An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

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Andy SmithAndrew P. Smith, who has a background in molecular biology, neuroscience and pharmacology, is author of e-books Worlds within Worlds and the novel Noosphere II, which are both available online. He has recently self-published "The Dimensions of Experience: A Natural History of Consciousness" (Xlibris, 2008).


Footprints in the Sand

Can We Identify Brain Correlates
of Higher Consciousness?

Andrew P. Smith

Those who believe that any valid model or paradigm of reality must not only include both science and spirit, but address their relationship, will surely be interested in the just-published Why God Wonít Go Away, by Andrew Newberg, Eugene díAquili, and Vince Rause. Newberg and (the late) díAquili, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, have been interested in finding correlates in the brain of mystical or religious experiences. To this end, they imported several Tibetan Buddhists--and in a subsequent study, Franciscan nuns--injected them with a radioactive isotope that is used by regions of the brain that are metabolically active, then performed single positron emission computed tomography (SPECT) to identify these regions. Their results, as reported and discussed in detail in their book, indicate that there are significant changes in the metabolic activity of certain brain regions (in some places, increases, in other places decreases) during the so-called peak experiences of meditators. In the perhaps overly enthusiastic words of the book's publicist, "God seems to be hard-wired into the human brain."[1]

As a researcher with a strong background in neuroscience, as well as someone who has followed a meditative practice for thirty years, I suppose I ought to love this book. Newberg and díAquili are far from the first to search for nervous system correlates of experiences of higher consciousness--this work has been going on for at least a quarter of a century now--but unlike so many of their predecessors, they have impeccable scientific credentials, and their technique is one of the most sophisticated and sensitive employed to date. Itís certainly capable of providing far more insight into brain events than the much more commonly studied electroencephalogram (EEG) patterns. And despite their scientific training and association with a highly respected academic institution, they maintain an admirable balance between the empirical and the ineffable. As holistic doctor/author Larry Dossey comments in a review of the book: Newberg is exceedingly mindful of the limits of science- what it can and cannot say, where it can and cannot go. He realizes that for every question science answers about religious experience, a dozen more arise to take its place. The respect this book displays toward the great mysteries, such as the nature of God and the origin and destiny of consciousness, is one of its most appealing qualities. Newbergís reverential attitude toward the great unknowns is reminiscent of Einstein.

Newberg, in other words, doesnít pretend that he has all the answers, or that science, alone, can grasp the nature of spirit. Heís simply using science as one approach to help us better understand spirit. A contribution from the upper right quadrant, as Wilberites would say. Or for us Flatlander/reductionist/quadrant collapse types who think a one-scale model is better, Newberg is trying to find correlates or footprints of a higher level of existence in a lower. Whatís wrong with that? What more could one ask?

The Validation Problem

The problem I have with this approach is the same problem that I believe haunts every "scientific" study of higher consciousness to date, a problem that even the most sophisticated observers, who ought to know better, refuse to acknowledge: how do we know the subjects are experiencing higher consciousness? How do we know what they are experiencing at all? Like others before them, Newberg and díAquili sought out subjects who have had some experience practicing a meditative discipline. The nine Tibetan Buddhists who participated in this study were in fact unusually experienced in this regard, much more so than is typically the case in such studies; they had practiced for an average of twenty years.

Isn't that enough to be certain of their qualifications? It may be if you are a member of a spiritual community, and are convinced that its members are on the right path. But itís not enough for a scientific study. The fact that someone has been a long-time member of a community devoted to certain kinds of practices establishes very little. Anyone--or at any rate, a great many people--can join such a community, and say they are following these practices, and truly mean it. Does this mean they are? Does this mean they are experiencing higher consciousness? Letís keep in mind that we arenít analyzing basketball players here, or musicians, or writers, or anyone else with a skill apparent to all. Nor are we asking the subjects to report on certain experiences all of us have, such as the occurrence of certain thoughts or images or common emotions. Weíre asking them to report on contact with a state of consciousness that by definition is not visible to those not in it. A state of consciousness, moreover, that is supposed to be extraordinarily difficult to realize.

