Is there a way to approach enlightenment scientifically and create a scientific doctrine of enlightenment? I think there is. We can derive a scientific definition of enlightenment and then do research to prove that the phenomenon called enlightenment and enlightened people do exist…
Why science? Because science has a strong appeal. People don’t have issues in accepting anything that is scientifically proven..It is held that the knowledge in science is based on strong public evidence proven with careful, precise and systematic observation.
First, let me tell you something about scientific method.To be a scientist, you need to follow a specific approach in acquiring knowledge with some values and standards. The main values and standards are skepticism, open-mindedness, objectivity and accuracy.
The measurement of anything that you observe should be very accurate. You should also watch out for any cognitive bias that is affecting your objectivity. You should carefully avoid confirmational bias, availability heuristics, logical fallacies and relying on intuition rather than rational thinking.
Even if you are a spiritual seeker (or someone claiming to be enlightened) and have no knowledge in psychology, you can still play this game. To play this game, you need to put up a skeptic’s mask. That is the first thing.. That way you can also support a scientific research for enlightenment and be just an audience of the game and enjoy the game. If you are psychologist and have some interest in this research, then you can find various ideas to formulate a theory and hypothesis for enlightenment.
The goal of my article is not to create such a theory.. But I can probably help in giving you an outline of the theory or help you to create the outline and concepts in the theory. I am not a scientist but I studied Psychology with authentic textbooks and found it fascinating. I acquired some basic knowledge on psychology and understand how a research in psychology works.
Am I enlightened?
I went through a major ‘change’ in my life when I was about thirty years old, which is similar to a lot of the reported awakening experiences. That ‘change’ completely changed my perspective of the reality, gave me contentment and peace which may be temporarily lost and regained, reduced about 80% of my involuntary thought process, assumably reduced much of the activity in my default mode network, brought a lot of subconscious tendencies into light, destroyed the obsession and attachment towards my own self-image and stripped away a lot of attachments that I had on the objects of everyday life. It stopped the feeling of cognitive dissonance and self-consciousness completely. (Self-consciousness is an acute sense of self-awareness. It is a preoccupation with oneself, as opposed to the philosophical state of self-awareness, which is the awareness that one exists as an individual being; although some writers use both terms interchangeably or synonymously – Wiki)
If you are wondering what is cognitive dissonance, then let me quote from Wikipedia:
“In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress (discomfort) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values; when performing an action that contradicts one of those beliefs, ideas, or values; or when confronted with new information that contradicts one of the beliefs, ideas, and values. In other words, the term refers to the perception of incompatibility of two simultaneous cognitions, which can impact a person’s attitudes.
Leon Festinger‘s 1957 theory of cognitive dissonance focuses on how human beings strive for internal consistency. A person who experiences inconsistency tends to become psychologically uncomfortable, and so is motivated to try to reduce the cognitive dissonance occurring, trying to “justify” their behavior by changing or adding new parts of the conflicting cognition, as well as actively avoiding situations and information likely to increase the psychological discomfort”.
Now, is the ‘change’ that I went through ‘enlightenment’? It need not be. It doesn’t fit into a lot of what is said about enlightenment. It neither made me a morally infallible person nor did it make me a person who is blissed out all the time like drugged with LSD or ecstasy. But it did give me some blissful experiences in the beginning which made me feel that I had achieved the ultimate non-drugged bliss, peace and contentment one can possibly achieve. I remember walking on the road like a king one morning with a cool breeze of bliss flowing in my skull. A couple of months later, I noticed that It only made me aware of my egoic tendencies but those tendencies still exist as a part in my consciousness and can still influence my decisions. The ‘change’ did not happen in a single moment but in a process that lasted for about two to three months.But It reached its peak when I was in a Gurupurnima day satsang (July 12, 2014) with Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev.
The change that I went through made me to look my self-image and the tendencies to keep it perfect and consistent as a subset of my own true reality, which seemed to be my true self (a sense of self based on spontaneous authentic experience, and a feeling of being alive)… It took away the distinction of feeling that there is an other and there is me… My definition of the true self and a false self is consistent with the theory of true and false self by Donald Woods Winnicott, an English paediatrician and psychoanalyst. And also, to call that as a real ‘Self’ is metaphoric because the real self is not really a self – as the word is understood commonly by people. It is not an ‘I’ – as the word is commonly understood. The buddhist idea of Anatta fits more with it.
