“Lose yourself: How transcendent experiences can boost your well-being”

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The Story

“Lose yourself: How transcendent experiences can boost your well-being”
by Jess Craig
New Scientist, March 2, 2022

The Pitch

In a small, dimly lit lab at Maharishi University in Iowa, a young clinical trial participant sits on the floor silently meditating. A tangle of wires run from his head and chest to monitors in the neighboring room where researchers stand watching, periodically tweaking knobs and pressing buttons. The study is one of several aimed at better understanding the transcendent state of mind.

Transcendent consciousness, also described as mystical or spiritual experiences, a sense of awe, or a state of ecstatic awareness, is an oft described but poorly understood phenomenon. With recent advances in neuroscience and brain imaging technology, scientists are beginning to better understand the transcendent brain and how spiritual experiences can be used to treat increasingly prevalent neurological and psychiatric conditions.

While there is no one part of the brain responsible for spiritual experiences, scientists have discovered there are common neural signatures and patterns across people experiencing them. For instance, the amygdala – the fight or flight part of the brain – shrinks, the anterior cingulate cortex activates, there is an increase in lower frequency brain waves indicating enhanced awareness. The part of the brain normally responsible for integrating sound, taste, smell, sight, and feel, called the parietal cortex, becomes thicker in people who regularly report having spiritual experiences. (On the other hand, the parietal cortex thins in people suffering from depression.)

The transcendent state of mind is commonly achieved through meditation or psychedelic drugs such as DMT or psilocybin (found in mushrooms). There is even an emerging field of “brain-based technologies for spiritual enhancement,” or spirit tech that help people achieve mystical experiences. Spirit tech such as the Zendo e-meditation headset or the “God helmet” use ultrasound and EEG-guided neurofeedback to stimulate parts of the brain to “safely induce authentic spiritual experiences” on par with those from psychedelic drugs, according to Boston University’s Kate Stockley and Wesley Wildman, leading researchers in the field.

While meditation, psychedelic drugs, and spirt tech can be used to satisfy personal curiosity or improve well-being, emerging medical research shows that inducing or mimicking the transcendent state of mind is a viable, and often better, treatment for anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, ADHD, and other neurological and psychiatric conditions. Earlier this year, the FDA okayed a large, clinical trial to test several psychedelic drugs paving the wave for a rapidly growing pipeline of other pharmaceutical psychedelic drugs.

I will draw from interviews with experts and recently published literature to examine what scientists know about the transcendent mind, how the state can be achieved, and why it is an increasing focus of neurological and psychiatric treatments. I will also touch on the scientific challenges and controversies of the field and will interview critics. The narrative thrust of the piece will be my journey to achieve the transcendent state through meditation and spirit tech.

Let me know if you have any questions! Thanks!

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