Science, Drugs, Death, and Deities: What’s Behind Transcendent Experiences?Science, Drugs, Death, and Deities: What’s Behind Transcendent Experiences?

Science, Drugs, Death, and Deities: What’s Behind Transcendent Experiences?

“Transcendent experiences” are events that bring us out of our ordinary minds, making us feel connected to the world around us. People report accessing them through use of certain drugs or through spirituality, magic, and the occult. They can also be triggered by nature, meditation, and even near-death experiences. Additionally, new scientific studies are discovering that transcendent experienceshowever they’re reachedcould be helpful for our mental health. Here, we take a journey through various types of transcendent experience, and even offer some advice on how to experience transcendence in everyday life.


It usually happens in the car. I’m driving along, windows down, music playing, when I suddenly feel a sense of profound, inexplicable connection – to the skyline, to the city passing by, and to something far beyond myself. I feel free from my ordinary worries and even from my sense of self, as if I’m viewing my life from above.


I’m not a particularly religious or spiritual person, but when I’m driving on an open road (or engaging in a creative act, or sitting up on a rooftop as the sun sets, like I am as I write this), I feel a sense of what I can only describe as transcendence. 


And I’m not alone. Human beings have been having similar transcendent experiences for thousands of years, and we sometimes go to great extremes to induce those brief moments of pure connection. But what are transcendent experiences, and why do they have such profound effects on us? 


What Is a Transcendent Experience?

Transcendent experiences are difficult to definitively explain or define. For our purposes here, such experiences are moments when a person loses their sense of self and connects with something greater. 


“Under certain circumstances, the subjective sense of one’s self as an isolated entity can temporarily fade into an experience of unity with other people or one’s surroundings, involving the dissolution of boundaries between the sense of self and ‘other,’” write David Yaden and others in Review of Psychology. “Such transient mental states of decreased self-salience and increased feelings of connectedness are described here as self-transcendent experiences (STEs).”


Transcendent experiences have been referred to as “peak experiences,” “flow,” “clear light,”  “objective consciousness,” and many other names. They are very different depending on who experiences them. Monotheistic religions sometimes connect transcendent experiences to a single God, while spiritual but irreligious people tend to feel unity with the world around them. Other cultures and traditions access transcendence through various forms of meditation, and non-spiritual people tend simply to feel connected to something they can’t explain.


The Baylor Institute identifies two primary types of transcendent experience: “green” and “mature.”“Green” experiences are generally brief moments of transcendence, accessed through drugs, ecstasy, or sudden revelations that flare out like fireworks. “Mature” experiences are generally more prolonged periods of peace and unity. 


In either case, transcendent experiences are always about leaving the self behind in exchange for a feeling of unity. “We can experience union with something larger than ourselves,” wrote pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James, “and in that union find our greatest peace.”


Your Brain on Transcendence 

There is no one type of transcendent experience, though often, such experiences are associated with intangible forces like magic or God. But recent revelations in science indicate that these experiences may be rooted in the brain.


“Neuroscience research shows that during transcendent states, there is decreased activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe, the area of the brain that locates the self in space and distinguishes it from everything else,” writes Emily Esfahani Smith.


So what does transcendence look like in the brain? Here’s an example: One study found that mediums (or people who say they can contact spirits) who entered trance states showed “displayed marked reduction of activity in key brain regions – such as the frontal lobes and hippocampus.” Another study of Vietnam War veterans found that those with brain damage were far more likely to have experienced transcendent or mystical experiences. 


These findings, however, do not make for clear evidence that transcendence itself has an effect on the brain; so for now, transcendence remains an aspect of psychology. For example, self-transcendence is actually the sixth level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, above self-actualization, and Abraham Maslow himself spent lots of time defining transcendence, referring to it as “the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness.”

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (Credit: Sloww)


Carl Jung also believed that transcendent experiences were vital aspects of human psychology. He proposed that transcendent experiences – the kinds that bring us out of our sense of self and into communion with the divine – might help balance the gap between our unconscious and conscious desires, thus possibly healing mental illnesses that arise from this gap. He referred to this process of integration as the “transcendent function,” and the idea is a common hallmark of some kinds of psychotherapy today.


Magic and Transcendent Experiences

Transcendent experiences are closely connected to paranormal practices, ranging from telekinesis to telepathy. The documentary 5th Dimension explores telepathy, telekinesis, ghosts, reincarnation, exorcism, and near-death experiences, all of which are ways that some people say they have connected to a world that most of us cannot see. 


Many people say they have experienced transcendence through these methods, and so-called “transcendental magic” is one form of occult practice that aims to engage our ability to move beyond our ordinary consciousness. 


All of this might sound a bit crazy until you remember that transcendent experiences frequently sound pretty crazy. But people have always been experiencing transcendence, whether through simply taking a stroll in the woods or coming very close to dying. And the science is starting to back up the idea that something beyond our imagination might be at work here. 


Near-Death Experiences: Portals to Transcendence?

Near-death experiences, or NDEs, often lead to strange realizations or supernatural events in those who experience them. Some people even report that their NDEs were transcendent experiences.


