all a part of a monk’s daily life, and the practice towards “enlightenment” was done simultaneously with ethical practice.

            If we want to couch this within the context and terminology of Scott’s post (and do a little bit of speculating on our own), it might have supposed to be something like:

            1. Creating the conditions for removing unnecessary thoughts regarding the self from the conscious mind, leading to more “inner peace” (euphoria, etc.), and allowing the unconscious, subconscious, and pre-conscious substrates of the mind more lee-way to do the work of “piloting” the self.

            2. Drilling in fairly strict moral and ethical beliefs that focus on not producing suffering in other beings (even plants, insects, etc.) and also doing good works for other people, while creating familiarity with living in a relatively aesthetic manner.

            which lead into

            3. Producing a euphoric self on auto-pilot that has trained its subconscious processes within a strict ethical and moral framework, so while the enlightened being may have less inhibitions regarding their actions, they have already “primed” themselves to a moral, ethical, and aesthetic practice.

            So, essentially, the enlightened being has reached a state of “happy auto-pilot”, but they are also supposed to have trained that auto-pilot to be hyper-moral and prone to living in a simple way.

            Again, I’m sure no Buddhist would actually put it quite this way and its entirely speculative on my part, but I think this could potentially thread the needle through your (imo quite reasonable!) objections to enlightenment as pure, lobotimizing stoicism.

    • puertoricorolf says:

      So somebody claims to be “enlightened.” Does a smart person take that at face value? Of course not. Once you just start believing random shit, you’re no better than a superstitious primitive cargo-cult. You have to TEST all claims.

      I don’t know. Even though in many areas of life, quantifiable results and good predictions are the way to go, maybe “enlightenment” is in a quite fundamental way one of the few areas where objectivity won’t take us far. I try to explain, what I mean.

      Arguably, in every domain of life there are things that could be changed and things that could not be changed. Talking about economics, for instance, we have theories about how economic systems should be built – that is, what to change in the external world. Now, not everything that we would like to change actually can be changed and that’s where the more empirical disciplines like behavioral economics become so interesting to assess the actual constraints in people behaviors that we need to take into consideration.

      Or engineering, analogously. We are incredibly great in building technical stuff but not every idea is feasible. Luckily, we seem to have a surprisingly good intuition about what can actually be built and what not (yet). I assume that this accurate assessment of what could be done and what not comes largely from the close relationship between engineering and science.

      On the other hand, in our private lives, we seem much less prepared to accurately predict what can possibly changed and what not. And if we actually are able soberly predict the things that will be hard to change, then it still seem incredibly difficult to actually accept the limitation. Like death, and illness, and the imperfections of our partners, or simply – for example – our sometimes frustratingly limited capacity for concentrated, productive work.

      Now, my impression is, that these limitations are exactly where we enter the field of the spiritual disciplines. It looks to me that the common denominator of the different spiritual schools is the fact that they are dealing with what can’t be changed (but what may be gracefully accepted instead). Consistent with that idea, we observe all the dealing with death and dying in the spiritual disciplines because it’s arguably our most severe and unavoidable limitation of all. As modern westerners we usually suck at accepting things as non-avoidable.

      Btw, I assume that this is one of the (many) reasons why Jordan Peterson is so controversial. He talks a lot about the inherent limitations of life and the human psyche and this provokes repulsion and relief at the same time.

      But back to spiritual practices. There are interesting accounts on how to understand meditation through the lens of the free-energy principle (“predictive coding”). The basic idea is that we are consistently trying to minimize our prediction error in the world but that there are fundamentally two ways to do so. One is, to update our (internal) model in a way that better matches the actual external world. The other way is to act on the world to change it in way that better fits what our model would have expected to see (including what our evolutionary priors “want to see”). During meditation we are entering an extreme special case of this framework. When sitting motionlessly and trying not to react to anything, we kind of eliminate one side of the whole equation, namely the one that was changing the world according to our expectations. What remains is the enforced mode of updating our internal model, no matter what.

      To a certain degree I can “confirm” this theory from my own experience. I used to have the flu during a time I was meditating a lot. It was a really strange and surprisingly pleasant experience. I could see myself having all the usual symptoms of the flu. Including snuffling and even heavy sighing and groaning. But it felt like an automatic bodily reaction. It didn’t experience the internal suffering that such behavior usually accompanies. If I could chose, I would strongly prefer to have my next flu like this again.

      That means, it is not clear if an external, objective assessment would at all be the right approach to “Enlightenment” & Co. Maybe the whole point of “Enlightenment” is not to change anything on the outside but only to internally relate in a different way. And that it is in the nature of such phenomena that the subjective accounts are all there is.

      On the other side, the assumption that nothing at all changes externally as a consequence of years of intensive spiritual practice also seems like a very strong and unlikely position. In my experience with the flu, for instance, I would suspect that there was at least some behavioral change on the outside, even when it was subtle. In particular, I remember a certain “softness” around the apparent suffering. That is, I was much more able to laugh about myself, I think. Thus, humor could be one avenue of quantifying the objective effects of “Enlightenment”…

    • Matthias says:

      Economics is a wide field with different levels of rigor.

      Many subfields of economics have made repeated successful falsifiable predictions. And Google (ad auctions) and the stock exchanges etc run on some of the theories from economics.

  21. ADifferentAnonymous says:

    participants who moved from one level of his continuum to another (whether forward or back) would always say that the level they were currently at was the most fundamental and obviously real (even if they had said the opposite before).

    Now I want to know if there’s a fully de-enlightened (as in, achieved then reversed enlightenment) person out there preaching the fundamental truth of individual identity.

    • Michael Handy says:

      Ayn Rand?

      Sorry, snark aside I’ve always wondered if going into stream entry, following the path down, then going back and rebuilding a sense of self on new premises might have positive qualities

  22. kerkeslager says:

    This, and your previous post, “Is Enlightenment Compatible With Sex Scandals?”, both jive with a possibility that:

    1. Enlightenment is a spectrum, rather than a binary.

    2. The process by which enlightenment is obtained is reversible.

    To be very clear, I don’t feel that I have evidence to propose this as anything more than a hypothesis. It certainly is not clear enough for me to call it a conclusion.

    Subjectively, these are apparent in my personal experience. I can place myself and people I know in a perceived spectrum of enlightenment, with some more enlightened and some less. I can also look at my experience and remember times when I was meditating with high frequency/regularity, and consequently had a higher level of the experience of enlightenment, but when I later took time away from meditative practice, my experience of enlightenment increased.

    This hypothesis explains the sex scandals: [according to this hypothesis] the individuals likely never reached 100% enlightenment–they only reached a level of enlightenment such that their communities, which believe in a binary enlightenment, were unable to distinguish between their high level of enlightenment, and a binary, perfect enlightenment. And perhaps at some point, they began to lose that enlightenment, leading to a place where they involved themselves in sex scandals.