Let me be very clear here. I donít question that the subjects had some unusual experiences, and that these resulted directly from the practice of a certain discipline. The relatively large changes in brain activity observed argue they they were highly skilled in doing something that required use of parts of the brain not used, or not used to such a large degree, when not engaged in that activity. This presumably is what led Newberg to claim that his results showed that the experience of his subjects was not simply "a delusion, or subjective psychology, or wishful thinking." But this doesnít prove that they were experiencing higher consciousness. As a large body of recent research has shown, the metabolic patterns identified by SPECT and related methods are sensitive to many kinds of cognitive and other activities. For example, distinct patterns of metabolic activity or blood flow are observed when subjects engage in storage of short-term memory (Cornette et al. 2001) reading (Fallgatter et al. 1998), word comprehension (Wise et al. 1991), word association (Schreckenberger et al. 1998), face recognition (Dolan et al. 1996; Clark et al. 1996, 1998), and motor skills (Doyon et al. 1997). Indeed, though the technology has not yet developed to the level of sophistication allowing us to test this notion, we have every reason to believe that every human activity--playing a musical instrument, for example, or making a crafts object, or athletic activity--is associated with its own unique metabolic pattern in the brain. So the demonstration of a unique pattern in people claiming to meditate in no way supports the conclusion that these people achieved a degree of transcendence beyond ordinary human activities. This is something that has to be established independently of the results.

Newberg, Iím quite sure, would agree with this. He would presumably argue that if we want to study higher consciousness in this way, we of course have to take the word of our subjects that they actually are experiencing higher consciousness. We really have no other choice. Maybe the experimenter has no way of directly verifying this, but surely by selecting a group of Tibetan Buddhists he can have a very high degree of confidence. After all, their discipline has a very long and honored history. The Tibetans have developed, practiced and taught meditative techniques for many centuries. There is no reason to believe students of this tradition would intentionally deceive the experimenter. Why, then, should anyone challenge them on what they are experiencing?

Well, Iím suspicious because of the way the study was carried out. The subjects came into the laboratory, along with rugs, cushions and prayer wheels to allow them to feel right at home, and were given a first injection of isotope and measured by SPECT. This provided a baseline brain scan. They were then allowed to meditate until they reached a peak experience, which they were able to signal to the experimenter by a simple method designed to avoid breaking their concentration. At this point they were given another injection, and a little later again analyzed by SPECT. The two scans--baseline and peak experience--were compared, and the differences found considered correlates of the meditative experience.

What bothers me about this protocol--and it is a very common one in studies of this kind--is the underlying assumption that a meditator can raise his level of consciousness a great deal in a relatively short period of time. In my experience, as I discuss at length in my book Illusions of Reality, meditation is an excruciatingly slow process, in which the level of awareness increases only very gradually. What this means, among other things, is that one does not and cannot experience a major increase in awareness simply by sitting and concentrating for a few minutes or even hours. This is just as true for advanced practitioners as it is for novices. If one is advanced, if one has realized a high state of awareness through many years or decades or practice, one has that awareness always. It certainly can and does fluctuate according to certain conditions, which I discuss in the book, but these fluctuations are minor compared to the overall level one has realized. Over a period of a few minutes or even hours, they donít make that much of a difference. (And by the same token, whatever little effort it takes to communicate to an experimenter when to make a measurement has a trivial effect on one's level of awareness. No special arrangements should have to be made for this).

Perhaps the easiest way to appreciate this problem is to consider how we would go about studying our ordinary level of consciousness. Suppose a researcher brought some nonmeditators into the lab, made certain measurements on their brains, then claimed that these measurements were correlated with their consciousness. Would anyone accept these results? Not under those conditions, because there is nothing to compare this consciousness with. It's always there, so it's impossible to say what processes in the brain are associated with it, and what processes are secondary or incidental. In the same way, I'm claiming, even advanced meditators exist in a state of consciousness which, though gradually increasing over time, changes very little during any short period of time.[2]

What can change very quickly--and what I therefore believe is most likely what was being measured in Newbergís studies--is the quality, or content, of awareness. This includes not only the kinds of thoughts one is thinking, the moods or emotions one is experiencing, and various mental images, but also oneís perception of space or time. I mention this last in particular, because Newberg detected a decrease in activity in areas of the brain thought to be important to our sense of space and time, and has speculated that his subjects, by damping down these areas, were able to experience a state in which these senses are absent.

Perhaps this interpretation is correct. But in the first place, a higher state of consciousness is not about blocking or removing the sense of space and time; itís about transcending it. In the higher state, the meditator is not unaware of space and time; sheís simply beyond it. And in the second place, even within the ordinary state of consciousness, our perception of space and time can vary dramatically. Itís quite possible for example, within this state, to experience periods in which time seems to move very fast, or conversely, not move at all. Indeed, simply sitting and trying to meditate is frequently a very good way to slow down the sense of time. In my experience, if I sit for very long, time seems to crawl. This is a relatively rapid change, and one that I could well imagine would result in changes in metabolic activity in certain brain areas. But the accompanying increase in awareness, over the same period of time, is fairly small.

