There is a growing consensus among secular psychologists that experiences of ecstasy and ego-transcendence are good for us, and tell us interesting things about the nature of the mind. But do they tell us anything interesting or reliable about the nature of the universe? I’m trying to figure this out. Here are my thoughts so far – please respond in the comments.
New Atheist Sam Harris says that ecstatic experiences tell us reliable things about the nature of the self – that the ego is not a stable, permanent entity, and when we go beyond the ego with the proper care and guidance, it’s very good for us and for our societies, leading to greater well-being and compassion. He is prepared to accept as reliable this subjective evidence from contemplation and psychedelics.
However, it’s also true that, when people go beyond the ego, they feel connected to the universe and to other beings. They feel their consciousness is intimately connected to other consciousnesses, and they often feel that the universe itself is somehow filled with consciousness, in some sense or other. Harris rejects this subjective insight as unreliable and ‘specious’. So he’s prepared to accept one ecstatic insight as reliable – there is no ego and to discover that is broadly good for you. But he dismisses another ecstatic insight – our consciousness is connected to other consciousnesses – as specious and unreliable. Indeed, he calls Deepak Chopra a ‘charlatan’ for making claims about the universe based on people’s spiritual experiences.
There is, I think, an inconsistency here. He’s accepting some forms of subjective experience as evidence, but not others. Why should the insight that there is no stable self be reliable? And if the ‘point’ of transdendent experiences is that they make people happier and more compassionate, then is that not an argument for a form of benign religion? After all, religious communities have led to many more people having transcendent experiences than atheist communities. Harris is something of a prophet in the wilderness as an atheist who insists these experiences are valuable.
Never mind the ‘religion is good / bad’ argument, which is not my concern in this blog. I want to argue that ecstatic experiences do tell us something about the nature of the universe. They tell us that this is the kind of universe that creates conscious minds which seek transcendence. It also tells us something about evolution – that, on this planet at least, evolution has led to conscious minds which seek a transcendence beyond survival and reproduction, and which finds that transcendence to be the most meaningful aspect of existence.
What’s the point of ego-transcendence, from an evolutionary perspective? Why should we pursue it so relentlessly, and value it so highly? After all, ego-transcendence helps us accept death, which isn’t adaptive at all from an evolutionary perspective. Evolutionary psychologists have put forward four theories of transcendence. Firstly, it’s a consequence of the accidental evolution of self-awareness. Consciousness is broadly adaptive, but it has the side-effect of making us self-aware of our smallness, isolation and mortality, which causes us suffering. In ego-transcendence, we create mechanisms to overcome this anxiety, through illusions of unity and immortality. So these experiences which humans value above all others are really consoling delusions. That’s possible, although rather depressing.
The second theory, put forward by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, is that ego-transcendence allows humans to shift into the ‘hive mind’, which improves group-bonding and makes your tribe more competitive. That’s partly true, but it misses out a lot about ego-transcendence. These aren’t just collective experiences, they’re also individual experiences in which an individual feels healed and made whole. And they’re moments of connection to nature and the cosmos, not just the tribe.
A third theory, put forward by William James, Frederic Myers, Aldous Huxley and others, is that the universe is a machine for generating ecstasy. The universe creates conscious minds that seek transcendence, wisdom and love-connection.Not just our conscious minds, but our entire psyches seek self-transcendence – through reason, but also through dreams, epiphanies, trips and states of flow. The pursuit of transcendence is deep in our nature, like a seed waiting to flower. Conscious minds seek transcendence on Earth, and also presumably on thousands of other planets throughout the hundred billion galaxies. Ecstasy is the universe waking up, knowing itself, and dancing. That’s the theory I am inclined to believe.
The fourth explanation, which I think Harris would put forward, is that ego-transcendence helps humans beyond the fiction of the ego, which can make us happier and more compassionate, but it’s entirely something that happens in the brain, with no relevance to the fundamental nature of reality or life after death. I can accept the logic of this, but why bother seeking ego-transcendence – which is a very difficult and dangerous thing to seek – if it just means you may eventually feel a bit happier and more compassionate? Why not just take oxytocin pills, which are a much quicker short-cut? Why bother sitting on your bum meditating for several months?