    Likewise, the hypothesis explains many of the experiences of PNSE individuals, if we assume “enlightenment” is a euphemism for PNSE. For example, we might expect high-enlightenment individuals to experience stress, but experience it as a muted, bodily experience rather than an emotional state, because they are not enlightened in a pure, binary way, but rather exist on the high end of a spectrum.

    There are, of course many other possible hypotheses. One which seems particularly compelling to me is that the practitioners believe religiously in what enlightenment is, and as a result ignore the parts of their experience that don’t jive with their beliefs. [According to this hypothesis t]hey’re lying, in a sense, to the person the questions, but first and foremost they are lying to themselves.

    I think we’re still at the hypothesis generation phase of scientific study of enlightenment, so we should take care not to form any opinions now, but rather to keep an open mind to all plausible hypotheses, and work on hypothesis generation and finding methods of testing the generated hypotheses.

    • alwhite says:

      To your points 1 and 2.

      1: After reading up on it, it seems like all traditions hold a stage model of enlightenment. Culadasa described 10 stages and stated the traditional Vipasana is actually 9 stages.

      2: Culadasa also stated that the experience of enlightenment in meditation (stages 8-10 ish) fades over time and you have to keep meditating to keep it going.

      • elriggs says:

        Culadasa claims the stages are reversible and a skill that fades. Even saying that you can change stages Day to day or minute by minute. This is concentration meditation

        Insight meditation leads to enlightenment which he describes as 1st path (stream entry), 2nd, 3rd, 4th path, and claims that these are non-reversible.

        To be clear, stages 8-10 are not claimed to be enlightenment. Maybe you’re thinking of the third milestone described in his book, after which you’re an “adept meditator”?

        The connection is that building concentration helps experience insight. It helps build a sharper, more aware mind that can then investigate reality more clearly, leading to insight.

        This is separate but related to Martin’s Locations mentioned in this post.

      • UserNumber9 says:

        The 10 stages in the book (based on a much older, traditional 9 stage model) are the stages of *samatha* often translated as concentration, tranquility, calm abiding, or other such phrases. These are a skill that is lost without practice.

        The model of enlightenment presented in TMI is also based on tradition and had four levels with various names, one set being 1st Path, 2nd Path, …, 4th Path. The (traditional) claim in Culadasa’s book is that these levels are permanent.

        In this model, there’s no strict & direct relationship between the stages of samatha and the levels of enlightenment. Indirectly, samatha develops techniques that can be used to hopefully attain enlightenment, when paired with vipassana (insight) techniques.

        I would find it strange that enlightenment could survive dementia or other forms of physical brain damage but the traditional claim is that it’s permanent.

  23. AZpie says:

    “Other times the PNSE participants are just outright wrong about their experience.”

    I don’t see how the example provided shows this were the case, and that is a very strange thing to claim in the first place. If a person says they’re feeling well, we should assume they are. The only disconnect in the example provided is that we assume that being moody, sleepless and tense are always accompanied by their conscious counterparts of suffering and misery. I’d compare this to asking whether a person who suffers from chronic pain is happy. If they say they are, we don’t conclude that they’re wrong about what they’re experiencing.

    What the example shows us is that a person with PNSE is not immune to stress. Stress the living health out of a mammal, and they starts acting as if they were stressed. That does not provide us immediate knowledge of their subjective experience, although the two – behavior and subjective experience – usually go hand in hand.

    It’s a very, very confident thing to say that we know what someone is experiencing better than they are. What’s going on there, I think, is that you’re mistakenly assuming an immediate, universal and unconditional connection between certain behaviors and psychophysiological states and one’s mental state. As soon as that’s dropped, there’s nothing amazing about a person feeling stable and happy while also feeling and acting all stressed out.

    I’m not claiming that a person cannot estimate their subjective well-being poorly. As a medical student, I’ve worked with people suffering from bipolar psychosis, for instance. I’ve seen people claim feeling completely peaceful and serene and explode the following minute into a toxic temper tantrum, followed by hysterical sobbing. Such an example points out, I believe, that people can mistake certain experiences (euphoria, agitation, grandiosity) for something else (clarity, inner peace, patience). But it is a mistake to conclude from the example used in the study that that’s the case with the person in question.

    • Ohforfs says:

      The problem is that they said not only that they were happy, which is quite general and not particularly sharp thingie, but also said something very specific – like that their muscles were relaxed – which was clearly not the case. And they seemed to be unaware of this.

      So the conclusion that they were wrong about their experiene, if we assume this word here means their bodies not only their conscious thoughts, is quite firm.

      Also, bipolar means also fast-changing emotions. If they say they feel calm, it’s quite possible they are in fact calm in that very moment. The mistake you made here is assuming that this actually means they won’t be chaotic hurricane the next split second.

      • AZpie says:

        The problem is that they said not only that they were happy, which is quite general and not particularly sharp thingie, but also said something very specific – like that their muscles were relaxed…

        That is not an issue with that I wrote, as a person experiencing that their muscles are relaxed is still very much correct about themselves experiencing that their muscles are relaxed whether or not the muscles in question are in fact relaxed.

        Of course, we may include the body into a model of experience, but it seems to me that it is much easier to settle how a person might experience something that doesn’t correlate to their actual physical body at that moment (say, phantom pain*) than how a person might experience one thing, but experience they are not experiencing that thing.

        Let’s say I’m looking at a color everybody else tells me is green. I don’t see green, I see something of a brown. Does everybody now tell me that I’m in fact not just seeing green, but I’m are experiencing seeing green, and I’m just wrong about experiencing something else? That’s a very big leap to take.

        As for my example concerning a person suffering from bipolar psychosis, affective lability is indeed a thing. In the case I mentioned, however, the person kept on going about how they were totally calm and serene about everything even after it was apparent they were probably not, and was obviously on the brink even before it escalated.

        Strictly speaking it’s of course still impossible to really be sure what was true, but at that point it begins to seem (to me, at least) more likely that the person was incorrectly estimating their mental state than that there was a discord between their immediate experience and their actions. People in such situations also often say contradictory things about their feelings, indicating a more chaotic and overwhelming experience than a simple “angry, sad / clear, serene” could possibly indicate. Still, yeah, it’s not certain.

        * I get that phantom pain does correlate to neural activity. With the example I tried to demonstrate that a person can experience something at odds with what’s apparently happening without being wrong about experiencing that thing.

        • Ohforfs says:

          Then we agree on a object level:

          Their brains experience of their muscles is that they are relaxed.
          Their muscles are tense.

