Kabbalah: Mystical lessons for modern neuroscience

The mind-boggling experiences of some ancient mystics may have important lessons for modern neuroscience, argues a book about ecstatic Kabbalah

Kabbalah: Mystical lessons for modern neuroscience

Intense concentration could produce mind-boggling effects (Image: Herbert List/Magnum Photos)

MYSTICISM and neuroscience may seem poles apart, but they just might be made for each other.

Of late, cognitive neuroscientists have begun tackling topics such as the nature of the self, the mind and consciousness, all previously off limits because they seemed intractable. But mystics have had no such reservations. Over millennia they experimented with consciousness-altering techniques, and even with the sense of embodiment. Could cognitive neuroscience benefit from understanding the mystics’ experiences? Can neuroscience shed light on why mystics experience what they do?

Kabbalah: Mystical lessons for modern neuroscience

Neurologist Shahar Arzy and professor of Jewish thought Moshe Idel certainly think so. In Kabbalah: A neurocognitive approach to mystical experiences, they try to make sense of a form of Jewish mysticism without trying to “demystify these experiences” or “reduce the… experience to a neurocognitive pattern”.

The authors eschew “top down” theological, psychoanalytical, social or psychopathological approaches and just analyse the experiences and what mystics do to attain them. The book focuses on ecstatic Kabbalah, a school of mysticism that emphasises attaining ecstatic experience. But forget blissed-out images. This usage is truer to its etymological roots: ex-stasis, being out of body.

Many such ecstatic episodes can involve seeing a “second” physical body near your real body, having the sense that your self is alternating between your real physical body and your double, or feeling that your self has left the body and is observing from above.

“Many such ecstatic episodes can involve seeing a ‘second’ physical body near your real body”

Anyone familiar with recent neuroscience will recognise the parallels with autoscopy (seeing a double), heautoscopy (seeing a double while being unable to localise the self) and out-of-body experience (the sensation of leaving the body altogether). All of these have been noted in people with epilepsy or neurological damage. Some such experiences have also been induced by directly stimulating key brain regions, and aspects of the experiences have been created in healthy people by simply messing with their brains.

In a sense, that is what mystics do – mess with brains. Arzy and Idel write of Abraham Abulafia, a 13th-century mystic who devised a mind-boggling technique to achieve ecstasy through intense concentration. He would chant Hebrew letters while paying close attention to the patterns of his respiration and his head position. At the same time, he would imagine himself with and without a body, while picturing and rotating the letters in his mind’s eye. The result would often be the appearance of a doppelgänger.

The authors suggest that similar neurocognitive processes occur when mystics experience other ecstatic states. Our sense of being an embodied self comes from mechanisms in the brain that integrate such sensations as touch, vision and proprioception (the sense of our bodies in 3D space). If you followed Abulafia’s instructions, you would disrupt this integration in ways that would produce a doppelgänger.

Clearly, long before the advent of neuroscience, mystics figured out how to confuse the brain and induce such odd phenomena as autoscopy. As Arzy and Idel say: “The ecstatic Kabbalah mystics may… be considered pioneering investigators of the human self, consciousness, and mind.”

The point is well taken. It behoves us to pay attention to these explorers of the mind. “While our technology has advanced much… our ability for introspection has not,” write the authors. Touché.

Kabbalah is a short book, and that is its weakness. By trying to bridge two vast bodies of knowledge, it does not do full justice to either. Stylistically, the book can be dry: unfortunate given the intriguing nature of the subject and its obvious popular appeal. Doubtless this field will spawn more volumes.

By Anil Ananthaswamy

Anil Ananthaswamy is a consultant for New Scientist

Magazine issue 3033 published 8 August 2015

Source: Kabbalah: Mystical lessons for modern neuroscience

Via: Google Alert for Neuroscience