In concluding this discussion of Newberg's work, I want to emphasize that I am not really claiming that his subjects had no experience of higher consciousness. I have my suspicions--given that they apparently believe level of awareness can be raised very quickly, and that it will be lost significantly if they lose their concentration--but I'm not really concerned with that here. What I am arguing is that the changes in regional brain metabolism detected by Newberg, because they occurred so rapidly, can't be correlates of such awareness. It's possible that some or all of the Tibetan Buddhists were in fact in a very high state of awareness, which they maintain permanently, and therefore which was present during the baseline as well as so-called peak experience phases. In fact, Newberg has reported some differences in baseline brain scans among his subjects, and speculated, if I understand him correctly, that these might be correlated with different degrees of spiritual advancement.

To me, this is the most interesting aspect of his study. and one I personally would like to see more work done on. However, it still does not solve the problem of validation, and in addition it obviously does not lend itself as easily to using the same subject as his or her control. One would have to compare long-term meditators with non-meditators, or possibly conduct a longitudinal study on the same subjects. Given the great many factors that can affect patterns of brain activity, as I pointed out earlier, the introduction of different subjects or the same subjects at very distant times is likely to complicate considerably interpretation of results.

Meditation: Pre vs. Trans

Despite the very difficult problems associated with studies attempting to correlate higher consciousness with brain physiology, itís important to keep trying, for such studies have both theoretical and practical value. Their theoretical value lies in how they help us understand higher consciousness--how itís related to other human capacities, for example, possible individual differences in brain structures or activities associated with meditation, and the extent of actual physiological changes that are possible. The practical value, on the other hand, would be the possibility of developing a relatively quick, simple and precise way of assessing anyoneís state of consciousness or spiritual advancement, in a manner that other people could agree on (or, perhaps, a convincing demonstration that no such empirical measurement is possible). With such profound consequences at stake, itís obviously important to criticize such studies thoroughly, and not get carried away by the claims of those carrying them out.

In light of this, I was quite shocked to learn of the video clip--quite famous now among Ken Wilberís followers--in which Ken, after having electrodes strapped onto his head, goes from a state of mixed brainwaves to primarily delta, all in just four seconds. "This is nirvana," Wilber told Frank Visser in an interview, "nirvikalpa samadhi". The implication is that Wilber can enter this state any time he wants, and very quickly.

When I first encountered this claim, I thought Wilber was joking. I thought he was reminding us of the point--which he himself first made in Eye to Eye almost two decades ago--that we canít use EEGs or other physiological measures as proof of higher consciousness. It seemed like a great way to drive this message home, a parody of what a lot of people really did believe back then. I thought most of them had grown out of that, but apparently not only is that not the case, but now Ken has actually grown into it. Whatís going on here?

In Illusions of Reality, I discuss some of the flaws in Wilberís claim: the lack of evidence that any EEG pattern is strictly correlated with the experience of higher consciousness; the unlikelihood that Wilber has reached full awakening, or is even very close to it, after just 25 years of meditation; and, as I noted earlier, my experience that one simply canít raise oneís level of awareness very much even in a few hours, let alone four seconds. I want to discuss just the first of these points a little further here, because the EEG, being one of the easiest brain parameters to measure, is still the most commonly studied correlate of higher consciousness (see Austin 1999). To preach that we can use the EEG to prove to other people our level of awareness--which Wilber certainly seems to be doing here--is, in my view, not much better than preaching that understanding a particular model or paradigm of reality is enlightenment, which Ken has been very forceful and eloquent in speaking out against. It takes some effort to understand a paradigm, of course, but it's a very different sort of effort, in quality, intensity and duration, from that required to raise our level of awareness. The same, I believe, is true of learning to make EEG changes--even animals can be trained to alter their brain activity, a recent study suggests (Chapin et al. 1999). Nobody that Iím aware of has called Ken on this, at least publicly, which astounds me, though there is an awful lot of literature and dialogue on Wilber out there, and I donít pretend to be on top of it all. In any case, it's the kind of call that merits repetition.

Ken Wilber, it seems, believes that samadhi is a state associated with delta wave activity in the brain. Why? Delta waves are characteristic of human beings in deep dreamless sleep, but they have also been observed in people under the influence of certain drugs (Schaul et al. 1978), in epileptics (Normand et al. 1995), and in patients with hematomas (Hirose et al. 1981) or lesions (Gloor et al. 1977) in the brain. If we are to judge a state of consciousness by the company that it keeps, samadhi as viewed by Wilber does not look very inviting.

Kenís understanding of delta waves, though, is closely related to his views on sleep. He has said many times that during dreaming sleep we contact what he calls the subtle level of consciousness, while during deep sleep we contact, if I understand him correctly, the causal. So the expression of delta waves, while conventionally considered characteristic of deep sleep, on Wilberís account is also characteristic of a very high state of consciousness[3].