          So, back to what you wrote, Scott’s sentence about them being wrong about their experiences:

          I think, and i am pretty sure that’s most common understanding of that sentence, is that if brain’s perception of a muscle that is different from what is actually happening to the muscle then we would call that perception wrong.

          You may disagree with calling it wrong, but that’s meaningless. We agree on a object level. Let’s call it shmazzy. They are shmazzy 😉

          Btw, this is.. your example are actually telling. The difference with color blindness and phantom pain is that these things happen in the brain. Green in that case is not a feature of the object, it’s a feature of a brain – interpretation. Same with phantom pain.

          To elaborate:
          If they said that they feel their arm nerves transmitting sygnals, they would be correct, because they feel that.
          If they said that their arm nerves transmit sygnals, they would be wrong because they have no arm.

          Here, it’s the second case.

          About the bipolar case, heh. That’s actually funny ina horrible way. But i can totally understand it. But i don’t see a relevance. They might be feeling a semi-permanent calmness at that point, and be unaware that they are in fact easily spooked. Well, lack of self-awareness is a thing, too.

          Especially among enlightened people it seems ;p

          Or they might be aware that they are calm only at this particular moment and it wouldn’t take much to trigger them. Seen that too. So i don’t see a problem?

          And i don’t really have much of a problem with contradictions. They are often just a matter of lack of indepth understanding or a problem with language (like the beginning of this post).

          In any case, well, personally, i have a problem with fear. I mean, if you ask me if i fear something i will say i don’t. And i am pretty convinced i actually don’t, i mean, i don’t feel that fear. Unfortunately, both my body and my actions and even the way i reason and talk all shows it to be untrue and apparently i have huge problem with fear to the extent i don’t allow myself to be conscious of it. It’s kind of funny, really.

          But, let me retract it, i said untruth. This will be about that language imperfection. Obviously, the fear thing is not true. Because there are times i am pretty aware i fear something, including changes in my bodily reactions and my state of mind and my train of thought etc. Apparently, the denial and repression only happens with specific triggers of fear and i am fully able to experience fear of, for example, heights, or high speed.

          • AZpie says:

            “Btw, this is.. your example are actually telling. The difference with color blindness and phantom pain is that these things happen in the brain. Green in that case is not a feature of the object, it’s a feature of a brain – interpretation. Same with phantom pain.

            To elaborate:
            If they said that they feel their arm nerves transmitting sygnals, they would be correct, because they feel that.
            If they said that their arm nerves transmit sygnals, they would be wrong because they have no arm.

            Here, it’s the second case.”

            I disagree on it necessarily being the second case; you’re going to need to elaborate further. If the person in the case study said something like “There is no psychophysiological stress in my body” we might say they are probably wrong, pointing out the counter-examples (the listed markers of stress). However, that’s not what he claimed. What he claimed was that his internal state was, I quote, “deeply peaceful and positive despite everything that was happening”. That need not be at odds with being stressed out and moody. To claim otherwise necessitates that one points out how stressed behavior unconditionally requires certain subjective experiences. As of now, that’s a preposterous thing to try.

            It seems to me you are making the assumption I referred to in my original comment, that there is a universal and unconditional link between certain behaviors, psychophysiological patterns and subjective experiences.

            Edit: I do understand that it is (at least for me) an unconventional point of view to seriously contemplate the possibility of such an obvious discord with a person’s apparent experience and their actual, subjective experience. However, claiming that a person does not experience what they experience they experience is even more unconventional, if you ask me. The possibility left, that a person misinterprets their experience is one I take seriously (hence the bipolar example), but that possibility does not preclude the first one (that is, a discord between what a person seems to experience and what they actually experience).

            On the bipolar matter: all I tried to do was point out that I do believe that people can estimate their current experiences poorly – that is, I don’t think it’s logically impossible that Scott’s interpretation was correct (I do believe that if it is, it is by accident). Any discussion of bipolar psychosis besides that is beside the point I was trying to make, so I won’t go further into that.

          • Ohforfs says:

            What he claimed was that his internal state was, I quote, “deeply peaceful and positive despite everything that was happening”

            I was under impression we’re talking about the yoga, not the meeting with assistant and the girlfriend. I would say it was kind of obvious given i was talking about tensed muscles, no?

            Although i would say that case, despite being less obvious, is similar. They migth claim inner peace but if they don’t walkt the walk, i am going to say it’s simply denial.

            However, claiming that a person does not experience what they experience they experience is even more unconventional, if you ask me.

            The claim (mine) is that the person lies. To us, and to themselves. That is, i would say, pretty conventional and uncontroversial occurence.

          • AZpie says:

            “I was under impression we’re talking about the yoga, not the meeting with assistant and the girlfriend. I would say it was kind of obvious given i was talking about tensed muscles, no?”

            Not at all obvious to me, no. I was only referring to the meeting anecdote in my comment, although it seems I should have been much more clear about that. The yoga example is not relevant to my comment, for reasons I have already said – but I should have pointed that out in the first place.

            As for your interpretation on the person’s experience, it is obviously possible. Still, that does not preclude the possibility that something else is going on. Even Scott seems to admit this much with his examples of stressed out, highly succesful people who feel they’re falling apart but don’t seem like that on the outside; which is another reason for me to be somewhat surprised that he would just conclude that the person in the assistant-girlfriend example is wrong about his experience.

            Unless something new is put on the table, I suggest we leave it at that; I feel we are going in circles.

          • Ohforfs says:

            Sure, it’s been interesting conversation. Thought it made me more confident of my initial opinion actually 😉

            On a last note, i am not surprised with Scott’s interpretation in the girlfriend case. I attribute it to the fact it’s easier not to notice signs of crisis that it is to notice signs that are not there.

            IOW, false positives are very rare compared to false negatives when it comes to observing other people stress. That’s my experience and observation, to be precise.

  24. Ohforfs says:

    Well, my impression from reading this pretty interesting post is that enlightenment is some sort of brain damage or/and mental disorder.

    Sounds like part of their brain shutting down, and i find the psychatrist/psychologist impression about depersonalization/dissociation spot on. With a sprinkling of denial/repression as a defence mechanism.

    Weird.

  25. RomeoStevens says:

    People have a hard time taking indirect realism seriously until they’ve had some pretty powerful experiences.

  26. Aella says:

    Ok I’m about to do gossip: I know a highly experienced mediator, someone who’s worked with/around Jeffrey and I asked him about what he thought about the PSNE paper (which I liked a lot, particularly because I strongly related to having experienced the last location). He said that he thought Jeffrey was more interested in developing a good narrative (he makes a lot of money off this stuff) than actually trying to figure out patterns, and that the data is cherrypicked, and that he doesn’t really trust anything Jeffrey puts out.