I’ve been exploring the history of ecstasy in modern culture. One of the ways the Enlightenment tried to naturalize ecstasy was by developing the concept of hypnosis. In the 18th century, Franz Mesmer showed that he could achieve just as miraculous healings as a priest through his own rituals, the success of which he attributed to ‘magnetic fluids’. Then, in the late-19th century, psychologists like Pierre Janet and William James thought that Mesmerism – or hypnosis, as it was then known – tapped into a ‘subconscious’ or ‘subliminal self’ beyond our rational control, the existence of which explained many religious and paranormal phenomena, like faith-healing, visions, and trances. Like Mesmer, they thought that hypnotic states could often be profoundly healing, and could perhaps connect us to God.
Today, few academic psychologists explore this fascinating terrain, but one person who does is Derren Brown, the mentalist and stage-magician. I went to Derren’s extraordinary house, the interior decoration for which includes a stuffed giraffe and a fish-tank with moray eels, to ask him what he thinks is the relationship between hypnosis and religious experience, and how his new show, Miracle, explores faith-healing.
You were Christian when you were a child?
Yes. I went to a Crusaders Class when I was six or seven. A teacher who I really liked said ‘do you want to come along?’, and I was too young to think that was weird, I thought that was what everyone did. My family wasn’t religious, and I had one Christian friend, so there was never any cultural pressure. As a teenager, I went to church called the New Life Christian Centre in Croydon, a big happy-clappy church. I became more skeptical while I was at Bristol University, partly because I became fascinated by hypnosis, which my church friends deeply disapproved of. They thought it was from the Devil. I thought ‘if the human mind is the pinnacle of God’s creation, why is exploring it bad?’ I also became more skeptical of New Age things like Tarot or psychics, which my church literally demonized, so that made me skeptical of the church too. And I went on a ‘Christian gay cure’ course – sort of a basic psychology course – and it didn’t work. So all this made me more skeptical.
Did you ever have a ‘Holy Spirit encounter’?
No not really. I had a lot of skepticism towards those kinds of charismatic services. I think this is quite common among people who attend those services. Talking in tongues, for example – it was quite evident, if you were at all intelligent and not just hyper-suggestible and caught up in the whole thing, that there was a lot of crowd manipulation going on. There would be a point in the service when the Holy Spirit was moving through everybody, and every week the same woman stood up and talked in tongues. And then someone else stood up and offered an interpretation, which was largely a series of general statements, you know ‘the door is open…revival is coming’. It was always the same people, and the tongues always sounded the same. It became a bit comical. One time, we were told we were all going to be given the gift of tongues, so we all stood up, and the pastor said, ‘just start making a noise. That’s tongues. If a little voice tells you this is stupid, that’s the Devil.’ It seemed so blatantly manipulative.
Do you think charismatic churches are doing some form of hypnotic suggestion?
Yes, I do. But it’s complicated. It’s difficult to pin down what hypnosis is. In a show, for example, you have a wide range of experiences in the audience. At the end of my shows, I used to make myself invisible [to hypnotized participants on stage], then I’d move a chair through the air. And the participants would all react, jump back, and so on. Later in the show, I’d often get those people back up, and say ‘what were you experiencing?’ And you’d get a range of experiences. Perhaps a third would say ‘I could see you were there, but it was very easy to go along with it and sort of play-act’. Then you’d get a middle third who would say ‘looking back on it, of course you were moving it, but at the time, I really believed you weren’t there, and was just focusing on the chair’. And then you get people at the upper extreme saying ‘no idea what you’re talking about, I assumed you moved the chair with wires’. They couldn’t believe I was there at all. And you never quite know if they’re just saying that, to appear the most hypnotized.
It’s so difficult to tie down what hypnosis is – there’s a lot of work asking if hypnosis is just role-playing. A famous example is that you can hypnotise people to eat an onion as if it was a juicy apple. It looks very impressive. But I was talking about this to Andy, the director of my stage shows, and he said ‘I bet I can do that without being hypnotized’. And he went to a fridge, took out an onion and took a big bite. And all that is, is another motivating factor, another story you’re telling yourself.
He enjoyed it? He didn’t wince?