A survey by Jean-Pierre Jourdan reported that one person who had an NDE realized that “in each human being exists a divine spark,” and “earthly reality is an illusion because here on earth we cannot grasp the real sense of life. ... I had the impression that my body was an integral part of the soil, the water, the sky, stars, and stones.” Others mentioned feelings of love and peace, or surreal out-of-body experiences. Many, Jourdan says, also developed enhanced senses of “altruism or compassion.” 


According to Psychology Today, people who experience NDEs often become “less self-oriented and more compassionate. They often feel a new sense of purpose, and their relationships become more authentic and intimate. They report becoming more sensitive to beauty and more appreciative of everyday things.” All of these characteristics resemble the hallmark effects of transcendent experiences.


Some scientists argue that NDEs may be hallucinations brought on by a lack of oxygen to the brain. But others counter by observing that ordinary hallucinations are often chaotic and unclear, in contrast to a sense of clarity experienced by people who have NDEs.


And still others assert that NDEs (and other types of transcendent experiences) are brought on when the brain creates effects similar to those of certain intoxicating substances. 


Drugs and Transcendent Experiences

Drugs have long been connected to transcendent experiences. Native American tribes have used psychoactive plants to stimulate sublime experiences for centuries, and the Greeks connected alcohol to the gods. 


In modern times, literary and pop culture icons from Cary Grant to Aldous Huxley to Timothy Leary experimented with hallucinogens. In 1953, Huxley reported a transcendent experience while under the influence of mescaline. From then on, he was a major advocate for drugs and transcendent experiences. 


The mystical experience is doubly valuable; it is valuable because it gives the experiencer a better understanding of himself and the world and because it may help him to lead a less self-centered and more creative life.” —Aldous Huxley, Moksha: Aldous Huxley’s Classic Writings on Psychedelics and the Visionary Experience


Huxley proposed that our deep desire for transcendent experiences leads us to religion and mysticism, but also to addiction and pain. He also wondered if someday a drug might be invented that could trigger transcendent experiences without compromising our personal freedom and health.


In 1962, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (later known as Ram Dass) conducted the Marsh Chapel Experiment, which aimed to see if psilocybin (the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms) could generate feelings of transcendence and connection to a higher power among a group of divinity school students. The students were divided into two groups, one that took the drug and one that did not. The students who consumed mushrooms all reported feelings of closeness to God or a God-like figure. Ten years later, it turned out that all of the students who had taken the drug had completed their training and became priests or pastors, while none of the control group had. 


A stained glass window in the Marsh Chapel. (Image credit: John Stephen Dwyer via Creative Commons)


Today, after decades of prohibition, psychedelics are being studied more and more as people discover that they may help treat mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Other drugs are coming under the microscope for the same reason. Ketamine is growing in popularity among users and scientists seeking to induce transcendence, as is DMT. Some studies have found that both of these drugs trigger similar neurological effects to those of transcendent experiences.


Nature and Transcendent Experiences

If drugs aren’t your thing, you can still get onboard the Transcendence Train. For example, have you ever scaled a mountain peak, or breathed in the scent of pine in northern woods, or stood at the edge of an ocean? Did these experiences fill you with a sense of peace and bliss, almost like the rest of the world fell away? You’ve likely experienced transcendence without even realizing.


Many people’s first experiences with transcendence occur in natural environments. In the paper “Transcendent Experience and Forest Environments,” David Harvey and Kathryn Williams argue that this may be because nature reminds us that there are things in the world we will never comprehend, or that a gorgeous natural setting induces a feeling of presence that effectively dissolves our self-perception. 


Transcendent experiences are often prompted by encounters with the beauty of nature. (Source: Pexels)


Forests, in particular, can remind us of our own insignificance while also making us feel like part of something much greater. In the early 19th century, the magic of nature helped inspire transcendentalism, a philosophical school largely based on the idea that nature is sacred – and that studying it deeply holds the key to understanding human life. 


One of the more famous types of Earth-induced transcendent experience is the Overview Effect, the sense of enhanced purpose and meaning experienced by astronauts who see the Earth from above. 


Thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir preached a profound naturalism. “A leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment of time, is related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole. Each particle is a microcosm, and faithfully renders the likeness of the world,” wrote Emerson in his love letter to the natural world,Nature.” 


How to Have a Transcendent Experience

Personally, I believe that we could all benefit from having more transcendent experiences. No matter how you get there, feeling more connected to the world and less obsessed with everyday worries and ups and downs feels like a wise prescription for today. 


So, how does one safely induce a transcendent experience? Meditation and time in nature are two of the safer passageways to transcendence. If you’re interested in spirituality, engaging with energy work or inducing mystical experiences might help. 


Or you could be like the transcendentalists and many religious folks, and simplify your life, clearing away flashy distractions and focusing on nature, God, or whatever gets you there. 


But my feeling is that transcendent experiences aren’t meant to be forced. If anything, transcendence is beautiful because it isn’t something we can buy, sell, or capture. Instead, transcendent experiences are fleeting and marvelous – and, I suspect, they’re at the core of what makes us human. 


Of course, true transcendence is hard even to explain in words – you just have to feel it. And as I sit on my roof in Brooklyn, looking at the Sun setting over the city, watching a wedding take shape on a nearby roof as the subway rushes by, I can’t explain how, but I feel it. 



Title Image: "Meditation & Reflection" (Credit: Gerd Altmann, via Pixabay)


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