    Of course take this with a grain of salt, is heresay, but I trust the meditator enough that now I personally feel wary of the PNSE paper as well.

    Also I’m really intrigued by the infighting that goes on in meditation communities, particularly around claims to enlightenment. I’ve talked at least one somewhat famous meditation teacher that is extremely sure another somewhat famous meditation teacher is definitely not enlightened. The lack of agreement in this area is so goddamn juicy and I really want to dig into it.

    • RomeoStevens says:

      There are also reports from some of the interviewees that it felt like he came into the process with a preexisting axe to grind.

      This was echoed in my experience of going through his Finder’s Course. Pretty good content and structure, but heavy Vedanta influence.

  27. Bastiat says:

    This helps me understand something that has bothered me about Sam Harris. On his podcast he frequently explains how the major benefit of meditation is the ability to avoid suffering. For example, if you get your feelings hurt, you no longer have to feel hurt for the next hour or next day, you simply let the feeling go and then you are back to a peaceful state. He says he can do this and that it is a wonderful thing. At the same time, every few months he has to explain how he got spun out by some twitter comment and posted an asshole comment back and now realizes he really needs to get off twitter. These two things seemed completely incompatible to me but now I think this may explain it. If he no longer has the emotional experience of being upset, even though he continues to physically respond and take the actions of someone who is upset, that could explain the discrepancy. It reminds me a little of how the left brain will explain what the right is drawing in those split brain experiments. If you meditate your way into splitting your “self” from your emotions, you might feel like you are living a peaceful enlightened life but everyone else looks at you from the outside and sees the same old asshole.

    • NoRandomWalk says:

      I’m not sure. I think it’s more about the distribution.
      If you’re not enlightened (vast, vast majority of people), meditation let’s you reduce or let go of suffering when you’re relaxed, have more energy, and are motivated to put in the time and attention to see your emotions as they are.
      The rest of the time you can be just as annoyed about something as usual because you’re on autopilot and that’s your natural state.
      I’m sure he’s doing much better than he was before he started meditating on average, and yet his peak level of triggeredness by usual culture war-y stuff is almost the same.

      Like, he says that meditation lets him ‘let go’ of angry/unproductive emotions faster. But he’s still just as angry the ‘first’ moment after he reads something that sends him off. And then on reflection he realizes I’m (tired/grumpy/not in best place for X reason) and that right now he’s not capable of not responding in a bad way to that first moment.

    • Jaskologist says:

      More and more, it sounds like the real change is a decrease in self-awareness. Basically, this is a way to self-induce Dunning-Kruger.

      • AZpie says:

        That’s a way to interpret it.

        Another way is that while a person still is in fact the same person experiencing somewhat the same emotions, reactions and actions, they no longer identify with those mental processes. One of the core tenets of many meditative schools is that that distinction helps relieve suffering and misery. There is pain, but as the person lacks in identification to the pain, the pain matters less. That would mean that the person in fact does not lack awareness to themselves, but instead experiences and interprets that which they are aware of very differently from the rest of us.

        It seems to me that a lot of people here too get hung up over the fact that there seems to be a contradiction in people no longer experiencing the self (is the self real or isn’t it? There must be an answer!) or people claiming that they feel deeply peaceful when they don’t seem to (are they stressed out or are they serene? There must be an answer!), but when you look closely, there might not. They can just be different models of reality and inner experience; different ways to perceive stuff. There is no ultimate answer to questions like “Does enlightenment give any real understanding or not”, as the question presupposes that a singular correct way to perceive the external world and the internal world of human mind exists. We should be highly critical of such an assumption.

        For that same reason I’m highly skeptical of meditative claims such as that a person gains insight into their mind’s workings and that that insight then transforms them. I’ve written on this. Whatever a meditator is understanding, the process of meditation transforms them while they’re trying to understand themselves; insights surely occur, but they do not refer to any stable entity called “the mind”. Such claims, then, are based on a misunderstanding – which, I suppose, is the reason concepts like Impermanence and Emptiness were originally introduced by Gotama Buddha or whoever.

  28. migo says:

    Related to the “minimalist account of enlightenment,” of Ingram and the related “pragmatic dharma” community: I believe enlightenment (stream entry) is there defined as an one-time event after which one’s subjective experience becomes characterised by a “cycling” through the stages of insight of the Theravada tradition. As one goes through these cycles, one may access upper “paths”. (https://www.mctb.org/mctb2/table-of-contents/part-v-awakening/37-models-of-the-stages-of-awakening/a-revised-four-path-model/). This is more specific than the subjective experiences described in the paper, and it would be interesting to know how generalizable this Theravada map is among PNSE people.

  29. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    Why would people who have done whatever it is to their minds think they have more body awareness? Tentative theory: They have less noise in their heads, so they actually do have more body awareness– it’s just sill much less than what’s possible, at least for some people.

    • Aapje says:

      Perhaps they think so because they are good at filtering out noise, but they fail to realize that this also means filtering out the noise from their body.

      Perhaps it is just a misunderstanding/woo, where people believe that their body sends clear signals, while the rest of the world sends a lot of noise.

      PS. Also see Scott’s writings on people trying to achieve equilibrium.

  30. Viliam says:

    I wonder if it could be that meditation actually makes one worse at introspection.

    We already know that your brain is hiding some information from you. Whether it’s trying to protect you from hurtful things, as psychoanalysts say; or it tries to make you a more efficient liar, as evolutionary psychologists say. Either way, fact is that brain makes some information unavailable.

    This process of “making information unavailable” must be somewhat active, because with inflexible censorship mechanism we could too easily discover the hidden information by simply looking at it from a different angle. It’s more like brain observes our mental activities, and actively prevents them from reaching the hidden information.

    On the other hand, this inner censorship is imperfect. It is possible to realize things you were in denial about. Either because something shocking happens; or because you keep prying in a previously unused way (in therapy or meditation). Both cases involve a strong attack from a direction where the brain hasn’t built the defenses yet.

    The problem is, if you continue meditating for months or years (or continue going to therapy for months or years), the brain will adapt. It will build new defenses along the new road, just like it has built them along the old ones. In therapy it means the patient will learn how to be a “good patient” and regularly produce “insights” that make the therapist happy, without actually making any progress. I suppose in meditation it means the brain will provide a clear access into “arising of thoughts and feelings”, except that the censored thoughts and feelings will not be there.

    In other words, during meditation your brain learns to build you an introspective Potemkin village, where you can see with perfect clarity all the things it wants you to see. Keep doing it, and you may even get direct unmediated experience of your previous reincarnations! (Or talk with Holy Spirit, or Prophet Muhammad, or find out that you actually are the creator of this universe.) You will see the reality beyond reality, and achieve wisdom beyond wisdom. Of course, this all only happens in your head.

