A psychiatrist from the University of Warwick has attempted to unpack the scientific validity of mystical experiences by describing his own transcendental encounter while emerging from general anesthesia. Detailing the strange phenomenon in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, Professor Swaran Singh explains how he came to “understand the cosmos, not in a cognitive sense of knowing but in an experiential manner, which is difficult to articulate.”
The event occurred almost 40 years ago on April 4, 1984, during postoperative recovery following a serious road accident. Since then, Professor Singh has dedicated himself to the study of objective science, yet insists that the experience “has become increasingly salient in my sense of self and my understanding of the relationship between the empirical and the transcendental.”
Describing the experience itself, he reveals that it was permeated with a “noetic quality,” which is defined as “a sense of revelation and complete understanding.” According to the author, the odd occurrence lasted for ten to 12 minutes, and allowed him to “know something completely and wholly, which I had never known before.”
“I do not know how I know, but I know that I know,” he writes, before going on to explain how he came to entirely understand the interplay between “space, time, energy, matter, and life.”
“Life changes from one form to another, but the total quantity of life force remains constant and fixed,” he says. “The increase of one form is at the expense of another, and in case of life, one life form appears at the expense of another disappearing.”
Attempting to ascertain the source and legitimacy of this unexpected download, Singh insists that “there must be a neural basis to these phenomena.” Delving deeper into the matter, he recounts how the activation of brain regions such as the insula, premotor cortex, and inferior parietal lobe have all been implicated in the generation of mystical experiences during meditation or while under the influence of psychedelic drugs.
He also notes that any such changes in his own brain activity were most likely provoked by “a toxic/drug-induced confusional state,” yet at the same time maintains that the knowledge gained during the experience was valid and authentic. He thus encapsulates the gulf between empirical science and the indefinable power of pure experience and argues that while neural activity undeniably determines our mental processes, certain levels of consciousness may be derived from something deeper than mere brain activity.
“Brain states are mechanisms. They do not confer meaning,” he writes. “And subjective meaning cannot be reduced to a brain state, regardless of the strength of the statistical association between the two.”
Ultimately, then, the paper serves to highlight a philosophical paradox that threatens to thwart our pursuit of a scientific explanation of consciousness, experience, and ultimately, reality itself. Having outlined this apparently fundamental conflict, Singh concludes that “I cannot know which reality I experienced – drug-induced, lucid dreaming, or something else.”