Dr. Charles T. Tart on February 28th, 2014

Spiritual Beings or Hallucinations?

Some more ongoing thinking….

Here’s something I just posted to another list which I think has a lot of relevance to our discussions.  On a listserv I’m on of “spiritual leaders” (I think I’m their token scientist, as I’m certainly not a “spiritual leader”), I asked, to start a discussion,

How much alike would different gods have to be, in the absence of cultural contact, before one might start concluding that
A – they are alike because the physical brain is constructed in such a way that this sort of hallucination is probable?
B – they are alike because the “gods” really do exist independently of human belief in some way, so if the mind explores enough it can find them?  With what’s found subject to some distortion from culture, of course….


I’ll use the term “spiritual beings” now rather than “gods” in an attempt to be less potentially offensive to anyone.

Another way to phrase this question is that there are (at least) two views about spiritual beings.

Spiritual beings don’t exist: One is that they don’t exist, and any experiences of contact with them or attributing real world effects to them is both a cognitive mistake and an illusion or hallucination on the part of human beings.

Spiritual beings may exist: The second is that some spiritual beings may indeed exist in some way not understandable in terms of current materialistic science, possibly never understandably in terms of materialistic science, independently of our beliefs about them, and we may potentially have contact with them and/or they may sometimes affect things in the ordinary material world.

The spiritual beings don’t exist view has to make an implicit or explicit assumption in order to account for reports of human contact with such beings, namely that our brains are powerful biocomputers with an enormous range of programming possibilities.  In addition to the brain’s primary task of making sense out of the materially real data from our senses, our biocomputer brains can create real seemingly experiences in the absence of sensory input (as in vivid dreams, for example), and the range of the illusory and hallucinatory experiences that our brains can create is extremely wide, it can arbitrarily create any reported human religious experience.  Meetings with angels, mystical experiences, union with God or the Cosmos, you name it, the human biocomputer can create an extremely real simulation of it.

My basic question could be rephrased then as can all spiritual experiences be fully accounted for by the range of simulation possible for the human biocomputer, or are some spiritual experiences of such a nature that we can’t see the human biocomputer as capable of simulating them?

Hypnosis as Controller of Experience:

Aside from other researchers’ findings, I spent the first couple of decades of my research career heavily involved in research on the nature of hypnosis.,  So I saw dramatic demonstrations of the degree to which the human biocomputer could create extremely real simulations that had nothing to do with ordinary reality.  About 10 to 20% of the general population have the talent to reach very deep levels of hypnosis, and at these levels the hypnotist’s suggestions could almost totally control sensory perception, cognition, and emotion.

For example, one of these talented subjects (I worked with college students, of course, being a professor) could come to my laboratory and after 10 min. or so of inducing hypnosis I could have their body making automatic movements that they would swear had nothing to do with their own intention, not feeling or responding to extremely painful stimuli such as electric shocks, hearing the voices of and engaging in conversations with people who weren’t there, not perceiving physical objects that were really in front of them, having vivid and realistic dreams, finding themselves located elsewhere than where their physical bodies were in the laboratory, and arbitrarily having positive or negative emotions associated with almost anything.  (Manipulating emotions was obviously limited to keeping them mild, of course, for ethical reasons.)  I could also successfully suggest that they would forget everything that happened during the hypnosis session until I gave them a cue to remember, and/or I could create selective memories for some of the things that happened, and/or I could create false memories of things having happened that actually did not happen during the session.

This was all done within a university and scientific setting, of course, which meant that there were implicit limits on what was expected and allowed.  I didn’t need to tell subjects that I would not suggest that they would do anything unethical, that if they had unusual experiences these were scientifically interesting, but not personally important to them, and that at the end of the session they would wake up the same person they were at the beginning of the session, that is, that there would be no long-term changes.  This made hypnosis experiments safe.

While I got used to inducing hypnosis and doing these experiments, I was always quite aware that I was in a position of great psychological power during them, and so was very careful about my behavior.  There had been great controversy in the hypnosis research literature for many years about whether a hypnotized person would do unethical or frightening things, but I had no desire to test the belief that they would not.

Now the spirits are not real school would take my observations and those of other hypnosis researchers and many other psychological observations to prove their point: the human brain can be programmed, by hypnosis in this case, to experience almost anything, and this could, in principle, include contact with spiritual beings.  Thus no need to give any reality to spiritual beings.

In proper science, the cognitive appeal or plausibility of theories per se is not considered sufficient evidence that they are actually valid.  You have to test your theories.  I have never been tempted to try inducing fake spiritual experiences in hypnotized subjects to test this possibility because this is so personally morally repugnant to me.  But the argument that it could be done does indeed seem very plausible given all I know about psychology.

So ignoring ethical constraints for the moment, in principle I could pick some highly hypnotizable subjects, set up a psychological climate in which, for valid scientific reasons, it was important to test some ideas about unusual experiences, including some that some people might consider “spiritual,” and get the subjects to agree to participate in such experiments.  Since many people believe that science is responsible for progress in increasing the quality of human life, I would expect lots of people to volunteer.