I find this idea wacky, to say the least. Many lower animals sleep, and it seems quite likely also dream much the way we do (Louie and Wilson 2001). Does this mean that they regularly experiences levels of consciousness above those of humans in the ordinary waking state? That they were doing so even before we evolved? The delta rhythm is predominant in newborn babies, and so I am told, in people who relive their birth experiences, a la Grof. The theta rhythm, which is closely associated with dreaming sleep--and is another favorite indicator of higher consciousness of not just Wilber, but many schools of meditation--predominates in young children. Thus to point to the ability to generate these rhythms as evidence of higher consciousness strikes me as a classical example of the pre-trans fallacy, by the very man who first pointed it out to us.

So what does Wilberís famous video clip really signify? The ability to go into a lower state of consciousness, I would say. The ability to shut off many of the systems of the waking brain. A very useful ability, perhaps, and one that may require a great deal of effort to learn, but it should not be confused with realizing higher awareness. I find Wilberís claim especially interesting in light of studies showing that many meditators spend much of their time in states of dreaming or deep sleep (see Austin 1999 for a thorough discussion of this). Some meditative schools have even out-front defined the practice of their craft as entering a state of drowsiness. For example, practitioners of Kriya yoga define the meditative state as "a drowsy/dreamy state observed by a clear, conscious awareness" (Hoffman 1999).

I couldn't disagree with this more. Meditation as I practice it is a state of super-awareness, as far removed from our ordinary state as the latter is from sleep. The idea of meditation is not to become drowsy, but to become more alert; not to withdraw from the external world, but to feel and sense it fully. Yet I do understand this emphasis on sleep, why so many meditators flirt with it. As we drift off every night, we enter an intermediate zone or stage when we arenít completely awake, yet not fully asleep, either. In this twilight zone, the waking ego has been shut down, and unconscious material may now surface to our awareness--if there is some awareness to observe it. The drowsy state thus seems to offer a quick way to bypass systems in the brain that normally block our knowledge of events other than those presented to our waking consciousness. We can stealthily slip around it, and have a good peek, or more, at another world.

The problem is that this world is not higher than that waking consciousness--itís lower. It may be very useful to know something about this lower world; in the case of some individuals, in whom these events may be blocking further development, it may even be essential for progress in transcendence. But I disagree very strongly with Stan Grof, Michael Washburn and others who believe that we must go down in order to go up (and so, I thought, did Ken), that the path to higher consciousness has to pass through and in some manner integrate lower, earlier forms of consciousness. If this seems to be so to them, perhaps itís because so many people are attracted to meditation because it promises to cure them of fairly severe psychological problems deriving from early events in their lives. Maybe such people do need to go down to go up, but I see no reason why reasonably healthy, adjusted individuals can't progress limitlessly on the path to transcendence without confronting events that happened long ago. Iím not saying that such events donít have a certain pull on us, that all of us don't have skeletons in the closet, but if the meditator is determined, he can move beyond them without reliving or excessively analyzing or immersing himself in them. As an old saying used to go, we progress in spite of our hangups, not because of them.

Lucid Dreaming, Illucid Conclusions

Though I believe itís a great mistake to confuse higher states of consciousness with the various states or stages of sleep, it is true that we may gain novel insights into the former while in the latter. If a higher state of consciousness truly transcends our ordinary state of consciousness, we should, while in this higher state, remain fully aware while we sleep. In this sense we would be in the higher state while we sleep. Wilber has made this claim in One Taste, saying that one in the subtle state remains fully aware during dreaming, and one in the nondual state fully aware during deep sleep. While I'm not so sure about this subtle/nondual classification, I do accept the general notion that higher awareness means greater awareness during sleep as well as during what we ordinarily refer to as waking consciousness.

However, to say this is not necessarily to say the converse: that anyone who maintains some awareness during dreaming or deep sleep must necessarily have realized to some degree a higher state of consciousness. This is like saying that because higher consciousness improves our aesthetic sense, or our ability to write, or our ability to make certain physical movements, that therefore people who are outstanding in one of these ways must be experiencing higher consciousness. In the case of awareness during dreaming, called lucid dreaming, itís quite well established that this is not so difficult to learn. A pioneering study by Stephen LaBerge, perhaps the worldís leading authority on this phenomenon, reported that more than half the subjects experienced at least one lucid dream (LaBerge 1980), and informal surveys since suggest that this proportion is found in the population at large (LaBerge 1991; Blackmore 1991). LaBerge, who himself claims to have had about a thousand lucid dreams, emphasizes that some practice is required to learn this technique, but in time and effort this practice sounds nothing at all like the efforts needed to realize higher consciousness. I find it very difficult people to believe that all these lucid dreamers have accomplished so quickly and easily what has conventionally been considered to result only from decades of intensive discipline.