I can assume that the cause for the change is partially the catharsis and ‘meditation with action’ that I did ten years earlier to the change and mainly the constant practice of mindfulness or choiceless awareness that went on for a month before the change. Also, learning, understanding and assimilating the concept of Advaita about 5 years earlier to the change acted as a catalyst and help me to see things in a new light. There is absolutely nothing paranormal about it, no ESP, no auras and no memories of a previous incarnation…
By putting the skeptic mask on, the only word that I can use for these events with the limited vocabulary that I have is, ‘change’. But I am pretty sure that there are people out there in the world who actually use the word ‘enlightenment’ for a similar ‘change’ that happened in their lives. Psychology also has a word for a change in a person’s life which produces some of the results in a human being similar to the results that can be observed in a person who is believed to be ‘enlightened’; It is called ‘Self-Actualization’.
The characteristics of self -actualization
Psychology views ‘Self-Actualization’ as one of the human needs, the top one in the pyramid above physical and social needs. The term was originally introduced by the organismic theorist Kurt Goldstein for the motive to realize one’s full potential. Expressing one’s creativity, quest for spiritual enlightenment, pursuit of knowledge, and the desire to give to and/or positively transform society are examples of self-actualization.
Below are the characteristics of self -actualization according to Wikipedia:
- Efficient perceptions of reality. Self-actualizers are able to judge situations correctly and honestly. They are very sensitive to the fake and dishonest, and are free to see reality ‘as it is’.
- Comfortable acceptance of self, others and nature. Self-actualizers accept their own human nature with all its flaws. The shortcomings of others and the contradictions of the human condition are accepted with humor and tolerance.
- Reliant on own experiences and judgement. Independent, not reliant on culture and environment to form opinions and views.
- Spontaneous and natural. True to oneself, rather than being how others want.
- Task centering. Most of Maslow’s subjects had a mission to fulfill in life or some task or problem ‘beyond’ themselves (instead of outside of themselves) to pursue. Humanitarians such as Albert Schweitzer are considered to have possessed this quality.
- Autonomy. Self-actualizers are free from reliance on external authorities or other people. They tend to be resourceful and independent.
- Continued freshness of appreciation. The self-actualizer seems to constantly renew appreciation of life’s basic goods. A sunset or a flower will be experienced as intensely time after time as it was at first. There is an “innocence of vision”, like that of an artist or child.
- Profound interpersonal relationships. The interpersonal relationships of self-actualizers are marked by deep loving bonds.
- Comfort with solitude. Despite their satisfying relationships with others, self-actualizing people value solitude and are comfortable being alone.
- Non-hostile sense of humor. This refers to the ability to laugh at oneself.
- Peak experiences. All of Maslow’s subjects reported the frequent occurrence of peak experiences (temporary moments of self-actualization). These occasions were marked by feelings of ecstasy, harmony, and deep meaning. Self-actualizers reported feeling at one with the universe, stronger and calmer than ever before, filled with light, beauty, goodness, and so forth.
- Socially compassionate. Possessing humanity.
- Few friends. Few close intimate friends rather than many superficial relationships.
Spiritual Enlightenment and Human Evolution
Many people who are known as enlightened persons have said that a person can be either enlightened or not enlightened, there cannot be a partially enlightened person. But I don’t think that changes that enlightenment produces in the brain happens in a single moment. And I definitely believe that enlightenment brings changes in our cognitive process which can be observed through brain imaging techniques like MRI. So, it is possible that a certain change is initiated in the brain in the beginning of the process in which a person becomes enlightened. We can assume that the change is gradual until it reaches a certain point which is the ultimate point. The time it takes to reach the ultimate point may vary from a few days to many years. So, even in my case, it is possible that the change is still going on and not complete yet.
Modern day spiritual gurus have started to view enlightenment as a natural process that happens in human evolution. At this point it is just another made up theory created using rational thinking alone and as the spiritual gurus don’t have a way to know if it is true for sure.. It may be true but we first need to scientifically prove whether such a thing as enlightenment exists. If your skeptic mask is too loose, then you may shout out ‘No, the gurus have access to akashic records, they have some unique abilities to know certain things!’… Remember, we are discussing science.. Trying to prove that a so called enlightened person has access to some extraordinary internet called ‘Akashic records’ is a long way to go in science.
When we create the concepts in our enlightenment theory, it is necessary to create predictions based on the theory which can be verified by experiments and reproduced any number of time. Those predictions are called hypotheses. For example, a hypothesis can look like this: “There is only ‘x’ amount of activity in the DMN (Default mode network) in the brain of a person who can be defined as ‘enlightened’ according to science.” For this, we have to define ‘Enlightenment’ and ‘an enlightened person’. In the first place, we can only define an enlightened person by the parameters that can be measured.
