The Limits of Science in Understanding Mystical Experiences



Impact of meditation on the brain: very interesting, but not the whole story.

Impact of  prayer and meditation on the brain: very interesting, but not the whole story.

In recent years, there has been a lot of scientific studies showing a positive correlation between prayer and meditation a person’s mental and psychological well-being.  While this correlation has been known for thousands of years, advanced scientific techniques such as functional MRI have allowed people to see how the brain can change during prayer and meditation.

Some scientists attribute these changes in brain states to merely physical causes, including the experiences of mysticism that sometimes occur during meditation or in other contexts. For example, in last Sunday’s New York Times, Barbara Ehrenreich describes her own mystical experience and explores the possibility that someday science alone will be able to explain it.  Ross Douthaut recently had an outstanding reply to Ms. Ehrenreich that identifies the limits of what science can tell us about metaphysics:

 “[E]ven in contexts where it’s very easy to identify the physical correlative to a given mental state, and to get the kind of basic repeatability that the scientific method requires — show someone an apple, ask them to describe it; tell them to bite into it, ask them to describe the taste; etc. — there is no kind of scientific or philosophical agreement on what is actually happening to produce the conscious experience of the color “red,” the conscious experience of the crisp McIntosh taste, etc. So if we can’t say how this  ”normal” conscious experience works, even when we can easily identify the physical stimulii that produce it, it seems exponentially harder to scientifically investigate the invisible, maybe-they-exist and maybe-they-don’t stimulii — be they divine, alien, or panpsychic — that Ehrenreich hypothesizes might produce more exotic forms of conscious experience.”

Mr. Douthat goes on to describe the current interest in neuroscience as an opportunity to reawaken the symbiotic relationship between physical sciences and the wisdom that philosophy and theology can provide:

“So by all means, neuroscientists should seek to understand mystical experiences, as they should seek to understand every other sort of experience … but absent a revolutionary breakthrough in the science of consciousness, for the foreseeable future the best way to actually penetrate any distance into mystical phenomena  will probably continue to be the twofold path of direct investigation and secondhand encounter. By direct investigation, of course, I mean personal prayer and meditation, which is the major path to knowledge if the major religious traditions are right about what’s going on here, and probably a useful path to some sort of knowledge even if they’re not.

* * *

In the case of the numinous, this means reading actual mystics and religious texts, reading novelists and poets and essayists who take up these experiences and themes, exploring theology and philosophy, delving into the sociology and anthropology and psychology of religious experience, and so on. And it feels like an unfortunate symptom of our era’s scientism that when a writer like Ehrenreich, who has just made her own contribution to this literature and who’s clearly comfortable on both sides of the “two cultures” divide, wants to urge people to pay more intellectually-serious attention to the numinous, she (almost automatically, it seems) takes off her her humanist/essayist hat and puts her hopes in a “bold” new neuroscience — instead of calling for a renewed highbrow interest, in, say, comparative religion, or a 21st century answer to “The Varieties of Religious Experience” or “The Golden Bough.”

If our understanding of the mystical is impoverished today, perhaps it’s because we’ve put too much faith in brain scans, and allowed other forms of knowledge and investigation to ebb. Perhaps what we need is a revival of philosophically-informed psychology and anthropology, rather than a more ambitious spiritual phrenology. Perhaps, instead of a better fMRI machine, we’re waiting for a new (and doubtless very different) William James or James Frazer or Carl Jung.” (emphasis added)

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About William Ockham

I am a father of two with eclectic interests in theology, philosophy and sports. I chose the pseudonym William Ockham in honor of his contributions to philosophy, specifically Occam's Razor, and its contributions to modern scientific theory. My blog ( explores Ignatian Spirituality and the intersection of faith, science and reason through the life and writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (pictured above).
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6 Responses to The Limits of Science in Understanding Mystical Experiences