Claims of awareness during deep sleep are rarer, mostly coming from Eastern traditions (Mason et al. 1997; Wangyal 1998), but then again, it's much more difficult to verify such claims. The key breakthrough in the study of lucid dreams was made when LaBerge showed that the subjects, though mostly paralyzed as is normal during this state, could communicate with the experimenter through eye movements. I'm not aware of whether such observations have been made of subjects during deep sleep, but it would seem to me that this state, almost by definition, would preclude such communication. But in any case, the bottom line is that there are many gradations of sleep, and there is nothing in our knowledge of the process that is inconsistent with the possibility of someone's sleeping with some awareness of doing so, an awareness rooted in the ordinary level of consciousness. Sleep and waking states are controlled by multiple, complex systems in the brain (Austin 1999), which would be expected to allow many permutations or variations of the basic states.

In conclusion, while awareness during sleep may be evidence of higher consciousness, there are other possible explanations, particularly in the case of dreaming sleep. And though it is surely a goal of meditators to gain such awareness, itís a goal, in my view, which should be de-emphasized, precisely because it reinforces the false belief that the meditative experience is closely related to that of sleep. As I noted earlier, sleep is a substantial component of the experience of many meditators. Most schools of meditation teach their students to close their eyes partly or completely, which only encourages, if not going to sleep, certainly entering some drowsy or near-sleep states. The real point of sitting meditation, as I argue in Illusions of Reality, is that it allows the meditator to minimize both action in and interaction with the world. Everything we do, and every sensation from the outer world that we experience, has an effect on our awareness. When we sit quietly, we minimize these effects. This means, first, that awareness increases most rapidly (though still very slowly) under these conditions, and second, that we can observe some states of the mind in their "purest" form, unaffected by thoughts generated by ongoing activity. While it's also true that sitting meditation makes it easier to access unconscious material from our early lives, even someone with a great interest in this information should not be spending most of her meditative efforts seeking it out.

Criteria of Higher Consciousness

If scientifically detectable changes in brain physiology are not reliable indicators of higher consciousness, nor is the claim that one is aware during sleep, what is? Is there any way we can develop a set of criteria that might give us a little more confidence that the subjects in an experiment were realizing a higher level of awareness? I'm not at all sure we can, but to have even a chance of doing so, we need to be clear on two points at the outset, be aware of two major failings that I see in most of the literature on meditation.

First, the majority of descriptions of meditative experiences, classic as well as modern, are of the final state--the author provides glimpses of what it's like when one is in a some higher level of consciousness: oneness, emptiness, stillness, peace, and on and on and on. These are certainly very precious insights, but if, as I contend, realization of the next level of consciousness (let alone any that may be beyond it) is many decades of efforts away, such descriptions are of limited value as guides. What is much more urgently needed is a description of what may be experienced during the very long and arduous journey. Many authors seem to assume that the path is simply one in which we spend progressively more and more time in full awareness. We have the Witness; we lose it. We have it; we lose it. That is not an inaccurate way of looking at things as far as it goes, but it leaves out an awful lot. What is actually happening to us when we are not in full awareness, which is most of the time? What are we experiencing? Some of it may be entirely personal and individual, but can any of it be understood in terms of universal principles?

This brings me to the second point, which I have always felt was obvious, but which an amazingly large number of people donít seem to get: meditation is not primarily about sitting cross-legged for an hour or two every day, after which we get on with our real life. To be successful, meditation has to be practiced all the time, which means most meditation goes on while we are active in and interactive with the rest of the world. Itís just as much about being "out there" as "in here", as engaging the world as withdrawing from it. To be in the world but not of it does not mean we go around inside a shell, trying to shut out the sounds and sights of the world; it means that we think and feel and sense more intensely than ever, but learn not to identify with our thoughts, feelings and sensations. And to repeat an earlier point: it is not about being drowsy or dreamy, not even when we are sitting with our eyes closed.

That very few people, past as well as present, have really understood this is reflected by those passages in the literature which do describe intermediate states, the experiences of one who clearly is not completely awake, is somewhere between levels. These so often emphasize visions, apparitions, symbols, lights, voices and many other phenomena that in most cases could only be encountered by someone who has withdrawn from the world, someone living in a monastery or other retreat, who has very little interaction with other people, and who spends much of his time under conditions of minimal sensory stimulation. I won't say that such experiences have no authenticity or value. Many of them I'm sure do, but itís very easy under these conditions to induce hallucinations, which I would just define as (one class of) experiences that are not reproducibly shared by others meditating under similar conditions. In any case, regardless of the authenticity of such descriptions, in my experience they have very limited relevance to those who meditate while living in the flow of everyday life. Meditation under these conditions results in very different kinds of experiences, leading to several principles which I believe are universal, that can be verified by anyone who meditates dedicatedly while living in the flow of life. I have discussed some of these principles at length in Illusions of Reality, but I want to revisit one of them here, because I believe it has obvious and significant implications for research into the brain correlates of higher states.

