The Science of Consciousness:
Chapter 16: Meditation and Transcendental Experience
What this chapter is about: What can meditation do for us, and how does it lead to changes in the brain? Are there states of consciousness "higher" or better in some way than normal consciousness?
Under Transcendental Consciousness I say:
"The English romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770 - 1850) called them “spots of time”. These are special moments, when everything is imbued with meaning and significance. For example, he experienced one while rowing on a lake and seeing an impressive mountain seem to loom forward."
I hope it is clear here that the "he" is Wordsworth.
One of the best books on meditation I have discovered since writing my book, with sensible advice on practice, and coverage of the neuroscience, is:
Laureys, Steven (2021). The no-nonsense meditation book: A scientist's guide to the power of meditation. Green Tree Press. ISBN 978-1472980496.
Yet more evidence meditation is good for you
Papers continue to pile up showing that meditation and simlar states are very good for you. Here are some recent ones.
Zhang, Z., Luh, W. M., Duan, W., Zhou, G. D., Weinschenk, G., Anderson, A.K., & Dai, W. (2021). Longitudinal effects of meditation on brain resting-state functional connectivity. Scientific Reports, 11, 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-90729-y
How much can meditation change?
One of the most famous findings in the psychology of meditation literature is the finding that g-tummo monks can raise their body temperature.
Benson H, Lehmann JW, Malhotra MS, Goodman RF, Hopkins J, et al. (1982) Body temperature changes during the practice of g-tummo yoga. Nature 295: 234–236.
for the original report.
It is unclear what precise mechanism is involved. See:
Kozhevnikov, M., Elliott, J., Shephard, J., & Gramann, K. (2013). Neurocognitive and Somatic Components of Temperature Increases during g-Tummo Meditation: Legend and Reality. PLoS ONE, 8(3), e58244. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0058244
Jones, P. (2019). Mindfulness Training: Can It Create Superheroes? Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 613. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00613
I am grateful for Ian Jay for drawing my attention to this more recent literature
Types of religious experience
The Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne talks about five types of religious experience, two public (seeing the work of God in something publicly available, such as a bird singing; a breach of natural law, in other words a miracle), and three private (a personal experience that can mostly be put into words, such as a vision or conversion experience; a personal experience that cannot be put into words other than saying what it is not - for many such experiences are described as “mystical”; and no specific experience, but a feeling that God is present, often called numinosity).
Note that in my book I try not to be judgemental about religious experience. I am an atheist, but not aggressively so in the manner of for example Richard Dawkins (e.g. see here). There is clearly no scientific evidence for a deity, and no place for the soul in psychology, but ultimately such things are a matter of faith, and as my book shows, there is still much we don’t understand. If you don’t try and convert me, I won’t try and convert you. Of course religions have done a great deal of harm, but they have done a great deal of good, too.
The area of research into the neuroscience of religious experiences has been termed neurotheology.
Sufism and music
Qawwali is the ancient and traditional music of the Sufi religion, and the most famous exponent of it is Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (born in Faisalabad in Pakistan, 1948-1997). See here for his most watcbed video on Youtube.