I tried to create a couple of definitions for ‘Enlightenment’, making it as narrow as possible. Also, the definition must be something can be easily changed to a scientific definition.
The True reality
Let us try with a first possible definition. This one is not really a scientific definition, but I have managed to strip it off a lot of concepts associated with enlightenment and put it in a very narrow window:
“Enlightenment is the knowledge and experience of a person’s true reality which is realized by that person that permanently changes the outlook of the outside world for him/her.”
But what is a person’s true reality? Can we even explain that in scientific terms? A few comments on the true reality:
1) The true reality itself cannot be observed because nothing that is observed by a person is the person’s true reality. The person’s reality is neither his mind or nor his body because both can be observed by the person.
2) But there are things which are observable by science in the brain of the person who is enlightened (has realized his true reality). We can compare those observation on people who are not enlightened and find out that difference. If there is a noticeable difference which make the enlightened ones stand apart from the crowd, then we can make those observable attributes to create a scientific definition of an enlightened person.
3.The true reality is one. There are no two true realities. This implies that there is something common in the consciousness of every individual. Your true reality and my true reality are not two different things. This can only be a subjective experience. So, we can make a case study of the people who claim that this is how they see the reality. Then we can find out if they fit into our scientific definition of enlightenment by checking if they have the same observable traits we discussed. If there is any correlation, it will strengthen this theory.
May be we need to see enlightenment from a neurophysical perspective and define it in a way to make it easy for science to conduct research. How about this one?:
Enlightenment is a realization that happens to a person as a result of a cognitive event or a series of events which result in permanent changes in a person’s cognition and the perception of reality. It also increases the person’s subjective wellbeing and mental peace to the maximum possible level. It helps an individual to step out of hedonic treadmill.
This definition may not be a complete definition of enlightenment and people in spiritual practices may see think it doesn’t cover all aspects of enlightenment. But we are looking only at the aspects of the enlightenment which can be observed in an MRI scan.
If you are a psychologist, you can probably make a better one.
Observable symptoms of enlightenment in the brain
I have come up some observable symptoms of enlightenment and meditation in the brain, that I derived based on the experiments done by scientists:
- Greater well being and reduced stress.
- High activity in the brain’s left prefrontal cortex
- Low or no activity in the Default mode network.
- Higher tolerance of pain.
These are the 4 main symptoms that I think which can be observed. I will go into these symptoms in a moment and explain them based on the scientific studies which have been done in the past.
We have to make accurate measurements of the values of these 4 traits in people who claim to be enlightened and people who are not. First we need to make a comparison between the results of these two groups and confirm if the above observation is true. If it is true, then we can compare the scores of the people within the group of people who claim that they are enlightened. We have to look for the highest numbers in the scores. Then we can find out the maximum values of these scores and check if most of the people in that group have the maximum possible values. The experiments have to be repeated multiple times to get confidence in the results.
The Role of Mindfulness and other meditation practices:
By observing the lives of people who are believed to be enlightened by the spiritual community, we come to know that they followed a course of various techniques called ‘Spiritual practice’ which resulted in the events preceding enlightenment. Among the practices like Self-inquiry, Yoga, love etc, one of the practices that is very common and scientifically proven to be beneficial for mental health is ‘Mindfulness’ meditation.
According to Wikipedia, here are the scientific findings about mindfulness:
“Large population-based research studies have indicated that the practice of mindfulness is strongly correlated with greater well-being and perceived health.This is applicable to society at large as well as specific settings such as workplaces and schools.Studies have also shown that rumination and worry contribute to mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, and that mindfulness-based interventions are effective in the reduction of both rumination and worry.
Clinical psychology and psychiatry since the 1970s have developed a number of therapeutic applications based on mindfulness for helping people who are experiencing a variety of psychological conditions. Mindfulness practice is being employed in psychology to alleviate a variety of mental and physical conditions, such as bringing about reductions in depression symptoms, reducing stress, anxiety, and in the treatment of drug addiction. Recent studies demonstrate that mindfulness meditation significantly attenuates pain through multiple, unique mechanisms. It has gained worldwide popularity as a distinctive method to handle emotions.”
So, we can summarize what mindfulness does:
- It correlates with greater well being.
- Reduces rumination and worry, stress and anxiety.
So, we can safely hypothesize the enlightened people have increased subjective well being and less stress, anxiety and worry than common people.