I would then induce a deep as possible hypnotic state in the subject, and create a variety of mildly unusual experiences just to get the subject used to the idea of unusual experiences.  Then I might go from, for example, having the subject visually see an old friend (who wasn’t actually there) and engage in a conversation with them, then perhaps have them visually see another old friend who was deceased, then with some subtle suggestions of “angelic” characteristics with that friend, and so on, working my way up to hallucinatory encounters with charismatic spiritual figures.  I would add in suggestions that while we were idealistically simply exploring scientific issues to begin with, we could only conclude that we had actually been contacted by these spiritual beings, and, perhaps, that we were now morally and spiritually obligated to continue contact with these spiritual beings whose mission was to give important spiritual teachings to us poor, benighted souls.

Carry this on for a while with a variety of subjects, and pretty soon I would have my cult.    ;-(    ;-(

The whole idea is frightening and disgusting to me.  What makes it especially frightening is that if I really had no ethical constraints and wanted to gain power by becoming a cult leader (or, worse, wasn’t consciously wicked like that but was deluded that it was my destiny to “enlightened” the world that way), I would never use the word hypnosis.  I would go around giving classes on “meditation,” with lots of “guided meditations,” picking “advanced students” from those who responded well to my hypnotic manipulations that were disguised as guided meditations.

Sometimes I worry about how much this is already happening in the world.

Again ignoring ethical considerations, I would hope that if such experiments as these were carried out, the outcome would be on the order of finding that unusual and temporarily emotionally powerful fake spiritual experiences could be created, but that the finer-grain qualities of these experiences differed significantly from what we considered genuine spiritual experiences.  This would provide evidence in favor of the idea that there really are independently existing spiritual beings, and the qualities of their contacts with human beings are importantly different from our attempts to simulate them.

This is my deeply held preference, of course, that there really are some benevolent and independently existing spiritual beings.  While not denying my bias, I also, in the practice of science, would like to come closer to actual truth, not just artifactually strengthen my own biases.  That’s a major issue in itself, which I won’t go into here.

So, this is the kind of thing I’m worrying about, and I invite further comment on.

As an authority once said,

Well, that was too damn wordy. I apologize. I wrote a long post because I didn’t have time to write a short one.

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3 Responses to “Spiritual Beings or Hallucinations?”

  1. String says:

    You put it quite succinctly and thank you for your keen observation of a nebulous area –always a pleasure to read your blogs. There must be a form of ‘measurement’ of the genuinely spiritual encounter, verses the hypnotized experience. But this type of experiment/measurement might need to be undertaken by those who are familiar with their own inner landscape and the difference between auto-suggestion/guided meditation/hypnosis and actual personal encounters, not just random subjects with little knowledge of their inner landscape.

    That distinct ‘feel’ of meeting another ‘being’ verses the smarmy sensation of being led to a fake encounter. Colin Wilson’s ‘The Devil’s Party’ comes to mind but it is much more pervasive and subtle now days than what is experienced with those types of charismatic leaders.

  2. Zaine C. says:

    Unfortunately I am unable to approach the topic with much personal experience… (18 y/o) But, I have always found these studies interesting. Up until now I hadn’t heard of hypnosis being used in nuerotheology, but recent studies have shown that spiritual transcendence may also occur through the decreased functioning of the right parietal lobe, or at least the illusion of… My way of thought is to examine past cases on all fronts of religion to try and find evidence of these independent deities. However, many of the older “cases” like those found in the Roman Catholic bible (let’s use Saul of Tarsus) may actually be able to be explained through epilepsy, which used to be called the “sacred disease” in ancient times. So currently I’ve been looking at the life of Fransesco Forgione. As a more recent case, I’d like to listen to the experiences of those who are still alive and had contact with the man. If the man performed miracles; (that have factual backing to them and reliable eyewitness accounts…) then what he preached about may be true… Because other than that, the only way I would be able to determine whether God exists or not would be through divine intervention.

    As for the moral obligation to patients, if encourage you to go ahead with the ushering in of divine ideas while they are under hypnosis. If they willingly volunteer for the experiment then they must also be interested. You most certainly would not inhibit their spiritual progress. It would be better for everyone to come to a closer truth, instead of worshipping idols and letting cults pillage their way through the pockets of their victims.

    • I was 18 once and thought I knew a lot, but also realized how little I knew. At 77 now, I am familiar with a lot of things, but aware how complex things can be and that it’s a good idea to stay open-minded at any age! Science, done properly, is good for that. Science doesn’t “prove” anything, it just searches for concepts, theories that make better sense of the data, and is always open to revision.

      “If the man performed miracles; (that have factual backing to them and reliable eyewitness accounts…) then what he preached about may be true…”

      I would be careful about giving this too much weight as my look at the “miracles” and paranormal aspects of religion suggests that they all use the same miracles to prove they are right and others are wrong. The confidence that comes from faith can sometimes, and I stress sometimes, allow paranormal events to happen, but when you get into “My God is Bigger than your god,” we’re into human pathology….

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