No, he was fine. He was trying to prove a point, and that gave him a different motivating story. Even the things that look terribly impressive – people being operated on, for example – it looks amazing, but when you break it down to what layer of skin actually feels pain, actually, once you’re removing organs, it’s a bit uncomfortable but not actually painful.
So in a religious meeting, there might be that whole range – people who are completely swept up, and people who are sort of going along with it, ‘as if’ it was true. As a sort of co-created fantasy.
Yes. You’re there, you’re having a really good time, you’re with a bunch of like-minded people…
And the Holy Spirit is after all a sign of God’s love and favour.
Yes, but I think plenty of people are a bit skepticial about some of that. I find that most intelligent people who also happen to be Christian probably sense that a lot of it is a bit of a scam, stage-craft, crowd manipulation. But it’s sort of ingrained and difficult to object to.
Do you think hypnotism or suggestibility plays a big role in religion in general?
It depends. There is a range of human experiences clustered around belief, suggestion, the stories we tell ourselves. Those experiences might include hypnosis in alternative therapy, or placebo responses, or religious experiences, or charismatic revivals, or rock concerts – it’s just a range. The trouble with going ‘is that just hypnosis?’ is that it’s difficult to define what hypnosis is. It’s like defining a magic trick. I think of magic as a short-hand for an experience you have, and you know the magician isn’t actually doing magic but the magician gives you an experience, and you know what to call it, and that makes sense and gives him a role. With hypnosis, there’s a similar thing going on – there’s a certain context, with a guy who’s called a hypnotist, and it’s done with the familiar tropes of hypnotism, and it’s recognized as such. But actually it’s a short-hand for quite different things – if you go to a hypnotist to stop smoking, if you’re trying to get on top of your unconscious processes, that’s quite different to going to on stage and being persuaded to dance like a ballerina. If someone’s hyper-suggestible, they may respond to both, but it’s difficult to lump the experiences together.
Can one really provoke a religious experience in an atheist with an NLP session? I mean, can one brainwash people to do or believe things almost against their will?
Well, I did that in a show. I found a highly suggestible person. It’s not like you can just walk down the road and make that happen. A TV show like that is a specific context, it doesn’t necessarily reflect the conditions of real life.
Tell me about your experiences with faith healing in your latest show, Miracle.
In the second half of the show, I say ‘we’re going to do some faith healing, and I will heal you’. This is a skeptical audience, but I say ‘you’ve just got to go with it, you’re obviously not the right audience for this, you’re not primed for it, and it’s OK to be skeptical and even repulsed by it, but beneath all that, there are some aspects that are useful, so if you go with me on this, it has the power to profoundly change how you feel, emotionally and physically’. And the show progresses in the way that those healings do – I offer out the Holy Spirit, as it were, but I don’t talk about it in religious language initially, it starts off secular. So I throw out this adrenalin experience – adrenalin heals pain. That’s why faith-healing only ever heals functional conditions that respond to pain relief, no one’s arm ever grows back.
Does it work?
The first shock was that it worked at all. Not only does the healing work, but I’ve also ‘slayed’ people, so they’re falling down [when people pass out in charismatic churches it’s called being ‘slain in the Holy Spirit’]. Some shows are better than others, but essentially it’s working as a mechanism even with a skeptical audience. It’s difficult to quantify the effect. But I’ve had a couple of tweets, people jokingly saying ‘well, my condition is back again, so much for that haha’. I tell people, this will stick with some of you, and for others it won’t. But also I’ve had letters from people saying ‘I don’t know what you did, I understand it isn’t faith-healing, but this condition is still gone and I feel amazing’. Someone on stage had a series of strokes when she was very young and had never been able to feel the left-side of her body. And now she could. One guy said he had terrible cirrhosis, his arm was covered with it, and within five minutes, that was gone. One of the stage-crew has a teenage daughter who suffered from depression, and she’s been really helped by it. So sometimes it’s been quite transformative.
You can watch a clip of Derren ‘curing’ a woman of blindness in the show here.
How does it work?
The way I see it is that William James thing, acting ‘as if’. You give yourself permission to act ‘as if’ a thing isn’t a problem. There’s this story you tell yourself every day – ‘I’ve got a bad back and it’s a thing I live with’. The healing stops that story in its tracks, makes you stop and question it.
Like a religious conversion?