It is essential to point out here that most of the enlightened people claim that they are in a constant meditative and mindful state. Several traits have been observed by brain imaging techniques on meditator’s brains. So, we can also hypothesize that enlightened people are likely to have the same traits which were observed in meditators.
Here is a list of traits observed on the brains of meditators, according to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brain_activity_and_meditation :
- Decreased alpha blocking and increased frontal lobe specific theta activity.
- Recent studies have shown heightened activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, frontal cortex, and prefrontal cortex, specifically in the dorsal medial prefrontal area during Vipassana meditation. Similarly, the cingulate cortex and frontal cortex areas were shown to have increased activity during Zen meditation.
- Greater sensitivity to emotional expression and positive emotion
- Increased density in grey matter regions and white matter pathways in the brains of individuals who meditate in comparison to individuals who do not.
- Higher tolerance for pain.
Low activity in Default Mode network (DMN):
Gary Weber is a scientist as well as somebody who has claimed to have become enlightened, has observed that most of the thoughts in his mind has disappeared after enlightenment.
In an article about Gary Weber, it says “Over time, Weber figured out that it wasn’t that all his thoughts had disappeared; rather a particular kind of self-referential thinking had cut out, what he calls “the blah blah network.” Scientists now refer to this as the “default mode network” (DMN), that is, the endlessly ruminative story of me: the obsessive list-maker, the anxious scenario planner, the distracted daydreamer. This is the part of the thinking process we default to when not engaged in a specific task”. (Source: http://psychologytomorrowmagazine.com/jeff-warren-neuroscience-suffering-end/ )
It is also interesting to note that science has observed that DMN activation correlates with more unhappiness.
Here is a definition of DMN from Wikipedia: “The default mode network is most commonly shown to be active when a person is not focused on the outside world and the brain is at wakeful rest, such as during daydreaming and mind-wandering. But it is also active when the individual is thinking about others, thinking about themselves, remembering the past, and planning for the future”.
My own observation about my mind after doing years of mindfulness meditation is that most of my thoughts have disappeared. Based on the Wiki definition of DMN, I can confidently assume that there is a very less activity in the DMN of my brain.
So, we can also hypothesize that enlightened people have less or no activity in default mode network.
High activity in the brain’s left prefrontal cortex:
Here is an excerpt from an article about Matthieu Ricard, who is considered as the happiest man in the world by scientists (Matthieu Ricard: Meet Mr Happy) :
“Matthieu Ricard, French translator and right-hand man for the Dalai Lama, has been the subject of intensive clinical tests at the University of Wisconsin, as a result of which he is frequently described as the happiest man in the world. It’s a somewhat flattering title, he says, given the tiny percentage of the global population who have had their brain patterns monitored by the same state-of-the-art technology, which involves attaching 256 sensors to the skull, and three hours’ continuous MRI scanning. The fact remains that, out of hundreds of volunteers whose scores ranged from +0.3 (what you might call the Morrissey zone) to -0.3 (beatific) the Frenchman scored -0.45. He shows me the chart of volunteers’ results, on his laptop. To find Ricard, you have to keep scrolling left, away from the main curve, until you eventually find him – a remote dot at the beginning of the x-axis.”
Here is another page that shows some pictures from the test which was done: Is this the world’s happiest man? Brain scans reveal French monk has ‘abnormally large capacity’ for joy – thanks to meditation
By doing the above research, this is what science has confirmed:
Meditation has been found to lead to high activity in the brain’s left prefrontal cortex, which in turn has been found to correlate with happiness.
So, we can hypothesize that enlightened people also have high activity in the brain’s left prefrontal cortex and hence they are happier than others. (I am not saying that all meditators are enlightened; But this hypothesis is based on the claim that enlightened people are always or mostly in a state of meditation.)
The only way to speed up a scientific research on this is by voluntary cooperation by all the gurus out there who say that they are enlightened and teach a way for others to become enlightened. If these gurus tie up with scientists and are willing to have them checked with MRI scanning, science can make some useful discoveries. This is actually a good contribution that they can make to humanity rather than keep giving discourses, writing more books, conducting meditation retreats and mix their own views with the information which is already available on spirituality. As much as I have observed, enlightened people can still have various cognitive biases and still experience influence from the ego when making decisions or choices. When science can actually look at what is going on in their brain, why don’t they come up and volunteer? Many organizations associated with enlightened people are run by volunteers, but these enlightened people themselves have to volunteer to make this great revolution to happen. A scientific research on this can answer what we human beings are really up to and what are we evolving to be. At last, we can find out a scientific way out of human suffering.