  31. Ohforfs says:

    Browsing the paper i noticed one thing. Am i dumb or this means what i think it means?

    The average age of the 50 participants in this study was 52.13 (SD = 13.26, Median =
    53.50, Minimum = 18, Maximum = 93). The approximate average age when non-symbolic
    experience became persistent was 41.45 (SD = 14.31, Median = 40, Minimum = 4, Maximum =
    67). T

    Namely, that one of the participants became englithened at the age of four?

    • NoRandomWalk says:

      Since the minimum age, from the first part, is 18, I think clearly not.
      I would guess that 4 is the least number of years since beginning meditation practice after which enlightenment was reported?

      • nkurz says:

        > Since the minimum age, from the first part, is 18, I think clearly not.

        Why would the current age of the youngest participant restrict the reported initial age of persistent non-symbolic experience?

        > I would guess that 4 is the least number of years since beginning meditation practice after which enlightenment was reported?

        Would you also guess that since the current average age of the participants is 52, and the “average age when non-symbolic experience became persistent” is 41, that most participants started experiencing these things at age 93? I don’t think that’s possible, as the oldest participant at the time of the survey was 67.

        I think instead that one participant indeed reported experiencing a persistent non-symbolic experience at age 4, as this is the only way the other numbers make sense. Apparently Lizardmen can achieve enlightment early.

        • dionisos says:

          Would you also guess that since the current average age of the participants is 52, and the “average age when non-symbolic experience became persistent” is 41, that most participants started experiencing these things at age 93? I don’t think that’s possible, as the oldest participant at the time of the survey was 67.

          This doesn’t follow. What you would guess from that is that the participants started to meditate at a very young age. (at a average of 11).

          But I don’t think it is what it means.

  32. James Mcelia says:

    I obviously am biased to see myself as special, so take all this with a grain of salt, but it’s too interesting not to think about it. Reading through your summary of “enlightenment” at the end, it sounded like how I experience life. I have never really pursued meditation, but I do recall some oddly meditative mental states as a child. Starting in my adolescence I started noticing that I was different from my peers in pretty much exactly the ways you describe. I feel that almost everything I do takes place under the hood, but I can actually experience the processing of my senses. My emotions tend to be muted, and I perceive them as a part of the world I am experiencing rather than something happening TO me. Interestingly, I have also long found my mode of thinking superior, and wouldn’t have it any other way, despite knowing that others do fine without it. Now that I think of it, I’m almost claustrophobic recalling how I thought as a child. Notably, I also lack social inhibitions that others seem to have very strongly. I see nothing intrinsically wrong with cannibalism, incest, and even to some extent pedophilia (Obviously I don’t support an adult having sex with children, but this is a viewpoint I came to without any emotional reaction or disgust). Perhaps this mental state does indeed remove social barriers in some way.

    • James Mcelia says:

      Also worth mentioning is that I’ve learned to figure out if I’m stressed by my bodily reactions. I sweat, don’t sleep well, and eat more. I can totally see how someone who hasn’t grown up with this wouldn’t see themselves as having a negative reaction at all.

      • Ohforfs says:

        That’s quite interesting, especially the later part about figuring out your internal state. Someone very close to me functions exactly the same way. She is also very, hm, idiosyncratic person.

        I am quite certain that acceptance of social norms is not exclusive to this type of functioning, though, even if it naturally follows it (it does in the person i mentioned too)

      • Thegnskald says:

        Same situation here; it has taken a very long time to be able to notice things other people seem to take noticing for granted (like stress). Anger, too – I don’t “feel” angry, I just notice my physiological reactions.

        The “sense of self” stuff is the part that leaves me… hrm. Confused? Not the right word. Lacking understanding. What is a “sense of self”? And why do comments above suggest some people think lacking one would feel like being dead?

  33. Snickering Citadel says:

    People has described that when they were in a dangerous situation, it felt like time slowed down. But some scientists think this is wrong: during the dangerous situation time was experienced normally, but their memories of the situation changed. They formed more memories of the situation, because dangerous situations are important. People use the amount of memories from a period to determine how long the period lasted. Hence they misjudge how long the dangerous situation felt.

    Could something similar be happening with enlightenment? Like people don’t form memories about worrying. So they worry like normal people, but when they think back on the day it seems they didn’t worry at all. (Maybe worry isn’t the right word, but something like that.)

    A test one could do: give enlightened people, and a control group an alarm that beeps at random time. Then they write down what they were thinking about when the alarm beeped. See if the enlightened people think about different things.

    • Enkidum says:

      People has described that when they were in a dangerous situation, it felt like time slowed down. But some scientists think this is wrong: during the dangerous situation time was experienced normally, but their memories of the situation changed.

      There’s a nice study by David Eagleman where he hurls people off a cliff (there’s a net or a bungie cord or something to keep them safe) and measures their perception of time. I don’t remember a damn thing about the conclusion, but this is how science should always be performed.

  34. Wolpertinger says:

    The self-introspection debugger got reattached to a different part of the program. The program is still running as usual.

  35. cuke says:

    Student of Buddhism for past 35 years. I don’t claim enlightenment for sure, but I have some lived experience with this terrain — repeated glimpses let’s say, on and off the cushion.

    The thing that makes me most skeptical about these reported findings is the discussion around stress and loved ones’ perceptions of the person.

    As one goes down this path, the person experiences significantly less emotional reactivity. That means both that they will experience less stress in response to things that used to stress them more and they will move more flexibly/kindly through the world than they previously did. Loved ones will notice this, without question. The person themselves will experience fewer days of tight chest anxiety, hot-faced anger, tension headaches, chronic muscle tension, insomnia due to worry, fear of death, conflict with others, etc.

    You can’t really compare one person to another that way because we all start at different places, but within a person, it seems dubious to me that a person could claim to be moving along the road to enlightenment and still be manifesting the same level of stress response and emotional reactivity as they did before. This to me is a contradiction of what it means to hold one’s experience more lightly, to cling less to ego, to be less identified with the self, to feel less attached to desire and aversion, and so on.

    In my experience, the path is not reversible beyond a certain point. And there’s good reason for that — the awareness gained in meditation, or indeed however the insight comes — permanently changes one’s outlook about oneself and the nature of reality. You can’t un-see it. Part of what that means too is that the awareness/tools/insights gained in meditation cannot be isolated to the cushion — they change fundamentally how you experience and move through your daily life, how you respond to stressors and to other people.

    Anyway, that’s been my experience and what I’ve witnessed in others. For all of us somewhere on the road but short of enlightenment, it doesn’t mean the end of stress, the end of pettiness, the end of ego, the end of clinging. But you definitely definitely would expect to see change along those dimensions in a way that would be noticeable to other people.