  1. the science of consciousness is barely begun… the neurosciences are not an issue for recording brain activity… discovering the connection beyond body to spirit at least requires studying beyond the brain however and as it seems people may actually be connecting with spirit more on and off than always on… so their scans probably look very different. As is hinted, atheists also can change their brain chemistry by focus on what they enjoy. When I look at the evidence to date, our best hope for use of it in the present is to encourage mindfulness because we can document the health benefits. As to connecting prayer to a connection with Spirit, no can do. However, it also is a lab research effort that is beginning to demonstrate that prayer people also enjoy healthier brains and bodies. Debate on the existence of spirit is not really going to do any of us any great service…. however focusing research onto the whole person and healing, health, well-being is a good use of the technology that is used to scan brains and organs.

    • Eric:

      Thank you for your wonderful insights. You are far more knowledgeable in this area than I am and I really appreciate all of the blogs and articles you have on this topic. I am interested in this topic on a lay level and also because I interact with experts in this field (I am certainly not an expert myself). What I find particularly interesting is that many scientists in the area assume that there is nothing beyond the material world (i.e. no “Spirit”). I agree with you that this hypothesis is not testable through scientific means, it is possible to make arguments for or against through philosophy and theology, which some scientists do not view as valid ways of knowing.

      What is positive is that the health benefits of prayer and meditation are now being “scientifically” validated (of course the benefits were known for thousands of years). In his outstanding book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain, Richard Davidson describes how he meditated since early in his career but kept his meditation practice “in the closet” because it would have harmed his scientific credentials. Now, Davidson is a leading advocate for the health benefits of meditation and mindfullness practices but he used to operate in an environment that was hostile to such practices. Similarly, many scientists who want to honestly explore metaphysical questions are hindered because of a negative climate.

      I would love to hear more about your background? Are you a neuroscientist? You certainly are knowledgeable in this area.

      W. Ockham

      • no, I am not a scientist at all. I do have experience in teaching some sciences for medical assisting and mental health. I am a vocational instructor. My background includes investigating at paranormal and noetic sciences groups that I attended for many years beginning in the 80s. More recently, in the late 90s, I returned to Christian practices. My interest in mindfulness and meditations goes back to the late 80s;, but only recently I began to read about the health benefits I delve into a routine in greater earnest. Also came heart-brain connection and Gregg Braden, new age Wayne Dyer, transcendental psychology Ken Wilber, eastern spiritual Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle, and others and a new interest in the physical and spiritual activity that occur as thought forms. I’d have avoided these until very recently – only seven years ago when I began to accept that thoughts are forms and that we use and act as projections from thought with other non-manifest spiritual thought forms.
        So, no, I’m just an average guy.

  2. ptero9 says:

    Such an important topic. While I am initially thrilled to see someone who has atheist creds with the mainstream come out of the closet and speak about her non-ordinary experience of consciousness, I keep in mind that the cultural climate of atheistic rationalism is very much shaping the public perception of her event.

    Who cares what science finds out about experiences of this kind? The phenomena of the experience in which one senses life on a more than just material level is at the heart of the matter. The question we might ask, is not how do these experiences happen, or what do they look like on a piece of technology that records them thereby proving their existence, but what do they mean to us? What do they mean to the heart and the soul of modern man?

    We don’t need to explain them, but live them.

    Thanks William for sharing a well-rounded perspective.

    • Debra:

      Thank you so much for your kind comments. I especially believe you nailed it with this quote:

      “The question we might ask, is not how do these experiences happen, or what do they look like on a piece of technology that records them thereby proving their existence, but what do they mean to us? What do they mean to the heart and the soul of modern man?

      We don’t need to explain them, but live them.”

      I could not have said it better myself.

      W. Ockham

    • I do think Debra that eventually a team of scientists will be able to evolve technology to “see” for the first time entities coming in and out through the physical world and maybe even to record the attachments that they form with us… however, its some ways down the road… meantime, as you say the focus ought to be on how we are living and what health and spiritual growth can be attributed to spiritually developing people.

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