Meditation, Awareness and Energy

Meditation is a process of gaining energy, and in my experience, the two are inextricably related. One major piece of evidence for this is that, as I noted earlier, when we meditate while sitting perfectly still, we gain awareness at the maximum rate. While we can gain awareness while meditating during any activity, the rate of increase is always less. Why? A common misunderstanding is that meditation in action is more difficult than sitting meditation because of the distractions of everyday life. That may be true for the beginner, but for the advanced meditator, distractions, at least in the usual sense of the word, are not the problem. The reason meditation is slower under conditions of engagement with the world is that everything we do--physically, mentally, emotionally--requires energy, and thus diverts some of the energy that otherwise would go into raising our level of awareness. This is particularly obvious when, after a long session of sitting meditation, we get up, and say, take a walk. Acute observation under these conditions reveals that our level of awareness falls--we actually lose some of the awareness we gained during the sitting session. The level of awareness following a long session of sitting will in fact fall under any conditions of physical activity, and the amount that it falls can actually be used to measure, very precisely, the amount of energy that that activity requires. Thus walking, running and other forms of gross physical exercise result in a much faster and greater loss of awareness than more sedentary activities.

If, after experiencing such a decrease in awareness, we return to a position of stillness, we now make another important observation: our level of awareness, as it returns to the original level from which it dropped, increases more quickly than it did when we first realized this higher level. It seems that a previously-realized level of awareness can be re-attained much faster, and with much less effort, than it was originally. Moreover, the dynamics of the rise are different. Whereas awareness increases in a purely linear fashion when we are realizing a new level, it rises in a nonlinear fashion when we are returning to a previously attained level. As I discuss in Illusions of Reality, the rate of increase under the latter conditions in fact can be described fairly precisely by an exponential function. The rate is greatest when the level is at its lowest point, furthest from the previously realized level, and decreases asymptotically as the level approaches that previous level.

These two simple (in principle if not in practice!) observations allow us to infer the existence of at least three distinct energy processing steps that occur sequentially during meditation. The first step, directly resulting from stopping thought, brings us to a higher level of awareness, associated with an increased amount of energy. The second step creates, or enlarges, an area or depot in the brain in which this additional energy can be temporarily stored. And the third process converts this energy into a permanent part of oneís being.

The decrease in awareness during physical activity results, according to this scheme, because there is a substantial lag between steps two and three. When we meditate while still, we can gain energy much faster than we can process it into a permanent part of our being. Because we have so much of this non-permanent or what I call labile energy, it's available for worldly activities, and thus can and will get drained off by them. When the energy does become permanently incorporated into our being, then we are permanently at that level of awareness, and that level is not affected by anything we do.

The existence of the second step, the creation of a depot for temporary storage of energy, is inferred from the fact that awareness increases much faster when returning, or what I call "rebounding", to a previously realized level. According to this model, the storage depot is created and progressively enlarged when we realize a new level, and the need for doing this is in fact responsible for much of the slowness and effort associated with meditation. This step, I believe, is primarily what makes meditation so arduous. Once the depot has been created, however, itís always available, so if the meditator should experience a decrease in awareness, he can regain that awareness without having to recreate the depot--hence less effort and time is required. This interpretation of these observations also accounts for the nonlinear rise of awareness under these conditions, since the greater the amount of empty or available space in the depot, the faster the accumulation of energy should be able to take place; and is also consistent with an additional observation, that this enhanced rate is always the same, no matter how many times one drops from and returns to a particular level of awareness.

This simple model explains several other important observations associated with meditation. For example, the presence of this labile energy following step two allows the mediator to perform activities in the ordinary world at super-human levels--or at any rate, at levels well beyond her ordinary capacity--because this energy is available for use in any activity. This energy, in my view, is also responsible for many if not most of the extraordinary experiences that advanced meditators realize, and that are the subject of some of the more interesting passages in the literature on meditation. During activity, when this energy may be released suddenly and in large amounts, it may flow into those parts of the brain responsible for processing the five senses, and thus result in a greatly heightened perception of the world. For example, when I undergo a very sharp decrease in awareness--what I refer to as a "crash"--I experience an enormous "rush", in which I feel tremendously alive and powerful, and the surrounding world simply explodes, everything moving extremely fast. I do not, however, see visions or apparitions or lights or any of the more commonly reported observations in the literature. I simply see the people, objects and events in the world, though in a very different way from the way I ordinarily see them. Many other experiences occur or can occur under such conditions, discussion of which is beyond the scope of this article.