    What comes through Scott’s review here is a particular focus on the experience of loss of self. Our language is imprecise in this arena. It’s possible to experience “loss of self” in the midst of sex or trance or on LSD or in the woods or after long hours of devotional chanting or certain breath practices. It’s possible to have moments of experiencing “loss of agency” in a way that feels very relieving. I don’t think this should be confused with “enlightenment.”

    The path towards enlightenment is about “waking up” from cycles of attachment and aversion that we live in. I think it’s possible to have all kinds of transcendent experiences of “oneness” without making much progress on the waking up from attachment part. Those fleeting transcendent experiences may come and go in any person’s life. Waking up entails new levels of self-awareness that are not reversible (I can’t speak to the impact of dementia or brain injury) and that lead to deeper levels of compassion towards all beings.

    I’m not familiar with what enlightenment means outside of Buddhist traditions, so part of the imprecision may be that people studying enlightenment experiences need to be clearer about how the definition varies from one tradition to another. I think it’s possible in the effort to study some phenomenon across traditions, that researchers are settling on a least common denominator that no longer resembles “enlightenment” as it’s understood within any one tradition.

    • dionisos says:

      In my experience, the path is not reversible beyond a certain point. And there’s good reason for that — the awareness gained in meditation, or indeed however the insight comes — permanently changes one’s outlook about oneself and the nature of reality.

      Waking up entails new levels of self-awareness that are not reversible

      When you say the new levels of self-awareness aren’t reversible, do you mean that you keep the capacity to access these new level, or you always stay at these levels ? (I ask because self-awareness seems very variable without enlightenment).
      Does it works even when you dream ? Or does it changes the very fuzzy self-awareness state we generally are at when we dream in any way ?

      I am also interested in how you would describe the changes of outlook about the nature of reality. Are you speaking of the metaphysical/philosophical nature of reality, or rather the way you perceive the physical world, or something else ?

      • cuke says:

        “do you mean that you keep the capacity to access these new level, or you always stay at these levels ?”

        Me personally, it’s the first one and not the second one. I believe many Buddhists would say the second one is what Enlightenment is. For me personally it’s like discovering a new room in my house. I may not always be able to go in and see the view from that room, but now that I know it’s there, I know that that view exists. Before that, I didn’t know that the room or the view existed. And now mostly, I know how to get back into that room and see the view. From that view, the things that used to cause me habitual suffering, no longer do. So even on days that I can’t get into the room, the things that used to cause me habitual suffering, don’t cause quite as much suffering.

        “how you would describe the changes of outlook about the nature of reality” — I don’t have a short way to answer this question. I can tell you it’s not mainly a cognitive/philosophical shift, but it includes it. It’s a more visceral shift in terms of how I hold my moment-to-moment lived experience and how I view myself moving through it. All of it does indeed seem to be tied to what is described as the four noble truths — ie, that attachment causes suffering, that it’s possible to get freer from attachment, and that practicing that does free one up from suffering.

        Joseph Goldstein has a nice bit about how people new to Buddhism ask “what do you mean the self isn’t real? I’m here aren’t I?!?” And a teacher might respond, “yes, you’re here and experiencing things and in that sense you’re ‘real’ — just don’t imagine that you’re ‘REALLY real.’ A lot of our everyday delusion has to do with investing a lot of solidity into things (us, the world) that are not so solid. The more that becomes evident in every waking moment, in all our various actions, the smoother the ride is. So those are some bits and pieces for now.

        I’m not sure I understand your question about dreaming?

        • dionisos says:

          Thank you a lot for answering all my questions.

          I’m not sure I understand your question about dreaming

          The idea was that dreaming, lucid and normal dreams, are a altered states of consciousness.(and mostly the only one I can really refer to)
          Going through the pass of enlightenment lead to a altered state of consciousness.
          I was curious how one was affecting the other, if it was.

          It was just me trying to poke at random stuff to try to understand something about it.

    • Ohforfs says:

      The thing that makes me most skeptical about these reported findings is the discussion around stress and loved ones’ perceptions of the person.

      Reminds me of Hegel. If the facts don’t fit the theory, the worse for the facts!

      Go ahead and criticize the paper. But rejecting it because you feel it’s wrong based on your lived experience fits exactly into what the paper describes.

      On a side note, i once thought that “engligthenment” – in this case a flash of insight into self-awareness, which is the opposite of what is described here – feels like it can’t be lost. But my later experience dictates otherwise. And it was extremely thorogh and important change (and the ‘in the blink of an eye you finally see the light’ moment was culmination of a process anyway). In retrospect it’s obvious that Lem was wrong, and what is discovered can be undiscovered…

      • cuke says:

        I didn’t intend to reject the paper — I haven’t read it. I haven’t read any facts to accept or reject. If I have time, I will go back and read it. The gist of what I was saying is that “PNSE” doesn’t sound like enlightenment to me — it seems like Scott was adding that interpretation, not the paper, but I’m not sure.

        I’m speaking from my own experience and from conversations with many other Buddhists over the years and from decades of reading and studying Buddhism. We can call that “just my lived experience” and that’s totally fine. In that sense, yes, I intended to say that based on my lived experience, calling the experiences under study “enlightenment” strikes me as dubious.

        Buddhists disagree among themselves all the time about what enlightenment is, how you get there, whether and when it becomes irreversible, how it might affect a person’s behavior and so on. So I’m definitely not an authoritative word on any of this.

        My training would distinguish between a flash of insight and enlightenment which is more a destination along a path. Many people have flashes of insight and those do seem to wear off over time if they aren’t held by something larger — a practice, a set of teachings, a certain intentionality about what the insight means in the context of one’s daily life, etc.

  36. Lucid Horizon says:

    This is unsettling news. If I’m to get into meditation it seems I must be careful to avoid forms that can lead to this phenomenon. Hopefully mindfulness is the opposite of this decreased self-awareness?

  37. Totient Function says:

    Does anyone know of any work linking the enlightenment version of this experience with similar feelings associated with depression? Or even if such feelings are common? I personally have experienced feelings of detachment and lack of agency that match the description in the article very closely during periods of depression, including the sense of actions as determined somehow externally and viewed with detachment as in a theatre of sorts. I would describe the experience as highly negative a disempowering and connect it with feelings of extreme disempowerment and apathy. It’s interesting to me that experiences with such similar properties can come imbued with such opposed tonal qualities, but I’m not sure how common this feeling is …

  38. pressedForTime says:

    Dan Ingram’s further discussion of the Dark Night of the Soul, about an article in Vice.

  39. orthonormal says:

    What it sounds like, to me, is that they’ve cut themselves off from being *consciously aware* of some mental processes that were giving them conscious narratives of unpleasantness. The elephant keeps functioning (and even suffering), but the rider is blissfully relieved and asserts that the elephant is doing much better now.

