Are Mystical Experiences Sent by the Gods or are They Mere Brain Farts?

When it comes to describing what causes people to have mystical experiences, it seems most of us fall into one of two camps.  Some of us (perhaps a majority) believe mystical experiences have a supernatural cause, such as a god or demon.  Most other people believe mystical experiences do not really happen, but are instead mere hallucinations, errors in reasoning, and so forth.  It seems very few people fall outside of those two camps, and most of those who do fall outside the camps, simply have no opinion at all in the matter.

Earlier today, I was watching a discussion in which the two main camps were (politely) going back and forth at each other.   A typical exchange in the discussion began this way, with one person (I will call her, “She said”) stating:

I have had some experiences that were pretty tricky to explain without some form of divinity, though.

For instance, I’ve spoken of the small still voice. Let me point out that it’s not a literal voice, that’s just a handy metaphor. Anyway, one day I was going about my business when, out of nowhere, it “told” me to go see my friend Shane. I didn’t particularly want to, I was busy, but the urge just wouldn’t go away. So, I went to Shane’s house and ended up interrupting a suicide attempt.

Now, does that prove God? I don’t think it does. But it does show that there’s something really interesting going on.

I think when She says, “…it does show that there’s something really interesting going on”, she means her experience might be, “…pretty tricky to explain without some form of divinity…”.

But regardless of her precise meaning there, the suggestion that her mystical experience provided evidence of some form of divinity was immediately rejected by three other commentators (I will collectively call them, “They said”).  They said:

This sort of experience doesn’t move me at all. The problem, which is well-researched, is that you have forgotten all the times a little voice told you to turn right instead of left, and absolutely nothing happened. Not to mention all the times you happened to be in the right place at the right time without the little voice. So every once in a while, the voice and the right place/right time happen to coincide. Confirmation bias at its best.

And they also said:

I agree with you there is probably something very interesting going on. But, that very interesting thing could be our remarkable ability to pick up on subtle clues without realizing it….  Or, that very interesting thing could be a very interesting coincidence. Every day, someone wins the lottery. Every day, someone gets an inexplicable urge or feeling that turns out to be justified.

So there you have the three reasons They said might be reasons one would have the appearance of a mystical experience.

And, I suspect we have now more or less summed up the two major ways in which folks raised in the West (at least) think about the causes of mystical experiences.  For the most part, we Westerners (and possibly Easterners too) belong to one camp or the other.  We either think mystical experiences are sent by gods or some other supernatural agents, or we think mystical experiences are brain farts of one sort or another.

I myself am of the very tiny camp of people who, albeit seldom heard from, think mystical experiences are both natural and genuine.  Natural, as opposed to the supernatural camp; and genuine, as opposed to the brain fart camp.  Like many tiny movements, we seem to be most often ignored in the grand debates.

At least that was my experience today.  At some point in the discussion between the dominant camps, I briefly but resolutely injected my opinion, and was — ignored.  For lack of any better phrase, I instantly became invisible.  They vacantly glanced my way, blinked, and I was gone.

O The wonder of it!

I don’t think anyone was trying to be rude.  Instead, I suspect mine is a position so rarely heard in the debate that few people have a ready response to it.

At any rate, for whatever it might be worth, there are many different kinds of mystical experiences, and despite that I usually talk only about one specific kind of mystical experience, I am today talking about all of them.  Over the past 35 years, since I first became interested in these things, I have gradually come to think their cause, albeit most likely natural, is just as mysterious to us today as the cause of St. Elmo’s fire was to people living, say, 300 years ago.

For centuries, St. Elmo’s fire was observed mostly by sailors, and mostly on ships at sea during thunder storms.  There, it typically appeared as a bright blue or violet glow around the tips of the masts and yardarms.  Of course, many of the people who knew about it during those centuries thought it was sent by the gods.

There were very few, if any, skeptics (in the modern sense) alive back then to question the prevailing theory that St. Elmo’s fire was god sent.  But had there been, one can easily imagine them busy creating all sorts of alternative explanations.  Perhaps one can even imagine the concept, “hallucination”, employed as one of the explanations.

The correct explanation, that St. Elmo’s fire is a plasma generated by ionization of the air within an electrical field, would not have occurred to folks back then.   It would not have occurred to the god intoxicated folks in one camp.   Nor would it have occurred to the hard nosed folks in the other camp.  And it would not have occurred to them simply because it could not have occurred to them.

For folks back then — believer and non-believer alike — knew absolutely nothing of plasmas, ionization, and electrical fields.  So far as they were concerned, those things simply didn’t exist and there was no evidence that they knew of, or that they could see for themselves, that indicated to them that plasmas, ionization, or electrical fields existed.