How is this relationship between awareness and energy relevant to studies attempting to correlate higher consciousness with brain physiology? For one thing, it implies that any genuine brain correlates should follow the same kind of pattern--that is, they should increase very slowly during rest or sitting meditation, then decrease much more quickly during activity. The decrease, in fact, because it can occur much more rapidly than the increase, should be much easier to detect over a short period of time. Likewise with the rebound in awareness when sitting follows physical activity. The ability to describe the rate of awareness increase under these conditions with such mathematical precision should greatly enhance the prospects of identifying a genuine correlate of awareness increase, since any correlate should change over time according to the same function.

So to return to Newberg's study, rather than comparing brain scans of meditators just at the outset of the experiment and at a point they claim is a peak experience, I would like to see the data from several time points. As I noted earlier, the changes in level of awareness over even a period of several hours are going to be very small, relative to the ongoing or permanent level of awareness of the meditator. But we would surely have a much better chance of detecting such small changes if we could see the kind of trend in them that I contend occurs in rising awareness under these conditions. Even very small changes become significant when they all follow a trend, particularly if that trend has been predicted by a precise mathematical formula before the start of the experiment.

Newberg and his subjects seem to think it would be very difficult to make multiple measurements, as this would disturb the subjects' concentration. I disagree very strongly. As I said earlier, the permanent aspect of our level of awareness is unaffected by anything we do, while the labile aspect is affected only in a very minor respect. If people can meditate while holding a job, raising families, and doing any number of other activities in the world, they surely can while being manipulated in a laboratory. Such manipulation can be disruptive to a meditator, and can very definitely break concentration, but so can so many other unavoidable events in life. Genuine meditators learn to deal with these problems, and in the process, come to realize that they really don't affect their level of awareness that much (The real problem is the karma that they generate--the thoughts that lead the meditator away from established routines necessary to a life of continual effort and suffering).

Finally, all three of the postulated energy processing steps should have correlates in the brain. Thus I believe the process of stopping thought should be associated with specific decreases in activity in forebrain regions, even if these can only be detected over long periods of time. Any increases in brain metabolic activity I would expect to be associated with the second and third processing steps, which store this energy temporarily and then permanently. The third energy processing step is of particular interest, it seems to me, not only because this is the one associated with our real or permanent level of awareness, but because it is somehow separated from other metabolic processes in the brain. That is, energy at this point is not lost by activities of the human organism that require energy. How is such a barrier created and maintained? Is it possible that in fact we are now talking about a form of energy that transcends the chemical and cellular ones science is familiar with?


More and more people from both sides of the traditional divide--scientists and meditators--are becoming fascinated with the prospects of finding brain structures or processes related to spiritual experiences. It's difficult to criticize these studies without appearing to be either arrogant or a spoilsport, because if nothing else they promote a very healthy dialogue between the two sides. Members of each become a little more knowledgeable of the others, and with such knowledge comes tolerance and appreciation. But I'm disturbed that scientists who in other areas or projects exhibit the most rigorous regard for the rules of their game seem to throw these rules out the window when studying higher consciousness. The inescapable fact of the matter is that we don't have now, and have not in the foreseeable future, any way of verifying the claims of the subjects in such experiments to be experiencing a higher state of awareness. We simply have to take their word for it, assuming that they are not only honest, but are not deluded. To question them on either or both counts is not to show them any disrespect; to do otherwise would be to show disrespect for the scientific method.

I'm not saying that this means we shouldn't even do such experiments. These studies are sure to provide some very interesting and useful data. I believe Newberg has stumbled on something important, that his subjects can induce significant changes in certain brain regions simply by sitting and performing some kind of concentrative act. The question is what these data mean, and just because we can't verify the state of the subjects we must be even more cautious than is usually the case in science in interpreting results. Specifically, as I discussed earlier, it should be made very clear that the kinds of changes detected are of the same sort that are also observed in many other, quite mundane human activities. Thus the changes themselves provide no evidence whatsoever that the subjects were in a higher state of awareness. Everything hinges on an unverifiable assumption, which I believe also ought to be clearly stated in every published work of this kind.

Though hampered by this very significant limitation, these studies may, ironically, help us find a way around it. It seems to me that the best prospects for developing more verifiable criteria of higher consciousness lie in a sort of trial-and-error, bootstrap approach, in which certain criteria are proposed, subjects meeting those criteria are studied physiologically, and the results used to define the criteria further. For example, I have made the claim that there is an inviolable association between level of awareness and energy, and that this relationship can be used to make specific predictions about the pattern that changes in the brain should take during meditation. If such changes were actually observed in a group of meditators, they would provide significant support for my claim. Furthermore, the location of these changes would immediately provide a focus for investigators. They could now ignore other areas of the brain, where other kinds of changes might also be occurring, and concentrate just on those regions where predicted patterns emerged.