    Interesting as well that the only externally noticeable deficit seems to be holding on to reminders; all the other unpleasant tasks of the modern conscious mind can apparently be shunted onto the unconscious without detriment.

    • Viliam says:

      Some things can be done on autopilot, i.e. as a sequence of “when … then …” reactions.

      When I go to shop, I usually don’t think about how I walk: I keep walking straight until I get to a certain crossing, then I turn right. So I could be sleepwalking, as long as my body could react to reaching the crossing by turning right.

      But you can’t make yourself automatically react to e.g. time being 14:00, because “time” is not in your senses. You can set an alarm to 14:00, and then automatically react to the alarm (which is the smart and efficient thing to do). Or you can keep regularly thinking “oh my god, what time is it now”, looking at the clock, and either going “good, still enough time” or jumping up and doing the things (which is an inefficient and distracting thing to do).

      Us unenlightened beings sometimes do the efficient thing because it increases our productivity. For the enlightened beings, it seems like the only way they can function.

  40. b_jonas says:

    Typos in the quotes from the book: “a ll aspects”; “A lthough this”; “wereincreasingly unable”.

  41. P. George Stewart says:

    It’s not “drawing the self/other boundary in a different place,” it’s actually the removal of that boundary and the replacement of the sense of self/other by a non-dual state.

    The amusing thing is that this is perfectly congruent with physicalism: the self/other boundary is actually somewhat arbitrary (one’s existence as a mobile, relatively independent individual is thoroughly dependent on all sorts of impinging causal chains originating all over the place in the universe – plonk the individual in outer space, and suddenly they are no more). The cognizing mind is born out of and normally “pertains to” the body as its charge, but in principle it’s also a “mind of the universe”, in the sense of being a mechanism whereby the universe can perceive itself.

    It’s actually perfectly ordinary for God to be God, nothing special.

  42. Jaskologist says:

    Well, since we seem to be on a mysticism kick here…

    I was already compiling a list of readings in the Christian mysticism genre. Who wants to add to the list? Some of these I have read, some I still need to.

    • The Cloud of Unknowing: very popular spiritual guide in the Middle Ages
    • Psuedo-Dionisius: similar, popular in the earlier church but fell out of favor once it was demonstrated not to be written by who it claims
    • Evelyn Underhill: assorted works, recent
    • Autobiography of St Theresa of Avila: to get the perspective from somebody prone to experience ecstatic visions
    • The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence: another recent one
    • The Dark Night of the Soul, St John of the Cross: The Dark Night(s) seems to be universal across religious practices, so best be prepared
    • When the Well Runs Dry: a very recent entry that’s in my library, covering the practical side of dealing with Dark Nights
    • Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: Written in the 70s, I find this nearly impossible to describe, but recommend it to all. It’s sort of a meditation on nature, but far deeper than that, and I think it properly belongs in this category.

    • Jaskologist says:

      Note: I would be happy to seek out texts from other religions as well that cover related ground.

    • Seppo says:

      I do! Books I’ve actually read:
      • Theophany, by Eric D. Perl — a recent commentary on (Pseudo-)Dionysius, explains his Platonist theological background
      • Theologia Germanica — a favourite of Martin Luther’s

      Books I’ve read parts of:
      • The works of Meister Eckhart — another Christian Platonist
      • The Journal of George Fox — the autobiography of the founder of Quakerism. (Fox likes to record things like “then I had a beer with this one guy I know” and things like “then I was readmitted into the Garden of Eden and understood the true nature of being” at exactly the same level of detail; no prizes for guessing which one happens more often. Content warning: kind of tedious.)

      Books I haven’t read but have heard good things about:
      • Confessions, Augustine
      • Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas
      • Philokalia — a standard reference in Eastern Orthodoxy; a large collection of texts by various contemplatives.

      • Jaskologist says:

        You should read Confessions (everybody should). I don’t think I would consider it mystical, though. Augustine is tricky to put on the mystical-rational spectrum; perhaps he was so massively influential because he was so capable on both ends. I tend to think of him as more rational, though.

        Aquinas is definitely on the rational end.

        Thanks for the EO suggestion. I bet they have a lot in the genre, given their heavy Desert Father influence.

        • Seppo says:

          I see now that you have half a website about the Confessions! Cool.

          I’m actually coming from a mostly Buddhist background, so I don’t think I’ve heard of the “mystical-rational” spectrum before. Would you mind explaining those categories a bit?

          I usually take “mystical” to mean some equivalent of “talking about enlightenment”, and I guess “rational” would mean something like “explaining things using logical arguments”, but at least from a Buddhist perspective those are orthogonal, so now I’m confused. (It’s almost as if understanding Christianity by translating everything into the nearest available Buddhist concept might not be the most sensible plan ever!)

          • Jaskologist says:

            It’s not a Christian division, but it’s probably a Western one. Or maybe it’s one I made up.

            It is hard to describe in part because I think mysticism itself is hard to describe. But I would say that while the rational end is concerned with logical argumentation and descriptions of facts, the mystical end is describing emotions and experiences of the Divine (and those things are usually hard to put into words).

            They’re not mutually exclusive, but different people do tend to prefer a certain segment of the spectrum.

    • Seppo says:

      I’ve been reading When the Well Runs Dry and finding it very helpful; it’s reminding me of the aspects of the path that I had been losing sight of lately. Many thanks!

  43. Jan_Rzymkowski says:

    For a bit more than a month I’ve been feeling much derealization and dissociation and while it also might have to do with starting to look for a job (and now feeling completely lost in the new job), it also seems very strongly connected with me starting amisulpiride a month and half ago for my depression and lack of drive. Amisulpride works by blocking D2 receptors (and as a side effect increasing response of D1 receptors to dopamine) – and there might be some link between dopamine and sense of self (there are links between dopamine levels and sense of agency and self-monitoring).

    And while my perception of life in general feel much different (in a way that nothing seems permanent or really mattering) it seems like there was little change in my general behaviour aside from small things — one of them actually being feeling strong pointlessness of commenting on public posts on FB or blogposts such as this one. It is backed by some sense of great indifference about making tiny influences on people I’ll never meet or have contact with and that if I ever felt great need to comment something on the Internet it was actually sort of inward and serving purpose of ego targeted mainly at fulfilling the needs of the sense of self.

    Still, I decided to make an effort to post this comment since even in this state I was slightly touched (although more on rational level) by the weird coincidence of my change in perception of self and the blogpost describing seemingly this exact state.

