Neuroscientist Marc Wittmann, Research Fellow at the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health in Freiburg, Germany, has noticed a trend: Scientists are beginning to view altered states of consciousness — including mystical experiences, meditative states, and near-death experiences — with interest. That is, they are studying them, not just trying to explain them away.
As he writes at MIT Reader, “for a long time extraordinary consciousness experiences have either been ignored by the mainstream natural sciences or have been explicitly denigrated as nonexistent — as the fantasies of cranks.” Perhaps enough evidence has accumulated of, for example, neurological or metabolic changes from meditation and verified information from near-death experiences, that study would make more sense now than continued dismissal.
Why many researchers are rethinking a materialist-only approach
Wittmann, author of Altered States of Consciousness (MIT Press, 2018), offers, in an excerpt from his book,
This transformation in the sciences is also evident in contemporary research into the short-term and long-term effects of meditation. The practices of focused silence and contemplative prayer have existed for millennia. It is striking that over the last decade psychologists and brain researchers have more frequently addressed meditation as a research topic, and this work increasingly garners media attention. Meditation, as a form of psychological intervention, has even been incorporated into hospitals’ clinical practice. Research findings on the effects of meditation are clear: Just a few weeks’ practice of meditation improves performance in terms of attentiveness and short-term memory, effects that demonstrably accompany alterations in brain structure. It can also be seen that those who meditate perceive their bodies more intensively, achieve stronger emotional self-control, and in the long term experience more positive emotions.Marc Wittmann, “Scientists Are Finally Taking Altered States of Consciousness Seriously, MIT Reader, January 25, 2024
He attributes the change in attitude partly to the research showing that mental attitudes make a difference but also partly to a newer generation of researchers, some of whom practice meditation or have had mystical experiences themselves. But the old guard is still pretty entrenched. In Altered States of Consciousness, he recounts a clash over near-death experiences at a conference on the topic. A medical doctor confronted the speaker:
“I’ve worked as a cardiologist for twenty-five years now, and I’ve never come across such absurd stories in my practice. I think this is complete nonsense; I don’t believe a word of it.” Whereupon another man stood up and said, “I’m one of your patients. A couple of years ago I survived a cardiac arrest and had an NDE, and you would be the last person I’d ever tell.”Wittmann, “Taking Altered States of Consciousness Seriously
Does rational argument matter?
Wittmann doubts that rational argument makes as much difference in these cases as life-changing experiences. But surely that can depend on the person. Many people may simply be unaware of the evidence and logic behind arguments for the human mind as a reality in its own right — that is, the mind is not merely what the brain physically does.
They may not know that some people think and speak with only half a brain or less. (No machine would work that way.)
They may never have heard of terminal lucidity, where a person who has been unresponsive and will shortly die suddenly becomes lucid and converses meaningfully with loved ones just before death. And this is even without getting into areas like near-death experiences…
Scientist who are willing to look at the evidence for what the mind is and does can play an important role in helping to broaden the discussion.
You may also wish to read: The MD author of a recent book on near death experiences is not religious. Greyson was motivated by a desire to understand experiences that materialist approaches have simply not explained satisfactorily. As a psychiatrist, Greyson seeks to help people change, with some results. But, he told The Guardian, a near-death experience “dramatically transforms” them.