If such changes were not observed, on the other hand, or if changes only somewhat similar to what had been predicted were observed, these results could stimulate further development and expression of criteria. There could be many reasons for a failure. On the physiological side, perhaps the changes are too small too observe, or involve a form of energy storage not detected by the currently-used methods. On the meditator's side, perhaps he is mistaken in some important way. I will admit outfront that I am very confident about the relationship between awareness and energy. I would react to some experimenter's claim that her study showed that such a relationship doesn't exist in about the same way that I would react to her telling me that her study proved I had no consciousness at all! (I really am certain, in that same sense and to that same degree, about this relationship). But the important point is that there would be ongoing activity on both sides: scientists refining their techniques and the designs of their studies, and meditators actively discussing the criteria for higher consciousness, why they believe in these criteria, and possible sources of differences.

A Final Word

"If you have seen, you simply must speak out," Ken Wilber exhorts us in One Taste. "You must shout." This is very easy for a best-selling author to say, someone who is guaranteed a huge audience for anything he writes. Even in this age of the internet, print publishers maintain a large degree of control over public dialogue; most of us aren't even allowed to squeak out, let alone shout. Then again, many would rather not. A while back, some Chinese guy pointed out that there is a strong inverse correlation between speaking and knowing, that the more we do of the one, the less we have of the other. Whenever I take the time and effort to organize my thoughts and write an article, let alone a whole book, I lose some knowing, some contact with that state which provides me with the power to say anything at all worthwhile. I hope this loss is not in vain.


  1. This and other quotes related to Newberg's book are taken from his web page:
  2. I realize that there is such a thing as a peak experience, which is what Newberg believes he was studying. While peak experiences do occur, though, in my view they are much rarer than generally believed. It may occasionally happen that an individual, someone who may have no meditative experience, interest in higher states or even an intellectual acquaintance with the literature of mysticism, may spontaneously and very briefly make contact with a higher state of consciousness. It does not follow, however, that people who meditate regularly can do this at will or even by chance. The practice of meditation generally does not make it more likely that one will have a peak experience in this sense--that one will be catapulted into a state far above the one she is ordinarily familiar with. Certainly meditation is not designed to do this; that's not its purpose. Meditation is simply a practice which, if invested with a great deal of time and effort, allows the individual to begin to awaken; she will spend increasingly more time truly aware. Even in the ordinary state of consciousness we spend some of our time like this; it's just a very tiny, tiny fraction of our life, and this fraction is what increases, gradually, with meditation.
    What about the fact that the meditators themselves claimed they had peak experiences? There are many unusual experiences one can have while meditating, particularly in the sitting, semi-withdrawn state that so many people believe is what meditation is always about. These experiences may provide many valuable insights into oneself and the world; they do not, however, involve entering a significantly higher level of awareness than the one the meditator began at. They are simply another example of how the quality of awareness can change, and rather quickly, as subsequently discussed in the text. It is very easy, however, to confuse changes in quality of awareness with changes in level of awareness. One of the enduring problems of meditating in this manner is that this confusion is more likely; it's much more difficult to assess one's level of awareness accurately when one is not engaging in any kind of ordinary human activity. People who do most of their meditation in the flow of life--which is to say, anyone who follows a genuine spiritual path and does not live in a cave or a monastery--are much less likely to fall prey to this delusion. See my book Illusions of Reality for further discussion of this problem.
  3. Ironically, researchers at the Maharishi Institute in Fairfield, IA, a group practicing transcendental meditation which has probably published more papers in the area of brain correlates of higher consciousness than any other, claim that their advanced meditators exhibit more alpha and theta rhythms during deep sleep than controls (Mason et al. 1997). This is supposed to provide support for their claim that transcendental awareness (which they have reported is associated with increased alpha-theta activity in waking subjects) is present during sleep. In Wilber's scheme, theta activity is supposed to correspond to subtle consciousness, so I suppose a Wilberian could make the argument that this is what the TM meditators experience when awake. But how does this consciousness manifest itself along with the supposed causal consciousness associated with deep sleep? Aren't the TM meditators regressing a little here? And what is the alpha rhythm, which is very characteristic of the waking state (and one that anyone, with no meditative experience at all, can easily learn to generate) doing there? To me, discrepancies like these just illustrate the futility of trying to use EEGs as evidence of higher consciousness. I wonder if the Fairfield group would have published their study if they had found no differences between controls and meditators, or if they had found more delta activity in the meditators, they would have adopted Wilber's view.


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