  44. zachary says:

    Hello! Long-time lurker, first time poster. I have a couple of items/experiences that seem relevant:

    – I believe I’ve had a PSNE experience twice. My experiences line up with the paper (which I’ve read). The first one was the strongest/most memorable, and lasted for two days. I felt like I was truly in-the-moment, seeing things as they were and watching things unfold. I was euphoric, very productive, and even was able to navigate a difficult interpersonal situation with ease (and love).

    – Abraham Maslow wrote a book on this called “Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences”.

    – There are adjacent fields of study that I roughly group under the heading “adult development”. This includes authors like Robert Kegan, Suzanne Cook-Greuter, Bill Torbert, and Jane Loevinger. I believe they are currently looking at intersections between PSNE and higher forms of adult development. Happy to explain more if this is of interest.

  45. jackjohnson says:

    I’ve come late to this discussion but I’m astonished that only one commenter seems to have seen the relevance of taoist ideas (wu wei: do not do) to all this. I was also surprised not to see Chuang Tzu

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zhuang_Zhou

    mentioned in the writings about mysticism, though perhaps that’s because he wasn’t a mystic. On the other hand he’s the only enlightened sage I know of with a sense of humor. The Burton Watson translations are highly recommended.

    • jackjohnson says:

      Somehow a shoutout to captbackslap

      “Before enlightenment: carry water, chop wood. After enlightenment: carry water, chop wood.”

      in my attempted posting disappeared.

  46. googolplexbyte says:

    This seems super suspect. All of these symptoms of enlightenment fit me perfectly, and I’ve never set one foot on the path to enlightenment.

    I don’t have a great sense of self. I feel closer to being an aspect of the universe than an individual.

    I rarely have self-related thoughts to the point that my dreams are rarely self-related.

    I’ve never had a sense of agency, and frequently struggle to understand what free will could even mean. I occasionally catch myself doing things without any idea of what or why I’m doing them, like I’m in some very mundane flow state.

    I always feel an inner peace. Just recently I was training a new hire for the first time, and felt like I had it together, yet half through an explanation my jaw started rattling so violently I could barely get the words out. Presented with an embarrassing thing I did in the past, I can feel the outwardly physical manifestation of embarrassment, but it doesn’t register internally.

    I’m not sure about the bodily awareness thing, though I have confidently stepped onto scales in the past only to be floored by the result.

    I certainly don’t feel like I’m racist or sexist at all. My colleagues in recruitment certainly show off an hesitation towards certain CVs that makes me feel comparatively tolerant, but rationally I wouldn’t put a lot of confidence in that feeling.

    I definitely struggle with biographically recall, but I’ve always suspected this is a result of my awareness of the unreliability of witnesses and anecdote making me highly suspicious of my own recall.

    I keep a slew of reminds in my calendar and on my phone as well as riddled my hand with reminder notes, to avoid forgetting things. Though this might be overly cautious seeing as I have a knack for waking up right before my alarm would go off on days I forget to set it.

    Anyway, these are all just common symptoms that don’t have anything to do with Enlightenment.

    You could take 50 people who haven’t claimed to have reached Enlightenment and get similar results.

    • myla says:

      This is very interesting, does this mean that you feel like an observer of yourself (since you are able to observe and ask yourself where free will is for example)?

      It fits with: “They reported that they did not feel they could take any action of their own, nor make any decisions. Reality was perceived as just unfolding, with ‘doing’ and ‘deciding’ simply happening.”

      And this reminds me of a state I reached when I was once taking 2C-B (a psychedelic drug) and tried to figure out if and when I actually make decisions. I also concluded that I have no free will, thoughts come and go and my body reacts to things more or less automatically and I was just observing how things unfolded (although in a way that time felt also stretched).

      • googolplexbyte says:

        I’d call it more of a narrator than an observer. A narrator in a book isn’t really looking down at the main character and doesn’t have a location in setting. They are just aware of the state of the story and able to report it. It’s similar to that.

        That’s why I say I feel more like I’m the universe than an individual, just like the narrator can feel more like they are the book, than they are the main character.

        I can say what I’m going to do, but it doesn’t feel like I’m causing it happen anymore than it feels like a narrator is making the characters they describe do what they do.

        Using first person rather than third person when describing myself just feels like convention rather than a strong attachment to being myself.

        That’s not to say I’m a dualist, just that me, my consciousness feels like a narrated model of the universe running on my brain.

  47. macgregor says:

    After reading this paper I looked more into the researcher and his institute. It seems interesting, but triggers skepticism of a scam. His institute claims to have an accelerated course to bring people into this PSNE state for $2,500 each.link here

    A description of what the course actually consists of is posted here at reddit.

    At least one participant felt the course was a scam, aimed at making someone think they achieved PNSE, while moving to goal-posts to make any of the mild improvements from meditation be defined as PNSE.

    Here is the heart of the critique:

    We discussed many ways in which self-delusion is fostered:
    – encouraging people to believe whatever they want
    – having no reliable definitions, but only fuzzy subjective measurements
    – lessening their capacity for critical thinking
    – surrounding them with bogus spirituality that generate a sense that something truly magic is happening
    – lowering the bar for these spiritual attainments to the point that having or not having attained them is almost undistinguishable
    – adding psychological pressure to claim a shift by manipulating the herd mentality

    The critique linked above also shows how the author Jeffery Martin uses classic shyster techniques to create a shroud of legitimacy. For example, he is both the director and only scientist in the “center” he founded. Also, he claims to be Harvard trained, but in reality he dropped out of an online course and got his PhD from a non-accredited private university founded by a spiritual guru.

    The paper itself makes pretty reasonable claims: people who felt they were enlightened had very high certainty and self-reported positivity, despite not having other impacts on their life or abilities. However, it appears to be mainly a marketing tool for this individual to puff up his credibility.

    I would be happy to see such research conducted by a real group relying less on self-reports and more on “objective” tests or abilities, or at least judgements by less biased observers.

  48. myla says:

    “Other times the PNSE participants are just outright wrong about their experience. When asked if they were stressed, they would say of course not, they were experiencing inner peace. But their friends and family said they were totally stressed.”

    Somehow this reminds me of a feeling I had when reading Eckhard Tolle’s “The Power of Now”, a glimpse of what his philosophy of the mind might be all about: reaching inner peace despite any circumstances, in any moment. So it could be more about increasing the filtering system of the brain in relation to certain sensory inputs and probably cortical processes or just be able to detach yourself in a way (what he of course calls the Ego).

  49. Akhorahil says:

    If a phenomenon is undetectable except through self-reported introspection, you skeptical alarm should sound out loud and clear (and doubly so when everything that can be tested fails the test).

    The easiest explanation is that there’s no there there. People can convince themselves into all kinds of weird nonsense, or even just learn to talk in a certain way when this is socially successful. I can’t see how you require anything beyond this in this case.

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