Allow me to suggest then, that we are in the same position today regarding mystical experiences that our ancestors were once in regarding St. Elmo’s fire.   That is, we simply do not today possess the necessary information — the necessary context — for understanding what causes mystical experiences.

Moreover, I think someday we will have the necessary information to know the causes of mystical experiences.  And when we do, we will — I believe — find that mystical experiences are both genuine and have natural causes.

That’s my hunch.

10 thoughts on “Are Mystical Experiences Sent by the Gods or are They Mere Brain Farts?

  1. Once again, I totally agree with you… natural and genuine.

    Does a natural phenomenon have less meaning than a supernatural one? Is Saint Elmo’s Fire any less cool today than it was back then?

    The brain is a very complex system and it’s amazing how small changes in the chemical soup or structure can have profound effects on it’s function.

    And how those changes can totally skew our personal reality.

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  2. I agree with your outside-of-the-box thinking, Paul. I have had a few (currently) unexplainable experiences of my own and I do believe they were genuine and there is likely a natural explanation for them. And I second what K. Capach said — the brain is very complex and we have only begun to tap into and understand its potential.

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  3. Wolf, even if mystical experiences are entirely natural, they still are demonstrated (to those who have had them) to quite often possess an immense power to profoundly reconcile us to ourselves, our lives, and our world. So far as I know, nothing else does that as well as certain mystical experiences.

    You can often guess when you are dealing with someone who has had a mystical experience. They are often less stuck on themselves, more at ease with themselves and others, more comfortable and confident in dealing with the world than those who have not had such experiences.

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  4. Thanks, CD! I’d be surprised if you had not had some unexplained experiences! Such experiences sometimes leave their imprints on us.

    We have only begun to understand the world. All of our sciences are, in a significant way, no more than 500 years old at the very most. Who knows what the next 500 years will bring? Assuming we survive.

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  5. I agree with you as well, Paul. One thing that has always bothered me is when people proclaim that we are at the pinnacle of knowledge. Especially when educated leaders spout “facts” and certainties about science, when any reasonable person should understand that we’re constantly discovering, experimenting, and finding out that we’ve been wrong all along. That should never change.

    As for the specifics of your post, I’ve always suspected parallel universes, alternate realities, and the like. There have been some scientific discoveries in this field lately ( http://tinyurl.com/yeasoph ) to back it up but I doubt we’ll see any conclusive proof in our lives.

    I experimented with LSD for a few years when I was in my early 20s, and some of the things I saw and experienced with my friend back then really opened me up to a lot of possibilities. Either we experienced some window into alternate realities, or we repeatedly shared simultaneous hallucinations. Either of these possibilities defies conventional logic, and the repetition of these shared “mystical” experiences proves to me that there’s some connections out there that we can’t understand.

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  6. Per Sean G.: “Either we experienced some window into alternate realities, or we repeatedly shared simultaneous hallucinations. Either of these possibilities defies conventional logic, and the repetition of these shared “mystical” experiences proves to me that there’s some connections out there that we can’t understand.”
    I think you make a false dichotomy here- there are several other alternative explanations (of which I can only offer opinion of course since I wasn’t involved). Confirmation bias and/or retrofitting the remembered event into a shared experience with your friend strikes me as the more parsimonious explanation.

    Of course there are questions to be answered and much of the universe will remain forever inaccessible, but we do have enough of a scientific foundation to say that rather than introducing some ambiguous unconfirmed connection (ala Jungian synchronicity or other concept) we need to work with how we have previously explained the universe via naturalistic processes. If a radically new explanation for mystical experiences comes along that contradicts current neuroscientific precepts and explains the mind and universe more efficiently than what we currently have- well, then by all means we can set aside my explanations if the newer one explains things better, more succinctly and more thoroughly.

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  7. Paul, the experience that your “she said” reports is NOT a mystical experience. Mystical experiences involve a sense of ego loss and becoming one with everything. There is none of that in your example.

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  8. Hi John! Welcome to the blog!

    As you might know, if you are a regular reader here, John, I have written numerous articles posted to this blog that have focused on the kind of mystical experience that is marked by a sense of ego loss and becoming one with everything. That’s the kind of mystical experience I am by far most interested in. It’s the one I write about most often. And it’s rare of me to discuss any other kinds of mystical experiences.

    However, I do not use the phrase “mystical experience” to refer only to that one kind of experience. I think that if I restricted that phrase to mean only one kind of experience, I would end up confusing more people than I already do.

    It’s good to meet someone who understands that “a sense of ego loss and becoming one with everything” is the signature for a certain kind of experience. We may disagree on what to name it, but how important is that?

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  9. Hi Christopher! Thanks for dropping by!

    I think some experiences that people call “mystical” can be explained away as due to confirmation bias, etc. But I also believe there are some experiences which are correctly called “mystical” and for which we do not currently have an adequate framework to explain.

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