Yeah, a bit. There’s an adrenalin lift as you get on stage, and there are other people around you talking about it. Even if it is only a temporary thing, it’s a glimpse out of that story.
What about people getting ‘slain in the spirit’?
It’s not with quite the vigour and hysteria you see at revival services. Sometimes people are just complying with it. But sometimes their eyes roll back, they start shaking a bit. Sometimes people can’t stop shaking. I always imagine that people are sort of playing along, it’s just a sort of unconscious playing along. But then you see things that people wouldn’t know to play along to do. Sometimes people pass out and are out for the whole of the second half of the show.
Given some of these remarkable results, do you think hypnosis should be used more in the NHS?
I think what we need is a more people-oriented medicine – finding a softer, more caring middle-ground, without endorsing treatments that are claiming to do something they’re not. Let’s say you see your GP for your allocated six minutes, and he says ‘relax and take it easy’, you’ll feel ignored. If you have an hour with an alternative therapist, they’re taking an interest in you, sympathizing with you, there’s a ritual to it. Even if they’re essentially still saying ‘relax and take it easy’, it’s more likely to work. You feel like you’ve had attention paid to you. That’s what’s key: the bed-side manner. I never really recommend people see a hypnotist for smoking. If they are suggestible, it’s amazing, it’s like a magic pill. But for 50% of people it’s a waste of time.
OK, on a different note, how did you get into Stoic philosophy, and how have you found it helpful?
It started with Montaigne, who kept mentioning Stoic writers. So that made me pursue the Stoics, and I discovered a love of the Hellenistic philosophical world, and the Stoics in particular. I realized that it chimed with what I already felt was important and true. For example, when I was at university and afterwards, I had zero ambition. I was doing hypnosis and magic because it was a fun way to spend the day. I had no desire to get on TV or anything. It was a very ‘in the moment’ thing. So that chimed with the Stoic idea of focusing on the present moment and not getting attached to ambition or reputation. Then I gradually discovered new things in Stoicism, and it shaped my character in new ways. That led to me wanting to write a book on these things, it’s such a different voice to mainstream culture. [He’s just finishing a book on happiness, to be published in the next few months].
Continuing work on happiness book: Pierre Hadot’s work on the Hellenistic philosophers is extraordinary and inspiring.
What’s the best thing you’ve learned about happiness in your research?
I think it’s the clarity of Epictetus’ maxim that you’re only in control of your thoughts and actions, and everything else you can let go. For me, that’s become a mantra. If something is frustrating you, what side of the line is it on? Obviously, it’s always on the side of things I can’t control. And then you can go, ‘it’s fine’ and let go. It makes me feel like a kid when it’s Saturday and you realize you don’t have to go to school. It’s just a very visceral feeling of relief. For example, things that your partner does that annoy you or get under your skin, you realize it’s actually fine, you don’t have to try and change them.
Do fame and wealth really not make you happy?
Well, we know there’s a watershed moment at around £40K where you’re comfortable and money is not a trouble, after that you don’t get much happier with more money. The people who aren’t happy with fame and wealth are the ones who are always chasing the next big thing and who have quite addictive personalities. There’s not a moment when you become successful. And it’s never permanent. Your goal just moves a bit further on. As for the fame thing…everything gets more extreme. The nice things become nicer – you get to travel first class, you can book tables in nice restaurants more easily. But the horrible stuff becomes much worse – you might have stuff about your private life written in newspapers, and you think everyone is thinking about it. You get stalkers, or people who just hate you, or mentally disturbed people who are out to destroy you. So I think it balances out.
You seem to have a very strong work ethic. What motivates you?
I never feel particularly motivated. Motivation is one of those words which people use when they feel they don’t have it and they sense it in others. I’m actually very lazy. I love it when there’s nothing in my diary. I go on tour because I love doing it, and it lets me live like I did in Bristol – I get my days free, so I can sit, read and write in coffee shops, and in the evenings I go out and do a show which makes me feel amazing even if I’ve had a bad day. If I’m sitting and writing, that feels very good to me. And going and doing a show is also hugely enjoyable, and there’s a lot of adrenalin. So all in all, that’s a lovely day, who wouldn’t want to do that.
You can watch the Channel 4 screening of Miracle here.